It was a dark room with one table and a few chairs where the only light came from a tiny table lamp. The border patrol stared at us seriously checking carefully our visa applications and asked a purpose for our visit. We tried to stay calm knowing there might be some more tricky questions ahead of us. The Republic of Artsakh (known previously as Nagorno-Karabakh), on which border we were, is a frozen war zone where the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan remains very far from settled. The country is open for tourists, but because of its precarious situation, the border is controlled more accurately…
Our visa process went smoothly even though it turned out that we had one problem: the couple who took us to the border (and in whose car we left our backpacks) was suddenly gone! Luckily the bags were left safely leaning against the wall, but we weren’t allowed to continue our travel by foot. When the guards learned about our hitchhiking story, they kindly offered to help us to get a ride further. It was getting late, not many cars appeared, so soon we were invited to wait inside their small office. The guards made a space for us by organizing the hallway, and before we noticed, in front of us was a table with hot tea and snacks. We waited for 3 hours more, watching how they worked, which in reality at that time meant just watching some funny youtube videos and checking if we were fine. We were very fine after another round of gifts – cold coke bottles. Hospitality of the guards and of people we met later on left us a strong feeling that Artsakh might be friendliest region on earth!
A little bit of a History
Nestling between Azerbaijan and Armenia Artsakh have been for centuries homeland for both nationalities. Its history is long and complicated and here we will try to explain its latest conflicts that led to Nagorno-Karabakh war in 1991 and is still ongoing.
After the fall of the Russian Empire both the First Republic of Armenia and Azerbaijan Democratic Republic became independent, claimed the region themselves and it led to the pre-war in 1920. When the Soviet Union took control over the area, the war was largely shelved, and as part of their policy they created The Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Region with an ethnic Armenian majority and the Soviet Socialist Republic of Azerbaijan. At the end of the 80s, when the Soviet control loosened, the regional parliament voted to join Armenia, and friction between Armenians and Azeris exploded into violence. After the breakup of the USSR the situation continued and Artsakh became a site of territorial battles: in 1991 Armenians voted its independence, at which point Azerbaijan boycotted the process and it ended up the Nagorno-Karabakh war (in 1992-1994). A ceasefire was agreed by the parties in 1994 but till this day no actual peace has been reached and the conflict is frozen.
We met people from both sides and it strengthened our opinion about the conflicts. The situation is, of course, not black and white and both countries have caused enormous destruction to each others. However, most of the locals we met told us that they don’t want war. They want to live in peace and build their lives in a society that is safe. We learned that young men serving in the army are sent straight to the front line where every year there are many exchanges of the border fire, that are causing deaths. It’s not only the war between Azerbaijan and Armenia, behind it are bigger powers controlling the situation… For us the shadow and the burden of Soviet Union could be felt here, just like in other Russia’s bordering countries and conflict zones. Although we find the subject very intriguing, here we would prefer to leave it since the issue is very complex – what’s most important is that today Artsakh exists in a state of political limbo.
The entire length of the border between Artsakh and Azerbaijan is closed and the only way to get are two border crossings from Armenia side. Travelling from Armenia to Artsakh is considered by the Azeri government as an illegal entry to their territory. Being careful not to get stamps in the passport is not necessary, border officers know how the system works and gave us stamps on a separate sticker. Received visas were free: since May 2019 no payment is required, same with registration in Stepanakert.
Barbeque party in Stepanakert
It was the night when we arrived, the kind driver liked it high speed, wheezing us up and down through serpentine roads, tangled unlike any roads in Armenia. Instead of admiring the incredible mountains we could feel how our stomachs turned upside down. I closed my eyes for almost the whole road and Marek had to stop the driver to get fresh air because he couldn’t make it. Fortunately a motion medicine gave us a small release and we could survive till the destination.
To find a couchsurfing host like Azat was an amazing luck. He offered to host throughout our whole stay there. Our late arrival was not a problem to him, we were guided to his own, great pub Bardak and introduced to the people. Suddenly, after a long road, we were surrounded by good music, drinking party and very interesting company. We enjoyed the great atmosphere of the pub with its unique decoration. Everywhere were the details that caught our attention and later on we learned that many of the furniture were found from abandoned post-war buildings and it made the whole place look very original.
Just when we thought that the party was over Azat invited us for a barbeque. With his jeep we drove inside to a huge garden where his friends had already set up the fire. Unbelievable layout of rusty grids and a pan settled on the rocks above the fire made us feel warm. We were very impressed with their way of using the campfire to cook a perfect meal: shashliks with tomatoes, potatoes and eggs (cooked very slowly) which we rolled inside of a traditional bread lavash. A vodka was offered, some singing, joking and laughing – for us it was a wonderful way to meet locals. In the early morning it was finally time for rest, we made our bed inside the pub by putting two wide benches together and fell asleep processing tye action-packed day.
The Canyon full of wild nature
Located on a hill beside in a deep and beautiful gorge, the city of Suhsa and its Nature Reserve Hunot Canyon were memorable places to visit. In the area there are lots of ruins that were demanding our attention with their touching look, like they would whisper the story of the long war. During the history the town has been attacked and destroyed many times, latest the Nagorno-Karabakh war, which started there leaving 80% of the town ruins. Like a miracle, the city is still alive having 3000 inhabitants living, loving and breathing like everywhere else.
Walking through the Hunot Canyon ending up to the Dasalti village was a perfect historical route from the Susha. The trail was well marked on the map, easy to follow and we could fully enjoy the unsurpassed beauty of the rocky walls of the canyon. Caves on its walls, inhabited in the stone age, gave just a first taste of this beautiful wild park! Quickly the atmosphere changed and in front of us ran the waterfall Mamrot Kar (also known as umbrella waterfall), which top was covered with mossy rocks creating a perfect shape of an umbrella. The crystal clear water flowing down and hiding the cave in the wall makes it one of the original nature wonders of the canyon!
Near the waterfall ruins of the Hunok village are still existing but covered with various plants. Now when the people are gone, nature continues its circle burying what once was valuable. Only an old cemetery rising up along the hill, having names written down in Armenian alphabet, is the proof who used to live there. Down from the cemetery we could walk on the historic bridge that was built in 1720. In the past it had an important role connecting the Susha city with other regions and truly it’s still serving well giving a convenient way to cross the river!
The trail twirling up and down in the mountains, the river that gave refreshment and the wild forest left a deep impression and peace that followed us when we arrive to the Dashalty village. The children greeted us running and shouting loudly “Hi!” Their curious eyes followed our steps further on the other side of the road where laid an abandoned tanker and ruined cars. Around them a village with fixed homes, solar panels on the roof and gardens full of vegetables gave a perspective of hope. People were smiling at us, an older man threw fresh onions to taste… after the hike a bit sweet onion tasted delicious!
Meeting warm-hearted locals
One evening we had a chance to meet Azat’s family and learn more about life in Artsakh. We asked about safety and were told that when citizens had to evacuate during many threads of war, nothing was stolen and fresh apples were waiting for returnees. Basically the city is safe – we didn’t feel insecure, even on our nightwalks. The atmosphere reminded us about Scandinavian countries at their best: people leave their doors open!
As one of Azats sister is a painter, and mother is waving soft toys, their home was full of beautiful art. When we admired paintings on the wall, one picture was softly pushed to our hands as a souvenir. Next we were taken quickly to the kitchen, offered some warm local tea, and had a longer chat with the youngest sister. She knew English and was happy to talk with us. We learned that she was worried about recycling problems in Artsakh, but as many other youngsters didn’t care about the subject, she felt a bit outsider at school. This intelligent young lady had a real passion to educate herself. Unfortunately when men came home, she immediately changed. Instead of sharing her opinions she took more traditional role serving us vodka and bakings. Once the father came into the kitchen, we could see the respect towards him from the whole family. He experienced and survived the war, but quickly we learned that under his hard character there was a kind heart.
What comes to hitchhiking, it was perhaps the fastest way to travel around. It didn’t matter that the car was full, the drivers stopped and with other passengers organized a space for us. A taxi was needed only to get to the ghost town Agdam. The city was fully destroyed by Armenian army at the end of the war, but the frontline is still existing there making it less safe (also illegal) spot to visit. Surprisingly, the driver didn’t have a need to argue about the money and it gave us actually a chance to get to the city. Later it turned out that he was also a war survivor knowing the place very well. After experiencing the ruins of the Agdam, it became perhaps one of the most emotional places for us in the whole Artsakh and its worthy to write an own post about it!
While the gorgeous mountains with its friendly locals were stimulating us intellectually, at the same time, the traces of war were sensitizing, leaving us oftentimes speachless. Like we mentioned Artsakh felt extremely safe, but it’s good to be aware of the political disturbances and check the latest news before heading to this amazing mountainous land.