Going Rogue As A Traveler In The Disputed Nagorno-Karabakh

Even though I became a stateless man several years ago, I had never been kicked out of a country. That changed on this trip to a hotly disputed and, at times, fought-over territory in the South Caucasus.

As a stateless man, it is only fitting for me to travel to places where no state exists, or those peculiar disputed territories where no state is formally recognized. Nagorno-Karabakh is one of these unrecognized states, and it might just be the most intriguing, complicated one.

In simple terms, Nagorno-Karabakh is Armenian controlled territory within Azerbaijan. Nagorno-Karabakh, or Artsakh as Armenians like to call it, functions as an independent country — though heavily dependent on Armenia — but no country recognizes its independence. Rather the international community views Nagorno-Karabakh as part of Azerbaijan.

Following the breakup of the Soviet Union, Armenia and Azerbaijan fought a war over Nagorno-Karabakh. A ceasefire was established in 1994, but the war never really ended. Snipers have remained stationed along the frontline, and sporadic fighting has broken out now and then. In 2016, about a year and a half after I visited, a four-day war occurred in which an estimated 350 people died, some of whom were civilians.

Heading there in the fall of 2014, I knew I was entering a war zone but I didn’t know what to expect. What I found was incredible hospitality, surprisingly interesting tourist attractions (if you can call them that) and a chance to be a kid again — which did not end in such an innocent manner…

The way into Karabakh

I started in Yerevan… luckily. Otherwise it would have been a very long trip involving a detour through Georgia on the way to Armenia.

Traveling by Marshrutka — shared minivan — (remember the Caucasus region is post-Soviet), we embarked on the approximately 6-hour drive from Yerevan to Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh.  On the way we needed to go through Azeri territory. The road through a strip of Azerbaijan that leads to Karabakh traverses a narrow, steep mountain pass. There are no Azeri soldiers stationed in the area. But try and fly into Nagorno-Karabak, and you are liable to have your plane shot down by the Azeri military. The region is not a free-for-all for travelers.

Mountains in Nagorno-Karabakh

Upon arriving in Stepanakert, I had the pleasure of staying in a nice hotel, eating in a nice restaurant and… meeting with the top economic advisor to the president of Nagorno-Karabakh. The presidential advisor filled me in on what’s going on with the local economy, as well as with Nagorno-Karabakh as a whole. Let’s just say it has a different feel than meeting the seasteaders in Tahiti. 😉

Stepanakert has a big White House, like Washington, D.C., and it is much more of a pleasant city than the U.S. capital. But the tourists gems of Artsakh lie in the rural, or formerly populated, areas of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Stepanakert

When venturing out of the capital and around Nagorno-Karabakh, there are some monasteries to visit, including the impressive, very Armenian looking Gandzasar Monastery. Aren’t those Armenian Apostolic churches distinct in their appearance?

Gandzasar Monastery

Beware, there is one thing in particular a visitor ought to be cognizant of when wandering around Karabakh — landmines. Nagorno-Karabakh has one of the highest landmine densities in the entire world. With some guidance, I got to step on some old mines. Nothing exploded, and I lived to venture on closer to the frontline.

Fun times in ruined towns

It’s worth mentioning that I spent time venturing around Nagorno-Karabakh with three German travelers. My new German friends were themselves friends, but they each took unique routes from Deutschland to Artsakh. One drove from Germany to Nagorno-Karabakh in a Mercedes. One rode a bicycle all the way to Artsakh. And the third hiked from Munich (What?!?!). He left Munich two years prior without any money and somehow managed to end up in Nagorno-Karabakh, reunited with his buddies.

One of the fellow Germans (I’ll let you guess which one) ventured out with me on a day of exploring the ruins of Karabakh. The main attraction, or so we thought, was Agdam.

Agdam is one of the largest ghost towns in the world. Previously a city of tens of thousands of people, Agdam is now a bunch of ruins lying in the demilitarized zone separating Azeri and ethnic Armenian forces. During the war in the 90s, Armenian troops captured the city. Agdam’s entire population then fled east.

Now there is pretty much only one structure in Agdam that is standing and not destroyed. That is the Agdam Mosque. It is right in the middle of what’s left of the city. We went in for a look, then went up the minaret of the mosque. That gave us a view of the demilitarized zone all the way to the unrecognized border.

Agdam

Sounds simple, but don’t think visiting Agdam is easy. It’s not. The ghost town is largely closed to civilians. If soldiers are around and they catch you going into Agdam, you can get in trouble.

There is a strategy that sometimes works, which we employed successfully. First you find a taxi driver who you think is brave. Then you bribe him. Then you enjoy the ride into the ghost town. It’s as easy as 1-2-3. 😉

After Agdam, it was time to visit some more ruins while on the way back to Stepanakert. Things got interesting in Tigranakert, a ruined ancient Armenian city. Recently Tigranakert has been excavated, and now you can visit the old walls and a rusty, old bath, as well as a nearby castle.

At the excavation site in Tigranakert, we stumbled upon a bunch of Armenian schoolchildren from Yerevan who were visiting Artsakh. The kids were students at a French school in Yerevan, and they didn’t speak English. I communicated with them in broken French.

Being a playful person, I joined the school kids in some traditional Armenian folk dances. I also sang the Armenian national anthem with them. Video evidence of my dancing and singing exists on YouTube. And all of this was taking place a kilometer or two away from the frontline. I will return to that matter momentarily…

Enjoying my company, the schoolchildren invited me onto their bus. We cruised around Artsakh until the kids spotted a couple tanks in the rearview mirror. The kids got excited and convinced the bus driver to stop.

They got out of the bus and made a human chain in front of the oncoming tanks. It was not a symbol of peace. It was an invitation for some post-Soviet fun.

The tanks stopped and some amused soldiers allowed the children to climb on top of the military vehicles and pose with machine guns. Meanwhile the soldiers lectured the kids, motivating them to one day join the fight against the “evil” Azeris.

It was all fun and games until I, too, climbed on the tank. While trying to take a selfie, I stepped backward and fell. Basically my whole body plunged into a hole around a wheel of the tank. I got hurt.. But when in Nagorno-Karabakh, you tough things out.

I think you can guess which country I got kicked out of…

It was not the Republic of Artsakh. I got along very well with the people and leaders of Nagorno-Karabakh.

The Azeri authorities, on the other hand, were not so happy with me. If you want to visit Karabakh without proper clearance from Azerbaijan — and get away with it — I do not recommend you post YouTube videos of yourself singing the Armenian national anthem and dancing Armenian folk dances near the frontline of the contested territory. If you do so, you are gambling your future status as a visitor to Azerbaijan.

 

The Grandparents

Don’t think I’m bitter about it

The Azeri authorities may have spurned me — and my investment manats — but the people of Azerbaijan are still in my hearts. To show my appreciation for the people of Azerbaijan, I started my own think tank and development aid organization in the country. Katalatto, as it is called, is currently working to promote property rights and entrepreneurship and to help small business owners on the ground in Azerbaijan. You’re welcome, Baku.

Still, I stand with Artsakh…

It was discomforting to hear the news in 2016 that war had resumed in Karabakh. I fell in love with Artsakh during my trip. War zone or not, I can’t wait to go back. Catch me if you can. 😉

 

Stay: Lots of pensions with very hospitable hosts. Cannot remember mine. Saw the Vallex Garden Hotel from inside and had a nice impression.

 

Eat: Stepanakaerts “pizzeria” is worth for the experience. Rather dine with your hosts, though.

 

Drink: They have plenty of home-made spirits. Ask your hosts, but dont drink too much.

 

Connect: Yes, they got Wifi (even in 2014). Worked well enough to skype.

 

See: Lots of monasteries and old ruins to visit. And if you are brave, the ghost town of Agdam. Dont get caught by the soldiers or even Azeri snipers, though…

 

Do: Stepanakaert is surpringly nice to have a walk around and talk with the locals. Dont forget the famous two grandparent statues (Papik and Tatik) at the edge of the town.

 

Go there: You cannot fly because Azerbaijan would shoot the planes. It is a long drive from Yerevan, Armenia over narrow, bumpy mountain passes, but with incredible scenery.

 

Go next: Go back to Armenia – only option. Make a stop in Tatev and visit the famous monastery before continuing north to Yerevan or south to Iran.