To the Country That Doesn’t Exist

The Mountains of Nagorno-Karabakh
The Mountains of Nagorno-Karabakh

I awoke and wiped the condensation from the window. A fine mist hung over the valley like a net curtain. From somewhere came the sound of a saw, and a shovel scraping against gravel. I had woken up earlier to the sound of roosters. I was in a cock-a-doodle-doo capital. Stepanakert is the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh, a country which doesn’t exist.

I’d arrived a few days earlier in Armenia, the only country which does recognise Nagorno-Karabakh, its neighbour. I’d been to Armenia before, four years earlier, and was fascinated by this poverty-stricken place, the first of the former Soviet republics to have demanded its independence. The world is full of rich Armenians, yet in the 1990s this new nation on the very edge of Europe had no electricity for two years. Even in the capital, Yerevan, intellectuals were working as taxi drivers during the day to make ends meet, and reading by candles at night.

Map showing the location of Nagorno-Karabakh

Driving in from the airport, I noticed one startling change. In 1998 the roads were lined with men selling petrol in bottles, in cans, or from the back of small toytown tankers. Today, chrome and neon petrol stations glare in the 4am darkness, like spaceships, from the Planet Prosperity perhaps, every mile or so a new one flared up out of the gloom.

‘Everyone in Armenia seems to have plans to open a petrol station,’ a local man later told me. With unemployment at 35% and an average salary of 19,000 drams per month (£22), most people do need a plan, or a dream. But other than petrol stations, not much had changed, I noticed, as I went to the vast weekend outdoor market, Vernissage. A tram lumbered by plastered with the red-and-white Kit-Kat logo. There were the inevitable internet cafés, and a few more beggars on the streets.

You learn a lot about a place from its markets, including how little you know. At one end were bookstalls galore, with the Oxford Book of English Verse and the Collected Plays and Poems of TS Eliot next to The Complete Armenian Course. There were army hats, hip flasks, flowering cacti, bakelite telephones. An entire stall sold dental equipment. Several more had huge displays of scientific instruments and specimen bottles. Hundreds of Russian cameras lined up alongside telescopes and microscopes. People sold puppies. An accordionist played Besame Mucho. On one stall I saw one of the most bizarre offerings of all: two iguanas had been stuffed and placed in a tableau, sitting in chairs playing backgammon against each other. A boy of about 13 walked by with a huge crucifix over his shoulder, like Jesus on his way to Calvary.

Armenia was the first country to adopt Christianity as its state religion, in 301AD or thereabouts. Religious pilgrims, students of architecture, ornithologists, exiled Armenians and the plain curious make up most of Armenian’s tourist trade. The country is covered in simply beautiful, and beautifully simple, old churches and monasteries.  Most of these can be visited from Yerevan on day trips… indeed, there is little tourist infrastructure outside of the city, requiring a nightly return to the comfort of the capital where there are several smart hotels. Marriott recently acquired the Armenia 1 and Armenia 2 hotels, right on the main Republic Square.

The Monastery at Gandzasar in Nagorno-Karabakh
The Monastery at Gandzasar in Nagorno-Karabakh

On Sunday I went to Echmiadzin, 20km west of Yerevan and the holiest place in the country. A church was built here in 309AD when St Gregory the Illuminator saw a vision of the Holy Ghost descend to earth. The church is on the site of a 5th century BC pagan temple, some of which can still be seen in the crypt. Little chance of that today, as a service is taking place and I stand at the back, transported to my Catholic childhood by the powerful smell of incense. No chance either of visiting the small museum behind the altar, which contains a piece of the true cross, the lance which pierced Christ’s side when he died on the cross, and a piece of Noah’s Ark.

The Ark is said to have finally landed on Mount Ararat, the symbol of Armenia and visible from most parts of the country. It is, of course, now in Turkey, or Western Armenia as the Armenians describe it. This area is a geo-political minefield. The Armenia-Turkey border is closed, and Armenians wanting to go into Turkey must do it via neighbouring Georgia. There is a part of Azerbaijan which is separated from the rest of the country, and surrounded by Armenia on one side and Iran on the other. And then there is Nagorno-Karabakh.

In 1923 Stalin carved up the Caucasus and decided that the region known as Nagorno-Karabakh should be part of Azerbaijan, despite the fact that its population was 95% Armenian. In 1987 the Karabakhs began demanding unity with Armenia again. Gorbachev refused. The Karabakhs declared themselves part of Armenia anyway. The Russian parliament said this act was illegal. The Karabakhs held a referendum and afterwards announced themselves independent of Azerbaijan, and the war between Azerbaijan on one side and the Karabakhs and Armenians on the other, began. Meanwhile, Armenia and Azerbaijan both claimed their independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. The Karabakh war continued into 1993, with Armenia winning out and taking the disputed territory. A cease-fire was declared in 1994, and there the matter has rested, awaiting a diplomatic solution. The two sides are still negotiating.

The Askeran Fortress in Nagorno-Karabakh
The Askeran Fortress in Nagorno-Karabakh
(Photo: Marshal Bagramyan)

Visitors to Armenia have for the last two years been taking side trips into Nagorno-Karabakh, this being the only way to get in there. The Armenians control the Lachin Corridor, through which they drove a highway funded by the Armenian diaspora. It was to here our small group of curious travellers headed, abandoned by her Britannic Majesty’s Secretary of State who was not prepared to request and require in the name of Her Majesty to allow us to pass freely without let or hindrance. In other words, you’re on your own, matey. If anything happens to you, the Foreign Office will not come to your aid as you are technically visiting disputed territory.

Boosted by this frisson of excitement that you don’t normally get when travelling, we set off on the 220-mile coach journey which was to take us all day. This was partly due to diversions to see more monasteries, and partly to the fact that the road climbs to almost 8000 feet as it traverses the most mountainous part of the Trans-Caucasus region. Nagorno is the Russian word for Mountainous, while Karabakh is a partly Turkish word meaning Kingdom or Fertile Earth, depending who you believe.

Either way, you can see how it would be a land worth fighting for. Imagine the Alps with a hard edge, the Scottish Highlands at twice the size. It is an enchanted land of mountain peaks and narrow passes with streams flowing through them. The road weaves snakelike along one side of a rippling valley, perhaps half a mile wide and whose sides are a thousand feet deep. The slopes shine green in the sun, although we had driven through a snowstorm at the peak of the pass before descending the zig-zag highway to Stepanakert.

On the Way to Nagorno-Karabakh
On the Way to Nagorno-Karabakh

In truth it is better to travel there than to arrive, as Stepanakert, the capital of 60,000 people, does not yet have much for the visitor. The streets are drab, save for the occasional cheerful flower shop or vivid independence mural. The architecture is Soviet functional… and only just functional at that. The city museum has sincerity to offer, and a keen curator, and I feel guilty for being bored by the dusty displays of rocks, costumes and old photographs. The enthusiasm of the city’s inhabitants for their new nation is unbounded and touching, however, and they simply want the world to know of their existence.

It is outside Stepanakert when I feel my journey justified at last, and I’m hit by an impact I’ve not felt since visiting Auschwitz. We drive to the Azeri town of Aghdam. Or rather, the former town of Aghdam. Before the war this had roughly the same population as Stepanakert and its market was rich with figs, apples, pomegranates, apricots and cherries. Today there is no market. Today there is no Aghdam, as the Armenians destroyed the city. About 20,000 people, one-third of the population, were killed, and the rest given 24 hours to leave before the Armenian tanks and foot soldiers rumbled in and razed it. We drive past the cemetery. A solitary magpie sits on a gravestone.

On the road to Agdam in Nagorno-Karabakh
The Road to Aghdam

Aghdam means ‘white covered roofs’, but there are few roofs to be seen. Only the skeletons of buildings remain. It is like visiting the remnants of a vast Greek or Roman city, spreading across the valley floor, except that these ruins are modern. A fig tree grows in an untended garden, the fruit starting to show through. In the autumn this must be a Garden of Eden, but with no-one left to pick the fruit. It is a sad and sobering experience, but one worth having.

The Armenians have had a troubled history, conquered by the Persians, the Romans, the Mongols, the Arabs, the Turks and most recently the Russians. Yet still the nation bounces back, and plods resolutely onwards. Still they look to Mount Ararat, or to the prospect of opening a petrol station. And on the road back to Yerevan, away from the airport, men still stand at the side of the road selling petrol in bottles, in cans, or from the back of small toytown tankers. Still dreaming.

At the Armenian Genocide Memorial in Yerevan, Armenia
At the Armenian Genocide Memorial in Yerevan, Armenia

 This feature first appeared in The Times in 2002

It also appears in my collection of travel writing, Snakes Alive,
available on Amazon for the Kindle and as a paperback: