Still looking for a summer hike? Why not walk along the Transcaucasian Trail (TCT), connecting hiking trails in Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. We spoke to Meagan Neal, the co-director of the Transcaucasian Trail Association (TCTA). She has been involved since 2018 — first as a volunteer, then as a trail crew leader in Georgia, and helps run the organization since the start of 2020.
E&M: Thank you for taking the time, Meagan. What exactly is your job as co-director?
Meagan Neal: I help run the TCTA, which supports and coordinates the development of the Transcaucasian Trail across the entire region. But we’re a very small team, so in practice, I do a little bit of everything from strategy development, to trail scouting, to communications, to fundraising, to financial management, to grant writing, to developing info guides for hikers, to program design.
Can you tell us more about the TCT and its purpose?
The TCT idea was launched in 2015 by my colleagues Paul Stephens in Georgia & Tom Allen in Armenia, who both separately had similar ideas to create a long-distance trail across the region. The goal was simple: to create a world-class trail that would expand access to the region’s spectacular mountains and cultural sites, and which would provide wide-ranging benefits to the region.
We all dreamed of being able to walk uninterrupted for thousands of kilometers across the most spectacular parts of the Caucasus. And we all care deeply about using tourism and outdoor recreation as a force that can benefit people and the environment, if done well.
The TCT network has now grown into three distinct organizations working in close partnership and projects in all three countries of the South Caucasus (Armenia, Georgia, & Azerbaijan). In both Armenia and Georgia, there are local NGOs who are implementing the vision on the ground. In Azerbaijan, we have a project manager who is developing routes and partnerships (but no formal organization at this time).
We all dreamed of being able to walk uninterrupted for thousands of kilometers across the most spectacular parts of the Caucasus.
E&M: What else does the TCT do beyond trail-building for passionate hikers?
The benefits of trails go beyond just the hikers who use them. By encouraging visitors to slow down and explore a region on foot, trails are a great way to foster low-impact, sustainable tourism, which creates opportunities for rural development in mountain areas. They help put lesser-known destinations on the map, which benefits both communities and protected areas. And they’re a perfect platform for environmental education, which is an integral part of our local trail building and conservation corps programs.
We also see creating an international trail in the Caucasus as a rare opportunity to build connections and highlight what’s shared, in a region where there’s so much focus on the things that divide.
Your plan is to establish a hiking route through the whole Southern Caucasus – linking Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia. How is this project coming along, and what do you have planned for the coming years?
It’s come a long way over the past 6 years! When the project started in 2015, there were plenty of ancient trails with incredible potential — there are lots of old tracks that have been used for centuries by local communities, shepherds and explorers to get from village to village in the mountains – but a lot of them were completely overgrown, washed out, or otherwise inaccessible or dangerous. There was little information available about the trails’ condition, accessibility, or difficulty. Tourism was beginning to develop, but visitors were still clustered in a small handful of areas.
Ultimately, the TCT will consist of two intersecting trail corridors, each roughly 1,500 km long. One corridor (known as the East-West route) will follow the Greater Caucasus Mountains, connecting the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. The other (known as the North-South route) will connect the Greater Caucasus Mountains with the Lesser Caucasus Mountains, from the glaciated peaks along the border with Russia to the River Arax at the border with Iran.
Now, at the start of 2022, we’ve developed well over a thousand kilometers of trail, with much more on the way. Several sections have been fully improved and developed; others are an earlier stage. In order to do that, we’ve developed several local programs to train volunteers in trail building and maintenance, resulting in a strong community of local trail crew members and environmental enthusiasts.
Over the past 6 years we’ve seen visible growth in local business along the trail. The pandemic put a dent in that, of course, but even as international tourism plummeted, the local hiking scene got stronger.
This year, you hiked the entire Armenian route of the TCT with two of your colleagues – how long did it take, and how was this experience for you?
It took us 40 days, including rest days. It’s hard to sum up the experience — it was just spectacular. The diversity of the terrain that the route covers and the hospitality we experienced along the way were staggering.
The route goes through red desert canyons, treeless steppe, lush green hills, dramatic cliffs, high-altitude volcanic plateaus, and just about everything in between. It’s not an easy hike – several of the off-trail sections were quite thorny and challenging — but over the course of the month I found my rhythm. It was such a treat to get to move through the landscape in that way, experiencing all of those geographical transitions so intimately.
But as with any journey, it’s the people who always stand out. We received so many warm welcomes in villages, farms, and picnic sites to come in for coffee, share some watermelon, or even join a birthday party. Those conversations, which always ranged wildly from current political events to the history of the mountains around us, are the memories that I treasure most.
It’s a marvellous way to live and work outdoors for a week (or more) and to develop a new level of appreciation for the mountains.
Do you already recommend for regular hikers to do the TCT?
At the end of 2021, we launched the full route across Armenia (827km) — parts of which are still rough and off-trail, but it’s now in a stage where we’re comfortable sending experienced hikers on it. The Georgia section of the North-South route, which includes both well-established trails and new off-trail sections, has been mapped out and will be tested this year. In summer 2022, we’re inviting the first thru-hikers to come test the new in-development route that stretches 1,800km through Armenia and Georgia. We launched a new hiker support program for TCTA members who want to attempt a full thru-hike (or long sections) of the trail independently. We also started our first project and trail sections in Azerbaijan, which spans roughly 200km of trails.
Right now, the trail is in an interesting stage of development where there is truly something for everyone. If you want a well-marked and well-maintained trail where you can stay at guesthouses along the way, there are several great trail sections for that. If you want a challenging, remote wilderness experience, where the only other people you’re likely to see are occasional shepherds and nomad camps, there’s plenty of those too. I encourage everyone to come explore part of the Caucasus — and to slow down and take your time while doing so!
What are the differences between hiking in Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan?
Because each country contains so much geographical diversity, I think the biggest differences are actually between ecosystems rather than countries. In southern Georgia, it feels like a different country when you move from the high plateaus of Javakheti to the lush forests around Bakuriani — and then a different country again when you hit the slopes of the Greater Caucasus at the northern border. In northern Armenia, you drop from wide, gentle wetlands into dramatic canyons within the span of a few days’ hike, and it keeps on getting more diverse from there. I haven’t had the chance to hike the trails in Azerbaijan yet, but from what I’ve seen, the mountains have a similar level of diversity.
Do you have a preference from what you have hiked so far?
I don’t have a favourite country — it’s hard to even pick a favourite region. But I’ll say that I really hope to see more people on the trails in Syunik (Armenia) and Racha (Georgia) next year. These are two spectacular regions that have a bit of everything, but don’t get anywhere near the level of attention they deserve!
Each year, you have volunteer programs for people to join you in building the hiking trails. What do these programs look like, and how can one join?
We have people from all over the world joining us to participate in trail crews. I first came as a volunteer, so I can vouch for it being a fantastic experience. Our crews camp in remote mountain areas of the Caucasus, learn trail construction and maintenance skills and spend each day outside working on the trail before coming back to camp. It’s a marvellous way to live and work outdoors for a week (or more) and to develop a new level of appreciation for the mountains. Our international crews also often work alongside our local crews, making it a great cultural exchange experience. It’s demanding physical work, but we have a lot of fun.
This summer we’re hosting volunteers for 9-day trail building sessions in Racha, Georgia. You can learn more and sign up here.
E&M: Thank you for your time, Meagan!
All photos by Meagan Neal, TCTA