University of Bristol student Val Ismaili initially planned to spend his summer break hiking an established long-distance trail. Instead, he ended up becoming the first person to hike the Transcaucasian Trail across Georgia and Armenia — long before the route is even completed.
The 1500-kilometre, eight-week trek from Meghri, Armenia, to Batumi, Georgia, wasn’t easy. “With something like the Pacific Crest Trail in the United States, you can plan in a really detailed way what you’ll be doing every few days, where you’ll take a rest, where you can resupply,” Ismaili told Lonely Planet News. “With something like this that no one had hiked yet, you never know what is going to happen, where you will end up or how hard the terrain will be.”
After reading about the Transcaucasian Trail, also known as the TCT, in an in-flight magazine, Ismaili connected with one of the founders of the project, a decade-long effort initiated in 2015 to develop a well-marked and well-maintained network of trails across the Caucasus region. They pored over satellite images and Soviet-era maps, looking for old paths that could be resurrected. “Most of the routes for the TCT have been scouted to some degree, but there can be, for example, a 100-kilometre gap between one town and another that no one knew how to get between,” Ismaili explained.
Hiking in a forested canyon near the Noravank monastery in southern Armenia, Ismaili was following what was supposed to be a trail when it suddenly disappeared. “I was going less than one kilometre per hour because I was bushwhacking through such thick forest, and then I just couldn’t go forward anymore,” Ismaili told Lonely Planet News. “I ended up scrambling up the cliff, on a scree slope with a 70-litre pack on my back, just to get out of the forest. That was the scariest day for sure.”
Encounters with bears, border guards, ankle-deep mud and intense thunderstorms added to the challenge, but, Ismaili says, “there were loads of good days” too. Hiking in Armenia’s Syunik province, near the Iranian border, was “beautiful, one of my favourite parts of the whole trip, with birds and flowers and other plants I’d never seen before,” Ismaili said. In Adjara, in south-western Georgia, he encountered traditional wooden homes where families live in cosy rooms above their livestock. He slept in an abandoned church in the middle of a forest, summited 3000-metre-high peaks, took in sweeping views from ridge tops and was welcomed into home after home.
“The hospitality was one of the most special parts. I’d heard about it, and there is a similar culture in Kosovo and Albania where my family is from, but I don’t think I fully understood the extent of it until I experienced it,” Ismaili told Lonely Planet News. “There are not many shops along the TCT route but I didn’t go more than two days without being invited in by a shepherd. They would always offer me a meal, and then a bed, and then give me a care package of food to take along the next day. One family on a farm in the middle of nowhere went out as soon as I arrived to slaughter a goat for our dinner.”
During his trek, Ismaili also stopped to volunteer with some of the TCT trail-building crews. “I’ve hiked on lots of trails and not thought much before about the work that goes into building them,” he said. “Swinging those tools for a total of six weeks definitely brings a different level of appreciation to trails.”
By Jennifer Hattam