The Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh isn’t on your world map. It’s not on Google Maps. It doesn’t actually exist. Karabakh falls into the confused league of self-declared yet internationally unrecognised independent states, along with others: Abkhazia, Transnistria, Somaliland, and the slightly better-known South Ossetia. Until recently, Kosovo was such an entity.
Today I ride to Karabakh. I’ve been cooped up in Yerevan writing my book for several weeks now, so I’m going to spend a week or so cycling with minimal belongings and a bivvy-bag, hoping that the rain subsides – it’s been a very wet April. And on the 9th of May there will be held a celebration of the Karabakh city of Shushi’s independence, which might turn out to be a pleasant coincidence of events.
Karabakh has always lay temptingly but threateningly over the horizon from Armenia, to where I’ve returned time and time again in recent years. I remember first arriving in the region and receiving an email from a fellow cyclist on a detour through this enclave. Christian had ridden through Tibet and crossed the Himalayas and Central Asia before arriving in the Caucasus.
The verdict? Little old Karabakh was the most harsh, the most gruellingly mountainous place he’d ever cycled.
And it’s not just the geography that’s formidable. The recent history of this isolated clutch of fierce valleys and mountains in the south Caucasus comes in at least three flavours of bitterness, depending on whether you ask an Armenian, an Azeri, or anyone else:
- The region of Karabakh has always been populated by Armenians – always, for centuries – and they fought valiantly against the abominable attempted genocide of the Azeris, to whom the Soviet Union had assigned control of the region, winning a noble victory of independence in 1994.
- The region of Karabakh has always been populated by Azeris – always, for centuries – and in 1991 they were massacred or fled the region during the abominable attempted genocide of the Armenians, who had ethnically cleansed Armenia itself and Karabakh by force, and who now had illegally occupied the area since 1994.
- The Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh doesn’t exist. It’s Azerbaijan.
This is a somewhat simplified version of the local sentiment, but you get the gist. I’ve never been able to get a straight explanation of the fraught occurrences that led to this immovable stalemate between two mutually-awful ethnic stereotypes. The story is so hideously convoluted; opinions so charged with emotive bias, indoctrination, irrational fear of ‘the other’ and the skewed grasp of reality that comes with permanent geographical isolation.
It can’t fail to be – the loss of each Azeri and each Armenian wiped from the face of the Earth by this stunningly-recent war is felt as keenly today as the day it occurred. Goodness knows how a peaceful resolution will ever be achieved, given the freshly-built mountain of emotion, misunderstanding, propaganda and ideology that lies in its path. Those decades of Azeri and Armenian neighbours living side by side might as well never have existed.
‘Understanding Karabakh’, then, would seem to be a futile endeavour for one lay outsider to undertake. That’s not the goal, though. I have no doubt that this trip will raise more questions than it will provide answers. That’s fine, and in truth it’s always the way. Too many factual voids are filled in with hearsay and speculation, to the detriment of meaningful, useful knowledge. Best let the voids lie empty.
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