One Caucasus

The Caucasus - love at first sight
The Caucasus – love at first sight

The Caucasus summoned me and I obeyed.

Now I am back where I started, at home in Wales, trying to make sense of it all. I fell in love with the Caucasus. I don’t want to over-analyse why I love it so, but I have John Wurdeman’s words ringing in my ears – thoughts need decantation, not only wine.

Stories need a beginning, a middle and an end, so here are my final thoughts to round off the tale – personal musings on a few threads that feel important to me after my four visits to the region.

I knew beauty and joy in the Caucasus – that is the front-page headline. While I can also experience joy at home, I came back to my own hearth feeling emotionally richer and more content. I don’t wish to lay upon the peoples of the South Caucasus the allegation that their region is perfect. It is not. But I found it profoundly beguiling and nourishing, a reminder to me of the importance I attach to wild nature and to the life of the spirit.

There is a sense of the sacred in the Caucasus; you feel it in the air and it is a complex and many-layered thing. A deep understanding of spirituality in the Caucasus would probably take a lifetime of study, but what is immediately striking is that this part of the world cleaves to religious belief – and this after seven decades in an atheist empire, the Soviet Union.

When my mind dwells on Caucasus spirituality, I personally tend to think of the Georgian region of Tusheti, where there are Christian churches but also many pagan shrines called “khati” adorned with animal horns. Both in Armenia and Georgia, the world’s oldest Christian nations, paganism lives on even today as an element in the spiritual mix.

Falling in love with the Caucasus is a fate that has befallen many visitors. I am not alone! This land of resilient people and awe-inspiring peaks higher than the Alps gets under the skin of many a traveller and never leaves them. It is the polar opposite of bland. Writers, of course, leave the fullest accounts of their passion. One of my main learnings has been the discovery of at least a small portion of the literature inspired by the Caucasus and savouring just how wonderful it is.

Many of the titans of Russian literature have gone to the Caucasus and been shaped by their travels – Alexander Pushkin, Mikhail Lermontov, Leo Tolstoy, Maxim Gorky, Osip Mandelstam, Boris Pasternak and Vasily Grossman come to mind. If you took the Caucasus out of Russian literature it would leave a gaping hole. I wonder whether any other mountain chain in the world has served as such a powerful muse.

Tolstoy’s case is particularly striking because Caucasus themes inspired him at every stage in his career, after he volunteered for the Russian army at the age of 23 to fight against the Chechens. Even his final novel, the magnificent “Hadji Murád”, is set in the North Caucasus. He wrote it half a century after he first went there in the early 1850s and he wrote it during a period when he spent much of his time denouncing fiction. “Hadji Murád”, an almost unbearably moving tale of the horrible waste of war, is one of the masterpieces of world literature.

Looking beyond Russian letters, English-language authors too have found their voice after setting foot in these lands. Take Englishman Douglas Freshfield, a member of the first team to climb Mount Kazbek back in 1868. He also wrote extensively, and very touchingly, about the Caucasus. In his two-volume work “The Exploration of the Caucasus”‘ Freshfield seeks to play down his literary skills and describes himself as a matter-of-fact mountaineer. But Freshfield was so much more than that – he was a writer.

On one of his journeys he travelled through some very remote parts of Abkhazia, entering by way of Svaneti, up to the northeast. In a chapter entitled “The SoIitude of Abkhasia” he describes the view on the upper reaches of the Kodor river.

“It was not so much any individual peak that fixed the eye as the glory of the whole landscape – the rolling leagues of forest, the broad hills bright in the early sunbeams, the flashes of light in the depths; here a cliff, there a sinuous reach of river, nowhere any sign of human habitation.”

Freshfield makes it clear that for him the Caucasus was a welcome change from the roar of late 19th century London; it was an experience of spiritual solace.

“Men may still, as in past ages, look to the mountains for their spiritual help. In the shining silence of the storehouses of the snow we may find a welcome interlude to the perpetual gloom of our northern cities and the din of a commercial civilisation.”

In our own times too, the Caucasus has proved to be a muse. U.S. journalist Wendell Steavenson lived in Tbilisi at a time of economic hardship and acute power shortages in the 1990s. She fell head over heels for the place and proceeded to write “Stories I Stole”, an electrifying love song to Georgia. It is a non-fiction work of great beauty and her attention to detail is Tolstoyan.

One friend of mine has told me that I have become a Georgian “infatué”. (I know, this word isn’t in the dictionary. But it should be.) I plead guilty and when I read Steavenson I feel I am in good company.

I have heard the view expressed, in my own country, that the Caucasus region belongs to “the periphery”, whatever that means exactly. A big part of my learning is that in my gut I know that the Caucasus is not peripheral. It has become important in the contents of my head and I am still on a journey to understand it more deeply.

The Caucasus region is evolving and changing and trying to find its place in a turbulent world. So, I would like to look briefly at forces that are pulling the three countries of the South Caucasus further apart and forces that are bringing them closer together.

That same Russia, whose poets have sung the praises of the Caucasus, has been a deadly player in the geopolitical game in these parts and still plays a central role, very much in the spirit of the classic adage “divide and conquer”. Travelling through the region, I found that I had to decant my thoughts on Russia. To change the usual metaphor a little, Russia always felt like the bear in the room.

Taking a deep historical perspective, it is clear that Russia has had within it a strong expansionary dynamic. British historian Orlando Figes, in “Natasha’s Dance A Cultural History of Russia”, writes: “From the capture of Kazan in 1552 to the revolution in 1917, the Russian Empire grew at the fantastic rate of over 100,000 square kilometres every year.” The hunt for lucrative furs first drew the Russians on.

Today, Russia cannot expand in the same way. But this long history of pushing out the boundaries of the empire for earthly gain surely means that it has no model for how to build a friendly, co-operative relationship with immediate neighbours. It has to build such a model from scratch. Several of the countries that have escaped Russia’s grasp, such as the Baltic states, Ukraine and Georgia, are not on friendly terms with the Kremlin.

I pick up too another sort of restlessness in Russia’s history, a yearning to be relevant on the world stage. At its best, this has been pitched in high-flown idealistic terms. Fyodor Dostoyevsky, in a speech on Pushkin in 1877, said: “Yes, the vocation of the Russian man is indisputably an all-European and a world-wide vocation. Perhaps indeed to become a genuine complete Russian can only mean (in the last resort, let me emphasize) to become the brother of all men.” In the light of 20th century history, these words have a hollow ring. I think Dostoyevsky was sincere and I am left with a feeling that today’s nuclear-armed Russia, with its bristling fleets and fighter planes, is still searching for its vocation in the world and is not a happy bear. And this disgruntlement is not good for Russia. Nor is it good for its neighbours or for the world.

One priority for the countries of the South Caucasus is to shape and implement policies towards Russia. When the Soviet Union tottered towards its end there was ebullience, a sense of release. Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan had their troubles when the Soviet empire fell and trade links were disrupted, but they all shared a sense of turning a page of history and starting anew.

In the first instance, both Georgia and Armenia moved away from Russia.

The Polish foreign correspondent Ryszard Kapuscinski was in the Armenian capital Yerevan when the Soviet Union was in its death throes. In his book “Imperium” he writes: “Russian signs, posters, portraits — it is all gone. The city is undergoing a period of intense and scrupulous de-Russification. Many Russians are leaving; Russian schools are closing, as are Russian theatres. There are no Russian newspapers or books. They have also stopped teaching Russian in Armenian schools.”

It is fascinating to read this now because Armenia has since done a U-turn and become a close ally of Russia. In Yerevan there are now Russian newspapers, books and theatre. Even more to the point there are Russian soldiers, invited in by the government to provide defence and patrol the border with NATO member Turkey.

Georgia, on the other hand, actually fought (and lost) a war with Russia and pro-Russian separatists control a fifth of its territory, to the great chagrin of Georgians. In other words, the two countries have given diametrically opposed answers to the fundamental question “What sort of relationship shall we have with Russia?” It is true that Tbilisi, since the 2008 war, has sought to improve its ties with Moscow. But there is still a gulf between the Russia policies of the two countries. Today’s Georgia aspires to be part of the European Union and NATO.

Looking out for decades, Armenia sees its future in alliance with Russia. In 2015, when I was in Yerevan, I submitted some questions by e-mail to Armenia’s Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Shavarsh Kocharyan, and he replied on November 18.

I asked whether the agreement over the stationing of Russian troops in Armenia had a time limit. He replied: “According to the agreement between Armenia and Russia signed in 1995 and according to the protocol on amending the agreement signed in 2010, the deployment of the Russian military base in Armenia has been extended till 2044.”

Armenia has agreed to pay part of the cost of the base and this close alliance with Russia is not universally popular. One Armenian woman told me how cross she was that a restaurant in the country’s second city Gyumri had a menu only in Russian – Gyumri hosts the Russian 102nd Military Base. But the alliance is a fact of life. Not only is there a military pact, but Armenia is heavily dependent on Russia for energy supplies such as natural gas and fuel for a nuclear power station.

Now Georgia’s leaders want to take their country into NATO. At the very least this would deepen the divide with its southern neighbour Armenia. Mirroring the situation in Armenia, this pro-NATO stance does not enjoy full support in Georgia. I know my guide in Svaneti, Lasha Tkeshelashvili, believed Georgia should have a policy of neutrality. I don’t see how taking Georgia into NATO could make the Caucasus or the world any more peaceful. It doesn’t feel like wisdom. In a worst case scenario it could even be a trigger for a cataclysmic conflict between NATO and Russia. Extending NATO into the human fault lines of the Caucasus could make even less sense than building nuclear plants in an earthquake-prone zone. Why tempt fate?

Conflict over Artsakh, or Karabakh, looms large
Conflict over Artsakh, or Karabakh, looms large

The pro-Russian alignment of Armenia is understandable when you look at the world from an Armenian point of view. A century after the Genocide, Armenians still see Turkey as the historical enemy and feel they need Russia as a friend. The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict also comes into the equation in a big way.

Armenians are attached to holding onto this region, taken from Azerbaijan in war, and this attachment means they cannot afford to have Russia hostile to them. Even though it is allied to Armenia, Russia still sells arms to Azerbaijan. Russia is in a perfect position to stir up trouble, were the alliance with Armenia to falter.

I asked the deputy foreign minister about the Armenia government’s view of the Russian arms sales to Azerbaijan. He made Yerevan’s unhappiness perfectly clear.

“Russia is the ally of Armenia. Our cooperation with Russia includes all the areas, including the military field, we buy weapons from Russia. Indeed, we are not pleased with the fact that Russia also sells arms to Azerbaijan.”

One view among students of South Caucasus affairs is that it suits Russia for there to be no solution to the Karabakh conundrum.

“Russia uses the conflict to keep its influence in the region,” said a political analyst from a European Union country in Yerevan.

Over the years since the May 1994 ceasefire there have been attempts by the international community to settle this conflict, which still claims lives. But with bigger matters like the Syria war demanding attention diplomatic energy has drained away from Karabakh.

I heard a telling comment from someone who took part in a meeting of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) in Vienna in November 2014. It is the OSCE’s so-called Minsk Group which has sought to bring a peaceful settlement for Karabakh. This particular meeting looked at a range of international questions.

“When Karabakh came up, some people left the room and others started texting,” the participant told me in a conversation in Yerevan.

The conflict is one huge barrier to better political co-operation – soldiers facing one another on a front-line running from north to south at the heart of the South Caucasus make a mockery of any real attempt by governments to build regional unity.

"All Armenians dream of Ararat."
“All Armenians dream of Ararat.”

The Welsh call it “hiraeth”, while the Portuguese talk about “saudade”. It is nostalgia, a longing deep in the soul. It struck me on my travels that the people of this region are experiencing more than their fair share of “hiraeth”.

The older people among the ethnic Armenians who now have Karabakh all to themselves long to stroll by the Caspian Sea along the Baku Boulevard as they did in their youth. But war has deprived them of that pleasure. There are trenches, guns and bullets between them and the sea – a border as firmly closed as any border can be.

The ethnic Azeris who used to live in Karabakh but had to flee long for their homes and those glorious forested hills. But war has deprived them too.

Ethnic Georgians forced out of Abkhazia during the bloodshed of the early 1990s long for their homes on the Black Sea shore. But war trumped their hopes.

In Yerevan, Armenians look out over Mount Ararat on the other side of the Turkish border and remember that before the Genocide that part of the world was inhabited by Armenians. One day, on a Yerevan omnibus, a man said to me within moments of striking up a conversation that “all Armenians dream of Ararat.”

Too much unrequited longing is not good, but just possibly it can become a fuel for the creation of a better South Caucasus.

I know of at least two initiatives that seek to transcend borders and I wish them well.

The first is the annual One Caucasus Festival, which started in 2014 and brings together musicians and other creative spirits in the Georgian region of Marneuli. The festival’s website explains why this region was chosen as venue.

“The Caucasus suffers from many conflicts. The region of Marneuli is a borderland of Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and is known for being a place where many ethnic and religious groups have been living in peace for many years. It is quite unique in the Caucasus which continues to suffer from a range of conflicts and tensions. Our aim is, with the support of the local municipality, to create an inspirational & safe space to foster the meetings and collaboration of young people from the entire Caucasus region.”

The website says that funding for the festival is international, with some financial support coming from the governments of the United States and Poland, Warsaw City Hall and the French Institute of Georgia.

The other project that straddles borders is the planned Transcaucasian Trail from the Black Sea to the Caspian. Given the political complexities of the Caucasus, it is remarkable that brave souls have embarked on this venture. In years to come, this has the potential to be second to none among the great trails of the planet.

The website lays out a vision of “a world-class, long-distance hiking trail that crosses the Greater Caucasus and Lesser Caucasus and connects diverse communities and ecosystems, providing lasting and wide-ranging benefits for people and the environment.”

Each of the two intersecting trail corridors will be about 1,500 km long and the website says that the work to create these trails will unfold over the next five years.

It lists as one of its aims “improved cross-border cooperation that contributes to the stability in the region.”

The trail’s website addresses the question “How will you build a trail in a region with breakaway territories and frozen conflicts?”

The answer: “It won’t be easy and it may take many years but we believe it is possible. People have crossed these mountains for centuries and we hope it will become easier to cross certain areas in the decades ahead. By starting to build a trail we would like to help spur more positive and ambitious approaches.”

The spirit of Douglas Freshfield is surely following all of this with keen interest.

I salute these initiatives with all my heart.

Gaumarjos! To your victory.

A hike through Karabakh

Arrival in Artsakh or Karabakh
Arrival in Artsakh or Karabakh

In the eyes of the world, the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh does not exist. That doesn’t prevent 145,000 people from regarding it as their home, nor does that stop men from dying to protect it.

Karabakh is a self-declared republic, unrecognised internationally. It is inhabited by  Armenians who in a bloody feat of arms wrested it from Azerbaijan in the early 1990s. The conflict over this beguilingly beautiful region is unresolved and occasionally claims lives on the ceasefire line where Armenian and Azerbaijani forces still spit hate. The government in Baku has vowed to win this land back.

I put Karabakh on my itinerary because this conflict looms so large in the South Caucasus. I wanted to feel the pulse of the place and talk to Karabakhtis.

To give structure to our visit I suggested hiking a 10-day section of the route called the Janapar Trail. Tom signed up for this and we made a good team. Tom was navigator and I was interpreter. In the countryside of Karabakh, English is almost as exotic a language as Welsh. People speak the Karabakh dialect of Armenian and also Russian. The local dialect is sufficiently different from the Armenian spoken in Yerevan that national television uses subtitles when Karabakh villagers speak.

From Meghri in southern Armenia we went back up north through the mountains to Goris and then took a taxi to the Karabakh capital Stepanakert. At the border a sign in Armenian and French says “Welcome to Artsakh”. Artsakh and Karabakh are interchangeable terms for the same place.

After arrival in Karabakh our law-abiding iPhones moved forward one hour to Azerbaijan time (GMT+5). In practice Karabakh operates on the same time as Armenia (GMT+4).

In Stepanakert, an official at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, speaking polished English, gave us visas on the spot. These authorised us to visit all seven regions we had requested “with the exception of the front line”.

One of our few encounters on the trail
One of our few encounters on the trail
The canyon on the approach to Shushi
The canyon on the approach to Shushi

We’re off …

The next day, September 21, we headed south by taxi on a quiet asphalt road to the town of Hadrut, the starting point of the trail. The driver dropped us by a church and we were on our own.

We had read the site with information on the trail and digested some of its tips. Stock up with Imodium against diarrhoea, avoid both the powerful fruit vodka called oghee and romance with the locals. We heeded this advice, but happily never needed the Imodium.

The one essential bit of kit is a GPS. With the assistance of and the ViewRanger GPS app we downloaded everything we needed onto Tom’s phone. We had a digital map of the trail, GPS guidance, written directions on the route and information on accommodation in each village at day’s end. Much of the trail is waymarked with blue paint, but not all of it.

We walked up into the hills north of Hadrut and surveyed a pretty dry landscape, but much of the time we followed a shady tree-lined track with oaks and walnuts. It quickly became clear that the trail designers had worked with the need for shade in mind.

The initial day was fairly gentle, 16 km, and on arrival in our first village, Togh, we found accommodation with a butcher called Artur. His house was partly in ruins, but he was a good chef and for dinner he served up delicious pork shashlik garnished with pomegranate.

Artur sat with us for a while and we talked. He downed shots of oghee from a wooden cask sitting on the table and painted a gloomy picture of Togh. The population, he said, had dropped from about 10,000 a century ago, when Togh was a centre for the silk industry, to about 700 today. There are ruined buildings everywhere.

“There is no work. Life is hard,” said Artur. I asked about the youth of Togh. What do they do? “They go to Russia,” he said. “Stavropol, Volgograd.”

He spoke disparagingly of Lenin and the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution and expressed nostalgia for the Russian Empire, of which Karabakh was part. “When the tsars ruled it was better,” he said.

But Togh is attempting a comeback, even without the tsars. Last year it held its first wine festival and this October it will be inviting oenophiles to come back for more. Togh’s red wine graces the menu of at least one top Yerevan restaurant.

On day two, heading for the village of Azokh, we walked through a sublime beech wood, still in the green garb of summer but with a few leaves falling in a mesmerising slow-motion dance.

I think we looked tired on arrival. Two village women walked up to us and kindly gave us grapes. We sat and feasted hungrily. We found accommodation in a house with a well-laden pomegranate tree and many hens and pigs. When I headed for the outdoor shower room, one pig briefly joined me. This Karabakh trip is more a celebration of rural life than an ode to modern plumbing.

Day three and the landscape is arid. “It is a bit like ‘The Grapes of Wrath'” said Tom, invoking John Steinbeck’s classic 1939 novel about farmers fleeing drought in Oklahoma. We had just walked past some abandoned farm machinery by the roadside in the village of Shekher. In Karabakh, rusting agricultural vehicles are a common sight.

At the end of day four we arrived in the village of Avetaranots. During these first four days we didn’t see one bar or cafe. Our routine on arrival in a village was to seek out a shop – there was always at least one – and buy the coldest beer they had.

In my memory these villages have fused into one. I recall the hellos and the stares of neatly dressed schoolchildren, the strutting geese, the grunting pigs and the kindness of strangers.

We entered Shushi from the bottom of this street
We entered Shushi from the bottom of this street
Shushi street art adorns a ruin
Shushi street art adorns a ruin

Martyred Shushi

Our fifth day on the trail was a highlight. We were into our stride now and we bundled days five and six on the site into a tough one-day hike to the old fortified town of Shushi which stands atop a cliff. After the village of Karintak the trail enters the dramatic Karkar Canyon. The path follows a river and is mainly a scramble through woodland, with a 700-metre high limestone wall visible through the trees.

Finally, a steep rocky path climbs to Shushi. Nothing can quite prepare you for this town, which is unlike anywhere I have ever seen. Soviet-era apartment blocks are not uplifting at the best of times, but we entered Shushi along a dirt road with a forlorn inhabited block on our left and the empty shell of a ruined block, overgrown with weeds, to our right.

Twenty-one years after the end of the Karabakh war about half of Shushi still lies in ruins. But it is a functioning town, with about 5,000 inhabitants. During our visit there was a wedding in the white limestone cathedral. There are four working museums, hotels, restaurants, cash dispensers, asphalted roads.

Shushi, or Shusha to Azerbaijanis, has had a tortured history. In the early 20th century it was one of the biggest towns of the South Caucasus, with a healthy economy based on silk manufacture, craftsmanship and trade.

With the benefit of hindsight, 1904 looks like a high water mark for multi-ethnic Shushi, which was important for both Christian Armenian and Muslim Azeri culture. In that year, Shakespeare’s “Othello” was performed in Turkish in Shushi’s 350-seat theatre. Things began to fall apart when Russia’s 1905 revolution sent shockwaves through the empire. The events known to history as the Armenian-Tatar Massacres left many dead across the Caucasus. In Shushi hundreds were killed or wounded and the theatre was set on fire.

But fate reserved a much crueller blow for Shushi. In 1920 Azerbaijani forces laid waste the Armenian quarter of the city, killing hundreds if not thousands. In the words of scholar Thomas de Waal, the Armenian quarter “stood, ghostly and untouched, for more than 40 years”.

We stayed two nights in Shushi and had time to hear something of its more recent history. Saro Saryan, president of the Union for Armenian Refugees, gave us a guided tour of the history museum, with emphasis on the battle for Shushi in the Karabakh war.

Armenian forces captured the town in an extraordinary night attack on 8-9 May, 1992. Two divisions with equipment strapped to their backs climbed the sheer rocks on Shushi’s southeast side. Azerbaijani troops and Chechen volunteers led by Islamist commander Shamil Basayev fled. From then on the tide of war flowed in favour of the Armenians.

We sat for a while and talked in the small museum office. I asked Saro how he rated the risk of another Karabakh war. “Fifty fifty,” he said crisply. Saro offered advice to Europe. He is wary of Islam and he brought up the subject of migrants arriving in Europe, many from the Middle East. “You must be very careful with your prosperity,” he said.

He depicted Christian Karabakh as a front line in a struggle against Islamic fundamentalism.

In Karabakh, the Azeri Muslim voices in the system are silent, because they were uprooted by war and left for Azerbaijan. Armenians, in their turn, were uprooted from Azerbaijan. Saro, for example, was born in Baku, the Azerbaijan capital. As is usual in conflicts, each party feels aggrieved.

Time to clear our heads and move on. Day seven was a gentle stroll downhill to Stepanakert.

This is a sort of Bonn of the Caucasus – a tranquil provincial town catapulted into being a capital. It is true that small groups of uniformed soldiers wearing black berets can be seen of an evening, but perhaps the most striking thing about Stepanakert is how normal it looks and feels. The town is some 30 km from the front line, but the mood seems relaxed and confident. There are no derelict buildings and some construction work is taking place.

An ace Australian navigator leads the way
An ace Australian navigator leads the way
Pristine Karabakh forests home to wolf and bear
Pristine Karabakh forests home to wolf and bear

North of Stepanakert

Day eight and we walked to the village of Patara where we stayed in the home of Stepan Grigoryan and his mother Emma. Unusually for Karabakh, Stepan speaks English. He works for the International Red Cross, partly helping land mine victims to earn a living, and he also runs a small bread business with his mother Emma.

Emma’s kitchen buzzes with activity. She and a team of women turn out about 140 to 150 loaves of flat Armenian bread a day. The Karabakh war left Emma a widow and she brought up a young family alone. She used to be a post office worker and started the bread business a year ago.

Stepan joined us for dinner and suggested that we drink toasts, just as in Georgia. He invited me to be toastmaster. My first experience in the role of tamada! I was mindful that the main news reports in Karabakh were of a spate of violent deaths, eight in all, civilian and military, on or near the front line. I said we should follow the custom of the Georgian region of Adjara.

“The first toast is to peace,” I said and we all raised our glasses of home-made blackberry wine.

Stepan was a much more cheerful drinking companion than Artur in the struggling town of Togh. He radiated youthful optimism and at 26 had seen a bit of the world. He had been on a leadership course in France and combined an international perspective with a deep attachment to his country. He expounded on the rule of Vachagan, who in the late fifth century and early sixth century AD built many churches, bridges and roads in Karabakh.

“Karabakh people say Karabakh is the centre of Armenia,” said Stepan, whose flow was interrupted by one of the women walking in with a trayful of bread. He excused himself, since he had to pitch in and help. Before turning up at the Red Cross office, he does bread deliveries.

Day nine, the toughest day of the trail but very lovely. Some of the time there was no path. With GPS in hand, we bushwhacked through pristine Karabakh forests, home to wolf, bear, lynx and jackal. Particularly challenging was a section around a spectacular natural rock called Kachaghakaberd, Fortress of the magpies. Here local people took sanctuary in the 8th century from Arab invaders. This is a remote spot, with difficult terrain of sudden drops and thick bramble bushes. Without a GPS or local knowledge, heaven help you.

Day 10 and our journey’s end. We arrived in the quirky mountain resort of Vank, which has its own little zoo, and checked into a hotel shaped like a ship. After a visit to the 13th century monastery of Gandzasar, considered one of the masterpieces of Armenian architecture, we celebrated at a tiny timber-built restaurant by the roadside, with views over the wooded mountainsides.

We declined pig’s head, but to the sound of a lion roaring we ate tasty vegetarian fare including Zhingalov khats, the Karabakh speciality of flatbread with a variety of herbs. We washed it down with local white wine.

We walked about 145 km in total and never saw a single hiker on the trail, just the occasional man with donkey or horse. I found a lot to like about Karabakh. Tom’s verdict? “I have to say, the hike has been a highlight of the year.”