The republic (?) of Nagorno Karabah, and I am not getting into what is the political status of this entity, one can do his own research about that, is one of the most beautiful places I have ever been to. While I am a city person and New York skyline is what I consider to be beautiful, the nature in Karabah just blew me away.
In my opinion, no offense to their attempt to mark “must see sites”, there isn’t really that much interesting to see there but gorgeous nature, mountains, gorges, waterfalls, forests, etc., and the best way to explore them is on foot and just driving thru.
However, there is a problem with driving in Karabah and it is lack of any decent driving maps. The ones we got were only sketchy and didn’t differentiate between good roads and almost undrivable ones which caused some problems described later. In addition to bad maps, my GPS was not working well. Waze was not working at all and Google maps was not working part of the time and again sent us thru some roads that couldn’t be used. I was wandering if this is due to the geopolitical problem of Karabah or just a bad reception. Don’t know the answer to that.
One way that we tried to solve this orientation problem was to pick up local hitchhikers because they knew the way better than any maps plus it was interesting to interact with the locals and to get a better understanding of their history and culture and their take on the conflict. Since we just traveled extensively in Azerbaijan in was interesting to see the other side of the story. Actually it’s a very sad continuing story that sours the beauty of this country.
We left Goris in Armenia and drove to Karabah. In a little over an hour we reached the “border” which consisted of one cop who waved at us to stop on a side of the road. He asked for our passports and left for few minutes to a small hut which we didn’t even see at fist. After few minutes he reappeared, gave the passports back and gave us a little piece of paper with an address of the Ministry of Interior in Stepanakert where we needed to register within 24 hours of arrival.
At this point I wasn’t sure if we should stay over in Shushi or Stepanakert. Since Shushi was on the way we checked it out first. It’s a sad city in a total disrepair, old Khrushchev style buildings with balconies falling down and the whole place just seemed empty and gloomy. In all fairness it was also raining which didn’t help the first impression. Actually, the first impression didn’t change even after we saw Shushi in sunlight. Somehow we stumbled into the Ghazancetsots Cathedral, an important site for the locals. When Shushi was under Azeri control, they kept arms in the Cathedral and now it has been cleaned and back to its proper use.
Somehow, not having any directions we also stumbled upon a tourist information office and got some brochures and assistance. Shushi is so small that eventually you can stumble on all the sites just driving around.
Since we didn’t see any reason to stay in this gloomy place we drove to Stepanakert 10 km away. Stepanakert is much more of a city, wide streets, many restaurants, shops, hotels and nice parks. First we decided to finish with bureaucracy and registered with the Ministry of Interior: totally painless process. Then, after some driving around we checked into hotel Europa (25 ADM); great location right in the center, with free parking and a pool. The pool never worked out for us because it had very limited hours and was a disappointment. Well, never mind..
Next began a long saga of looking for hiking shoes for me because Karabah is a really good place for hiking. But, a very big but, is that there are a lot of snakes. Until then, I was ok hiking in hiking sandals, but it became unacceptable because of the snakes and also the weather was too cold for sandals. So, my advice is bring shoes and don’t try to buy them in Karabah or Armenia. There are none especially for women. The entire afternoon was spent looking for stores selling outdoor goods. Turned out there are none. There is one athletic goods store but they only sold sneakers and one hunting store that had great hiking boots but…for men only. The result was no shoes for me and a great pair for Roman. Not only that, the guys at the store were so nice that when they heard we are going hiking they gave us a nice small knife as a gift. I had to do my hiking in old sneakers that fell apart and had to be thrown away in Armenia.
In the evening, exhausted and cold we sat in the lobby having some wine and relaxing but not for long. A group of locals started a party with extremely loud music right next to us. We were seriously taken aback by the fact that the hotel personnel allowed them to bring a stereo into the lobby without considering the fact that we are sitting there and without even asking us if this is ok. We didn’t want to make a scene so I decided to be diplomatic about it. I asked the receptionist if he thinks its ok that extremely loud music is blasting. He said he thinks it ok. Then I asked him if he thinks it’s ok that nobody asked us if we mind the music. He again responded in the affirmative. Then I asked him if he thinks it’s ok that it bothers us. He said he thinks its ok. Obviously, there was no one to talk to. So we left. I guess locals like loud music and hotel stuff needs some hospitality training.
STEPANAKERT PAPIK TATIK STATUTE
(meaning grandmother and granfather, simbolizing the people’s connction to this land)
In the morning we went back to Shushi to do some walks. First was the Jerderduz view point. Besides a stunning view down to the Hunot Gorge, this was a place that secured a victory for the Armenians in the battle of Shushi. This is a series of very steep rocks and when the Armenians climbed up here and attacked the Azeris they had a surprise advantage that led to their victory. The operation was called Wedding in the Mountains.
Next we did a walk down to the gorge, which turned out was not from the viewpoint as we thought and as was indicated in the brochure but about 20 minutes drive from there. We wanted to reach a waterfall down in the gorge called the “umbrellas”. Unfortunately by the time we started the walk the rain was on and off, the trail was slippery and muddy and at some point we felt very uncomfortable being there completely alone and decided to turn around without completing the trek.
On the way back we stopped at the military cemetery. It started as the cemetery honoring the WWII fallen soldiers but now it includes everybody who was killed during the Nagorno Karabah conflict. There were rows of grave stones with faces of the soldiers and civilian victims etched into the stones. Not even 2 weeks before that we visited a very similar cemetery on the “other side” (Azerbaijan). Similar faces, same dates of death: 1992-1994, just different sounding last names. Truthfully this did not make me sad, it made me angry. So much senseless deaths, lives interrupted, families ruined. I don’t really care who started the conflict, who is “guilty”, and who is “more guilty”. It’s just so senseless in my opinion. Both people have so much in common, both are suffering and both practically live in poverty. Both governments should make an effort to advance their economy instead of promoting nationalistic sentiments and encouraging the conflict. End of political commentary.
In the evening we went to a bar at Hotel Armenia located on the main square. It has a nice terrace where we could see the entire square. The place is nice and the prices are very reasonable especially for a hotel bar of this caliber. I definitely recommend having a drink and/or a meal here.
A very exciting day, we did a hike from Shushi to Stepanakert, about 14 km. After a long preparation and anticipation, it actually turned out to be an easy walk. I loved it, Roman thought it wasn’t challenging enough. This walk is a segment of a 190 km Janapar Trail. The trail’s info is online and it’s easy to decide which segment to do; they are classified as easy to difficult and the degree of marking, some are more marked then other and some are not marked at all and can we used only with a GPS.
We left our car at the beginning of the trail and after finishing the walk hitchhiked back to the car. But, on the way to the trail, we picked up the same hitchhiker as we did the day before, where he waited at the same place. It was really funny. All of us felt like we are old friends. The guy managed to tell us his entire life story during those 2 short rides.
In the evening we went to a lovely bar called Bardak Pub. It’s not exactly in a center and not every cab driver knows it because it’s quiet new. The young owner, Azat, is not only a rock music buff and a really nice guy but also a wilderness guide who can take you or organize a hiking, climbing or mountaineering trip. He can be contacted thru the bar’s Facebook page or at 097.383.004. He calls his bar a club, because he only wants his friends and people who appreciate rock music to come. The atmosphere is friendly. We ended up staying very late having animated political discussions with his friends.
This was a day of lots of driving, some of it very hard and some of it completely unnecessary. We tried to “hit” most of the recommended sites before leaving Karabah back to Armenia. First we went to Tigranakert, cute old fortress, completely refurbished but with interesting museum.
Then, it all went downhill from there. We tried to drive to Gandasar Monastery. On our ridiculous map it looked close but after 2 km of driving over constant potholes and our car and bodies bouncing up and down and someone confirming that the next 15 km will be the same we gave up. Next we tried to go to Dadivank, another “must see’ site. We followed Google to what looked like a normal road, but it wasn’t. It was an hour and a half of pure torture. It wasn’t even a road, more like a wide trail, some unpaved and some formerly paved with holes full of water so large that Roman had to get out of the car to probe the holes with a sick to test the depth of the water to make sure the car will not drown; all that while constantly curving around the high mountain.
Needless to say that once we got out of this road into a normal highway we didn’t feel like going to anymore sites and headed to the border.
We exited thru the northern border located in the Kelbajar Mountains, another beautiful area of Karabah. The road goes to Armenia thru a Sodk Pass that has a reputation of a very difficult drive. But after our adventure an hour earlier the Sodk Pass seemed easy, a piece of cake, much easier than expected. Actually we really enjoyed it. The border out was even less formal. There was a cop standing by the side of the road who collected our registrations and waved us to go on.
End of Karabah.