The Silk Road

Published in 826CHI's Compendium Vol. 6

          “Look down,” Saro said.

          I looked at the light colored cobblestone path under my feet. It stretched a little way into the distance, and then disappeared into the overgrown grass and weeds. I looked back at Saro, whose eyes were sparkling.

          “This,” he said, “Is a part of the original Silk Road.”

          My eyes widened. I remembered learning about the Silk Road in history class. I remembered sitting up straight at my desk and listening to my teacher’s description, enthralled with the imagination of what it must have been like for the traders who traveled that long road centuries ago. I looked down again, and the cobblestone path seemed to have transformed. My feet tingled with excitement. I was walking on the same stones that people had traveled on years and years ago, back when there were powerful kingdoms in these parts, and Shushi lay at the crossroads of empires.

          The sun was going down over the sharp cliffs of Shushi, so we soon went back for dinner.

          We sat at a long wooden table in the backyard of Saro’s guesthouse, where his wife Hasmik served us heaping plates of the best dolma I have ever eaten. Saro and Hasmik had also invited Valentina, Hasmik’s sister who works with her as a doctor at the local hospital. Saro poured us glasses of mulberry vodka, telling us how his brother had made it that summer. Then, when we were all seated and happily eating, he began to tell us his story.

          Saro’s story was, in some respects, the classic story of his country. He had grown up as part of the Armenian minority in Baku, the capital of Soviet Azerbaijan, speaking Russian and living side by side with Azeris. In his high school and college years, he saw the Soviet Union through its attempts at democratization and economic liberalization, and then, became victim to its collapse. As the USSR began to collapse, the fear and desperation among the people of Azerbaijan gave way to a wave of ethnic violence that swept through Baku, and the country’s other major cities. Saro was forced to leave his home and flee to Artsakh, the majority Armenian region of Azerbaijan that had been added to the country by Stalin in 1921.

          He established himself in Shushi, the capital city, and joined the resistance. Seeing the fate of their countrymen in Baku, the people of Artsakh took up arms against the government that wanted to obliterate them. Saro had fought in the war, he said, and witnessed the army’s victory in defending Shushi, and driving the government’s forces out of the region. They established it as an independent country, which was continuing to grow and thrive today.

          Valentina interjected, impassioned. Hayk, our guide, struggled to translate her fast flowing words.

          “We are still under threat,” she told us.

          She was referring, of course, to the recent battles that past April, which had become known as the April War. It was the government’s corruption, she said, that had caused them to lose some of their territory.

          “They go to their vacation homes and fancy houses,” she said, “And we don’t have money to buy weapons! Imagine! Our men ran out of bullets! They could have kept fighting, but they didn’t have enough ammunition!”

          As she continued with her plan for fixing the country’s economic and military struggles, my mom remarked, only half joking, that they should have elected her as their president. This was met with approval from all around the table, and a toast with the mulberry vodka glasses. We stayed up late into the night talking, until I could see stars dotting the velvety black sky through the leaves of the trees and bushes.

          The next day, Saro showed us around Shushi. Once the country’s capital, it remains wounded from the war, a much smaller and emptier version of its former self. It has been replaced as the capital by Stepanakert, a newer, nicer city in the valley below, but it still continues to recover. Though many of the buildings remain shells from the bombings that shook the city during the battle for its control, some people, like Valentina’s daughter and son in law, are rebuilding the shells into homes.

          Saro introduced us to Valentina’s daughter Ilona and her husband Ariak, who proudly showed us around the home that Ariak is building for them. Though most of it is still unpainted and full of tools and loose bricks, it was amazing to see the sturdy walls that he had built up from the destruction.

          “Many people are leaving Artsakh to find better opportunities in Armenia,” Ilona said, “But we want to stay here. This is our home.”

          After visiting Ariak and Ilona, we continued to walk around the streets of Shushi. Saro showed us an ancient caravanserai, one of the hotels that traders had stayed in as they stopped here on their journey down the Silk Road. Across the street there stood an empty mosque.

          Saro pointed to the red roof that looked a little out of place on the tiled building.

          “We had to replace the roof,” he said. “It was bombed out during the war.”

          “We fixed the tile work too,” he said, pointing to the two minarets.

          I approached the mosque and it looked back at me sadly, a solemn monument to the Azeri population that was forced to flee in the war. It was beautiful in its restoration, fixed up by a generation that was sad to see their country torn apart by ethnic and religious violence.

          I continued to see the scars of war on every street as Saro took us through the city. Many of the historic houses and apartment buildings were empty and ruined, which made it feel almost like walking through Pompeii, or some other ancient relic. Unlike those artifacts of the past, Shushi is still is living and breathing, struggling to recover its former strength, but fighting still. Saro showed us some of his favorite details in the doors and gates of the buildings, as well as an old house that his friend, an artist, has plans to rebuild.

We ended our time in Artsakh with another meal at Saro’s house. It didn’t have quite the political fervor of the last night without Valentina, but it did still  have the magic that comes with new friends and good food. After an amazing day in the city, I wasn’t ready to leave. When we drove into the morning mist the next day, all I could think about was when I could come back.

© 2019 by Araxie Cass. 
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