Our driver to Nagorno-Karabakh, Albert, arrived bright and early and we said Goodbye to our cheerful little hostel room. Albert was an elderly gent (80 if he was a day) and our carriage for the next couple of days was a battered and drafty old Russian saloon. Albert was from Karabakh and couldn’t speak any English, so we couldn’t really communicate (other than our bits of chut chut Ruski), but he did however understand our needs and wants and stopped at all the roadside shops saying “Piva (beer), toilette (toilet)” and taking photos of us with any particularly stunning vistas.
We had come well prepared with our packed lunch, leftover dinner (from the restaurant the previous night) and a selection of alcoholic beverages for the long drive ahead. As we drove out of the city and up into the mountains the weather got continually worse, starting with a sprinkling of snow and ending up in a total white out blizzard by the time we got to the highest point! It was pretty scary, especially as the roads were so potholed it was impossible to drive on your correct side of the road all the time (and Albert didn’t much seem to care about such formalities as lanes anyway) and there were a few times swerving to avoid oncoming wagons by a hair’s breadth, we really did think we were goners! We stopped off at a little service station right in the mountains, full of truck drivers huddled around a little gas heater. We bought Albert a coffee, replenished our beers and got told off by the truckers for wandering around outside in the snow taking photos because we’d get sick.
Eventually we got over the mountains and arrived at the border of Nagorno-Karabakh, a self-declared independent republic between Azerbaijan and Armenia and our first Transnistria of the trip (we are trying to unlock the achievement for visiting all of the breakaway ex-Soviet states, with Abkhazia on the list at the end of the trip too). Geographically drawn into the borders of Azerbaijan during Soviet times but populated mostly by Armenians, Karabakh sought to reunify with Armenia in 1988 and the region has been in dispute ever since. This is an interesting read on the region rather than us cack handedly trying to explain it here. It was a lovely little relaxed border in comparison to the full body searches we’d experienced across the ‘Stans, where we handed over our “Susan plus one” back of a fag packet visa and got to touch the police dogs while Albert was talking to the border patrol. When we got to the capital, Stepanakert, it was so foggy you could hardly see a thing! We had to make a stop off there to use the ATM (apparently cash points are few and far between in Karabakh) but our final destination was the village of Vank, about another hour’s drive away. We were so excited about The Eclectic Hotel – built in the shape of the Titanic (and has it’s own zoo and Chinese restaurant) by the eccentric millionaire Levon Hairapetyan who was born in Vank but made his fortune in Moscow and had wanted to give back to his home village by, along with sensible things like building a school and asphalt roads, making it a hot tourist destination. He didn’t succeed (what with Vank being in the middle of nowhere in a country that not many people have heard of, and that technically doesn’t exist), but apparently the hotel gets by hosting weddings (it was one of several venues in Nagorno-Karabakh that hosted a mass wedding of 560 Armenian couples in 2008) and other events plus the occasional curious tourist. Other attractions in Vank included a wall of licence plates and a big stone lion that roars at certain times of the day. You share our excitement I see?
We made it to Vank, and found the amazing hotel but alas walked into the lobby to find a load of workmen sitting on bags of sand having their break. It was only under flipping renovation! So after a bit of discussion (and Susan feeding a load of sausage and cheese to a lovely little scamp of a dog we named “Little Vanker”) we concluded that there was nowhere else to stay in Vank or the surrounding area and there was nothing for it but to go back to Stepanakert and find a hotel there. We felt really bad for poor Albert who had been driving all day and now had to double back and drive for another hour, but he didn’t seem bothered and was just concerned about us finding somewhere to stay. Before heading back, we drove up to the nearby Gandzasar monastery for a quick look about but unfortunately we could hardly see anything due to the really thick fog!
Finally we arrived back in Stepanakert, via a stop off at the “We Are Our Mountains” monument (a statue of a veiled woman and bearded elder man that represents the strength of the people of Nagorno-Karabakh) for some photos but alas these turned out a bit rubbish due to that pesky fog!
We’d had a flick through the Lonely Planet’s section on Stepanakert on the way back from Vank and had decided on the Park Hotel Artsakh, a boutique hotel that sounded very nice. We were a bit concerned at this point that we’d have to pay for Albert, as this hadn’t been mentioned when we agreed the price at the embassy the previous day, and quite frequently it’s expected that you pay for food, drink and accommodation for your driver or guide. Thankfully (the hotel wasn’t really expensive but it wasn’t very cheap either at 36000 AMD) he managed to explain that he was staying with a friend for the night. We were hoping we could get a room with a bathtub and had the receptionist in stitches trying to explain “bathtub” as they call a shower a bath too, so Susan was miming “No” to a stand up shower and on the floor nodding “Yes” to sitting having a nice bath (with loofah). He finally clocked on and our faces lit up when he told us they had a deluxe room with a Jacuzzi, but alas it wasn’t free for the night (it looked like there was a wedding or something on) and we ended up just opting for a standard room with a “mountain view” which was still very nice. It was dark by this point, and still so foggy that we couldn’t see the mountains anyway, so we decided to have a wander out and get something to eat.
We ended up in Russia, a nice looking restaurant serving…you guessed it…Russian cuisine! Susan was over the moon to see that they had the traditional Artsakh mulberry vodka “Oghee” on the menu as she’d been dying to try it, and despite Jill’s words of caution to maybe try a small one to see if we liked it (“it’s mulberry vodka man! What’s not to like about it?”), she enthusiastically ordered a half litre of it. A gesture that was met with immediate regret as soon as she lifted a glass towards her mouth and got a smell of it – “Oh god. It’s pinge.”. Yes indeed, it smelled and tasted exactly like our infamous loved/hated Carpathian carcinogen Palinka! We forced it down (to avoid appearing to be non-local-booze-appreciating heathens) with large swigs of juice and promptly ordered a bottle of normal Russian vodka. Our food was really nice (bean and mushroom soup, some kind of kebab, and something else mushroomy), but again we’d ordered too much and had to get loads of it wrapped up to take out. It was a quiet night in the restaurant and we were the only ones in (there was another room with people playing pool out the back though), but the staff had a very hostile and aloof demeanour (think Mitchell and Webb’s inexplicably posh waiter – the LOOKS we were getting when we were trying to force down the pinge!) and as there was nee craic to be had we were wishing we’d brought the netbook as it was an ideal time to do a bit of blogging over the non-pingey boozes.
Alas, all the food and the subdued atmosphere had made us knackered so we decided to wander back to our hotel as we had another big day on the road the next day. We kept an eye out for a little bar en route but we couldn’t see anything in the fog (and there didn’t look like much going on anyway), so ended up just having a nightcap or two at the hotel bar before settling down for the night (without having a bath).