Standing on a limestone ridge in the foothills of the Lesser Caucasus Mountains, I surveyed the landscape that lay before me. To the west, illuminated by a late-day sun and with ever more craggy peaks as a backdrop, was Vankasar Mountain, capped by a solitary, ancient church. To the east, yellow grassland and scrub stretched to the horizon. And then there was the ghost city of Agdam, its thousands of ruined buildings representing the last exchanges of a late 20th-century conflict that many people have never heard of.
I had come to the breakaway Southern Caucasus region of Nagorno-Karabakh expecting a land of extremes. Nagorno-Karabakh, an ethnically Armenian enclave whose name means “mountainous black garden," appears on few maps. Its tumultuous recent history would affect any traveler, no doubt, but for me, the experience of visiting this place had a personal dimension. My grandmother had fled Anatolia as a girl, escaping an Armenian genocide at the hands of the crumbling Ottoman Empire. To come to Nagorno-Karabakh, a place where Armenians have asserted their right to live freely — but at the cost of having forcibly removed their Azeri neighbors — generated mixed emotions, to say the least.
Once part of an ancient Armenian kingdom, Nagorno-Karabakh was made a special autonomous oblast, or administrative zone, under the authority of the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic, by Stalin in the 1920s. This designation temporarily calmed fighting between the predominately Muslim Azeris and mostly Christian Armenians who lived in the region. But as the Soviet Union disintegrated in the late 1980s, old ethnic feuds turned bloody, and both ethnicities were subjected to pogroms and persecution at the hands of the other. Armenians, representing around 75 percent of the Nagorno-Karabakh population at the time, sought independence from Azerbaijan. Skirmishes led to full-on war by the early 1990s, resulting in upward of 30,000 casualties and hundreds of thousands of displaced people on both sides.
In 1994, the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh effectively won that war and claimed independence with the signing of a cease-fire order. In the process, nearly the entire Azeri population was forced to flee. Today, the self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR) is not recognized by any other country in the world. With no official borders, Armenian and Azeri soldiers are still dug into trenches on the front lines.
No luxuries here
Though I had become interested in the region because of my ethnic heritage, once I started digging into the history of Nagorno-Karabakh, I wanted to experience what was said to be a breathtaking landscape filled with ancient monasteries, mountainous tableaus and hard-working people trying to rebuild.
So last spring I went there, accompanied by my girlfriend. I didn't expect luxury hotels, haute cuisine or air-conditioned buses, and I didn't find them. Instead, we stayed at local homes where running water might not be guaranteed, ate simple meals with our hosts and traveled in Soviet-era knockoffs of Fiats and antiquated minibuses with bald tires. In exchange for the lack of amenities, I was hoping not just to understand more about this little-known area, but also to understand more about my own background.
Early on a humid May morning, we headed to a dusty square in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, where we boarded a crowded minibus, called a marshrutka, bound for Nagorno-Karabakh's capital, Stepanakert — a trip that would take eight hours. Aside from two Asian tourists, the bus was filled with local women carrying toddlers, and old men, a few of whom played cards on an upturned cardboard box. The final part of the route twisted almost 10 miles through the Lachin Corridor, a mountain pass that had previously been (or still is, depending on whom you ask) a part of Azerbaijan.
By the time we got to Stepanakert, it was raining. We headed to the Foreign Ministry to pick up our travel papers, checked into a simple hotel and fell asleep. Early the next morning, the sun still burning off the night's fog, we explored the covered market in central Stepanakert. The air was filled with the scent of ripe cherries and local herbs. In one corner, two women with faded aprons and orange-tinted hair worked over a griddle. The first rolled balls of dough into discs. To each disc, the second added a small mountain of chopped herbs and then folded the dough over the filling. The grilled stuffed bread, called jingalov hats, tasted of pungent mustard greens and watercress. A 20-minute drive away, in the town of Shoushi, we met Saro Saryan, who, with his wife, runs a homestay, which would become our base. Dressed in a blue Ministry of Civil Defense uniform and cap, Saryan greeted us in his booming voice.
“Russ? Come," he said.
Saryan walked with us around town, first showing us the old fortress walls, and then the Tolkienesque Ghazanchetsots Cathedral, built of white limestone. As we approached a massive stone building that stood gutted, Saryan said, “This used to be a university. My hope is that one day you can come back and see students here." Past bombings had transformed the broad hallways. In one room, the ceiling had been replaced by sky, the floor was covered in kudzu-like shrubs, and tufts of wildflowers clung to empty niches.
Shoushi clearly has seen hardship upon hardship. One of the only Azeri-majority strongholds in the 1980s, then called Shusha, it was the staging site for rocket attacks on Stepanakert, which was mainly populated by Armenians. Much of the town, including the university, was damaged first by Armenian bombardment, and then by the Azeris after the Armenians took control in 1992. The capture of the town by the Armenians was a turning point in the war.
That evening, for 5,000 dram each (around $12), we slept in a room around the corner from the Saryans' kitchen. On most days we sat down with the Saryan family to a dinner of lavash bread, fresh cheese, honey and grilled meat or stuffed grape leaves.
Exploring the ruins
Over the next few days we hired a taxi, so we could see more of the region's Armenian ruins. There was the white-stone Amaras monastery, swathed in knee-high grasses and the occasional wild poppy plant; the 13th-century Gandzasar monastery, whose walls and floor, some believe, contain the head of John the Baptist, the jaw of Gregory the Illuminator and the right hand of St. Zachariah; and Dadivank, where immense Armenian steles known as khachkars, some over 1,000 years old, stood in repose.
At one point, while traveling on the Stepanakert-Martakert Highway in a battered taxi, I saw the ruins of stone buildings.
“Agdam?" I asked the driver.
“Agdam," he answered, quietly. “No photo." Agdam had been an Azeri village that the Armenians had razed during the war. Some 40,000 people fled, and many were killed. As hundreds of abandoned homes, many reduced to foundations, came into view, the driver stepped hard on the gas.
We had only two days to travel via the northern road from Kalbajar province back to Armenia — amid snow-capped peaks and over the infamous Sotk Pass and its open-pit gold mine. Joined by an Austrian named Barbara who had also been staying at Saryan's, we charted the route with a stop at a thermal spring. As we approached the Zuar spring, Barbara gasped. The natural pool was belching soap bubbles from the soap someone had dumped in. Dozens of middle-aged men splashed about. Immediately the center of attention, we had no choice but to join them. After a quick splash, we were invited for a warm beer and a shot of throat-scorching mulberry vodka.
We continued to the town of Kalbajar, ascending a 6,500-foot plateau via a series of steep switchbacks. Like Agdam, this place was mainly non-Armenian before the war; it is now controlled by the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic.
Kalbajar, too, looked like a ghost town — except that some of the homes were occupied by ethnic Armenians, many from the Armenian diaspora, coming from Georgia, Russia and elsewhere. With almost no tourism infrastructure, a doctor arranged a place for us in a hospital outbuilding where we slept on two wobbly metal beds.
In the morning, we headed back toward Armenia with two young men we had hired to drive us in a 72-horsepower Soviet-built Lada Niva. We traveled for hours, over mountains, into valleys and back up again. Finally we came to the Sotk Pass atop a rocky hill of debris dumped over the edge of the mountain by huge mining trucks. The road went from dirt to fist-size stones. Crossing this geo-industrial outpost was like passing through a portal. The earth itself seemed to be in upheaval, with whorls of dust spinning into the air by heavily laden trucks.
And then it was over. We headed back down the other side, back into Armenia without so much as a sign to mark the border.
But my mind was still running in circles around Nagorno-Karabakh. I was thinking mainly about the war, and about Saryan's son, who, the day after graduating from high school, had led us to a gorge near Shoushi. I asked him if he could imagine having an Azeri friend. And, as if the question itself had puzzled him, he said, “Why not?"