It is said that Paul of Tarsus, whilst riding from Jerusalem to Damascus, was blinded by an intense light, spoke with a divine entity and, there and then, found his faith and converted to Christianity. Now, I haven’t been blinded by any sort of light and I haven’t spoken with anyone more divine than an Armenian border guard, but I can confirm that, thanks to a ride on the roads of the Caucasus I almost rediscovered religiosity. It didn’t last long and it was the pathetic conversion of the man who – fingers wrapped around the door handle, crotch reduced by terror to a the size of a pea – runs out of swearwords and resorts to the age-old lament “Oh God”. Yeah, as if he cared.
The beginning seemed auspicious enough. A Mercedes minivan waited in a Tbilisi square, and when my Georgian host emerged out of it – she’d gone for a thorough inspection of the thing – she grinned and nodded “Good”. I had only the time to think what distinguished a good van from a bad one when she added, “It has good seats. Original”. I couldn’t ask why Georgian marshutkas would have their seats swapped with others, because seconds after she motioned me to take the front passenger seat which, as she noted knowingly, had seatbelts.
A genial, tall man materialised out of nowhere. He pistoned out a hand, crushed a few unimportant bones in the handshake, proclaimed his name – Vadim, or something along those lines – didn’t wait for an answer and disappeared towards the back of the van. Us seven intrepid travellers clambered aboard, with me in the front seat.
The dashboard was a triumph of walnut and leather, so typical of 1990s German bourgeoisie that I could see the phantom of the bespectacled-and-moustached owner. That was until I saw how every button on the dashboard was decorated in delicate katakana characters, suggesting that our van had a more exotic, Japanese origin (like pretty much half of Georgia’s car pool). Vadim, still a handful of kilometres from earning his nickname “The Lunatic”, was keen to set the record straight and tell the Merc that its tranquil days commuting kids into Komatsu were long gone. It started with putting up a seemingly infinite hit parade of the vilest Russian disco music, but soon it came to the driving.
The road network of Tbilisi is deceptively good. Granted, there are streets with potholes the size of small animals, and some enterprising soul had liberated George W. Bush avenue of all manhole covers, but if one is willing to ignore those exceptions he won’t be able to deny that, on average, Tbilisi’s streets are a beauty to behold: three lanes, proper signs, LED lights galore. It doesn’t last, though. Elegant belle époque-esque buildings had barely given way to Soviet tenements and Spar adverts that the lanes suddenly, abruptly became two and the tarmac quality degraded from baby smooth to sandpaper. Vadim saw it, and floored the accelerator.
In my previous visit I’d barely seen the Georgian countryside, and now I was well glad that I’d given the country another chance. We were cruising along an idyllic scenery made of pastures peppered with fragile trees overburdened by beautiful flowers and herds of cows scattered everywhere. It occurred to me that this was a place where haystacks were still made by hand and where pastoralism was a real job, not a Nativity play role.
Vadim didn’t seem to find solace in any part of this bucolic pleasantry; rather, he seemed consumed by the need, the obsession, of overtaking anything so audacious to interpose itself between him and the line of the horizon. Be it car, lorry, tractor, bus or horse-drawn carriage he’d throw the Merc in the other lane, oblivious to traffic coming the other way. He was on a mission from God, a mission he took upon by driving with a pose that reminded me of Rodin’s Le Penseur: left hand holding the chin, right hand absently abandoned on the steering wheel. A Russian couple chatted away in the seats behind us, sometimes involving the girl sitting next to them; the stereo blasted out one drum machine-and-accordion hit after the other; yet Vadim remained indifferent to it all, concentrated on his mission and the odometer’s needle – nailed on 120 – his only companion.
Half an hour later, exactly as I was starting to doze off, we brought commotion to a gathering of moustachioed men wearing baggy pants and acrylic blazers who had to scatter from a village piazza as we came rumbling past, and we entered the hills. Here the road became even more dramatic. Mountains towered in the distance, whilst all around us there was only nature, interrupted by the odd, crumbling Soviet tenement block, so out of place that it looked as if it’d been dropped by some clumsy giant. Potholes started appearing in small clusters, prompting Vadim to become even more liberal with his choice of lanes.
Still, it was all well and good until we arrived in Armenia.
After having completed the rituals of exiting Georgia, driving through the no-man’s land, entering Armenia and paying what appeared to be a customary bribe to the customs officials, we were let loose in the country. Differences with where we’d just been were quite visible: Russian-made trucks and cars were ubiquitous; also, Armenians had seemingly given up painting lines on the tarmac (probably because everyone considered “keeping the right” as a sort of a friendly advice rather than a rule).
The road climbed higher and higher through the hills and it was here, at the first hairpin, that Vadim earned his nickname. He thrashed the poor old Merc van through the turns with the same animosity of Richard Hammond on the Stelvio, evidently pissed by the fact of having to make things do with a van – and a petrified Italian next to him – in lieu of a nice sports car. A break ensued at a rustic petrol station, where we filled up: a process that required a lot of tubes, spanners, other obscure instruments, gauges with wobbly needles, much hand cranking and a lot of noise coming from a machine, peeking from a shed, that seemed to come from a Victorian mill.
We plateaued in a tunnel faintly illuminated by LED lights and chocked by the fumes of resurfacing works. At the other end, scenes that looked as Alpine as a Swiss chocolate commercial greeted us: snowfields, distant peaks and bubbling streams flowing downhill. Like them, we started our descent.
Vadim was clearly upset for not having been chosen as the new Stig, and was venting out his frustrations on the poor van. He threw the Mercedes – automatic gearbox screeching to get the right gear in – in hairpin after hairpin, always aiming for the patch of dirt and puddles where the apex was, braking only when absolutely inevitable (usually a good half minute after I’d started pressing a pedal that I wished existed in my footrest). Unperturbed by my apprehension, preoccupied only to keep the odometer always above 80, Vadim drew out a packet of fags and unleashed a gas attack on to the van. In a moment all seven had our windows down and heads out like a pack of Labradors.
Villages began appearing and passing by, a blur of low houses, poplars, yellow gas tubes strewn from house to house, animals and – increasingly – military installations. Vadim maintained a halting discussion with the Russian couple sat behind, sometimes turning to labour on some point, and during one of those exchanges he’d pointed to hills to our left and said “Azerbaijan”; then he waived to the right, and said “Azerbaijan” as well, causing a collective shrug. Visibly satisfied for yet another successful conversation, he lit a mephitic cigarette.
What was only a hunch – that we were riding along the infamous (and aptly named) M16 motorway, which the Foreign Office actively discourages from using – turned out to be certainty when I recognised the village of Kirants, known for a monastery built nearby, within shooting distance from the Azeri border and exclaves.
We carried on the M16, ignoring the threat posed by trigger-happy border guards, for we had another one laid before us: Vadim’s driving. Barely out of Kirants, we lined up for another hamlet, still thundering at some 100 per hour. The village was a sad sight, a collection of ramshackle izbas with tin roofs and the usual serpentine of yellow gas tubes running beside the only surfaced road. “Surfaced” was, obviously, a euphemism, for the usual potholes – rectangular-shaped chasms, filled with rainwater – were joined by trenches, where workers had dug up something and just shovelled in some dirt to fill in the gap. Vadim abandoned his thinking pose, cranked up the volume one notch or two (an unnamed Russian had begun murdering Desireless’ Voyage Voyage) and grabbed the wheel firmly with both hands. I knew he meant business.
I have confused memories of that village. I remember blurred images of piglets nibbling grass growing on the sidewalks, a cow wisely stopping her crossing to let our convoy of one through, the toothless grin of grannies who held firmly their nephews, most definitely telling them “Look my dear, those are called morons”. All was blurred because Vadim was still doing a hundred, the whole damn thing was shaking like a tumble dryer, and we still were on the wrong side of the road. I remember the orange KAMAZ truck that appeared out of a bend, straight on a collision course; I remember the faded Cyrillic logo – КАМАЗ – and the Russian tricolour that still adorned the cab, both getting bigger and bigger as Vadim remained firmly in the truck’s lane, ours – the one where we ought to be – still too potholed for his liking. I remember screaming in my mind to him
Change lane you idiot, get back there you twat
before he nonchalantly slipped back on the right side of the road with a faint smile that suggested I was a pussy.
A shout came from the last row, immediately after we had exited the village and overtook yet another Russian sedan. Vadim halted the van at once, and everyone – the inane German tourist, the Russian couple, the Georgian gal, Vadim, me – erupted out to let the plump Tbilisi brat dash out, his mum hot on his heels. Seconds after, the sound of him retching came out of the bushes. I felt surprised by not feeling the urge to join him.