We Are Our Mountains

Yesterday I returned from a three-day trip to the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, known as Artsakh in Armenian, after an embarrassingly five-year hiatus from visiting the area. It was one of the most exciting, pleasant road trips I've taken in the South Caucasus to date.

I asked my father-in-law Levon and Sergey Minasian to accompany me, since both of them have a fondness for exploration and also haven't been to the areas I wanted to visit. Those included Tigranakert, which is located in the Armenian-controlled Aghdam district, and Dadivank, found in the uppermost left corner of the country. I also wanted to visit Amaras in the Hadrut region, housing the first known school where the Armenian alphabet was taught by St. Mesrob Mashdots himself. Time restrictions, however, prevented us from driving south. I dedicated only two nights and three days for our trip so I could rush back to my family. It's becoming increasingly difficult for me to be away from Areg for very long.

The trip got off to a slightly disappointing start when I was pulled over by the traffic police only 100 meters after crossing the Ardashat city border in the Ararat region. The law stipulates that motor vechiles can only drive up to 60 kilometers per hour in small towns and villages, apparently even on four-lane highways where there's hardly a pedestrian around, which I wasn't aware of. I was driving 90 kilometers per hour, but because I am a "guest" in the country they fined me 15,000 dram, a half-price discount, and they wouldn't take away my driver's license as they would supposedly ordinarily do . I had to sign a form in five different spots to make it all look official, shook the police officer's hand, and we were off. Only seconds after we started moving again within the speed limit several cars whizzed by us. Just my luck.

Once every so often we would stop to drink some water fresh from a nearby source. In the Vayats Dzor region we picnicked beside the Arpa River, an area which is one of the most lovely in all of Armenia, situated in a narrow gorge.

Long ago I realized that each time you cross a regional border in Armenia you enter an entirely different world. The mountains transform and increase in girth and height, the fields are blanketed with carpets of golden wheat. The azure sky of the Syunik plains is the widest I've ever seen anywhere on the planet. Not only does the nature and landscape magically change before your eyes, even the general personalities of the people you meet do. The further south you drive, the warmer people generally are from my experience. That applies particularly to the people of Artsakh.

There I find people to be very self-confident and complex-free, especially the youth, who have nothing to prove unlike some of their cocky, obnoxiously delirious counterparts in Yerevan. People speak softly to one another, even on the phone, and you don't hear rabiz music blaring from cafe speakers. Stepanakert is immaculate compared with Yerevan, where thousands of people are still battling the disease of chronic littering. Artsakh's capital city is also more picturesque and vibrant, to me at least.  There haven't been numerous changes in terms of construction since I was last there, at least to my eye, although there are new buildings housing the National Assembly and governmental ministries, and the new headquarters of the Freedom Fighters Union is also going up. I also noticed that Stepanakert's central cascading park has been completely reconstructed.

We stayed in Shushi with the sister-in-law of Saro Saroyan, who with his wife operates a bed and breakfast. His gigantic home that was once a boarding home for Russian vacationers, dating back to the 1860s, was overrun with AYF members from California and Stepanakert, so we were redirected to Valentine's house, only a stone's throw away. Her house is also quite old, but it is not entirely clear who exactly built either home, although we know that primarily Armenians and Persians inhabited Shushi in the late 19th century.  And according to Saro, a segment of the Silk Road separates their properties -- see the photo down below.

We only met Valentine on the last day, as she had gone to send off her son to Yerevan. Valentine and her children were born in Karabakh but wound up in Georgia to live temporarily when hostilities broke out in the late 1980s.  Her husband had been serving in the army as an anti-aircraft gunner, and the army encouraged the family to settle in Shushi.  Valentine's husband left for Russia with his mother and extended family in 1997 and never returned. Her son is studying medicine and wants to practice his profession in the military. Her two daughters, Armine and Ilona, were extremely accommodating and friendly. Ilona incidentally is a talented artist and her oil and watercolor paintings are displayed on the second floor, where we stayed. They put up with Levon's quirky, occasionally corny humor very well for two days, and served us light, tasty breakfasts of fresh eggs, homemade bread and cheese.

From the left: Valentine, Levon and Ilona

The remains of the Silk Road

Much seems to have been written about Saro in newspaper articles and travel guides. He has a beaming personality and has lots to say about the region.  When he speaks with you it's as if he's known you for years. He moved to Artsakh from Baku in the late 1980s and fought in the war, having been wounded twice. Then he was given an apartment in Shushi, where he vowed he would live for the remainder of his life (unless it would be possible to return to the village where his ancestors were from, under Azeri occupation).  Then an opportunity arose for him to move into the home in which he and his family currently live. During our last night there we chatted with Saro mostly about regional politics while downing shots of mulberry vodka (tti oghi). He critiqued me (and Armenians from Yerevan in general) for my "maximalist" views as he put it when I complained that more had not been done to reconstruct Shushi (see below) since the Armenians took control of the town 19 years ago. For instance, in order to get to their homes, you need to drive along a crumbling, pothole-riddled narrow road past the main regional hospital. That hospital serves not only Shushi but the adjacent villages, and it's where surgeries are performed. Although it is visited by European doctors who provide trainings and is supposedly in relatively good shape, the road leading to it is in atrocious shape, and I can't imagine someone wounded enduring the pain endured from all the bouncing in the ambulance. Unfortunately, we only spent a couple of hours with him altogether, which wasn't nearly enough to tap into his storage bank of knowledge. Next time I hope to talk more in depth with him.

The land around his home resembles a campground. Picnic tables were arranged in long rows under an immense walnut tree on his property, which must be several hundred years old.

The Hayastan All-Armenia fund is spending a lot of money in the Shushi, replacing water mains and repairing roads that have been neglected for years. The road leading to the hospital, however, should have been a priority. You can read more about their efforts on the Fund's web site.

Shushi is a special, very scenic town. There are two fortresses overlooking Stepanakert and its surrounding regions in the valley below, one of which dates back to the Soviet era and contains a prison (see below for more information). The magnificent Ghazanchetsots Cathedral, constructed between 1868 and 1887, is found smack-dab in the center of town, and it was renovated several years ago. It was infamously used as an arms depot by the Azerbaijanis during the war.

As I wrote above, Shushi was once a resort area, and to this day there are lovely parks and orchards around town. The Persian mosques  are stark reminders of the town's multicultural past; it must have been extraordinary to live in a community where several ethnic groups lived harmoniously in one compact area, when differences in religious faiths were insignificant where community building was concerned. That all obviously changed during the Soviet era and the building tension of clashing beliefs came to a head in the late 1980s when the horrors of senseless war ensued.

I allotted only one full day to see both Tigranakert and Dadivank, which were two and a half driving hours apart from each other. Luckily, we saw both and were even able to stop at Gandsazar Monastery on the way back from Dadivank.

Tigranakert is located to the northwest of Stepanakert, very close to the once thriving city of Aghdam, which has been completely destroyed and is essentially inhabitable.  We saw Aghdam from a distance by car, as none of us saw the need to enter a dead city.  Tigranakert is still being excavated, and there's a tremendous amount of work to do.  On site there is a three-tiered visiting center, which was a former Persian fortress turned restaurant  by the Azeris during the Soviet period. The ground floor of the center houses the museum, where dozens of recently artifacts having already been unearthed, some dating back to the 5th-4th centuries BC, are on display. Earthenware, capitals from columns, and trinkets are among the items in the collection. The director of the museum, whose name is Anahit, talked to us at length about the items found and during the conversation politics were eventually discussed. Anahit is originally from the Shirak region, close to Ani, but moved to the Aghdam district nine years ago to do humanitarian work. She conveyed the same thought that virtually everyone living in Artsakh swears by -- not one centimeter of land can ever be returned to Azerbaijan.

Tigranakert is situated on what is technically considered internationally as an "Armenian occupied district." But she makes the valid point that if there was any intention of handing over the district to Azerbaijan, the government of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic would not go to such lengths to fund the excavations. (I'm going to defer further political discussion for my other blog, Footprints.)

Behind the visitor's center on one site workers were uncovering the floor and foundation of what is believed to have been an Armenian church, which had been destroyed and its bricks removed at some point in history. Most of the citadel, part of which is on the slope of the mountain there, has not yet been discovered, and it appears it will take several years, probably decades, to reveal most of what is buried.

To travel to Dadivank, Saro suggested that we backtrack to the area just outside the Stepanakert city limits and travel north along the North-South Highway. He did not recommend the alternate, westbound road via Martakert as he said the road was rough and the distance actually longer than what the map portrayed.

Artsakh is wild blackberry country. Although it may be known for its plethora of mulberry trees and aromatic vodka, there are wild blackberry bushes everywhere -- on the sides of roads, in tourist sites, and throughout back yards. Strange that the ripe berries vary in flavor from region to region.

A note about the recently completed North-South Highway. The route's construction, a tremendously ambitious undertaking, was completely financed by the Hayastan All-Armenian Fund, which collects funding primarily through an annual telethon held on Thanksgiving Day in the US. Not surprisingly, most of the funds collected are from donors based in the Armenian Diaspora. Although the road is in generally very good condition, several parts of the asphalt, especially north of the westward passage to the village of Vank, is already crumbling. The thickness of the pavement on the sides of the road appears paper thin, and the inferior quality of the asphalt is apparent in areas where it is either buckling or caving into the ground.  These are obvious signs of contractors skimming off the top whenever possible and pocketing money that should have been used towards obtaining high quality asphalt. There's no excuse for a road that was completed only a few years ago to be already crumbling, and the Fund's executive board must hold the contractors accountable for the shoddy workmanship and inferior materials used if it isn't already doing so.

The road to Dadivank on the other hand has yet to be repaved, and it's not clear to me what that funding source will be. In order to get there you must follow the North-South Highway to its end, near the Sarsang Reservoir in Drmbon, and bear left. It should go without saying that the lake and its environs are stunning, although I'm a bit concerned about the ecology because there is gold and copper mining going on there, only meters from the lake. Apparently the metals are refined only one time, then they are sent to Germany for further refining and separation, so it's likely that the environment is suffering minimal levels of damage, although the extent still hast to be gauged. The processing facility appears to be newly installed, which I imagine means that it is operating far more cleanly than the one in Alaverdi.

Near the beginning of the road to the monastery we asked a man who was drifting whether we were on the right track. He said we were, and asked if he could tag along. It turned out that our new companion, whose name was Artak, was working at the mining facility, sent there from Alaverdi. Apparently, the parent company of both mining facilities is the same.

Judging from the dozens of roads that I've traveled on during the last ten or so years, I would rate the road to Dadivank as moderately difficult. Some torn parts of the road seemed to have been filled with sand, but in general the ride was far from smooth. Nevertheless, the journey is not unbearable when traveling in an SUV with a decent suspension. My Niva absorbed the shocks from the bumps and crannies just fine. For the last stretch of the road leading to the monastery, which is no more than a kilometer long, I engaged the 4 x 4 just in case, since the pavement was quite gravelly and there was surprisingly no guard rail.

The distant view of Dadivank appearing in focus when turning around the bend is simply shocking. The compound is certainly the most stunning I have ever seen, even more so in retrospect than Tadev (pre-restoration).  A kind of stone totally different from tuf had been used during construction, thus there seems to be less wear and tear overall, although recent renovations have been made with funding from Edele Hovnanian. There are at least three churches and one small chapel on sight, along with several buildings to the south partially buried, which seemed to have been used for food storage, a seminary, and probably a guest residence. It was built in the name of St. Dadi, who was a disciple of the apostle Thaddeus. Dadivank resides in the Shahumyan region of Artsakh, as we learned when reading the sign along the side of the road going there.

My photos present a more appropriate description of Dadivank where words simply fail.

The lofty dome of Gandsazar is perhaps the most ornate I have ever seen on any Armenian church. It is adored with remarkable reliefs and carvings on its facade. While we were visiting an end-of-day church service was under way.

The village of Vank down below is home to a factory where wooden flooring is produced (the wood is imported from Russia), a sort of amusement park as well as hotel, and a new regional school, all of which was financed by Levon Hairapetyan, a businessman based in Russia who was born in the village.

That same night we ate the standard fare of pork barbecue and washed it down with mugs of cold draft Kilikia at Shushi's Reda Cafe, found in the southeastern section of town. At the far end of the patio was a mini decorative pond on the edges of which geese were perched. Birdcages were also hanging from the trees. Although the service was generally substandard since there was only one waitress who was swamped and harassed by a guy at the adjacent table, the food was satisfying. It's hard to find bad barbecue in this part of the world.

The following morning just before returning to Yerevan we did the typical sightseeing undertaken by probably everyone visiting Artsakh, namely visiting the Shushi fortress, the "We Are Our Mountains" (a.k.a., mamik-dadik) monument in Stepanakert, and the tank that lead troops into Shushi during the war in 1992 perched on the side of the road.

The construction of Shushi fortress was completed in 1762 by Panah Ali Khan, who was the founder of the Karabakh khanate. The town of Shushi was actually founded in 1750 and named Panahabad -- before that it was apparently desolate. The name was changed to Shushi, which was the name of a nearby Armenian village, by Ali Khan's son after his death. Why Azerbaijan claims Shushi as being so vitally important as a center of its national culture is unclear since it had been inhabited mostly by Armenians after its founding (although in the Soviet era the town's population majority was composed of Azerbaijanis).

I want to stress that Shushi is on the rise. There are new construction projects underway across town, and I counted at least two hotels about to be opened. Much certainly has to be done to revitalize Shushi and it will take years to do so, but once all the new water pipelines are fitted and new housing is constructed, not to mention jobs created, I imagine there will be an influx of permanent residents.

On the way back we lunched at a kitschy hole-in-the-wall restaurant unofficially called CCCP in the heart of Goris, a wonderful, rustic town with gorgeous stone architecture. The walls are completely covered with Soviet-era propaganda, and there are even old radios, helmets, busts of Lenin and Stalin, and odd telephones on display. The food was pretty good -- we ate some lamb khashlama, which is essentially boiled meat that can contain potatoes, depending on the chef (Levon simmers the meat in beer, tomatoes and peppers, simply divine). They also fed us lamb and pork barbecue, surprise surprise, since there was only a half-portion of lamb khaslama left that was split between the three of us. It's located on the right side of the main road that leads to Kapan and can be recognized by a sign showing a photo of a roasted chicken. There's also some old Russian tea pots set atop a table out front.

Artsakh is magical. You feel an unbreakable sense of pride when talking to people there, and that confidence is contagious. Now it's a question of when the world will finally accept it as legitimately being Armenian territory so that the region can strengthen peacefully, with no threat of renewed war. That has proved to be extremely difficult, but one thing is clear -- anyone visiting the country understands that Artsakh belongs to the Armenian people, and nothing can ever change that.


SoyArmenio said…
Can I give you permission to translate the article into Spanish for Armenian diaspora readers?
Greetings and welcome your feedback.

Klaus Lange Hazari
Yes Klaus, you have my permission to translate the article and repost the photos.

Anonymous said…
What a wonderful post and excellent photos!
Anonymous said…
Artsakh is a wonderous region of Armenia and the people are beautiful. I've been taking the minivan from Yerevan and back for several years now to get to good friends in Stepanakert and a village in the Hadrut district. I'm constantly amazed at their resourcefulness and dignity in the face of so much adversity. These are people and a land all Armenians should be proud of. They truly represent the essence of the Armenian experience. Hrant
Shirley said…
I enjoyed this article and the pictures. Good job.
Superb writing, lovely photos. Thank you!
Anonymous said…
Hi Christian,

Long-time reader, former Yerevan resident here. Last visitied NK in 2007, but it sounds like not much has changed.

"not one centimeter of land can ever be returned to Azerbaijan" -- yeah, that's not likely to end well. It's possible that the Azeris might be able to accept losing NK proper. But they're also being asked to give up a huge belt of what's unquestionably Azerbaijan, including territory that was majority-Azeri before the war. That's just not sustainable; it's a recipe for endless conflict and, eventually, future war. So far two things have prevented that war: Russia's pro-Armenian position, and the conservative position -- caution or cowardice, as you like -- of Aliyev junior, who has much to lose from a war, and little to gain. But there's no guarantee that either of those conditions will prevail indefinitely.

This is without even touching the painful issue of refugee return. There doesn't seem to be much will on either side to solve that one.

Doug M.
Doug, there doesn't seem to be much will to solve anything at all related to the NK conflict. The issue is growing more complex with each passing year and the stalemate is a conundrum that can't be easily cracked.

Thanks as always for reading and for your comments.

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