An axe wielded by Valeri Vibliani, an enigmatic Georgian farmer, thuds down into a tree trunk about the size of a man’s thigh. He’s intent on building a log bridge over a river on his land and I find myself on a newly created section of the Transcaucasian trail, appointed as safety marshal, watching, with senses heightened, as this demonstration in axemanship unfolds. Everything Valeri has done up to this point has been swift, decisive and masterly, but I can’t help but anticipate some catastrophe. It’s completely out of my usual frame of reference, and I’m entranced.
I’ve spent most of my time so far flexing underused muscles in this remote region of Upper Svaneti in the Caucasus Mountains of north-west Georgia, so observer duty suits me just fine. In truth, I’m out of my comfort zone and loving every nerve-jangling minute of it.
To elaborate, I’m taking part in a volunteer programme run by the grassroots organisation Transcaucasian Trail.Org (TCT). Its mission: to build a new long-distance hiking trail network in the Greater and Lesser Caucasus Mountains, stretching over 3,000km and connecting a dozen national parks. In the process, the trail is aimed at encouraging more sustainable tourism, so helping create local business in the long term. As with many rural communities blessed with incredible natural resources – Mount Shkhara, Svaneti’s highest mountain dwarfs Mont Blanc by over 400 meters – the reality of life is far from bucolic, particularly in the winter months. Anything that encourages the region’s population to stay can only be a good thing.
Paul Stephens, the founder and executive director at the Transcaucasian Trail Association tells me guesthouses are starting to emerge along the route. “The government did a survey three years ago,” he says. “They literally interviewed everyone, and no one had a tourism business. That is now beginning to change.”
Paul is a cheerleader for local hospitality, having spent years gaining trust and forging close bonds with Georgians like Valeri, and is keen to introduce everyone he can to its intoxicating charms. “Yes, the welcome may not be as intimate and personal if a fledgeling tourism industry gets off the ground, but there are no sustainable alternatives and why wouldn’t you want to share that boundless resource with whoever you can?”
Currently the project relies on private donors for half of its funding needs, corporate sponsors providing the remaining shortfall. There are opportunities to fund the project from the comfort of your own home if the idea of shifting soil is not your thing. And what about the sustainability of the project itself? Will it always be reliant on international volunteers, as a source of revenue and labour? Paul is already a step ahead. He and his team have set up a youth leadership programme for 18-25 year olds to gain experience before becoming qualified guides, able to manage a local base of trained crews. Ultimately, the goal is to have professionals available as exists in the US but, like the trail itself, this kind of government investment needs careful negotiating.
Upper Svaneti, despite its astonishing beauty, is not universally protected. The construction of a new hydroelectric dam at Chuberi a few miles to the west looks imminent and is evidence of the lack of restrictions on land under state control. Paul is a passionate advocate for ‘protected areas’, similar to our national parks, and he is clear what the new trail will bring to some of these regions at risk: “In Georgia some of the protected areas are from the Soviet era, then the system fell apart in the 90s, but in this decade [the idea] has come back. It’s great to see the dedication of the people here devoted to re-creating this concept, and the trail can be a way to link these areas together across the Caucuses.”
It’s with this sort of personal commitment shown by TCT staff and volunteers, both in Georgia and neighbouring Armenia, that marks this out as a remarkable project. Its scale may be multi-national, but for the trail builder there is satisfaction in the small victories, of boulders heaved and steps honed and filled; each one contributing to the safe passage of unknown and unknowable hikers.
I later find out that the best trails are all but invisible, gently guiding the hiker through the landscape in, I imagine, a Zen-like reverie to their destination. It’s an interesting if slightly depressing thought: my week’s work merging into this distant corner of the Caucuses, with only memories and a few photos of dirt to show for it. I comfort myself in the knowledge that to truly appreciate what is happening here, one needs to open up the heart to see the bigger picture and imagine the countless connections forged because of it in the years and decades to come.
To find out more on the Transcaucasian Trail, visit https://transcaucasiantrail.org
Photos: Daniel J Norwood