40 Hours In The Disputed Territory of Nagorno Karabakh with Kids

Nagorno KarabakhDuring our month long trip during the summer of 2018, we visited six UN member states. For all of us, it was the first time checking out Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia.

We also spent 6.5 hours in Transnistria, a country that doesn’t really exist!

The final country we’d be visiting during our trip was Armenia. While there, we decided to use a couple of days to visit the autonomous region of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Nagorno-Karabakh is a disputed territory. It’s officially part of Azerbaijan, however Armenia considers it an autonomous ethnic Armenian state. (I first heard of the area thanks to  Anthony Bourdain.)

Due to the political issues surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh and tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan, we had to be strategic while planning our itinerary. If we wanted to visit Azerbaijan, we’d have to do so prior to visiting Nagorno-Karabakh. If we did it in the reverse order, we could face being turned away from entering Azerbaijan or even worse, getting arrested.

Here are some of the things we did while spending around 40 hours in Nagorno-Karabakh.

First of all, getting to the region was a pain. We had to hire a guide and driver to take us there and show us around. The ride from Yerevan, Armenia to Stepanakert was a very long one but we did make stops along the way.

We arrived late at night, extremely exhausted. After having breakfast at our hotel we headed off to check out some sites.

Our first stop was the Tigranakert of Artsakh. Before we got very far, we had to stop so Theo could take a picture with a kitten that walked over to our car. Theo loves cats so he was very excited to see this little kitty wandering around.
We then headed into the 18th century Shabulag Castle to check out the small museum which had various items from the excavations being done at Tigranakert. (Tigranakert is an ancient ruined Armenian town where excavations are still going on.)

The ancient ruins were interesting to see in person, not so much in photos.We then made a quick stop at an old walled section, it may’ve been a part of Shabulag Castle, I don’t recall. However, it did make for a fun photo-op.Here’s a photo of Stepanakert Airport. It was supposed to open in 2011 but due to political issues, it’s still yet to have any civilian flights take off.

Nikol Duman House MuseumNikol Duman was an Armenian freedom fighter from Nagorno Karabah. His home, located in the village of Tsaghkashat was turned into a museum about his life. While the home has been restored, I debated whether or not it was safe to go upstairs!

It was interesting to see old photos, flags, clothing and weapons. The home also gave us a look at how they lived with rooms like the kitchen and bedroom setup with the appropriate furnishings. Lucas, 6 at the time liked seeing the weapons and running around the garden. Kim mainly stayed outside with Theo who was almost 2, checking out the different fruits growing from the trees and chatting with the woman who worked at the museum.

We then drove to the village of Vank to check out a monastery. On the way, I spotted a few things of interest. If I didn’t ask our guide to stop, I’m pretty sure we would’ve missed them.This License Plate Wall was fun to see and an interesting public art installation. From what I recall reading, the license plates were intended to be used for cars which were never sold due to war.Close by (maybe across the street) was the bizarre boat-shaped hotel,  Hotel Eclectic. I’d say it lived up to its name but I would’ve liked to have had time to get a better look and maybe even gone inside.The primary reason to visit Vank, is to check out Gandzasar Monastery.

After parking, we didn’t get very far for a while. The guy above, supposedly a local celebrity, entertained us for some time. Yes, he wanted a tip…

He sang (not very well) patriotic songs, marched around and did some acrobatics with his horse. He then scooped up Lucas for a turn.Lucas loved the experience and we couldn’t stop laughing the whole time!I then got to take a lap around riding the horse. My attempt at singing along by repeating the words didn’t go very well.We then spent time exploring the impressive Gandzasar Monastery.While there, we got the bonus of seeing some dance performances. Some were traditional dances, others not so much. (Not exactly my thing but Kim and the kids seemed to enjoy it.)For lunch, we stopped for a traditional meal. The restaurant didn’t look like much but it did have this kid-friendly sculpture for Lucas to play on.The lunch was a big bowl of grilled meat (I think it was chicken), Zhinglyanov hatz- a paper thin flat bread stuffed with herbs and some other items, primarily veggies.Our last stop of the day was at the incredible We Are Our Mountains monument, also known as Grandma and Grandpa.

The monument is a symbol of the country. The lighting was awful at the time of day we visited so we made it a point to head back first thing in the morning the following day.When we got back to Stepanakert, we had to go to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to get our visas. (More on that another time.)

Around Stepanakert, there were banners (like the one above) related to independence. There’s also a strip with restaurants, a plaza with government buildings (which get lit up at night) and a park with colorful fountains. It was definitely an interesting area to wander around for a couple of hours.We started off our second day with a visit to We Are Our Mountains Monument (Take 2)

The lighting was much better in the morning so we spent a good amount of time here wandering around and taking some photos.I was happy to get a good family shot with the monument in the background.I also managed to become part of it for this shot!

We then took a drive to Hunot Canyon State Nature Reserve where we were supposed to hike down to see waterfalls, caves and mossy umbrellas. As we started our hike down the muddy and slippery path, we felt this wasn’t a smart activity to do with little kids (and our lack of hiking shoes). At first, Kim suggested that I continue with our guide while she waited by our car with the kids. I debated that idea for a moment before deciding to pass and just move on…
Our next stop was close by and fun for all of us to see. We spent a bit of time at the Shushi Tank Memorial. 

The kids loved seeing the tank up close, I can definitely say that I did as well.After checking out the tank memorial, we had one more sight to checkout in Shushi.I’d say that Kim and I were getting pretty churched-out after seeing so many during this trip but we had one left to see in Nagorno Karabakh.

Close to the tank memorial is Ghazanchetsots Church. We heard a few details, took a quick look and headed out.

After lunch, we headed back on the long ride to Yerevan. Along the way, we broke up the ride with a visit to Armenia’s Stonehenge, Zorats Karer.

Final Thoughts:

I’m glad that we decided to explore Nagorno-Karabakh. If we didn’t visit, I would’ve wondered what we had missed. The disputed territory is an interesting place to see although I wouldn’t consider it a must-visit.

Since we hired a driver and guide, we didn’t do a ton of research into the area. I’d say that this was my mistake. I would’ve liked to have had more time to check out Vank and maybe even a bit more of the capital, Stepanakert.

If you’re interested in visit Nagorno-Karabakh and need a suggestion for a driver and guide, you can contact Barev Armenia.  

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