Global Walk: Azerbaijan
Tell your friends you’re going walking in the Caucasus and you might receive a quizzical look. Inform them that you will be hiking through a country that does not even officially exist, and you can expect serious disbelief. But the Janapar Trail in Nagorno-Karabakh is just that: a meandering 190km/119-mile route through the mountains of a breakaway republic that is currently recognised by no-one but its residents. With a name derived from three languages – Russian (‘Nagorno’, meaning mountainous), Turkish (‘Kara’, meaning black) and Persian (‘bakh’, meaning garden) – Nagorno-Karabakh is one of those ‘frozen conflicts’ left over from the collapse of the Soviet Union. Despite its declared independence, it’s officially a part of neighbouring Azerbaijan, where its sovereignty is a huge bone of contention. Fortunately, there has been no fighting here since the early 1990s and it is perfectly safe to visit.
Set up in 2006 to boost tourism in the region, the Janapar Trail is a newly established long-distance route for experienced hikers. Beginning in the north around Dadivank and finishing at Hadrut in the south, the trail is waymarked for much of its length with a distinctive ‘footprint’ logo and is not especially physically demanding. But a remote region such as this presents its own challenges and an adventurous spirit is as important as strong legs and trekking experience. Atolerance of vodka is a bonus, as is any scrap of Russian, Turkish or Armenian that you can muster. The trail can be conveniently split up into day hikes between villages, where it is usually possible to stay with a local family. Camping is another possibility, although wolves are said to be present and campers should take sensible precautions. It’s also perfectly feasible to walk short sections of the route or make day hikes from Stepanakert, the Karabakh capital. My time was limited, so I decided to sample two shortish sections of the trail. I took a marshrutka (minibus) from Stepanakert to Dadivank – a village that has one of the largest monasteries in the country. Like most Armenian churches, the monastery is strewn with khachkars – carved memorial stones that commemorate the passing of souls. After a quick look, I head out on the trail, heading southeast. This section, to the village of Vaghuhas, was easy walking, following a road along the north bank of the Tartar River. There was almost no traffic and already it felt as if I had the place to myself. I passed by the settlement of Charektar before reaching a village called Getavan, just beyond the point where the Tartar Valley widens into a floodplain. Here, I left the road and river behind as the trail crossed an ancient bridge to climb steeply to Vaghuhas.
Silent forest, vocal officials
The trail became somewhat tougher the next day as it undulated over forested hills before descending to the village of Vank. Mist swirled around the hilltops like smoke from a fire. Periodically, a bird of prey would sweep across the sky, looking for a thermal to ride. The silence, as the saying goes, was deafening. Entering the upper reaches of the village, I encountered a bit of old-school Soviet-style suspicion. A battered van screeched to a halt and one of its occupants demanded my ‘dokumenti’. As my casually dressed inquisitor had nothing about his appearance that suggested officialdom, I thought I’d turn the situation on its head and asked for his. He fumbled for his identity card, driving his friend into hysterics of laughter. Having grumpily retracted the demand for identification, the pair laughed and shook my hand, perhaps in sneaking admiration of my cheek. Vank is an unusual place. Thanks to the largesse of Levon Hairapetian, a Moscowbased lumber baron born in the village, Vank has far more facilities than most communities in these parts. There’s a well-equipped school and – most remarkably – a hotel in the shape of an ocean liner. The Hotel Eklektika (known as the ‘Titanik’) is one of the most surreal sites you’re ever likely to see.
Remnants of war
I took the marshrutka to Stepanakert the next morning, and, from there, I took another to Shushi. There’s a huge new cathedral but many of the town’s historic buildings languish in disrepair. Ruined mosques and churches bear witness to Shushi’s previously mixed population. But when conflict broke out in 1992, it was used as a base for the Azerbaijan army – hence the extensive war damage. From Shushi, the Janapar Trail twisted steeply down through Karintak – a village situated beneath near-vertical cliffs – before looping north along the narrow Karkar Canyon, which is undoubtedly one of the most spectacular sections of the trail. I passed the ruined village of Hunot, with its wooden bridge and waterfall, before an ancient stone bridge marks the point where the trail climbs up from the river to reach the village of Mkhitarishen. I spent the night here, then continued along the trail, looping steeply south once more. Then, zigzagging east through rolling hills and fields, I eventually arrived at the ancient fort village of Avetaranots. My final stage to Karmir Shuka skirted the village of Skhtorashen, where an enormous plane tree purported to be over 2,000 years old, grows. Returning to Stepanakert before daybreak the next morning, I watched the sun come up over the mountains as the marshrutka climbed up past Shushi. Little-known this trail may be, but the experiences of the last few days had imprinted this black mountain garden indelibly on my mind.
Time/Distance: It takes 10–14 days to walk all 190km/119 miles of the trail. Individual sections of varying difficulty range between 10–22km/6–14 miles.
Travel to: Stepanakert can be reached by flying to Yerevan in Armenia, then taking the daily minibus – around 8 hours.
Travel around: Infrequent minibuses connect Stepanakert with villages along the trail.
Guidebooks: Armenia with Nagorno Karabagh by Nicholas Holding (£14.99, Bradt Travel Guides, ISBN: 978 1841621630) has useful information on Nagorno-Karabakh. A Russian and/or Armenian phrasebook is invaluable.
Maps and further info: www.janapar.org