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The politics of trekking: prior to the recent unrest in the Nagorno-Karabakh region in the Lesser Caucasus, writer and filmmaker Tom Allen encountered first-hand the intricate negotiations involved in simply going for a walk.

It wasn't supposed to pour down. There hadn't been a hint of it on the weather forecast. But dark clouds, pregnant with rain, were now rolling down the mountainside. I slung my pack to the ground and rooted through it for my waterproofs. Tenny and Victoria followed suit. 'Funny,' I thought as splotches of rain began to fall. There was a thunderstorm the last time I illegally crossed a border as well.'

Our party--three people and one dog--had departed the Armenian town of Vardenis that morning, striking out across a plateau towards a huddle of peaks. It had been a fine day. As the dirt track wound its way into the mountains, we spotted a horseman herding sheep. Later, we watched two men pitching hay onto an overloaded truck. They were the last people we saw. We climbed higher towards the ridge, hammering trekking poles into the dirt and sweating in silence under the sun. Finally, with lungs heaving, we reached the pass and with it the Armenia-Azerbaijan border.

Except that it wasn't. Not anymore. I checked the display of my handheld GPS. If there had once been a border post here, there was no sign of it now, nor of any other human activity. Indeed, were it not for the thick dashed line cutting across the device's screen, there would have been no sign that we were leaving Armenia.

Below us, an explosion of foliage in the valley floor promised a mountain stream: a reassuring thought as our bottles were empty. We walked long and hard through the deluge, finally camping near a brook at the base of the valley. While the others pitched the tents, I boiled water for noodles over my home-made, alcohol-burning stove. Only Tatev, our dog, had the energy to explore the periphery of the camp.

The morning sun showed our surroundings in a new light, green and glistening. It was noticeably more verdant here than on the Armenian side of the mountains. But then Nagorno-Karabakh has long been known for its fertility. Aerial photography had revealed to me a splatter of green at the southeastern end of the Lesser Caucasus: an uprising of deciduous forest pinched between the plains of Azerbaijan and the hills of central Armenia. Writing in 1822, the traveller, painter, and diplomat Sir Robert Ker Porter observed that, 'The soil is rich, producing considerable quantities of corn, rice and excellent pasturage, both in summer and in winter.' Even the title of Nagorno-Karabakh (colloquially known as Karabakh) translates as 'mountainous black garden' in a fusion of Russian, Turkish and Persian.

The official border crossing for foreigners was further south, on the road between Goris in Armenia and the Karabakh capital of Stepanakert. We had taken a different route into the region, wanting to explore the buffer zone that was the cause of so much conflict. Being in possession of an Armenian passport, and speaking the local language, I hoped to persuade any soldiers to allow my group to continue. So far, it seemed that this beautiful land was altogether empty of human life.

The village of Tsar looked as though it had been demolished. Wandering among the half-collapsed houses, we assumed it had been abandoned until we spotted freshly-painted beehives. A dog barked and a beekeeper wheeled round to see who had come to disturb his peace. Five minutes later and we were sat around a kitchen table, chatting to the beekeeper over bread and honey and glasses of tea. A dozen or so Armenian families, he told us, had settled in Tsar after the fighting. They had emigrated from Armenia to start afresh in the land their countrymen had died for. Was he occupying the house of an Azeri family living in a refugee camp, I wondered. Was he claiming this patch of Artsakh (the province's historical Armenian name) in honour of the national narrative? Or was he simply making honey? Perhaps it was a little of all of these things.

Armenians and Azeris had spent decades living together. They had toasted each other at interethnic weddings, spoken both languages and shared the black garden of their birth as fellow citizens of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. And then differences that had never mattered led to Tsar--and other settlements like it--being reduced to rubble. During the most recent census, only six Karabakh residents were registered as ethnic Azeris. In fact, the two nations are officially still at war. Zoom in on Google Earth, just east of the city of Agdam, and you will see trenches in which conscripts point automatic weapons at each other.

It wasn't until our third day in Karabakh that we came across the military. Kelbajar had been an Azerbaijani provincial capital and I imagined how majestic this city must have been, perched on basalt cliffs above the river. In 1993 it was captured by the Armenian army, who had crossed the mountains from Vardenis to secure a strategic corridor of land between Armenia and Karabakh. The Armenians' success was all too clear: Karvachar, under its new Armenian name, was now a sloping terrace of ruins.

All the soldier cared about was my dokumenti. Vodka on his breath, he leaned against the door of his Lada and dangled my passport by its cover to dislodge any 'persuasions' I might have enclosed between its pages. Satisfied that my identity papers were genuine and empty of cash, he drawled an apology and invited us to get drunk with him. We declined, citing our need to stock up on food from Karvachar's single grocery. As we browsed the selection of salty cheeses, dried salami and instant coffee sachets a short while later, our soldier reappeared and handed over a bottle of brandy. 'A gift from Karabakh,' he slurred, before saluting and being manhandled into the Lada by his fellow soldiers.

That evening, we camped in a cluster of trees by a river. Tenny and Victoria slept in the tents and I took the hammock. Tatev kept watch from an awning. The next morning we filtered water for our drinking bottles, crossed the river and ventured into the forested mountains. I was excited to stumble across fresh bear droppings near the ridge but despite our efforts to spot the creature, the trail went cold. We contented ourselves with the sounds of the woodland: the clink of a distant cowbell, a woodpecker's echoing thrum and the hum of bees in their hives.

From time to time we spotted splashes of blue paint on tree trunks. These, I assumed, were signs of a little-known walking route called the Janapar Trail. Created in 2007, the route linked several heritage sites in the heart of Karabakh. An extension of the trail to Vardenis in Armenia had also been published. Though largely unmarked on the ground, I had taken inspiration from the Janapar Trail when planning our journey.

In the village of Vaghuhas we met its headman. He lived with his extended family in a typical Soviet-era house with a tin roof, plentiful vines and a big garden. Its outhouse lay at the end of a garden full of tomatoes, gherkins and peppers. A request for water turned to tea, then wine, then dinner. Soon we were agreeing that it would be sensible to stay the night. We rolled out our sleeping mats amongst sawdust and half-built beehives.

Over breakfast we questioned the headman about our proposed route as we were concerned by reports of unexploded munitions. The HALO Trust, which has overseen mine clearance operations since 2000, had cautiously indicated that our way should be safe. The headman agreed. He sometimes used the same route to travel to Gandzasar, a monastery in the next valley.

The hike took us through hills carpeted with beech and hazel. The spent artillery shells, bullet casings and pockmarked helmets seemed incongruous. Once again, people were noticeably absent until a boy on a horse trotted out of the trees ahead. He confirmed that we were on the correct path, then disappeared behind us.

Gandzasar felt different. A new coach park had been built, the mountain road was freshly paved and tourists from across the Armenian diaspora thronged the mountaintop cloisters. Gandzasar was our entry point to what had been the Armenian-majority sector of the region even before the conflict. From here on, the land would be more populated.

As we drew close to Stepanakert, I wondered what would become of this territory. September marks the 25th anniversary of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic's declaration of independence. It will be celebrated in Stepanakert as a moment of liberation. Flags will fly, emblazoned with the slogan, 'There is no alternative to independence'. But for half a million Azeri refugees, many of whom lived peacefully here, the festivities will only serve to rub salt into a festering national wound.

Tom Allen is an Armenia-based adventure traveller, writer and filmmaker. He is creating the first long-distance trekking route in his adopted homeland, a project that has earned him the 2016 Land Rover and Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) Bursary.


The Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast became a part of Soviet Azerbaijan in 1923, when a civil servant named Josef Stalin was put in charge of administrating the Caucasus and its stew of nationalities. The region's geo-political situation remained unchanged until 1988, when the enclave's Armenian majority leadership--sensing the imminent fall of the USSR--voted for unification with Armenia. A heavy-handed response from Moscow escalated into a war between separatists and the Soviet military.

After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the new independent republics of Armenia and Azerbaijan continued the war in Nagorno-Karabakh, which had by now proclaimed itself an independent entity. Armenian and Karabakhi forces won a de facto victory in 1994. The ethnic Azeri population was expelled and an occupying buffer zone was created around the region.

Beyond the conflict zone, both nationalities have driven each other from their territories, creating hundreds of thousands of refugees and ending interethnic communion.

This past April saw what has been called the worst ceasefire violations since 1994 at the line of contact, prompting renewed international calls for a resolution to the conflict. Both sides deny responsibility for sparking these escalations and at the time of Geographical going to print, a shaky ceasefire has broadly been holding.

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Title Annotation:EXPLORE; Armenia and Azerbaijan
Comment:The politics of trekking: prior to the recent unrest in the Nagorno-Karabakh region in the Lesser Caucasus, writer and filmmaker Tom Allen encountered first-hand the intricate negotiations involved in simply going for a walk.(EXPLORE)(Armenia and Azerbaijan)
Author:Allen, Tom
Article Type:Travel narrative
Geographic Code:9AZER
Date:Jun 1, 2016
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