As the neighbours Armenia and Azerbaijan continue to quarrel, one piece of land between the two countries chafes their relationship more than anything else: Nagorno-Karabakh or Artsakh, a country that technically doesn’t exist.
With the dying of the day, the sky leaden and purple from a sunset that never quite reached its peak, the faces of the Grandmother and the Grandfather look solid and solemn, the guardians of this nation. There is something ancient about them. As if the duo had been standing on this little hill just outside of Stepanakert since humans invented fire; as if they’d keep standing like that until the ice caps melted.
In truth, the monument is only a few decades old. Erected in 1967, the statue depicting a triangle-shaped head of an old woman and a totem-like face of an old man was built in honour of the mountains of Artsakh and its mountain people. Quite aptly it is named “We Are Our People” – although locals mostly refer to the faces as Tatik-Papik, Grandma and Grandpa.
I have arrived in the Republic of Artsakh, a country that technically doesn’t exist, intrigued both by its convoluted politics and its mountains – and yes, I’ll admit, it’s “shock value”. While not unsafe, Artsakh is stuck in a seemingly endless conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan – and based on the little I’ve seen of Stepanakert so far, also stuck in the Soviet times, at least aesthetically.
Artsakh doesn’t receive much visitors and I was curious to see why. It is only my second stop in Armenia but already I’ve heard multiple people call the Republic of Artsakh the most beautiful part of Armenia.
Well, that can be debated. Not the beauty as much as the ownership of the land.
Nagorno-Karabakh or Republic of Artsakh?
Your first question might not be about the politics of the region. You’d more likely demand to know, ‘What the hell is this country I’ve never heard of??’
In Armenian, the country is called Artsakh, and that is also the name I’m using in this article, although I’d like to make clear that I’m not trying to take a political stance of any kind. Artsakh is just easier to write. There we go. You could also call it by its Azeri name, Nagorno-Karabakh.
Artsakh is a breakaway nation located between Southern Armenia and Azerbaijan. It was established as an autonomous region in Azerbaijan during Soviet times, but as the Soviet Union started to fall apart in the late 1980’s, so did the fragile peace between the ethnically mixed population of the region. The majority Armenian government – about ¾ of the population was Armenian – voted to join Armenia which exploded into a full-blown war between the two countries. In 1991, adding fuel to the fire, Artsakh declared independence – although it is still not recognised by any other country.
By the ceasefire in 1994, 20,000-30,000 people had been killed in the fighting. Almost all of Artsakh’s Azeri population fled to Armenia, and thousands of ethnic Armenians had to flee Azerbaijan as well.
Today, the conflict continues quietly but seething under the surface. Internationally, the land is recognised to belong to Azerbaijan, but in practice it is under the jurisdiction of Armenia and can only be visited from there. The culture, language and currency used are Armenian, and ethnically, the country is mostly Armenian.
Is there any hope for resolution? Who knows. In a recent UN General assembly, the Azerbaijani foreign minister said that there had been no advances towards peace in the past year, and that “the negotiations cannot last forever”. In addition, Artsakh is not the only issue that causes bad blood between the two nations; Azerbaijan does not recognise the Armenian genocide by the Ottoman Empire (modern Turkey) and continues to be an ally of Turkey that Armenia, understandably, has a very bad relationship with. All borders between Armenia and Turkey as well as Armenia and Azerbaijan are closed.
Arrival in the country that doesn’t exist
When I told the guest house keeper in Goris that I wanted to visit Artsakh, she asked me: ‘Oh, are you going to hitchhike?’ There are daily buses between Goris and Stepanakert, the capital of the non-existing country, but hitchhiking in Armenia is so common that a mention of it won’t make anyone bat an eyelid.
I arrived to the border jumping from a medley of vehicles, from a short – free – taxi ride to a small truck manned by a local farmer and his young son. It took about ten minutes to process my visa. I stood outside the little customs office chatting about Finland with the officers chain-smoking and occasionally waving a car past that they already knew. I’d never met such friendly border guards in any country I’d visited; but then again, technically I wasn’t visiting a country right now.
My visa came printed separately on a sticker that I slipped between the pages of my passport without sticking it on. Having proof of a visit to Artsakh would definitely get you in trouble in Azerbaijan since they would consider any visit an illegal entry to their land, and although I had already been in Azerbaijan earlier that summer, I figured my travels would look suspicious enough already to any over-eager border guard in any of my next destinations that I opted to keep the visa just as a souvenir.
An old, white van pulled to the border post; one that a local group of electricians might have been using as a place to work, sleep and travel for the past five decades, or perhaps one of those that your mum warned would offer you free candy. The border guard exchanged a few words in Armenian with the driver, and the side door slid open, revealing an older, balding man and very rudimentary seating among scattered tools.
‘They are not going to Stepanakert, but they are going the right way’, the border guard explained, so I jumped in.
None of the three men spoke any English but after a summer of hitchhiking in the Balkans, I was used to getting my point across by wild hand gestures and key words. The men laughed when I described the landscape as lava – good – and encouraged by their positive reaction, swiped my hand over the view again and declared: ‘Super lava!’
For such a disputed land, arriving had been surprisingly easy.
Standing in front of the Artsakhi Grandma and Grandpa, my attention wanders from the carved faces to the stalls standing at the bottom of their hill. Magnets, little wooden statues, t-shirts, rather badly designed postcards and wallets decorated with the Tatik-Papik monument overwhelm the mass of more traditional Armenian souvenirs: notebooks with soft canvas covers, prayer beads, ceramic pomegranates.
Behind the stalls, a big flag stands on the ground bearing the same symbol as the flags waving on the border. The red, blue and yellow stripes are familiar from the Armenian flag, but on the left side a jagged triangle – or maybe an arrowhead – cuts through the colours, indicating the separation of Artsakh from Armenia.
There are only a few other tourists around. A couple is just leaving as I arrive at the monument, and a Russian family is loudly either arguing or joking at the bottom of the stone stairs. Not many tourists find their way to Artsakh, but the ones that do make it there, are faced with friendliness and hospitality.
Earlier that day, I’d walked into the first hotel I’d seen and asked for a recommendation for a cheap guest house or a hotel, and the young girl working the reception had guided me to a guest house uphill that I unfortunately found closed. I smiled at a pair of little girls on their pink bikes as they stared at me dialling the number of the guest house. Only an automated voice met me on the other end, but even though it only spoke Armenian, I could guess what it was saying: my Armenian call data didn’t work here.
Luckily, I found another hotel down the road where the two teenage boys behind the reception desk spent fifteen minutes trying to find and contact a hostel for me. They reminded me of the people I’d met on the Balkans; unsmiling and outwardly cold, they were still ready to go out of their way to help a damsel in distress as soon as I approached them.
Black mountain garden
Other than its interesting politics and friendly people, though, Artsakh unfortunately doesn’t have a lot of selling points. Stepanakert, the capital, is a post-Soviet town with the housing style to match, and the only real attraction is the We Are Our Mountains monument. Maybe that’s why the region leans so heavily on their hiking.
In fact, “Karabakh” is a Russian twist to an Azeri word meaning black garden, and “Nagorno” is a Russian word meaning mountainous. I talked to many people that seemed to think that the “Black mountain garden” has the most beautiful nature in the region. If you’re looking for a fully wild experience, you can hike the 500-kilometre Janapar trail, continuing all the way to Yerevan.
On limited time, I only hiked the most accessible section to me: the 20 kilometres between Stepanakert and Shushi.
Walking out of Stepanakert, past a children’s hospital with scenes from Shrek and Lion King painted on the wall outside and past Bardak Pub that was the first pub to open in Stepanakert, I soon get to the rough edges of the city. The trail follows a gravel road, wide enough for a car but I see none pass. It’s a grey and gloomy day. White mist has overtaken the landscape below, and as I cross the small river and start ascending towards Shushi, it swallows more and more of the region’s emblematic mountains.
Still, the landscape around Hunot canyon is gorgeous, albeit slightly creepy. A big, white building looms above me as the trail steeply hitches towards the bottom of the canyon, and I try not to look at it too closely; I’ve noticed the barbed wire above its walls and the armed guard keeping vigil in one of its towers.
When I finally reach my destination, I sit down for a late lunch. The water trickles down the Umbrella falls, a little less impressing than I would have hoped for but I can still appreciate the unique parasol-shaped monument. As I sit there, a few groups of tourists wander in, take a few pictures and leave. Mostly, I am alone.
In a region as little known and rarely visited as Artsakh, I’d imagine you could hike for days without meeting other people than local farmers and the occasional daytrippers. A place like this has much tourism potential if it would manage to market itself to the wider audience; although as long as the conflict continues, the only ones likely to find their way here are only the most adventurous.
It seems to be getting darker, or maybe the mist is just getting thicker. In any case, it’s time to go.
Off to the mist I go.
Is it safe to visit Artsakh?
After all this exhausting studying about blood and conflict, I’m sure you’re all screaming: but is it safe?? Unlike my mum seems to think, I don’t actually like putting myself in harm’s way on purpose; so I did some research before travelling to Stepanakert.
According to Lonely Planet, multiple travel bloggers and me, the republic of Artsakh is a completely safe place to visit – even though it has a heavy military presence. Crime-wise, I never felt unsafe walking around alone even after dark. Your biggest concern would be losing your passport. Since Artsakh is an unrecognised republic, it doesn’t have any embassy presence, so if you lose your passport there, you’re kinda screwed.
But it is important to keep an eye on the conflict. While most of the country is safe, the border areas are still turbulent, and I wouldn’t recommend any trips nearby. The last violent conflict happened in 2016, and a few news pieces I read seem to suggest that things could be heating up again. Both sides are tired of the endless standstill, but even this year Armenian officials have made statements that make their position clear: Artsakh is Armenia.
Many embassies warn against travelling to the region because of the conflict. I felt completely safe touring, hiking and hitchhiking in the region – but you have to make your own judgement.
VISITING ARTSAKH / NAGORNO-KARABAKH 101:
Where to stay:
There is one backpacker hostel in Stepanakert, Hostel N1, that costs 4,000 AMD (Armenian dram; 7.5 e per night), as well as some more expensive hotels and guest houses. Booking online is pretty difficult but you can call them – they speak a little bit of English but mostly Russian. You can also find accommodation on Airbnb.
Where to eat:
I tried two restaurants: Pandok Karas, that was recommended by my hostel and turned out to be a nice, basic Armenian restaurant, and The Roots, a café and an art space that would give any Western hipster café a good run for their money. I paid about 4,000 ADM (8 e) for a dinner and a glass of house wine in both. (Note that The Roots is more like a café and pretty much only does pizza for dinner.)
How to get there and the visa:
You can take a shared minibus from Goris or Yerevan, or like me, you can hitchhike.
If you’ve visited Azerbaijan before Armenia, you won’t encounter any trouble – however, it might be tricky trying to get into Azerbaijan after Armenia, and if you have traces if visiting Artsakh in your passport, you are not allowed to visit Azerbaijan at all. The border doesn’t stamp your passport, and they give you your visa on a separate piece of paper.
I’d read in a lot of blogs that after arrival, you have three days to go to the tourist office in Stepanakert to get your visa; however, when I visited in October 2019, my visa was issued on the border. Whatever the case, you don’t need to apply beforehand.
The visa is free and valid for 21 days but you can get a gist of the region in two days.
I only visited Stepanakert and did one hike, but you could also extend your stay by visiting Vank, Togh village and Shushi, or even by doing a multi-day hike on the Janapar long-distance trail.
If you want to find out more about visiting Artsakh, I’d highly recommend reading these blog posts that I got a lot of info from before my visit:
Nagorno-Karabakh: Exploring the Unrecognised Republic of Artsakh by the Bohemian Blog
Travel to the Republic of Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh) by Travels of a Bookpacker