On the way back from Yerevan to Tbilisi we didn’t want to take the night train because it goes thru the border at 4 am and we wouldn’t get any sleep. So we were exploring a shared ride, a bus or a marshrutka. The information was scarce and the phone numbers for the bus station were either wrong or there was no answer. We had no choice but to actually drive to the bus station a day before our planned departure.  Fortunately we still had our rental car till the next morning.

It was after 5 pm and the bus station seemed abandoned but I found a leaflet above the cashier with a number to call. I called a number and someone answered that there is a bus at 9, 10 and the last one at 1pm.  There was no way to make reservations. Simultaneously, Roman found a door to someone’s office and the guy repeated the same info but also gave his personal cell number to call in the morning (093549580). He assured us that this is going to be a very comfortable Mercedes van for 7 passengers (there are no real buses going this route) and claimed they leave right on time (7 manat p/p). He also assured us that the driver doesn’t smoke in the car, which was a big concern to us since one blogger wrote that this happened on his ride and it was unbearable.  He also promised to reserve 2 spots for us on the bus.  Our problem was that the car rental was opening at 9.30 and it was cutting it very short since we still needed to settle the account and the car had to be checked out for damage and gas.

I called the car rental in the evening and the morning to make sure they open exactly on time and at 9.15 we were anxiously waiting to return the car and to hop in a cab to the bus station: a real nail biter for me. We got there with at least 10 minutes to spare to find out that we are the first people to arrive and the van was still being washed. Actually, it was an 8 passenger van, not 7. We were told that the departure is scheduled for 10.30 (approximately) and send to have some coffee.

Around 10.30 they came to get us. The van was full by then and we started on an indeed comfortable smooth ride.  There were some other English speaking people in the van and we were exchanging our experiences with them. Somewhere 30 minutes into the ride the driver stopped and picked up a couple of Armenian guys that seem to be his acquaintances and they got into the front seats next to the driver.

After about 2 hours all of a sudden the van stopped and all 3 Armenian guys (2 passengers and the driver) jumped out of the car and simultaneously lit 3 cigarettes. After a minute of two they opened the hood and stared at the engines shaking their heads. At this point we all started to come out of the van one by one.  What happened? Something wrong with the Engine…

Well, I assumed that they will call a road assistance that will take the van to an authorized Mercedes dealer, where they will treat it as a patient in an emergency room.  Will connect it to a bunch of wires, and a computer and will run extensive diagnostics.  But this was too American of me. The driver fished out a suitcase with bunch of tools, some of them looked more plumbing then mechanical and for the next hour and a half that “group of Armenian specialists” were banging on the engines with pliers and a hammer. No kidding!!!!

First it was surprising, then it was annoying, then it progressed from funny to hilarious. It was also very entertaining to observe what other people were doing.

Me, the planner, I was calculating how long it is to the border and trying to assess if we can hitchhike. Unfortunately we had 2 suitcases, 2 day packs and our walking sticks, which meant that we need to be picked up by an almost empty car going to the border. Not a big chance of that. Roman, the doer, saw a bus in the vicinity and went to find out where it was heading (no luck there). Then he joined in the action trying to give “helpful” advice, like, try kicking the tires while banging on the engine, it might help…The Kirgiz guy, a banker on vacation, calmly kept working on his laptop until the battery ran out.  He has been working in Georgia for couple of years by then, so he didn’t get excited. A Canadian guy was getting pissed off and we were exchanging snide remarks toward the “operational group” which they wouldn’t hear or understand. There was a young Armenian woman who was napping on the back seat. The funniest in my opinion was a middle aged woman who took the opportunity to grab everything she could from the surroundings.  First she jumped in the field of daisies and was frantically ripping whole bunches of them with their roots intact from the ground.  When she finally came back I told her that she should be aware of the snakes in the area.  She just shrugged it off and said that she actually saw two but they were scared of her and jumped into the river. Very brave, I don’t like daisies that much, I thought to myself…  Next she attacked a nearby tree and was collecting some little round green fruit off it. She filled out her pockets, and then she got out a plastic bag and was frantically filling it up. I tasted the fruit it was bitter and inedible.

All the meanwhile the “group of specialists” was taking turns banging on the engine and trying to restart it. Finally, a stream of gasoline began to splash out of some tube in the engine.  We didn’t hold our breath before that, but the fountain of gasoline killed any hope if we had any.

The Canadian and I were trying to come up with scenarios of how this is going to be resolved. The way I saw a resolution to this was: 1). they will give us some money back and leave us by the road, 2). will not give us any money and leave us by the side of the road, or 3). Will get us other rides.   The Canadian guy, the pessimist, was betting on choice number 2.

After about an hour and a half another van with a sign “Tbilisi” on it stopped by.  We all ran up to him and he had 6 free spots.  That would take all of us except for the front seat crew. Then the negotiations began. The two drivers were screaming at each other.  Actually, they were just talking but that’s how they talk. Then each began making a series of phone calls.  I figured that there must be a monetary exchange here and the drivers needed to get an approval.  I was right because turned out that the other van was from a competing company and they had to agree on the price to take us. Another half hour passed and I understood that our driver was stalling because there was a van from the same company that left Yerevan at 1 pm and it could take some people free of charge to the company. That van probably had only 2 seats and he was trying to hold me and Roman back but he couldn’t keep the “flood”. Once an ok was given we all rushed to move our luggage to the new van.

Unfortunately, the new van was old and had no a/c.  Roman and I got stuck on the front seat; I was being squashed between Roman and the driver whiles my left leg constantly crushing into the transmission stick. Moreover, the driver was smoking nonstop and I was getting nauseous. The worst part though was having to talk to the driver. First it wasn’t bad: the usual curiosity of where we are from and etc. Then he was expressing the familiar sentiments that we have heard all thru our travels in the former Soviet Republics: It was much better during the Soviet times; there was job security, free medicine, free education for the children, etc.  I was used to it and was nodding my head in understanding. But when the driver, who was Georgian, started to idealize Stalin, this is where he lost me. Apparently, Stalin was very good for the country and did great things. When I mentioned GULGAG he just shrugged it off as collateral damage, a so-called necessary measure.

The border crossing was painless. There were no lines.  We had to get off the van with all our stuff and first to cross the Armenian border.  Then, we walked to the Georgian side, whose terminal is much more sophisticated and modern. Our driver waited for us on the other side.  The entire crossing took no more than 20 minutes. The only other thing worth mentioning is that we had one bathroom break when he was getting gas and there was no place to buy food.  The first driver told us that we will have places to get food but since we switched cars the new driver had his own way.  We were so hungry, that bought some potato chips at the border. When in Tbilisi, we were dropped off in a very inconvenient place but it’s really a minor matter.

Despite all the inconveniences, we still laugh remembering that day.

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