Posts Tagged ‘Hiking’

At the End of the Trail

Monday, August 24th, 2009

We were wet. We were miserable. Matt was feeling better than he had, but still not completely cured. I was freezing cold despite my coat and Deutschland hat. We were facing the a Siberian summer storm.

We plodded on in our coats, fished the last bits of Wild Bill’s Beef Jerky from the bottom of the bag with our soaking wet hands, and resigned ourselves to being cold and wet. The view was spoiled by the clouds, mist, fog, and rain. The lake was calm again, but still frigid. The warmth of the fire that morning, the hot tea and cocoa, and the rather odd pancakes I had made without butter seemed distant memories as we focused on completing those 10 kilometers remaining and reaching our goal: the town of Bolschoye Goloustnoe.

The town of Bolschoye Goloustnoe was about 4-6 hours of hiking away, according to a French-speaking Russian I had met on the trail while Matt had fetched the water that morning before the storm began in earnest. We had begun hiking at around noon, so we expected to reach the town well before dark and hopefully in time to sit down in a little café and warm ourselves with some coffee or tea before locating the bus station that would take us into Irkutsk the next morning (at 9, the Russian man informed me). Then we planned to find a camping spot outside of town, settle in for a cold, wet night, and get to the bus station in time to leave the next morning.

Little of those plans worked out. As we walked into town we found a sprawling, muddy camping area stretching out for several kilometers from the southern end of the town. It was mainly full of drunken Russians. One old lady was in a bush by the side of the road relieving herself and shouting at two guys who were drunkenly trying to set up a tent. Two middle-aged ladies who had obviously been drinking pulled up beside us, spraying us with mud accidentally and invited us to ride in their brand-new car which was very clean on the inside. We declined and trudged on, despite their insistence. They slid all over the road as they made their way toward the town and we were glad to not be in the car.

In the town we found everything closed down. There were two little cafes, both of which were closed. We couldn’t find the bus station either. I found myself in a downright foul mood, made little better by the fact that the only semi-dry camping spot we found was in the middle of a cow pasture and we didn’t even consider making a fire in the downpour that continued.

That was when the francophonic Russian, Sasha, and his hiking partner Bruno arrived. We had passed them a few hours earlier and apparently made it to the town at the same time. They had stopped at the home of someone Sasha knew and gotten the real times for the bus (6, 7, and 8) and learned that a minibus would be leaving sometime that evening. They intended to have some supper then catch the minibus to Irkutsk. Sasha invited us to join them at their campfire. To tell you the truth, I was a bit dubious. The ground was wet, the woods were wet, the trees were wet, we were wet, and it was still raining.

But, Sasha came through! Matt and I finished setting up our tent and then rushed around helping Bruno find any dry wood we could. In my despair I had forgotten that in most storms the majority of rain comes from one direction, leaving dead wood on the lee side of trees still dry. With that memory, we quickly gathered a pile of dry wood, and a pile of semi-damp wood that we could dry once the fire got going. And it did get going! With a roaring blaze, our spirits were instantly lifted and we had soon dried out. The rain stopped falling quite as strongly as well, lifting our spirits even more. A good pot of well-cooked rice and topping and a taste of some of Bruno and Sasha’s porridge left us feeling pretty good. We finished off the evening by sharing some of our adventures and hearing about some of Sasha and Brunos’.

Bruno was a retired fellow from Paris, France who went hiking every so often and was in Russia to visit some friends. Apparently he had, a few summers ago, been hiking in Finland, north of the Arctic circle! Sasha was a photojournalist with a large, nation-wide newspaper and had been working and living in Irkutsk for a long time, during which he had hiked the shores of Lake Baikal relatively often. He was on call for a friend of his who was a tour guide and gave hiking tours whenever his friend was too busy. That’s what he was doing with Bruno, although two members of their team (who had set out from Listvyanka just like us, just a day later) had left after being scared out of the hike by the terrain. This made Matt especially feel better since he had done the entire thing with a cold like a real man.

We fell asleep that night warmer and drier, though still a bit damp and chilly. The next morning dawned cloudy at 6 AM when we got up to make breakfast and pack the tents up in time for the 8 AM bus. We did, eating the last of our porridge. Matt was feeling almost entirely cured with just a hint of a runny nose. We hopped on the bus and made it back to Irkutsk where we lounged the day away and ate some delicious food. It was a good day and we had such a sense of accomplishment after muscling through the hiking trip.

Even now the memories of the less pleasant bits of the hiking are fading away leaving crystal clear, shimmering lake water, verdant mountains and valleys, pleasant camping spots, good friends, and the sense of a job well done.

A Good Day Hiking

Monday, August 24th, 2009

I was feeling a lot better at the beginning of the third day of our hike, but Matthew was not. He had been staying hydrated and getting plenty of rest, but the hiking was beginning to wear on him. I got up a bit before Matt and went and fetched water from the lake, a short walk through a marsh away. It was still quite windy and the breakers got me soaked in freezing cold water, but I managed to fill all three Nalgenes and my Platypus (which holds 4 Nalgenes worth). We were ready for the day and when I got back to camp, Matt had stirred the fire from its slumber, and went to lie down again, still not feeling very well.

Just as I was about to put the porridge on the fire, a man in a motorcycle with a sidecar pulled up, got out, took off his leather, aviator-cap style hat and came running over to me and began telling me in a broken mixture of Russian and German (neither of which I understand very well) that I had to put the fire out! Well, I informed him that we would and that we always make sure fires are completely out before leaving our campsites, but he didn’t understand English. I figured he would figure it out when he stopped by later after we were on our way and found a soaking wet fire pit.

He went on his way with his ear-flaps flopping in the wind. I thought I had finally convinced him I was trustworthy. Fifteen minutes later, just as Matt and I were tucking into our hot porridge, he came back, ear-flaps flying, with a TV antenna in his sidecar. He stopped again and made his way to our campsite where he once again informed us of something that we couldn’t understand. He seemed adamant about it, whatever it was so we doused the fire (with the help of 10 gallons of water he brought to us), packed up and we were off.

I was feeling good, the kilometers were flying past, we were surrounded by flowers in fields, birds in trees, and spectacular rock formations, and then everything went wrong. We followed what looked like the most major path (nothing was marked really) and ended up spending an hour hiking up an almost vertical cliff face and getting stuck in a cauldron at the top of a scree slope with no outlet. A rather disappointing day, but we broke out some more Wild Bill’s Beef Jerky and trudged on.

We camped that evening just 10 kilometers from where we had started, but Matt was not feeling good at all and the wind blowing in our faces wasn’t doing anything to help. We did have a good camping spot, however, with a little path down the cliff to the water, a nice flat, mossy area for the tent, an existing firepit, and plenty of firewood. All of this with a view of the entire lake. I went to pump water and Matt made a nice little firepit and we burnt the parts of our Russia guidebook we didn’t need as tinder. It was a nice evening, medicinal tea from home, hot chocolate, rice (Full-cooked rice! Hooray! I finally succeeded!) with a topping made of different odds and ends and lots of fresh garlic.

Matt went to sleep early again, but I stayed up reading for another hour or two and what I saw during that hour or two began to concern me. Clouds started rolling over the lake from the South-West and the cold wind strengthened. Lightening showed up in the distance and mist began rolling over the lake. A storm was coming.

I packed everything up, put the fly on the tent and went to bed, hoping everything would be dry the next morning.

Another Day Hiking

Sunday, August 23rd, 2009

The light of our second Siberian dawn trickled through the trees and woke me before it did Matt. I got up, packed my sleeping bag and the cooking supplies, made sure the fire was completely out (we had spread the ashes the night before, but I wanted to make sure it was cool. It was) and finished the last swig of water in my trusty Nalgene. It was looking to be a warm day and I knew we needed to find some water, but the lake was at the bottom of a 50 foot cliff, so we’d have to walk on until we found a stream or a beach.

Matt woke up after I had been reading for 15 minutes or so (I was in the middle of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot) and we set off down the hill. It was a bit of a rough trail, but after 15 minutes we came to a beach and sat down to enjoy our fill of crystal clear, filtered (thank you Mommie and Papa for letting me borrow the water pump), and frigid cold water. And we made breakfast, porridge again.

Matt was not feeling any better, his whole body was aching and he had a low-grade fever that had started the evening before. We took our vitamins and I encouraged him to drink a Nalgene of water right there. I also filled up my Platypus bladder which I had forgotten I had with me. We were much better off and as the morning progressed, we hiked on with hourly rest breaks and some delicious Wild Bill’s beef jerky from my parents that I had been saving for a special occasion.

Lunch that afternoon was a can of tuna steak (delicious) and a two hour nap on the pebbly beach of what was turning into one of the worlds most beautiful spots. Matt was feeling better after our break, and plodded on stolidly. We camped early that night after hiking just 15 kilometers, but arriving where we had hoped to make it. We set up camp under a spreading evergreen, lit a small fire and Matt went to sleep early. I stayed up for a while longer tending the fire and being bitten by mosquitoes while reading The Idiot (half of which we had used to start the fire that evening.)

That night was cloudless, but a strong wind started from the North East and smashed the coastline with oceanic breakers all night long. I slept well, waking just once in the middle of the night to check on the fire and our bags (we were just past the town of Bolshaya Kadilnaya and a bit close to civilization for my comfort).

A Hiking Trip

Saturday, August 22nd, 2009

The sun rose lazily over Lake Baikal, chasing away the demons of uncertainty from the night before. Matthew and I had arrived in the city of Irkutsk, now over 40 kilometers away, late morning the day before (09/08) and spent hours trying desperately to get some information via the internet on the Great Biakal Trail that supposedly stretched for over 500 kilometers of the lake’s shoreline. We checked out some hotels for that night, but, finding everything either full or expensive, we had opted to take a taxi from the dirty, soviet Irkutsk to the confusing tourist villa of Listvyanka.

Listvyanka sits at the mouth of the Angara river which drains Lake Baikal north into the Arctic ocean. It was dark by the time we arrived, and we had no idea where the trail actually began. We walked the roads and paths around the northern end of town, eventually settling on a path that followed the shore for about 100 meters, before climbing into the hills overlooking the lake. An hour or so of wandering in the dark woods and we admitted we’d have to wait ’til morning to clear our minds and show us the way out. We camped late that night on a grassy ledge that sloped precariously toward the 20-foot high lakeside cliff.

Matthew had woken a bit earlier than I and had pumped some water from the crystal clear lake. He had also talked to a few British tourists down the beach a ways who also had no idea where they were going, the only difference was that they had a guide. I woke groggily and helped him prepare breakfast. Over bowls of hot oatmeal we went over what we knew about the lake and the trail. The lake itself is considered the oldest lake in the world (between 25 million and 6 thousand years old, depending on your views) and contains 20% of the world’s freshwater—more than all 5 great lakes combined. Along the banana-shaped lake, a dozen or so little towns nestle between the frigid waters and the majestic peaks of the surrounding mountain ranges. We would be hiking from Listvyanka, near the southern tip of the lake, along the inside curve past two little lake-side towns—Bolshiye Koty and Bolshaya Kadilnaya—ending up at Bolschoye Goloustnoe, a slightly larger town where we could get a bus back to Irkutsk. If we timed it right, the trip would take four days getting us back to Irkutsk on Friday with our train leaving later that day.

As we sat eating and basking in the morning sun, alone until the pack of British tourists we had seen earlier traipsed past us with their guide. The one Matt had talked to earlier told us we were on the right path and we rejoiced. We packed up and were soon on our way, loaded down with food and camping gear, enough, we hoped, to last us those 4 days. It was an easy hike for the most part, but neither of us were in good shape after several weeks of immobilizing train rides. We each had 50 pound packs on our backs, no hiking boots, not enough water, and Matthew was starting to show signs of a cold or flu as we left. Not a good start for a journey of 55 kilometers over rough, mountainous terrain in the heart of Siberia, but we were not faint of heart and we plunged on.

The trail wound its way beside the deep blue lake, but Matthew and I could only enjoy it when we stopped from time to time to catch our breath. An hour or so in, we passed the British group, but other than that we felt we were going extremely slowly. Our lack of water along with Matt’s disease did not make for easy going and the constant up and down of the cliffside trail didn’t help either. We made it to Bolshiye Koty late that evening, found it to be significantly smaller than we had expected and found only a closed shack with “Museum” written on it, a few houses, a ferry terminal, and overpriced soda on the shelves of the only magazin (shop) in town. We moved on, made it out of town just as the sun was setting, and, after a grueling hike up a little hill, eventually found a place flat enough to sleep that night.

Unfortunately, it was also a place apparently frequented by horses, as their droppings surrounding the site attested. We were feeling a bit ambivalent about the day. I had a dull, dehydration-induced headache and Matt was not looking extremely healthy. We lit a fire to encourage ourselves and I tried my hand at my first campfire-cooked meal. The rice was underdone, which I intensely dislike, so that did nothing to lighten my mood. Later that night, when I woke to the frightening sound of horses pawing and neighing right by my head in the pine-darkened forest, I wasn’t so sure about the whole hiking idea.

Drive Baby Drive

Thursday, July 23rd, 2009

Leaving Madrid wasn’t anything too exciting, it’s a nice city and the roads are fine, although many main roads were still above ground. We drove east toward Italy, passed Barcelona that night and slept outside Avignon, France. The next morning (06/30) we visited Avignon, where the pope once lived and where one of the antipopes made their headquarters (remember when we were in Konstanz? That was the council where they ousted the antipopes, one of whom lived in Avignon). A very nice city, we decided after hiking a little hill to see the city, although the road system was a bit tricky. Then we were on our way again.

We hit the French Riviera to the west of Monaco and traveled along the winding but beautiful roads toward that famous and expensive little town. Monaco was packed with people, as was most of the French Riviera—not surprising on a beautiful June day. We found some parking and visited the port, full of sleek sailboats, ostentatious yachts, pleasant rowboats, a few fishing boats, and dozens of yachties there to do the dirty work for the rich and famous. Along the dockside a Ferrari 360 Spyder and a Porshe Carrera GT found spaces between Bentleys and Mercedes and $600 suits enjoyed debonair lunches with $800 purses at secluded sidewalk cafes.

We felt out of place, and, as a $1M helicopter launched from its seaside berth, we meekly citröened* our aging VW out of the country.

We got on the motorway and took our aim for Italy. We skirted Genova and headed to Torino where we saw the old Olympic Village, a cool bridge, a Latin-American Festival and then found a spot to eat some supper and sleep. The next day, we saw the famous Shroud of Turin (with the image of Jesus on it). Not all of us were convinced and most of us were skeptical and others of us were dubious, but we were glad to have seen the big box that contains the shroud.

The next day we got on a road and began following it figuring this was the best way to navigate since we were in Italy and all roads lead to Rome. It did not, in fact, lead to Rome, instead it led to Pisa so we stopped and saw the tower which was still leaning and the churches and other buildings in the complex were were also leaning or had previously leant. One thing none of us had known previously was how big the complex was that included the leaning tower.

We departed that evening, found a road which did lead to Rome and followed it. The next day we arrived.

* Have we explained this yet? In Bad Pyrmont we visited the VW dealership and were told that if we didn’t repair our leaking hydraulic suspension (for about €100) we would end up bouncing like a Citröen. We decided that was a risk we were willing to take. A month or so later we noticed a pronounced bouncing in the back end and christened the unpredictable and sustained trampoline-like movement “citröening.”

Leaving Morocco

Thursday, July 23rd, 2009

On June 24th we left Morocco. Our ferry trip was much calmer and nicer than the trip down, because we were allowed to wait to have our passports stamped until we got to Spain. We made it through customs after a nice drug-sniffing dog checked our car. Nice to know we didn’t accidentally pick up any drugs. Then we were back in Spain… for a few hours.

We stopped that late afternoon in Gibralter. Driving through the streets was a bit challenging, but I had been there before so at least we didn’t get horribly lost. We stopped at Europa point, a rather boring lighthouse, but the view is pretty neat. You can see the coast of Spain across the gulf and there, across the strait, the mountains of Morocco, garbed in mist, rising up in the fading sunlight.

At the point there was what must be the only open space in Gibralter (the entire area is mainly just a small mountain). In that area was a game of cricket! We were a bit excited because we had hoped to see some cricket in the British Isles, but had failed. So, we watched the game, were utterly confused, and after something undecipherable happened the game ended and we wandered away feeling as though we had witnessed an amazing event but had no idea what it was. Like looking at a piece of modern art and knowing that it means something, but you have no way of knowing what that is.

We headed up The Rock to try to find some Apes (Barbary Macaques, actually, but they’re called The Gibralter Apes). We did. About three quarters of the way up, we came around a sharp corner and there on the rock retaining wall were two Apes, sitting there looking mysterious. Just a bit further down the road was a pull-off point where even more Apes were cavorting about, eating the food the other tourists (there were about 5 of them) were feeding them illegally. We did not feed them illegally, although at one point I opened up the back of the car to get my hat out and a large, female Ape swung around the corner of our car, grabbed a black plastic bag and ripped it open. She seemed quite disappointed to find laundry detergent inside and was not hard to chase off with my flip-flop.

After hanging out with the Apes for a while, we descended the mountain. I spent the rest of my British Pounds (four of them) and we departed heading toward Granada.

We arrived at Granada late that evening, after having a bit of difficulty finding the right part of town using a map and a bit of dead-reckoning navigation on my part. Our time in Granada was short, but very nice. We hiked the second highest point in continental Spain with Kevin and Evan (who did quite well at a long and arduous hike). It was a lot of fun with spectacular views the entire way up.

Our second day, we visited the Alhambra (made better for me by the fact that I had been reading Washington Irving’s Tales of the Alhambra on the trip) which was quite worth the visit, pictures will portray it better than I can, but if you ever get the chance, you must visit it and leave yourself plenty of time. If you can, have a picnic in the Generalife gardens. We didn’t, instead we had spectacular paella prepared by Wendy.

The entire time was flavored by our interaction with the Mayers who made us feel so welcomed and whose company we enjoyed greatly.