I want to do some proper posts about this sometime, but it's Saturday and I'm blogging for a few minutes while the boys play outside. So, some rather disjointed points about Nagorno. You might see these again if I get more organized.
1) Nagorno is beautiful. Though it's only about the size of Delaware, Nagorno contains tremendous variety. There's a piece that looks just like northern Italy. Another chunk that looks like one of the cooler, greener bits of New Mexico. The south is a flat fertile river valley; the east is rolling hills. Drive half an hour and you're in a new microclimate, but you can always see mountains and trees. It's nice.
Also, since Nagorno only has about 150,000 people, it's pretty empty. (By way of comparison, Delaware has around 800,000.) So, despite its size, there's an impression of spaciousness
Also-also, since Nagorno has almost no industry -- it all collapsed during the war -- the air is clean, there's not a lot of traffic on the roads, and the wildlife has come back in a big way. Maybe not so great if you live there, but makes it nice to visit.
2) Nagorno is melancholy. The region had something over 200,000 people in late Soviet times. But about a quarter of the population was Azeris, and they got driven out. The population then declined some more because of economic collapse... no industry, little business, the economy largely dependent on subsidies from outside. So people kept leaving.
They say that's tapering off, and the population is stabilizing. But it's still kind of a sad place. You see this most strongly in the town of Shusha, where maybe 5,000 Armenians live in a town that used to hold 25,000 Azeris. But the war has left marks all over... the rail line that used to run east to Baku, and that's now just a scar, the rails long since torn up; villages that obviously used to hold twice as many people as they do today; empty roads, rusting smokestacks. Outside the neat little capital, Stepanakert, there's a general air of not much going on.
Also, because Karabakh is beautiful, you can't help thinking of the people who were sent away. 50,000 Karabakh Azeris are in refugee camps on the hot, barren plains around Baku. They must miss their green mountains terribly.
3) Nagorno has no status. They formally declared independence from Azerbaijan in 1989, then declared themselves a sovereign nation in 1991. But only Armenia recognizes the first declaration, and nobody -- not even Armenia -- recognizes the second. So, the Karabakhtsi consider themselves a country, but nobody else does.
You need a visa to go there, and you have to stop at the border and check in. But it's pretty lackadaisical, and we had the strong impression we could have driven right past without much trouble.
4) Nagorno is safe. You can hike or drive around pretty freely. (They just put in their first hiking trail, which goes across the province from end to end... maybe three days walk, most of it up and down.) The war is long over, and there's not much crime. As long as you stay away from the border regions, it's safer than most places in the US.
5) Nagorno is dangerous. Two ways. First, the border regions are still full of mine fields, and there are a lot of soldiers pointing guns at each other. There is a steady trickle of deaths from border incidents -- mostly snipers, but also the occasional exchange of shellfire.
Second, Nagorno could still blow up. Easily. The war didn't result in a final settlement. The Armenians are very reluctant to give up what they won on the battlefield; the Azeris are not willing to accept the loss of nearly a fifth of their country. Armenia's victory was convincing, but now that the BTC pipeline is in place, the Azeris have almost $10 billlion per year to spend on whatever they want. And part of what they want is an expanded and improved military. Everyone thinks there'll be a window for settlement next year, after both countries have gone through a cycle of elections... but if it's not settled, there's a pretty good chance of another war.
Finally, we left liking Nagorno. Why? Well, we stayed at a little hotel in Stepanekert. And about half an hour on the road driving back, I realized that we were missing David's bear. I knew right away what had happened: he'd left it under the bed in the hotel, and we had missed it when we packed.
David loves that bear. Not as much as he loves his monkey -- the monkey is a magic monkey, which turned itself into a stuffed animal because it was lonely, whereas the stuffed bear has always been a stuffed bear -- but almost. So after we got home, we called the hotel (or had our nanny call the hotel, because nobody there had much English), and asked, did you find a bear? And they said, sure we found it -- and if you give us your address, we'll send it up to you.
Now, Stepanekert is six hours away by car, and the mail... well, the Armenian postal system is not all that, and one doubts the Karabakh one is better. So we were dubious.
But we were wrong. The hotel keepers gave the bear to a marshrutka driver -- the little van-buses are also the parcel post of the Caucasus -- and it went from hand to hand and arrived at our house just two days later.
So, good feelings towards Karabakh, and fingers crossed for a peaceful settlement.