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Published: July 31st 2006
One of hundreds of tombstones in the graveyard next to Gandzasar Monastery.
Laying on my cot late at night, unable to sleep, listening to the eerie whaling of a far away dog, I realized it was death I felt around me, emptiness and death. There are thirty thousand ghosts in Nagorno-Karabakh. Everyone has lost sons. In a graveyard I saw a tombstone etched with a picture of a boy holding a machine gun and the dates 1969 -1993. There were hundreds more like it.
From '89 to '93 residents of Stepanakert lived in their cellars while Russian missiles rained down on them from nearby Shushi. After the collapse of the Soviet Union the Russians withdrew and the Armenian army rushed in to support the guerillas. In '93 Shushi fell in a surprise attack by Armenian soldiers who climbed the cliffs below the city at night. A half million Azeri's fled into Azerbaijan.
Technically, Armenia and Azerbaijan are still at war. A shaky truce keeps the road from Armenia to Stepanakert open, but Nagorno-Karabakh is a no-man's land. Lonely Planet
... because of the region's disputed status, foreign embassy staff can't visit the region; you're on your own. That said, if you stay away from the frontline areas and don't trek on your own (due to land mines) it's no less safe than Armenia.
Once again my travel companions are Liesel and Holly, only this time Liesel's children, Solomon (8) and Sabine (5) accompany us. They call me Uncle
Near Goris fruit flavored vodka is sold at roadside stands like this one.
Root Beer. I have no idea why. They cover me like a human blanket when I sit down, and when I walk one clings to each leg.
We drove south from Yerevan, toward Iran, skirting the Turkish border. At Vayots Dzor the road swings east through steep rolling hills reminiscent of Central California. This is earthquake country. I learned that Vayots Dzor means Valley of Woes
. In Goris we stopped to explore caves and taste the famous fruit vodka that's made by locals and sold from roadside stands in Coke bottles.
Beyond Goris we instructed our driver to take us to Tatev, a 9th Century fortress-monastery perched on the edge of a cliff. The builders had to be thinking of postcard royalties. The driver told us the road was bad, but we ignored his warning. And it was bad, very, very bad. It wasn't hard to imagine getting a serious spinal injury ricocheting around the inside of the van.
The border was just a stop sign. No one checked our $25 visas. We didn't even stop. A few miles later the police stopped us and demanded a bribe. We gave them $2.50. They smiled, shook our driver's
Uncle Root Beer
"I'll be back," I said to the frightened villages as I set off in search of the giant robot lion ...
hand and waved us on. Our driver told us that that's how they get paid.
That night at our guesthouse we found Liesel's husband's name in the guest book. He had stayed in the very same house nine years earlier when he was in the Peace Corps!
The next morning our driver tried to talk us out of going to Agdam. There's nothing to see, it's just an old deserted shopping center, he told us. He wanted to take us to picturesque Gandzasar Monastery instead. It will add hours to the trip, it's near the front, and there are landmines everywhere, he continued to argue. But Holly and I insisted. Besides, we were all suffering from church fatigue.
In fact the eastern city limit of Agdam is the frontline that separates Azeri and Armenian forces. The required visa registration cards issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Stepanakert forbid travel to Agdam, but we decided not to get visa registration cards when we heard that it was a scam to rake another $25 out of visitors. Besides, if we were caught without them, the necessary bribe would only be $2.50.
Agdam was a
Uncle Root Beer 2
Me on the drive to Stepanakert.
city of 100,000. In 1994 the Armenians destroyed it. The only structure they left standing was a mosque, which is now used as a stable for pigs and cows, no doubt a political statement. We climbed one of the minarets and looked out over the city. The only signs of life we saw were scavengers pulling scrap metal out of the rubble. In the distance we could see the empty shells of tall apartment buildings. In the foreground we could look down into roofless burned-out buildings. It must have taken a lot of work, a lot of explosives, and a lot of hatred to destroy something this thoroughly.
I hope this is my last dispatch from the Caucasus. I'm scheduled to fly to Petersburg Saturday night, but as yet, I have no visa for Russia. I don't even have a passport. I gave it and $300 to some guy who knows a guy who works at the Russian embassy. They think they can get it for me by Wednesday. Meanwhile my dance card is full. Between finals and packing, there are farewell dinners every night. It's amazing how quickly one makes friends when living abroad. It's like
Holly and Liesel got 3 of the 4 rows of seats in the van to themselves. Whatever row I chose, I always had a blanket of kids on top of me.
they were waiting for me to arrive, just like my apartment and my job.
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