It seemed quite easy: the Janapar trail runs through Nagorno-Karabagh, is signposted, and even has a site describing all the sections. The stretch between Karintak and Mkhitarishen seemed nice for a day, and being only 10km, should be easily done. We drove from Stepanakert up to Shushi, the town that was heavily damaged in the early 1990s war, and ended up taking a soldier in our car to lead us to the tourist office; we wanted some additional information, but unfortunately found the attractive office closed. We bought some food, drove to the trailhead, and started hiking down the valley from there, on an nice trail. The weather was splendid, we made sure to use sun lotion: we could feel the sun burn on our skin. On our left, we saw the plateau on which the town os Shushi is built, high above us, and ahead, mountains covered by forest rolled over to the horizon. We soon arrived at the village of Karintak, a picturesque collection of houses spread out over the hills, and stumbled upon the wreck of a tank at the roadside - one of the reminders of the war that had raged here in the early 1990s. The trail reached Karkar river, and we regularly saw the trail sign, a yellow foot on a blue background - I calculated that we should be on the other side in not more than a few hours. For days, we had wanted to hike in nature, and here we were doing just that on a beautiful day: life could not be much better. On the other side of the river, we saw terraced fields, but we did not see any persons anymore. I remembered the warnings about Karabagh being the most heavily mined region of the former Soviet Union, and the caution to only walk on roads or clearly used trails. Following this established trail seemed a safe option.
The trail was easy to follow, and we walked through a forest which gave us a welcome cover against the sun. When we reached a small opening in the forest right next to the river, we felt it was time for a break. Sitting on a boulder, and eating the fruit we had bought, listening to the river rushing past, and feeling the heat of the sun on our face, was just another moment of happiness. We did see some clouds forming in the distance, but did not think much of it. The problems started when we wanted to continue our hike. We thought we saw it, but then the trail seemed to end; we criss-crossed the forest in search of it, walking back and forth to our picnic place, even searching for the yellow foot sign on the other side of the river - perhaps we were supposed to cross here? We ended up walking back to Karintak, only to find a trail forking off and leading up. With plenty of time ahead of us, we decided to follow it; it took us higher, and then in the right direction, so we assumed this must be the trail, even though there were no signs. We noticed that the sun had now disappeared, and were surprised at how fast the blue sky had been replaced by a thick cloud cover above us. It started to rain, then rained more and more - so much so, that we looked for cover under a cliff and waited for the rain to get less. The good thing about heavy rain is that it normally does not take long, and indeed, we were on our way, water running down the mountain, and when the trail descended again, we reached another trail and were very happy to find the yellow foot sign - a confirmation that we were on the right track; moreover, the trail was easy to follow now.
At least, that was how it seemed. Soon enough, we were again at a loss, and again, there were no signs. At one point, I reached a point a few metres above the raging river below - Karkar gorge was very narrow and the water was squeezed through the steep walls that towered high above us. Below me: wild water, next to me a vertical wall: it was clear that there was no trail here. I ended up struggling uphill, forgetting all about the warnings about landmines, assuming the trail must run over a ledge above. I sometimes thought I saw a trail, but then discovered it was a fake trail; after a while of searching, I wanted to go down, but the muddy slope was too steep for me, and I fell down. While doing so, I saw a metal case with wires, and in a reflex, rolled over to avoid touching it just to be sure. What does a landmine look like, anyway? We retraced our steps, and reached a boulder right on the Karkar river, where we finally found the much wanted yellow sign. Were we supposed to cross the river here? It seemed impossible; moreover, there was no sign on the other side to indicate the way. It was inevitable now: we had to give up our hike, and hike back the same track to Karintak - we had lost a lot of time in our search. Worse still, it started to rain again, and when I saw a big white thing hitting the ground next to me, and felt stones on my back, I realized it had started to hail with stones of a size I had never seen before. We lost the track again, searching frantically for the right trail in the mercilessly heavy rain, until we found the track up the hill again. When we reached Karintak, sunlight was falling on the brilliant green mountains; the views were great, but we could not help but being disappointed, even more so since my camera had mysteriously stopped working. The next day, I was adamant to hike back the trail from the other side of Karkar canyon, if only to see where we had gone wrong. Starting from the village of Mkhitarishen, I walked down into the gorge, over an old arched stone bridge to the Hunot ruins, and then continued walking the easily visible trail. I was walking on the other side of Karkar river, and wondered where, and how, I would have to cross. At one point, the trail stopped at the river, and I assumed that the crossing was here. I left my shoes behind, waded through the wild river, and continued hiking cautiously on the other side, squeezing myself through holes, until I found myself next to Zontik waterfall, a fairytale-like place where water runs down a moss-covered rock. Just behind it, a few tree trunks lying on two boulders formed a bridge over the river; I went down on all fours, and while the water was racing through the narrow space between the boulders a few metres below, I just hoped the logs would stay together. But I was on the other side of the river again - there must be yet another crossing. Threading carefully with my bare feet, avoiding the broken glass that was everywhere, I finally reached an opening near the river: the trail stopped here. I searched the other side of the river, and was elated when I saw the same yellow foot sign we had seen the day before, attached to a tree. I had found the connection, and cheered. Too bad there was no sign on my side of the river, too bad we had not known that we had had to cross - from this side, the crossing did not even seem impossible. The mystery of the previous day solved, I know hiked back to my shoes and Mkhitarishen, upbeat - when I reached a viewpoint higher up, I looked back for the last time into Karkar gorge with the old bridge below, and the massive walls on both sides.
Personal travel impressions both in words and images from Karkar gorge hike (Armenia). Clicking on the pictures enlarges them and enables you to send the picture as a free e-card or download it for personal use, for instance, on your weblog. Or click on the map above to visit more places close to Karkar gorge hike.
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