The Silky Way Adventure
Slices of Armenia
Chapter 7 – A Fresh Night
Previous chapter: Russian Pickles
The air was rather fresh that morning when we left our Molokan hosts. As we were walking back towards the main street, a man watching his cows at the trough had asked us “What the heck are you doing outside in this weather? Go home and sit by the fire with a hot cup of tea!”. Artyom told him who we were in a few words. He looked at me from head to feet and declared “French, French… by the look of it, you must have some Russian origins I’m sure” “Oh, most certainly” I answered laughing. “See, I told you!” he finished, triumphant.
We left the village. The Road was stunningly beautiful and quiet. The cars were rare, but we had no difficulty finding a ride until Dilijan. Visiting two more monasteries was scheduled that day. The first one was a sheer disappointment. It had been recently renovated in a way that didn’t retain much of the old walls’ soul, though the road leading to it had also been improved. A beautiful macadam was now taking visitors smoothly to the holy place, zigzagging through a beautiful forest. A rich Arabic businessman had in fact fallen in love with the monastery and that particular piece of road and had invested between two and five million dollars (the sources differ) to have both of them renovated.
We enjoyed the second monastery a lot more. The stone crosses were finely carved and were peacefully waiting for us, enjoying the warm sunlight signalling the end of the afternoon. Our driver had gone out of his way to take us there. He had stopped at the crossroad and Artyom already had a foot out of the car when he had said, casting a glance at me over his shoulder “Well, there is a French guest with us, isn’t there, so let’s go”. He had driven us up the narrow switchback road all the way to the monastery.
At the back of the church stood a little house with a board saying “museum”. It might have been a little pompous for the two small rooms full of old objects showing how people used to live in the old days in this area. A small round woman took us on a tour whether we wanted it or not. Before she started, she gave us each a nut “from that eight hundred-years-old tree outside, it will bring you luck”. Artyom chatted a bit with her after the visit. Just as the old woman in Kobayr*, she explained that life wasn’t that easy for her, because the pension she was getting was so little… She gave us another nut each. “Keep one at home and one always in your pocket” she advised.
It wasn’t clear which town we should attempt to get to for the night. Our Machiavellian machination to spend a night for free in a guesthouse in Dilijan had been a shameful failure and we were back on the side of the road, all thumbs out. The first car stopped. Tigran was driving back to Yerevan that day. He was the manager of the most popular of Armenia’s rock bands, Bambir. Out of habit, Artyom was doing the presentation. Tigran pointed out that I was particularly quiet, just sitting at the back and looking at the landscape and that it looked like Artyom was the boss. “Usually there is a communication issue!” I opposed But this time there was none. Tigran could speak English so he was right, there was no reason for me to let my colleague do the show this time. Artyom promised to stay silent and I merrily chatted with our driver. His stories of managing a band reminded me of my time in Vienna and I assaulted him with questions. His band had just come back from eight successful months spent in Ireland. They had to come back for visa reasons and were about to record a CD. I felt like a fish in the sea and a little nostalgia crept up, too. Tigran offered to drive us all the way to Yerevan but we couldn’t accept as it wasn’t our time to go back yet. We offered him to stay with us but he also declined, having to work the next day. What a pity. Before he let us out near the Sevan lake, he gave us a small bottle of homemade vodka, a gift from another hitchhiker he had picked up earlier that day. We thankfully took it since it looked like the night was going to be cold.
We went around in circles for a bit. There was nothing interesting to be found. Only a hotel and a restaurant, both run by highly unpleasant people who offered us a room way outside our budget. They strongly advised against camping as a chilly -8°C had been forecast for that night. The little houses along the lake that Artyom had in mind were out of our reach in that season, all locked up. And sleeping on the terraces of those houses wouldn’t have been too clever anyway, as they were hovering above the water itself and humidity doesn’t make one feel warmer. We listed everything we had with us: a good sleeping bag and a mat for me, an extra-jumper and a blanket to use as a mat for Artyom; and of course a bottle of vodka. That should be enough to survive one night at -8°C, right? It was cold but dry, no rain, so everything was fine. Artyom, who had been in Sevan before decided that it would be better for us to go to the public beach to find a spot for the tent. And a spot we found under some birch trees, a few hundred meters away from the shore. We decided to go tell the guard that we intended to spend the night there, since the little cabin was still lit.
The guard was a woman. The dog was more cute than dangerous and didn’t pose any problem. The woman was busy sorting little orange berries which name I have never learned. The small stove was more than enough for the tiny room and we quickly warmed us up. The woman explained that we could also, if we preferred, camp on the concrete terrace of a closed holiday house. Then we would be in direct contact with the damp floor of the forest.
We needed a little while to understand how to foil the fence surrounding a little lot of cottages, following the guard’s indication. The concrete terrace seemed indeed like a much better option. We prepared a bed of dead leaves for improved comfort, set up the two hoops, threw the sheet over them and were all set. But we were so cold already! We took out the food we had, took a few pictures of our improvised feast and opened the bottle of vodka.
A long series of toasts naturally followed. In Armenia and already in Georgia, the drinking culture is quite different from ours in the West – if that’s even a culture. It has more codes, it is more solemn. They drink more, but more seriously too. Raising a toast is no joke. It’s the time you assert your philosophy of life. For big occasions, they have a “master of toasts”. And a particular order to follow. Women don’t pour drinks, they take care of the food. Filling up glasses is men’s duty. You may continue one’s toast, and your neighbour might want to add something as well. All the while, everyone has their little glass raised in the air and listens religiously. Only once everyone who wished to speak has spoken are you allowed to empty your glass. You don’t drink between two toasts, you wait for the next one – but don’t worry, they have so many things to raise their glasses to that you won’t ever get thirsty. During the birthday party the night before we left, I remember a teenager intensely declaiming a poem he had written for his friend the birthday boy. In short, toasts in this part of the world are no laughing matter and I had slowly started developing a liking for it.
So we ceremoniously drank, clinking our sole mug against the other’s nose as is appropriate in such circumstance. We raised that one mug first to Tigran, who had supplied the drinking material that evening. Then we drank to Artyom’s friends, an Russian guy who had been lost in a Chilean mountain range for more than a week at the time, alongside two French and Italian fellow adventurers. We wished for them to still be alive and to get help soon. We drank to our families in Moscow and France, who despite our unconventional choices were still supportive of our lifestyles. We drank to ourselves, because as fate would have it,our travelling together had been nothing but a success and we were getting along really well. And lastly we drank to the Road itself, to everything great it had kindly given us so far and every other amazing thing it was about to offer – we had no doubt about it.
After that I was (do I need to mention it?) rather drunk. I curled up nice and fast in my sleeping bag, the cold around us all forgotten. What disturbed our sleep in fact, more than the cold, were some dogs constantly barking in the distance. The cold did bite us, but only the next morning. Artyom wasn’t feeling so good at that point, he declared that it was officially the worse vodka he had ever had. I was rather fine on the stomach side, but couldn’t quite get my hands to work properly and frozen as they were the folding away of the tent proved painful and difficult. I almost shed a tear.
Our salvation wasn’t too far away though. Just outside the bunch of birch tree sheltering us a big nice friendly sun was awaiting. Before we left the beach, we went by the guard’s cabin again and gave her the rest of the vodka.
Next chapter: Yet to come!
*See chapter 5