Unfortunately today did not go as planned. When I woke up, the fog had set in, the temperature had plummeted and the rain was falling. All of this meant some cancelled plans for the day. I was originally supposed to visit the old cave city of Khndzoresk, but because the road up the mountain to the cave city is narrow and because the fog would have caused dangerous hiking conditions we had to scrap the visit. That meant no visit to the cave city that was continuously inhabited for almost 1,000 years until the 1950s when the 8,000 plus inhabitants were moved to a newly built town higher up the hillside. I was also going to miss climbing the 525-foot-long suspension bridge above a river that connects the old cave town with the new village. Very sad to have missed this, but there was nothing I could do about it.
So with no cave city visit, we left Goris for Nagorno Karabakh aka Artsakh, the disputed territory and self declared republic that sits smack in the middle of Armenia with a border abutting Azerbaijan. The drive took us through what was supposed to be beautiful gorges and the beautiful changing autumn colours, but unfortunately the fog left me with zero view.
Right before we reached the Artsakh border we passed a monument dedicated to Armenia and its beloved cousin Artsakh in the shape of Mt. Ararat and little Mt. Ararat, which sits right beside Ararat. Fortunately, the fog did not hamper the view.
At the Artsakh border, Nour took my passport and registered it with border control at which time they gave me permission to enter the disputed territory. Once we reached Stananakert I would apply for and hopefully receive my visa. First time ever I have entered a country and received my visa after entering. Anyway, about 15 minutes later we were entering the Shushi, the historic capital of Nagorno Karabakh.
Now a little bit about this dispute. Artsakh was historically part of Armenia. Over the centuries the territory was plundered by Persians, Russians, Turks and Arabs. The real problems arose when Lenin swung a deal with Attaturk in 1923. Attaturk, leader of Muslim Turkey, agreed to help with the move to bring the “Stans” into the Soviet Union in exchange for “giving” Nagorno Karabakh to Azerbaijan, a Muslim country. The Christian Armenians were furious as were the residents of Christian Artsakh. In 1991 when Armenia received its independence from the Soviet Union, Artsakh declared its own independence. Days later, Azerbaijan invaded Artsakh and so began a bloody war. The war took a turn in favour of Artsakh on May 9, 1992 when they were able to break a siege in Shushi, storm the historical Shushi fortress and reclaim the historic capital. In 1994, Russia brokered a cease-fire and negotiations between Azerbaijan, Armenia and Artsakh continue to this day, with periodic border skirmishes to remind everyone of the tensions.
On the way into the city, we passed by the fortress that was taken by the Artsakh troops in 1992, which now consists mostly of lookout points and walls. We passed through the rebuilt town of Shushi and made our first stop at the restored Ghazanchetsots Cathedral that was originally constructed in 1868. Like most churches during the Soviet era, it was shuttered and severely damaged. The church has now been repaired and reopened.
The inside of the church was fairly plain (as with most Armenian churches), but the interesting part of the church was the downstairs crypt. There is a hole in the middle of the ceiling and when you stand beneath the hole, you can actually hear yourself speak as if someone is playing it back to you on a recorder. It was bizarre. And no one can scientifically explain how it works, nor has anyone been able to recreate the phenomenon.
The second stop of the day was to the Kanach Zam aka Green Church (because the domes were one time painted green). The church was built in 1818 and has a unique interior because the icons take the form of stained glass windows. In addition, the interior was interesting because they use glass candle holders strung from the ceiling to light up the church as opposed to candles adorning the alter and surrounding alcoves.
We wandered around a bit and then took in the massive front garden area before beginning the ten minute drive to Stepanakert. Along the way, we stopped at a monument on the hillside where the first tank to enter Shushi in 1992 sits. The three young men who commanded the tank were killed in the invasion and to this day are remembered as heroes in Artsakh.
Once in Stepanakert we stopped at the Department of Foreign Affairs where I completed my visa application form and then waited for it to be processed. As we were waiting cigarette smoke filled the air. I am so unaccustomed to being inside where there is cigarette smoke I almost immediately felt sick and felt the onset of a headache. I finally went outside to wait as Diane stayed inside. I must say that it has been a long time since I have been in a country where I have encountered so many cigarette smokers. I think Armenia gives China a run for its money.
Anyway, once we had the visa in hand, we visited the local Farmer’s Market where I saw home made wines, juices and vodkas. Here, they make vodka out of just about every kind of fruit: peach, pomegranate, plum, apple and on and on. I had one guy try to sell me every kind of vodka under the sun.
As we wandered around, women tried to sell me the various kinds of in season fruit. Right now, the big seller is pomegranates. In Armenia they grow two kinds, the standard red pomegranate and a white pomegranate (because the skin is white with pinky spots). Now I am afraid that I will be spoiled forever having tried the white pomegranate. While the seeds look like the red pomegranate, they are far sweeter and simply delicious.
After taking in all the produce stands, we made our last stop at a bread stand of sorts. The bread, known as Zhingalov Khats is made with dough and then filled with greens and minced onions that have been sprinkled with salt, red and black pepper and sunflower oil. The dough is then baked on a grill and when it is pulled off the grill the lady slaps the bread down on a board in front of you. I wasn’t sure if I was going to like the bread, but I have to say it was fantastic. The greens had a bit of zing to them and the soft chewy bread was perfect. A real winner.
When the market tour was done, we made our last stop of the day to the Artsakh State Museum where I saw some of the country’s ancient carpets and pottery, learned about native species and, of course, the tortured history of the region. The young woman who led my tour was a little stiff, but other than that the tour was quite informative.
We ended the day early with a lunch and then check in to the hotel. I was actually glad to end the day early. I did not have a lot of sleep the night before because two Japanese fellows who were also staying at the B&B decided to stay up most of the night and were on the couch chatting right outside my door. Finally, at about 2:30 a..m. I opened the door and told them to go to their room and chat because they were keeping me awake. Knuckleheads! Anyway, I was planning on having a good nights sleep tonight and bed time would come early.