A GUIDE TO JAVAKHETI
GEORGIA’S VOLCANIC PLATEAU
A high altitude volcanic plateau, Georgia’s Javakheti region is littered with lakes big and small. Dominating the landscape is rust hued Didi Abuli, its conical form rising to 3300 metres and marking the southern end of the Abul-Samari Range. Paravani Lake, the largest in Georgia, sits at the centre of it all.
Javakheti is a wild place perfect for nature-lovers, hikers, and outdoor adventurers. But wild though it is, the region has cultural points of interest too, with remarkable Bronze Age megalithic structures and comparatively modern turf-roofed homes scattered across the plateau. What’s more, although ethnic Armenians make up the majority of the population, Javakheti is home to Azeris, Adjarians, Pontic Greeks, Doukhobors, and Ossetians (among others), making it one of Georgia’s most culturally diverse areas.
Javakheti falls unders the greater Samtskhe-Javakheti region of southwestern Georgia, bordering Armenia and Turkey, and is best known for tourist hotspots like Vardzia, Borjomi, or Bakuriani. In this guide, we’ll focus on the more remote and lesser visited south-eastern corner, highlighting the cultural and natural attractions around Paravani Lake, Abul-Samsari Range, and the Javakheti Protected Areas. And of course, we’ll also cover practical tips for planning your trip.
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THE LAKES AND JAVAKHETI PROTECTED AREAS
Cresting the Tikmatashi Pass (2168 m), 29 km south-west of Tsalka, a glorious vista unfolds. Paravani Lake spreads out far and wide, the odd cluster of houses dotting the shore. A chain of colourful scree-sloped peaks form a wall to the west, with the grassy hillsides of the Javakheti Range enclosing the land to the east. It feels a world apart, despite being just a couple of hours from Tbilisi.
A tarmac road winds along the eastern shore of Paravani Lake, connecting Tsalka to Ninotsminda, one of two main towns in the region. It passes through Rodionovka village (also called Paravani) and Poka, which sits at the southern tip of the lake. On the opposite side, a rough track leads through the lakeside villages of Akhali Khulgumo, particularly picturesque Tambovka, largely abandoned Aspara, and comparatively bustling Vladimirovka, before eventually merging with the tarmac road at Poka. You can make a 31 km loop around the lake, preferably with a 4WD. There are plenty of scenic viewpoints, plus lakeside camping and picnic spots on the quieter western side.
Life here largely revolves around seasonal farming, grazing, and fishing. Temperatures seldom rise above 20 degrees in summer and plummet well below freezing in winter, when Paravani ices completely over. The lake sits at an altitude of 2073 m, and the surrounding wind blasted landscape is notably tree-less, bar a few patches of artificially planted pine forests. It’s a harsh environment to live in.
Tambovka sits on the northwest corner of Paravani Lake, consisting of two rows of houses running parallel to the shore. This small village is home to a large number of traditional dwellings, turf-roofed stone and wood buildings that are unique to the Javakheti region. Built to withstand the unforgiving climate, the grass roofs provide insulation and many of the homes are dug into the hillside for extra protection. Whether whitewashed or left with exposed stone, they blend nicely into the surrounding landscape, often so that you don’t notice them until the last moment.
Many are over 100 years old, still standing but not always lived in these days. In many cases they function instead as a storage space or dung drying spot, with most families having a modern two-storey house built alongside the ‘old house’. The most beautiful have colourful wooden window frames with carved embellishments and painted balcony poles, usually in shades of turquoise and green. Most likely, these homes once belonged to Doukhobors, Tambovka being one of the few villages settled in the 1840s by the exiled community from Tsarist Russia.
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JAVAKHETI PROTECTED AREAS
Heading south from Poka, the main road passes picturesque Saghamo Lake before reaching Ninotsminda, the municipality’s administrative centre. 17 km to the northwest sits the Javakheti Protected Areas Visitor Centre, on the outskirts of Akhalkalaki, Javakheti’s largest town. Javakheti Protected Areas was established in 2011 and encompasses more than 16000 hectares across Akhalkalaki and Ninotsminda municipalities. With over 260 species of resident and migratory birds sighted at the various lakes and wetlands, birdwatchers in particular are drawn here. But even if pelicans, eagles, storks, and vultures aren’t your thing, the scenery alone is worth the journey.
KARTSAKHI LAKE AND JAVAKHETI NATIONAL PARK
South of Akhalkalaki, towards the Turkish border, sits Sulda and Kartsakhi Managed Reserves, Kartsakhi Lake, and Javakheti National Park. The landscape here is markedly different to that around Paravani, with plenty of wide open views and farmland stretching for miles.
Sulda and Kartsakhi Managed Reserves are both marsh wetland areas, primarily of interest to birdwatchers. Spring and Autumn are the best times to visit. Kartsakhi Lake, which straddles the border with Turkey, has more broad appeal to birdwatchers, fishing enthusiasts, and scenery lovers. The Georgian side of the lake falls within the western most boundary of Javakheti National Park.
There is a ranger station at the entrance, and a 6 km return walking or driving route along the shore which passes a bird watching tower. There are a couple of newly built cabins at the far end, presumably belonging to the APA (Agency of Protected Areas). Perhaps these are intended for use as tourist shelters in the future? Far across the water you can see the Turkish village of Kenarbel, and on the northern shore, the Georgian and Turkish flags that mark the border.
KHANCHALI LAKE AND TIGER CANYON
Returning north to rejoin the main Akhalkalaki – Ninotsminda road, the next point of interest is Khanchali Lake, or Khanchali Managed Reserve. It lies just southwest of Ninotsminda. Again, this scenic spot is a breeding and resting spot for migratory birds. There is a trail along the southwestern shore, near the village of Patara Khanchali, and off-road tracks lead through farmland to the northern shore. Picturesque floating ‘islands’ of plantlife dot the southern half of the lake.
Khanchali Lake is also the starting point for a 15 km return hike to Tiger Canyon, which lies within the eastern boundaries of Javakheti National Park. It’s possible to camp along the way, or complete the route as a day hike. The route isn’t marked on OSM maps but you can download a GPX track from Wikiloc. There are painted waymarkers along the route, but you shouldn’t solely rely on these. You can find out more information about the hike from the Javakheti Protected Areas Visitor Centre.
The Doukhobor village of Gorelovka lies 11 km southeast of Ninotsminda, on the road to the Armenian border. The Doukhobor, or Spirit Wrestlers as the name roughly translates to, are a Christian sect originating from Russia. Their rejection of the Russian Orthodox Church and belief in pacifism led to persecution and exile from Tsarist Russia in the 1840s. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, many Doukhobors from Javakheti have left Georgia, but a small community still remains. They gather on Saturdays in the grounds of the central meeting house, and recite hymns and verses by heart together on Sunday mornings.
Their traditional homes are beautiful, whitewashed with green and blue painted window frames and flower details on the shutters. The two-storey wooden museum house, once a Doukhobor orphanage, is colourfully painted and sits at the heart of their community grounds.
While not a tourist attraction readily open to the public, the Doukhobor are, in our experience, very welcoming and happy to allow visitors into the grounds to admire the buildings from the outside. Just remember to ask permission first. You will most likely find the gate open and people around on Saturdays.
Bughdasheni Managed Reserve is on the southern outskirts of Gorelovka village, a shallow lake with a bird watching tower and picnic area on its southern shore. Although one of the smaller lakes in the region, it’s especially picturesque. Around the edge, scattered rocks rise from the water, their stony surfaces shot through with pink and grey hued striations.
Continuing about 5 km southeast on the main road from Gorelovka, Madatapa Lake (Madatapa Managed Reserve) sits just shy of the Armenian border. The small villages of Epremovka, Zhdanovakani, and Sameba are situated along its southern shore, with volcanic Mt. Madatapa dominating the landscape to the north. More traditional turf-roofed houses can be seen in the villages, and in Sameba, a guesthouse offers meals and accommodation.
It takes about 5-6 hours to walk around the lake, or you can hire horses in Sameba. With a 4WD you can off-road across the plateau above the northern shore. To do so, first turn off the main road at Epremovka to drive up the western side of the lake. It’s also possible to hike up Mt. Madatapa (2714 m), although there is no marked trail.
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Not only is this volcanic range a spectacular backdrop to Javakheti, it also provides excellent opportunities for hiking and off-road explorations in the summer months. Didi Abuli (3300 m) is the tallest peak, sitting at the southern end of the range with Paravani Lake to the east and a string of villages to the west. To the north of Didi Abuli, Samsari (3285 m) sits on the boundary of Samtskhe-Javakheti and Kvemo Kartli. Scattered across the range, small lakes lie hidden away below the slopes of numerous rocky volcanic peaks. And atop Shaori and Patara Abuli mountains, cyclopean fortresses dating from the 2nd Millenium BC can be found.
SHAORI FORTRESS AND SCENIC VIEWPOINTS
From Apsara on the western shore of Paravani Lake, you can climb the slopes in a 4×4 to the alpine meadows above, where shepherds graze their animals in summer. The views of the lake and surrounding landscape are spectacular. It’s straightforward enough to drive as far as the foot of Shaori Mountain (also marked as Mount Koroghli on some maps). From this point you can hike to the top and visit the ruins of Shaori Fortress (2757 m), a megalithic structure that dates from the 2nd millennium BC.
A wide flat ‘road’ can still be made out, along with underground shelters outside the main fortress wall. Note that there’s no marked trail and plenty of boulders to negotiate (a common theme on this volcanic range). Allow about 1.5 hours to cover the 2.8+ km distance, with an elevation gain of around 350 metres. There is a route marked on maps.me and other open source mapping apps, and we’ve also included it in our Javakheti travel guide map.
A little further west from the southern foot of the mountain is a small lake and seasonal shepherd camp. Beyond this the obvious vehicle track disappears, and rockier terrain makes it wiser to explore on foot before returning to Aspara.