Nagorno-Karabagh Stories and Tips

Nagorno-Karabagh: Into a War Zone Without a Visa

Destroyed vehicle on the road Photo, Nagorno-Karabagh, Azerbaijan

I visited Nagorno Karabagh during my nine-week alone trip around Armenia, Karabagh, Iran, and Turkey. Nagorno Karabagh was little crazy ...

My plane from Moscow landed in Yerevan, Armenia, at about 4am. Three hours later, I was driving in a car with three Armenian guys I had only just met on the way to Nagorno-Karabagh, placed between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Entering the Republic of Nagorno Karabagh is not considered to be wise for my nationality, Polish, or indeed for 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 had enough time to apply for it, and I decided that the payment of $25 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.

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 a reply 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 are 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.

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 mountain, 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.

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 dance and song 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.

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 sniper activity. 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 in a war zone: four guys taking a bath in a warm geyser and drinking wine...

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 details, see my site about this trip: www.middleeast2003.prv.pl

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