Saturday, September 08, 2012

Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh

When I first flew into Iraq on this trip I had no ticket out and wasn't sure where the trip would end exactly. Time was the biggest factor on where I ended up and I had the choice of either heading to Eastern Turkey, which I'd still like to see, or to Armenia and Georgia. While I have to admit that Turkey probably interests me more, I realized as I went along that I didn't really want to deal with Ramadan in Turkey and I probably didn't have enough time to see all of what I wanted to see there anyway. I wasn't the biggest fan of Armenia or Georgia the first time through but there were still a few things on the list that I could find some interest in, namely southern Armenia (which we hadn't visited the first time) and the breakaway regions Nagorno-Karabakh (in Armenia) and Abkhazia (in Georgia).
So it was with these goals in mind that I crossed into southern Armenia with my new travel companion still in tow. We'd made plans to travel together as far as Yerevan before she would turn back and go home and I'd continue north. Beyond that we didn't have much of a strategy other than to hitchhike everywhere and we got lucky with that right off the bat. The border crossing was simple and as with Armenia the first time we visited, you can buy a visa at the border. In 2006 the visa was $30, now it's just over $7 so that's a step in the right direction in my mind. Across the border, while being harassed by taxis some guy in a very nice car stopped and randomly asked us if we wanted a lift. We accepted but only the few km to the first town as he seemed a little sketchy to me and I didn't want to deal with anyone that might be mafia related for too long. 4 more lifts and several hours later we finally made it all the way to Goris, the main town of southern Armenia.
It was a distance of little more than 150km and the problem wasn't getting picked up, it was simply that there isn't a whole lot of traffic in the first place and the road is a slow winding mountain road with an incredible number of hairpins with long ascents and descents. The scenery is fantastic and I didn't mind at all getting dumped out randomly along the road in the middle of nowhere because it just gave me more time to enjoy the views.
Compared to cities in Iran, Goris is so small it doesn't even count as a neighbourhood. I loved suddenly staying somewhere so quiet and with little traffic. There isn't much to see in Goris itself but it makes a good base for a day trip out to Tatev monastery. Tatev is one of the highlights of a visit to Armenia and sits on the edge of a cliff overlooking a deep canyon/valley. The fortified monastery itself is over 1000 years old and was a major center of learning and power in Armenia though it was destroyed several times throughout it's history by earthquakes, invading armies and peasant uprisings. The setting is spectacular and the world's longest reversible aerial tramway at almost 6km long travels over the hills and crosses the valley at heights of up to 1000ft, ending right beside the monastery. I have no desire to take it. Ever. Instead, we hitched from Goris. It started the surprisingly consistent trend of us needing 3 lifts to make it one-way to our destination pretty much every time throughout the country. On our way back from Tatev we actually got picked up initially by a Spanish tour group, but their tour bus broke on the way back and we bailed out and made it back to Goris ahead of them :)

Quiet little Goris.

A cemetary above Goris.

Tatev monastery.

Tatev monastery.


In one of the weirdest examples of how much the sanctions against Iran is affecting things I have a story to tell about trying to change money in Goris. I walked into the bank to change some Euros into local Dram. I had to give them my passport as is usual with these things. They got visibly nervous when they saw my Iranian visa while flipping through the pages. They asked if I was Iranian, I said no. They asked where the money came from, I said back home. The teller called the manager over and they had a quick pow-wow behind the counter before eventually reaching a decision. In the end they took my money saying that they would change it quickly but they couldn't put my name on the forms and then they rushed me out of there like I was toxic. Weird, especially the interpretation that a Canadian, changing Euros but with an Iranian visa was somehow a problem.
The following day we hitched out to the nearby, bizarrely-spelled village of Khndzoresk. The current village isn't anything special but the few visitors that make it out there go to see the rock formations and natural and artificial caves dug into them, below the village. It's a little like Kandovan, except nobody lives in the caves anymore though some are still used for storage or as livestock pens by the locals. Khndzoresk was just a quick stop as we head into Nagorno-Karabakh (NK).

The caves below Khndzoresk.

Hitching into Nagorno-Karabakh.

It wouldn't be surprising if you've never heard of Nagorno-Karabakh. It's a country that isn't a country but only a de-facto independent one. Like other unrecognized countries elsewhere, the story of Nagorno-Karabakh traces back to the typical story of a minority ethnic group declaring independence during a moment of upheaval in the ruling central government and finding help in a neighbouring country. War ensues, lives and cities are destroyed, the international community cries out in hollow and impotent outrage, a ceasefire is eventually reached under the conditions of later negotiations and nothing ever gets resolved. The area in dispute falls into an undefined status and backwater that somehow works, everyone looks the other way and there is a new destination to visit that nobody seems to have heard of. Or something like that.... Specifically in this case, during the early 1990's Armenia and Azerbaijan went to war over the area. NK is still technically considered part of Azerbaijan and Armenia is currently occupying it to save it from Azerbaijan, but not to incorporate it into its own territory. Armenia and Azerbaijan signed a ceasefire back in 1994 but there have been skirmishes since, the borders between the 2 are closed and they definitely don't like each other. If you visit NK then you can't get a visa and visit Azerbaijan after until you get a new passport to get rid of the evidence of your visit.
When we'd visited Armenia in 2006 we'd hoped to be able to go to Nagorno-Karabakh but because of a full passport for Savannah, we didn't have enough space to get another visa. It has developed a little more than back then but there isn't that much tourism in the whole region in general and I wasn't sure exactly what I expected. As it turns out it was really beautiful and the “capital”, Stepanakert is really nice. It's quiet, there are only 150,000 people in the whole country, but it was relatively new and prosperous looking in it's centre. They had a public concert in the main square and some ethnic song and dance show in another area on a different night so it's not a place devoid of culture or entertainment and has some of that European feel about it after all.

A monument in NK.

The main square of Stepanakert.

After arriving in the capital it's necessary to go to the foreign ministry and buy a visa (also about $8) and register the list of places you intend to visit. They give you a visa and piece of paper with the names of your destinations but apart from turning the paper in at the checkpoint when we left the country 3 days later, nobody asked for it. Otherwise, it's sort of very Armenian as most of the population is ethnically Armenian, they use Armenia's currency and language, etc though the phone network, military and government are separate.
It's still not possible to visit along the border areas including some of the more famous destroyed and abandoned villages like Agdam because of potential problems of safety and security, but we hitched north to the most famous monastery of NK, Gandzasar. It was nice, again having a hilltop location overlooking the village of Vank and its beautiful valley. It was actually the only day trip we did outside of Stepanakert due to time issues and we left NK on a long day hitching all the way to Yerevan, the capital of Armenia.


One of the weirdest hotels I've ever seen. The Eclectic Hotel of Vank.

I'd been to Yerevan before with the girls and immediately recognized it's main sites, the opera house, republic square, the cascade. I liked the city back then and I liked it again now though I still somehow preferred the quieter and smaller villages and towns I'd just recently in. I was a bit sick of cities from Iran's chaos though Yerevan is tiny and organized in comparison. It has changed a little in the last 6 years, but I didn't identify or remember enough to notice huge changes. I felt that I got to know the city a little better this time around though. Farnaz learned through her parents that some family friends had come to Yerevan for holiday and had rented out a big villa for their stay. We contacted them and got an invite to stay with them for the next 4 days, hanging out in the city and even attending an opera as a group before they all head back to Iran at the end of their holidays. Farnaz returned to Iran with them and the same day I took the overnight train to Batumi, Georgia.

The Cascade, Yerevan.

Who wants to play?

Modern, European Yerevan.



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