A ramshackle road trip through the back blocks of Armenia is saved from disaster by the kindness of strangers ... and their flock of frisky sheep.
The plan was simple enough. Approaching the Armenian capital of Yerevan from the south, we would skirt the city centre and head towards Garni Temple and Geghard Monastery to the east. Unfortunately, as often happens, the obvious road which edged around the city on our map had disappeared and we found ourselves on the outskirts of the centre and heading towards a potential nightmare of one way systems and signs written in the swirls and squiggles of the Armenian alphabet.
The main road towards town passed a succession of scruffy shop fronts and wasteland before emerging in an area of butcher’s shops selling fresh meat. The freshness was demonstrated by flocks of long eared sheep loafing incongruously by the busy road. Gangs of youths, a trade mix of butchers and shepherds, loafed on benches overlooking their unsuspecting beasts.
It was obvious that, not for the first time on this trip, we were lost and couldn’t even tell if we were heading in the right direction. I therefore decided, again not for the first time on the trip, that stopping and asking for directions was the most sensible option. I selected a butchers shop where a group of six young men were helping their friend select a ‘victim’ from the flock at their feet.
I shouted a cheery ‘Hello!’ as the butcher dragged a young ram from the group and began to tie its rear legs together. I generally find that speaking in English and brandishing a map immediately indicate my problem – lost tourist, doesn’t speak Armenian.
The young men gathered around as I opened up the map on the bonnet of a parked car. The butcher was hoisting the sheep into a tree by a rope attached to its back legs. There then followed five minutes of the often repeated ritual of trying to obtain directions in a country where you don’t speak the language and they use a different alphabet to your own.
I tried to pronounce my target location and the shepherds/butchers repeated it in puzzled tones. The shepherds argued about where I wanted to go and repeatedly snatched the map from each other. The shepherds held the map upside down and all pointing the way... in different directions. The shepherds drew the most complicated map in the world on a paper bag; I give up, smiling, shaking everyone’s hand and waving goodbye as I walk back to my hired Lada.
They may not have been great at directions, but their butchery skills weren’t lacking. By the time I left, the ram had been hung from a tree, eviscerated and skinned, cut down and was well on its way to become a kebab!
We set off driving again, arguing about which direction to take, trying to translate the road signs and dreading hitting the city centre’s one way system. The butcher’s shops gave way to a kind of post-apocalyptic, Soviet wasteland of decaying factories and rusty, rubbish strewn railway sidings. “Great location for a Russian gangster movie” I declared, then wished I hadn’t. My white 4WD Lada Riva stood out among the rattling local wrecks, smoke belching buses and dilapidated 1970s trucks which were weaving in and out of the pot holes.
I first noticed the car in my rear view mirror when it was about 50 metres behind me. Black Lada, tinted windows. Headlights flashing. In a part of town where crazy driving was the norm, this guy was chasing the title of craziest. Overtaking on the wrong side of the road in the face of oncoming traffic, I could hear him sounding his horn when he was still around ten cars behind me.
I found myself looking in the mirror more than through the windscreen, as I watched him leapfrog his way towards me until eventually he was right behind me. I couldn’t see the driver through the tinted glass but an arm extended from the passenger window and gesticulated at me.
Defensive driving is always my watchword abroad, and I had no intention of entering into a duel with this maniac so slowed right down and pulled towards the kerb. Instead of passing, the Lada pulled alongside me, horn blaring. The passenger side window was jerkily lowered as my mind raced – Car jacking? Kidnapping? Drive by shooting? I was almost ducking in my seat when a grinning face appeared with a cheery wave – it was two of the shepherds I’d asked for directions! They beckoned me to follow them and we set off on a terrifying car chase through the traffic, as I tried to keep them in sight as they weaved through the traffic.
After 20 minutes of high speed driving down a labyrinth of back street rat-runs, we came to a cross roads. The black Lada pulled over and the shepherds got out. The driver took my paper bag map, pointed towards the cross he’d drawn for Geghard and with a theatrical flourish indicated that the road straight ahead would deliver me there. We shook hands, they smiled, got back in the Lada, spun the wheels and headed back the way they’d come, leaving me to marvel at the generosity that ordinary people show to lost travellers the world over.
Good Shepherds indeed…
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