I was in Armenia with one questioning burning in my mind: Should I go to Nagorno-Karabakh?
My original plan was to spend the weekend in the disputed territory after a week working in Armenia's capital, Yerevan. But that was before military activity escalated in Nagorno-Karabakh on the night between April 1 and April 2. The action pitted Karabakh fighters against Azerbaijani soldiers in the most violent flare-up since the signing of the 1994 Bishkek Protocol cease-fire. While I knew it was unlikely a major conflict akin to the 1988-1994 war would break out, I was still uneasy about visiting an area where guns were going off. As it turned out, the two sides signed a new cease-fire on April 5. And, though a bit of cross-border fighting continues, the deal reduced the violence considerably. A flurry of diplomatic activity followed, primarily by Russia but also by Turkey and the West, further cooling things down in the area. That settled it. My mind made up, I set my sights on Nagorno-Karabakh.
The Way to Nagorno-Karabakh
Early the next morning, I was on my way. I caught a taxi to Yerevan's main bus station, where I'd heard marshrutkas — the Soviet-era mini-buses you find throughout the former Soviet Union — left every hour for Stepanakert (called Khankendi in Azerbaijan). My cab driver, a sad-looking old man in a run down Lada sedan, told me he used to live in Baku during Soviet times, but that he fled to Yerevan when the Nagorno-Karabakh War broke out in the late 1980s, a common story around these parts. Azerbaijanis who once lived in Armenia tell similar tales. "You're not scared?" he asked, when I said I was going to the region. "Oh, just Stepanakert. You'll be fine." Half an hour later, I found myself in a marshrutka with about 15 other passengers, heading for the quasi-independent statelet.
There are only two roads leading from Armenia proper to Nagorno-Karabakh — the Lachin corridor in the south and the Karvajar pass in the north. There is no functioning railway, and a recently renovated airport in Stepanakert never actually opened after Azerbaijan threatened to shoot down any planes that used it. The weather dictated we use the southern route, so off we set.
The road to the border was breathtaking and presented a few lessons in the region's geopolitics of its own. Small villages such as Artashat and Ararat offered glimpses into the past, where Soviet-era apartment blocks mixed with makeshift storefronts and tumbledown shacks. Just down the road, one might see a small, simple Armenian Orthodox church or a shepherd and his flock.
After an hour or so, we reached the town of Yeraskh, near Armenia's border with the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhchivan and just a few kilometers away from the frontiers of both Turkey and Iran. From there, we headed east on the M12 highway. The landscape grew more rugged, with large, reddish-brown hills making way for snow-capped mountains as we entered the Lesser Caucasus range. Slowly and determinedly, the marshrutka wound its way through the mountains over narrow roads scarred with potholes. And, while the broken (or sometimes entirely missing) guardrails made me catch my breath, the view of the imposing mountain range and seemingly bottomless gorges was stunning.
Four hours later we passed the town of Goris and began nearing the border of Nagorno-Karabakh. Here, signs of the recent hostilities began to show themselves. Five Kamaz military trucks passed by in rapid succession, followed shortly after by another group of vehicles. Closer to the border, we saw several large trucks loaded with tanks parked near the side of the road. Then came the border checkpoint, where a handful of men in military and police uniforms manned a small building.
Nagorno-Karabakh At Last
After a brief but slightly tense check-in at the border, we made our way into Nagorno-Karabakh. We passed small, backward-looking villages scattered across majestic green mountains. We also began to see signs and billboards displaying "Artaskh," the local name for Nagorno-Karabakh, as well as the region's flags, distinguishable from the red, blue and yellow Armenian flag only by the hollow white triangle jutting out from their right sides. The drive into Stepanakert was marked by the ruins of buildings and run-down apartment blocks strewn about the mountainous landscape. Kamaz military vehicles passed by us with increasing frequency. More and more large concrete apartment blocks appeared as we approached the city center, which had a gloomy and gray Soviet character. At 4 p.m., about seven hours after we left Yerevan, we pulled into the Stepanakert bus station.
At the station, I met my contact. A stout, friendly-looking man in his mid-40s, he offered to take me to a hotel. Better yet, he said, I could stay at his place, where I'd have my own room and home-cooked meals, all for less than the cost of a hotel. Alone in the city and interested in a closer look at local life, I happily accepted.
His flat was in a typical Soviet apartment block not far from the bus station. There I met his wife, also stout and friendly, who immediately brought out strong Armenian coffee and sweets. He then offered to give me a tour of some must-see sites around Nagorno-Karabakh while there was still daylight. After assurances from both he and his wife that it was safe, we set off in his Lada 4x4.
We headed north out of the city toward Gandzasar, a monastery my host described as the best place to see in the region. After just a few minutes, we passed the Tatik-Papik monument, an iconic symbol displaying Nagorno-Karabakh's Armenian heritage. The monument, made of Armenia's trademark pink stone, depicts the large heads of a man and woman. In Armenian, its name means "Grandma and Grandpa." Besides the occasional military vehicle, the road to Gandzasar was eerily quiet. With the exception of a few shepherds, very few people were out, and as we passed rickety homes and simple farms that appeared abandoned, one could not help but think they had left because of the recent outbreak of violence.
My host told me that he was born and raised in Nagorno-Karabakh, and that he had fought in the 1988-1994 war with Azerbaijan. Despite a grenade wound from 1991 and lingering injuries in his back and shoulder, he was still a reservist and was prepared to fight if war broke out again. These days, he works as a taxi driver and an occasional guide for tourists visiting the area. Economically, times are tough right now, he said. The territory depends largely on agriculture and is almost entirely supported by Armenia and the Armenian diaspora. Jobs are scarce, and because of the war and Nagorno-Karabakh's isolation, opportunities are limited.
Just outside the village of Vank, we stopped to visit the magnificent 10th-century Gandzasar monastery, perched on a hilltop overlooking the mountains. Inside, the monastery was dim and deathly quiet. On our way out, we passed some locals who had also come to visit the monastery. Aside from the odd shepherd or farmer, they were the only people I saw that day out and about. According to my host, the road to Gandzasar is normally bustling. The recent violence was the reason things were so quiet.
Done with our visits, we headed back to my host's house for a family meal. The dinner table was packed with local and regional delicacies: eggplant salad, pickled cabbage, roast chicken, solanka and delicious Armenian bread. We washed it all down with locally made grape vodka, accompanied by the sound of my guide's many toasts, which were peppered throughout the meal. The couple's two children joined us, a 20-year-old daughter and an 18-year-old son. The daughter studies linguistics at a local university and told me she loves American culture. A big fan of Game of Thrones, she chatted throughout the night in good English. The son, on the other hand, barely spoke a word. He will soon have to join the army, a nerve-wracking prospect given the current state of affairs.
It was a pleasant and enjoyable evening, and I was grateful to be with such a kind family that went out of its way to be hospitable during such a difficult time. Moreover, it occurred to me that I could imagine spending a similar night around a family's table in Yerevan or Baku and feel little difference. Though these were people whose lives and worldviews had undoubtedly been shaped by their location, they had so much in common with others I've met in Azerbaijan, Armenia and elsewhere throughout the world.
If anyone is trapped by geopolitics, I thought, it's them.
Wandering in Stepanakert
The next morning, my host dropped me off near the center of Stepanakert. I wanted to get a look around the city. After jumping out of the Lada, I headed toward Renaissance Square, home to Nagorno-Karabakh's presidential palace and parliament building. The area was tense, scattered with military personnel, and I saw only a few civilians moving about. I got the feeling that it wouldn't be a good idea to just wander around aimlessly, so I ducked into a nearby hotel. Inside, the cafe was empty, except for two old men sharing a table in silence. I ordered a coffee, but felt I'd better not linger and left soon after.
I decided to walk around the city center for a while. About 50,000 people live in Stepanakert, which looks a lot like many former Soviet cities around its size. But what stuck out was the sheer number of military personnel around, who, if not for their uniforms, would easily blend in with the rest of the population. I saw soldiers chatting with civilians on the street, waiting at bus stops, buying bread at kiosks. Military vehicles passed by frequently and were almost as common as regular cars.
Around noon I stepped into a cafe for lunch. Almost immediately, my waitress asked suspiciously where I came from. When I told her I was originally from Kiev and was in Nagorno-Karabakh on a tourist visit from Yerevan, she lightened up. She told me about her life, and how her husband's death in the war in 1994 had left her to raise two children on her own. She said the recent escalation was a senseless one, and that young people were dying for no reason. She also told me that someone had come into the same cafe yesterday and had spent six hours on his computer before the police came and took him away. Taking this as a cue that I'd better not hang around too long, I called my host for a ride after a few more minutes of talking. I felt a lot more comfortable with him than wandering the city alone.
He showed up a short while later and we set off for the town of Shushi (called Shusha in Azerbaijan), just a few kilometers to the south. Shushi is the historical capital of Nagorno-Karabakh that was left largely in ruins by the 1988-94 war. Now, the city is a cultural center for the region. We took in a few sights, including the 19th-century Verkhiya Mosque.
Back in Stepanakert, my host organized a shared taxi back to Yerevan. After saying goodbye, I was on my way. Thankfully, the border checkpoint was much less eventful this time around. A guard skimmed my passport and let me pass, and we rumbled down the road away from Nagorno-Karabakh, leaving behind the quirks and charms of a place trapped in a game much larger than itself.