An invitation to explore part of the Nagorno-Karabakh region where a war raged in late 2020 between Azerbaijan and Armenia, immediately made me realise that this was going to be a unique journey. I also realised it would be a controversial journey. We, a group of 25 international travellers, will be escorted by government staff, without whom we would never be allowed to travel to those areas. My curiosity wins, and after being forced to write an official letter of apology for my visit to Nagorno-Karabakh ten years before when the region was controlled by Armenia, we are on the way from Baku. Our convoy drives the highway towards the southwest, and then start climbing always higher in a winter wonderland of subtle snow on trees along the road. We reach the city of Shusha, the second biggest city of Karabakh. Much of it is destroyed, we see repair works going on, but very few people live in the largely abandoned city.
We are followed by a bus of journalists, and give our first interviews. We explore the city, or rather: its ruins. Destroyed buildings, destroyed mosques, a destroyed fortification. We talk to Azeri people who have arrived from Baku as well - for a first visit to Shusha in their lifetime. They are emotional, but it is not clear if they will actually move to Shusha now that the city is under Azeri control again. I try to remember what the city looked like when I visited around ten years before. Now, it certainly looks like a war city. We pay a short visit to the museum of Bulbul, or the nightingale of Shusha, a famous singer in the days of the USSR. We see old records, we see black and white pictures, we hear his music. From Shusha, we drive a long way to Agdam, where we arrive at dusk. We see a completely destroyed city, of which very little is left, and congregate at the mosque. Strangely enough, it was spared total destruction. It turns out that the Armenians used the minarets to scan the surrounding area.
We still have much more to drive to our accommodation. This clearly is not a region ready for tourism. The night is cold, and when we drive off very early the next morning, the sky above us is clear. We drive through a landcape of snowy mountains to a mountain pass with spectacular, wide views over the landscape below us. We are in the Murov mountains, at around 3300 metres altitude. We enjoy the views, drive down bend after bend, and have a break in a military barracks where soldiers try to hide their name tags. Shortly thereafter, we see a natural hot spring before we continue exploring the Karabakh region. We drive up another mountain pass, we are stopped for several hours at the entrance of the Lachin corridor. Russian soldiers search our cars, interview our guides, and we are finally waved through. We see a large Russian military camp: they are the peacekeepers of the region. In the evening, we finally find our accommodation. The next day, we see newly built cities, we see a road and railroad being built that should connect Azerbaijan with Turkey and Europe. We then have a long drive back to Baku. I prepare for appearing in a press conference in the evening. We have a meeting with the personal assistant of the president, whose words somehow give us hope that the conflict of Karabakh might finally be solved in the benefit of both parties. But when I then hear just before the press conference that I am not allowed to talk, just because of my previous visit of the region - as a curious visitor. The earlier hopes of a peaceful solution to the long-standing conflict evaporates within seconds. I can only hope I will be wrong and that the people of the region, whether Armenian or Azeri, will indeed find a way to live together in peace.
Around the World in 80 Clicks
Personal travel impressions both in words and images from Kalbajar expedition (Azerbaijan). Clicking on the pictures enlarges them and enables you to send the picture as a free e-card or download it for personal use, for instance, on your weblog. Or click on the map above to visit more places close to Kalbajar expedition. Read more about this site.