Updated: Mar 31, 2019
A Philanthropic Diaspora Millionaire
After spending a few days in the fairly unremarkable capital of Stepanakert, I decided to head to the countryside for a better feel of Nagorno-Karabakh. It is a country steeped in its mountain heritage, and indeed the national symbol of the country "We Are Mountains' (above) points to this. It's probably the most disputed mountain territory in the world in fact; the population of the 'country' being only around 150,000. Gandzasar Monastery is probably the most famous tourist sight in the country, and I’d noted that there was a village nearby called Vank, intriguingly described in the Lonely Planet thus: “Vank, below Gandzasar, is unlike any other village in Karabakh, thanks to the patronage of native son Levon Hairapetian. The Moscow-based lumber baron has funded large-scale redevelopment of the town, including a new road from Stepanakert, and an enormous hotel that resembles the Titanic.” (Ed: Hairapetian died in a Moscow prison whilst serving four years for embezzelment in 2017). So, in the spirit of adventure, I headed on a crowded marshrutka at 9am one and a half hours north west of the capital to Vank. One curious fact about travelling in Karabakh, and Armenia generally, is that kindly and benevolent diaspora million- and billionaires invest so much money back into their own country – it’s a common thread linking all Armenians – they are intrinsically tied to their own soil, and will happily throw money at it to ensure its economic prosperity. Vank was an extreme example of this, and possibly one of the most surreal places I have ever been to. The countryside we had travelled through was predictably poor, and most of the buses and cars along the rutted roads were of the clapped-out variety. On entering Vank, a village of perhaps a thousand people, I had entered a different world. All of a sudden, the grass was clipped, the fences were all painted – everything was yellow and green. A wall of car number-plates, about 100 metres long – swept along the roadside. Apparently, these were taken from the cars of those who left the country in the conflict – from Azeris who were forced to flee. An odd and moving sight.
A Ship-shape Hotel
A brand new school, smart and well-equipped, which wouldn’t have looked out of place in Germany or Japan, at the entrance to the village; further on, more smart shops selling tourist knick-knacks, a zoo and a hotel complex which included the afore-mentioned Titanic look-alike hotel, Hotel Eclectic. Outside, garden staff tending to plants, and a huge fish pond, with a small concert stage and yellow and green seating for around 200 people; how often, and what, would be shown there is anyone’s guess. Inside, the hotel was, well, ship-shape. All round port-hole style windows, hanging ropes, fish-tanks, aqua-marines and greens with wooden furniture; this place would have delighted the most avid nautical enthusiast. Quite why the billionaire hit on such a design in this most landlocked of countries is a mystery. To further heighten the surreal atmosphere, Gaudi-style paintings and Roman busts. You don’t need to booked ahead; there are about 30 rooms, and, when I was there, no guests besides me, except the Luxembourg guy, Josh, who I met there, rather unsurprisingly. Although there were at least fifteen people milling around the reception area, they were all, it turned out, (clearly under-worked) staff who were all employed there. Priced reasonably at about $20 per person, it was an off-beat bargain, a three-star hotel priced like a hostel, with enough staff, presumably, to cater to your every need. The only problem was that these were the laziest and most disinterested staff in the world. Finding a table in the deserted restaurant was not a problem; finding someone to serve me, and cook for me, was. The restaurant was advertised in The Lonely Planet as having a totally out-of-place Chinese restaurant with three chefs from Guangxi Province; I’d have loved to have seen this, but sadly this unique sight was not to be seen – they clearly had enough of waiting for customers to appear, and escaped back to whence they came. After about fifteen minutes, we were served – most of what was on the menu was unavailable – and our uninspiring meal arrived approximately an hour later. It was clear that staff here were guaranteed jobs, in a kind of benevolent flip-side to Communist full employment, and their absent sugar-daddy didn’t give a flip about what kind of service was provided. Still, the whole experience was worth it – for one night. As we were waiting for our meal, a Russian guy walked in – a journalist – and sat with us, there being no one else in the huge room. He told us he was going to Agdam – he had contacts here, and had paid the right person, one presumes. I was slightly envious, and very curious as to what he would see. He looked suitably pleased with himself – I’m sure he would have got a great article out of it.
The afternoon was spent exploring the 13th century monastery, which was about 4km away up a hill. By this stage in the trip, I’d seen countless monasteries, and most had been stunning, often commanding great views of the surrounding countryside. They are generally beautiful, and if this had been the first and not the last of many, I'd have been marvelling at it. Instead I barely stopped for pause. This one was no different, except in that there was literally no one else around, and the hike up the hill in the drizzle was accompanied only by the occasional goat or cow or stray dog strolling along with us. One notable thing about this place is that it has a large unexploded shell embedded in one of its walls – the Azeri army tried to attack it in ’93, at the back end of the war, but it was miraculously saved. The countryside around us was beautiful, and largely unexplored. There is a trail called the Janapar Trail which winds through the country from north to south and takes in some fantastic scenery by all accounts, but the presence of unexploded shells around the whole country makes the prospect of going anywhere at all off the beaten track extremely untempting. There was a cemetery outside the church with some beautiful khatchkars (ancient inscribed grave stones), and more modern gravestones, inscribed with the faces of the deceased, looking out whistfully on the stark surrounding green mountains. Oddly, there were some gravestones with only the names of the occupier and the birth dates; graves in waiting, a kind of death reservation. The Diaspora billionaires don’t leave much to chance, it seems. In any case, Hairapetian had poured millions into restoring the whole complex.
The God delusion
I left Vank the next day, on a bus of pilgrims coming back from the monastery. We had been trying to hitch for about an hour, getting increasingly desperate as car after car passed us by without stopping. We had little choice but to do so, as the only bus of the day back to town had left at 7am when we were still snoozing. The bus journey was an experience in itself – an ancient old Soviet model which ran on gas instead of petrol, it took about twice as long as the first journey, but we were treated to fresh fruit and cheese by our fellow travellers, and interrogated by their priest: “How old are you? Are you married? Do you have any children? Are you a Christian? Do you believe in God? Do you go to church?” and so on. I couldn’t resist it, and responded that I was agnostic bordering on atheist, which started a discussion that lasted for the entirety of the journey, the black-clad priest attempting to convert me and tell me the error of my ways. As we parted in Stepanakert, he was still shaking his head in disbelief that I was neither Christian nor a member of any other faith – a concept which doesn’t fit comfortably in these parts. To declare yourself such is to declare yourself a dangerous free thinker, which isn’t much use to the church or state. And, at the end of the day, that’s what matters – control, of minds and hearts – it’s exactly the same but in a different way in Azerbaijan, and to a lesser but still tangible extent in Georgia. Our 1970’s-era bus rolled into Stepanakert about three hours after we had set off, having spent a good 45 minutes refueling on gas in a primitive gas station as we took shelter from the baking sun.
Shusha - a broken town
Time was running out a bit for me – I had about four days to get back to Tbilisi overland, which was about thirteen hours distant – so I decided to head straight up the mountain from Stepanakert to the town that lay above it on a plateau, Shusha, for a couple of nights. I shared a taxi with Josh, as it was only about five pounds for the ten kilometers. Shusha is, perhaps second only to Agdam, the greatest symbol of war and loss on Karabakh. The city was once a centre of Azeri and Armenian art and culture, and during the 19th century it was second in size and importance in the Caucasus only to Tbilisi. Kuban Said, in his book from the 1930’s Ali and Nino, describes the place as an exotic, mountain semi-paradise, a multi-cultural place where Armenians, Azeris, Muslims from Iran and Turkey, Russians and Georgians came to trade, and a mixed population lived here largely in peace for centuries. Today, its population is 3500, maybe 5% of what it once was. To enter it is to enter a city still traumatized, mentally and physically, by the war. What remains are some of its medieval ramparts and a maybe 30% of its original buildings. Pock-marks and bullet holes are to be seen everywhere; certain parts of the centre are just bombed-out shells. For Shusha became the decisive city in the Nagorno Karabakh war, and the country’s fate swung one night in May 1992 when the Armenian army captured the city, from whence the Azeri army had, until that point, been shelling the capital, sitting invitingly below. It suffered, and is still suffering today – there hasn’t been the money for a thorough renovation of the town, and much still lies in ruins. Unemployment is rife – over 50% - and most young people, as soon as they are able to, leave.
Fortunately, amongst all these depressing surrounds, we found a guardian angel for a host. Saro, a local policeman, met us on arrival, dressed smartly in his uniform, and showed us proudly to his house, some way down the hill and down some winding alleys, past burnt-out car shells, a bombed-out mosque, shambling, tumble down houses with huge wooden balconies and grape vines like in Georgia, hops growing wild and kids playing football with a cabbage in the street. One lad came up to us, dressed in shorts that went down to his ankles and pointy shoes at least five sizes too big, offering to carry our bags for us; not insistent, but obviously fairly desperate. He’d become a little guide for us in our time in Shushi. We were soon to be joined by some friendly dogs too – Saro had taken in some strays (there were, and still are, many since the war) – and they happily followed us around the town as we explored its relics. Our house was a haven – massive, slightly decrepit, and with a nice garden for us to relax in, it was another Caucasian travellers’ delight. Our charming host Saro, was a veritable mine of information. He drew us a rudimentary map and was the most enthusiastic host I’d had on the trip, talking of the sights of his city with pride – even though a lot of them were in ruins. “But we’ll build them up again!” He said, his face lighting up “we’ll build this city up again brick by brick – it just takes time.” So far, it’s taken 16 years, and not a great deal seems to have happened. I spent an afternoon wondering among these rather tragic shells, and thinking: “how could anyone ever live here?” – but life goes on, and I suppose people just get on with it. I climbed one of the mosque’s minarets – not an easy business, since the steps were clogged with dirt and rubble and it was very dark going up, which didn’t feel too safe, but from the top I got a great view of the surroundings – whole areas were just in ruins, overgrown with bushes and shrubs, yet in between, blocks still existed, and some were being renovated. This way, an overturned, gutted car, that, a mangled factory, just the steel skeleton remaining, bent out of all recognition by the heat of the fire. Thistles growing on the rubble-strewn ground. The mosque itself, one minaret half-destroyed, was a sad sight indeed, a reminder, if it were needed, of the former presence of Muslims here.
Further up the hill, a massive old building, 19th century, with some fine artwork lattices on the outside, but inside gutted; a whole side of one street uninhabited. A huge white church dominating the centre – the Ghazanchetsots Cathedral – restored but obviously so; its gleaming, white walls and modern design spoke of extensive modernization. Most evidence of life in the centre was absent; no hotels or restaurants, nothing at all for tourists, just one or two shops selling essentials; not much in the way of private enterprise, no cinemas, theatres, parks (at least ones which are tended to); no museums – in short, not much of anything. I walked to the lower part of town, beyond our house, and looked beyond, to what looked like a cliff. Walking beyond, it turned out to be a vast canyon, wide as any I’ve seen, at least five hundred metres deep - Karkar Canyon. I'd rarely seen a gorge so stunning - and deserted. I'd love to have hiked it but had no map, little time and saw no marked trails. But it was absolutely stunning. On a field just above it, a series of little red flags sticking out of the ground. Landmines? No – amazingly, this turned out to be the most bizarre thing I’d come across yet in a country of surprises – it was a golf course – the only one, apparently, in the Caucasus. An 86 year old Belgian doctor apparently plays every other day in the summer months and welcomes partners; unfortunately, we didn’t meet him.
Ripe for adventure Later on, as we were cooking khorovats (barbecue) in the garden with Saro, I met a French freelance photographer, who has made repeated visits to this region, and seems to have made it her life’s work to educate the world about the plight of Karabach. I think her pictures speak for themselves. You can see them below. My over-riding memory of Karabakh is not the ruins, not the desperation, but the people, and their hope. I am of the opinion that some countries are just cursed by history, and more importantly, by geography and politics, and there aren’t many examples in Europe of a region so utterly scarred as Karabakh. Whatever happens to the country in the future, I hope that it is better than their past. My trip to the Caucasus was over, and after seeing the mountainous splendour of Georgia, experiencing the corrupt oil-rich dictatorship of Azerbaijan and seeing the post-Soviet relics of Armenia and the desolation in Nagorno-Karabach, I realized I had become fascinated with this region. It is one I'll never forget, and am sure I'll be back one day to see again. The people, as always, will stick in my mind - for better or worse. This is a region rich in potential, ripe for the more adventurous to explore, and barely touched as yet by tourism. Mass tourism is non-existent. Everywhere you go for that reason is off the beaten track. For all of these reasons, the Caucasus reason is a standout budget choice. Better get that backpack on.
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This is the final blog of a series. To see the previous part, on Stepanakert and Nagorno-Karabakh, please go here:
These pictures were taken by a freelance photo-journalist I met in Shushi, Nagorno-Karabakh. They document the desperate conditions in the country, but also the hope, which is essential to the spirit of Karabakh. Password: 'Magazine'.