In the summer of 2015 I went to Armenia for my first time. Before I left on that trip I searched the internet for trails in Armenia. The only trail I could find was the Janapar Trail in Nagorno Karabakh known as Artsakh to the locals. This land is historical Armenia and is populated by Armenians. There are many incredible historical Armenian sites to be found here.
After reading about the trail I wondered if this could be a good Mountain Biking adventure. At the time I could not find anyone that had ridden it and really only accounts of a few people who had hiked parts of it. I posted on the Janapar Trail FB page and the administrator Raffi was quick to reply. He was not really very familiar with mountain biking or what was ridable on a bike. I decided I would just have to round up a crew and try it out. I talked to a few friends about it and slowly interest was building. Most of my Armenian friends seemed nervous about going to this war torn region. After all there had been sniper shootings along the border and in April 2016 the Azeris launched a full scale offensive in an attempt to reclaim some of this land. Despite this it seemed as though it was safe to go. The trail is after all not that close to the border.
The two usual suspects my Colombian friends Andres and Julio that have ridden with me in several States and Countries were very interested. Our friend Randy who is from Venezuela and had toured with us in El Salvador and Guatemala also was enthusiastic about joining us. It was exciting to be bringing three non Armenian friends along on this trip. After all most people that I know who visit Armenia are Armenians from the Diaspora.
Luckily my friend Roobik decided to join in on this adventure He was also the only one in our group who had been to Artsakh and is also fluent in Armenian. That would certainly come in handy as we navigated our way through Artsakh on this 150 mile journey.
After reviewing the maps and elevation profile I decided we would do the trail in reverse order from the way Janapar.org had it laid out. We would be starting from Vardenis near Lake Sevan in the Republic of Armenia and finishing in Hadrut n Artsakh. The trail is broken down into 16 segments. The idea is a hiker could walk one segment per day. Segments typically start and stop in villages where people can find supplies and home stays or pitch a tent near the village. Our plan was to ride an average 3 of these hiking segments per day.
The plan was to ride the entire trail. It is 177 miles long and the exact elevation gain was not known but we did know it is a very mountainous region with some dense forest so going in we knew the ride would have a fair share of climbing and would be a challenge.
Another issue is there are no bikes shops in this area so if something were to break this could quickly end the ride. We brought some extra tires, tubes, spokes and the basic tools we might need.
This would be a supported trip and my friend Gevorg Gasparyan from Arevi Travel would carry our gear, transport us to the trailheads and back and arrange a few home stays along the way. All we needed to carry was the days food, water and some basic tools. I also packed a water filter which we only used one day. There are plenty of water sources available so a self supported trip is very doable.
I had met Gevorg on my previous trip to Armenia and he guided our group from the Armenian Hikers Association on a tour of Western Armenia and to the summit of Mt Ararat. He is a great guy and really made this trip work well.
Shortly before the trip a friend found a blog post from a couple who had hiked the entire trail. To my knowledge they were the first people to hike the entire route, Their report came in handy. We decided to skip one segment that they reported was very overgrown and difficult to follow.
Check in was a breeze and checking in the bikes was a breeze! Sometimes traveling with a bike can be a hassle as we are often hit with extra baggage fees. No extra fees were charged with Qatar Airlines. Our bikes were just part of our free luggage.
Arrive in Yerevan at 12:40 am. We were all happy to see all of our bikes and luggage had made the trip. On our trip to El Salvador Randy’s bike got lost and he had to rent a bike to ride. Renting a bike in Yerevan does not seem to be an option at this time. There are a few bike shops with basic supplies. Cycling does seem to be slowly growing in Yerevan and renting a good bike may be an option in the future.
Gevorg picked us up at the airport and drove us to an apartment he had arranged for us near Republic Square. This was a relief since there was no way we were going to fit our bike bags and luggage in a taxi!
As I started putting my bike together I realized my left peddle was missing as was my brand new mount for my phone. I wanted to mount my phone to my handlebar so I could use the View Ranger app to navigate the trail. I thought these items must have been lost when my bike bag was inspected at the airport. A few days after I arrived home I would find them tucked into a zip lock bag in my garage!
We went to a bike shop in Yerevan were I would find a standard platform peddle. This made the ride extra challenging not being able to clip in. Also my bike shoes are not designed for this type of peddle so my shoe did not grip very well and would slide off the peddle occasionally.
Touring around Yerevan. Gevorg picked us up in the morning and we went to the Artbridge Cafe for breakfast then drove to the Garni Pagan Temple
with a stop at the Cherants Arch along the way. We then drove down to see the Symphony of Stones followed by a visit to Gerhard Monastery. These are some amazing places to see! That evening we took a walking tour of Yerevan.
October 7th First Day of Riding
Vardenis to hot tub near Karvachar
The ride started on the outskirts of town on a dirt road. It started with a gentle climb which was a nice way to ease into this. Jet lag was still a factor, probably more for me than the other guys since I could not sleep on the plane. It was a challenge to climb with the one platform peddle as I knew it would be.
I was a little ways behind the rest of the group and I saw the guys ahead talking with a local farm hand along the road. As I approached him I did not expect him to speak english. He had a bag of snickers bars and he handed me one and said in english. “ Have a snickers you are going to need it.” Apparently the other guys had told him what we were doing.
We passed a few ruins and figured we must now have entered Artsakh and that these were likely abandoned Azeri homes. Since we were on the back dirt roads there was no border station or even a sign to indicate we had entered Artsakh.
The climb got steep near the top of the pass and the temperature dropped. It was still comfortable riding weather just a little chilly on the downhill sections. At 9000’ this would be the highest point on the entire route.
We rode through some incredible scenery and saw some interesting rock formation. These segments are not marked but for the most part the track was easy enough to follow until the village of Tsar. This got a bit confusing there once we got into the ruins of the old village. There were several roads in the area and we realized we were off track but just kept heading towards what looked like some occupied houses. We saw a truck parked near a house and a lady was nearby. We stopped to ask for directions. Roobik tried talking to her in Armenian but found out she did not speak Armenian. She replied to him in Russian and he said to us any one speak Russian. She then said how about English. Her english was very good and she was very friendly and invited us in for coffee and tea but we were pressed for time to make it to our camp site before dark so we had to turn the offer down. She said well at least let me give you some cheese. She ran to the house and came out with a big block of home made cheese. In exchange we gave her some energy bars. She and her Armenian husband were from Moscow and she said it was his idea to move there.
She was a english teacher at the local school. The village had about 40 residents and the school had 10 students. They had power but no running water. Each morning they would get their water from the nearby stream. There was a lot of cattle around so she said the morning was the best time to get water before the cattle became active. She said she had only seen a few hikers through there this year so I imagine having some outside contact was nice.
We came down to the main dirt road to where we found Gevorg was waiting for us. He had water, bananas and other snacks for us. After a quick break we continued down the main dirt road to the Tak Jur (hot springs) We chatted with a few of the locals who told us there was good camping spots just a few kilometers down the road. We decided to continue and set up camp before soaking in the tub. We found a nice grassy flat area along the creek and next to an abandoned house.
We rode back to the hot tub and met some other very friendly locals who were soaking in the tub. It did not take long for them to offer us a drink of Vodka. They told us they were working on the construction project we had ridden by. From what I could understand it was a Geo Thermal power plant. There were new towers going up along the road for the wires. After soaking in the tub for a while the guys decided to take them up on the offer of a drink. They learned a new cheer as they raised there glasses “Anush”
Since I don’t drink, I was concerned with reports of locals offering alcohol to tourists and not taking no for an answer. This was the only time we were offered alcohol during the trip so it was not an issue. We were offered food, coffee and tea many times though.
Back at camp Gevorg found some firewood cooked sausage and potatoes in the fire. We also had some of that home made cheese and Lavash.
A Soldier stopped by this evening around 9:30 pm to check on us. He wrote down Gevorg’s passport and license plate numbers. He was a very nice guy and Gevorg told him what we were doing and the route we would take the next day. He seemed to know the route well. I assume he drives it on his patrols. He said the route would be difficult with very steep climbing.
October 8th Day 2
The temperature dropped last night to around 25 degrees which made it hard to get out of the warm sleeping bag this morning! Everything outside was wet from the heavy dew. We had left over sausage, sweet bread and dried fruit for breakfast.
When we started the ride at 8:45 it was a cool 32 degrees. The skies were clear and the wind was calm. Not far from camp was our first wrong turn of many for the day.
We made our way to Karvachar along the dirt road. We found out later you can easily bypass this village by staying straight along the road that parallels the creek. The trip up to Karvachar Village was well worth it though. The first thing we saw as we rolled up the hill and into the Village were these huge stone wheels. There were four of them and they were hollowed out in the center. Since there were four we thought maybe they were for an ancient wagon but they just seemed to big and heavy for that. Later on during our trip to the Tatev Monastery we found out what they were for. At Tatev they have an ancient vegetable oil mill. To grind the seeds there were big stone wheels with a small log in the center to hold on to and roll the wheel around. There are historic artifacts like this all over the place.
Down the road we saw a Grandma with two little ones. This was Andres’ first chance to pass out candy. On our tour of Cuba the kids would chase us and ask for gum so this time he came prepared. The candy proved to be a big hit. After he gave the candy to them the little girl handed him her apple in exchange.
Once through the village we came down to the same dirt road along the river. We missed our next turn over the bridge and rode a little ways passed. We saw a local guy and Roobik asked him where the Janapar Trail to go over the mountain was. He said to go out to the main road and take that because the road was broken and to difficult to go over the mountain. This is something we would hear often along the way. Most villagers did not seem to know anything about the Janapar Trail and they certainly were not familiar with mountain bikes and the type of terrain we ride with them. Plus Janapar does mean road in Armenian so this may have confused them.
We backtracked a bit and found the bridge and followed the track up the steep dirt road. After several miles we came to a remote village. We saw a couple local guys and they yelled out to us. Roobik replied in Armenian. I then heard the guy ask Roobik if he was Armenian. It seems the locals don’t expect to see Armenians doing this sort of thing and would be surprised.
They were very quick to invite us in and offer us coffee and probably the best berry juice we have ever had! The villagers don’t seem to have much but they are so generous with what they do have. The younger man in the bunch had been studying english online (Yes in this remote village they have internet and wifi) He wanted us to speak to him in english so he could practice. Like many young Armenian men he had dreams of making the lottery for a visa to leave the country and go to the U.S. This is a very harsh reality of the struggles the country still faces with high unemployment and low wages especially in these remote villages. We hung out there for probably an hour chatting. It was definitely to long as we still had lots of ground to cover but mixing with the locals is a great cultural experience and it is hard to pass up or rush through.
As we left they told us it was 4-5 km to the summit. We may have hit a false summit after 4-5 km but the road kept climbing and seemed to be getting steeper and less traveled. We came across new road cuts most likely for the new power line towers. We could see either the old towers laying there or the base for the old tower.
Once we reached the high point the road seemed to end and the track was above us. Randy hiked around looked for a trail but there was no evidence of any trail. We tried a few of the different road options but we would quickly find ourselves off of the track. After an hour or so of searching around for the route I could see more power towers in the distance so we decided to follow these and see where it took us even though we were moving away from the track. After a few miles we were able to hear Gevorg on the radio but he could not hear us so at least we knew were were getting closer. We set up a few landmarks and continued down the road. A few more miles and we could now see a village on the right and and a few houses to the left. These two villages seemed to be 5-10 miles apart. The more defined road took us to the right so we continued down it towards the village. Once we got closer we could see the Village was in ruins. We saw cattle grazing in the Village but we could not see any signs of life.
We continued down to a well used dirt road and tried to call Gevorg with no luck. We now knew the Village of Zuar was the other Village we had seen far off to our left so we turned left on the dirt road and after a few miles we were able to reach Gevorg on the radio. Not long after we came upon the Zuar Tak Jur. It was packed with people soaking in the tub and a few groups barbecuing nearby. One of the first sites we see is three other cyclists and we quickly went over to chat. They were from the Ukraine and were bikepaking from Yerevan. We had trouble communicating but that didn’t matter because we were instantly bonded by our bikes. They asked about our trip and our bikes and we did the same. They took some of our bikes for test rides. Gevorg showed up and was able to translate for us. We also chatted with some locals as well as a couple from Tehran that were moving to Stepanakert.
Gevorg had food and a home stay arranged in Dadivank 15 miles away. It was getting late and would be dark soon so we had to say goodbye and continue our ride. Lucky for us the road was now a slight downhill though it was very rough we made good time. After 11 miles we hit the newly paved road. By then it was totally dark and we followed closely behind the taillights of Gevorg’s van. Since we did not plan on riding at night we did not bring lights. Luckily the road was as smooth as butter and we made good time to the house.
Once at the house it wasn’t long before the good food started coming out and we ate like kings. Our hosts were a mother and daughter. The mother told us she lived in the Azerbaijan capital city Baku before the war. They were lucky to get out alive. Once the war was over the government gave her five houses in Dadivank. One for her and one for each of her children.
Dadivank to Vank
We woke up to some heavy winds that had us concerned briefly. By the time we were ready to roll the wind had almost completely stopped.
Gevorg said hey guys look up the hill. We could see the top of the Dadivank Monastery in the distance. That would be our first stop before continuing the route towards Shushi.
We had a 12 mile road ride on the smooth newly paved road which went by really quickly. I had my eye on the right side of the canyon and dreamed of a potential trail weaving through the trees up off the canyon floor that would avoid the pavement.
Of course we missed our turn onto the dirt road at the start of the next segment. We doubled back after realizing it and found the road. The dirt road became steep rather quickly and we struggled to climb steep sections of the road that kept coming for the rest of the day! After a while we came to a small village and asked the locals where the Janapar Trail was. They told us to go to the main road and take that. We said but the map shows the trail going over the mountain not on the pavement. They said you don’t want to go that way it is steep and muddy. Well thats what we are here for so off we went! After a few more wrong turns we found our way. Another few miles and we came across our first Janapar Trail sign!
We stopped along the way a few times to pass out more candy.
We felt good once we saw the Janapar Trail signs but with the recent logging work going on it was still a challenge to follow the route. Some parts were very muddy and overgrown. We were deep in the forest and the scenery was incredible! Some parts were so steep we had to hike with our bikes.
We came across some spent shells along the trail. It seems this steep road was likely hastily made during the war. A little later we would see the Gandzasar Monastery in the distance.
A short while later we would see the houses of the Village of Vank. Once we got to the houses some kids came running after us so we stopped and chatted with them. I let one kid ride my bike around.
A short while later we met up with Gevorg at a small road side restaurant not to far from the Monastery. We enjoyed some of the local cuisine. It is a Lavash bread stuffed with herbs that is very tasty. It is called Jingalov hats.
We drove up to the Monastery while they prepared Kebob for us.
After visiting the monastery and eating the Kebob we loaded onto the van and drove to Shushi. We decided to skip the section from Vank to Shushi due to reports of it being overgrown.
We spent the night in the Shushi Hotel. We all had the best nights sleep we have had so far during this trip. The ladies at the hotel washed our biking clothes for us and prepared dinner and breakfast the next morning.
Gevorg surprised us with his Piano playing talent.
October 10th Day 4
Shushi to Karmir Shuka
We skipped segment 6 after Gevorg talked to a local friend who said it was very muddy and blocked by fallen trees and logs. It is the season for cutting of firewood and workmen are busy collecting wood.
We headed out of town on the paved road and then merged onto segment 5 near Karentak. After a few wrong turns we found the start of the segment using View Ranger and then some faded blue marks painted on rocks. The climb was steep in sections as was to be expected by now. The forest was thick through here. Once in a while it would open up to grassy meadows. A few vehicles passed us. One was a large truck likely going to get wood. We could hear the buzz of chainsaws in the distance.
About half way into the segment somehow we missed the trail markers and once again could not find the route. We backtracked looking for the turn but could not find it. The dirt road we were on seemed like a well travelelled road and we could see houses in the distance so we thought that was the town of Avetaranots and the end of the segment. once we reached the houses we stopped to talk with a guy who told us the town was not Avetarnots and that town was down the road about 10 Km. We chatted with him a while. He talked about the war and historical Armenian lands. He mention Tigran the Great and the ancient Tigranagert. Roobik told him we were Armenian – Americans and that Julio and Andres were originally from Colombia and Randy from Venezuela. He said no one knows of the Armenians so it is good we were here so we can go back and tell our friends and family about this place. It was obvious he was a very proud Armenian. He would be the second local we talked to today that seemed very well informed about world politics and geography.
We made our way down the dirt road to Avetaranots. We stopped when we saw the Janapar markers once again. There was a few people near the intersection of the main road and the Janapar and Roobik talked with a few of them. We did not realize but we were in front of a small school. The kids came out and they started to gather around us with curiosity. Andres started to pass out candy.
We talked to Gevorg and he told us he was near Karmir Shuka and had food for us. Now it was easy to follow the Janapar signs and this dirt road seemed well traveled. Gevorg was waiting for us at a beautiful waterfall.
We had lunch, enjoyed the view and then continued riding to the village. Gevorg had arranged a home stay for us with a family. They had one big room with five beds for us to sleep. Gevorg slept in his van. When Gevorg had talked to the lady earlier she said we could stay but she did not have food for us. So he went to the market and bought food for them to prepare.
Gevorg wanted to show us some sites so we took off before dinner.
We returned to our homestay for a nice dinner.
Karmir Shuka to Hadrut Day 5
After another good nights sleep we had breakfast prepared by our host. There are really no other dining options in these villages! Today would be our last day of riding. We talked to two hikers the day before from Israel. The told us that part of the second segment was very overgrown and they did not think we could get through with the bikes but we figured we would try it anyway. After some bushwhacking on segment 3 we decided other wise. After the the first half of segment 2 we came to a junction were we could get on the paved road or take or chances and see if we could get through the overgrown segment. We opted not to chance it and took the paved road. It was also much shorter and we were to the junction where Gevorg was waiting for us near the start of segment #1.
This segment seemed to climb for a very long time. We missed a turn where the trail goes straight up a ridge line. We realized we missed something so we turned around and ran into a local guy who told us the trail went up the ridge right by a cross.
It was steep and overgrown so we pushed our bikes up the ridge and then started to ride down the other side and once again realized we missed the markers. The blue marks are very difficult to see while riding a bike especially on a rocky section like this where you are concentrating on where you are riding.
We stopped and hiked back up to find the markings. From there it was very thick brush and difficult to find the trail. After bushwhacking for a while we found the trail. It was a deep fall line trail that was very eroded and followed the ridgline. We came upon the Khachkar the local guy had told us about. We stopped for a snack and observed what looked like sacrificial animal remains such as chicken claws and plastic bags tied to branches. We continued up the steep ridge line trail that was mainly a deep rut. Sometimes it was to steep to ride so we pushed out bikes up.
This would be the first actual single track trail we would ride so far. Everything else had been dirt roads though some were so overgrown they were about as wide as a singletrack trail. Once at the top we would be treated to some really fun, rocky challenging trail for a few miles into town
Our stats for the trip were 151 total miles in five days of riding with 19,197’ of elevation gain.
We had a few minor mechanical issues along the way. Julio had some issues with his peddle but managed to make it work. Randy had some issues with his rear hub not spinning freely. Luckily neither of these issues became a serious problem.
Its amazing how many edible plants there are everywhere. We saw herbs, vegetables and fruits growing everywhere. There are Turkeys, Geese, Ducks, Chickens, Cattle, Goats and Pigs roaming about. No one is going hungry here! And that smoked fish from Lake Sevan was very tasty!
This is what some of the guys had to say about this trip.
This is what Julio had to say:
Tour de Hayastan – October 4 – 13, 2016
When Hans suggested riding the Janapar Trail, starting in Armenia and then through Karabakh, I felt it was a long distance to travel for our next bike tour. However, Hans had toured Colombia with us in 2015 (my birthplace), so I felt we owed it to him to visit his ancestral homeland. I initially joked that we can simply ride a Tour of Glendale and achieve the same result, but boy was I mistaken!
This trip was special from the very start as we secured very affordable airfare on Qatar Airways during their promotion of flights to Yerevan, Armenia. Our bikes and 3 bags were free on Qatar, along with 3 very good meals and amazing service. We landed in the modern and diverse city of Doha, Qatar before transferring to Yerevan.
Yerevan was very impressive with clean streets, no graffiti, and a very European flair. The food was amazing and even better than I had expected, with very fresh fruits & vegetables, great breads & cheeses, and excellent chicken, lamb, beef and fish. But it wasn’t until we ventured to Karabakh that I truly fell in love with this amazing country. The history of Hayastan was mind blowing as we were blessed to visit numerous ancient monasteries and former war zones. The Armenian people were so gentle, caring, and welcoming that we did not want to leave. Many of them asked us to stay in their homes with them, and we shared meals with families in small villages throughout the country. The majestic mountains, impressive farmland, uninhibited wildlife and perfect weather made us all feel like time had stood still in this patch of heaven. That was even before we experienced some of the best and most challenging mountain biking we’ve ever encountered. By the time the trip was ending I had fallen in love with Stepanakert, Karabakh and Armenia in general, and felt at one with the people and the mountains. My only regret is that more Armenian-Americans haven’t visited this sacred ground, as it is a treasure that has transformed me into a Karabakhian-Armenian forever.
This is what Andres had to say:
Armenia and Karabakh October 2016
In 2004 we started touring on our bikes when we rode 500 miles from San Francisco to Los Angeles in five days. Since then we have ridden every year, our biking journeys have taken us to six different states (California, Oregon, Arizona, Wyoming, Montana, Utah); we have also ridden in Cuba, Mexico, France, Monaco, Spain, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Colombia. We now add Armenia and Artsakh to our list.
We finished our mountain biking trip through Armenia and Artsakh with an epic five day adventure along the Janapar trail. We leave thankful for their hospitality; nurtured with their smiles, stories, words of encouragement, and great food along the trail; amazed with the country’s beauty, and the people we met along the way.
We rode through amazing mountainous landscapes, rivers, canyons, grasslands, and deep lush forests with beautiful colors. Unknown terrain for all of us, the first known mountain bikers to go through the entire Janapar trail, but even when getting lost (which took place many times everyday) we found great beauty at every turn.
There is a special connection when you travel on a bike; Armen, one of the many friends that we met along the Janapar trail might have said it best: “It is good that you came to Armenia, go and tell the world about us, they do not know who we are”. We’ll definitively spread the word…and the pictures. We leave humbled by this experience, the rich history and culture of this great Armenian land…Thank You!
And many thanks to Hans Keifer for bringing us along on this adventure.
More photos of the trip can be found here: Janapar Photos