Looking through the report that shows me how people have come to land on this website, I noticed that a fair number of people have done so after looking for information on how to visiting Nagorno Karabakh. Their queries range from wanting information about how to actually get into the territory to concerns about whether the region is safe for tourists to visit.
I’ve decided to write this blog post to try and answer some of these questions. Please do leave a comment below letting me know if you find this advice helpful or if there are any other areas you might like information on.
I’m passionate about Nagorno Karabakh – or Artsakh, as the locals call it – and I’m incredibly keen for more people to see this beautiful, inspiring and incredibly moving part of the world.
Do you really want to visit Nagorno Karabakh?
Going to Nagorno Karabakh is not a small undertaking.
If you’re travelling from London, you will have to factor costs of around £400 for a return flight to the Armenian capital Yerevan, £50 for the transportation from Yerevan to Karabakh’s capital Stepanakert and hotel accommodation in both cities. While the cost of food and travel inside Nagorno Karabakh is cheap, your flights and accommodation costs are likely to set you back at least £600 before you’ve even set foot in the region.
You will also need to consider whether you can cope with the long journey. There are currently no direct flights from London to Yerevan, meaning that you’ll have to change planes (likely in Paris, Warsaw or Moscow). With changes, the total journey time from London to Yerevan can range from seven to ten hours. The journey from Yerevan to Stepanakert itself also takes around six hours, passing along some crowded mountain roads. In the summer months, the extreme heat from the Armenian sun can make travel to Karabakh quite uncomfortable with snow and ice making travel to the region fairly treacherous during winter.
If you’re hoping to find many of the facilities you’d usually associate with tourist attractions – shops, restaurants, health spas etc – then Nagorno Karabakh is not the place for you. While I’ve had some of the most fun nights out of my life in Nagorno Karabakh, you need to be relatively creative!
The final point to remember is that Nagorno Karabakh remains the subject of a bitter dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The Azeri Government consider any entry into Karabakh to be illegal entry into the territory and declare anyone who visits the territory to be “persona non grata”. If you attempt to visit Azerbaijan after visiting Karabakh, you will at best be refused entry and at worst arrested for illegal entry.
If you’re not put off by the above comments then do read on…
Getting close to Karabakh
Nagorno Karabakh was the subject of a bloody and acrimonious conflict in the early 1990s as the local Armenian population fought to free themselves of control from Azerbaijan. Thousands of Armenians and Azeris died in the years leading up to the ceasefire.
Nagorno Karbakh’s eastern border with Azerbaijan is closed and the country can only be accessed through a warren of mountainous roads leading from the Armenian capital Yerevan. In a further complicating move, Armenia’s own western border with Turkey is also closed.
As such, if you wish to visit Nagorno Karabakh then you will first need to get yourself to Yerevan.
While there are no direct flights from London or the United States, there are plenty of indirect routes that will get you there. Another option – and one I would recommend – is to first fly to the Georgian capital Tbilisi, spend a few days there and then take the overnight sleeper train from Tbilisi to Yerevan.
Since January 1st 2013, citizens of European Union countries have no longer required visas to visit Armenia. You resolutely do, however, need a visa to enter the territory of Nagorno Karabakh.
While Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh enjoy the warmest possible relations, speak the same language and periodically appear to share political leaders, they are legally two separate countries. The independence of Nagorno Karabakh is not legally recognised by any other country in the world – including Armenia.
Don’t worry, though; the process for obtaining a visa for Nagorno Karabakh is surprisingly easy.
As soon as you get to Yerevan, ask your hotel to arrange you a taxi to the Nagorno Karabakh Government Representation Office at 17a Nairi Zarian Street. It’s about ten minutes in a taxi from the centre of Yerevan.
When you arrive at the office, ring the buzzer and you will be let in. The visa office is located on the first floor of the building and is signposted in English.
Upon entering the visa office, you’ll be greeted by a stern-looking lady who will interrogate you about the purpose of your visit and what you want to see while you are there. It’s important that you give this some thought as you’ll be asked to make a list of the towns in Nagorno Karbakh you want to visit during your trip to the region. If your visa is successfully issued, you’ll be given a piece of paper which specifies which areas of Nagorno Karabakh you are allowed to visit. While I’ve never been asked to produce it for inspection, this document is technically subject to inspection by police at any time.
As a general rule, writing down the following towns should ensure you don’t miss anything: Stepanakert, Martakert, Martuni, Askeran, Hadrut, Vank, Shushi and Tigranakert.
After submitting your form, you will be asked to progress to the cash office on the second floor to hand over 3000 Armenian Drams (roughly £5). After producing proof of payment to in the visa office, you’ll be given a time to come back to collect your passport.
In order to ensure you get your visa on the day, I’d recommend getting to the Representation Office no later than 11am.
How do I get from Yerevan to Karabakh?
If you’re not travelling as part of a formal tour group, the easiest thing to do is to take a taxi. There are a number of buses that leave Yerevan for Stepanakert each day but I am told they are incredibly slow and uncomfortable.
There are no train services to Stepanakert and, despite a modern airport having been constructed, no flights. The airport, which was supposed to open in the summer of 2012, remains closed due to Azeri threats to shoot down any aircraft attempting to fly into Karabakh.
Your hotel in Yerevan will be able to arrange a taxi for you. From my experience, they’re always very keen to ensure you get the very best car possible but if you’re travelling during the summer months when temperatures hover around late 30s then I would strongly recommend you check that the vehicle has air conditioning!
The drive to Stepanakert should take about six hours and is a surprisingly smooth journey through stunning terrain. You’ll see numerous lakes, ravines and mountains en route.
Do make sure you take lots of bottled water and, if possible, try and stop off for lunch in one of the many family-run restaurants that line the roadsides. Your driver will probably have a favourite restaurant where you’ll be able to get a delicious lunch of vegetables, flatbreads and cured beef.
Even if you’re travelling in the middle of summer, I’d recommend bringing a light jumper for the journey. Even though it might be 40 degrees when you leave Yerevan, Karabakh lies several thousand feet above sea level and can get quite chilly at night.
Where should I stay?
For a country with a population of little more than 120,000, Nagorno Karabakh has a surprisingly good selection of hotels.
My personal favourite is the Hotel Armenia on Renaissance Square in “downtown” Stepanakert. It’s a modern, four star hotel with comfortable rooms, an excellent bar and restaurant and English-speaking reception staff. The other benefit of staying at the Hotel Armenia is that every man, woman and dog in the country knows where it is – which can be very helpful when you’re speaking to taxi drivers who can’t utter a single word of English.
The Hotel Armenia is located right in the centre of Stepanakert, directly next to the country’s Parliament and close to a number of very nice restaurants. It serves as an excellent base for exploring the rest of the country.
Rooms go for around £35 per night at the Hotel Armenia, although it is possible to book perfectly passable hotel rooms in the city for as little as £15 a night.
Will I be safe?
The formal position of the British Foreign Office and United States State Department is to recommend against all travel to Nagorno Karabakh and the areas close to its borders. The chief reason for this recommendation is that an Azeri invasion is possible at any time and Nagorno Karabakh’s borders are not patrolled by any international peacekeepers. They’re covering their backs.
In reality, the situation inside Nagorno Karabakh is very stable. Crimes against foreigners are entirely unheard of. Indeed, it would offend Armenian cultural sensibilities to be anything other than hospitable and welcoming to foreign guests – particularly those who have made the long and difficult journey to Nagorno Karabakh.
The small numbers of tourists that visit the region each year could not be made to feel more welcome. Just spent five minutes in one of Stepanakert’s smoke-filled bars and you will likely be approached by one of the many (usually English-speaking) young locals who will give you invaluable advice about what to see, eat or drink.
While the region is safe to visit from a tourist point of view, there are some security considerations you need to keep in mind.
The front-line between Nagorno Karabakh and Azerbaijan is an active conflict zone in which troops are killed on a monthly basis. Under no circumstances should you either ask to visit or attempt to visit these areas. If you do accidentally end up close to the border, you will likely be met by a Nagorno Karabakh Army patrol who will point you back in the right direction towards safety.
Similarly, a number of people are drawn to Nagorno Karabakh because they want to see sights such as the ruined city of Agdam which was home to 100,000 people prior to the outbreak of war. These areas are resolutely “off limits” to foreign visitors and indicating to officials in Yerevan that you wish to visit then will likely see your visa application turned down. Please don’t take the risk.
In part two of this blogpost, I’ll explore some of the things you should see, eat and drink while in Nagorno Karabakh…