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Red Ink Run: Tanks for the memory — part 1

K Johnson went traipsing through Nagorno-Karabakh, a de-facto state closely allied with Armenia, and a mighty thorn in the side of Azerbaijan who will refuse any traveller entry to their country if they show evidence of having been there.

Fanaticism thrives on peripheries. I was thinking about this when the mashutka (minibus) pulled up at the exit to the bus station and flung its doors open. In poked the head of a man holding a religious hologramatic picture of the Virgin Mary morphing into Jesus on the crucifix in one hand and a meat cleaver in the other. Fortunately this was no zealot; rather a travelling salesman that diversified a little too much. The pictures were a flop but two people bought the meat cleavers, one of them sitting right behind me.

The bus closed its doors and continued on. I was in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia. Armenia is the oldest Christian country in the world, a fact that is formative to their national identity. The region in which they live also contributes to this. Armenia shares three of its four borders with Iran, Turkey and Azerbaijan, in which all Islam is the national religion.

The Nagorno-Karabakh War between Armenia and Azerbaijan was based on ethnic and territorial differences as well as religion. It ended with the creation of Nagorno-Karabakh, a de-facto state, closely allied with Armenia, and a mighty thorn in the side of Azerbaijan who will refuse any traveller entry to their country if they show evidence of having been there. This was my destination.

The autovakzal (bus station) in Nagorno-Karabakh’s capital, Stepanakert, is little more than an unlevelled dirt lot. When the door of the mushutka opened there was a crush from both sides, of people trying to get out — having been stuck in a bus tackling mountainous terrain for seven hours — and locals trying to ply the arrivals for business.

Let me speak for my generation for a moment — to everyone out there, in these troubled times, considering door-to-door salesman as a potential career option: don’t, unless you are part of that rare breed (see below). When I am approached for my custom, my gut reaction is to automatically refuse. It not just out of fear that I will get ripped off. The age of the door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman waiting on the threshold, all teeth and brill-cream has gone the way of DDT based fly spray. My generation aren’t interested in buying things any more; we buy the promises associated with things. We need to want it, to yearn for it, before we will even consider buying it. And to have someone approach me when I have not had time to yearn for it. Well, it comes off as just plain desperate.

Now to introduce the exception that proves the rule. Within that bus station crush was a man so entirely contradictory to the spit and polish salesman, his shtick so unadorned and relentlessly practical that it can only be described as raw salesmanship. His name was Ashot.

“You want taxi?”. He stood there with the reptilian eyes and brown teeth of a very heavy smoker.
“No, I don’t want a taxi. Some guy over there gave me his number with a taxi on it.”
“My taxi is better.”
“Well I don’t want a taxi.”
“You want hotel?”
“No, I want a homestay.”
“I have homestay. Very cheap. 4000 dram. Come look, if you like it you can stay, if not don’t worry.”

I had to admire the dexterity to which he batted to the side my every objection and the price was cheap enough. I looked at Marty and at Alessio, a happy go lucky Italian that had caught the bus with us.

“Fine.”

I had learnt a lesson in Ashot’s Guide to Taking Foreigners around Nagorno-Karabakh.

Lesson #1: You always have what they want. Even if they want something else.

***
We pulled up outside Ashot’s whitewashed house in his old dinged up Lada. The rust had worked its way through the white paint on a back panel like some peep show into crooked Soviet engineering. There were four women, mid-to-late twenties, clearly not from the region, sitting on steps, leading down into the floor below. They got up and said hello. One had yellow teeth, smoked and had a swagger that reminded me of a builder. She did the talking.

They were visiting from Russia. She told us that earlier in the day they had been caught taking photos of tanks and had been arrested. They had their phones, cameras and passports confiscated and examined for evidence of clandestine operations. They had then been brought to the police station and interrogated separately.

“They asked us ‘How much are you being paid?’ They thought we were spying for Azerbaijan,” she said dryly.

“They would not let us call our embassy.” She shrugged and blew out a lungful of smoke into the afternoon sunlight.

These four Russians were most likely not allowed to inform their embassy as some punitive measure by the local authorities designed to put the squeeze on them. Such a measure would be a gross diplomatic transgression in almost any country in the world but because Nagorno-Karabakh is not any country in the world, they can function below the diplomatic radar. In other words, shutting Nagorno-Karabakh out of the party cuts both ways.

These Russians were now under house arrest in Ashot’s other homestay/apartment/hotel/whatever-anyone-asks-for-at-the-bus-stop without their passports and had to wait there until summoned by the authorities. They had not been charged and were given no timescale as to how long their wait would be.

Ashot showed us the place, it was basic but clean. He asked where we were going tomorrow. Turns out his Lada doubled as a taxi. He would be there at 9am tomorrow to pick us up.

***

Stepanakert is the size of a small town but cosmopolitan like most capitals. The air is thin and cool. Its main boulevard ends in a public park in the middle of a large roundabout. The centrepiece of this park is a fountain with one of those light and water shows where multi-coloured lights illuminate jets of water as they shoot into the air. Right next to the park though, are a set of bleachers permanently set up, ready to watch the yearly May 9 day military parade.

We wandered around, drank, ate and drank again but we were at a loss of what to do. I was just about to suggest we return to the hotel when we were approached by a guy who asked us where we were from and what would we like to do.

“We are looking for an authentic Nagorno-Karabakh restaurant, you know, somewhere where the locals go” I replied, the usual backpacker’s banality.

“Let’s go!” He said.

Was this another exercise in brute force salesmanship or just local hospitality? We rounded the corner just as a semi-trailer loaded with two small tanks roared past and up the main drag.

About fifteen minutes later we were sitting in a swanky restaurant, drinking beer and I was gently grilling our host on what it was like to grow up in Nagorno-Karabakh, or Atsakh as they preferred to call it.

“We don’t like Nagorno-Karabakh, it is an Azerbaijani word,” he said.

He had a patrician nose and ruddy cheeks. His manner was strange, a kind of hot-cold mixture of hospitality and aloofness. Occasionally the conversation would grind to a halt, and he would look at one of the television sets that was blaring MTV to us all, from multiple points in the room (in spite of its swank) and tune out leaving an awkward silence.

His name was Aram, he was 23 and working as a tour guide, having completed his degree at the local state university studying English and German. He explained his family history: his parents had been expelled from Azerbaijan, as many ethnic Armenians had during the Armenian, Azerbaijani war of 1988 and they had settled in Atsakh.

I noticed that he always communicated with the waitresses all in Russian.
“Why are you speaking Russian?”
“I speak Russian to all my friends.”
“But you consider yourself Armenian”
“Of course,” he said with a shrug as if it was the most natural thing in the world.
“So why don’t you speak Armenian?”
“I am not patriotic.”

He then showed us a picture of a group of Poles that he had taken on a bushwalk in the surrounding area.

“You know,” he said “if a woman in Nagorno-Karabakh gets married and is not a virgin then it is a big problem. Would you like to go to a night club?”

What did that have to do with anything? This was going nowhere. The conversation seemed as if every line of conversation was cut and respliced randomly. We thanked Aram and said goodbye, heading back to Ashot’s “homestay”.

Once there we found that Ashot had managed to find two more lost souls and put one on the couch and one on the floor. They were both from Tokyo, one called Rui, who had been all over the world and one called Fiyou who was a photographer.

Stay tuned for part two next week …

K Johnson is blogging regularly for Crikey while on his six-month trip to the countries most tourists never visit — think Azerbaijan, Transnistria, Iran, Armenia, Nagorno-Karabakh, Kurdistan etc. Check out all the past stories and adventures he’s written about for Crikey here. You can read more about him at his blog Red Ink Run.

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