Nagorno-Karabakh is a difficult place to explain. If you look for it on a map it’ll be a region inside Azerbaijan. To the international community it belongs to Azerbaijan. But the population is 100% Armenian as the Azerbaijani population was driven out during the war fought over this territory from 1988-1994.
Though they proclaim themselves as an independent country, the ties with Armenia are deep. The population speaks Armenian, the currency is the Armenian Dram, the postal system is linked to Armenia’s, you can have a single entry Armenian visa and visit Nagorno-Karabakh without needing a multiple-entry visa (meaning that from Armenia’s point of view you didn’t leave the country), the Armenian military has been guarding the Nagorno-Karabakh border with Azerbaijan since the ceasefire in 1994 (which is strange since Russian soldiers guard the Armenian border with Turkey, but I guess that’s another story).
A visa is needed to enter Nagorno-Karabakh. At the border you register yourself and then at the Foreign Ministry in the capital of Stepanakert you can get your visa. For the 21-day visa it only costs 3000 Dram, roughly $7. Azerbaijan considers any entry to Nagorno-Karabakh an illegal entry to the country. It maintains a blacklist of people who are forever banned from entering Azerbaijan because they went to Nagorno-Karabakh. You can see the prominent people on the blacklist here and Azerbaijan’s specific warning about visiting this region from their embassy in Washington D.C. You can get the visa separately, meaning they don’t insert it into your passport. This helps keep your passport clean and in theory should prevent you from being denied entry should you fly to Azerbaijan or enter it from a neighboring country (though not from Armenia as there are no open borders from Armenia nor Nagorno-Karabakh). I suppose writing about visiting Nagorno-Karabakh openly on the internet could land you on the blacklist as well.
In Azerbaijani, Nagorno = Mountainous and Karabakh = Black Garden. In Nagorno-Karabakh you’ll often see it referred to as The Mountainous Karabakh Republic in English. Locally and in Armenia, it’s called Artsakh, but people also refer to it as Karabakh as well.
I spent most of my time in the town of Shushi. Despite its small size, just 3000 people, it’s significance among the people of Karabakh and Armenians is huge. It was the Armenian push to take back Shushi from the Azerbaijanis that basically sealed the victory for Armenia in the war. At least that’s what I was told (I don’t say this to sew doubt, but rather because every story has two sides and I have not heard the other side).
The people living there seem quite proud of their town and its history. I met a guy named Danniel in Yerevan who I traveled to Shushi with. He has been living and volunteering there for almost a year. A British-Spaniard with Armenian roots, he was a great guide into this historical town, and a great conversation partner given his alternative view of the world.
In Shushi I stayed in an apartment belonging to a guy who works for this landmine organization. Sadly, there are still many landmines in Nagorno-Karabakh, which reminded me of Laos and Cambodia. Water comes daily at 7pm. Most homes have a tank to store the water, but the apartment I was in didn’t. It’s stored in jugs and is used for washing dishes, drinking, flushing the toilet, and bathing.
Signs of war are everywhere in Shushi. There are bombed out buildings and there are buildings that lay in rubble and ruins everywhere. The city has slowly started to pick up the pieces, constructing new schools and museums, but the signs of war can’t be ignored.
To the newcomer, it’s the first thing you’ll notice. Once you get over the initial exposure and sadness of humanity’s inability to get along, the ruins just blend into the landscape and the beauty of the Karabakh people and landscape grab your attention instead.
Stepanakert is the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh. While it’s the biggest city in Nagorno-Karabakh, its population is just 53,000. The total population of the country is 143,000.
Walking through Shushi you are surrounded by signs of the war that took place. In Stepanakert there are almost no signs. You see some downtrodden buildings, but nothing resembling ruins or war.
In Shushi, despite my crazy hair and foreign appearance, no one gave me a second glance. In Stepanakert, the “big city,” I was constantly stared at. It was never malicious or negative. Many youngsters said hi, some even pealing their ear away from their phone to acknowledge me as I walked by. I felt a bit under the microscope, but it was ok.
In Stepanakert I went to the local market. The main attraction was Zhingalov khats, or “Herbal bread.” Several herbs are baked inside this bread and it’s said to be very healthy. The number of herbs vary depending on who you talk to. I was told everything from 7 herbs to 40. I guess it depends on the season and what herbs are available. I bought two to have for lunch. I was really hungry. There was an Armenian couple next to me who loved this stuff. He told me “So many grasses inside!” Unfortunately, I had diarrhea all night. I don’t know if it was just my time of the month for some diarrhea, if it was from something else I ate, or if it was the Zhingalov khats, but you should try it if you ever make it here nevertheless. Is there any other bread with a song dedicated to it? Doubt it.
Something I have noticed on this trip from the many war-torn places I’ve visited is how being a survivor changes your perspective. Everyone of a certain age remembers the hardship faced during the war. It’s a hardship far too many people experience around the world. The survivors of these experiences can then choose to live their lives in a number of ways – spitefully, angrily, or happily. Time and time again I see so many people living their lives happily after experiencing such suffering. It gives me hope that we can all find happiness that doesn’t involve extreme suffering, that maybe the lessons learned by one generation can be passed down to the next without the hardships endured.