Founders hope project will become one of the world’s great hikes, revealing the fascinating cultures and unexplored natural wonders of the Caucasus.
”Hiking the Caucasus for a few months would be incredible, like going across a continent in miniature. The spectacular terrain ranges from Georgia’s dense forest and glaciers to the rugged pasturelands of Azerbaijan. But it’s the hospitality of the locals that makes trekking here really special.”
Paul Stephens, co-founder of the new Transcaucasian Trail (TCT), is talking about why he thinks this will be one of the world’s greatest hikes. He and a team of mappers and volunteers are in Georgia working on the first section of the route across the Caucasus.
The region is on the border of Europe and Asia, between the Black and Caspian seas. The eventual aim is to have two 1,500km trails – one running east to west, linking the seas, and the other running north to south, linking the Greater and Lesser Caucasus mountain ranges – largely paid for by crowdfunding.
The trail, a mix of existing routes and new paths, is being developed in stages and the first is the 200km section between Svaneti and Racha in north-west Georgia. Last year, Paul and co-founder Jeff Haack scouted and mapped the route along an old trail that connects villages in Western Svaneti. Since July this year they have been working with volunteers to build the path, moving obstacles, building bridges and putting up trail markers.
“We’ve tried to make it less of a cow path and more of an easy-to-follow hiking trail,” says Paul. Volunteers from all over the world have spent up to eight weeks on the project, which ends for this year on 28 August. Once this first section is completed, mappers will make a guide and upload a GPS track ready for use in the autumn. “The plan is to finish the 200km section, have a guide, get it out there and get people hiking it,” says Paul.
The TCT will open up largely unexplored areas, giving access to historic sites and protected areas, such as Ushguli, the highest permanently inhabited village in Europe. It will also increase economic opportunities for local communities and link around two dozen national parks.
Paul started hiking here when he came to Georgia from the US 11 years ago as a Peace Corps volunteer. “It’s incredibly beautiful,” he says. “The national parks are incredible but can be inaccessible. For the incredible biodiversity of Georgia to be preserved, people need to appreciate these areas. It’s a tiny country but it’s so diverse. Being able to walk for a few weeks and see these different landscapes and cultures is amazing.”
The next step is to raise more cash from crowdfunding, corporate sponsorship and grants, to have trail-building programmes in multiple locations, including Armenia, where another team has already started scouting the north-south route. Based on other trails worldwide, costs are estimated at $1,000-1,500 per kilometre, a total of $3-5m.
Paul says that although the manual work is “intense”, volunteers get to see little-visited areas of Georgia. “It’s a great way to experience a fascinating part of the world and spend time in beautiful landscapes, doing and learning something new.”