An updated version of this article is published on Explorers Connect: https://www.explorersconnect.com/inspire-stories/2017/10/4/hiking-the-transcaucasian-trail
I remember sitting at my desk, trawling through the ultra-hiking blogs and coming across this one article with the rather somber line that a successful 'thru-hike is about managing discomforts'. A line like that completely comprehends the romanticised notion of a thru-hike; being in solitude yet in good company amongst nature for months on end. That quote faded from memory until 5 weeks ago when on May 15th I began the first attempt at thru-hiking the proposed Transcaucasian Trail (TCT) of Armenia and Georgia. It's been rattling around my head ever since.
Day 1 felt like trial by fire, at 5am I headed south from Meghri towards the border with Iran. The sun hadn't risen yet and within ten minutes I had 6 unpleasantly large dogs at my back, the sound of my walking poles clapping together as I tried to scare them was the only thing keeping them at an acceptable distance as they tried to out bark each other as groups of dogs often do. But that's fine. Uncomfortable for sure, but expected. I can deal with that.
I reached the border and followed the road East towards Nrnadzor. From 7am until 2pm I was stopped four times by soldiers along the border. The first were three Armenians working hard at getting stoned in an Russian truck hidden in a disused tunnel by the side of the road. After trying to talk my way through with the aid of hand signals to no avail, Vahagn kindly explained the situation over the phone. Quite amused by my lofty plans they offered me a ride and some Pepsi. Later on, I was stopped by more Armenian and Russian soldiers for passport checks and questioning. Uncomfortable, but manageable.
By late afternoon I had completed the ascent onto the ridge between Arevik NP and Shikahogh State Reserve. The clag started to roll in and the thunderstorm began to bellow. Fortunately I was able to take shelter in some empty temporary shepherd structures. The husky from Nrnadzor that had decided to become my travelling companion (aptly named Transcaucanine by UBES) was freaking out and attempting to leap through the window into the building. Uncomfortable, but manageable.
The physical pain of consecutive 30km days under relentless heat and challenging terrain. Uncomfortable, but manageable. You get the picture.
The days rolled by and I began to acclimate to the changeable weather, trekking along jeep tracks through ankle deep mud, through thorn bushes and knee high flower fields, along exposed ridges and through narrow gorges. The significance of the discomforts of hunger, thirst and physical pain begin to fade, for that illusive experience of momentary bliss in the mountains is worth every hungry and footsore mile. The only way I can describe the euphoria you feel when you complete a section of genuine danger is as awe; instantaneously experiencing the same environment afresh, with the ecstasy of disbelief exploding through your nerve endings; the solitude of that experience makes it all the more special.
But solitude is a funny thing. I'm a quiet person. I've always considered myself to be comfortable in solitude. I find it easier to sit in silence rather than begin (or continue) a conversation. I enjoy walking alone in good or bad weather. The thought that social remoteness would become an issue didn't even cross my mind during the planning stages. Instead, I considered the environmental remoteness and the impact it would have on resupplies or on the delay/complete lack of emergency support.
The hospitality of the Armenian people has been like nothing I've ever experienced. No matter the time of day, no matter the location, the longest I've gone without being invited in for food, vodka, coffee and tea has been two days. They would then insist that I take some lavash, cheese, tomatoes and cucumbers for the journey. I'm incredibly grateful for those experiences. I enjoyed them. Yet in the latter weeks those experiences filled me with simultaneous love and melancholy; love for the hospitality and friendliness of these people, yet a pensive sadness for the restricted social interactions that comes with language barriers. A dispiriting thought, it had only been 5 weeks after all. That feeling of social remoteness is uncomfortable and barely manageable.
Arriving at the TCT Armenia HQ in Dilijan came at the perfect time. Being able to communicate again clearly felt refreshing, rejuvenating even. From the 'deep' conversations to the hilarious talking shit for the sake of talking shit conversations, they've been invaluable. It's amusing to think I wasn't going to take part in the two-week trailbuilding camp because I couldn't afford it (thank you to the Knowlson Trust for the grant) - in hindsight I'd have paid twice over for that experience. I have trouble believing that I'd have been able to continue for more than another couple of weeks at the most.
Despite this discomfort there's no way I would have rather spent the last 5 weeks. The moments of blissful solitude complemented by the people I've met from all over the world has made me feel at home in Armenia. A country foreign to each of us.
There's no real conclusion to this apart from a clearer grasp of the idea that even when you're on trail seeking some level of solitude, people are what sustain you. Sounds pretty obvious to me now. And of course whoever wrote that article was spot on - managing discomfort is at the heart of thru-hiking.
These are just my notes about solitude fresh off the trail.