“You either love Artsakh, or have never been in Artsakh.” This is how our conversation begins with Tigran Varag, a 38-year-old mountaineer from Yerevan. He’s the leader of the hiking group Armenian Geographic and recently climbed Kachaghakaberd Fortress.
Kachaghakaberd is located between the Kolatak and Patara villages of Artsakh. There are two roads leading to Kachaghakaberd from Kolatak and Patara villages. The road to the top from Patara passes through the 800-plus hectares of forests belonging to the village, with the Caucasus mountain range stretching in the distance. In the eighth century, it served as a fortification against Arab invasion. It is called Kachaghakaberd (magpie fortress), because it was an impregnable structure, and only magpies could reach its apex.
Tigran fell in love with Artsakh during his first visit at the age of 17. He founded Armenian Geographic in 2012 and has since organized more than three-thousand hikes and mountain climbs throughout the Armenian Highlands, including Mount Ararat. In addition to mountaineering, Tigran leads educational seminars to develop hiking culture, explore new routes and appreciate the value of ancient Armenian historic sites. This year will see the release of Mountain Island, a bilingual monograph and summary of mountain topography, that includes photos and historical maps of the Armenian Highlands.
Tigran Varag has visited Artsakh dozens of times. He has conquered all of its mountains including Kusanats, Gomshasar, Dizapayt and Mets Qirs, which he considers the most impressive. Tigran is also assisting in implementing the project “Through the Villages of Artsakh,” which will be designed to give visitors and tourists a more intimate experience of the region by understanding life in the villages and local traditions.
Before the war, many tourists, hikers and families from Armenia visited Artsakh and spent their weekends in Stepanakert and surrounding towns. After the war, visitors have become less frequent with the prohibited entry of foreigners; most compatriots in Armenia avoid visiting Artsakh now, concerned for safety. Tigran believes that for many Armenians, it is also too painful to visit after the war. Armenian Geographic is one of the few organizations that has regularly visited the region, not only before the war, but also immediately after it.
“If they visit Artsakh, they will see that life continues in the same way and the most important thing is that the people living here don’t feel alone,” he said. “As we leave Artsakh, we think what else can be done.”
Hrach Ivanyan, a 41-year-old lawyer and avid hiker, has climbed almost every mountain in Armenia and Artsakh. He considers it the most natural thing to visit Artsakh often. “Coming to Artsakh is like eating, like survival,” he described. In Artsakh, he likes the walking trail from Kolatak to Kachaghakaberd and says it’s the most beautiful trail in the world. Getting to the top of the mountain is as important as the route to the top. “First, you overcome yourself and through yourself. It is also the people you meet on that road. It’s not just a physical-geographic mass. Every person brightens the road,” added Ivanyan.
Kachaghakaberd Fortress is located 1,700 meters above sea level. It is surrounded by 50 to 60-meter tall rocks. It has only one entrance from the southern side, which is hard to access. In ancient times, there were many dwellings, rock-hewn tunnels and fire pits for throwing stones. Attention was also paid to water supply. In the central part of the fort, two rock-hewn cisterns have been preserved, which were filled with rainwater.
Syuzanna Galstyan is a 32-year-old native from Gyumri, who lives in Germany and works as a program manager. It’s her first time in Artsakh, and she loved it very much. She’s already planning her next visit and says she wants to spend more time in Artsakh.
At sunset, the hikers return to the village of Patara, where the women of Stepan’s Bakery Guesthouse prepared traditional kurkut/cereals. It is a joy for both the working women and the villagers to see guests in their village; building relationships becomes the most important outcome of this adventure.