Caucasus Adventures Redux

I’ve recently posted the last installment of my Azerbaijan Adventures, so it’s time to say farewell to the Caucasus (for the time being, at least), and look back at all I have distilled over the past three years.

Like a goat jumping over the snowy peaks of the Caucasus, I have traveled through Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and their respective renegade regions. In writing about my journeys, I intentionally left aside the most-traveled routes to focus on more extreme tourism, food, and cooking. I called them Adventures, although your humble main protagonists spent more time changing flat tires, dealing with hard-looking and/or corrupt customs officers, asking their way around in the middle of nowhere, and drinking local moonshine, than accomplishing any kind of crazy exploits.

Soviet Stamp - Caucasian Goat

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Armenian Adventures, Part 5

The last part of our Armenian Adventures takes us to Nagorno-Karabakh, a de facto independent but unrecognized state within Azerbaijan (I’m sticking to the Wikipedia entry to avoid debates).

Before heading to Karabakh, we made one last stop at the Goris market, where the usual Armenian produce (peppers, eggplant, zucchini, beans, radishes, tomatoes, watermelon and apricots) share room with some freshwater fish — not refrigerated, of course!

So let me now start with some practical information for the prospective tourists. All foreign visitors (except the ones from some of the former Soviet Republics) need to obtain a visa just for Nagorno-Karabakh. You can find detailed information here, although unlike what is said on this site and in travel guides, I was able to get my visa by mail from the Nagorno-Karabakh permanent representation in Washington, DC. Things may have changed, but it’s definitely worth giving these guys a call. Here’s what my visa looked like, back in summer 2009:

The only way into Karabakh is from Armenia. Coming from Azerbaijan is completely out of question. I do see a bridge on the map at the Iranian border, near the Khoda Afarin reservoir, but this is not an official crossing point and I couldn’t find any information about it. This bridge is so remote, sandwiched between destroyed Azerbaijani villages and the Alborz moutain range, that I’d be very curious to hear from someone who’s been there!

The most usual road (but not the only one, as we’ll see later) goes from Goris through the infamous Lachin corridor. At the border, you will have to stop briefly at a police check, where they will write down your information into a book that I bet nobody will ever read. As you will find out pretty soon, Karabakh feels like a part of Armenia more than an independent country. There may be a puppet president, but the people, language, currency, police and army are all Armenian. The picturesque road to the capital Stepanakert was rebuilt thanks to donations from the Armenian diaspora and is in excellent condition (like most roads in Armenia, really):

Upon your arrival in Stepanakert, you will have to register at the NKR Foreign Ministry. This can be slightly more complicated than it seems. When we got there, the whole town center was experiencing a blackout, and we only miraculously managed to get the paperwork done much later in the evening.

If Stepanakert is trying hard to rebuild, to turn the page of the conflict with Azerbaijan, there is still a lot to do in the rest of the region. Here’s an appartment building in the center of Shushi, a town that used to have a predominantly Azerbaijani population and changed hands several times during the war:

All the mosques in Shushi have been destroyed or heavily damaged, like the Upper Govhar Agha Mosque:

But the systematic destruction of former Azerbaijani communities is nowhere as obvious as in Agdam, a city that once had a population of 40,000 people and has become a ghost town:

All of the buildings have been gutted, and sometimes completely razed, to prevent the Azerbaijani population from coming back — something you see on a smaller scale throughout Karabakh and even Armenia.

The ruins remain a buffer zone for the Armenian army and are technically banned for sightseeing. Getting there isn’t too hard though: the access road is simply blocked by a small chain and everybody drives around it. This is the paradox about Agdam — the whole town is supposed to be off limits, but you certainly see a lot of cars crossing it, and there’s even a gas station!

I would have liked to push to the town center to see what’s left of the mosque, one of the last buildings still standing, which offers a nice panorama of the area. Unfortunately, as I was discretely taking pictures with my telephoto on the side of the road, we were reprimanded by a man in camo pants who threatened to call the KGB if we didn’t turn around immediately. We didn’t have the presence of mind to tell him that the KGB stopped existing 20 years ago. We simply drove back — something that I slightly regret to this day.

You can see more of Agdam in this video or on this blog.

Luckily, there are enough sights that are well worth a visit in the rest of Karabakh, such as monasteries and fortresses. I won’t cover these attractions in this post, as they’re off-topic and your favorite travel sites and books will certainly do a much better job than me, anyway. I’ll just say Karabakh is no Abkhazia, where there’s little to see except for Soviet relics and equally Soviet beaches, and where your life might me threatened more than once (see my Georgian Adventures, parts 7 and 8).

The best way to leave the region without spending several hours driving back the way you came is to take the road from Dadivank over the Zod Pass, at 2,400 meters. You may read in travel guides that the road is impassable, but in summer it never gets worse than what you see on the pictures below. Compared to Georgia, this is a top-notch road that hardly justifies driving a four-wheel drive!

The very scenic road follows the valleys of the Tartar and Lev rivers, sometimes between impressive cliffs, before reaching the Zod gold mines in Armenia.

As you can see, besides the cultural visits, the geographical configuration of the region as a montainous plateau makes for spendid landscapes.

Expect a recipe for zhingalov khats, a specialty from Karabakh, in the near future. Then I’ll cross the enemy lines (figuratively!) and start a new series on my adventures in Azerbaijan.

Armenian Adventures, Part 4

Every Armenian, from the taxi driver in Moscow to the shopkeeper in Yerevan, waxes lyrical about Lake Sevan if you give them a chance. “What a place! The beaches! The fish!” They would no doubt prefer being there instead of being stuck in their daily routine. Reading the Lonely Planet guide, I, too, was getting excited: “hectic 10 weeks in summer”, “bustling little town of Sevan”, “Armenian Riviera in the brief hot summers, with bars, beach volleyball, water-skiing and paddleboats”! Sure, I wasn’t expecting a post-Soviet Ibiza, but I had reasons to believe we could enjoy ourselves for a day or two.

The “bustling little town”… “sleepy” came more to mind when we went there at the height of summer. It’s kind of odd to build the main town several miles away from the lake. I understand that the water level fell significantly following artificial draining during the Stalin era, but over 50 years later this remains a rather unique situation compared to other lakes I can think of. It certainly doesn’t encourage tourists to come downtown. Here are pictures of a couple of street vendors:

… and Sevan’s market:

Calling Sevan an Armenian Riviera is a downright joke. Yes, the landscapes around the lake are very nice, except for shores that look like a vast amusement park sponsored by Coca-Cola. But where is the beach?

Here is the largest beach we could find in the two hours we spent paddling along the “Riviera”. Apparently, the government’s recent policy to raise the lake level again has resulted in the beaches going under water!

Now about those hot summers … It was gray, rainy and rather cold on the morning and early afternoon of our arrival. Things got slightly better later on before relapsing the next day, which is why you don’t see that many people in bathing suits in my pictures. In fact, you don’t see that many people at all! The two hotels I checked were empty, and there really aren’t that many hotels around in the first place. Of course there are some other options, like those metal boxes that must have served as temporary dwellings after the earthquake years ago and are now rented by people waving at you from the shoulder of the highway. But most people seem to come only for the day. They start the grill, play cards, eat their khorovats (kebabs), take a swim if they’re brave, turn on the radio to dance to some Armenian pop, and then pack and go home. By 8 pm, we were all alone. By 10 pm, we were closing the hotel bar.

Taking a closer look at the khorovats, I must say they look better than many of the kebabs we were served!

As for the legendary fish from Sevan… The most widespread species is Coregonus Lavaretus, a whitefish locally called sig. However, it isn’t native to Sevan. It was introduced in the 1920’s from Lake Ladoga, with the assumption that it wouldn’t compete with the endemic trout. Of course things didn’t go as planned, and the trout are now nearly extinct. Paradoxically, that same trout species was introduced in the 1970’s into Lake Issyk-Kul (in Kazakhstan), where it survives quite well, ravaging the indigenous species. Today, your options in cafés and restaurants consist of farmed trout, whitefish, or crawfish — another introduced species. The endemic trout was listed on at least one menu for a ridiculous price nearing $100 a head, but I didn’t bother asking if it was actually available.

And indeed, availability isn’t always a given. I remember going to one supposedly excellent restaurant and asking about a dish mysteriously named “Lake Sevan’s Gifts”; after 10 minutes of confused, incomprehensible explanations and a few round-trips to the kitchen, the waiter took the order, only to come back later to tell us the dish wasn’t available! To this day, I don’t know what Lake Sevan’s Gifts consisted of, but I have my own made-up interpretation in the works. I managed to capture a whitefish on skewers below.

Although as I mentioned above, much more than any kind of fish, the specialty on the lake is… meat kebabs.

Speaking of meat kebabs, here are a couple of butcher shops in the area. Now, I understand that in many places in the world, meat is still kept without refrigeration — which then forces people to systematically overcook it, by the way. But can someone explain to me the point of hanging it in the sun above a barbecue???

Next time, onward to controversial Karabakh!

Armenian Adventures, Part 3

It would be impossible to talk about Armenia without mentioning its many monasteries, as they are doubtlessly the main attraction in the country. Since this is a food blog, I don’t intend to give you an exhaustive cultural tour, but here’s a little overview of the place of food and animals in Armenian monasteries, from the street vendors and oil presses to the pagan sacrifices.

If you’re visiting an active monastery, chances are you’ll see food stalls like this one in Geghard. You’ll typically find large round breads with sweet fillings, dried fruits, churchkhela and fruit lavash.

In some places like Tatev, the churches are still surrounded by a number of ancient ancillary buildings once used by the monks for their daily life. Here’s the oil press:

… and the kitchen, with a grill and a tonir (the Armenian tandoor oven):

Of course, the usual grapes and pomegranates are frequently represented on the facades, like here at the Tsakhatskar Monastery:

Less expected is the carving of a lion feasting upon a lamb. It’s possibly the coat of arms of the Orbelian family, who built the church:

Similarly, Makaravank Monastery, a masterpiece of Medieval Armenian carving, features, among others, a lion fighting an ox and a creature reminiscent of a sphinx:

Back in Geghard, you’ll find more grapes and pomegranates, framed by two doves facing each other:

… and again, right above them, a lion attacking an ox, the emblem of the Zakarian family who owned the monastery at some point:

Animals are also present in some persisting pagan rituals. It is still common for an animal (always male), to be presented by a family for blessing by the priest, before being sacrificed outside the church. Here is a ram sacrifice at Geghard:

And here are a couple women bringing their roosters to Khor Virap Monastery:

Finally, several zoomorphic pagan stones still exist form the time before Armenia converted to Christianity. The Karadaran Park in Sisian gathers some fine examples of ram stones:

Next time: Lake Sevan, or the Great Illusion!

Armenian Adventures, Part 2

After Part 1‘s visit to the Central Market, here are some more food-related pictures from the Armenian capital.

Armenia has its fair share of Soviet relics, like this abandoned Soviet café in Victory Park. Apparently this remote café — located on a hill with not-so-breathtaking views of Yerevan, surrounded with war monuments, and featuring only a handful of tables — didn’t survive the laws of supply and demand. By contrast, the numerous restaurants of Barbecue Street in the city center can seat hundreds of people.

Yerevan also offers some examples of food-themed Soviet friezes, a subject dear to my heart. Reliefs can be found in the most unexpected places, such as the post office on Republic Square:

Grapes and pomegranates are recurring motives, together with various animals. The bird on the right side below is probably the mythical Simurgh.

Here’s the ornamental band on the facade of the opera house, this time with grapes and a wild ram or goat.

The Ministry of Finance displays a mini-manual of winemaking, from the harvest to the barrel, which makes the whole process look like a no-brainer: pick, crush, store, done. With such an obsession with vines, it’s really a shame that Armenian wine isn’t all that good!

Well, while I’d be perfectly happy never drinking Armenian wine ever again, Armenia does make cognac-like brandy that can actually be quite good. I find that the bottlings around 10 years of age are the most interesting.

The Yerevan Brandy Company, which produces the famous Ararat brandy (and is now owned by the French Pernod-Ricard group), stands on a plateau high above Victory Bridge. It offers tours of the premises followed by generous tastings that will  make you forget most of the explanations your guide gave you.

Sadly, this is the only distillery I’ve ever visited where the actual production isn’t shown! The only parts you can see are the storage facility (pictured below), which has a rather hypocritical barrel dedicated to peace in Nagorno-Karabakh, and a museum of uninteresting brandy memorabilia. Disappointing.

Armenian Adventures, Part 1

It’s been over a month since I concluded my Georgian Adventures with a look at the stores and markets of Tbilisi. And to start this Armenian Adventures series, I thought I would introduce you to Yerevan’s central market. I also recommend this excellent post about food and wine in Yerevan. Don’t miss the bread-making video!

From the outside, the central market distinguishes itself by the unusual sight of the dancing fruits and vegetables that decorate the roof:

As you’ll see, this visit will get us acquainted with the major ingredients of Armenian cuisine.

Mulberries (tut in Armenian), white and black, are everywhere during summer, to the point where I wonder why anyone would bother buying them at the market when all you have to do is put a plastic tarp under a tree and collect your berries at the end of the day! They produce delicious homemade brandy, too.

Lavash, a large flatbread, is another Armenian staple, and there’s no shortage of it since very few people still make their own. Careful, though — it dries out quickly!

Cheese, together with tomatoes and cucumbers (and lavash!), is a lunch classic. The most common kinds, traditionally made from sheep’s milk, are a sort of brynza and a string cheese:

Just like its Caucasian neighbors, Armenia is a paradise of nuts and dried fruits. You may recognize the churchkhela (mental floss here). The dark sheets hanging next to them are fruit lavash, made from plums or other seasonal fruits.

Spices and honey are well represented too, but I need your help, dear readers! If anyone happens to know Armenian, could you send me the names of the spices on the picture? (I can send you a larger version.)

Finally, no overview of the local cuisine would be complete without mentioning khorovats, the Armenian barbecued food that you’ll be eating in 99% of the restaurants in summer, whether it’s vegetables, fish or meat on a skewer — everything is on a skewer since the traditional grill doesn’t use a grate. There’s even a street, Proshian St., nicknamed “Barbecue Street”. Here are the ground beef kebabs of Artashi Mot, a famous restaurant in the city center.

Expect some kebab and lavash recipes and in the coming weeks!

Note: despite the 3 product placements in the above pictures, this post is not sponsored by Coca-Cola.