What’s it like being in a city that’s been dead as long as you’ve been alive?

As I wrote last month, I ran into someone quite unexpected when I went to report on the Kachin civil war in northern Burma: an 18-year-old American backpacker named Zach Goldman. Sensing an opportunity, I quickly deputized him as a dirt-cheap Roads & Kingdoms intern and was not disappointed.

Zach had some admirable ideas, and some very foolish ones (roadtrip to Pakistan FTW!). Fortunately, his better angels prevailed, and he’s now turned up in the Caucasus instead. Roads & Kingdoms caught up with him in Stepanakert to talk to him about his visit last week to the blasted town of Agdam (where he took this picture). Here’s what he had to say:

R&K So Agdam is a ghost town, abandoned after the 1993 war between Azerbaijan and Armenia. What the hell are you doing there?

Zach Actually I read about it in the Lonely Planet book for Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan (2008 issue). And I was just curious I guess.

R&K Like Myitkyina in Myanmar, Agdam is periodically closed to outside visitors. Did you have trouble getting there?

Zach None. Our taxi driver didn’t even blink when we asked him. Although he did charge us a handsome rate.

R&K So it was a daytrip. From where? What was the rate?

Zach Well the whole kinda-sorta country that is Nagorno-Karabakh is only like 60km wide and about 100km long. So from the capital of Stepanakert it took about a 1/2 hour to get there, and the rate was 8000amd… not sure what the conversion is.

R&K Sounds pricey, whatever 8000amd is. Is it true that there are cows in the main mosque now?

Zach Well there are no cows INSIDE the mosque because someone put a metal gate in the main doorway with a huge padlock on it. But there are cows practically everywhere else.

R&K That picture is of the main minaret of the mosque, right?

Zach Yeah. There are two minarets. I was standing on the other one. You’re not allowed to take pictures though. So I wasn’t able to get a photo of the whole mosque.

R&K Who exactly is there tending the cows and keeping you from taking pictures, etc?

Zach There are several military depots throughout the city, run by joint Armenian and Karabakhi forces I’m guessing, and there are men in uniform just walking around town essentially.

R&K So soldiers are tending the cows?

Zach Pretty much.

R&K Have you had any beef in Nagorno-Karabakh? How was it?

Zach Actually I had some beef in my borsht one night.

R&K And?

Zach It was perfectly cooked. Too much fat though. For me at least.

R&K You were born in 1993, right?

Zach Yeah.

R&K What’s it like being in a city that’s been dead as long as you’ve been alive?

Zach Frightening. When I stood on top of that minaret and looked around at the devastation. I was frightened, and angry. I hated humanity in those moments atop the minaret. I mean, here was center of Azeri culture, burned to ground with countless lives lost. The ironic thing is that Agdam was never even part of Nagorno-Karabkh, it was entirely Azeri, and the Armenians burned it to the ground in the hopes to use it as a base for future invasions. So I mean, it felt hopeless really.

R&K What does the rest of the town look like? How long did you spend there?

Zach Well, we couldn’t have spent more than an hour. I wanted to stay longer but my friends were getting more nervous with every passing minute. Also, we didn’t want to make our taxi driver uncomfortable. Aside from the mosque nothing is left entirely intact, there are ruined homes everywhere and some segments of apartments of offices that still stand. But as you can see from the picture, there’s nothing more than rubble.

R&K Nervous? Why?

Zach We had passed a bunch of uniformed guys on our way in and when we got out of the cab the driver said that “they” were watching. It was a fairly nervewracking place too, even without the added looks and comments.

R&K Just because it was destroyed?

Zach Well because it was so fucking quiet. Aside from the occasional crow. There wasn’t a bloody sound in the whole place. Also, the possibility of being arrested was on all our minds. The visa to Nagorno-Karabakh does not include a visit to Agdam

R&K You told me earlier that you’re quite fond of Armenia, the girls especially. Any of those warm feelings change after seeing Agdam?

Zach Some. Yes. But I also know that the Azeris had massacred several towns and had pelted Stepanakert with Grad missles for weeks before being routed by the Armenians. It’s always the same in war, no one is in the moral right.

R&K So, last question: you recommend Agdam for a visit or no?

Zach Agdam is not a tourist attraction and in reality should not be treated as such.

R&K But you get to go. Why not other visitors?

Zach Go there, sure. Quite honestly though the sight of Agdam was only comparable to that boy we saw in the AIDS clinic [in Myitkyina]. If you can treat something like that as an attraction, you aren’t human.

R&K Noted.