It has been Iranian, it has been Russian, it has been influenced by the Turks: the name of Nagorno-Karabakh, a landlocked, internationally unrecognised republic in the Caucasus, reflects these centuries of foreign domination. The Nagorno is from the Russian nagorny, or mountainous, and the second part of the name is a composite from the Turkish kara, or black, and the Persian bagh, or garden.
The poetically named Mountainous Black Garden is populated predominantly by Armenians, who set foot here in the 4th or the 2nd centuries BC and eventually turned it into a place of medieval glory.
This mixture of history, nations and power struggles is why today Nagorno-Karabakh thinks of itself as an independent statelet supported by Armenia, but it is still, at least theoretically as well as on Google Maps, a part of Azerbaijan. That is why it has only one border checkpoint, with Armenia, at the end of a narrow gorge squeezed between Azerbaijan-controlled territory, with soldiers sporting submachine guns and all. Western travellers need to apply for a visa online and to collect it from the capital Stepanakert, from a young clerk in the Foreign Ministry who, thankfully, speaks fluent English. Foreign mobile phones do not work in Nagorno-Karabakh – the local carrier does not provide roaming. Your only chance of having a mobile connection is around the border, where the Azerbaijan network appears.
Its isolation, and the dormant conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan that results in rhetorical and actual violence on a regular basis, has turned Nagorno-Karabakh into an exotic travel experience that exceeds the usual tourist delights of astonishing architecture, art, landscapes, and gourmet cuisine (although the food is great, as everywhere in the Caucasus). Instead, Nagorno-Karabakh can be seen as an open-air museum of what happens to places and people when history and politics go mad, and all the consequences.
Memorial to the victims of the Second World War
Located in a part of the Caucasus that has been inhabited for millennia, Nagorno-Karabakh has its own share of old sites. The 4th Century Amaras Monastery is where St Gregory the Illuminator produced the first Armenian alphabet. The 13th Century Gandzasar Monastery preserves all the hallmarks of Armenian mediaeval church architecture: ornate exteriors and dark, mystic interiors, with strong stone walls. The old tombstones covering the floors make you think of death and the acoustics make you think about eternity.
Signs of modern times are everywhere, too. There are new or renovated hotels, and blocks of apartments still smelling of fresh mortar. There are billboards celebrating the might of Nagorno-Karabakh's army, the beauty of its women, and the intelligence of its children. The municipality provides free wi-fi in the centre of Stepanakert, and there is a bunch of foreign tourists, including Japanese cyclists. The Eclectica Hotel in Vank village, built in the shape of The Titanic (the steamship, that is), is surrounded by such an amount of kitsch that it has practically become a work of art.
The ancient history and the drive to catch up with the modern world, however, are only a tiny bit of Nagorno-Karabakh's allure. Indeed, the country is still deeply mired in its recent past, and this is what makes it interesting to Western travellers. Soviet-era apartment blocks, statues and urban planning dominate Stepanakert, and all the towns and villages. Schoolchildren continue to wear the uniforms of the bygone era of planned economy. Ladas are the most common cars, and the roads have not been repaired since Gorbachev was in power. Between the apartment blocks, small tin workshops still perform basic but much needed services – tailoring, metalworking, shoemaking, food.
Children of Nagorno-Karabakh still go to school with uniforms unchanged from Soviet times
To this, add the traces of the recent war over Nagorno-Karabakh. Its seeds were sown in the 1920s, when the Soviets decided to woo post-war Turkey, a potential new socialist republic, and gave the region to Turkey's close friend, the Soviet Socialist Republic of Azerbaijan. Turkey never turned Socialist, but the region remained quiet for 70 years under the power of the Soviet empire. When the USSR started to crumble, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the old local desire to join Armenia resurfaced. Talks failed, and the war began. Armenia won, in 1994, and a truce was made with Azerbaijan, but it was a Pyrrhic victory. Nagorno-Karabakh remains unrecognised, the economy is struggling, and the people are poor even compared to those living in Armenia. The wounds from the conflict are still open, and visible.
A tank near Berdzor, the first town after the border with Armenia, marks the place of a major battle with the Azeri. A short drive northeast of Stepanakert ends in fields littered with abandoned military hardware, stuck in the mud for the past 20 years. The skies over the mountainous valleys are still crisscrossed with long cables – a primitive, but effective measure against low-flying war planes.
There is the ghost city of Agdam, the "Hiroshima of Azerbaijan."
Before the war, it was home to 40,000 people, the majority of them Azeris. When the forces of the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh seized it, in 1993, everyone fled. The houses, the farms, the railway station, the mosque were left empty, and soon what was not already ruined from the shelling started to disintegrate under the elements and the tools of those who saw it as a good source of building materials.
Armenian soldiers now guard the ruins of Agdam, and entering it is theoretically prohibited. Still, the taxi drivers in Stepanakert are eager to make the 60-odd kilometre journey for a fee of about 20 euros, to share stories of Armenian refugees running from Agdam, and of the times before the war broke out, when the Azeris used to be good neighbours. The residue of the conflict and its atrocities, however, is still fresh, fed by bellicose behaviour from both sides, the very same behaviour that turned the Mountainous Black Garden into what it is now: a fascinating, curious and photogenic but deeply sad and troubling place.
A proud veteran of the Afghan War. He is about 80 years old
A seamstress doing her small business from a tin shack in central Stepanakert
The government building at Stepanakert is a perfect example of Stalinist architecture
A tank adorns the spot of a fierce battle during the 1990s Nagorno-Karabakh War with Azerbaijan