Our blogger of the week, Armenian wanderer Harebeat, discovers the difficulty of finding the start of the Silk Road, even when it's on your doorstep
“Here, write down my phone number and make sure to call me when you are in Vanadzor. We’ll meet you there and show you everything around.”
The middle-aged driver named Spartak dictated his phone number, then started the engine and drove away, leaving me and Emée, my travel companion, standing on the central square of the town of Bagratashen. Located about 200km north of Ashtarak, Bagratashen was the starting point for our hitchhiking trip along the Silk Road of Armenia. I was hoping to find some traces of trading routes there.
On a gloomy November Wednesday morning, we took our backpacks and walked to the highway.
The sun was hidden somewhere behind the heavy grey clouds. I could sense the snow in the air. The winter was near. The road from Ashtarak to Bagratashen took us about five hours, passing through Aparan, Spitak, Vanadzor and Alaverdi – just another hitchhiking experience with nothing worth mentioning. Except maybe the ice-cold winds blowing from snowy tops of Aragats and Ara mountains that caught us near the town of Aparan. Or the lift we got from three policemen, who tried to pull cigarette packs out of a claw-crane machine at a gas refilling station.
We arrived in Bagratashen at 3.15pm. Whether it was due to the cloudy weather or the old Soviet buildings, the town looked very grey and somewhat lost in time. We sat on a bench under tall pine trees and ate apples, trying to decide what to do and where to start from. Two kids, a boy and a girl, passed by, examining us, strangers, with their curious eyes. Spartak, our last driver, suggested us to walk straight to the mayor’s office as it was the only place to get proper information regarding the Silk Road. This would later prove to be so wrong.
The mayor’s office was right behind us. One would need to have a good imagination to guess that the old Soviet building with an open balcony on the second floor was actually the town hall. Two men were having a discussion up there. Upon seeing us approaching the entrance, one of them – a pot-bellied short man, who turned out to be the town’s mayor, Arkady Makyan, waved his hand calling us over to join them.
“The Silk Road starts from the border and goes to the village of Ptghavan," said the Mayor. "That’s where you need to go, you shouldn’t have come here.”
We were drinking coffee in his office, heated by a stove. The mayor’s words surprised me as I was expecting to hear some Silk Road related history, since Bagratashen was mentioned to be the first town on the route. The mayor mentioned that there were plans to build a resting area in the village of Ptghavan, but then due to lack of finances, only road signs and a bus stop were set up.
The hospitality of local people in Armenia is never limited to coffee or tea. When our cups were empty the mayor offered us Italian wine. Then there were toasts, and talks, and toasts again, and French songs performed by Emée on her travel guitar, and toast again. The mayor’s face was turning red and so were ours. Drinking alcohol on an empty stomach does no good to someone who’s about to get back to the road again.
The mayor called his friend, who he said was a history teacher. I talked to him on the phone, and the historian suggested we visit the museum in a nearby town called Koghb, where according to him, we could find the information we needed. The town wasn’t located on our route, and when I mentioned this in a conversation with the history teacher, he said that our map was wrong. The Silk Road actually passes through Koghb.
We thanked the mayor for his hospitality and he insisted on driving us to Ptghavan in his black Mercedes, dropping off right under the “Silk Road” sign.
“If you get stuck here, don’t hesitate to come back to Bagratashen" he said, before driving off. "You will be my guests for the night.”
We never got the chance to take him up on his offer. We quickly got a ride to the next village. From there, we got a lift with a shepherd called Armen in his 1952 “Pobeda” car. He drove us all the way to Koghb through villages of Haghtanak, Zorakan and Berdavan, dropping us off right in front of the museum.
It was 5.00pm, but luckily the museum was still open.
“Silk Road?" said the museum worker. "Oh no, we don’t have any information about Silk Road here. You shouldn’t have come here. From Ptghavan the Silk Road goes towards Alaverdi.”
Nevertheless, he took us on a short tour of the museum, explaining the exhibits. He offered us coffee, but we refused, thanked him and started walking back towards Berdavan.
It was dark outside now. We hoped to get back to the Silk Road, and spend the cold night in a tent somewhere under the trees or be hosted by some locals. We walked along the road to Berdavan. The road here was lighted by lampposts – perfect position for hitchhiking in the night. Yet no one would stop. A few people passed by, wondering who we were and where are we headed for, but after they fulfilled their curiosity they walked away, leaving us standing on the road.
Harebeat is an Armenian wanderer who travels here, there and everywhere, meeting new friends, visiting new cities and countries, taking photos and writing travel stories. He lives a simple life, with no job, no money and no plans. “On The Road” is a blog about his travels and life on the road...