Sunday, 31 May 2015

Republic Mountainous of Karabakh - To Artsakh or not to Artsakh???

Almost every Armenian we met, especially cyclists, advised us to visit Artsakh or the Republic Mountainous of Karabakh. And we found on map, the perfect combination to visit this piece of land and to cross to Iran without passing through the famous but challenging Meghri pass. So, trying to kill two birds with one stone, Thursday April 2th, we left Goris, in direction of Karabakh. 

(at the border. The RMK flag side to side with the Armenian flag)

The RMK or Artsakh officially belongs to Azerbaijan. But mainly composed of Armenians and Christian, they claim their belonging to Armenia or at least, independent from the Muslim country of Azerbaijan. 
So in Artsakh, people speak Armenian, drive cars with Armenians license plates, use Armenian money, watch Armenian tv.... but require an Artsakh visa for foreigners, which we didn't expect!!!! And Stepanakert, the capital was simply not on our way and it would take too long to go there by bikes, we decided to stop for a night in Latchin (Berdzor) and would try to hitchhike the next day. 

Our first statement was that Artsakh police was much less nice than usual. When we asked for a place to camp, they sent us to the "down town police" ("they will know what you can do" the big boss said) which didn't exist. 
Here, we were surrounded by people asking then talking, waving their hands to there and here to see where we could stay... It lasted for a while without any conclusion that we started thinking they might not care anymore about us and chat about something else. Finally, a man decided that we looked safe enough and brought us to his garden. Ouff

(view from our campsite)

The following morning, we went to the central place at 8AM, under a wonderful sun, little breeze, perfect weather but visibly too early because everything was closed and no car!!! After 45 mn, a Priest took us. Even a Priest drives like crazy!!!!! Everything was quick and easy at the Artsakh ministry of foreign affairs. We had our visas within 5 mn (and around 6€ each).

(a corner of Stepanakert)

The way back to Latchin had its lot of surprise: at first, the man who took us, one minute after letting us in, asked for money. He kept insisting even when we said we had no money and asked him to stop. He even wanted to sell us his bread, at twice the normal price. The last second when finally he dropped us at the junction with Sushi, almost 10 km later,he still  demanded for some AMD. We stepped out of the car, politely thanked him and secretly hoped that his son, also in the car, would be more kind. No more car stopped after that but a bus (we thought there would be no bus until the afternoon). After almost one hour, we arrived to Latchin, but the bus driver asked for 1000AMD per person, almost double the normal price and made such a scene when we tried to protest. We paid what he wanted, with people staring at us, a bit disappointed by the experience.
It was just half past noon, so we quickly packed and left. We said goodbye to our host, we were thankful that he let us set the tent in his garden and leave the bikes while going to Stepanakert. 

The road was bad. And we crossed almost no one.

but the famous wild roses

(The actual rose's ancestry must have looked like that)

When we arrived to the valley, we were surprised to see that the land was very much fertile without being cultivated. It should have been a rich area before (under the Soviet Union?): we still saw traces of a used-to-be perfect road and ruins of lots of beautiful big stone houses.

The few people we met, in response to our "hello" and smiles, stared back at us, with no curiosity but distrust. A long civil war destroyed lots of things, apparently even their sense of hospitality.

Around 6PM, we stopped in a nice place in a small hill beside the road. At 7PM, 2 cars and a van stopped, 3 men got out. We knew right away that we would be in trouble. They presented themselves as police and asked us a whole bunch of questions: who we were, where we came from, which route we took, what we did at this or that place on the valley (they did watch us all the way long????), which pictures we took.... They examined every corner of our papers before claiming that we could not stay: the place where we were was not mentioned on the planned route that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs provided us.

Actually, in Artsakh, you need a visa, but also a card where is mentioned the places you want to visit, your entry and exit point. And apparently, you could not go to other places than what is written on this piece of paper. And indeed, the man at the Ministry gave us the usual touristic route but not what we asked for. And us, so happy to have our visas, didn't check. The Policeman insisted "if you ever asked for this route, why it wouldn't be mentioned here?" What he insinuated infuriated me. I looked up the sky at said " God knows why he didn't care about what we asked for".
That made them laugh but didn't make them let us go. After one hour of arguing, they made not an inch of concession and politely but firmly asked us to pack: they will send us to a "safe place" to sleep. Everything was planned: they came already with the van to move us away from where we are. 

There is no need to be stubborn with police (we tried though!!!), we dully put our belongings into the van. They drove us backward to the police station. We spent the night in a kind of police guesthouse: brand new but badly built.

The next morning, we got up at 7AM but in fact it was 6AM: our iPhone had set automatically to Azeri time zone, which is one hour sooner, but of course, they use Armenian time zone!!!! When we realized it, we went for the extra 30 mn sleep!!!!

A young high school boy, speaking surprisingly good English, serving as interpreter, told us that the road we were on was "forbidden", no one could take this road and there was no passing point with Armenia at the end of the valley.
We would never know what is true but the fact was that we had to cycle backward, on the bad road we were on the day before. Instead of going back to Latchin, they sent us to an another road. Stiffer and in a worse condition. Sometimes we even had to push the bikes. And of course, we were in worse mood too so it was a hard day. A very hard day that we woudn't easily forget! At least, the sceneries were nice but we had little heart at it.

After more than 5 hours of suffering on stiff roads full of potholes and rubbles, under the frying sun, breathing the dust while running out of water, we finally got out of Artsakh. The "custom service" looked at us, surprised when we asked him to check our passport. " You are leaving? Just go! No passport check!!!!" Aggggrrrrrr.

Here ends our adventure on Artsakh land. We are not ready to go back there very soon.
But now, we were back to Goris "the loop is looped", no more choice but the hit the road to Meghri pass.

As a wink to "Snatch" , I would like to end this post with this quote:

-  Anything to declare?

+ Yeah! Don't go to Artsakh!!!!

See you soon for further news adventures of Potatoes

1 comment:

  1. You really had an amazing trip mate and the weather looks amazing too. I'm really glad you enjoyed. Looking forward to seeing which place you will visit next.