I’m Over the Moon (I never thought I would actually utilise this overdone idiom, but in this case it’s almost true), as I’ve been asked to tour Nagorno Karabakh this week. In fact, it’s doubly exciting. My invitation has come from Harry Mitsidis, arguably the best travelled person in the world, and founder of NomadMania, the website that serves the most well-travelled folk in the world. To my mind, this is elite company. And Nagorno Karabakh is, currently, a decidedly off limits travel destination. No-one is allowed in, except the military, supply vehicles and construction workers.
So, I’ve travelled via Istanbul and now I'm back in the plate glass and steel of Baku, the oil backed capital of Azerbaijan. Twenty five travellers (including me), mostly bloggers and You-tubers are converging on the Sunday Hotel in the labyrinthine old town, which my taxi driver can't find, without half an hours' worth of conversations with locals.
They all look so energetic and fit (in both senses of the word). Tall, blond Viking Gustav (@gus1thego), from Denmark has a following of nearly a quarter of a million on You-tube. There are only five women, including me. Very Hungry Nomads, Rach and Marty, who have done one less country (187) and have a following of 20,000, Milana, who manages the NomadMania office from Warsaw, and Hungarian Ildiko, who has visited every country in the world. I’m in awe.
First off, a welcome dinner and trip briefing in a Baku restaurant. The food keeps coming and coming. Mezze with salads and a variety of breads, roast salmon with plaited potatoes, tender liver and succulent kebabs, barbecued lamb. And my favourite, crispy rice pots with apricots and sweet chestnuts.
Perhaps more importantly, it’s Harry’s fiftieth birthday (or it was yesterday). The Nomads have created a video wishing him well. Naturally, some far flung areas of the world are represented. Harry is visibly touched and grateful. But the celebrations don’t end there, or with the sticky chocolate cake decorated with flares and the NomadMania logo. Harry has, aspirationally, requested that Aygun attends to provide the entertainment. And, to his astonishment, she does.
Wikipedia says that Aygun Kazimova is a well known singer in Azerbaijan, Turkey and Russia. (Actually, I’m told, she is the most famous and successful female singer in Azerbaijan). She’s also an actor and songwriter and has dueted with Snoop Dogg. Whatever, she is a consummate professional, interacting wholeheartedly with her audience. The singing is fabulous and everyone is soon dancing and partying. Harry is, literally, having the time of his life.
Back to the hotel at midnight.
We convene at 5.45 in the morning. A convoy of 11 land cruisers, headed by a police car, complete with blue flashing warning lights. There’s an accompanying clicking of amber indicators to indicate our importance to bemused motorists, as we stream out of Baku, parallel to the Caspian Sea and through the plain of oil fields to the south. Most of the drivers take no notice, though one or two tuck in between us, sneakily taking advantage of our clear road.
Then west and into Karabakh. President Aliyev has already built a new six-lane 100-kilometre highway, from Fizuli (where there’s a spanking brand new international airport) part-way to the town of Shusha. Then we wind up into the mountains. It’s immediately apparent that this a hauntingly beautiful land. Hilltops laced with delicate icing sugar coated trees, giving way to snow blanketed slopes.
The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is the longest-running in post-Soviet Eurasia, dating back over thirty years. This is a very brief summary of my online reading. I don’t have the knowledge, or the temerity, to make judgements about who is/has been in the wrong. Both sides concerned, Karabakh (supported by Armenia) and Azerbaijan, have been criticised at times, with reports of ethnic cleansing, genocide and cultural desecration. There’s seldom a real winner when it comes to war.
For centuries, different powers in the region - both Christian and Muslim - have vied for control of Karabakh, which lies in a strategically important area, the Lesser Caucasus Mountains.
Karabakh was located in modern day Azerbaijan, which was absorbed into the Soviet Union when it formed in the 1920s. In 1988, the ethnic Armenians living in Nagorno-Karabakh, held a referendum and demanded the transfer of what was then the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO) from Soviet Azerbaijan to Armenia. The situation became more tense, as the Soviet Union collapsed, leading to outright war between the inhabitants of Karabakh and the newly independent Azerbaijan.
When the fighting ceased, in 1994, Nagorno- Karabakh and seven adjacent districts, in Azerbaijan, were wholly or partially controlled by Armenian forces. Nagorno-Karabakh remained part of Azerbaijan, but governed by a separatist, self-declared republic, run by ethnic Armenians, who called it Artsakh, and were backed by the Armenian government. More than a million people, on both sides, had been forced from their homes.
The ceasefire was not an easy one. It was punctuated by deadly incidents, incursions and drone strikes. Most notably, four days of intense fighting took place in April 2016, killing hundreds on both sides. Fully-fledged war resumed in September 2020. This time, for the most part, the Azeri forces prevailed. Though not before over 7,000 military and about 170 civilians were killed and many more wounded.
Geopolitics, as is so often the case, have continued to play their part. Turkey has historically poor relations with Armenia and has supported Azerbaijan throughout. Russia has ostensibly supported Armenia, but also maintained an amicable partnership with Azerbaijan. And it was Russia, as before, that brokered the current ceasefire. It has been hailed as an end to the conflict, but it remains an uneasy one.
It was agreed that Azerbaijan should regain control over the seven districts (originally part of Azerbaijan) that Armenian forces had held since the previous war. Azerbaijan has also been handed back a substantial part of Nagorno-Karabakh itself. A force of almost 2,000 Russian peacekeepers has been deployed to both Karabakh and the Lachin Corridor, between Karabakh and Armenia, for an initial five years, with the possibility of renewal.
Potentially, this provides the opportunity for at least half a million Azerbaijanis to return home, after being displaced for more than twenty-five years. More than 30,000 Armenians have been forced to flee from their homes in the one-third of Nagorno Karabakh itself, (including the town of Shusha), which has now been returned to Azeri control.
That's the background. Emotions are still riding high on both sides. There are ongoing arguments over captives still held and dead bodies not returned. Both parties continue to revisit the horrors of the war, atrocities and devastation via various forms of media. And here I am in Shusha, to see for myself.
Shusha nestles at over 1500 metres. Between May 1992 and November 2020, Shusha was under the de facto control of Artsakh and administered as the centre of its Shushi Province. It is now a bleak, almost ghost town. The displaced peoples of the war have left devastation behind. Ruined buildings, poking through the trees, like mini Roman amphitheatres. We are told that, here and elsewhere, ejected Armenians looted the houses, removed the roofs and doors and sold them. In some areas, the buildings have been levelled.
Ownership of the town of Shusha has been hugely significant, as it has religious, cultural and strategic importance for both groups. It is usually considered to be the cradle of Azerbaijani culture- especially music and poetry. The old fortress walls and gate remain, but elsewhere busts are riddled with bullet holes. Bart, from the Netherlands (@offbeattravelling) points out the indentations. The cultural significance of Shusha is reinforced by a visit to the home of Murtuza Bulbul, a famous Azerbaijani and Soviet opera tenor.
Renowned Iranian photographer Reza gives a fascinating presentation, which explains how the main square in Shusha once looked. The Azeris complain bitterly about the destruction of their cultural hall and damage to mosques. These are boarded off, for renovation. However, Shusha also contains several Armenian Apostolic churches, and there are concerns that these, in their turn, have also been desecrated.
It transpires that our convoy is larger than I had imagined. We’re being accompanied by a media bus and journalists, representing all the major Azeri TV channels. We’ve hardly alighted from our 4WDs before being marched off to answer questions about our impressions of Shusha. I repeat my speech three times in front of different microphones. I hardly know what to say. I’ve only been here five minutes and I don’t feel fully informed. The vloggers are more adept. They've leapt out, waving their cellphones. It's Selfie Central.
Back in the land cruisers, we gain further height and the carpets of snow thicken. But it’s already been a long day. Stops by the roadside and more interviews consume the hours. There's a longer halt at Hunot Gorge, where we peer over the edge, alongside camouflaged sentries. It’s dusk when we arrive at Agdam and our city tour has to be abandoned. We gather at the under renovation mosque, the only building left standing in the town, which was once home to 30,000. Another explanation from Reza. He has horrifying and exceptionally moving images of shocked civilians and the Armenian atrocities.
This is what Wikipedia has to say about Agdam:
'HRW (Human Rights Watch) considered these actions serious violations of the rules of war, but noted that given the tit-for-tat nature of the conflict, it considered the actions of Agdam Armenian forces a revenge for the Azeri destruction of Mardakert, which, according to Thomas Goltz, who was in Mardakert in September 1992, became a "a pile of rubble", noting "more intimate detritus of destroyed private lives: pots and pans, suitcases leaking sullied clothes, crushed baby strollers and even family portraits, still in shattered frames'.
BBC journalist Roy Parsons reported that "every single Azeri house in the town was blown up to discourage return" as during the war, the Azeris used Agdam as a base from which to shell Karabakh and the Armenians could not trust them not to do it again.
Bed for the night is in a cottage, in the grounds of a hotel, another three hours further on, in Toghana. We arrive for dinner at 10.15. Another update and I’m trying to sleep, by just after midnight. It’s not easy. I don’t think the room has been occupied for many weeks and the bedding is icy cold. Milana and boyfriend Daniel, ensconced in the master bedroom next door, have kindly given me the only fan heater in the building. It’s waging a futile battle against the draughts.
Today, into Karabakh proper and the district of Kalbajar. An ongoing procession of ruins. And a mixture of frustration and delight. Long stops whilst vehicles are refuelled - they have to summon a tanker and wait in line, a flat tyre (from shrapnel it’s alleged) and the requirements (and whims) of security. The scenery, however, as we chug up to the top of a pass, is spectacular. We've climbed to a height of 3350 metres, the temperature an eye watering minus 12 and a switchback of hairpin bends down the other side. The Murov Mountains are the highest in the Caucasus.
Through an automobile tunnel hewn out of the rock. No concessions to artistic merit here. And a military camp stop for tea in the refectory. We queue up to use the bathroom in some poor soldier's room . I don't think he's been asked. The troops are very nervous of the cameras and slide out of sight if they see one. Harry reminds us, firmly, that we must not publish images that enable servicemen to be recognised. It's a shame. They have very impressive Dr Zhivago style fur hats. Some of the drivers oblige by lining up for a picture instead.
And another delight: gurgling hot springs in a river valley at Istisu. This was, historically, a resort town, and during the Soviet period, it attracted people from all over the USSR to be treated at the mineral-springs baths. There were even plans to bottle the water. It's a welcome steaming fountain ringed by emerald patterned rocks, a flattened dinosaur. (The picture of me here was taken by Boris Kester @boris_traveladventures - he's visited every country in the world. And thank you Boris, for the editing.)
And into the Lachin Corridor where, as agreed in the peace settlement, the Russians preside over a long wide valley. Russian and Azeri flags flutter, there are tanks and personnel carriers under camouflage netting. and we are (even more strongly) forbidden to take photographs. Straight faced and grave, the Russian soldiers search our bags and cars thoroughly. It’s a long interlude. Alongside the road, scarlet signs warn of mines. And I desperately want to go to the toilet. Boris and Max, from Vienna (@maxlayerer, scarf artistically draped round his head), do the honours and bravely check the (too) steep scrub is safe.
There are mixed views on the Russian peace keeping mission. After the 2020 war, the front line has become longer and more volatile than before. Opposing military positions are separated from one another by only 30 -100 metres. So, this is an important job. Russia of course, enjoys this foot hold. However, its justification relies on a well-functioning territory, with a large civilian population. At the moment, what remains of Karabakh in Armenian hands struggles for economic viability, as most of its routes to Armenia have disappeared.
The Lachin Corridor (five kilometres wide) currently provides the only connection between Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia - we cross the dusty road to Armenia, wiggling away into the distance. It’s an impressive valley drive and there are caves on the further side. My driver politely forbids me, still, from taking any pictures. We are being tailed by a Russian vehicle, flag waving as the convoy moves through their jurisdiction. Every two minutes tense Russian guards at different checkpoints count the number of cars and mark us all present on their forms.
There are unconfirmed reports that Moscow is considering giving the Karabakh Armenians Russian passports, as it has, for example, to the residents of Transnistria, in Moldova.
Its late again, by the time we arrive at our lodging. The lights of Iran are twinkling in the distance. Tonight, it’s the military barracks at Toghana. It takes half an hour to find it. The police car obviously doesn’t have GPS here and it’s comic watching 11 cars reverse and do U turns several times in unison. Dinner is at 10.45.
I’ve done well with room allocations; the barracks is surprisingly modern and warm. I’m sharing with just one Azeri lady, a travel agent. Though she does set her alarm for five a.m.
As dawn breaks, we’re being interviewed by journalists once again. Parked above a newly built 'smart city' we were supposed to see yesterday. Smart villages are intended to introduce agriculture based on 'modern technologies and joint management and control,' but, the concept goes beyond simply farming methods. It also includes ‘smart’ street lighting, cold- and heat-resistant homes, management of household waste, the installation of hydro and solar power stations and biogas energy. The idea has had a mixed reaction. There are concerns around ownership and corruption. And these urban-type settlements, may not be popular with returnees who hanker for their old houses.
Down here, in the south, east of the Zangezur mountains, the Azeris and Turks are most excited about the opening of the so called Zangezur Corridor. Road and rail links will establish a direct link between Azerbaijan and the Azeri enclave of Nakchivan, currently divided by Armenian land. The possibilities of enhanced links with Turkey and with Europe beckon.
We stop on the newly built railway line for a final exposition from Reza, who is pursued along the track by his drone.
Exiting Karabakh, finally, we halt at Bilasuvar, a small Azeri town. There’s a square, with a monument to Heydar Aliyev, who’s often known as the 'father of the Azeri nation’. He’s also the father of the current president, Ilham Aliyev.
This is what it’s like to be a celebrity. I’ve been doing some royal family style waving as we have proceeded and Azeri guards have all saluted to acknowledge us, as we speed past. Here, most of the town comes to halt. Small boys giggle excitedly and stare as they pose with Gustav. The mayor emerges from the municipal buildings to greet us, his eyes widening, as he realises that we are those people who have been on the TV news this week. We’re all invited to welcome refreshments in a café on the edge of the square.
Back in Baku. In the late afternoon, a meeting with Hikmat Hajiyev, the high profile Assistant of the President of the Republic of Azerbaijan and Head of the Foreign Policy Affairs Department of the Presidential Administration. This is what appears on Twitter:
'Very pleased to meet with NomadMania travellers and bloggers group who visited the all liberated territories within 3 days long intense schedule. We talked about post-conflict developments in the South Caucasus, Azerbaijan's agenda of peace and prospects of normalization with Armenia'
For my part, I’m happy to hear talk about ways forward, rather than dwelling on the past. Mr. Hajiyev brings up the challenges of reconstruction and returning Azeris comfortably and safely, 'in a dignified manner'. The government are building on a previous official seventy-two-page programme from 2008, entitled “Big Recovery” which makes it clear how big the challenge is. It documents plans to rebuild 751 settlements over 11,500 square kilometres and resettle up to 570,000 people. Extensive refurbishment of utilities, and reconstruction is needed before former residents can return, something that could take several years. Mr Hajiyev mentions employment, education and universities which provide courses that focus on the needs of the area. (Like oil studies in Texas.). There is mineral wealth in Karabakh and opportunities for green energy. Plans also include the building of more smart cities.
Mines are a huge issue. There are millions of them and maps are unreliable. Energy and other resources are problematic. The capital of Artsakh, Stepanakert (which Azerbaijanis call Khankendi) and Shusha, which used to rely on one another for water and electricity, are now in rival hands. The biggest challenge, however, is probably finance. Azerbaijan is in a difficult economic climate, with falling oil production and the global pandemic. The conflict has also weakened Nagorno Karabakh’s economy.
Nevertheless, Mr Hajiyev is upbeat, as he addresses concerns that Azeris may not wish to return to Karabakh. Displaced peoples have, for nearly thirty years carved out a new urban style existence, which might be comfortable and habituated. Mr Hajiyev believes that the peoples remain attached to their land, even if they have been away some time. Reza joins in: ‘They were displaced against their will and without their possessions, but they took their key’.
These points are reiterated at a press conference in the Trend News Agency building – we are described as ‘famous travellers’ in the ensuing news bulletins. I’m very grateful and feel privileged to have been included in such a trip. We fervently hope that both sides can put the horrors of the war behind them and move on. There are challenging, but huge possibilities and opening up, internationally, both physically and diplomatically, will hopefully lead to the necessary support required.
'When we visit these regions in 10 years, we hope to see big hotels, smart villages, and developed economic spaces. I expect Karabakh to become a new bridge between Azerbaijan and Europe. More people should visit and discover Azerbaijan,' says Harry.
I'm on the Golden Eagle Train travelling from Yerevan to Almaty. except that we weren't allowed to use the train in Armenia as the Azeris wouldn't then allow it into Azerbaijan. The Azeri police have been on the train, confined us to our cabins and taken our pictures and we’ve been allowed into Azerbaijan from Georgia. The train is actually moving properly across country towards Baku now, though I still haven’t been able to see anything out of the window. The rails seem in even worse shape than before and the jolting is erratic and uncomfortable. I’m shaken awake every ten minutes or so.
Azerbaijan is bounded by the Caspian Sea, to the east; and the Greater Caucasus mountain range to the north. Indeed, 40% of the country is mountainous, but there are extensive flatlands at the country's centre.
Azerbaijan came into being as an independent country in 1918 after the collapse of the Russian empire. It was a short lived existence. The Soviet Union invaded in 1920 and Azerbaijan was part of the USSR, until the country declared independence in 1991. Previously, the area now known as Azerbaijan was conquered by the Arabs in 642 AD. who converted the people to Islam. After several hundred years, the Arab empire fell and the Mongols invaded. Azerbaijan had a strategic location because of its ports on the Caspian Sea and the trade routes between Asia, the Middle East, and Europe. As a result, it was fought over by major empires including the Ottomans, Russia, and the Persians. The area ended up under Persian rule, but in 1828, the Russians and the Persians agreed to divide the area up between them.
Baku isn’t just the capital and largest city of Azerbaijan, it’s the only large city in Azerbaijan. 25% of Azerbaijan’s 8 million people live here. Perhaps more excitingly, it is located 28 metres below sea level, which makes it the lowest lying national capital in the world and also the largest city in the world located below sea level.
The script here in Azerbaijan is very similar to Turkish and their Turkish heritage is very obvious in the Azeri physique. They are solid and swarthy people. Guide Elvin is very patriotic. He boasts happily about the hosting of the Eurovision song contest in 2012, the European ‘Olympic’ games. in 2012, the fourth Islamic Solidarity Games, the European Grand Prix in 2016 and so on.
Baku, we’re told, is famed for its medieval walled inner city. Its a labyrinth of narrow one way streets, so complicated that my taxi driver can't find my hotel, when I make a return visit to Baku, It's very chic, tourist orientated, with boutique hotels, teeny cafes with samovars and bijou shops carved from old caravanserai. And it's very restored.
Within the city walls we visit the Palace of the Shirvanshahs, a royal retreat dating to the 15th century, and the centuries-old stone Maiden Tower, which dominates the city skyline. They were inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000.
The Palace of the Shirvanshahs originally served as the Baku fortress stronghold, surrounded by a wall with towers . There are burial-vaults, the shah's mosque with a minaret, Seyid Yahya Bakuvi's mausoleum (the so-called "mausoleum of the dervish"), gates, a reservoir and the remnants of a bath house. The Maiden Tower is satisfyingly shrouded in mystery. It's the emblem of Baku, but no-one is quite sure how old it is or why it was built. It's generally described as twelfth century but some scholars argue that parts of it at least date back to 600 AD.
Outside the old town, money has been lavished on architects, plate glass and steel. The highway from the airport is lined with huge stadia, monuments and mosques. In the city proper, endless arcades with high end shop names decorating the facades, a TV tower, various sleek museums and games/Eurovision song contest venues, shopping malls (one a more complex version of Sydney opera house) and, The Flames. The latter are three towers that dominate the sky line and are appropriately illuminated at night. The whole is perched above grand esplanades that line the Caspian Sea. We’re also told by guide Elvin that Baku means 'City of Winds', so Chicago has a rival. It’s living up to its name today.
According to the Lonely Planet's ranking, Baku is also among the world's top ten destinations for urban nightlife. If you have time and energy. And my prayers have been answered. The Four Seasons Hotel is eminently comfortable. I could fit about six railway cabins into my room and I have a view of the old town and The Flames, in all their glory. What’s more, the bed is huge and doesn’t jolt.
Baku is divided into 48 townships. This includes the Town of Oil Rocks built on stilts in the Caspian Sea, 60 kilometres away from Baku. We're looking out across, to here, as we drive south-west, out of Baku. Sangachal, to our left is one of the world's biggest oil and gas terminals. Around us a veritable sea of rigs, derricks, platforms firework like flares and nodding donkeys of all ages, ranging from Victorian, through Soviet to modern day. It’s not the most scenic of outlooks, almost surreal. One of the oil fields featured in James Bond - The World is Not Enough.
More development is planned. The Khazar Islands project is said to be inspired by the man-made islands of Dubai. Ambitious plans, I'm told, are futuristic, including several skyscrapers and the world's tallest tower. But nothing is happening at the moment. Everything was put on hold during the recession in 2015. There’s also a huge ‘debate’ going on over whether the Caspian is a lake or a sea. This affects the apportionment of ownership by the five countries that abut the Caspian, and therefore rights to all the oil and gas.
The oil, of course, is the source of Azerbaijan’s wealth. The most obvious benefit is that it costs astonishingly little to fill up your tank here. Otherwise, Baku is a very expensive city to live in, as it accommodates many well paid oil and gas workers. The view from the landing plane is seashore, lined with wedding cake villas, incongruously nestled in front of the grim brown oilfields. It's a different matter, however, for those who live in rural areas, where the recession has hit the hardest. Up to 50 percent of the population overall are thought to live below the poverty line.
The name Azerbaijan is thought to come from the Persian meaning Land of Fire. It's an apt name. The most well-known of Azerbaijan’s volcanoes, is Yanar Dag, also known as ‘Burning Mountain’. True to its name, in turn, a patch at the bottom of the slope on this mountain has been burning for as long as anyone can remember. Sometimes the flames leap up to three metres high. The fire is very welcome in the chill of the wind and cloud. We’re informed it’s natural gas that's alight. The mountain is right in the centre of the oil fields..
Based on Persian and Indian inscriptions, the Ateshgah Temple was used as a Hindu, Sikh, and Zoroastrian place of worship. (Ātash is the Persian word for fire). The pentagonal complex, which has a courtyard surrounded by cells for monks and a tetrapillar-altar in the middle, was built during the 17th and 18th centuries. It was abandoned in the late nineteenth century, probably due to the dwindling of the Indian population in the area. It's surrounded by a castle like wall.
The natural eternal flame went out in 1969, despite five years of praying to the gods for it to return. They now have to pipe in the gas from the city instead.
Gobustan Park, also a UNESCO site, is the home of precarious trails, singing rocks and caves housing Stone Age petroglyphs. It has more than 6,000 rock carvings, depicting people, animals, battle-pieces, ritual dances, bullfights, boats with armed oarsmen, warriors with lances in their hands and camel caravans, not to mention the sun and stars. There's' even a shaman, denoted by his hat and an extinct auroch. They date back between 5,000 and 20,000 years. According to Elvin, Azerbaijan is more or less the main home of early man, the first stopping point after emerging from Africa. Passenger Shane dubs it ‘Lucy’s First Truck Stop’.
Azerbaijan is home to half of the world’s population of mud volcanoes, over 400 in fact. So, naturally we have petitioned to have them added to today’s tour. And it's the highlight of the expedition. We have to proceed in ancient taxis (Ladas proliferate in the Caucasus) and we speed off road, rally driver style, to the patch of mini volcanoes, once more located in the middle of the oil fields. It’s like being on the moon (I imagine).
The bubbling cones and mud flows are fascinating. Mud volcanoes may range in size from merely one or two metres high and one or two metres wide, to 700 metres high and 10 kilometre tall. These are mostly at the bottom of the range. and so are also, evocatively, known as mud-pots, Their temperatures can range from near 100 °C to occasionally 2 °C, some being used for "mud baths". I wasn't intending to indulge, but Doctor Tino and I decide to make our photos more exciting and generate an explosion, by throwing rocks into a pool. This works rather too well and I’m splattered in mud from head to toe. Anyway, Tino gets some amusing pictures.
The airport is another showy display. It’s incredibly spacious, with arty bars, and is virtually empty. There’s also rather too much attention to bureaucratic detail and some sullen immigration officers. . Turkmenistan here I come.
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