Friday, May 22, 2009

In Nagorno-Karabakh

Finally made it to Karabakh! In 2006, Azerbaijani foreign minister Mammadyarov (a guy I admire, by the way) invited journalists to visit Karabakh and see for themselves what the place was like. This was a bold move by Mr. Mammadyarov, and I finally took him up on it.

The ride in took over seven hours, including lunch and the occasional stop for pictures. Southeastern Armenia is gorgeous, with snowy peaks everywhere on the horizon. Karabakh itself is greener, with mountains and villages tucked into the valleys, and the Caucasus range in the distance. You can see a video I took here of our ride along the Lachin Corridor.

My hotel was in Shusha (or Shushi if you are Armenian), a quiet town with alleys and side streets lined with crumbling walls and bombed-out buildings, some fifteen years after the war ended. There's a spooky, empty mosque in Shusha that still stands, well-known in the Muslim world. Apparently, there was some discussion regarding a restoration of the mosque, but I'm not sure what became of the idea. Remains of the Shusha Fortress's walls wrap around part of the town, a remarkable and imposing structure that has defined Shusha since the 18th century. The renovated Ghazanchetsots Cathedral was visible from my hotel, and is a short walk on the way to the primary school.

I was in Karabakh primarily to visit Stepanakert, where the next day I got an interview with Georgi Petrosyan, the NK Republic's foreign minister. A charming, funny, and candid fellow. Not your typical foreign minister, thankfully. And when the interview is published in Security Watch, look out! I expect a reaction, to put it mildly.

As of early July, the multi-part article was published here. Click on the tabs for the various segments.

Stepanakert is surprisingly small, maybe 50,000 people. And it feels a lot like a small, mountain city in the American West: Helena, Rapid City, Crested Butte...

Like Armenians in Vanadzor or Yerevan, the residents of Stepanakert love to walk in the evening. They walk in twos or threes or with their families - checking each other out, flirting, catching up on the news. Quiet cafes are arranged along the sidewalks, where you can get a pizza or a beer and chat with friends.

Karabakhi Armenians are definitely not thinking about geopolitics or war or Turkish-Armenian rapprochement. They are just trying to live their lives and plan for the future. They are, however, very aware of their isolation: both geographic and political. And they want to be part of the larger world, to connect to Europe; but mostly they want to connect with ideas and a global culture. My guess is that the mountains play a role here, and Karabakhis would feel this sense of isolation regardless of the political climate or the results of the peace process.

I made some friends in Karabakh, and want very much to return soon (and to return to Baku to see my Azeri friends). That might happen this year, we shall see.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

I H8 Tupolev + Armavia

I always wanted to start a web site called "I H8 Air Canada."  But that's another story.

Flying back from Yerevan to Kiev, after spending a day in Nagorno-Karabakh (and a day traveling in each direction to get to Stepanakert and back).  The Yerevan airport has gotten a much-needed new terminal for arrivals, while the crumbling, futuristic departure terminal remains in all its 25th-century splendor.  The word is that it will eventually be abandoned and left to rot - perfect for my planned coffee-table book on Soviet Utopian architecture.

For some reason, Armavia Airlines herded us all into our Tupolev an hour prior to departure, and there we sat, broiling, without power (hence without air conditioning).  It was at least 38 degrees inside and everyone was suffering, especially me and the guy next to me:  our porthole had no curtains, unlike everyone else's.  And the sun shone off our wing, cooking us.  A Brit sat behind us, telling a mate on his mobile phone, "You would not believe how hot it is on this plane!"  

The road into Karabakh was visually thrilling, although the Armenian road crew insisted on creating roughly 30 kilometers of potholes, filling them in later in the week, perhaps.  So my driver's rims were warped by the time we got to Shusha.  

Will post more about Nagorno-Karabakh in a day or two, but just wanted to express my loathing for broiling Armavia Tupolevs.