Holidaying in lands that don’t exist: Artsakh

Sascha Duerkop May 24, 2020
Holidaying in lands that don’t exist: Artsakh

The small Republic of Artsakh, formerly mostly unknown as Republic of Nagorno Karabakh, lies in the heart of the Lesser Caucasus.

According to the United Nations, it belongs to Azerbaijan, but as it is overwhelmingly populated by Armenians, it seceded in the 1990s. Nobody recognises their independence, but neighbouring Armenia helps to protect the area and makes access possible and surprisingly easy.

From Yerevan airport, the main port of entry to Armenia, it is five-hour ride over newly restored roads along a beautiful lake to Stepanakert, the capital of the region. A visa can simply be bought on arrival at the border for as little as 10 Euro.

A monk in front of the Dadivank Monastery, by Sascha Duerkop.

What to expect from Artsakh

The old name of the region gives away what you can expect when you go. Nagorno is Russian and means ‘mountainous’, while Karabakh is a compound of the Turkic word kara, meaning ‘large’, and the Iranian word bagh, meaning ‘garden’. Deciphering three languages, who all had an influence on the area, you can thus finally conclude that Artsakh, as the locals call it, is a lush and green mountainous region. It is no surprise that the area is very popular with Armenian tourists, who mostly go hiking or visit the ancient churches.

While the capital Stepanakert is a modern and calm capital city, the true highlights of the region are found elsewhere. The old monastery of Dadivank, which was built in the first century BC, belongs to one of the oldest still active sanctuaries in the world and recently got renovated, after the war impacted it heavily. It lies in a magical remote place in the middle of the lush mountains and provides excellent views of the wider region, too.

The Hunot Gorge close to the cultural capital of Shushi, by Sascha Duerkop.

The best vista in the small republic, and one of the most popular spots for locals, however, is the Hunot Gorge, close to the cultural capital of Shushi. Locals love to picnic at the edge of a mountain and watch the sun down. As you are in Shushi already, you might want to visit one of the many museums of the small town, which gave the city the ceremonial title of cultural capital.

The oddest sight in Artsakh, however, is undoubtedly the tiny hamlet of Vank, wedged between mountains. Levon Hairapteyan, an Armenian-Russian oligarch who is spending quite some time in jail for corruption currently, hails from the village and spent lots of money to make it a bizarre attraction.

There is the only zoo in the republic, including lions, a hotel shaped like a ship and called “Ecclesia” and a full-size copy of Noah’s Arc, in which you can dine. Add a lion-shaped and roaring mountain, a memorial wall of some thousands of Azeri number plates, which the locals don’t need anymore since defeating Azerbaijan, and some classic cars on top of buildings and you have the perfect eclectic paradise.

Hotel “Ecclesia” in the absurd, but beautiful, village of Vank, by Sascha Duerkop.

When is best to visit Artsakh?

Traveling to Artsakh is best possible in summer, as winters can get really cold. There are hotels aplenty in Stepanakert, all around the main square or within walking distance. The only pub in town, Bardak, is one of the best places to party outside of the recognised world.

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Sascha Düerkop is a German mathematician, economist, football maniac, geography nerd and traveller. He has travelled to most unrecognised countries and way beyond, organised football tournaments for not-quite-states and has over 500 football national team shirts in his wardrobe.