Transcaucasian Trail: Mapping Eurasia’s forgotten hiking routes

CNN  — 

Blame it on the region’s tricky geopolitics or the former Soviet Union, but the mountains of the Caucasus – a high and sheer rocky spine soaring between southwestern Russia and Iran – still for the most part lie untouched and undiscovered.

That’s all about to change thanks to 34-year-old Tom Allen, who has seen the potential of these peaks and is resolute in helping them earn the attention they deserve as a destination.

How? By creating the Transcaucasian Trail – an ambitious, 3,000-kilometer hiking route that will crisscross Armenia and Georgia all the way from the Iranian border to the Georgian-Turkish frontier, and will make odysseys on foot through these rugged and hardly accessible mountains possible.

“To the eyes of self-proclaimed Armenian hiking ‘experts’, perfectly good ‘trails’ already exist,” says Allen, founder of the Transcaucasian Trail project.

He sits barefoot and cross-legged in the living room of the Transcaucasian Trail headquarters, set on a hill overlooking the town of Dilijan – the gateway to Armenia’s best known national park.

“Truth be told, in the eyes of most foreign hikers, those are just steep, muddy jeep tracks they must share with 4x4s and cows,” he says. “We are working towards transforming the ancient connecting routes of local shepherds into world-class hiking and biking trails.”

Views like this await the crew and volunteers during break time.

Grassroots determination

Allen’s strong resolution comes from his adventurer background. Before becoming the Transcaucasian Trail’s “explorer in chief,” for several years he toured the world on a bicycle, curating one of the world’s most successful bike touring blogs and filming a few acclaimed independent adventure documentaries.

“Janapar: Love, on a Bike” (2014) recounts how Allen, who is originally from England, met his Armenian-Iranian wife Tenny and ended up staying in the region – a most romantic prelude to getting involved with trail-building operations.

“Full-time travel wore thin after a few years, and I started craving something deeper,” he explains.

“Armenia is somewhere I ended up accidentally, but seeds germinate where they fall, right? So here I am, building a trail for everyone, helping other people in a way that aligns with the values I’d developed on the road.”

The Transcaucasian Trail launched in 2016 as the “Transcaucasian Expedition” thanks to a grant and 4x4 vehicle Allen received from the Royal Geographic Society and Land Rover in London.

By the end of the summer of 2017, his team of local experts and international volunteers completed the first 100 kilometers of trail, through Armenia’s Dilijan National Park.

At the same time, a sister operation led by the Transcaucasian Trail’s co-founder, American and former Peace Corps volunteer Paul Stephens, has completed a section of the trail in the Svaneti region of northwestern Georgia.

“Quite simply, we will both keep forging ahead for as long as it takes to connect the two trunks at the Georgian-Armenian border,” explains Allen.

The final, enormous trail may take up to a decade to complete, says Allen – and several months to hike in its entirety. Hikers will be able to join the first fund-raising expeditions in the summer of 2018.

The mammoth mapping and building task, however, has the humble approach of an underground do-it-yourself operation.

Alongside the team, volunteers share communal meals and sleep in tents out in the bush.

Just three people run the show: Allen, who works as trail development coordinator, deciding where work should actually take people; a trail building crew leader, who oversees the work itself; and a camp manager, who looks after the operation of the work camp, staffed by about 15 volunteers who apply online and travel to Armenia in the summer to join the workforce.

“We live out in the field Monday to Friday,” says Ben Allen, Tom’s brother, who joined the project in 2017 from Vancouver, Canada, as a field coordinator.

“A typical day means getting up at 6 a.m. for breakfast and a 7 a.m. start for the work site, usually a few minutes’ hike away. We work until 4 p.m., with three breaks during the day.”

It’s a hard but simple life: In the late afternoons and evenings, the team rests at the campsite.

Chores such as cooking, washing up and collecting water and firewood are shared on a daily rota. On weekends, they return to headquarters, and those who miss city comforts can travel to the capital Yerevan, about three hours’ drive away from Dilijan.

A steep climb ahead

Besides the vehicle and the initial financial grant, Allen has also been sourcing funds locally.

“Forming an NGO was a necessary step to receive funding and form partnerships with other local organizations,” he explains.

“At this stage, we are partnering with Caucasus Nature Fund, [which] supports small infrastructure projects in the protected areas of the Caucasus, and the Hovnanian Foundation, whose current focus is on developing hiking in Armenia.”

The project, however, still relies on a lot of passion.

“I had to keep a careful eye out for individuals who were ready to start working with no financial incentive, and find ways to then retroactively pay them a salary and keep them involved.”

The challenge ahead is seeing if the trail will actually take off, making Armenia a more attractive adventure travel destination.

“It’s still an unknown: The names aren’t so recognizable. The destinations aren’t in the brochures. Budget flights aren’t properly advertised. People fear what they don’t know,” says Allen.

But he also clarifies that he never thought the trail would make the Caucasus a mainstream travel destination.

“Long-distance hiking trails only appeal to long-distance hikers and wannabe long-distance hikers,” he says.

“There may be some indirect effect, in that the kind of adventurous travelers who’ll hike parts of the Transcaucasian Trail will no doubt spin stories about it when they go home.

“My guess is that the trail infrastructure will also be used by non-hikers: The Appalachian Trail in the USA has more than a million people a year hiking at least for a day on it – and yet, only a few thousand complete the whole thing.”

The team prepares their tools for another day of work on a trail section.

Another important issue is, given the bloody history surrounding Armenian national borders, how much neighboring Azerbaijan – the region’s other rising star, which introduced simplified eVisa procedures in early 2017 and still contests the landlocked Nagorno-Karabakh region with Armenia – will make or break the project.

“Azerbaijan hasn’t been left out. We just haven’t found partners there yet,” says Allen.

“Development of the trail eastwards towards the Caspian Sea will depend on finding another Paul or Tom who makes it his or her life’s work to bring it into existence. And as much as I’d love to kick off the process in Azerbaijan myself, I’ve got my hands full already.”

Allen stops for a moment to ponder the weight of his own words.

Through the window behind him, the shape of Dilijan’s mountains shimmers in the early afternoon light, and the weight of the massive operation he’s balancing on his shoulders comes into focus.

“The only thing that is making all this happen,” he continues, looking up again with that imperturbable calm that one only sees in heroes or madmen, “is the deep belief that it’s possible. Just like any long journey, it’s just a case of taking it one step at a time, coming up regularly for air.”