Into the Badlands: Trekking in Vashlovani National Park in Georgia

The Vashlovani Natural Reserve is located in the very eastern corner of Georgia and as all the best places, we discovered it by an unlikely stroke of luck. Surnamed “Georgian Africa”, this reserve is inhabited by lots of wildlife and its untamed nature can be observed from a 4×4 car, a motorbike, or if you have courage enough, by hiking right into it as we did, without a vehicle.

The oddly marked trekking paths will lead you through valleys and plains with views of strange rock formation and you will probably encounter footsteps of the locals in the mud – wolfs, jackals, bears, wild boars, and gazelles live here, albeit we have seen none of them in person. Phew!

The name of Vashlovani is derived from the Georgian word for apple trees and refers to the abundance of pistachios and fruit trees that endow this area with the air of a pristine, wild orchard.

hiking vashlovani georgia
Vashlovani at sunset

Annoying practicalities: Before you go to Vashlovani…

In order to enter the Vashlovani reserve, you need to do some paperwork and so the first stop will inevitably bring you to the Visitors Center in Dedoplistskaro, about 50 km from the natural park itself.

Here we paid the fee required for all the visitors (we are cheapskates but it is well worth it!) which amounted to 5 GEL per person. Another fee is charged to people who enter with a car.

Don’t forget to bring your passport and the papers of the car, even if you are hiring a local driver or a taxi. (Apparently, it costs about 100 GEL to hire a taxi but I cannot offer any useful information on that as we hitchhiked there by ourselves.)

We paid, signed and were ready to go in about ten minutes, however, I heard that the paperwork for a car can take up to two hours so be prepared.

Read more: Hiking in Ushguli, the highest settlement of Europe

I strongly advise you to purchase a map of Vashlovani trekking paths – it costs only 3 GEL and it will help you make some sense of the area since not even the Maps.Me app – otherwise a great companion anywhere in Georgia – covers this area in much detail.

After you get your permit, you have to take those papers and go to the border police station which is just about three km away from the visitors center. There they will register you, make you sign a book and put a stamp on your permit. This is necessary because Vashlovani is in the border area with Azerbaijan and there are military posts who will check your permit.

So now you have:

  • your entry permit, approved by the military
  • possibly papers for your car
  • a map!

Check? Next, let’s talk about the stuff you should bring with you.

Vashlovani trekking autumn
Autumn colors

What gear do I need to hike in Vashlovani?

Relax – you don’t need to buy out your closest trekking equipment store completely to do this. Vashlovani is beautiful, the hiking paths are marked (kinda), the terrain is easy (mostly flat!)…the main problem when trekking in Vashlovani is water.

Stay hydrated

Seriously, bring lots of water. You can refill your bottle in the last village before the park entrance, Kasristskali, which by the way is not even on google maps, then you have to walk for a bit and you can refill again in the Mijniskurebut that is quite a long way.

You can, however, also ask for water at the military posts: the soldiers are very kind and never refused to refill our bottles. They also offered some advice (in the Russian language). Bring a water filter if you are squeaky – they only have big plastic jugs to store the precious H2O. We drank it and we were fine but you do you, okay?

Kasristskali Vashlovani Georgia
Leaving Kasristskali

Don’t go hungry

If you like to eat every day, then be sure to bring enough food! There are no stores around here and mostly no people so you will be out there on your own. Avoid bringing meat and sausages; wolfs like those too! (We brought an awesome sausage with us because we like danger. Besides, it was a gift from our German friends! You can count on a German to choose a good Wurst anytime.)

There is mostly no wood to make fire and cook (plus it is prohibited to set fire outside of the designated areas)(I’ve seen none, by the way!) so it is a good idea to bring lots of crackers, cans, and stuff that you can eat as it is, like that delicious mayonnaise with 3% of olive oil that we were eating for three days straight.

hiking vashlovani georgia
Golden Hour

Camping gear & Accommodation

We brought the obvious – sleeping bags, sleeping mats, tent, a shitload of paralon (floor insulation because who’s got money for new fancy sleeping mats with reflection layers? you can get this in every construction store in Georgia or Armenia.), unnecessary amount of clothes, but honestly, we only camped for one night out of three. The reason is there are wooden huts every here and there and we considered them to be a serious upgrade. (You know, like when you book a room at Hilton and then it’ s your lucky day and you get the royal suite with private pool…or something like that. Anyway.) The doors were always open, all of the huts had a small fire stove and a few pieces of wood left behind by the shepherds; most of the time, these cottages were warm, dry and had windows sealed with plastic. Inside. there was always a table and benches to sit around or even sleep. Oh, the sweet taste of luxury!

We took the liberty to use some of the wood to heat up the house and cook pasta. Thank you, shepherds! Don’t be an asshole and leave some of the wood for other people, okay?

Read more: No, you can not travel for “free”. Here is why.

If you are not a fan of randomly squatting countryside cottages (is it even squatting if nobody locks the door?) or like to overpack, bring your own cooking gas stove which brings the dining experience to a whole different level.

In the corner of the protected area near the drinkable water source (for some reason it isn’t on the map), there is also a place to rent a bungalow or set the tent nearby. You have to pay extra for this but we never got there because we were in a bit of a hurry.

shepherds house vashlovani
Shepherd’s cottages

Mind the wolf!

A reason to choose a house over your tent is also that there really are wolfs and they can get uncomfortably close. The night we cooked our delicious German sausage, we were shaken by a sound of howling disturbingly close. We got nervous about the wolf knocking on the door to ask for more sausage so we padlocked the entrance with a nail and paranoidly went back to sleep. In the morning, we saw the imprints of wolf paws in the mud about 10 meters away from the cottage. Hiking through the plains devoid of any humans involved a lot of adrenaline that day. I have this naive idea that wolfs are kinda cute, but I’ve already met a bear back in Slovakia and I’d rather avoid any close contact in the future!

“I am shit scared of wolfs. Should I hike in Vashlovani reserve?”

Anyhow, the wolfs and bears are not of the aggressive kind in this zone. We were informed by the kind folks in the Visitors center (we went there to take a shower after the hike have a chat – according to them, we were the first people to ever hitchhike to Vashlovani and were strongly adviced not to do it (I admit, it is a stupid idea) so we wanted to tell them we survived) that they have never had a wolf or bear attack any of the visitors. Then again, the smart visitors go in a big car. And in a group.

We saw a lot of imprints in the mud and dust while hiking, some of them disconcertingly fresh. Some imprints were huge and had a different shape and we assumed those belonged to bears. The animals, on the other hands, are shy and never came out to greet us. Fortunately!

We did, however, see snakes and spiders, some of them upsettingly big. This is a dry climate area and these unappealing creatures are abundant and poisonous. Do wear closed footwear!

wolfs vashlovani
Any expert want to tell me if these are from a wolf?

The “Bring Gazelles Back to Georgia” project

I mainly spoke about wolfs and snakes and stuff but since 2014, there is an ongoing project that tries to recover the population of gazelles in Vashlovani. The gazelles lived here before but were hunted a lot during the 20th century so their numbers drastically decreased. The Vashlovani region is remote, not overly touristy and therefore perfect for reinstalling these animals into the Georgian wilderness. Apparently, the population of gazelles is prospering and there is a 50% chance of seeing them in the natural park!

I guess the wolfs are happy too. Sadly, gazelles didn’t show up for us either. Maybe next time!

Read more: Visiting Kutaisi, the former capital of Georgia

When is the best time for hiking in Vashlovani?

The best season for trekking Vashlovani is spring and autumn. It is too hot in the summer (remember there is no water) and too cold or rainy or whatever in the winter. Apparently, you can see lots of endemic flowers in the spring, but we also enjoyed the colors of October.

Check the weather forecast – in rainy weather, it can be hard to pass certain areas with a car. Also, your hiking shoes will be covered in the slippery, clay-like mud.

vashlovani

Shepherds’ traditional route

There is something to be said about this: Vashlovani is the traditional winter pasture area of the sheep. The shepherds spend the summer in Tusheti with their herds and around October, they head down to Vashlovani where the winter is less harsh. These badass sheep (and people) walk this route in about two weeks. (I can walk about 15 km a day. Uhm, I guess I’ m a loser.) This is why it is quite common to meet pissed off shepherd dogs.

How to deal with the (scary and oversized) shepherds’ dogs?

Really, these dogs are all cute and cuddly when their master is around. Otherwise, they will bark at you scandalously whenever you get too close to their cows. They tend not to get too near but it is better to have a stick. I wouldn’t beat the dogs (you don’ t want to make them angry) but they know what a stick is and will have a bit more respect if you have one.

When walking past the dogs, go slowly. If you run, they will think you are a prey and chase you. If you are on a bicycle, get off of your vehicle and walk past them.

If you are in a car, try not to run over them.

Some of these animals look like nobody really feeds them – if you can, share some food!

vashlovani sunset
Magical sunsets

Necessary vaccines (not joking)

There is no mandatory set of vaccines you should get if you want to visit Vashlovani, however, the rabies is very common in the Caucasus area so it might be a sound decision to get the shots before you go. (Rabies vaccination takes about one month though.)

Unluckily, F got bitten by a mouse while sleeping and we are currently going through the process. If you get bitten by an animal in this region, don’t hesitate and head straight to the doctor. It is crucial to get the vaccine immediately (within 24 hours) because rabies is deadly. (It basically fries your brain.) You can easily get the vaccine against rabies in the hospital of Dedoplistskaro for about 14 GEL.

Read more: Minimalist travel: How I cut down the contents of my backpack

In Tbilisi, you can get it in the Immunization Center near the Medical University metro stop and it costs 10 GEL per shot.

vashlovani trekking

The best route to take when hiking in Vashlovani & the way we took

I mean, who am I to tell you what to do? But listen up; the way the trails are marked is a bit confusing and the distances are, ehm, random. The trail marked as red is yellow on the map and in some places, the signs are destroyed, written only in Georgian or missing completely. That’ s no biggie when you have a car, but if you are walking, you are going to curse every extra km. I want to say, I love hiking.

Here is our itinerary but feel free to scroll down to the tl;dr version of what I’d recommend you to do.

1st day

We entered the trail in the late afternoon from a signpost in Kasristskali and walked across wide fields towards Pantishara. We took a turn to the right somewhere in the middle of nowhere and slept in an empty house near a pole with a stork nest.

Distance: about 4 km I guess

trekking vashlovani

2nd day

The next day, we got an unlikely ride that got us across Pantishara (I’d have preferred to walk there myself – pretty rocks, anyone?) but left us way too far from where we were headed. But that’ s okay because there were many abandoned houses so I had fun exploring the post-apocalyptic-looking plains. We walked across the neverending plains in the rain and wind until the first military checkpoint where we refilled our water bottles. From then on, the actually beautiful part began. The trail went between rocks and hills, oftentimes crossing a muddy riverbed. Flocks of birds suddenly flew out of the bushes as we walked past and the trees were yellow and orange. We saw traces of many animals and as sunset approached, the skies cleared up and we admired an astonishing sunset, shining red light on the rugged rocks.

Distance: cca 15 km on foot and about 10 – 15 more in the car

vashlovani snakes
I think this one is poisonous

3rd day

This was the most beautiful day for us – it was freaking windy, but sunny and we could see even the snowy mountaintops of (probably) Lagodekhi in the distance. We haven’t met a living soul but were threading carefully as we saw lots of traces of animals. We picked up sticks to fight back potential wolf attackers (pathetic, I know) but mostly, we were amazed by nature.

The impression I had is hard to describe – I have been to many beautiful places with stunning nature, but this area is so remote and unpopulated I literally felt like part of the food chain. Stepping into the no-mans-land made me realize how powerful the wilderness is. It made me feel unimportant and disposable. If something happens to you out there, there is no one to come to your rescue, after all!

We were in awe of the place but we were also afraid; we seriously considered the option of being devoured by something bigger and stronger than us. This one of a kind experience was fascinating to me and it is difficult to describe it without sounding ridiculous, but it certainly pushed my limits by another few inches.

In the afternoon, we arrived at the second military checkpoint. From here you can follow the trail to the most popular spot in the natural park, Mijniskure, however, F having been recently bitten by a mouse, we decided to move on quickly a search for a hospital to get the anti-rabic shots.

In the evening we arrived at the first inhabited farm we’ve seen in days and camped nearby.

Distance: cca 15 km

Read more: What happens if you overstay your visa in Armenia?

4th day

We followed the red signs (the yellow trail on the map) all the way to the village. The autumn colors were beautiful on the hills and in the afternoon, we saw the house where we slept the first night so in fact, we did a loop. From the hilltop, we were also able to see the beautiful Caucasus range without a single cloud in the sky.

Distance: cca 10 km

vashlovani georgia
Caucasus range

Recommended itinerary for Vashlovani on foot

Take the yellow one when entering (so red signs, at some point you will spot them easily because they line the road), walk to the checkpoint and to Mijniskure. Refill your water there, enjoy the views, perhaps spend the night and come back. From the military station, continue walking through the badlands and connect to the red trail (red on the map, who knows what that is in the real world), cross Pantishara and get back to the village of Kasristskali.

Or: Take the yellow one both in and out as it is the shortest one.

Obviously, you can do whatever you please, these are just my vague suggestions. If you are just remotely faster than me and can walk between 20 to 30 km a day instead of my 10 to 15 (chances are that the answer is yes) then this hike will be a piece of cake for you, just remember to take enough water and food. And a stick. And good shoes and a raincoat.

vashlovani motorbike
It is also possible to visit Vashlovani on a motorbike

Hitchhiking to and from Vashlovani

Although the sweet lady at the Visitors Center in Dedoplistskaro thought we were crazy for wanting to hitchhike to Vashlovani (well…we are), it is actually possible.

From Dedoplistskaro, it is quite easy to get a ride to the end of the road and even from there, you can manage to snatch a truck like us, or some of the locals coming back to Kasristskali. Once in Kasristskali, refill your water and continue walking – for people in a relatively good shape, it is definitely possible to hike through.

It was more than easy to hitchhike back to Dedoplistskaro. In fact, a kind gentleman in the street arranged the ride for us!

Read more: Hitchhiking manual for beginners

trekking vashlovani

Before you pack and go…

You should still be a somewhat experienced hiker if you want to do this and by that I mean you have hiked before for more than just one day. I am not a pro by any chance (plus I am just 6 months after a serious injury), but I have hiked the Camino de Santiago back in 2010 for a month, rode my bicycle from Bratislava to Brno and back, and hiked the Lycian way in Turkey from Fethiye to Patara beach in Autumn 2016. We’ve spent the summer working and hiking around in Svaneti too, to mention just a few. You don’t need to have climbed Mt Everest, but you should have at least an idea about what you are getting into. Remember, the terrain is easy, but there are almost no people, no water and a lot of wild animals.

Visiting the natural park of Vashlovani

Vashlovani is one of my favorite places in Georgia so far (after almost four months in the Caucasus!). It is not too popular among tourists since it is a bit hard to access but its stunning beauty and rough wilderness have easily lured me into wanting to come back in the springtime.

I hope my article has helped you to prepare a bit before you go or even inspired you to visit this area if you haven’t considered it before.

Have you visited Vashlovani? Did I miss something important? Add your experience and tips in the comments!

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More content on Georgia

Planning your trip to Georgia? These articles might be a good start:

Ushguli, the highest village in Europe, its culture and nature

Kutaisi: Discovering the heart of Imereti and its monasteries

Amazing powers of the radon spa in Tskaltubo

3 hikes in Dedoplistskaro that took my breath away

I am constantly working on new articles; if you have specific questions, feel free to reach out in the comments!

Stray story seeker. Hungry hitchhiker. Wannabe polyglot. Aspiring travel writer. Currently bumming around in Turkey.
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