In part one of this blogpost, I examined how to go about getting to Nagorno Karabakh, obtaining a visa and where to stay when in the country.
Things to remember
Several months ago, I read article by the conflict expert Tim Judah in which he described Nagorno Karabakh as “as far as you can go“. He’s right. Karabakh is an isolated, mysterious and troubled corner of globe – but one no truly intrepid traveller can afford to miss.
Visiting Artsakh (as the locals call it) is an incredibly interesting and exhilarating experience that very few people have the opportunity to enjoy. Getting to the country is a long and complicated process (see my previous blog post for information on travel and visas) that requires careful planning.
The second you cross the border between Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh, you’ll know you make the right decision to visit. The words “Nagorno Karabakh” roughly translate to “mountainous black garden” – an accurate description given the imposing mountains and abundance of fresh water and lush vegetation that greets you everywhere you turn.
Driving along the road from Armenia into Karabakh’s capital Stepanakert for the first time you’ll be struck by the quiet, calm nature of the place – particularly if you’re arriving from manically hectic Yerevan. This impression of calm is a slightly misleading one.
Nagorno Karabakh has only been independent for twenty years, prior to which it had formally been allocated to Azerbaijan by Soviet Russia as a result of Stalin’s “divide and rule” policy which sought to prevent single ethnic groups (in this case, Armenians) from becoming too strong.
During the war, Stepanakert was besieged by Azeri forces for months on end – sending tens of thousands of shells raining down on the city.
Evidence of ruined buildings is now relatively limited on the road into Stepanakert and the city itself is buzzing with the construction of new homes, schools and hospitals. A short drive outside the city, however and you’ll see the shells of buildings gradually being reclaimed by nature.
The Azeri government has vowed to recapture Karabakh and conducts frequent military exercises along the border designed to demonstrate their military firepower. For their part, the Karabakh military forces have vowed to detonate the valuable Azeri oil pipeline that runs close to the border if any military incursion into their territory takes place.
The fear of war is ever-present with all adult males taking part in regular military training exercises designed to ensure the country is prepared for an attack.
Coming from a country where the ever-present fear of war does not exist, it is only natural that you will wish to ask questions about the conflict and its legacy. From past experience, it’s perfectly safe to do so but you should keep in mind that every single person in the country has a father, son, grandson, brother or cousin who either fought or died in the conflict. It’s not uncommon to see disabled war veterans or those with shrapnel injuries while travelling around Karabakh. Make sure any questions are approached in a sensitive manner.
Armenians identify strongly with Russians and knowledge of the Russian language is universal. There are a number of theories as to why this is but my personal conclusion is that the former Soviet Union provided a degree of collective safety to Armenians following the 1915 genocide of 1.8 million of their citizens and the loss of a large chunk of Eastern Armenia to the Ottoman Empire. If you have any negative feelings towards the Russian Government, it’s best that you try and keep these to yourself as you are unlikely to find a sympathetic audience in Karabakh
Armenian and Russian are universally understood in Nagorno Karabakh. While you’ll find a reasonable number of English speakers at the main hotels in Stepanakert, you should try and familiarise yourself with a few Armenian and Russian phrases before you go, if only to be able to thank people in their own language. I am told that Azeri/Turkish is understood by the majority of those over the age of 40 but you are unlikely to receive a positive reaction if you attempt to use it.
Nagorno Karabakh is a democracy that adheres to the rule of law. The country held successful Presidential elections in 2012 which received top marks from international election observers (myself included). Crimes against foreigners are unheard of, although you should be conscious that Nagorno Karabakh is a poor country in which ostentatious displays of wealth are unwise.
With the above points understood, you’ll be ready to enjoy the unique experiences the country has to offer.
As far as foreigners are concerned, Nagorno Karabakh is a public transport-free zone. There are no organised tour buses, no trains, no metro stops and no trams.
Despite the lack of formal public transport services, the region is actually fairly easy to get around as a result of a combination of Karabakh being a relatively small place and the abundance of affordable taxis that are easily available.
If you’re looking for a “grand tour” of Karabakh by taxi then you have two options. The first is to ask your hotel to arrange a driver for you – which they’ll be happy to do. They will probably also be able to arrange an English-speaking guide for you too. While your hotel won’t be consciously attempting to rip you off, they will want to ensure you get the very best driver and car for your journey so you are likely to pay a premium for this.
My personal preference is to print out a map of Nagorno Karabakh and point at the various places I wish to visit. Even if the driver doesn’t understand English, he will be able to read the Latin script you show him. You may wish to write a list of the places you’d like to go in numbered order – although ensure they make logical geographical sense. If you show interest and appreciation to your driver for the sites he shows you, he’ll be even more inclined to show you then nooks and crannies of the country that are off the usual tracks.
Hiring a taxi for a whole day should cost somewhere in the region of 40,000 Drams – a considerable amount in Karabakh but a fairly affordable sum for a foreign tourist.
Friends on the ground tell me that a bus service does operate fairly frequently between Karabakh’s main towns but I have never made use of any of these services. If you are confident that your Russian of Armenian is up to scratch then you might want to brave it…
A cash economy?
Most guidebooks I’ve come across issue pretty hefty warnings to travellers recommending that they withdraw copious amounts of Armenian Drams before travelling to Karabakh – or risk being unable to pay for anything.
While it’s fair to say that Nagorno Karabakh has a cash-dominated economy, I’ve never had problems using credit and debit cards in hotels or restaurants in Stepanakert. You are also able to use cards in larger shops and restaurants in Shushi and Vank but, as a general rule, you should use cash outside of Stepanakert.
My recommendation would be to ensure that you travel to the area with around 200,000 Drams (about £200) in cash for four days. This should be more than enough to cover the cost of your transportation to and from Karabakh as well as incidental expenses such as taxis and snacks. With a bit of luck, you should have a surplus of cash left at the end of your visit which you can either spend back in Yerevan or covert back into pounds.
If you need to get hold of more cash during the course of your journey, there is an ATM in the reception of the Hotel Armenia.
Stepanakert – the capital city
Stepanakert will inevitably be your base for visiting Nagorno Karabakh. A city of roughly 70,000 people, about half of the country’s population is based here.
While it would be going too far to describe Stepanakert as a metropolis, there’s enough to do in the area to keep first-time travellers occupied for at least a couple of days.
I would recommend seeing the following sights:
- “We are the mountains” statute – pictured to the right, the statue has become an unofficial “mascot” for Nagorno Karabakh. The foundations of the statue go down several metres into the ground, symbolising the ancient presence of the Armenian people in Nagorno Karabakh and the fact they are rooted in the country’s soil. No trip to the region is complete without stopping for a photograph here.
- Memorial Complex – a great place to visit to learn about the conflict with Azerbaijan as well as to pay your respects to those who died. Many of the graves are decorated in an elaborate and poigniant style.
- Stepanakert Market – I often think that visiting markets is one of the best ways to gain insights into a country’s culture and traditions. The bustling market in Stepanakert is a “must visit”. You can buy everything here – from traditional daggers and carpets to fresh fish imported over the mountains from Armenia. You can also buy fresh Zingalov Hats (see the “food and drink” section below) that are freshly made in front of you.
- Artsakh State Museum (4 Sasunstsi David Street) – located in Stepanakert, the museum hosts a good collection of memorabilia from the 1990s conflict, as well as some more historical artifacts from the country’s history.
Aside from visiting the small number of tourist attractions the city has, I would also recommend taking a couple of hours to just wander aimlessly around the city. There are no “no go” areas of the city, so feel free to explore side streets, graveyards and any other sites that look interesting.
Wherever you go you’ll never be very far from a cafe serving delicious, turbo-charged Anatolian coffee and may well meet some interesting people along the way. I was once humbled to meet the owner of a smoke-filled cafe who told me of his love for the British as his wife had been flown to Manchester for life-saving surgery after being hurt in a shell attack. He wouldn’t let me pay my bill.
If you want to mix with some fellow travellers and English-speaking locals then I would recommend visiting the Hotel Armenia’s bar in the evening. It stays open until the last customers leave and does a terrific selection of flavoured shishas, meaning it can get rather smoky inside if it’s too cold an evening to sit outside.
If you need the help of a friendly English speaker then a lady called Anaida and her team at the reception desk of the Hotel Armenia on Renaissance Square should be able to point you in the right direction.
There are few towns in Nagorno Karabakh that suffered as much during the conflict of the early 1990s than Shushi (note: the town is often called by it’s Azeri name ‘Shusha‘ in various guidebooks). Perched in a stunning location on a hillside about ten miles from Stepanakert, Shushi was once one of the largest Armenian towns in the world and the heart of the Caucasus silk trade. It retains some of its historic buildings but saw scenes of some of the most bitter fighting during the Karabakh war.
War stories about Shushi are legendary in Karabakh. The town served as a base from which the Azeri army launched missile and shell attacks on Stepanakert before being dramatically recaptured one night by Armenian forces. The military operation saw scores of Armenian soldiers scale a steep rock face at 03:00, driving out the Azeri army and effectively bringing an end to most serious fighting in the Karabakh conflict.
Visiting Shusi will give you a unique perspective on the influences of both Christianity and Islam on Nagorno Karabakh. Ghazanchetsots Cathedral, which was used by the Azeri army to store missiles during the war, has been fully restored and should not be missed. Similarly, you should make an effort to visit the Yukhari Govhar Agha mosque which, while no longer in use, is protected by the Nagorno Karabakh Government. You should also visit the town’s ancient fortress which has been at the heart of some of the great historic battles for control of Shushi.
If you have time, try and pop into the Shushi Museum which has some great examples of Karabakh art and other cultural artefacts from the town’s rich history.
In an effort to boost tourism the Nagorno Karabakh Government has constructed a 17km-long walking trail from Shushi to Stepanakert which passes alongside mountains, rivers and waterfalls. You might want to consider getting a taxi to Shushi in the morning and then spending the day walking back to Stepanakert with a stop-off for lunch at one of the small villages along the way.
Your other option in respect of Shushi is to save your visit there until you are heading back to Yerevan as you will have to pass by it. If you speak to your hotel, they will be happy to brief your taxi driver to first take you to see the sights of Shushi en route back to Armenia.
Once a fairly anonymous town, Vank has been heavily invested in in recent years by a former resident who made his fortune in Russia. Passing through the town, you’ll see a string of newly-built buildings and statues, including a rather bizarre hotel built in the shape that is supposed to resemble the Titanic and an elaborate carving of a lion into rock on the hillside.
Architecture aside, the number one reason for visiting Vank is its proximity to the famous Gandzasar monastery which dates back as far as the 1200s. Located at the top of a long and winding mountain pass, Gandzasar is probably Nagorno Karabakh’s biggest tourist attraction. Aside from being a stunning example of Armenian religious architecture, the church is home to a wealth of attractive stone carvings and stunning views down across the valley.
If possible, I would recommend visiting Gandzasar earlier in the day as the whole complex gets gripped by fog as you get closer to sunset. On one occasion I visited Gandzasar, I could barely see more than two or three metres in front of me! There’s a very good restaurant in the town centre (see the food and drink secton later in this blogpost) where you can stop off for a delicious lunch.
If you have more than a couple of days in Nagorno Karabakh, then I’d also suggest visiting the town of Hadrut when you’ll find further examples of 13th and 14th century chuches.
A number of people visit Nagorno Karabakh in order try and gain an insight into what it’s like to be in an active conflict zone. If this is the reason for your visit then you will likely be disappointed as the vast majority of the country has a quiet and relaxed feel to it.
The Government of Nagorno Karabakh takes security issues exceptionally seriously and does not take kindly to visitors to the region that seek to stray too close to the border with Azerbaijan. Snipers operate in this are and by doing so, you are putting not only yourself at grave risk but also endangering the lives of Karabakh Army soldiers (many of them young conscripts) who may be sent in to get you out of trouble.
Conflicting reports exist about whether or not it is possible to visit the cities of Agdam and Fizuli – both of which are ghost towns and former strongholds of the Azeri army. Agdam is not technically part of the territory of Nagorno Karabakh but is temporarily held by Karabakh forces due to its use as key staging point from which the Azeri army launched rockets and shells into Armenian neighbourhoods.
I have visited both places with no problems in the past but understand that, depending on the general security situation, visits may not be possible. You will pass several military checkpoints en route at which you may be denied permission to progress further if the security situation is particularly bad.
If you do manage to visit Agdam or Fizuli – a moving and extremely interesting experience – you shouldn’t go on about what you’ve seen there to locals when you get back to Stepanakert. Agdam was an ethnic Azeri town but, even in victory, Armenians take no pride in or draw no satisfaction from its current state and have indicated it would be returned to Azerbaijan in the event of a settlement recognising Nagorno Karabakh’s independence.
The Halo Trust has done an exceptional job at removing land mines from Karabakh. Indeed, I was lucky enough to spend a couple of days with their team in the country in order to see the painstaking work they do to rid the region of these evil weapons (although I can’t claim to have been told that walking across a certain field was safe as it “only has anti-tank mines in it”!). Keep your eyes peeled for signs marked “UXO” which indicate the presence of mines and avoid those areas at all costs.
Food and drink
No travel-related blog post from me would be complete without a quick delve into some of the local food and drink.
As a starter, I’ll say that while the food is Karabakh is fresh and delicious, it is far from varied. With the exception of a few restaurants serving Georgian dishes and pizza, the menu of most restaurants in the region reflects the area’s cultural homogeneity.
Arguably the most iconic and unquestionably ‘Karabaki’ dish (as opposed to more broadly Armenian) is Jingalov Hats (pictured to the right), a flat pancake-like dish filled with fourteen different types of herbs. It has a pretty unique taste and, according to friends on the ground, can only be found in Karabakh. I can’t really do justice to by describing it but it’s tasty, healthy and filling. I asked a friend for the recipe so that I could try and make it in the UK but was rather dismissively told this would be “impossible”.
In addition to Zingalov Hats you will also find some of the best BBQ food I’ve ever tasted. The best option is to order a “tapas-style” range of chicken, pork, lamb and beef dishes to share amongst those you’re dining with. The meats are always beautifully marinated as absolutely delicious.
Being the South Caucasus, you may also want to order a Georgian khachapuri – essentially a big cheese pie. It’s not healthy but it is delicious. (If you really want to compound your unhealthiness then order the khachapuri with an egg on top).
In terms of specific restaurants, I am rather hamstrung by my inability to read Armenian script – and therefore inability to actually known the names of the restaurants (!) – but will nonetheless attempt to make some recommendations…
My personal favourite is a small restaurant on the outskirts of Stepanakert, about ten minutes walk from Renaissance Square. If you are standing on the steps of the Hotel Armenia with your back to the hotel, take the first turning on the right down the hill. Keep to the right hand side of the road and walk for about ten minutes (you will pass a number of newly-constructed residential blocks on the right hand side of the road and a school/sports centre on the left) and you will reach and restaurant that is part indoor and outdoor with a small stream running through the entrance area. The staff are extremely friendly, the food excellent and the drinks cabinet well-stocked. They also have a selection of English-language menus which can be helpful for non-Russian and Armenian speakers. After dinner, there’s a small nightclub about 300 metres up on the other side of the road.
Looking slightly closer to Renaissance Square, you will find the very comfortable bar and restaurant at the Hotel Armenia as well as the trendy ‘Russia’ restaurant. ‘Russia’ is owned by a wealthy local who made his fortune in Moscow and is arguably the country’s most upmarket venue – imposing black marble and granite being the order of the day. I last attempted to go to ‘Russia’ on the night of the 2012 Presidential election but was turned away as the venue was hosting the President’s victory party. The prices here are higher than elsewhere but still very affordable for those coming from Western Europe and North America.
Another place that should not be missed is a small restaurant in Vank, not far from the famous Gandzasar monastery (this is probably a good place to have lunch after visiting). It’s impossible to miss: just look out for a cylindrical building on the banks of the river. The walls of the restaurant are decorated with traditional Karabakh carpets, daggers and assorted other memorabilia. This place serves the best Jingalov Hats I have tasted.
I have a basic rule when I travel that, as a first resort, I will always drink the locally-produced lager. You can’t go wrong with a chilled Kotayk or Kilikia.
So, you’ll be asking, “what’s the local moonshine like?”. Quite nice, actually. Most restaurants have a decent selection of home-made plum, pear and grape liqueurs which are generally best served chilled. They’re incredibly pure and go down particularly well after large amounts of BBQ food. High quality and affordable vodkas are available at ally restaurants, along with the world famous Ararat cognac.
In terms of food safety, I’ve never had cause to worry about standards of hygiene at restaurants in Karabakh. Indeed, the relatively isolated nature of the place means that the majority of meat comes from locally-reared and slaughtered animals who haven’t been fed the usual cocktail of stimulants and antibiotics that all to often finds its way into food in Western Europe and North America. I have heard conflicting reports about whether or not the tap water is safe to consume but, just to be safe, it’s probably worth sticking to bottles water. While I’ve never fallen victim to dodgy milk in Karabakh (they’d have to do a lot to improve upon the plague-esque strain of ‘Montezuma’s revenge’ the milkshake stand at Tbilisi Ortachala station gave me), Armenian friends insist that ‘Westerners’ should avoid drinking unpasturised milk.
If you’re a smoker, Nagorno Karabakh is the place for you. It appears almost obligatory to smoke when in a bar or restaurant. As a non-smoker I certainly felt like the odd one out!
What have I missed?
I hope you’ve found the information above useful. If there’s anything I’ve missed then just leave a comment below and I’ll see if I can help – or at least point you in the right direction.