The Caucasus region, around the border of Europe and Asia is somewhere that I've wanted to go for a while. So Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, seemed a good place for me and Zakie to meet and after a bit of googling I found that its neighboring country - Georgia, was much cheaper to fly to & from. With a little look at the map & flight times, I came up with a plan. I would fly to Tbilisi, Georgia, and then make my way to Yerevan. Either walking between the two countries, hitching lifts...whatever I fancied. After a week with Zakie in Yerevan, I would then get the bus back to Georgia for my return flight.
After a 5 hour Megabus journey to London, a 4 hour flight to Istanbul, an 18 hour wait for my connection and finally a two hour flight to Tbilisi, I was ready to set off walking. Well, not completely ready - my flight landed at 3am, so I had a 5 hour sleep in the airport, while waiting for first light.
By 8am I was ready to go. Hoodie, jacket, gloves and hat on, it was a cold first day. I walked past the usual group of annoying, relentless taxi drivers you always get at airports and followed the road out of the airport. Another taxi driver pulled up beside me, he spoke good English, but I told him I was walking and didn't need a taxi. I continued walking and found that the pavement disappeared and it seemed I would have to walk on the side of a motorway until I got to the road that I wanted to be on.
The same taxi driver pulled up beside me again, telling me that it was a motorway for 2km and that he didn't want any money, he would take me off the motorway and to the start of the road I wanted to be on. Amazed at finding a taxi driver that wanted to do the opposite of ripping me off, I climbed in. Zurab was his name, and it was a nice welcome to a new country.
Walking wasn't much fun I soon learnt. Downhills are enjoyable on bicycles - none of it is fun when walking with a huge, heavy bag on your back though. I managed about 20km that first day, which I was happy with. I set up camp well before dark as I was very tired. I had a little lie down in the tent and promptly nodded off. I awoke when it was pitch black and was too tired to make dinner, also I didn't bring a stove - I couldn't afford the weight or fuel, so I was in no mood to try and make a fire in the dark.
The next few days were very similar. I was gradually gaining altitude all the time and each night was getting colder and colder. The sleeping bag I had was terrible - it was one of the very basic, super cheap ones you get from Argos or somewhere. Also, it was too small for me, it didn't even cover my shoulders.
I enjoyed being forced to make fires to cook dinner(because of the lack of a stove), and every day I had a shepherd or someone warning me of wolves. I had the usual offers to join people for a cup of tea and a chat, which I always said "yes" to - these are the reasons I travel.
They returned thirty minutes later. The guy who could speak a little English was offering for me to stay at his house for the night. I got out of the tent in the rain and had a look around, the weather didn't look like changing, he seemed like a nice guy, so I agreed and started packing away my tent with their help. We couldn't go back straight away though, because his sheep were still grazing for another thirty minutes.
When they were finished, myself and Ajdar started herding them back to his house. He lived on the far side of the small town that I had walked through the previous day. He was my age and lived with his wife and father. I was greeted by both when we arrived at their house - while all the sheep were herded into their pen for the night. Some snacks and fruit were immediately brought out and I was shown to my room so I could put my bag down.
This was the first time a foreigner had been in their house I was told and it was also Easter, which is well celebrated in that area, which meant a big meal was now being prepared and the boys had been invited over...
Thankfully I could have a short breather inbetween every shot, as they took about three minutes each time debating on what we were 'toasting'. One of the times we had a toast to the UK and Azerbaijan (everyone in this area of Georgia was Azeri, not Georgian) being friends and another was a toast to my Mum, for some reason. The rest I didn't understand what we were toasting to.
I just about managed to keep it together until both bottles of vodka were finished and was able to hide the fact that I was very drunk. That night was the exact reason why I love doing these trips - Random people you have only just met, inviting you into their home, feeding you awesome food & disgusting drink and having a laugh - all without speaking the same language. After everyone had said goodnight and left, I stumbled off to bed.
I was ready to go fairly early the next morning, knowing that Ajdar would be leaving early too, to take the sheep out. I thanked Ajdar and his wife for their hospitality. As I went to pick my bag up, Ajdar told me to wait - he went to the kitchen and got a loaf of bread to give me. He clearly decided that this was a good move, so he went back to get more things and then more. Bread, cakes, sweets, fruit, boiled eggs, water, beer...it wouldn't all fit in my backpack, so he got a couple of carrier bags and filled them up. Off I walked, carrier bags in hand as if I've just been to the shops, slowly trudging back through the town, on my way to the Armenian border.
The next night I was so cold that I couldn't sleep. All I got was a couple hours of sleep when the sun had risen and warmed up the tent in the morning. I only managed about 12km that day, with many stops and even a nap on the side of the road.
I saw the first of many monasteries, as they and churches are frequent throughout Armenia - Armenia being the first nation in the world to adopt Christianity as its official religion.
I was having to think of alternatives to my sleeping arrangements, in order to get a little bit of sleep. For a couple of nights, rather than just sleeping in all of my clothes, two hats, sleeping bag liner and sleeping bag - I had tried the tactic of putting the sleeping bag liner the opposite way...so over my head. It sort of worked, it definitely kept me warmer, but with nowhere to properly breathe, it made it pretty stuffy and horrible in there.
In the mornings I would awake with my ass cheeks feeling like two blocks of ice, so I would make a fire as quick as I could and get some porridge on the go.
I learnt that Vanadzor was actually at the bottom of the main climb. I had been gradually climbing for a couple of weeks now, but here was where it started to go really high. My childrens sleeping bag just wasn't good enough. Hitchhiking over the mountain pass was an option, or a bus. I went to the bus station first to have a look. Buses were cheap and crammed and then the taxi touts started asking where I was going - I only had to get over the mountain pass - about 50km. It turned out that if I shared a taxi it would be almost as cheap as a bus - less than £3! Hitchhiking would have been very easy too, but the taxi was easier still. I jumped in and after a 15 minute wait, the taxi was full and we were off.
Twenty minutes into the journey I could see I had made the right choice - when we reached the top, it plateaued and was completely white, covered in snow, as far as the eye could see.
After forty minutes it was time for me to get out. It was still cold, but the snow was behind us and the road was now gradually going down - I could live with it being cold those next few nights, knowing each night would then be getting warmer.
I was a day away from Yerevan, the finish, when I had my first dog encounter - I had plenty of dogs barking at me throughout the walk but none that had scared me, until now. I had seen a few of this breed of dog in the last three weeks and they were huge, but this one was the biggest I'd ever seen, it was more like a bear. It looked angry and was running towards me through a field. I was genuinely scared for my life. I had my knife close to hand, so I got it out as fast as I could. Then, from the other side of the field came his owner - he could see his dog running towards me and he himself was now sprinting towards the dog shouting at it and trying to get its attention. He got to it fast and managed to distract it and sort of wrestled with it a bit. He looked to have it under control and then looked over at me to give me the thumbs up, I put my hand up to say thanks and put the knife away (a later google search taught me that the breed is a Caucasian Mountain Dog)
Five minutes later a taxi stopped beside me, the guy offering me a free lift - I had many of these offers each day while walking, but always politely declined them. I also said 'No' to this guy, he offered again. I explained that I wanted to walk, but I could now see that he was distracted by something in his rear-view mirror. I turned around to see the bear/dog running towards me down the road. It was at full speed and only about 30 meters away. The taxi driver looked at me and shouted something which I guessed translated to "get in the f***ing car now!". I unclipped my bag, threw it in and dived in the taxi - the dog just a few metres away as we sped off. It was a lucky escape, you can out run them on a bicycle - but on foot, with just a small knife...not so much fun.
The next day I arrived in Yerevan, a whole week early. I wanted to save my money for the week with Zakie, so I went on the hunt to find somewhere to camp. Not easy in a capital city. I looked at the map I had on my iPad and headed towards a green area.
The green area wasn't much help, it was too open, I had to be hidden from view if I was gonna be there for a whole week. I spotted a cluster of trees up ahead, however it was surrounded by a road - similar to a big roundabout, I had a look anyway. Looking out from inside the cluster of trees, I could just about see the cars going past, but it would take some good eyesight to see me as they went past - it would do just fine.
Getting in and out of my trees each day without being seen was always tricky, I would have to time it perfectly inbetween cars. I was found twice in that week - the first guy was chopping down some of my trees for some reason, he found me, didn't look too pleased to see me, asked for some cigarettes and then walked off. The second guy looked homeless and was on the hunt for plastic, collecting any plastic rubbish that he could see. I finished off my big 5 litre bottle of water and handed it to him, he'd hit that jackpot and looked very happy about this.
It had been a tough month. Walking was slow and difficult with so much weight, as usual I hadn't prepared very well and I'd spent a whole week living on a roundabout - but had met some nice people, experienced two new countries and hadn't been eaten by wolves or 'bear-dogs'. I would soon though be back in the UK "preparing" to cycle the length of the UK, but first was my prize for the last month, a week with Zakie in Yerevan.