Officially, Nagorno Karabakh is a country that doesn’t exist, but you can go there anyway and prove it to those who don’t believe you with the colourful visa glued into your passport. Not recognised by the international community, and de jure part of Azerbaidjan, which has not exercised power over most of the region since 1991, it has its own army, a president, a parliament and an embassy in Yerevan. Although it is officially part of Azerbaidjan you can only travel there via Armenia.
The airport is still under construction so you will need to do the eight hour trip from the capital of Armenia by bus or ‘marshutki’ communal taxis. The last three hours of the journey are breathtaking, if you have a robust stomach. Otherwise the hairpin roads might turn into a little bit of a nightmare.
Stepanakert, Nagorno Karabakh
The capital, Stepanakert, will most likely be your base for exploring other parts of the region. Exploring the city, by day or by night, is great fun. You will see an uncanny amount of young men in military uniforms and probably won’t communicate much if you don’t speak Russian or Armenian, but you won’t be bored and can definitely pan to stay and explore for a couple of days.
Trip to Shushi
Like in most other cities in the region, the urban landscape here is dominated by dilapidated Soviet-era buildings. Development, however, seems faster here than in other regions of Armenia, and new buildings, shopping malls and chic cafes appear at all street corners. The economy of the city was heavily damaged during the war, but in recent years, largely due to investments of the Armenian diaspora, economic activity and tourism restarted.
Downtown Stepanakert, Nagorno-Karabakh
You should also do a day trip to Shushi, about ten kilometres from the capital. With views over the central plains of Karabakh, Shushi was a recreational mountain resort in Soviet times. According to the 1989 census, 98% of the inhabitants of the town of Shushi were Azerbaijani. Following the war, these people had to flee and the current population consists of about 3,000 Armenians, mostly refugees from other regions of Azerbaijan and some immigrants from Armenia and the diaspora. Brand new buildings stand next to ruins overgrown with trees, evidence of fighting that took place twenty years ago. The recently restored cathedral attracts some local tourists who usually also throw a glance at the two mosques next door. One stands in the midsts of ruins and for some reason has been spared from destruction. The other mosque visible from the Cathedral has not been so lucky and its minaret now serves as a bakery chimney.
Shushi, Nagorno Karabakh
Agdam, ‘Hiroshima of the Caucasus’
Most guide books will tell you that you are not allowed to go to Agdam, the “Caucasian Hiroshima”. But a trip to the ruins of this small city, located in a valley surrounded by majestic mountains a few kilometers from the cease-fire line between Azerbaijan and the self-proclaimed Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh is definitely worth it in order to get a real sense of the devastation brought by this little known conflict.
When the town was captured in 1993 some 40,000 Azeri inhabitants fled to Azerbaijan and the armed forces of Nagorno-Karabakh decided to destroy the city to prevent its takeover by Azerbaijan. Today the city is used as a buffer zone between the two forces and nothing has been rebuilt. The only people we met during our visit to the ruins were some army trucks of the Nagorno-Karabakh army filled with young soldiers who warned us with sign language to not venture inside and get ripped apart by a landmine.
If you are into visiting beautiful churches, you can spent a few days in the region exploring small villages or walking in the breathtaking mountains. Travelling from Armenia to Azerbaidjan on the continuation of your trip is however, is not a good idea. Azerbaidjan will block passports containing stamps or visas from Nagorno-Karabakh. Even if you already have an Azerbaijan visa, you will be turned away and deported, or possibly arrested, and the visa will be revoked. You might even be permanently refused entry to Azerbaijan.