Aghstev Valley: A Land Of Lost Hikers & Unfulfilled Potential

Tavush was always at the top of my list of places to explore on this expedition. This forested mountainous region in the north of Armenia consists mainly of the eastern fringes of the Lesser Caucasus range. On satellite imagery you can trace this stretch of dark green forest through southern Georgia, along the Armenia-Azerbaijan border, then south through the disputed region of Nagorno Karabakh and eventually into Iran, where it bears east again, reaching a natural end point at the Caspian Sea near Astara.

As we drove from Yerevan to Dilijan to begin scouting this region, I talked to Vahagn about my attraction to Tavush. I can trace it back to January 2008 when I visited Armenia for the first time. I had left my home country of England eight months previously on a bicycle, aged 23, and ridden it all the way across Europe, Turkey, Georgia, and into Armenia. The experience had been profound and deeply transformative. Just after crossing the border from Georgia into Armenia, my riding partner of those eight months had decided to go his own way, and so Tavush was where I found myself truly alone in the world for the first time, sipping the powerful brew of terror and exhilaration that such freedom represented, and submitting entirely to what lay ahead on the long road to Yerevan.

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Cycling in winter in Tavush, Armenia. Photo by Andy Welch.

What lay ahead, it turned out, were desperately challenging conditions to be on a bicycle (the Caucasus was experiencing its coldest winter for a generation) juxtaposed against the unconditional hospitality of the Tavushetsis. Not a single night did I spend out in the open at -25°C; instead I was brought in from the cold and incorporated into the nighttime rituals of a cast of characters whose faces and voices I can remember as keenly as if they were yesterday, as clearly as if they were old friends. And when the sun did eventually rise above the plains of Azerbaijan – low and pale beyond the double string of invisible rifles cocked and aimed across the silent nomansland – the landscape I rode through, of crystal forests and gold-tipped escarpments, left me in no doubt that I was passing through a special place indeed.

I never planned to stop in Armenia for more than a few days. Yet, eight years later, here I still am. And that’s another story; one which has since been turned into a film, if it takes your interest.

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So it was with a sense of happy nostalgia that I piloted Georgina down the switchbacks from Lake Sevan to the old Soviet resort town of Dilijan, often (generously) nicknamed the Switzerland of Armenia. I wondered if the proprietor of the corner cafe by the bus station was still running his little eatery; whether the guys down the road, who guarded the old railway bridge on the main line to Baku, were still occupying that little concrete roadside shack I once slept in.

At the same time, I was here to look at Tavush with fresh eyes, having invented for myself the job of Chief Explorer for a growing movement called the Transcaucasian Trail. With the expedition’s second driver Alessandro on holiday, Vahagn and I would be forced to tackle this region differently. Instead of a series of vehicle-supported day hikes, we would do our research and meet our contacts first, then use what we discovered to plan a multi-day hike through the region, connecting the Aghstev and Debed river valleys via some of the most inaccessible regions of the country. Georgina would remain in the care of a trusted contact, and we would make alternative arrangements for the worst-case scenario of needing to call an evacuation.

Our first stop was the tourist information centre in Dilijan. Given the town’s status and reputation, and the fact that Dilijan National Park is the biggest national park in Armenia, I assumed that we would easily be able to find information on hiking trails in the vicinity. But questioning the staff led only to confused looks. There were no maps or information. We explaining that we wanted to go hiking independently, and was there anyone who might be able to help us? They picked up the phone and dialled a number. When it became apparent they were calling a guide for us, we reiterated that guided hiking was not what we wanted to do. They hung up. “Sorry,” they said. “We can’t help you.”

The idea of visiting the Dilijan National Park visitors’ centre, just down the road on the way out of town, wasn’t suggested. But then, looking at the Park’s website, it may have been for the best. Last updated in 2006, the website promotes a number of ecotourism trails, each described in a gaudy 1-page PDF download, complete with badly-translated text, an unusable trail map the size of a postage stamp, and a transparent admission that most of the trails are either partially marked or not marked at all, including several trails graded as ‘difficult’ and involving more than a vertical kilometre of ascent through forested mountainous wilderness – enough, in fact, to actively discourage hikers from taking the trail system seriously. (Googling “hiking in Dilijan National Park” will fetch this page as the number one result.)

Next on our list were the contacts we’d been given in the region. The first was David, a young student based in Dilijan, who we’d heard was a keen hiker. When he arrived at the cafe in which we’d set up residence for the afternoon, it quickly transpired that he was in fact the ‘guide’ the tourist office had called earlier. But his hiking knowledge was only in his head, not on paper or in digital format or in any other form we could use without going hiking with him and collecting it ourselves.

We camped outside the gates of a Soviet-era funfair and adventure playground: an unusual choice of venue, perhaps, but one which we’d been assured would be safe and undisturbed. And the following day, we continued down the Aghstev valley and up the hillside to the village of Hovk, where we’d arranged to meet Andranik, owner of the Wild Trail Lodge guesthouse and B&B, who’d approached us at an ecotourism conference in April, and who we finally had the opportunity to meet again.

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Andranik had an interesting story. One of Armenia’s most active hikers and mountaineers, he’d spent many years as a member of the now defunct Spitak Rescue Team, set up in the wake of the 1988 earthquake that devastated large parts of the region around Spitak and Gyumri and later expanding to include mountain rescue services. In 2006 he’d bought a country house in Hovk with the intention of creating a hub for outdoor tourism within this valley of dramatic limestone crags, virgin tracts of beech and oak, abundant and diverse fauna, and of course the cultural-historical monuments that can be found in the depths of nature all over the traditional lands of the Armenians.

It was in 2012 that Andranik earned unexpected fame – by not only surviving a failed solo attempt on the notorious Svanetian peak of Ushba, which claims several lives each year, but by then upstaging a variety of rescue attempts by pulling off a dramatic self-rescue with a broken ice axe – all live-reported by the Georgian and Armenian media. The story, as he told it, was characterised more by the rescuers who wanted to use the event as publicity piece than of the facts of his own self-rescue, but the truest account in his opinion was written by a pair of bicycle-mounted journalists who happened to be on the scene on their way from Paris to Shanghai. In any case, being in the public spotlight had not been to his tastes; he preferred to continue practicing his own style of mountaineering among his friends at the Armenian Alpine Club, while at the same time working on his ambitions for the Wild Trail Lodge and hiking in Tavush and Armenia in general.

As we sat on the expansive balcony and shared a lunch with Andranik, he talked in detail about the trails on which he guided his own clients, and later the issues he faced as an ambitious player in the hiking scene in the region, the most prominent of which was a lack of resources to develop the trail network, make it safe and accessible, and most importantly make the region more visible as a destination for hikers – for there was a hard limit to what he could achieve without more customers for his business or other forms of support for his vision. As for our project? He would welcome any efforts to develop hiking and adventure tourism in a way that benefited his community and his country.

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The plot thickened yet further as we continued on via the provincial capital of Ijevan (meaning ‘caravanserai’ in Armenian) and up into the nearby hills to Apaga Resort. Owned and operated by the Chibukhchyan family, this cluster of holiday homes and recreational grounds high on the hillside overlooking the Aghstev valley seemed the very model of successful rural tourism in Armenia, legions ahead of the more primitive attempts we’d seen elsewhere in the country, and with a distinctive international feel to the place. Never short of ambition, they were planning to expand their already gorge-spanning zipline network to include the world’s longest zipline – adding to the already impressive list of guided hiking, horse riding and jeeping experiences they offered their visitors.

But an in-depth conversation with the family revealed that they had their concerns too. And prime amongst them seemed to be the number of lost hikers they were called upon to rescue by the emergency services, with no remuneration for the time and resources expended. Anecdotes flowed – from the time more than 50 locals were out searching the forests at midnight, to the hapless museum tour guides sent to take groups of equally hapless package tourists into the hills to get lost, to the so-called professional hiking guides who proved untrained and unskilled in basic safety and first-aid. We added one of our own: that one of the trails on which people got lost most frequently was one the Armenian government itself had commissioned to be added to the popular trailfinding website, WikiLoc – nothing more than a GPS track, which to try and follow in thickly forested mountainous areas riven with unmarked trails is simply asking for trouble.

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It fleshed out a picture of increasing clarity: Ijevan, Dilijan and the surrounding regions seemed ripe for mountain tourism of the kind seen in Svaneti, but there seemed to be a great many obstacles to doing so in a way that would be effective, and nobody seemed to know the way around them.

From our perspective, after a year of desk- and field-based research into this very problem, it seemed that almost all of these issues boiled down to a single point of weakness:

Communication.

Hikers get lost because a wiggly line on a smartphone screen or GPS is not enough, especially in deep forests and narrow gorges where GPS signal can’t reach. A little knowledge is dangerous, it is said; that’s why lines on smartphone screens need to be supplemented with a blazing system that is consistent and easy to follow, with topographic maps that represent complex terrain accurately and in detail, with written trail guides that can be followed to the letter in multiple languages without confusion, and with a general background of information for hikers coming to the Caucasus that will give them a context for what they experience on the ground.

Hikers who want professional guides need a way of ensuring that the guide they are hiring is fit to lead them or their group. That’s why Mountain Leader qualifications and professional accreditation bodies exist. The bureaucracy is boring, but in a wilderness environment the risks are very real, and that is why guides need a simple way to communicate that they know what they are doing. Neither Georgia nor Armenia currently have an established system of mountain guide training or accreditation.

Communities who want to attract visitors to discover their natural wonders by foot, bike, horseback, or any other means, in order to diversify their incomes, need to be able to put information in front of the kind of people who are seeking such experiences – firstly that the potential for such experiences exists, and secondly the practical information those visitors would need to have the experience they came for. That’s why grassroots enterprises spring up in empty niches and prosper, and also why governments develop, market and promote their nations’ tourism offerings internationally. But this requires more than just vision and determination. It also requires the ability to communicate with the people who would become those visitors.

(In this regard, Georgia is years ahead of Armenia thanks to the impetus provided by a single visionary leader.)

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Communication is hard. Most of the conflict that arises in the human experience, I feel, has some form of communication issue as its root cause. That’s because humans, as social animals, define themselves in terms of their relationships – with each other as individuals, within groups, between groups at a staggering range of scales; even with other species and with the planet that is our home – and communication is the means by which relationships form and grow. It could even be argued that many internal conflicts, too, are a product of miscommunication within the self.

The biggest challenges I’ve had to deal with in my role as expedition leader on this project have not been physical, logistical, or technical. They have all boiled down to communication. And the biggest task of the Transcaucasian Trail movement, in my view, is to resolve all of the communication issues that we’ve identified – from a desperate lack of practical information and places to get it, all the way up to the still largely undiscovered potential of the Caucasus as a destination for adventurers, eco-tourists, and naturalists of all kinds.

How to do that? It remains to be seen. It’s a huge problem. And the best way to solve huge problems is to break them down into lots of smaller ones. I suspect that, over time, the Transcaucasian Trail will come together in this way.

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In the meantime, however, our research and philosophical ponderings complete, it was time for Vahagn and I to set off into the wildernesses of Tavush and attempt the multi-day trek we had designed – the first of the expedition, in fact; not just a prototype for a route, but a prototype of the kind of experience a hiker might one day have on the trail.

And that, ladies and gents, is a story for another blog post…