One man and his truck

I looked at Daphne who was looking at me, a sweaty string of black hair clinging to her forehead. She fingered it, trying to shovel it back under her headscarf. Her face was strained with the anxiety that had taken a hold on both of us during the last ride. What we had thought would be a journey of two hours had become a gruelling half day of car confinement tied up in regrettable company. I was aware that the sight of me could not have soothed the doubts she had maintained since before our departure: eyelids swollen with sunlight and stress, eyeballs retreating ever further into them, a gaze scolded red by heat and dust.  I scratched my forehead along the line where the hem of my headscarf rubbed against it and inspected the gathered grime and dead skin under the fingernail. There was an overruling silence until one of us said, Where the fuck are we?

We knew very well that we were half way across central Turkey, miles from any human settlement and still four hours from our intended destination, where a kindly couchsurfing host awaited. Immediately before and behind us stretched the deserted highway, cutting through arid mountain ranges and wheat plains, a crumpled village visible a long way off. Our will to endeavour was in shatters and our patience with one another hanging on fine threads. Our only other company was a hushed wind and our shadows. These lingered before us like two unwelcome giants flaunting long spindly legs, indicating the imminent approach of nightfall.

Daphne’s eyes surveyed the scene and then turned on me again. They had the heavy, liquid black of lakes under a night sky, glinting depths into which many did plunge. I had spent the past months navigating through their jet tides to eventually discover the being that lay beneath their enchanting surfaces. At the bottom of those lakes was harboured the elixir of youth: a little girl’s unbreakable naivety. Over the course of the months I had observed how Daphne clung to her inner child’s naivety, depended on it for protection as one would a talisman. She would conjure it in order to affront life’s tribulations, whether these were rooted in love, finance or family. She raised it before the acknowledgement of her own mistakes, using it to shield herself from self-blame: I was so naïve. Naivety attracted her most painful encounters then anaesthetised her wounds in the aftermath. It justified her going back for more. I guess I’m just too naïve. Daphne’s life was a perpetual cycle of self-fulfilling prophecies founded on that unbreakable, unshakeable naivety. In preserving youth, it worked as well on the skin as it did on the psyche; at thirty, she barely passed for eighteen, despite a twenty-a-day smoking habit and regular bouts of sorrow-drowning in vodka.

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As she assessed the event that had left us stranded, the naivety was flashing in her gaze, confronting the fear that accompanied total comprehension. “You really surprised me just then. I had no idea you were going to react like that. I mean, you were so passive all the way and then…” Tailing off, she adjusted her headscarf. “We’ll have to hitch it. Or you have the tent? We’ll try hitching. But I don’t want to do it in the dark.” Practical Daphne was as indecisive as ever, but she was right. If there was anything either of us wanted to do less then get into another stranger’s car, it was to lie down in the wheat fields; we’d had enough of Turkish men but we had no options of avoiding them. Either we cosied down in the car of one who we felt to trust on impulse (we hadn’t yet encountered a female driver), or we abandoned ourselves to the lonely night and anyone who came across us in its course. A car appeared – the first in twenty minutes – and Daphne opted for impulse and raised her thumb. The car stopped and two bemused faces looked out from the shadows, one of them a woman’s. She wasn’t driving but it was the first car with a female passenger to have stopped for us. Relieved, we directed our question, simply the name of our destination said with a questioning air, at her rather than him. Sivas?

In forty eight hours in Turkey we had found four words in the native tongue to be useful above all others:

Hello

No

Stop

Thank you

These we had employed in response to the only two English words that it seemed most of our male hosts used to communicate with us: ‘No problem’ and ‘normal’.

The woman’s face, with a pitying smile, shook from side to side. No, they were not going to Sivas. The car drove away taking its female passenger and empty back seats with it. Resignation and silence resumed; we sat on our rucksacks. Daphne picked up her loosening braid and examined her split ends, I turned back to scraping out the grime from under my nails and all the while the sun’s rays became ever lower, ever more orange, and the legs of our shadows lengthened until they stretched to the other side of the road.

Two headlights broke through the dusk. We could see from a distance they belonged to a truck, a red Mercedes. Decision time – we’d already turned down three cars with too many men in them – now it was either this truck or the roadside.  “I promised myself I wouldn’t take a ride with any trucks,” said Daphne, “but it’s up to you”. I stuck out my thumb. The truck slowed and pulled up in front of us. “If he’s alone, let’s take it. Go with our instincts,” I resolved. From on high the door opened.

In unison, we said the word. Sivas?

The weathered male face nodded. Sivas.

Here we go Daphne, last ride to Sivas.

The step up was enormous and we struggled to heave our baggage onto the passenger seat. The old-looking middle-aged man indicated that we place it behind the seats where a sunken makeshift bed was lain out with a flattened grey pillow and rotten foam mattress. A thousand sweaty sleeps had deposited their salty stench above the mass of greyed fabric. I stifled a gag. Daphne lifted her nose to the air and snapped her head to the window. There was scant space for the two of us in the passenger seat so eventually I arranged myself cross-legged on the mattress. Soon enough the stench became level with my senses and I stopped taking in breaths through the mouth. The man took out a fresh packet of sunflower seeds and the three of us snaffled them, filling his glass ashtray with the empty husks until they were spilling out and into the crevices of the seats.

‘Friend Sivas?’ he tried.

‘Yes friend Sivas,’ I replied.

‘Girl boy?’

‘Girl,’ I lied. I didn’t think we would get far trying to explain the cultural acceptance of staying with an unknown boy we met through a travellers’ social network. Then I thought, for some reason, I should make my Turkish girl friend plausible by giving her a name. I didn’t know any Turkish girls’ names until I remembered a Turkish au pair I’d once had. She had constantly reprimanded my mother that my sister and I were too skinny, that in her country children were fat and that was good because it meant they weren’t poor. Subsequently, to our delight she began to buy us one pack of Maryland cookies a day; we were not long in her care. She went by the name of Erdenay. ‘Friend name Erdenay’. The man nodded – he didn’t care – and we settled down in the smelly red Mercedes truck to a musical medley of sharp quarter notes and nostalgia whilst plucking at the sunflower seeds. A pair of furry dice swung to and fro before the windscreen, linking and unlinking the red mounted Islamic crescent moon and star of Turkey’s flag and the staring blue of the evil eye.

Daphne had long withdrawn behind a wall of stony exhaustion and continued to stare daggers at the road. I was trying, through little smiles and conversational snippets, to express an appreciation towards our driver, who I had concluded was a kindly and caring man, but I was struggling also with the exhaustion of nine hours in strangers’ cars. The sky was deepening into darker shades of greens and blues as we wound westwards chasing the sun’s descent. The road ribboned around bulks of desolate rock face and across the browned heathers of Turkey’s highlands. I was using the last of my mental strength to keep my eyelids pried, to take in this vista and keep alert to the road ahead. I bulked as a woman, covered head to foot in a black burqa, dashed across the road in front of us, but before I had time to let out a shout we had driven straight over her without incident. I said nothing as I sat back against the wall, absorbing the shock of believing we had been on the verge of killing a person, before discovering that I had seen no more than a sweeping shadow made human by my fraught imagination.

We pulled up at a desolate corrugated industrial block, from where a man waved towards our driver, who parked up between the building and a large dumping of stone shrapnel. Here he got out, gesturing us to stay put, and greeted the other man like an old friend. They disappeared walking around the building. We waited obediently for five, ten, fifteen minutes before they reappeared, casually wielding shovels. I giggled and put my hand over my thumping heart. “Daphne, why are they coming towards us with shovels?” Daphne, whose mood had relaxed between a silent resolve to never hitchhike again and acquiescence to the fact that she had to be in this stinking truck for the next four hours, shrugged her shoulders and put her sunglasses on to keep off the final throes of sun. “Probably not for us. Probably for whatever this truck’s carrying in the back.” I couldn’t help but think of corpses. The two men walked past the door and around to the back of the truck, oblivious to the fear they’d instilled in its two passengers.

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Sivas appeared as a spattering of tiny lights in the silhouetted landscape. My paranoia had diffused since leaving the industrial sight in one piece and I had sunk into the rotten little bed of the red Mercedes truck feeling at ease with the journey and a little guilt at having doubted the man’s integrity. So courteous had been this gentle lone ranger in assuming responsibility of his foreign cargo that I now drew comfort from the stench of the mattress, associating it with his down-to-earth generosity. The rasp of his voice broke through the haze of passing thoughts. “Phone friend. Where you go in Sivas?” Of course, he would have to take directions from my friend Erdenay, who was actually a boy with a boy’s name and not really my friend at all. I began to spin a web. “Erdenay’s brother phone.” He dialled the number and I prayed that he wouldn’t ask the brother after his phantom sister Erdenay. After a loud conference, he put down the phone and said, ‘good boy’. I sat back, relieved that our host-to-be had won the good man’s approval and that no sister had been mentioned, or so it seemed, though I could fathom nothing from the variety of consonants exchanged between the two men. I guessed that the nice man had probably put two and two together but didn’t have the inclination or the language to mention it. I like to think he understood my little dilemma.

We trundled into the small town of Sivas just before midnight, almost six hours after our uncertain departure from the roadside where we had prepared to pack in the day, each other and our trip. We were delivered directly to Erdenay’s brother, who awaited us by some traffic lights in the town centre. From his bum-sunken, cigarette-stained throne on high our driver told us to be careful and urged Erdenay’s brother to look after us. The door made a hollow slam before the red Mercedes truck lurched toward the green light. Our driver was headed to the city outskirts where he would park up for the night, lay down his head, smoke a cigarette, letting the fumes enshroud the seats, the flattened pillow and the two furry dice, before turning his side upon the filthy mattress and bashing one off, solitary, in darkness, a generous and gentle, old-looking middle-aged man on the long and lonely road.

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Chronicle of Armenia

Southwards from Georgia the land dries up. Green depletes and the mountains morph into jagged muscles of rock. We drove through these cragged valleys on a minibus that was blasting American pop music from a mini T.V. screen. The male passengers gawped at tanned bottoms gyrating on Californian beaches. Better for them than the stooped figures on the roadside, grey haired women in black headscarves turning shwarma on the grill. They call this land Haiastan, adopting the ancient Persian word for ‘state’, ‘Hai’ being the Armenian people.

The name is taken from Haik Nahapet, the 3rd century B.C. founder of what would become Armenia. Unfortunately for the modern nation the large majority of Hai people have abandoned their stan. Eleven million ethnic Armenians constitute a global diaspora reaching from neighbouring Georgia to far flung Argentina. Of the remaining 3 million on Hai soil, over a million are found in the Soviet built capital, Yerevan. Explaining this to me, one first generation American-Armenian said that her Russian-Armenian uncle described the country as ‘the nation’s office; they go in routinely to do business and then leave again to live their lives and spend their money elsewhere. This leaves the countryside largely untouched by enterprising hands and people’s construction projects. Damaging to economic development, but beneficial to the sensory experience of the passersby. The land left in its natural state is lush and diverse, ranging from the dry jagged rocks to the snowy peaks and green undulations surrounding Lake Sevan. The wind blows uninterrupted through overgrown valleys and after the rain, a scent rises from the land like washed herbs left out in a warm kitchen.

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I became familiar with this landscape and with Yerevan over the course of four weekend visits to Armenia. My first trip was dictated by spontaneity. My snap decision to leave on the last minibus out of Tbilisi got me to Yerevan just before midnight. I alighted the bus in the backwaters of the city. I had no currency and there was no sign of life around the bus station. A fellow passenger, a journalist returning to attend a march being held in remembrance of students who were shot dead by government forces at the 2008 presidential election protest, offered to take me to the centre in a taxi. From there I found myself wandering aimlessly down Pushkin St. I knew there was a hostel somewhere nearby, but I was not sure where. Music and the sounds of joviality floated down the road and I went in search of their source. Beatles Bar, Underground Bar, a pub, and what was this place with no name? I descended the stairs into a smoky multi-coloured and crowded basement. A dark, tubby young man wearing a flamboyant waistcoat and Elton John orange-tinted glasses turned around from the bar as if he had been expecting my entrance, flung open his arms and cried, ‘Hallo! You want whisky? Where are you from? I’m so glad for you to join us!’

Younger, darker Elton John spoke in a high-pitched Korean-esque accent. ‘Korean?! No! I’m Iranian!’ He was one among a group of Iranians, all long-haired, thick-lashed eyes and flamboyant in gesture and speech. ‘Come and dance and drink whisky with us!’ They took me to a small tightly packed club where soles stuck to wet tiles and the sound system crackled and hissed. Nobody cared. Everybody was dancing and drinking and kissing. Women stood languidly in jeans and t-shirts whilst men bumped and grinded their hips up against them, arms flailing carelessly, chests bared, glistening. There seemed to be a surprising gender role reversal unfolding in the little club and everyone was enjoying it. Over in a far corner a circle of red jackets bobbed modestly. It was the Iranian ski team. They were making a whistle-stop here on the way back from Sochi. ‘How did it go?’ I asked them. I was met with a shrug, ‘It was O.K.,’ one replied moodily before turning away. Dark-haired Elton clattered towards me for the umpteenth time. In the whisky haze his speech had become a slur of inaccurate English vowels and missing articles. Now he said, ‘You are butterfly that came to me in dream I had last night.’ I shook my head and fluttered away into the fading night.

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‘The trouble’s gunna spread all the way here, I’m sure of that.’ I awoke to these words not too many hours after my departure from the club. The speaker was a stocky bald guy on the bottom bunk opposite me. His words were directed at an older man with thin strands of long grey hair elegantly tied behind his nape, who sat nodding pensively over a polka dot cravat. The stocky guy continued. ‘What’s happening in Ukraine is just a prelude to what’s gonna happen all over the former Soviet Union I tell you. Next Georgia next Armenia. Shame to pack up my business but I had to get out of Ukraine. Dubai’s the dream anyway. That’s where the money is. Hey, you’re out of a job, aren’t you? You could get good work as a French teacher in Dubai. They’ll pay you lots of money. You’re not gonna find any in Armenia.’ At this point I made the effort of swinging my legs over the bed and sitting up. They stopped in conversation and both looked at me. ‘Bonjour,’ said the man with the cravat, ‘anglais ou francais?’ ‘English,’ I croaked, ‘and bon-joh to you.’ I was not in the mood for conversing and made a quick escape to the bathroom.

Dressed and breakfasted I headed out to a place I had heard was well worth a visit for the tourist to Yerevan: Etchmiadzin, the spiritual centre of the Armenian Orthodox Church and the incipient seedling of all Christendom. As any Hai will tell you, Haiastan was the first Christian nation. I bussed it back to the bus station in the backwaters. It was livelier in the light of day; fruit stalls and shwarma stands cluttered the roadside, dominated by a government building standing on high above the motorway. It was flanked by a wine factory and a cognac factory, running a country is thirsty work after all. I spent some time walking to and fro though an underpass. With no Russian skills to speak of and even less Armenian, directions were hard to decipher. I was also suffering from whisky withdrawal symptoms. I bought an orange and took a moment to gather my fading wits. The girl I had contacted on couchsurfing.org had told me to get a minibus from here to the holy site where I would find her in the museum to the right-hand side of the pink tufa stone church. Her instructions might as well have been in Russian or Armenian because I had no idea what pink tufa stone was. As it turned out, it is what all the official buildings of Yerevan are made from: a pale pink, cream or grey-coloured marble-textured stone, solid as the rock valleys but softer on the eye. It is local to Armenia and what bestows Yerevan city centre its stately air.

Etchmiadzin lies forty minutes outside Yerevan. To one side of a dusty town road I found the entrance to the holy complex and went in search of the pinkest building amongst the domes and stained facades. Everything looked beige. I sauntered uncertainly down the wide avenue and admired the trees, turning right in front of a domineering building. ‘Do you need help?’ A sharp-nosed man with slick hair and a long detective’s coat was looking at me with curiosity. The day was hot and I did not envy the coat. I told him I was looking for the museum. As I spoke he stepped towards me with more interest. ‘Where are you from?’

‘England’

‘I love English!’ he said with sincere joy. ‘I taught myself. Let me practise with you. I will show you around. Don’t worry, I want nothing more than to do something for humanity.’

I wanted nothing more than to get out from the sun and find the girl who would talk me around the cool shade of the museum, but I decided his was a nice enough gesture to put my agenda to one side. As we walked around the complex he talked excitedly about the architecture and even more excitedly about the tufa stone: ‘See here, in the early churches they didn’t use paint for the interior, no colour, just the stone. It is beautiful, no?’ I said it was beautiful, although I enjoyed the added frescoes and tessellations of later centuries. I lingered by the world’s first church to inspect the weathered carvings of a fourth century stonemason. At this my guide become impatient, ‘Ali!’ He beckoned me over with a childish eagerness out of sorts with his stiff character. ‘Come see this now! You must see this!’ He stood in front of some tombs where he folded his hands in respect and assumed a sombre air. ‘These are the tombs of the patriarchs. There are eighty-three of them here.’ He bowed his head. I cleared my throat and asked if we could go into the museum. He was slow to respond and when he did his words were tinged with regret. ‘Yes. Let’s go inside.’

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The church air was heavy with the smell of incense and candle wax. Orange faces half concealed flickered above rows of small flames. Some uttered silent breaths of prayer and others were still, washed clean of all expression. We walked into the back room where my internet acquaintance was waiting. The museum held a multitude of Christian relics catering to the superstitions of the faithful: a fragment of Noah’s Ark, a splinter from the cross, a torn rag of St. Peter’s robe. All were embedded into precious stones and so small as to be almost imperceptible. We stopped in front of a Chinese-carved priests’ cane formed by two bejewelled serpents intertwined. ‘The snake,’ whispered my acquaintance, ‘protects the unmarried priest from the devil.’ ‘And what about married men?’ I inquired. She suppressed a giggle, ‘They are already protected.’

I rejoined my sharp-nosed guide on the gravel path outside. He was immersed in deep, solemn conversation with a priest. On noticing me he resumed his role as keen host. ‘I invite you to eat at my parents’ house… my mother has made chicken soup today.’ As a man in his mid-forties with a job in the foreign office, I was surprised to find that my guide still lived with his parents. I supposed this was not so unusual for an unmarried man in Armenia. My guide, the unmarried layman, was protected by neither serpent nor holy matrimony, leaving him unbound in an earthly limbo of devilish temptation where he had to fend alone for his male virtue. It would explain his stiff manner and the sadness is his eyes, and why he spent so much time amongst priests. In his invitation I heard a distant, ungraspable expectation, a desperate reach for matrimony and the shield it offered against original sin. I was not keen on the idea myself but was starving, so I accepted the invitation gratefully.

He lived out in one of Armenia’s many Soviet tower-block clusters which rise from the land like concrete seaweed from a dry ocean bed. The individuality of their interiors never fails to surprise; the family apartment opened out into an airy high-ceilinged abode decorated in nineteen-seventy’s floral wallpaper. Hanging plants swung delicately from the small terrace outside and inside the array of indoor foliage cast a soft green hue about the room. I sat on the edge of the sofa and gazed out of the window onto the low-lying plains. The light was long and golden. He sat across with his hands on his lap. We kept silence whilst the bubbling of soup and the clatter of aluminium came from the kitchen. Finally, his mother emerged and arranged a table in front of me: white cloth, cutlery, plates, bowls, salad and flatbread, pickles and roast potatoes and a chicken soup with the poultry’s limbs escaping from the liquid; fresh fruit, dates and honey. It was a delicious medley of the best Georgian, Persian and Turkish home cuisine.  She and I chatted in our respective languages whilst her son watched on hopefully, translating when the need arose. Her eyes had the same deep green hue as the room; she was more handsome than her son. As I hugged her goodbye at the front door she gestured that I was always welcome back. I knew I would never return. Outside, magenta rays of evening danced upon the wheat heads. A hushed wind blew through the concrete rise. Life was calm. I wished my guide a sincere goodbye and hailed a taxi.

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‘How did the job hunt go today?’ Back in the hostel dormitory the two men were sat where I had left them. The slender French speaker had changed into a three-piece suit for the evening. ‘Not well. I think I got something at the language centre but it is not enough.’ ‘You really should come to Dubai,’ insisted the stocky man, ‘I don’t know why you’re hanging around Armenia. There’s nothing here to stay for.’ Having come in and collapsed onto the bed, I now interjected. ‘And why are you here?’ They both looked over with surprise. The stocky one shifted from side to side and looked away. ‘I’m picking up some money to take to Dubai. I’m out of here next week.’ The elegant man addressed us both, ‘I don’t want to go to an Arab country. I want to go to Europe. I liked France but I had to go back to Iran for five years. I just left again. I can’t stand the oppression and I like to see women uncovered. Here I feel free but there’s no work. I’m waiting for a friend to help me out with a Swiss visa. Maybe that’ll come through.’ He spoke with a French accent. I could have sworn he was French. ‘I am French in my heart,’ he said. ‘You’re an old Casanova, that’s what you are,’ said the stocky one.

The three of us went out for beer. The stocky guy talked about making money in Dubai. He would be rich again. Rich and happy. Oh, he didn’t understand why people wasted their time in moneyless places like Armenia. He couldn’t wait to get out of here. His eyes bulged and darted unnervingly as he spoke, squeezed out from their sockets by the stress of making money and fear of losing it. The old Casanova and I listened half-heartedly. We were more interested in finding a place to dance. At my suggestion we went to the bar where I had met the Iranians the night before. It was the same hub of laughter and merriment I remembered, although I saw no sign of Iranian Elton John. My energy began to wane. Casanova and I danced a clumsy tango before I resolved to take up a final seat at the bar until closing time. I was ready to go home and about to do so when a troop walked in. They were a foursome all at once comedic, beautiful and frivolous, but with the air of tragedy about them. I was spellbound on my bar seat. The tall and busty bob-haired blonde among them blew me a kiss and waved her rose-tattooed arms about her head. She placed her hand around the neck of her male companion and they both looked at me and smiled, almost menacingly. She whispered something in his ear and turned away. I knew then I was not going home.

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The man in question was a gangly, wild-haired fellow with a most peculiar face, so peculiar as to be charming. The laughter lines of his mouth spread around his nose which itself protruded from between two deep-set dark-ringed eyes. His teeth were small and badly cared for but they were framed by a smile that was in love with life. Our eyes locked together for a song. His look showed no signs of sleep, only of wild fantasies that I dared not share. He danced sensationally and wordlessly and when the bar closed he asked, ‘Will you come with us?’ There was a smile in his voice too. We piled into a car driven by the other man in the group. He was very short and slightly rotund and smoked one roll-up cigarette after another from a metal tobacco box with an inbuilt rolling device. He did not speak but bobbed his head to the music making the huge curls of his hair bounce in unison. The girl with the rose-tattooed arms turned and asked my name then took a hold of my wrist and dabbed on it a sweet, pungent perfume. She had the restless gaze of a wild cat. ‘I love England,’ she pouted, ‘I fell in love in London.’ The second girl spoke up for the first time, ‘I would love England, but it has terrible immigration laws that I cannot agree with. It won’t allow my Mimi to enter. I bring her all over Europe with me only to reach the UK border and be told she is not permitted entry into the country. And it is her native land! Imagine, a Yorkshire terrier never seeing Yorkshire! It’s so unfair.’ She frowned before continuing, ‘but I love English designers. As you can see I am wearing head to toe Vivienne Westwood. Well, not to toe because my boots are Jean Paul Gautier.’ I nodded. Certainly her outfit was not one to be overlooked: furry bear-eared hat, traffic-light red puffer jacket, leopard print leggings and enormous high-topped shiny purple boots. The car stopped and the troop jumped out. A rose-tattooed hand held itself out to me. ‘Come,’ she said, ‘let’s dance,’ and I was led into a hollow and sparsely peopled club.

Whisky bottles and forgotten drinks cluttered the tables. A few men and women slouched in corners. There was an atmosphere of inactivity in the neon-lit room despite the DJ’s best efforts. That was until deep red-rose tattoos swayed onto the dance floor dancing over wide, shivering hips. Her smile glinted blue under the club lights. I was later informed that she had once been Armenia’s sex symbol. Now she was a little older, a little larger and no longer graced magazine pages, but she still inspired sex. A carnival of gangly limbs and wild black hair followed in her wake and she and the man with sleepless eyes began to writhe across the tiles. Others looked on from their seats in wonder. The two of them drew me into their tireless and predatory dance, crying ‘We love you!’ and I was compelled by a kinaesthetic magnetism to carry on in that reel of limbs and casual laughter until I was ready to collapse. I threw myself onto the divan, lungs heaving. The short curly haired man turned and smiled like Behemoth. He pushed a roll-up cigarette between my fingers and said, ‘You are beautiful.’ The sex symbol of yesteryear and the gangly man with sleepless eyes came towards where we sat and bore the words upon me: ‘You are our queen tonight!’ ‘We love you!’ cried all three. I was beginning to feel like Margharita at Woland’s ball: worshipped to exhaustion but fuelled by a great desire to meet the ends of this unexpected twist in the adventure. The man with the gangly limbs bent towards me, smiling still in his sunken eyes. ‘When are you leaving Armenia?’ He spoke softly, curling the ‘r’ with the front of his tongue.

‘Monday.’

‘From now until then you are with me.’

The command slid through the air like the hiss off a lizard’s tongue. I was intrigued to follow it. I measured him up and then the scene before me: a carnage of whisky, ice and sweat and a mass of bright and beguiling faces that would not take no for an answer. It was the antipode to the devout naivety of my guide from that afternoon. In here there was no protection for anybody, marital or otherwise, and nobody desired it. Gyrating backsides on the T.V. screen and scarved heads through the window: preliminary snapshots of a long weekend in Armenia. From then on I took no more notice of the headscarves bent over the roadside and I never contacted my church guide or the Iranians again. I was too dazzled by the treasure chest of frivolity I had stumbled upon in the austere Soviet city, too intrigued by the smiling voice and sleepless eyes to look for anything more in Armenia. I responded to his command with no more than a nod. Another hand slid into mine – I was not sure whose it was anymore – and the voices around me sang out, ‘There is so much love here. You will come back, won’t you?’

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Kakheti: making sense on the steppe

When I was seventeen I did two weeks’ work experience in an East London workshop crafting accessories for architectural models. I was assigned to Trees where I joined a huddle of people hunching over model trees made from mattress foam and spray paint. Amongst them was a Georgian man whose name has sadly escaped memory. He was tall and gentle with John Lennon style spectacles and shoulder-length centre-parted hair. He had a fashion degree and an American accent. When he told me he was from Georgia I assumed he referred to the only Georgia I knew of: the State of Georgia, U.S.A. So when my co-worker began to mention war with Russia and the hardships suffered in Georgia because of it, I was baffled. He was not fooled by my attempts to hide confusion. ‘Georgia is a country next to Russia,’ he explained. I nodded, red creeping up my ignorant face, and saying nothing set back to my dotted springtime trees to avoid what I deemed an awkward conversation.

This encounter flooded back to memory as we sped over a lonely road in Georgia’s southern region of Kakheti. We were entering northwards from the unbroken green of the southern steppe and the first signs of changing climate appeared in the form of short sinuous trees lining the road. It must have been the purposeful splay of their branches, or the artful sprinkling of their blossom, or the starkness of their being set against the flat plain that brought back to me the mattress foam trees on the architectural models. I said in passing to my Russian companion, ‘Those trees remind me of some model trees I used to make…’ But I stopped mid sentence because like a pinprick drawing blood from a finger the sight of the trees drew the past from my conscience. The Georgian man with the John Lennon spectacles and fashion degree trickled into my mind’s eye ‘…with the first Georgian I ever met!’ Enthused by this personal revelation, I leaned back in the seat smiling at the satisfying sense of having come full circle. The large Georgian lady with whom I was sharing the back seat asked what all my excitement was about. ‘Ask her in Russian how you say ‘revelation’ in Georgian,’ I commanded. She turned to me, eyes twinkling blue: gamotsxadeba.

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My gamotsxadeba occurred at the end of a three day hitch-hiking trip from Tbilisi to David Gareja, another of Georgia’s cave monasteries carved into the dry cusp of its Azerbaijan border. Our trip took us around the region of Kakheti, best known for being the country’s wine region and for its remote, friendly inhabitants. The closest village to David Gareja, Udabno, itself means steppe in Georgian and is testament to the far-reaching hilly plains that traverse the land from here, spreading east into Azerbaijan and dissolving into the Caspian Sea. In the other direction their green undulations ascend and roll ever-greener, ever-higher into the Dagestan Caucasus. This inner part of Kakheti boasts lush floral landscapes which have given rise to the recent development of the postcard town of Sighnaghi into a tourist hotspot, attracting families of Russian holiday-makers and wine tasting tourists from near and far. It was to here that our unplanned route out of Tbilisi was dictated by consequence of an eagle strung up to a tree by the roadside: having been dropped off at a crossroad, the strange sight of the bird hanging stiffly by its spread wings with its head bowed in submission to death had drawn us down that particular road. After gazing in wonder and bewilderment at the inexplicable nature of the execution, we lifted our thumbs skyward and waited for a car to carry us away.

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It was not long before a father and his two sons picked us up in a little van, which was lucky as it was beginning to rain heavily. By the time they dropped us in Sighnaghi it had become a torrential downpour. Since we had no idea of where we were going once in Sighnaghi the driver dropped us at the place he thought best appropriate for two hungry tourists – the restaurant Nikala, which he claimed was run by an American named Johnny who would also have rooms for us. Inside was a softly lit well-heeled establishment serving, so they said, the best khinkali in town. We ordered a jug of the fabled wine, but saved the khinkali for another day, ordering instead ostri soups to warm us after the rain. We enquired after Johnny, but in fact the owner was a young Georgian lady who met us with a polite smile and explained that if we were looking for a place to stay, she had a friend with a guesthouse. ‘It is the only place,’ she continued, ‘that washes the bed sheets between customers.’ We took her word for it as we had little other choice and she was offering us a lift. Hence we found ourselves in the Guesthouse Zandarishvili, an eclectic abode offering unlimited wine with the room price (40GEL), a sumptuous breakfast spread for 5GEL and, of course, clean sheets.

View at dawn from the Guesthouse Zandarishvili

View at dawn from the Guesthouse Zandarishvili

Residential streets of Sighnaghi

Residential streets of Sighnaghi

Under the clear skies of day, Sighnaghi presented itself a pretty medieval town engulfed within an old fortress wall. We took a walk around hoping to find the ‘gem’ of Sighnaghi. We walked past the church and over the wall, through the dappled town square and out into the quiet residential areas where the paved road fell into dust. It was my friend with his eye for all things imposing and Soviet who first took notice of the wide crenellated building plonked unceremoniously in the valley. Its symmetry was militant in the green mesh of overgrowth, and despite its evident state of decrepitude, the building remained self-assured of its own authority. A stained portrait of some forgotten moustachioed figure was leant against the door, similarly unabashed by its state of abandon. Scattered about the entrance were a few soggy pastel pink and blue booklets. I picked one up and read the name Nana Turiashvili. Inside were her details (housewife, music teacher) and library records, dating between 1985 and 1991. I would later ask a Georgian what the books were that Mrs. Turiashvili had taken out. ‘It’s disappointing,’ he commented, ‘she only took out the monthly Socialist women’s magazines that everybody had to subscribe to. She took all these out for the records and probably never read a single page. Everybody did that. I always thought what a waste of paper it was.’ The Russian grinned. ‘She was a good Communist.’

The Gem of Sighnaghi

The Gem of Sighnaghi

Inside the building the booklets continued through every dank room, piling high, creeping down the corridors. Only one large, glossy book stood out amongst the array of pastel pink and blue. It was entitled ‘The Fair Elections of Democratic Georgia, 2008.’ I lifted it out the pile and propped it against the wall on a bureaucrat’s desk, considering for a moment taking it with me. But my thoughts were interrupted by an echoing cry, ‘Ali, come see this!’ I made a snap decision that the book had been left there for a reason and turned away, following my friend’s voice towards the back of the building. Cold cavernous corridors led me right and left, before I turned into some double doors and was confronted by a flood of pale light and dust. My eyes adjusting, I made out the outline of my friend in the middle of a basketball court flanked on either side by two torn goalposts; the old gymnasium. The sea of plastic yellow and blue seats was littered with grey plastic bottles; across the court the digital eights of the 1980s scoreboard were dull and silent. Only the drip-drip of leaking water could be heard on rotting planks. We had found the gem of Sighnaghi and for a moment we felt like two archaeologists who had dug up the ruins of some long-forgotten empire.

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But time had not yet buried the empire, as we were to rediscover en route from Sighnaghi. Conversations on the road with older generations were a reminder that the USSR protruded through living memory, puncturing the grounds of political unity and tampering with the mechanics of national sentiment. Several ex-servicemen recounted nostalgically their days serving in Moscow then shrugged away the irony as they told us about their sons who now served in the Georgian National Army, training under the overhanging threat of war with the powerful neighbour. Such was a conversation we had with three old men in Saragejo, the little town lying at the crossroads between Tbilisi, Sighnaghi and Udabno, who bade us join their table in a rundown roadside restaurant. Next to the kitchen an enormous 1980s metal television hummed and flickered with feeble bluish motion pictures showing more of the empire’s unburied remnants: a building in Ukraine was silently going up in flames. The old woman and younger man who ran the establishment looked at us in astonishment as we asked for two cha-chas and a tomato for lunch. The young man filled our glasses to the brim and we were beckoned over by the old men. Several more cha-chas and some photographs later we reeled out of the sad little restaurant feeling distinctly merry and raised up our thumbs optimistically. Cars going this direction were few and far between.

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Our luck was in. Two cosmopolitan businessmen from Tbilisi were taking a Sunday drive to our desired destination, the David Gareja monastery. Driving onwards the road became noticeably worse and the land drier, the streaky red hills like tattooed knuckles punched into the land. Our driver looked at me laughingly through the rear-view mirror, ‘Ali! Did you drink a lot?’ Yes. ‘You’ll like the monastery.’ The sun was setting as we arrived and we stumbled in the half-light around the archways and caves. I stopped by a group of Tbilisians who were sharing lobiani (bean bread) with one of the monks. I stood to one side of them, swaying a little. The monk was having none of it and motioned me to join them, ‘Come, girl, eat and drink with us.’ I stood grazing on lemonade and the bean bread with the group as the sky turned murky blue ahead of us. They gave me and the monk the remaining slices, kissed his hand, bid me well and roared away to the capital. The monk made a quick blessing motion above my head before taking his own leave, still clutching his lobiani. As for me, I found my friend reunited with his fellow St. Petersburgians who happened to be making the same trip in a hired car. We were lucky for our last lift of the day. They dropped us at the only hostel on the steppe, the Oasis Club, a simple, rug bedecked bar and guesthouse run by Polish expats.

A roadside chacha stop, inhabited by one Irekle

A roadside chacha stop, inhabited by one Irekle

We awoke at dawn the next day to the tweeting of birds and the snorting of cows. The dreadlocked French bartender invited me to join him for yoga on the plains to which I obliged – nothing like shaking off a hangover with some spine twisting contortions. By the time we finished, the grey mist had lifted and both the sun and the herds were out in full force. My companion pointed to a fine white cloud on the horizon, ‘I hope that herd is coming our way.’ His hopes were fulfilled. When we left the hostel an hour later, we were face-to-face with a bleating, blade-crunching mass of wool flanked by two tawny young shepherds. They paused to acknowledge us before curiosity got the better of them and they stopped altogether to ask where we were from. The one on horse back, the older of the two, caught me eyeing up the horse. He offered me the reign, ‘Do you want a go?’ I certainly did.

I had never herded a flock of sheep before, and my horse-riding experience was negligible, so it was no surprise that both horse and sheep took the opportunity to do their own thing. The mare took up a lackadaisical stroll and the sheep began to scatter outwards. The shepherds did not seem much concerned and continued their job on foot, steering the sheep, the horse and myself onwards towards the mountains for the next hour. I trotted up beside one and ventured a conversation, ‘Who is Inga?’ I asked, nodding to the tattoo on his bicep. He shrugged, ‘The first one.’ We continued on wordlessly until we arrived at the road. I dismounted the reluctant horse and thanked Giorgi the shepherd for his generosity. He shrugged again, but smiled this time. We shook hands and parted, he to the mountain and I to the road where we would be picked up by the yellow car with the large, blue-eyed woman in the back seat.

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And so heading back to Tbilisi I came full circle. As I gazed at red-dashed poppy fields and yellow-spattered trees, I pondered my first Georgian encounter. All I wanted right then was to be back in the workshop in East London – only for a moment – to be able to look up from the model trees, turn to the Georgian man with the John Lennon spectacles and continue where we had left off, ‘Ah, Georgia, the little country next to Russia with its rolling steppe and tattooed shepherds. Yes, that war; was that why the Sighnaghi gymnasium was abandoned and why Nana Turiashvili finally threw away her magazine subscriptions? But now he could give me no response, so I was content to turn to the blue-eyed large lady and smile with some understanding. She patted my hand affectionately in return; ‘And you, girl, how did you come to be Georgia?’

Borjomi: life in season

During summer days the Borjomi sulphur pool is jam-packed with tourists, but on that autumn evening I was the only visitor, although someone had been earlier that day and left the tell-tale scatterings of crisp packets and carrier bags. I surveyed the scene of older, soggier specimens lying farther afield and submerged my eyes beneath the water. Looking upwards from below was plastic-free and picturesque, which is the expectation one holds for places such as these. All that could be seen from here were shimmering pine treetops, their forms fragmenting as the light bent through water and into my eyes, and an unbroken teal sky. The water was warm and thick as to be almost slimy. It is collected in a concrete pool in the ground, carried from its source by a gushing pipe. When it needs replenishing the water is let free from the pool through a wooden slide contraption and discharged into a gurgling stream below. Satisfied, I let the last bubbles of air escape my nostrils then plunged upwards, breaking into the cold air. I dressed without fear of being seen and made the forty-five minute woodland hike back to the town feeling fresher than when I arrived.

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Borjomi is one of Georgia’s many pride and joys, being as it is the fertile land of the healthiest water around and home to one of the country’s largest exports, the ‘Borjomi’ water brand. So plentiful here is water that everyone wastes it all the time. There is water everywhere and empty bottles are sold at every stall and store so that one can stroll down to the water pump, which runs straight from the stream, and fill up your vessels with the curative liquid until your heart be content. The first sip comes as a shock to palettes dulled by years of fluoride and chloride. Straight out of the river and into the mouth, this water is a luke-cold flat fizz tasting like mud and blood. But this is the medicine; locals and corporation alike swear by Borjomi’s water for relief of a long list of bodily malaises. According to the history books, it is said to have cured a number of Russian royalty of various ailments, whence they turned it into the empire’s leading holiday destination for elites. This was a trend which the Soviets maintained, in their turn advertising the town as a paradise where workers and family of the USSR could come to enjoy their well-earned holidays.

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The town is a patchwork of these temporary inhabitants’ tourism incentives, seen in Tsar Nicholas’ train stations and Parisian style mansions and Stalin’s themed water park (both took up summer residence here). Whilst many of the mansions are now in states of decay, the old tsar’s residence has become a museum, offering all sorts of curiosities from mounted wildlife to models of the Borjomi water-bottling plant. The Soviet’s water park is still very much in use during high season and even in quiet winter months all its coloured lights are left flashing through the night, even though the rides are turned off and the little Russian fairytale cottages closed to consumers of cigarettes and coffee. The train station, built and developed by both rulers, remains ever-adaptable to the changing times and is now Pesvebi restaurant, a local night-time hotspot for local revellers who come to indulge in khinkali, karaoke and disco beats. Trains from Tbilisi arrive here twice daily and continue south to Akhaltiskhe or up to Bakuriani. This mode of transport is for travellers with a little extra time to spare, for the doddery Soviet-era locomotive converts a two hour road journey into a four and a half hour rail trip. The scenery (if one can see past the fifty year layer of grime on the windows) is well worth the time, and when legs become stiff with immobility, it is only a matter of dragging your feet a few yards for a beer on arrival.

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The above, however, are merely the ornate settings for a small cast of characters who provide entertainment in Borjomi the year round, three in particular to whom I shall limit my account. As a resident of four months I was carried along in their day to day lives, which, in a town with a two-hundred year reliance on tourism, naturally revolved around the coming and going of foreigners. I turn first, as most tourists do, to the Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park where in the white, airy space of its visitor centre reclines Gaga in his desk chair, usually pensive and motionless, or working intently on the centre’s next big idea. Last I was there it was the latter and the idea was snow shoes for prospective winter walks: ‘You’ve seen it in green,’ Gaga grinned, ‘now you can see it in white,’ echoing the words on the poster behind him.

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Unfortunately, the tennis-racquet winter shoes took longer to arrive than was bargained for, and in my impatience I took it upon myself to ‘see it in white’ wearing a pair of high-top trainers. I marched defiantly up the first incline leading from the park entrance gate. So far, so good; who needs tennis racquets? But it was not long before I was clutching hopelessly at snow whilst my feet sank and slid uncontrollably downwards through more snow. I kept up this saga for two hours, determined to get to the peak of the hill where once in Autumn I had found a sun-dappled clearing and a peace of mind. It was not to be, and late in the afternoon I shuffled into the visitor’s centre, sodden and cold. Gaga’s eyes went wide with concern, ‘What happened to you?’

‘I went for a walk in the winter forest.’

‘In those shoes? Are you crazy? Why didn’t you take the snow shoes?’

‘What snow shoes?’

Gaga led me round to the front door. ‘They arrived yesterday,’ he announced proudly. There they were, dozens of shiny new snow shoes, ready to glide hikers effortlessly over the snowy dunes. ‘Don’t worry, we can go another time,’ continued Gaga, ever the optimist, but I was grumpy, ‘I think I’ll wait till we can go on horseback.’ He smiled, ‘Whenever you like, I will be happy to arrange that.’ And he went back inside to work further on his Georgian world encyclopaedia, business being quiet.

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After a hike (successful or otherwise), a visitor to Borjomi is likely to find themselves at the Old Borjomi Café, the kind of place where hours lose themselves in the faux-rustic décor and the jugs of homemade house wine. It is also where Borjomi’s small gaggle of foreign volunteers and young tour guides, Gaga and myself amongst them, gathered to fritter away the evenings. It was here I first spied a brooding figure chain smoking in the corner, his impenetrable stare broken by violent bouts of a blinking twitch. He was the enterprising Leo, Borjomi’s busiest tour guide, who five years ago turned his mother’s home into what is now the town’s most successful guesthouse. Leo himself is a source of admiration, bemusement or fear to all who meet him. My own time with this gem of a personality was spent over many moments driving around in his renowned Japanese van, which Leo insisted was indestructible. This conviction of his remains the cause of much passenger concern and not without reason, as I was to discover on my first trip in The Japanese Van.

We were driving with four Polish tourists aboard from Vardzia, the Samskhe-Javakhete region’s famous 11th century cave monastery and the reason most go any further south of Georgia than Borjomi. The day had comprised a long and eventful trip, as is generally ensured by the driver. On this particular journey, Leo had given us impassioned accounts of myth and mystery at every point of interest on the way. The most powerful of these told of the Mtsvane monastery massacre, where still today the bones of speared monks lie stashed in canvas bags, their skulls lined upon a shelf inside a tiny chapel. ‘Look,’ Leo picked up a stone from the stream running by the chapel, ‘you see the blood stains?’ We all nodded at the dark red spatters visible on the pebble. ‘How are they not washed away by the water in six hundred years? Because this blood is sacred, that is why.’ This first stop was a telling prelude to what was to come. More tangible relics of war, enslavement and divine magic would present themselves to us within the turrets and tunnels of long abandoned fortresses, around which Leo encouraged us to climb and ferret despite flailing light and sheer drops into the gaping gorges.

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The pervading sense of divine magic and dark realism came to its apex amidst the chiaroscuro of the Vardzia Monastery. Here I sat for an hour on a rocky ledge of stone high up on the cliff face. Over my head was one of the many chiselled archways that supported the monastery’s carved enclaves, nothing more than a dusty wall and floor. The real treasures of Vardiza lie deep within the cliff’s belly and remain inaccessible to tourists. The view was of a hot valley, a silver ribbon of water weaving through it until the land faded into the sky. Not a crisp packet or carrier bag in sight. All that was moving were the birds dipping with the breeze, and the black robed monks gliding ethereally along the corridors below. It felt like the world had always been this way and that there never had been any time, noise or madness, yet reminders of all three were etched indelibly into the surroundings. Noise filled the single-file tunnels where Georgian soldiers had entrapped and butchered Persian and Ottoman invaders; time ate into the ruins of the 12th century slave-trading forts along the road; madness was fossilised in the skull piles of those martyred 16th century monks, and also in the bricks of the hydro-electric dam built by 20th century German prisoners of war.

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All this had left its mark on our little troop as Leo steered us at a time-saving pelt back to Borjomi. It was now dusk and the road ahead was a mesh of dark grey, blue and black. All of a sudden a greyish bovine form emerged from the shadows and the silence was broken by the screech of Japanese tyres on tarmac as Leo swerved, only to meet another cow. He swerved again; another cow. This continued around several cows, never once slowing until finally we were out of danger and I heard everybody in the back shuffle into their former positions. Gasps of relief ensued, and then silence until one of the Poles ventured, ‘Leo, you want to get us killed?’ His question was met with a critical gaze through the rear-view mirror. Leo blinked once and barked,

‘LET ME ASK YOU ONE THING: YOU HAVE DRIVING LICENCE?’

‘Yes.’

‘YOU HAVE DRIVING LICENCE AND YOU CAN’T DO BASIC ZIG-ZAG?’

The man looked exasperated and muttered something towards his chest about not needing to do basic zig-zag in Poland.

‘HOW YOU HAVE LICENCE AND YOU CANNOT DO BASIC ZIG-ZIG? OK, BUT LET ME TELL YOU ONE THING: I DON’T WANT TO DIE SO I’M NOT GOING TO CRASH THIS CAR. OK?’ Nobody questioned Leo’s driving technique henceforth, or the dependability of his indestructible van.

Finally, winter began to tinge our Borjomi days with icy roads and protracted darkness. On these frozen nights no intrepid hiker stamped their boots on the door mats of the Borjomi restaurants, and no swim-suited holidaymakers graced its sulphur pools and guesthouses. Local patrons became idle. They waited, backs slumped to the wall and arms crossed, for the hordes that would not arrive (perhaps Gaga’s newly introduced snow-hiking will improve their situation this year round). One December evening Goga, the round-headed boss of the Old Borjomi Café, lifted himself from the back wall, put out his cigarette defiantly and exhaling the last of the smoke said, ‘Let’s go somewhere else.’ He locked up shop and he, the barmaid Nina and I piled into the car. We sat for a while heating up the engine. ‘Where shall we go?’ He inquired. I did not know, for what else was there to do on a Wednesday evening in mid-winter Borjomi? The café was my only port of call. Wordlessly, Goga set the car in motion and cautiously drove us upwards until we came to the village on the hill. He parked up outside a house. ‘I have not opened this house in seven years,’ he announced, ‘since my grandfather died. It is my holiday home.’

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We tugged at the stiff wooden door with paralysed fingers before walking into a small, moth-eaten bedroom smelling of damp and age. One by one we trudged round the back of the house where a pile of wood awaited burning and together we dug up the rusty wood-burning stove from under a pile of forgotten belongings on the terrace. We set up this heating system through a rough cut circle in the bedroom window, draped dusty woollen blankets around our shoulders and huddled around the glow as darkness settled outside. ‘I can’t drive now until morning,’ said Goga, ‘it’s too dark and I’m drinking.’ He took out a large bottle of cognac, a bar of chocolate and his smartphone, and we listened to songs produced by people in New York, L.A. and Berlin. This is it, I thought not without regret, Wednesday night in mid-winter Borjomi. But then, as the heaviness of flame and cognac washed over me and as my head became filled with murmurings of a low, throaty language I did not understand, images began to flash in my mind’s eye of cave monasteries and canvas bags filled with bones; of snow-laden forests, mossy sulphur water and teal skies. It was no longer Wednesday night and mid-winter. It was Borjomi as ever it was, caught in a dance between stark reality and soft illusion, glinting first under one and then the other, depending on how the light fell.

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Svaneti: time travel in a 4×4

‘The road to Svaneti is meant to be the most dangerous in Georgia,’ warned a well-informed friend, ‘In summertime,’ he had added wryly. His words rang sharp as the battered little minibus skidded helplessly for the umpteenth time across the rock-ridden ice-track that was the winter road to Mestia, Svaneti’s most accessible tourism-equipped town. Accessibility is relative: reaching Mestia in January is no easy feat, involving an eight hour sleeper train from Tbilisi to a city just south of the High Caucasus, Zugdidi. From there it is a five hour journey into the mountains on the local minibus to which I refer. This particular road is not only notorious for its sharp turns, landslides and potholes, but also for the drunk drivers who reel around its every corner. Our driver was not drunk, but he was uncertain, which is just as bad, and when he ordered his son to stand atop the suspension and bounce the Ford Transit into submission up the icy incline, I began to wish we had taken the helicopter. It is only $50 after all, even if it is not guaranteed they will turn up to collect you again. Credit to the ten year-old’s strategic bouncing we made it to Mestia white-knuckled but alive.

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Historically, Svaneti is home to Georgia’s most resilient peoples, the Svans, who throughout millennia have remained ensconced within their Caucasus fortress, playing out stories of vendetta, betrayal, honour and glory in icy remoteness. It is only in the last decade or so that Svaneti’s gates have creaked open to the world beyond, and whilst aspects of the modern world have seeped into its old stone walls in the forms of hotel developments, inflated tourist prices and the first inklings of a ski resort (although the majority of its visitors still come for the off-piste experience), there remains the undeniable sense that the region has been frozen in a medieval icebox. Climbing the mountain road from Zugdidi, the winter landscape preserves scenery unchanged: a man herds his cows across the rocky slopes where sledges for transport lie by the way; women in severe headscarves chop firewood by the roadside, and Caucasian dogs – beasts between wolf and bear – bark from behind the stony crags of ancient walls. Such scenes are not uncommon in Georgia, but in Svaneti they appear in the umbra of two hundred fortress towers casting shadows of myth and history across the valleys. These 12th century structures lie in wait, defiant against all time; squat, stone sentries on the mountainsides, ready to heave and shift into formidable life when the wind brings the whiff of invasion.

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Despite the only likely invasions today being four-by-four loads of ski enthusiasts and summertime tourists, the towers are still in use by local families for storage or the odd museum, such as that belonging to the notorious Magiani family.  Once a revered clan of Mestia’s rich and powerful, the Magianis have now dispersed into modernity, save the youngest son, who under local law must remain in his birthplace in order to keep the Svan bloodline rooted in Svaneti’s soil, and his industrious Ukrainian wife, who keeps the family coffers ringing by offering narrated tours of the well-preserved medieval home. Tours are only available in her native Russian, but the geniality with which she demonstrates cooking pots and recounts the evident hardships of daily life for 13th century Svans, excitedly throwing in the odd word of English when she knows it, dissolves the frustrations of language barriers.

Inside the house, visitors are invited to sit in the same benches around the slate stove as did hundreds of generations of Magianis and feel the weight of a million moments lived out in one room, where months were spent under siege by enemies or snow, and people and animals slept side by side; where the air hung heavy with the odours of sheep’s wool, manure, incense, baking bread and fifteen bodies wrapped in winter attire; where the patriarch brooded in his chair over the cacophony of clucking chickens and family quarrels, or where, on quiet evenings, a bored child traced idle fingers over carvings of pagan suns on her mother’s wedding trunk. When war waged, the men scaled the tower’s seven stories up the same ladders that the visitor now cautiously ascends. In a corner of each floor piles of fist-sized boulders still wait to be launched at the heads of enemies below, now to be let alone by passersby who come only to gaze from the roof at Orion thrusting his bow over Mount Tetnuldi.

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Leaving Mestia the crumbling road continues, heading ever upwards towards Mount Shkara. For this part of the journey my companion and I had exchanged the guileless Ford Transit for a spanking new four-wheel drive of unidentifiable origin and with ‘Error’ flashing tirelessly on the information screen. For all its apparent faults, its burly driver managed to manoeuvre the reluctant car effortlessly up the mountain with little incident. Our destination was Ushguli, a huddle of four villages whose residents are closest to the sun in all Europe, going about their day to day lives at an altitude of 2,300 metres above sea level.

The valleys lining the Mestia to Ushguli road are pockmarked with clusters of dilapidated dwellings appearing all but abandoned. From their gap-toothed window panes smoke emerges, indicating the life within; frozen clothes hang solidly across the occasional washing line, bright against the brown and white shades of winter. According to accounts written by summer travellers, this route offers a drastically changing landscape of lush greens and thick foliage which fall and fade into the grassy plains of the High Caucasus. At this time of year, the snow dresses all in the same white guise, but the results are no less beautiful. Translucent tangles of frosted trees flank the road and snowflakes pile in the clearings thick as shards of glass. We drove through two villages, Nakipuri and Chajhashe, before coming to a stop at the third, Chvibiani, where our car’s driver had friends.

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In summer, Chvibiani boasts a guesthouse or two and even a souvenir shop. In winter the village is not expecting visitors, but is nevertheless happy to receive them if a little cash is exchanged in the process. The first of these willing hosts was Marike, a jovial widow who runs the local ‘museum’. Happy for some company, Marike invites tourists to poke around her two brightly coloured rooms of inexplicable relics: fading Soviet holiday brochures, photographs of local heroes, stuffed mountain goats, dried animal skins, rocks, tools and, bizarrely, little feathered lumps of barely-recognisable stuffed birds which are Marike’s prize possession. She even performs a song or two on the local three-stringed changi. We were sorry not to take up her invitation of lunch, but time was pressing on.

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Outside Marike’s museum, the village was another time capsule in itself. Save the occasional silver gleam of a car, Ushugli today – the surrounding mountains, the crunch of ox-carts over streets paved with frozen manure, the smell of hay and dried leather hides – is the same as the Ushguli of fifty years ago, or two hundred years ago. Or so it seemed until a local strolled by swinging a plastic ‘Dorchester’ bag. No doubt, it referred to the cigarette brand, but still, I pointed to my companion and announced in heavily accented Georgian, “He’s from Dorchester!” This small serendipity drew the man’s creases into a smile before he shuffled off down the track to join the other men, who appeared to be attending to a petition signing. No more blood settlements here.

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As it turned out, Marike’s offer of lunch had been an exclusive opportunity. We were soon to discover that all the village’s eateries were boarded and closed, and regretted having turned down a good shot of cha cha (grape-based liquor) and slice of kubdari (beef folded into bread). Luckily, our stroll was intercepted by our driver, now in a far jollier state than when we had left him, and his friend, who arranged to have his mother rustle us up something from her fridge at a small price. Kete and her husband Boris lived in a three-roomed, tin-roofed abode with their two grandchildren and partially present son. They ushered us into the kitchen-cum-bedroom and presented us with water and tangerines. The atmosphere felt a little tense as she silently put meat into a sizzling pan and he stared at us from a stool across the room. I attempted some words in Georgian, but was answered in the incomprehensible Svan tongue. The little Russian my companion knew was met with disdain. So we talked amongst ourselves over the blare of T.V. commercials until bean stew and cuts of tender beef were placed before of us. The minute we sounded our appreciation through the universally recognised utterance mmmm, the tension lifted; wine was placed on the table and the grandchildren were brought through to practise their English.

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Outside we met our driver and his pals enjoying an outdoor grill accompanied with homemade wine, which tends to be glorified grape juice or glorified vinegar, depending on your luck. Full of food and drink the driver was ever the more brash, and also eager to leave, having accomplished everything on his agenda. The sun was yet high and we were keen to explore some of the old fortresses higher up, namely Queen Tamar’s 12th century summer residence, whose four towers asserted themselves over the villages. Noticing our interest, the driver waved a nonchalant hand towards the fortress as if to erase it from the landscape, plucked a number from the top of his head, ‘It’s a four hour hike’ and steered us back to the car. We submitted to his impatience, reluctantly boarding the vehicle with its ongoing flash of ‘Error’ and stared back at Ushguli through the tinted glass as is disappeared behind the slopes. A small pack of Caucasian canines raced alongside the fuming black beast until they too fell back, tongues lolling. And Ushguli was gone.

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By the time we arrived in Mestia the sun was throwing low, magenta beams across the snow. The stream below our balcony at the Ushba Guesthouse gurgled and glinted enticingly so that we couldn’t resist clambering down to its bank, stripping down to our vests, long-johns and leggings and laying down in its icy shallows. There is nothing that alerts the senses quite like the piercing fingers of freezing water; now the mountains, flooded in peach and blossom, stood crisp against the darkening sky; the fishy smell of the stream was sharp in the air, and the town stirred with preparations for the eve of Orthodox Christmas. Come nightfall, we sat, warmed by the lulling touches of vodka and ostri soup, gazing at the murmuring stream of people on their way to midnight mass. As the whole town huddled into the little decagonal church, Mestia fell silent. From the balcony we listened to the night’s silence mingled with the muffled chanting of hymn and prayer.

The peace was suddenly split by a long and lonely howl reaching out from the black valleys. I had never heard such a cry before, but I recognised it from films and childhood stories as the cry of the big, bad wolf. Witnessing that haunting wail as it floated between the towering silhouettes of Mestia’s stone-built army reminded me that fairytales are not only the fruits of imagination; it is from lived experience they sprang once upon a time when the world was a little more like Svaneti.

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Euskal Herria

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I visited the Basque Country in June of this year. The trip was for a Basque language exchange programme organised by Asti Leku of Portugalete, a picturesque town lying at the end of the metro line from Bilbao. The ebullient organiser, one Zurine, had arranged our week’s programme jam-packed with educational excursions and activities. My fellow Basque language learners (eight Poles, one Czech, one Italian, one Armenian) and I were treated to endless rounds of museums, lunches and local cultural events, as well as the company of a group of enthusiastic Portugalete teenagers with whom we stayed.

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Unfortunately, despite Zurine’s efforts (and those of my indefatigable and, now I am no longer his student I unashamedly add, hansom Basque tutor), my skills in this most authentic of languages have since declined to the negligible. But one phrase in particular stays with me, for it is pasted in red to a blue and white checkered handkerchief that hangs from my wall. It embodies the spirit of Basque culture in just three words:

GURE ARRANTZALEEKIN BAT

With our fishermen we unite.

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