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Nagorno Karabakh - A Country that's not a Country

Gandzasar Monastery

After a four-day detour back to Yerevan in an ultimately futile attempt to pre-organise a visa for Iran, it was time to resume my travels in southern Armenia. I arrived at the bus station in plenty of time, avoiding my earlier issue of bag storage on the bus. Four hours after departure we crossed the border; immigration formalities were virtually non-existent – my passport was registered and I was given an address in Stepanakert where I could gain my visa. While southern Armenia could definitely not be described as flat, the terrain became steeper at the border. The road snaked up and down valleys, surrounded by breath-taking views. Less than an hour later, we pulled into the capital of Stepanakert.

Nagorno Karabakh is also known as the Republic of Artsakh to the locals (or just plain Karabakh as I’ll be using here). Its history is rather complicated, so I’ll try to explain via few brief bullet points:

  • Karabakh was traditionally Armenian as far back as the second century BC

  • Since that time, Karabakh has been part of at least 10 empires, including the Persian, Ottoman and Russian

  • In 1923 the Soviet Union handed control of Karabakh to the Azerbaijan Republic (Armenia and Azerbaijan were both part of the USSR at the time); this was largely prompted by an attempt to placate Turkey (who only several years prior had wiped out a large portion of the Armenian population in one of the worst genocides of the 20th century).

  • In 1988 Karabakh voted to unite with Armenia – this was rejected by Azerbaijan, prompting war with Armenia as the USSR fell apart.

  • Following the dissolution of the USSR, a war was fought between Armenia and Azerbaijan – this resulted in Armenia taking control of Karabakh, although no other country recognises their occupation

  • If the above sounds fairly clear cut on the side of Armenia, bear in mind there were accusations of ethnic cleansing made against them based on their actions in the war

Stepanakert was a pleasant town to base myself in. The main avenue of Azatamartikneri is a busy tree-lined street. This is where you’ll find the Ministry of Foreign Affairs; if you haven’t already organised your visa for Karabakh, you just need to report here within 24 hours of arrival, fill in a single page application, pay 3000 dram and you’re done. If you are planning on heading to Azerbaijan anytime, don’t let them put the visa in your passport – any evidence of a visit to Karabakh and you’ll be declined entry into Azerbaijan; understandably they’re still a bit bitter about losing Karabkah to Armenia and see any visit to this disputed territory as illegal. In principle you shouldn’t have anything to worry about, I was given my visa on a separate sheet so no evidence in my passport (unless I avail myself of the adhesive sticky back so I can stick it in my passport if I wish). The other point of interest was further up Azatamatikneri. A large roundabout was home to a small park, with a statue and a fountain (with a basic sound and light show as I discovered the next night) – a great place for people watching with mothers bringing their children to play, off duty soldiers smoking and laughing, old men staring at proceedings with the type of look only an old man can muster.

Another point of interest is the Tatik & Papik Monument (“We Are Our Mountains”, although it translates as “Grandmother and Grandfather”). It has become the symbol of Karabakh, depicting an elderly husband and wife in typical dress. You can find it on the northern outskirts of Stepanakert, less than 2km from Azatamartikneri Street. It is widely photographed and you’ll find it depicted on pretty much any type of souvenir you can buy in Karabakh.

Transport in Karabakh is rather scarce, as are local tours (although there are plenty of multi-day tours combining Karabakh and southern Armenia available from Yerevan). For instance, there are only 2 buses a day between Stepanakert and Vank. So, if like me, you arrive at the station after the 9am departure, a rather long wait until the next departure at 4pm is not that attractive. Fortunately, there are 5-6 buses a day going past the historic fortress of Tigranakert so I hatched a hairbrained scheme – take the 11am bus and sort it out from there.

Tigranakert is an ancient fortress and ruin complex dating back to around the second century BC. Its history is murky, given that it wasn’t the only place named after Tigran the Great. A fortress dating back to the medieval era currently houses a museum dedicated to Tigranakert; this was handy for information as the ruins are very incomplete and explanations in English are sparse.

After a wander around the site, it was time to head in the direction of Vank/Gandzasar. A quick scan of Google maps showed a road leading from Tigranakert to Vank so I decided to hitchhike. After 20 minutes my hopes were fading; only a couple of cars had passed and none were stopping. Finally, I had some luck and a car slowed. Surprise, surprise, it was an unmarked taxi. After weighing up my options, his price of 10000 dram didn’t seem so bad. 10 minutes later and I see why I made the right choice. After 5 months on the road this was comfortably the worst road I have encountered and I’m willing to bet that when this trip is over I won’t have experienced anything worse (India, please don’t see this as a challenge). 10 minutes elapsed and he stops - the car boot (trunk for my North American buddies) has flown open. We both get out and he proceeds to reapply the wire holding it shut. We head off again and 10 minutes later the same thing happens.

Unscheduled taxi repairs

We then pull into a farm driveway (at least I think it was a farm, it could potentially have been a scrapyard). He yells out and a friend comes out with welding gear. Cigarette in mouth, welding gear in hand, much muttering and finally the boot shuts and we can head off again (but not before the farmer hands us a pile of pomegranates). As it turns out, we only saw 3 other cars during that hour so the hitchhiking option might not have been the wisest. My newfound taxi driver friend drove me the final 3km uphill from Vank to Gandzasar Monastery and bade me farewell.

Gandzasar Monastery

I then headed to the monastery. Gandzasar Monastery dates back around a thousand years. The Armenians’s have a habit of placing their monasteries in extremely scenic locations and Vandzasar was no exception. 360 degree views of the surrounding hills and valleys, with the autumn leaves putting on their usual brown/yellow/red show. Before entering the monastery itself I decided to invest 200 dram in their museum. Money well spent as it turned out. Spread over 4 small rooms, it housed an impressive collection of bibles and other religious manuscripts, some dating back to the 10th century. A personal highlight was an intricately carved 6th century ivory bible cover. You’ll have to take my word on how good it was – an attentive staff member tailed me the whole time, ensuring I abided by the No Photo policy.

After a scenic 3km walk back down the snaking road, I checked out Vank’s many (two) tourist attractions. Firstly, their only hotel has been built in the shape of a boat. Several carloads of locals on their way back from the monastery had stopped for photos – I did the same but in hindsight was probably a waste of two minutes as it’s not that impressive. Secondly, the licence plate wall. An enterprising local made use of the abandoned Azerbaijani cars following the war, stripping them of their licence plates and creating a 60-metre section of wall down each side of a road - one of the more unique things I’ve encountered thus far on my trip.

After a short wait I managed to flag down a vehicle for the 30km journey back to Stepanakert – a personable young guy in his work van, thankfully he had the heater roaring as the temperature was beginning to drop.

A final word: I’m not the sort of traveller to bad-mouth any experience I’ve had – I prefer the “if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all” approach. But I really need to warn against what seems to be a deliberate tactic by a Stepanakert hostel to steer business the way of their taxi friends by dishonest means. The owner of Hostel Artsakh will meet every bus at the station, offering a rate of 3000 dram for a dorm bed, the same as the other hostels. The room is not that great, the door only locks from the inside (meaning you need to take all valuables with you) and, if you’re like me, you’ll be made to move to an uncomfortable fold-out sofa upstairs if he decides to eat and drink with his mates in the dorm and offer them a bed for the night. The main issue come when it’s time to leave (or start planning on leaving). He’ll tell you that the bus to Yerevan leaves at 10am and goes past the hostel just after that. He’ll stress there’s no need to hurry. Then a little before 10, him or his brother will hurriedly tell you to put your bags in his car and he’ll drive you to the station. You’ll arrive at the station and, mysteriously, the last bus to Yerevan has already left. Does he deliver you to the main entrance of the bus station? Oh no, you’ll be taken to the side entrance where all the taxi drivers congregate, one of whom will inform him, much to his surprise, that the last bus has already left and that a taxi is the only alternative to reach Yerevan. A short chat to the lady at the ticket counter confirmed that the Yerevan bus doesn’t travel down Sasuntsi David St, (where the hostel is located) and that there was never a 10am bus scheduled. Luckily for me, I was heading to Goris in southern Armenia and there was still another bus (not so luckily) four hours later. But my hostel friends were not so lucky, no more buses to Yerevan; fortunately for them they managed to negotiate a half decent rate for the five hour trip to Yerevan with another taxi driver (probably not one of the cartel), although this rate was far above what they would have paid for the bus.

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