Travel Writers: Nagorno Karabagh (without a visa)

image: An abandoned vehicle on the road

An abandoned vehicle on the road

Location: Nagorno Karabagh, between Armenia and Azerbaijan, Central Asia

I visited Nagorno Karabagh during my 9-week lone trip around Armenia, Karabagh, Iran and Turkey in the summer of 2003.

image: An abandoned village

An abandoned village

Nagorno Karabagh was little crazy …
My plane from Moscow landed in Yerevan, Armenia, about 4.13am. Three hours later, I was driving in a car with three Armenian guys I had only just met on the way to Nagorno Karabagh, Azerbaijan.

Entering the Republic of Nagorno Karabagh is not considered to be wise for my nationality, Polish, or indeed any other citizens. Even OSCE officials are not actually allowed to enter. To enter this Karabagh “state” You need a visa. However I had not enough time to apply for it. And I decided that payment of 25 USD was too much for me. Moreover, my new Armenian friends argued that even if Karabaghi army or police asked to see my visa, I could pay them a few Drams and continue my trip.

image: Gandzasar monastery

Gandzasar monastery

After that we decided to leave the capital of Stepanakert and head “into the country”. The first army officer that asked me about my visa received I replied that every office in Stepanakert was closed. Another one asked if everyone in our car was Armenian. Mihran, my Armenian friend, answered, “of course!” and we were allowed to continue our travel.

Using this explanation we traveled by the region which, according to the legal situation, is still a war zone (there was no peace treaty after the Armenian-Azeri war and there is no diplomatic relations between the two countries). Sometimes soldiers and policemen even helped us (like changing our car wheel), I think I was the first tourist in some parts of Karabagh for many, many years.

image: Shushi Cathedral

Shushi Cathedral

We traveled through this poor place, forgotten even by God. The country is ruined even though the war ended 10 years ago. Everywhere are signs of military operations – destroyed military equipment, abandoned homes and whole villages (mainly Azeri), with mines on both sides of many roads. The level of poverty is hard to describe.

One of my strongest memories was visiting Shushi. This huge, old town is situated on top of a muntain with views across the valley to Stepanakert. There are remains of medieval city walls and a citadel where you can imagine the greatness of this city in past times. On the other hand, you can see the modern infrastructure of the city, which was completely devastated by the last war (Shushi is located on a strategic peak and suffered from heavy bombardment by both sides). The only thing that survived war is the 19th century cathedral.

image: A typical transport vehicle

A typical transport vehicle

Even in such a conditions, everywhere you can experience Armenian hospitality and a friendly attitude to foreigners. Even within such extreme poverty (I visited houses without any beds) every family will invite you to their home, offer a sleeping place, dinner and vodka.

Tradition plays a very important role in the lives of Armenians. Traditional dances and songs are very popular (mainly outside Yerevan, which is becoming a European city). I think Armenians were born to dance – they are great dancers and do it at any opportunity. Other traditional rules are respect for old people and women (the rules of picking up girls are not as rude and direct as in Europe). Most girls in Armenia are virgins until they marry.

image: Bathing and partying at the Taq Jur geyser

Bathing and partying at the Taq Jur geyser

After several days of my illegal presence in this Republic, it was time to leave. We decided to exit via the north, which according to the official data was closed because of the danger of occasional snipers activities. To make this last part of our trip even crazier we decided to visit Taq Jur, a place with a geyser of warm water. It was quite easy with my friends, who were, like all Armenians, very spontaneous and unconcerned.

There we were, in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night, on the war zone, four guys taking a bath in a warm geyser and drinking wine…

image: A village bus station

A village bus station

Finally, we left Karabagh. During this last phase of trip I decided not to provoke fate on these problematic territories guarded with many soldiers and various paramilitary groups. I just wore a big hat on my blond hair and prentended to be asleep.

For more information and pictures from Bartosz’s epic trip visit his website.
Feel free to contact the author.

Photos and text © Bartosz Musialowicz. All rights reserved

image: Armenian elder man

This grandfather was a member of the Armenian division in the Soviet Army during World War II. He fought in Berlin, where he lost his right hand

image: car registraion plate fence

This fence is constructed from registration labels of Azeri cars, whose owners escaped after the war (first from left – the author)

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