Monday, 23 April 2018

Planning my hike across the Greater Caucasus Mountains

Since last autumn, I've been planning my next hike across the Greater Caucasus Mountain Range, from the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea. It'll probably take between two and three months.

I've created my own hiking route from Sochi to the Russian/Georgian border point, situated south of Vladikavkaz. I did this by joining up loads of trails shown on digital maps, and doing lots of research using Russian internet reports. My route includes loads of high passes, areas without roads or habitation, and goes through many military-controlled border zones. I'm anticipating very difficult terrain, late-lying snow, and few resupply opportunities.

Walking along the border areas of southern Russia requires special permits from the FSB, so I've made contact with a Russian trekking tour company, who've kindly agreed to help me obtain the necessary permits for the Russian section of my route. 

Once beyond Russia, I'll be about halfway! I'll then continue eastwards through Georgia, as far as Omalo, in the Tusheti National Park. After Omalo, I can see a potential route passing directly along the border ridge with Russia in order to reach Lagodekhi, (situated at the Georgian/Azerbaijani border). However, I've been advised against taking this route, due to risk of being arrested by soldiers patrolling the border with Dagestan. I'm not sure what I'll do here yet, but I'd like to avoid hitch hiking or using transport if at all possible. 

I'm finding it really difficult to plan a route through Azerbaijan. The only mountain paths I can see are only shown on old Soviet military maps. However, the greater problem is the ambiguous situation with regards to getting permits to hike in Azerbaijan. I've spoken to several knowledgable people, and most of them have told me that it's just not possible to hike near the border zones because of the very strict rules. Fortunately, one guy has offered to try and help me with permits and a route, so there is still some hope.

In the meantime, I'm pressing on with my plans. I've already booked my flight to Russia on June 18th, and I've applied for my visa. I'm also trying to learn Russian, which is proving difficult. My kit list has been fine-tuned, and I've started making regular trips out to the Peak District to try and get my hiking legs back a bit. Unlike other walks I've made, I'm going to be straight in at the deep end with this one in terms of technical terrain and big miles, so I need to be well prepared from the off. Let's hope the knee behaves.

It all feels very intimidating and nerve-wracking at this point. My biggest fear is the terrain. I'm worried that there'll be lots of snow, scary high passes, and no proper paths. I'm definitely expecting some serious bushwhacking and sketchy river crossings in the valleys. Oh and there's gonna be bears again. Plus the whole Russian military police situation is going to be awkward to manage.

Wish me luck!

Monday, 5 March 2018

2018: The Caucasus

I'm currently planning an ambitious hike across the entire Greater Caucasus Mountains in Russia, Georgia and Azerbaijan.

The Caucasus Mountains are bigger and wilder than anywhere I've walked in before, and they'd take me to the edge of the only continent I've ever seen. It definitely feels like a natural progression from my previous trips.

The plan is to link the Black Sea with the Caspian Sea in one long walk. This has been a dream of mine for ages, but I didn't know how to approach planning it until I'd gone through the experience of my 2017 hiking trip in Eastern Europe.

Now, I know a bit more about creating my own route. I know what it feels like to hike somewhere where there aren't always well-equipped huts, and highly maintained trails. The process at the moment mostly involves reading lots of translated Russian web pages, pouring over maps, and then sending emails to kindly ask people for information.

Planning a hike in this way takes a lot more effort, but it feels creative and exciting. It's fun studying the maps, and imagining what the terrain will be like, then planning things like potential campsites, food resupplies or bad weather alternative routes.

It's also a bit more exciting when you don't always know whether a path on the map will actually exist when you get there, or if a high pass is really something that you can cross safely.

The challenges of this trip are unique in that I'm going to be hiking along the restricted border zones of southern Russia, and will need to have specialised permits. I'll be routinely checked for these by soldiers and police, so it's all a bit nerve-wracking. 

Monday, 11 September 2017

Back home from the mountains of Eastern Europe.

Another summer gone and another trip finished. This year I chose to do several hikes across different mountain ranges in the Eastern Europe with some travel in between. I was surprised at how well this worked and how much I enjoyed it. It felt like less of a “pure” experience than doing one long walk from A to B. But this was compensated by the fact that I got to see a lot of different places, and not always by just hiking through them.

Eastern Europe felt perfect for this style of travel because a lot of the countries I visited were cheap. Hitchhiking was also very easy. This meant that I didn't constantly feel like I was haemorrhaging money when I was off trail. Wildcamping was also very easy.

I was gone from the 26th of July to the 7th of September. I visited Romania, Bulgaria, Greece, Macedonia, Kosovo, Albania, Montenegro and Croatia. This included:

  • About two weeks spent crossing most of the Carpathian mountains in Romania (Retezat, Parang and Fagaras ranges).
  • Another few weeks in Bulgaria walking along the E4 which took me from Sofia to the Greek border, crossing the Rila and Pirin mountains along the way.
  • Four days in the Sar Moutains, which straddle the borders of Macedonia, Albania, Serbia and Kosovo.
  • Four days along the southern section of the Via Dinarica in Albania and Montenegro.
  • Four days spent simply relaxing on the beach at various coastal towns in Montenegro before flying home!

Whilst on my journey I spent at least one day or night in the following towns:
  • Cluj Napoca, Petrosani, Sibiu, Brasov (Romania).
  • Sofia, Bansko, Gotse Delchev (Bulgaria).
  • Thessaloniki (Greece).
  • Skopje, Tetovo (Macedonia).
  • Prizren (Kosovo).
  • Schkoder (Albania).
  • Kotor, Ada Bojana, Ulcinj, Budva (Montenegro)
  • Dubrovnik (Croatia)

So overall not as much time spent purely hiking as on my previous trips. But what I learnt instead was that I enjoy travelling just as much as solely hiking when the places that I'm visiting are cheap/less touristy. I'm not really a fan of sightseeing in big cities, but I love passing through small towns rich in history and with a very different culture to back home.

I found the complex history of the Baltics and the various conflicts that have occurred there fascinating. Places like Romania and Albania still maintain a very traditional way of life in mountainous and rural areas. Being able to witness this first hand and spend time with the people there was a unique and eye-opening experience. At times I felt like I'd travelled back in time. I enjoyed encountering many new languages and having a go at learning some of them, with varying degrees of success...

In terms of the hiking itself, the scenery and trail conditions were just as good as anything that I've encountered in places like the Alps and Pyrenees. A lot of places still had decent huts if you wanted to use them, although I suspect that some might fall below the standards that people are used to in western Europe.

There were still areas that could be quite crowded, such as the Seven Lakes in the Rila Mountains, or the Valbone to Theth portion of the Via Dinarica. But then again, I passed through several regions without seeing another hiker. Instead, I would meet only shepherds, farmers, and villagers out gathering blueberries or mushrooms.

Weather conditions were generally just as favourable as the summers I've spent in the Alps and Pyrenees, but perhaps a bit warmer. I only had one night that got down to freezing. I only had a handful of rainy days.

I will try to put some more information on here soon regarding gear, planning and details for each walk that I did. I also have many photos and videos to edit. A lot of this will end up on my Youtube channel over the coming weeks.