Thursday 30th June.
Vayots Dzor region, central Armenia.
The Policeman From Vayk
Somewhere along the line, I decided that the Policeman From Vayk looked a lot like Britain’s Prime Ministerial hopeful, Rishi Sunek.
The difference was, however, that I had never met Rishi Sunek. Let alone been sat in a car with him.
And Rishi Sunek had certainly not shouted at me before….while driving a silver Toyota police car down a rocky dirt road in heat-blasted central Armenia, mobile phone in one hand, cigarette in another, as I sat in the passenger seat giving him directions.
“How much further?!”, the Policeman From Vayk was yelling at me (in Armenian), for the third time in a row in less than a minute.
He certainly seemed to be getting rather animated.
He was pissed off at me.
It was clear from the moment we’d met back in the hospital a couple of hours earlier that he was pissed off with me. From the outset he’d seemed serious, but less in a professional way and more in a “oh I’ve got to deal with this shit” kind of way.
But now he was REALLY pissed off at me.
Pissed off at me for screwing up his afternoon, pissed off at me for causing a fuss about not having a proper translator, pissed off at me for refusing to take up his suggestion that we fake photos for his accident report, and pissed off at me for insisting that we drive down this crappy road.
It was, by now, late afternoon, almost evening.
Earlier that day, I had been riding down a track off the Old Jemuk Highway, a rough, broken-up dirt road that followed the bottom of a beautiful canyon, which the Arpa river flowed through from neighbouring Azerbaijan.
At the eastern head of the canyon, on the edge of a huge reservoir, lay the sprawling Soviet-era resort town of Jemuk, once a premier holiday destination due to its proximity to some hot springs, but today a dusty collection of crumbling old buildings and shops selling cheap clothing, set apart by wide boulevards.
A week before, passing through here on the way south, I’d tried to find the springs, but all I’d come across was a British guy and his daughter in a broken down rental car, an Armenian Army veteran who’d been wounded in the recent Nagorno-Karabakh War and was now spending his days fishing, and a series of signs warning me of bears.
This time, now headed north towards the capital, Yerevan, from the Iranian border, I’d happened upon a hilltop fortified monastery on the banks of the Arpa, its ancient battlements restored, set amongst well-watered, manicured lawns.
On leaving, I had carried a bit too much speed downhill coming round a corner on the dirt road; in a lapse of concentration, I had momentarily knocked the bike into neutral and lost any engine braking and the back end of the bike in the process, leaving me on the ground, wrestling with the bike on top of me. I hadn’t, at that point, realised how much grip my worn rear tyre wasn’t giving me.
I wasn’t wearing protective clothing and picked up some nasty road rash as a result. After I’d wriggled free, I’d ridden to a pharmacy in Jemuk to sort myself out, but still feared that I had dirt in the wounds. So I headed to the nearest hospital to get myself cleaned up.
The nurses fussed over me, using Google Translate to ask the usual questions that doctors and nurses ask, including whether I had had my tetanus jab. I said yes but they told me to drop my trousers, gave me another one in my right bum cheek anyway and packed me off with an escort to wait for the Policeman From Vayk.
And this was how I discovered that in Armenia if you seek hospital treatment for any accident involving a motor vehicle, then the police are required, by law, to investigate and then clear the release of your vehicle, which can take up to 3 weeks, during which period your vehicle is impounded.
‘Investigate’ in the loosest sense of the word was most appropriate here. Because when it came down to it, the Policeman From Vayk, Vayk being a town some 15km away near where I’d come off, really couldn’t be bothered.
Instead, he proposed that we just go to the nearest track we could find, take some photos there with my pointing at the ground where I supposedly fell, so he could file his report and I could get on with waiting for the paperwork to clear, the most lengthy part of the process.
Except, somehow, that didn’t seem right. And the fact that the cop’s mate, who acted as the ‘translator’ for writing the accident report, also happened to own a hotel, close to the crash site, where he insisted that I stayed whilst I waited for my bike to be released, made me uncomfortable. It felt like there was at least the mild possibility that I was being played.
So, I decided to play things by the book, refusing to stay at the hotel despite the owner’s protests and insisting that the Policeman and I went to the actual spot where I’d taken a tumble to take the photos.
Which is how, on a warm early July afternoon I found myself sat in the silver Toyota Camry saloon, being shouted at by Policeman From Vayk as we drove down the Old Jemuk Highway, on the edge of the Arpa river.
The Three Roads of Vayots Dzor
The hospital was in the regional capital, a large, hot town with the tongue-twisting name, Yeghegnadzor.
I’d first visited the town 10 days earlier on a warm Sunday evening, descending from the pass through the Vardenis Mountain range immediately to the north. The digital temperature gauge mounted on the bike’s handlebars clicked up to high twenties, as I left Lake Sevan and Armenia’s muddy, rainy northern provinces behind. The weather was undoubtedly far more agreeable than it had been the week before, the third week in June.
Yeghegnadzor lay pretty much in the middle of Armenia, on the confluence of three major roads which meet at the centre of Vayots Dzor, Armenia’s most central region. One road led to the north-east of the country, one to the north-west of the country and one straight south to the to the border with Iran.
I’d spent my first week in Armenia exploring the tracks, ruts and puddles of the deeply forested mountains of its northern provinces, Tavush and Lori, hoping, and failing spectacularly, to avoid the kind of cold mountain rains that had left me shivering in north Georgia the week before.
My first impression of the country was that it was a quieter, more relaxed place than Georgia to the north, and a few steps behind it in embracing a full-on, western-style market economy. The driving certainly seemed a lot better, for sure. The food was good, though not quite as diverse. The cars were a bit older too, with Soviet-era Lada saloons remaining the stalwart of the roads, along with 1950s style ex-army Gaz four-wheel drives.
I’d quickly found that Armenia was, if nothing else, a land of monasteries, ruins and mountains. It was an explorers’ delight, where, outside of the main attractions, tourist-friendly infrastructure was minimal, English was spoken by some but Russian remained the lingua franca, 30 years after the country became independent from the USSR.
It also laid claim to being the first country in the world to adopt Christianity as a religion, at the start of the 4th century. Ruined ancient churches and monasteries, in various states of both dilapidation and restoration, littered every corner of the countryside.
Despite the weather of that first week, I had set about a new hobby – ‘monastery bagging’ – using the backcountry routes to link together as many of these monasteries as possible, slipping and sliding about on muddy, grey-puddled tracks that delved deep into countryside, gradually becoming aware of just how useless my deteriorating rear tyre had become.
Some 50km to the east from the pass to Yeghegnadzor lay the enticingly named Vardenis Ridge, deep in the heart of the eponymous mountain range that stretched across the country from the Turkish border to the west to the Azeri border to the east.
The afternoon that I descended from the pass, I’d already ridden up high, to around 2,500m and across rolling green, alpine pastures peppered with shepherds’ camps and deep river crossings flowing with the last of the spring’s melting ice. I was trying to find a way through to Yeghegnadzor via the Ridge using old shepherds’ mountain trails. But with the light fading, the shepherds telling me that there was no route through and in-need to fulfil a promise to check-in with home that evening, I’d turned back to the main road.
I arrived at my guesthouse to find an old Honda Africa Twin parked in the courtyard with a German licence plate. Martin, the owner, was a friendly, easy going bloke, riding home from India via Pakistan and Iran, where he’d been living for four years and had picked up a curious Indian twang to his German accent and a head shake to match. Even more unusually, he was travelling with his cat, Mogli, sat in front of him with his tank bag.
Together, we tried to reach the Vardenis Ridge from the south, this time via the beautiful Yeghegis valley – finding a rough, stony track through but at the last moment also finding that the 3,000m high pass was still blocked with a short but deep field of snow.
We returned to Yeghegnadzor that evening, disappointed and wishing we’d carried shovels, to the warmth of the valley below in the late afternoon sun, waving at the shepherds who had fed us coffee and sugary sweets only a short time before, playing chicken with the aggressive dogs guarding their livestock and past a destroyed artillery gun where we’d posed for photos.
We went our separate ways the next day, but not after another unsuccessful attempt to breakthrough the Vardenis range to the east, wading through meadows thick with all manner of wild flowers and through rocky water crossings, before we reached a dead end of steep mountain sides that went right to edge of a fast-flowing river.
We parted company with a brace of memories captured on our iPhones, and that night, headed south, I stayed just outside Jemuk for the first time, sheltering from a storm in my bivvy bag on the edge of the town’s reservoir after riding down to the canyon below.
I had better success in finding tracks through the mountains in Armenia’s deep south in the days that followed, reaching the Iranian border before turning around to make the trek back to the north of the country.
And so a week after I’d first left it, I once again reached a secluded camp spot by the Old Jemuk Highway on the banks of the Arpa river, blissfully ignorant of the enforced stay in Yeghegnadzor that would follow.
The Seamstress of Yeghegnadzor
We found the Seamstress working in a large, open downstairs room of an old communist-era tower block, with white walls and tables around the perimeter. Like so many buildings in the former USSR, the crumbling exterior belied the neatly kept, clean nature of the interior. A battered, bright yellow 1990s BMW 3-Series hatchback sat outside, with tinted windows and huge alloy wheels that barely fitted under the wheel arches. Inside, the Seamstress stood to the right-hand side of room, on a phone call, with tears streaming down her face.
After finishing off the accident report paperwork at the hotel near where I’d come off the bike, the Policeman From Vayk had dropped me back in Yeghegnadzor. The bike now sat somewhat forlornly in the police compound there, impounded amongst an automotive menagerie of smugglers’ trucks from Iran, mangled car wrecks and twisted, smashed-up Chinese-made 125cc motorbikes.
The wait for its release had begun. I grabbed some essentials from the panniers, jammed them in my black Ortleib holdall and set off to find the guesthouse I’d booked online.
I stood on a street corner on the high street trying to flag down a taxi when Marie, a local tourism student who had spotted a somewhat lost and obvious tourist (me), offered the services of ‘her driver’ to take me to the guesthouse, a couple of kilometres away. As we waited for him to arrive, we drank ice coffees from a local store, which she insisted on buying, sat in the centre of a playground as the kids played noisily around us, from time to time ducking in to practice a few English phrases.
Armenian hospitality was unlike anything I’d experienced before. If you needed anything, directions or help, people generally bent over backwards to assist. I’d grown used to being approached by people in the street. ‘Ot kuda ti?’ (Russian for ‘Where are you from?’) was usually the first question, the ‘UK’ on my number plate often being confused as being from UKraine, despite the Union flag.
This was not a surprise – both the Armenian and the Russian alphabet use non-Latin letters after all. The almost hourly questioning was often followed up by an invite for coffee. Riding through the countryside, it was the norm for groups of locals to shout and wave at you frantically to stop from the ubiquitous picnic stops that dotted the countywide, just so they could chat. On one occasion I’d met the leader of a kids’ hiking expedition. On hearing that I was headed the mountains in the south where the odd wolf and bear still roamed, insisted in giving me £50 of repellent spray as personal protection; £50 was a lot of money in a country where incomes were on average only a quarter of those back home in the UK.
Part of the reason why the situation with the Policeman From Vayk was tricky to navigate was not so much due to the accident, nor was it just due to his offer to fake the photographs for his report. It was due to the offer of hospitality and of assistance in helping release my bike from the hotel owner, who was clearly good friends with the Policeman, which blurred the lines between hospitality and the official legal process. And whilst my gut told me that I didn’t like the situation, I knew there was argument to say that it was just yet another representation of how hospitable Armenia was.
Marie was yet another example of that willingness to help. ‘Her driver’ turned out to be her dad and his mate in a battered old blue, Opel people carrier who, after some arguments between the three of them about where to go, finally dropped me tired, dirty and hungry at my guesthouse that evening.
She insisted on coming with me to the hospital the next morning to help translate, as the nurses needed to rebandage my road rash. She also insisted on paying the ‘fee’ to the nurses to do so and on finding a seamstress to sew my favourite riding shirt back together, where it had been ripped when I fell off. I later flat out insisted, against her objections, that I bought the next round of ice coffees and my own lunch. We went from place to place trying to find someone to do the sewing.
In the rising heat of the late Friday morning, Yeghegnadzor was a bustling, energetic place where, judging from Marie’s conversations, everyone seemed to know each other.
The old Soviet-era Lada saloons and Gaz jeeps were matched by 1990’and early 2000’s Opels, Mercedes and BMWs, hand-me-downs from Europe’s used car market. Food, clothing, electronics and hardware stores lined the dusty streets, framed by a network of rusting overhead gas pipes and deep gutters. At the centre of the town lay a large green park with a concrete amphitheatre with seats in the blue, red and yellow colours of the Armenian flag, lined with leafy trees that provided much needed protection from the sun. Just down from police station, the main high street led directly to the main north/south road, which ran all the way to Armenia’s southern border with Iran. Away from the whizzing traffic of the town centre large, well-kept houses with big courtyards and gardens were connected by a maze of higgledy-piggledy roads.
Eventually we found the Seamstress, crying after her phone call.
“She is still upset – her son was killed in the War”, Marie explained as we walked out of the building and across the car park, back to the town centre.
‘The War’ was the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War, which took place in the autumn of 2020. The Nagorno-Karabakh region lies to the east in neighbouring Azerbaijan, just over the border. Its population is predominately Armenian. The separatist Government there is closely allied with Armenia and de-facto controlled the southern-western corner of Azerbaijan for much of the 1990s and 2000s. That was until Azerbaijan decided to take most of it back in a surprise attack in 2020, with the help of Turkey, leading to Armenia’s defeat and a redrawing of the maps.
The human consequences of the War were plain to see as I travelled around Armenia. In many of the towns and villages I had ridden through, cemeteries had small, walled-off sections with new gravestones made of highly polished dark gray stone, where the Armenian flag was flown proudly next to that of the Republic of Artsakh, as Nagorno-Karabakh was also known. “Everyone in this town either knows someone who was killed or was wounded”, Gemma, the daughter of the owner of my guesthouse later explained.
Armenia’s population is just under 3 million. Nearly 4,000 soldiers were killed and another 11,000 wounded in the short, six week conflict. Assuming the population was 50/50 female/male, that meant around one in every hundred men in the country had been either killed or wounded.
In Armenia’s deep south the week before, I’d seen the ongoing political consequences too. Russian Army peacekeepers were deployed along the border between Azerbaijan and Armenia, as well as in the south along the Iranian border where the two main parts of Azerbaijan were separated by Armenia-proper, whilst the two sides hammered out an agreement on the new borders following the war and land access rights for Azerbaijan through Armenia. The border areas up to the Armenia-Azeri border were generally safe to travel through but from time to time, news outlets reported tit for tat shellings and sniper fire between the two sides in the areas in and around Nagorno-Karabakh, beyond.
In the backcountry tracks around Goris, in the east and the last city before reaching the Azerbaijani border and the main road to Nagorno-Karabakh, Armenian Army tents were pitched amongst deep fields of pretty coloured wild flowers. Normal civilian life went on as low-loader army truck transporters rumbled back and forth in convoy through the twisting mountain roads.
The main road south of Goris tracked the border closely. Russian armoured personnel carriers were parked under camouflage netting with the Russian tricolour flying high above them with rock music being blasted out by the soldiers inside. A matter of yards away, just beyond the verge of the road, sat Azeri checkpoints on their side of the border.
In Kapan, the main city in the south of Armenia, white International Red Cross 4x4s drove around with huge Red Cross flags flying from their antennae. And when I’d made finally made it to Meghri on the Iranian border, through the Zangezur Mountains and Arevik National Park, Russian Army soldiers manned the checkpoints guarding the main east-west route that tracked the southern frontier. They checked my passport, phoned their superiors and, politely in broken English, refused to let me through.
Armenia’s trade with Iran to the south was also clearly key; the more you headed in that direction, the more the roads were jammed with convoys of huge old Iranian-driven but American-made Mack trucks belching dirty diesel fumes as they crawled through the mountains, relics of the country’s pre-Revolution trade with the USA.
Armenia certainly seemed to be boxed in by a kind of geopolitical fix – arguably as much so as Georgia to the north, where a fifth of its area was occupied by Russia. It did not have normal diplomatic relations or open borders with Turkey to the west, due to that country’s failure to recognise the Armenian Genocide a hundred years before. For 30 years, it has technically been at war with Azerbaijan to the east, which is also in a political, military and cultural alliance with Turkey, which is keen to expand its influence in what was traditionally Russia’s backyard through that alliance.
A desperate and insecure Armenia seemed to me to suit all other parties – Russia and Iran, because it increased its reliance on them and Azerbaijan and Turkey, because it allowed them to expand their influence in the region, to Armenia and Russia’s loss.
Russian influence could be seen everywhere, aside from the more obvious legacies of the old USSR – from the food in the supermarkets to the gangs of tourists visiting the monasteries of Tatav or Norovank. This year was seeing uptick in Russian tourists because they had chosen to visit Armenia than before because of anti-Russian sentiment in Georgia, I was told. In Armenia’s affluent and attractive second city, Gyumri, where the Russian Army still retained a huge base right on the Turkish border in the north-west of the country, every other car seemed to have a Russian numberplate.
But not all Russians were on holiday. “I am from Russia” said the only other guest in one guesthouse I stayed in in Yeghegnadzor, a youngish guy with dark hair. “I am staying here because I want to avoid being drafted into the army and being made to fight in Ukraine” he added. “They will not give me a passport, but I can travel to Armenia without one.”
Perhaps because of this, the younger people I had met were looking towards the west – and the European Union – for the future. “The revolution in 2018 has been good for sure” I was told by Arno, an English-speaking Armenian doctor who I met high up in a campsite in the mountains just outside of Kapan. That revolution had led to a shake up of Armenia’s political system, the post-communist governing elites and propelled the new Civil Contract Party into government.
“It has reduced corruption but it also means we have politicians who are looking to the future too, like joining the EU. How else can one political party lose a war but then still win an election not long after?”, he added, referring to last year’s Parliamentary election where the Civil Contract Party retained power despite Armenia’s defeat in Nagorno-Karabakh.
The First Class Advisor to the Investigator of the Vayots Dzor Regional Investigative Committee
“I have come to collect my motorcycle”, Google Translate read in Armenian on my phone screen.
The following Monday, wearing my newly repaired shirt, I turned up at the front desk of Yeghegnadzor police station. I had decided it was better to turn up with a clear expectation that my bike would be released rather than to ask for permission for just that.
Four or five policeman sat inside the spacious front office in smartly pressed blue-grey-green uniforms, some chatting, some on their mobile phones. The atmosphere was relaxed but helpful. A height ruler was painted on the white wall for taking mugshots. A sole AK47 assault rifle was leant casually against a chair.
As usual, one policeman read the message and a brief conversation ensued as who was best placed to respond in turn. “Come back on Wednesday, maybe then” said Google Translate, this time on the phone of the officer chosen to reply.
This raised my hopes. I had been told by the Policeman From Vayk that it would be at least a week or two before my bike was released, maybe as long as three weeks. I did not fancy sitting around waiting.
But later that evening, I spoke to some lawyers in the capital, Yerevan, that had been recommended to me by the British Foreign Office. They were eager to help, speaking to the police on my behalf, but the news was not positive.
“The problem is they have changed the procedure last week, so it is more in line with those in countries like the EU”, Lucy, their translator, explained on a call. “So that means you must wait until a new investigator contacts you later this week and then your paperwork will need to be resubmitted. It will take maybe ten more days.”
Being caught up in bureaucratic reforms that were presumably designed to make the system less bureaucratic seemed more than a little ironic.
I decided to ignore the lawyers and not to wait.
On Wednesday morning I went down to the police station again, phone and Google Translate in my hand. This time the policemen at the front desk pointed me to another building around the corner.
After a thirty minute wait in reception, I was shown up to an office at the top of the building. A late middle-aged officer with a moustache sat behind the dark brown desk in a starched white shirt with stars on his epaulettes. Neatly organised piles of paper, some in thick ring-binders, others loose, were placed all around the room.
This, it would turn out, was The First Class Advisor to the Investigator of the Vayots Dzor Regional Investigative Committee.
The Committee was responsible for reviewing all accident reports in the region and for signing-off whether they required further investigation or needed to be progressed to prosecution or not. Only after that meeting, could my bike be cleared to be released.
All for seeking some minor hospital treatment for some road rash. It seemed a somewhat heavy-handed approach.
The system had echos of Soviet-era bureaucracy about it, but this, according to the lawyers, was progress; previously there had been two committees reviewing the reports, in parallel with one another.
As I was shown into the Advisor’s office, my hopes were raised. At least I was getting some kind of progress.
He dialled a number on his mobile phone. A lady answered on the speaker phone. After a brief conversation in Armenian which seemed to consist a lot of him saying “can you just shut up, stop complaining and help me out here”, she spoke in halting English: “This man. He has your file. It will normally take maybe one week to process but he will look at it.”
My heart sank. The lady hung up.
After a minute or two of silence as the Adviser tapped away at his keyboard and said nothing further, I guessed it was time to leave, but as I got up he motioned me to sit down.
Time passed as he made a series of phone calls and various people came in and out of his office. A while later the lady was back on the phone again.
“This man can get your bike out more quickly, maybe today, maybe tomorrow. But you must sign an extra statement and you will need a translator there with you.”
“Can you give me one hour to find one?” I asked.
This time, I managed to find a taxi quickly to take me back to the guesthouse. I crossed my fingers that Gemma, the daughter of the owner who spoke good English, was there.
It perhaps not surprising that Gemma knew the Advisor, when we both returned to the station some time later. It was that kind of town.
Over the next few hours we painstakingly went through all my details with his assistant (“This name in your address ‘Leominster’ – what does it mean?”), who then typed a page and a half statement in Armenian stating that I was alone at the time of the accident and had no objection to the police ruling that there was no need to pursue the matter any further. I had to then hand write the same letter into English, with Gemma and Google Translate’s assistance and sign it.
By 3pm we were done. I couldn’t get my bike just yet, however. “There is no problem with the paperwork” Gemma explained, “but they must get it approved by the Chief of Police maybe tonight, maybe tomorrow. They will ring when it is done.”
I knew that ‘maybe tonight, maybe tomorrow’ could well mean Friday – but my patience held a little longer. We left the police station for the day.
The next morning, I decided not to wait and to work on the basis that if I was there in person, the paperwork was more likely to get signed off more quickly. For the third time in four days I planted myself in the reception at the police station, saying that I was here to collect my bike.
This time it finally worked. And by lunchtime I was headed north once again, crossing back into Georgia four days later.