In Vank village in Artsakh they built a wall with all their obsolete number plates after the war was won, and independence declared. The ‘A’ on the old tags stood for Azerbaijan. The Republic of Nagorno Karabakh issued its own car tags, and so the enterprising people of this village in northern Artsakh came up with their own use for the discarded plates.
Vank is the kind of village that prides itself on being wacky. The entrance is guarded by two sets of stone lions, male and female, and there is also an art installation celebrating the not-so-recent evolution of the motor car. The last car in line is a Rolls-Royce. I wonder if they will add a Prius and a Tesla one day?
We passed through the village on the way to Gandasar monastery, and then the stone lion. The monastery has a spectacular view of the surrounding mountains and there is a manuscript library there. The gospels and bibles weren’t quite as old as the 10th century Book of Kells in Ireland, but there are hundreds of them, dating from the 11th century to the 16th. Beautiful blues and golds. Photos aren’t allowed. They sold single postcards at the door. I bought one of each, and wondered why they didn’t have the nous to make up multi-packs.
At the top of the church is a stone carving depicting the church’s builder holding up the structure through brute force. He couldn’t have known how arduous his centuries-old task would be. The church is surrounded by a fortress wall and has been attacked many times by marauding Russians, Persians and Turks.
In the valley below Treasure mountain, a natural stone configuration that looks like a lion’s head has been given a little human help. Opposite this cheesiness is a delightfully camp restaurant which apparently serves dreadful food. It and the Restaurant opposite, styled as a ship, were both empty at 2pm. I guess the word is out.
The monastery at Dadivank could have done with the resolve of Gandasar’s plucky builder. It was first constructed between the 8th and 13th centuries–it probably took this long because the workers constantly had to stop to admire the view. During the Soviet years, when Azerbaijan had dominion over Artsakh, the church was used to store grain and animal feed. At the time the independent Republic was declared in 1992, a Kurdish family were found to be living in the church, cooking their food on an open fire in front of the altar. Since 1999, the church has been undergoing renovation and ancient frescos have been found and restored. There is a spotlessly clean toilet at a cafe opposite. Avail yourself of it. The only other facilities we could find for miles comprised a squatty potty for which the owner wished to charge 100 dram-20 cents- a go. Toilets, shops, cafes and road signs are all scarce outside the cities in Artsakh.
The bishop at the monastery in Shushi faced a very particular problem: there was no one to hear his confession. He must have confided this to his builder, because the construction engineers fashioned an echo chamber in the basement of the limestone church. Stand just under a hole in the roof, and your own breath and words come back to you. The bishop could hear his own confession. History does not record if his acts of penitence were punishing, or pretty easy to bear.
By this time we were at risk of monastery fatigue. Time to repair to the market at Shushi for some fresh made zhingalov hats and the chance to admire the pickling skills of local women. Zhingalov hats are flatbreads stuffed with a variety of herbs, fresh-picked in local fields. The bread is skillet-baked in front of you, and handed over while still warm. As you can see below, it is tiring and labor intensive work.
Artsakh’s capital city Stepanakert (named for the communist with the defensive body language below) has a great little museum that manages to race through a couple of thousand years of history, politics, and culture while celebrating crafts and geology. A man outside sells handcrafted boxes with secrets compartments. These are made from local trees.
Stepanakert, easy, friendly, and airy, is like the rest of Artsakh, spotlessly clean. There is not a cigarette butt, single use plastic bag, or discarded ice-cream wrapper in sight. I’d love to know how they have engendered this litter-free consciousness– Armenia could benefit.
While Artsakh is allegedly an independent Republic, Armenia pays 80% of government bills. Of course, many houses and buildings had to be rebuilt after the war in the 90s, with the government footing much of the expense. The war was a high price to pay for coherent design and clean lines, but there is no doubt that Artsakh’s cities today look much better than those in Armenia. Cars in Artsakh too are imports, newish, clean and super-shiny. It makes no sense, but the place looks polished, even prosperous. I couldn’t help but think of Armenia as the parent of a young adult who scrimps to top up study fees while the prodigal parties. We’ve all done it.
An obligatory visit to grandma and grandma, ( the Tatik Papik statue) and then off to visit the oldest tree in the former Soviet Union. This plane tree is 2038 years old. It has been lucky to make it this far, because people will persist in burning candles inside the hollowed husk of its main trunk.
I resisted an urge to carve LB loves AA on the trunk, adding to the damaging but romantic social history of the tree. During our two days in Artsakh, Ara solicitously offered his arm for all the steep paths and uneven surfaces. The pictures of us walking together are my favorites of the trip. I will miss his love, friendship and support.
Some bonus pics, including those of a pomegranate tree.
Please note that Liz traveled to Artsakh after she concluded her Peace Corps service in neighboring Armenia. She traveled independently, and with an Armenian guide. If you have the opportunity, you should do the same.