Nagorno Karabakh’s Road to a Better Life
It’s been touted as a way to strengthen security and contacts with the outside world. But for 35-year-old beekeeper Vahram Sargsyan, Nagorno Karabakh’s new, 320-kilometer-long highway to Armenia matters for another reason, too – it’s a boon for his bee business.
Until this summer, Karabakh residents had only one real option for long-distance travel – a twisty, two-lane mountain highway that passed from Karabakh to neighboring Armenia via the Berdzror city (Lachin Corridor), a narrow strip of land that unites the territory with its main ally.
Now, they have a choice. The 17-billion-dram ($35-million) Martakert-Vardenis road through northwestern Karabakh shaves about 90 minutes off the roughly six-hourdrive from the territory’s central town, Stepanakert, to the Armenian capital, Yerevan. Officials say the highway, which officially opened in September, already handles the majority of Karabakh’s trade – over 80 percent.
That impact can be seen, first and foremost, in the 35 towns and villages along its path.
Dozens of colorful beehives line the right side of the road as it passes eastward through the village of Getavan, 90 kilometers north of Stepanakert, en route to Armenia’s Vardenis. Amidst the hives, a small sign reads “Pure honey.”
“When the traffic picked up, I put that sign next to my brother’s house,” explains Sargsyan. “So far, he’s sold approximately 10 kilograms of honey every day only due to that sign.”
The 3,000 drams ($6.18) earned per kilogram is not a windfall, but, in rural Karabakh, every little bit helps.
The beekeeping Sargsyan family, who reportedly own the majority of Getavan’s 500-some beehives, are not the only ones to benefit from their proximity to the highway.
Over the past few months, three new grocery stores and two canteens have opened in this village of 353 people, claims Sargsyan. A barbecue restaurant and natural-gas station, also financed by Armenian and Karabakhi businessmen, are in the works, too.
For a Karabakh village, that’s a building boom.
The change reflects a trend, villagers say – less need to chase after business. Rather than selling their produce –fresh meat, walnuts, hazelnuts and beans – in nearby villages and Karabakh’s main town, Stepanakert, local farmers now also sell to buyers from Vardenis, the road’s Armenian end point, as well as from the large towns of Martuni and Gavar near Armenia’s Lake Sevan.
“It’s very convenient as the prices are good and the villagers don’t have to cover travel expenses,” comments Lyudmila Arstamyan, the secretary of Getavan’s municipal administration. “Formerly, Stepanakert was the only market.”
The entrepreneurial Sargsyan, whose 90 beehives render 800 kilograms of honey each year, has seen his own customer base shift, too.
Over the past few months, most of his customers have become travelers on the Martakert-Vardenis road; in particular, tourists from France, Moldova and Russia. “Before this, I managed to sell the honey only through the personal connections of my relatives,” he explains.
To keep cashing in, he has rented land next to the road and next year plans to open a small honey shop alongside his beehives.
Location, Location, Location
Artak Beglaryan, an adviser to State Minister Arayik Harutyunyan, the former head of government,describes the new road as “first of all, a good, positive shock for [local] SMEs [Small-Medium Enterprises],” in surrounding, economically underdeveloped regions.
Water features big. Three new hydropower plants, with mixed investment, are in the works for sites near the road, nearly doubling the number of such facilities in Karabakh. A new mineral water factory near Karvachar, about an hour to the southwest from Getavan, plans to export over a million bottles of water a year via the highway, Beglaryan says.
Beglaryan also counts on the eventual reopening of a caviar farm in a village, Mataghis, that was heavily shelled during the 2016 conflict with Azerbaijan. It, too, will export via the Martakert-Vardenis road within a few years, he predicts.
Base Metals, a large, Armenian-owned mining company, already transports ore from its Kashen mine to Armenia via Martakert-Vardenis rather than via the Lachin Corridor. One Base Metals driver says the switch means the trucks avoid “dozens of kilometers of broken roads,” and save “on maintenance costs.”
Overall, thanks to the new road, Karabakh’s exports and imports roughly tripled in September by comparison with the same period in 2016, the government claims.
If You Build It, the Tourists Will Come
But it’s the tourists who now buy honey from Sargsyan who represent one of the strongest potential trickle-down effects of the new road.
The government has no exact figures, but Artak Grigoryan, head of the Ministry of Youth and Culture’s Tourism Department, estimates a 40-percent increase in tourists to Karabakh between January and September compared with the same period in 2016. Numbers are not available.
The fact that the new road can feed into existing tourist routes in Armenia, particularly around popular Lake Sevan, suggests this increase will continue, Grigoryan predicts. More visitors have already started coming to the 13th- century Dadiavank monastery, about a kilometer away from the Martakert-Vardenis highway, as well as two nearby hot springs, he adds.
Bringing those tourists into Karabakh, though, requires greater attention to infrastructure. But Grigoryan sees a way to capitalize on the prevalence of homestays in rural areas.
“We have already started researching the potential of B&Bs in the villages located near the highway,” he says. “There are many villagers interested in that and we’ll support the beginners with information [about how to run a B&B].”
Most taxis now exclusively use the new road to save on time, gas and wear-and-tear. Though mini-buses still stick to the old road, Martakert-Vardenis recently gained its own 5,000-dram ($10) shuttle to Yerevan from Stepanakert.
What this changeover will mean for those who live along the old road to Armenia via the Lachin Corridor has received less public attention, however.
Some Karabakhis, though, are set in their ways. The new road is fine for sunny weather, comments Radik Hayrapetyan, 35, a self-employed taxi driver, but when it comes to “winter and rainy weather,” the road you know is “safer.”
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