Kaleeo big picture

creation date
trip was in
best time to go
3 days
everyday life
Nagorno-Karabakh: at the outskirts of Western civilization
A country that does not exist

One of the outskirts of Europe is the Caucasus. Where Istanbul is only 2200km from Berlin, the region of Nagorno-Karabach is more than 3500km from Berlin. The difference however, that the other side of the Bosphorus in Istanbul is tremendously different from European values, but the relatively distant Nagorno-Karabach is still very European. This is not only remarkable for the distance, but also considering the neighbouring countries: the islamitic Azerbaijan, Iran und Turkey.

Although geographically considered Asian, residents of Nagorno-Karabakh feel European. Their state religion is Christian-Orthodox (just like major parts of Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, Bulgaria and Serbia), their cuisine is similar to other Eastern-European cuisines, Russian is the lingua franca and they want to be part of the European Union.

To understand the status-quo of Karabakh, one has to go back in time. Karabakh was officially part of the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic, but it belonged to the same mother country as the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic: the Soviet-Union. After the dissolution of the Soviet-Union it suddenly mattered where Karabakh belonged to. This was the start of a long lasting war, and the status-quo is a cease-fire (although every night firing from both sides are reported, with casualties every now and then). This makes the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh is a special entity. According to the United Nations (including Armenia), this region still belongs to the country of Azerbaijan, but the country is recognised by South-Ossetia, Abkhazia and Transnistria (all countries whose independence is also not recognised by the UN), but the status-quo is that Karabakh is inhabited by ethnic Armenians. Politics are largely dictated by Armenia’s capital Yerevan and the flag of Karabakh hardly differs from that of Armenia. Local authorities claim that Karabakh is an autonomous country, but press releases also indicate that the region strives to merge with the country of Armenia.

Although having a reputation nowadays (February 2015) this breakaway state is easy to enter. Western travellers receive an entry form at the border, and have to register within the next working day in the capital Stepanakert to obtain the visa for a small fee. With this visa in the passport it is impossible to enter the country of Azerbaijan. It is however possible to inquire this visa attached to your passport with a paperclip.

The city of Stepanakert has around 50,000 inhabitants and is nothing more special than any rural city. The only remarkable fact is that a lot of military memorials can be found throughout the city and its outskirts: memorial stones, but also tanks and aircraft. Although the atmosphere of the city remains peaceful, at the front lines there are mortar shootings every night and almost every night casualties are reported on both the Karabachian as the Azerbaijan side. Presumably amongst these there is a majority of Armenian forces in their military service.

The war ended in 1994 with an ongoing ceasefire. One of the places that are still marked by the war is the former Azerbaijan city of A?dam. Before the war the population was 40,000 but after heavy bombing by the Armenians this city remains deserted nowadays. Given that Nagorno-Karabakh mainly exists of rural areas, this city is definitely worth a visit. During our visit, we negotiated in basic Russian with the taxi drivers, but no one was willing to drive us there. They told us that the army is still patrolling the area and officially it is not allowed for tourists to visit this area. Luckily, we found a moonlighter who was willing to drive us there. For around €15 we booked him for an afternoon and he drove us there, 23 km from Stepanakert. On the way we pulled over a few times. There is a tank monument and the (closed) airport of Stepanakert. The entrance to the city starts with a muddy deserted road. Soon we saw the remains of what once was a city: skeletons of houses, some walls of which only the first floors were still standing. It gave an absolutely creepy feeling: it felt like a paintball playground with walls and remnants of houses as far as the horizon stretched, but knowing this was genuine and knowing a little more than two decades ago this area was a vivid city, the peace seemed fake.

A few Armenians repaired those walls into small dwellings again and started living their lives again. As hospitable as Armenians are, after asking what we did there a lady invites us for a cup of tea into her small house, where she lived with her husband. Although they owned as little as a bed, a table and a TV they still offered us cookies with the tea.

After this small stoppage, we asked our driver to continue to the center of the city. As he pulled over we saw the last building still standing: the mosque. Our driver could tell us that our of respect for the muslim population, this building was never bombed. We approached the mosque, and although warned not to do so, of course we made some photographs. Both the minarets were still standing and climbable,, so we did not hesitate to do so. Up there we saw an overview of the city: the city had really been heavily bombed: no building was standing, only some walls on the first floor. It really felt like the Armenians overbombed this city to make a statement. Up in the tour we also saw more humans: Armenian soldiers. At first we were scared that they saw us photographing, but a closer look revealed that they were doing exercises in mine sweeping. Damn, we have just been walking off-road all time!

Another cynical fact is that the premises of the mosque are now populated by nothing else than pigs. Although there are no proofs, it seems a rather disrespectful move of the Armenians to the muslim Azeris. After this, we walked to our driver over paths only and got the hell out of Agdam.

Our further days in Nagorno-Karabakh were spent without any dangers. Although the country is special, one should not spend more than three days over there.