Nagorno-Karabakh or else known as The Republic of Artsakh is an unrecognized republic in the Caucasus. It can only be accessed through Armenia.
Nagorno-Karabakh is a landlocked region in the South Caucasus, lying between Lower Karabakh and Zangezur and covering the south eastern range of the Lesser Caucasus mountains. The region is mostly mountainous and forested and has an area of 8,223 square kilometres (3,175 mi²).
On 10 December 1991, as the Soviet Union was collapsing, a referendum was held in the Nagorno Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO) and the neighbouring Shahumian region. The overwhelming majority of residents voted for independence from Azerbaijan and the establishment of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic but this country remains unrecognised by any UN member. Since the ceasefire in 1994, most of Nagorno-Karabakh and several regions of Azerbaijan around it remain under joint Armenian and Nagorno-Karabakh military control.
The territory remains internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, which has not exercised power over most of the region since 1991. Since the end of the Nagorno-Karabakh War from 1988 to 1994, representatives of the governments of Armenia and Azerbaijan have been holding peace talks mediated by the OSCE Minsk Group on the region's status.
According to the US Department of State's travel warning: "As a result of continuing conflict, travelers are cautioned to avoid travel to the region of Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding occupied areas." In spite of that warning, thousands of American and European tourists visit Nagorno Karabakh every year.
Take into account that visiting Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding regions is prohibited without the appropriate clearance from the Republic of Azerbaijan. Recently blogger Aleksandr Lapshin (citizen of Russia and Israel) was arrested in Belarus and extradited to Azerbaijan as a result of his visit to Nagorno-Karabakh region without clearance. He is facing an 8 year term to be served in Azerbaijan.
The only country you can currently arrive in Karabakh from is Armenia (this is considered illegal entry into Azerbaijani territory by Azerbaijani authorities). The vast majority arrive by automobile via the Berdzor (Lachin) Corridor, though driving through the Karvajar (Kelbajar) pass or helicopter are alternatives.
Older travel guides will tell you that you need to get a visa before entering Nagorno Karabakh. This is now (December 2014) unnecessary and a waste of time. To enter the self-declared republic of Nagorno Karabakh all you need to do is take a bus or marshrutka to Steppanakert. At the "border" between Armenia and Karabakh the bus will stop and your passport will be registered with the authorities. They will hand you a slip of paper saying that you will need to visit the N.K. Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Steppanakert to get a visa within a couple of hours. Just show up at the address written on the card and they will give you a visa for 3000 dram (about $6), no photos required. The whole process takes about 20 minutes.
Getting a visa in Yerevan is a good idea. It's available in PERMANENT REPRESENTATION OF THE REPUBLIC OF ARTSAKH in Yerevan (17 Nairi Zaryan Street). You can take the metro to Barekamutyun Station (the northside terminus), then take a minibus along Zaryan Street to reach there. The office opens from 10:00. You may need a photo and pay 3,000 dram visa fee. The visa can be issued before 16:00 on the same day. A register card will be issued at the same time. Always keep this paper with you, request a stamp on the backside from your hotel (it's better but not necessary), and it will be collect at the border when you leave.
The sole civilian airport in Stepanakert, Nagorno Karabakh was recently renovated, after it was left damaged & nonfunctional since the Nagorno Karabakh War in 1991. The renovation was mostly complete by 2011 and plans for flights between Armenia's capital Yerevan & Stepanakert on a newly-created state carrier Artsakh Air were announced. However, a war of words between Armenia & Azerbaijan ensued. Since the airport is officially in Azerbaijani territory, under international law the flights would need Azerbaijan's approval (which, of course, they won't allow). Both sides indicated that the dispute should be resolved before flights begin and, as of July 2012, the airport has yet to see a commercial flight land or take off there.
Currently there is no working train line between Yerevan and Stepanakert.
If you're lucky, you may be able to convince a taxi driver to drive you to Stepanakert. Otherwise, many taxi drivers in Stepanakert might be willing to drive you back to Yerevan. If you're with a few friends, you can organize the travel for around USD80-100. The embassy in Yerevan offers drivers to take you there to some of the biggest attractions and back. This costs around USD100-150 per person. The northern highway through the Sotk pass has now a newpaved road (october 2016) which makes this a good alternative from the southern route. It is good if you want to stop by The Sevan Lake, and there is a very scenic road with high mountains and deep valleys.
A guy who is working for/owner one hostel, see below, waits at the bus station. he kindda pesters the travellers. don't go with him.
One way to see much of Karabakh is simply to walk from one end to the other on the Janapar. 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.
All cities are small and fairly safe, so it is best to walk around the few cities in NKR. Not only will you save a little money, but you will get a good sense of the region and its people.
If you plan to travel to Karabakh from Yerevan, there are several car rental agencies that provide cars that also can be driven into NKR - given that you are comfortable with the rather crazy Armenian traffic.
Taxis are available in most cities, with a new North-South road across the NKR making for a smooth and quicker (than you'd expect) ride across the region. These cost about 120 drams/km within a town, or AMD150/km if you take the cab out of town.
Marshrutkas are available, but they may not run as often as in Armenia. There is no train or rail service. A recently restored airport for Stepanakert-Yerevan flights is yet to enter service.
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 NKR are doing this out of hospitality.
Armenian and Russian are both widely used. Karabakh Armenians speak a dialect of Eastern Armenian that differs slightly from Armenian mainly because of the inclusion of many Russian words. A good number of the Population speaks Azeri but it is never heard and becoming forgotten. Very little of the population speaks English so it is wise to travel to Karabakh with a guide or translator from Armenia.
There are several Tourist/Souvenir Stores within Stepanakert. A great idea is to buy a Rug made in Karabakh, they are known for their Ancient rugs, it is said that many people in the region and bordering countries learnt rug making from the Ancient Armenian of Karakagh.
Nagorno-Karabakh ATM map The official currency of Nagorno-Karabakh Republic is the "dram" (AMD). The dram is accepted everywhere,and it is the only legal currency for commerce. Dollars, euros and rubles can be exchanged almost anywhere in the country, with other major currencies also easy to exchange. Exchange booths do not charge a commission and rates are almost always quite competitive. ATMs (Bankomats) are widely available in larger towns: Stepanakert, Shusha, Asgeran, Hadrut, Martakert, etc.
Armenian dram rates Exchange rates (approximate, May 2015): €1 = AMD500, USD1 = AMD473, GBP1 = AMD713, RUB1 = AMD11.8
Many Mulberry trees are to be found, but ensure you are eating only ripe fruit (dark red) and not unripe fruit (whitish), as unripe fruit as well as the green portions of the tree contain a white sap which is intoxicating and mildly hallucinogenic.
Tutti Oghi — Mulberry Vodka, which Karabakh is famous for, often reaching 80% alcohol, and with a distinct taste.
Stepanakert has some up-market hotels charging 20.000-30.000 dram a room (€35-55). Some small guesthouses can be found on Airbnb. Booking.com does not recognise Artsakh and will not display accomodations.
In the rest of the country, there are not that many hotels. In Drmbon, right next to the intersection of the Martakert- and Stepanakert highway, the local shop/café has one room with 2 beds available for 3000 dram per person.
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.
Stay safeOtherwise, 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 "MID", 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 NKR, and you may have a hard time entering Armenia 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.
While entering NKR through the Northern route (through the Sotk pass), one traveller was intimidated by unmarked men, pretending to be para-military, who explicitly told him that sleeping there in a tent was not welcome. They were making phonecalls somewhere, explaining over it who the traveller was, and failing to explain who they were themselves. This happened near the tank monument close to Knaravan village. He was told NOT to stray off the main road.
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.
Remember that this is a rural region, and in the event of a medical emergency the hospitals in NKR 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 NKR 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/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.
Avoid discussing Azerbaijan, because due to the frozen but still ongoing very bitter conflict with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, it is an extremely sensitive subject.