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Why You Should Travel To Karabakh (When It Opens)

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3 months ago

One of the most hotly contested corners of our planet, the mountainous region of Karabakh has been at the centre of brutal cycles of violence between Azerbaijan and Armenia since the 1990s.

In 2023, an Azerbaijan offensive led to the exodus of the Armenian population, ended Armenian control of Karabakh and consolidated Azeri sovereignty over the entire Karabakh region.

Recently I joined a special delegation to this magnificent yet troubled region. Karabakh is not yet open tourism, but there are many indications the region will open soon.

ruined homes in Karabakh
Destroyed homes, relics from the First Karabakh War between Azerbaijan and Armenia

From North Korea to Syria, there are many reasons to visit destinations which are full of competing narratives, painful histories and immense beauty.

Visiting Karabakh is no ordinary trip. This is a region which demands sensitivity, historical awareness, and a respect that, as an outsider, you cannot fully comprehend all of the region’s intricate dynamics and narratives. However, I am going to share why I think you should travel to Karabakhwhen it opens.

ruins of Karabakh village
Ruined villages from the First Karabakh War

Before You Go: Visiting Karabakh

At the time of writing, there is no longer any active warfare in Karabakh. However, the region is still heavily mined and geopolitical tensions

war memorial in nakchivan to karabakh wars
A war memorial in exclave of Nakhchivan dedicated to Azeri soldiers killed in the various Karabakh wars

For travel purposes, since 2023, the entirety of Karabakh is part of sovereign Azerbaijan territory. You will need a visa to visit Azerbaijan which may be impacted by your previous travel history! Don’t worry, we have you covered here – but make sure you read up on everything you need to know before visiting Azerbaijan!

azeri military in karabakh
You will see Azeri military all over Karabakh

Travel tip: Presently, Wi-Fi is almost impossible to find across Karabakh. However, I had LTE coverage with my Azeri cell across the region!

Getting to Karabakh

At the time of writing, Karabakh is closed to visitors and special military permits are required to visit. With ongoing peace negotiations with Armenia and landmine clearances, I have a feeling Karabakh will be open to visitors sooner than some may expect.

New airports have been constructed in Fuzuli and Zangilan – making Karabakh a quick 40-minute flight from Baku.

Fuzuli airport
The newly constructed Fuzuli Airport

The continued resettlement of Azeris across Karabakh will presumably lead to an increased demand in public transport options. I think we can expect to see new public transport links from Baku and Ganja to major cities in Karabakh like Susa, Aghdam and Xankendi (formerly Stepankert).

mines in karabakh
Karabakh is one of the most heavily mined regions in the world

Since the 2023 Karabakh War, there is no longer any access into Karabakh from the Armenian border.

Why you should travel to Karabakh

1. Fuzuli Airport

You’re probably thinking – why is an airport on the list of top things to see?

The Fuzuli Airport was constructed in just 8 months after Fuzuli was captured by Azerbaijan in the 2020 Karabakh War.

fuzuli airport with azal azerbaijan airlines
The shining new installations at Fuzuli Airport…yet there are still no flights!

While the airport doesn’t yet have commercial flights, there is something particularly cool about visiting an empty, uber-modern and sparkling clean airport. More importantly, Fuzuli Airport gives visitors a clear insight into Azerbaijan’s future plans for the region.

welcome to Karabakh sign
Fuzuli Airport is getting ready to welcome visitors to Karabakh

2. Susa

With centuries of history, Susa is famous for being the home of poets and prominent Azeri cultural figures. You will often here Susa referred to as the cultural capital of Karabakh.

susa city walls capital of culture

Susa’s ancient fortress and Old Town walls are still standing. If you are able to, try to climb on the walls which offer a beautiful view over the surrounding valley, including the nearby city of Xakendi (formerly known as Stepankert).

statue of Khurshidbanu Natavan in susa, - a reason to travel to karabakh
Statue of famed Azeri poet Khurshidbanu Natavan

Don’t miss the large bronze statues of Azeri literary and cultural figures. In many ways, these statues encapsulate the complex history of Karabakh. Removed by the Armenian authorities after the First Karabakh War in the 90s, Azerbaijan bought the statues from a scrap metal yard in Georgia. Following Azerbaijan’s reclamation of sovereignty, the statues – bullets and all – were restored in the centre of Susa.

Statues in Susa, Karabakh
Statues of cultural figures with visible bullet holes in Susa, Karabakh

3. Museum of Bread Mosaic

Driving through Karabakh you will pass miles and miles of destroyed villages and homes – many overgrown and covered in bushes or landmines.

museum of bread mosaic

In the town of Aghdam, you can talk a short walk to the ruined building of the former Museum of Bread. After passing through scrub, you literally stumble upon the remarkable Soviet-era mosaic.

soviet era mural for museum of bread in karabakh
A close-up of the magnificent mosaic

Despite decades of war, much of the original mosaic remains. With displays of Azeri cultural instruments, a Nowruz (Persian New Year) platter and a woman wearing a headscarf, the Museum of Bread mosaic is often used to assist Azeri claims to the region.

4. Aghdam Martyr’s Cemetery

Just outside of Aghdam is a memorial site and cemetery which houses many graves from the first Karabakh War.

aghdam martyrs cemetery

In my opinion, the best way to gain insight into a society is to observe its rituals.

In particular, I try to think about how a community acknowledges life cycle events like births, deaths and marriages. A cemetery often reflects the cultural, religious or social values of the community.

By visiting this small cemetery in Aghdam, you can get a little insight into the role of martyrdom in Azeri society. A short crash course into how decades of conflict merge with the traditional Azeri customs and traditions .

karabakh martrys grave

Most graves contain black and white portraits of those buried here, often draped in Azeri flags. Take a moment to look through the photos and birth dates of those buried here. No matter your political opinions, conflict has a human face.

destroyed homes

5. Omer Asirimi Pass

Karabakh has no shortage of magnificent viewpoints. The mountain pass at Omer Asirimi sits at 3260 meters (1069 feet) and offers the most spectacular views over the Karabakh (‘Black Mountains’) – often shrouded in layers of snow.

Mountain pass in Karabakh
Karabakh is full of magnificent mountain passes

At the time of writing, the road up to the Omer Asirimi Pass is not paved and a 4×4 is definitely needed!

Travel tip: At 3260 meters it can get very cold! Don’t forget to have a warm coat or sweater handy.

snow at omar pass in azerbaijan

6. Lachin

If you have read anything about the Karabakh conflict, you will probably have heard about Lachin. This small area previously offered a corridor between Armenia and the Armenian-supported separatist government in Karabakh.

home sweet home refugee children karabakh

Unlike other parts of the region, the town of Lachin has filled the windows of empty and destroyed buildings with portraits of the children of Azeris who have returned to Lachin since the 2020 Karabakh War.

These portraits were taken by renown French-Iranian war photographer Reza Deghati, who photographed and reported from the First Karabakh War in the 90s. A powerful display which highlights the complexity of this conflict and the layers of pain often hidden in this landscape.

Newly constructed homes in Lachin

7. Khodaafarin Bridge

By some estimates the Khodaafarin bridge has connected Karabakh to Iran since 550 B.C.E.

historic Khodaafarin Bridge which connects azerbaijan to iran
The historic Khodaafarin Bridge which connects Iran to Azerbaijan and the Karabakh region

The bridge is a spectacular piece of architecture, gently complementing the red hues of Iranian Azerbaijan behind it. More significantly, the bridge highlights Karabakh’s role at the crossroads of empires. A literal bridge between the Caucuses and Persian civilization.

gate at bridge to iran
The only thing stopping you from entering the Islamic Republic of Iran

Today, only a small gate stops you from running across the bridge to the Islamic Republic – well, that and the Iranian military base across the river.

bridge to iran

Don’t walk too far from the bridge, as the ruined village behind the bridge remains mined and extremely dangerous!

arms and weapons in karabakh war

8. New mosques and construction

Across the rebuilt towns and cities of Karabakh you will find countless mosques under construction – often with the help of Turkish construction companies. Azeri mosques tend to have a unique style which blend Turkish architectural styles with Iranian (or Shia) design influencers.

new mosque in aghdam karabakh

Beyond mosques, you will see huge amounts of money being poured into Karabakh – with endless new construction projects, housing blocs and roadworks.

The mountains of Karabakh
Traveling overland often allows for unparalleled vista of the Caucuses

We like to keep Travel Insighter up to date. To be the first to find out when Karabakh opens to tourists, make sure you are subscribed to The Insight:

And for now, don’t miss out on visiting the best of Azerbaijan: from Baku to Nakhchivan!

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