March 2018: While traveling in Armenia, my friends Jimmie, Frank and I also crossed into the disputed and conflict-ridden break-away republic of Nagorno Karabakh (NKR). At the time, the only way to enter NKR was via Armenia, since its border with Azerbaijan was closed due to the ongoing war over NKR between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Our main goal in NKR was to sneak into the ghost town of Aghdam, which also hapanned to straddle a war zone without receiving any Darwin awards in the process..

About Aghdam and Nagorno Karabakh

Aghdam is a town that during the time of my visit straddled the border between Azerbaijan and NKR.  It was initally founded in the 1800s and once had a population of approximately 20,000 Azeri people. It has been the scene of firece fighting over the last few decades between Armenian, NKR and Azeri troops and because of the fighting Aghdam was leveled and all Azeri people driven away into Azerbaijan. The town currently has a post-apacolyptic Hirsohima look to it. Aghdam lies on the front lines of the war, and its ruins are litterred with landmines, barbed wire, booby traps and if you are not careful you can be detained by Armenia military or worse caught in the crossfire between Azeri and NKR/Armenian soldiers or targeted by an Azeri sniper.

Aghdam because it lies less than 30 miles from the peaceful capitol of NKR, Stepanakert, is very accessibly for adventerous, dark tourist types like myself-some may successfully argue stupid too. It is forbidden for tourists to enter and even the NKR visa stamp states entrance to Aghdam is not allowed. Before the trip, I also could not find any drivers in Armenia willing to take us there, but this didn’t stop us from going.

Aghdam is part of NKR. Both Armenia and Azerbaijan claim NKR and both have historical ties to the land. During Soviet times, both ethnic groups lives in NKR peacefully. The fall of Soviet Union led to the opening up of power vacuum in the region and war over NKR commenced almost immediately between Azerbaijan and Armenia. During the time of my visit, Armenia held most of NKR and the majority of Azeri people that once lived there had fled NKR to Azerbaijan. Despite Armenia contolling most of NKR, the international community in large recognizes NKR as belonging to Azerbaijan and this includes google maps, which shows it within the boundaries of Azerbaijan. NKR despite having close ties to Armenia, is in fact its own sovereign state with its own government and military. It has its own immigration and you need to receive an entrance immigration stamp to enter the country.

Location of Aghdam in NKR that shows up on Google Earth within the boundaries of Azerbaijan

Crossing into Nagorno Karabakh and Spending the Night in the Embattled Town of Shushi

We entered NKR via the Armenian town of Goris. Our driver, Gagik, an Armenia man who had fought in NKR as a soldier against the Azeris when he was younger, vowed to fight Azrbaijan in NKR again if he was needed. Once we crossed a river into NKR, we stopped at a small immigration booth and checked in with NKR immigration. We were instructed to visit the immigration office and receive our visa in Stepanakert. From the border, there is only one paved road in the country, and it snakes up and around through the mountains for approx.  an hour all the way to the mountain top town of Shushi. The drive is beautiful full of mostly barren, treeless mountains. One interesting sight was the low hanging almost invisible huge steel cables that hang over some canyons and valleys. According to our driver, these are there to take down any invading Azeri helicopters.

Once we arrived in Shushi, we stopped at the most revered church in NKR-Ghazanchetsots Cathedral, which was destroyed during the war and since re-built.  There we attended part of an Easter Sunday Service. Low clouds and mist enshrouded Shushi casting an eerie look to the bombed out concrete skeleton buildings, many which have been re-occupied. We stopped at one abandoned Azeri mosque, which sadly was empty now that all of the Azeris have left town. The mosque is gutted but the Azeri grave stones till remain.   

 

Frank overlooking the mountains

NKR kids playing on a tank that serves as a war memorial

Old Shushi Medieval Walls 

Ghazanchetsots Cathedral in Shushi rebuilt after being destroyed in the war

Ghazanchetsots Cathedral-Easter Sunday Service in Shushi. NKR soldiers attending service

NKR kids lighting candles Easter Service-Ghazanchetsots Cathedral

World War II Memorial

Abandoned bombed out buildings in Shushi

Abandoned bombed out buildings in Shushi

Abandoned Azeri Mosque

Gutted Interior of Mosque

Old Tombstone at Azeri Mosque

We stayed with a local family at their guest house. Our host had previously appeared in an Anthony Bourdain episode, when Anthony Bourdain visited NKR, inviting a persona non-grata status upon himself from Azerbaijan.

The NKR family cooked a huge local meal for us and we stayed up late gourging in Armenian food and red wine and listening to our host share his vast knowledge of Armenia and NKR history.

Capitol of NKR-Stepanakert

Me Standing next to the most prominent monument Called We Are Our Mountains, the  faces of an old man and woman represent the mountain people of NKR and their Armenian heritage.

Stepanakert is a heavily militarized city being so close to the battle front with Azerbaijan and likely to be the scene of fighting during the next imminent invasion from Azerbaijan. Soldiers in military uniforms were everywhere and bill boards promoting military service and patriotism were prominently displayed. We stopped by the immigration office and met with immigration officials, who were very interested in our visit and asked us a lot of questions. Our visa was given to us in a separate pirece of paper and not affixed to our passport.

Stepanakert

This is important because Azerbaijan as well as some other countries allied with them consider it a crime or illegal entry into Azerbaijan if a foreigner visits NKR via Armenia. Like Anthony Bourdain, who visited NKR, a person can become persona non-grata and be denied entry or even arrested. One western European foreigner who visited Belarus, an ally of Azerbaijan and had a NKR visa in his passport was arrested in Belarus and extradited to Azerbaijan for imprisonment. 

Sneaking into the Warzone of Agdham

It wasn’t easy to find a driver willing to take us into Aghdam, since there was a chance the vehicle could be impounded by the military or even worse attacked by sniper fire or mortars. Our driver from Armenia, Gagik did not want to take us in his vehicle. So we found a taxi driver with a rust bucketed old Soviet lada in Stephancurt. He agreed to take us and we gave him a little extra for his risk.  He requested that we sit in the back of the vehicle to be more inconspicous, to avoid being targeted or detained. The drive was a quick 30 minutes down a rural country road into the plains leading towards Azerbaijan. Unlike the rest of NKR, this area was not mountanous. Then we turned off down a dirt road with huge potholes for another 20 minutes. There were no permanent villages, and we soon started to come across bombed out buildings and houses that were overgown by vegetation. As we continued driving, the density of blown up buildings started to increase.

Entering Aghdam

Abandoned vehicles

On occasion we observed some local herders with goats wondering in between the ruined buildings or a lada full of locals traveling into Aghdam. Evidently locals are allowed to enter Aghdam but no one permanently lives here as part of an accord with Azerbaijan. We passed an empty checkpoint. Luckily there were no soldiers present but we kept our heads low just in case. We did on occasion observe Armenia soldiers patrolling in the distance and we did our best to avoid them in order to avoid possibly being detained. The driver only let us out of the car to take a few photos on occasion and only briefly and next ot the vehicle. I hoped to climb the minaret of the mosque, which sits straight on the border not far from a trench, which has Azeri troops. But it was too risky to climb the minaret. In the past a foreigner was shot by a sniper when climbing the minaret and others had been detained and robbed by NKR soldiers patrolling the area.

Aghdam Buildings

Minaret of an abandoned mosque

Aghdam Buildings

After driving a loop and spending about 30 minutes in Aghdam, we headed back to Stepanakert and back to Shushi, where we spent our last night in NKR at the same guest house we stayed the night before. Our host was surpirsed we were able to enter Aghdam. 

2020 Update 

In 2020, Azeri troops launched an invasion into NKR. A peace agreement between NKR, Armenia and Azerbaijan resulted in Aghdam and the town of Shushi being returned to Azerbaijan. The war cost both sides approximately 10,000 lives.

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