Note: This article is not an endorsement of territorial claims of the Nagorno-Karabakh region. It is merely my observations from the trip.
Day 1: Yerevan-Stepanakert
For some reason the Filipino snoring champion/my bunkmate left the hostel at 4 AM so I was able to get at least 3 hours of sleep.
At 8:30 AM, very early by Armenian standards, I boarded Hyur Service’s 3-day Nagorno-Karabakh tour bus. Two days before, I spotted a billboard advertising the tour. The dates worked out perfectly and the price was 1/4 of everything else I was seeing, so I went! There were about 20 people on the bus including a driver, English-speaking guide and Russian-speaking guide.
Nagorno-Karabakh is one of the most mysterious and politically confusing parts of the world. I will explain in more detail later, but the short story is that it is recognized by the world as Azerbaijan, but in reality functions as an independent country heavily supported by the Armenian government. The locals call the region Artsakh (I will use the terms interchangeably).
As the bus drove south, we skirted by the Turkish border where Mount Ararat was in clear view. The guides stressed that the mountain was in “Western Armenia, which was given to Turkey”. The borders of Armenia are a very touchy subject. Interestingly, the Turkish side of the border is manned by American troops representing NATO, while the Armenian side is manned by Russian troops.
We stopped at a monastery called Khor Virap- located less than a mile from the border. The site has been occupied continuously since 180 BC. In the 3rd century, St. Gregory the Illuminator was imprisoned in a pit for 14 years before being rescued by the king’s wife because he was thought to be the only person to cure the king’s illness. He did and then converted the king to Christianity in the year 301 making Armenia the world’s first Christian nation.
The monastery complex includes a small church and a second building which has a steep ladder descending into the famed pit. The small hole didn’t look like much, but the ladder went down at least 30 feet into a round pit maybe 25 feet in diameter. It now houses a small altar.
We then got back into the bus and drove two more hours. We passed the almost-quad border point of Armenia, Turkey, Iran, and Azerbaijan’s Nakhchivan enclave (a part of Azerbaijan that is completely separate from the rest of the country. Armenians believe that this territory should also be part of Armenia as it is so far from the rest of Azerbaijan that it doesn’t make sense). Turkey made a territory swap with Iran so that Azeris could travel visa-free to the rest of their territory via Turkey and Georgia.
Then, we climbed over a high mountain pass and into an area known as the Valley of Woe due to its numerous earthquakes. Finally, we curved up a steep canyon and arrived at Noravank. Noravank (Armenian for New Monastery) was built in 1205. It’s dramatic setting and red stone construction makes it one of the prettiest in Armenia.
We then got lunch and kept driving. The road went over steep mountain passes and open pastures. As we officially crossed into Nagorno-Karabakh, the bus erupted in cheers. After a brief stop at the incredibly lax border checkpoint for visa processing, we continued on our way.
Nagorno-Karabakh is a confusing name. Nagorno is Russian for mountainous. Kara is Turkish for black and Bakh is Persian for garden. Therefore the name means “mountainous black garden” but in 3 languages, which only highlights the complexity of the history and its political situation. Since none of the parts of the name are Armenian, the locals and Armenians call the region Artsakh which was the name for the region when it was a province in the Kingdom of Armenia in the 4th century BC.
True to its popular name, Nagorno-Karabakh is full of dark forested mountains. The bus continued along a windy road for another 2 hours until we reached Stepanakert, the capital and largest city in the region. After checking into the hotel and eating a mediocre dinner, I walked around the outskirts of the town with my German friend. We stumbled by numerous (at least 10) arcade claw games, but with cigarettes as the prizes.
We then found a makeshift bar about 10 minutes from the hotel. They had a keg of Kilikia beer on the side of the road. As we drank our beer, many people came up to us to chat with us. They were not asking for money; rather, they simply were wondering what these tall foreigners were doing in their remote city.
Day 2: Stapanekert-Gandzasar-Tigranakert
For the first time in 4 days, I had my own room and actually was able to sleep. Like in Armenia, Stepanakert is also very late to rise. When we started moving at 9, the roads and streets were empty despite it being a Wednesday.
Our first stop was the center of town. We walked down the main street and saw the Central Bank and Presidential Palace.
A few blocks away was the National Museum, where we had a guided tour. The front of the museum had the special exhibit entitled “Azerbaijan: Enemy of Civilization”. While the title was so extreme it was almost funny, the subject matter of the exhibit was not. It chronicled cultural destruction of Armenian churches by the Muslim Azeri government in order to weaken Armenian claims to disputed lands under Azeri control.
The rest of the museum chronicled the history of the region starting with pre-historic times. In the first century BC, the region was ruled by the Armenian king Tigran the Great. Just like Armenia, the region went through numerous ownership changes until the 15th century when the lands were ruled by 5 different Armenian principalities-interestingly it was the only land ruled by Armenians at that time as Armenia itself was ruled by the Persians.. In 1805, the land was taken by the Russian empire. During the Soviet Union, the region was considered an autonomous oblast (mini-region with special rules) within the Azerbaijan SSR (like a US State) after a brutal war between Armenians and Azeris in the 1920’s and remained that way until 1988 when the Soviet Union fell. Reportedly the land was given to Azerbaijan instead of Armenia by the direct order of Stalin in order to give Russia power as a peacebroker between the two sides.
Since the region was considered part of the Azerbaijan SSR (albeit autonomous) the newfound government of Azerbaijan claimed Nagorno-Karabakh as their own. However, the majority-Armenian population resisted and fought a bitter war that lasted until 1994. The ethnic Armenians managed to declare and fight their way to an independent state while displacing the entire Azeri population (about 25% of the region’s population before the war, Armenians made up 75%).
While the full-scale war ended in 1994, the conflict still goes on. Every year, small battles still occur and borders shift slightly. When I was there a battle happened on the front-line and an Azeri child was killed although nobody on the tour talked about it.
Ideally, the locals would like to be part of Armenia, but that is politically impossible right now.
The museum had a number of impressive artifacts including homemade guns created by Armenians to fight in the 1988-94 war. Some of the artifacts had crosses on them representing the struggle to keep Christianity alive in the Caucasus.
After the museum, we headed to the public market. Along the edges, ladies were making this epic bread made with dozens of herbs from the mountains. It was the best bread I’ve ever had. I also tried mulberry vodka- it was pink and extremely strong. My German friend took a swig and almost spit it out, which caused all the merchants to laugh out loud for a good 30 seconds- we joked that they were going to talk about this all week.
The bus then took us just out of town to the “We Are Our Mountains” statue, the symbol of Artsakh. In Armenian, the statue is named Papik and Tatik or “Grandpa and Grandma”. The statue, which is the only one in the country without a base/pedestal, is meant to symbolize the deep roots of Armenian people in these mountains. There wasn’t much to do here other than take pictures and buy (surprisingly high-quality) souvenirs from the roadside vendors.
We pressed on for an hour to lunch. Traditional music played and everyone was dancing and singing the words. Along the way we passed by a town that had a wall full of Azeri license plates. In the narrow canyons, the Armenian army placed long strings that would hopefully catch Azeri helicopters who were trying to attack.
We then got lunch at one of the strangest restaurants I’ve ever been to. Some rich now-jailed Russian-Armenian oligarch donated a ton of money for an art installation. It’s not “good” art, but is certainly unique.
At the top of the nearby hill was Gandzasar, an Armenian monastery completed in the year 1240 and occupied continuously since. In addition to a church, Ganzasar had an incredible collection of ancient manuscripts- some dating back to the 8th century!
Our tour then backtracked to Stepanakert before heading north towards the front-line. We passed the airport that has no flights due to its tricky international status. We also passed by Agdam, which was an Azeri-populated town of 40,000 before the war displaced everyone. It was unsurprisingly described on the bus as a shady town full of crime. Today, it is a ghost town. Just beyond the town was the front line and beyond that was Azeri controlled territory- probably 5-10 miles away.
Just 5 minutes past were the ruins of Tigranakert, one of 4 cities founded by the Armenian king Tigran the Great. Artifacts from the dig are beautifully displayed in a nearby 19th century castle. Tigranakert, according to the tour guides, is physical proof of ancient Armenian claims to the land as some of the artifacts (mostly medieval) had Armenian script on them. There also were ruins of a medieval Armenian church.
We drove back to the hotel and got dinner. Afterwards, a bunch of us decided to go get drinks in downtown Stepanakert. We ended up at a microbrewery. The space was beautiful- it could have passed for a sports bar in the Midwest- but the beer was just okay.
A few people wanted to stay and drink later, but I decided to head back. I strolled through town along the main road in front of the Parliament Building. It was packed with people looking their best- trying to be seen. Despite the crowds, it was peaceful! These people have been through so much conflict, but they play it off like nothing happened. I was so impressed by how nice this city and the people are.
Day 3: Stepanakert-Goris
This was our final day of the tour.
After breakfast, we left Stepanakert and headed towards Armenia. Along the way, we stopped in Shushi (sushi with an extra h), a small town that functions as the spiritual capital of Artsakh. It is located at the top of a steep mountain and has quite the history.
In the early 1800’s it was the capital of Karabakh and had about 30,000 residents of which 60% were Armenian. In 1920, the Azeris massacred the entire Armenian population. In 1988, they expelled the Armenian population. During the Nagorno-Karabakh War, the Azeris used Shushi as a staging ground to launch missiles at the Armenian-controlled Stapanakert.
On the night of May 9, 1992, the town was dramatically captured by the Armenians who expelled the Azeri population. The capture of Shushi solidified Armenian control of Nagorno-Karabakh and is considered the single most important battle in the war. Just outside the town is a monument to the tank that helped capture the town. It is painted with crosses to represent Christianity in its battle with Islam.
Today, the town has just over 3,000 residents-mostly Armenian refugees who were expelled from Azerbaijan. It is considered a spiritual center of the Armenian Church and is home to a massive cathedral that is by far the largest church in the region.
More so than any sight in Artsakh- the people on the bus were proud to go to Shushi.
Having seen most (but certainly not all) of the major sights in the region, we headed back to Armenia. I was pleasantly surprised by Nagorno-Karabakh. Despite its tumultuous history and being cut off from the rest of the world, it actually appeared in better shape than Armenia. I was very impressed by what I saw and would recommend a visit to tourists going to Armenia.
Who is the rightful owner of Nagorno-Karabakh? That is the burning question that probably will never be answered and truly doesn’t have a “right” answer. Armenians certainly have a strong and ancient claim to the land. While I did not see it on the tour, I am sure that Azeris also have a strong claim to the land. With both sides seemingly unwilling to share the land, I do not foresee a resolution to this conflict anytime in my lifetime.