Comtourist likes to visit quirky places during our travels, Nagorno Karabakh would be the unusual destination in our Caucasus schedule. This beautiful mountainous region is heavily scarred by the 1990s conflict, when Karabakh became an independent Republic. Today Nagorno Karabakh is a safe place to visit, so we decided to have a look and see how the people are coping with very difficult circumstances.
"The region of Nagorno Karabakh is in Armenia Minor, which is now called Armenian Seghnakhs; all those lands are populated by brave Armenian Christians, who have defended themselves with their own forces against both the Turks and the Persians for the last several years. "
Peter Shafirov - 1733
We had to think once or twice before we decided to include Nagorno Karabakh in our Caucasus itinerary as we had limited time and wanted to see many things. The solution was to sacrifice some interesting places in Armenia like the famous Garni Temple and the Geghard Monastery. We already had seen many Temples and Monasteries during our travel and we were glad that we visited Nagorno Karabakh. It is a beautiful country with a sad but interesting history and very friendly people!
Visiting Nagorno Karabakh is not difficult; the main problem is that it takes a full day to get there from Yerevan. Visitors have to register at the border and acquire visa in Stepanakert. The Visa will cost around $35 with a waiting time of half an hour. It should also be possible to get the Visa in Yerevan but we highly recommend getting it in Stepanakert. Visas are issued at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that has a small exposition about the country in the waiting area. The Visa can be issued on a separate piece of paper to avoid problems when traveling to Azerbaijan. We undertook the journey with a driver but renting a car or go by Marshrutka (Mini Bus) should also not be a problem. There is currently no air connection between Yerevan and Stepanakert, since the Azeri have fired at civilian aircraft in the past.
The Lachin corridor
Nagorno Karabakh is a landlocked region within the borders of Azerbaijan with no connection to Armenia. The Lachin Rayon was occupied by Armenia during the War to secure a vital connection between Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh. The so called Lachin Corridor is the main road into Nagorno Karabakh. We started our trip into Karabakh from Goris one of the main cities in the Syunik Province close to the border. The border crossing between Armenia and Karabakh is basically a small police post where people entering need to register. The road trough the Lachin Corridor that leads to the capital Stepanakert was build with money donated by the Armenian Diaspora mainly in the USA.
We had booked a room in Hotel Armenia, the biggest hotel in Stepanakert situated on Central Square between the main government buildings. The new Parliament building is actually part of the same structure as our hotel. Not much has changed on the old building from the Local Soviet Government expect that the Soviet Coat of Arms is replaced by the Karabakh Coat of Arms. Stepanakert was shelled continuously for four months by heavy Azeri artillery from the high ground around Shushi during the war. Many buildings were destroyed and are now replaced by new buildings often with money from the Armenian Diaspora.
A couple of interesting monuments from the Soviet period can be found in Stepanakert. A large Stepan Shahumyan statue stands in the city centre; Shahumyan was an Armenian revolutionary who was one of the leaders of the Russian Revolution in the Caucasus. Another monument is dedicated to Soviet dive bomber pilot Nelson Stepanyan who sunk 13 ships, destroyed 80 tanks, 600 armored vehicles, and 27 aircraft and was twice awarded with the military title of the Hero of the Soviet Union. The most famous monument of Stepanakert is the “We are the Mountains” sculpture from 1967 that is generally regarded as the symbol of Armenian Nagorno Karakbakh.
The Stepanakert bazaar offers a wide variety of tasty and colourful local fruits and vegetables. We bought some Kutaby, a tasty pancake stuffed with herbs and vegetables for a picnic. The Stepanakert Memorial Complex combines a Soviet World War II Memorial with a cemetery and monument for the victims of the Karakbakh War. The gravestones of the cemetery show the fallen soldiers in their uniform with a machine gun or other weapon. We did not have time to visit the local History Museum that is supposed to be pretty interesting.
The town of Sushi is located on a plateau near the capital Stepanakert. Sushi was populated by ethnic Azeri before the war while the majority of Karakbakh was populated by Armenians. Azerbaijan and Chechen terrorists held Sushi during the Nagorno Karabakh War in 1992 and rained down shells on Stepanakert held by the Armenians. The Armenian Army and local freedom fighters attacked Sushi in May 1992 with Tanks and Infantry resulting in the most important battle of the Nagorno Karabakh War. The Armenians managed to capture Sushi after two days, a victory that would turn out to be the turning point of the war. The Azeri inhabitants were deported to Azerbijan after the war and Armenian refugees were encouraged to settle in Sushi. A large part of town is not yet rebuild and still lies in ruins today.
The first reminder of the War we noticed on the way to Sushi is a T-72 tank memorial near the road approaching Sushi. This was the first tank to enter Sushi manned by Commander Gagik Avsharyan and his crew. The tanks was destroyed by an Azeri T-72 and later restored to be used as a war memorial. We first drove to the highest point in town where there is a beautiful view on the gorge where Armenian commandos attacked Sushi by foot. In Sushi we looked at the many destroyed houses that still remind of the war 20 years ago. A Soviet World War II monument is still in tact but full with bullet holes from small arms fire.
The most famous landmark of Sushi is the Ghazanchetsots Cathedral that was recently restored. The Cathedral was used as GRAD munitions storehouse by the Azeri assuming that the Armenians would not fire at a church. The Gevharaga Mosque was partially destroyed during the war and is now being restored by the Iranians.
We drove to the Town of Vank to visit the 13th century Gandzasar monastery that owns some relics believed to belong to John the Baptist. The war is never far away in Karabakh, our driver showed us an unexploded shell in the outer wall of the monastery. Not much Soviet legacy can be found in the small town of Vank except a rather good looking World War statue.
What makes Vank special are the structures build by Russian Millionaire Levon Hayrapetyan who was born here and has taken the task upon himself to invest in his birth place. The town boosts a brand new school with a statue of the benefactor, a crazy hotel shaped as the Titanic and a restaurant with a giant lion sculpture carved in the mountain that roars when visitors walk by. Another interesting sight is a wall decorated with hundreds of Azeri licence plates from people that fled the country during the war.