A warm welcome in the Caucasus mountains: Travelling through Armenia and Karabakh

Seth Kugel of the New York Times  has traveled to Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh and written down the impressions in an extended article. The full article is below:

The clotheslines that extended from balconies in Stepanakert showed an extraordinary degree of precision, if not obsession. In this city of 50,000, families had ordered the clothes from smallest to biggest: pink toddler socks gave way to slightly larger red and black ones for children and adults, then underwear (sorted by color), and finally a sequence of ever-larger shirts, hung upside down with sleeves outstretched, like an army of invisible superheroes swooping down from the sky.

Could it be that living in the limbo of a self-declared but largely unrecognized country drives people to seek order in other ways? It was a thought that occurred to me after a weekend in the Nagorno-Karabakh region, where about 150,000 Armenians (and a smattering of others) live over 1,700 square miles of mountains, rivers and valleys in the Caucasus Mountains. To the west is an easygoing border with Armenia; to the east is a disputed boundary with Azerbaijan, which sees regular sniper attacks and, last year, a downed helicopter incident.

The area’s complicated history goes back centuries. Most recently, a bitter war in the early 1990s, in which the Armenian-majority enclave declared independence from Azerbaijan (which months earlier had declared independence from the Soviet Union), drove out the minority Azeris, and sucked in ethnic Armenians fleeing the rest of Azerbaijan. A new constitution in 2006 declared it a sovereign state.

Yet today, the de facto Nagorno-Karabakh Republic is not recognized by any member of the United Nations; most sources, including Google Maps, place it squarely in Azerbaijan. And though it has its own flag and government, it is deeply connected with and dependent on Armenia, which supplies its currency and military, among other things.

The area’s tourism options, though, are rough-edged but spirited, and the region is generally considered safe for travelers — who, of course, should steer clear of that tense eastern border. And most significantly for me, during a recent off-season trip to the area, it turned out to be excellent for travelers on a tight budget.

My weekend there cost about 47,000 dram (almost exactly $100 at 468 dram to the dollar), half of which was my portion of a six-hour shared taxi there and back from Yerevan, the Armenian capital. Alas, I missed it at its lush summer best, but even in late February, its mountainous landscape was beautiful in its snow-dusted starkness.

I also was lucky enough to visit with two new friends. Sonya Varoujian, asinger who grew up in London and New York, and Goreun Berberian, a Syrian Armenian. Both are descendants of Armenians who fled the Ottoman Empire during the genocide a century ago. I was conscious that that meant I would be hearing just one side of a very complex story.

In that shared taxi, we drove past apricot orchards and small towns where enormous storks nest on telephone poles and then into the mountains. Luckily, our driver, Yura, was amenable to a few stops; our fourth passenger, an Armenian soldier named Davit, was happy for the cigarette breaks.

So we stopped in a field to widen our eyes at the enormity of Mount Ararat, its two mismatched humps rising ethereally above the haze, and at Noravank, one of Armenia’s many strikingly situated monasteries, its stone churches matching the rust-colored cliffs it was nestled in. “It’s one of the newer ones,” said Sonya, which in Armenia means it was built just in time to be sacked by Mongols in the 13th century.

We were dropped off at Stepanakert, at a homespun hostel without a name; I’ll call it Seda’s Hostel, after Seda Babayan, the twinkly-eyed 80-year-old grandmother who runs the place. (To reserve, call 374-47-94-13-48 and hope you get an English-speaking grandchild.) The three of us were the only guests, and she charged us a total of 8,000 drams to share a brightly painted but underheated dorm room.

Then it was off to meet Sonya’s friends, most notably Armond Tahmazian, a talented jewelry-maker who came from Iran in 1999, met his wife (an Australian-Armenian) here, and stayed. Armond welcomed us into his shop, Nereni Arts and Crafts, where he sells his own jewelry, the work of local artists and CDs by Armenian singers, including Sonya. Not for sale: the wooden bellows camera he said was the “first camera in Stepanakert” (How did he know? “It’s a small town.”) and an odd contraption that looked to me like a stubby World War I howitzer but turned out to be a rusty German sausage stuffer.

Armond served us his own homemade grape vodka, with small chunks of pickled beet as chasers. As Sonya translated, I quickly picked up on two elements of his personality. First, a wry humor. “There is a water shortage in Karabakh,” he said. “The main source of hydration is vodka.” Second, a deep sense of patriotism, conveyed in emotional soliloquies about the war. “To the boys,” he toasted at the end of one.

He would have taken care of us for the entirety of our trip, but I wanted us to escape and see the town on our own. So we went to Evita Café, a trailer on Alex Manukyan Street with a couple of tables stuffed inside, like a cross between a diner and food truck. I got to try the epitome of Karabakh cuisine: zhingyalov hats, paper-thin flatbread folded over a kaleidoscopic variety of greens, and toasted on a griddle. The cook, who is also an owner, told us there were 11 greens in all: coriander, spring onion, spinach, lamb’s lettuce, beetroot leaf, dill, wild tulip leaf, three others Sonya couldn’t translate and one she could translate only literally, as “old person’s bellybutton.” The resulting battle on my taste buds ended in a surprising harmony.

On Sunday after a stop at the market (sour “fruit rollups” called chir, 300 dram and highly recommended), we headed to Shushi, a partly walled hilltop city that has seen plenty of sieges in its time, most recently its capture by the Armenians in 1992, a key and still celebrated victory of the war. (The Azerbaijanis refer to the town as Shusha; I am using Armenian names here, since they are the ones travelers are most likely to encounter.) The plan was to see the town and then have Sonya’s friend Sevak, who lives between Shushi and his village across Karkak Canyon, Arkateli, lead us on a hike.

Shushi provided an image for Armond’s war stories; on the drive up, we passed a memorial featuring the first Armenian tank to enter the city. We walked on Shushi’s walls, which are largely intact, unlike much of the city. Though it has been repopulated by Armenians and partly rebuilt — check out the new, virtually mint-condition State Museum of Visual Arts, just 300 dram — countless traditional stone homes were destroyed in the war; their ruins dot the city. On one street, blocklong Soviet-era apartment buildings lined each side, one with the streetside wall blown out, the other decrepit but intact and inhabited.

That’s why the town’s two mosques stand out. Though Armenians are Christians, the mosques used by Azerbaijani Muslims driven out a quarter-century ago are surprisingly intact and lovely. At the 19th-century Upper Mosque, we peered through grilled gates and saw an elegant vaulted brick ceiling. I found out later that the Armenians had protected and restored the mosque — which was viewed as a poignant preservation by some, a publicity stunt by others. The even more beautiful Lower Mosque is also standing but is not in as good shape.

After sloshing through muddy, snowy roads, Sonya trying to describe how beautiful the town was in the spring, we met up with Sevak. He was an instantly likable man in his 30s with tightly cropped hair closely matching his heavy facial stubble. His passable English was charming, only slightly offset by phrases culled from video games, like “Need backup!” and “Fire in the hole!”

His friend Davit, a graphic designer from Stepanakert, also joined us. After buying elements for a barbecue — meat, big ovals of matnaqash bread and vodka (plus water, my idea) — we realized we didn’t have skewers. Davit simply walked over to a nearby apartment building, started shouting up to people on the balconies, and soon returned with skewers on loan from a stranger.

The plan was to hike down into Hunot Gorge. Far below, the narrow but spirited Karkar River rushed through; across, a hill was covered by slender trees that, leafless in winter, looked like porcupine quills. Snow-capped mountains stretched to the horizon. Beautiful to look at, miserable to conduct a war in, I thought.

I soon learned the plan was to go down to the river. “All the way down?” I asked skeptically. But Sevak knew the route, which was spottily marked by blue paint splotches on trees or rocks. (It’s part of what I would later learn is the Janapar Trail, which winds through back roads and villages and is almost certainly wonderful in the summer.) It was only occasionally difficult, involving brief spurts of clambering down rocks that made me wish I didn’t own the world’s cheapest hiking boots.

As we walked down the final slope to the river, a surprise: an abandoned village of stone houses in various states of ruin, but not from the war. “The people left in 1930s or ’40s,” Sevak told us. “Two or three people from my village were born there.” He pointed out another old house just across a stone bridge; that family, he said, harvested ice from the river in the winter and sold it throughout the year up in Shushi.

As Sevak and Davit got a fire going, Sonya insisted on leading Goreun and me, a tired and still-skeptical pair, across the bridge and down the river’s edge (and sometimes into it, hopping from stone to stone). My skepticism vanished at the end, when we found the astonishing Zontik, or “Umbrella,” waterfall — though to me the rock formation looked more like a bunch of giant mushrooms, drooping over a shallow cave. The rocks were covered in green moss, which split the water into tiny streams, forming a sheet of rivulets covering the entrance to the cave like a beaded curtain.

We returned to the scent of roasting pork, which Davit doled out to us with chunks of bread and shots of vodka. I was happy to hear that Sevak could be hired as a guide, though when I asked how friends could get in touch (since I had not revealed I was writing an article), he said they should just arrive and ask for “Sevak from Arkateli.”

We departed the next morning, leaving me frustrated at our incredibly abbreviated visit to a beautiful and complicated place. Lesson: A day and a half is way too short to see an entire country, whether it is an actual country or not.

Show More
Back to top button