If you’re like me and don’t know much about Artsakh, you might be pleasantly surprised to learn that it’s covered in mountains. If you’re like a certain anonymous dad who I won’t name here, you might sass your daughter on the phone when she exclaims, “I didn’t realize there were so many mountains there!” by responding, “Well, you know, they do call it mountainous Karabakh for a reason.” Not that that’s a true story or anything because what dad would ever say something so rude?

Hunot Gorge

So yes, “they” (you know, the infamous “they” who always have an opinion on things) do, in fact, call Artsakh “mountainous Karabakh”, and with good reason. I would cite some statistic about that except for the fact that I don’t have one, so you’ll just have to take “their” and my word for it (plus my pictures).

Our transportation to the trailhead, It was about as comfortable as it looks.

We went on a couple of hikes… well, more like “hikes”, aka leisurely strolls through nature. The first one was through Hunot Gorge. There’s a river that runs through the gorge and is crossed in multiple places by questionable bridges that would have gotten someone sued by now if they were in the States. We were with a huge group of people, so the stroll was definitely not the most adventurous experience of my life, but no complaints from me about getting to hang out by a river in the forest! We made it to a kind-of-sort-of swimming area which I wasn’t totally excited about, so a couple of the other volunteers and I asked for permission to go farther on our own. That ended up being the best decision ever because maybe about 7 minutes of walking later (but it was actual hiking that involved some serious inclines), we found a deep swimming hole that we had all to ourselves! The water was frigid, but one of the guys, Arin, and I decided to go for it anyway.

Our swimming hole!

Oh, that was another awesome thing about the trip to Artsakh. You know how sometimes you meet people who you can tell immediately are soul mate friends? Like you just hit it off and conversation and everything is so easy from the very beginning? Arin and I are definitely soul mate friends. He laughs at all of my terrible jokes and makes similarly terrible jokes that I think are funny. You know you’re soul mate friends when no one else is laughing and you can’t understand why not.

Anyway, our swimming hole was awesome and way better than where everyone else was, and once we were completely numb from the water, we hobbled our way out and back to the group.

Pretending we’re not freezing
Making sure I investigated every part of the forest.
Some random scenery along the path…
Jdrduz views

The second hike was right by Shushi. We hiked to Jdrduz (and if it looks to you like that word is impossible to say because how on earth are THAT MANY consonants in a row, welcome to the world of me trying to learn Armenian) which has an awesome view of the valley and also, shocker, has some historical significance. There are ruins of a fortress built into the side of the cliff which was cool but also seemed a little impractical to me. Why not just build it on top? But that aside, looked much more dramatic in that location. And inaccessible.

Me. On a huge rock. On the side of a huge cliff.

There’s also a village there, Karintak (which literally means “under the rock” because all Armenian village/monastery/etc names are super creative like that), where a battle took place during the Nagorno-Karabakh War. I mean, yes that’s still going on, but we’re talking back in the days of serious fighting, like the early 1990s. It was an Armenian village that was attacked by Azerbaijan to practice for the attack of Stepanakert. Rather than being an easy victory, the villagers and Armenian forces fought back and managed to squash the attack. History aside, the hike had some great views and was even worth the shadeless trek it took to get there.

We also visited another monastery, Gandzasar, which had more fantastic mountain views and some awesomely precarious-looking stairs on the inside. I don’t know any crazy stories about this one, so I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves. I’ll just leave you with the fact that the name Gandzasar means “treasure mountain”, and that is just about the coolest name for a monastery in the history of ever.

Views from Gandzasar

Those steps though…

Sorry for the hiatus! After getting back so late on Monday night, last week was super hectic. I felt like I was constantly running and trying in vain to catch up on all of the things I had to get done. I’ll give you more details later, but first I need to finish talking about Artsakh!


Shushi views

I almost feel stupid saying this, but the weirdest thing to me about being in Artsakh was how normal everything felt. It’s a land in limbo, but for most people who live there on the day to day, it’s like living anywhere else. At the same time though, if you pay close enough attention, you can kind of feel a cloud looming overhead. Whether it’s the bombed-out buildings that haven’t been rebuilt yet or the moms crying as they send their 18-year-olds off to their mandatory 2-year military service (that’s the case across Armenia, not just in Artsakh), there are reminders that things aren’t completely as they should be.

Shushi streets

The two main cities that we visited during our time there were Shushi and Stepanakert. Both of those cities were completely or almost completely destroyed during the war. Shushi was one of the main Azerbaijani strongholds, in part because of its strategic location on a mountaintop. From Shushi, Stepanakert was shelled during the war, and it’s said that basically every building in Stepanakert was damaged or destroyed.

Armenian forces eventually captured Shushi in 1992, and that city was 80% destroyed between the fighting and subsequent looting and burning. In 2002, little clean-up progress had been made, and the city was still mostly in shambles.

Ruin/rebuilt contrast

Knowing all of THAT makes visiting Shushi and Stepanakert even more interesting. Now, they look like cities, and nice ones at that. There are still places where you can see damage, but there are way more places where you can see buildings that have been reconstructed. The cities were previously populated with Armenians and Azerbaijanis, so obviously there weren’t even enough people to fill them for a while. They’ve slowly been moving people and repopulating and rebuilding the cities. To me, the progress looked pretty impressive. Then, at the same time, it’s weird because you have to remind yourself that even though all of these cities are being rebuilt, the war technically isn’t over.

More Shushi. Our guide talked about how the paintings on this building show the desire of the local people to get Shushi back to what it once was. The paintings show shops similar to those that may have been there prior to the war.
Tatik and Papik (Grandmother and Grandfather), a monument representing the people of Artsakh. The official name is “We Are Our Mountains”. They’re just heads because the land is their bodies, showing the strong connection that the people of Artsakh have to the territory.

We also had the chance to visit a military base, and that was definitely a reminder that there’s a war going on. The volunteers used to get to visit the front lines on the border, but there was some fighting last April (the Four Day War) and that part of the trip has been nixed since then. It was interesting to see the contrast between the base, where obviously the main thing people are thinking about is the war, and the cities, where it feels so easy to pretend that everything is normal.

Like I said, there is still a heaviness that you can feel if you pay close enough attention. Probably everyone has a relative who is serving in the army, and even though there’s a cease fire and no constant, active fighting, that doesn’t mean nothing ever happens. From what I’ve heard, it seems like breaches of the cease fire are not infrequent.

How many people does it take to open a wine bottle?

We did a “wine mob” in Stepanakert which means that you split into groups, take a bottle of wine, and knock on people’s doors asking if they want to drink wine with you. Everyone came back with something interesting to say, and some hilarious examples of Armenian hospitality. For my group, even that activity ended up with military connections. We found ourselves in the apartment of a pregnant woman and her two kids (who all obviously didn’t drink any wine) because they were some of the first people we found who owned a corkscrew. Her husband is in the military, and we lucked out and got to meet him when he came home from work a few minutes before we had to leave. Seeing him interact with their kids was awesome, and their reactions were heartbreaking when the fact came up that he’s going away soon for a few weeks for work. For them, the war is very real.

One of the hardest parts (emotionally) of the trip was a visit to the Fallen Soldier’s Museum in Stepanakert. The museum is just rooms and rooms of framed pictures of the soldiers who lost their lives fighting for Nagorno-Karabakh. Looking at the pictures and knowing that each one of them had parents or wives or kids who had to go on without them was almost enough to make me lose it. There’s a wedding dress and a suit that were never used because the groom-to-be was killed before the wedding day.

Inside the Fallen Soldiers Museum

I think that war is one of those things that people like to think about with a censored mind. Like you think about some parts of it but don’t let yourself even begin to fully register what it means because it’s too horrible. Deaths are reported as numbers because that’s easier to take, rather than thinking about each number as a person who is leaving behind a family and friends and people who will never feel the same again. And even though the enemy is the enemy, they’re people too, and they have loved ones who care about them and would do anything for them to come home safely. And now I’m getting upset, and that’s exactly why we don’t like to think about these things.

In all parts of my life recently, I’ve been trying to do a better job of seeing things from all sides and with an unbiased mind. It’s a hard thing to do, but I think I’ve been slowly improving. A lot of times, even if you don’t agree with the “opposing” side, at least you can somewhat understand why they feel the way they do and see them as people instead of faceless enemies. With this war, I can definitely understand both sides, and even though I think that’s good for me, it makes thinking about the situation even more upsetting because I don’t see any potential for a compromised end. War on its own is bad enough, but endless war… talk about depressing.

The Shuka, a market, in Stepanakert.
The Parliament building in Stepanakert

Breakfast views of Ararat… it’s there, I promise. You just have to look closely.

I’m exhausted. The weekend was a whirlwind, and I spent most of it wanting to take a nap. Each day was so ambitiously scheduled that it was literally impossible to get enough sleep, but I survived it and didn’t even get sick! That’s pretty good. I do want to go to sleep ASAP tonight though, and I know I’m going to spend the rest of the week trying to catch up on the hours I should have gotten over the weekend.

Views from the drive

The sleep deprivation started on Friday morning when we had to meet at 5:30AM to go to Yerevan. I somehow managed to drag myself out of bed on time and scored a prime seat in the taxi (we had one packed van and one taxi) where I logged another hour of semi-restful sleep.

In Yerevan, we joined up with the other volunteers who are living in Yerevan and Vanadzor. Again, I lucked out with the seating and got a spot in one of the two vans rather than in the big bus with most of the volunteers. Perks of the van: no microphone for people to yell into, functional air conditioning, (slightly) less vomit-inducing movements, faster, and fewer people. It was basically paradise.

I love driving through the mountains because of the great views. I hate driving through the mountains because mountain roads are always windy and always make everyone want to throw up.
In Halidzor before getting on the cable car to Tatev

After multiple snack/bathroom stops and about four more hours of driving, we made it to Tatev Monastery. Well, to be accurate, we made it to the town of Halidzor where the end of the cableway that takes you to Tatev is located. The big claim to fame of the cableway is that it’s the longest non-stop double track aerial tramway in the world. It’s 3.5 miles (5.7 km) long, and the ride takes about 10 minutes. It’s in the mountains, so the views along the way to the monastery are incredible. It’s probably the most expensive thing to do in Armenia, with round trip tickets costing 5000 dram for tourists (about USD$11).

Me + mountains
Ruth, Talene, and me
PUSH! I thought these signs were hilarious… they’re on the doors into the bathrooms to tell you to push vs. pull, but they’re very exaggerated examples of what that looks like.
Cable car cables

The cableway would have been awesome even if it didn’t lead anywhere, but it’s even better because it gets you to the town of Tatev and the monastery. The complex is pretty extensive. There are multiple churches, residential areas, a library, a dining hall, school buildings, an olive mill, and more. The olive mill is from the Middle Ages, and we visited that first. I can’t tell you any real information about it because I zoned out when the guide was talking. Then, instead of getting facts, I asked people to tell me made up explanations about what the different things there were used for. I definitely had more fun on my made-up tour, but I also definitely left with zero accurate information.

I was too busy crawling around in random holes in the olive mill to pay attention
Probably some sort of olive press, but I’ll forever know it as the world’s first liposuction machine because the Armenians invented everything, didn’t you know?

The monastery was built originally in the 9th century on the former site of a pagan temple. There was also an important university there in the 14th and 15th centuries that was a leading cultural and scientific center and trained teachers who then taught across Armenia. After that, the complex was attacked, damaged, and looted multiple times throughout history by different groups as they invaded Armenia. In 1931, there was an earthquake that damaged it even more, and there’s still restoration work going on now.

The main church in the monastery
One of the other rooms around the monastery complex


On the road to Artsakh… “Free Artsakh Welcomes You”

After leaving Tatev and taking another scenic ride through the mountains, we continued our trek to Artsakh. We had a few more hours of driving, and by the time we got to Shushi, the city where we were staying, I was ready to pass out. We were in homestays, and the process of getting everyone where they needed to go was just as much of a mess as you would expect. I fell asleep in the van as we were driving around and then completely ate it on my way out because I was still 95% asleep and my leg collapsed instead of holding me up when I stepped down. Oops. I was fine and too tired to even be embarrassed about it. I think the total drive time for the day was something like 10 hours, though I didn’t keep track so who knows. Whether that’s right or not, it wasn’t a short amount of time. I don’t blame my leg for collapsing because that’s really what my entire body wanted to do!


View of the mountains from the Artsakh sign. If you like mountains, Artsakh might be the place for you!
Waiting at the border for the bus to catch up. Check out the tiny church at the bottom of the picture!