The Southern Caucasus is famous for its beautiful views, excellent food, incredible hospitality, but it also has its dark side. The strategic position linking Asia to Europe has always been the cause of clashes among world players like Russia, Iran and Turkey. This area consists of three countries: Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia. Before the trip, I did not expect that countries with such a small area, could be so different in every way: religion, culture and even origin. The Southern Caucasus is an area of very turbulent history, which is even now visible. Many conflicts remain unexplained, resulting in the existence of three self – appointed counries: Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Nagorno-Karabakh. The issue of Abkhazia and South Ossetia concerns Georgia, while Nagorno Karabakh is a disputed area between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Nagorno Karabakh has many names, in the Russian language is Nagorno /y Karabakh, in Azerbaijan Qarabağ, while in Armenian Artsakh – the current name of the Republic. Both Armenia and Azerbaijan have created a historical right to this territory. It’s no use searching for Nagorno-Karabakh on the South Caucasus map. It’s an Armenian enclave, located in around 15 % of the Azerbaijan territory. It has not been internationally recognised, only self – appointed states like: Abkhazia, Transnistria and South Ossetia recognised its independence. More importantly, it hasn’t been officially recognised even by supporting it Aremenia. In the 20th century, as a result of the Soviet Union’s policy, Karabakh was repeatedly incorporated once to Azerbaijan, once to Armenia. On 4th July 1921 USRR decided to join it to Armenia, but in order to improve relations with Turkey (the Armenian enemy), a day later, they decided to include it in Azerbaijan, on the rights of the autonomous territory. The fact that the territory was inhabited mostly by Armenians did not matter.
Karabakh had remained within Azerbaijan borders until 1987, when it came out with a proposal to join with Armenia. The refusal of the USSR has become the beginning of an armed conflict present today. The typical ‘divide and rule’ policy of the Soviet Union was suppressing the independent aspirations of the Southern Caucasus, but with its collapse, the situation in this area has become very complicated. After the collapse of the USSR, Russia began to support the Armenians in joinig Nagorno-Karabakh. The main reason for reversed Russia’s policy to Nagorno-Karabakh was that the Azerbaijanis, as a nation related to the Turks, was always supported by Turkey, an ally of the United States. Declaration of independence proclaimed by Karabakh in 1991, started a bloody war between Azerbaijan and Armenia which lasted until 1994. At present, the situation between these countries is tense, but there are no open hostilities.
Before the trip, I thought that Nagorno Karabakh is a country destroyed by war, but it turned out to be a beautiful area surrounded by high mountains, picturesque valleys and canyons. The name itself gives a perfect image of this place. Nagorno Karabkah means “Mountainous Black Garden”, Nagorno – means mountainous in Russian, Kara – it’s black in Turkish and bakh – means gardens in farsi.
In addition to beautiful nature you can see there old churches, monasteries and fortresses. The Capital of Artsakh – Xankendi, commonly known as Stepanakert, surprised me with its order, new buildings and good roads. Karbakh/Artsakh is supported financially by Armenia, so it was even more surprising to me that its economic situation seems much better than on the Armenian side.
The mandatory point of each trip is the capital – Stepanakert, where the visa should be obtained. On a hill close Stepanakert, you can see the monument “We are our mountains”, built in 1967. I presents two old men – mountainous people, called Tatik and Papik,in translation grandma and grandpa.
During the tour, there was a demonstration at the monument with one of the Nagorno-Karabakh ministers. Standing in a crowd of children waving flags, we became the stars of Karbakh TV.
The historical capital of Nagorno-Karabakh was located in Shushi, near Stepanakert. It was heavily destroyed during war. There are no signs of war right now. You can see there a beautiful cathedral, as well as the tank left after the war in its suburbs.
Close to Stepanakart is the true jewel of Nagorno-Karabakh, Hunot Canyon. The canyon path leads along the Karkar river surrounded by high rocks and lush vegetation.
Around 40 kilometers form Stepanakert is very interesting buildng – Hotel Eclectic located in the small town of Vank.
High on the hill, above the village of Vank, you can visit the historic Armenian monastery – Gandzasar. A lot of pilgrims come here every year, due to the relics of Zachariah – John The Baptist’s father.
The interior of the monastery is raw, and only the glow of the candles made it warmer. From the top of the hill there’s also a beautiful panorama of Karabakh.
We also wanted to visit Agdam – the ghost town. Once city with a population of 50 thousand residents, now completely desolated after the war. Unfortunately, it turns out that the visa does not allow to visit this place. In addition, it is a buffer zone with Azerbaijan, where situation sometimes gets tense, as it was during our stay.
Relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan are still at the border of armed conflict. At present, it’s safe to move around Armenia and Azerbaijan, but it is important to avoid areas close to the border, as there is sometimes an exchange of fire. On the site of the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs you can find following infromation:
In the territory of Armenia, as a rule, it is possible to move without restrictions, but it’s advisable to avoid travelling in areas near the border with Azerbaijan (especially in the province of Tawusz), as there are armed incidents associated with Karbakh conflict. The Embassy warns against travelling on the road of Voskepar-Baghanis (part of the international tour of Yerevan-Tbilisi). We suggest using the Armenian side of the M5 and M3 route (by Vanadzor and Aparan). If you need to pass the M16 route, you shall be forced to move to a detour designated by the road H26.
However, in the case of Nagorno-Karabakh on the same site you can find the following information:
It is strongly advised not to travel across the Nagorno-Karabakh territory because of its unknown international status and the armed incidents on the border. The consul in Yerevan does not have the possibility to take care of Polish citizens in that territory. It is also necessary to be aware that the entry into the Karbakh territory is regarded as an illegal crossing of the border from the point of view of the Azerbaijani authorities and may result in consequences defined in its law.
When deciding to go to Nagorno Karabakh, a possible threat should be considered. One must also bear in mind that travel insurance will probably not cover emergencies resulted from armed or terrorist activities. There are no armed incidents currently in Nagorno Karabakh territory, but before going there, it is best to obtain up-to-date information on the situation, from Armenians living in border areas or to use local guides.
In addition, when planning a journey across the Southern Caucasus, first go to Azerbaijan and then visit Armenia not to mention Nagorno Karabakh. The stamps form these places in the passport makes it impossible to obtain a visa to Azerbaijan and at the border it is necessary to hide all items related to Armenia (what I’ve written here)
Transportation and visa:
You can only get to Nagorno Karabakh through Armenian border. Border crossing is located next to the village of Berdzor, although it’s possible to cross the border next to the village of Karvajar during the summer. From Yerevan to Stepanakert you can get by bus, which runs every day, ticket costs 45000 drams.
I have to admit that the border crossing between Armenia and Norgorno Karbakh is quite bizarre. There are two flags: Armenian and Karbakh, which practically look the same.
Tourists wishing to visit Karabkh must obtain a visa, but the most surprising thing is that it can’t be arranged before coming or at the border. At the border you receive a note with an address where you can get a visa. Furthermore, a visa can be obtained in the capital – Xankendi (common known as Stepanakert) in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, located at Azatamartikneri 28, about 70 km from the border!!! The customs officer gave us the address and instructed to keep in mind that at 1 pm, ministry officials have lunch. It was valuable information, because what would we have done if a hungry official hadn’t given us a visa? Then would be the only one solution… We would have stayed in Artsakh for much, much longer 😉 Lack of visa makes it impossible to return to Armenia. The ministry is open from Monday to Saturday between 9 and 17. If the ministry it’s closed, the visa should be obtained on the following working day. Visa costs 3 000 drams, which is calculated. It’s said that it can be made in Yerevan, but in this case, a photograph should be included. The visa is not stuck to the passport, so in future it can be used to cover unwanted stamps e.g. from Kosovo when we want to visit Serbia.