Arriving into Stepankert—Nagorno-Karabakh’s capital—under the premises of an ongoing armed conflict with Azerbaijan, a dispute that has been going on for decades and has cost the lives of thousands of people, dimmed the light that had been shining in my eyes since the first moment I read about the possibility of a solo-trek across this highly problematic region.
Nonetheless, I was warmly welcomed by Edward and his wife—an elderly couple who runs a small guesthouse in the heart of the capital and even though we didn’t share a common language, we managed to semi-communicate while enjoying homemade borscht and thick, black coffee.
The next morning, Hermes was kind to me and allowed me to wake up to the news of a ceasefire, a clear sky and a waking Sun.
Luck seemed to be on my side, so I grabbed my backpack and went straight to the MID Office, to register myself before starting to walk to the outskirts of the city.
The beginning of my Janapar Trek was off to a great start!
(Disclaimer: To my bad—or maybe good—luck, I have lost all my pictures of those days in Stepankert, so I’ll be illustrating this post with pictures of how my Mom was imagining the whole thing as I was telling her this story.)
A little bit of background
First of all: Why on Earth was I there?
Well, there’s no denying the fact that I like to go to crazy places and to me, there was nothing crazier than going to a self-declared independent country that no one recognises, except for other countries which nobody else recognises. I’m looking at you, Abkhazia.
Add that to the fact that the region is famous for its hospitality and friendliness, plus a sweet trek through a big part of the country and you get the perfect mix for a great adventure.
Yes, I know it has a history of conflict but hey! Who doesn’t have a dark past?
Here comes the BOOM!
A really interesting thing that I noticed since I stepped foot in Armenia was that not a single man sported a beard and mine used to draw a lot of attention, specially from kids.
Stepankert was no exception and as I walked out of the city, people kept staring at me and asking me where I was going.
According to my highly detailed map, Shushi was my first stop, but trying to explain this with simple words and hand signs proved to be almost impossible.
It seems like most people don’t understand why would you walk with a massive bag in your back if you can easily take a ride there, instead. Or maybe they were warning me of something…
The path was clearly marked, so it was not a problem to follow it and since I was walking at a good pace, I had more than enough time to stop and admire the panorama.
This is when I noticed some peculiar lines hanging from the top of the mountains, snapped a picture so I would remember to ask about them later and kept going.
I didn’t think much of the black Lada approaching me at inappropriately high speeds through the backroads of Stepankert—I even waved at it—but as soon as three soldiers came out of it, screaming and forcing me to give them my camera, I knew I was in trouble.
“Nyet Russki, nyet Russki,”—I said, rising my hands—”Is there a problem?”
With a slap to the head as an answer, all my stuff went straight to the trunk and I was shoved into the passenger seat, hands forced into the board.
Driving back to the city, they kept searching me and questioning me with broken English and when they found the pictures of those weird lines in the mountains, the slapping increased. Later, I would discover that these are used as a defense mechanism to bring down helicopters.
“You are ISIS,”—said one of the soldiers, as he pulled my beard—”fuck your mother!”.
My reaction? I started laughing! I just couldn’t believe the situation I was in and images of that crying American who was jailed in North Korea kept coming to me.
“I’m gonna be next, I’m gonna be next, I’m gonna be next,”—was the only thing I could think of.
They were even playing “Good Cop, Bad Cop” with me, with the driver assuring me that it was going to be OK while the other two hit me, insulted me and screamed at me.
Guilty by association
We finally got to a Police Station and I was pushed in under another healthy dosis of head slaps and butt kicks.
Inside the Chief’s office, I was stripped down to my underwear, questioned about every little thing, from what I was doing in NKR to who I was working for? Was it Turkey or Azerbaijan? ISIS?
“I’m Mexican,”—with a broken voice and my passport in hand.
“You’re not Mexican. Mexicans are short and have no beard.”—Gosh, the times I’ve heard that.
My photos of Mosques and minarets from my 3 months in Turkey, plus the small Quran I got as a gift while I was in Israel, did not help my case at all.
Even trying to explain them that I have been traveling around the world for a couple of years; that my computer and cameras are my means of work; that I don’t practice any religion so my beard means nothing; was hard, very hard.
So many things were happening at the same time, that is difficult to put them all on a single post.
More than once, they told me I was going to jail for 10 years for espionage, for helping the enemy and attempt against the independence of the Republic.
All I wanted was to walk in nature.
The sour taste of freedom
It took them more than 6 hours, 2 interpreters, dozens of threats and a questionnaire about Mexican monuments to accept that I was, in fact, who I claimed to be the whole time.
Just to prove a point, they decided not to jail me but still took all my SD cards, then told me to leave Nagorno that same day on a shared taxi, under the heaviest snowstorm I’ve witnessed and dozens of military trucks driving in the opposite direction.
On a very bizarre twist of events, they offered me their friendship by bringing homemade oghi into the office and drank several shots of the sketchy vodka with me.
By the end, we were all semi-drunk and was even handed an AK-47 so we could all strike poses together. “The Mexican ISIS” was my nickname.
“Don’t take it personally,”—said the main interpreter—”this is just a weird situation.”
Indeed, my friend. Indeed.