Yesterday afternoon, in the leafy surrounds of Yerevan Botanical Gardens, the Armenian State Tourism Committee and HIKEArmenia announced their intention to create a new national hiking trail across Armenia.
In attendance were government officials, tourism development representatives, long-time members of the hiking community… and the small crew of trail enthusiasts who’d been working behind the scenes to bring the project to this point and to reach the level of confidence expressed at the ceremony, myself included.
This new, roughly 1,000km-long proposed trail doesn’t yet have a name. The route is very much a work-in-progress, and it probably won’t be ready to follow for a while.
But I’ve spent the last couple of years helping HIKEArmenia articulate the fundamental concept for the trail, develop the overall route plan for the country, and lay out in detail the first stages of the trail for construction.
If you know anything about my background, you’ll know that I’ve also spent the last eight years designing, cultivating and documenting the Armenian national section of the Transcaucasian Trail. And you may well be wondering why Armenia needs another border-to-border hiking route, and what’s going to make this one sufficiently different to justify spinning it off as a separately-branded trail.
So while many of the finer details are yet to be confirmed, I want to give you some back-story for how this new national trail came to be, why I believed Armenia did in fact deserve another long trekking route beside that of the TCT, and what the future of this new trail project might look like.
For context, let’s rewind to the summer of 2015, when the idea for the Transcaucasian Trail first popped into my foolish little head.
When that lightbulb moment happened, what I was actually trying to do was fulfil a long-held dream to hike the length of Armenia.
Continuing into Georgia and beyond was a natural extension of the idea – but it was an extension nonetheless.
In 2016 I received the Land Rover Bursary from the Royal Geographical Society to begin exploring the trails of the Caucasus in detail. Early on in this expedition, I met people in Georgia working on a similar idea who would go on to found the US-based Transcaucasian Trail Association. So I decided to refocus my efforts on Armenia, where no such initiative existed, and where the need for a serious investment of time was clearer.
During this high-profile expedition, I was briefly convinced (incidentally by someone who would later attempt to sabotage both the project and my reputation) to rename the project the “Trans-Armenian Trail”. I even appeared on national television wearing a hastily-printed T-shirt, thinking the patriotic-sounding name would garner more support from the local hiking community and the country’s diaspora.
It didn’t – quite the opposite, in fact (which is a story for another time). So I rapidly mothballed the idea in favour of the borderless inclusivity of the TCT vision.
Yet a seed had been quietly sown.
The TCT route across Armenia evolved in leaps and bounds, finally being launched in late 2021 after Meagan and I completed the first successful thru-hike of the final route.
Achieving this milestone was possible in large part because of how many local trail-related projects I’d managed to tie it in with.
(In fact, despite never directly receiving a single Euro from them, I calculated that the trail’s biggest indirect donor in Armenia was in fact the European Union!)
Yet throughout this time, various conversations were had within our little community of trailblazers about if and how the Armenia section of the TCT might be somehow sub-branded at the national level, and thereby constitute an official “national trail” for the country.
This was a revival of the logic behind the failed 2016 rebrand – building a bandwagon the nation could perhaps be more easily convinced to jump on than the TCT bandwagon Armenia’s arch-nemesis Azerbaijan was also riding (though we’ve since confounded that assumption).
With a growing network of trails on the map, and a vastly increased awareness of trail culture since the ill-fated Trans-Armenian Trail idea was floated, the conclusion of these conversations was always that a version of this idea was a good one – but some aspect of it wasn’t quite clicking, and so the talk never translated into action. Anyway, I still had the TCT across Armenia to finish, which as you might imagine was taking up quite a lot of my time.
Weirdly, it took the 2020 Armenia–Azerbaijan war over the unrecognised breakaway territory of Nagorno-Karabagh to help the final piece of the puzzle fall into place.
Because the first long-distance trail across the Caucasus was in fact the Janapar Trail, initiated in 2012 and crossing an area that was at the time under the administration of the self-declared Nagorno-Karabakh Republic.
That 44-day war resulted in much of the territory crossed by the Janapar Trail being returned to Azerbaijan as part of the ceasefire agreement, and the trail itself vastly truncated and in any case made inaccessible to hikers.
This suddenly meant that the Armenians had a trail brand without a route – and a potential future trail without a name.
Could we take the Janapar Trail’s principles and cross them with the concept of national trail across Armenia to create a hybrid of both, I wondered?
It was just days after the ceasefire that I mentioned the idea to Ardag while hiking a loop of Lake Parz in Dilijan National Park. Ardag was (and still is) the executive director of HIKEArmenia, a foundation set up in parallel to the first TCT trailbuilding project in Armenia back in 2017 and one of our earliest funders. Ardag had been one of our trail crew volunteers and was subsequently hired to head up the newly-incorporated HIKEArmenia organisation, with the goal of (as its founder once put it to me) ‘making Armenia a place I’m not embarrassed to take my friends hiking’.
HIKEArmenia had been one of the TCT’s closest collaborators ever since, so I knew he “got” the idea of the national trail, and I believed his was by far the best outfit in the country to make it happen.
As our conversation evolved, the final piece of the puzzle clicked into place.
Because the appeal of the Janapar Trail had been that it was a so-called “village-to-village” trail, with services and accommodation available at the end of every stage. In other words, it was envisaged as a trail that could be tackled by a more casual walker than your archetypal TCT thru-hiker, whose number will always be relatively small.
A hiker on a village-to-village route could carry a smaller pack for shorter daily distances and be fed and watered on a nightly basis by local guesthouse owners, hopefully while being delighted by the innate hospitality of the locals and the wealth of cultural heritage on a route closer to civilisation – a type of long-distance walking experience that would appeal to far more people than a gnarly self-supported wilderness schlep.
In turn, each village would have a new potential source of revenue added to its usually meagre list of occupations (small-scale agriculture is still the biggest source of employment in Armenia).
The driving of rural economic development is a hot topic in the development industry in Armenia and beyond, and exploiting such opportunities was in fact baked into HIKEArmenia’s bylaws. And as soon as I described the concept in these terms, Ardag came back by saying it was probably the most intelligent thing he’d heard me say on the subject of the national trail idea.
(The guy doesn’t dish out compliments easily, so I was happy to take this one.)
Other aspects of the village-to-village principle naturally made the pitch much stronger.
If it were to be a village-to-village national trail, the route would have to change so that it did indeed go from village to village. Implementing this would extract the trail from the murky waters in which the TCT across Armenia and the national trail were actually the same route, with all the consequent potential for confusion over roles, responsibilities and ownership it would entail. Large portions of the TCT crossed mountainous backcountry regions like the Gegham Mountains (incidentally most thru-hikers’ favourite section) and deliberately avoided villages. Spinning off the new trail as a physically distinct route – and one that would appeal to a different subset of the hiking community – would allow HIKEArmenia to call the shots, with sections of route overlap with the TCT (around 50% of the planned distance) a much cleaner matter of coordination.
It would also set a precedent for the idea of a long-distance trail network in the country. My personal vision has long been that these and other border-to-border routes intertwine with a greater number of regional long-distance trails (such as the already-existing Syunik Legends Trail), each which stands on its own two feet and attracts trail users on its own merits.
While this might sound elementary to many readers, it’s important to remember that less than a decade ago practically nobody in Armenia knew what a hiking trail was, let alone that a formal trail network might one day spread to every corner of the country.
That short hike in November 2020 set the ball rolling. HIKEArmenia committed to doing whatever it would take to make it as good as it could be.
And for my part, I began the methodical process of mapping out what such a trail might look like on the ground – a rerun of the TCT trail design process, but significantly refined, and with a much clearer goal in mind.
We wanted to knit together the existing trail network as much as possible – a network we had already spent years designing and building on a region-by-region basis.
So I started by taking an inventory of all the trails that had been developed in the years since our collective work had begun. This was the easy part, for both Ardag and I had been meticulously building databases of who had done what, where, and when.
I filtered these trails down by the criteria of connecting villages that were less than a day’s walking apart. I was pleased to find that there were only a couple of points along the route where this would be an obstacle: much of modern-day Armenia’s human geography was tailored exceptionally well to the idea of a village-to-village trail.
The result? A somewhat fragmented but relatively clear backbone for a new national village-to-village trail across Armenia.
The bulk of the work involved in getting this skeleton fleshed out would be building new trails to close the many gaps in the route, bringing substandard stages up to scratch, and launching a major branding and marketing effort in parallel.
I had a strong sense of our resident trailbuilding crew’s work capacity, and from leading the TCT effort a lot of experience seeing how long it would take to bring the route together. So I fended off ambitious calls for it to be done in a year, and instead suggested that 2022 be dedicated to the research and development of the route in a much greater level of detail. This, I argued, would eliminate many of the unknowns and provide us with a much clearer roadmap to launch.
As well as a database of developed trails and completed projects, I’d also been meticulously keeping records of all the routes I’d surveyed since 2016’s Land Rover-sponsored expedition – raw GPS recordings, notes and imagery representing thousands of kilometres of hiking – that had not been turned into hiking trails. Suddenly this became a goldmine for plugging some of the gaps into the route: I was able reach into this archive and pull out concepts for trails that had never been developed but suddenly fitted into this new nation-sized jigsaw puzzle.
Yet even after that, some gaps still remained – it seemed there were corners of this country I still had not explored.
Working around trips to the UK for the treatment of a herniated cervical disc, I set out once again in a Land Rover – this time a 1996-vintage Defender 300Tdi I’d been restoring – to walk the sections of the trail that would need to be built from scratch.
These delicious forays took me to places both new and familiar with a renewed sense of purpose, uncovering an even more extensive network of long-forgotten shepherd’s paths, droving roads and monastery supply routes than I’d previously realised existed. After incorporating the findings into my evolving “master plan” for the new national trail and closing the final gap in the line across the map, I finally – over two years after the conversation that had sparked it – delivered to HIKEArmenia the very first draft of the concept route for the new trail, a four-year timeline for its construction, and an estimated budget for doing so.
This was, in essence, the same process I’d developed while creating the TCT over the previous seven years, refined and condensed into a single summer of exploration and mapping – which got me wondering if that process might be applied elsewhere in the world…
We’re now well into the 2023 trailbuilding season and things are moving swiftly.
Meanwhile, I’ve taken the unusual step of recruiting a couple of apprentices. For while I’m wholeheartedly in support of this new trail and its founding principles (how could I not be?), I’ve never seen it as a source of employment or income or been motivated by that prospect.
My goal right now is to pass on my knowledge and experience to a new team who are as enthusiastic as I’ve been about creating trail experiences in Armenia, to lend a helping hand where I’m needed, and one day to walk the finished trail with some small sense of pride in having been there at ground zero.
In the meantime, while yesterday’s event marked the transition from long and laborious development process to neatly-encapsulated announcement, the real hard work remains to be done. And there will no doubt be more to say about the new trail as it takes shape.
But even if it doesn’t come from me, this new trail’s potential as a national asset for Armenia – not to mention a world-class long-distance hike – means you certainly haven’t heard the last of it.