Sun, sea & Soviet architecture in the unrecognised Republic of Abkhazia.
Nestled in the mountains between Armenia and Azerbaijan, a tiny breakaway republic is struggling for outside recognition. Nagorno-Karabakh – known also as the Artsakh Republic – is what’s sometimes referred to as a ‘post-Soviet frozen conflict zone’: a disputed region that became a place of heated territorial battles following the break-up of the USSR. Like Transnistria and Abkhazia, it exists today in a state of political limbo.
According to most of the world, the Nagorno-Karabakh region is a part of Azerbaijan. By the 1990s however, this previously autonomous Soviet territory was largely inhabited by ethnic Armenians – so when Soviet borders fell and the land defaulted to Azerbaijan’s control, many local Armenians were none too impressed. Since February 1988, in fact, they had been demonstrating in the streets and calling for a union with Armenia; so when Azerbaijan moved to deny the region its autonomous rights in November 1991, the response was a referendum for complete secession. The Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh voted overwhelmingly for independence, at which point Azerbaijan boycotted the process and began deploying military troops. The ensuing war continued until May 1994, when Russia entered to help broker a reluctant ceasefire.
That ceasefire (mostly) continues to this day. The entire length of the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan is closed, the countries are no longer on speaking terms, and in the Karabakh mountains to the south where a population of some 150,000 ethnic Armenians live in a self-declared republic on the Azeri side of the Armenia-Azerbaijan border, tensions tend to run higher than anywhere else.
In August 2017, I went with some friends on a road trip through Nagorno-Karabakh. Here’s what it’s like to visit.
Getting into Nagorno-Karabakh
Starting in Yerevan, Armenia, we drove east and then south along the lake’s edge to get there – from the town of Sevan in the north, where the iconic shape of the Lake Sevan Writers’ Resort building juts precariously out from the hillside, and down along the eastern bank where the mountains meet the water. Those same mountains define the geography of Nagorno-Karabakh, its name meaning, literally, “High Karabakh”; and as we left the lake behind, turned east through the first of many dramatic passes, I wondered more than once how difficult a place this much have been to wage a war.
The border out of Armenia would have been easy to miss. There was a guard hut beside the road but no barrier, nothing but our good judgement to prevent us from driving on by and into the unrecognised republic. At a turn in the road a car had pulled over, and a border guard was leant in one side talking to the driver. We diligently pulled up behind and waited. When our turn came, the guard wanted to know why we were visiting the Republic of Artsakh; “tourism,” we said, and that seemed to be enough. He told us to get our paperwork on arrival in the capital, Stepanakert; he told us not to visit Agdam; and then the guard waved us through and retreated to his hut.
The roads were better here. That’s the first thing I noticed: good roads, smooth tarmac. We would see more being freshly surfaced, later, as we drove through the rest of Artsakh. But all thoughts of infrastructure left my mind when we rounded the first corner on the road, drove out of the pass and the landscape fell away before us. That view through the mountains was breathtaking. We had to stop and take it in, pulling up in gravel at a corner where the tight mountain road broke out to the plateau’s edge to begin its winding descent. There was a small memorial park on the corner. Two tanks watched the road, one lifted up on a pedestal of orange-pink tufa, the other rusting in the gravel nearby. Most likely both were casualties of the war, memorialised where they fell.
We drove for the rest of the day through fields of yellowed grass, past more broken tanks, through ridge after ridge of blasted, sun bleached mountains and the smell of asphalt. The road took us close to Agdam – the place we’d been warned to keep away from. The city of Agdam sits right on the border between Azerbaijan and the self-declared Artsakh Republic. Today it is no more than a ghost town, though – the war destroyed it back in 1993. We couldn’t see the city from the main road, only its outskirts: ruined stone buildings disappearing off beyond the ridge, hinting at greater devastation in the valley beyond.
Near the turning to Agdam, a map of the region was printed large enough for passing drivers to read, and off to the east it showed no-go areas coloured in red. Later, someone would tell me these red zones indicated the range of Azeri snipers beyond the border. Between those red-hatched regions though, life went on – we passed by families on day trips, saw tourists exploring the stone towers of the 18th century Askeran Fortress, a remnant from the time of the Karabakh Khanate. Kids in clean white shoes played on taxidermied tanks while their parents drank beer under sunshades. Their cars all had Armenian number plates.
Close by, on the road to the capital, we passed what looked like a military base. An old red star decorated the metal gates, a hangover from past eras, while a sentry watched the gate. Outside, on the road, a simple bus stop had been painted up in military camouflage colours. The sentry gave us one disinterested glance as we drove by and then we were gone, speeding through yellow fields on the last leg to the Artsakh capital.
We Are Our Mountains
By late afternoon we reached Stepanakert. Visitors approaching the city from the north are greeted by an extraordinary sight: two stone heads, vast, orange, and almost cartoonish in their depiction of an elderly couple in traditional local dress. The sculpture – titled ‘We Are Our Mountains’ – was created in 1967 by Sargis Baghdasaryan, and represents the mountain people who populate the Karabakh region. As a symbol of local Armenian identity, the two heads appear on the Artsakh coat of arms and locals sometimes refer to the couple as ‘tatik-papik,’ or ‘grandma-grandpa.’
We stopped to admire the monument for a while. Vendors had set up stalls at the base selling homewares and handicrafts – plates, cups, chess sets – as well as souvenir t-shirts, coins, and wristbands with the slogan: “I Love Armenia.” Even the flag of Nagorno-Karabakh is a love letter to Armenia, the same three colours but here with the addition of a white zigzag representing Artsakh’s separation from Armenia.
Armenians have been living in Nagorno-Karabakh for a very, very long time. Some scholars say they arrived in the 2nd century BC – others, as early as the 7th century BC. Though Karabakh would change over the following centuries in relation to the ever-shifting balance of power in the Caucasus (with the Arabs, the Persians, the Russians, the Turks and others all vying for influence in the region) it would nevertheless remain an Armenian place, predominantly inhabited and typically governed by Armenians. That is, until Britain and the Soviet Union got involved.
British forces briefly occupied Karabakh following the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in WWI. Nagorno-Karabakh is sandwiched between two Turkic nations, with Turkey to the west and Azerbaijan to the east (a former Azeri president, Heydar Aliyev, once described them as “one nation with two states”). In 1920 the British command appointed an Azeri leader as the governor-general in Karabakh, which resulted in protests and armed revolt amongst the Armenian population before the decision was overturned. The Bolsheviks, when they arrived soon after, promised to keep Karabakh with Armenia; however, that promise was broken when Joseph Stalin decided there was more value in placating the Turks than there was in keeping faith with the Armenians. Thus, in July 1923, the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast was founded as a dependent state of the Azerbaijan SSR. The Azeri population began to grow (there have even been accusations that the Azeri Soviet government was attempting a forced Azerification of the region) and by the time new post-Soviet borders were drawn, Azerbaijan got to keep control of the territory.
Today, not even Armenia itself formally recognises Artsakh’s independence – a diplomatic move, perhaps – though culturally, they do continue to celebrate the Armenian history of the region. In 2009 it caused a row at the Eurovision Song Contest, when footage of ‘We Are Our Mountains’ in Stepanakert was spliced into Armenia’s introduction video.
Leaving the monument behind and heading into the city, we immediately ran into issues with our accommodation: that is to say, the Airbnb hosts never answered their phone. We set up camp for a while in a coffee shop near the apartment, that looked out onto a metal-frame children’s playground, while I hijacked the patchy wifi to try and email our host. But they never got back to me, and after two bitter, over-brewed coffees I don’t think any of us could face another drink and so we left, hitting up the first hotel we could find.
The hotel was basic, a sterile post-war new-build, and our room for three came with everything we needed but not an iota more. It was cheap, however, it was central, and though communication between us didn’t come easily the staff were nevertheless friendly. I got the impression they didn’t see many Western tourists here.
We decided to have dinner in Vank that night – a small village we’d passed on the road, some 45 kilometres back. Not that Stepanakert doesn’t have plenty of its own restaurants, but the next day we planned to drive south; Vank was north, we wouldn’t get another chance to go, and by all accounts there were a couple of fairly weird things to see there.
Google Maps called it a 50-minute drive. It took us longer, of course, though at least on the way to Vank we still had daylight on our side. The narrow road curved and carved its way through the mountainside, sometimes twisting right back on itself in loops so severe that they felt as though they defied any geographical logic. It was worth it though for a look at the Eclectic Hotel, a mad, post-modernist ship-shaped building so utterly bamboozling that I entirely forgot to photograph it (fortunately though, this guy did). We ate in the restaurant there – rabbit stew was on the menu, served with dogwood juice and cognac – and after dinner I took a walk to photograph a nearby rockface carved into the likeness of a lion.
Vank is not a normal village, but its abnormality is no accident. A local Vank man, Levon Hairapetian, left the village to seek his fortune and went on to amass incredible wealth and influence most notably through his involvement in the privatisation of Russian energy suppliers in the 1990s. Now splitting his time between homes in Russia, Armenia, France and the US, Hairapetian has made the redevelopment of his hometown into a hobby: building quirky hotels and a new hospital, fixing the roads, restoring the cathedral, and yes, carving a lion into a hillside.
We spent the next day exploring Stepanakert. The atmosphere on the streets was a strange mixture of apathy and subtle tension: like a lazy Sunday afternoon on a military base. Young soldiers smoked cigarettes on corners while a trickle of pedestrians ambled slowly through the streets. More sat in cafes, sheltered from the hot sun. Flowers bloomed in well-tended beds between buildings that ranged from Stalinist-classical townhouses, constructed here from soft orange-pink Armenian stone, to space-age steel and glass creations like the Modernist Palace of Youth and Culture. Overhead, flags and banners fluttered between lampposts, bearing slogans like: “There is no alternative to independence.”
On Google Maps the city is marked as ‘Khankendi’ – its Azeri name – though none of its Azeri citizens are still around to call it that. At a population of roughly 55,000 people, it’s hardly a metropolis: we more or less walked from one end to the other in a few hours, stopping first for our official business at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Tourist visas for Nagorno-Karabakh can be acquired either in Yerevan, or on arrival in Stepanakert by visiting the ministry in person. We did the latter and the staff at the Artsakh Ministry of Foreign Affairs (located on the central Azatamartikneri Avenue) were, I think, perhaps the friendliest bureaucrats I’ve ever met in the former Soviet territories. There was no queue – instead, a young, suited man popped his head out when we arrived, and he immediately came over to give us a warm greeting. “Just wait here ten minutes, guys,” he said as he took our passports then disappeared back into the office.
The lobby of the ministry building was decorated with panels that showed off the tourism highlights of Nagorno-Karabakh. The standard of written English was excellent, I noted, better even than the English-language brochures produced by some EU member states. We had felt like a novelty at times, when meeting with the people of the region – but it seemed the local government at least was very keen to have us here.
“Okay, they’re ready!” said the ministry man, suddenly returning with our passports. He gave us a thumbs-up as he walked into the lobby. It hadn’t felt like ten minutes, but we paid our fees (amounting to roughly 5 euros each) and we were good to go.
On the street outside I was immediately accosted by a stranger. I thought she was asking for money at first. She spoke fast in Russian, had a desperate look about her and kept touching my arm as she talked. I understood just a little – enough to realise, first, that she wasn’t begging. I asked her to speak slower, and when she did, I understood that her brother was fighting in the separatist-controlled Luhansk region of Ukraine (currently calling itself the ‘Luhansk People’s Republic’). She was scared for him, and though I struggled to keep up when she began talking quicker again, I still made out occasional words: “snipers”… “bombs”… “death.”
She asked me if I spoke German. Not well enough for this conversation, I tried to explain – in German. I must have butchered it badly though, because she laughed. Then she started crying. The woman squeezed my arm again one last time, then turned to go. I wished her well; “Viel Glück,” and “do svidaniya.”
I realised, after she left, that I’d never asked which side her brother was fighting for in Ukraine. But maybe it didn’t matter.
I was still thinking about the encounter later, as we visited Stepanakert’s memorial to the soldiers of WWII; or as they call it here, the ‘Monument to the Fallen in the Great Patriotic War.’ The memorial complex adhered to a similar formula as all those Armenian Soviet monuments I wrote about last year: a generic pro-Soviet message but presented here with just enough local idiosyncrasy as to make it feel personal. The central obelisk with its hammer and sickle crest – still intact – was carved from the iconic local tufa stone. Visitors to the complex pass through a stairwell embossed with the dates “1941-1944” in strong, loud characters, before reaching a plaza decorated with traditional Karabakh-style pitchers, and an arch carved with a series of surprisingly expressive stone faces in an almost Grecian style.
The Christian cross was a more recent addition though, I guessed. At the top end of the memorial plaza, in front of a row of stone faces carved to show Soviet soldiers, a clean, white tower rose in the style of an Armenian Orthodox church topped with a cross. Almost certainly post-Soviet, if this had been any other country (say, Lithuania or Ukraine) I would have taken it for a symptom of decommunisation: a rededication of the dead, but also, perhaps in its own way some small anti-Soviet gesture. Here though, in Artsakh, a land recently and violently wrested from the control of the predominantly-Islamic Azerbaijan, that Christian symbol could just as easily have been a gesture of defiance pointed at Baku, rather than at Moscow.
On our last morning in Nagorno-Karabakh we decided to get a closer look at Agdam. We had heard the name so many times (usually in the context of “don’t go to Agdam”), that at some point, it became kind of inevitable that we’d try. Whatever else it was, all those warnings gave the distinct impression that Agdam was at least significant.
Back along that same stretch of highway, where the red zones to the east marked the range of enemy snipers, we approached the Agdam turn-off very slowly. There was a car behind us so we let it overtake, and we idled until it was out of sight before turning fast down the lane marked on my map, down a dust road flanked in sun-scorched plains. Ahead of us, broken stone structures littered the dead grass. It didn’t look like much from here – the remains of no more than a village, perhaps – but winding deeper into the fields, further from the highway, the ruins grew denser and more numerous until we crested a rise and the city of Agdam appeared before us. Or, what was left of Agdam, at least.
Even while the rest of Nagorno-Karabakh was predominantly Armenian, Agdam was 97% Azeri up until the last Soviet census. During the Nagorno-Karabakh War, the Azeri forces had used Agdam as a staging post for troops, and a base for launching their missiles and bombs to the west. The Azeri army committed heinous acts in Nagorno-Karabakh. In April 1992 they massacred a whole village of Armenian civilians in Maraga; and they targeted churches and other cultural sites in an effort to purge the region of Armenian culture. In 1993, the Armenian army pushed back and captured Agdam from the Azeris. According to a report from Human Rights Watch, the Armenians themselves then violated the rules of war, as they forcibly chased Azeris out of their homes in an act of violent ethnic cleansing. When the Azeris were gone, the Armenian forces destroyed what was left of Agdam; leaving the city, once numbering 24,000 citizens, as a smoking, ruined ghost town.
The Armenian army did a good job of wiping Agdam from the map. Where once there had been streets and houses, now only scattered frames, doorways and pillars still stood, while young trees filled out the spaces in between. At first glance the ruins might have looked ancient, like the vestiges of some long-gone empire – that’s how little was left of the city today, after war and looting and decay. Here and there amongst the stones though, lay burned-out vehicle chassis, bits of wrought-iron fence and strands of jagged rebar poking out from piles of concrete rubble. Scattered clues hinting at the freshness of the tragedy.
We parked the car on what was presumably once the edge of the city centre: where devastated stone cottages gave way to larger concrete shells. Half hidden by bushes nearby, an Azeri-Cyrillic slogan announced some Soviet-era political sentiment in faded red letters; the words “Party” and “People” were amongst the few still legible. We walked through the rubble, towards the centre of Agdam.
The city was a corpse in the final stages of butchering – metal mostly stripped, a lone digger sat stationary beside a mound of crumbled marble – and we weren’t alone here either. A military-style truck was hidden in a discreet parking space between two dirt piles; while one of the bomb-scarred houses we passed looked distinctly lived-in, with curtains on the windows and a new lock on the door.
Being stealthy isn’t easy on the terrain of a former war zone. We did our best to creep around the backs of buildings, watching out for snakes, while trying not to trip on rocks and rebar… and knowing full well that if our rental car was spotted first, we were already as good as caught. Nevertheless we slowly made our way towards the minarets that rose above the former streets, marking the location of Agdam’s main mosque on the city square.
Agdam’s mosque, according to archive photos, used to open onto landscaped gardens with pools and fountains, its twin minarets rising amongst trees over an elegant Persian-style park. Now it’s a wonder those minarets are still standing at all. These brick towers, and the building they’re attached to, stand forlorn in a field of dead grass and building debris.
We crept behind the back of the mosque, out of sight from the city streets, then quickly ducked around, inside, and up the stairs. The interiors were devastated. High, arched ceilings resting on ornate pillars sheltered nothing now but dust and stone, while graffiti – etched in Latin, Armenian and Cyrillic scripts – spread as high up the walls as human arms could reach. Track marks in the walls showed where copper cables had been stripped out by looters.
A stairwell near the entrance led up onto the roof, where grass had taken root between the mosque’s brick domes. From there the minarets beckoned: an arch led inside to a spiral staircase, a steep stone passage winding up towards what promised to be the best views left over Agdam. I followed it to the top.
The scale of the city – the scale of the tragedy – became more apparent from this vantage point. At ground level the ruins pressed in close, just one row of buildings at a time, while the fear of getting caught made it hard to step out of the present; to reflect on what this place might once have been. Up here in the minaret though Agdam revealed itself. Block after city block of empty houses, devastated parks, overgrown roads… 24,000 people chased out of their homes, an entire city put to the torch.
I saw a movement then, down amongst the hulking blocks that littered the former city square. A young man in camo fatigues was strolling the streets – too confident to be here illicitly, like us, I guessed he was perhaps connected to the nearby military base, either here for some training exercise, or else on security detail. I held my breath for a moment… he hadn’t seen us. Nearby a dog began barking, then another.
The penalty for visiting Agdam seems to vary depending on who catches you. Some visitors report a stern telling-off from soldiers, having their photos deleted, then being sent on their way. Other times you might pay a cash-in-hand fee for an easy exit. However, it is also perfectly within the power of the guards to put you through a bureaucratic hell of detention and interrogation, which was something that none of us wanted to see. So we waited in the sanctuary of the mosque until the stranger had passed, then we made our way as fast and as carefully as we could back to the car, shooting back to the highway in a cloud of dust as we left the dead city behind.
We left Nagorno-Karabakh that same day; driving back through Stepanakert, south past Shusha and Berdzor on a road signed to Goris, Armenia. The road folded into the mountain pass near a village called Zabux, and there a monument stood on the plateau facing northeast: our last view of the land we were leaving behind. Other cars came and went, passing motorists stopped to admire the view – snap photos on their smartphones and then leave.
The monument itself took the form of granite mountains, carved with window and arch designs reminiscent of an Armenian Orthodox church. Combined with the panoramic view behind, it struck me as a powerful symbol for local Armenian identity. These resolute mountain folk, still strong in their religious convictions even after centuries of persecution: a theme that seems to echo throughout Armenia’s history, from the conflict with Azerbaijan, back to their genocide under the Ottomans, and before.
All the more reason then to keep tourists out of Agdam… because at Agdam, it was the victims of this particular narrative who committed violent ethnic cleansing against the families of their oppressors.
Before I visited Nagorno-Karabakh, numerous people told me it was impossible – or at least, not safe to try. The more I researched it though, the more accounts I found from people who’d travelled through independently and, for the most part, had very positive experiences. I’m adding my own account to that number.
Some of the friendliest places I’ve ever visited were breakaway states with limited recognition. Tourism implies, if not recognition per se, at least an active interest in these places and so local people will very often bend over backwards to ensure that tourists leave with only good things to say about their *region/country* (delete as preferred). Nagorno-Karabakh is no exception. The so-called Artsakh Republic is one of the most welcoming places I’ve seen, and our three-day trip through the Karabakh mountains felt not only safe, but intellectually stimulating too. Certainly, for experienced travellers with an interest in post-Soviet geopolitics – in borders, nationalism and identity – I can’t recommend it highly enough.
It is not a trip that should be taken without caution, however. Too many travel blogs argue a place is safe simply because the author themselves had a safe experience… and I wouldn’t want to be so irresponsible here. Nagorno-Karabakh, however peaceful it may seem, is still a war zone and the conflict here between Armenia (de facto occupiers) and Azerbaijan (de jure territorial power) remains very far from settled. It’s only three years now since the last violent clashes (the ‘Four-Day War’ of April 2016) saw 350 people killed, and so it’s unwise to visit without first checking the latest news, and then paying close attention to the mood on the ground. At the slightest sign of political disturbance, you’re probably best off making a tactical retreat to Yerevan.
I should also add that if you plan to visit both Nagorno-Karabakh and (*the rest of*) Azerbaijan, then do be sure to visit Azerbaijan first. Travelling from Armenia into Nagorno-Karabakh – as we did – is considered by the Azeri government as an illegal entry to their territory, and so anyone arriving in Baku airport with a Karabakh stamp already in their passport is in for a really rough time.
By the way – Nagorno-Karabakh has some fantastic architecture and monuments, and I have more photographs than I could reasonably squeeze into this post. If you’re interested to see more I’ll be uploading them to my other site, Monumentalism.net.
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