Janapar Trail Project
by Raffi Kojian
Introduction and useful information for hiking the Janapar Trail. Please read this and the Janapar Trail Descriptions before your hike.
- 1 PLANNING YOUR HIKE
- 2 WHAT ALL HIKERS SHOULD KNOW
- 3 THE ACTUAL HIKE
- 4 THRU-HIKING
- 5 Story of the Janapar Trail
PLANNING YOUR HIKE
Some sections of the trail are much easier than others. Read the trail descriptions to find which parts are most suitable for you.
How much of the Janapar Trail should I hike?
- Day-hike -- many people have hiked parts of the Janapar Trail without even knowing it. The hike from Shushi to the Zontik Waterfall, hiking around the 2,000 year old tree of Skhtorashen, or up to Gtichavank Monastery. It's easy to pick a nice bit of trail and do a morning or full-day hike.
- Weekend trip -- if you don't have the time for a longer hike, you can choose a 2 or 3 day stretch to hike, and see some of the highlights of the Janapar Trail. Shushi to Avetaranots (or Skhtorashen), Avetaranots to Togh, Badara to Gandzasar, and Vardenis to Gandzasar are all rewarding, though the latter two can be challenging.
- Long-distance hike -- a hike of a week, two, or the entire Janapar Trail is a very rewarding experience, allowing you to see the changes in the landscapes, the architecture and the villages along the way.
Am I ready?
Once you've decided on the type of hike you're interested in, you can decide if you're physically ready for the hike, and make sure you have good hiking shoes and clothes for various weather condition and temperatures along the way. Practice hikes with a backpack are a good way to condition yourself for the trail.
Where am I going?
When you've decided on where you'll be hiking, read the trail descriptions carefully, study the maps, and print these all out to have a hard copy of with you on the trail. Download one of the smartphone apps that have the Janapar Trail on them, and practice using the app until you are comfortable using it before departing for your hiking trip.
When should I go?
If you haven't decided when to hike the Janapar Trail, you should consider what each season has to offer.
- Spring can be wet and cool, with the landscape growing more unbelievably green with each passing day. Rivers will be high with meltwater and road and trail conditions generally muddier.
- Early summer still isn't too hot, and the late spring-early summer wildflower displays are still at their peak, while conditions are a bit drier. By mid-late summer, temperatures are hot at lower elevations, while more and more fruits and vegetables become ripe along the way. Pastures are still green in upper elevations but start to dry out in lower elevations.
- Fall is beautiful, with comfortable hiking temperatures during the day and an abundant harvest. The landscape will have dried out a fair bit in most parts, and later in fall the leaves will begin a beautiful display of colors along many parts of the trail.
- Winter hiking is not for everyone, but for those who enjoy it, there will be snow along much of the trail, and a lot of solitude. Snowshoes and gaiters may be necessary especially in higher elevations.
Do the locals speak my language?
More likely than not they don't, but it does not matter. It's amazing how much can be communicated with gestures, a few words, and a little alcohol. Very few hikers speak a language in common with the locals, and that doesn't impede any of them in experiencing the great hospitality and culture of the locals, and of course seeing the universal beauty of the natural environment and the ancient architecture.
If you speak Armenian or Russian however, you are of course in luck, and even Turkish will help a lot since many older locals still know Azeri. There are some English speakers, and kids are learning it in schools, plus there are some French and German speakers, but they're very few. Just have a few key phrases handy and be ready for some pointing and miming.
Should I bring maps, guides, etc?
While it may be possible for an experienced hiker to follow most of the Artsakh section of the trail solely by markers, it's always better to have more than one means of navigation at your disposal. Some sections like Sushi to Karintak are well established and very easy to follow on their own. But, other sections may not have as much trail definition or blazing. We recommended to print out the maps and trail descriptions and to have either a smartphone with the Janapar Trail on an app or a GPS with you. Familiarize yourself with the app or gps device before embarking on the trail, and preserve batteries by turning these off when not needed. Bring a 10,000 mAhr or greater battery bank to ensure your phone/gps wont run out of power.
The unmarked and unmaintained Armenian section absolutely requires navigational aids.
Why does the mileage of various sections vary so much?
You'll notice that sections can vary a fair amount in length. A section could be shorter because the next village would have been too far for a day hike for most. It could be shorter because there is a lot to see or explore when you arrive (a hot spring, an interesting town, etc). Or it could be longer because the terrain is flat and easy, or the distance to the next town required a bit longer of a hike than other sections.
You can in some cases hike double sections of trail, for example going from Stepanakert to Shushi and on to Karintak in one day. This would not allow you time to explore the very interesting town of Shushi however. You can also over-shoot or under-shoot the designated overnight village and stay in one of your choice if there is one convenient. You will be able to find a homestay even if no organized homestay exists.
How do I avoid drinking Oghi (Vodka)?
One of the most important skills you may need to learn in order to complete the hike is how to avoid drinking oghi, a homemade drink something like vodka. It is a very potent drink, usually over 50% alcohol, and the homemade stuff is excellent, but it will probably make hiking the next day much more challenging, especially if it happens night after night. But drinking is a big part of local culture and hospitality, as are toasts, so here are some ways to try to find a balance.
- You can refuse. Don't try excuses like stomachache or illness, most Karabakhtsis will only insist this is the perfect cure for virtually any ailment you can find in a medical book. You can simply say you don't like it.
- You can say you prefer wine or beer.
- You can say you don't drink any alcohol.
- You can simply say okay but only touch it to your lips or have the tiniest of sips.
- If you would rather not play along, and don't want to sip a beer or wine, you smile, and say thank you, but no. As many times as it takes.
WHAT ALL HIKERS SHOULD KNOW
Leave No Trace
Leave No Trace is the simple concept of visiting a place without altering it, or leaving it for the worse. Don't bushwhack, don't trample or harm unspoiled nature, don't feed wildlife, don't leave anything behind (litter) and don't take anything like flowers or artifacts you find with you.
The concept of leave no trace is still new along the Janapar, and explaining it to locals when appropriate is a good way to share something good with them. Some communities do not have any proper waste management, and trash is often burned or improperly disposed of, but still clearing up your own trash and sometimes that of others when it is out in nature can be a good example.
The Janapar Trail was designed to make it possible to stay at different homestays each night. This gives hikers a great opportunity to meet locals and avoid carrying excessive gear. While some homestay options are listed for the overnight villages, finding your own can be fun as well. It's often as easy as entering a village and asking someone if they know anyone that accepts guests (gitek mard vor gisheru hyur e untunum).
Most villagers have very little disposable income, so conditions can vary significantly from home to home, which is one reason you may prefer to stick with homestays that are listed with their conditions described. Especially if you're not looking to rough it more than necessary. Most homes are clean and usually a simple dinner spread can be put out surprisingly quickly, but there is usually not going to be a shower, and toilets may be in the home, or may be outside, sit or squat, there is a lot of variation.
Many villagers not listed as homestays will be too proud to accept money, though you must insist, and find a way to leave a little something behind by insisting a few times that it's a small something for the children, or something along those lines to allow them to accept it. Or you may have to leave it back on your bed. Of course human nature being what it is, you may sometimes be asked to pay something you find unreasonable. Do not be afraid to show that you are surprised, that you find it too much, and to say so. It's a give and take.
This is a very rough estimate of what you might be asked or want to volunteer to pay:
|Service||Very Nice||Very basic|
|Bed per night||$10||$4|
|Guide (full/half day)||$15||$8|
Your input after your hike on places you have stayed, the conditions, and the likeability of the hosts is very important to us in helping others find the right homestay. Please rate them online, or add them if they're not listed online yet. We can help if you have difficulty with this. Your online feedback, either positive or negative will help hikers who come after you!
Most of the countryside is open to camping. If you find a spot where you are not going to harm a crop or anything else by setting up a tent, you are almost always welcome to do so. Most villagers would also be happy to allow you to camp in their gardens, though they'd probably prefer you stayed in their homes. Established campgrounds are still rare, but if you come across a maintained area where others camp, you will probably be asked for a small camping fee by the groundskeeper who maintains the area or at the very least keeps it clear of trash.
In keeping with the leave no trace principles, you should take care to minimize your impact in pristine areas. In such areas, try to avoid places that show the beginnings of frequent use, so that they may recover. Set up tents on durable surfaces like dead leaves or grass, at a good distance from other tents, and at least 70 paces from streams or ponds. Avoid trampling plants.
If you have a campfire, make sure to put it out thoroughly before going to sleep.
Most Westerners can enter Armenia for 120 days visa-free, however unless you have an Armenian passport or residency permit, you will need a visa to visit the Republic of Artsakh. The visa is free if you're staying 21 days or less, and can be issued in Yerevan or Stepanakert, or as of 2019 at the two main border checkpoints along the highway to Stepanakert. Up to date information is available at http://www.nkr.am/en/visa
What should a day-hiker pack? A day-hiker should carry 1-2 liters of water, high caloric snacks, and sun, wind and rain protection depending on expected weather conditions.
What should a beginner backpacker pack?
What clothes are best for the hike? We recommend dressing in layers of quick drying material like merino wool and nylon blends. A cool base layer of cotton is ok, but merino wool performs much better in all temperatures. A long sleeve blended fiber shirt and hat are good for sun protection. A wind breaker and light weight jacket are great for cool evenings and when resting at higher elevations. Shorts are great in mid summer, but loose fitting slacks are better to cover the legs during Spring when ticks are prevalent. Good quality mid to light weight blended wool hiking socks will dry quickly and perform well in all temperatures. A raincoat or poncho is also recommended especially in spring and fall.
What footwear is best for the hike?
Footwear is subjective to personal preference and experience. Some people like hiking boots for the added ankle support. Some people prefer light weight trainers or trail runners that dont require break-in and dry quickly. The best footwear is the footwear that is comfortable and practical for you. Keep in mind that the trail conditions can vary from wet and muddy in Spring to hot and dry in summer. There are several sections requiring wet river crossings. Some people like to bring a pair of sandals for river crossings that can also be used in the evening to air out the feet.
Should I bring a mobile phone?
A mobile phone is a great tool these days for mapping and emergency aid (where there is reception). Download the trail tracks and keep your phone turned off when it's not in use to preserve batteries. Charge at every occasion, and perhaps bring a solar charger. You can get a SIM card upon arrival in Armenia.
FOOD, WATER, AND SANITATION
What is the food situation?
Every village usually has a modest little store that sells some basics. Bread, cheese, pasta, rice, water, soda, chocolate, tea, coffee, very poor quality batteries, and other miscellaneous things which aren't produced by most people in the village. A notable exception is the section from Vank to Karvachar. There is about 3-4 days of hiking between those towns without a proper resupply option. As long as you are aware you can plan accordingly to carry the food you'll need. The nicest stores are of course found in Stepanakert (great) and Shushi (good). For general reference, other locations can also be ranked by the size of the selection (good, modest, limited, none): Hadrut (modest), Togh (modest), Azokh (modest), Karmir Shuka (modest), Avetaranots (modest), Patara (modest), Kolatak (limited), Vank (good), Zuar (limited), Nor Manashid (none), Nor Verinshen (limited), Karvachar (good), Tsar (none), Vardenis (good).
Outside of Stepanakert, Shushi and Vardenis there really aren't any restaurants along the trail.
What is the water situation?
One of the pleasures of hiking in Armenia and Artsakh is the abundance of fresh spring water. Staying hydrated is usually not difficult between these watering holes. Each village usually has a public spring or two centrally located that is available at anytime. Locals may swear by the purity of the water, but you'll want to treat it if you have any reservations (there is no municipal treatment or regulation of water supply in rural areas). Some people may risk drinking from clear mountain springs or streams, but animal pastures extend to the highest elevations so its always best to treat. Gastrointestinal issues can spoil your hike. Whether you boil, filter, or chlorinate be sure to familiarize yourself with the treatment technique you plan to use before you go.
In spring you will encounter a lot of water along the route, by mid summer some of these gullies and streams will dry out. Taking along enough water for each days hike is always safest if there are no villages along the way. Hiking with a navigational aid such as the Guthook app will allow you to plan your water intake and supply so you neither carry too much nor too little. Most individuals should plan to carry at least 1 liter and preferably 2 liters in the heat of the summer.
Where do I go to the bathroom?
When you stay at a village homestay there will usually be an outhouse (long drop)/squat-style toilet and/or an indoor toilet.
Along the trail, you will be taking care of your business in nature. Disposing of waste responsibly is important for sanitation, for the experience of other hikers, for keeping good relations between hikers and villagers, and for practicing Leave No Trace principles.
Along with a roll of paper, you should carry a lightweight trowel on your hike to be able to dig a 15-20cm (6-8 inch) "cat hole" to bury your waste. Feces should be buried a minimum of 70 paces away from streams or the trail. Before covering the waste, mix in some soil with a stick in order to discourage wildlife from digging it up, and to quicken decomposition. Bury your used toilet paper along with your waste. Sanitary napkins, wet wipes and other hygiene products should be packed into ziplocks and carried out.
Don't forget that as many hikers get sick from inadequate hand washing as from bad water. Wash your hands with bio-degradable soap or use hand sanitizer after defecating - the hand washing with any soap should be done at least 70 paces from a water source. If you share food, do so without touching one anothers food.
THE ACTUAL HIKE
What are blazes?
Blazes are usually painted marks on trees, rocks or fences that indicate that you are on the correct path, or indicate a turn in order to stay on the right track. The blazes for the Janapar Trail are primarily blue and white stripes. A curve at the top of the stripe indicates the direction you should veer/turn in order to stay on the trail.
When should I expect to see blazes?
Blazes are placed regularly along the trail wherever there are trees or rocks to paint on. Where the trail is very easy to follow and hard to lose, they can be less frequent. Where the trail goes through fields with nowhere to blaze, they can be absent, until such time as it becomes possible to place posts along the trail.
Does the trail route ever change?
It has changed a few times over the years, but after a few important reroutes in 2017 that solved a few issues, the trail route should remain largely unchanged for the foreseeable future.
How can I best protect myself?
Have some supplies with you that can help in case of problems. Lighters to start signal fires or keep warm, loud whistle to help people locate you, bright bandana or scarf, telephone, etc.
Women hikers should not travel solo, and are safest being reserved when interacting with men of all ages. In the conservative culture, some men will interpret what would be considered normal friendliness by a woman in the West as very serious interest in a physical encounter.
Culture and Etiquette
To stereotype, Armenians are patriotic, even while being quick to point out the shortcomings of their government. They tend to the conservative, though they don't usually apply their standards to visitors. And above all, Armenians take great pride in their (legendary) hospitality. Most villagers who have virtually nothing will share everything and take the time to help a visitor in need. Invitations into ones home for a drink or a meal, or an offer of a string-free place to sleep are common. We hope that hikers will be able to strike a balance of accepting some hospitality, and giving back, while preserving the genuineness of the local openness.
For overnight stops in villages, romance with a local is not a good idea. Casual fun might cause you complications, or it might make life more difficult for hikers who follow in your footsteps. Women hikers should follow the advice in the safety section, and should not travel alone.
The animal world of Artsakh is also rich. Wild goats, pigs and deer live in the plains. Brown bears, wolves, wild cats, bobcats, foxes, hares, moles and boars inhabit the forests. Birds include wild geese, ducks, partridges, magpies, crows, sparrows, doves, kites, cuckoos, turtledoves, woodpeckers, larks, owls, and others. Turtles, hedgehogs and different kinds of snakes are abundant in the lowlands and on rocky foothills. There are different types of locusts, bugs and butterflies in Artsakh. Most large rivers have significant fish populations. Source: http://www.nkrusa.org/country_profile/geography.shtml
Are there snakes?
Yes, there are 22 types including 4 venomous snakes. The risk of a snake bite while hiking is minimal and can be further avoided with awareness of habitat and by taking some simple precautions. Snakes seek shelter under rocks, logs and in tall grass and heavy vegetation. Snakes are naturally averse to humans and usually scare away easily by stomping around. Only when they are startled in to a defensive mode, do they become aggressive. Watch where you are stepping when going through tall grass. Use a trekking pole to rustle vegetation ahead of your path. Stomp around in areas where you want to take a rest or camp. Long pants and hiking boots are also recommended for added protection.
In the unlikely case of a bite, a non-venomous bite can be treated as puncture wound (sanitize and bandage). The most effective treatment of a venomous bite is with anti-venom. The best thing to do if bitten by a snake is keep calm and call 211 or 911. Remember the physical description of the snake or better yet take a photograph for identification. Do not cut, suck or apply a tourniquet to effected area, limit physical activity and keep the bite below the heart to limit spread of venom. Do not take alcohol, caffeine or medication. Follow instructions provided by emergency service providers or, if unavailable, proceed to the nearest hospital.
What other creatures should I know about?
You will probably not encounter the following animals, but then again there's always a small chance you will. Wild Cats, Wolves, Boars, Porcupines.
Are there bears?
Yes, there are rarely seen small brown bears.
HEALTH AND FIRST-AID
What safety equipment is a good idea on the trail?
Phone, loud whistle, flashlight, first aid kit, high calorie snacks, mylar foil emergency blanket (super tiny and light).
How do I prevent blisters?
Footcare is one of the basic skills every hiker needs to learn. While it's a personal matter, there are some tips that may help novice hikers prevent blisters.
Footwear - First, it's important to select properly fitted footwear. Some people like traditional hiking boots, others like shoes. The current trend in the industry is toward light weight, fast drying footwear made of soft materials like trail runners or trainers that require no break-in. The softer materials tend to be more forgiving and may cause less problems with blisters for some people. It's better to try on footwear in the evening when the feet are tired and swollen. It's advisable to go a half size bigger to allow for expansion while hiking. But, don't go so big that there is any slippage in the heal or chaffing elsewhere on the foot.
Socks are the first line of defense against blisters. Cotton socks should be avoided as they retain moisture and are not very durable or form fitting especially for through-hiking. Light to mid weight woolen blend socks designed for hiking are best and help wick moisture away from the foot. A couple pairs is good to bring on a multiple day trip. If you are someone who has problems of chaffing between the toes, you might want to experiment with toe socks.
Sandals - It is highly recommended to bring a pair of sandals that can be worn in the evening to allow the feet to dry, cool and relax. This is a most critical component of footcare! This is even more important once you develop blisters and need to allow them to dry at night. Sandals can also be used for fording rivers and streams to keep your footwear dry. This can also help prevent blisters, but its also a matter of personal preference. Trainers dry out quickly so some people don't bother changing every time they cross a river.
Finally, while hiking its important to deal with "hot spots" before they become blisters. Don't wait to find out what is causing the burning or irritation in your feet. Stop and protect those areas with moleskin / secondskin and bandage tape. Also bring a pair of toe nail clippers to keep the nails from chaffing. Being proactive about hot spots is key to preventing blisters.
How do I prevent hypothermia?
At higher elevations and in the winter, hypothermia is something to think about and prepare for. Staying dry and having warm clothes, sleeping bag, tent, etc, as well as keeping your calorie intake high are important.
How do I prevent heat emergencies?
An early start while it's cool, a good supply of water, a floppy and breathable hat, and breaks whenever necessary will go a long way in preventing heat emergencies.
Who can attempt a thru-hike?
Anyone in reasonable shape can hike the Artsakh section of the Janapar Trail. The Janapar Trail guide on the Guthook App is written specifically for thru-hiking the trail and makes it easy for novice as well as experienced hikers to plan their own adventures.
How long does it take?
The trail is broken into 15 sections intended as day hikes. Motivated hikers can double-up on some days where there are two easier hikes back to back (for example going from Karintak all the way to Stepanakert instead of overnighting in Shushi). Other hikers may welcome the shorter days, or take a day or two to relax or explore an area or town (Togh village area trails, Stepanakert or Shushi, Patara and Kolotak area trails, etc.
When should I start a thru-hike?
Some people don't mind hiking in snow, so the southern portion especially is accessible year round. Some of the higher passes in the north really should only be done by experienced hikers in the winters.
Other than that, the hike can be done at any time, but mid to late summer can be hot and humid, and certain periods of spring can be wet/muddy depending on your luck. So the optimal seasons to hike are going to be late spring/early summer, and mid to late fall. Late spring/early summer will mean a lot of stunning green landscapes and wildflowers. Mid to late fall will mean a bountiful harvest with great fruits and vegetables, clearer and drier trails, and later in fall some beautiful fall foliage colors.
Which direction should I hike in?
If you're in good shape, either end is the same in good weather. If you need a few days of easier hiking to get into the rhythm, starting at the southern end (Hadrut) is much more advisable, as the section lengths are shorter, climbs are less and the trail is generally less remote and well established. The southern section of the trail is in general lower elevation, so it becomes hikeable/snow-free earlier in the season, and stays that way longer. So better to start in the south in the earlier spring, or from the north in the later fall if you want to hike the entire trail before much snowfall. Check weather forecasts for rain and snow.
How do I find a partner?
The best place to try and find a hiking partner is on the Janapar Trail Facebook Discussion Group and Backpacking Armenia Facebook Group. The Reddit Armenia board can also be worth a shot, as can the Reddit travel or solotravel boards.
Story of the Janapar Trail
In 2006 the concept of a long distance trail starting in Armenia and extending through Artsakh was born with 2007 seeing the trail defined and much of it marked. It would lead past many natural and historic-architectural highlights, while giving a much more in-depth experience. Funding came from the Hovnanian Foundation and the implementation of the project was planned and overseen by Raffi Kojian. The trail came together by connecting historic foot paths and jeep tracks through Artsakh's backcountry. The trail was designed so that hikers would end each days hike in a village or a town where they could stay in local homestays without needing to bring camping gear. This would allow them to experience first hand the incredible hospitality of the people and experience the local culture better. Those who did prefer to bring gear would of course have the option to camp as well. Funding ended in 2007.
Even as adventurous hikers started hiking the trail, the signage began to deteriorate. In 2012, work was done to renew the trail markings in the southern portion of the trail, between Stepanakert and Hadrut. The trail was extended into Armenia, and as hiking apps grew in popularity, the trail was added to apps in order to make following it even easier. This work was completed by the efforts and funds of Raffi and some friends (the Niziblian brothers), as well as volunteers from Birthright Armenia. Additional trail marking work was done by Birthright Armenia volunteers in 2014.
In 2016 Raffi oversaw and funded the scouting of an extension even further into Armenia from Vardenis to Yerevan. This portion has been completely scouted and the tracks have been added to the hiking app as an unmarked extension. There are no plans currently to mark this trail.
In 2017 Hans (of Bellfree Contractors in Los Angeles) and Gevorg (of Arevi Tours) worked on clearing the Janapar Trail in preparation for the trail run by ultramarathoner Telma Altoon. Later in the year Hans founded the Trails for Change NGO in Armenia and brought a trained team to Artsakh from Armenia to do additional trail work and add signage, as well as revamp the homestay information. Also late in the year, Raffi did some scouting related to reroutes of the trail, with the help of Dmitry, also known as Mazzoniguide, and Trails for Change did a revised village-by-village homestay assessment to create an up-to-date homestay list.
Early 2018 saw a crowdfunding campaign by the Janapar project allowing Trails for Change to reblaze and clear the entire trail. John Bollinger was deeply involved in that work. The Armenian Hiking Association also helped on the Shushi-Karintak section including the construction of bridges there. The government of Artsakh financed the clearing and blazing of the beautiful canyon reroute section from Karmir Shuka to Sargsashen (en route to Avetaranots).
2019 saw Trails for Change do additional trail work including the installation of directional posts. Hans planned and completed a group bike ride fundraiser towards this end. John Bollinger gathered a great deal of data from his time working on the Janapar Trail, as well as from his thru-hike and coordinated the placement of the trail and data onto the industry standard Guthook App by Atlas Guides.
READ THE TRAIL DESCRIPTIONS EACH MORNING BEFORE YOUR HIKE
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