Beware that this article is written almost 3 years after this trip, so some details are very likely to be blurred, or missing.
In 2015 during a trip to Armenia, I had a chance to visit the breakaway republic of Nagorno Karabakh (known as Artsakh in Armenia).
It’s a disputed Armenian enclave inside Azerbaijan. The background to this place, much like the other breakaway republics of the former Soviet Union is rooted in Stalin making border-magic. Nagorno Karabakh was historically part of Armenia, but in Soviet times it was granted to the SSR of Azerbaijan, but since everybody was just one big happy country it didn’t really cause much problems. Then the USSR fell apart, and, oh! Drama! Nagorno Karabakh had majority armenian demographic, and wanted to join with Armenia, but Azerbaijan claimed that it was legitimate Azerbaijani soil. The two sides started a war, which ended with a decisive Armenian victory (with Russian help), kicking out the azeri people. Now it’s a fully Armenian enclave trying for some sort of independence, but is for all intents and purposes an extension of Armenia. The war never formally ended and there’s still border-skirmishes every now and then. Both sides accusing each other of war crimes and ethnic cleansing and destruction of cultural heritage. It’s a mess.
This is also the root of the immense hatred that exists between Armenia and Azerbaijan to this day. And there’s a lot of drama regarding this region. So how is it actually like to visit?
Despite it still technically being an active war zone, I was very fascinated by the concept of a pseudo-state, and as such I was very interested to visit myself and see what it was all about.
Nagorno Karabakh is to the east of Armenia, and you enter through a mountainous border crossing, without ever actually crossing into official Azerbaijani territory (if they learn that you’ve visited Nagorno Karabakh, the Azeris wont let you in to Azerbaijan anymore).
You can go there from the Armenian capital Yerevan in multiple ways. Either catch a mini-bus like the locals. This is a cheap option, but the comfort is low. But you get to experience a proper authentic Armenian journey. Another option is to hire a taxi. This is much more expensive, but the comfort is also higher – in this way you can also make the trip there into a day trip with other stops along the way. The final option, which is the one I opted in for, is to book a tour with a tour company.
I signed up for a 3 day tour, with a big tour group. The tour, including accommodation, transport, entrances, all dinners etc. cost me approx. 175 euros. The first day was for going to Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno Karabakh. We had a plethora of stops along the way at some of the most iconic Armenian sites. I wont go into detail with the places we visited inside Armenia here, that will be covered in the Armenia post(s). But we stopped at Khor Virap, Noravank, had lunch at an idyllic restaurant next to a river, and a small stop at a viewpoint over the town of Goris near the border into Nagorno Karabakh.
In the late afternoon we neared the border to Nagorno Karabakh, and the landscape changes radically. Up to this part we had driven through a lot of beautiful slightly hilly Armenian highlands, but as you approach Nagorno Karabakh, it becomes very mountainous, and you have to drive through quite some nauseating mountain roads with sharp turns etc. We actually had to make a stop because some people became ill and had to throw up! The whole of Nagorno Karabakh is in fact very mountainous, which makes it a very hard place to invade, but also a rough place to traverse. It is very different from the rest of Armenia.
The crossing into Nagorno Karabakh went very smoothly. The tour company had fixed a common visa for the whole group, and we didnt get any stamps or anything in our passports. Soon we were on our way through small villages on the way to Stepanakert!
The first night in Stepanakert
Something that I should mention here, is that right from the beginning in Yerevan, I made friends with a diverse group of people, a canadian, 2 australians and 2 lebanese-armenian people. We had a great time during the whole tour, and even afterwards. As we arrived in Stepanakert, we were however split out to different hotels, and I ended up with the canadian guy – Louis-Philippe. After we arrived in Stepanakert – a fairly small city, but cozy and intriguing – we had common dinner before being split out into the different hotels. After that, we had the night off to explore town on our own.
Louis-Philippe and I went out without a plan, we didn’t have any idea about what there was to do in the city, or where anything was. So we ended up buying beers and snacks in a small store, walking around some main streets where the local people, especially the kids, showed interest in us. Beyond this, there really wasn’t anything that stuck out too much, it was a pretty regular town, albeit on the lower end of the development scale. Granted, its hard to not feel that you’re in a special place, with a special meaning. Eventually we found a fancy small pathway, with a fancy building at the end, which later turned out to be the Stepanakert university. Along the path there were benches, and there were many young people in the area, so we sat down and enjoyed our drinks and snacks. But suddenly, out of nowhere all the street lights and all electric appliances turned off in a flash. None of the locals even missed a beat, despite it being very dark suddenly. Thus it must be pretty normal here to have power outages. After approx 15 minutes the power returned, and we made our way back to the hotel, since we had to get up early the next day to go on a tour of the main sites of the region.
What an introduction to this unique place!
Churches, cathedrals, oh my!
The next day we had breakfast and then headed out for a full day in the tour bus, to cruise through all the main sites of Nagorno Karabakh.
We first drove to the nearby town of Shusi, which is the most important religious center in Nagorno Karabakh, and there’s a big entirely white cathedral in the typical Armenian style. The interior, again, like typical Armenian churches is very low-key and humble. There’s more focus on the faith rather than grandeur. The cathedral is one of the main symbols of the region. In the cellar of the cathedral, there’s a special echo chamber in which your voice will get enormously amplified if you stand in a particular spot. Of course we all had to try this out, and it was a fun little gimmick.
Besides the cathedral, there isn’t much to see in Shusi, and the town center is fairly run down unfortunately. We still had a small walk around to see some memorials to the fallen soldiers in the war with Azerbaijan, and the obligatory WW2 memorials.
After Shusi we went back to Stepanakert and had a guided city tour. Here we saw the central square, home to the parliament and the presidents palace (which you’re not allowed to photograph – but everybody still did. And yes Nagorno Karabakh has its own president). Compared to the surrounding apartment blocks, these buildings are a lot grander and stick out quite a bit. We walked down to the museum of the history of Stepanakert, although for me, the trip here was ruined by a lack of water which caused quite some lack of focus due to it being extremely hot also.
After finishing off the city tour, the next stop was >THE< symbol of Nagorno Karabakh – the “We Are Our Mountains” monument. A big, red, stone statue symbolizing the grandmothers and grandfathers who build up the land, and the people of the region in general. The monument is very simple, but extremely beautiful. We had a stop here that allowed us to get up close to the monument and take pictures. The place was swarming with tourists tho, and not just our own group. But seeing the grandeur, yet simplicity, of these statues were worth it. And my new group of friends and I got a good picture here. Worth it!
The fateful lunch
Before we ventured on to the next stop, Gandzasar, we headed for lunch at a restaurant at the bottom of the mountain on which Gandzasar stands. It’s located right next to a raging river, and nestled in between mountain walls. They also had a big cavern near the restaurant that is naturally shaped almost like a lions-head, which has then been edited the last bit by human hands to make it look exactly like a lion. That was pretty neat.
The lunch we had, was the traditional lavash bread (very flat-bread) filled with different local herbs. The dish is called Zhingalov Khats. It is fairly tasteful, and the most nagorno-karabakh-y dish you can get, as it features these herbs that are essentially only found in Nagorno Karabakh. Unfortunately, this otherwise healthy and tasty dish would (allegedly) seal my fate for the next few days, as i got a bad case of unruly stomach which ruined the trip back to Yerevan, and locked me in bed for 3 days after returning to Yerevan. More on this particular unpleasant experience later in this post.
Don’t take this as an advice to stay away from Zhingalov Khats though, just be sure that your stomach can handle digesting various herbs.
The next stop took us up into the mountains, to another grand cathedral. This time, it was Gandzasar. It is actually a complex made up of a cathedral and a church, but in the typical armenian style. The garden inside has trees with apricots and boysenberries, that you can pick from, and these fresh produce are so delicious! Great addition from the monks of this place! The holy buildings, are much like all other armenian holy buildings, grand from the outside, but humble on the inside. These, unlike the cathedral in Shusi, are made from gray stone. It makes them less pleasing to the eye, but watching these buildings with the majestic mountains as the backdrop makes for a great scene anyways.
There’s also a great view over the valleys from up there. Gandzasar is a terrific place for sure. Outside, at the parking lot, we met a guy who has become a local legend. It is a greek guy, who has his trustworthy horse with him, and who lives off selling small tours on his horse to tourists visiting Gandzasar. He also equips you with a Nagorno Karabakh flag, so you become a proper Artsakh warrior! I of course had to do this, of course I had to. This guy also does stunts with his horse, including standing upright on its back while it walks around. He has become a man of myth for these tricks.
Tourists in a war zone
After Gandzasar, still feeling on top, we continued onwards to the last destination of the day, Tigranakert. It is located on the eastern edges of Nagorno Karabakh, on a flat plain that is very near the frontline of the conflict. As a consequence of this, we did pass quite a few military vehicles and a single convoy on the way. It was clear that this wasn’t your average run-of-the-mill vacation spot.
As said, Tigranakert is located on a mostly flat plain going into Azerbaijan, and you can actually see into proper Azeri territory from the castle. Luckily there was no active hostility going on while we were in the area, but you really feel that you’re getting close to the action. On the way, you also pass by the only airfield in the region, a military airfield. It is however not even used for military purposes, as the azeri military has threatened to shoot down any aircraft that departs or arrives at this airbase.
Tigranakert itself is an old castle, build by blocks of stone in a beautiful sand-stone color. It has protective walls all around, and also hosts a museum about the fortress itself, and the archaeological site that sits right outside the castle grounds. You can also see and explore the archaeological site on your own, although it is in a bad state because the conflict is halting conservation efforts. UNESCO won’t help until the area is cleared.
While Tigranakert sits on a mostly flat plain, there are a big valley right behind it, that offers a stunning view to the one side of the castle. However, given it was peak summer and very hot, the grass was completely dry, even burned at places.
Back to Stepanakert, days in hell begin
After Tigranakert, we headed back for Stepanakert. During the time at Tigranakert i had started to feel slightly ill, nausea and stomach pains. Still nothing too bad however. But it developed on the trip back to Stepanakert and got even worse during night. It actually forced me to stay in my hotel room for the night, while the rest of my new group of friends went out and saw local music. My stomach felt constipated, but nothing would come out. I felt increasingly bad. But given that I have a track record of sensitive stomach while traveling, alarm bells weren’t ringing yet.
Back to Armenia
Eventually I fell asleep, and woke up in the morning feeling slightly better, but that only lasted so long before the symptoms returned with full force after breakfast.
Luckily the plan for the day was just to drive back to Yerevan, with a few stops along the way. Our first stop was not too long after having crossed the border back in Armenia, it was at a place called Tatev, which features yet another classical armenian church, but even more significantly it also features the longest single-stretch cable car ride in the world to get out to the church, located on a plateau, which would take almost 40 minutes to reach by car. The cable car takes about 10 minutes.
While walking around the Tatev complex stomach pains hit me again, but still there was no release. It made the journey at Tatev quite unbearable. In fact, as we went back with the cable car, suddenly I could feel that my stomach really had to go, and those last few minutes in the wagon was horrid. I just rushed for the toilet as we arrived, and emptied my bowels. I hoped that with this part done, everything would just return to normal. But sadly my stomach just kept acting up all during the lunch we had at the restaurant next to the cable car. Resulting in me spending all the time at the toilet and not getting any lunch. Also feeling worse and worse by the minute.
My stomach managed to settle a bit, and we set out for the next stretch of the trip back to Yerevan. I wasn’t getting better. Feeling ill and nauseaus, and with stomach cramps, we arrived at a place called Zorats Karer, which is also known as the armenian stonehenge. It is a site made up of hundreds of fairly small stones positioned in patterns to align with heavenly bodies. It was quite fascinating to walk around these stones, although the illness did hamper it somewhat.
The next, and final, stop before Yerevan was at the Areni Winery near Noravank (where we went on the way to Nagorno Karabakh). Here we had a fine little wine tasting. Or rather the others did, as I was sitting in pain, feeling incredibly sick, and not in the mood for wine at all. From here on I would just feel absolutely thrashed for days on end.
One little light in the dark
There’s however one single good memory that I want to highlight here, from the journey between Areni and Yerevan. Most people, including my side-buddy in the bus, Louis-Philippe, were asleep as we drove along the highway that offers a stunning clear view of Mount Ararat. This meant a nice blissful, peaceful moment. The pain was keeping me awake, but I was enjoying the sun setting behind Mount Ararat, coloring the sky in golden red colors, leaving Ararat in a gloomy shadow. This sight was absolutely stunning and magnificent, and to complement it, I was listening to the armenian band System of a Down’s song “Holy Mountains” which is partly about Mount Ararat (in a sad way though, as it is about the armenians murdered in the armenian genocide, now resting on the mountain and the surrounding lands), which just made this experience perfect, and a moment of complete bliss. For a while making me entirely forget about the pains I was in.
First it got a whole lot worse, then it got better
Back in Yerevan I self medicated with some stomach-normalizing pills, hoping to get rid of the illness. With little effect. On day 2 back in Yerevan I suddenly started puking up large amounts of black bile, that had lots of undigested pieces of the herbs from the lunch we had in Nagorno Karabakh, which is why I now assume that this lunch was the root of all of this. At first this felt very relieving, and I was very happy to have emptied my bowels now. For a bit feeling certain the ordeal was over. Sadly it wasn’t, and the pains returned not long after. The situation no better on day 3, I got the hostel staff to call me some medical staff because I was getting kinda worried at this point.
2 Nurses arrived in an ambulance, and with the translation-assistance of the helpful, and equally worried hostel staff (they had done everything to help me in the past days, including getting me other medications and different foods they thought would help and in general just taking good care of me and making sure I was comfortable, shoutout to Envoy Hostel crew!), I was examined. Given my symptoms and the events over the past days, they determined that I was suffering from stomach-inflamation, essentially my stomach producing too much stomach acid, which can indeed cause pain and uneasiness. They prescribed me some pills for this. After taking the pills, and sleeping heavily the whole night, I woke up the next morning feeling a lot better. Over the day I would pretty much return to normal, and from there the problems subsisted entirely, allowing me to continue my trip onwards to Georgia.
It was some very horrible days in massive pain and discomfort, but I’m very thankful to the hostel staff for looking after me, and also for the local medics who were professional and effective. This is in fact the most ill i’ve ever been during any trip, and also the first and so far only time i’ve been bed-ridden for days.
As I said, don’t make my story discourage you from going to Nagorno Karabakh or eating the Zhingalov Khats. All the other people on the tour (we were around 40) ate it too and I was the only one who got ill. It is not even certain at all that it was actually the fault of the Zhingalov Khats, it is just my assumption.
If there isn’t any active war going on in Nagorno Karabakh while you’re in Armenia, I can only recommend taking a detour to this fantastic, mountainous region.