The Marshrutka Experience Will Stay With Me For Life
The driver’s wearing a leather jacket, thick material. I think, “that’s too hot inside this cramped vehicle, it must be for the look”. The driver’s visual appearance is like a gangster out of a Guy Ritchie film. Somehow I convinced myself to put my trust in this gold-teeth-laden man with ring and bracelet to match. He’s wearing his savings. Across his weathered-looking face is pair of dirty, gold-tinted sunglasses, so I can’t quite see the colour of his eyes in the rear view mirror.
I’m sitting in the centre of a wide seat behind the driver. My legs are squashed against the faux-leather covering of the Ford Transit seating. I’m really trying not to think about how perfect my trajectory would be through the windscreen if we crashed. I feel like what I think an astronaut might feel like on the first stages of take off, before they have any control, with no other option than to hold on for dear life. The burning rocket thrusters carry the spaceship upwards until the thrusters are jettisoned into space. Then I can climb over the seat in front and wrestle the padded steering wheel out of the hands of the driver.
My mind wanders to my future route; Yerevan and Iran but is then suddenly jolted back to the reality that I may not live beyond today. I become increasingly aware that the Stig (minus helmet - far too sensible) has been writing a text message for the last 3 minutes. He has been looking down at his phone and not at the road, only retaking control to swerve out of the path of oncoming traffic. Strangely I feel confidence in this guy though. I think of things other people have said in the past unrelated directly to this situation: “I’d trust someone who drove for a living more than an average driver”. “It’s the way people drive here. If you don’t drive like that, that is when there are problems”. Therefore, I’m trying to tell myself the way the guy overtakes with one nonchalant glance is a reflection of his highly skilled and experienced driving ability. My mind makes up a story that he was once a Soviet child-prodigy racing driver. Now he is past those days and makes a living driving a Ford Transit at 70 kph round impossible corners on mountain roads. That is why he taking the racing line.
He has a packet of slimline cigarettes on the dashboard. He takes a cigarette out of the packet, places his elbows on the steering wheel whilst lighting up, then holds the cigarette up to the window. The smoke is sucked out. I hang on as we fly along the similarly thin roads.
I’m thinking about the driving style. He drives really fast, or at least it seems that way because I’m not used to either being in a motorised vehicle or to these narrow mountain roads with an abundance of slow trucks. The gear changes are quick and he accelerates on the straight sections. “I would definitely be slowing down more on this corner”, I think.
Next, a slow Turkish lorry kicking up dust is an opportunity for a death-defying feat of overtaking. I clench my buttocks and grit my teeth, and think what I would actually do in the split second before my death but we emerge unscathed. The mood in the vehicles goes from one of tension to very mild, but noticeable, euphoria. It doesn’t make sense. We come up to a rail track and he slows to a snail’s pace to protect the suspension, carefully edging over the rails, but then the vehicle almost takes off on a big dipper.
The snaking road is lined by derelict ex-soviet factories and the cold-looking river way below us. It’s one of many things which don’t seem to make logical sense about the remnants of the Soviet system that exists here and the hangover of politics and bureaucracy that goes with it. Besides this, my experience of Armenias, is an incredibly sweet and alive people who are used to improvising.
It’s a beautiful day in these windy mountains. Spring is definitely on the way as there’s a warm edge to the breeze. The hills are clear of snow and the river has thawed. The driver returns, chewing a toothpick which sticks out of the side of his mouth to add to the look. Everyone’s back in the Marshrutka and we’re off again, pit stop complete. He spins the steering wheel left and right in the style of a rally driver to clear some enormous potholes in the road. He decides his sunglasses need a polish and neglects to look at the road whilst searching for a rag to clean them and making sure there are really spotless. Very ironic. I’ve lost count of the near misses or is that highly calculated overtaking manoeuvres? The driver’s quite large forehead is crinkled in concentration. He throws his arms up and forward to get comfortable in his big jacket. This seems to indicate to me, that he is entering a deeper level of focus.
As the journey goes on, I find I have a strange respect in his ability to not crash, then I chide myself for thinking it, quickly looking for something made of wood. My knees are white from being wedged against the seat and my abdominal muscles are getting a good workout as the rollercoaster ride bends left and right. The sun burns up the sky. The smell of diesel and cigarette smoke hangs in the air. The yellow landscape blurs past like a scorched film. My eyes squint. I’m a foreigner. This is definitely sunglasses country.
Bare mountains, green rocks like dormant prehistoric animals perched on steep slopes. We are near the town of Ala Verdi where a huge dilapidated mine exists. Concrete and broken glass are now being reclaimed by nature’s hand. On approach to Yerevan I can see Mount Ararat towering above the haze from the city.
I arrived safely in Yerevan, spent a week there and cycled back to Tbilisi where I currently reside. I will be posting more about cycling and my future plans shortly. The Marshrutka ride’s not over until it’s over, a bit like Ride Earth. Sometimes you just have to ride it out and trust things beyond your control.