Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

The self-proclaimed Republic of Nagorno Karabakh is not recognised by any other country. The mountain territory in the southern Caucasus is an extraordinary place, as Karlos Zurutuza found when he took the marshrutka from the Armenia capital Yerevan over the hills to Karabakh.

article summary —

Fifteen years ago, the evening television news in much of Europe relayed a daily dose of human suffering from the south Caucasus region. The province of Nagorno Karabakh (the name means ‘Mountainous Black Garden') was the focus for the aggression, but the violence of war engulfed the entire Azerbaijan-Armenia border region.

Karabakh had nominally been part of the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic. Now, with the Soviet Union disintegrating and Azerbaijan asserting its right to run its own affairs, the Armenian population of Karabakh was wondering whether they, too, might not enjoy a little independence. There were five years of bloody war, with huge numbers of refugees - Azeris fleeing both Karabakh and Armenia; Armenians leaving their homes in Azerbaijan to seek safety in Armenia. When a ceasefire was agreed in May 1994, there were 750,000 displaced persons.

Today, Nagorno Karabakh exists in a bizarre political limbo: it is a sort of 'de facto' country. Karabakh is a mountainous territory where old villages, churches and monasteries are perched on hilltops. hidden europe has been exploring the peculiarities of life in the mountains of the southern Caucasus - a place where Europe comes face to face with Asia.

"If the Scriptures are rightly understood it was in Armenia that Paradise was placed," wrote the poet Byron in a letter penned in Venice to his publisher John Murray. Byron might have had second thoughts if he were cramped into the back row of a crowded marshrutka en route to Nagorno Karabakh. Have you ever ridden on one of those minibuses? As the Soviet Union imploded, marshrutkas appeared from all directions, as if by magic, to crowd the highways. Fifteen years on, their suspension systems are showing signs of age. Despite that, this particular marshrutka has a homely sort of feel - a Karabakh flag decorates the dashboard, and there is none of that vodka and onions smell that permeates some Russian marshrutkas.

Yerevan is an amiable enough spot, and, were it not for the lure of Nagorno Karabakh, one of those curious not-quite-real countries, one might have lingered longer. There are two preconditions for getting to Nagorno Karabakh. The first is to secure a visa, which turns out to be remarkably simple. The second is to survive seven hours in the marshrutka which links Yerevan with the Karabakh "capital" of Stepanakert. How can a country have a capital if it doesn't really exist?

There is only one place on the entire planet where it is possible to secure the visa necessary to enter Karabakh. And that's at the country's permanent mission in the Armenian capital, Yerevan. The delegation from Karabakh occupies a rather handsome building just by the Iranian embassy. The Karabakh consular officials work under the benign gaze of President Arkady Ghoukasyan, whose picture adorns the room. The leader of the self styled republic is seated at a desk with Karabakh's geometric flag in the background. Ghoukasyan looks a little bemused at finding himself in the presidential chair.


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About and

Nicky Gardner is editor of hidden europe and also the principal author of the magazine. Where a text is not specifically attributed to an author, it is the work of Nicky. Below, you’ll find a small selection of her articles in hidden europe magazine.

Nicky Gardner was liberated from a life enslaved to performance indicators and business plans to become a travel writer. In fairness, travel has always been a major element of her career. Having experienced Germany as a Gastarbeiterin (guest worker) after leaving school, Nicky subsequently studied geography in Wales, and went to work in oddball corners of the globe: in the Canadian Rockies, on the fringes of the Sahara in North Africa and in a community on the edge of things in Ireland. These adventures, and a spell of consultancy in eastern Europe, paved the way for the journey that is hidden europe.

Nicky reads geography books, railway timetables and maps entirely for pleasure - and lots of real books too! She claims to have visited every inhabited island in the Hebrides, and loves nothing more than a slow meander by public transport around some unsung part of Europe. Nicky is particularly interested in issues of identity and culture in eastern Europe and the Balkans, in linguistic minorities and in island communities. Her pet loves are public libraries, Armenian food and anything coloured purple. Nicky cannot abide suburban sprawl, supermarkets and fast trains. In March 2007, Nicky was rewarded for her scribblings about Europe's lesser known communities by being made a member of the British Guild of Travel Writers. Her favourite contemporary travel writers are Jan Morris, Dervla Murphy and Philip Marsden. Nicky is especially keen on historical travel writing: Edith Durham, Gertrude Bell and Isabelle Eberhardt are among her favourites. Nicky can be contacted at editors [at] hiddeneurope.co.uk.

Karlos Zurutuza is hidden europe's special correspondent. He writes in Basque, Spanish and English. His work has been published in various magazines and newspapers.

This article was published in hidden europe 13.