Friday, 3 July 2015

Among Armenians: Day 8: Lake Sevan

world-map yerevanGreetings!

Summer is here in the UK and that means one thing: cricket! I’ve just had a great evening watching T20 at Old Trafford and next Friday I’m off to the 1st Ashes Test in Cardiff.

Cricket is a strange game: those who understand it love it, those who don’t are turned off by the length of games. Yet it is an amazing cultural experience for anyone and I truly recommend catching a game in any of the countries where cricket is popular.

And so I’m off to take some of my own advice…

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Flickr album of this trip

Links to all parts of this travelogue


Day 1: Tbilisi to Yerevan

Day 2: Echmiadzin and Yerevan

Day 3: Khor Virap and Yerevan

Day 4: Yerevan to Sisian

Day 5: Sisian to Stepanakert and Gandazar

Day 6: Stepanakert and Aghdam

Day 7: Stepanakert to Yerevan

Day 8: Lake Sevan

And also check out my 2010 trip to the lost lands of the Armenians in Eastern Turkey!


Day 8 – Lake Sevan

We arose at ten and breakfasted in the canteen café at the bus station, thinking that it would be convenient for what was to come next: catching a marshrutka for the thirty miles or so journey to Lake Sevan. However, upon finishing our victuals we found that there were no marshrutki from that bus station but instead they left from the West – or North, depending on who you asked – bus station which could be reached by catching a bus from a certain bus stop in town on Isahakian Street. There we headed only to be directed to a different stop on Terian Street only then to be directed back to the original stop. In the end we caught a taxi.

The Northern Bus Station was a good distance out of the city to the east on the Sevan road and from there it was not long before a marshrutka filled up and departed. Unfortunately, it filled up rather too much for my liking and so I saw little of the scenery going although what I did look at was very mountainous and brown. Instead though, I concentrated on reading, a lengthy, cheesy and very enjoyable historical romance named 'Shadow of the Moon' by one M. M. Kaye and for the hour or so that we were travelling I was more in 19th century British India than 21st century Armenia, falling in love with the dark-haired heroine Winter de Ballesteros almost as much as I was the raven-haired graces all about me on the marshrutka.

It was raining when we reached Sevan, the grimy little town on the shores of the famous lake, the first rain that we'd experienced since coming, so we hailed a taxi straightaway to escort us to Sevanavank, the ancient monastery on an “island” in the lake.

I write “island” rather than island because island is what everyone calls it when it is very plainly a peninsular, being very much connected to the mainland. However, the popular moniker is much deserved since, until very recently, Sevanavank was an island. Let me explain.

Lake Sevan is the smallest of the Three Great Lakes of Armenia. Like its highest mountains, the largest two of the three – Van and Urmia – are now irredeemably lost, Van in modern-day Turkey and Urmia within Iran. Indeed, I'd been to the shores of the former during my 2010 trip through the lost provinces of Armenia, an expanse of blue in a hot and arid land that melted into the horizon. That too had an Armenian city on the shore and church on an island. There though, both lay in ruins.

Despite being the smallest of the three lakes already, the Soviets earnestly desired to make it even smaller. Important figures had read the 1910 book by Armenian engineer Soukias Manasserian 'The Evaporating Billions and the Stagnation of Russian Capital' which put forward a scheme to reduce the depth of the lake from 95m to 45m, using the water for irrigation and hydro-electric power generation.[1] In addition to this, the new land created could be used for agricultural production, the idea being that the lake's “scraggy shores will be turned into sweet-smelling meadows, groves of nut-trees and oak trees... Around it beautiful roads and promenades will be laid... There could be no objection to diminishing the size of the lake for it would merely mean diminishing the annual evaporation of a vast quantity of moisture that rose uselessly into the air.”[2]

Work began in 1933 but was delayed by the war and only completed in 1949. Declared a major achievement of the Soviet Union, lake levels began to drop by one metre a year. However, after the death of Stalin and the Secret Speech criticising him in 1956, doubts about the wisdom of the project began to be raised. The trees that were meant to be growing on the reclaimed land weren't doing all that well and fish yields from the lake – which is famous for its trout – were dropping alarmingly. In 1958 a Sevan Committee was formed to try and keep the water levels as high as possible and by 1962 the level stabilised at 18m below the original. Then a 49km tunnel was built to bring 200 million cubic metres of water each year from the River Arpa into the lake (see earlier chapter). This opened in 1981 but the water levels only rose by 1.5m so a second tunnel was cut to divert 165 million cubic metres of water per annum from the River Vorotan into the Arpa and thence the lake. This 22km megaproject, (remember the mine that I discussed earlier?), was finally completed in 2008 but by this time the water levels had dropped another two metres as, after the 1988 earthquake, the collapse of the USSR, the conflict in Nagorno-Karabagh and the closure of the Metsamor Nuclear Power Station which provided Armenia with around half of its electricity, the hydro-electric plants sucking the water out of Lake Sevan had to increase their capacity in order to meet the electricity shortfall. Nowadays though, water levels are rising satisfactorily again and are expected to stabilise at 1,904m above sea level, only 11m below the original level. By 2009 a level of 1,899m had been reached, good news for everyone save those who built illegally on the newly-drained land by the lakeside.

It was still raining when we arrived on the peninsular island so we dived into a restaurant for tea and backgammon. Lake Sevan is, as I mentioned before, famous for its trout and the proprietor was eager for us to sample his, but after our hearty breakfast in the bus station, neither of us were hungry so we declained, planning to return later when we'd worked up an appetite. A rain shower, two games of backgammon and two teas a-piece later we were glad that we hadn't felt peckish for we were charged a whopping 4,000 dram for our tea, (the “complimentary” cakes were 1,000 dram each), and the Lord alone knows what the trout would have cost us. Both of us were angry but upon reflection, it was the only time we were ripped off on the entire trip so one shouldn't complain too much.

When the sky was clear we went down to the lakeside and took our photos with the fishing boats. We could have easily been at the seaside save for the fact that the water was fresh and there was a thin line of mountains on the distant horizon. It would have been extremely beautiful if it were not for the detritus of the tourist industry all around – shacks selling souvenirs and drinks, etc – so we walked away from the commercialised area around the car park and went to find somewhere a little more pristine.

14368751693_a9a0c60f5d_z By the fishing fleet of Lake Sevan

We didn't get very far. Only a quarter of a mile or so down the lane and we were waved back by an armed guard. The end of the island is a military zone – although what defensive purpose it serves I really struggle to comprehend – and they didn't even like us being near the fence which was a shame since the views across the placid waters were stunning. Nonetheless, I was glad to have gone that way since we passed the Soviet Writers' Guest House where the literary luminaries of the USSR once congregated to gain inspiration but which now sits crumbling and forlorn. It's a building that I'd seen on plenty of pictures, a slab of hideous 1960s modernism plonked in an ancient landscape, like putting Tracy Island from 'Thunderbirds' on Lindisfarne. As with the scheme to drain the lake that it overlooked, it spoke of an arrogant and insensitive time.

14368746623_ba4a62e13c_z Insensitive: The Writers’ Rest House with the monastery behind

We climbed the hill to the monastery itself though, after visiting several of Armenia's more spectacular churches, I was not expecting much, particularly as my guidebook described it disparagingly as “not really one of Armenia's most appealing places and [it] owes its popularity largely to its proximity to the lake and its accessibility from Yerevan.”[3] Yet the two tiny extant churches pleasantly surprised us both. Whilst no competition architecturally for Echmiadzin, Gandazar, Syuni or even Khor Virap, they were exquisite in their intimate, earthy humbleness and the location was breath-taking.

I went into the larger of the two churches, the Mother of God Church where I met its extremely friendly caretaker. It turned out that he was a coin collector which meant that we had something in common as I collect banknotes. He asked about British coins and after much rummaging through our pockets, Paul and I managed to locate 1p, 2p, 5p, 10p, 20p and 50p pieces which we then fitted together to demonstrate how they form the image of a complete Royal Standard. This must be quite unique in world numismatics as he was most impressed and even more so when we presented them to him as a gift. In thanks, he showed us his church's greatest treasure, an incredible 13th century khachkar which depicted – amongst other things – the Four Evangelists, the Three Kings, Adam and Eve and, most fascinating of all, Christ with His hair braided in Mongol style as it was at that time that Genghis Khan's men were sweeping through Asia destroying all in their path. It was an amazing work of art and snapshot of history and having it explained to us by such an enthusiastic gentleman made it all the more powerful to us.

14347709474_5b89b708d2_z The Mongol Christ

I sat and prayed in the small and older Holy Apostles Church for some time. It was my favourite church in all Armenia and, perhaps significantly, also the smallest and humblest that we'd entered. Only fitting for the worship of a humble carpenter I suppose.

Afterwards I climbed the hill to its crest and sat there for some time. The 360° views over the entire lake were breath-taking and much more so because of the stark contrast with Yerevan only 30 miles or so away. There all is dusty and brown, it is warm enough to wear shorts and a T-shirt and to drink coffee outdoors after sundown. At the lake though, it was chilly even with a coat on and snow still lay on most of the slopes. The lake itself was a placid, glassy deep blue but the mountains which surround it were dark. The only place which bore any similarity to it was the landscape around Sisian and the only other area in the world that I could compare it to are the wilder, bleaker moors of Scotland, Wales and England, yet even so, there was something subtly different between here and there: it was familiar yet also very alien.

14161949320_8277b32ce1_z Sevanavank

14348551585_3d740b1cf6_z Lake Sevan

Sat on that hilltop, I made a short video reflecting on the entire trip around Armenia which was now beginning to draw to a close. There was a lot to reflect on for Armenia packs so much into such a tiny country, both human and physical. I have just discussed how radically different the landscapes around Lake Sevan and Sisian are to Yerevan yet they were only two of several that we'd witnessed on our journeyings. The incredibly brown Debed Valley on the way in that was almost Albanian; th peaks and valleys of Nagorno-Karabagh that could have been in the Carpathians of the mountains of Bosnia and then that flat, fertile plain on which stood the ruins of Aghdam, almost Dutch from a distance.

But the physical geography was only half of it and, although I know this sounds like a cheesy cliché, it is her people that make Armenia so special. Their native art style is truly unique, at times Persian, at times almost Islamic, then somehow Celtic yet always wholly Armenian; the national church which is instantly recognisable and both independent and different from any other church on the planet, and then the great city of Yerevan which must rate as one of the most cultured and civilised capitals on the planet. And once you've finished looking at all that then there's the women, oh the women...

As I sat there I noticed two lovers in embrace lower down the slope, oblivious to the world as they gazed into one another's eyes, their forms silhouetted against the glittering waters of the lake. It was a beautiful and timeless image and an honour to be able to witness it. I just hope that they don't mind that I captured them for all eternity with my camera.

14161860749_f07a7d7174_z Love

We ummed and arred over what to do once we had descended the hill. We'd seen what we had come to see but it was still early. Around fifteen miles down the shore of the lake lay the Field of Khachkars, the finest collection of cross stones in all Armenia with just under a thousand dating from all era of Armenian history. The guidebook raved about it, calling it a highlight of the land, but we had seen a hell of a lot of khachkars already and wondered what seeing a load more would give us. In the end though, after some debate, the lack of alternatives made us decide to get a taxi out to them, agreeing a price of 6,000 dram for the trip.

The drive along the water's edge was fascinating and as we rode realised just how far reality had proved to be from the Soviet vision of “sweet-smelling meadows, groves of nut trees and oak trees” with “beautiful roads and promenades”. The whole scene was instead bleak, not helped by the spitting rain and melting snow I admit, but nonetheless, the road was bumpy rather than beautiful, the land by the shore bare or dotted with straggly bushes and the buildings dilapidated. The scene reminded me more of Kazakhstan or some other Central Asia republic than a lakeside paradise.

14346893442_d4c529a701_z Not quite paradise: Driving by Lake Sevan

We passed by the town of Gazar, formerly Nor Bayazit – New Bayazit – where the refugees from that now Turkish – or to be more ethnically accurate, Kurdishj – city fled to. I'd stayed in their old home four years before and seen the ruins of the Armenian town although, ironically, the whole city had now been relocated a mile or so to the west and the new settlement is now named Doğubayazıt which translates as, you've guessed it, New Bayazit.

The Field of Khachkars, an immense cemetery near to the lake's edge, reminded me of an ancient churchyard in North or Mid Wales somewhere, but that may just have been because of the drizzle. It was a remarkable place and we spent a good half an hour there wandering amongst the khachkars and photographing some of the more interesting ones, but our earlier fears were realised and there are only so many carved stones that a man can truly appreciate and we had already reached our limit.

14346919512_7f2dfe6447_z Khachkars

On the way back our driver stopped to fill-up with gas and afterwards I took the opportunity to solve the gas rather than petrol mystery. The answer was simple: in Armenia petrol sells at 500 dram per litre whilst gas is 250 dram. Most of that gas comes from Russia, (and a little from Iran), whom Armenia is friendly with unlike its northern neighbour Georgia. But how did this gas get through considering the Turkish and Azerbaijani blockades to the west and east and Georgia being in the way to the north. “Bribes sort that out,” was the explanation given. This prompted a then and now conversation and our driver, a man in his forties, was adamant that things were better when Armenia had been a part of the USSR. People had jobs and money then; now the roads are awful. Gorbachev, in his opinion, “fucked everyone up the arse”.

14346900042_75f166f970_z Filling up with gas

In Sevan, perhaps the grottiest town in all Armenia, the roads were truly awful, the main streets being more like a farm track. And to make it worse, when we got there, the last marshrutka back to the capital had already left. We negotiated a price of 7,000 dram with our driver and headed back by car which was much pleasanter than the journey going as we were now able to see the scenery as we dropped around a thousand metres back down to the plain. As he drove our driver continued with the corruption theme, talking about hotels owned by the president's brother and pointing out a gangster's mansion on the edge of the city that was built to look like a church and was where Dmitri Medvedyev had stayed a year or two before.

In the capital we met up with the boys that we'd got acquainted with before our jaunt down to Nagorno-Karabagh. They arrived with friends and all were football-mad – good for me but less so for Paul who, as a Munster man, prefers the other shaped ball. There was Aram who supported Manchester United, Alfred an AC Milan aficionado and David who liked Arsenal. We walked around the streets, talked largely of the beautiful game but also of the boring architecture on the new Northern Avenue,[4] with lashings of macho gesturing and a sad, yet predictable, burst of homophobia which is de rigeur in that area of the world. We showed them the David Moyes graffiti which Alfred and David found funny, Aram less so, and then we retired to a sports bar to watch the semi-final of the German domestic cup between Borussia Dortmund and Wolfsburg. This was a popular game amongst the locals since Armenia's star striker, their best player for a generation or more, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, was playing up front for Dortmund and the bar was offering a 15% discount on all drinks if he scored. Anyway, the boys proved to be excellent company and we had a good night indeed, particularly when Mkhitaryan did score and the whole place erupted in cash-saving jubilation.

14368648763_7835319251_z Drinks with the footie mad lads

When we got back to our hotel we found two other travellers had checked-in next door. They were the first other backpackers that we'd seen all trip and we soon fell into conversation. Filip and Vilem were a pair of Czechs with a passion for mountaineering and another for alcohol. They'd just arrived from Georgia where they'd tried – and failed – to climb Mt. Kazbek and met a couple of “fun” Ukrainian girls on the bus. They were good company and so we talked and drank into the small hours although when Paul went to the toilet, Filip asked as to why he had no trouble understanding my English but struggled with that of my friend. “You know how a Slovak speaks Czech,” I replied and they nodded in understanding.

14161973327_1367fe6188_zAnd more drinks with the Czechs in our dungeon


[1] Manasserian also produced the plan to drain the Aral Sea which has left fishing boats stranded in a salty desert and has become an ecological disaster of immense proportions. They probably have a dartboard with his face on it at Greenpeace headquarters.

[2] Soviet propaganda quoted in Armenia with Nagorno-Karabagh, p.173.

[3] Armenia with Nagorno-Karabagh, p.175

[4] The Northern Avenue was part of Tamanian's original masterplan that was never constructed. In 2002 work controversially started to complete the great man's vision and it is now open to the public, a broad new boulevard linking Republic Square with the Opera House. However, it has attracted much criticism due to the standard of its buildings being far below the quality of those built by Tamanian and the corners cut during construction.

Friday, 26 June 2015

Among Armenians: Day 7: Stepanakert to Yerevan

world-map yerevan


Yesterday I read this Bradt post on 5 Reasons to visit Bulgaria. Now, I’m a big fan of Bradt travel guides as I’ve blogged in the past, and I’m an even bigger fan of Bulgaria which, if I had such a thing as a favourite country in the world, would be a strong contender for the honour, but reading this article and I was going “No! No! No!” Sadly, unlike Bradt’s amazing guides, this article seems to have been written by someone who doesn’t know the first thing about Bulgaria. Let me exaplain in my own (admittedly subjective) manner.

Reason #1: Sofia.

Now I love Bulgaria but I most definitely do not love her capital and nor, from what I am told, do her people. Sofia is grey, dreary and distinctly short on sites and atmosphere. Alongside other Balkan capitals such as Skopje, Sarajevo and Athens, she is a sorry Poundland version of Vienna. Visit Bulgaria by all means but, the immense concrete railway station and the old communist avenue in the very centre aside, miss Sofia. For more details as to why, read this account of my 2011 visit to Sofia

Reason #2: The Black Sea Coast

Now I lived and worked in and around Varna and Varna rocked! And Nesebur (in the picture on the article) and Sozopol are well worth checking out, but beyond that, the Black Sea coast is, I am sad to say, average. The best of Bulgaria is inland. Here’s my account of Varna.

Reason #3: Rila Monastery

Erm… embarrassing omission here, but after living there for a year, visiting numerous other times, I still haven’t been to Bulgaria’s No. 1 sight. So, they might be right on this one.

Reason #4: Heritage Towns

Ok, Bulgaria’s heritage towns are nice, and yes, they are a good reason to visit, but then heritage towns are a good reason to visit any country in Europe. And beware, because not all are as genuine as they seem. Etar for example, whilst nice, was built in the 1960s.

Reason #5: Brilliant Birding

Now for many years I have been telling people that the birds in Bulgaria are amazing but it seems that Bradt got the wrong end of the stick. Seriously though, this may well be true, but it is a bit of a niche interest in an article aimed at general travellers. I could recommend Bulgaria as an amazing place to watch Soviet-bloc diesel locomotives, (there are tours such as this one by Philip Wormald), but seriously, would most people give a toss?

So, if these aren’t the reasons to head Bulgaria-wards, then what are? Here are my Top 5:

Reason #1: Chalga

Traditional Balkan folk music meets pop and the fusion is both unique and captivating. It’s also a great way to learn about the social issues of the country and artists such as the transgender Roma Azis have helped revolutionise Bulgarian perceptions on sexuality and race issues. Read my article featured in Travelmag.

Reason #2: Great Railway Journeys

Ok, so there are great railway journeys all over the world, but Bulgaria has oodles of them in a small area and its cheap. Rail travel does not get better than storming up the dramatic Iskur Gorge in a train with windows that open and in a compartment where people talk to you. Or there’s the line through the Stara Planina which passes under Veliko Turnovo, or the great route down to Thessaloniki not to be mention the sadly-closed Septemvri to Bansko narrow gauge line. It’s cheap and a great way to meet the locals.

Reason #3: Amazing Communist Monuments

They’re all over the place and they’re huge. Check out the giant concrete flag-thingy in Stara Zagora that celebrates the Russo-Turkish War for example, the huge partisan in the woods near to Berkovitsa but, best of all, the ridiculously huge and impressive Monument to 1,300 Years of the Bulgarian State in Shumen. Marxtastic!

Reason #4: The Ladies

Hauntingly beautiful and extremely elegant and intelligent, Bulgaria’s females are simply awe-inspiring. It was an honour to meet them. For more information, read the wisdom of the expert on the subject, my mate Plamen.

Reason #5: Demir Baba

This 16th century Shiite Sufi shrine near to Isperikh in Dobrudja blew my mind when I first saw it. It is tranquil, spiritual and beautiful. Go there. Here are my accounts of my visits in 2003 and 2011.

And so that is Bulgaria and now back to another little land worth visiting: Armenia.

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Flickr album of this trip

Links to all parts of this travelogue


Day 1: Tbilisi to Yerevan

Day 2: Echmiadzin and Yerevan

Day 3: Khor Virap and Yerevan

Day 4: Yerevan to Sisian

Day 5: Sisian to Stepanakert and Gandazar

Day 6: Stepanakert and Aghdam

Day 7: Stepanakert to Yerevan

Day 8: Lake Sevan

And also check out my 2010 trip to the lost lands of the Armenians in Eastern Turkey!


Day 7 – Stepanakert to Yerevan

The Lada that was to take us back to Yerevan had morphed by the morning into a marshrutka with several other passengers in it. There was no explanation for the change from Ashot but as it was half-empty, the driver was cheerful and there were no vomiting alcoholics on board, the journey was far pleasanter than the one going down. Over the next seven hours or so I gazed out of the window, finished 'The Crossing Place', devoured another laborious chunk of 'A Shameful Act' and dozed. I also clocked the important sights – the caves of Tegh, Karahunj and the mine built for the water pipes to Lake Sevan and somewhere near to Yeghegnadzor we halted for a very tasty shwarma. Descending down to the Ararat plain, Mt. Ararat itself was still shrouded in clouds but its little brother, Mini Ararat[1] was clear and visible for the first time and very pretty it was too.

Back in Yerevan we renewed our acquaintances with the manager of the dungeon hotel, retrieved our bags from the hotel laundry and then settled back into our dingy but cheap lodgings. Then, after a shower and freshen up, we were out again, taking a bus into the centre with a specific mission in mind.

We were dropped halfway along Mesrop Mashtots Avenue and from there it was a short walk along Buzand Street to the towering hulk of the 1960s post office. En route we passed through an underpass which had the following graffiti daubed on the wall in English:

14325341416_a73f935577_z MOYES IS THAT YOU? 4-1 0-3

I laughed. One has had to wait a long time for Manchester United's fall from grace, but now that it has come, it has been spectacular and all the sweeter for it. I personally hope that they languish in mid-table for decades, but that is probably asking too much. My only regret is that it has occurred under David Moyes, a manager whom I have always respected and admired.

The post office was located in a decidedly iffier part of town. Paving slabs were broken, graffiti abounded and there was a smell of urine as we climbed the stairs. Inside it appeared more like a mobile phone emporium than a centre for dealing with mail, but thankfully, unlike at Sisian, at least here we could buy some stamps. I just wonder how folk outside the capital manage to send any letters although judging by the almost total absence of any postboxes spotted anywhere, who knows, perhaps they don't?

Folk back home contacted, we were now free to enjoy the rest of the afternoon and so I suggested that we take a walk through the rather lengthy, (around 1km), pedestrian tunnel under the post office to a quirky little attraction that I'd read about in the guidebook and quite fancied seeing.

The Children's Railway is a half-sized real railway running from an idyllically-located park down along the Hravda River Gorge for a mile or so. Children's railways were a Soviet institution, not toys but fully functioning real trains that were operated by children on holidays and at weekends, the idea I suppose, being to teach all the young Ivans, Natashas, Tatyanas and Vladimirs to be good railway workers when they grew up. There were many of them built in major cities of the Union, but Yerevan's was particularly lovely with the station being a mini version of the city's own grand railway terminal, (which we hadn't visited at that point but would soon). Alas, children no longer operate the trains, but sadly one aspect of the old Soviet regime still persists: it only runs on Sundays and holidays and since the day we visited was a Monday, then we were out of luck. Oh well, next time...

We took a leisurely walk through the shaded park by the station where there was a petulant child demanding ice cream from his mother in American-accented English. She looked thoroughly embarrassed in front of her Armenian family and I was reminded of my time in Vietnam when Việt Kiều – Overseas Vietnamese, literally “Outside Vietnamese” - parents, usually from California, brought their kids over to see the motherland. It was always a shock for the kids, totally Americanised and often with an uncertain grasp (if any) of the tongue, being dumped in such a frenetic, chaotic, alien place. I recall vividly waiting for a friend to arrive at Ho Chi Minh City Airport and seeing one particular family arrive from the States. The mum and dad came first, smiling, glad to be back home, greeted by a dozen gabbling and enthusiastic relatives armed with motorbikes and mangoes, whilst following behind came two pre-pubescent kids clad in baseball caps and NBA shirts, the look on their faces saying, “What the hell is this place that you've dragged us to?” Put in such a context, perhaps the child's demanding becomes a bit more understandable although if he'd been my son, he'd have had a good, firm word.

We walked through the suburbs, past half-built hotels and hardware shops to the nearest Metro station. On the way we met a policeman who asked us if we liked Armenia and pointed the right direction for us, (the map was wrong). We hadn't tried out the Yerevan Metro before, but it was much like all the other later Soviet systems, (i.e. not those with amazingly ornate stations), and the train that we travelled in the same kind of corrugated tin can that I had travelled in on the Moscow, Tashkent, Kiev, Tbilisi, Prague, Budapest and Sofia systems.

We headed for the full-sized version of the railway station that we'd seen in the park, though not to enjoy the architecture – spectacular as it was – but instead to get the details of the trains back to Tbilisi as neither of us fancied another lengthy marshrutka ride. We got the times and the prices – a daily night train and affordable too, particularly when one took into account the fact that it saved on a night in the hotel – and so returned to the city centre with a plan.

And there we dined in our favourite cellar restaurant again before heading to Republic Square to watch the beautiful dancing fountains – and even more beautiful females of the city on their evening stroll – whilst drinking coffee and playing backgammon at the Marriott Hotel on the square, the finest-placed hotel in the land, and probably, (if the coffee is anything to go by), the most expensive also. Oh well, we were on holiday...

[1] Mini maybe, but still a whopping 3,925m tall.

Sunday, 21 June 2015

Among Armenians: Day 6: Stepanakert and Aghdam

world-map yerevan


Apologies first of all for the fact that this post is somewhat later than usual; the excuse is the normal summertime one: we were off camping. We tried a different site this week, Tyllwyd near to Devil’s Bridge in Central Wales and I have to say that I was rather impressive: remote, spectacular scenery and the chance to start fires, all what I look for in a campfire.

We’re been camping for a couple of years now, ever since Tom was five and I have to say it’s a great way to see more expensive countries whilst also relaxing. I suppose I should really do a V-log on it all. Where’s my camera gone…?

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Flickr album of this trip

Links to all parts of this travelogue


Day 1: Tbilisi to Yerevan

Day 2: Echmiadzin and Yerevan

Day 3: Khor Virap and Yerevan

Day 4: Yerevan to Sisian

Day 5: Sisian to Stepanakert and Gandazar

Day 6: Stepanakert and Aghdam

Day 7: Stepanakert to Yerevan

Day 8: Lake Sevan

And also check out my 2010 trip to the lost lands of the Armenians in Eastern Turkey!



Day 6 – Stepanakert and Aghdam

We were woken around ten and neither of us felt too great which was hardly surprising given the excesses of the night before. Nonetheless, we had sights to see and, what is more, to photograph. Unfortunately though, my camera had run out of juice and its charger I had stupidly left with our luggage in Yerevan. And so there was only one thing for it: a short detour to obtain either a new charger or disposable camera before we set off.

Which was easier said than done and, despite scouring Stepanakert's finest electrical emporiums, we failed to locate what we needed. On the verge of giving up, Ashot's son tried out one last place, a tiny one-man electrical shop on Azatamartikneri Avenue and thankfully we were in luck: he could both charge the camera and flog me a multi-purpose charger. The only snag was that it would take around thirty minutes to juice it up, so I suggested that we use the time wisely by eating. We popped into a supermarket across the road, bought some lavash, sausage, sour cream and tomato paste and embarked upon a veritable feast sat on the pavement. Seeing us, the owner of an adjacent fruit and veg store came out with a little table, a knife and a complimentary tomato and cucumber, and for once we became the tourist attraction: two foreigners enjoying a picnic in the middle of the city! Afterwards, full and content, we returned the table and knife, bought some fruit to thank him for his kindness, picked up the juiced-up camera and charger and then finally set off for the place in Nagorno-Karabagh that I wanted to see more than anywhere else: Aghdam.

We headed out on the same road that we had travelled along the previous day, passing Granny and Granddad and then, several miles further on, Stepanakert's airport. This was the focus of one of the earliest battles in the war when the Armenians were still cut-off from the world and desperately needed the airport to bring in supplies. It resulted in the Khojali[1] Massacre on 25th-26th February 1992, the worst atrocity of the war. 485 people died, a good proportion of them unarmed Azeri women and children and the Armenians must bear the brunt of the blame for this although there was also criticism inside Azerbaijan that their military did not evacuate civilians – and indeed even encouraged them to stay – due to fears that such an action would help the Armenians in their claims.[2] Nowadays, there is little evidence of the fighting and the airport boasts a brand-new terminal, completed in 2011. However, no planes fly from it. Turkey's threat to ban Armenian planes from its airspace if the airport ever opens for traffic may have something to do with it.[3]

Several kilometres on from the airport we stopped in Askeran where there were some impressive military relics to be seen although these dated back two centuries, not two decades. Mayraberd (literally “Head Fortress”) was an impressive castle built in the 18th century to guard the valley leading up into Nagorno-Karabagh with fortifications on both sides of the river. Unfortunately, there are no explanatory boards detailing what was what back then so our imaginations had to take over, but it was fun scrambling over the ruins and munching fruit in the overgrown courtyard Famous Five style. More interesting for me though was seeing how wide the valley is and how near Stepanakert was to the original border, (which before the war lay at Askeran, a mere 20km from Stepanakert although these days the Nagorno-Karabaghi Army occupies a further 15km or so of Azerbaijani territory). It makes one wonder how Azerbaijan, a country with a greater population than Armenia proper, let alone Nagorno-Karabagh, ever managed to lose. Surely they could have just marched up the wide flat valley to Stepanakert and once the capital had fallen the struggle would have been largely over, especially considering that the second city, Shusha, was largely Azeri anyhow? Yet no, and whilst not wishing to belittle the efforts and sacrifices of the Armenians, surely Azerbaijani infighting and incompetence must be the main reasons behind their crushing military defeat.

14162196727_c2b0494fc7_z Mayraberd

But whether losing the entire conflict can be blamed on Azerbaijani internal weaknesses or not, the startling landscape that we were to witness next can squarely be blamed on nothing else. Several miles on from Askeran is Aghdam, in 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed, a thriving city of forty-thousand souls. Never in Nagorno-Karabagh territory, the war should never have even reached it, let alone should it have fallen. Yet in July 1993, whilst Azerbaijan's political elite bickered, the Armenians attacked. The civilians fled, the military put up no resistance and within hours the entire city was in Armenian hands.

Today no one lives there, not a single soul. No one can, for every building, every single building from thousands, stands completely destroyed, a pile of rubble only. Well, almost every building; one structure still stands: the city's mosque. After capturing it the Armenians meticulously blew up every home so as to prevent future pressure from the international community to allow citizens to return. And they spared the mosque so as not to be accused of religious intolerance, (the Azerbaijanis had a habit of blowing up Armenian churches).

Few sights have I seen have scorched themselves onto my mind's eye more than that of Aghdam, few vistas are as harrowing. For as far as the eye could see, across a wide and fertile plain, lay destruction, complete and utter destruction. A sea of rubble heaps that were once buildings whilst dotted around the outskirts of the town, the burnt-out, battle-scarred, rusting hulks of tanks. It was as if we had just awoken after the apocalypse or were real-life participants in some Playstation game. No one spoke.

14368857233_cc3df86e1f_z Aghdam

But our destination that day was not Aghadam – not officially a tourist destination for obvious reasons – but instead Tigranakert, a mediaeval fortress sat amidst the ruins of an ancient city founded by King Tigran the Great (95-55BC), bang against the ceasefire line with Azerbaijan. Here, as at Khor Virap, one looked out from this tiny finger of Christianity poking into the heart of the Muslim world to a richer and more prosperous Islamic neighbour. However, unlike that sad view of Ararat, rather than thinking of lands lost, here the Christian Armenians were the aggressor who had unlawfully seized enemy territory.

Tigranakert, I am afraid to say, was a disappointment, the first of our trip. Ashot's son took us to see the ruins of an ancient church “destroyed by Azerbaijani bombs”. He lied. The fact that it was set well below ground level revealed that it had been excavated by archaeologists, not blown up. And to be honest, the lies continued from there on, the whole complex having the feel of a propaganda exercise. The fort had been renovated too much, (which made me suspect that it had a double purpose as a front-line stronghold should the Azerbaijanis ever decide to attack again), whilst the exhibitions within its walls talked endlessly about how the presence of the ruins demonstrated that this had always been Armenian territory, the inference being that, despite international pressure to do so, it should never be relinquished. I found it all sad. Archaeology should not become political but when nationalists are involved, it often is.

14162084580_67daf7fbf8_z The church “blown up” by the Azerbaijanis

We drove straight back to Stepanakert, stopping only to photograph the ruins of Aghdam, and were dropped off in the heart of the Nagorno-Karabaghi capital. We checked out Veratsnound (Renaissance) Square where the old Supreme Soviet building and new Parliament, (bizarrely attached to a hotel – imagine the Palace of Westminster with a Holiday Inn stuck on the side!), stand. It was spruce, clean and the city looked like a true capital, albeit a rather small one.

14162145847_3cbb4474c7_z In front of the former Supreme Soviet

14162045210_89ca029509_z The Parliament with attached hotel

We walked up to where the new cathedral is being built – despite its population being very religious, there are no churches in Stepanakert at present – and then down past tawdry apartment buildings with washing hung between them, to a souvenir shop (shut), and thence the Parliament again. It was clear that the city was being done up from the centre outwards and clear too that we had seen what there was to see, so we retreated to the Armenia Hotel affixed to the Parliament and there in the terrace cafe, read books and sipped tea in a most genteel fashion. That's one of the great things about these little statelets you know: there we were, in the poshest hotel in the land, brushing shoulders with the foremost figures of the country and yet our four leisurely drinks cost only 1,000 dram (under £2).

We walked back to our apartment through a rather surreal park area which I later learnt is referred to as Lovers' Alley. A new development of nouveau riche tack, it begins with a terrace following one side of the square along which were a series of photographs showing the very best that Nagorno-Karabagh has to offer. And in amongst the predictable shots of ancient monasteries, mountains, Granny and Granddad and pretty girls in traditional costume, were a few rather bizarre ones. Some featured a number of college-age kids all dressed in Nagorno-Karabagh flag costumes dancing on stage – what was it, Nagorno-Karabagh the Musical? - but the weirdest were of two mass weddings, one at Shushi Cathedral and the other at Gandazar Monastery where we had been the day before. Hundreds of brides in white and grooms in dark suits, what was all that about? Had the Moonies suddenly become big here?

14162030250_93cd2d25d2_z Nagorno-Karabagh the Musical?

14162027630_073c8e15e0_z14161971868_5435598012_z  Mass weddings at Gandazar (left) and Shushi (right)

But below the gallery of peculiar propaganda pictures led the cheesiest processional way I've ever seen, Lovers' Alley itself. There were pseudo-Classical columns and the path itself was flanked by statues of people posing except that instead of heads, they had lampshades. “Like some kind of bad Andy Warhol,” commented Paul. Indeed.

14162140737_48847d4b2b_z Lovers’ Alley

At the bottom was the smart new national stadium where Nagorno-Karabagh's national team (unrecognised by FIFA) recently beat Abkhazia 2-0 in the great clash of nations that aren't, whilst to our right stood a Graeco-Roman pile of horrendous taste looking like a gangster's wet dream but which turned out to be Stepanakert's premier hotel, the Vallex Garden.

Strolling back to our apartment we met Ashot who arranged a car for us back to Yerevan the next day for 5,000 dram each, cheaper, quicker and more comfortable than another bloody marshrutka. He even showed us the car, a Lada no less, and we were happy. And so we relaxed, our cares removed, playing backgammon and then returning to the internet cafe of the night before to witness Liverpool beat Manchester City 3-2 to move to the top of the league. I also used the opportunity to do a bit of research and solved two mysteries.

Firstly, there was that of the mass weddings. They weren't connected to the Moonies but instead had been arranged and sponsored by Levon Hayrapetian, a local entrepreneur. On the 16th October 2008 678 couples tied the knot at Gandazar and Shushi simultaneously before attending a grand reception at the national stadium with fireworks and pop stars in attendance. Each couple was paid $2,500 each in addition to the wedding expenses. It was part of a nationwide drive to boost the population, presumably to replace those who had been killed in the conflict as well as the Azeris who had run away. In addition to private initiatives like Hayrapetian's, the government pays couples 100,000 dram for their first and second children, 500,00 for their third and 300,000 to get married, (for Armenian society is still rather conservative and the idea of supporting unmarried couples is too much for most to stomach). I just wonder where they find all the money from. Wherever it is, the mass weddings and other initiatives seem to have worked, with there being a baby boom following the weddings, the birth-rate soaring by 16% and 1,306 new Nagorno-Karabaghis entering the world in the first half of 2009.[4] But why would, money aside, anyone actually want to get married at the same time as hundreds of others? The reasons it seems, are varied. Eric Dravyan, a 25-year-old man from Stepanakert who married Karine Hayrapetyan, 20, stated that they would be holding a separate, more personal ceremony with family and friends later, whilst Vladimir Hakobjanyan, a 24-year-old from Askeran, was happy to marry his wife Noyem, 19, in that way since her parents had not agreed to the match and so they couldn’t have afforded to wed otherwise.[5]

And the second mystery that I solved involved a little round symbol with a swirl inside that we had seen absolutely everywhere in Armenia. On khachkars, at the start of every chapter of 'The Crossing Place' and by the door of our apartment, there was no escaping them, but what were they exactly and what do they symbolise? My research revealed those omnipresent swirly circles to be the Arevakhach, a name which literally means “solar cross”, an ancient motif Pagan and Christian, (and I suspect also Zoroastrian), which symbolises eternity and light.

And so both wiser and, I suppose, a little older, we turned in for the night.

arevakhach An Arevakhach

[1] Khojali was the name of the adjacent village. Today the Armenians refer to it as Ivanian.

[2] The Caucasus, p.119

[3] Wikipedia: Stepanakert Airport

[4] Mass Wedding in Karabakh Results in Baby Boom

[5] Nagorno-Karabakh: Mass Wedding Hopes to Spark Baby Boom in Separatist Territory

Saturday, 13 June 2015

Among Armenians: Day 5: Sisian to Stepanakert and Gandazar

world-map yerevanGreetings!

This week’s post returns to an old favourite topic of mine and one that is, once again, in the news as I write: Unrecognised Countries.

The reason is that in today’s post I travel to Nagorno-Karabagh. Never heard of it? Well, looking on a map won’t help you because, (unless the map is Armenian), it’s not marked. But Nagorno-Karabagh is very much a real place, just as is Transdniestra is which I visited back in 2012 as part of my Missing Link expedition.

My V-log on Unrecognised Countries

There are currently six unrecognised/ partially recognised republics within the former Soviet Union. This post talks about Nagorno-Karabagh and we’ve also mentioned Transdniestria, officially in Moldova. There are also South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia and, as of 2014, the Donetsk People's Republic and the Luhansk People's Republic, both in Eastern Ukraine. In addition to these we should also mention Crimea which also broke away from Ukraine but then voted to become a part of Russia.

This post and subsequent ones explore issues pertaining to life in these unrecognised statelets so I shall not dwell into the matter here, except to say that this is a problem and it is one that is only getting worse as their numbers keep multiplying. Vladimir Putin may not be an angel but merely slating him and Russia as the Western media continually do will not provide a solution for the victims of these wars. A look at all of them clearly points out one root cause: aggressive nationalism on behalf of the official country which caused those regions who, ethnically, do not have room to live in that narrow vision, to declare independence. That is the problem and until that is addressed, nothing will be solved.

And so, if the EU or USA genuinely wish to help the people of Ukraine to be able to create a peaceful future for their children, then they could do far worse that teaching them the meaning of the word “pluralism” and treating the neo-fascist nationalists that sit in Kiev with the contempt that they deserve.

Some hope.

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt


Flickr album of this trip

Links to all parts of this travelogue


Day 1: Tbilisi to Yerevan

Day 2: Echmiadzin and Yerevan

Day 3: Khor Virap and Yerevan

Day 4: Yerevan to Sisian

Day 5: Sisian to Stepanakert and Gandazar

Day 6: Stepanakert and Aghdam

Day 7: Stepanakert to Yerevan

Day 8: Lake Sevan

And also check out my 2010 trip to the lost lands of the Armenians in Eastern Turkey!


Day 5 – Yerevan to Sisian to Stepanakert and Gandazar

We awoke that morning knowing that, by the afternoon, we would be in a different country. That was a definite. What was less clear however, was which country that would be.

The visas in our passports declared 'Artsakh' which is the Armenian name for Nagorno-Karabagh. However, according to any world map, (or at least any map produced outside of Armenia), there is no such country as Artsakh or Nagorno-Karabagh and instead the city that we were headed for, Stepanakert – marked as Khankendi on most maps – is place firmly inside Azerbaijan. So, is it Nagorno-Karabagh or Azerbaijan, what's the difference and why was there so much fighting about it in the early 1990s?

The Armenians have lived in the region for millennia, but so have many other races such as the Azeris, Georgians, Kurds and several more. That's all well and good except that often one race did not dominate the entire region. Instead you might get one Armenian village, then a Kurdish one, then an Azeri one and so on. To see what I mean, take a look at this ethnic map of Nagorno-Karabagh prior to the conflict.


That said, by the start of the 20th century, the area that nowadays comprises Armenia was predominantly Armenian, that of Nakhijevan was largely Azeri and that of Nagorno-Karabagh, largely Armenian, which explains why the Dashnaks fought so hard against the Red Army to have both Syunik and Nagorno-Karabagh included within the new Armenian SSR, (but not Nakhijevan); after all, they'd just lost half their traditional homelands to the Turks who had ethnically cleansed the lot.

Under Stalin though, things were different and it didn't matter much which SSR you were in as everything was dictated by the centre. So it was that, almost immediately after defeating the Republic of Mountainous Armenia, Nagorno-Karabagh (but not Syunik) was given to the Azerbaijani SSR and then, two years later, given a special autonomous status within Azerbaijan, hence the Nagorno-Karabagh Autonomous Region was born, (a little like Kosova in Yugoslavia and we all know how that one ended up as well). The question begs as to why did Stalin renege on his deal with the Dashnaks and do this? The answer is a simple one, namely that it was entirely logical both in terms of internal economics and international relations. Internally, it meant that farmers could continue doing what they had always done and move their flocks between the plains of Azerbaijan and highlands of Nagorno-Karabagh according to the seasons, (Nagorno-Karabagh lies on the Azerbaijani side of the watershed). Internationally, the USSR were courting Kemalist Turkey at the time as a prospective ally, believing that Atatürk would turn his new republic into a communist state and the Turks naturally supported their Muslim Turkic brothers the Azeris over the old enemy, the Armenians who had no international friends.[1]

However, when drawing up the border for the new Nagorno-Karabagh Autonomous Region two years later, instead of keeping the pre-existing boundaries of the province, the Soviets redrew them to give the region an overwhelmingly Armenian population, with the city of Shusha being the only major Azeri enclave, (largely because its Armenian population had all been murdered by the Azeris in 1920). And the new autonomous region they kept permanently separated from the Armenian SSR by creating another autonomous region, Red Kurdistan, in-between the two. This was a short-lived attempt to inspire Kurdish loyalty to the USSR which failed largely due to there being virtually no Kurds – and precious few other people it must be said – in the inhospitable strip of mountainous terrain that the new autonomous region consisted of. Thus, in 1929 Red Kurdistan was abolished and Nagorno-Karabagh became an Armenian island marooned within the Azerbaijani SSR.


nagorno karabagh within azerbaijan

And thus things continued until perestroika and the gradual opening up of freedoms within the USSR during the 1980s. True, that in 1945, 1965 and 1977 the region petitioned Moscow to unite with the Armenian SSR[2] and there were rumblings of discontent at Azeri immigration into the region, (in 1926 there were 117,000 Armenians and 13,000 Azeris respectively; by 1979 it was 123,000 Armenians and 37,000 Azeris),[3] and the fact that Nagorno-Karabagh fell behind the Armenian SSR economically, (although not the rest of the Azerbaijani SSR), but all was muted until February 1988 when the region exploded after yet another petition accompanied by a series of rallies and strikes. This was the first serious expression of discontent within the USSR since the death of Stalin and the developments led to Azerbaijani counter demonstrations and then the gathering of more than a million people, (more than a quarter of the entire population of the Armenian SSR), in Yerevan. Feelings were running high and the authorities were paralysed in their response. This in its turn caused pogroms of Armenians in Sumgait in Azerbaijan, (thirty-two deaths – twenty-six Armenians and six Azeris).[4] The tensions continued with Gorbachev being harangued when he visited Armenia after the 1988 earthquake and pogroms in Baku in which more than ninety Armenians lost their lives.[5] An insurgency started which, in times gone by, the Red Army would have squashed without blinking but by this time the USSR itself was beginning its meltdown and by the time that it was formally dissolved on 31st December 1991, there was all-out war in Nagorno-Karabagh.

How that war was fought was dictated by two factors: geography and demography. For the Azerbaijanis it was simple: maintain a blockade around Nagorno-Karabagh to weaken the entity and stop weapons from seeping in and then advance up the broad, low-lying valley to Khankendi, (the Azeri name for Stepanakert, the region's capital). For the Armenians, they had to use their overwhelming demographic majority to force the Azeri population to flee the region and then to try and force a road link to Armenia through the former Red Kurdistan and its capital Lachin.[6] And at the same time as all of this was going on, both sides were busy courting Russian support which, in the end, proved to be crucial.

Initially Azerbaijan bombarded Stepanakert whilst the Armenians did the same, (but less successfully), with Shusha, (the only Azeri-majority city in the region). The Armenians also made a priority of capturing the Azeri village of Khojali to the east of Stepanakert as that contained Nagorno-Karabagh's only airfield. Three thousand people lived in Khojali and in the attack 485 were killed or massacred.[7] Stunned by this, the Azerbaijan's morale fell and when the Armenians turned their attentions to a ground assault on Shusha – which the Azeris should have easily been able to defend – petrified at what their fate might be, the Azeri population merely upped and left so that on 8th to 9th May 1992, the Armenians captured the city with minimal effort. Now the entire territory of Nagorno-Karabagh was effectively Armenian but it was still blockaded on all sides and separate from Armenia proper, whilst also wide open to a full-on Azerbaijani assault. But then, only a fortnight after the catastrophe of Shusha, on 18th May 1992 the Azerbaijanis suffered another, even more calamitous, defeat with Lachin falling to the Armenians and the blockade being lifted. Now Nagorno-Karabagh had both land and air links with Armenia through which food, medicine and arms could be channelled.[8]

But then, in the summer of 1992, the tide began to change. The Azerbaijanis elected a new president, Abulfaz Elchibey and, riding a wave of patriot support and an influx of old Soviet weapons, his tanks rolled through the Armenian-populated Shaumian Region to the north of Nagorno-Karabagh and then into the region itself, capturing around 40% of the region's territory and coming within half an hour of Stepanakert itself.[9] But then the Armenians rallied and in 1993 these gains melted away as the Azerbaijani commanders began to plot against one another and the Armenians received more military support from Russia. Two of the senior Azerbaijani leaders, defence minister Rasim Gaziev and commander Suret Husseinov, plotted against the government and simply withdrew their men from the field leaving the region of Kelbajar, (part of the old Red Kurdistan buffer zone between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabagh), undefended. In April 1993 the Armenians attacked and the local population fled. The occupation of this region, never Armenian or part of Nagorno-Karabagh, drew stern international condemnation including from Turkey who closed her border with Armenia in protest. However, the largest fall-out was in Azerbaijan itself where Elchibey lost his presidency in a coup, the Soviet era leader Heidar Aliev moving to replace him. And whilst all this was happening, the Armenians simply continued to advance, causing 350,000 Azeri civilians to flee in their path.

Once Aliev was established, there then began what the Armenian president Levon Ter-Petrosian referred to as “a real war” in which “both sides had real armies”. Between December and February casualty figures skyrocketed, the Azerbaijanis losing around four thousand men and the Armenians two thousand. However, despite some marginal gains, Aliev's military strategy failed and both sides were exhausted. Talks began and a ceasefire came into place on 12th May 1994.[10] Minor infractions aside, it has held ever since. Thus the war ended and, holding most of Nagorno-Karabagh and seven districts of Azerbaijan proper, one has to say that the Armenians were the winners. That said, the conflict did seriously damage their international reputation and Nagorno-Karabagh then – and still today – remains unrecognised as an entity and is still officially regarded as a part of Azerbaijan.


And that was the place that we were travelling to that sunny morning. We rumbled along, firstly to Goris, a spectacularly situated town that had once been the capital of the ill-fated Republic of Mountainous Armenia and then, on its outskirts, we changed marshrutka for the journey onwards into Nagorno-Karabagh itself.

The trip contained some incredible scenery, quite different to that around Sisian and instead more like the Balkan Mountains in Bosnia or parts of Albania. The road was different too, far better maintained and engineered than all the others and large signs along it declared that it had been paid for by the Hayarstan All-Armenians Fund, a diaspora organisation that ploughs money into various Armenian projects from new classrooms for a village school to tree planting schemes to replace those felled during the electricity shortages of 1992-5. This road however, was the daddy of them all for this was the all-important artery through Lachin which allowed the Armenians to channel weapons, food and medical supplies into their beleaguered brothers and sisters in Nagorno-Karabagh. You could almost say it was the road what won it.

Near to the border we passed by the village of Tegh where, in a cliff face below the settlement, were hundreds of caves. They looked fascinating and I would have loved to have stopped but it was, of course, not possible. Later research on the internet however, revealed that many had been used for human habitation although these days only livestock dwell in them.

The border, at kink in the road in the bottom of a valley, was not what I had anticipated. For starters, there was no Armenian checkpoint whatsoever. Ok, so officially Nagorno-Karabagh isn't a proper country, I get that, but nonetheless, you are still leaving Armenian territory so why not check passports. All fuel to the fire I suppose, that Nagorno-Karabagh, which Armenia doesn't even recognise, is actually run from Yerevan.

The Nagorno-Karabagh checkpoint was, like their embassy, casual. They seemed surprised that we had bothered to buy visas – I later learnt that most people purchase them once they arrive in Stepanakert – and didn't bother to stamp our passports. I felt like saying, “C'mon guys, if you want to convince people that you're a proper country, then you should at least start acting like one!” but I didn't of course. After all, it would have been rude.

It was only a couple of miles further on, up a hefty climb, that we reached the town of Berdzor, formerly Lachin, once the grand capital of Red Kurdistan and more recently the site of some of the fiercest fighting in the war. The legacy of that was all around us in the form of bombed or burnt out buildings by the road in. nonetheless, when we got to the centre of that infamous place, it was all a bit disappointing. The capital of Red Kurdistan and flashpoint of the war was little more than a sleepy village where our driver stopped for some time to chat with “friends” in the main square after which sums of money changed hands.

After Berdzor it was a mountainous, picturesque wilderness all the way to Shushi – formerly Shusha – the Azeri stronghold during the war and formerly Nagorno-Karabagh's largest city, (Stepanakert was only made capital in 1923 at which time it was a small village). Shushi was formerly one of the great cities of the Caucasus, but today much of it lies ruined, and not for the first time either. Founded in 1747, it was called the “Jerusalem of Karabagh” due to its ethnic mix which invigorated the city making it a renowned cultural centre but which also proved to be its downfall with inter-ethnic fighting breaking out in 1905 and then again in 1920 when the Azerbaijani army sacked its Armenian Quarter leaving around five hundred dead. Ten years later, the famous Russian Jewish poet Osip Mandelstam visited and found it to be a ghost town with “forty-thousand dead windows”. Afterwards Stepanakert became the region's capital and Shushi became the centre of Nagorno-Karabagh's Azeri community, hence the Armenians making its capture a priority.[11] Passing through we saw little beyond the newly-restored 19th century Armenian cathedral and two ruined mosques with fine brick minarets. Also intriguing was a working party of teenagers and twenty-somethings busy cleaning up the town's war memorial. I have read much of such “voluntary” initiatives during Soviet days and wondered if this was a continuation of the same tradition.

Stepanakert was not far from Shushi and we were dropped off in the centre where a gentleman named Ashot Simionian met us offering an apartment at 5,000 dram per person per night. We had a look and were impressed – two bedrooms, a living room, toilet and (non-working) shower, plus a large balcony which commanded a fine view over the city – and so took it. Ashot, a real businessman in the Del Boy mould, then took us to his house round the corner. Although in the heart of the city and behind a huge apartment block, it felt more like a village, being rather home-built and with a vegetable garden and a chicken run at the back. Our host bade us sit on a bench in his yard and then served us tea with berries whilst telling us about when he'd served with the Red Army in his youth, doing three years in East Germany (which he'd loved) and three in Afghanistan (understandably less keen). Both him and his house reminded me of Kolya Babamanov, the Uzbeki gent who had hosted the Lowlander and I in his house in a village not far from Urgench during our Trans-Asian trip.[12] He had also served in the Red Army, had been posted in Magdeburg in East Germany and had loved it. For all its faults, one positive of the old USSR had been its very cosmopolitan nature and the opportunities that it gave people from far-flung backwaters like Uzbekistan and Nagorno-Karabagh to enjoy experiences that they would never have had otherwise. How different I mused, are things for Ashot's children and grandchildren. He was a citizen of a superpower, the largest state on earth, which gave him the chance to cross continents; they belong to a tiny statelet, unrecognised even by its neighbours, and are barred from entering Azerbaijan, only ten miles or so down the road.

Is that what we call “progress”?

One of those disadvantaged youngsters, Ashot's son, now appeared and his father brokered a deal which would see him drive us to Gandazar Monastery, the architectural highlight of Nagorno-Karabagh, for the sum of 150 dram per kilometre, (about 20p). And so off we set in his gas-powered Volga to explore a little of this unknown and half-forgotten state.

Just outside Stepanakert we halted at Nagorno-Karabagh's most famous sight which we checked out whilst our driver went to fill up with gas. 'We Are Our Mountains' is a statue of an elderly couple, both vaguely mountain-shaped, which was erected during Soviet times to symbolise the unity of the Nagorno-Karabaghi people with their mountains. It has become the symbol of the statelet and is much-loved by all although no one refers to it by its official title; instead everyone calls it 'Mamik yel Babik' (“Granny and Granddad”).

We both liked it, a friendly, fun statue that truly succeeded where public art so often fails, in winning the hearts of minds of the people who live with it. There was a group of schoolchildren there being organised by their teacher in order to have some group photos taken in from of Granny and Granddad. All wore Young Pioneer neckties and all looked very Armenian. Well, all bar one. Stuck amongst his dusky-skinned and raven-haired classmates was a pale-skinned ginger lad. “Who put an Irish kid there?” asked more, for he certainly would have looked far more at home in Sligo than Stepanakert although I do know that there are a few ginger Armenians as back in Bulgaria I once taught one.

14162156210_8382f09626_zMamik yel Babik

We wandered around the statue, had our photos taken in front of it and then descended the hill to wait for the Volga to return. On a bench beside us were a young couple, the girl in tears, and I wondered what had caused her day to be so bad.

The drive to Gandazar passed through some incredibly beautiful mountain scenery, again very Balkan and green and a world away from the bleak brown moorlands we had left that morning around Sisian. There were few signs of the conflict of two decades ago yet here there had been much fighting as this was the area that Elchibey's forces had occupied during his counterattacks following the loss of Lachin that had resulted in around 40% of the territory of Nag being taken by the Azerbaijanis. The entire population had fled in the face of the invading troops and from what I could see, there hadn't been a lot of returning since for the area was notable for its emptiness. But then Nagorno-Karabagh as a whole only has a population of 146,573 over 50,000 of which live in Stepanakert.[13] That means that less than 100,000 people are spread out across an area the size of Northern Ireland, (which has just under two million). Thus the only relics from the war that we saw were several fields with signs by them which declared that they had been cleared of mines by the HALO Trust, a non-political, non-religious NGO which is the largest humanitarian mine-clearing organisation in the world.[14]

Immediately prior to the monastery, we stopped in Gandazar village, a very spruce and prosperous looking place where everything had been painted in gaudy yellow and green for some reason giving it a Disneyland feel. That was further enhanced by an astonishingly awful Titanic-themed hotel which looked like a giant concrete liner stranded in the mountains; post-Soviet nouveau riche at its very worst! More pleasing on the eye were the brand new school and kindergarten and of interest were entire fences constructed out of old Azerbaijani number plates, they being defunct after independence, and the village souvenir shop which proudly boasted that it was run by a veteran of the war.

14162138870_8faf5dc2e7_zThe Titanic Hotel

14162082848_f5ca764539_zThe new primary school

14348743235_7907b3dd4a_zNumberplate heaven

High up on a mountain overlooking that most cheesy of villages was the monastery itself, one of the finest that we visited on the entire trip. It had some amazing intricate carvings particularly around the altar, but equally inspiring were the almost Alpine views from the terrace.

14368901263_6191823d40_zThe altar at Gandazar

14368908283_1bd83e7089_zThe view from the monastery

On the way back our driver tried to take us to a cheesy cave-sum-zoo tourist complex near to Gandazar village but we both refused point blank and so headed straight back to Stepanakert. There we attempted to visit the Karabagh War Museum but it was shut and so all that we could do was check out the collection of (rather primitive looking) guns outside. Then it was back to Ashot's house where we were plied with vodka and some slightly fizzy homemade wine that was not likely to win many awards whilst being treated to the most amazing meal of the entire trip – shashlik with some beautiful seasoned potatoes, tomato paste, pepper paste, vegetable and lavash.[15] Whilst eating we were pestered continually by Ashot's five-year old grandson who was an almighty pain, but, more positively, our driver opened up to us a little, telling us that he had no girlfriend and that when he was eight Azerbaijani helicopters had strafed the adjacent apartment block, upon which the pockmarks from that attack are still visible.

14325564336_751a4691ea_zAshot’s yard with the Volga

As the sun was setting we bid our hosts adieu and headed to an internet café to talk with friends and family on Skype and witness Stoke City beating Newcastle United. Then, having been warmed up by Ashot, we stocked up on sausage and wine and retreated to our balcony with its magnificent view where we celebrated our arrival in this non-state by drinking into the small hours and inflicting a selection of English and Irish folk songs upon the good people of Stepanakert.

[1] The Caucasus, p.105

[2] The Caucasus, p.105

[3] The Caucasus, p.105

[4] The Caucasus, p.111

[5] The Caucasus, p.113

[6] The Caucasus, p.117

[7] The Caucasus, p.119

[8] The Caucasus, p.120

[9] The Caucasus, p.121

[10] The Caucasus, p.123-4

[11] The Caucasus, p.103-4

[12] See my travelogue 'Across Asia With A Lowlander'.

[13] Wikipedia

[14] Armenia with Nagorno-Karabagh, p.97

[15] Lavash – Armenian flatbread, a delicious staple everywhere.