Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Nagorno Karabakh

I remember the Nagorno Karabakh war well from back in the early 90s. It was an autonomous region of Azerbaijan populated mostly by Armenians. Unfortunately it was completely surrounded by lands where Azeris were in the majority. There was no link to Armenia. After the cease fire, the Armenians occupied most of Nagorno Karabakh and all the land between it and Armenia. Today it's a republic recognised by no one except other unrecognised places like South Ossetia.

About 800,000 Azeris were forced out. On the other hand, the exclave of Nachieva was given to Azerbaijan by the soviets in 1920 when the split was 60:40 in favour to Azeris over Armenians. There are no Armenians left there and historic cemeteries dating back to the 5th century have disappeared.

The FCO advises against all travel. I booked a tour with Hyur for 3 days for 200 US dollars. Just about everyone else on it was of Armenian descent. The first two stops were at monasteries in southern Armenia. The first one Khor Virap in the shadow of Mt Ararat and then Noravank. Then we had lunch and drove to the border. They scanned our passports going in. There were no formalities coming out of Armenia. Then it was more long driving through the mountains to Stepanakert. We had dinner and it was almost 10 before getting to the hotel. It had 4 stars so somewhat of an upgrade compared to what I was used to. The town isn't very big and isn't exactly a party place. It's all quiet at midnight.
Novaravank Monstery

In the morning we went to the market where you can buy wine and mulberry vodka rebottled in plastic coke bottles. Then we went to the museum which was interesting. The section on the conflict showed the handmade guns they originally used.

Then we went to the old fortified city of Shousi where we visited yet another church. It did have a cool echo room though where you can hear yourself speak as others hear you.

Then we drove for ages to guess what, a church at Gandzasar, right on the other side of the territory. 

After that we went to a castle at  Shahbulag which is right next to the front line. You could see the foxholes, wires hanging across the valley to prevent low flying planes and the ruins of the town of Agda, which is deserted and kept as a buffer zone between the two lines. I found this significantly more interesting than the previous two attractions. On the way back , there was a photo opportunity at the statues on the edge of town though it was a bit dark by then. Back at the hotel by 9, it was another long day though at least there was time for drinks in the hotel bar and a bit of socialising.

Next morning there was a somewhat pointless photo stop at a T72 tank that we'd driven past the previous day. Then we collected our passports. Those who wanted visas got them. Most didn't as it bans you from entering Azerbaijan for life apparently.

Our next stop was back in Armenia at Tatev. Thus us another monastery but this one has the longest cable car ride of its type in the world so that was well worth doing. For some reason the tour didn't include the price of the cable car which was 5000 drams.

Then we went to a stone circle called Carahunge with some stones with strange round holes in them. The guide told us that it formed a triangle with Stonehenge and the Egyptian pyramids. I did point out that any three points forms a triangle and no, its nowhere near equilateral and she got a bit arsey so I kept my skepticism about the petroglyphs that could have been Adam, Eve and possibly a snake or a river or a curly wurly to myself.

The long drive back was punctuated with a visit to a wine cellar for tasting. We didn't get back to Yerevan until gone 10pm. All in all, an interesting trip. The days were too long. I think one less monastery/church a day would fix that.

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