The Return To Yerevan

The Return To Yerevan

 

After 3 days in Artsakh it was time to return home. We woke up at 9am, had breakfast and quickly packed our bags ontop of Yerish’s car, who had come just in time to drive us back to Yerevan. 

Instead of the southern route we took to reach Artsakh, we would return instead via the northern area of Karabakh today, known for leading us to new vistas along Lake Sevan.

 

 

Quickly glancing around the village of Martakert, we continued up north and took a northwest weave towards Yerevan.

 

 

We passed through a few canyons…

 

 

… and made our first pit stop at Dadivank Monastery, built somewhere between the 9th and 13th centuries.

 

 

Free to enter, the monastery boasts superb views over the Karabakh region.

 

 

After about 20 minutes here we continued our drive and within the hour reached the norther border outpost to get stamped out of Artsakh/Nagorno-Karabakh.

 

 

If you’re feeling a little peckish, there’s a perfunctory rest stop nearby and a coffee vending machine that also serves cups of “Whiskey Cappuccino” and “Whiskey with Milk.” They both tasted…odd.

 

 

Another hour away was another rest stop where we got real food: a wrap of herbs and fried chicken. It was so good I got 2.

 

 

After about another hour’s drive, we reached Noraduz/Noratus Cemetery, a medieval-era burial ground and  the largest cluster of khachkars in Armenia. 

Following the destruction of the khachkars in Old Julfa, Nakhchivan by the government of Azerbaijan, this is currently the largest surviving cemetery of khachkars.

 

 

Finally, we got to see beloved Lake Sevan one more time.

 

 

After about 6 hours total on the road, we finally returned to the capital city of Yerevan, where we re-checked in back at our hostel (once again having it all to ourselves) and grabbed coffee at this adorable “Starbus Café” down the block.

 

 

Then we had some free time for a few hours before reuniting with Sandie and a friend she made at her hostel, Abby, for dinner at CEO3 BBQ.

 

 

We followed up with some drinks and shisha at Malkhas Jazz Club talking up into the wee hours of the night.

 

 

We finally turned in at 4am while Fanny on the other hand got hungry and made an attempt to find food, and got herself a delivery of stuffed peppers.

We also goodbye to Nishant who was to leave on an early morning flight in a few hours. 

 

 

We’ll miss you Nishant!

 

 

Thank god our flight was the next afternoon, otherwise I don’t think we would have made it.

 

 

Time to explore Kiev! Good to be back. It’s been 6 years!

 

 

- At time of posting in Gandzasar, it was 9 °C - Humidity: 90% | Wind Speed: 5km/hr | Cloud Cover: cloudy

 

The Last Lights On The Right: Shoushi, Agdam, & Martakert

The Last Lights On The Right: Shoushi, Agdam, & Martakert

 

 

After a morning in Stepanakert we headed out towards the rest of the Karabakh region to explore other areas evidently affected by the recent clashes between Azerbaijan and Karabakh/Armenian forces.

The first sign of the war was a tank memorial on a hill, refurbished from the shell of the first tank to oppose the Azerbaijani military when they took Shoushi during the 1994 war.martakert

 

 

From here you can see the advantage of occupying Shoushi as it overlooks Stepanakert below.

 

 

Unlike Stepanakert, Shoushi retains the ghost city vibes we had mentioned earlier that would remind me of our time in Nakhchivan.

 

 

Near the entrance of the city is a church frequently booked for baptisms and weddings.

 

 

Around the edge of Shoushi is a field leading to a viewpoint of Hunot Canyon.

 

 

It seems to be built like steps; the farther you hike the more you can gradually head down into the gorge.

 

 

Inside Shoushi are a series of empty shells of bombed out buildings that still serve as reminders of the Azerbaijan/Armenian conflict in the region. The most poignant is a former school that is now used occasionally as a backdrop stage to concerts and operas.

 

 

You’re technically not supposed to go inside, but go inside we did.

 

 

This is urban exploration at its finest. We can’t guarantee that it’s a safe place to wander, but we did not have any issues, whether it was into rooms or going up and down the stairs.

 

 

In another part of Shoushi is Karabakh’s only mosque, which is now undergoing restoration.

 

I guess this is where all the Florida ballots are

 

At probably one of the most poignant moments of the trip, Susanna then introduced us to her friend living next to the mosque: A veteran commando from the 1994 war where at 19 years of age he received a bullet wound to his spine while on a mission, rendering him bedridden and paralyzed from the stomach down for the past 24 years. 

He continues to live in Shoushi receiving benefits from the government. When asked if he would do it all over again, he says without a doubt he would.

 

 

After about an hour and half wandering Shoushi we drove north of Stepanakert towards Agdam, passing by Askeran Fortress

 

 

There’s also the Stepanakert Airport which given the current political situation, is barred by the Azerbaijani government from flying any commercial aircraft; helicopters and single-seater joyrides for tourists are otherwise allowed. 

Therefore, the only way to leave the country for a local here is still to endure an 8 hour drive to the international airport in Yerevan.

 

 

As we approached the ruins of Agdam, we passed by another tank memorial.

 

 

And then, about 20 minutes north of Stepanakert, lies the deserted ghost town of Agdam. Described by Lonely Planet for years as the “Hiroshima of the Caucuses” — until our host Susanna had asked them to take it down — we could see why a nickname could be ascribed to this region, but also render pain to the locals that once lived here.

 

 

Miles and miles of abandoned buildings stretch as far as the eye can see.

 

 

Our 10 minute drive across the expanse of Agdam’s ruins reminded me of our drive through the outskirts of Mosul.

 

 

Then we reached the literal and figurative “end of the road.” Past this point is the limit of where the ceasefire currently holds for Armenian and Azerbaijani military forces. 

The only people who can go past here without fear of provoking an international war are human rights and Red Cross volunteers.

 

 

So we made a left instead, driving towards the ancient ruins of Tigranakert, where Armenia’s greatest king once ruled from. Entry fee is 125 drams.

 

 

There’s a renovated castle that somehow still stands after being stuck in the middle of countless Azerbaijan/Armenia conflicts

 

 

It only takes 10-15 minutes to run up and down the castle.

 

 

And there’s a modest museum inside with collected pieces found from nearby excavations.

 

 

By now it was getting dark so to end the trip Susanna drove us about 45 minutes towards Martakert, the village closest to the current ceasefire border between Azerbaijan and Armenia. If rockets were to fall again, it would hit us first.

This took place just 2 years ago here: 

 

Thanks to Susanna, we were parked up at the fanciest hotel there.

 

 

And even though only one room was left, they were very efficient with the spacing:

 

 

And with that we said goodbye to Susanna and thanked her for her hospitality in showing us around her Karabakh. As a survivor who had every reason in the world to find refuge in safer lands, she instead carries on with defiance. After all, this is her true home and who are we to cast judgments without ever knowing what it is like to grow up and live everyday with a sense of dread that war might break out nearby at any given moment?

While the possibility of war is her daily reality, those of us who live comfortably in our bubbles also must confront the possible exploitative nature of our visit; is it more for us or for them? We have been reassured by Susanna and her family that our physical presence here gives them hope that the international community has not forsaken them, and we debate whether traveling and supporting the locals here is truly the lesser of two evils; many of us could instead have chosen to turn a blind eye and never have bothered to visit at all.

As we struggle with this question with Susanna and amongst ourselves, we nevertheless realize that at the very least we will develop the stark understanding that this reality too, could arrive at our own doorsteps. And when that day comes, I only hope we may channel a similar sense of strength and bravery of the people living here, and confront that possible future with the same kind of fortitude and grace that Susanna has shown us the past 2 days.

 

- At time of posting in Agdam, it was 6 °C - Humidity: 91% | Wind Speed: 10km/hr | Cloud Cover: showers

 

Stepanakert And Never Look Back!

Stepanakert And Never Look Back!

 

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”).

 

Graphic credit: Newsonia.com

 

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 7 °C - Humidity: 91% | Wind Speed: 5km/hr | Cloud Cover: showers