Hitting The Dirt In Armenia: Where The Fun Begins

I’ve been trying desperately to think of a compelling angle for a blog post about the 12 days of driving from London to Yerevan.

But the truth of the matter is that a really long drive on good highways does not make for particularly interesting storytelling.

This is subjective, of course. If the landscapes and landmarks of England, Belgium, Germany, Austria, Italy, Greece and Turkey were completely new to me, no doubt I’d feel like I was brimming with stories and perspectives I wanted to share.

But having spent eight months travelling the same route by bicycle in 2007, and having made several hitch-hiking trips between the UK and the Caucasus since then, 6,000km of driving across Europe and Turkey felt a lot like a really long version of the A14 eastbound from Kettering (with occasional mountains, cheaper diesel and better food).

Exploring new places is the whole point of the expedition, of course. And while the drive out of Europe was a nice trip down memory lane and a good shakedown for the car, it is only now we’ve arrived in the Caucasus, where we’ll spend the next six months working, that going ‘above and beyond’ the limits of our knowledge and experience – to borrow the RGS and Land Rover’s Bursary tagline – is going to become part of our daily lives.

And that is what’s going to be worth blogging about over the next six months.

Discovering new trails is only the most blatant of reasons I can justify calling this journey a ‘pioneering’ one.

Already, in doing so, we’ve discovered the ruins of an ancient and hitherto unknown church in the forests of Syunik region (though I’d want to make a lot more such discoveries before adding ‘explorer’ to my Twitter bio).

Shown the way along faint, wooded deer trails by a village hunter, the tiny structure seemed to sprout from the ground itself, and Vahagn – an Armenian environmental activist who quit his job with a conservation NGO to join us full-time – identified it as having pagan-influenced architecture, and estimated it as being a 5th- or 6th-century construction.

We’ll be passing these findings onto regional experts to investigate it further; in the meantime, through the magic of digital communications technology, you can ‘visit’ this geotagged church yourself via the photosphere below.

The wildlife of the region is something I have a personal fascination with, in part because it is so abundant and diverse. Spring now in full swing in the region, we’re just in time to catch the earliest and most delicate of the wildflowers – social media proving an invaluable tool in identifying them. There’s going to be a lot to learn.

Finally, there’s the human aspect of the project. I’ve always suspected that developing a trail along a mountain range must surely be as much about following human trails as physical trails, connecting the dots between in-depth but disparate hotspots of local knowledge. And so far, this is proving more true than I could have imagined.

Our first foray in the Syunik region of southern Armenia was like doing detective work; exploring the depths of the region, seeking out and approaching the right kind of local people, then starting open-ended conversations and seeing where they lead.

These kinds of interactions are valuable not just for the information they unearth, but for fostering a feeling of connectedness with the land and the people who live on it – the most memorable experiences of all my previous travels, and the perfect complement to the time we’ll spend alone in the wilderness, turning anecdotal information into scouted and mapped mountain routes, and connecting with the land in a different way.

Working like this has made us friends, led to unexpected discoveries, highlighted connections and introductions waiting to be made, and thrown any notions of schedule-making way off course. And Georgina – our rather conspicuous Land Rover Defender – has been doing a fantastic job of breaking the ice and allowing these interactions to begin (turns out everyone loves a Landy, no matter where they’re from), not to mention allowing us to rapidly access these remote locations in the first place.

As a result, we already have a prototype route of roughly 3 days of hiking in the mountains around Kapan, the beginnings of a fascinating alternative route to the east (which must sadly wait until another time to be explored properly), and several leads to follow up as we progress north – which we’ll be doing over the next few days in partnership with Ark Armenia, a locally-based environmental NGO.

Keep an eye on our social media feeds to follow the story in real time. And don’t forget to join the Transcaucasian Trail Facebook page to stay in the loop about the trail project and the work our regional partners are doing too.