Nagorno-Karabakh (Armenian: Լեռնային Ղարաբաղ; Azerbaijani: Dağlıq Qarabağ), officially the Republic of Artsakh, is a country in the Caucasus. It is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, but parts of it are closely linked to Armenia and accessible only through Armenia.
The region is largely rural with a few small towns. Its charms lie in its historic Armenian ruins & medieval monasteries and its natural features. There's also the frisson of visiting a disputed republic (and even getting permits to visit destroyed towns near the front line).
- 1 Stepanakert (Khankendi) – The capital is a small city and your likely base for exploring the region
- 2 Berdzor (Lachin) – The first town you pass through upon entering Karabakh. Shops, church and a clinic. There is also a small geological museum and art gallery worth visiting. Admission is free.
- 3 Martakert (Aghdara) – The administrative center of Martakert Province with the Sarsang Reservoir
- 4 Martuni (Khojavend) – A small town near the small historically important Amaras Monastery; the city became a frontline city during the latter stages of the Nagorno-Karabakh War but also contains number of tombs from the Neolithic and Bronze Ages, several ruined medieval churches and remains of settlements and khachkars.
- 5 Vank – A small town close to the monastery of Gandzasar, one of Karabakh's top attractions. Also known for a hotel in the shape of a boat with a zoo, and the wall of license plates.
Nagorno-Karabakh was in a state of political limbo from 1994, when it became independent, until 2020, when Azerbaijan regained much of its territory. It remains recognized as part of Azerbaijan by all UN member states, and has been recognized only by three other self-proclaimed and unrecognized states, Transnistria, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia. Although Armenia supports Nagorno-Karabakh economically and militarily, it never formally recognized the region's independence.
In 1920, Soviet Russia's Red Army occupied the Caucasus, leading to the formation of Armenia's and Azerbaijan's Soviet Socialist Republics (SSRs). The region of Karabakh, historically linked to both Armenian and Azeri ethnic groups, quickly became hotly-contested between these SSRs. In the end, the Soviet government opted to assign the region to Azerbaijan SSR, while keeping part of it, the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast, as an Armenian-majority autonomous region.
By the late 1980s, the Soviet Union was in process of decline, with growing tensions between Armenia SSR and Azerbaijan SSR due to the dispute of the Nagorno-Karabakh region. After the dissolution of the USSR in the early 1990s, the situation finally escalated in 1992, when the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast declared itself independent from Azerbaijan, immediately getting support from Armenia. This led to a war of independence, similar to those in Transnistria and in some other ethnically mixed areas on the former Soviet empire's fringe, and the area was ethnically cleansed of its Azeri population.
The fighting stopped with the 1994 ceasefire and the dispute moved from the theatre of war to diplomatic circles (the OSCE Minsk Group), where the region is still squabbled over by Armenia and its Russian backers, and Azerbaijan and its Turkish allies.
Fighting erupted again in September-November 2020, resulting in a ceasefire agreement that returned control to Azerbaijan of areas inside and outside of Nagorno-Karabakh that had been occupied by Armenian forces.
During the conflict, the Azeri population fled. The region is culturally a part of Armenia. However there is a distinct border complete with immigration formalities on the road from Armenia. Investment and development in the region has invariably come from Armenians, further entrenching Armenian cultural ties.
Nagorno-Karabakh is a landlocked region in the South Caucasus, lying between Lower Karabakh and Zangezur and covering the southeastern range of the Lesser Caucasus mountains. It is mostly mountainous and forested.
Nagorno-Karabakh can be entered only from Armenia. Doing so is considered an illegal entry into Azerbaijani territory by Azerbaijan.
Visa on arrival is possible at the border after filling out a form make sure you have an address where you will be staying to list although you need not actually stay there (June 2019). The driver of the marshrutka from Goris will give you the form to fill out at the start of the journey, or you can simply obtain a sheet from the border guards when you reach the border.
Otherwise, if you wish to obtain a visa in advance for whatever reason, they can be obtained (M-F 09:00 to 17:00, lunch hour from 13:00) from:
- the Permanent Mission to the Republic of Armenia [dead link], 17A Nairi Zaryan St, Yerevan, Armenia (☏ , email@example.com)—it can take up to 7 hr for the visa to be issued (go there in the morning an come back in the afternoon). If you do not have a photo, it's not that big of a deal.
Tourist visas are free and are usually valid for 21 days after issue. Registration papers (showing the regions permitted) are issued with the visa. These papers need to be kept with you all the time and returned when leaving the region. As a tourist ask to go to all allowed areas and you will get this without any problems – it is best to mention the Janapar Trail, which crosses the whole of Nagorno-Karabakh and the most important sites, like Hadrut, Shushi, Stepanakert, Gandzasar, Dadivank and Kalbajar.
Not every local car or bus is controlled at the border. In case your bus doesn't stop at the border, don't worry and just go to Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Azatamartikneri street 28, Stepanakert ☏, firstname.lastname@example.org) when you arrive Stepanakert.
Because the visa will not automatically be pasted into your passport, you can use it to conceal unwanted stamps. For instance, if you have visited Kosovo and now want to visit Serbia, simply cover the Kosovo stamps with the Karabakh visa, and voilà, you've never violated Serbian border integrity, and will be allowed into the country.
There are no checkpoints administrated by Armenia when entering or leaving Nagorno-Karabakh. Your original Armenian visa remains valid and is needed to continue travelling in Armenia. However, you cannot obtain a new visa when entering Armenia from Nagorno-Karabakh, so make sure your Armenian visa is valid long enough that it will not expire before you leave Armenia after re-entering the country from N-K.
There are daily bus connections between Yerevan and Stepanakert, as well as Goris and Stepanakert: see Stepanakert#Get in for more details. Buses and marshrutkas taking the southern route into Nagorno-Karabakh also pass by Shushi on their way.
Taxi drivers in Yerevan may be willing to drive you to Stepanakert and vice versa. Expect to pay US$80–100, and be wary.
The embassy in Yerevan and also tour companies there (Artsakh in Armenian) can arrange drivers to take you to Stepanakert and to show you the region's biggest attractions. This costs about US$100–150 per person.
Stepanakert has the only airport in the region, and one airline, Artsakh Air. The conflict with Azerbaijan has prevented any planes from taking off, though. The Azeris have said that they will shoot down any flights that they don't control. As of Jan 2021 there were still no flights, but there were renewed plans to operate flight from Armenia.
The railway line between Yevlakh and Stepanakert has not been in use on the Kocharli-Stepanakert part since the First Karabakh War.
Therefore the only two railway stations on the former NKAO territory (Stepanakert and Askeran) are in ruins.
The line may reopen in the distant future.
The reconstructed Karmir Shuka-Stepanakert-Askeran-Martakert motorway runs north-south through the region and has drastically reduced travel times to just a couple hours from just about any place in the country (excluding small villages and monasteries secluded in hilly terrain).
Stepanakert has a fair number of hotels and is right on the main highway in a central location.
You can reach almost every destination from the central bus station in Stepanakert. Ask there when your bus or marshrutka starts. If you start from the central bus station your visa could be controlled. From all other bus stations there is no visa control.
If you plan to travel to Karabakh from Yerevan, there are several car rental agencies in Yerevan that provide cars which can also be driven into Nagorno-Karabakh.
If your Armenian or Russian is good, you may be able to hitch a ride for less than a taxi (although don't pay too much less, as these are certainly not affluent people), and you could very easily be invited for dinner with them (in which you should have some gift, especially wine, coffee, or chocolates, and do not offer money) as the people of Nagorno-Karabakh are doing this out of hospitality.
Taxis are available in most cities, with a new north-south road across the Nagorno-Karabakh making for a smooth and quicker (than you'd expect) ride across the region. These cost about 120 dram/km within a town, or 150 dram/km if you take the cab out of town.
Like the rest of Armenia, hitchhiking is extremely easy. Most cars that pass will stop, and you will be offered free food and alcohol during your ride. Wait times can be long because of the lack of traffic, but once you have gotten a ride you will likely be driven for a long distance. Hitchhiking in the north of Karabakh is more difficult because of the lack of vehicles and poor road conditions, but the friendliness of the locals will help to counteract this.
All cities are small and fairly safe, so it is best to walk around the few cities in Nagorno-Karabakh. Not only will you save a little money, but you will get a good sense of the region and its people.
Armenian and Russian are widely used. Karabakh Armenians speak a dialect of Eastern Armenian that differs substantially from the Armenian spoken in Yerevan - though most Karabakh Armenians can speak the Yerevan dialect if necessary, and all can understand it. Most older Karabakhtsis can speak Azeri but it is no longer used and is becoming forgotten. Relatively few locals speaks English (though those working in tourist-related areas, i.e. hotels and restaurants, often do speak a reasonable bit of English or at least can find someone around who speaks the language).
Valuable information about tourist sites is given at the website of Karabakh's travel organisation.
Important tourist attractions inside of the main two cities include:
- Stepanakert, the capital city
- Shuka (Farmers market)
- Tatik Papik aka We Are Our Mountains (famous monument on northern outskirts)
Furthermore, many monasteries and other attractions can be found:
- 1 Gandzasar monastery. A main tourist attraction, literally meaning "treasure mountain". The fortified monastery has extensive carvings in the stone, beautiful architecture and sweeping views.
- 2 Dadivank monastery. Extensive monastery complex with red hues, a pair of covered impressive "lacework" khachkars and remnants of frescoes. It's undergoing a slow restoration and has a rich history to share.
- 3 Amaras monastery. A simple basilica church with surrounding serf walls. Rebuilt many times over the years, it has a very long and rich history.
- 4 Yeghish Arakyal monastery. A somewhat simpler version of Dadivank, in the hard to access far north of Artsakh. The complex has few visitors and is overgrown with vegetation in the lush forest it is found in.
- 5 Yerits Mankants monastery (Yeritsmankants). This beautiful remote monastery in an incredibly stunning river canyon is rarely visited, as military permission and a military escort are needed to reach this place.
- 6 Askeran fortress (Mayraberd). 10th–18th centuries. Served as the primary bulwark against Turko-nomadic incursions from the eastern steppe. The fort is found to the northeast of the region's capital city of Stepanakert in Askeran, and once extended across the entire river valley.
- The website of Karabakh's travel organisation has all major events in the country is listed.
- Janapar Trail – One way to see much of Karabakh is simply to walk from one end to the other on this picturesque hiking trail. There is a marked trail which is broken up into day hikes which extend for 2 weeks of hiking. There are side trails and alternative routes as well. Trails take you to ancient monasteries and fortresses, through forests and valleys, to hot springs and villages. Each night you can either stay with a village family or camp out.
Exchange rates for Armenian dram
As of January 2020:
Exchange rates fluctuate. Current rates for these and other currencies are available from XE.com
Nagorno-Karabakh uses the Armenian dram (֏ or AMD) for most transactions. The state bank has also issued limited amounts of another currency, Nagorno-Karabakh dram (no symbol or ISO code). The NK dram is available in 2 & 10 dram banknotes and 50 luma (0.5 dram), 1 dram, & 5 dram coins. All banknotes & coins are dated 2004. NK dram are becoming less common, since they were printed in limited quantities, aren't worth much, and many note & coins have been taken out of the region as souvenirs or to sell to collectors. U.S. dollars & Russian rubles are accepted by some merchants, hotels and others.
The ATMs of the Karabakh's own bank named Artsakhbank do not accept Visa or Mastercard. All other banks accept them.
There are several tourist/souvenir shops in Stepanakert.
The area is known for rugs, which make good souvenirs, and it is said that many people in the region and bordering countries learned rug making from the ancient Armenians of Karabakh.
- Jingalov Hats — a bread that has greens baked into it, a local specialty.
- Tutti Chamich — mulberry raisins, available at the market (shuka)
Many Mulberry trees are to be found, but make sure to eat only ripe fruit - a dark black/red or a pure white. They should not have any green, and should be plump and sweet.
Tutti Oghi — Mulberry Vodka, which Karabakh is famous for, often reaching 80% alcohol, and with a distinct taste.
The Shekher Winery produces a good quality wine.
See the city articles for the individual options.
Also, the Janapar Trail article has an extensive range of homestays in towns and villages along the trail through Nagorno-Karabakh.
Limitless volunteer work for the willing. Incredibly low cost of living. The government will gladly give most people land as long as they are willing to farm and tend to it.
Western governments advise their citizens to avoid the region but in spite of that, hundreds of westerners visit Nagorno-Karabakh every year.
Don't venture east of the Mardakert-Martuni highway, where the ceasefire line is located. Otherwise, it is very safe to travel around and interact with people. When you first arrive in Karabakh, you must go to what is called the "MIT", the Stepanakert foreign affairs office, to get your travel papers. This will prevent any confusion if one gets pulled over or stopped by local authorities.
If you are planning to hike, be in rural areas, or stay on the outskirts of cities note that the area is inhabited by bears and wolves. While they will not attack if unprovoked, practice bear safety and walk away slowly if unexpectedly approached. If you are planning to hike, the Janapar Trail has been broken into day-long hikes and it is best to take advantage of the homestays offered rather than to camp alongside the trails. If you do camp, make sure to keep your food high in a tree and a few dozen meters (a hundred feet or so) from your tent and do not simply sleep on the ground or in a sleeping bag. Sleep inside a tent.
While the region is fairly safe in terms of crime, you must not lose your passport. There are no foreign embassies in the Nagorno-Karabakh, and you may have a hard time leaving Nagorno-Karabakh without a passport or visa. The US embassy in Baku says that "because of the existing state of hostilities, consular services are not available to Americans in Nagorno-Karabakh." It would be safe to assume that this applies to all other nationalities and their embassies in Baku.
Drink bottled water if you are not accustomed to the local water. However if you are hiking, drinking water in mountain streams and ponds in reasonably safe, as long as you are sure it is not downstream from a large town (in which case it is likely contaminated with chemicals, street runoff, and/or waste.
This is a rural region: in the event of a medical emergency the hospitals in Nagorno-Karabakh are no more than a modest clinic. The nearest major hospital is in Yerevan, a long distance in the event of a heart attack or complications with any medical problems you may have. It is best to have with you a small first aid kit with bandaids, bandages, anti-biotic cream, ibuprofen, and any other medicine you may need.
The people of Nagorno-Karabakh are very friendly and inviting, and if your Armenian or Russian is good enough, you will easily meet people who will invite you to their house for dinner (and some will even harass you until you accept). Unlike many parts of the world, you should not worry about your safety, no matter how much they harass you, and accept their invitation. Even though these people do not have much and, like many persons in developing countries, view westerners as rich, they will vehemently refuse any type of money given to them (although you may find luck saying it is "for the children"). However, do not show up empty-handed! You will be expected to bring some sort of gift, with food (wine, chocolates, coffee, etc.) being best. You should also bring something to show or give them from your home country (postcard, book, photos, etc.) to have a conversation or at least get their interest. You never know, they may likely have family in another place and what you thought was just dinner could turn into inviting you to other family's businesses (discounts), homes (to stay the night), or another meal.
The wiki on the Janapar trail recommends no trace camping and if you bathe, make sure no locals are around (it may be offensive). Just as stated above, you will receive offers of food and rest. Have gifts for such people, but do not offer money.
It is recommended to have a SIM card of the company Vivacell. All other phone operators that are active in this region refuse for political reasons roaming inside Karabakh.
Alternatively get a SIM card from Karabakh's own phone company Karabakh Telecom when you are in Stepanakert. All you need is your passport and 1,200 dram. This includes the cost for the SIM card and 600 dram as initial money in your account. Using mobile Internet is also possible. The Karabakh Telecom's main office in the Vardan Mamikonyan St. 23 in Stepanakert has personnel speaking English. They can also help you if you have technical problems with your phone.