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 Ağdam, 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.
TEN OF& THE BEST
Trekking in European climates can throw a wide range of temperatures and weather patterns at you, so versatility is the keyword when it comes to equipment. For Frank Middleton, this means everything from weatherproof clothes and sleeping bags, to durable packs and poles. Plus a mug that can handle drinks and meals helps too...
Hennessy Hammock Deep Jungle Asym Zip – $290; 1.2kg
This three-season, bug-proof hammock is ideal for expeditions in forested areas. The Deep Jungle Asym Zip has a lightweight rainproof fly, which can be swapped out for the larger Asym Hex Rainfly at no extra cost.
2. Sleeping Bag
Alpkit Pipedream 250 – £130; 666g
This lightweight bag is insulated with 250g of ethically sourced goose down. Its stitched-through construction is ideal for use in Europe from late spring to early autumn. The Pipedream’s shell is coated with a durable water repellent finish: the occasional drop of condensation will not ruin the natural filling.
3. Sleeping Mat
Exped SynMat Hyperlite M – £90; 349g
This is the world’s lightest full-length mat and it takes up very little space in your pack. The tapered profile removes a few extra grams and makes it easier to fit the Hyperlite inside wedge shaped tents.
4. Trekking poles
Alpkit CarbonLite Ultra Twins – £45 (per pair); 146g (per pole)
Robust and portable, these carbon fibre trekking poles are ideal for backcountry use. The Twins are telescopic, perfect for strapping to the side of a pack or stashing in hold luggage.
Garmin Oregon 600 – £320; 210g
With a touchscreen that remains readable in bright sunlight, the Oregon 600 features a three-axis compass and a barometric altimeter sensor. You can download free back country mapping data from www.openstreetmap.org and hit the trail.
BAM Men’s Bamboo Air T-shirt – £23; 173g
Bamboo helps to regulate body temperature in hot and cold weather. In my experience, this fabric matches the odour-resisting properties of merino wool while outperforming it in the durability stakes.
7. Shell Jacket
RailRiders WeatherTop – $110; 794g
The WeatherTop is a versatile and hardwearing water-resistant shell for high exertion activities. Its design marries adjustable neck, cuff and waist closures with chest, underarm and back vents. Although this jacket is not guaranteed to keep out every drop of rain in monsoon conditions, I have found that it is faster to dry and significantly more breathable than 100 per cent waterproof fabrics.
Advanced Multisport Optics Prowler NXT Photochromic – $198; 28g
My top priority for expedition sunglasses is durability. Advanced Multisport Optics’ interchangeable polycarbonate lenses and crack-resistant Grilamid TR-90 frames are as tough as it gets. Hytrel arms and TPR nosepieces can be moulded for a custom fit. Supplied in a hard-wearing bullet shaped case.
Alpkit MytiMug 650 – £25; 80g
Perfectly sized for one person, this ultralight titanium mug is small enough for morning coffee and large enough for a dinner of noodles. It balances perfectly on a home-made alcohol stove. The 650ml vessel is easy to scour clean after boiling water over an open fire.
Osprey Aether 70 – £180; 2.29kg
A thoughtfully designed, adjustable harness lies at the core of this versatile pack. Stretch pockets, a detachable rain cover and a sternum strap (with integral whistle) are all included. Multiple access points to the main compartment make it easy to extract your essential gear.
…a water filter. I used the affordable Sawyer Squeeze (85g). It can be mated to a standard water bottle thread.
This was published in the June 2016 edition of Geographical magazine.