Following the success of the scouting & mapping expedition in 2016, the year just gone has been a staggering step-up for the Transcaucasian Trail in Armenia. With another New Year kicking in, I want to cast an eye back over the last 12 months and bring our supporters and followers up to speed on all that has been achieved. As you’re about to read, there’s a lot to celebrate…
1. We Built the First Section of the Transcaucasian Trail in Armenia
Scouting a prototype route was the first stage in realising the dream. The next was to break out the shovels, pick-axes and safety goggles and get down to the nitty-gritty of building it!
Of course, 1,500km is a heck of a lot of footpath to create from scratch. And as with all formidable and scary-sounding goals, the key to success is to break the task down into lots of smaller ones.
So we took a chunk of the route we thought had bags of potential – the section through Dilijan National Park – and focused all our efforts there, from the moment the snow started melting in March, right through until it started falling again in November.
The result? An 85km trail through the forests and mountains of Tavush that you can hike right now! Check out the trail guides and maps here.
2. We Ran Armenia’s First Ever Volunteer Trailbuilding Camp
The manpower and muscle to pull it all off had to come from somewhere. So we designed a volunteer programme based on what we saw in Svaneti the previous year, and put the word out to locals and foreigners alike.
Thus did an army of strangers from 11 countries descend upon Dilijan National Park to help out. Each Monday we shipped new groups of hard-working enthusiasts out into the forest, gave them tools, and trained them how to use them. Each Friday we brought them back to HQ for R&R.
This kind of thing is a regular occurrence on the trail networks of the West. In Armenia, it was (literally) groundbreaking. So much so that the Armenian national TV channel sent reporters to film us in action. And then the Prime Minister of Armenia shared the clip on Facebook.
Did I mention Discovery Channel made a 3D, 360º virtual reality film about it too?
We’ll be running another volunteer camp this year, by the way. If you want to join us, get on the newsletter to hear the announcement first.
3. We Created a Trailbuilding HQ and Hiker’s Hub in Dilijan
To feed and host our volunteers, we could have simply rented a house in Dilijan and hired a cook. But that would have been too easy. Instead, we found an abandoned Soviet mansion and offered to redecorate it for the owner in return for permission to live there.
Yes, we encountered exploding plumbing, cattle invasions, dodgy wiring and confused neighbours. But we dealt with it all, and a thriving community erupted in the newly created space. We hosted travellers who gave their time and energy to help run the show. We opened a campsite and offered beds on weekdays for donations. We turned an abandoned toilet block into communal showers and connected the building’s pipework to a mountain spring for a free, unlimited water supply. We cooked massive communal meals and spread the spirit of the TCT throughout Dilijan.
4. We Mobilised the Next Generation of Armenian Trailbuilders
As well as foreign volunteers, we separately set up a programme for Armenians. The idea was to introduce budding young locals to the world of trailbuilding and then fling them in at the deep end, along with the foreigners, to see what would happen.
This had unpredictable but spectacular consequences. Our crew leader Hans Keifer – a veteran trailbuilder from Los Angeles who happened to be half Armenian himself – saw the infectious energy and ambition of these youngsters and promptly decided to round up a trailbuilding crew and hire them all to work for him.
Trails For Change, Armenia’s first and (currently) only dedicated trailbuilding organisation, now employs seven ‘graduates’ of the TCT volunteer programme, and – along with some other exciting projects – is gearing up to build the next section of the TCT in 2018.
Speaking of which…
5. We Designed the Next Section Of The Transcaucasian Trail in Armenia
I’d been so preoccupied with getting the trail through Dilijan National Park finished that I almost forgot that the 2018 season would need a project too – and that autumn was our last chance to put it together. But where would the resources come from?
Enter HIKEArmenia, a new outfit created by some very clever people to do exactly what the name suggests: develop and promote hiking in Armenia. They stepped in to sponsor a month of detailed trail design in the Vayots Dzor province, which we’re now pooling our resources with them to build in 2018.
In other words, by the end of this summer, you’ll be able to hike two totally separate sections of the Transcaucasian Trail across Armenia, each with their own distinct landscapes, histories, idiosyncrasies and even accents.
And for those intrepid enough to want to join the two sections into one, you’ll be pleased to hear that…
6. We Connected Them via One of the Most Awesome Mountain Ranges in the Caucasus
Oh, the Geghama Mountains… perhaps the part of Armenia I’ve fallen most deeply in love with over the years. High, remote, exposed, and more or less uninhabited, these volcanic peaks bisect central Armenia and form the western boundary of the Lesser Caucasus Mountains as the terrain descends to the Ararat plain.
I recruited a friend – a seasoned adventurer himself – and this summer set out to traverse them on foot: a journey which, if successful, would prove the theory of joining the Dilijan National Park and the Vayots Dzor sections of the Trancaucasian Trail together.
It was… just… spectacular. Anyone with a thirst for the backcountry I am now in the habit of prodding repeatedly until they at the very least considering coming to the Geghama Mountains.
The route is mapped out and ready to go. By the way, members of the TCT to get early access to it (as well as other as-yet-unpublished parts of the prototype route). And by the end of 2018, we plan to have published all the resources to hike it too.
7. We Helped The First Ever Transcaucasian Thru-Hiker Complete Their 1,500km Journey
This year, Val Ismaili became the first ever thru-hiker on the southern route of the Transcaucasian Trail. We gave him a rough route to follow and some tips on what to expect, and this undaunted engineering student from London promptly set off for the Iranian-Armenian border.
Starting his trek in May, and via a series of adventures involving Russian border guards, bears, electrical storms and endless Caucasian hospitality, he arrived on the Black Sea Coast in Georgia a couple of months later, thus single-handedly proving the concept of the complete 1,500km Lesser Caucasus route.
And if that’s not the point of the whole endeavour, I don’t know what is!
8. We Helped Make Armenia’s First New Topographical Hiking Map Since 1973
If you followed the Expedition in 2016, you might be wondering what happened to my original teammate, Alessandro.
Well, I am happy to report that he has taken his mapping obsession to altogether new heights, having produced the first up-to-date topo map of Armenia since the Soviets last updated theirs – which was just 45 years ago.
Through his brand new startup, Cartisan, Ale will be making a folding 1:25,000-scale Dilijan National Park Hiking Map available for hikers coming to Dilijan. Watch this space (or, again, sign up for the mailing list) to hear when that happens, and from where they’ll be available…
9. We Found Even More Awesome People to Help Build the Rest of the Transcaucasian Trail
None of this would have been possible without the buy-in of a couple of key individuals in Armenia who were willing to roll the dice on a brand new outfit with big ideas. While they would prefer to remain anonymous, I could not faithfully round up this year of work without thanking the organisations they represent: Caucasus Nature Fund, and the Hirair & Anna Hovnanian Foundation.
This is also an opportune moment to thank Land Rover for their extended loan of Georgina (oh, how we’ll miss her!), Birthright Armenia for a steady stream of fantastic HQ volunteers (long may they continue to show up on our doorstep), the Armenian Relief Society of Armenia for entrusting their property to us – and all the other individuals and organisations (we reckon there’s well over a hundred) who were involved in it all but who are slightly too numerous to name individually.
Here’s to smashing it again in 2018!
Ready to get involved? Check out the full list of volunteering opportunities, read up on the details of the trailbuilding camps, or join us in June for the first fundraising trek of 2018!