Monday, 26 November 2012
Travelling to Nagorno – Karabakh, by Ben Crowley.
Legally and internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan, the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh declared independence in 1994 after a bloody war costing the lives of tens of thousands. Still today you see the scar of conflict in the eyes of the locals as much as the blown up buildings and infrastructure. Although the war has stopped, small skirmishes and confrontations between the Azeri and Karabakh forces occur quite frequently. Before even travelling to this ‘Pseudo-Country’ we needed to obtain a Visa. That’s right, a Visa from a government that no one recognises (since writing this, the Australian state of New South Wales has recognised Karabakh.) We headed to their permanent mission in the capital of Armenia, Yerevan. We approached the large gate that anyone having been to an embassy would be familiar with and pressed the buzzer. There was no answer, so we went about pressing it several times more and still no answer. I decided maybe it was a good idea to attempt to open the large gate and low and behold it was unlocked and as such we continued inside the seemingly deserted compound. We ventured inside and finally found an elderly man who directed us to the Visa room. In here we found an equally lovely elderly lady who gave us forms to fill in and even some travel advice. In a first in our experience, we were given several options for the visa. Would we like it left out of the passport (so we could still travel to Azerbaijan in the future), would we like a group visa or separate individual visas in our respective passports? We chose the latter and 3000dram ($7) and 4 hours later were done.
Driving the four hours there from Yerevan, we were not sure what to expect, how militarised the still ongoing war zone would be? Would the border guards be suspicious of travellers with Azeri visas in their passports? How much more difficult would travelling be? We eventually arrived and were greeted by no more than a sign welcoming us on the side of the road, no bigger than one would experience from entering a new local council area. Shockingly the road actually got better. We didn’t need to wonder for long as we viewed the first of thousands of signs explaining that a Diaspora group had paid for its upkeep, in this particular instance the All-Armenian Fund based in the United States. We had driven no more than a kilometre and were already well aware of how this de facto independent country was staying afloat. Another ten kilometres and we’d already come across our first completely destroyed town, in this instance it was an Azeri town that stood in the Lachin corridor separating Karabakh and Armenia. We eventually arrived at a border gate where members of the Karabakh army inspected our passports, signed us in and then waved us on wishing us ‘good luck’. We then drove on to the capital Stepanakert, with its one main street, to find accommodation as our base for doing some exploring.
Being such a small place we were able to visit all of the major attractions that Stepanakert had to offer: the Martyrs’ Museum, National Museum, The national buildings of Government, the extremely small Bazaar and probably the highlight of Stepanakert, the “We are the Mountains monument” – a 2.5 metre high hideous brown brick statue of the faces of a grandfather and grandmother, a sculpture one might expect tackily placed on the side of a highway/motorway, which also happens to appear on their national regalia and visas. Being an ex-soviet country, food of quality is scarce with the exception of what is known as “green bread”, a type of flat unleavened almost pita type bread stuffed full of every green herb known to man, including coriander, which we delighted in. The next day we ventured into rural Karabakh and one town of note was Vank. A local wealthy businessman who had somewhat became the patron of Vank had a strange obsession with all things nautical. He had gone about constructing several interesting designs for buildings and tourist spots all boat themed, including a four star hotel shaped like the Titanic. Other things of note were a large cave made to look like a tiger and the quirky fences made of licence plates adorning the town.
A deeply Christian people, we visited the numerous churches and monasteries that the area is famous for, including the Gandzasar Monastery and Dadivank Monastery and just generally explored the beautiful mountainous countryside. Apart from their shared religion which easily differentiates them from the Azeri’s, it is difficult to get a real grasp of what the Karabakh identity is. The first day we arrived we bumped into a young man, Arman, who invited us back to his house for food and drinks. He told us the story of his own family who were refugees from just near Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, due to the conflict. His family spoke fondly of living side by side with the Azeris and even preferred Azeri as a language to Armenian, but chose Russian over both of these. Here was a man who had never lived anywhere but Armenian Karabakh and did not feel comfortable with their official language (Armenian). On the other hand we stopped to ask a young girl for directions when driving in the countryside and she herself did not speak a word of Russian, only knowing Armenian, and thus we were unable to communicate with her. Many others we spoke to said how they thought the conflict was stupid and that they would be happy being part of Azerbaijan or leaving Karabakh altogether. Yet one can’t go past the sheer number of the separatist flags flying and the pictures of their proud military tradition.
We decided that we needed to see the front line for ourselves and thus drove out of what is considered Karabakh proper and into the Armenian occupied areas of Azerbaijan proper. We drove from north to south along the line of contact stopping along the way to photograph buildings laden with bullet holes and completely destroyed ghost towns. We passed many blown up tanks and trucks. The most shocking of all these was standing from a prime look out position over the town of Agdam, a town of 40,000 persons with large soviet apartment blocks, sports grounds, wide boulevards, suburbs of which are all deserted. It was feared that having such a large Azeri city within 20km’s of the capital could be a launching pad for future attacks so as such the entire city was captured and made unliveable. Due to the line of contact being in the suburbs of Agdam and the large military presence, it is difficult to get permission from the Ministry of Defence to enter the city centre, and as such we drove as close as we felt comfortable.
On the last day before leaving we decided the best thing we could probably do was play a round of golf. We had read that the town of Shushi hosted the small nation’s only golf course and as such we were terribly interested to play. A Russian speaking friend of ours accompanied and we ventured out in search. We stopped several times to ask locals for directions only for our friend Stanislav to tell us that they had never even heard of the word golf before, let alone knew of the course’s location. After being forced to drive around in circles due to well meaning but ultimately inconvenient directions, we eventually got a lead with a phone number. We rang and found the man we were looking for. Having used a telephone at a nearby hotel he agreed to meet us there and take us to the course. When he arrived we found out we would be the first to play in 3 years! We drove to his house first to pick up the only set of clubs and one flagpole, which bamboozled us somewhat. He took us to the course only to find it quite overgrown and covering somewhat difficult terrain, consisting of mainly rocks and trees. As the story goes, a Belgian doctor by the name John Malcolm who lived in Karabakh was quite the golf enthusiast and had adapted the game and designed the course for local conditions. We soon realised Dr Malcolm was quite the sadistic individual as our golfing host had been told that golf involved a “flag man”, I suppose similar to a caddy, which was our hosts’ job, who runs around marking the holes and retrieving our balls. Not only this but he was to stand directly in front of our aim (supposedly to see the direction of our shot best) as we took our shot. We were genuinely scared we were going to hit him and when we suggested this to him he laughed and told us he’s only been hit in the head a few times. We played and our flag man continued to run around moving the flag from hole to hole and retrieving our balls for us. After 30 minutes of this ‘interesting’ version of the game we decided to call it quits and head back to Armenia, marking the end of our Karabakh odyssey.