Tag Archives: wildernessculture

The Days of Drinking Peat Water or Walking the Affric Kintail Way in Summer Boots in Late Autumn

Affric Kintail Way (AKW) is the newest long-distance walking trail in Scotland. Albeit being only 44 miles (71 km) long, it manages to offer a sense of wander together with a crunchy chunk of wilderness! All you need, is a tiny bit of patience to get out of civilisation and into the more remote areas. But patience is something all walkers have. Right?

Due of my previous engagements (trekking in Uzbekistan :)), my friend and I could not leave for our adventure earlier than at the very end of October. Which is a tricky time when it comes to packing. Winter kit would obviously be over-doing it, but summer kit does not offer enough protection any more. Our main concern was our boots – we are both dearly attached to our “summer alpine” style walking boots which offer about 20-35% protection from the rain only when arduously sprayed with the waterproofer in the morning. And our budgets banned us from getting waterproof boots before our hike, so… Off we went in summer ones!

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Day 1, October 28. From Drumnadrochit to Cannich: 23.34 km

This is the day the internet described as the “boring slog” and the “I should have just skipped this part”. Frankly, I have no idea what those people were going through when out on their walks, since day one was nothing but boring. Just now, when writing this up, I again came across someone’s walking diary where they admit to hating the first 25 miles on AKW. Hmm!? I think it is one of those “it is not what you are going after, it is what are taking with you” mindset things, for sure. Or something more mysterious. But because of all the warnings, we kept a keen eye out for the boring bits to surface and met with none.

We started our walk under the lovely Scottish sun (Kadri and I still are subject to a spooky weather luck every time we cross the Scottish border) (and I am aware it will end one day soon), only to run into a giant redwood within the first half an hour. My very first redwood! And we were just talking about visiting the States only because of them. Their bark was incredibly soft. But above all, they just felt old and strange and happy. What a start!

I managed to see a red squirrel later on, but actually spent the most of my day staring at the clouds. There was something happening which I had never seen in my life – massive rolls of apocalyptic carpets were twirling and floating above our heads, opening up a completely new level of wide for me. They changed the space, somehow, making me feel as if we were completely alone and the world had decided not to collapse yet but was thinking about it.

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You do have to walk on a lot of forestry tracks on day one. At one point, the living trees started howling behind the massive stacks of their felled companions. The howled similarly to a curious wolf or to a dog sentenced to patrol a very small territory. It was scary and heartbreaking. Later, when we were already starting to near Cannich, the forest once again started wailing, and accompanied us with the sound of windows and doors creaking open, as if a slow-motion art movie was taking place around us. Thinking about it later, I obviously understood that it is technically the other way around – doors and windows carry the sound of the forest with them, within them. But still.

In summary, the first day offered good straightforward walking. No chances of getting lost but definitely fewer people than on the first day of West Highland Way, for example. Also, fewer waymarks.

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Day 2, October 29. From Cannich to River Affric Car Park: 19.94 km

Day two of AKW is all about the forest. And about getting the first glimpses of the stunning Glen Affric with little islands poking out of the water and people casually gliding between them in their red kayaks. I was looking at them when walking amongst the trees, wondering whether they lived close and would they be out here in the rain as well. If I knew how to drive I would drive here just for this glen. And their kayaks!

As a side remark: lots of people mention not seeing much of the glen on their way on day two. I think none of them walked it so close to November when a lot of the leaves have already fallen. Because we certainly saw the glen constantly to our right, making our camera sensors buzz with its blue waters.

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Luckily, there is a spot marked as Classic View on the trail, so you don’t have to take detours to see the majestic glen when it first comes into view. I’m pretty chuffed about that spot. Just because I’m such a mountain/hill/forest person, so I never go out of my way to take in the beauty of glens, valleys or waterfalls. But luckily, the older you get, the more beauty you start noticing, so am looking forward to widening my intake of marvels.

The going is once again pretty straightforward but our journey was made magical by having to walk on silvery ground for quite a while. We even suspected frost at places but finally understood that it was just good old pyrite giving the ground the look of an Elvish rug.

All in all, the day starts with quite a long walk on a forestry track but when that is over and you can turn left to descend into the glen, things start getting pretty. First you are greeted by some of the healthiest ferns you will ever meet, and if lucky, dragonflies will take a flying break on your belly as well. And then there are the tree beards – thin moss and lichen curtains hanging from the tree branches. There is also an excellent lunch spot just in the middle of the way at Dog Falls with tables and a river view.

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In the setting sun, we set up camp at the very edge of River Affric Car Park, now also called the most glamorous camp spot of my entire life! Here you have real toilets and picnic tables at your elbow’s reach! I climbed to the viewpoint to see the last shades of the orange light, and once again concurred that life looks magnificent. Soon, the moon was shining bright and the temperature dropped below zero. What else would you want from a night out?

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Day 3, October 30. From River Affric Car Park to Camban bothy: 16.36 km

It took a long time for my friend to fall asleep – her sleeping bag was a bit too thin, as was her mattress. Eventually, she got the survival blanket from her bag and wrapped it around her. Nothing carried should go unused, right? I, however, woke up with a sweaty back in the middle of the night. In my moment of utter cowardice, I had put on too many layers before falling asleep and now had to start lowering the temperature inside my bag. I think the two of us combined probably reached the optimal sleeping temperture. Not a perfect consolation, but almost!

When I zipped open the tent in the morning the world was covered in frost. The outside was warmer than I had guessed. We cooked some porridge under the salmon pink skies and watched the double rainbow lose itself in the glistening trees. I had not planned on waking up in Rivendell but I was not going to run away.

It did take us a lot of time to get going. While this was the most glamorous camping spot of my life, it was also the longest time between waking up and hitting the road. I think we got lost in staring at the sky and trying to capture all the changing shades of it. 🙂

But finally, off we went, with the Alltbeithe Youth Hostel (the remotest youth hostel in the mainland UK) as our lunch spot in mind. Once again, the weather rolled over to the sunny side and the going became straightforward. Today we also met the first people on the road! (We had a little bet going on about this.) Apparently, they had had their tent nearly ripped off by the harsh winds of two nights ago – something we had no idea about (they were walking from a different direction).

There was a single small wind turbine standing not too far from the hostel. Seeing an odd man-made object in nature makes me think of eternity every time.

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After a very nice lunch (today we munched on things Kadri had prepared) things started turning boggier. We kept our eyes on the road, trying not to step on the wrong type of green moss. Soon, I found myself walking in the hoofprints of a deer who had probably used a similar bog avoidance system. There are no waymarks in this part of the trail but you can’t really get lost since most of the forkings lead back to the main trail, so the best thing is just to choose the path that offers the driest ground. And check the map if you feel like your gut and mind are starting to argue.

After all the delightfully winding paths, the Camban bothy came into view. But only after both of us had started seeing mirage houses in the highlands! I know there are records of legendary optical illusions which people see in the deserts, but nothing on the granite stacks making themselves seen as houses, right? I’m pretty certain it is a common occurrence among people with weary legs, and only needs to be researched and written down into a book.

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Aaaand – there was no one else in the bothy! Reading through the logbook we soon came to a realisation that what we were walking in, were probably the only three consecutive non-rainy days of this autumn. And that we had both been talking to the weather gods with the same favour in mind: if you give us dry days at first, we can take anything you show us on the last one. * gulping sounds *

Fair enough, though, Kadri’s boots were properly soaked by now, and there was not enough coal to light a fire, so we did what any normal person would do: a slightly adjusted re-enactment of Bruce Robinson’s Withnail and I. There are few things some plastic bags and foot warming pads can not solve!

Day 4, October 31. From Camban bothy to Morvich: 16.76 km

So! The Camban bothy kind of has a double roof at places, creating a wind tunnel that magnifies some of the sounds. I woke up only once but was then certain that we would be stuck in this bothy for a long time, hiding from the storm. A creepy start to the morning of All Hallows’ Eve, for sure!

But the entire All Hallows’sinister vibe flew out of the door the moment I opened it. Because there was barely a drizzle and absolutely no wind outside! I don’t know about the sound mechanics of the bothy’s roof but it sure does fill your dreams and your reality with some special layers of imagination.

We had our porridge when sitting at a table, this time browsing through the bothy logbook, and me reading Robert MacFarlane’s The Wild Place. There is valid geeky peace in reading books in locationally suitable settings.

The packing, of course, went quicker indoors, and we were soon on our way. The weather gods had indeed heard us. But at least they had not taken us too seriously. Our last day of AKW was a day of soft, drizzly rain, with a bit of real rain at the very very end of it, when buildings were already in sight. (Eewh, that strange feeling!)

The drizzly rain accompanied us when we crossed all the tiny mountain rivers and walked on the mountainsides covered in fast-moving clouds. These are the night-time dreams of my teenage years, so time gets blown open every time I walk in the clouds. And then there is the feeling of freedom – feeling hunger and contentment at the same time. I think this is my definition.

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The drizzle traveled along with me when I had to climb 20 – 30 meters up hill to find a single crossing point for an especially wide mountain river. Of course, I could see it from afar but did not start planning much before reaching it. I think what nature (and yoga, funnily enough :)) have taught me, is to deal with the things/obstacles/issues when I get to them, and not worry about them too much beforehand. It is not a professional attitude yet, but it seems to be expanding, yay!

The narrow path next to Allt Grannda waterfall finally made me realise that looking at intensely vertical waterfalls from above and below is now definitely pulling me into a vertigo-like state. Especially when that bubbling water comes into your view quite suddenly. So, just to get a picture of the whisky-coloured cauldron, I had to drop my rucksack against the mountainside and press myself very strongly against the mountain as well, and only then reach for the camera.

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Everything changes in seconds in the mountains. The clouds, the wind, the light. For a second, I saw a row of bunnies chasing after each other in high spirits. Silly me! That was just a frothy and bouncy stream with tiny white waves jumping out. Soon afterwards, an actual heron did glide above the River Croe just before the Glenlicht House, so I counted my wildlife spotting a success. The porch of the Glenlicht House provided a lovely spot for lunch, but also notified us of the journey coming to an end. I did not know of the Five Sisters of Kintail yet. Nor that they have beautiful ridge walks on top… This day made me promise that I would return to Glen Shiel.

The last part of the Affric Kintail Way meanders between the striking towers that are the Five Sisters of Kintail. They feel like some oddly powerful children of the mountains of Glen Coe and the Liatach of the Torridon Hills. They are munros, officially, but they send you back towards civilisation in the most awe-inspiring manner.

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So, if I were to write a 4-day hike description about the AKW, it would go as follows:

– Day 1 – stuff looks nice

– Day 2 – everything is getting nicer

– Day 3 – things are getting really beautiful

– Day 4 – omfg, omfg, omfg, omfg

On the last night we slept under a (high and real) roof. Hazel (at Ruarach Guest House) gave us whisky and cake, and a lift to a bus stop in the following morning. The people you meet, eh?

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“Our years hold the times where all and everywhere is always beautiful”, I wrote then turning 30. I don’t know whether it was the release of the inner hippie, but that is time where the most maginificent times of my life started. Even if they mean drinking peat water.

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Arctic tundras and canal shores of Venice. Going after unstructured experiences.

A hunt for unstructured experiences is the easiest way to summarise my year of 2016. Yes, I did doctoral research on the topic but the theme was definitely prominent also in other areas of my life (in art, mountaineering training, etc.).

For a while now, I shall probably be posting about different ways to go after that specific type of experience. I will give my best to try to approach it from all angles, large or small, crooked or right angled, and see what makes it longed for, for me and for a lot of people of my time.

This post will focus on two very straightforward ways of achieving a completely fresh spatial experience without throwing yourself off a train without a map. It will focus on ways for designing surprises that work, for yourself.

1. Give someone permission to take you on a trip without telling you the destination.

Lessons learned from the Arctic Norway and Finnish Lapland in September 2016.

Let another person pack your clothes, choose the date and not tell you where you will be going. Destination awareness can be left for the check-in desk, train station or the boat mooring spot.

In September, I had a fabulous chance to experience that type of once again. It is definitely one of my most favourite modes of travelling. Of course, it is romantic to the core, but it also frees you from the philosophical task number 1: to know where you’re going.

And this is where the surprise design kicks in. If all you know is the return date, every following detail starts acting as a structural element of your adventure:

– not knowing when you have to wake up;

– not knowing whether there are plans for the next day;

– not knowing what is in the neighbourhood, near or far;

– not knowing what to take with you;

– not knowing which means of transport to use;

– not having to worry about reaching a place at a certain time;

– not knowing when and where you’ll be eating;

– not knowing which direction you’re going;

– not knowing what to expect.

Unstructuralism achieved!

2. Change the time and scope of your wanderings

Lessons learned on Venice canal shores in November 2016.

It is worth it. If you suddenly find yourself attracted to a city that is an object of admiration to the entire world … don’t go exploring it at the heels of it.

I am talking about these destinations that do not even have an off season, to use holiday parlance.

So, how to find your city inside everyone else’s?

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Night in San Marco, Venice. November 2016.

If possible, arrive very early or very late. This makes your first impression more personal.

Then, schedule your first longer wander outside the tourist hours. Yes, you are on a holiday (I only use the word “holiday” for city trips; outside of it, the concept does not even work), so setting the alarm for 3.30 AM may feel like the first signs of madness, but the sleepiness will lift as soon as you enter the empty maze that every new city is.

Imagination works better when left alone in an empty space. It is also easier to get a feel for a place that is uniquely meaningful only for you.

What else helps? Making a game of spotting a certain elements (like a weathered pattern on a wall) in every new street or square. This way you will end up looking into little side streets and courtyards more often.

Visiting cemeteries always helps. When a city is crowded, her cemeteries are usually less packed (well, depending how you’re counting). Cemeteries let you in on the spirit of the place (no pun intended) without having to fight the crowds.

For extra ideas, it is worth reading Microadventures by Alastair Humphreys or taking a an official city guide book and reversing everything that can be reversed.

Also, on the topic: “The rational flâneur is someone who, unlike a tourist, makes a decision at every step to revise his schedule, so he can imbibe things based on new information, what Nero was trying to practice in his travels, often guided by his sense of smell. The flâneur is not a prisoner of a plan. Tourism, actual or figurative, is imbued with the teleological illusion; it assumes completeness of vision and gets one locked into a hard-to-revise program, while the flâneur continuously – and, what is crucial, rationally – modifies his targets as he acquires information.” (From Antifragile by Nassim Nicholas Taleeb)

 

 

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.)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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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. ❤

West Highland Way: 3/4

DAY 6, from Kingshouse to Kinlochleven, 15.9 km

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.)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

West Highland Way: 1/4

There were times when the parents of my friends forbade them to play with me when I was five. The same happened when I turned seven. And when I was basking in my official teenage years. All these parents shared a common fear – the fear of me taking their children to the forest. That fear was not based on a random flight of imagination, however. I did take everyone to the forest with me. I made them spend nights there. And build houses and rafts with me. Sometimes, we all fell into the bog water together or forgot which bridges were fake and slipped into the peaty rivers. There was no reason for those mothers to be worried. We were always having fun.

So, I was very glad when one of my best friends, K., nodded along to my plan to walk the 96-mile long West Highland Way early this October. (Even when her parents had known me for a long time already.)

We decided not to carry a tent (I don’t own a lightweight one, yet) and to sleep in hostels, hotels, bunk houses and camping pods. My 35L backpack got a tear next to one of its zippers already on a train to Glasgow. Otherwise, nothing else broke or needed mending during our journey. Except for K’s toe. It also did not break but did cause noticeable foot-related harm after having been introduced to a rock through an intense encounter.

My backpack held the following:

– a sleeping bag

– 3 pairs of socks + underwear

– 3 tops

– light trousers for sleeping

– an extra fleece

– blister plasters + a tiny first aid kit + a tiny personal hygiene kit

– a travel towel

– a thermos and a bit of instant coffee

– a map, a compass

– a walking diary, a pen and a mascara (yes)

Loch Lomond in sunshine.
Loch Lomond in sunshine.

DAY 1, Milngavie to Drymen: 22.5 km

Day 1 started brilliantly: in the foggy Glasgow where we missed our planned train to Milngavie. All good, though, since those trains are very regular. Milngavie also welcomed us shrouded in the fog and gave me enough time to go and buy some gaffer tape from Poundstrecher. We were ready to get going.

Most of the day took us on a very straightforward course. Both emotionally and path-wise. This was a cute part of the way that has also been the quickest to slip from my memory. (No disrespect to the road.) We walked on wide paths with houses or bigger roads nearly always in sight. However, this did turn out to be the only day when we actually deviated from our path. For a little while, we trotted along the John Muir way instead and ended up walking on a high and narrow bridge across a wide river as an award. One should never underestimate the Way of the Civilized. The Way of the Civilized can make you lose focus.

The bridge through air.
The bridge through air.

Searching for the hotel in the falling daylight without an access to the map – not exactly knowing where you sleep for the night – is the feeling I can’t get enough of. This is how I remember Drymen – a place with all the options open. (The sign of true freedom, ha-ha!) We had been promised a bed in a hotel lobby, that was all we knew. Yet, at the end of the evening, the lovely Frances from the Kip in the Kirk actually put us in a real room. What more could one ask for?! Well, home-made scones, perhaps. But she had those covered as well. All we had to do then, was to enjoy our warm showers and admire our sun-burnt shoulders from the day. (Yes.)

Day 1 of the way was a sweet day. It also came with a honesty box for ice cream on the road, an edible metaphor for the hungry.

The way of the day one.
The way of day one.

DAY 2, Drymen to Rowardennan: 22.5 km

One of my favourite things about travelling is starting walking in the morning when having received directions from someone else. This is how our morning started, and as a firm believer in travelling omens, I took it to be a good day at that very second. I also know that I wouldn’t actually mind just walking, walking, walking towards the hedge at the end of the world (I mean, the road), only to figure out whether that direction had been correct a little later. The freedom to step into the morning fog is indeed even sweeter than the fudge bars left for the sugar-deprived travellers.

Day 2 turned into another day of scorching sun. (I guess no one would believe that we had travelled to Scotland if there weren’t for the pictures.) After having walked through all our morning mists we set our course towards Conic Hill, under which we met an English French horn player now working in Germany. He was the first official walker we met on the road. We never learnt his name, as was the case with literally all the people we met and talked to. We only learnt where they had walked from and what were their plans for the coming day. (Sometimes, life is just poetic.) He was one of those people, though. You know, the munro baggers. He didn’t even have to mention it, he had that glint in his eyes. One can tell. (He was meeting his daughter somewhere down the road, so he was going to the meeting point across the munros. Of course.)

Just for the record, I’d like to point out that sitting on top of the Conic Hill in October has been the least windy hill top experience of my entire life. And also one of the sunniest. This has left me with a conspiracy suspicion about Scotland actually being a sunny place and the local councils spreading stories of the opposite to keep the eager masses out. You know, those people who are only willing to walk in the sunshine. People very different from us, of course.

Day two of the way.
Day two of the way. K getting  familiar with the loch.

The second half of the day was spent walking parallel to the shore of Loch Lomond. And we did it while walking in the sun, making friends with the birds, gasping at the lake. K did take off her boots and tested the water. She had her swimming clothes on her and she was not afraid to use them! But since our next stopping point (=accommodation) was quite a while away, she decided against walking into the fresh waters of the Great Britain’s largest inland water body.

I don’t have any memories of the dinner we ate in Rowardennan. Maybe we survived on the mist.

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DAY 3, Rowardennan to Inverarnan: 22 km

I remember the morning as a state of awe at the completely placid Loch Lomond. The scenery looked like something out of mythological Japan, with the old pier posts standing sentinel in the water and the mists consolingly crawling around the crooked pines. I also remember this day as the first one of the West Highland Way when I really started tapping into the joy of our walk. A lot of this day’s path was bordered with walking pole piercings and mountain bike lines in the mud, remnants of the all travellers who already had passed by. All those patterns were definitely filled with joy as well. The path was also getting slightly steeper and more interesting as it sloped between large oak trees and slightly smaller boulders. As I’m saying – all the reason to feel more joyful.

The path of day three.
The way of day three.
The way of day three.

Today also brought me face to face with Truth: long-distance walking is the most sensible way to spend one’s time. I’ll be taking this to the Academy of Sciences one day. Here’s just the shortest explanation as to why:

– you are surrounded by some of the best scenery in the world

– you are in the fresh air

– you are in the best of company (either just you or your well-chosen companions from the same or different species)

– you have to eat at least 3500 kcal a day

– all the people you meet are deeply happy, as you chance upon them when they are doing the thing they love the most (you can recognise the faces who do not want to be in theatres and cinemas, oh yes, you can)

– your mind is forced to rest while your body is applauding you at every step

It is a mystery why everyone has not already abandoned everything. I shall enquire into this as well before turning to the Academy.

Day three of the way.
Day three of the way.

And after having moved pass the magnificent oak trees bending their branches into lake water, and having passed Rob Roy’s cave (meeting your teenage heroes in real life is always a strange moment out of some forgotten cross-media narrative), we walked on a lentil soup coloured road until reaching our chambers for the night at Beinglas Farm. And if that doesn’t win a bad description award, I don’t know what will. (Just for the record, we slept in a camping pod.)

Notes taken: you know you are trekking when:

– the moment when you take out a clean pair of socks for the next day makes you squeal

– you don’t want the 5p change because you would have to carry it

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Day three of the way.

DAY 4, Inverarnan to Tyndrum: 19.5 km

The first half of our fourth day’s walk had me transfixed on the milky fog hiding and disclosing a large group of fir tree tops on the horizon. What we saw was a form of dancing glue, magically moving through that very air we were about to step into. On day 4, we finally came to some mountains that reminded me of their relatives in Snowdonia. I had not known I had walked with that wish in my mind, but apparently so. (It is a worrisome thing, discovering that you had secrets from yourself.) The much-blessed sun actually shone on top of one of the mountains in that very exact manner it had dome on top of another mountain in Wales. That made me realise that 14.02.2015 has been one of the happiest days of my life so far. And that I’m still living in this year.

The old military road, day four of the way.
The old military road, day four of the way.

Keeping to the tradition, it did not rain. We walked a lot on the old military road that meandered through and under ancient-looking fir trees. During these kilometres, we finally understood that we were getting away from the civilization.

It was Sunday. K’s toe was not feeling very well but the ibuprofen gel did help. We thought about the 30 km day ahead of us in the coming week (Tuesday!) and got slightly worried about the possibility of rain (I said rain, right? I actually meant what the forecast said: severe downpours and a hail storm). In the evening, we managed to control ourselves in the biggest (and almost only) shop in Tyndum and not buy a magazine (I’m talking about me), and met the French horn player again, and then spent most of our time looking at people trying on their rainproofs. We had rainproofs as well, new ones, even. And we also wanted to see how they kept out the elements. What we didn’t have were rainproof boots. But we had sprayed ours with all the possible sprays. So, we had given our best.

On our way to the camping cabins we took a path that was fringed by the yellowest birch trees on this side of the Scottish border. Every step on the path felt like walking in the first dream of my childhood. This is how our fourth day slowly turned itself into a friendly beast from story books: it brought the first mountains into our sight and showed us paths into many parallel narratives within our time.

At some point at the very end of our road, we saw movement through the trees to our left. And there they were, a group of people, most of them old gentlefolk, sitting in the low river, panning for cold.

Day four of the way.
Day four of the way.

Places are like magic. In all the places you go to, you don’t find anything more than just the things you have taken there yourself.