BY BÉRJ BERAMIAN
Dealing with daily traffic in the suburbs of Los Angeles and running errands around town may sometimes frazzle some residents like me. People turn to tourism throughout the year to change their environment, to get away from their region, experience someplace different, or go somewhere that offers some serenity. I find ecotourism, such as mountain biking in local forests and mountains, a good way to break from the daily routine in Los Angeles – and I make time to ride once or twice and, sometimes, three times a week.
Mountain biking and hiking are popular outdoor activities in most countries with developed trails. I grew up in a city at the foothills of the Angeles National Forest. I can ride three miles North from my house in Pasadena to get to the Mount Wilson Toll Road. The twelve-feet-wide trail climbs another three miles to the Henninger Flats forest nursery and campground and continues to the iconic television and radio antennas on Mount Wilson’s peak, at an elevation of 5,710 feet. Other trail rides in the region with varying difficulty developed my skills in maneuvering through challenging courses, ascending and descending over the San Gabriel Mountains. Climbing the steep fire road to Henninger Flats is also great cardio that has me drenched by the end of each ride. Once or twice a week, some friends and I meet at Henninger Flats to exercise and socialize as we celebrate the sun setting into the Pacific Ocean. We also discuss many subjects at our gatherings.
One day, I suggested mountain biking in Armenia. I had traveled to Armenia since 2010 and lived there as well, and I always thought the Armenian Highlands were ideal for ecotourism for both hikers and mountain bikers. Somebody else in our gathering said he knew of a professional trail builder named Hans Keifer, who was developing trails in Armenia to promote ecotourism in the region. I was immediately intrigued by Hans’s work. So, I befriended Hans through Facebook and learned more about the exciting work his non-profit organization, Trails For Change NGO, does in Armenia and Artsakh– which inspired me to sign up for the Janapar Trail mountain biking fundraiser ride. My enjoyment of ecotourism that started in the suburbs of Los Angeles led me on a journey through the Janapar Trail, riding approximately 130 miles from Armenia to Artsakh through the Syunik Highlands and the Artsakh Mountain Range.
Ecotourism in the Armenian Highlands has great potential as an attraction for hikers and bikers alike. There are a few non-profit organizations, which fund the building and maintenance of trails, and tour organizers who provide guided tours through the region’s landscape. My journey through the Janapar Trail was led byHans Keifer, who himself also happens to be an avid mountain biker. The group of 12 participants raised about $20,000 for the non-profit organization in the summer of 2019.
The trip was well organized and required some preparation by each participant. Hans was highly informative about the trip. He organized some long-distance rides through local mountain trails in Los Angeles County to help participants condition themselves to ride 20 to 30 miles per day and climb between 2,000 to 5,000 feet elevations over a course of five days. He also provided a gear and clothing packing list for the journey, including a detailed trip plan with trail condition descriptions and apps to review the five segments of the Janapar Trail. Hans even suggested flight schedules, made room and board accommodations for the Janapar Trail ride, and provided instructions for transporting the mountain bikes in bike bags.
We landed in Yerevan, Armenia a few days earlier than our ride schedule, which was planned from August 25 through August 30, 2019. It took some two to three days to adjust one’s sleeping schedule after the air travel and time change. Tools and support were also provided for re-assembly of the mountain bikes in Yerevan.
On Sunday, August 25th, two support vehicles with hired drivers, Karen and Gegham, and a trip organizer, Tsovinar, picked up the participants, loaded the mountain bikes and travel packs, and transported the group to the town of Vardenis, which is located South-East of Lake Sevan. Along the way, we stopped at a restaurant where we enjoyed a traditional Armenian breakfast that included fried tomatoes with eggs, boiled eggs, various local cheeses, honey from local beekeepers, fresh-baked lavash and loaf bread, tea, and coffee. Scattered rain clouds poured rain down on us at the trailhead. Some of us took cover under the patio roof of a convenience store and others in the transport vehicles until the rain passed. Later, we started pedaling on a wide paved road that turned into a dirt road, also known as a Jeep road.
There was a gradual ascent onto a plateau, heading towards a mountain range. The group rode together and scattered apart a bit as we climbed the trail through its steepest sections. Along the way, we made a stop by an abandoned building near a stream. I refilled my hydration pack with natural spring water that flowed out from a half-inch pipe in the mountainside. We moved onto steeper sections, riding, and sometimes hiking, with our bikes.
The riders regrouped at the peak of the mountain, 8,998 feet above sea level, ascending 2,946 feet, and covering about 15 kilometers through two-thirds of the first day’s segment. As each rider arrived, they sat along a hillock, snacked on energy bars, fruits, nuts, and sandwiches to replenish nutrients as their chatter echoed over the scenic landscape. After the short rest, the company of mountain bikers lined up for the descent into Artsakh.
Just as we started over the hump of the mountain, a few cows were grazing on wild greens at the border pass, as if they were waiting to welcome our arrival. The cows stood still as the riders maneuvered between them. Brown Caucasian cattle in Armenia are unusually lean in form and they freely roam to graze on pastures or in the highlands where some wild herbs and greens grow. One by one, each rider plunged into the steep terrain of loose gravel and rocks through a narrower Jeep road, which was slightly eroded from the previous season of snow and rain.
The descent into Artsakh was a thrill to ride. Switchbacks and turns on the mountainside crossed a few streams and merged with shallow trenches dug by Jeep tires, forcing the bikers to pick a line with the least resistance to avoid obstacles on the course. We made random stops to regroup and view the valleys and mountain ranges ahead. Some guys were faster, others more cautious as we rode downhill and made our way to a gradual slope and gathered at a turnoff to Tsar Village. We pedaled along in a single file down a valley and up again on the trail to the isolated village.
A young girl and her brother sped down on their bikes and greeted us. One of Mariné’s bicycle pedalsonly had the remnant of the spindle rod, which was missing the plastic pedalpiece, but it didn’t seem to bother her at all as she and her brother, Sam, led us to their village home. We completed 22 miles by the end of the first segment. The support team was already there with our travel packs.
Mariné’s family hosted our group in their village home. Sahak, their father, barbecued dinner. In the meantime, it rained for a bit again as we cleaned our bikes and prepped them for the next morning, and Hans helped tune a shifting problem with one of the mountain bikes. The family provided sleeping quarters for a good night’s rest and made breakfast in the morning to send us off on the second section of our journey. Our travel packs were loaded in Sahak’s car and another stack tied on the roof for the descentfrom Tsar Village. The riders maneuvered through a rocky road that zigzagged down the mountainside, before they crossed a stream, and continued on a smooth dirt road to the parked support vehicles at the bottom of the gorge.
The drivers loaded our packs in the transport vehicles, and we started the second section of our journey from Tsar Village to Zuar Village. The dirt road ran downhill along the Tartar River. We rode together in clusters through a gorge along the river. Amid the first portion, we took a short break by a public hot spring pool, which had mineral water gushing out from its middle. There were a couple of changing stalls and outhouse facilities for public use.
We continued the ride up to Karvatchar, a village where we observed historical stone carvings and the remnants of ancient vegetable oil mills. The route led us to a turnoff in Nor Verishen where we crossed a bridge over the Tartar River and began a very steep climb through the village of Nor Manashid. The local folks are hospitable with tourists passing through, and one villager invited us to his home where we had cheese, tomatoes, sour cream, and bread. The first half of the ride was harder than the second half. We rode through lots of overgrown grass and passed a few water buffalo grazing near creeks. The most enjoyable section of the ride was through the forest. The Janapar trail had blue and white blazes and signs along the route, which guided us through the segment.
Once our group reached the highpoint of the mountain, 4,792 feet elevation, we rode down through a field on a jeep road and traveled through a cross-country segment until we merged with the Zuar Trail, which was marked with red and white blazes. We completed 33 miles by the end of the second segment, when we arrived at Yesseya’s village home. We had some coffee with the host and a few of his neighbors. Most of the village folks in Zuar keepbees and producehoney for a living, and one of them even makessparkling honey wine. We later went to a popular natural spring pool and soaked ourselves in the hot mineral water to rejuvenate our sore cycling legs.
Yesseya prepared our dinner and broke bread with our group. He had adopted two dogs and was given another Gampr puppy as a gift. He saved the leftovers from dinner to feed the dogs. It was a restful night followed by another breakfast in the morning before we departed Yesseya’s home. There was a makeshift bridge made of steel and severed logs built over the river between the road and Yesseya’s property. We crossed it with our packs to get to the transport vehicles. Once we loaded our bags, we prepped our mountain bikes and geared up for the third segment of our journey.
We rode down a dirt road through Zuar Village to the hot spring pool. The MTB Project app helped us track down the trail and ford across the river where we climbed onto an old road, turned right, and started our ascent. The beginning had some very steep parts, which required some hiking with the bike; otherwise, it was rideable for most of the two-mile, 1,500-feet elevation gain. The road narrowed over the ridge of the mountain as it ran along a valley with converging streams below, and, across the way, there were abandoned structures of settlements that left a historical impression in the scenic landscape. I wondered how people lived on a mountainside.
We followed the blue and white blazes along the Janapar Trail, riding through a tree-lined segment that was eventually speckled with shrubs as we climbed higher to where trees did not exist at 7,075 feet elevation. Natural water springs created streams that crossed the trail at a few points. The high altitude in the last half-mile forced me to hike my bike up to the peak where I joined the group to catch my breath and take a selfie. By this point, we traveled 10 miles and climbed 2,871 feet. We sat and enjoyed the view of the mountaintops and valleys below as we ate some nuts, fruit, and health bars to replenish our energy for the 15-mile descent to Ganszasar Monastery.
The cool breeze at the mountain peak required a windbreaker for the ride down in the beginning as we rode through more streams that crossed the trail. Somewhere around 6,000 feet elevation, there was a grassy plain with two horses grazing over the scenic landscape below. We continued down the trail and rode through a small village, which had some apricot, plum, and apple trees planted on the mountainside. I stopped by a natural spring and filled my bottle with water that was cold and tasty. The rest of the descent crisscrossed over streams that eventually merged into a river. I took a brief break and washed my muddied mountain bike while my shoes soaked in the cool river.
The trail became more technical as we rode down loose rocky slopes through the bottom portion. Wild berry shrubs required some tasting along the way. We reached a touristic area at the end of the 4,352 feet descentwhere restaurants and street vendors sold homemade goods. Hans treated the group with some Zhingyalov Hatz, Armenian flatbread stuffed with a variety of herbs. The drivers loaded the mountain bikes intothe transport vehicle and drove us to For-rest Hub in Stepanakert, a new campground with cabins, camping, showers, and toilet stalls. Dinner was prepared and served by the host, Azat, whose entrepreneurial vision developed the For-rest Hub campground. Later, we conversed with some friendly neighborhood kids who were intrigued by our visit.
The next morning, we loaded our mountain bikes on the transport vehicles and drove to Sushi to start the ride to Karmir Shuka Village, the fourth segment. We began the ride on a paved road then turned off on a dirt road as we passed through Karintak Village. The route continued through some single tracks, seldom traveled by vehicles. After some climbing over the high point, we entered a dense forest. We stopped to rest for a bit in a picnic area near a spring before the descent to Avetaranots. Along the way, we met Artur, a teenage boy, who was intrigued by the bikes and our trip. Artur even took one of the mountain bikes for a trial spin. His family offered cheese, greens, and bread, and put several pears into our backpacks. We posed for a group picture with the family before our departure.
There were a convent and a church en route to Avetaranots where we also discovered a waterfall. The ride was mostly on a single track. There was another natural spring in the forest where we stopped to drink the water. Most of the ride was through a forest, under a canopy of trees, and the descent, in particular, was fun to ride. We climbed 2,392 feet, descended 4,780 feet, and rode 21miles to reach Karmir Shuka. We stayed at Bedros’s resort, in a gorge, on a segment of the Janapar Trail frequented by hikers. Bedros often hosts hikers who pass through the resort.
The group started pedalingthrough the last segment on the next day. The climb over the ridge of the mountain was steep with a short hike-a-bike section. We rode past a small memorial as the trail turned rocky and steep during the descent to Azokh Village. There were a few small stores in the village that sold smoked fish, which is quite a tasty snack when it is available. We cut the journey a bit short through the fifth segment, since it was a nice day for some sightseeing. The support vehicles transported us to the base of a mountainside where we hiked up to explore the Azokh Cave. Human activity in the cave dates back about 7000 years. Later, we headed over to Togh Village and had a delicious lunch at Maro Bed and Breakfast. We decided to do a hike after we dropped off our packs in a village home.
Along the way, we chatted with some residents of Togh and picked some ripe green grapes from the vines hanging down from the trellis over the patio. The group hiked up to the Gtichavank Monastery, and we returned on a route around the mountain back to the village. There is also a dilapidated building in the center of Togh that has a painted mural of a carpet design typical of carpets made in the region. Ruben Oganesyan, a fine artist from Moscow who spends his summers in his family’s home in Togh, designed the artwork. Ruben gathered neighborhood volunteers to help paint the mural of the carpet on the building as part of an effort to improve Togh’s village center, which is located across from Melik’s Palace, another monumental architectural ruin. The fifth segment of the Janapar Trail ride covers 27 miles, ascends 5,588 feet, and ends in Hadrut.
The mountain biking trip from Armenia to Artsakh was more than just an activity on my bucket list. The momentous ecotourism experience offered adventure, cultural encounters, gastronomical treats, and serenity within an environment with picturesque mountaintop views of a region known as the Armenian Highlands. Physical conditioning was required for ascending and descending over mountains, riding through valleys and gorges along rivers, treading through trails, brush, mud, streams, and rivers, and resting in campgrounds and homestays in villages. It was ultimately a journey with a purpose. Trails For Change NGO organized the ride, which raised funding for much-needed signage, blazing, re-routes, brushwork, and other necessary maintenance on the Janapar Trail. Ecotourism in Armenia and Artsakh is thriving and will offer more discoveries in the years to come, so people may hike or mountain bike through the scenic landscape and become immersed inthe cultural and historical experience of the Janapar Trail journey.