How small should a country be and still be an independent nation? The Vatican City is technically its own sovereign state and the smallest country in the world. San Marino (inside Italy) and Andorra (between France and Spain) are relics of europe's medieval past, when dukes, bishops and other nobles ruled their own little realms. Since the middle ages, though, the trend has been towards larger nations composed of people with a common culture or shared identity.
However, this trend has reversed in the last few decades. Bigger countries are splitting apart because ethnic groups within them feel they deserve their own state. Historians are calling this "balkinization," because the best example was the split of Yugoslavia on the Balkan peninsula. Once it's strong dictator Tito died, the police state which kept all the different ethnic groups in line crumbled. So, we now have a Serbia, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, and Macedonia. The Kosovo region of Serbia is next in line to become its own tiny state.
Tank monument to the Karabakh War
When the Soviet Union began to unravel, different ethnic groups began to demand borders be redrawn. They wanted to piece together areas where they were the ethnic majority and create their own state. Which is why the country I am in right now is one that no one else recognizes. To be honest, I came here only partially to see the sights. I also wanted to feel the vibe in a country that no one else believes should be independent. Where I am is called Nagorno-Karabakh, or just Karabakh for short. The region was mostly ethnic Armenians whose land wound up inside Azerbaijan when the Soviet Union collapsed. Their declaration of independence from Azerbaijan brought Russian and Azeri troops to put down their revolt. The Armenians took to the hills and fought back with hit and run raids. Karabakh is essentially one rumpled, green mountain range, so that made it difficult for their enemies to hunt them down. Soldiers from Armenia eventually helped their brethren, and the two chased the Azerbaijani army out. Ethnic Azeris fled, too, fearing reprisal by the victors.
A cease fire was signed 20 years ago, but to this day, no one recognizes Karabakh as independent. Armenia is leery of annexing it, for fear of provoking another war. Karabakh's flag shows what they would like to see happen. It is the Armenian flag with a small triangular chunk separated by a boxy line. The two parts would fit perfectly if the boxy line was erased and the two parts joined. Clever psychological ploy, eh?
I arrived on a seven hour marshrutka ride from Yerevan. The first 3 1/2 hours retraced the route we took for our Tatev tour, yesterday. It was once we entered Karabakh, though, that the scenery went from being nice to awe inspiring. Toss a green blanket over an irregular pile of rocks, then shrink wrap it around them, and you have an idea of the topography. Decorate the blanket with thick forests, and toss on top a spaghetti strand of asphalt that switchbacks its way across the slopes in a way that curves insanely enough to make even a veteran race car driver dizzy. Our driver, like all Georgians or Armenians it seems, attacked the curves with a passion, passed up anyone who wasn't moving at appropriate breakneck speeds and had even the Armenian passengers yelling at him for his driving. I kept my eyes glued on the scenery, a tactic that has worked well to cut down on the stress this trip.
Once in the capital, Stepanakert, I had to take a bus to the hilltop town of Shoushi where I'd arranged a bed & breakfast. The host is a Frenchman who married an Armenian wife, and has become an enthusiastic supporter and organizer of tourism in Karabakh. After the unsatisfactory lodgings in Tblisi and the hostel in Yerevan, I admit I was a bit worried what his place would look like. Well, picture a "fixer upper" apartment, with walls, plumbing and electricity all in various states of repair. Picture the apartment inhabited by the opposite of a "neat freak." Quite simply, it was worse than either Old Town Hostel in Tblisi or Penthouse Hostel in Yerevan.
Stepanakert, capital of Karabakh
I guess it is time to give you my take on hostel or budget traveler lodgings. The young, twenty-something backpackers seem to seek out places run by friendly, helpful people who exude a certain vibe - a "coolness." They become fiercely loyal to these new friends and excuse any shortcomings of the facilities, often staying there for weeks on end. I've been exchanging pleasant emails with the owner of Penthouse Hostel, who was worried when I left after just one night. She admitted her place is often crammed with people happy to spread their sleeping bags on the floor just to be able to stay there. Young backpackers like this aren't concerned (like I was) with sheets that don't cover the mattresses, long waits for the bathroom or shower, and a lack of things like chairs, trash cans or night stands. They want to be where the cool travelers are.
I also like friendly, helpful hosts who can assist you in seeing their country. However, friendly hosts do not excuse inconvenient bathrooms, dirty floors, unacceptable beds, and a lack of simple things like a place to hang your clothes or a chair or desk to sit in. Maybe its because I'm 49, but I'll sacrifice the "cool" for comfort and cleanliness any day. So, to cut my rant shorter, I switched rooms once again. For $5 more, I got all of the things that my "B&B" lacked. Armen, who ran the B&B, still helped me set up a tour with a taxi for the next morning. He gave me suggestions on what to do, and did not seem at all put out by my decision. During the tour itself, he rang up the driver on his cell phone to make sure everything was going okay.
D'oh! There it is - Tigranakert!
My first stop was the ruins of Tigranakert - the capital of the Ancient Armenian kingdom during the Roman period. As we pulled up, I was jazzed to see an archeological dig in process. The archeologist stopped what she was doing and came over to talk. She was excited that I knew the story of ancient Armenia and that I was a history teacher. She explained what they were working on right there was a 5th century A.D. Christian basilica, or church. She told me how to get to Tigranakert, which was apparently on the other side of a steep rocky hill she pointed out. I had worn my tennis shoes, not thinking hiking was in store, but gamely set off by myself uphill.
The first thing I noticed was it was beastly hot with the sun beating down on a shadeless hill. Like all paths I seem fated to follow, it faded in and out. She had been vague about how long it should take me. I kept thinking I was just about to crest the hill, only to see it keep going up. Finally, after 45 minutes, I knew something was wrong. The top of the hill was still not in sight. And I remembered her saying something about the path going to the right. The one I was following kept going up and up. I was completely soaked in sweat. I didn't want to give up, but decided to turn around. And that is when I saw it! I had hiked right past it and didn't recognize the stones as belonging the the city ruins. But up here, way above it, I could see its outline clearly. I plodded downhill snapping photos along the way. I was stunned that I could possibly have walked right past it. Tunnel vision may help you concentrate on an ill-defined trail, but it sure can make you miss things!
I finally arrived at the bottom of the hill and took pictures of the 17th century castle-like fort. The Tigranakert museum was inside and I quickly paced through it. My clothes hung wet on my body and I felt drained. Strangely, I ran into our guide from the Tatev tour the other day. She was leading two tourists through the museum. They had no interest in tackling the hill to see the ruins - my appearance probably reinforced their decision!
The other main stop of the day was the monastery at Gandzasar. It was about a 40-minute drive there. The breeze flowing in through the window, along with downing my water bottle, began to revive me. The rolling farmland we'd been driving through grew steeper and more wooded. It looked like monastery territory. Part of being a monk is withdrawing from the daily life of the world. So, the more remote and inaccessible the spot, the better to contemplate God. Armenia's monks chose gorgeous sites - usually high atop hills - for their monasteries.
Like at Sanahin in the Debed Canyon, graveyards crowded around the monastery walls. It is as if they sought out ground made holy by the monks to improve their chances of getting to Heaven. The main church was intricately carved on the outside. Figures of angels, lions, crosses and more marched all around the circular central tower. There were only a handful of other visitors, proving to me that Karabakh is off the beaten path. This monastery is the country's number one sight. What I had originally thought was a tour group of students turned out to be actual students at the school attached to the monastery. This gave it a breath of life, I thought, and is a great idea. Why not have students learn at the site of one of their more important centers of learning and culture?
The ride back to Stepanakert was uneventful. The driver dropped me off at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs so I could get my visa for the country. It had been closed when I arrived on Sunday. After that, I had lunch, found the hotel where I'd be staying when I moved down from Shoushi tomorrow, and generally walked around enough to re-aggravate the blister on my right heel. Tomorrow, I promised myself, would be a day of rest. There were only the medieval walls of Shoushi and the Karabakh War museum that I wanted to see. At about the halfway point of my trip, I felt I deserved a restful day!