Characterised by wild moorlands, terrible roads, and an unintelligible local dialect, the province of Syunik is a large but sparsely populated region at the far end of Armenia, sufficiently far from the capital to have retained its own unique cultural identity. Much like Yorkshire, in fact.
As a destination for tourism, it receives the smallest proportion of visits of any province in the country. And what tourists do make it this far from the capital are mainly concentrated in a couple of very specific hotspots, such as Tatev monastery.
Past travels have taken me through Syunik on many occasions, either travelling to or from the Iranian border, but I’ve never bothered stopping to explore. After two weeks in the region, however, I’ve realised that I’ve completely overlooked what the region has to offer.
Take the town of Kapan, for example. It’s on the main road south through the country to the Iranian border. All I’ve ever heard of Kapan – all most Armenians have ever heard of Kapan – is that it’s the mining capital of the country, with all the irresponsibility and corruption that big business in Armenia entails; the epicentre of environmental destruction. And all I’ve seen of Kapan was a grey and depressing-looking city that I’ve been perfectly happy bypassing.
Yes, it is grey and depressing-looking from the main road; and yes, it is the national capital of extractive industry and environmental tragedy.
But the problem with travelling anywhere at high speed and without stopping is that you miss everything else.
Cross the river from the main road and you’ll find a charming city-centre park, restaurants serving traditional home-cooked food, a cafe bridging the River Vachagan, right next to the city’s main square, where an outdoor music festival was taking place on the day of our departure, and more.
Delve deeper into Kapantsi society and you’ll find an interconnected web of people forging a new future for Kapan as a hub for hikers, travellers and outdoorspeople. Armen and Siranoush, the couple responsible for founding and running the ARK Armenia NGO, are two of them. Operating out of a small flat on Charents Street, their mission is to build the infrastructure – trails, campsites, local knowledge and language support – for a new wave of ecotourism in southern Armenia.
ARK have already been working hard to create resources for hikers. The landscape screams out to be explored; thickly forested mountains begging to be wandered, ancient monuments buried in their depths if you know where to find them; side valleys reaching up towards the iconic Mount Khustup, which at 3,206m may not be Armenia’s highest peak but certainly one of its most dramatic. Indeed, climbing this peak was one of the objectives of my friends at Secret Compass for their 2015 expedition in Syunik, which they’ll be repeating later this year (spaces still available).
The ARK Bridge Project – a crowdfunded 85km hiking trail through mountains and forests – will connect Khustup and the edge of Shihagogh State Reserve to the Tatev region in the north of the province, taking in several of the historical hermitages and fortresses along the way, as well as offering hikers the option to overnight in either of ARK’s two eco-camps, one to the north and one to the south of Kapan city. Right now, Tatev’s famous monastery is by far the premier tourist attraction in Syunik, but visitors rarely venture further south. ARK’s goal with the Bridge Project is to give those visitors a reason to do so; a goal we are very happy to help them achieve.
Over the last fortnight, our contribution has been mapping and scouting the trails themselves, with the intention that ARK’s trail forms part of the Transcaucasian Trail route, with ARK being the local organisation taking responsibility for upkeep in this region, and our transnational trail being a means of feeding a trickle of hikers and backpackers into the region.
While the exact shape our trail will eventually take is still being revealed, I find it difficult to see how it could be made sustainable without partnering with organisations such as ARK at ground level.
And I count myself very lucky to have found such a passionate and hospitable group of people to work with in this part of the Caucasus.
May the explorations continue!