Issue 5, 2016. October-November



A new project seeks to build hiking trails from the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea.

Joseph Larsen

It took the Russian Empire nearly a century to build the Georgian Military Highway, the 212-kilometer road that cuts through the Greater Caucasus Mountains to connect Tbilisi and the Russian city of Vladikavkaz. The winding, alpine road was finally finished in 1863, but only at great financial and human cost. Transportation is much better a century and a half later. Still, a group of hikers based in the South Caucasus think there's ample room for improvement.

The Transcaucasian Trail Association is a group of hiking enthusiasts based in Washington, DC, and their vision is a network of trails to take intrepid hikers from the Black Sea to the shores of the Caspian, crossing mountains and several borders—political and natural—along the way. Most of the group's members have ties to the South Caucasus. For co-founder Paul Stephens, it all started when he came to Georgia as a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer in 2005. "I did a lot of hiking, even though there wasn't a lot of infrastructure," he recalls. A turning point was time he spent in Svaneti and Racha in 2012. He observed a lot of untapped potential, so he and other like-minded hikers, including co-founder Jeff Haack, decided to get to work building up the infrastructure.

The Transcaucasian Trail project is ambitious and will take years to complete, cost millions of dollars, and depend on the dedication of countless volunteers. Trail construction began this summer, when the association built a number of trails in Western Svaneti, one of Georgia's wildest and most beautiful regions. For Stephens and his associates, it was the natural place to start. "Svaneti gets lots of visitors. Tourism has really taken off. There's very little infrastructure, though," Stephens explained. That started to change this summer, when more than 20 volunteers spent eight weeks scouting, marking, clearing brush, building river crossings and, in Stephens's words, "having a good time." Thanks to their hard work, there's now a 100-km connection from Chuberi to Mestia that can be crossed in three to four days. They also improved existing trails between Mestia and Ushguli, and that stretch can now be made in roughly the same amount of time.

"It went really well, way better than I had even hoped," says Stephens. "Next year we want to scale up times four: Racha, Southern Georgia, and Eastern Georgia." They also plan to build trails linking Georgia and Armenia. Expanding the project will require more funding, however. A recent profile by The Guardian estimated that between $3-5 million will be required over the life of the project. Fortunately, they have a plan. "We raised $25,000 this year. We're aiming for a lot more next year. We're trying to raise roughly $200,000 for 2017."

Of the $25,000 raised in 2016, a large chunk, roughly €3,000, came from Gebrüder Weiss, the association's sole corporate sponsor. The Austrian logistics company learned of the project through a personal meeting between its owner and a member of the association. According to Gebrüder Weiss's Managing Director in Georgia, Alexander Kharlamov, they're optimistic about the project's success. "We believe that it's going to work", he told "It's a nice connection between Georgia, Armenia, and the North Caucasus . . . More tourism, more income, more investment, more infrastructure, and more friendship between our countries."

Corporate sponsorships can take years to secure, so Stephens and company are also turning to crowdfunding to raise the necessary capital. Last year they ran two separate campaigns with Indiegogo, a popular flexible-funding platform. The first campaign was devoted to raising money to scope out suitable trail locations. That raised $4,165 from 46 donors. A second, larger campaign raised money to actually build the trails in Svaneti; that one brought in just over $10,000. The money came "all, really, from international donors—a lot from the U.S., people who know about Georgia, who have lived or worked here," according to Stephens. The Association's remaining funding comes from the capital of its board members and fees provided by its volunteers.

Most of the Transcaucasian Trail Association's financial support currently comes from outside the region, but Stephens is optimistic that more Georgians, Armenians, and Azerbaijanis will take interest as its profile gets bigger. He also sees enthusiasm for the project show itself in non-financial ways. For example, community engagement initiatives in Svaneti found local residents to be very positive about the Transcaucasian Trail. After all, it's intended for their benefit as much as that of hikers. For The Transcaucasian Trail Association, the goal is to bring diverse groups of people together to experience and conserve the region's natural beauty: "The more people see the region, the more they'll take an interest in these areas, in preserving and protecting them," Stephens said.