There is no particular blueprint for creating a long-distance hiking route across a region fragmented by closed borders and frozen conflicts. This is perhaps the biggest challenge faced by the tribe of people who are gripped by the seemingly impossible task of building the Transcaucasian Trail.

If there’s a characteristic that unites us, it’s that of starry-eyed idealism – a kind of faith that there exists a distant future in which this 3,000km-long trail is complete. This is not a quality that would get you very far in a job interview with an international development agency. But it is an important reminder – when we’re down at the level of budgets and procurement plans for trail-building tools and signposts – that what we are working on is not a project. It is a dream.

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Geghama Mountains, Armenia

The idea of a long-distance path across a major mountain range is nothing new, of course. The Appalachian Trail was built a hundred years ago when one person’s vision fused with an abundance of willing volunteers. Such trails now exist around the world; conduits for journeys of self-reflection and cultural discovery, often supporting a background industry providing services for trail users and income for otherwise isolated rural people.

A similar trail had been talked about in Georgia for many years. But it wasn’t until 2015 that the first steps were taken towards making it a reality, when former US Peace Corps volunteer Paul Stephens spent a summer bushwhacking across the flanks of the Greater Caucasus Mountains, tracked remotely by fellow Peace Corps alumnus and professional cartographer Jeff Haack.

Paul and Jeff were searching for the lost trails that crisscrossed the range and for centuries made journeys through these indomitable mountains possible, with the idea of then connecting them together into a single route across the Caucasus – thereby, it was hoped, creating a trans-Caucasian trail.

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Trail building in Dilijan National Park

Credit: Tom Allen

The word ‘Caucasus’ is supposedly related to ‘kov gas’, meaning ‘gateway to the steppe’ in several obscure languages still spoken in the deep folds of a range that stretches from the Black Sea to the Caspian, creating a natural divide between the Eurasian plateau to the north and Anatolia, Persia and Arabia to the south. This divide limited the advances of the empires of antiquity, but also made for a dramatic battleground when they met – which might help explain the fortified cultural landscapes you will find here.

Over the last couple of centuries, as imperialism gave way to the Soviet juggernaut and then, when that expired, to the independent republics and autonomous oblasts of today, the word ‘Caucasus’ came to label not just the two great mountain ranges of the region – the Greater and Lesser Caucasus – but a blurry geopolitical and ecological zone incorporating parts of six modern-day nation-states and three de facto yet unrecognised breakaway territories.

This lumping-together barely reflects the 50 or so languages and ethnic identities now present in the region, nor the ongoing feuds over land ownership that have arisen in the post-imperial power vacuum. The hiker might pass through unaware of these divisions and fragilities, however, for the people of the Caucasus are as warm and hospitable as you’ll meet anywhere in the world – and, of course, shared heritage vastly outweighs the differences. Many above a certain age will hark back to the days of peace and stability with teary-eyed nostalgia – perhaps a little rose-tinted, and perhaps partly fuelled by endless toasts of rough wine or homemade fruit vodka, but sanguine in spirit nonetheless.

Paul and Jeff’s explorations confirmed what the pair already suspected: that there was a network of historic routes in the Greater Caucasus Mountains that could form the basis for the Transcaucasian Trail. Making it real would largely be about restoring what was already there and connecting these traditional footpaths together.

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The proposed route of the Transcaucasian Trail

Credit: Tom Allen

When I first spoke to Paul over a stuttering Skype connection later that year, I had been looking at a similar picture in Armenia for some time. Much like Georgia and Azerbaijan, the country’s modern-day territory has spent most of recorded history under the thumb of one or another imperial power, the native people its inhabitants but not its rulers. Competing for tax revenues, regional governors invested in mercantile networks that would later become known as the Silk Roads, connecting trading hubs together with roads built for pack animals, and evenly-spaced caravanserais to accommodate long-distance baggage trains.

At the same time, the Christian inhabitants of the region – Armenians in the south, Georgians in the north, and a scattering of smaller sects now lost to history – built elaborate monasteries in the nooks of these mountains, as well as fortresses to defend them from marauding armies, and – most interestingly for me – precipitous mountain paths that connected them together.

It was lost fragments of these ancient paths that I set out to find when, late in 2015, I approached the UK’s Royal Geographical Society to support me in exploring and mapping the trails of the Lesser Caucasus Mountains, stitching together a southern route in Armenia to connect to Paul and Jeff’s northern route in Georgia. The RGS gave me a sponsored Land Rover Defender and a generous amount of cash, and told me to come back when it was done.

Our visions aligned and the trail became ‘official’ in 2016 through the incorporation of the Transcaucasian Trail Association. And pursuing this shared dream in the years since has invited challenges beyond what any amount of hiking or bushwhacking had prepared us for.

In northern Georgia, for example, it was decided that the first step towards making the Transcaucasian Trail a reality should be to construct a brand new route through the wildest and most remote valley in the country. The team filled a 4x4 with construction tools and camping gear and shuttled an army of volunteers on a six-hour journey into the mountains. Then they registered with the Georgian border guards, parked at the end of the dirt road, and carried all of their equipment and supplies for another hour into the forests of the border zone between Georgia and Russia. Then they hiked for another hour to find the start of the new trail. And then they started digging.

You may be surprised to learn that the prospect of living off-grid in the mountains, learning new skills and making new friends while providing a service to the hiking community, has proven immensely popular with volunteers. The summer of 2020 will be the third year this eclectic, tool-wielding commune will come into being in the wilderness between Svaneti and Racha, and it will take many more years and tens of thousands of volunteer hours to finish building this backcountry section of the Transcaucasian Trail. Mistakes will be made, tears will be shed, and that’s what being a starry-eyed idealist is all about.

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Scouting the Trail

Credit: Tom Allen

Sending an army of volunteers into the hills armed with pick-mattocks and machetes is not an unprecedented thing. Every year, volunteer trail crews donate millions of unpaid hours to maintaining and improving the world’s great long-distance trails. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy lists 31 affiliated trail clubs along its route, each with its own community whose members dedicate their spare time to keeping the world’s longest hiking trail alive. The story is similar in much of Europe, where local hiking clubs take on the day-to-day monitoring and maintenance of their trails, with the result that the networks remain open. Partly by design and partly due to human nature, the same kind of pattern is starting to emerge in the Caucasus.

We are now at a point, I feel, where enough momentum has gathered that the Transcaucasian Trail’s founders could take their hands off the wheel and things would continue, powered by the growing community of local people who have grasped the opportunity to take ownership of the emerging trail, with all of the opportunities it will bring to revive flagging mountain villages and bolster underfunded conservation efforts.

Intrepid thru-hikers are already walking border-to-border through Armenia. Many of them are then blazing their own routes into southern Georgia and to the Black Sea. A waymarked trail doesn’t physically exist there – yet. But perhaps the ephemeral idea is enough. If someone makes a journey in the belief that they’re hiking the Transcaucasian Trail, isn’t that the very mark of its existence?

Make no mistake, it’s still early days for the Transcaucasian Trail. But in the meantime, we’ll continue taking small groups on newly-built sections of the trail each summer, to raise funds and gauge feedback. These guided treks are open to all who are curious about what we’re doing and want to become a part of a pioneering movement, instead of signing up for a tour and plying the same old routes.

For me, it’s a constant source of amazement that a Skype call could grow into an international endeavour whose progress will be measured in decades. Like all the best adventures, we have a rough idea of where we’re heading, but the real reward is the journey we’re making to get there.

Building the Transcaucasian Trail

Tom Allen

Tom is an explorer and travel writer, originally from England, now based in the South Caucasus. He has published five books and three full-length films, and currently works full-time on the Transcaucasian Trail.

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