So… It happened! Nic and I traveled to Uzbekistan with Adventure Clinic (#Seikluskliinik), and slept on windless mountain plateaus, escaped poisonous snakes, walked in wolf paw prints, woke up to donkeys braying in the night, trekked in the mountains for 5 days, wandered in the great cities of the Silk Road touched by Tamerlane and Genghis Khan, snuck into crumbling mosques, witnessed wild date trees shedding their sun-yellow leaves, saw colours that I did not think possible, and ate tomatoes that were inherently life-affirming. Not to mention the plov. Yup! Kind of exactly as amazing as it sounds!
There were tiles that were more turquoise than the dreams I carry under my heart, and some giant birch trees growing together with the cypress trees. There was a young mountain guide who should have listened to an older one; there were moments when we had no gear for the night with the sun starting to set and no one having a real idea as to were our donkeys were. There were men up in high walnut trees gathering their early autumn treasures, and horses transported in the blue, open kamaz trucks. I felt nostalgy for the first time in my life (which means I am getting old) – for can openers and cars no one in my family ever had.
There was the 5-day-trek in the Ugam-Chatkal National Park, with Greater Chimgan often in the view. It was also the mountain that our older guide used for navigation to get us into our camp before the nightfall. We (almost) touched 3000 m in altitude, and did touch some petroglyphs on our way down. (Or was it up? Sometimes you can’t tell these things very well on the long road.)
We slept, but rather rough, for the mattresses being thin. But there were mattresses and dinner tents and vodka and local wine and fresh water and no rain. And there was peace. It always finds you in the mountains despite whether you are tired, travelling with strangers, or just very far away in your own small thoughts. It always finds you. And that for me, is a reason enough for getting out of my comfort zone.
PS. It does help to not immediately fly home. It helps when you see the cities of the Silk Road coming up on the road in front you, almost making you feel like you are entering Middle-Earth because the layer of legends is so vast and heavy. It helps to see symbols of strength, love, and patience. Step by step, we shall go through this dark season.
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.
Originally, I planned on finishing the walk in 4 consecutive days in July 2015, but as life would have it, I finished it in September 2017. : )
Chronologically, the walking went like this:
– Lea Valley Walk, Stage 1 / 17.07.2015 / ~ 36 km; read about that stupidly lucky walk here
– Lea Valley Walk, Stage 2 / 16.04.2016 / 25.9 km; the unfinished attempt for Stage 2 is documented in this post
– Lea Valley Walk, Stage 2 / 07.09.2017 / 22.6 km — THE REAL FINISH DAY —
– Lea Valley Walk, Stage 3 / 19.07.2015 / 23 km
– Lea Valley Walk, Stage 4 / 26.09.2016 / 7.9 km
Practically, the walking went like this:
You think it will be easy-peasy and everything will be waymarked, so you won’t take a map or a compass, and will follow your gut feeling. You also wear woolly winter walking socks on a late July day.
You reach home after getting stuck at potato fields with your feet bleeding.
You go out again, this time with friends, and end up walking next to the canal for such a long tine that some people go home because of boredom.
An entire year passes.
You are now ready for the two last stages.
You head out with two walkers. One of them leaves half way. A mere 2 km from the finishline, you learn that the road have been closed. The road workers give you a lift to a train station in the night.
You walk the final stage out of spite in autumn. It is lovely. But the unfinished stage bothers you. Obviously.
An entire year passes.
You go out with two friends to finish the unfinished journey. When being 2 km from the finishline, you suddenly understand that you took a wrong turn the last time, and could have finished the journey probably already 1.5 years ago. 😀
The lesson learned?
Never ever underestimate a journey. Always take a compass. And don’t forget to carry apples. Also, walk with friends who carry them.
Thank you, Lea Valley Way. You were my first long distance walking path. And the start of many things that have made me happy.
Growing up in Estonia during the Soviet Union and in the time that followed its demise, one would hear three mountain ranges mentioned the most: the Caucasus mountains of Georgia, the High Tatras of Poland/Slovakia and the Pamirs of Central Asia. These were the places the mountaineers could travel the easiest (= at all), and the places with the most glamorous stories. Well, the latter probably depends on your style.
Last summer I went on my first summit expedition to the Caucasus mountains. And last week, I could finally do my first ground testing in the High Tatras of Poland. With some meters of Slovakia included. 🙂
I had no specific expectations of the High Tatras. All I wanted was a ground that slanted upwards, some sun and deeply sigh-worthy views. I got them all. But also more.
The mountain lakes
Whenever in the mountains that have lakes, I tend not to fully notice them. I know, I’m just not a poet. They are beautiful, by all means. But usually form such an integral part of the scenery that my brain does not fully differentiate them from the rest of the space. Not so in the National Park of High Tatras. In here the lakes stand out. They are cold and clear and dark and ominous, and pull you to their shore.
I don’t mean the shape of the mountains. I mean the actual human built houses of the Zakopane region. Fair enough. At first everything looked like a well-planted butaforie. But seeing how the architecture had traveled from the past to the present, and how its angles chime to the outlines of the mountainscapes on the horizon, the Zakopane style started making a lot of sense. Apparently, the style is most visible in architecture but it is also recognisable in furniture, something that I did not have a chance to witness during my trip.
The mixed feel of the Alps and the English Lake District region
The first day in the mountains reminded me a lot of the Alps. Relatively speaking, the High Tatras are also young mountains, so they have retained their youthful craginess, pointedness and steepness. It is hard to explain but walking in the mountain valleys or trekking up the mountain paths really conveys the feeling of the landscape being young. (I think this sense and feel is officially called “the lay of the land”.) The High Tatras are actually surprisingly small for their name (and when compared with the altitudes of the Alps) but still give you the sense of a proper ascent when needed.
The Lakes feeling came from being able to see houses from the ridge. So far, the hills of the Lakes and the High Tatra mountains have been the only summits whence I could catually spot houses and towns. This plays with my head a bit just because I’m not used to having the border of civilisation so close to my climbing routes. A tricky feeling but you can always look away. 🙂
Missing Orla Perc
Somehow, the time in mountains was over quicker than I could think. This meant that I could not trek the Orla Perc trail, one the most interesting and awe-inspiring trails on the Polish side of the mountains. Without knowing what I was looking at, I was actually drooling over the beginning of the trail one day but the time was too late in the day for going forward. The stories and the pictures of this trail are actually so sweet that I would consider returning to the Tatras just for that and for some other trails.
Somersaults for the imagination
Although the High Tatras reminded me of many places and mountainscapes, they were also very new to my eye in their entirety. This does not mean, however, that I stopped the game of “This could be…”. I think the words Alaska and Arctic Sweden came to my mind most often.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?)
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.)
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.
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!)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
Every time when I go for a walk, I wake up as a dog on that day.
I usually open my eyes a little after 6 am and a friendly voice starts the disco mantra of “Can we go now, can we go now?!” in my head. Until we finally do.
We took a bus from our hotel to Kingshouse. Our plan had worked! So far, we had been walking every inch of the way. Oh! And the local transport routes in here are nearly as ridiculous as the Snowdonian ones. I know that driving a bus is never a hassle-free job, but these routes must be amongst some of the most relaxing ones in the world. (In good weather, I point out.)
Day 6 was all about walking the Devil’s Staircase and getting ourselves to Kinlochleven as a result. (The internet was right. People had described Kinlochleven as a town that does not get closer when you approach it. As exact a description as there ever was.) You can see Kinlochleven for more times than you can count, but it will always remain there, silently signalling your arrival, almost as if it’s not caring. You just walk and foolishly put on and peel off your rainproofs many times in one go without even seeing proper rain. And yes, during all that time, Kinlochleven is still waiting.
Devil’s Staircase, the path across the Aonach Eagach ridge, is special. It is the childhood playground of clouds. I’m guessing this is the place whence they go into the world to bring awe and new ways to look at things to all people. The clouds are alive on the Aonach Eagach ridge. Their games are innocent, whimsical and intolerably pretty. And up here, I finally (and I *mean* finally) understood why I have never been drawn to the Alps. (I’ve been drawn to all other mountains as long as I can remember, but never once to the Alps. I do find that suspicious, by the way.) I’m not claiming that it is the legally acceptable answer, but for me, the Alps are not alive with any sort of mythological life. I look at them and I see beautiful mountains, there to be admired and climbed by all levels of outdoor lovers, enthusiasts and all types of locals. But you are not coming home with an invisible friend from them, no.
With the beginning of our descent, the sun came out again in its absolute splendour. (Of course, by that time we both knew Scotland consisted of nothing else but the sun, shh!) I was taking many pictures and was often so entranced by my surroundings that I found myself standing in various creeks. It is dangerous not look at your feet when walking down a mountain and walking into creeks is the most innocent lesson you can learn.
It did happen, eventually. We did reach Kinlochleven. It was a small mountain town (a village, technically) with the sound of gushing water prevalent in the darkness (the village is home to one of UK’s largest hydro-electric power stations). Kinlochleven held all the crucial shops and all the necessary places to eat. There were at least two pubs and also a brightly lit fish and chips shop that held an outline of one dark silhouette in its neon midst.
There was aluminium industry in here too, once, but now Kinlocheleven lives more of a quiet life. (Except for the gushing water, of course.) After arriving, we soon headed to the pub for some dinner of soup and ale. The streets where empty but you could feel life surrounding you behind every wall in the darkness; maybe smiling, maybe just keeping an eye on you.
Never in my life had I been in a place that felt more like Twin Peaks.
DAY 5, from Tyndrum to Bridge of Orchy + from Bridge of Orchy to Kingshouse, 30 km
Our original plan was to make Day 5 a short and Day 6 a long one (around 36 km). The frantic weather forecasts made us lose interest in the horizontal scenery and focus more on the skies instead.
We got to Bridge of Orchy around noon. Yet it hardly felt like having left the bed at all. Doing a 12 km walk and trying to call it a day actually makes you rather anxious. Your body gets confused and tells you to keep moving or something strange and unexpected shall follow. And so you become more restless with each person passing. We saw the German guy (with whom our road had crossed a couple of times already) reaching Bridge of Orchy and taking off with his ankle having gained a bit of support from our day-saving ibuprofen gel. We saw people coming from our morning direction, crossing the road and heading towards Kingshouse, straight up the tiny hill behind our hotel. K was drinking coffee at the hotel bar and we were both feeling horrible at having to stay put. We had known it was going to be a short day, but not this short, not really. Also, there was no sign of the promised downpour. The weather report was actually changing now. Now it merely promised rain and wind.
And this got us thinking. Should we try to get a room at Kinghouse tomorrow and postpone everything in our itinerary by one day? We did have an extra day counted in at the end. (That clever, eh?) Or, should we take half of the journey by bus tomorrow and… come back some other time and finish the unwalked bit? I can’t fully remember the reason behind our reasonings but there must have been a very bad weather report, that’s all I’m saying. Also, K’s toe(s) were getting quite aggressively painful by that time, so we were a bit concerned about the 36 km day ahead. I then called the Kinghouse hotel and learnt that they did have the last vacant room left, but only that one and only for today. That would have meant an extra £170.- for our trip, since Kingshouse is not a budget hotel and our room at Bridge of Orchy could not be cancelled without paying the entire fee.
We sat in the the small bar and looked out of the window only to see more backpackers pass. We thought. I was crunching numbers in my head. Technically, it would be doable. But would it be reasonable? Promising to myself that yes, there will be a thing I’ll do differently on my next long distance trek – I’ll make sure I’ll have proper emergency reserves for changing my mind and itineraries on the go without having to take a thinking break. Yes, extra reserves and a razor, the two things I’ll take along when stepping out of the door again.
Then, she fucking did it. ! K figured out how we could walk the entire way without giving our budget a spastic fit → we could start walking right now, crossing the Rannoch moor today, still reach Kingshouse in daylight and then take a bus back to our hotel. All we needed to do tomorrow, would be to take a bus from our hotel to Kinghouse and then continue our journey from there, thus making tomorrow’s distance half shorter as well.
All the happy bells were ringing in my head!
I ran to the reception to ask for local bus times. The bus schedules fit in with our plans with near-eerie perfection. We jumped up from our table, counting the blessings from the couple sitting next to us and looking a bit worried. They asked whether we had enough lunch on us to run off to the moor. With the crazy haze in our eyes, we shouted “Yes, of course!”, to which I ran to the hotel bar to buy some carrot cake and then, having luckily gotten the key to our room hours earlier, dashed upstairs to re-pack. Now, we could only take the rainproofs and some food items we’d need for half a day.
This is the moment when you have a look at you and your friend and think who are these people who, upon hearing that gales have been downgraded to wind and rain, throw candies into their backpacks and rush out to the moor. Suddenly we had become children going out into the forest for the first time – lunching on cake, candy, cookies and chocolate.
The magnificent Rannoch moor was a moor surrounded my mountains. Being a flat-land creature in my days of youth, these things still come as a surprise. A moor between mountains! A moor where you step over heather roots and look at the clouds play with the hill tops around you – a very different sight from the marshlands where the marsh pines are the tallest beings surrounding you. (I come from the North, I’m allowed to call trees “beings”, ok?)
We walked the second half our day very quickly, reaching Kingshouse already around five in the afternoon. Upon nearing our destination, the craggy Buachaille Etive Mòr came into sight. While it was mostly covered by cloud in the rapidly falling daylight, it had everything I had expected to see without having known of it existing. This is how you recognise a dream having come true.
Slowly, my whispers turned into a mantra of “I’m coming back here, I’m coming back for you, I’m coming back to you”. I am walking the West Highland Way for the joy of walking and not for gathering locations for secret parties in the future, but I’m definitely taking my lover here next spring, oh god, yes. Because today was the day when I fell in love with a new mountain.
At the end of the day, we did not even have to take a bus back. We got a lift from a Dutch extreme survival instructor who was just returning from his four-day trip to the forest without having taken any food with him. He had survived on mussels and fish. He looked very untroubled.
We are living the times where all places and moments are beautiful.
IDEAS, ITINERARIES & TIPS FOR WALKING IN & OUT OF LONDON, IN SCOTLAND, IN EUROPE AND THE WORLD. ALSO A COLLECTION OF MEMORIES.