Catch up on part 1 (which includes an explanation of Nagorno-Karabakh, Russian tourists getting arrested for taking photos of tanks and eager tour guide Ashot’s #1 less for taking foreigners around Nagorno-Karabakh) here.
By 10am next morning I was crammed in the back seat of Ashot’s Lada with the two Japonski, as Ashot referred to them and Alessio. Marty managed to score the front seat.
“Three people OK!” Ashot said turning around to us from watching the road and veering towards oncoming traffic. “Four people, politzia!”. He took his hands off the wheel and motioned writing a ticket.
“If politzia,” he pointed to Rui in the middle, “you down”. Ashot turned back around just before we hit the gravel shoulder and lit up a thin cigarette.
Lesson #2: Danger = Pliability: Control the danger and you control the tourists.
We were heading to a town called Gandzasar which sported a mountain shaped like a lion. We had seen a picture in a guide book which looked very impressive. As we passed a sign for the Halo Trust, a group responsible for clearing some of the nearby fields of landmines, Ashot turned around and made the sound of a lion clawing the dashboard.
Eventually we arrived. What lay before us was more like an instalment at a second rung amusement park. Think the Uluru replica at Leyland Brothers world. The rock formation in the side of the mountain was the real deal but it had been painted over and the face was accompanied by a lion’s paw made out of cement and rocks which just looked tacky.
To be honest I was there just killing time. My main objective was to go the ghost city of Agdam, an Azeri city that had been vacated and remained in no man’s land between Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan. When we had written on our visa application that we wanted to visit Agdam the lady at the embassy had instantly become suspicious.
“Why do you want to visit there? There are still landmines in the city. We cannot guarantee your safety,” she had said curtly, applying a thick layer of whiteout over Agdam obliterating it from our itinerary.
Ashot was no easier to convince. We seemed to have the same conversation over again.
“Now we go to Agdam?”
“There we have a problem.”
“What if I pay more?”
“Impossible, I will get put in gaol. But. There is a place from which we can see Agdam.”
We got back in the car which had by now developed an otherworldly reverberation which sounded exactly like Hypnotoad from the TV series Futurama. Ashot seemed sure it was the roof rack and he would reach out the window while driving to hold it in to place. When we stopped he would get out and fiddle around with it. Clearly the functioning of the car was balanced on a razor’s edge. I had turned one of the lights on inside the car, which had taken a lot of bashing and yelling by Ashot to get it off again.
Ashot entertained us by turning to Alessio. “No Italian car! This Soviet car.” He wrote 71 in the dust on the dashboard for some reason.
“Look no petrol!” He said beaming, putting the car in neutral, turning the ignition off as we sailed down the hill silent but for the reverberation.
After lunch Marty and the two Japonskis left for Yerevan (Marty had to work on his bike and the Japonskis had a brutal schedule to keep). Of course the ride back to Yerevan had been organised by Ashot, which introduces me to:
Lesson #3: When the show ends, make sure you’re the one lowering the curtain.
When we were bouncing along to get a view of Agdam, I asked Ashot what he was doing in ’94 (in the war). He pointed to the place on his shoulder where a lapel should be. “I was an officer.” Turned out Ashot, the same Ashot that chain smokes thin cigarettes, with the car that sounds like hypnotoad was a doctor in the Red Army. He fought in Afghanistan and operated in Berlin. He then pulled out a bunch of documents including his Red Army identity card and two medals that he received in service. He lifted up his t-shirt and showed a purple scar the size of a killer python that snaked around his right flank.
There is a moments silence in the car. He asked me my job. I told him I did mathematics at university. He looked at the book I was taking notes in and asked “Mathematics?”. He then grabbed the book and writes an easy problem which I solve. Then another one, harder which took a bit of time. He pulled the book back and, while still driving, finished it instantly.
“See! Soviet doctor.”
We stopped. He got out and waited by the car. I couldn’t see the city anywhere just some ancient ruins, part of the standard tour.
“Where is Agdam?”
“You said we could see it. Where is it?”
“We have to go further. But problem. Police. Passport”
He motioned ripping something in two.
“What about this?”
I held out 2000 Dram.
He sighed and got in his car. Alessio and I followed him. He sighed again, crossed himself then grabbed the gear lever covering with his hand a crucifix inset in the handle. The gear crunched and we sped off.
Considering the lead up and the money I had invested the result was pretty dissatisfying. We drove to a tank that was parked by the side of the road. This marked the edge of the disputed zone (the other side of which is still under military occupation). Agdam formed a sprinkling far off on the horizon, barely discernible from the haze. When Alessio jumped out of the car and into the field, Ashow yelled at him to stop.
“Mina, mina!” he said. Mines.
Apparently in that haze there was an abandoned mosque. You can climb its rickety minarets for a view of the entire city. I had supposed it would be the perfect metaphor – serving to be emblematic of the routed Azeri civilian population who fled Nagorno-Karabakh and are now mostly living as refugees in Azerbaijan. It also serves as a metonym, evidence of the war that resides throughout Nagorno-Karabakh: in the ruins, the tanks and the mines.
The next morning I went to see the Russians. I wanted to see if I could potentially bring out a message to their embassy and see how their story turned out. The night before I was sitting outside the largest hotel in Stepanakert. I announced to my friends that I would try and interview these four perhaps a little too loudly. A man at the neighbouring table got up instantly, went around the corner and made a call on his mobile phone. “I’m getting a weird vibe,” said Andrej, a friend we had met in Yerevan. “He was sitting there drinking water for an hour. It’s 11pm and it’s cold.”
We had moved from Ashot’s place to one which had a shower. On the way my paranoid mind picked up many anomalies. A taxi curb crawled next to me then sped off. Soldiers regarded me with special attention. People watched me from windows of apartments.
I knocked on the door. It opened to a room, beds lined the walls. A table had packets of biscuits and bottles of soft drink piled on it — clearly the result of being confined to the same room for a prolonged period.
“Hello, I just wanted to ask you a few questions about your trouble here.”
“They said we cannot talk about it.” Her tone was sure, not up for negotiation.
“Just one thing: did you get your passports back?”
“Yes. Actually we are leaving for Yerevan this morning.”
Later Alessio and I were waiting for the taxi back to Yerevan (organized by Ashot) when a white Lada did an untidy U-turn right in front of us and parked askew. Ashot jumped out, yelled something to someone in a passing car and came over. He handed me a scrap of paper, with the email address on it. Clearly it was one of the Russian women who had been arrested and wanted to talk but only once she was outside Nagorno-Karabakh. He gestured to the packet of cigarettes in my top pocket. I gave him a few. He got in his car, stopped lengthwise on the road, blocking traffic both ways, lit a cigarette and pulled off, the morning light catching the cracks in his windscreen making them glitter like diamonds before his disappeared.
Lesson #4: Be the single unifying force that advances the narrative, almost as if you were a figment of the author’s imagination.
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.