Rediscovering Armenia Guidebook- Artsakh
- 1 KARABAKH
- 1.1 GENERAL NOTES
- 1.2 History
- 1.3 Lachin Corridor
- 1.4 Shushi and Environs
- 1.5 Askeran and Environs (Stepanakert)
- 1.6 Gandzasar and Environs
- 1.7 Martuni and Environs
- 1.8 Hadrut and Environs
- 1.9 Aghdam and Environs
- 1.10 Mardakert and Environs
- 1.11 Shahumian and Environs
- 1.12 Dadivank
- 1.13 Kelbajar Pass
Thanks to Brady for his advise on this section, as well as Samvel Karapetian, Patrick, and Nigol for their assistance.
Karabakh is an area of beautiful green rolling hills, pastures, farmland and forests. The war that was fought over it a decade ago is still apparent in many places, and the effort to rebuild has been intense. The capital city of Stepanakert, really just a town, bears virtually no scars after intensive rebuilding efforts. The people are very proud, and their dialect very thick. The road from Armenia to Stepanakert is brand new and was funded by the Armenian diaspora. The interior roads are very poor, and it is almost always faster to go in a circle on the Stepanakert-Aghdam-Mardakert-Dadivank road and the Stepanakert-Aghdam-Martuni-Hadrut road rather than go straight - no matter what the maps show. A new interior highway is being built by the Armenia Fund that should make traveling much faster and smoother, but completion is years away. It is perfectly safe to visit Karabakh, and see the main sites. Staying away from the front lines and sticking to the paths often traveled is not difficult and will avert unnecessary risk. The best rule of thumb is to not venture east of the Martuni-Aghdam-Mardakert Road, and again, stay on the roads that are more traveled. The occasional blown out tank or burnt out village is common in Karabakh, leftovers of the war that are incredible for the average western tourist, but are not interesting to locals except for salvage/recycling purposes.
The de-facto independent government of Karabakh requires citizens of non-CIS countries to obtain a visa at the Karabakh Representative Office (GET NEW INFO). If you do not have one at the border post you will usually be asked to obtain one upon your arrival in Stepanakert. Cost is $25 for 2 weeks. If you may visit Azerbaijan using the same passport in the future, ask that the Karabakh visa not be attached to your passport, for you will be forbidden entry to Azerbaijan if they see a Karabakh visa.
The people of Karabakh emerged from a slow fusion of Armenians and Caucasian Albanians. By the 7th century A.D. they had formed an Armenian Principality known as Artsakh. The Arabs conquered the area in the 8th century, followed by the Seljuk Turks in the 11th century and Mongol/Tatar's in the 13-15th centuries. There was some settlement by Turkic Tartars in the lowlands of the region, which restricted the Armenians mostly to the highlands. This Turkic population was boosted by the arrival of Ottoman forces, and rule went back and forth between Persian tributaries and the Ottoman Empire, though the Armenians usually had some kind of autonomy or self-rule until the 1805 annexation by Russia. Ethnic fighting broke out in the region one hundred years later between Armenians and the Tatars. A Tsarist census of Karabakh and its outlying lowlands in 1917 showed that 72% of the greater Karabakh population was Armenian (the borders of Karabakh at the time included much of the surrounding areas as well). After a great deal of post WWI conflict, massacres, and diplomacy including Britain, Turkey, Russia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia, the Soviet Union was formed and handed a redrawn Karabakh, now completely detached from Armenia, as well as Nakhichevan, with its 50% Armenian population, to Azerbaijan. This was presumably decided by Russia to get on Turkeys good side, since Azerbaijan is a Turkic, Muslim country that Turkey has an interest in. In 1935, then almost continually beginning in 1960 there were occasional petitions, protests, and appeals until the massive protests broke out in 1988. These unprecedented demonstrations of up to 1 million people in Yerevan were the first such tests of Glasnost and Perestroika, which eventually led to the crumbling of the Soviet Union and the Karabakh war. The Karabakh region first expressed its desire for unification with Armenia, and then eventually fought for outright independence. The fighting began after pogroms of Armenians in Sumgait and Baku, and then spread into full-scale combat. The fighting went back and forth a great deal until May 9, 1994, which marked the capture of Shushi. A cease-fire was established soon after, although no peace treaty has been signed. The war left an estimated 30,000 dead, Shahumyan Region in the hands of Azerbaijan, and all the land W of Karabakh until Armenia, as well as all the land S until Iran under the control of Karabakh. (History was condensed from "The Karabakh File", a 1988 Zoryan Institute publication.)
This is how the vast majority of visitors arrive in Karabakh. The smooth new highway, from Goris to Stepanakert passes through the Lachin corridor. You can enter the corridor until you reach a small round check post, where you must stop and register. Just after the bridge and before the first post, if you turn onto the road going up the Aghavnaget (Zabukhchay) River, you can visit the 5th century Tsitsernavank* =45= (39 38.60n x 046 24.52e). There is only one road going straight up the river for about 30-45 minutes directly to the monastery, which appears on your left. Tsitsernavank is currently seeing some restoration and excavation. Named either for the nearby swallows or else for a piece of the little finger of the Apostle Peter which was supposed to have been kept here. The long, narrow, three-nave basilica is thought to date from as early as the 5th c., with a small bell-tower added in late medieval times. Continuing about 2km further north along the Aghavnaget River, lies the village of Gharaghshlagh, above which to your right, about 1km NE of the village is a nameless cave church now known as Jhayrapor Yegeghetsi, consisting of a big unornamented entrance, and two windows. Inside you enter a rectangular church with a nook, and steps leading up the altar. It is all carved from the rock, and unornamented. Less than two more km up the Aghavnaget River (2km SE of Merik) is yet another monastery on an outcropping of rock on across the river to your left. The small XIII century Mknatami Khach Monastery has some nice ornamentation. Beyond, approx. 2km up the river, and 2 km east of the riverbank lay the ruins of Varazgom Church, of the IX-XI cent. (Although I am uncertain about the exact location, so asking locals is worthwhile.) The top of the dome has fallen in, but a large part of the church still stands. This church is the only known example in Armenian architecture of a double altar on the eastern side, in addition to a double altar on the northern side.
Back on the main Goris-Stepanakert highway, after passing the check post, the road winds through the town of Lachin, now renamed Berdzor. The town is being resettled, and has a brand new church, just off the main highway, with traditional Armenian architecture. From Lachin the road continues to wind its way into Karabakh proper, on its way to Shushi.
Shushi and Environs
The approach to Shushi is marked by a hill that is topped with a massive, long rock. It is on this rock that Shushi is built, and below it that the village Karintak ("Below the Rock") is located. Just past the electricity substation with the ArmeniaFund sign, you should make a sharp right, almost turning all the way around, to begin the 20 minute descent to Karintak. Since Shushi was just above this village, and was the last Azeri stronghold to be captured, this village saw a great deal of destruction during the war. Many villagers died, and most of the town was rebuilt since the war ended. The old town square is pretty well preserved, and shows some of the traditional pre-Soviet architecture of the region. There is a plain village church that was restored by Land and Culture Organization volunteers in 1999-2000, as well as beautiful scenery, hikes, a stream, and friendly villagers. The stream has some swimming holes and a mossy waterfall (one hour hike downstream) and the whole area is great for camping. The massive vertical rock above Karintak (below Shushi) seems perfect for rock-climbers. There are some trails up to Shushi that will get you there in under an hours hike.
Shushi* =65= (39 45.66n x 046 45.33e), the long-time cultural capital of the area, can be entered by either driving up the road that ascends from the main highway just after the Karintak turnoff (this road is in poor condition), or by continuing past the old city walls and gate to the traffic "triangle" at which you should turn right. Shushi saw a lot of destruction and looting after its capture, and now is split between burnt out homes, and restored homes in which the Armenians reside. It was one of the few mixed Armenian and Azeri towns in Karabakh before the war. The town has a large and beautiful white stone Ghazanchetsots Cathedral*, built from 1868-1887 and recently restored, as well as the smaller Kanach Jham (Green Church), which also saw post-war restoration. This is the religious center of Karabakh, with the Archbishop residing across the street from the Cathedral. Along with the two churches are at least two mosques. Although these have been vandalized, they have otherwise been preserved, and present a great opportunity to climb the minarets for a birds-eye-view of town. Above the town, near the cemetery is access to the sheer rock that Shushi is built atop. This spot provides sweeping views of the lower Karintak river valley, and the opposite mountains equally impressive stone cliffs. There is nice architecture throughout Shushi, and around it in the form of an old city wall. Shushi now has nice accomodations (see http://www.shoushihotel.com for details)
Askeran and Environs (Stepanakert)
Stepanakert (Named after Stepan Shahumian, leader of the 26 Baku Commissars) is the capital of this small country, which is reflected in its small size. There is not much to see or do here, but it makes a good base for day trips with its central location and choice of hotels. There is a small museum, all of the ministries of the country, and a shuka (market) which will keep you supplied for your day trips to the restaurantless regions. Hotel Nairi and the Lotus Hotel are good for fussy travelers, and there are a many homestays if you ask around. On the outskirts of town lies the monument sculpted by A. Baghdasaryan, "We Are Our Mountains", more commonly known as Mamik and Babik* (Grandmother & Grandfather). These two huge stone sculptures of an elderly Karabakh couple symbolize the union of the people with the mountains they inhabit. Stepanakert, built up during Soviet times, does not have a single church. On the road heading NE to Aghdam, at 15 km you pass right through the Mayraberd or Askeran Fortress =50= (39 56.59n x 046 49.87e). Across the valley to the right you can see the other remaining part of this 18th century fortress built by Panakh Khan that once extended 1.5km all the way across the valley.
Heading south from Stepanakert through the village of Shosh (spelled Wow in Russian, with ancient burial mounds) then Mkhitarishen, you take the fork heading for the village of Avetaranots (Chanakhchi), where there are the largely intact sprawling remains of Melik Shakhnazar's house.
Gandzasar and Environs
The old road to the village of Vank, located just below Gandzasar Monastery has had some work done recently, but is still rough part of the way. When you pass the village of Kh'ndzristan, there will be a large, sheer rock towering to your left above the rest of the lush mountains. At the top of this mountain is <A HREF=armo5_kachaghakaberd.html>Kachaghakaberd</A>, "Fortress of the Magpies". There are some intact walls, but not much remains to be seen. East of the road, a few km NW of Rev Village, is the intact XVI c., S. Gevorg Monastery. Also on the way to Gandzasar, where the Kolatagh River joins the Khachen River, you can head up the Kolotagh to find S. Hakob or Metsaranits Monastery on the right bank of the river, near the village of Kolatagh. Some of the buildings and arched corridors built from the 8th-18th centuries are still standing.
Continuing up the Khachen River, you eventually reach Vank village, with the recently restored Monastery of Gandzasar** =95= (40 03.50n x 046 31.93e) (Mountain of Gold) visible on the hill above. One of the prime attractions in Karabakh, this is a marvel for its incredible reliefs carved into the Church of St. John the Baptist (S. Hovhannes M'k'rtich), named after the very saint whose head is supposed to lie buried somewhere within the church. The complex built by Hassan Djalal - Prince of Khachen in 1216-1238.
ADD GANDZASAR INFO******************************
Martuni and Environs
Martuni is easily reached via Aghdam, although there is a harder, more direct road from Stepanakert. The town has a cultural center called the "opera" for its resemblance to the one in Yerevan. Next to the opera is a statue to Monte Melkonian. Monte was an American-Armenian who fought during the Karabakh war for independence. He became a commander and after leading his men to many victories was killed towards the end of the war by a sniper. Around his white stone statue are some palm trees, showing that this flatter, low-lying area has some of the mildest winters in all of Armenia and Karabakh.
Heading N on the main highway from Martuni to Aghdam, you bear left on your second significant road towards Giulabli, (or alternately, heading south from Aghdam, take your second significant right after the edge of Aghdam) heading left at the fork as you approach the town. Drive straight into Norshen, and veer right (SW) on to Hatsi Village (church) with the nearby Bri Yeghtsi. This 5th to 13th century little complex contains 4 churches/chapels (the chapel built largely of khachkars and rough stones), three khachkar monuments, service premises and an extensive cemetery, all with numerous carvings.
The Russian Church of Gevorgavan (20th century) is SE of Martuni. It is close to the cease-fire line, so villagers should be asked before attempting a visit. There is a direct road, which is in poor condition, or you can take the main road S towards Varanda/Fizuli and cut almost directly E on a shorter bad road before reaching Varanda.
From Varanda/Fizuli you can head WNW just after exiting town northwards (or from Stepanakert, head SW) on the main (bad) interior road just past Karmir Shuka village and straight N on a bad road to the nearby huge, 2000 year old tree with an enormous hollow interior called S'khtorashen Tree =35=. Perfect spot for a picnic.
Amaras Monastery is a bit tricky to find, but all the locals know the way if you are ever in doubt. From Martuni, head S until you take you first decent road (a third of the way to Vardana/Fizuli) on your right. Head W then SW on this road until you reach Sos village. From Sos head SE to Machkalashen, and then finally you reach Amaras. (There are shorter, worse road going directly from the main highways to Amaras.) You can also get to Sos, and hence Amaras, by heading SE from Stepanakert, and just past Karmir Shuka taking the left (N) road which leads to Sos Village and S from there. Amaras Monastery =35+= (39 41.06n x 047 03.55e) has simple architecture and is surrounded by fortification walls. It is built in a flat valley, and these high walls are its only protection. Entering the complex you first see the stable area, and to the left is the separate church compound with surrounding cells and chambers. The Grigoris Church has some steps leading to a chamber beneath the altar. Originally established in the 4th century by St. Gregory the Illuminator, it was destroyed in the 5th century during the Vardanants war, during which the Persians tried to return Armenia to the Zoroastrian faith. Rebuilt in the 5th century by Vachagan the Pious, it the site of the first school to teach the brand new Armenian alphabet. It was destroyed and rebuilt on numerous occasions after this until today's church was built in the 18th or 19th century.
Hadrut and Environs
The easiest and by far the fastest way to reach Hadrut and the surrounding area is not a straight line at all, but rather going straight east to Martuni, then south through occupied Azeri lands past the destroyed Azeri city of Fizuli* (now Vardana) and keep following the road as it heads west to Hadrut in Karabakh proper. The road is much better that the alternatives, and greatly reduces the chances of getting lost on the windy interior village roads. Somewhere NE of Hadrut, just within the boundaries of Karabakh proper, is a nice Caravanserai (Ijevanatun).
If from Fizuli/Vardana you head straight west on the once decent road, you reach the village of Togh at the foot of a steep mountain. Togh is a historical village with 3 little churches, S. Stepanos (13-18th c.), Anapat (18th c.), and S. Hovhanes (13-18th c.), with an enclosed courtyard. There are some nice examples of traditional architecture in the homes as well. Upon reaching Togh, you head S (left), hugging the beautiful mountain (on your right) in a circle and heading towards Tumi. After you drive past the high pass and the valley opens up below you, G'tichavank should be visible to your right, near the mountaintop. The mountain is gently rising forest, until the sheer steep rock juts straight up (mountain climbing), forming a long cliff. As you descend along the same road down from the pass, you need to cut right up towards the monastery before reaching the village of Tumi that appears on your left. Our Niva (4x4) made it up to the monastery without any problems, but others report having had to hike a portion of the road in wetter conditions. The monastery of G't'chavank** =85= (39 35.84n x 046 56.41e) is one of Karabakh's best-kept secrets. Built in the 10th-13th c., this architectural gem sits on a beautiful mountain with great views. Once the seat of the Bishop, G't'chavank had an active scriptorium and a large library. Now it is sadly defaced with graffiti, including on the intricately carved khachars. -According to the inscription over the north door at G't'chavank, the church was built with much toil by the brothers Sargis and Vrtanes, bishops at Amaras, in 1241 and finished in 1248. They complained that these were rough times, with the Mongols ravaging everything... There is supposed to be a ruined G't'chaberd castle not far south of the monastery; the little rough stone church inside has no inscriptions but a carved image of the Virgin on its south entrance.- Continuing past the G't'chavank turnoff to Tumi, you can explore the nearby churches, Yot D'rnani Monastery, springs, and bridge.
Near Togh and Tumi is the village of Azokh, N across the river (ask locals for directions). The Azokh Cave is a series of six chambers in a row, the largest is 3,000 square meters with some stalactites and stalagmites on the walls. Remains of Neandrathal man have been found here as well as 300,000 year old art and tools.
Aghdam and Environs
From Stepanakert, head NE straight towards Aghdam, passing through the Mayraberd-Askeran fortress, and then a cemetery on the way. When you reach the traffic intersection, you will see the vast ruins of Aghdam** =100= (GPS - 39 59.58n x 046 56.00e) sprawling out before you. This was an Azeri city that was captured with very little combat or destruction. Up until this point in the war the two sides had been making gains, then losing them, and Aghdam was a big base of Azeri attack. The Karabakh army did not want to risk having Aghdam retaken and reoccupied a week later, so an immediate looting/burning/demolition took place that reduced the city to rubble in almost no time at all. Ever since then scavengers have been gathering whatever building stones, pipes, etc they can for recycling and otherwise the city has remained uninhabited. This modern day ghost town is a surreal place to visit, with the fruit trees in the town still bearing, and all the homes in various states of demolition. Near the center of town lies a large beautiful mosque, which as a holy place was not destroyed, but was definitely desecrated. From the minarets the view of the town, and well into Azerbaijan is unforgettable. Aghdam is rather close to the front, so you will notice a military presence and may be approached by soldiers.
Heading N from Aghdam towards Mardakert, you will pass two interesting sites; a roadside castle, behind a nice pond, and a mountain top white church. The castle is now a family home, with a large courtyard and tree. -The village it's near used to be called Shahbulagh "Shah-spring" from the copious spring below the castle. The castle seems to have been built around 1748 by Panakh Khan, but didn't have a very long history. Supposedly, there were glorious Russian victories near there, aided by Armenian volunteers, in the 1805-13 Russo-Persian wars. The castle was in ruins in the 19th c., and restored at the same time as Vankasar.-
Vankasar (Monastery Mountain), or Aghvank (Albanian Monastery), is the white church built on top of a steep mountain you pass on your left. On a clear day it seems you can see until Baku. It was restored in the 1980's, but some time in the past the reliefs and inscriptions have been chiseled off. -Unfortunately, its history is unknown (and disputed). From the building style it's thought to be 7th c; unfortunately, no early inscriptions, just a khachkar, long missing, with an Armenian inscription and date of 1263.- Access to this church is through the gate of a destroyed complex on the left side of the road, but you should have permission prior to visiting.
Mardakert and Environs
Although this area is rich in spectacular scenery and architecture, the vast majority of it is either very difficult, or impossible to access. The only major site that is easy to access is the Sarsang Reservoir which is a large lake formed by a hydroelectric dam. This is reached heading due east from Mardakert after taking the Stepanakert-Aghdam-Mardakert highway. Heading straight to the N to Mataghis, then SW along the Tartar River, you can theoretically reach the lush forests that contain Jraberd, Eritsmankants Monastery, and Eghish Arakyal Monastery.
Due to the position of the front lines, and roads, the following trip is not recommended for anyone but is probably possible. Heading straight N from Mardakert, you reach the village of Mataghis, which straddles the Tartar River. From Maraghis you can hike up your right bank of the Tartar River, then head NW at the first tributary, the Yeghsharakel River until you reach on your right hand bank, Yeghish Arakyal* Monastery =75= (40 20.18n x 046 41.58e). Built up during the 5th-13th centuries, this monastery resembles a small-scale Dadivank.
Even further from civilization for those who dare, you can continue up the Tartar past Mataghis, along your left side of the Tartar, past the Yeghsharakel River, into some of Karabakhs most impressive scenery. Temperate rainforests and dramatic gorges set the scene as you drive. Skip the first bridge across the Tartar (which leads to Tonashen, then back down to the road you stay on) then cross the second bridge to get to your right hand bank of the Tartar. Continue straight, ignoring the last bridge leading across to Maghavus, until the road turns right up the tributary named the T'rkhi River, where you will see J'raberd. J'raberd* =65= (40 14.40n x 046 39.98e) (Water Fortress), first mentioned in the 7th century, is extremely interesting not so much for the structure, but by the way it has enhanced the natural defenses of a place to create a virtually impenetrable stronghold. It is sited in a lush, green river gorge, atop a rock. To enter, you pass through a narrow, long tunnel on the hillside of the fort, pass through the rock to the riverside of the fort, then proceed up a small and steep path to the top. There is a water tunnel with steps all the way down to the river as well. The writer Raffi (Hakob Melik-Hakobian) worked here while writing "Mikikstva Khamsi" as well as "Davit Bek", and marveled in his travel notes about the natural defenses this rock provided against foreign forces. Visible some 7km from Jrabert is the monastery of Yeritsmankants. By following the road straight along the T'rkhi River, up through the gorge, (some have made it in 4x4's, others say you should walk) you reach Yeritsmankants** (Three Youths) Monastery =85= (40 15.11n x 046 38.38e). Also in a breathtaking setting, with interesting architecture, this is one of the gems of Karabakh. Like its other almost unknown and unvisited worthy sister monastery in the south, G'tichavank, this will one day be one of the must-sees of Karabakh. Built in 1691, this monastery has its own look. Again, I should mention that access to this entire area north of Mardakert is difficult not just for the horrible roads, but for the military situation. It may not be possible to visit these sites at the present.
Shahumian and Environs
This region is occupied by Azeri forces, and therefore is inaccessible from the direction of Karabakh.
Dadivank Monastery** =95= (40 09.71n x 046 17.32e), of the 5th-13th centuries, is located just outside of the official borders of Karabakh, in the Kelbajar Region. It is very easy to reach on a pretty good, but very roundabout road. From Stepanakert, take the Aghdam-Mardakert-Dadivank road, and you will arrive in about 2 hours, vs at LEAST four uncomfortable hours on any "shortcut". After passing Mardakert and the Sarsang Reservoir, the scenery gets better and better. The road is less clear and partly unpaved along the Sarsang, but at the end of the reservoir it becomes normal again, until Dadivank. Just past the Sarsang, at Getavan is your last opportunity to fill your tank or buy food until Armenia. With the river on your left, the tiny village of Dadivank will be on your right. It is soon after the village of Charektar, and there is a check post before reaching Dadivank at which you tell them your destination, and they can tell you the short remaining distance. Upon approaching the village there are 2 or 3 dirt roads to choose from. The one furthest on the left will take cars directly to the monastery. The village is tiny with a very friendly and intelligent mayor. Technically, the villages name is Vank, but people often say Dadivank. Campers will find this an ideal spot. The monastery has been built over a long period, with many different styled buildings and roofs forming a beautiful and harmonious whole. There are hardly any traces left of the frescoes that once covered the walls. The 13th century is considered as a time of prosperity of the monastery. Prince Vakhtang's wife Arzu-Khatoun built the main church in 1214. The gavit of church served as a burial vault for Principality of Upper Khachen. Both sides of the window on the southern wall of the church preserved relieves of the prince's sons Hassan and Grigor, holding the model of the church. Note the two incredibly intricate khachkars, in their own protective shelter. When roaming the very extensive monastery grounds, take your time so as not to miss the many hidden chambers and also to avoid the DANGEROUS HOLES in the roofs, which are often obscured by grass. You may not even realize that you are walking on a roof when you notice a hole with a big drop.
Kelbajar Pass has one main road passing through it, which stretches from Dadivank on the Karabakh border to Vardenis (Armenia) on the southeastern corner of Lake Sevan. Parts of it are well paved, and parts are just dirt tracks, which become impassable in very muddy conditions. Along the road are a number of military checkpoints. The entire Kelbajar area, has one notable town of the same name. Both are officially known as Karvajar now. The area is full of high mountain peaks and river valleys, alpine meadows and forests, as well as monasteries and the fortress of Handaberd. This is a much rougher connection between Armenia and Karabakh than the Lachin road, but by entering on one road, and exiting on the other, you avoid repeating the same road and are able to take in the beauty of the Kelbajar area, and southern Lake Sevan which few tourists ever get to see. The main thing to remember when traversing this road is to stick to the road MORE traveled! Whenever in doubt, you should stay on the roads with more tracks, and less debris. There are few people around to ask directions. If you find you have an abundance of camping food/snacks at this point in your journey, the soldiers here may be shy to accept them, but will appreciate them a great deal. Make sure to enter the pass with enough petrol to get through.
Driving past Dadivank, into the Kelbajar Pass, with the Tartar (T'rtu in Armenian) river on your left, a metal bridge will span the Tartar to your left heading south along the Tutkhu River (on your left). Just across the bridge is the S. Astvatsatsin Convent on a little hill. Driving up the Tutkhu past Jomart, the road crosses the river, then you pass Havsatagh, and ford the river at Zuar where you continue until reaching a small gushing hot spring =50= in a pool by the river. The water is extremely hot and runs off into the river, where it is tolerable temperature for immersion. The little pool it forms is built up with the minerals and has beautiful red and green algae.
Continuing along the main Dadivank/Vardenis road, you reach a signposted fork, to the left (straight) lies the town of Kelbajar, and to the right where the sign indicates "Kirovabad" is the road which continues on to Armenia. Heading towards Kelbajar Town brings you to this beautifully sited town, and continuing further south up the river (by taking the road that goes under Kelbajar Town) you come upon some hot springs past the village of Keshdek. From here you can continue to Zar, with a few churches, and eventually the road ends in the ruins of the Soviet hot springs resort town of Istisu. This resort town, high in elevation is on the opposite side of the mountain that Jermuk lies on in Armenia. There are supposed to be dirt tracks, which are passable in the summer with a 4x4. All along the mountains south of Istisu, south until Sev Lake in Armenia, on both sides of the border can be found numerous pockets of ancient petroglyphs. These are very difficult to reach at 3000+m high, and are only visible when the snow melts from about July to September.
Turning right towards "Kirovabad" and Yerevan, after approx. 4km you pass a brief section of the road where spectacular cliffs rise up on either side of you, and the Lev River flows right next to you. A few more km past this gorge and a sheer rock will rise up on your left, 600m south of the Lev River, on top of which are the extensive Handabert Fortress*, 600m south of the Lev River. With some foundations believed to date to the 5th century, most of the massive walls were built up over the centuries. A narrow path passing through the rocks under the southwestern wall, which approaches the main entrance in the north provides the only access to the fortress, standing on almost vertical rocks.
Continuing along the road which deteriorates at times, you eventually go over the mountain range and into Armenia, driving past the Zod Gold Mines, Vardenis, and quickly reaching Lake Sevan.