After my near-death debacle in the ruins of Old Khrot, and the circumstances leading up to it, I considered that perhaps I was not properly equipped yet to head into Karabakh proper. Armenia had proven to be frustrating at times, and information acquired pre-travel from wikivoyage and guidebooks was definitely revealing itself as wildly out of date. Little did I know the true extent of this to come, however.
Stubborn, I pushed my apprehension to the side and caught the marshrutka to Stepanakert from Goris on the morning of June 6th. It was packed with the usual collection of women, children and elderly going about their private business. I exchanged a few brief phrases with several of them who were curious about the obvious foreigner, mostly the usual “Forgive me, I don’t speak Armenian, I am from Canada”. Armenians aren’t a very intrusive people and would never stare, so aside from a few glances now and then they left me to take in the Lachin Corridor through the scratched plastic van window.
What a view it was: Flat plateaus suddenly gave way to deep gorges, desertified and pockmarked with visible cave dwellings from millenia prior. We passed through a few bombed out villages, dotted with new roofs, along the way. The tone was somber, a land which had once held life but was now lingering on the precipice of survival.
The driver let me off in central Stepanakert, pointed me down the street, and I headed for the visa office to get things sorted out. An old gentleman named Edward approached me with some english signs for his homestay, which I politely declined while brokenly explaining that I was continuing south to Hadrut immediately, but he still helped me navigate the Visa office in a surprising display of friendliness. I heard from other travelers I met later that his homestay is quite acceptable, so don’t be concerned if you’re approached as well.
Visa and restricted-zone travel pass in hand, I made my way down the main boulevard to the bus depot. Stepanakert was really not at all what I had expected, knowing that it had been thoroughly bombed into rubble only eighteen years prior. What I found around me was a modern city which an unsuspecting person would mistake for central Europe in any photograph, the only giveaway being the mixture of Armenian and Cyrillic signage. The rebuilding effort has been quite effective, though not without cost to the rest of the nation.
I asked some friendly looking female police officers for directions to the bus depot, which they solved (after a short “where are you from?!?”) by waving over a passing pedestrian on the street and having him guide me personally. An amusingly small-town interaction for the capital of the republic! The gentleman guiding me conveyed some tidbits about the buildings as we went along (market, government, etc), and wished me luck in my adventures.
Stepanakerts bus depot is where, pardon the pun, the wheels begin to fall off on the veneer of civilization in these parts. I was familiar by now with the concept of the Marshrutka, but even Yerevan’s decrepit fleet couldn’t prepare me for what I was about to experience. In the yard of the depot were several dozen minivans, all departing for various towns across Karabakh. It was a scene out of a classic movie: people tying bags to rooftops, chickens being passed through windows to sit on childrens laps, truly breathtaking.
I found my bus at the back of the yard, the doors being hastily reassembled by the driver and his helper. After standing around for a while they suggested I go get a ticket, so I dutifully went to check on that in the office. Thus began ten minutes of the ticket lady saying “no ticket” and me trying, desperately with my ten word vocabulary, to determine if they meant there were no tickets left, if there were no tickets to Hadrut in general, or if I did not have enough money for the ticket. It turned out that the bus didn’t need a damn ticket at all, and the whole station erupted in laughter at the silly tourist when this finally dawned on me.
By now I’m sure everyone has seen videos of the Tokyo metro, where the staff have to push passengers into the packed train so that the doors can close. The departure from Stepanakert was similar, but entirely more terrifying. A decrepit 30 year old minivan with seating for 8, into which piled 25 passengers plus the driver, with luggage stacked 4 feet high on the roof. For the next hour and a half I would crouch, crammed like a sardine and shaped like a jigsaw puzzle, against the back of the front passenger seat, surrounded by youth destined for service in the Karabakh military.
The best part of this was how the driver never dropped his speed below 100km/h, on roads that hadn’t been maintained since the fall of the USSR, taking hairpin curves while chatting on a cellphone clutched tightly in his left hand.
Welcome to Karabakh.