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 looks like a gangster out of a Guy Ritchie film. Somehow I convinced myself to put my trust in this gold-teeth-laden man with gold ring and bracelet to match. He’s wearing his savings. Across his weathered typically Armenian face adorn a 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 tradjectory would be through the windscreen if we crashed. I feel a little like an astronaut on the first stages of take off, before they have any maneouvring 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 huge padded steering wheel out of the hands of the Marshrutka driver.
My mind wanders from thinking about other bicycle related things - my future route, Yerevan, Iran, and then suddenly jolted back to the reality that I may not live beyond today as I become increasingly aware that the Stig (minus helmet - far too sensible) has been writing a text message for the last 3 minutes, looking down at his phone and not at the road, only retaking control to swerve back out of the path of oncoming traffic. Somehow I feel confident 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’s when there are problems”.
I’m trying to tell myself the way the guy overtakes with one nonchalent glance is a reflection of his highly skilled and experienced driving ability. My mind makes up a story that he was probably a Soviet child prodigy racing driver now past those days and makes a living driving a Ford Transit at 70 kph round impossible corners on mountain roads. That’s why he taking the racing line. He has a huge padded steering wheel, 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 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 thin mountain roads or 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. A slow Turkish lorry kicking up dust, 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 then 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 river way below us. It’s one of many things which don’t seem to make logical sense about the ex-soviet system that exists here and the politics and bureacracy that goes with it. But along with it’s negative side, exists an incredibly sweet and alive people who are used to improvising and using their common sense.
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 sticking out 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 maneourves? The big forehead crinkled in concentration, he hotches up the big jacket by throwing his arms forward, he’s entering a deeper level of focus.
As the journey goes on I find I have a strange respect in his ability not to 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, diesel, cigarette smoke and scorched film, the yellow landscape blurs past, my eyes squint - this is sunglasses country.
Bare mountains, green rocks like dormant prehistoric animals perched on steep slopes near the town of Ala Verdi where a huge dilipidated mine exists, concrete and broken glass 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.