Off the Beaten Path – Hiking Shepherd Trails in the South Caucasus
I’ve lived most of my life off the beaten path. First as an expat kid in St. Petersburg, Russia, then as a Mt. Kilimanjaro summit climber at 19, and most recently as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Republic of Azerbaijan from 2011-2014.
For those of you who don’t know, Azerbaijan is situated at the southern end of the majestic Caucasus Mountain Range, which go through Russia, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan between the Black and Caspian Seas. For any of you serious mountaineers, the range is also home to the challenging Mt. Elbrus, which is widely considered as the tallest mountain in Europe (some people debate whether this region is actually Europe, but most agree it is).
So, when I was told that I would be serving in Azerbaijan, my first action was to wikipedia the crap out of the country. When I saw the mountains pictured, I imagined my time there being full of weekend summit attempts, hiking for fun on the weekdays after school, and generally full of outdoors time.
Suffice to say, I was wrong for a number of reasons. First of all, I was placed in the far west of the country, where the mountains are small (not a problem, right?) and also happen to contain the border with neighboring Armenia (big problem). Azerbaijan and Armenia are still engaged in armed conflict (essentially, a “frozen war”) over a disputed piece of territory called Nagorno-Karabakh.
Not only that, but hiking really is more of a first-world way to spend time. People who spend their entire days trying to put food on the table and keep the house warm don’t really have time to hike, no matter how beautiful the mountains are. With nobody to hike and nobody to construct and maintain trails, there are virtually no trails in Azerbaijan. Does this mean you can’t hike? Definitely not. Many fellow Peace Corps Volunteers, especially the ones in the mountainous regions, trail-blazed their own day hikes or discovered shepherd trails that offered their own majestic views, often accompanied by Azerbaijani shepherds concerned that these lost Americans wouldn’t be able to find their way back home, and who often shared their lunches of fresh vegetables, goat cheese, and bread.
By the time I had gotten to end of my service, I hadn’t done nearly as much hiking as I had liked to. With my brother coming to visit on my way out of Azerbaijan, I decided to plan a bunch of treks throughout the northern part of the country. Here are some of the photos from that part of the world (the one at the top is one of my favorite hikes in Azerbaijan).
So, why am I rambling on about a mountain range 6000 miles away? Because it is, in part, what inspired me to commit to hiking the Appalachian Trail. Seeing so much beautiful terrain in a relatively unknown country on the other side of the world made me think about all the places back here that I haven’t seen or experienced in some way. Add to that the fact that being asked every single day for three years about what your country is like makes you think a little more about where you come from. I told Azerbaijanis all the time that the USA had an incredible range of geography and physical beauty – but I hadn’t seen most of it! I feel like hiking the AT is my way of both getting to know my own country and legitimizing my claims that the USA earns a spot among the most beautiful places in the world.
I start the trail in T-12 days. Here’s hoping that snow sticks around, I want some legit winter pictures that make me look like a badass.
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Andrew, can you please give some more details about these hikes in Azerbaijan? I live there now, and I have done hikes in Xizi and the Candy Canes, but would like to explore more. Also, did you know Rikki?
Hi Andrew, It is a problem to find trails in Azerbaijan, people are not much willing to hike at all including myself before I move off the country 6 years ago 🙂 Yet there is kind of “religion” hiking which usually takes place June-August every year. Few thousands people hike up Babadag (the second largest summit 3600m) during night as it’s too warm during day. Let me know if you have any question. P.S. dreaming to hike the AT!