Tenny had to dig deep in order to continue that day. But continue she did.
‘It was the hardest day of my life,’ she told me later. ‘I was so angry at myself for wanting to quit on the first day of cycling. And at the same time, I was so angry at you! You kept telling me that it was just a little further. It wouldn’t continue like this. And of course you were trying to help, but I only wanted shout and cry and argue, because it meant that I should still continue up that hill, which was the last thing I wanted to do.
‘And I had this horrible pain in the base of my stomach. It was like period pain. I didn’t realise that it might not be normal. But I just carried on because I didn’t know any better.
‘I never felt such a pain before. And I’ve never felt it since.’
Much later I learnt that there was a morning train from Yerevan up to Lake Sevan. It would have cost the princely sum of 80p for the one-way trip, for us and our bicycles. But on that day I remained ignorant as to the more sensible option for a beginner cyclist. I also remained ignorant of the quiet and gradual alternative route along the river gorge, and for that matter to every other possibility for what we might have done instead. I had seen only one option – to continue riding from where I’d left off, in the same direction I’d always planned. And if Tenny wanted to join me, she would have to go through the same trials that I’d long ago had to bear. How else would she come to appreciate this new way of life, which would surely be a straightforward continuation of the one I’d been living before?
The sun began to droop towards the eastern horizon, where Aragats, Armenia’s highest peak, dominated the skyline. The gradient began to subside and the plateau spread out ahead of us. It had taken an entire day to complete the climb, but we had conquered the worst of Armenia’s roads. If we’d overcome that, I thought, then we could hardly fail to tackle whatever lay ahead.
We slept in my two-man tent on a disused patch of ground below the highway. And the following afternoon the horizon began to glitter: we had reached Lake Sevan. We set up camp on a small peninsula in a wooded lakeside compound that a few weeks previously would have been inhabited by families on their summer holidays, barbecuing great skewers of meat and pumping the most god-awful blend of Armenian pop music across the calm waters of the lake. But all was peaceful now, save for a couple of loitering blokes attached to the compound, and a white-haired old lady, tall, stick-thin yet with the most radiant smile, who swept the area clear of leaves and trash and went to great lengths to help us find firewood and settle in.
One night turned to two, then three, then four. Tenny was in no hurry to ride onward, so I kept my mouth shut and tried to stifle my worries about the encroaching autumn and the £4 daily charge I was paying for the pitch, which was an extravagance I hadn’t foreseen. So we swam, lay in the sun, hitched to and from the nearby town for supplies, and began to unwind after all the stress and furtiveness of readying to leave, which had been taking its toll for too long.
When we finally set off south, a full week had passed since our departure from Yerevan. We were now headed for parts of the country that neither of us knew. We would roughly trace the lake shore before burrowing into the mountain ranges that had made the South Caucasus so impenetrable in times gone by; mountains that had historically preserved the Armenians as they were driven by occupying powers from lands that they’d inhabited for centuries. I knew that this road would be difficult for Tenny. It would be difficult for me, too. I hoped that a few days of riding, especially the challenging climbs of the first two days, would be preparation for the high passes ahead, among fierce snow-capped ranges rising more than two miles into the sky.
Sevan – the mountain-fringed lake lived up to its reputation, the water crystal clear, the air refreshingly cool after a stuffy midsummer in Yerevan breathing traffic fumes by day and second-hand smoke by night. Yet, as we inched our way south, there were no sails to be seen flitting across the surface of this lake. Water sports had not yet found their way to Armenia, and there was not a yacht, windsurfer, kayak or even swimmer to be seen.
I wondered when the quiet route I’d hoped for would materialise. It didn’t. Traffic bundled past incessantly, clapped-out cars, countless dumptrucks, each carrying a single enormous boulder from some quarry in the hills. I followed Tenny closely as she edged along the thin shoulder of the road, and we broke up the journey with visits to a series of roadside kiosks which provided cheap ice cream and a respite from the nerve-wracking traffic. These ‘service stations’ were not quite the air-conditioned clones I’d found in Europe or neighbouring Turkey. Even though I’d been living amongst the remains of Soviet communism for half a year, I still felt faintly appalled by the conditions in which people were seemingly happy to operate. Little stores were carved from metal shipping containers propped up on breeze blocks, years of botched repairs and modifications making them almost unrecognisable but no less unwelcoming. Toilets were plank-covered pits with a foot-wide hole cut from the wood, corrugated metal walls imparting some rudimentary sense of privacy, and a strict bring-your-own-toilet-paper policy. The legacy of the socialist republics was the triumph of function over form, and so today the preservation of function was all that mattered, with form now all but forgotten. Entire generations of people had never been permitted to display independence and initiative in public. Their jobs had always been to keep things running just-so for the good of the communist state, only changing the pattern on receipt of instructions from above – instructions that had abruptly ceased to arrive.
After the grim desperation of the ‘90s, today was supposed to be a time of brightness and hope and optimism for the future. Yet almost half of Armenia’s adult population had no means of earning a living. It was a country where demonstrations over alleged election-rigging were met by soldiers firing live ammunition into crowds; where journalists at ballot stations reported having their cameras smashed on the ground by hired thugs; where it was alleged that hundreds of millions of dollars in development funds mysteriously ‘disappeared’ on a regular basis; where high-ranking officials from the Ministry of Nature Protection were accused of spontaneously declassifying parts of protected areas in order to build luxury lakefront properties, with no functioning judicial system to stop them. Several people I knew in Yerevan lived in apartments that were missing floorboards, because much of the nation had been without gas and electricity during the winters following the Soviet collapse, and the residents had had to rip up the planks beneath their feet for firewood to avoid literally freezing to death.
It was time to leave Armenia. Part of me would always remain here, hoping that the country’s corrupt core would one day be hollowed out. I followed Tenny between freshly harvested fields of wheat as the south shore of the lake appeared on the horizon, and soon we came upon a track leading down to the water’s edge. At the bottom of the track we found another little resort hidden amongst the trees, which consisted of a handful of shipping containers converted into lodgings, a couple of benches and tables nearby, and a beach that was covered with tiny little frogs. It looked like an ideal place to stop for the night. Then I learnt something new about Tenny, which was that she was terrified of frogs. Especially tiny little ones.
‘They jump so fast! And they’re slippery. And I hate their tongues,’ she said, shivering with disgust, and told me the story of the time she’d been sunbathing elsewhere by Lake Sevan, lying on her stomach with her bikini top untied to avoid unsightly tan lines. She’d felt something moving just below her armpit, looked down, seen the all the tiny little frogs that had come to pay a visit, and leapt a mile, squeaking and hopping about the beach, limbs and bits of bikini flailing all over the place, which had resulted in general hilarity for everyone in the vicinity (and no doubt a lot of guilty-looking little frogs).
The caretaker was a veteran of communism who had seen better times and was content to dedicate his remaining days to a single task, even one as drab as looking after an empty lakeside camp for nine months of the year. Armenia was littered with these characters – old men now, each proudly fulfilling the same repetitive task that they had been practising since time immemorial, whether or not it still came with the same salary or greater purpose that the socialist dream had once provided. They maintained the old city parks that the state had abandoned. They prevented the disused instruments of former rulers from falling into ruin. They repaired the tools and machinery and vehicles built by industries whose factories had long since closed down, whose visionaries and engineers had died or been deported or passed out of memory. They tended to the old tree-lined boulevards, kept the ancient railways trundling, operated the flea markets and the dingy canteens that served them, and performed a thousand other invisible duties for little or no tangible reward. And in doing so, they single-handedly preserved the last remnants of a system that once promised life’s essentials to all the societies of the world – shelter, food, family, purpose and unity – as long as they never spoke out.
Communism was a loaded word now, stinking of death and deportation, cast as the antagonist in the good-versus-evil narrative of twentieth century history. But communism had provided hundreds of millions of people with everything they needed. It was its disappearance, not its presence, that had pulled the rug mercilessly from beneath those people, leaving them barely capable of functioning, all of the things they’d taken for granted suddenly missing. Elderly people remembered the peak of the Soviet era with happy nostalgia – a time when everyone had a job and a car and central heating and vouchers for the finest holiday resorts the Union had to offer. Of course, they were the ones who were still talking, not having been trotted off to Siberia. Still, was it was worse to watch industrial society disappear in front of your eyes, or to never have seen it in the first place?
Armenia was still in the throes of that torturous readjustment. There had been fourteen other nations in the Union before its dissolution, putting three hundred million people in the same boat as the three million Armenians here – three hundred million people who’d had their life-support systems suddenly unplugged in what must have been an unimaginably desperate and tragic moment in history, which had occurred silently and invisibly while I’d been happily traipsing the half-mile between school and home in Middleton, Northamptonshire, aged eight, building go-carts out of pram wheels and planks.
Darkness fell, the friendly family who had been finishing their barbecue departed, and a new trickle of crinkly old men began to arrive in a series of standard-issue white Ladas. They were friends of the caretaker, and when they came over to the tent with an enthusiastic invitation to join them, I realised that we were a long way from an undisturbed night’s sleep. For the antidote to these modern-day ills was about to be administered, with the help of a decoratively carved shot glass; the antidote to the knowledge that the happy times had passed, that the dream of communism had come to an end. It was the antidote that blotted out the memory that the greatest social experiment in human history had failed. It was vodka.
‘Come and drink with us!’ blurted an invisible voice by my ear as I struggled out of my sweaty Lycra and tried to slip into something more comfortable. Someone outside was fumbling with the tent’s zip. Tenny barked diplomatically at the disembodied voice as we wrestled with bags and clothes and inflatable mattresses in the cramped tent that I’d never expected to find myself sharing. I didn’t understand Armenian, but the sound of receding footfalls and diminishing voices was clear enough. Then someone switched on a car stereo and turned the volume up to eleven.
Tenny sighed in the darkness. ‘I just don’t have the energy for this,’ she said. ‘I know what this is going to be like. I know this kind of people. I’m sorry – I’m just not very interested in drinking with old men.’
She was exhausted. It had been another long day.
‘Well, we’ve got to go and say hello, at least,’ I said.
‘Why? No! Can’t we just stay here?’
‘They’ll just come back! At least if we go over and have a couple of shots they might get drunk and forget us.’
So we put on false smiles and warm fleeces, as the September evenings in the mountains had taken on a chill, and made our way gingerly over to the metal table around which the caretaker and his friends were seated. The table was laden with the usual bread and herbs and salty cheese and tasteless pink salami, and a big steaming pot of mutton swimming in oily broth formed a most unappetising centrepiece for the spread. We shook hands and rambled pleasantries, and the sour spirit was poured and poured again, ‘to take the dust off the glasses’, as we sat amid the smells and splutterings of communist relics while long-winded toasts were cast off into the night.
But for Tenny, who had already lived for five years in Armenia, it was an experience she’d had too many times for it to be worth enduring again. While I could use this night’s events as a mental landmark in our journey to Iran, and even extract some novelty value from it, there were few places she wouldn’t have rather been.
It had been light for some time when I gently called her name the next morning, but Tenny didn’t stir from the depths of her sleeping bag, nestling mouse-like within the puffy feather-stuffed folds, showing no sign of wanting to face the day. She hadn’t slept at all well – not only because of the shouting and music and car headlights that had persisted until the early hours, but also because of having had to navigate a minefield of tiny little frogs in the middle of the night. At least she’d been warm enough in the big winter sleeping bag, which was a relief as she felt the cold keenly. I was glad that the bloody thing had finally come in useful.
Tenny remained quiet as I followed a few metres behind her, edging slightly out into the road to force passing vehicles to give us a wide berth. That evening, camped wild amongst the tall trees of Lake Sevan’s nature reserve at the south end of the lake, I decided that the time had come for the frankest kind of discussion. Because I was becoming worried that we disagreed fundamentally on what would be worthwhile about this new life together on the road. And that would have profound implications for the future of our relationship, because there would be no motivation to overcome the inevitable challenges unless we could both see the point of doing so.
Tenny had obviously spent the day thinking along similar lines, because she unhesitatingly identified her vulnerabilities and the things that she was finding the most difficult. She wore her heart on her sleeve and had a sharp mind for the ebb and flow of the human condition. The next morning, over a cup of instant coffee, I asked her to speak frankly for the video camera.
‘I’m getting very depressed,’ she told me. ‘Even very small things make me … yeah, just give up and go home.’ Then she laughed, as if at how embarrassing it was to lose control of her mood over such insignificances. And that gave me hope, because it meant that she understood what was happening to her, acknowledging that mood swings were inevitable, and that they would pass, given enough time. Putting the camera down, I told her again of the first weeks of my journey, when I’d often acted towards my two best friends like the rattiest son-of-a-bitch they could ever have been unlucky enough to meet, let alone travel with. I’d been used to living within a small world that I knew well and could just about mould to my liking. Travelling had spun that notion right around, and I’d had to broker a hurried peace deal with uncertainty.
I knew what I didn’t want, and that was for Tenny to follow me around simply because I was too stubborn to give up travelling and settle down to a stable, ‘normal’ life with her. The pressure would ruin our relationship and destroy whatever there was to gain from travel. Likewise, I couldn’t just quit this life on the road for good, because I’d invested too much in it; there were so many reasons I needed it, and giving it up would be ruinous. Finally, I felt it was critical that she get past this break-in period, because I knew that the rewards of this kind of travel did not come quickly and easily. Tenny understood this. But the decision was ultimately hers. And if she didn’t want to continue travelling, well – well, I didn’t know what we’d do then.
As we talked about the process, I felt a palpable sense of how much I must have matured. Tenny’s growing pains reminded me vividly of myself in the not-too-distant past. Except that it didn’t seem to be me. Instead, it was like watching someone else through a window from outside in the dark. I wasn’t used to thinking back through my own history and finding a different person inhabiting my memories. But that was exactly how it seemed.