I’m going to tell you a story that I’ve never shared (in writing) before. It’s the story of my trip to Nagorno-Karabakh, also known as Artsakh. I visited this region in 2017, on a trip that included Belarus, Georgia and Armenia. At the time, very few people had heard of Nagorno-Karabakh, but as I write this story, in autumn 2020, the name Nagorno-Karabakh has been thrust into headlines all around the world.
I’m not an expert on traveling to Nagorno-Karabakh. My recollection is that I stayed about six nights, although I can’t be sure as the hotels that I stayed at have been wiped from the site I used to reserve my rooms, as though they never existed. I didn’t see the entire region, though I was able to get outside the capital into some of the smaller communities and some beautiful nature reserves. Regardless, I think the time has come for more people to share their stories of visiting this area, so here is mine.
Where is Nagorno-Karabakh?
As I type, a war is being fought over the political answer to this very question. According to Wikipedia, Nagorno-Karabakh is “internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan”, yet they also acknowledge that it is “mostly governed by the unrecognized Republic of Artsakh [which is] reliant on and closely integrated with Armenia, in many ways functioning de facto as part of Armenia”. In October 2020, conflicts in the region escalated, with Azerbaijan launching extensive attacks in an attempt to regain control of this territory. It is hard to find unbiased information on the current conflict, but the BBC’s Nagorno-Karabakh section is an acceptable starting point that features regular updates.
Geographically, Nagorno-Karabakh is surrounded by land controlled by Azerbaijan, but adjacent to the southeast border of Armenia. The southern border of the region is only about fifty kilometers from Turkey’s northern edge.
In my opinion? This is a dangerous question (one that bloggers have been extradited and jailed for answering), but I will say that during my time in Nagorno-Karabakh, the people I met resoundingly identified as Armenian and resoundingly rejected the idea that their nation was part of Azerbaijan. I don’t think it’s my place to sit on my couch in Canada tell them otherwise, and I respect their right to live in Artsakh freely and safely.
Why travel to Nagorno-Karabakh?
You don’t travel to Nagorno-Karabakh for amusement parks, or shopping, or art galleries, or winter sports. Nagorno-Karabakh is a disputed territory, with resources and activities to match.
In 2017, I traveled to Nagorno-Karabakh because I was curious. As a teenager I’d seen a television program about disputed territories, and several years earlier I’d visited Transnistria (a disputed territory between Ukraine and Moldova). I had actually come to the Caucasus with the intent of visiting three disputed regions: Nagorno-Karabakh, South Ossetia and Abkhazia. However, once I got my feet on the ground in Georgia I realized that I was limited by both time and my willingness to deal with bureaucracy, and ended up only visiting Nagorno-Karabakh. (I guess I’ll have to go back!) My style of travel has always been focused around experiencing day-to-day life in the places I visit, and, like Transnistria, spending a week in Nagorno-Karabakh allowed me to experience life split between two nations.
As I write this, I wouldn’t recommend that any of my readers travel to Nagorno-Karabakh right now. It doesn’t matter how fearless you are, traveling to an active war zone for touristic purposes is stupid. If you’re going to Nagorno-Karabakh in late 2020, it should be for humanitarian work and you should be highly specialized in doing that work in an active conflict zone.
In the future, should the conflict end peacefully, a visit to Nagorno-Karabakh will support its citizens in recovering from this war. They will need foreign investment to reconstruct their nation, and they will need foreign voices to speak up for their people around the world. Again, please refrain from visiting Nagorno-Karabakh until the conflict is over, both for your own safety and to avoid placing further strain on a system already in crisis.
If you’d like to support both Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh now, from your home country, my Armenian friends recommend donating to the Hayastan All-Armenian Fund.
I don’t think it’s possible to talk about traveling to Nagorno-Karabakh without discussing the political and military situation, but I will try to distance myself from that for the rest of the post, and I’ll try to focus primarily on my actual experience in Artsakh, as well as my advice for travelers to the area. That being said, I choose to use the local, Armenian names for the places I visited in Nagorno-Karabakh, although some popular websites redirect to the Azerbaijani names for these destinations.
How to get from Yerevan to Nagorno-Karabakh
This part was easy! Although there are minibuses from Yerevan to Stepanakert, everyone I spoke to recommended a shared (private) taxi instead. My hostel in Yerevan hailed a taxi and gave the driver instructions to take me to a street corner near the Kilikia bus station (in Yerevan) from which shared taxis leave for Stepanakert every morning. The taxi driver connected me with a private driver looking for one more person (that part being not immediately obvious to me!). We loaded my bag into his trunk and I got into the front passenger seat – at that time, I was the only other person in the car and I thought I’d negotiated a sweet rate for a private ride to Stepanakert!
I remember the next part so clearly – I was following along with our route on Google Maps, when we were near the edge of Yerevan, we suddenly detoured off the main road and started driving through a crumbling residential area, on these really narrow roads between tall, unfinished apartment blocks. I briefly though I was going to be murdered, but eventually we stopped at an apartment building and three more passengers came down to the car: a young woman, her elderly mom and the girl’s new baby. They all piled into the back and off we went. The rest of the trip took about five or six hours, with one fifteen-minute stop at a gas station where I bought an ice-cold Coca-Cola and a fried bread pastry stuffed with mashed potato that I still dream about, three years later.
I believe that the road from “Armenia” to Stepanakert briefly passed through territory that is widely recognized as being owned by Azerbaijan, but our car didn’t have to stop until we reached the unofficial border of the Republic of Artsakh. The other passengers in the car lived in the region and were only given a perfunctory once-over at the military check-point, but I was given a thorough grilling and the contact information for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where I would have to report to within twenty-four hours to obtain my official visa for the region.
From there it was a brief drive into the capital. The taxi took me directly to my hotel, and after dropping off my bags I walked through the city center to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. My visa was processed very quickly, and although I was given the option of having it on a separate sheet of paper (in case I later wanted to visit Azerbaijan – in which case I would have to lie and claim I’d never visited Nagorno-Karabakh) I could see the government official was pleased that I requested to have the visa placed directly in my passport, knowing that would prevent me from visiting Azerbaijan afterwards.
Note: According to Wikipedia, “Travellers with Artsakh visa (expired or valid) or evidence of travel to Artsakh (stamps) will be permanently denied entry to Azerbaijan.” You should not attempt to enter Azerbaijan if you have an Artsakh visa in your passport, and I would not recommend ever attempting to enter Azerbaijan if you’ve previously traveled to Nagorno-Karabakh. As per the link above, you could be arrested and jailed… but you do you.
Things to Do in Stepanakert
We Are Our Mountains Statue
The iconic symbol of the Republic of Artsakh, this 1960s sculpture by Sarghis Baghdasaryan draws both locals and members of the Armenian diaspora. During my visit I met a family who had fled the region during the first Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, and were returning from their new home in France with their children to show them their ancestral homelands. The male and female figures on the statue represent the many people who live in the mountains throughout the region, and vendors at the base of the hill sell postcards, magnets, t-shirts and other souvenirs featuring the statue. You can walk here from the city center in about twenty minutes, but there’s little shade and it’s slightly uphill on the return journey (I hitched a ride on a tractor on my way back!).
I love visiting local markets when I travel, and Stepanakert’s market was a highlight of the city for me. There was an abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables, along with delicious nuts and dried fruits. I was seriously regretting not reserving an Airbnb with a kitchen, as all I wanted to do was make salads! This is where I first tried jingalov hats, the region’s most iconic dish (and, amazingly, vegetarian!). Although I watched the vendor make my herb-stuffed flatbread from scratch, I still have no idea how she managed to fold what seemed like four heaping cups (or, a liter!) of finely-diced herbs into what came out as a tiny piece of flatbread!
(If you want to make your own jingalov hats, check out this recipe from an Armenian cooking site.)
Museums, Galleries and Libraries
I visited The National State Museum in Nagorno-Karabakh. The staff at the museum were very excited to have a Canadian visitor, and gleefully led me around the ground-floor exhibit entitled (if I recall correctly) “Azerbaijan: Destroyers of Civilizations”. It was primarily before-and-after photos of Artsakh, showing cities, buildings and monuments that had been damaged in the war that raged from 1988 to 1994, and in the intermittent conflict that had continued from 1994 until my visit in 2017. Upstairs, the aging exhibits were focused more on the region’s archeological, environmental and cultural history.
There is also a state library, named after the creator of the Armenian alphabet, but it appeared to be closed for the duration of my time in the capital. As well, you may be able to catch a show at the city’s dramatic theater.
Stepanakert City Center
One of the things I remember most about my visit to Nagorno-Karabakh was how few people were out and about in the streets. Even in the city center, in front of the government buildings and popular hotels, I was often the only person around. Where were the city’s 55,000 residents?
Perhaps it was the August morning and afternoon heat that kept the city relatively quiet, as things often picked up in the evening, with families coming out to stroll around the main plaza with their children, snack on popcorn and cotton candy, and listen to music that was alternately played live or piped in through speakers. There was actually a jazz festival at the time of my visit, but I imagine that it’s hard for the city to attract foreign acts as performers would then be prevented from ever playing in nearby Baku.
Most of the shops in the city seemed to carry second-hand clothing imported from Europe, or cheap Chinese products, but there were several liquor stores selling local cognac, including a regional specialty made with mulberries.
Where to Stay in Stepanakert
Initially, I booked in to Stepanakert’s most luxurious hotel, the Vallex Garden Hotel. Located right on the main plaza, and seemingly the place to stay for businessmen who looked like the living embodiment of bribery, this is the newest, nicest hotel in the city but absolutely not worth the money (in my opinion – my window was jammed shut, my key card failed every time I tried to use it and there were cobwebs in the curtains). When I decided to stay two extra nights I switched to Hotel Armenia, just across the plaza, which was a bit older but less than half the price. I’m sure I booked Vallex Garden through Booking.com, but the site seems to have temporarily removed all hotels in the region (unclear if for safety or due to political pressure…).
Excursions from Stepanakert
At the time of my visit to Nagorno-Karabakh, the Republic of Artsakh was operating a Tourist Information booth in the main plaza, right in front of Hotel Armenia. It was actually their office that inspired me to extend my visit in the city, as they were offering several full- and half-day excursions around the region, all priced below $2 USD. Yes, the entire tour cost less than $2 USD!
I would be surprised if the same tours will operate in the near future, but I suspect the tourist information office (or your accommodation) could help you find a private driver for a day or two who could take you all around the region.
Gandzasar Monastery is a thirteenth-century monastery about an hour from Stepanakert, near the village of Vank (more on that later!). Situated at the top of a hill with beautiful views of the surrounding mountains, this monastery has been a flashpoint in the regional conflict (with Azerbaijain inaccurately claiming that the church is actually Albanian – a widely debunked theory) yet remains the region’s most important domestic tourism attraction. Modest dress is required of all visitors, and women will need a head covering (scarves were available to borrow when I visited).
Nikol Duman’s House Museum & Memorial
For many years, modern-day Armenia (including Nagorno-Karabakh) was occupied, first by the Ottoman Empire, and later by the Russian Empire. Nikol Duman was an Armenian teacher, born in the village of Ghshlagh, who devoted most of his adult life to fighting for Armenian independence. Today, his birthplace is a memorial museum that describes both his path to activism and the region’s history (only in Armenian, however!). It’s fun to spend an hour poking around this crumbling little house (to this day I’ve never been so sure that a floor was about to give out under my feet!) and gaining a better understanding of rural living in the region.
Vank and Surroundings
Vank, Artsakh was the birthplace of Armenian businessman Levon Hairapetyan. Hairapetyan invested millions of dollars in the region, including in the restoration of Gandzasar Monastery, before his death in a Russian prison in October, 2017 (just a few months after my visit to the region). Hairapetyan also invested in Vank, helping turn the tiny village into a bizarre tourist attraction centered around the colorful boat-shaped Eclectic Hotel, shown above. You can book a room for the night, or simply stop by and have a cold drink “on deck”.
The region’s second most famous attraction is its wall of license plates, stretching for several blocks and hypnotizing visitors with its seemingly never-ending pattern of letters and numbers.
My memory card doesn’t lie – I visited this boat-shaped restaurant and growling lion cave just forty-five minutes before stopping at the Eclectic Hotel, which logically tells me they are nearby! However, a number of websites list the two locations as more than one hour apart, suggesting that this destination may be mislabeled on Google Maps and other travel websites. I swear, this is just outside Vank: a newer construction, featuring a boat-shaped restaurant plopped in the middle of a babbling brook, with a growling lion cave and a car on a roof (shown way above) along the road.
Mamrot Kar Waterfall (aka Hovanots or Zontik)
My final trip with Tourist Information in Stepanakert was a half-day self-guided hike to the Mamrot Kar waterfall, which is known locally as Hovanots or Zontik. Tourist Information provided bus service from the center of Stepanakert out to the trail head, as well as return transportation about four hours later.
Fortunately it wasn’t too hot a day, as the initial descent into the canyon was dusty and without shade. It was easy to follow the path down to the river bed, but once at the bottom I needed some guidance from the local berry-picking men to reach the actual waterfall itself. The path was quite slippery (even in the dry summer months!), with the wooden footbridges being particularly precarious. Still, I reached the waterfall and crossed to the viewpoint opposite without falling into the water below!
Side Trip to Shushi
Shushi is where the reality of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict really hit me. My visit was in August, 2017, more than twenty years after the “official” end of the regional conflict, and yet the city was still clearly badly damaged. Entire apartment blocks were boarded up, with gaping holes where there had once been windows and graffiti where there had once been welcome signs. Although my travel guide said it was possible to enter the town’s two mosques, workers at both sites prevented from entering. The town’s carpet museum, history museum and geology museums were all open, however, and the latter is where I met my guesthouse owner, the semi-famous Saro Saryan.
If you don’t plan to visit Nagorno-Karabakh any time soon, you can still hear Saro’s story on Season 11 of Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown. The guesthouse owner and local historian dined with Bourdain in the fields behind his guesthouse (shown above), discussing the region’s people and history. I believe he can be reached at saro.saryan[at]gmail.ru if you’d like to book a room at his guesthouse, located slightly below the city center.
I had dinner and breakfast with Saro and his wife (and their dog, who had just had a litter of absolutely adorable puppies!). Over our meal they shared their stories of fleeing Baku due to ethnic violence committed against Armenians in the 1980s and 1990s, and they allowed me access to their library of books about the history of Armenia and its people. They also recommended a number of things that I should see during my afternoon and morning in their town.
Their top recommendation was a visit to Ghazanchetsots Cathedral, which had just finished a reconstruction process only weeks before I visited. Approximately 150 years old, the Ghazanchetsots Cathedral is on par with Gandzasar Monastery in its religious significance to the Armenian people. Unfortunately, it experienced extreme damage during the first Nagorno-Karabakh War and it was even turned into an armoury by Azerbaijan after they expelled the town’s Armenian residents in 1988. When Armenia regained control of the territory it was the first building in the city to be restored, and it was by far the most beautiful piece of architecture in the city when I was there.
Sadly, revived conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh has once again led to damage of the Ghazanchetsots Cathedral. On October 8th, 2020, Azerbaijan fired two missiles into into the cathedral, badly damaging the roof and the interior. The attacks were denounced by the non-partisan International Association of Genocide Scholars.
Where to Go After Nagorno-Karabakh
I departed Nagorno-Karabakh from Shushi. My accommodation arranged a private driver to take me to Halidzor, the lower base of the cable car to Tatev. The drive should have taken about two hours, but due to the car breaking down three times it took nearly four hours to reach the cable car station. From Halidzor, I caught the cable car to Tatev and stayed in the mountain village for two nights (at the lovely John & Lena Guesthouse).
If you’re not planning to visit Tatev, you can take a minibus from Shushi or Stepanakert to Goris, the closest Armenian city to the Nagorno-Karabakh border. From here, you can get a private taxi back to Stepanakert (there is an actual private taxi office near the post office – it’s unmarked but locals will see you looking confused and point you towards the right doorway) or, depending on the current situation, stay the night before catching an early-morning minibus into Iran.
I have always believed that the very act of traveling is political. I have chosen not to visit the United States of America during Donald Trump’s presidency (though as I write this, we are just days away from a possible change in leadership in that country) and have even offered a list of more-ethical travel alternatives. I visited Myanmar prior to the Rohingya genocide, and have written about why I would not yet return. I have a limited amount of time and money for travel, and it has always been important for me to spend it in a way that aligns with my values.
I know that my choice to visit Nagorno-Karabakh will offend some people. I know that my choice to even acknowledge the existence of the Republic of Artsakh will offend some people. But it’s been almost three months since I last published a blog post, and I wasn’t going to come out of hibernation with a post full of affiliate links to the best travel cameras or the most luxurious hotels. People are dying in Nagorno-Karabakh, and it’s important for me to humanize the region and its people. To show you that they live lives just like us. That they have been fighting against extreme oppression for more than a hundred years. When you see the news about another missile attack in Stepanakert, please don’t only think of plumes of smoke. Think of women making flatbread in the market, children playing in the street while laundry dries overhead, caves that roar like lions and guesthouse owners who dined with Anthony Bourdain.
That is the Nagorno-Karabakh that I knew.