The Transcaucasian Trail – Two Americans, One Vision

Deserted Svan villages, defiantly lingering mid-summer snow and a border guards’ volleyball tournament in Kakheti are just some of the discoveries which have been made so far by Jeff Haack and Paul Stephens, two former Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) from different ends of the United States, united by one vision – the Transcaucasian Trail.

“We have a vision, to walk and map the Transcaucasian Trail, to write a guide book and bring this scenic trek through a variety of cultures to the world’s attention,” outlined Stephens, originally from Indiana, who had served as a PCV in Georgia’s far western region of Adjara in the mid-2000s.

He and his partner in vision Haack, who was stationed in Imereti during his PCV days, have been taking a well-earned break in Tbilisi recently, meeting with various government bodies, journalists and a growing band of curious parties who see real value and potential in their mission. The duo intend to extensively document the route and educate interested trekkers and others about the historical sites, and different cultures sampled along the way.

Ultimately, the intention is to make the Transcaucasian Trail a trekking expedition on par with famous routes across the world, such as Scotland’s West Highland Way.

“In summer 2015 we will be trekking a route from the Black Sea to the Caspian, We’ll be joined along the way by fellow enthusiasts, working together to chart the epic trail,” boldly claims the Trail’s well-written website ( but, as the duo revealed, it quickly became apparent that their initial goal to trek from the coast of Abkhazia in the west to Azerbaijan in the east would not be possible for a variety of reasons.

Above all, the duet would have to become a solo as Haack picked up an untimely foot injury shortly before the trail was to be blazed. On top of that, the levels of snow still lingering along parts of the trail rendered certain sections impassable.

“Abkhazia generally gets a ton of snowfall, but this winter was an especially snowy one across the region. Of course, we had planned to start from the Black Sea and move from west to east across the region, but realized that would be unwise if not impossible,” revealed Haack and Stephens who soon devised another approach, which, though less romantic, would be more practical.

They have instead been mapping the route in different sections which avoids having to wait for the stubborn Abkhazian snow to melt and allows them to hit the trail as soon as possible.

Haack, a native of Southern California with an infectiously laid back attitude, explained that due to his ailing foot, his role had been to put the vast amount of data and information collected by Stephens into maps which has earned him the nickname “Data”. He has also been driving into the depths of the Georgian Caucasus to find the trail itself – a task that involved a lot of stopping and asking for directions, and some memorable encounters with the natives of Georgia’s mountainous frontier.

As with most PCVs, Haack and Stephens have a grasp of the Georgian language that puts most expats to shame, so communication had not been a problem. Stephens pointed out that future Transcaucasian trail-goers would still manage without language skills, particularly after their guide book has been written and published.

The first stretch of the trail was to be from Lagodekhi in Georgia’s eastern region of Kakheti and it was here that Stephens, accompanied by fellow hiker Matt, would discover that winter in the heights of the Caucasus, like an uninvited but drunk party guest, tends to hang around.

“The rangers had warned us there would be snow but we hadn’t realized just how much was still up there. After a windy but dry night we got up in the morning and set out across the snowfields. Immediately, we realized how difficult it would be to make our next goal, Black Rock Lake at 2800 meters,” writes Stephens, who was soon deciding to turn back.

“We’d take 5 or 6 careful steps with the snow holding out weight and then suddenly the next step would break through the top-crust and we’d be waist deep in snow. We had to turn back and wait for summer to finally come to the highlands of eastern Georgia. If only I had my skis!”

Nevertheless, their excursion to Kakheti had uncovered an unexpected ally – border guards.

“While we expected the border guards to take an interest in our activites, we didn’t expect so much assistance,” write the pair in their blog. Some had taken the Americans on horseback while others had invited them to play volleyball or swim in a mountainous lake with them.

Wild animals are not uncommon along much of the trail, but that doesn’t seem to bother them.

“Wolves don’t worry me,” claimed the intrepid Stephens while Haack added “I encountered a bear in Georgia once and just ran away.”

Humans are of more interest to the hikers, and it was in far west Svaneti that they had met an unlikely hotelier, who had built a two-story complex for what he assumed would be an influx of guests as money poured into Svaneti as a tourist destination.

Stephens and Haack may have been his first visitors, they weren’t sure, but businesses like this along the route are extremely enthusiastic about the Americans’ mission, which could, if it fulfils its large potential, herald a fresh interest and commercial stream into rural parts of the Caucasus.

The second stretch of the trail they tackled was more successful, in Svaneti, a more popular part of the route in terms of hikers. It is also more thoroughly mapped but Haack and Stephens have found that to be as much of a hindrance as a help at times, with many maps inaccurate and/or out of date.

This only amplifies their belief that the Transcaucasian Trail project is a thoroughly worthwhile concern.

“We’ve met numerous hikers already who have similar problems, namely getting lost. This reaffirms how important it is to establish great trails, provide solid information and make hiking the Caucasus an even more rewarding experience,” say Haack and Stephens.

The Americans will be staying in Georgia for the bulk of the summer to cover as much of the trail as possible but both are fully aware that this is a mission that may take years, particularly with the more politically sensitive stretches of Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Azerbaijan still to come.

However, Haack and Stephens share a devotion to seeing the project through and a love for the Caucasus and its curiosities that is sure to make the Transcaucasian Trail well-worn in years to come.

Alastair Watt

02 July 2015 21:59