Outside Dubai Aiport Terminal 2 just after 12am for my flight to Yerevan, Armenia.
After passing through immigration and security, I went to the Marhaba Lounge with entry courtesy of my HSBC credit card.
It was my first time visiting the Terminal 2 lounge and was a nice place to relax before the flight and to get a drink and bite to eat.
My trip to Armenia was a simple direct flight on Flydubai (FZ) to Yerevan's Zvartnots International Airport (EVN). I had purchased the ticket for $205 during one of the Flydubai sales six months prior. I had allowed myself four days to see some of the country but didn't have a plan as such when I booked the ticket. I later found out my friend Ian was planning to fly to Yerevan a few months before me, and his inspiration and advice has been very much appreciated when planning and organising my own trip.
And after a short bus ride from the terminal we boarded on time for the 2:30am departure.
And climbing out over Dubai just after take-off. The plane was about two-thirds full, but I was luckly to have a row to myself and lied out over the three seats to catch a few hours sleep on the red-eye flight.
Immigrations was quick and easy with my UK passport (no visa required) and after getting some Armenian drams (AMD) from the currency change machine, I met up with the car rental company representative, Hayk, to sort out my ride for the next few days, a Lada Niva 4WD.
I had organised the Lada through Caravan Car Rental, and the three day rental cost $125. Hayk gave me a thorough run down of the car features, including the location of the spare tyre, how to engage the low range gears, and how to lock the centre differential.
It had been a while since I had driven a manual/stick shift, but after a slow but steady start I drove through the early morning Yerevan traffic just after 7am.
Before heading out of the city, I topped off the tank at a local gas station.
My plan for today was to drive east over the Armenian Highland, cross the border into Nagorno-Karabakh (or often referred to simply as Karabakh), and then on to the Capital of Stepanakert. Nagorno-Karabakh is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, but is governed by the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, a de facto independent but unrecognized state. Xankəndi, the Azerbaijan name for Stepanakert, hence appears on Google Maps instead.
Heading south-east on the drive out of Yerevan with the 5,137 m (16,854 ft) tall Mount Ararat on the right. Mount Ararat is the traditional resting place of Noah's Ark according to the Book of Genesis. It is the main national symbol of Armenia and is featured prominently in Armenian literature and art and along with Noah's Ark, is depicted on the Coat of Arms of Armenia. Although situated over the border in Turkey, people of Armenian ethnicity used to form a majority of the population in eastern Turkey during the Ottoman era, but were exterminated and deported during the Armenian genocide in 1915 and following years.
After driving for a while, I then started to head east into the mountains.
As the road winded its way higher and higher, the temperature started to drop and the landscape started to slowly change from parched browns to white snow covered hills and mountains.
It had been quite a while since I had seen snow, and the white blanketed landscape was simply breath taking.
A small Armenian village in the valley.
The Lada was a good car for the drive and was performing very well!
35 kilometre's to Goris and 128 kilometres to Stepanakert, my final destination for today.
And overlooking Goris with the snow-capped mountains in the background.
At a monument in the Lachin corridor, a mountain pass that is officially part of Azerbaijan but now controlled by the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. It is the shortest route between Armenia and the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. During the days of the USSR, Nagorno-Karabakh was an autonomous oblast within the borders of the Azerbaijan SSR. As the Soviet Union disintegrated however, ethnic infighting soon broke out between Armenians and Azerbaijanis living in Karabakh, resulting in the Nagorno-Karabakh War, and consequent Armenian control over the region.
After driving on for a bit, I came to the official border post to register my arrival in the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. Nagorno means mountainous in Russian, Kara means black in Turkish and bakh means garden in Persian. To confuse things further, the locals refer to their region as Artsakh. After scanning my passport the border guard gave me the address of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Stepanakert where I had to register my arrival and apply for my NKR visa.
After another ~55 kilometres of driving, Stepanakert, the Capital of Nagorno-Karabakh, finally came into view. The Nagorno-Karabakh Republic declared independence on the 2nd of September 1991, and is recognised by three non-UN members: Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Transnistria. Although officially recognised by the UN as part of Azerbaijan, Azerbaijan have not exercised political authority over the region since 1988.
A T-72 tank that stands as a memorial commemorating the Capture of Shusha. The town of Shusha sits on a mountain top overlooking Stepanakert, and its strategic location was utilised by Azeri forces to shell and fire rockets down into the Capital during the Nagorno-Karabakh War. In order to relieve the continual bombardment, the town was captured after a fierce battle on May 8th & 9th, 1992.
A pair of roses on the T-72 tank. Both Armenia and Azerbaijan are still technically at war and the Azerbaijani government regularly threatens to retake Nagorno-Karabakh by military force. Azerbaijan has claimed that it's defense budget is larger than the entire government budget of Armenia. The supposed strength of Azerbaijan's defense force is tempered however by the strategic military alliance between Armenia and Russia
Stopping to refuel on the outskirts of Stepanakert. The Lada had used 22 litres for the 330 kilometre's from Yerevan, or 6.7 L/ 100k's / 35 mpg which was quite good considering the hilly terrain and pot-holed Armenian roads.
I then drove into Stepanakert and checked into my hotel for the next two nights, the Vallex Garden Hotel. It was about 2:30pm, so the drive from Yerevan had taken me ~7.5 hours including photo stops, although I hadn't had lunch and had just snacked on some mixed nuts on the way.
And my own personal courtyard. It was only $55 a night including breakfast so quite reasonable.
I then went for a walk through the centre of Stepanakert.
And had afternoon tea at a café, with a piece of cake and a cappuccino for 1900 dram ($3.80).
The street signs were in Armenian, Russian and English.
A Nagorno-Karabakh Republic government building.
I then went to a local shop for some water and snacks before heading back to the hotel for a bit of a rest as I was a bit weary from the red-eye flight and long drive.
After a good rest, I headed out to dinner in the evening to a restaurant recommended in my guidebook, Russia.
For the starter I couldn't resist having some tasty Borscht.
And Chicken Kiev for the main. The total price was 3,300 drams, or $6.60 so very reasonable.
I then headed back to the Vallex Garden Hotel to crash after a long but exciting day!
After a good sleep, I went for a run around Stepanakert. It was either uphill or downhill with very little flat so it was a definitely a good workout. I then had breakfast at the hotel to fuel up for the day.
After breakfast, I then went for a walk into town.
First stop was at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to register and pay for my visa which was 3,000 drams (~$6). The visa officer gave me the option to place the visa on a separate piece of paper (to avoid issues trying to enter Azerbaijan) but I was OK to place it my passport. Azerbaijan condemns any visit by foreign citizens to Nagorno-Karabakh and hence maintains a list of people who are personae non gratae and are permanently banned from entering Azerbaijan.
I then walked down to the very colourful shuka, or local market.
It was good to just wander about and take in the smells, colour and sights while the locals did their shopping.
Fruits & vegetables.
Dried fruit and spices.
երեք. I then walked up the hill back into the centre of town.
A statue of Stepan Shaumian, known as the "Caucasian Lenin", and for which Stepanakert is named after.
The Nagorno-Karabakh Republic Presidential Palace. Nagorno-Karabakh has strong ties to Armenia. In 2015, the President of Armenia, Serzh Sargsyan, himself born in Stepanakert, stated that he considered Nagorno-Karabakh "an inseparable part of Armenia".
Looking out to the west of Stepanakert.
After the big breakfast, I just had coffee and a donut for lunch at a café called Petachok. Only 660 dram (~$1.35) for both.
After lunch I jumped in the Lada again for a drive north. First stop was the "We Are Our Mountains" monument. The sculpture was constructed in 1967 out of volcanic rock and depicts an old man and woman. It is also known as "tatik-papik" ("Grandma and Grandpa") and is regarded as a symbol of the Armenian heritage of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Another T-72 tank memorial on the outskirts of Stepanakert. The tank was knocked out of commission while attacking Azeri positions in Askeran District during the Nagorno-Karabakh War. As well as Nagorno-Karabakh, NKR forces also hold seven surrounding Azeri districts and I saw an increasing amount of military personnel and vehicles as I approached the buffer zone with Azerbaijan. Despite there being a cease-fire, there are regular skirmishes between Armenian and Azeri forces in the buffer zone between Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan. In April 2016, three weeks after my trip to Karabakh, 89 Armenian soldiers and 31-93 Azerbaijani soldiers were killed during the most deadly clashes on the line of contact since the 1994 cease fire.
My main purpose of my drive north however was to see the ghost city of Ağdam. Ağdam is off-limits for sight-seeing with all photography strictly prohibited.
Ağdam used to have a population of ~40,000 with the majority (~97%) of the people being Azeri. During the Nagorno-Karabakh War Azerbaijani forces used Ağdam as a base for attacks on Karabakh, launching BM-21 Grad missiles and bombing raids against civilians.
After the city fell during the Battle of Ağdam in 1993, almost its entire population fled eastward, leaving it as a ghost town. If you look closely you can see bullet holes in the building facade from the battle over the city. In 2008, the Lonely Planet's guidebook dubbed the city as the "Caucasian Hiroshima".
One of the few remaining intact buildings is Ağdam Mosque.
The mosque was built from 1868 to 1870.
Over 200 bodies were placed in the mosque on 29th February, 1992 after the the nearby city of Khojali was captured by NKR forces.
In 2010, a photographer showed photo's of cattle and pigs, who freely roam the city ruins, inside the mosque. After complaints, the Mosque was cleaned up and barriers placed to stop the cattle taking shelter within.
Brick domes and grass on the roof of the Mosque.
An old, crumbling wall with words in Azeri Cyrillic leftover from the days of the USSR that says "The great unbreakable unity of the party and the nation.".
After my successful efforts to avoid detection (and photo deletion) with my clandestine visit to Ağdam, I then drove back into Stepanakert. On the way I stopped at the new Stepanakert Airport. After it was announced that the airport would open in 2011, Azerbaijan warned that flights from Yerevan to Stepanakert were not authorized and may be shot down. The Turkish government also warned that it would close its air space to Armenia if the airport opening went ahead. Hence the airport is yet to receive its first flight.
Policewomen in Stepanakert.
For dinner I went to a local Pizza joint, 'Tashir Pizza'.
And had a delicious Americano pizza and coke for 3300 dram ($6.60). Quite a sizable pizza so I took a few pieces in a doggy bag back to my hotel room refridgerator to save for the lunch on the long drive tomorrow back to Yerevan.
I had a long drive today, so instead of waiting for the hotel restaurant to open at 8am, I had some biscuits and yoghurt I had bought the previous day instead at 7am in my hotel room.
I then loaded up the Lada to begin the drive back to Yerevan in Armenia.
For the drive back I opted for a different route, heading north and visiting the 13th century Gandzasar monastery, then heading west through Kalbajar, over the Sotk Pass into Armenia, passing Lake Sevan before heading south-west for the final journey to Yerevan.
There was some heavy fog and wet road as I left Stepanakert.
A road-side sign for the Halo Trust for the clearance of cluster munitions left over from the Nagorno-Karabakh War. In the years following the war, the civilian population of Nagorno-Karabakh has suffered the world's highest per capita casualty rate from landmines and unexploded ordinance.
I took a detour to drive up to the mountain top Gandzasar monastery. First consecrated in 1240, the monastery holds relics believed to belong to St. John the Baptist and is supposedly the most important structure in Karabakh.
Back on the road again and the fog got a little worse before it got better.
Stopping to admire the view of the Tartar. Tartar is the left tributary of Kura, the largest river in Caucasus.
Stopping to refuel in a small town before heading further west to Kelbajar, the wild, mountainous region between Armenia and northern Karabakh.
On a cable bridge over the Tartar. Most of the population in Kelbajar before the Nagorno-Karabakh War were Muslim Kurdish farmers and herders.
Because the area is occupied Azerbaijan (i.e. not Nagorno-Karabakh) the region falls under a restricted military zone. I had read that a difficult-to-get travel permit was required, but luckily I was not stopped or questioned.
Although there is ongoing work to surface the road, the majority of the road in the area is unpaved. It was no problem at all though for my trusty Lada 4WD.
Behind a couple of other 4WD's on the drive west.
Climbing up the rough road of the Sotk Pass.
And back on sealed road again after crossing over back into Armenia.
Outside Surp Astvatsatsin church in the Armenian town of Vardenis. On the drive out of Vardenis, a silver sedan flashed its lights behind me. I thought he wanted to overtake me, so I slowed down and pulled to the right. He flashed his lights again so figured he wanted me to stop for some reason. After stopping on the side of the road, four guys dressed in blue jeans and black leather jackets got out and approached my car. I had been driving pretty cautiously but figured I might have broken some road rules. I opened my door and one of the guys flashed his police badge and asked where I was from. They only spoke basic English but I managed to tell them I was just a tourist coming from Karabakh and heading to Yerevan, and gave them my passport and car license when they asked. They were relatively friendly so I decided that being fully compliant and jovial was the best strategy.
They then said I had to come with them to the Police Station, and then one of the guys hopped in the front passenger seat of the Lada while we drove back into town with the other three guys following behind in the silver sedan. After about 500 metres down the road the policeman's phone rang and he told me to pull over. After talking on the phone for abit he said he wanted to look at my photo's so I handed him my camera and showed him how to click through them all. They loved the Kelbajar photo's, 'very beautiful!', although there was a military outpost in one of the shots so I had to delete it. They giggled when they saw the 'Policewomen' photo I took in Stepanakert but luckily I could keep it. I was a bit nervous with the Agdam photo's, but luckily they didn't mention anything about them though. They now said I was ok to leave, shook hands and wished me well on my drive to Yerevan!
Heading west again on to Yerevan.
Stopping to take in the view of Lake Sevan, the largest body of water in the Caucasus.
Just outside the town of Sevan, before driving on to the highway for the final 60 kilometres to Yerevan.
And back in the centre of Yerevan at about 3:30pm, where I met Hayk again to hand back over the keys to the Lada. Apart from a bit of extra mud, luckily it had no dings, scratches or dents from when I picked it up 2 days ago.
I then walked across the road to the Republica Hotel for my one night stay in Yerevan. $95 a night including breakfast and complimentary welcome hot chocolate.
My room with Queen sized bed on the fifth floor.
And complimentary meringues. The hotel was right in the middle of Yerevan, so after freshening up, I went out to explore some of the city.
Republic Square with the National Gallery and History Museum building.
For dinner I headed to Anoush, rated one of the best restaurants in Yerevan. For the starter I had stuffed Qufta, made with ground beef, bulgur, onion & spices.
And for the main I had the Nazani chicken stuffed with pork basturma with sundried barberry, bulgur, herbs, onions and cooked with red wine.
And for dessert, the Kilikia, made with green pistachio, honey, mascarpone and cream. A great taste of Armenian cuisine and the total bill was $17 so excellent value too.
After an early morning run around Yerevan, I headed down stairs to have breakfast.
I then headed out for a walk to see some more of the city.
First stop was the Yerevan Vernissage (French for an art exhibition preview).
The markets are open in the weekends, and had different types of traditional Armenian art works. Some of the paintings were kitschy, others were quite conventional, and some were quite beautiful.
As well as artwork there were shoes, household goods and as well as souvenirs.
I stopped at this stall to buy a few Armenian souvenirs to take home.
I then walked through the city and headed toward Tsitsernakaberd.
The Ararat Brandy factory.
After a 4 kilometre uphill walk I finally made it to Tsitsernakaberd, the Armenian Genocide memorial complex. The 44-meter stele symbolises the national rebirth of Armenians.
And inside the Armenian Genocide Museum-Institute. The museum had recently been refurbished, and gave a graphic, confronting and sober presentation of the systematic efforts of the Ottoman government to deport and exterminate the Armenian population from Anatolia.
The various atrocities included death marches, mass burnings, sexual slavery, rape, beheadings, mass drownings, morphine overdose and toxic gas. The genocide of the Armenian community in Turkey was the 20th century's first example of 'ethnic cleansing' on a massive scale, and its success in virtually eliminating the Armenian population in Anatolia was a key inspiration for Hitler.
Armenians forming up to spell 'America, we thank you'. American Near East Relief was founded in 1915 by an act of US Congress in response to reports of governmental atrocities against Ottoman Armenians, and went on to organise the world's first large-scale, modern humanitarian project for the Armenian Genocide.
The eternal flame dedicated to the 1.5 million Armenians killed during the genocide. The twelve slabs that surround the flame represent the twelve lost provinces in present-day Turkey.
The Karen Demirchyan Sports and Concerts Complex, a very interesting example of 1980's Soviet architecture.
I then walked to Barekamutyun metro station to catch a ride back into the centre of Yerevan.
There were police and no photography signs everywhere but I tried to be discrete.
I stayed on for four stops until Zoravar Andranik Station back in the city.
Saint Gregory the Illuminator Cathedral. Completed in 2001, it is the world's largest Armenian Cathedral.
It was about 1pm so I headed to Black Angus Yerevan for lunch.
A cappuccino and 'Black Angus' biscuit to re-caffeinate.
And a tasty bacon cheese burger to fill the stomach. It had been a while since I had real bacon in a burger (in Dubai 'bacon' is usually made with beef, turkey or chicken meat) and it was very tasty!
I then caught a taxi for the 11 kilometre ride back to Zvartnots International Airport (EVN). The fixed price of the ride to the airport was 2000 dram (~$4) so my cheapest taxi ride to any airport!
And outside departures ready to check-in.
I still had a few drams left so bought some dried plum and peach Armenian chocolates to take home.
The Flydubai 737-8 with Mount Ararat in the distance.
And an amazing view again of Mount Ararat on our port side as we climb out after take-off.
And flying over Yerevan as we head east.
And the Armenian Highland below which I had just driven through three days previously and Lake Sevan in the distance.
My pre-ordered dinner of Chicken Kiev and an assortment of snacks including, hummus, olives, chocolate and bread sticks.
Starting our descent over Iran.
Iran's Kish Island in the Arabian Gulf.
And back at Dubai International Airport after an amazing and fascinating trip to Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh!