It has taken a little longer than expected, but intrepid outdoor lovers heading to Armenia this summer may be interested to hear that our prototype hiking route through southern Syunik is now ready to be trail-tested!
Or – in case you aren’t able to jump on the next flight to Yerevan – perhaps you’d like to hike some of this stunning trail vicariously today?
That’s my aim with this post. So let’s begin the story of how the route has come together.
But perhaps it’s worth backing up a little. For there are many types of long-distance hiking route. We want our trail testers and future hikers to know what to expect from the Transcaucasian Trail.
The first point – and the one we’ve spent the most energy defining when talking to partners and rangers and journalists – is that the TCT is aimed at the self-sufficient backpacker, rather than the casual day-hiker.
There will indeed be sections where it is possible to treat the trail as a series of day-hikes, with village homestays or other indoor accommodation in between. But in order to reach the most stunning corners of the Caucasus – which are also the most remote – you will need to be prepared to spend your nights in the wild, and carry the equipment you need to do so.
To draw comparisons, the TCT will be less like the Camino de Santiago and more like the Pacific Crest Trail. It will be challenging – but not so challenging that it’s open only to the hardcore few. It will prioritise wilderness and nature over sightseeing and settlements, avoiding paved and trafficked roads in favour of trails accessible only by foot – but there will be no technical mountaineering skills involved.
In other words – it might not always be easy, but if you can put one foot in front of the other, you should be able to hike the TCT.
One of our goals is to link up and provide access to as many of the region’s national parks and protected areas as possible. There will be more than 20 such areas on the finished route, if all goes to plan. In an area already characterised by its natural beauty, these areas represent the crème de la crème of what the Caucasus has to offer.
Our route, of which the first 70km is now fully scouted and mapped, already includes several of these areas. It begins (or ends) at the Armenian border with Iran, as dictated firstly by the geography of the Lesser Caucasus and secondly by our future hope to extend the route into Iran itself.
Down on the ground, our first question was where exactly the trailhead should be. There is no avoiding the climb from the River Arax – the lowest elevation in the country at just 430m above sea level – up to the first major ridgeline, which undulates between 2,000m to 3,000m in altitude in an east-west direction in parallel with the border. We wanted to make your first big climb as short and manageable as possible.
At the same time, we wanted you to able to enjoy the ridgecrest route when you arrived. But then there is the question of snow, which still lingers at the higher elevations well into July. Oh, and the former border with Azerbaijan to the east, which was still littered with landmines from the war of 1991-1994. Probably worth avoiding that.
After lots of research, we settled on the historical village of Nrnadzor as your starting point, for two main reasons. Firstly, it’s an official access point to Arevik National Park, ensuring that you can make the local rangers aware of your intentions. Secondly, it’s just over the border from the Iranian village of Ushtabin, which was already popular with Iranian hikers and a natural place to look for a continuation of the route in the future.
(In reality, you’d take a short detour by road to the official border crossing to the west, but the trail itself would run uninterrupted between these two very appropriate locations on each side of the border.)
Following a disused jeep track from Nrnadzor – easy to navigate and no steeper than a vehicle could manage – you’ll watched the jagged peaks and ridges of Iran’s East Azerbaijan province gradually being unveiled as you gain elevation. The hike from the verdant valley floor up the shrubby slopes to the panoramic ridgeline will bring you to the border of Shikahogh State Reserve, the largest forest reserve in southern Armenia, which sweeps away dramatically on the north side of the ridge. And at the top of the climb, a small patch of land cleared for road construction (and then abandoned) will make for an ideal wilderness campsite – and one of the most spectacular sunrise viewpoints imaginable – with a reliable water source a few hundred metres along the ridgeline to the east at a shepherds’ summer camp.
With the cooperation of Karen at the Zangezur Biosphere Complex and under the guidance of local ranger Seroj, we spent a long and challenging day making a rare exploration of Mt’nadzor, the ‘dark valley’ that runs down to the River Tsav valley and the plane tree groves at Nerkin Hand, and which forms a large part of the Shikahogh Reserve, which is normally off-limits for independent exploration. But despite the privilege of setting foot in this virgin forest, the trail was non-existent and the terrain extremely treacherous, and it was clear that it would need a lot of work on the ground and behind the scenes before it could be made accessible to hikers.
In lieu of Mt’nadzor, we decided to take the trail west along the ridge itself. You’ll follow another little-used but navigable jeep track with expansive 360-degree views of not just Armenia but also Iran, Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh – a prolonged reward for the first day’s long climb.
This track crosses the new asphalt road from Kapan to Meghri (built just a few years previously but rarely used and already crumbling), and its counterpart track on the far side of the road would make for the higher parts of the ridgecrest to the west.
But we were aware that water would be scarce for much of the summer at these higher elevations, and so instead – with the help of Argam, another of the Zangezur Biosphere Complex’s rangers – we bore north-west.
So you’ll follow the contours of the northern side of the watershed and eventually drop down into a lush oak and beech forest, where you’ll join up with a historical horseback route towards the village of Shishkert.
On the way, you’ll pass through the abandoned village of Mazra, where Argam spent his childhood summers playing alongside the children of Azeri families who were forced to leave when war broke out between Armenia and Azerbaijan in the early 90’s.
To us, it seemed improbable that there was so little evidence left of the houses that had once stood here, but as Argam said, the earth moves faster than people think on these hillsides, and only the oddly-shaped grassy mounds and occasional glimpses of dry stone wall gave evidence of the homes that lay buried underneath. Now given over to nature and serving only as an occasional cattle pasture in the summer months, the site of the village will lend itself well as the site of a second night’s wild camp as you follow the trail north.
From Mazra, you’ll follow a jeep track over a fast-flowing mountain stream and over the spur into the Shishkert region itself. A steep footpath winds down towards the valley floor, passing close to the village of Shishkert, the traditional access point for 4×4 trips to Mount Khustup’s summit from this southerly direction.
Although alternatives doubtless existed, we decided that the trail should for the time being follow this established jeep track, which ran at a sensible gradient up the valley. You’ll spend much of the time in close proximity to the river (the main water source for this stage of the route), and eventually emerge a short distance below the final scramble up to the summit of Khustup itself – at 3,206m the 12th highest mountain in Armenia.
Though amongst the highest points on the trail so far, sufficient cover is available to make this our suggested camping location for your third night on the trail.
We didn’t want to make you climb Khustup as an obligatory part of hiking the TCT. You’ll bypass the peak itself via a traverse on the south-west side of the slope, while still giving you the option to make the 1-hour return trip to the top – an easy scramble from the southern side – if you so chose.
After Khustup, the main challenge that faced us was to find a way for you to make the descent into the River Voghji gorge. It needed to be achievable in a single day and include reliable access to water, which the previous night’s camp could not guarantee. It would also need to be safe and non-technical – tricky, given the fragmented mountainsides that characterise the northern slopes of Khustup. Also: interesting, avoiding the city of Kapan itself, and providing a simple crossing of the main road that follows the gorge.
This was when our previous scouting expeditions around Kapan proved most useful. We had uncovered a new route to a 10th-century hermitage buried deep in the forest – known locally as Bekh Anapat – and we suspected that it would be possible to connect a descent from Khustup with this historical forest path.
The first attempt at scouting the route was only partially successful and resulted in an unplanned but enjoyable wild camp below Khustup’s summit.
A second attempt, this time approaching the route from the top down, smoothed out the route, identified a more established trail, and confirmed that such a route would be feasible (and utterly spectacular).
When scouting, we’ve been focused as much as possible on the experience a future hiker will have. Imagine descending through the forest after several days in the wild, spotting a patch of daylight in the gloom ahead, and making for it – to discover the part-excavated remains of a thousand-year-old monastic retreat, complete with a water supply, a nearby chapel in addition to the main church, and perhaps a local archaeologist and his horse if you’re particularly lucky.
And you’ll be hard pressed to find a better spot to make camp for the night in advance of the final descent to the bottom of the gorge – though we’d want to have the agreement of the locals in charge of the site before establishing such a recommendation in the long term.
The fifth day of your hike will take you over the main road on the outskirts of Kapan before climbing up into the forested hills once again for a relatively easy day’s walk to just outside the village of Arachadzor. Congratulations – you’ve completed the first section of the TCT!
(And if you’re wanting a day off camping after five days under canvas, you’ll be very pleased to hear that ARK Armenia’s second eco-camp, the Ark Dacha, is just a few hundred metres away from the final point of our prototype route.)
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Interested in volunteering to trail-test this section of the route?
We’ll supply GPX/KML files for use with your GPS unit or favourite smartphone app, including day-by-day tracks for the route, as well as the locations of water sources, suggested campsites, and other points of interest.
In return for arranging special access to the protected areas included in this route, we’ll ask you to feedback on your experience in a structured but simple way.
In the meantime, our scouting adventures continue. Watch this space…