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Memories of Skye (May 2018)

KK, N, E.G, M.M and I visitied the Isle of Skye at the very end of May. I don’t think I should even note it down but… this time, Scotland was sunny. Again. Like it always is. We all got a bit sunburnt. Like one always does when visiting Scotland. The weather forecast was so adamant on the sun that no one even took any waterproof clothing. This is special.

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Thursday, 24.05

We flew into Inverness, took a car. Drove back to the airport, since N forgot his wallet and passport into the plane. Drove off again. Drove some more. Stopped the car at some point and smelled the air on the way. People had parked their caravans next to a large road and were grilling dinner. The air smelled of summer evenings and lower heartbeats. Mine was beating faster, though, because I knew we were close to the neighbourhood where the Cape Wrath trail runs…

We had dinner in a pub close to Skye bridge. It was light at 10pm. We were in the North and it was summer. The moon lit up the remaining snow on top of the Black Cuillins. A perfect view from the doorstep of Sligachan Bunkhouse.

Friday, 25.05

We had breakfast at the Sligachan Hotel, just a 5-minute walk from our bunkhouse. The views outside the hotel were so distracting that I was late to breakfast and the first one to leave. Just sitting outside, looking at those fast moving clouds was enough to fill my soul. #soulnutrients – mental note, never use this. 🙂

We then drove to Elgol and used Misty Isle Boat Trips to get to the shores of Loch Coruisk (and avoiding a 30+ km hike). The only way in on foot involves a long hike and is better with a night camp by the lake shores. Since we did not bring tents, a boat ride it was! Loch Coruisk… Ohh. Many legends are told of it. Dozens and dozens of travel diaries describe Loch Coruisk as otherwordly or eerie. It is told to be a strange place, hidden from the rest of the world by the Cuillin mountain range, with no quick access to its shores. People have gone there to search for the legendary kelpie, to meditate or to bask in the oozing awe which the secluded space creates.

When we reached the loch, all we got was blasting sunshine that was soon followed by some cold winds. Nothing was eerie apart from the absolute greyness of the waters. And that’s when I realised it. I had arrived with fixed expectations. I had arrived imagining the loch would greet us with goosepump inducing presence, immediately throwing us into an unknown fairytale world.

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Loch Coruisk.


As soon as I let go of that preconception, the winds stopped and the landscape transformed itself. Not into a gloomy night of rain (as you hear from the typical Scottish stories) but into a desert-like terrain of warmth and stillness. And now I’m 100% certain that there really are spots in this world that change their looks by magic

I like how sometimes, wilderness is only a boat ride away.

We spent the night at Skye Backpackers hostel. For dinner, we drove across the bridge again, and dined at a fish food restaurant located in a train station between timber ferries and train tracks. We literaaly drove our car onto the train platform by… following our logic. 🙂 A hint of Twin Peaks vibe was felt.

Saturday 26.05

We hit the road after breakfast in the hostel and then hiked the Quiraing Loop (Trotternish Ridge) for the morning (we started closer to Uig) and paid a visit to the Fairy Glens later in the day. I had not been ready for the people. I had not.

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The Quiraing.

Drinks and later dinner were enjoyed at the Ferry Inn. I had 4 beers. It was the first time this year I had 4 beers. (Not pints, though.)

Our accommodation was in the fabulous 6-bed dorm in the Cowshed. This is the most fabulous hostel I have ever, ever staid in. The living room and kitchen area was also one of the fanciest living rooms I have ever been in. Cowshed in located on the hill, so the view from its wall to ceiling glass window looks straight at the water. With every night, our accommodation got better and better. I am happy it culminated with this.

N discovered his shirt was missing. It was not found.

Sunday 27.05

We had breakfast at a hippie cafe in Portree. We wanted to see the colourful houses – and we did – but then also realised that the best view of them is probably from the water.

We saw a wild fire on our way back. Thought it might be the shirt on fire. It was hell of a dirty shirt, you see. But no. It was a real fire. It is the second wild fire I have witnessed in my life and it punches strongly into your stomach. The devastation is quite strong.

We did stop at the bunkhouse of our first night to check for the missing shirt but there was no sign of a shirt or of other humans. We admitted our honest defeat.

As our good bye to the Isle of Skye, went to see the Old Mann of Storr. There was Viking treasure buried close to it. But that was a while ago. I like the fact that people are still flocking to big stones like they have always done. In many ways, nothing has changed.

Back to Inverness and then home. Still, it takes 10-12 hours to come home from anywhere on this island.

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What was most surprising? How Skye was not wild. I think my imagination had prepared me for nature close to the Highlands where you can walk forever and still only be surrounded by trees and mountains. But the feel of Mini Patagonia was nonetheless magnificent.

 

The walks and wanders between April 1 – May 14, 2018. Or – where have I ended up?

The long introduction

I want to write this down so I would have it. But already I do not have the correct form or the correct style. I will write this only for myself, not keeping my 10 readers in mind, yes, only for me.

It is for those days when I feel like I’m stuck, like I can’t get out enough or when I do not get out enough but it is all for a chosen good.

It is Monday, 14th of May. Since the beginning of April, I have been out. I really have. Here is proof:

Hiking the South West Coast Path in Cornwall, England: 09–12.04

A surprise trip to Paris: 13–15.04

A London LOOP walk – 18.04

Hiking the Eden Valley Trail from Hever to Leigh in Kent, England: 19.04

Spring travels in Alsace: 25.04–02.05

A hike in Schwarzwald, Germany: 28.04

A day out to Hara Gulf, Estonia: 06.05

Family trip to Istanbul: 09-13.05

Wanders in the Pääsküla wetlands reserve: 14.05

Isle of Skye visit with friend: 24-27.05

In April, I walked 244.16 km. From May 1 to midnight of May 14th, I walked 140.02 km. So the last 1.5 months have brought me more than 380 km worth of proper wanders.

I wanted to do this in sections. Write down bits from each walk but it all became a burden. There are too many lists and rules I have made for myself that perhaps are slowly starting to lose their meaning. Other things have taken their place. And although I love, love, love writing about my hikes and walks, and keeping my analogue hiking diaries and tracking some distances, it is this blog that has started to feel like a burden. Perhaps it is because I have made it a rule to update it at least once a month. Or perhaps it is because I am writing a travel book (and have my book deal to prove it!), so I already have a lot of real travel writing happening as well. But mostly it is because the format is just not suitable. To write long-form, readable, witty and perspective articles takes weeks of time, and since my blog is not in my TOP 20 priorities, I will not take the time to keep it. But I still, somehow… like it. It is clumsy and dirty and gets away with fever lies.

I think this is just me trying to apologise to myself for cutting down on some extra stuff that I have made myself do. But the cutting down is good. And it is mostly because something happened last month.

The month of magical thinking

One day, when traveling in Alsace, we asked an old lady in a mountain cheese farm (mmm, Munster) why her dog only had one eye. “Aaah, the cat”, she said. And then she cut us more cheese.

And took us to see her cows. And a young cowling (yes, this word, what about it) licked my hand and her tongue was long and soft and lasso-like in its purple splendour.

“Spring is a vigilant time,” the old cheese woman said. “The wild boars and deer come to eat my rose buds. One day, I would like to take revenge on the village people down there, I don’t like them. I would like to catch a wild boar and take it down to their village so it would eat all their rose buds instead.”

And off we drove, our hands full of packages of delicious delicious cheese, with the cheese cutting grandmother waving at us, and the husky having gone into hiding.

Later, in the same day, I understood that the last time I felt inspiration was 4 years ago. In 2014. Around the time we were in Greece. Somewhere in the early summer. The second thing I understood was that inspiration physically feels like a very concentrated form of LSD. But not just a random drug trip but like a trip with a very clear goal that sucks you into it. Hence the concentration.

I was standing in front of a twirling metal OVERT (Open) sign next to an old winery on Monday, April the 30th, and that’s when I felt it, and that’s when I understood it. That very moment I also understood that I have not had more than 2 weeks off (in a row) for at least 14 years. And this is not normal. So I decided to take entire the September off and not put ANYTHING into my calendar. I have an entire summer to work towards it, so I think that it doable. But since these past weeks have shaped so many ideas already, I am beginning to feel like I don’t even need the month off. But I do. The main goal of that month is to discover what type of new ideas have I been nurturing over all those years. And what are the fresh thoughts that will come. I want to feel what my brain comes up with when it is not under a constant (yet ever so pleasurable) pleasure (yes!) to meet the deadlines for copywriting, house renovating, book publishing, travel writing, mountain training, etc., etc.

And I learned that there was a French Tour de France cyclist who always waited for others on top of a mountain because he was afraid to go down alone.

Out of France

On May 3rd I flew to Tallinn through Helsinki. I was asked to speak at a conference, and I did. The conference focused on the performative aspects of space, and had speakers from different disciplines and backgrounds: architects, mathematicians, sound designers, actors, etc. I talked about journey design for various user journeys, and how to create journeys and advetures in different fields and for different purposes. And flying over Finland is a happy thing on a sunny day because all the lakes reflect black the clouds like artistic graves with mirrors in them. There is another type of peace in the Finnish airspace, almost eerie. Something that makes you dream on ancient places.

And as soon as the conference was done, my friend took me to an ex Soviet submarine demagnetizing station. Submarines become magnetised when traveling around, I did not know that. So every now and then they need to be taken out of the water in order for them not to turn into mine magnets. There were lots of abandoned buildings in those forests (but there are loads of those left in Estonia, all from the Soviet days), lots of bird song and lots of moss. I asked my friend to stop the car on our way back. And to wait for me. I ran into the forest and listened to the raven and to the cuckoo and to some little fellas whose names I have no knowledge of. And the sun shone on the blueberry leaves and the moss invited me to stay. I can’t remember the last time I slept in a forest. Mountains, camps, swamps, etc. – yes. But not the forests. But this time the forest was calling my name.

Other strange things happened during this trip. Currently I feel like bringing an adventure journey I have been developing for 12 months to Estonia, and start from there. I feel like working with directors and actors, and in such a pure form, I have never ever felt it. And this feels funny. And light.

I flew back to London today – Monday, 14th of May. It was an evening flight, so I had the morning to myself. I took the cab (yes, I know, the environment) to my childhood bus stop and started walking. Soon I was standing by the first spring that I ever discovered. The water was still bubbling and it felt good. (Gods, I’m getting old.) The next place that I reached were some hills that felt like huge mountains when I was growing up. There were a couple I never dared to ski down from. And I walked up and down all of them today. “I can’t believe how small I have been”, was all I could think of. I really have been that small. But it was not a nostalgic visit. It was a courtesy one. I don’t know exactly how my plans will work out, but I do have my mind set on a dream mountain that stands 6000 m tall. My schedule-based training starts tomorrow. So there was an inner purpose to this visit that I had not been aware of.

I looked around in the wetlands that I took possession of as a kid, calling them my kingdom, dragging all my friends into forests and swamps until their parents started telling them off for being friends with me. I did not go on any of my old trails. My kingdom was given a nature deserve status about five years ago, so now it feels all different. There are wooden board walks and signs in the ground. But back in the day you had to know. And I still know where the rest of it is, constantly changing, constantly growing. Luckily, the board walks only spread out in one specific direction. All the rest is still out there, someone else’s kingdom, someone else’s peat coloured days with the May cuckoos singing their time in the pine forest background. And that makes me happy.

Memoirs of the Mount Kazbek summit day. How I finally climbed a 5000+ m mountain in Georgia. Part 2 of 2.

Thursday, August 11. The summit day – reaching 5033 m in one piece!

The alarm went off at 1 a.m. I unzipped the tent door and looked outside. There was not a cloud in the sky. Only the craziest number of stars I had ever seen.

“Fuck!” I thought with bone piercing joy and a good amount of intimidation. It was actually going to happen.

After a quick pee and some sugary black tea, we geared up, checked our headlamps and left camp at 2 a.m.

I tried not to think about what lied on that part of the rubble path which the rays from my  head lamp did not reach. Hint: sheer drops onto a glacier. (And no, I have no photos of this part of the journey.)

*

After 45 minutes of walking, we stopped for a change of clothes. Most of us had put on one layer too much and were feeling quite hot during the dark hours of the day when thousands of meters above the sea level. I was wearing a long top and fleece under my jacket, so I took the fleece away.

During that short break, I looked to where we had come from. I saw another group starting up that same path. Obviously, you don’t see a group of people in the distance but a slowly moving row of light dots in pitch darkness. In high altitude, people get turned into mythical glowworms slithering their way up. I then noticed another glowworm that was at least 45 minutes ahead of us. Under the star-studded sky, all the far-away mountaineers looked like stars on earth.

Our guide led us on well-chosen moraine paths on the dark glacier. During the first two hours,the terrain changed from scree to white snow, and also involved finding our way through a proper labyrinth. I have absolutely no idea what I would have done here alone, in the middle of the night! That aside, navigating strange labyrinths in darkness is video game level awesome.

Since the crevasses are constantly changing (because the glacier changes), the labyrinth’s paths also change with every year. This labyrinth of rocks has a great number of passes, but a lot of them are cut off by a crevasse, so navigating this part of the jouney in darkness without a guide would have been sheer madness.

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Time for another well-deserved break on the ascent.

It is amazing how quickly the sun comes up, although you actually trek hours in complete darkness. When it started getting light, we roped up for a white glacier crossing (at 4220 m). All went well and smoothly during this part of the journey. It was a beautiful time, nearing the plateau of Kazbek Pass. Silent, easy and at ease.

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Getting higher and higher.

At the plateau edge (at 4600 m) we took another break while Sirxan was tentatively inspecting the cloud circling the summit. For me, it meant putting my fleece back on without exposing two arms to the cold at once. This was a stupid place to change. I should have put on more clothes earlier. (What if the weather had quickly turned?) Next time I won’t walk in fear, no!

Speaking of pros and cons of the gear and clothing, I did discover a negative side to my otherwise absolutely wonderful Berghaus rucksack (Expedition Lite 80) – carrying a 1 L water bottle in its side pocket is only possible up to a certain angle. When the ground gets steeper, the bottle starts falling out of the pocket. It slips out, jumps over your shoulder (kind of) and slides down the climbed path. When it happened for the second time, my team member caught it and placed in the snow to wait for my return. (Luckily, people had enough water and warmth of heart 🙂 to share their water with me during the rest of the ascent.)

We reached the saddle (at 4844 m) after a steep, zig-zagging climb. This is where we dropped the rope and our bags. There was 150 m to go. The main summit was in a cloud.

*

And this is how the final push started. The steepest part of the climb. 150 m to go, at up to a 45 degree angle (a bit icy at times). This is why we had come here.

The only thought I had during the summit push, was that I would not be anywhere else at this moment. Not anywhere else, not doing anything else. It does not matter that I could not take more than 10 steps without having to rest; it does not matter that I could not even see how long I had to keep going.

And then it just happened. Thanks to Sirxan and Emil (our two Azerbaijani mountain guides), and the near-perfect weather conditions, we summited Mount Kazbek at 9.30 a.m. that morning.

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Our mountain guide Sirxan from Vertical Travel Azerbaijan on the summit of Mount Kazbek.

There was an Iranian group already on the top, sharing their cheers, jubilations and chocolate with us. There was also (Russian) cellular reception. (And I do love sending texts to my loved ones from the mountain tops. Sending texts to loved ones from mountain tops will be the name of my first indie album.)

This was it. It was actually happening! After having convincing myself to lift one of my legs in front and above the other for endless minutes in that white oblivion, I was feeling that kind of physical happiness that completely takes over the mind. Or vice versa. There’s no way to tell. And I don’t want to know.

I just hope there will be more moments like these in my future.

There just has to be.

Aaaand….. It was now time to face the other way.

But. Descending to the col was difficult. I had never descended in crampons on such a steep angle. It took me dozens of meters to even start trusting my feet. So, I first went down side first at least for one third of the journey. Not only side first, but also smashing my boot noses and crampons’ hooks into the icy snow. You know. Just in case. (* facepalm *) (But how do you learn?!)

Upon finally reaching the col again, the cloud lifted from around the summit. At this moment everyone saw where where we had just been. “I would never have gone up there, had I seen this view before!” got shouted by many of us. Climbing in the cloud, it had felt like a 20-35 m way up. It was higher, much, much higher. All the 150 m of it.

We roped up again and started our long descent back to base camp. It took me a while to start walking at a normal pace. Although the angle was steep, it was nothing like those final 150 m had been.  Something in me (well, the fear!) wanted to go much slower than the group was going, but changing the pace was not an option. It was also not necessary. Eventually, I did start trusting my legs (well, the crampons!) a bit more, and by the end of the white glacier I had long ago stopped thinking about the pace at all.

For a while, everything continued to be white. Except for a heap of colourful gummy bears glistening in the snow.

Notes to self:

– obtain a longer ice axe (my current one is definitely better for ice climbing than alpine mountaineering)

– definitely go to that winter training in Scotland in winter 2016/2017

– find out whether there’s an official rule to the tightness of the rope during a rather easy glacier crossing. Some people said the connecting rope should be hanging loosely on the snow, just loosely enough so it would touch the surface (but not really tangle behind); some, that it should be hanging in the air.

*

We got back to the base camp by 3.38pm. The weather was sunny all the time. The  Caucasian sheep dogs greeted us on our way. We already knew them.

The time to reflect (with passion!) had arrived. The trip organisers said it was the most difficult ascent of their lives. Our team members who had summited Elbrus and/or Island Peak in Nepal also placed the ascent of Mount Kazbek as their most strenuous to date. For me, it was the descent, that was really difficult. Both of my big toes had really started to hurt (from the excessive and absolutely unnecessary smashing back near the col).

And what is also only Level 2 fun? Running from falling rocks when your toes are spitting fire. Not. Fun. At. All. At. The. Time.

There’s Khmaura Wall between 4150 m and 4200 m: a steep moraine wall which’s purpose on Earth is to throw rocks at you. You need to pass quite close to it when climbing up or down Mount Kazbek (that’s the only way, otherwise you have to go too close to the crevasses). And soon as the sun is out, the rocks do start falling. So, in the afternoon there is a high risk at getting hit by falling rocks. Hence the running.

And this is just one of the reasons why Alpine start is always preferred on Mount Kazbek.

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Remnants of past rock falls.

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Things to note:

– the first and second time I used the toilet today were: 1:40 a.m. and then 5.30 p.m. Definitely the longest I’ve ever gone without peeing.

– for the first time ever, my underwear top had salty sweat stains on it (it was all white in parts).

– the rolled cherry tobacco cigarette tasted quite amazingly good after dinner.

– one my the socks was bloody.

– it is possible to fall asleep when getting used to the sound of the (very distant) rock avalanche.

It was our last evening at base camp. I was a little worried about the glacier tomorrow (the same we had come up on during Tuesday’s climb. It felt quite steep.) But worries never get you anywhere, so I stopped.

My sleep that night was sweet and deep. This was our third night at this altitude. Turning sides when asleep did not make me breathless any more.

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Relaxing view from the base camp.

Friday, August 12. From base camp at 3600 m to 2100 m.

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All cramponed up for the glacier. (Photo stolen from Siim.)

This is what I remember from the day:

– my toes really hurt

– the way up had been quicker

– the glacier was not steep at all (apart from the mountain guides, we were all on crampons, still)

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Ready to cross the glacier again. (Photo stolen from Siim.)
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Another group going up where we just descended from.

– blister plasters do let you walk even if semolina-like puss is oozing from underneath them

– the lower we got, the more I started craving for the ripe Georgian tomatoes and peaches

– the closer we got the church, the more trekkers we saw (more than one person asking us whether the glacier was reachable within 20 minutes)

– my toes really, really hurt (bruising under toenails, blisters, hurt skin).

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Our large friend who later escorted all the wild horses off our camp site.

It took a small forever to reach the Gergeti Trinity Church again. We set up camp and got greeted by cows and wild horses at our camp. The latter were specially interested in chewing through our sweaty clothing. Luckily, the faithful sheep dogs were not far away. The horses were soon escorted off our camp ground.

We gave some food to the dogs. They licked our hands and gave us their paws as a thank you. (I am NOT making this up.) We dreamt of washing ourselves in two days (first time in a week), and got our hands on some Kindzmarauli, fresh cucumbers and peaches. Raki and Allan made the best soup of the entire trip (with everything in it). All the food we ate that evening was extremely delicious.

Raki says he had spotted a raw plum at 4800 m on the previous day. “How do you know it was raw?” I inquired.

“Tasted it.”

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Good night.

Couple of next days to follow.

The next morning we packed up our gear and descended to Kazbegi village (at 1700 m). My blisters were healing quickly, the toes obviously still hurt. Both of my ankles also looked a bit elephant-y.

Finally, we got our bags transported to a hostel. The door to the trunk of that car did not close (and we did not fit in), but the bags did get a lift. The fact that there was not water in the hostel for hours did not even count as a setback!

The next couple of days were spent walking around the Uplistsikhe cave city – a once-upon-a-time hub of Caucasian pagan worship and a legendary stop on the Silk Road; getting properly cleansed in a hammam in Tbilisi, counting 243 trucks in a Russian border queue, and spotting Georgian police ladies putting on make-up and smoking in the ladies toilet of the Tbilisi airport. And eating more of those peaches.

Things I learnt from the Kazbek summit expedition:

– In Georgia, large dogs often follow you ❤ ❤

– On the summit day with an Alpine start, do not eat before heading out (only drink tea)

– Drink water when you stop (otherwise minerals get lost immediately)

– Keep your toe nails as short as possible

– Use the resting step during ascent

– Breathe deeply with your belly every now and then

– Take magnesium powder/tablets with you

– Take some mineral tablets with you to mix into water at higher altitudes

– Adventure Clinic is probably the best travel agency in Estonia.

Tuesday, October 25.

It looks like the nail on my left big toe is actually loose.

Technically, I still made it to the top in one piece, even if a bit of me falls off because of that within 2016 after all.

*

Mount Kazbek 2016 summit expedition was organised and led by the Estonian adventure travel company Adventure Clinic with the help from Vertical Travel Azerbaijan.

Words will do no justice!

Memories of Madeira: 13 reasons for a summer visit

It was June. I travelled to Madeira with KJ, another dramaturge from Estonia who has an eye and a tooth for faraway places.

I’ll be honest – I only spent a week in Madeira. I have not hiked all of her levada trails, climbed all of her highest peaks or swam in all of her waves. But I have done portions of all of that.

Madeira makes you feel welcome. The atmosphere in here is so relaxed that every thing that your brain decides to distinguish gets interpreted as a greeting just for you. Maybe it’s that cute mongrel that is wagging its tail? Or maybe it’s that passionfruit mousse that has your first and (secret) middle name whipped into its fluffiness?

So, what are the ways Madeira greets you with even when you just have a week to explore?

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1.The lounging rooftop dogs.

You know how cats usually rule lots of Mediterranean (or generally warm) towns? And how they can be seen curled up in flower pots and sunbathing on window sills? Madeira has dogs sleeping on shed and house roofs with their snouts hanging over the edge in the warm wind.

2. Never-silent lizard steps.

There’s an endemic lizard species on Madeira that can be seen everywhere. No, really, everywhere! Which means that the bushes and shrubberies are never silent. Whether walking in the interior of the island or passing flower beds in town parks, the constant littil rustling never stops.

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3. Peaceful-looking ocean waves that still throw you onto the smooth but painful rocks.

In here, is better to jump in from a deeper place than try to approach the ocean on foot as you’d do on the shores of the Baltic Sea, for example. (You can trust my words or trust my bruises.)

A positive side to this is the sound of the receding waves over large pebbles and rocks. They sound like a rave where DJs play sped-up ice cracking recordings.

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A spa built around a volcanic beach. The softest place to swim.

4. Blossoms. Everywhere.

Everything that can blossom, blossoms. The nickname ‘The Island of Eternal Spring’ really holds true. And if you haven’t breathed in the white Angel’s trumpets’ blossoms yet, you’re lacking a drug-like experience which will change your life forever. (Only a slight exaggeration.)

One man’s front yard really can be the other man’s botanical garden.

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5. The demon ducks (?).

I mean, there are birds in the wide levadas that reach the ocean in different towns across the island that sound like demonic dog toys.

You can’t see the birds for the lush vegetation, but the sounds bear a resemblance to the common duck. Just be warned.

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No demon duck pictured.

6. The post-rain eucalypt trees.

Yes, they smell nothing like pines. And they also look slightly magical. And being amongst those trees does feel like your lungs are getting clinically cleansed by a forest dentist.

7. Scarecrows of all sorts.

You will see the human lookalikes and the classic tin can men, but you’ll aslo see figures designed out of wood blocks shaped like bones. (Check point 5 again?)

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8. Views from higher than cloud nine.

The highest part of the island lies away from its shores. For a superb view of mountain tops covered in clouds, head to Achada fo Teixeira in Santana. Only this is enough to give your horizons a stretch, but from here you can go for a pleasant hike to the top of Madeira’s highest peak, Pico Ruivo (1862 m). (It’s the descent at the other end of the trail that takes a bit more time.)

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9. The rise of the vertical forest.

They say that Estonia is 50% covered in forest. The percentage must reach 85% in Madeira. (Actually, 85% of the island is a national park.) The shape of the landscape (let’s just say it: the mountains!) also offers you either Alpine or near-Hawaiian views. Many mountains in one, as they say.

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10. Dolphins, dolphins, dolphins!

It will not be a beer commercial or an overpaid nature cruise. You just take literally any of the boat trips from Funchal’s harbour area and spend the next hours floating away on the Atlantic ocean, jump in if you want to, and of course, – seeing those littil friends come and accompany your boat for awhile. The spotted kind followed us, but there are others. (Ok, I’ve never seen dolphins in an ocean before, I’m still so so happy about this!)

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11. Eye-catching sculptural works.

You know how in Europe you often come across the following sculptures: men on horses, a couple with one of the people lying in the other’s arms, little children wrestling fish and/or peeing, or men wearing funny hats while looking serious?

Not in Maderia. Here you see (a lot!) larger-than-life-size cogs and conveyor belt pieces, angels with fallen heads stranded in mid-air between apartment blocks or 2D farmers hugging 2D cows.

A very welcome addition to the first list, as I see it.

12. The Airport.

If you’re afraid of flying (I used to be), don’t look it up. Even if you already know that it has a motorway and a little boat harbour under its runway and that the latter * used * to be the shortest in Europe, just don’t look it up.

However, if you do like side-wind landings, this is your party time. (Only if you land on a blustery day, of course.)

13. Parasols made of palm tree branches on urban beaches.

Some of the parasols are older, so their branches are withered.(The branches are probably taken from the banana plantations, but I could be wrong.) And when the wind blows, they rustle in that classic tropical manner. And this is amazing, although it can probably feel like a catalogue-ordered amazement. I have never heard a withered palm tree branch rustling over me on a beach, though.

I’m from the north. All this is magic.

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Watching nostalgia being born in Istanbul in May

I returned to Istanbul at the very end of spring. And with that, Istanbul became a second city that I ever revisitied as a chosen destination. (London was the first one.) Because usually, it is still about new and new and new and new and new and new places. Still.

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The walks from the first Istanbul trip are described in one of my favourite posts on Institute of Wander so far. (* pet pet pet *)

And this time it was all different.

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Last September I travelled there with my lover, so Istanbul became a whirl of sweetness (from baklavas and otherwhere), of wandering steps, crazy shop keepers and blindly discovered alleyways. But this happens to places where we end up together – wormholes open into storybook illustrations of giant icecubes or dancing monkeys in the night. (Long stories, all of the private enough.)

This time, however, I still walked Istanbul with my lover but also with two of our friends. Istanbul being Istanbul, everything still became dressed in baklava honey.

But something new also took place.

As I’ve never felt full nostalgia in my life (blame it on the boogie, the youth-time weed pipes or an insensitively structured memory), I wasn’t quite sure what was happening when the first signs started popping up. There was also no single deail that would have unleashed a string of yearning. Somehow, it was all around me.

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I have always thought of nostalgia as of something somewhat linear. It is something you feel when you go back in time through your chosen means: visiting an old school, looking at photos, entering your room in your parents’ house after having moved out, etc. Always back, always in the back of the head of Time. But! In Istanbul, nostalgia is alive at the same time with you. It does not point backwards but spreads iself out in a parallel fashion.

In here, nostalgia is not only personal.

One of the strangely beautiful things that starts happening in Istanbul is that you start seeing your childhood years as something less unique; of them having been spent inside less of an idiosyncratic structure – in a place that was somehow connected or still is connected to other places and cities of this world. Maybe this is where Istanbul’s magic comes from? (Yes, I’m still after its source.) It is a city that manages to hold all other cities and all other times inside it.

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Fun Fact: we actually did try to keepa list of all places Istanbul reminded us of, and ended up with nearly 20 items listed, from Krakow at the end of the 1970s and Vilnius in the 1980s to the side streets of Montmartre and of Marrakech right now. And none of us has even lived out of the current centuries.

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And I think there’s one more way for nostalgia to get born. It comes to life from the feeling of not having to prove yourself as a place, of embracing the past in full totality, of selling old photographs of the city to the locals and to the fresh-eyed wanderers instead of the newest design bric-a-brac. (Although, yes, yes, all that totally exists.) But what place offers authentic pieces of itself away to strangers so freely? You can only do that when you have near-endless amounts of yourself to give, and when by doing that, you feel like not giving away your past but sharing your very present. This is how nostalgia can be born and alive right in the same moment with you.

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And since Istanbul seems to stand above and around time, I now know that my next trip there will be a (definitely baklava-fuelled) hunt for the future. Because – where else?

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More lessons from the Lea Valley Way, April style.

 

So, what will actually happen when I finish the Lea Valley Way? Will there be a tiny deluge or will the river itself disappear? (No, no one is suffering from illusions of grandeur in here, no one.)

Lea Valley Way is the 50-mile long-distance walking route following the River Lea from its birth spring in the suburbs of Luton to the Thames near Limehouse.

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It can be pleasantly walked in 4 days or so the Internet says. When I was planning to walk it in one go last summer, there was only one proper description of all stages available online.

I’ve walked the Lea Valle Way:

Lea Valley Walk, Stage 1 / 17.07.2015 / ~ 36 km; read about that stupidly lucky walk here

Lea Valley Walk, Stage 3 / 19.07.2015 / 23 km

Lea Valley Walk, Stage 4 / 26.09.2016/ 7.9k km

– And on 16.04. 2016, S-L, G and I set out to do the Lea Valley Walk, Stage 2 (25.9 km)

Stage 2 of the walk stretches from Hatfield to Broxbourne. By all accounts it should be pleasantly doable in one day, during the warmest sunlight hours. “I can’t believe I’m finally finishing it today!” I told my lover, my friends and my housemates when leaving for that last stretch that Saturday morning.

The first half of the walk was cloudy, but after leaving Hatfield behind and lunching in Hertford, the skies lit up and our step got faster. (Sadly, G actually had to go home, since his foot had managed to seriously convince him it was too exhausting to move.) I also witnessed my goldenest golden hour during this stage of the walk. Everything was going brilliantly.

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Lea Valley Walk, from Hatfield to Broxbourne. Hertfordshire, England, April 2016.

We continued on, following the lovely water. The darkness had long-ago fallen when S-L and I reached Dobb’s Weir – a location separated from the Broxbourne train station by a few kilometers. Finishing the Lea Valley Way was going to happen tonight. Suddenly, all the tiredness was gone from my legs as we started to cross the canal (the river has been directed into a canal around those parts already), I could clearly imagine reaching the station within the next half an hour and… and… and… The road was closed. Blocked (even cordoned off, maybe?; can disappointment also create false memories?) off by a large road works sign. Somewhere not far off in the darkness we saw the orange working lights of the industrial vehicle. But. Not all was lost yet!

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I dashed off to talk to a security man. And yes, all types of roads were closed. However, he directed us to a path in the forest which would take us straight to Broxbourne train station. So we entered the dark forest-like area with the help from the flashlights on our dying phones. We walked to the railway (“When you’ve reached the railway, you’ve gone too far,” the man had also said). Upon then retracing our steps we found the path. Also to be blocked off.

And we decided to call an end to our day.

I asked for local cab numbers but the security van gave us a lift to the train station. (Reminder to self! Always carry chocolate around to give to nice people!)

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*

I still have roughly 3 km to finish, which I will do at some point this year. How else can I ever say that I’ve followed an entire river, right?

Lessons learned:

1) Never underestimate a journey;

2) If destination becomes a goal the journey will lose a bit of its magic;

3) Passing a race track in the dark makes you feel like a character in a James Bond movie;

4) Trips can be undertaken that take you to a beginning of a journey which itself is actually shorter than the trip to get there. (Which part of the journey is the real journey? she asks in an ominous voice.)

My dear and much-esteemed last kilometers of the Lea Valley Way,  I’m coming to find you in 2016.

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7 reasons to cross the Rannoch Moor in March

The trail from Bridge of Orchy to the Pass of Clen Coe is one day’s journey on the Scottish West Highland Way – the 96-mile trail starting in Milngavie and ending in Fort William.

It is – by far – one the most magnificent parts of the journey (don’t judge! It includes a moor and the mountains, what else would one ever need?!) and gives you just a glimpse of one of the last wildernesses in Europe.

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When K and I walked the West Highland Way in October 2015 (check the archives for stories from that time), the Rannoch Moor part of the journey turned out to be a rare stretch without full sunshine.

I’ve read descriptions of people getting lost in the rain or crossing the moor in scorching heat, so getting an opportunity to cross it in another season and specially in March, was a chance not to be missed.

Why is it wonderful to cross the Rannoch Moor in March?

1. It is is quiet.

At first, you can guess the traffic sounds in the background, but as you get further into the moor  you’ll start finding pockets of silence where only a littil bird of a flowing river is adding their notes to the ambiance.

Silence, just like the feeling of real fear, has become rare in 2016. (Disclaimer: I wrote this text before the EU referendum.) But only one of them is a luxury we should stretch after. And nature, even moor nature, is definitely quieter in March than later on in the year.

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2. You can get very lucky with the weather.

Locals have said that the Highlands tend to get a fair weather spell around Easter. Whether it was due to the early Easter this year or just a lucky chance, the day became fit for a T-shirt.

(The same weather stretch magic applies to early October – I’ve heard it from the locals and tested it myself.)

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3. You can have the moor to yourself.

The usual West Highland Way crowds start appearing from April onwards. In March, you can still feel like walking in remote parts of Alaska in here, literally meeting no one the entire way.

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4. A chance to taste all the seasons.

If you can’t return to Rannoch in every couple of months, March will be a wonderful time to see snow either on the ground or on the mountain tops.

Yes. It is wonderful to try to escape the moor when being annoyed to oblivion by midges in summer and to see it cloud-covered in autumn, but if you don’t have proper winter clothes to wear, March can still give you a little taste of the winter season as well.

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5. No. Midges.

Just like during the first days of Paradise.

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6. Flexibility with hotels.

The hotels at the start and end of your journey are less likely to be fully booked. And if your destination is set around Glen Coe, you can start off from the Bridge of Orchy Hotel (meaning that you can fuel yourself by one of their glorious breakfasts). Mmm.

7. You can hear that bird!

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, relish in your luck. (Ok, I’ve also heard that bird in October. Sue me and leave me alone next to a solitary birch tree!)

Walking down from the moor (location pictured below) to be greeted by a sudden, invisible mock-laughter is just one of those reasons to go and wander around in this wilderness that Europe still holds.

I will not look that bird up. Something that sounds freeing and demonic at the same time should remain a mystery.

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And this is just a short list of reasons to return to Scotland as often as possible. ❤

Where did we walk in February? Bushy Park.

February is the dark month of my heart. It is a busy month between seasons where you can only guess and wonder about the next change. On February 28, we all set out for a stroll in London’s second largest Royal Park, Bushy Park (located in London Borough of Richmond upon Thames).

We were all a bit quiet that day, somehow still getting used to the fact that also this time, the winter didn’t fully get us.

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We saw birds hammering away at the ground, saw daffodils and crocuses stretching themselves out, the sun playing a childish game of sorts and the rose bushes holding on to their closed blossoms. No deer, though.

But it was going to be all right, once again.

All Februaries are difficult in a similar manner: they are filled with heavy waiting. There’s no space left for anything else. I believe their purpose is to make any March feel light, raw and liberating. Which is exactly what happened this year, when walking across the Rannoch Moor just a couple of weeks ago.

I wish I was built in a way that I could see miracles everywhere. I am not. But I’m giving my everyday best to seek them out and to lift some folded covers.

The next post on Institute of Wander will be about walking the moors. Luckily, those places are never short of magic.

Wye Valley Walk and the last sun of November

The walk from Chepstow to Llandogo took around 6-7 hours. It was the very beginning to the Wye Valley Walk which runs from Chepstow to Plynlimon. A beautiful 136 miles all together. We did about 22 km of it.

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Just three weeks earlier, Ashdown Forest in East Sussex had welcomed us with the last wave of autumn’s strength. The leaves were still hanging on, the ferns still looked pointy. It had been a darkening but friendly welcome. The time in Monmouthshire was completely different. We had stepped into the silent part of autumn.

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Everything around us had the feeling of having given up. (Not having been conquered; that’s the feeling you get during the third week of winter or so. Difference!) We still managed to walk in sunshine for the better part of the day, however. And no! There’s no magic to us always catching the sun, it’s just the layman’s luck. Or we actually come with a blessing from the Gods of the Woods.

The path we took mostly meandered up and down a valley bank. No grand views but loads of close meetings with gnarly trees. And a passageway through a massive boulder where at least one bat had taken up its residence. This was my first time being inside a boulder together with bats. I’m guessing there were many.

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Wales must be the gnarliest place on Earth, though. I think that part of its mythological charm might actually stem from the gnarls. But we were not in deep Wales, though. Just like the cave entries inside the valley bank that didn’t lead us very far, we kept getting hints of things to come without allowing ourselves to go and fully find out.

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For a little while we walked very close to the river. That part of the valley was covered in the prettiest trees imaginable, every branch and twig so utterly alluring that I nearly left my companions and ran off to see those things from up close. I did, however, suspect a trap and kept following our set course. This willpower is probably the only reason I got back to the the city again.

The border walking kept mentally pulling me away from the valley and more towards “the actual” Wales. I have been to Wales only twice and a certain feeling has lifted its head at both times. It’s the feeling of “if you practice feeling scared, you’ll remember your very first dream”. You know, that type of strange shit that feels too epic to be real.

You don’t need grand cities if you have nature like this. And if you have returned from the actual nature, you might find a small (and locked) village church from the far corner of a tiny cemetery. And if you are lucky, you can peek in through the keyhole and see colours you cannot name. Because you shouldn’t be seeing bright colours in a closed church that is not lit from the inside. And yet to do. And it is twilight outside. But if asked to describe the objects the colours were attached to, I’d really owe you an explanation.

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Borderlands make me restless. They are too rich in light layers of meaning. Every time you want to follow a thought deeper, you’re left with a choice to completely change your course or to give up on the thing that caught your attention. This part of the Wye Valley walk left me hungry. It left me hungry to step deeper over the border, to walk west from where I was, and from there, to go up north again. At the end of the day, it’s the north that wins in most cases.

 

West Highland Way: 4/4

DAY 7, from Kinlochleven to Fort William, 28,2 km.

When shopping for lunch snacks in the morning we noticed the food shop selling… cherry pie. (Check the last sentence from the post titled West Highland Way: 3/4.) It was time to get moving, fast.

The feeling of aberrantly romantic forlornness left me only after I had looked up at a tree and seen animal skulls and bicycle cogs formed into an art piece. You know, to send walkers out on the last day of their journey.

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Both the atmosphere and the landscape of the first part of Day 7 were shaped by fir trees. For a long time, we walked between hills and mountains covered in ash white tree stumps, giving the sizeable bit of our journey the feel of crossing an ancient cemetery. Looking ahead, you could see a carpet of skulls covering the mountain sides in both directions. Only an hour or two later did this type of scenery get replaced by living fir trees: first with very fat, then with very tall ones, both of them bringing about changes in the air temperature around them. And then – we caught our first glimpse of Ben Nevis.

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For the rest of the way, I was walking with an idiot’s grin on my face. (There was still quite a way to go, mind.) Ben was there and tomorrow’s forecast was close to an ideal. Apparently, the top of Ben Nevis is cloud-free in one day out of six and today turned out to be the day. (With only some hours, though, not in full length.) When getting closer to the highest mountain in the United Kingdom and the British Isles, our path converged with the old military road again. These roads are the greatest (oh, they really are!) – they always meander under the most magnificent of trees.

File3725 After having crossed the last river of our walk and having climbed up a tiny hill, I saw him! A troll warrior with wild ginger hair throwing logs into his van!

I did check with K later and she confirmed my mythological sighting: there had indeed been a sturdy (almost gnarly) man with more than a foot long red beard lifting heavy logs. Oh, I forgot to mention: all his beard hair was magnificently braided. This is when I knew for sure.

I had seen much more than I ever planned for this journey.

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Fort William came into our sight very suddenly. I was hoping for it to be some other settlement, although I already knew. The heavy feel of truth was settling in in my belly.

Soon we were next to a bigger road, then already walking across Cow Hill and directing our steps to that old bit of town which now holds the new end to the West Highland Way. There was no obelisk. There was a sign, though. We took a picture of it and a moment later, found ourselves in a pub with a huge wolf-like white dog embellishing the cosy décor with its best canine looks.

We had done it. And although the ending had indeed come very suddenly, it was a little bit welcomed as well. Not much, but a little.

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The biggest thing I learned? Seven days is a ridiculously short time for a long-distance walk. You actually get into the walking mode during your fifth day or so, so what you really really get, is three days of walking.

Walking these 156 km/96 miles taught me that I could set my sights on much longer and harder walks if I wanted to. And for that, I need to brush up on my navigation skills. Because I do want to.

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DAY 8, taking the Mountain Track up Ben Nevis (16.5 km)

Tongues of mists were hopping and slithering around the fir tree tops around our bunkhouse when I woke up. Noticing them caused my second outburst of joy that morning. The first one was brought on by the realization of being able to wear a clean bra after 8 days. (You thought it was going to be mountain related, weren’t you?)

I thought about the fogs and the clouds and the mists on my way up the mountain. All of them are part of nature’s philosophy books. Just like philosophy, they make you realise there are many other people out there who feel, think and live like you. But they (the fog, the clouds, the mists) bring that realisation to fore when stepping away from you. It’s the other way around with philosophy. But now we are only talking about directions.

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The Mountain Track was a satisfying and easy way up Ben Nevis. Mind you, the weather was adorable. Being able to quench my thirst straight from a cold mountain stream also stopped me blaming myself for not having taken any cold water with me. (I only had hot black tea.) For five seconds, a tiny rainbow also formed on the mountain side I was walking on. And as a proper Finno-Ugric wanderer, I counted that to be an outstandingly good omen.

The entire way up was a pleasant walk with a couple of calf-caressing stops. During one of these I noticed a man straight out of Caspar David Friedrich’s painting sitting on a steep mountain side and drawing something (a dream, a vision?) into his sketchbook. Scotland truly is full of legendary creatures.

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On the very top, I met our German for the very last time (with me screaming into the cloud at the top of my lungs: “I knew it! I knew it would happen!”), and looked into a crevice that still held some of last year’s snow. That sight reminded me of a location from a Soviet children’s film. Go figure.

Once or twice, the sun came out very briefly. Well, the sun did not come out, the wind tore a hole into the cloud. Suddenly I was able to see many people again. People and contours. And get a sense of the elevation.

I started on my way back quite soon and descended the first 100 meters or so with a little help from the cairns. Even with my nose getting redder with the lower temperatures near the top, it was still quite romantic.

I was also very glad of my clouds. OK, I meant to write “gloves”. I was very glad of both. (And of the fact that I could drink from the mountain stream once more on my way down.)

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As on my way up, I kept wishing people “good morning” also on my way down – until one of the men brought my attention to the fact that it was not morning any more. I thanked him. He saved me from a lot of possible embarrassment.

It took me 6 hours and 15 min to walk up and down Ben Nevis.

The mountain was still shaped like a sleeping dragon. You could see that when approaching it, but you could almost feel it when walking on it. Most people call it a mountain down in the south, still.

I know better now.

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