From Tatev we turned and drove up north towards the town Goris, famous for being the home to the Settlement of old Kores, a series of previous inhabited rock caves similar to the cave homes in Cappadocia.
And thus began our final leg of our roadtrip into Nagorno-Karabakh, aka Artsakh, a disputed 8200 sq. km. territory that has been internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan but has been de facto governed by the Republic of Artsakh, an independent state populated by an Armenian ethnic majority.
With the Nagorno-Karabakh War in 1994 and the recent 4-day war in 2016, the governments of Armenia and Azerbaijan continue to dispute over the region’s political status and is still regarded as an active conflict zone between two hostile countries.
And similarly to how Armenia claims Nagorno-Karabakh/Artsakh within the politically recognized geographic landmass of Azerbaijan, Azerbaijan claims the exclave of Nakhchivan, which we had visited just 2 months ago, as is its own “disputed territory” inside the politically recognized geographic landmass of Armenia.
For a visual idea of how complicated the situation is, here’s a pretty good map I got from newsonia.com (ignore the part where it says “nuclear strikes” since there obviously haven’t been any…think they mean “nuclear powers”).
This regional hodgepodge has been the result of Soviet bureaucratic insanity where back in the days of the USSR, Soviet leaders would “gift” regions arbitrarily to its subjected communities in order to sow discord (aka divide and conquer) and maintain ultimate power. After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the leaders of these once subjected communities — now newly independent — would be quick to quarrel with each other over their rightful ownership of these lands while the common people on the ground would continue to suffer.
And despite the USSR’s collapse, this current-day divisiveness would maintain Russia’s dominance and influence over the region. You can also see this today similarly with India and Pakistan over Kashmir, Israel and Palestine over Gaza, North Korea and South Korea over the villages in the DMZ and each other . . . .when you ensure that your formerly occupied territories continue to fight each other, a status quo maintains its power.
So what does this mean for the average traveler? In this case, Armenia does not care if you visit Nakhchivan via Azerbaijan whereas Azerbaijan does care if you visit Nagorno-Karabakh/Artsakh via Armenia; for example when you register for an Azerbaijan visa the final question on their form is: “Do you intend or have you ever visited the territory known as ‘Nagorno-Karabakh’?”
So if you as a traveler want to “win the game” or “have your cake and eat it too” without any drama, visit Azerbaijan and Nakhchivan FIRST before visiting Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh/Artsakh. If you try to do it the other way around you will be banned from ever visiting Azerbaijan as long as this conflict continues. In other words, you’ll be on an international blacklist forever. A Russian blogger even was jailed and extradited to Azerbaijan prison for traveling to Nagorno-Karabakh.
For those of you who feel you should be more “lawful”, there is also the option of visiting Nagorno-Karabakh/Artsakh “legally” via Azerbaijan, but that requires enduring a bureaucratic nightmare where you have to claim an official reason for going such as being a Red Cross volunteer. In other words, the opportunity cost for doing the “illegal” way has been extremely nonexistent; every year thousands of tourists have been visiting Nagorno-Karabakh/Artsakh through Armenia every year without any difficulty or retribution. While the Russian blogger has been the only exception, mind you he was traveling to Nagorno-Karabakh multiple times and flaunting his nonchalance with a giant middle finger; in the words of many travelers who know about his situation: “he was asking for it.”
But we knew the costs going in so after driving up from Goris for 20-30 minutes we towed the “internationally recognized” border between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
…and continued to drive onwards without a hitch.
After another 20 minutes we reached the southern border outpost where we submitted our passports for registration.
Although they’ll tell you not to take photos here, it was the most cheerful warning I ever received.
After 10 minutes of processing, you get this slip reminding you to get your official visa in the capital city of Stepanakert.
As we drove further north, darkness began to set and it didn’t help we were driving into a thick fog with zero visibility. We were also running out of gas.
We drove for nearly another hour in this fog and not to mention up the side of countless mountains, while avoiding being swerved off the road by incoming cars who barely saw us coming. This night drive is not for the faint of heart.
We finally reached the capital city of Stepanakert at 7pm where our host Susanna greeted us with open arms at her guesthouse Qirs Hotel. Although we found her on one of many listings on AirBnB, she is quite famous all over Karabakh and also has been strongly recommended by both the Lonely Planet and Wikitravel communities. She has been leading tourists around for the past 20 years since she was 17 years old.
Having skipped lunch, our first order of business was FOOD FOOD FOOD, so Susanna drove us herself to the “first and best restaurant in Karabakh”: Ureni Restaurant.
Afterwards we returned to our guesthouse and stayed up watching a Russian edition of “America’s Funniest Home Videos” (so that would make it Russia’s Funniest Home Videos?) before turning in at around midnight for our morning walking tour the next day.
We arose the next day at 8:30am for breakfast in our guesthouse living room, after which we re-packed our bags and headed out into the city for our walking tour, led by Susanna’s 17 year old son Valery.
Unlike the ghost town vibes of Nakhchivan, or the odd Soviet time warp of Tiraspol, Stepanakert seemed to be an otherwise normal small city that felt like it was trying to place one foot towards progress with one still trapped by the circumstances of history.
We first walked by the Stepanakert Bus Station, which would be your first point of arrival if you took the 8 hour matrushka bus or shared car from Yerevan, Georgia, or Russia.
After about 10 minutes of walking through the city we reached the Foreign Ministry where we registered our passports for the highly coveted and rare Artsakh visa.
The process takes about 20 minutes and costs 3000 drams per person. If you want to have the slim chance to visit Azerbaijan ever again, there’s the option of having your visa issued separately from your passport where you can always stick it in later.
We continued to walk south along the main road to the center of the city, marked by a statue of the founder of the city.
To the east of the center lies the humble Stepanakert History Museum where it’s free to enter and you get an included English-speaking guide taking you from room to room up to the 2nd floor starting with the prehistoric history of the region to the current day strife between Azerbaijan and Armenia.
After about 30 minutes in the museum, we left and walked the large public plaza/square marked by a few government buildings and upscale hotels.
We then walked up the longest street in Stepanakert to reach a partially constructed church.
We then turned around and returned to the city center to visit the Fallen Soldiers Museum, with the first part dedicated to soldiers killed in action.
There’s also a second part dedicated to soldiers that remained missing in action. For the past 23 years since the 1994 war, families of these soldiers keep their doors unlocked at their homes in the hopes that any of them may still return.
After about 30 minutes at the museum complex we returned to the city center.
We finally finished our walking tour at the local city market.
There Susanna picked us up and treated us for lunch with Jengalov Hats, a local type of delicious wrap of herbs and vegetables.
Susanna then drove us up north to the Tatik Papik Memorial, aka “We Are Our Mountains” that serves as the symbol of the region. It is a tradition for a new husband to carry his wife in his arms down the steps from here once they’re married.
As we drove on outside of Stepanakert and then south towards Shoushi we passed by a few war memorials that the entire city gathers around every year on May 9th to commemorate their independence and Azerbaijan/Armenia ceasefire.
We continued onwards to the next half our day that would be devoted to the more war-torn areas of Shoushi and Agdam.
– At time of posting in Stepanakert, it was 44.6 °F – Humidity: 91% | Wind Speed: 5km/hr | Cloud Cover: showers