The Story of the Georgian Sanctuary and Georgian Mars | ვაშლოვანი08.09.2020
The article was published by Adventurer Magazine
Text by Tinatin Mosiashvili, Journalist and tour guide
If it’s not your first time in Georgia and you’ve already grown accustomed to the sights of Mtatsminda, Kazbegi, Ushba, or Shkhara, and if you’ve already taken part in a rtveli harvest, dipped churchkhela candy, sated yourself with khinkali dumplings and elargi grits with melted cheese, and enjoyed Georgian wines from different appellations – yet you still crave our neck of the woods – you can rest assured that there’s still yet more to see and do. This country has inexhaustible resources for surprising, and you can take it to the bank! And although I have spent more than half of my life traveling throughout Georgia, I keep finding more and more exciting new destinations.
Today, I will guide you through one such exceptional destination. “The Other Side of Georgia” is what I usually call the tours I embark on in spring or late fall in the company of friends and tourists, and sometimes even in winter when, though it is pretty cold in the mountains and the trees in the forests are bare, you may very well be lucky enough to enjoy sunny days here. If you want to see a totally different kind of Georgia – drastically different from what you’ve seen in other regions – then you must visit Vashlovani National Park.
The Vashlovani Protected Area is located in the Kakheti Region, namely in historical Kiziki and Kambechovani, Dedoplistskaro Municipality. The park is sandwiched between Kakheti’s two main rivers, the Alazani and Iori.
The area abounds in pistachio trees scattered all over the place. At some point in history, someone likened these green beauties to apple trees, hence the name Vashlovani, or the Apple Forest.
In the 20th century, two great, exciting scientists lived and worked in Georgia: botanist Niko Ketskhoveli and soil expert Vasil Gulisashvili. As early as the 1930s, these two guys conceived an idea of creating a nature reserve here to protect these arid landscapes, semi-deserts, steppes, colorful bright forests, and meadowed woods.
In 1935, when the Communists were on the rise, there were almost no protected areas of this type, so it was decided to establish one on the outskirts of Georgia.
In 2003, this time in independent Georgia, alongside the then ongoing protected area network reform and emerging new types of protected areas, Vashlovani was divided into several kinds of territories. There was Vashlovani Nature Reserve, Vashlovani National Park, and three natural monuments: the Artsivi Gorge, the Alazani Plain (also known as Kaklis Kure or Jumas Kure), and the Takht-Tepa mud volcanoes.
Overall, the protected areas occupy 600,490 hectares of Georgia, making up 8.6% of the country’s territory. 17% of these protected areas are found in Kakheti.
Back at the turn of the 21st century, as life wasn’t at all easy in our young independent country – when, due to the absence of road infrastructure, it took pretty much all day to cover 230 kilometers from Tbilisi to Mijniskure – hardly anyone visited this area. Today, though, it’s so busy it sometimes takes a 2-3 week advance reservation to spend time here, at least on weekends.
Directions: One beautiful peak in the Caucasus Ridge is called Didi Borbalo, and many rivers in Eastern Georgia begin near this peak. This area is the common source of the Rivers Alazani and Iori. It is from here that they part ways at the Kakheti Ridge, splitting and flowing independently down through the Kakheti Region, and reunite outside Georgia’s border, in the Mingechauri Reservoir.
It is here, between the Rivers Alazani and Iori, that one finds the Iori Plateau and Alazani Plain that make up Shiraki, the territory nicknamed Georgia’s Granary. Nearby are the winter pastures of Shiraki and Eldari, which welcome a large portion of Georgia’s sheep and shepherds in winter.
The name Mijniskure, literally “edge” or “outpost”, was chosen for a reason. It is the furthest spot where you can see the Alazani River cross the country’s border, beyond which lies Azerbaijan. Given our old Soviet brotherly relations with Azerbaijan, the border has yet to be delimited and defined, which is why the absence of border guards here may make you feel lost on the edge of the universe.
Georgia’s southeastern border stretches along the Alazani River, all the way to the Mingechauri Reservoir. Further to the west, near the border, the Dali Reservoir and Iori Meadows can be found.
The Vashlovani Protected Area is located between the Alazani and Iori Rivers, rising from the Eldari Lowlands, which is Eastern Georgia’s lowest point at 90 meters above sea level, to 900 meters above sea level.
The entire territory’s size is 35,292 hectares.
Prices: Marshrutka fare from Tbilisi is 8 GEL, while the taxi fare is 10-12 GEL per person,
Road and transport
To get to Dedoplistskaro, you must head in the Sagarejo-Gurjaani-bound direction from Tbilisi, exit near Chalaubani to the south – not in the direction of Sighnaghi – and take the Magharo-Dedoplistskaro road.
Dedoplistskaro Municipality, found in the country’s southeasternmost point, is by area the largest municipality in Georgia at 2500 m2. The city’s population is nearly 6,000 people, and 21,000 people live in the immediate area.
Before heading toward the Vashlovani Protected Area, you should drop by the reserve’s office on Baratashvili Street in the Dedoplistskaro city center. My advice is to visit the museum and the administrative building, especially since there are some mandatory formalities.
Still in Dedoplistskaro, it is recommended to enjoy the beauty of the Cathedral of the Dormition of the Virgin Mary and by the city entrance the Monastery of the Holy Prophet Elijah. The latter, albeit a new building, harmoniously blends into the overall setting.
Next on your way to Vashlovani, you will bump into Lake Kochebi. Further, the road passes through the Shiraki Valley, the part of your trip that is equally beautiful year-round. Arguably, no other place in Georgia offers such panoramic, seemingly infinite views. Still, spring is the most special time of year when the wheat is ripe and the fields ripple with the slightest breeze.
The road from Tbilisi to Dedoplistskaro stretches 130 kilometers and there is another 50 kilometers to the Vashlovani Reserve, with about 90 kilometers still to go to Mijniskure. In the heart of Dedoplistskaro Municipality there is one village, Kasristskali, which used to be a temporary station for shepherds. Its architecture and planning is quite original, so make sure you check out this village, too.
Kasristskali is the furthest region before you cross Georgia’s southeastern border. Going south from this village, you will reach the Vashlovani Reserve and the Vashlovani Cave. But if you pass directly through the village and keep going straight, you will get to the magnificent Alesilebi Fields first and then to Mijniskure.
But keep in mind that the road is pretty rough as it’s pretty much a dirt road mostly stretching alongside the riverbed.
There is a routed taxicab to Dedoplistskaro, but from there public transport serves only the villages north of Kasristskali: Zemo and Kvemo Kedi, Arkhiloskalo, Samtatskaro, Sabatlo, and others. Unfortunately, no scheduled transport or routed taxicab operates toward Kasristskali. Yet any car can make it to the village, except that the final 17 kilometers from the Arkhiloskalo exit to Kasristskali is pretty rough, with cracked and broken asphalt. Drivers, as a rule, steer away from this road, or take an alternative route through the fields alongside the road. To make things worse, on rainy days, the fields are too muddy to drive.
A marshrutka can take you to some places along the perimeter of the reserve, such as the entrance of the Vashlovani Reserve or the Pantishara Gorge. We recommend riding in a jeep, something like a Mitsubishi Delica, if you take this route.
You can rent an all-terrain vehicle in both Tbilisi and Dedoplistskaro. Please bear in mind that, before visiting Vashlovani National Park, you must register at the Visitor Center, so make sure you have your ID on you.
The protected territories, for the most part, are within the border zone, which is why it is recommended to email in advance copies of your passport or ID (in the case of Georgian citizens) to the Visitor Service Center, so that they may coordinate your visit with the Border Police, to make sure you do not spend too much time settling various formalities in Dedoplistskaro.
Similar to hotels, Dedoplistskaro and the areas surrounding the Vashlovani Protected Area doesn’t offer too many eateries.
There are a few restaurants and cafes in Dedoplistskaro proper, but almost nothing of this kind in the nearby villages, except for some of the larger settlements, which are off the road to Vashlovani. There are no stores in the park either. So you should make sure you have your own food and, especially on your way to Vashlovani, water.
There is tap water in the bungalows, but it is not drinkable. So, whenever we go to Vashlovani, we bring our water with us.
If you happen to be visiting the protected area in winter – which is an excellent idea, by the way – make sure you have enough supply of firewood. There are heating ovens in the bungalow rooms, but you will have to provide your own firewood.
Communication and Payment
Dedoplistskaro is a regional center, so it has banks, markets, and administrative institutions. As for the roads to Vashlovani, keep in mind that, outside Dedoplistskaro, you will find almost no banks or ATMs, with the exception of larger villages, which, for the most part, are not on the roads to the protected area. The same goes for stores, and even if you find one, plastic cards are not accepted.
The internet signal in the protected area is available only here and there.
There are particular spots in Mijniskure though where you can get a telephone signal to speak to your loved ones.
The protected area provides excellent opportunities for the development of ecotourism. The administrative office also rents out all necessary equipment for camping in the protected territory.
Although media outlets are not as active in covering the topic of biodiversity, one particular event in our century made the headlines of Georgian periodicals a few years back. A camera trap spotted a leopard in Vashlovani. It was nicknamed Noah, as it was of a species previously believed extinct in the country’s territory. It roamed the Vashlovani plains for a while, but after having failed to find a mate went off the radar, so local rangers say. And though its appearance may have only been a seasonal event, the leopard has turned into Vashlovani’s symbol.
Vashlovani is home to such mammals as wild boars, hares, forest and field foxes, Caucasian wolves, bears, striped hyenas, badgers, and others. It is a genuine paradise for reptile fans who can see several snake species here, including vipers, and all kinds of lizards. If you’re afraid of snakes, however, winter is your season to visit Vashlovani.
Eldari and Taribani are also rich with pistachio trees – yes, the ones once mistaken for apple trees around here – also with junipers, nettle trees, hornbeams, pomegranates, black buckthorns, garland thorns, and others, alongside foliage like beard grass, silvery wormwoods, and thistles. Birdwatchers can spot partridges, woodpeckers, griffon and cinereous vultures, falcons, mistle thrushes, and others in Vashlovani.
Box: National Park’s entrance fee is 5 GEL both for pedestrians and drivers.
Pistacia atlantica Photo: Agency of Protected Areas (Georgia)
I have tried almost all of them, and I already have my favorites. On top of my list, I would probably put the Pantishira Trail and Alesilebi.
If you are eager to see canyons crisscrossed by rivers and trails, and xerophyte shrubs and Swallow Colonies, you should probably take the Alesilebi, Pantishara, and Datvis Khevi routes.
Here you will come across lots of mollusk fossils, which indicate that, millions of years ago, a sea covered these territories. Nearby in Datvis Khevi (Bear Gorge), paleontologists have discovered elephant skeleton fragments, which proves that, at some point in history, there was a totally different climate and landscape here.
Near Pantishara and Datvis Khevi, you will find some nice picnic areas. To the south, the gorge widens, so you can either walk or ride up to the gorgeous Alesilebi Fields.
Mijniskure - This is where Georgia begins, and it is here that the sun rises first in our country!
You can spend hours enjoying the sights of the banks of the Alazani River, and if you walk a bit further and ascend the hill, you will be able to see the Mingichauri Reservoir.
There are several roads to Mijniskure. One is a direct route from Kasristskali. Another leads south of the Vashlovani Cave, and the third across the Vashlovani Ridge. In any case, you will have to pass through a border checkpoint.
Before descending into Mijniskure, you will pass the famous viewpoint from which you can observe the sea-turned-desert and the Alesilebi Fields.
There are several cottages in Mijniskure, large enough to accommodate tourist groups.
Shavi Mta (Black Mountain)
Shavi Mta is the tallest mountain in the Shiraki Valley. It does look quite dark because of its forested slopes.
A monastery used to operate here, and fragments of its flooring have survived here and there. Here at this monastery, the Great Martyr Queen Ketevan spent her last night in Georgia before being taken through the Eldari Lowlands to suffer death for her Christian faith in Persia.
Shavi Mta offers spellbinding views of the Alazani Valley and the Caucasus Mountains.
In late fall and even in winter, white-winged snow finches swarm the place.
In summer, however, I would not recommend ascending Shavi Mta. Besides the unbearable heat, mosquitoes threaten to eat you alive here. You can trek up Shavi Mta from Mijniskure via Takhistskali, or from Kasristskali or Arkhiloskalo-Kedebi.
Photo: Vashlovani Protected Area
There are several other exciting trails crisscrossing the territories of the Vashlovani Protected Area, including some near Dedoplistskaro, such as the Artsivi Gorge with its Khornabuji Fortress. Detailed information is available on the website.
If so far we have been describing destinations lying along the Alazani Plain, now is the time to introduce you to the opposite direction, the Iori Plain. Near the Dali Reservoir there is a natural monument called Takhti-Tepa which consists of bubbling mud volcanoes, another aspect of the “other side of Georgia”.
The impressive Kila-Kupra Valley is only a few kilometers from Takhti-Tepa.
I travel to these parts mostly in December when the mud volcanoes resemble the surface of Mars.
In a nutshell, if you want to see a totally different kind of Georgia, the other side of Georgia, I strongly recommend visiting Vashlovani. And yes, do so in different seasons…