Wednesday, 4 January 2012

How to obtain a Nagorno Karabakh visa

Nagorno Karabakh is internationally recognised as territority of Azerbaijan but today it is occupied by Armenian troops. When Stalin carved up the Soviet Union, despite Nagorno Karabakh being 94% ethnically Armenian, he allocated it to Azerbaijan. During the chaos of the break-up of the Soviet Union Armenia and Azerbaijan entered into an open conflict which was to last for 6 years, eventually resulting in Armenia taking control of not only Nagorno Karabakh but also 7 ethnically Azeri territories. Today Karabakh wishes to be independent, but not even Armenia recognises this. However, as with Abkhazia, Karabakh has a Foriegn Ministry and requires visitors to obtain a visa to enter. Luckily it is quite a simple process. We had heard that it was possible to obtain a visa on arrival in the capital Stepanakert but, as we had some spare time in Yerevan, we decided to get our visas in advance. We took a marshrutka to the Permanent Representative of the Nagorno Karabakh Republic where we managed to charm the women in the visa office to process our visas as we waited. There were no other tourists about (November isn't peak season) and they were happy to do it for us. The rather stern looking woman behind one desk explained that the processing time was usually 24 hours. We were given a form to fill out on which we had to list all the areas we would be visiting. Not having any plans we listed them all. When presenting the finished form at the visa office we were told that one of the areas was not open to tourists and it was tipex-ed out, the rest were fine. The staff were very helpful and offered us advice on where to stay as well as having useful maps for sale. They leafed through our passports making a note of the fact that we had visited Azerbaijan, but they did not question us about it or even delay the issuing the visa. The visa they were actually most interested in was our one for Afghanistan. The woman said, 'in all my years of doing this job,' of which I think there had been many, 'I have never seen a visa for Afghanistan.' This led to many questions about being a tourist in Afghanistan.

We got our 21 day visa for 3000 Drams, considerably cheaper than we were expecting - when does that ever happen? The staff would have stuck it in our passports had we not asked for it to be kept loose. We had heard that the Azeris were quite touchy about anyone who has been to Nagorno Karabakh and if we ever wanted to return to Azerbaijan it would have been hard to deny having been to Karabakh with a the visa stuck in our passport. Instead the visa was attached by a paper clip - easily removable and also saving another precious page in my passport. In addition to the visa, we were give a letter stating where we were planning on going. We had to produce this letter when entering and exiting Karabakh. On entering, the border guards took a cursory glance of it, making a quick note of the details, and when we exited the letter was kept by the immigration officers. During our stay in Karabakh we were only ever asked for any documentation when checking into hostels. There is also now no need to register on arrival in Stepanakert, contrary to what was stated in our guidebook. We were told this by the office in Yerevan and double checked that we had heard correctly. By the fact that we didn't have any problem I can assume that this information is accurate. Once we arrived in Karabakh we had no problems whatsoever visiting the places we wanted to and I found it a lot more relaxed and easy to travel in than I was expecting.

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