The Front Line: My Halloween Visit to the Destroyed City of Agdam, Nagorno Karabakh

The Front Line: My Halloween Visit to the Destroyed City of Agdam, Nagorno Karabakh

The Front Line: My Halloween Visit to the Destroyed City of Agdam, Nagorno Karabakh

Burnt out trucks, tanks chasing me, a country that doesn’t exist, a once vibrant city that is completely destroyed, angry stray dogs, dead end roads, rubble. My Halloween experience in 2013 was a tad eerie, spooky, scary and extreme. It was up there with my visit to Saddam Hussein’s House of Horrors in Iraq, the Venezuela border crossing and the Killing Fields of Phnom Penh and a reminder of my days growing up as a child in the troubles of Northern Ireland. After spending our first night in Nagorno Karabakh in the capital city of Stepanakert, I decided the next day I was heading to Agdam. That’s Agdam in the Front Line, near the border and ceasefire line between Nagorno Karabakh and Azerbaijan. Politically, historically and geographically this place is a completely complicated enigma, as you can see from the map below. I toured Azerbaijan, Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh to try and make head and tail of the situation. Agdam, is central to all of this.

The complicated borders in Armenia, Naxivan, Nagorno Karabakh and mainland Azerbaijan.

The complicated borders in Armenia, Naxivan, Nagorno Karabakh and mainland Azerbaijan.

The Northern Irish Link, Twenty Years On
My interest in politics, borders, country disputes and war comes from growing up in Northern Ireland, I’ll reveal more of course in my upcoming book, Backpacking Centurion. On the 31st October 1993, masked gunmen burst into a bar (The unforgettable “Rising Sun” pub) in the quiet village of Greysteel in Northern Ireland. As the locals partied and celebrated Halloween, these gunmen, dressed in boiler suits came to the front door, marched in shouting “trick or treat” and preceded to shoot and wound innocent people in the bar. 13 people died that night in an atrocity my fellow Ulstermen and women will not forget. Northern Irishmen and women have been haunted by the ghost of it ever since. As a result, I try to avoid celebrating Halloween, yes that crazy night in Sydney that you may have read about was an exception. It was fitting and spooky though that exactly 20 years on, I would make the trip out to the eastern edge of Nagorno Karabakh to visit the city of Agdam. For that Northern Irish atrocity, it was carried out by the notorious UFF (Ulster Freedom Fighters). On the 31st October 2003, the twenty year mark from that tragedy I found myself in Nagorno Karabakh.

paptik tatik jonny blair

Backpacking in Nagorno Karabakh, up to the Papik Tatik, the national emblem.

Where is Agdam, Nagorno Karabakh?

Agdam City is situated on the eastern edge of Nagorno Karabakh, right next to the border to Azerbaijan. Agdam is in the area classed as “The Front Line”, a ceasefire line was drawn here in 1994 following the Karabakh War. What’s left of Agdam officially sits in Nagorno Karabakh these days, Nagorno Karabakh however officially also doesn’t exist (at least as far as the UN are concerned). Azerbaijan still claim they own the land of course, but there are no operating Mosques here and any Azerbaijanis that remain in this area, keep themselves to themselves. To even get to Nagorno Karabakh, you have to leave Armenia, trespass over Azerbaijani land and into this wacky self declared Republic.

This area is Agdam and its outskirts - an area out of bounds for backpackers and tourists. A dangerous zone.

This area is Agdam and its outskirts – an area out of bounds for backpackers and tourists. A dangerous zone.

What is Agdam?
Agdam is a bit of an enigma and I’ll try not to confuse you. Some sources cite the name of a city called Agdam (Agdam City), some cite Agdam as the name of the entire region and cite a city known as Alibeili as the capital of Agdam. For this article when I refer to the city of Agdam, I mean the entire area of Agdam, but not incorporating the city of Alibeili, which actually has a population at present and is a smaller village on the Azerbaijani side of the border (again, for the basis of this article, I’m classing it as a border and going along with the theory that Nagorno Karabakh exists here). Alibeili is the current capital of the Agdam District. But when people refer to Agdam, what they really mean is the ruined city area where nobody now lives.

Gates in Agdam, Nagorno Karabakh

Gates in Agdam, Nagorno Karabakh

Agdam was once a city where people lived. 15,000 people once lived in Agdam city, a further 100,000 (rough figures) in the greater area. A staggering number. These days, NOBODY ordinarily lives there, only Nagorno Karabakh soldiers. The roads have had grass growing over them, the streets are full of rubbish and the houses are all derelict and destroyed. Bombed to the core during the horrors of the Karabakh War in 1994. Today, it still looks like a war zone but without the people. It’s an area of eerieness and desertion. Agdam is an empty city once lived in by Azerbaijanis but it is now in the country of Nagorno Karabakh, a country unrecognised by any other UN Nations other than Armenia. Soldiers man the place but to all intents and purposes Agdam is no longer a city or a town. You don’t go backpacking here ticking off your top sights, you can’t stop off for a beer and a bite to eat and there is certainly no tourist information booth or backpacker’s hostel. Agdam suffered complete destruction during the Karabakh war and was caught in the middle of it all. It was completely destroyed. Agdam is a very spooky “ghost town”. Here’s a selfie I took to prove I was there only, rather than to promote or glorify the idea of backpacking through such a distressed region.

Backpacking in Agdam, Nagorno Karabakh

Backpacking in Agdam, Nagorno Karabakh

Why Visit Agdam?
Some of you reading might be disturbed by the fact that I visited Agdam and that’s fine. But I wanted to. It’s up to me. I was interested in it, for the same reason that I have toured places like Transnistria, El Salvador, East Timor, Palestine and North Korea in recent times. Only those with a real interest in the history of what happened at Agdam should visit it. It’s not a tourist site, there’s no signposts, there are no monuments or memorials. It’s a city that was destroyed and lies in ruins, never to return to the vibrant hub it once was. If you’re interested in war zones, battles and political history, it’s a chilling place to visit and worth it for the first hand account you’ll get from it. One of my fellow travel bloggers, Graham Askey (who I met in Tbilisi, Georgia) also visited Agdam a few weeks before me and another Italian lady called Tacita Vero that I met after this also went. I haven’t met too many others in the last few years who backpacked through this enigma.

A sign post on the edge of Agdam, Nagorno Karabakh

A sign post on the edge of Agdam, Nagorno Karabakh

Are you allowed to visit Agdam?
NO. Tourists are simply NOT allowed to enter Agdam or the sensitive areas along the front line border with Azerbaijan. It is off limits to travellers and backpackers and generally those not in the Army of the Nagorno Karabakh Republic. It is deemed illegal if you go to Agdam. On your Nagorno Karabakh Visa it will clearly state the parts of the country you can go to, and also it will contain the line “with the exception of the front line”. Agdam was very much the frontline during the war and is included in those parts of the country you’re not supposed to go to. That said, I still went there, as do a few other travellers. I was curious and so I headed out there. My girlfriend Panny wasn’t keen at all – so she headed to Shushi for the morning while I headed to Agdam. We often have different opinions on destinations when we travel and I didn’t expect her to come with me – so I headed to the Front Line, alone. If you do head to Agdam, you’re breaching the conditions of your visa, you might not be able to play dumb on this one, so be careful if you want to see it – please!

stepanakert ministry foreign affairs

My Nagorno Karabakh Visa, bought in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Stepanakert.

How do you get to Agdam?
Backpacking in Nagorno Karabakh is quite a challenge and the marshrutky there are the second craziest on my journeys after Ethiopia… obviously nobody speaks any English, no signs are in anything but Armenian and getting around can be tricky enough. Go to the central bus station in Stepanakert, the capital city. The bus station is situated on Azatamartikneri Street near Victory Square. This is pretty much the main street through the city and is hard to miss, though as capital city bus stations go, this is one of the oddest!

agdam nagorno karabakh bus

My 202 bus to Agdam, Nagorno Karabakh.

There are 4 booths to buy tickets at Stepanakert bus station. You just go up and ask them about “Agdam”. Please try to keep it discreet as it’s off limits. Don’t mention the words “Agdam” when talking to army or police, as they won’t let you go there. Ask at the ticket booths for Agdam and someone will tell you the time of the bus. There is no timetable in English, either printed or at the station so you just have to ask at the time. Times of the buses will vary completely.

202 bus agdam

Bus number 202 to Agdam.

I went there around 10.30 am and was told there was a bus going to Agdam at 11 am. I didn’t have to buy an actual ticket. I just walked through the doors, onto the bus (after asking which exact bus it was) and waited for it to fill up. My bus left bang on 11 am and was full. I had a seat but some others had to stand/sit in the aisle. It was bus number 202 and it would pass by Agdam I was told.

agdam bus

On board the mini bus to Agdam.

Once on board the bus I asked lots of people if this was the bus to Agdam. It’s a tricky subject for them so you will get a few angry and confused looks. Just stay calm and most people will know you’re a backpacker and are going there out of curiosity. Make sure the bus will go via Agdam for a start! The bus is not going from Stepanakert to Agdam by the way – such a bus doesn’t exist. Agdam is no longer a city with people living in it so it doesn’t have a bus station, or a bus stop. No buses actually go to Agdam. The bus will go from Stepanakert to Martakert of Tigranakert. Agdam is simply a place on route, where on request you can get out of the bus. The journey cost me 500 Armenian Dram, just under 1 Euro. You pay for the bus as you exit, which seems to be the same for most routes in Nagorno Karabakh.

agdam spooky road

View ahead on the spooky road to Agdam.

Another option is to get a taxi – this obviously blows your budget a bit and I couldn’t afford it at the time, but ensures an easier ride there and back. Your taxi driver may also be able to take you to some of the off limits areas and cover your back if soldiers try to chat to you. I was doing it alone by bus and was fully aware of the risks. I later found out that if I hadn’t been such a cheapskate backpacker and paid a taxi driver, I could have even got inside the Mosque and into the old city centre of Agdam as well as up to the border points where the mines once were. It would have cost more than 500 Dram though so be aware of that.

Stepanakert to Agdam Bus
Once on board the bus, it’s a good idea to keep tabs of your journey on the map (yes – buy a map, print one or bring one with you – important to have in Nagorno Karabakh). The stop off for Agdam is entirely not obvious at all. I got out at the right place as I followed the map and alerted locals I was getting off for Agdam. Even when you get off at Agdam, you will see how unobvious it is. You won’t even see the ruined city at first. Leaving Stepanakert on the bus you will drive down Azatamartikneri Street past Victory Square, then past Papik Tatik (Grandmother and Grandfather rock monument).

backpacking in stepanakert

Posing by Papik Tatik in Stepanakert – Nagorno Karabakh

After that you have left Stepanakert. Next up you will see Mayraberd International Airport, which was completely closed when I was there. It’s on your left a few kilometres outside the city. Then you will pass a village called Ivanyan, then Mayraberd, then Askeran, then a tank on the side of the road. Just after this will be the stop for Agdam. Agdam is 25 kilometres from Stepanakert. The journey takes just under 30 minutes. Here’s the rough route:
11 am – Leave Stepanakert Bus Station
11.04 am – Pass Papik Tatik
11.10 am – Pass Mayraberd Airport
11.16 am – Pass Ivanyan Village
11.23 am – Pass Askeran Ruined Fortress
11.26 am – Pass a roadside tank memorial
11.27 am – Arrival at Agdam – I get off the bus alone in what looks like the middle of nowhere. It is.

agdam nagorno karabakh

Marshrutky to Agdam, Nagorno Karabakh.

There were no other backpackers or foreigners on my bus and if you’re travelling on your own, I’d be surprised if there are any on yours. There were no other locals getting off at Agdam, again be extremely surprised if they do. I’d imagine it to be exactly the same when you visit. This is just the remains of an old city in the middle of countryside. Why would anyone in their right mind want to get out here? That’s what the locals were thinking as I backpacked my way past the locals and to the front of the bus to get off. I was dumped off at the nearest current public bus stop to what was once Agdam.

This is the wilderness where the bus dumps me off.

This is the wilderness where the bus dumps me off.

I am in the middle of nowhere, dumped off by the side of a lonely road with a battered fork of a road that leads to downtown Agdam. The bus heads north to Tigranakert. Here am I backpacking through a city that was destroyed by an evil war.

A lonely road to Agdam

The lonely road to Agdam

The ruins of Agdam sit in remote countryside. To the left of the main road are low walls which was once the edge of the city. To the right are the remains of a load of houses and in behind all that is the ceasefire line and Azerbaijan. No buildings that look like they are used and a load of army trucks. You are in Agdam. You are on the very outskirts of a housing estate which was once part of a vibrant and inhabitated city. It’s truly sad.

agdam nagorno karabakh

Ruins of Agdam, Nagorno Karabakh.

Debris in Agdam, Nagorno Karabakh

Debris in Agdam, Nagorno Karabakh

Can you take photos at Agdam?
The correct answer is no. You’re not even supposed to be there so of course you can’t officially take photos. You’re nto supposed to, but you will take them. I did, as you can see – I took quite a lot in fact, I wanted to have a visual memory of my visit and something to share with you all, so I took them. Do it discreetly and don’t let the army see you. There were times when I was very nervy and aware of the problems with brandishing my camera and I had a few soldiers follow me at one point and keep an eye on me, so please be discreet. There was a point where they manned a large army base and I only got a photo from afar – they were watching my every move.

agdam remains

The sad remains at Agdam.

The ruins of Agdam, Nagorno Karabakh

The ruins of Agdam, Nagorno Karabakh

Who else is in Agdam?
Lots of soldiers. Lots. You will see a load of armoured trucks and vehicles going past you. When they see you, the soldiers may shout something and get aggressive. They don’t want you there and you shouldn’t be there. A minority of them were more friendly and waved. A few of the ruins also have wild dogs roaming in them, which can also be a tad scary! One jumped over a wall and scared the shit out of me!

agdam

Walls in Agdam, Nagorno Karabakh.

What is there to do at Agdam?
Agdam is a truly sad place. It’s horrific. Bricks, rocks, rubble, rusty vehicles, burnt out cars etc. It’s the blatant remains of a war zone. It’s not for the faint hearted. In terms of things to do there, I have to say it’s just have a walk around, get a feel for what happened here, take a few photos discreetly and perhaps say a prayer for mankind that this sort of thing doesn’t happen again. Wander around for a bit and take it all in. There is supposed to be an old Mosque which lies in ruins in what was once the city centre, but I couldn’t find it and the soldier presence put me off. I didn’t want to risk venturing too far, especially not on my own when I was already trespassing and the only people that I have heard of that visited the Mosque have done so by taxi or car, so to backpack it there on public transport or by walking seems a no go. If you read this and hear of anyone who got the bus there and then walked to the city, I’d appreciate if you could share the route with me, as quite simply I couldn’t get anywhere without the soldiers telling me to go back or watching my moves.

Ruined buildings in Agdam, Nagorno Karabakh

Ruined buildings in Agdam, Nagorno Karabakh

What actually happened at Agdam?
Agdam was once populated with 15,000 people yet because of its location on the frontline in between Armenia and Azerbaijan, it became a conflict area during the war. The whole place got destroyed. It was stuck in the middle. Both sides destroyed parts of it, though it was mostly the Armenians of course. The locals fled, or joined the side they were on, tanks marched in. Houses were set on fire, looted, raided. The entire city was taken over by people killing each other. One day I am sure there will be a monument or memorial at Agdam itself, but for now that’s just not possible as it is heavily manned by army 24 hours a day. It is truly one of the saddest places I have ever been.

Something bad happened at Agdam, and you know it.

Something bad happened at Agdam, and you know it.

Where to stay in Agdam?
Are you kidding? It is a city where nobody lives. Any traces of hotels have long gone and there ain’t no scene for a happy backpacker’s hostel with WiFi and beer on tap here let’s make that clear. This is a sad place. Your best option is to stay in Stepanakert (we had a cool homestay arranged) and do this place on a half day trip like me. If you check for hotels in Agdam, this is what you get. None of them are even close!

Our homestay in Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno Karabakh

Our homestay in Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno Karabakh

Is it dangerous to visit Agdam?
Yes it is – I felt slightly uneasy when I was there. I was always on edge and I’ve travelled a fair bit through so called dodgy places like Iraqi Kurdistan, Caracas in Venezuela, New York’s Bronx, Hebron and places that are safe but wrongly reported in the media as dodgy like El Salvador, Iran, Northern Ireland and North Korea. So for somewhere to make me feel like this is rare. It felt like I was back in a 1980s Northern Ireland but without any friends or family to speak to and nothing I could understand. It is rumoured about 30 people are shot dead every year by snipers in and around the front line, whether its Armenians or Azerbaijanis is not clear, but the risks here are huge. Besides being dangerous, don’t forget it’s illegal.

“I’m illegal alien” – Sting (almost)

A tank near Agdam in Nagorno Karabakh

A tank memorial near Agdam in Nagorno Karabakh

Army trucks and landrovers are everywhere. There is a huge military presence and you feel on the edge. I won’t lie and say it’s completely safe. The army are obviously armed and considering the fact that you might be alone and are in a place that is off limits to backpackers, there is a high chance they will approach you, shout things and generally make you feel very out of place and unwelcome. Don’t linger for long. Keep your wits about you and don’t make it obvious that you’re there. A fellow traveller Justin from Velvet Rocket took this photo (below) as he had a car and it marks the end of the road as far as Nagorno Karabakh is concerned, and beyond you are risking crossing into Azerbaijan. Not recommended of course even if you have an Azerbaijan Visa.

The end of the road in Nagorno Karabakh at Agdam, border to Azerbaijan

The end of the road in Nagorno Karabakh at Agdam, border to Azerbaijan (Copyright Justin from Velvet Rocket)

Getting back from Agdam
Getting back to Stepanakert is extremely tricky!! Very difficult even for a hardcore backpacker. The army won’t help you for sure, so avoid asking them. There are no regular buses and even when there is a bus, there are no bus stops, and for a start you will never remember the road that you arrived on, so you’re left with two main options:
1. Walk back to Stepanakert (25 kilometres)
2. Hitch hike back to Stepanakert

Hitch hiking back from Agdam, Nagorno Karabakh

Hitch hiking back from Agdam, Nagorno Karabakh

I decided to get out as soon as I could, as I’d seen all I wanted and needed away from the soldiers, so I just started walking back, towards the way I came. I used the mountains as a guide as I knew they were on the left of me when I arrived, so I kept them on the right and walked through Agdam’s deserted streets of ruin hoping to get back on the slightly more main road that I had arrived by. In truth I was completely lost. Cars were few and far between and this wasn’t a main road I was on. I walked for a few kilometres and was now convinced I was back on the same road that I had arrived on the bus from. I called out a few times for passing cars to stop and take me back but none would – a few even shouted things at me. Then by chance saw a car parked outside a restaurant in front of me. It felt like a saviour or a mirage – an Oasis in the desert! I went on inside and asked them for a lift back to the capital! Done!

After a walk through roads like this, I found a restaurant!

After a walk through roads like this, I found a restaurant!

What was even better was they sat me down, gave me a coffee and a snickers bar (no charge), tried to have a conversation and then filled up my empty water bottle for me. It was a hot day and I’d been walking in the sun.

The restaurant in the middle of nowhere

The restaurant in the middle of nowhere

I could have got a free ride back to Stepanakert but felt like I owed something to these people so I gave them 3,000 Armenian Dram for the coffee, Snickers, hospitality and the lift back. My driver was called Varuzan. I had also asked to stop at the tank memorial and at Askeran Fortress on the way back into Stepanakert, so I had an added bonus of a couple more sights, I really felt I had done it the cheapest way I could.

A free coffee and Snickers bar in the restaurant

A free coffee and Snickers bar in the restaurant

It was a pretty crazy journey to be honest but I’m glad I saw at least part of Agdam (even if it was just the outskirts of an abandoned city) and it serves as a reminder of how bad times have been for people in these places. An area torn apart by war with a strong reminder of what happened. Places like Agdam are scary but moving experiences.

A military base in Agdam

A military base I saw in Agdam

If you’re interested in Agdam and the history here, I’d recommend going, but be aware, it can be dangerous and take no risks with it. Please. Break your backpacking budget and taxi it if you can – by bus and hitch hiking was not that safe. Honestly – so pay the extra!

Top sights in Agdam? Forget it.

Top sights in Agdam? Forget it.

I didn’t do a “backpacking top 5” for Agdam and I won’t as it’s not right at all, but instead here are a couple of places that I personally missed and that would have been interesting to see. I found a few other travel bloggers who saw the Mosque, but not the football stadium (or what’s left of them).

1. Agdam Mosque
You might be wondering about Agdam’s most famous surviving landmark, Agdam Mosque. It is one of the buildings in the city that still survives and the two minarets of the Mosque are the current highest points in the ruined city of Agdam. There is a real sadness within. Due to being a cheapskate and not being able to find the Mosque at all, I don’t have a first hand account of seeing Agdam Mosque. However Italian traveller Tacita Vero was there just after me and has some photos of the Mosque and the ruins of the city from above.

The view from the top of Agdam Mosque

The view from the top of Agdam Mosque. Photo by Tacita Vero.

Agdam viewed from the top of the Mosque

Agdam viewed from the top of the Mosque. Photo by Tacita Vero.

Agdam Mosque. Photo from Tacita Vero.

Agdam Mosque. Photo from Tacita Vero.

Inside Agdam Mosque. Photo from Tacita Vero

Inside Agdam Mosque. Photo from Tacita Vero.

After Khojaly’s invasion by Karabakh Armenia forces on 29 February of 1992, 200 dead bodies were first placed in Agdam Mosque. However, according to mosque’s director Seyid Sadiqov, the mosque had an astounding 477 corpses inside it.

Here are some travel blogs by my fellow backpackers to visit Agdam:

Graham Askey’s trip to Agdam
Tacita Veros’s trip to Agdam
Justin Ames’s trip to Agdam

2. Football Stadium in Agdam
If you follow my travels you will know how much of a football fan I am. Sadly on my trip to Agdam, it wasn’t about ticking off happy sights so I didn’t go looking for the ruins of the football stadium (which in retrospect would have been very interesting). Despite the invasion, the town of Agdam is still represented by a professional football team competing in the top-flight of Azerbaijani football – Qarabağ FK, currently playing in the Azerbaijan Premier League and they have won it the last two seasons as well as competing in the Europa and Champions League. In 1992 Qarabag FK who their first league championship, becoming the first non-Baku based club to win the Azerbaijan Premier League title. Before the Karabakh War, Qarabag FK played their home games in the city of Agdam at the Imarat Stadium. I found a few photos of it online, from back in the day.

Possibly the old football stadium in Agdam. Photo from Panoramio.

Possibly the old football stadium in Agdam. Photo from Panoramio.

Some ruins in Agdam that I didn't see. Photo from Graham Askey.

Some ruins in Agdam that I didn’t see. Photo from Graham Askey.

The Imarat Stadium, which was Agdam’s only stadium, was destroyed by bombardments from Armenian military forces during the Nagorno-Karabakh War. These days Qarabag FK play their home matches in Baku in the Tofik Baramov Stadium which was once called the Bakcell Arena and was where I made my return to Northern Ireland matches from, back in 2013.

Supporting Northern Ireland in Baku, Azerbaijan

Supporting Northern Ireland at the Tofik Baramov Stadium in Baku, Azerbaijan

Again I must stress that Agdam is off limits and it’s not what I call shiny, happy backpacking. Worth a trip, take my tip and do it discreetly by taxi but try and understand the sadness of it all. This was once a great, happy city and it was the scene of vicious invasions and multiple murders, it’s now in complete ruins being left to rot with nature taking over and growing shrubs, bushes and vegetation over what was once someone’s home town.

My thanks to fellow backpackers Justin James, Tacita Vero and Graham Askey for their input and stories on Agdam and the obscure Republic of Nagorno Karabakh.

Safe travels and rest in peace, the city of Agdam. Here are some of my videos from the day trip.

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