Crossing Mysterious Nagorno-Karabakh: The Janapar Trail

The Janapar Trail is a 284km long hiking trail in the autonomous region of Nagorno-Karabakh. It winds through the mountains and valleys of the Lesser Caucasus, crossing the entire country. The trail is designed so that you arrive each day at a village. Thus, you can technically hike the entire 16 day trek without bringing camping equipment. While the first part is well marked, the second part can only be followed with a GPS device or a Smartphone. As I am writing this post, the trail creators are planning a major expansion of the trail into Armenian proper. If this gets finished, it should at least double or triple the length of the trial.

We hiked the complete Janapar Trail in from the end of May until mid-June in 2016. I wanted to provide some additional information such as missing gpx tracks and pictures.

Trek Conditions

  • Nagorno-Karabakh, or as the locals say Artsakh, is really unexplored and sees little tourists from any country. We didn’t meet a single otherhiker during our trip. We found the trek to be quite challenging at some points as we had to fight our way through thick forest because the trail was pretty much unmaintained. Some parts of the trail were completely overgrown and the trail signs were slowly falling off. So the trail is a true adventure and you clearly need some navigation skills to stay on it. Often, there is no clear path and you have to find a way yourself via a GPS device or a compass.

    Fighting through thick forest: this is how the trail looked like in some parts
    Fighting through thick forest: this is how the trail looked like in some parts
  • If you are looking for an alpine mountain trail this might not be the right trek for you. As it mostly runs through forested areas or on dirt roads you see the higher mountains at a distance. There are no climbing sections for example and only a few dangerous passages. I’m not saying that the trek isn’t boring or anything – it’s just no trek in alpine terrain. Have a look at the Transcaucasian Trail if you prefer that.
  • Also, if your are looking for a trek that is very remote then this is maybe not the right trek for you as well. Of course, you will certainly have some days without any human encounters until the next village. However, you are never further away from civilization than a few hours hike.

Preparation

The nearly only resource available for trip planning is the official trail site itself. You can find it here: http://www.janapar.org/wiki/Main_Page
And the Facebook group here: https://www.facebook.com/janapar.trail/

Apart from the usual preparations for a long-distance trek I recommend to do the following preparations:

  • Double-check the political situation and news about the region.
  • Prepare the list of places that you will need for your Visa application. See further explanations about the visa process below.
  • A little bit of Armenian and/or Russian really comes in handy since communication with the locals proved to be extremely difficult. This is especially true if you get into a police control in the province Kalbajar which sees hardly any foreign visitors.
  • Download the maps on your phone via the Viewranger app or on your GPS.
  • Stock up on money before you leave Stepanakert, as it will be quite tricky to find an ATM once you are on the trail.

Equipment

In general, the equipment should be same like for any long-distance trek. A few additional explanations:

  • You can easily bring a tent with you as you may camping pretty much anywhere you like. There is no such thing as wild camping in Nagorno-Karabakh. Bring at least a waterproof bivy bag in case something goes wrong and you can’t make it to the next village for any reason.
  • A GPS device or a smartphone in combination with an external USB battery. You need it for navigation purposes as the trail isn’t perfectly marked.
  • Depending on the season: Bring a rain jacket for the heavy rainfalls.
  • Waterproof hiking boots are really good for the many river crossings and the muddy terrain. This also depends on the hiking season, as in the summer it is much drier than in spring or fall.
  • Think about taking some gifts for the many locals that you will meet on the way. It doesn’t have be much but it’s better to have something in in reserve in case you get invited to stay overnight for free. Maybe you also have some pictures of your hometown or your family – this is always good content to talk about.
  • You don’t need any winter equipment like gloves or thermo underwear at the end of May. Even in the high altitudes it’s not that cold, especially during the day.

Safety

  • Armenia and Azerbaijan are de facto in a cold war with Nagorno-Karabakh being the main reason for the conflict. Thus, the border regions are highly militarized with a couple of thousand soldiers stationed there. Do under no circumstances get close to the border between Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan!
  • Although the trail is within comfortable distance from the border, double-check the political situation before you go. You can find information on the web on local news pages or forums. Additionally, we got in touch with the creators of the Janapar Trail and asked them about the current situation on the trail.
  • Carry your passport and visa with you at all times. The police may check anywhere at any time for your identity. This will most likely happen in the bigger towns but it also happened to us in rural areas. You will be in trouble if you don’t carry it with you. The police / military people that check for your identity are often plain-clothed.
  • It’s best to avoid political discussion with strangers. Many people lost direct relatives or their homes in the war. Hence, the situation is quite tensed and can easily lead to misunderstandings.
  • If you have been to Azerbaijan before or have relatives there, don’t tell strangers about it. This could be easily misunderstood. The same goes for Turkey or any arabic country in general. I wouldn’t necessarily mention that you particularly like a muslim country or have a strong bound with it.
  • If you have pictures on your camera that prove you’ve been to Azerbaijan, it’s best to delete them before you travel to Nagorno-Karabakh. In the special military zone Kalbajar the police wanted to see all the pictures on our camera. I’m not sure if this is a standard procedure as the guy was a little bit suspicious. But in any case it’s better to minimize the likelihood of misunderstandings.
  • Learn some basic Russian and/or Armenian beforehand. This will make you a lot less suspicious and makes the communication with police much easier. This is especially important in the region Kalbajar.
  • Although the tension and military presence was clearly apparent we never felt unsafe while hiking. However, we regularly checked the news in case there were any further escalations. We would have immediately left the country in that case.
The military presence is obvious once in Nagorno-Karabakh. But the people are very nice
The presence of military is obvious in Nagorno-Karabakh. This gentleman was very nice even though he looks a bit unfriendly in this picture

Culture & People

  • Armenian people are among the nicest and most hospitable people I ever met. Whenever we entered a village chances were quite good that someone came up to us to invite us for meals or even overnight stays. Unless they were operating a guest house they refused to take any money.
  • If you are traveling as a couple, always say that you are married. People there usually marry when they are 18 so even if you are really young just say you are married. It will safe you from a lot of unnecessary discussions. Everyone who is 26 or above and still not married is considered very odd.
  • If the Armenien people want to achieve something they can be very persistent, especially when it comes to guests. If they want to drink you the oghi, then they want to drink you oghi. No excuses, no exceptions.
    We approached this problem in a variety of ways. Sometimes we just refused to drink any oghi at all which did not always work. If this didn’t work we just had a sip of oghi every round of drinking instead of draining the whole thing. And sometimes, well, we just drank the oghi for the heck of it! 😉
  • We experienced the same persistence when it came to communication. Whenever a local had something on his/her mind and he/she wanted to share that information with us, it often happened that he/she kept repeating the exact same sentence for an extended period of time. As we spoke only basic Armenian, we had no idea what they wanted to tell us. This especially occurred when people were drunk – which was quite often the case. It’s nearly impossible to stop the other person from saying that sentence once he/she has it on his/her mind. Sometimes we asked other locals to help us because they just wouldn’t stop. You also should learn how to say “I don’t understand” in Armenian.
    Short note: Don’t get me wrong – I love the Armenian people and I love their culture but after a long day of hiking this was sometimes just too much. There were moments when I was truly happy that we had a tent with us.

An essential part of the culture: family meetings, barbecue and Oghi
An essential part of the culture: family meetings, barbecue and Oghi
One of the many birthday parties. This one is next to the Tak Jur which explains why everybody is half-naked
One of the many birthday parties. This one is next to the Tak Jur which explains why everybody is half-naked

Navigation

Trail MarkingsJanapar Trail Sign

The first part of the trek, from Hadrut to Stepanakert, mainly follows trails and footpaths through the forests and valleys. The trail is marked quite well so you only need a GPS if you are stuck. The markings are most of the time blue paint on the trees and once in a while the well-known yellow foot.

Marking On Trees
Marking On Trees

The second part of the trek, from Stepanakert to Vardenis, either runs on rarely used dirt roads or completely off-road through the forest or meadow. As there are very few trail markers you can only rely on your GPS device for navigation. Even though there were less markers in the second part it was easy to follow because on the dirt roads you couldn’t lose the trek. However, for the off-road parts you could only rely on the GPS.

Viewranger App

The creators of the trail uploaded all the routes on the Viewranger app. This app is available for Android and iOS. I highly recommend to download the information there. I think it would have nearly been impossible for us to finish the trek without that.

GPX Tracks

The GPX tracks of the main page were generally fine but we had some problems in critical moments with them. For one they’re not exactly precise – when you’re high up in the mountains it does make a difference if the trail runs 5m more to the left or more to the right. You can read more about this in the day by day section below.

And second because they were completely out-of-date at some points compared to the Viewranger app. So I suggest you do the route planning for the next day always in combination with the Viewranger app. And in case they deviate, follow the Viewranger one.


As the main website was missing the GPX track for day 11, I uploaded it on Wikiloc. You can download the track after clicking on the link.

The Visa Process

  • The old visa process where you had to get a visa before you enter Nagorno-Karabakh is optional since 2014. You can simply take a marschrutka to Stepanakert and obtain a visa once you arrived.
  • At the border crossing into Nagorno-Karabakh your passports will be checked and you are told that you have to go to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Stepanakert.
  • After you’ve arrived in Stepanakert, you have to go the Ministry immediately. Here you can request the visa and obtain it. The whole process only takes around 15 minutes, depending on how quickly you fill out the documents.
  • You have to fill out two pages to request a visa. The information is about yourself and your journey to Artsakh.
    Here, you have to fill in the exact places and towns that you want to visit during your stay in Nagorno-Karabakh. It’s best to plan this before you go to the Ministry so you don’t forget any place. We just wrote the start and ending stations for each day of the trek plus some additional POIs. You can find some helpful tips for this in the ViewRanger App. Read the description for each day and specifically for the second part of the trail you can find additional notes for the visa application.
    You will also have to fill in here, how long you would like to stay in Nagorno-Karabakh. It’s best to plan this beforehand also. Make sure you take the rest days into account that you want to make. Better add some additional days to give you enough space in case something goes wrong.
  • If your visa request is accepted, you will receive two papers: a visa for every person of your group and a document which contains additional information about your journey. It also contains the places that you are allowed to visit. You receive only one paper per group so you will have to stay together during your stay in Artsakh.

How To Get There

  • The only country by which you can enter Nagorno-Karabakh is Armenia.
  • First travel to the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh which is Stepanakert. We took a marschrutka from the Yerevan Central Bus Station. Be there quite early, our scheduled departure was 8am but it already left at 7:20 because it was full. The drive takes around 7 hours but this can differ depending on how fast your driver goes and how many breaks he makes on the way.
  • Once you arrive in Stepanakert you obtain your Visa at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as described above.
  • After you’ve obtained the Visa you can continue to the trail head in Hadrut. We took a taxi for this way because missed the marschrutka that already left at around 4pm. Taxis usually cost 150 drams per kilometer (in 2016) and use a taximeter.
  • If you want more of an adventure you can also hitchhike to Nagorno-Karabakh or through the country. The more deserted the road, the more likely someone will take you with them. Usually, the drivers asked us themselves if we would like to drive with them.

Weather & Hiking Season

The weather conditions were our main problem during the hike. We hiked the trail at the end of May until mid-June and we thought that the weather would be quite stable. Now I don’t know if this year was very exceptional but this was not the case.

For one, there was an incredible amount of rain. It turned the dirt roads into complete mud fields that were so deep that we actually had mud in our shoes. This rain also transformed small trickles into flushing rivers which were difficult and extremely dangerous to cross. There are some sections of the trail that you cannot hike if there was a heavy rainfall on the same day or the day before. If it is raining for more than four hours in a row many rivers turn so big that you can’t cross them anymore by foot.

Now, the problem is that you don’t know beforehand which river crossings have a bridge and which don’t. This means there is a good chance that you arrive at a river and you cannot cross it because the water level is simply too high. Read the day by day section to find out about problematic sections.

Dirty Business
Dirty Business
The roads turned into mud fields due to heavy rainfalls
The roads turned into mud fields due to heavy rainfalls
What was a small creek the day before, turned into a raging stream after a night of rain
What was a small creek the day before, turned into a raging stream after one night of rain

Secondly, there was a thunderstorm almost every day while we were there. The weather was so unpredictable that it changed from nice and sunny to a raging thunderstorm within five minutes. Several times we got quite into trouble because of a sudden weather change.

The unpredictable weather changes made the hike pretty dangerous sometimes
The unpredictable weather changes made the hike pretty dangerous sometimes

Concerning the best hiking season: Until Zuar (day 13) you can probably hike all around the year. After Zuar I think it’s best to do it in the summer months – from mid-May until early October. Especially on day 14 and 16 there is probably a lot of snow due to the high altitude. I wouldn’t hike there in the winter season unless you have pretty good equipment because there is no cell phone reception in a wide range.

Wildlife

One of the many snakes we encountered during our hike
Better stay away: One of the many snakes we encountered during our hike
  • We ran into around 20 snakes during our trek. Often when we hiked through high grass you would run into one. I’m not sure if they are poisonous but in any case they were more afraid of us then we of them.
  • Although there are supposed to be some bigger animals in the are like wolves or bears, we never saw any sign of them.

Accommodation & Food_dsc8078

  • You can bring your own tent for camping because no one really cares about wild camping. The only problematic areas could be the special military zones like Kalbajar.
  • On the Janapar website you can find a list of homestays. The hosts can speak a little bit of english and regularly host hikers in their homes. We did it a couple of times and never had any problems. This can be a good variation to camping. Read the Janapar website for a more detailed description.
  • There’s a grocery store in almost every village. Sometimes they are bigger, sometimes smaller but in the end they all have something to eat.

Day By Day

Day 1 – 7: Hadrut to Stepanakert

I will save you some time and sum up the first week as there is nothing specific to say about the single days. As I wrote before, this week of hiking takes you through the backcountry of Nagorno-Karabakh on small footpaths and dirt roads. You come across some really cool things like a 2000 year old tree, one of the oldest human caves in the world and many monasteries you can explore.

On the second day, plan some extra time for the part in the forest. We had to fight ourselves through thick forest for several hours. In general, heavy rain falls will make the trek a lot more difficult because the roads are full of mud. On the steeper parts of the road the rainwater turned into a stream itself. The river crossing could become impassable as bridges might be taken due to flooding or you may not be able to cross the river because of stream rapids.

Some impressions:

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In spring, all the flowers are blooming
In spring, all the flowers are blooming

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Bridge Crossing

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The canyon next to Shushi
The Shushi Canyon

8. Day: Stepanakert to Patara

In Stepanakert you have the chance to stock up on supplies and money that you will need on the way. It’s also a great city for one or two rest days.

This day was pretty easy and nice to hike, running almost entirely on dirt roads. There isn’t really a grocery store in Kolatak, so stock up on food in Patara for at least two days.

9. Day: Patara to Kolatak

I will try to keep this description unbiased because it was probably the most messed up day of our entire 3-months journey. In my opinion there is nothing technically difficult about this section, it’s just a little bit more strenuous than the rest of the trail. However, it is certainly the most dangerous day of all. Read more below.

If there has been any significant amount of rain the day before or the weather forecast isn’t perfect don’t hike this section. You won’t be able to cross the Kolatak stream at the end of this section unless you have a rope with you and you are used to life-threatening river fordings. There is no bridge or any other possibility to cross this river. You have to walk through it. We arrived at the river after a day of rain and the rivers water level was more than waist high.

If the weather turns bad before you arrive at the fortress it might be better turn back or wait for the weather to clear up. We got surprised by a thunderstorm up there and it’s literally the highest point within several kilometers range. In addition to that, the rocks are really slippery when they are wet. The downhill part is completely slippery and muddy anyways when it’s raining. You also won’t have any view of the surrounding area.

WARNING! Both the gpx track and Viewranger app up at the fortress are inaccurate and off! The GPS data as it is available on the Janapar website leads directly down a cliff and you will most likely fall down if you follow it exactly. Do not rely on the GPS data up there and focus on the trail signs instead. I don’t know how it is up there when there’s clear weather but the trail signs were pretty hard to spot because they were so overgrown.

On the GPS data it looks like you actually have to climb up to the castle in order to continue the trek. But this is not the case! Climbing up that rock is completely optional.

Fortress of Magpies (Kachaghakaberd) from a distance
Fortress of Magpies (Kachaghakaberd) from a distance

10. Day: Kolatak to Gandzasar

The gpx data for this day is wrong! Follow the Viewranger app instead. While the gpx track only follows the a normal paved road, the Viewranger app leads you on a much shorter way through the forest. Whatever way you choose, the second part of this section follows the paved road anyways. You can safely skip this part and hitchhike since you won’t miss anything.

Vank is a really cool town and Gandzasar monastery is a must-see for anyone visiting Nagorno-Karabakh. You can even find a small bank with an ATM in Vank if you are running out of money.

Gandzasar Monastery
Gandzasar Monastery

11. Day: Ganzasar to Vaghuhas

This was a beautiful day of hiking and I highly recommend to hike it! Concerning the safety warning about potential ammunition in this area: This is not a problem at all! As long as you stick to the trail and don’t enter deeper forested area it is absolutely safe to hike this section.

Originally, we wanted to sleep next to the Gandzasar monastery. However, since a thunderstorm was coming, we even got invited to sleep inside the monastery rooms.

Since there is no gpx data available on the Janapar website, I uploaded ours. In contrast to the Viewranger app, this track directly starts at the Ganzasar monastery so that you don’t have to go all the way back to Vank. It leads through the forest on small footpaths until you arrive at the official, well-marked trail.

Stunning Views on the Lesser Caucasus
Stunning Views on the Lesser Caucasus near Vaghuhas

12. Day: Vaghuhas to Dadivank

On this only hike next to a paved road through the valley. There is nothing spectacular to see. Thus, if you are running out of time and time and you want to skip a part of the trail, this would be a good day.

The supermarkets that you pass a few kilometers after Vaghuhas are very good. However, I don’t think you have to stock up on food for multiple days. We found supermarkets in Dadivank, Zuar, and of course Karvachar. The supermarkets in Dadivank and Zuar weren’t big and only had very basic supplies but you will certainly find something to eat.

The road to Dadivank
On the road to Dadivank
Dadivank Monastery
Dadivank Monastery

13. Day: Dadivank to Zuar

This day can also be skipped as you only hike on a dirt road. The tak jur are very nice to visit and you can camp next to them. If it is raining, you may ask the manager if you can sleep in one of the mobile homes there.

The hot springs "Tak Jur" are an amazing finish for a day's hike
The hot springs “Tak Jur” are an amazing finish for a day’s hike

14. Day: Zuar to Karvachar

The gpx data and the Viewranger app deviate at the beginning of the section. I guess that the gpx track at the beginning of this section is wrong. We followed the Viewranger app because I believe it’s not possible to follow the gpx track. We asked some locals if we can go there and they said there is not footpath or anything.
Note: As I was doing some research for this article, I saw that there is a footpath drawn into Google Maps which says “Janapar Trail”. This footpath could work out quiet well and would make the trek a bit shorter. However, making the detour as suggested in the Viewranger app was a lot of fun and the views at the beginning were just amazing.

Hiking all of this in one day is quite challenging. It’s 30km in length, with a lot of elevation and in the forest section at the beginning it’s pretty hard to follow the track as everything is overgrown. You can skip the beginning and the end as they only run on dirt roads.

Panorama View
Panorama View
Descend to Karvachar
Descend to Karvachar

15. Day: Karvachar to Tsar

This hike is absolutely beautiful. Even though it runs on a normal dirt road, hiking through the canyon is amazing and at the end you have a steep climb that keeps you challenged. The landscape is totally wild and we had most of the day for ourselves. To give you a headstart for the long, last day of the trek you can camp 2-3km after Tsar village. There are some ruins and you can use one of them for wind protection.

Stock up on food in Karvachar for the rest of the trail since you won’t find a grocery store until Vardenis.

The little geyser on the way to Tsar village
On the right is the little geyser on the way to Tsar village
Tsar village
Tsar village

16. Day: Tsar to Vardenis

This is probably the most remote day of the entire hike. To be honest, the pass is not as spectacular as you might think. Everything is very widespread and you barely notice that you just crossed the border into Armenian proper. You can skip the last kilometers once you are in Armenia because it’s only walking on a very flat (and quite boring) dirt road.

7 Comments Add yours

  1. Tomer says:

    Hello Manuel

    First of all, Thank you very much. this is very helpful for people who want to do this trail.
    I’ll definitely use this article once I’ll prepare for the hike.

    I got 2 questions.
    First, did you have a proper gear and clothing for the rain situations?
    Second, do you think it’s fine to go on this hike around august?

    Thank you so much,

    Tomer

    1. Manuel Renz says:

      Hi Tomer,

      great to hear that the article helps you!
      We had waterproof hiking boots and a lightweight rain-jacket but no rain-trousers. Luckily our tent was 100% waterproof which saved us quite a few times. Apart from that we didn’t have any special equipment.
      I think that the weather in August will be much more stable and you won’t be facing many problems like raging rivers or snow. However, I believe it can get very hot during the day. So if you can arrange with some hot days, August is a perfect month for hiking!

      If you have any more question, let me know. Enjoy hiking!

      Manuel

  2. Cass Gilbert says:

    Hi Manuel. Great post! Thanks!

    Do you have an entire gpx file of the route, by any chance, as you hiked it? I’m wondering if there’s a complete file available, rather than in sections.

    1. Manuel Renz says:

      Hi Cass,
      unfortunately I don’t have a complete gpx file of the route because I turned off the GPS device for many times to save battery. We also made a lot of unintended detours and I don’t want to share wrong data with you. To be honest, at the time we hiked the trail, I didn’t even know that I would write a blog article about it.

      The gpx files of the main page are quite reliable for most of the time except for the times I described above. Also, I highly recommend not to use the gpx tracks standalone but together with the Viewranger App.

  3. Hey Manuel,

    Great write up! I did the Hadrut > Stepanakert section last month (Sept ’16) and what you shared here was true to my experience. There are very few resources on this trail and it would have helped me a bunch had I found you earlier. I’ve linked to your account of the trail on my trekking resource page at http://www.alasdairplambeck.com/trekking/ 🙂

    Will be checking out your experiences in Nepal and India as I’m headed to that part of the world next week!

    1. Manuel Renz says:

      Hey Alasdair,

      thank you for your feedback and for linking me! I hope my posts on Nepal and India will help you, too. Although it’s a bit more difficult as there is no fixed route and the countries are much more diverse.
      If you find anything to be untrue in these articles, let me know – I’m happy to keep this blog up to date 🙂

      Save travels!!

  4. Elisabeth says:

    hi Manuel,
    deine Artikel sind super aufgebaut und informativ. Und die Lust zu wandern wird automatisch mitgeliefert 😉
    Elisabeth und Thomas

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