21-year-old adventurer and University of Bristol engineering student, Val Ismaili, recently became the first thru-hiker of the 1500km Transcaucasian Trail running through Armenia and Georgia. He shares his story with EC.
Val will be reciting his story at our next EC Stories event in Bristol and London. Find out more...
I remember sitting at my desk, trawling through the ultra-hiking blogs and coming across this one article with a rather sombre line. It said 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 four months ago when on May 15th 2017 I began the first attempt at thru-hiking the 1500km Transcaucasian Trail (TCT) of Armenia and Georgia. It's been rattling around my head ever since.
Day 1 felt like trial by fire; at 5 am I headed south from Meghri towards the Iranian border. The sun was yet to rise, and within ten minutes I had 6 alarmingly large dogs at my back. It must have been quite the sight. Me, walking sideways, clanging my poles together trying to frighten 6 dogs, with an exceptionally large bag on my back. Uncomfortable for sure, but it’s an adventure, so it’s to be expected. I can deal with that.
I reached the border and followed the road East towards the small village of Nrnadzor, famous for its pomegranate orchards. From 7 am until 2 pm I was stopped four times by soldiers along the border. The first were three Armenians working hard at getting stoned in an old Soviet military truck hidden in a disused tunnel by the side of the road. After trying to talk my way through only with the aid of hand signals, my friend Vahagn kindly explained the situation to the three of them 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 built from rusted sheet metal and tarp. A beautiful snow coloured Husky (named Transcaucanine of course) had become my companion as I passed through Nrnadzor, but was panicking due to the intensity of the storm and made several attempts to leap through the window into the shelter. Uncomfortable, but manageable. You get the picture.
The physical pain of consecutive 30km days under relentless heat and challenging terrain where there wasn't always a path. On returning to England, the first question people always ask me is, ‘you’re alive! So how was it?’. The basic answer is typically, ‘amazing’. The better answer is ‘intense’. My notion of long-distance hiking prior to this trip was probably slightly romanticised, in reality, the emotions you experience over four months of adventuring is really no different to four months of ‘normal’ life, the same highs and lows are present. The only difference is the extent of exhaustion and stress cause higher highs, and lower lows; it’s life lived to a greater intensity, which I suppose is what one looks for when seeking an adventure. At times this can be uncomfortable, but it’s manageable. You get the picture.
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 began to fade, because that experience of momentary bliss amongst the mountains is worth every hungry and footsore mile. Pain is rendered insignificant upon passing through a section of genuine danger entirely unharmed and when you're able to look back in ecstatic disbelief that you scrambled up a sixty-degree rock field with a seventy-litre pack; that euphoria allows you to instantaneously experience the same environment afresh. 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 went without being invited in for food, vodka, coffee and tea was two days. After spending the night, they'd then insist I take some lavash (Armenian flatbread which is even more of a staple in their diets than Brits with our tea), tomatoes, cucumbers, and some very salty cheese for the journey. I'm incredibly grateful for those experiences. I'll cherish them for as long as I can remember.
However, around the halfway point of the expedition, for a period of almost two weeks, those same experiences began to fill 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 come with language barriers. A dispiriting thought, it had only been 4 weeks after all. That feeling of social remoteness is quite upsetting, and surprise, surprise, is actually a lot harder to manage than all the other difficulties you come across when hiking solo for long distances. Loneliness is a feeling of sluggishness, it brings apathy to the things you love most. Your mind grows weary.
For better or for worse, I'm extremely strong-headed. It's not that I'm unaffected by the physical pain or exhaustion of hiking continuously - I certainly am - but when you spend enough time hiking you realise the pain and the exhaustion are part of the experience as much as enjoying those awesome mountain views, so quitting because I’m tired, in hindsight, always seems a little ridiculous. The loneliness aspect of adventuring is not something that is talked about much, and although you get to meet fantastic people along the way, those relationships tend to lack depth and so you are normally left looking for a hint of something more.
Arriving at the TCT Armenia HQ in Dilijan for two weeks of trail-building came at the perfect time. Being able to communicate clearly again felt refreshing, rejuvenating even. From the more personal conversations to the hilarious talking shit for the sake of talking shit conversations, they were invaluable. It's amusing to think I wasn't going to take part in the trail-building 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. However, perhaps in anticipation of it being a short two-week stint in a larger four-month trip, and recognising the impermanence of the connection I had with those around me, I recall moments where I felt nostalgic over the experience, even though it hadn’t yet ended. Which of course is a ridiculous way to be experiencing life.
Two weeks later, it was time for me to venture back out into the mountains. An awareness that I'd likely experience similar feelings of isolation over the remainder of the trip meant that I was able to deal with it more easily. I would make the effort to initiate some sort of conversation via messenger if I hadn't heard from someone in a while, which is not something I'd typically do.
Despite the discomfort I experienced this summer, the physical pain, the mental exhaustion, and at times, the loneliness, there's no way I would have rather spent my summer. The moments of blissful solitude complemented by the people I've met from all over the world made me feel more at home in Armenia than my 'real home' of England. Even when you’re on trail seeking some level of solitude, people are what sustain you. Sounds obvious to me now. The reality of adventure is that it can be drastically different to the idealised notion that we long for; moments of isolation, good and bad, contrasted by moments of connection to people and to the land, combined with a lot of walking in beautiful places is what my adventure looked like.
And yes, whoever wrote that article was spot on – managing discomfort is at the heart of thru-hiking.