Hiking in Armenia – the Transcaucasian Trail: stage 1, Lake Arpi – Alaverdi

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As our followers on Facebook already know we are hiking the 861-km journey Transcaucasian Trail in Armenia.

We broke down the 39-day hike into 5 stages. This blog post is about stage 1: Eight days of trekking through northern Armenia, starting from Lake Arpi and passing through Stepanavan and Tumanyan before reaching Alaverdi.

For practical information and links to my other blog posts on the Transcaucasian Trail, scroll down to the end of this post.

The northern terminus of the Armenia stage of the TCT is Lake Arpi National Park, a rich transboundary protected area and one of the best places in Armenia for birdwatching, hosting a wide variety of local and migratory bird species. 

The terrain across Shirak is primarily flat wetlands and water meadows, transitioning to treeless steppe and rolling hills in the east. This region has a rich archaeological and cultural heritage, including a mile-long megalith highway near Hartashen.

East of Stepanavan is the Dzoraget canyon, where singletrack trails take you down the cliffs and into the lush valley carved by the river deep below. You’ll wind through the canyon, up and down over the cliffs, and into the even more mighty Debed canyon.

~from: Transcaucasian hike


A few weeks ago we were driving from north to south Armenia, partly to deliver food drops for the hike and partly to park the Land Cruiser for the duration of the hike in southern Armenia.

For convenience, we stuck to the main roads as much as possible. To be honest, we began to worry a bit about the hike as the landscape was far from inspiring. It was, in fact, a monotonous sea of yellow fields. Could this be our view for the next 6-8 weeks?

Well, the first 8 days of hiking through Armenia proved us wrong. Thankfully.

Storm & A New Tent

A day of traveling across the country brought us to Lake Arpi. The day was scorching hot, but as we neared the lake, a storm brewed on the horizon. The wind was already relentless, making it quite a challenge to set up our brand-new tent. But we persevered and managed to stay dry.

The tent survived its first storm with serious thunder, lighting and rain. This boosted our confidence for the upcoming weeks, especially since summer is winding down, and September rains will become frequent.

Getting in Shape

As usual for our long-distance hikes, we started with the best intentions of getting in shape, but then… we didn’t. This was the primary reason we chose to hike southbound. It would provide us with a gentle start through the northern section, whereas if we had started from the south, we’d face an immediate 3,000-meter-high mountain climb (find that stage here).

So, we enjoyed a relatively relaxed beginning. The first four days were easygoing, although the even terrain was tough on our feet (yes, hikers can suffer from even terrain – hard to believe, right?).

I usually get one small blister on my right heel, and this time was no different. Unfortunately, another one formed on my left foot, and the second-skin (compeed) band-aid I had turned out to be old and ineffective, making things messy and painful. Hence, an unplanned rest day on day 5. But all is well now.

Hiking in Armenia - TCT, Transcaucasian Trail stage 1 (©Coen Wubbels)
Hiking in Armenia - TCT, Transcaucasian Trail stage 1 (©Coen Wubbels)

Landscape

The first four days weren’t particularly spectacular in terms of scenery, but they were perfect for getting our joints and muscles accustomed to walking some 20 kilometers per day while carrying our backpacks.

We traversed plenty of grassy fields, passed through hamlets and farmsteads. Very few people live in this area, which provided us with a sense of peace and quiet in rural Armenia. Many hands went up in a friendly greeting and in our limited Russian we explained what we were doing. Judging from their response they haven’t seen many TCT hikers yet.

Hospitality

What a day it was! A man signaled us to come to his tent. That’s how we met David, who has a herd of 1,000 or possibly 1,200 cows – he wasn’t exactly sure. We assumed he was the leader of this remote hamlet with a collection of huts, and his workers were probably out in the fields with the cows.

His wife, Susan, treated us to a hearty breakfast with fresh cream, cheese, honey, and fruits. Would we like to have a wodka to go with the meal? Uhm, no but thanks. They were astounded. It was 9am, after all.

That afternoon, we were invited to have lunch with a family after we asked where to buy bread since the convenience store was empty. Not only did they feed us for a week, but they also insisted on us taking a bag of food, which added an extra 3 or 4 kilos to Coen’s backpack.

Rest Day

As mentioned earlier, we decided to take a rest day due to my blisters. Was it kismet that we had received this bag of food yesterday, which allowed us to camp here for an extra day (otherwise, we wouldn’t have had enough food)?

We delightedly devoured every peach, plum, grape, cucumber, and tomato from the bag. The day was spent reading, hopping in and out of the tent due to rain showers, and taking another dip in the river.

From Walking to Hiking

Okay, after 5 days of leisurely walking, party time was over. The level was going up a notch or two.

We transitioned from dirt roads to more challenging single-trek trails. We searched for a passage below a cliff for about 4 kilometers, crossing an overgrown hill filled with tall, dry, prickly weeds. The temperatures soared, reaching up to 30 degrees Celsius for the last 2 or 3 days.

I can hardly believe that people hike here in July/August; it’s way too hot! On the bright side, there’s an abundance of water sources – freshwater springs, village water fountains, streams, and rivers. We didn’t need to carry more than a liter at a time.

Water Filter Systems

(click on the images to check them out)

MSR MiniWorks EX Microfilter Water Filter

Straw Water Filter

MSR Pump & Gravity Water Filter System, 2-Liter

Products from Amazon

Wild Camping

Camping has been a breeze. Each night, we selected a spot near a water source, as after those long, hot days of hiking, I yearn for a natural bath. And I’ve had plenty of those – I love them!

Wild camping is possible everywhere and perfectly acceptable. Nobody even raised an eyebrow. We spent some lovely nights under a starry sky with a full moon (but had a few rainy nights as well).

Ancient Culture

In the last couple of days, we’ve passed and visited numerous beautiful old churches, cemeteries, and monasteries.

It’s starting to feel like a journey through Armenian history!

Read more: Books about the Caucasus, Armenia and Georgia

Practical Information about Stage 1

Hiking Days

We leisurely covered:

  • Lake Arpi-Stepanavan: approx. 85 kilometers in 4 days.
  • Stepanavan-Alaverdi: approx. 75 days in 4 days.

Shops

  • In Mets Sepasar, there are two (possibly more) convenience stores – one is mentioned on the TCT map – where you can buy bread and some basic foods and snacks.
  • In Katnaghbyur, there is a convenience store (as mentioned on the TCT map), but it was mostly empty, with only a few sausages, some random tins, and candy.

Water

As mentioned earlier, water hasn’t been a problem at all. All the water sources indicated on the TCT trail had flowing water in the first week of September.

Food & Accommodation

  • In Stepanavan, we enjoyed a good lunch at Carahunge Cafe (mentioned on the TCT map). And there were plenty of shops and supermarkets to stock up on various foods.
  • In Tumanyan, we savored a hearty lentil soup at the Flying Samovar Cafe, but apart from that and some sandwiches, there is nothing else to eat. Fortunately, we managed to purchase a gas canister in Tumanyan.
  • In Odzun, you’ll find several convenience stores and pharmacies, and we were permitted to camp in the fields of the Odzun church.
  • In Alaverdi we stayed at the Mini House Hostel in the upper part of town, near the Sananin Monastery (do visit, truly marvelous!). Kind owners, options for private/shared bathroom, communal room with sofas, coffee and tea.

Practical Information on the TCT Trail in Armenia

  • The Transcaucasian Trail is an 1540-km-long hike in the Caucasus, of which 861 kilometers wind through Armenia. Find all info here.
  • We are hiking without laptops. The pictures are snapshots I took on my iPhone and I am using a foldable keyboard to write these blog posts. I’m happy with it despite it adding to the weight I carry.
  • This is our gear list.

Check it out: our Wild & Outdoor Cap & Shirt Collection

A Cup of Armenian Coffee, Anyone?

During our 861-kilometer Transcaucasian hike we’re keeping our fingers crossed for chances to savor some delicious Armenian coffee.

Would you like to join us and contribute to a shot on the upcoming leg of the hike? A proper dose of caffeine not only revitalizes our legs but also works wonders for our minds.

Thanks!

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