If you follow the Lesser Caucasus mountain range north and west to its natural end point, you’ll descend from alpine pastures through the temperate rainforests of Adjara before being spat out near the seaside resort and port city of Batumi, a sprawl of casinos and beach bars and high-rise hotels that attracts Russian, Turkish and Armenian holidaymakers for partying and pleasure.
It sits in stark contrast with the village of Nrnadzor at the opposite end of our route, 1,500km of hiking away in the mountainous semi-desert landscape of the Iranian-Armenia border, in which you’re more likely to get invited into a crumbling house for a shot of homemade vodka than overcharged in a rooftop bar for a gin & tonic.
But that is the kind of diversity you should expect to find if you design a hiking route along a mountain range and accept all you find along it. In any case, Batumi is a practical endpoint, with an international airport and a fully developed tourist industry to serve those beginning or ending their journeys.
Last week, we put in the gruelling 14-hour drive from Yerevan to spend some time scouting trails in this corner of the Caucasus, just a few minutes’ drive from the Turkish border, with the hope of identifying a route from the Black Sea up into the mountains of Adjara.
The task would be challenging: none of us had any prior knowledge of trails in the region – not even our Georgian counterparts – and the dense rainforests that spawn the tea plantations here would make off-trail scouting a real challenge.
But in our favour we would have the company of Beka, vice-president of the Georgian National Hiking Federation, who had previously joined us in Svaneti. Not only would he act as a translator, but he also had contacts with the staff of the protected areas in the region, as well as a network of hikers working with the government to develop the country’s trail network nationwide. If anyone would be able to help us identify a potential route, it would be him.
We based ourselves at La Belle Verte, an eco-lodge within striking distance of both Batumi city and Mtirala National Park. It was run by an Armenian & Russian couple who had built the place from the ground up over the previous three years. The place was the definition of tranquility, and if you ever find yourself in need of an escape from the bustle of Batumi, I can highly recommend you look up Arthur and Olga at La Belle Verte eco lodge.
Before heading off into the mountains with the Land Rover, maps and GPS equipment, we set up a meeting with the Mtirala National Park officials to explain our intentions, listen to theirs, and figure out how we might cooperate.
And it was lucky we did, for over the course of a 10-minute meeting with the director, we found out that the Park had already begun to develop a network of hiking trails and had concrete plans for more over the next couple of years.
Because of Beka’s existing relationship with the park officials through the National Hiking Federation, they proved willing to show us maps of the proposed new routes. Comparing their plans with ours, it seemed that their routes would traverse the park – and connect it with the neighbouring Kintrishi Protected Landscape – in precisely the way that we had hoped ours would.
In other words, far from bushwhacking through rainforest to find a route and negotiating with officials over permission to do so, the ambitious park administration was already laying plans to build the trails themselves, along with a supporting infrastructure of maps, campsites and cabins – and even the hire of camping equipment and guides, should people need them.
As we left the office, I joked with Chris – a journalist from Geographical Magazine who had come out to join the expedition for a few days – that this had been the shortest and most effective meeting in the history of the Transcaucasian Expedition. But joking aside, this really did come as the best kind of surprise, particularly after working so hard in Armenia to communicate this kind of tourism to protected area officials as something that would help, not hinder, their conservation efforts.
Here was a National Park that was – as far as we could see – pioneering the integration of conservation and tourism in the Caucasus. Scanning the maps and information boards in the park’s visitor centre, a scattering of logos indicated that their existing efforts had been aided by several international conservation organisations and development agencies. Walking the trails and seeing the infrastructure for ourselves showed that these were serious, well-thought-out efforts which were already proving effective.
One of the aims of the Transcaucasian Trail project is to connect protected areas and increase the number of environmentally conscious visitors, which means that actually building the trail will depend on cooperation with the officials who are responsible for these parks. And it occurred to us that an exchange between Georgia and Armenia – in which Armenian officials travelled across borders to see how tourism and conservation could work together – would be more convincing than any number of meetings in artificially-lit offices: an idea for the future, perhaps.
In the meantime, beyond Mtirala in Kintrishi Protected Landscape, we found that another officially built and waymarked trail was already taking day-hikers up above the treeline to the summit of Mount Khino; a weathered outcrop of rock that marked the first major peak in this branch of the Lesser Caucasus chain. And from there onwards, Beka had previously guided a British military training exercise along the ridge and knew the trails beyond – and his colleagues were scouting and waymark more hiking routes through to Bakhmaro, a well-known mountain resort town and spring water source, and beyond towards the Armenian border.
We spent two days exploring the landscapes surrounding the route, mapping access tracks, villages and water sources along the way, and in doing so laid the remaining foundations for this symbolic section of our prototype route.
But it seems that – unlike in Armenia – the work of designing and building the route of the Transcaucasian Trail in southern Georgia is going to draw largely on the results of these existing efforts. Over the next few years, the job of the TCT will be to to connect the dots between them to create the long-distance trail.
In the meantime, we will return to Armenia to tackle the greater challenges that still lie ahead, as summer turns to autumn, our packs become loaded with warmer clothes and sleeping bags, and the expedition nears its conclusion for 2016.