The Silky Way Adventure
Slices of Armenia
Chapter 1 – The mayor’s office
Previous chapter: Prologue
We left on a Wednesday morning, under a grey but luckily not rainy sky, hitchhiking towards Bagratashen, a small place next to the Georgian border. It was supposed to be the beginning of the Silk Road on Armenian grounds, or the end of it, if you prefer imagining the caravans arriving from the East and slowly making it to Europe. The beginning of our Silky Way, at least. We got there pretty smoothly. Rare enough to be worth mentioning, three policemen gave us a ride. As they stopped for gas, one of them went to have a go at one of those claw crane lucky dip-machines, which, in our western fairs, make you think you are going to catch a plush toy at every go. But this time, the machine was full of small balloons and… cigarette packs! The policeman nearly caught one, but it fell out again on its way up. He gave up after trying three times, quite angry at the machine.
We did wait a little while sometimes, mostly because there were not so many cars. But I was not alone, I had Artyom with me who speaks Armenian, and we even had a story, a goal… so no worries, really. I could leisurely watch the landscape outside. It was autumn, and this year, I was to see several times all stages of it, depending on the altitude. Autumn, spreading out indefinitely. Only on the top of the mountains had winter won. Along our road that day, the leaves were getting scarce but here and there, some golden crowns and sometimes a whole blazing tree was to be seen.
It was a quarter past three when we got to Bagratashen. Right on time, according to Artyom’s calculations. What were we to do? Where to start? Our last driver had suggested that we head to the mayor’s office to introduce ourselves, and our project. As we were considering this option, quietly eating an apple, the mayor himself called us from the town hall that happened to be, as matter of fact, right behind us. Paunchy, balding, the red cheeks of someone who likes alcohol a bit too much, he was wearing a moustache and a crooked nose: not typically the type of person whose company I would spontaneously seek. But I had a quest, and a translator, so everything was different. “Don’t forget, you’re a French journalist investigating the Armenian Silk Road” whispered Artyom as we were walking up the stairs.
The building was cold and open to all winds, but the room we were taken to was nicely warm, thanks to a very efficient little stove in the middle of it. We sat down on the couch and I took out a notebook to honour my new status. There were three desks in the office, all standing next to each other. On the left, the accountant’s desk, with files and an abacus on it. In the middle, one for the mayor, laden with piles of paperwork. And on the right, one for the secretary, bearing a computer.
We were offered some coffee, and started talking about the Silk Road. Quite rapidly though, a parallel topic started to develop, centred around my humble self. And so, I wasn’t married? Did I want to stay in the village? They would find a nice local boy for me. No? Well then, maybe I could take the secretary back to France with me, and find her a nice husband there? She was a good girl! Ah, my next country was Iran? No, really, no need to find an Iranian husband for her, thank you. But maybe I wanted to stay in the village to teach French? There were two Peace Corps volunteers right now in the village, who had been teaching English in the village for a while now!
They were of course about to play the telephone trick on me: since Georgia, Küç and I had found ourselves regularly on the phone with obscure strangers, the only reason for it being that we had (supposedly) a language in common. “Oh, but I know someone who speaks French/English, let me call him/her for you!” Strange habit; its aim eludes me, but I am quite sure it is done with the purest of intentions. So, I readily played the little game, and learned that this young man – I have forgotten his name – had been teaching English in the village for eighteen months already, and was going to stay for eight more. Yes, he could speak Armenian by now. Yes, he liked it here. Well, thank you for the chat, thank you for playing along dear strangers, and adieu!
As I was chit-chatting with the American, Artyom had already made some progress regarding our investigation, and had also found himself on the phone with one of the mayor’s acquaintances, someone who allegedly knew a lot about history. According to him, there was another place close by through which the Silk Road actually went – unlike Bagratashen, where we were. There was in this village a museum which might have been interesting for us. We didn’t need much more to make this place our next stop. But we couldn’t leave right away: after the coffee, the mayor had poured us some Italian rosé. The secretary, the deputy and the accountant got a glass each. We got several, until the carton of wine had been emptied.
We also had to entertain him with some exotic singing: he had spotted my little guitar when we had entered the room. Artyom gleefully and covertly signified to me that he was going to leave me alone on this one, and that I’d better not tell them how well he can play guitar. But the mayor and the others were only interested in songs in French anyway. So I played and sang two hits that are always appreciated abroad: “Aux Champs-Elysées” and “Le Tourbillon de la vie” – my whole repertoire, but they didn’t need to know that.
Between the two songs, I asked to go to the toilets. The secretary, in her secretary outfit and wearing high heels, got appointed to take me to the place. We went down, out, and walked along a muddy slippery path, she in her high heels and I in my brogues, until we reached a little wooden hut. A plank, two smaller boards around the hole to indicate where to put your feet (or to spare the secretary’s shoes?), a broom to push your misdeed down the hole if you’re bad at aiming, and that’s it. Those toilets were in fact – European toilets in apartment blocks set aside – the most luxurious ones that I was to visit during our trip.
When we finally got out of the mayor’s office, after all the rosé was gone, I was – do I need to write it? – completely drunk. Artyom seemed to be in a much better shape than I, which was quite reassuring. We took some pictures with the mayor, and of some kids playing around. The mayor, who was at least as drunk as I was, took the wheel to drive us to an informative board about the Silk Road, from where we could hitch-hike some more to the museum’s village. The board showed the Armenian Silk Road and highlighted some touristy sights along its trail. It had been funded thanks to cooperation between some Italian, American and Armenian organisations. There had been plans for a hotel, too, on that spot, but not enough money to build it. So for now, there was only this big lonely board standing in the curve, embodying the start of our research.
We hitch-hiked until the next village, the one with the museum, and along the way I recognized beyond the river, the parking lot of the boarder crossing where Küç, our Turkish truck-driver and I had waited some five hours, the day we arrived in Armenia. The customs officer had decided to copy into the computer the whole list of trousers, underwear, t-shirts and various perfumes the truck was carrying, and the list was of course dozens of pages long.
We got dropped off at the museum. Someone opened it for us, that is to say, opened the one room it consisted of. It was filled with a slightly dusty treasure trove of random things, from relics of Soviet time local heroes, items found at archaeological excavations, to the everyday life of former times. But nothing even remotely related to the Silk Road. Why had we been sent there? It was to remain a mystery…
We got out of the museum. Some guy tried to force a taxi on us. No, thank you, we prefer walking. Well, actually, we prefer hitch-hiking, but if we had said that, we might have had to explain the whole concept of it. In the end, we did walk, in the night, along the road, until the next inhabited place. None of the few cars that drove past stopped for us.
Next chapter: The family
For Artyom’s version of the story, it’s this way.