Advice to future TCTers

Lesser Caucasus

 
 

Struggling to find information on hiking in Armenia and Georgia on the Transcaucasian Trail? I've written this to try and answer all the questions I had before setting foot on the trail but couldn't find a clear answer to online. If there's something not included on this page that you want to know, just ask, and I'll do my best to answer it or put you in touch with someone who can. The intention is that most, if not all, of the information on this page be of use to anyone wanting to hike in Armenia and Southern Georgia. This will not provide you with information relevant to visiting the Greater Caucasus mountains in northern Georgia and Azerbaijan. If you're here looking for .GPX files of the entire route, you won't find it. As the trail is in development full GPS files are not being shared online to avoid them being treated as trusted trail routes. You can email me or Tom at the TCT Association (TCTA) for more information regarding GPS files or anything else. So here it goes!

About the TCT

The ultimate aim for the TCT project is to have a 3000km long-distance hiking trail spanning the length of the Greater and Lesser Caucasus mountains through Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan. The current approach of the TCTA is to establish seperate trails spanning the two ranges and connect them in future years. At the time of writing (02/18), a recorded thru-hike of the Greater Caucasus route is yet to be attempted; this is for several reasons but is principally due to the lack of scouted routes for many of the sections. I completed the first thru-hike of the 1500km TCT south-north along the Lesser Caucasus in May-July 2017. The following information will be tailored to trekking in the Lesser Caucasus mountains.

My experience

I first came across the TCT project in September 2016 on a Wizz Air flight from London to Skopje, Macedonia. The title on the front cover of the in-flight magazine was 'Walking Georgia'; I flicked through the article which introduced me to a part of the world I previously literally knew nothing about! Coincidentally, I had been wanting to attempt a long-distance thru-hike the following summer but hadn't yet settled on a trail. Little did I know that just 9 months later I'd be at the Armenia-Iran border with two months of hiking through some of most spectacular scenery you can imagine but also some of the sketchiest, overgrown, muddy trails I've ever experienced.

The TCTA - in particular, Tom Allen, Vahagn Vardumyan, Alessandro Mambelli, Paul Stephens and Sophie Bagauri - were helpful with providing route information and help with translation. I was able to keep an extra bag at the TCT HQ in Dilijan filled with Cliff Bars, gear replacements and more Cliff bars. They were quite happy to sit down with me and cover the basic information of what to expect along the route and provide their current GPS route data.

Do I recommend thru-hiking the TCT? Absolutely! Some warnings. As a physical purpose-built hiking trail, the TCT does not yet exist in anything close to its entirety - around 100kms is now 'open' in Dilijan National Park, Armenia. In the coming summers that section will likely become rather busy with local hikers and tourists. Over the four weeks it took me to walk the length of Armenia, I saw one Dutch couple hiking near Tatev monastery (one of the tourist stops). Strangely, an hour earlier a cyclist and I simultaneously caught sight of each other on opposite sides of the valley and did that wait, there's another human here wave. That's about it for 'trail traffic'. The TCT being in very early development means that the whole trail community often synonomous with other long-distance trails just isn't there. Instead, I found community among shepherds in the mountains who over the summer months mostly live hand to mouth off their herd. Being one of the few foreigners to hike through many of the areas meant that I had the chance to experience the culture as it is before widespread effects of tourism take place. I was invited into countless homes, fed, offered shelter and treated as what felt like family. These experiences are my most treasured memories from my time on the TCT.

For a trail of only 1500 kilometres, the range of ecosystems you pass through is staggering. In Armenia the route features dense, wild forests, gorges of immense scale, and volcanic fields before extending into Georgia for almost 300 kilometres of continous ridgeline to the Black Sea. It's a beautiful route which provides route-finding challenges in abundance, the chance to visit ancient caravanserais, and drink jars of homemade blueberry jam. There is still lots of potential for further route scouting and route alternatives through the same areas I passed.

That eight weeks of hiking was easily the greatest experience of my life, not just my favourite hiking experience. Now that I've hopefully convinced you to go try it for yourself, here's some real advice and resources to help you get started.

 (Red) TCT south-north route, Lesser Caucasus range. (Orange) TCT East-West route, Greater Caucasus range. This image is pulled from www.transcaucasiantrail.com and is for illustrative purposes only; the current route diverges quite drastically in Northern Armenia.

(Red) TCT south-north route, Lesser Caucasus range. (Orange) TCT East-West route, Greater Caucasus range. This image is pulled from www.transcaucasiantrail.com and is for illustrative purposes only; the current route diverges quite drastically in Northern Armenia.

Cheat sheet

  • ~1500 kilometres
  • Start: Meghri, Syunik Province, Armenia
  • End: Batumi, Adjara Province, Georgia
  • Resupply locations:  Kapan (small shops and fruit/veg stalls - hard to find things other than the basics), Sisian (grocery stores), Areni (grocery stores), Dilijan (supermarket), Alaverdi (grocery stores), Dmanisi (grocery stores), Bakuriani (large supermarkets), Borjomi (large supermarkets).
  • Wildlife: 1 brown bear, 1 jackal, countless scary sheepdogs, 6 snakes (5 of the deadly variety), eagles, falcons and lots of other amazing birds that I can't identify.
  • Challenges: Bad weather (rain, lightning, snow patches), high temperatures (high 30's in celsius), lots of overgrowth, mud, wet feet most days, route finding, river crossings, language barrier.
  • Highlights: Remoteness, volcanic domes of the Geghama mountains, astonishing canyons, lush meadows, Oghi (homemade Armenian vodka) and homemade jam.

General stuff...

If you're just starting to look at hiking in the Caucasus here are some books and websites to get you started.

Websites:

  • Transcaucasian Expedition - TCT route scouting expedition by Tom Allen, Vahagn Vardumyan, and Alessandro Mambelli in summer 2016.
  • TCT membership - help fund some trailbuilding and get some detailed trail info for the newly built sections in return.
  • Caucasus Trekking - Jozef has shared an incredible amount of information on his website however note that most of this is specific to northern Georgia. There are a few pieces of information on the province of Adjara in South-West Georgia but nothing relating to Armenia.

Guidebooks:

Visas

Armenia

British and EU passport holders can stay up to 90 days without a visa - British Foreign Travel Advice.

Georgia

British nationals can visit for up to a year visa-free  - British Foreign Travel Advice.

Flights

The cheapest way to get to the Caucasus from the UK is with Wizz Air from Luton to Kutaisi, Georgia. It's typically <£200 for a return flight with just hand luggage. Even if you're planning to spend most of your time in Armenia or Azerbaijan, it'll likely still be cheaper to go with the Wizz Air flight and then find a Marshrutka to get to your destination, than the extra cost to fly to Yerevan. You also don't have to put up with a 6 hour layover in Moscow.

Local contact details

Armenian police: 102

Armenian emergency service number: 911

Georgian emergency services: 112

There are no mountain rescue teams available, however, a team in Armenia is being assembled and trained at the moment.

NOTE THAT THE INFORMATION BELOW IS ONLY RELEVANT TO BRITISH NATIONALS.

Armenia (extracted from British Embassy Yerevan)

"If you’re in Armenia and you need urgent help (for example, you’ve been attacked, arrested or someone has died), call 010 264301 or +374 10 264301 from a UK registered number. If you’re in the UK and worried about a British national in Armenia, call 020 7008 1500."

Georgia (extracted from British Embassy Tbilisi)

"If you’re in Georgia and you need urgent help (for example, you’ve been attacked, arrested or someone has died), call +995 (32) 227 47 47. If you’re in the UK and worried about a British national in Georgia, call 020 7008 1500."

Transport

Oh the wonders of transport in the Caucasus! If there's somewhere you want to visit in the Caucasus you can bet that there's a Marshrutka that will take you there. Marshrutkas are essentially just shared taxis, but instead of taxis they're cramped minibuses. They're heavily used by locals so they're by far the most affordable form of transport. However, 10 hours on a cramped Marshrutka from Mestia to Tbilisi when it's 38°C outside will forever scar your soul.

Marshrutkas depart as early as 7am from Yerevan to Meghri (TCT start point) from the Intertown bus station located on the premises of the Yerevan Railway station.

Taxi drivers will inevitably attempt to rip you off. I suggest calculating the distance to your destination and using the rate factor below estimate the typical price. Before you get into the taxi clearly decide on the price with the driver. GG taxi is an UBER-like alternative that avoids the possibility of being ripped off but can only be found in Yerevan and the main towns.

Armenia: Typical rate is 100AMD/km. Expect to pay a little more if you're travelling around, to or from Yerevan. Taxi drivers will hike up their prices for tourists so don't be afraid to haggle!

Georgia: Typically 1GEL/km.

Hitchhiking in the Caucasus is relatively easy - I have some friends who pretty much exclusively get around by hitchhiking.

Maps and Apps

I used a combination of Google Earth imagery, OSM data and old Soviet maps to plan my route through unscouted sections of the trail. Prior to September 2017 there were no trekking maps that covered any area in the Lesser Caucasus. Cartisan are working hard to change this and there is now a 1:25k map of Dilijan NP covering the newly built sections of trail. At the moment, the maps are only available in Armenia but will hopefully be online soon. To see the progress they've made over the past few years click here. The development of these maps are thanks to the numerous contributors to OpenStreetMap by collecting data using the OSM Tracker app and uploading it to the platform for free universal access. I encourage you to contribute to the project during your time in the Caucasus.

For the rest of the trail (and entire Caucasus for that matter) you're stuck with Soviet maps. Obviously trails have come and gone since the 70s when these maps were produced so approach with some caution. Contours and terrain do of course still generally remain accurate.

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It would have been too expensive to print out all the maps needed to cover the trail so I just relied on a few different GPS tracking apps on my phone and a Garmin InReach device which I planned to carry for emergency purposes anyway. Note that InReach device emerngency services does not act as quickly as it does in other countries due to the lack of a dedicated Mountain Rescue team.

OSMAnd+. The best mobile map app.

Viewranger. Routes for the newly built TCT sections in Dilijan NP can be found on Viewranger.

Gaia. I haven't personally used Gaia but I hear from iOS users that it's pretty good.

Soviet Military Maps Pro. 1:100-200k geolocated Soviet maps.

Hike Armenia  has a few trails listed across the country with .GPX files freely available, contact details of local guides, and suggested accomodation.

You can purchase printed base topographical maps of Georgia from the Geoland store in Tbilisi. My understanding is that these are the same Soviet datasets just formatted differently. They also sell a handful of 1:50k trekking maps for the popular areas in northern Georgia but these can be purchased online.

Trail information

Very steep dirtroads in forested areas are typically illegal logging roads - if they've been used recently you can see slide marks of the trees that have been dragged along the ground. Be aware of the obvious risk of tree fall but also of being caught taking pictures.

More to come...

Borders

Republic of Artsakh (Armenian-Azeri disputed territory)

Artsakh or Nagarno-Karabakh is disputed territory between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Official borders place the region in Azerbaijan but in reality it is governed by Armenia. The countries are in a state of war across large extents of their shared border however are currently in a ceasefire. I suggest checking maps of factual borders with local Armenians if you intend to travel near the disputed areas.

Armenia-Iran

The TCT route begins in Meghri and follows the Armenia-Iran border eastwards to the village of Nrnadzor. I was stopped several times by confused Armenian and Russian soldiers wondering why I was walking alone. They have to go through a checking process by calling their superiors, this takes time and feels uncomfortable but the reality is that I experienced no agression.

Armenia-Georgia

There are three border crossings. I walked through the Gogavan-Guguti crossing which is isolated and doesn't see much traffic. The crossing passed without incident. On my return to Armenia I used the Bagratashen crossing on a Marshrutka from Tbilisi to Dilijan; this crossing is a lot busier but again I had no trouble crossing.

Permits

For the most up to date .KML boundary files of protected area boundaries see here for Armenia and here for Georgia.

Shikahogh State Reserve/Arevik National Park, Syunik Province, Armenia

The TCT route follows the ridgeline marking the border between Shikahogh State Reserve and Arevik National Park. Access is via the village of Nrnadzor. National Park guards and national border guards will likely restrict you from entering the park as typically you are not allowed to pass through without a ranger. The TCT team were able to organise permission for me to cross solo, but was required to have a phone interview with a government official asking about my work place, purpose of visit, nationality, public social media websites etc. I experienced no hostility from the border guards, they were just hesitant about letting me pass alone.

Khosrov State Reserve, Ararat Province, Armenia

Khosrov State Reserve has the highest protection status available. The TCT route does not directly pass through it but looks down into the valley from the mountainous ridges of the Geghama range. A permit costs 10-15000AMD and you must be accompanied by a ranger. Recommended accomodation can be found on their website.

http://khosrovreserve.am/ecotourism/rules-restrictions/

Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park, Georgia

The entry permit is free. Officially, you're not allowed to wander off the official trails meaning you're theoretically unable to continue along the TCT route on the main ridgeline. Realistically, if you follow the official trails until you need to continue along the the ridgeline you shouldn't have a problem as there were no patrolling rangers when I was there. Once you reach the ridgeline you're technically following the border of the NP anyway.

http://www.borjomi-kharagauli-np.ge

Wildlife strategy

The Lesser Caucasus is home to Bezoar goats, Armenian Mouflons, brown bears, wolves, foxes, jackals, various snakes (from which 4 are venomous in Armenia), Caucasian Lynx and even the odd Caucasian Leopard in the very southern part of Armenia. The main concentration of wildlife is in Khosrov State Reserve (IUCN Cat. 1A protected and one of the oldest protected areas in the world) near the Geghama mountains or down south in the province of Syunik. Locals often refer to the threat of snakes; the best advice is to use your walking poles to tap the ground in front of you as you walk through long grass. In terms of deadliness, generally the venomous snakes are down south in Vayots Dzor and Syunik (but also can be found in Garni gorge) - there's plenty information online on this so I won't go into much more detail. I will however reiterate that anti-venom is not always available in regional medical units so the best plan is avoidance by using your walking poles to tap the ground in front of you when walking through long grass.

Undoubtedly, the largest risk are sheep dogs due to the sheer number you'll cross paths with. They're territorial animals who are there to protect their herd. The barking is normally to alert the shepherd and the other dogs (yes, there's usually more than one!) of your presence; the best thing to do is wait until the shepherd sees you and starts walking towards you or invites you to approach. Shout "Barev!" (Armenian for hello) or “gamarjobat!” (Georgian for hello) to draw attention to yourself. It's better for the dogs and shepherd to know you're there before you're close to the herd.

After shaking hands with the shepherd and spending time together, the dogs normally relax and may even show some friendliness towards you or they may just continue to bark occasionally. However, I did have some quite close calls, one of which I was almost bittten by a dog that was definitely sick and would not listen to the shepherd. Other times when I passed actual temporary shepherd settlements the dogs would always run towards me and posture agressively as the shepherd would follow to shout or throw stones to call them off.

If you are alone with the dogs in the mountains, stand your ground and let the herd pass. If they approach aggressively, pick up some stones and use your walking poles to keep them at a distance. Note that barking isn't necessarily a sign of aggression. A sign of aggression is if they're facing you, baring their teeth and growling.

I used Loksaks to contain my food and had no problems with animals stealing my food.

Vegetation

 Giant Hogweed

Giant Hogweed

The Lesser Caucasu is known as one of the most important flora biodeiversity hotspots on the planet. Hogweed is the most common threat you'll come across when hiking in the Caucasus. Typically around 2 metres tall or at shoulder height, but can grow up to 5 metres (although I've never seen it that tall).

Brushing against the plant (or winds) can result in sap deposits settling on your skin. The sap reacts under direct sunlight and causes severe burns. I never hiked in shorts and would cover my arms when I knew there'd be a lot of bushwhacking. If you pass through fields of hogweed make sure you wash your exposed skin with water as soon as possible.

Most trails are overgrown so there's the regular inconvenience of nettle.

 

Weather

The elevation of the route ranges from 400-3500m, with most of the trail laying above 1500m. The Geghama mountains, being the highest elevation and main range in Armenia are susceptible to rapid changes in weather. I spent four nights up there and each day it would be perfectly blue skies and warm but once it hit 6pm the clouds came in and by 8pm there'd be an electrical storm.

Remember that because there is a lack of purpose-built hiking trails the ground you'll be walking on is more susceptible to the weather - trails are easily flooded - so plan accordingly.

I began in mid-May - there were still large snow fields in the Geghama range in early June. I'd suggest delaying the start to the end of May. Note that the low elevation at the start of the trail in Meghri means the temperatures are already high in mid-May - it was 36°C on day one for me.

Water

Generally there's an abundance of water supplies in Armenia and Georgia. The main concern is water contamination due to livestock as much of the land you pass through is used as grazing land by shepherds in the summer months. Make sure you carry a water filter - I used a Sawyer Squeeze and have no complaints.

Be aware that the Borjomi National Park ranger shelters do not have water sources, only the tourist shelters do. When you continue along the ridgeline towards Batumi water sources are not found as frequently on your route requiring occasional diversions.

I've added all the water sources I passed on my hike to OpenStreetMap. Please do contribute to the platform if you plan on carrying a smartphone with you.

Resupplies

The main resupply points are follows:

  • Kapan (small shops and fruit/veg stalls - hard to find things other than the basics)
  • Sisian (grocery stores)
  • Areni (grocery stores)
  • Dilijan (supermarket)
  • Alaverdi (grocery stores)
  • Dmanisi (grocery stores)
  • Bakuriani (large supermarkets)
  • Borjomi (large supermarkets).

Note that the list above simply lists the main towns with proper shops/supermarkets - the reality is you're able to buy the basics of fresh bread, lavash, cheese, honey, jam etc. from most villages you pass through. Most permanently inhabited villages will also have a small shop stocking food basics and the typical junk food (chocolate bars, biscuits etc.). The shop may not be open but if you ask someone nearby they'll happily call over the shopkeeper to open up for you.

Each time I was invited in by shepherds they'd offer dinner, breakfast the following morning and a package (freshly baked bread, lots of really salty cheese, yoghurt, cucumbers, tomatoes) of food to take me with me. It's my opinion that hikers shouldn't rely on the shepherds and present themselves as a burden - but there's nothing wrong with accepting food, shelter and hospitality if it is offered.

Cultural considerations

Across the Caucasus, food and alcohol is used to communicate friendliness - the hospitality is like nothing I've ever experienced! However, saying that there's only so much food and vodka I can consume in one sitting. If you don't want any more food or your glass to be refilled- don't finish/empty it!

When visiting monasteries you're normally required to wear trousers and women must wear headcoverings.

A range of religions are represented across the region so consider your behaviour in public.

Local cuisine

Armenia

Dolma - meat and rice stuffing wrapped in grape vine leaves or used to fill courgettes, aubergines, tomatoes, and peppers.

Khorovats - Essentially an Armenian barbeque usually pork, lamb or chicken.

Matsun - a fermented dairy product that that is essentially thick sour yoghurt, really good stuff!

Zhingyalov hats - flatbread stuffed with herbs and green vegetables.

Lavash - traditional thing Armenian flatbread.

Oghi/Aragh - garden fruit moonshine, commonly mulberry and apricot.

Georgia

Khachapuri - cheese filled bread. One of the greatest human creations.

Khinkali - minced meat Georgian dumplings. Another fantastic creation.

Matsoni - a fermented dairy product that that is essentially thick sour yoghurt, really good stuff!

Lobio - a thick kidney bean soup.

Chacha - homemade grape vodka

Phone/data packages

Armenia

Vivacell-MTS have the widest coverage. Even in the most remote sections of the route I was rarely without 4G service. On arrival in Yerevan, visit one of their stores and purchase a Viva 9500 prepaid SIM for 9500AMD (~£14) which gives you 20GB of mobile data. If you somehow use that all up you can purchase top-up cards at major towns like Kapan, Sisian, Areni, Yeghegnadzor, Yelpin, Sevan, Diiljan, Alaverdi.

Georgia

Magti provides the best service when in the mountains. There are the occasional blanks spots in Borjomi National Park. 30GEL (~£9) gets you 15GB of mobile data. However, I was unable to find a micro or nanosim card until I reached Borjomi i.e. almost half way along the Georgian section of the route. You can visit the Magti store there to purchase a nanosim. I was able to find a standard SIM card that fits into old Nokia-brick-like phones in the Dmanisi market. There were several stalls that had SIM cards but asked for my passport first which I of course declined until I was able to find a stall that would just sell the SIM card. Note that between Borjomi and Batumi you will have no way of topping up your credit.

    Gear thoughts

    The key difference between the TCT and other well-known long-distance routes is the lack of purpose-built hiking trails; the route currently uses a network of existing animal trails, ancient trails, disused 4x4 tracks, illegal logging roads etc. meaning that the trail is often rough on your gear. Many sections of the trail are very overgrown, you'll often find yourself walking through shoulder high brush or bushwhacking through forests. Make sure you have a long-sleeve shirt that won't tear easily. I'd normally wear a t-shirt and then put on my light windproof (rather than putting a full on waterproof that you'd melt in) for sections with lots of brush. Personally I didn't hike in shorts regardless of the temperature.

    Choosing the right footwear is pretty important as the trail conditions are tough on your feet. I used a pair of La Sportiva Core High GTX boots made from lightweight mesh. They weighed only 830g (pair) and were surprisingly durable for mesh boots and performed considerably better than I expected for a pair of lightweight boots. As with general thru-hiking footwear advice; I would suggest against waterproof footwear, they'll get wet anyway so it's better to have something that will dry quickly.

    A water filter is needed. I use a Sawyer Squeeze which I've never had a problem with and is easy to clean even when out on the trail.

    Bring a solar panel and battery pack if you're someone who likes to stay connected.

    Gas cannisters can be purchased in Yerevan from Camp.am. They sell the Kovea brand which fit any normal portable gas stove. Carry enough to get you to Dilijan where you can pre-stash extra cannisters at the TCT HQ.

    I carried a Garmin InReach device for navigation and emergency purposes. Note that InReach device emerngency services does not function in the same way/act as quickly as it does in other countries due to the lack of a dedicated Mountain Rescue team.

    Money

    ATMs accepting Visa can be found in Kapan, Sisian, Sevan, Yeghegnadzor (although it's quite a diversion from the trail route) Dilijan, Alaverdi, Bakuriani, and Borjomi.

    I always carried some local currency in case of an emergency. It's a good idea to carry some emergency dollars or euros in case you lose your debit card; both currencies can be changed easily in any of the places mentioned above.

    Camping

    Wild camping is legal in Armenia and Georgia. Nowhere along the route of the TCT are you required to pay. You should be aware that camping in Khosrov State Reserve is not permitted due to it being a strictly managed reserve of IUCN Cat. 1A protection. As for designated campsites...

    Armenia

    I'm aware of only two official campsites in the country which provide basic amenities;

    • ARK Armenia ecocamp in Kapan for 3000AMD/night. You can either camp or use their bunks for a bit extra. It's located on the edge of town quite a way from the centre where all the shops are located.
    • TCT Dilijan HQ. Great location and you can pay extra to get in on the incredible feasts that are cooked up.
    • Haghartsin Monastery, Dilijan has a a secluded spot for hikers to camp with a water source located nearby. (Make sure you buy some of their homemade blueberry jam - best jam ever!) 

    Georgia

    • Camping is restricted in Borjomi-Kharagauli NP but you are able to camp at designated camp sites for a small fee which are located along the official trail. You can purchase a map from the NP office in Borjomi.
    • Khino monastery has a designated campsite which is free. Very basic - water source and shelter.

    Favourite section

    The Geghama mountains are the most remote section of the Lesser Caucasus, and with the chain of extinct volcanic domes reaching up to  3597m are the high point of the range. I spent each night in the company of families living in those mountains, watching them make homemade cheese and subsequently encourage me to eat vast quantities. The challenges of the altitude, snow and big ascents complemented by the remoteness made for some spectacular hiking.

    However, my favourite day was traversing the ridgeline south of Alaverdi that descends into the town. It's not a technical ridge, but the reveal of the Alaverdi gorge was the best view of the entire thru-hike. The ridge has the perfect amount of ascent and descent to keep you interested, and the existing trail crosses the ridge multiple times giving you new views to appreciate.

    Least favourite section

    The Armenia-Georgia border crossing (Gogavan-Guguti) to Dmanisi was very unpleasant. The route had not been previously scouted and there was little information to work with meaning that I spent a day road walking over 30 kilometres. Although there were occasional tracks that veered off into the woods, I was uneasy about wandering off the beaten trail so close to the border. I think the only positive side here was that at least it was an unpaved road.