The use of natural areas is one of the major debates amongst nature conservationists. Hardliners see natural areas as places that should be free of humans and consider any kind of human activity as a gateway to economic development. Others promote outdoor sports and eco-tourism to make visitors appreciate nature and create a livelihood for local communities. The most ‘low-impact’ option to do this is thru-hiking. Thru-hiking is a term that is mostly used in North America and describes hiking that lasts several days, goes from A to B – in contrast to a circular trail – and is self-supported with few chances to refill supplies in civilization. In North America there are many extreme and famous thru-hikes like the Trans-America Trail (TAT), the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) or Great Divide Trail (GDT). Hence, it is no surprise that the history of the Transcaucasian Trail (TCT) started with an American and a Brit visiting the Caucasus.
Connecting the Caucasus with hiking trails
Surprisingly though, these two had never met each other and started from two different countries. One of them, Paul Stephens, a US Peace Corps volunteer in Georgia, realized the potential for such a trail. In the same year, Tom Allen had the same idea in Armenia and founded the ‘Transcaucasian Trail Armenia’ NGO to facilitate the process. He only found out about the Georgian initiative because the URL was already taken. Quickly, they decided to cooperate to create two main trails and a network of smaller trails that span Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Since then, the idea, team and especially pool of volunteers has grown rapidly. As both the Georgian and Armenian team are independent from the government and the trail is free to use, they have relied mostly on volunteers from the start. Luckily, they also managed to secure several grants, which has allowed them to employ a few people full-time for the last few years. All of them started as volunteers, just like the two current national project leaders: Giorgi Jmukhadze for Georgia and Ashot Davtyan for Armenia. We had the chance to meet both of them in their respective countries.
Winter is planning season
In winter, the off-season, the core teams focus on planning the coming season. When we visit Ashot in a co-working space in Yerevan, we witness one of the main tasks, which is training the crew leaders for the field season 2023, which starts in June and lasts until September. Thanks to funding from the US Forest Service, they are able to finance the crew leaders’ training and pay them a small salary for the field season. In June, each of them will lead a group of up to 8 volunteers to build new trails or maintain the current ones.
“My first time volunteering with Transcaucasian Trail was also my first hike and my first time sleeping in a tent. Many people believed I couldn’t do it. In Georgia, it is still considered weird if women do something like this. But I loved my group and the comradery amongst the volunteers. It is a special experience.”Nini has volunteered with the Transcaucasian Trail for the last five years about her motivation to spend her holidays from a job in a bank doing hard, unpaid physical work living in a tent for weeks.
How much volunteers enjoy their time is confirmed by the growing applicant numbers and how many of them return year after year. In 2022, there were already 110 volunteers during the field season in Georgia. And while in the first years volunteers were mostly from richer countries where volunteering is more common, in 2022 70 volunteers were Georgian and only 40 were from abroad. And the trail-building transforms each and every one. The volunteers see and feel with their own bodies that they create change, turning from volunteers into ambassadors for the Transcaucasian Trail and Caucasian nature.
A trail from west to east and north to south
The ultimate goal of the Transcaucasian Trail is to create two main trails, one stretching all the way north to south from the Russian to the Iranian border and one west to east from the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea. Armenia has already completed its portion with 832 km of trail that go across the country from North to South. They first searched for existing trails to connected them creating one uninterrupted trail. Then, they erected new signs and reinforced / improved existing trails or built completely new trails as connections . In some places, they deliberately minimized the interference in nature. On some open plateaus, there are no signs and hikers have to use GPS to find their way.
Nevertheless, the Transcaucasian Trail-crew makes sure hikers have everything they need. In regular intervals, there are villages where hikers can restock and rest. Ashot and his team arranged accommodations and supply for hikers with locals, even offering a delivery service from Yerevan with essential that you cannot find in the villages. All of this information is available on their website.
A long way to go
In Georgia, the Transcaucasian Trail is not quite as far yet. It is only 20 – 25% done, but already offers some multi-day hike in the most beautiful regions of Georgia. And some stretches will be completed soon as those mostly use existing trails.
In Azerbaijan, progress has been slower. Since the start, the Transcaucasian Trail-team tried to find partners here and establish a relation to the authorities. After a lot of effort, this has finally worked. In 2022, they created a paid position in Azerbaijan and Nazrin Gabirova started laying the foundation and scouting possible routes. And despite long opposition, the Azeri government now even funds the position – in contrast to Georgia or Armenia.
Connecting landscapes and people
So, the Transcaucasian Trail creates a trail that connects the Caucasus across borders and builds a community of volunteers that experience Caucasian nature in a way that is often completely new to them. But that is not all. It also creates new expertise in the Caucasus. Every year, some crew leaders get the chance to go the US to get intense training on trail building. They come back with expertise that has been missing in the Caucasus and the awareness that well-built and well-maintained trails protect hikers and nature.
And many already got inspired to use their expertise to create new businesses surrounding eco-tourism. In Armenia, the NGO ‘Trails for change‘, the hiking information center ‘Hike Armenia’, the map publisher ‘Cartisan’ and the app ‘AR trails’ were all founded by people associated to Transcaucasian Trail and Tom, the founder, opened the ‘Hikers Hostel Dilijan’ along the Transcaucasian Trail in Dilijan National Park and continues using the profits of the hostel to finance hiking trails. Another former volunteer has started building MTB trails around the Armenian city of Vanadzor.
Local communities also benefit from the Transcaucasian Trail. They earn money by accommodating or feeding hikers, but they also benefit even more directly by using the trails to herd livestock to their pastures or to get easier access to wildfires to extinguish them. Of course, not everyone understood that initially. Ashot tells us that locals cut down some signposts to use them as firewood and Giorgi tells us that locals destroyed a bridge simply because they were suspicious of what is going on there. This showed the Transcaucasian Trail-team that communication is key and they have to give locals a feeling of ownership.
So, in both countries, the organization started educational programs in schools and elsewhere along the trail to teach locals about the meaning behind the trail and local nature. In Armenia, they also offer ‘Youth for change’ camps covering a variety of topics, such as plastic pollution. And Giorgi tells us that in Georgia, the Transcaucasian Trail-crew plans to cooperate with universities to enable students to gain credits for participating in Transcaucasian Trail activities. He also tells us that after talking with the locals they actually asked the Transcaucasian Trail-team to rebuild the destroyed bridge.
Hiking can change people’s minds
All of this shows that the Transcaucasian Trail is more than just a hiking trail. It is a project that ‘builds not only the trail, but also knowledge’ as Giorgi phrases it. Ashot emphasizes that the Transcaucasian Trail ‘is organic, it constantly changes’. It gives local communities new appreciation for local nature and new sources of income as well as creates a completely new international community of trail-builders that get to know the Caucasus is a new way. In a region full of conflict, it literally connects countries and invites people to explore a country on foot rather than by car. According to Giorgi, in Georgia trips into nature are often more centered around picnics or barbecues rather than hiking, but the Transcaucasian Trail is part of a movement that is slowly changing the mindsets of people and growing a generation of Georgians and Armenians that appreciate the natural value of their home.
Explore the Transcaucasian Trail!
We also want to mention that the Transcaucasian Trail volunteers have achieved something that many outdoor organizations struggle with: Last year there were more female than male volunteers in the trail building teams.
During our time in the Caucasus, we crossed the Transcaucasian Trail several times and every time we were determined to hike a stretch of it. In the end, we only managed to do so for a day. But that just increased the time we spent fantasizing about doing a thru-hike (the first thru-hike of the Armenian part was done only in 2021 and took 40 days) or even volunteering for one season. We will surely keep it in mind for another visit to the Caucasus and until then follow the progress of the Transcaucasian Trail.