31 January 2012

The North-South Highway

Driving the North-South Highway of Armenia was a study in borders. Crossing from Yerevan into its outskirts, we saw stork nests hover above a village. Beneath them, children returned to school from lunchtime at home. Only a few minutes later, we turned onto the highway proper and the landscape changed. Those borders, city to country, road to highway, were more physical and tangible than the infinitely less cross-able ones that would then exist all around us.
Somewhere on the mountain range to our right, Armenia ended and Turkey began. We drove along the border line for a while, with Mount Ararat peaking over the white(-capped) picket fence like a smug neighbor. The fabled mountain is planted in Turkey but remains an omnipresent part of the Armenian landscape, symbolizes a common history and even shared identity that has all but been erased by some pretty terrible recent history.
Just below, in the town of Yeraskh, we ricocheted off another border at such an angle it felt like the road planning equivalent of whacking a pinball away from the loser's abyss. We were led eastward toward the southern provinces of Armenia, Turkey in our rearview, Azerbaijan out my passenger window, the self-declared republic of Nagorno-Karabagh ahead (a whole other can of border issues).
It felt so strange, driving through the mountains on the beautiful highway, so simply laid it was named after its directionals. The North-South Highway is not built up at all. Almost all of it is a two lane stretch which many people call the 'backbone' of the country. Looking at a magnificent unending landscape of mountains and thinking about insurmountable border lines drawn somewhere within them felt like imaging a spot in the ocean where salt water gives way to fresh.
The borders within Armenia, between the provinces, were defined and enjoyable. Up we would go until we switch-backed through a mountain pass to find the sign welcoming us into a new region. The Tukh Manuk Pass brought us from the Ararat province to Vayots Dor then the Vorotan Pass acted as an escalator to the Syunik. Volcanic peaks with chimney-like stone protrusions in one place, sweeping round mounds in another. Between, life creeped up to the roadside, giving us some sense of what existed beyond the highway in each area. Painted fish signs springing up in bulk out of nowhere made us realize that we were passing the Armash Fishponds, easy to spot once we knew to look.
A veritable strip mall of roadside wine sellers made us notice the vineyards right there in Areni. We didn't stop for a taste, even though this woman invited us to park and sample. We marveled at the fact that the Coca Cola bottles in which almost all the multiple inventories were stored still had the red labels affixed. Later, we learned that this wasn't laziness at all. Highway wine is mostly sold to Iranian truck drivers who are heading home to their alcohol-free country with "soda."
In the southern corner of Armenia, Syunik province, many people are heading toward Iran. A man and woman about our age peddling heavily weighed bikes along the side of the highway were almost certainly tourists heading for that country. Unlike the ones with Turkey or Azerbaijan, this border is open, but - with our passports - is closed to us. It makes a place feel different to sit snugly in the corner of it knowing that the horizon, in almost every direction, is off limits to you. As we approached Goris, a mist began to set over everything in front of us. Snowcaps floated like clouds in some spots
and completely disappeared in others. We crossed a final mountain pass and dropped directly into the fog.

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