“Varosha” Upon A Star: The Best exCYPRIOTnces Are Those You Least Expect

“Varosha” Upon A Star: The Best exCYPRIOTnces Are Those You Least Expect

 

 

Despite a successful border crossing attempt via the Ledra Pedestrian Street UN Buffer Zone in Nicosia from the southern side to the northern side of Cyprus without any of the required materials 3 days ago, it seems that the border guards at northern side of the vehicular crossing at Deryneia had done their homework.

 

 

When we attempted to drive through (instead of walking) Deryneia’s checkpoint from south to north this morning to visit Varosha, we were politely turned away at the northern side as they required the following:

  1. That we had stayed in the part of Cyprus south of the this border crossing for at least the past 14 days (which we have not done)
  2. OR that we’d be fully vaccinated WITH a negative PCR test within the past 72 hours (the latter of which we did not have)

 

 

I think this was my first time ever turned away at a border crossing. But such are the hiccups that would be expected in post/current pandemic travel. I think we took it well.

 

 

And yet still undeterred and at the recommendation of the Cypriot border guards on the southern side, we drove down to a private clinic 10 minutes south to get a rapid PCR, only to be told that the turnaround would be 24 hours and the closest appointments would be next week. Too late. Then I determined perhaps the 6-8 turnaround rapid PCRs at Larnaca’s airport 30 minutes away could be another option, but they closed early at 4:30pm (we’d barely make it) and also required appointments.

But then I realized: if we had been successful at crossing 3 days ago via the pedestrian street crossing at Nicosia with the city’s rapid antigen tests (let alone the PCR tests we took back home 5 days prior), why not repeat our success again the next day at that same crossing and then have local taxis pick us up on the other side of the border and take us to Varosha and back? After getting wifi, I started up a random chat with Savas of Cyprus Taxi via Google Maps. And within an hour and an initial down payment online, we confirmed the plan for the next day!

With Varosha moved to tomorrow and having a few extra hours, we leisurely drove for some sightseeing at the easternmost point of Cape Greco and its famous natural bridge Kamara Tou Koraka:

 

 

Although on a better day we’d be cliff diving, we watched the precarious waves crash against the Sea Caves a few minutes away:

 

 

A bit west of Cape Greco is the town of Ayia Napa known for its Love Bridge and Miami style nightlife.

 

 

There’s also a Sculpture Park opposite the Love Bridge:

 

 

After driving back and forth Cape Greco and Ayia Napa, we then kicked back at Kaliva On The Beach to celebrate Jeanette’s birthday as if we booked the whole place to ourselves (we literally did):

 

 

If you want to complete with your autonomous region checklist, the British-owned overseas territory of Dhkelia is sitiuated between the drive from Ayia Napa and Lanarca or Nicosia:

 

 

After returning to Nicosia from Ayia Napa, we rallied and continued Jeanette’s birthday rager at the outdoor club/lounge/bars Zonkey, D’avillaSeven Monkeys, and Locker all in that order and all unplanned until we finally collapsed in our beds at 5am.

 

 

Despite waking up a bit hungover at 11am this morning, we slowly crawled our way to the free rapid antigen COVID-19 tests at Eleftheria Square so we could be cleared for our return flights home. Then with a quick breakfast and coffee at the atmospheric Pieto, we then made up for yesterday’s failed attempt in visiting Varosha.

I felt like we were legally exploiting a loophole by returning to Nicosia’s Ledra Street UN Buffer Zone and successfully crossing over with our rapid antigen tests (they don’t require PCR tests at this particular crossing). And there waiting for us on the northern side of the checkpoint as agreed, Savas’ 2 vehicles from Cyprus Taxi picked us up on and took us on a one hour drive to Famagusta and the ghost town of Varosha. Easy peasy.

 

 

As we approached Famagusta and the ghost town of Varosha, we felt like we were stepping into an alternate dimension:

 

 

No registration, no admission fees, no drama, and no issues. We simply walked right in.

 

 

In the early 1970s, Famagusta was one of the top tourist destinations in Cyprus if not the world, where movie stars such as Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton flocked here as their preferred destination away from Hollywood. Then just as what had happened in Pripyat and Chernobyl, its entire population quickly abandoned the city as the Turkish army advanced from the north, after which the army seized and walled off the entire city.

 

 

Associated Press Photo:

 

Our photo today:

 

Associated Press Photo:

 

Our photo today:

 

Since then and until only recently October of last year, no entry has been allowed other than Turkish military and United Nations personnel. That makes us one of the first casual visitors to enter the area:

 

 

This is what we travel for: to cross into unknowns and see it for ourselves once instead of reading about it a thousand times.

 

 

We walked as far as we could along the recently paved roads for pedestrians and rented electric bicycles. You’ll know that you should turn back when you reach military fences such as these:

 

 

But don’t be intimidated; all of the military personnel were quite friendly when they told us to delete certain photos or not go certain places. They even set up little ice cream trucks to soften the blow.

 

 

Ghost towns. There’s something about witnessing a world without us.

 

 

After about an hour and half exploring Varosha, we turned back and drove 20 minutes north to the ancient city of Salamis:

 

 

A Byzantine-era city that was built on top of Roman ruins, it’s a fascinating wonderland of past ghosts to explore in the same vein as it was with Varosha.

 

 

Try to find the extremely well preserved Byzantine mosaics:

 

 

At this point I think the girls have been getting along on this trip (that’s an understatement — LWCSD is now an official club):

 

 

Before returning back to Nicosia, Savas added in a complementary detour to visit the lesser known Saint Barnabas Monastery, which was built in the 1700s featuring a museum of icons, archaeological finds and the tomb of Cyprus’s patron saint.

 

 

Then after an hour’s drive back to Nicosia and saying our goodbyes to Savas and Ali, we crossed back over into southern Nicosia for an impromptu dinner at Fanous and a last run at our lodging’s hot tub:

 

 

This is going to be a tough monsoon to say goodbye to. This one was special. And yet it becomes another one in the books.

 

 

RETURNING TO THE USA: At check in airlines hand out the following attestation forms and require you to fill them out before returning to the USA regardless of your vaccination status.

 

 

And if you’re returning to NY (like me), you also need to fill out this:

 

And for what it’s worth now that I’m back home safe and sound — nobody checked for these forms when I arrived from the airport to the taxi ride home. -_- Stop killing trees!

 

- At time of posting in Varosha, it was 27 °C - Humidity: 36% | Wind Speed: 13km/hr | Cloud Cover: sunny

 

I’ll “Nicosia” Later!

I’ll “Nicosia” Later!

 

After our 2 days in Larnaca, we embarked for the world’s last divided capital city (since the fall of the Berlin Wall) of Nicosia:

 

 

The most southeastern reach of any of the European Union’s capital cities, Nicosia has been continuously inhabited for over 4,500 years and has remained the capital of the island since the 10th century.

 

 

In early 1964, following the Cyprus crisis of 1963–64, the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot communities of Nicosia split the city (and island) into South Nicosia and North Nicosia respectively. This segregation then exacerbated into becoming a militarized “Berlin Wall” between the Republic of Cyprus and Northern Cyprus after Turkey occupied north Cyprus in 1974.

The Turkish army will remind everyone of this piece of history on the northern hills:

 

 

Officially today North Nicosia is the capital of Northern Cyprus, a state recognized only by Turkey and otherwise considered as occupied Cyprus by the international community.

 

 

So today we went to explore. After a 45 minute morning drive from Larnaca, we reached our lodgings at Central Park Residences about a 10 minute walk south from the city center.

 

 

Don’t say I don’t treat my monsooners well:

 

 

We freshened up for 20 minutes and treated ourselves to brunch at the memorable Elysian Plant Blased Kitchen Bar:

 

 

We then entered into central Nicosia with 10 minute walk north past Eleftheria Square, which was designed by the late Zaha Hadid:

 

 

To explore the atmospheric walled city of central Nicosia is a must. So we immediately hopped onto the main Ledra Street, a major shopping thoroughfare that links both sides of Nicosia.

 

 

From 1955–1959 this street was nicknamed “The Murder Mile” in reference to the frequent targeting of the British military by nationalists along its course

 

 

Then after much time and negotiation, the world’s last “Berlin Wall” eventually loosened up to (with a quick passport check) most tourists up until the pandemic, after which this border crossing was essentially entirely shut again to the world. It seemed all hope was lost for our group for a visit to the northern side of Cyprus until the respective authorities that be had made a sudden announcement 5 days ago (last Friday!) that they were reopening the border again. Although set rules exist regarding who can cross regarding COVID-19 precautions, it seems that our group of 11 arrived so soon after the reopening last Friday that the border guards of both respective sides weren’t entire sure how or who to let through.

And at the time of posting, the border guards on both sides essentially let all 11 of us USA passport holders through back and forth multiple times on both sides today, as long as we provided a paper copy proof of a negative PCR result for COVID-19 within the past 7 days (we used copies of our PCR tests we obtained back in the USA prior to the trip). The only issue was quickly explaining how the the month and day is switched in the USA (so that a test performed 5 days ago on June 4th is not April 6th) by showing the date of the email that contained my PCR result.

The crossing was so much easier than expected that when 4 of us were forced to walk back to our apartments to retrieve their paper copies (as the guards did not accept digital copies on our mobile phones), I did a double U-turn by crossing the border 3 times back and forth to give part of my group the apartments keys without so much a nod and an eye roll from the guards on both sides of the border.

But it wasn’t all smooth sailing: when one of us was given a really hard time on the final return back to the southern side of town — even though everyone else in our group was allowed back through to the south by that point — we found out later what they really needed was a paper copy proof of a negative rapid antigen test with an official “stamp” (see below). None of the guards we had — except the one at the end who definitely did his homework — seemed to have been aware of this. However, by the time we found that out, the damage had been done and we already had explored nearly all of the northern side of Nicosia hours after the fact.

We hope this accidental honest oversight on their part didn’t get anyone in trouble!

 

 

After this border kerfuffle we even promptly headed back to the lower part of Eleftheria Square for this specific rapid antigen COVID-19 test and get that stamp that the border guards’ had unknowingly needed.

 

 

The rapid antigen test at the square is free and takes 15 minutes to process on site. Just bring your passport as an ID to match. It’s open from 7:30am-7:30pm.

 

 

Anyways, let’s roll it back to our pre-border shenanigans: if you’re sticking to the southern side of town before heading to the border, don’t miss the Greek Orthodox houses of worship Panayia Phaneromenis:

 

 

and the adjacent, smaller, Arablar Mosque:

 

 

But no matter how long you stay on the south side, the border will draw you near as it literally is the elephant in the city.

Other than with the aforementioned appropriate proof of negative COVID-19 test to get to the northern side of Nicosia, make sure your passports also work: For a visit less than a month, visas are not required for any nationality except for citizens of Armenia and Nigeria. Visas are otherwise acquired at international representative offices in London, Washington D.C., or NYC before travel.

 

 

It’s simply a walk across no man’s land for a few feet:

 

 

You’ll know it when you see the pin on the Google map:

 

 

And surprisingly at the time, nobody cared about us taking photos or video:

 

 

You’ll know you’re in the northern side of town when you see ads everywhere for Efes beer . . .

 

 

. . .and a photogenic pentagonal convergence of multiple pedestrian streets.

 

 

Büyük Hamam lies immediately past the border, which is still running and open to the public to this day:

 

 

…and Büyük Han will be to your right: a place to shop for eclectic crafts, dine, people watch, or take in live music under the incredible architecture of a building constructed back in 1572.

 

 

A few more paces north will lead you to Ataturk Square (Sarayönü), a landmark square marked by a Venetian Column placed in 1915 and the Judicial Building.

 

 

Directly north of the square are the Samanbahçe Houses that exemplify photogenic Turkish Cypriot architecture.

 

 

If you’re lucky, the 13th century fortress/mosque hybrid Selimiye Mosque — the centerpiece of Nicosia’s landmarks — will be done with its renovations and finally reopened to the public:

 

 

We also headed off to the deserted side streets . . .

 

 

. . . just to peek at Lusignan House, a mansion built in the 15th century as a residential building for Latin nobles during the Lusignan period. They were so caught off guard by our presence they turned on the power and opened the small museum inside for 5 minutes just for us.

 

 

You’ll reach the northern limits of the walled city when you see Girne Kapisi, a Venetian built 16th century gate and Ottoman watchtower:

 

 

After about a few hours exploring northern side of the border, we walked back across the UN Buffer Zone:

 

 

…and then totally vegged out pretending we were back in Miami in our own private sauna/spa at our residences.

 

 

1 hour later:

 

The “Cabin-da” Woods: “We Are Not Ready For Tourism” | Everything You Need To Know About Visiting Cabinda!

The “Cabin-da” Woods: “We Are Not Ready For Tourism” | Everything You Need To Know About Visiting Cabinda!

 

Primer on Cabinda

Formerly known as “Portuguese Congo” and no larger than the state of Delaware, Cabinda is a curious little region sandwiched between the Republic of the Congo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Having endured a 30 year long struggle to claim independence from the rest of Angola, it likely may become one of the next world’s “newest” countries give or take a few years (decades?). We’re arriving here early before that happens.

The reason why Angola wants to keep Cabinda is because the region is rich in natural resources and one of its wealthiest: it supplies 65% of Angola’s oil! Nevertheless, it remains one of the least visited places on Earth and where things can get a little rough during our 2 weeks in Angola.

 

 

Arriving from Luanda to Cabinda

Barely getting much sleep after arriving last night from Lubango (especially since the guy next door to my motel room was having an epic fight with his wife), we rushed to board our 5:50am TAAG flight from Luanda to Cabinda.

 

 

Class C on TAAG means business class! It just meant I got a bigger chair and a quick meal of cheese, dried meats and fruits all saran wrapped onto a tray.

 

 

After an otherwise uneventful 45 minute flight, we landed an hour later at 6:50am at Cabinda’s sole airport.

 

 

Amusingly, someone checked in their shoes as luggage. Must’ve been over the baggage minimum.

 

 

Once we hit arrivals, there were no signs of the massive police and military presence they had warned us about.

 

 

Exploring Cabinda City (There’s Not Much)

 

Our local guide’s uncle Jovanny promptly picked us up outside arrivals and we began our quick city tour of Cabinda. There’s not much in terms of “tourism” so you have to do your best with the following 3 “sites”:

1 May Park:

 

 

The Church of the Immaculate Conception:

 

 

And Central/Municipal Market:

 

 

At the market we got a glimpse of the famed Cabinda wood, aka their Viagra.

 

  

Exploring Outside Cabinda City

After driving an hour around the city, we decided to venture outside Cabinda, which we had been warned not to do earlier in the trip due to safety reasons. So many kidnappings and clashes occur on the road between the towns of Cabinda and Malongo that there is now a highly profitable helicopter service that takes oil workers and businessmen from the airport directly to Malongo!

State departments around the world also continue to cite the random roadside attack on the Togo national football team in 2010 as the reason for this region’s notoriety as an active “war zone” and “separatist” region, although nothing as major has since happened.

 

 

Nevertheless, our local guides from Cabinda insisted that we still leave the city, citing a significant improvement in the security situation and that there was nothing to worry about. We went on their word.

After all, they said, “there’s nothing else much to do here in Cabinda.”

 

 

The only thing that “happened” was when a soldier stopped our car to make us delete a photo we took of a random river. They’re bored. Power trips. 

 

 

We then passed through the towns of Cacongo and Malongo in an unsuccessful attempt to see the “bacama” (Angola’s version of voodoo).

 

 

Then we made a random unannounced lunch stop in a random soulless banquet hall in Buco Zau, where we ate with the soldiers stationed there (they made us turn our cameras away).

 

 

And then after 3 long dreary hours on the road, we finally reached Maiombe Forest Reserve, the biggest rainforest in Angola. Not many tourists have ventured here: It took 20 minutes of intense discussions between our local guides and the military stationed there to let us get out of the car.

They wanted us to drive the 3 hours back to Cabinda, get special written permission, make a reservation, and then return to visit the Forest Reserve.

 

 

And yet saner minds prevailed. After checking our passports and taking our names down letter by letter, they sent off a senior officer to guide us to the river. They told us the only thing we could not do was to take photos of any chimpanzees we saw (they inhumanely locked them away in squalid cages).

We hiked about 20 minutes towards the river.

 

 

After 10 minutes here, we turned around and headed back for our jeeps. That’s it! As our local Angolan guide shrugged his shoulders and said: “We are definitely not ready for tourism.”

So by 3pm we headed back to the city of Cabinda.

 

 

As if were the theme of the second half of this trip, however, we suddenly felt our tire go flat. And we did not have a spare tire.

 

 

Luckily (or unluckily?), however, this all happened next to a lake/marsh not even marked on the map.

 

 

So we decided to take advantage of this sign from the universe and pay a few boatmen 4000 kwanzas to ferry us around the lake for a few minutes. Although these boats are meant for 2, we barely made 4 work before threatening to sink our boat completely.

In the meantime our driver Jovanny also successfully flagged down a Good Samaritan to spare a tire.

 

 

After an hour, the tire was quickly replaced and we drove another hour and reached the Monument to the Treaty of Simulambuco

It somehow still exists despite etching in Portuguese that Cabinda should be an independent country from Angola!

 

 

Then we checked into our lodgings and had dinner at the swanky Apolónia. Despite the upscale ambience, the dinner is buffet style where they even weigh your plates as if we were at a bodega.

 

 

Afterwards we officially finished our trip, enjoying one final round of drinks with Rik and Ingrid back out hotel bar. We also did our best to politely ignore all the sex workers aggressively interrupting us to get them a drink.

They also sport a very unique shower head. I never seen something like it before.

 

Close enough.

 

Crossing into the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) from Cabinda

 

The next day we enjoyed a lazy morning by the hotel pool before having a late lunch back at Apolónia among an international mix of soldiers from Brazil, USA, Portugal, Namibia, and Angola who seemed to be there socializing and inspecting a construction site by the restaurant.

With nothing much else to do, we decided to peek at the Cabinda/DRC border about a 20 minute drive south from the city.

 

 

The security staff in the pink structure that issues exit stamps may appear strict here! 

However, they seemed to not care when I asked to walk across no man’s land and across the border into the DRC without needing an Angolan exit stamp or DRC visa.

 

 

They replied as long as I didn’t take any photos and walked back into Angola within their eyesight, it would be fine.

 

 

They also didn’t chose not to stamp me out as “we don’t want you to be kidnapped when you reach the other side.”

Why not?

“By not officially getting an exit stamp, you’re still under our protection.” I guess that makes sense?

 

 

So I did just that as I crossed through no man’s land.

 

 

And then I reached into DRC territory.

Except for the photos part since they also didn’t seem to really care about that and looked the other way.

 

 

And Google maps even proves that I made it. I’m actually in the DRC!

 

 

Although I didn’t wander any further than here, I spent enough time across this border in the DRC to have a drink, take a dump, and say hi to the guards there, to the point I didn’t really feel it was a big deal at all.

 

 

Whether or not it counts is entirely up to me (or you as my humble reader), but I know I’ll visit the DRC properly when I swing by Burundi next year. Count this as much as you can count my visit to Paraguay?

 

 

Returning back to the city, we then kicked back at a smaller Apolónia café for an hour before heading back to the airport to check in early.

 

 

We then returned again to Apolónia proper for a 3rd meal there!

 

 

Afterwards we quickly stopped to say hi to our guide’s aunt as he needed to drop something off.

 

 

We then headed back to the airport one last time for our return 8:50pm flight back to Luanda.

 

 

Keep in mind like in Comoros if you have checked luggage, you’ll need to claim it a second time on the tarmac so they know to load them into your flight.

 

 

Once we returned to Luanda, we got to stay at the best hotel in town, the HCTA Talatona Convention Center Hotel (they have a full working gym!).

 

 

Now waiting for our 11pm flight out of the country, where I’m now catching up on all the COVID-19 stuff I need to be prepared for when I return to work tomorrow back in NYC.

 

 

It’s ironic that even though I just spent the last 48 hours traveling through an active conflict zone and region notorious for a brutal civil war, I still my life would still be more in danger back home. Hopefully this won’t be my last trip in a while.

On the bright side, since nobody’s traveling these days (let alone to Angola), I got “business class” again on an economy fare.

 

 

See ya back home!

 

 

- At time of posting in Cabinda, it was 25 °C - Humidity: 94% | Wind Speed: 5km/hr | Cloud Cover: partly cloudy

 

The UAE/Oman Road Trip – “Conclaves”: Fujairah, Madha, & Nahwa

The UAE/Oman Road Trip – “Conclaves”: Fujairah, Madha, & Nahwa

 

 

UAE

After visiting Abu Dhabi and the Dubai-Sharjah-Ajman-UAQ-RAK pentafecta of emirates yesterday (which epic-ness will be hard to beat), we woke up early and enjoyed breakfast at the hotel-with-hostel vibes at our lodgings in Rove City Centre . . .

 

 

. . . before heading further off-the-beaten-path an hour away across the country to Fujairah, the only emirate with a coastline solely on the Gulf of Oman and none on the Persian Gulf.

 

 

Madha (Oman), South

From Fujairah we drove from the southern side to the Omani exclave of Madha, located halfway between the Musandam Peninsula and the rest of Oman. It’s a part of the country of Oman located within the UAE.

 

 

This is their international border:

 

 

Although the boundaries of the UAE were decided in 1969, residents of Madha decided to commit to their allegiance to the Sultan of Oman that began in the 1930s.

You can tell you’re in Oman once the lampposts get all fancy and you see pictures of the Sultan of Oman everywhere.

 

 

I just realized I was in Oman proper nearly exactly a year ago. Happy one year anniversary!

 

 

Head for the lookout point up by a hilltop restaurant.

 

 

The town of Madha below is dead, but that’s probably because it’s over 104ºF outside.

 

 

If you keep driving there’s random, newly built dams that serve zero purpose because there’s no water.

 

 

Nahwa (UAE), South

And make things more unconventional, after a 10 minute drive you can reach a second-order enclave inside Madha called Nahwa, which is part of UAE Emirate of Sharjah. You can call it a second-order enclave, a counter-enclaves, or as Sean’s girlfriend Chelsea quips: a “conclave.”

To access Nahwa, take the northernmost road into the Madha enclave south of Khorfakkan and follow the signs to New Madha. From New Madha, there is a paved but winding road that eventually leads to Nahwa.

 

 

There is no official border crossing between Madha, Nahwa, or the greater UAE. Just 2 flags and a 40m strip of no man’s land in between.

 

 

Madha/Nahwa is mostly empty. The population altogether in this region is less than 3,000.

 

 

Madha (Oman), North

And through Nahwa we exited in the north back into Omani Madha. This part of the enclave is mostly gravel and hills:

 

 

UAE

Then out from Madha of Oman, it was back into the UAE.

 

 

Other than Google Maps, the only way to know is a tiny blink-and-you’ll-miss-it white marker up a small climb.

 

 

There’s a little oasis here. So we forego’ed the undeveloped “tourist road” in favor of “restricted access.” Nobody bothered us.

 

 

And after less than hour driving around, we returned on an hour’s drive back to Dubai. Seeing that today was a much shorter day than yesterday, we opted for an early dinner/late lunch with a traditional Mandi at Al Nadeg in the Deira district of Dubai.

 

 

And at 6pm we took advantage of our early evening by making an impromptu visit across Dubai Creek on a 5 dirham local boat.

 

 

On the other side we explored a bit of Old Dubai including Dubai Fort:

 

 

…and the souqs:

 

 

We then hydrated with bougie coconut water and tea at the Arabian Tea House:

 

 

. . . before heading back across the creek to check out the Gold Souq, the largest concentration of cheap gold anywhere in the world:

 

 

You can find the Guinness Book Of World Records’ holder for “world’s heaviest gold ring.”:

 

 

Tomorrow Evan gets in for our drive up to Musandam Oman!

 

 

- At time of posting in Nahwa, it was 32 °C - Humidity: 51% | Wind Speed: 5km/hr | Cloud Cover: hazy & hot

 

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