“Crazy Tours” poster

Vadim’s Crazy Tours: From Churches to Explosion Sites

3705
0

STEPANAKERT — “Crazy Tours” is not only about discovering the magnificent peaks and churches of Artsakh. After the first rockets burst during the recent war, Vadim, the tour guide, changed his routes from hidden mountains and monasteries towards centers of explosions, and missile sounds replaced the tranquility of nature.

The Birth of Crazy Tours

In 2017, Vadim Balayan, 46, received a phone call from his cousin: two German tourists needed a driver to travel around Artsakh. Although they already had a tour guide, Vadim was the one who found the places they wished to visit and accompanied the group. He gave them a chance to peek over the horizon and discover the majesty of the history of Artsakh and its churches, and the views left everyone astonished.

“They were so amazed that would often shout ‘This is crazy!’ and we named our group ‘Crazy Squad.’ That is how I came up with the name,” said Vadim.

Vadim Balayan at Koshik Anapat

Soon after Vadim started sharing photos and videos from his first “crazy” tours, he received several requests from locals to organize trips for them. “I decided to dig deeper into the field of domestic tourism, found new routes, and included lunchboxes and potlucks,” he said.

“Once a famous Russian chef visited Artsakh. We went to Kataro to harvest grapes for his show. I discovered later that he had a popular YouTube vlog,” recalled Vadim.

Get the Mirror in your inbox:

To expand his audience, Vadim started collaborating with other local entrepreneurs, such as the Maro Bed & Breakfast in Togh, Hadrout region, or the Hippodrome in Shushi. “Our collaboration gave color and diversity to the trips and supplemented them,” said Balayan.

Maro B&B organized dinners for the tourists and offered traditional dishes, such as harisa or jengyalov hats, allowing the tourists a full immersion into local culture.

Vadim’s routes were always diverse: the peaks of Kataro and Dizapayt, the monasteries of St. Gevorg and Hakobavank, and he even went out of Artsakh, to visit the Tatev monastery in Syunik, Armenia. The tours were initially intended for the youth because of the distance and rough mountainous terrains, but demands from others grew, so Vadim came up with a solution for adults.

A “Crazy Tour” to Ulubab in May 2021

“I received offers to organize light tours, so that everyone regardless of age and physical preparedness could participate and enjoy the panoramas of Artsakh,” said Vadim.

That is how Vadim launched his first relaxation tours to Bovurkhan and Hakobavank monasteries, which are close to Stepanakert and do not require much effort to hike.

The first COVID lockdown in 2020 and the unavailability of going abroad became an opportunity for many to start exploring their surroundings and unearthing new wonders of Artsakh. When the borders got closed, domestic tourism gained momentum. Crazy Tours kept progressing and involved people of all categories — children, youth, and adults. Some of them became regular participants, others made new friends with mutual interests. The tours linked generations and even connected hearts.

“We have two couples who got acquainted while hiking with us. One of them already has a baby,” said Vadim.

From Crazy to Really Crazy

Sunday, September 27, 2020: Vadim and around 20 people started their morning early, at 6 a.m., and gathered in a bus which headed for Syunik, for a tour of Tatev monastery.

“About halfway on the road, calls started coming in frantically. People were crying. Stepanakert was being shelled,” recalled Vadim.

Upon the request of the women in the group, they reached the monastery and lighted candles. Some of them stopped in Goris and didn’t return to Artsakh. The situation was getting tense since many of the participants had family members left alone, including Vadim.

“My little son was sleeping at home alone when the first missiles exploded near our street. They even damaged my car,” he said.

A few days later, Vadim was drafted into military service. He returned for a shift change after two weeks and was shocked to see the city bombed, since he believed military operations were carried out only on the frontline. One of the local hotels was fully operating, and while enjoying coffee at the bar, Vadim made his new life-changing acquaintances.

“I told the journalists in the hotel that I used to be a taxi driver. When they learned that I had a car, they asked me to guide them for a fee. Turned out that the locals refused to drive under shelling, so I agreed,” said Vadim.

Vadim’s tour routes changed notably: instead of mountains and churches, he drove towards the hotspots, where missiles either exploded, or would soon explode. Whenever a new explosion was heard, Vadim would receive several phone calls from journalists who asked to take them there, hoping they would be the first to arrive. Standing at the frontline was dangerous and risky, and so was driving under the flying bombs, which could crash down at any moment, without warning.

“I put on my helmet and body armor which I didn’t even wear at the frontline and hit the road,” said Vadim.

Vadim’s Crazy Tours got a new formulation and became popular with journalists: he was among the very few people willing to drive regardless of the bombs above his head or the missile fragments scattered around. “The locals would call me immediately after explosions, so that I could take the journalists to take footage of the casualties,” remembered Vadim.

Vadim’s last “crazy tour,” and perhaps the most hazardous and crucial one, happened during the fights for Shushi, on November 5, 2020. He received an emergency call from journalists asking to take them out of bombed-out Shushi. Stepanakert and Shushi are not too far from each other, and from any high point in Stepanakert, one could observe the clashes taking place by the highway, see the smoke rising after explosions, and hear the artillery operating.

“I saw Shushi being shelled and refused at first. Then I realized that I wouldn’t leave them in danger, so I headed towards them,” recalled Vadim, who has not visited Shushi since then.

Gaining an International Audience

After the war, access to Artsakh became restricted for international visitors, and tourism was curtailed. However, the post-war situation in the country pushed some people to rethink and set new priorities, which is contributing to Artsakh’s rebirth and prosperity.

Maria Ivanova, 37, was born and raised in St. Petersburg, Russia, but her roots are in the village of Shekher in Artsakh. Ivanova first visited Artsakh in 2010 upon her husband’s request to get acquainted with her ancestors’ culture and land, and she was not impressed by the region. The second visit in 2017 was not memorable either, but her perception of Artsakh drastically changed during and after the war of 2020.

Maria Ivanova in Artsakh

“I felt very sympathetic towards the people and the lands, which underwent wars,” she said. “We don’t know who will own these lands tomorrow, and I want to enjoy it while it’s possible.”

Though the tourists’ inflow shrank because of uncertainty over Artsakh’s status and risk, Maria thinks differently. “People are scared to visit Artsakh because they think it’s dangerous, but for me, it’s quite a safe spot,” she said.

Ivanova visited Artsakh several times after the war, and to diversify her routine, she decided to find a tour guide and travel to unknown places. Social media played its role and Maria noticed an announcement shared by Crazy Tours on Facebook. The organization’s name seemed intriguing and mysterious, and she made “crazy” assumptions about its tours. “Are they going to travel to Baku or walk along the borderline on a knife’s edge?” were Maria’s first perceptions of the name.

“Then I discovered that it’s Vadim, organizing his quiet, calm tours around Artsakh,” she added. Crazy Tours attracted Ivanova with its name but kept her as a loyal customer with its professionalism and tranquil atmosphere, which it maintained even in big groups. The experience of traveling with good people gave Maria a second wind and changed her attitude towards her roots.

“I love Artsakh because it was aggrieved, and no one condemned the aggressor. I liked Artsakh because of the injustice of the world community in the 44-day war. It withstood, lost its sons and lands…. It survived. I wanted to support Artsakh and I saw only beauty in everything, from people to nature,” confessed Ivanova.

One of the reasons why she chose Crazy Tours is the friendly relationship with Vadim due to his versatility and creativity. She especially liked their idea of opening an exclusive kindergarten for disabled kids.

Other than being a tour guide, Vadim manages a family cafe on Tumanyan, one of the main touristic streets of Stepanakert. The family opened a wine bar and cafe which offers traditional dishes made by Vadim’s wife, and the interesting panoramas complement the Armenian ambience. For the spring and summer seasons, the Balayans will try to connect their two enterprises and organize tea at their cafe after the tours, where the tourists could discuss their impressions and enjoy the atmosphere. Currently they are focusing on special events for kids, such as pottery classes, movie screenings or cooking.

“We also decided to open a Christmas Market to cheer up the people, but unfortunately, the storage area caught fire and hindered our plans,” says Vadim. Vadim’s friends organized a fundraiser to raise money for the restoration of damaged areas.

Remembering the importance and necessity of Artsakh’s rebirth, Maria Ivanova said, “Every Armenian should spend his money in Artsakh, spend his holidays there, and invest in the economy of Artsakh, even if passively, through tourism.”

Get the Mirror-Spectator Weekly in your inbox: