After the Cabin – A Trip to Switzerland

Well, it’s Little Switzerland, just off the Blue Ridge Parkway. Lest anyone be concerned we somehow managed to weasel our way into Europe despite our perceived status as coronavirus carriers. No such luck. But Little Switzerland seemed about as far away from the plague-ridden swamp of Florida in late July 2020 as the actual country would have been.

Following our idyllic two days without electricity in the cabin on Sandy Mush Bald – one of the most beautiful places we’ve been and our explorations of the “balds” – it was time to venture north. Even though our summits were severely curtailed this year, there was a chance for one – Mt. Mitchell – the highest mountain east of the Mississippi at a whopping 6,684 feet. It was an easy (if seriously winding) drive from Asheville along the Blue Ridge Parkway, which, despite its reputation for summer traffic jams was practically deserted this year.

We’d planned to do the “easy” hike up to the summit, only to find it was closed, so there was no alternative but the “harder” “Old Mitchell Trail.” We had a quick picnic lunch at the welcome area which normally houses a restaurant – needless to say, this year it was closed. By now our daughters A and S  were quite tired of the picnic food we had lugged from Florida and had been dutifully eating for the last several days, and were questioning their parents’ fondness for non refrigerated cheeses (read Laughing Cow), not to mention the other dietary staples of life without electricity (read dried salami). A’s boyfriend N, however, was quite polite and ate his salami and laughing cow sandwich without comment.

In any event, we all ate enough to fortify ourselves for the couple hours hike to the top. It was a very beautiful trail, a bit too crowded for my taste, but had some fun moments of easy clambering up and down some steep cliffs and rocks. But the Razers Edge at Katahdin in Maine – where we were supposed to have been in a pre-pandemic world – it wasn’t.

Regardless, a good time was had by all, and it was time to journey on along the rhododendron-bordered parkway to our next stop – the Skyline Village Inn in Little Switzerland. J found the place on the internet (where else) and it was reasonably priced. Things we didn’t know about it:

  • The inn has been around for decades, backs up to a cave, and was used as a site for transporting moonshine during prohibition;
  • It’s a well known spot for motorcyclists and has a special open air garage for parking bikes;
  • The rooms are small but are wood paneled through and through, including the ceilings. I’ve never seen more wood in one room in my life, short of a log cabin.
  • There’s a great game room with darts, pool, and an elderly mannequin sitting at the bar dressed in her motorcycle garb; and
  • We were the only non bikers staying at the entire place.

And the other thing – the Skyline Village Inn offered one of the best meals I’ve had recently, which was enhanced by the view of the mountains from the outdoor patio where we ate.  There were only a few items on the menu and steak was the order of the day. Cooked by the owner on a grill on the patio – just as if you were at a neighbor’s cookout, the steak was accompanied by a potato salad that I can only describe as  a deconstructed baked potato, sour cream and bacon included. The green broad beans tasted like they’d just been picked from the garden. And the three desserts offered included homemade strawberry pie. Goes to show that when you offer a few items and prepare them remarkably well, you create a remarkable meal.

Breakfast was equally good and gave us the strength we needed for a complicated day. A, boyfriend N, and S were driving south to Oak Island, North Carolina south of Wilmington to open up the AirBnB beach house we’d rented for the week. We were driving north and east to pick up my parents in Durham and then immediately turn south again to meet everyone in Oak Island. Mountains, meet beach. It was time for the next leg.

A Cabin in the Woods – Sandy Mush Bald, N.C.

Once it became clear that our permits to camp in Baxter State Park and climb Katahdin in Maine were going to linger, unused, in my desk drawer – thanks to the fact that Floridians are generally unwelcome in many spots – a Plan B was in order. Where could we go for a few days before venturing to the North Carolina beach that would allow at least a semblance of adventure?

J stumbled across a website with the improbable name of Hipcamp – an Airbnb type application for those who are interested in staying in yurts, tents, RVs, tiny houses – basically anything that might cause most people to ask, but “why?” It seemed to list the perfect spot for J, me, daughter S, daughter A and boyfriend N – a cabin with no electricity reached via a steep uphill hike of a couple of miles. Just the thing, we said! Well, J and I said. The girls were not enthralled with the lack of electricity and N wisely made no comment.

After a logistical puzzle that involved an automobile adventure from Florida to Asheville, plane flights from Austin, Texas and Providence, Rhode Island, and a rendezvous in an Aldi’s parking lot where A and N met us with a rental car, we organized ourselves and all our mountain gear into the appropriate back packs to head off for adventure. There’s something inherently difficult in packing for both beach and mountains.

The parking area for the starting point of our hike was about 45 minutes from Asheville, past lots of large estates that ultimately morphed into much more modest dwellings. Eventually we ended up at our turnoff where a large homemade sign announced that we were about to start a 24 mile drive on “The Rattler.” The road lived up to its name but after miles of literally hair raising turns we found the mailbox that marked a small parking area. I had worried about leaving things in the cars for two nights – but we were so far in the proverbial boondocks there was no need to fear.

The trek to the cabin lived up to its reputation, at least as memorialized in the online reviews. It was seriously uphill; probably 1500 to 2000 feet of altitude gain. J and I were carrying about 30 pounds apiece (started to wonder about bringing beer at a certain point!), but we persevered nonetheless, and it felt so good to be away from Covid and the generally sad state of the world for a while.

Rhododendrons were in full bloom and wildflowers edged the trail, interspersed with meadows of tall wavy grass. It reminded me a little of the rhododendrons on the lower part of the Everest Base Camp trek, but instead of splashes of fuscia, these were white, fading into a pale pink.

Once we reached the cabin, our hosts, a young couple who lived in two small rooms on the bottom level of the cabin greeted us. Their goal was ultimately to farm, and they had several ambitious looking gardens planted at the 4500 foot or so elevation. They also had an absolutely adorable part Siamese cat, Kasmar, who provided an endless source of entertainment.

The cabin was originally a 19th century barn. Its owner was a 99 year old, former pilot and physician to coal miners who had bought up old barns and similar structures in the Appalachians and turned them into rental cabins. The downstairs had a kitchen and living area and one of the cleanest bathrooms I’ve ever seen. An old claw foot tub with a shower, and plank floors that absorbed water with no need for any mat. Despite the lack of electricity there was a propane stove for cooking with a full range, and a large hot water tank, so we felt we were living quite the life of luxury.

The five of us slept in the upstairs loft, up a ladder to a semi divided attic with dormitory style beds. Very reminiscent of some of our Balkans accommodations.

The porch overlooked a meadow – little Sandy Mush Bald (more about balds in my next installment). The ridges of the Blue Ridge were iridescent against the sunset. And the NY Times recipe for ramen noodles, eggs, and precooked bacon, all of which we’d lugged up the mountain, actually made something approximating mac’n cheese. Who knew that dried Parmesan would actually turn into cheese. That, with some boxed wine, boded well for the start of a pandemic vacation.

Stones in My Pockets – Summits Sustained

Glacial beds on Stok Kangri Trek

I will confess. I have a stone in my coat pocket, purloined from some exotic spot, I know not where. It could be from Ladakh, India on the way to Stok Kangri. Or I might have surreptitiously slipped it into my pocket on the trek to Everest Base Camp. Perhaps it dates even further back, to the more domestic but no less adventurous White Mountains of New Hampshire.

Everest Base Camp

Whatever its origin, I get enormous pleasure from touching its rough edges, rolling it between my fingers. The rock of unknown ancestry is the descendant of the lucky pecan I kept in my coat pocket for years. My lucky pecan was picked up on Minerva Avenue (what a name of a street to grow up on) and resided in my old Michael Kors jacket – bought at a Tuesday Morning, no less – until the sad day that said jacket disappeared, I think in California. I believe I was as upset about the loss of the lucky pecan as I was by the loss of the jacket. By then the pecan had grown smooth as silk from my rolling it around in my hand as I walked, like an organic worry stone. And I figured if I were ever stranded on a desert island perhaps I could eat it and survive, or plant it as a sign of hope for the future. Although admittedly, the latter probably wouldn’t improve my chances of survival.

But regardless, those talismans in my coat pockets make something concrete out of the virtual world in which we live. Our lives are comprised now of internet virtuality even more ethereal than the wispy clouds you zoom through when taking off in an airplane. There’s nothing to touch, and the world becomes like a memory.

One of my yoga teachers brought small polished stones to class the other day, for people to hold as they chose in class. I guess the same concept as my purloined rock. It makes those past summits real, just like the lucky pecan anchored where I grew up. And this small rock is now inspiring me to return to the stairs, backpack and all, to get ready to climb Mt. Katahdin in Maine.

Balancing – Green Belt, Austin

Whatever its source,

Between the Summits in the U.S.A.

Point Lobos, California, 2019

People keep asking me, “What’s the next one?” The reality is that we are in a between year. Trying not to make it sound like the doldrums (what a great word), but when I looked at my schedule for next year, I simply can’t find a spot for a two week trip plus weekends on either side. I am usually able to preserve that period of respite but this year’s judicial system apparently had other ideas in mind. Hmm.

Mauna Kea, Hawaii, 2013

We haven’t had a between year for a while. In fact, I think since 2013 which somewhat inadvertently turned into one due to a virulent flu attack on J as we were about to embark on our Hawaii backpacking trip. Since then, we’ve climbed Elbrus, Ecuador’s volcanoes, hiked the Scottish Highlands and the Peaks of the Balkans, and summited Stok Kangri at all of its over 20,000 foot splendor.

Our home at Mt. Elbrus, Russia, 2014

So what will 2020 hold? The year itself – with its parallel numbers – must mean something. Thus far, the idea is a throwback – a week at the North Carolina beach with family and friends. Haven’t done that for years. And hopefully the daughters are now old enough to avoid sea kayaking accidents like the one many years ago that caused me to call 911 to everyone’s great embarrassment since they’d hauled themselves out of the ocean by the time the rescue team arrived. I suspect we are still black listed at the sea kayak rental place.

But as fun as that will be, there have to be some actual summits somewhere. It looks like work will take me to Seattle over spring break – and there appear to be some nearby hikes with a good 3500-4000 feet of elevation gain. And N, A’s boyfriend, has suggested we hike the northern part of the Appalachian Trail and summit Mt. Katahdin. It’s the highest mountain in Maine and he promises he knows the way to reach its 5,267 foot peak.

That sounds appealing. Given that the odds of our hiking the entire AT are probably close to nil we might as well cross the finish line first.

So, I may wrap the decade of my 50s with local summits. They are just as important as the others. But 2021 marks the 10th anniversary of the start of all my mountaineering and related adventures. Entertaining suggestions for another non (or at least mostly non) technical, over 20,000 foot mountain for my 60th birthday next year! Got to keep looking toward the future!

A and N looking toward the future from Mt. Washington, New Hampshire

Balkans Trek Part 2 – Albanian Adventures: A Pass and Two Peaks

My travel journal starts off: I am sitting in the warm sunshine on a picnic bench at the Guesthouse Lepushe, in Albania, surrounded by the Accursed Mountains. Several of our group are playing cards, and another is sharing wine made by the nuns at the monastery we visited the previous day – straight from the plastic screw top bottle – with a pasted on label over the original brand. I’m in one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been.

Two days ago our first full day of trekking began with a classic Kosovo breakfast on the porch -tomatoes, egg, puffy fried bread, cheese and olives. Somehow all the trekkers at the home stay each got a turn at the one bathroom before setting off. Lunch food was set out so everyone could make their own sandwiches for what was billed as the most difficult of the trekking days.

We took jeeps to the start of the trail, which started with a straight up trajectory. They don’t believe in switchbacks here. We later learned that a lot of the trails were old smugglers’ paths. We hiked through long-grassed meadows where the wildflowers became even more exotic – now shocking blue periwinkles interrupted the yellows, pinks, and purples. Our first stop was a glacial lake – not blue but green glass. A second glacial lake came soon after, this one very low and banded by rock.

We continued onward and upward, finally reaching the Jalanek Pass, with limestone cliffs all about. Walking along the border of Kosovo and Montenegro, ultimately we started to follow the “signs” down, bringing us into Montenegro. It was a very long descent with some rocky spots – we had gained a lot of elevation.

Yoga just before the pass

After 7 hours or so, we could finally see the vans that were to deliver us to that night’s accommodationway below us across some meadows. However, it turned out those fields were the property of an ancient farmer who staggered over to us with a walking stick in each hand while we had stopped for a very brief rest. He was seemingly unable to speak in words but eventually pulled out a piece of paper that made clear he expected tribute for crossing. Our guide quickly rallied us all and we ascended back up the meadows and found a way down through some fields being harvested by a much more congenial farmer who apologized for the behavior of his neighbor.

The next controversy involved deep unhappiness among the drivers of the three vans – too many had been ordered and our guide had had no cell service so he couldn’t let anyone know. Eventually, after a flurry of extremely loud communication – with great umbrage and angst on all sides – we ended up with all three vans, although J was the only passenger in one of them.

Our “tiny houses” in Montenegro

Following our 7-8 hour trek, we had an hour or so drive to some cottages in a national park where we were staying the night. We drove through several small towns, a number with Florida style McMansions planted right next to traditional small concrete dwellings. Nothing is really “quaint” here – the utilitarian architecture of post WW2 USSR left a strong mark. According to our guide, Montenegro is now a good place to house money, and Montenegrans who reside in the west frequently maintain large residences in the Montenegran countryside.

By then, somehow we had assuaged the van drivers and we all loaded into two vans for the final stretch. There were 4 of us in a three person row in the smaller van. The steep uphill on the way to the national park simply proved too much for its engine, and despite several valient attempts (I kept thinking of the little engine that could), it kept stalling half way up the mountain. Eventually four of us got out and finished the day the way we started – trekking up the last hill.

The cottages that night felt quite luxurious. Each couple had their own, with a private bathroom and a little porch. I felt like I was in the tiny house show. There was also a great restaurant, filled with families, many in Islamic dress but an equal number in western garb.

The next day it was time to venture into Albania. As a child of the ’70s, I still found it unbelievable that you were permitted into that country, which was historically one of the most closed off places in the world. The first part was uphill through a dark and gloomy forest. It was overcast and quite humid. Finally the sun started to break out, and we reached the tree line, through more meadows and to the top of the first peak of the day. From that peak we descended along a saddle and back up along a very exposed ridge that connected the peaks. We could see Albania. But there was another peak yet to be climbed!

Sheer drops were on either side of the ridge trail but that didn’t seem to bother the flocks of goats that were cavorting along the hillsides. The Accursed Mountains loomed over the trail, steep sharp crags etched against the sky. The wind finally died down and we were able to stop and take a lunch break on the top of the second peak.

We took our time on the long meandering descent, finally walking into the little village of Lepushe, Albania for another home stay.  There, J, me, A and N shared what must have originally been the kitchen.  It was quite convenient to have our own sink in the room.

We arrived about mid-afternoon on an absolutely lovely day. One other small group was staying but it was clear we were in the middle of nowhere. Boys were racing a donkey and a horse in the dirt street; the owners gave us a tour of the restaurant they were building out of stone next to the house. I’m also pretty sure we say our dinner being butchered on a stone slab.

We watched the sun sink over the Accursed Mountain, suddenly turning the steel grey into a soft pink. I guess that’s sort of how I felt about Albania.

Balkans Trek Part 1 – In and Around Kosovo

My last post started with things brought on the trek. Things We Brought to the Balkans – We’re On Our Way  But things were acquired also; among them a large antique plate that daughter A’s boyfriend N presented me with from his three day stay in Istanbul.  This plate became my companion for the remainder of the trip, wrapped in Turkish newspapers, bounced between packing cubes in my duffel, up mountains and down hills; by the time it arrived back in Orlando safe and sound it felt like an old friend.

And from that you can tell all of the travelers did in fact arrive in Pristina, Kosovo on time.  The next day, we were due at the airport by 11 to meet up with our guide, B from Croatia, and the two other members of our group, who turned out to be L from Glasgow and another J from Newcastle. Experienced travelers, they were quite tolerant of the group of Americans they found themselves stuck with.

We piled into one large van to make the trip to Peja, Kosovo, home of a beer of the same name, which featured prominently for the rest of the trip.  The flowery meadows soon turned into low mountains as we reached Peja.  Many low buildings, lots with the top floors incomplete while people lived in the lower ones.  The Accursed Mountains loom over the town in the distance.

The Skanderbeg

We checked into our small hotel and walked down to the town center. Three small child menaces on bikes terrorized groups of pedestrians (something that seems common in small towns throughout the world!). A river runs through the center of the pedestrian streets that comprise the main part of the city.  We found a café for lunch, where some of the braver (and hungrier) members of our crew ordered the local specialty of “Skanderbeg,” a breaded and fried meat roll stuffed with cheese and covered in a white dressing.  It’s named after an Albanian military leader who led a rebellion against the Ottoman empire. Appropriately enough, if you didn’t eat it, you could definitely use it as a billy club.

We then walked another mile of so through town to the 13th century monastery, a UNESCO site under the jurisdiction of the Serbian Patriarch. You had to show your passport to enter, but when the guard saw a U.S. passport he just waved us all in. I’m not used to such treatment! The monastery consists of 4 churches built to honor various saints and patriarchs, all of which are connected to form a whole. Frescos adorn the walls and ceilings, some quite beautiful, and others, as the voice on the audio tour said, by “artists of modest talent.” Besides a smattering of tourists, there were numerous nuns, visitors in military uniforms genuflecting and kissing relics – a fragment of arm bone encased in a silver sleeve, a bit of finger housed in a gold glove. I was struck by how the Byzantine ornamentation resembled Celtic knot designs.

The hotel had a large patio area and was near a playground and concert area as we soon found out. Our otherwise quiet evening started with the sounds of an Albanian wedding.  It then transitioned to what turned out to be part of a six day animation and music festival, which featured pulsing Turkish and Eastern Euopean traditional and house music played at a volume that literally shook the windows of our room.  I could see the light show well enough to make out the name, Kocani Orchestra, during one of the rowdiest pieces. Look it up. There’s a YouTube video. I know because I found it about 3 a.m.

Light show outside my window in the wee hours of the morning

After a disrupted night, we had a formal visit to the monastery with our guide. From there, it was into two “off road jeeps” for a drive through the Rugova Valley to start the trek.  Steep granite (?) walls rose up on each side of the canyon. After a series of hairpin turns, we stopped at a hut and began.  The trail started off at a very steep uphill grade (not made easier when we lost the trail and had about an extra half hour of bushwhacking through the woods). Meadows alternated with evergreen forests, and the variety and quantity of wildflowers was spectacular. I wish I knew the names (a quick Google search didn’t help), but here’s as close as I can come to equivalents – yellow and purple daisies, white and purple clover, tall thistles, blue bells, pink and white Queen Ann’s lace, periwinkles, yellow buttercups. Ridge upon ridge of purple mountains provided a backdrop.

It was hot and sunny and we ate lunch by someone’s empty log home, isolated atop a peak. Hard to see how it was built, much less how it was of any practical use. The last few hours were all downhill to the village of Liquenat. We started the descent in ever increasing rain and thunder; once it let up we had a half mile of sheer mud to slog through.  Amazing how much weight mud can add to your hiking boots! But the vistas made up for all of it.

We finally reached our first “home stay” –  which turns out to mean someone who has turned their home into a hostel. This one had several bedrooms, housing 6-8 people each and an extreme shortage of bathrooms. After downing some Peja beer, our group and the other few hikers staying had a great dinner – salad and fresh cheese, spinach and cheese phyllo dough pies, a small bit of lamb, potatoes, peppers and a date cake.

Playing cards in LIquenat

A map was posted on the property showing that what we are really trekking is sections of the Peaks of the Balkans Trail.  Tomorrow we will walk the border of Montenegro and a high pass.

The Swamp Saga Continues – The Homefront

For those of you with morbid curiosity, you may wonder whether we succeeded in draining the swamp that became our home on March 5 of this year. See The Swamp Comes Home – Navigating the Blowers. It’s three plus months later, and while we are no longer navigating blowers, we’ve dealt with about every other conceivable calamity that can be associated with floors. I can only analogize it to some hike where each time you see what appears to be a clean shot to the summit, something – weather, a rabbit trail, or your own idiocy – sets you back the proverbial two steps.

So here goes:

  • The blowers weren’t doing the trick so all the baseboards had to be pulled up. I asked if they could be saved but was rapidly told no. (Foreshadowing – this plays a role later in this saga.)
  • Floor still had a high moisture level even after two plus weeks. I reluctantly conceded we couldn’t save the vintage parquet.
  • Floor is pulled up; now we are down to the slab (yes, that part of your house that is on the actual ground), ready for more drying.
  • Blower people question why there is black stuff on the slab. After 30 seconds of internet research I learn it is “black mastic,” commonly used in 1950, which contains a substance that shall not be named. We are now at post flood week 6 or 7.
  • We buy masks (even though said substance is safely encapsulated in the mastic). Everyone agrees said substance must go (probably not correct, as you’ll see later).
  • Turns out finding a company to do said substance removal is not easy. We finally find one and the main house is completely sealed for two days as a chemical treatment is applied.
  • We are back to the blowers.
  • The slab remains wet and they conclude it had probably never dried fully in its 70 years of existence and wicks moisture up from the ground.
  • Solution- what feels almost like a coat of rubberized sealer to cover the slab. We are now at an additional two or more weeks. And I realize we could have slathered the offending black mastic with the coating.
  • Time for the new parquet to go down. One worker. At least 13 business days.
  • Baseboards to go back up. Turns out they don’t manufacture the size made in 1950 any longer and they have to be hand milled.
  • Special bit for saw breaks. Add at least one week delay.
  • Floor down, most of the baseboards up. Almost there?
  • Sander guys show up. We arrive home, discover our washer isn’t working and find that instead of using the big plug under the oven they have wired the sander cord direct to the circuit breaker box where it is hanging into a pool of water where the garage flooded in the latest rain deluge.
  • Back office floods (tile floor, thank God) due to clogged gutters. At least it doesn’t reach the originally new (now the old) parquet in the family room.

Good bye vintage parquet

So, that’s where we are today. There’s a glimmer of hope that order will in fact be restored. But, given the recent trials and tribulations of some of those near and dear to me I feel fortunate that this rocky road has just involved a surface! Namaste.

You Have to Have a Goal – Balkans Here We Come!

Since starting mountaineering travel in 2011 at the age of 50 – I’ve realized that keeping up with the non ending stair climbing, walking, strength training, and the rest (note the use of the Oxford comma), requires one thing – and that’s a goal. Without that, why the heck am I spending my lunch hour climbing up and down on an interior unairconditioned staircase in Florida. But once that trip’s picked out – game on!

And for the last few years, it seems that each fall is the time to announce the next adventure. This year, credit to Felix Bernard and Richard Smith who wrote Winter Wonderland, it’s Walking in the Balkan Borderlands. Everyone start humming.

This trip is not high altitude but promises to be steep enough. We’ll go through the Accursed Mountains (true name) and through lakes and byways of Kosovo, Albania, Montenegro, and end up in Dubrovnik in Croatia. It’s remarkable to think you can visit Albania. When I was growing up, Albania was completely sealed off behind the most sturdy of iron curtains. I’m wondering what the will be revealed when the veils are pulled back.

This will be an 8 day trek, 10 or so plus miles a day, staying in three guest houses, three small hotels, and a home stay.

And it’s not just us – daughters S and A, A’s significant other N, and M and S of Everest Base Camp fame are all signed up.

There are eight months to go and it’s time to get my walking legs in gear. Yesterday we did a 7 miler at the Black Bear Wilderness Preserve here in Central Florida with M and S (that’ll be the subject of a separate blog post; let’s just say there was a snake involved). Great time – but there are a lot of steps ahead of us to get ready. But, at least, now it’s eyes set toward Kosovo!

A Couple of Days in Delhi – The City Tour

It’s now the end of September and about two months since the wrap up of our Stok Kangri expedition. I’ve described much of the trip in a circular fashion – I started with the trek, the summit, and descent, returned to the acclimatization days in Leh when we first arrived – and now I’m the point to conclude with the trip’s real ending, our stay in Delhi.

After the death march down Stok Kangri, one fell swoop from the summit to Base Camp to Stok Village, we ended up back at the Hotel Mogul in Leh at 10:30 pm, with a 4 am wake up call for a 5 am flight to Delhi on Go Air. We said good bye to our patient guide R, and were off to the airport, rejoined now by our three fellow trekkers who hadn’t made the summit attempt. So our ranks were back up to 10, if not the original 11.

The flight over the snow covered mountain ranges was spectacular. Once in Delhi, we were met promptly and were back at the Ashok Country Resort by mid morning. After catching up on emails, we had lunch and then seven of us went off on the Delhi City Tour. Three of us had had enough and spent the afternoon touring various bars!

Feeling scholarly, J, S and I took the tour route. Unfortunately I decided to wear shoes that seemed like a good idea at the time but turned out to be exactly what you shouldn’t wear following 21 hours of trekking. By the end of the day, my left foot was the size of a melon, and I’d managed to compress a nerve on the top of my left foot (an injury that is still plaguing me even today).

That afternoon’s tour, led by a very enthusiastic tour guide, started with a trip to a monument, whose name I failed to memorialize, built by the Moguls atop a destroyed Hindu temple. The Moguls had defaced the eyes from the intricate Hindu carvings of men and women, but ironically, left intact their bodies, all carved into positions of the Kama Sutra. Next up was India Gate, a 20th century war monument. It operates as a free park for Indians and was packed with people picnicking in the red hot dirt, with very little grass. It was supposed to be the monsoon season, but the rains are getting later and later, and not a drop of water did we see.

We finished up with a drive through the “White House” area of Delhi. This is where the British and Indian governmental officials lived. The dusty streets of Delhi suddenly shifted into something that all but resembled a gated community here in Florida. Wide, tree-lined boulevards with low slung white houses behind fortified walls. You could imagine the governmental elite, all drinking gin and tonics, oblivious to the world a quarter mile from their doorsteps.

We made our way back to the hotel, where our own gin and tonics awaited by the pool. There was one last day ahead of us. The adventure to the Red Fort awaits.

The Oracle and the Stok Kangri Odyssey

The first night in Leh – our night’s sleep was punctuated by the sounds of very loud people in the hotel courtyard, followed by a heavy rain storm and a cacophony of barking dogs. I quit trying to sleep at 5:30 a.m. Breakfast finally started at 7:30 – eggs to order, poori, chick peas and corn.

That day, Tuesday, our second in Leh, Ladakh, involved a two hour drive along winding roads cutting through the mountains and following the river to the Alchi Monastery. A few villages along the way but the main outposts of civilization seemed to be multiple military bases.

The oldest parts of the monastery were 1000 years old, and show Mogol influences – before conversion to Islam. Our guide R gave an interesting description of his brand of Mahayana Buddhism. We had a typical lunch at a restaurant at the monastery – cheese in red sauce, potato curry, dahl, local vegetables.

Along the way was the remarkable view of the Indus River merging into another – the Crest toothpaste like blue into the murky brown. Especially notable were the carved signs of the road construction companies advertising their work.

After we returned from the monastery we had some down time until 5:30, when we met up with R for a short acclimatization walk to the big stupa at the edge of town. After a climb up 500 stairs, we were rewarded with a great view. And to reward ourselves further we ventured to “Food Planet,” a roof top bar where people who weren’t worried about their VO2 levels could order hookahs.

Wednesday started off on a sad note as one of our trekkers, V, encountered some medical issues that resulted in his having to return to the UK. And two others, M and M, were off at the doctors for colds! A bit daunted by the early reduction in our ranks, we took off on yet another acclimatization hike. Wove through crowded streets and alleyways by very large houses, many of which were under construction. Because of the weather, construction can occur only during the summer months. Spent quite a while watching the outdoor assembly at an elementary school.

Finally we broke from the road and went up a very steep trail, with switchbacks up to the top of an over 13,000 foot mountain. There are so many such peaks here they don’t even bother to name them.

I was steady but definitely the slowest – felt the altitude a bit. We were going rapidly and I felt I did ok. There were actually two summits with some fun scrambling in between. And coming downhill was great.

These early hikes are so odd – you can tell the guide is continuously evaluating you- not just to make sure you’re ok at the moment but to get a sense of how you’ll do when you are really at altitude and facing the summit and whether you’re ready.

We re-entered Leh by the 16th century Ladakh palace. A very plain, large fortified structure now empty. The current “king” of Ladakh – who no longer has any official status – is still alive and lives in a nearby village. Stripped of power but apparently not money.

That afternoon J and had our one splurge and purchased an old, intricate kilim (woven rug). It tells a story – you can see where the weaver started to run out of wool and and misjudged the layout of certain motifs.

One more day in Leh before our trek was to begin….and a day we’d all been looking forward to – a drive to the second highest drivable pass in the world. I was sitting in the front (motion sickness doesn’t improve with altitude). Many Indian tourists who had no acclimatization at all on motorcycles heading up to the pass. And many T-shirts promoting it as the highest drivable pass in the world – with lots of motorcycle graphics. The higher we got the more hairpin turns there were and the less the visibility. I simply didn’t look out the window for large parts of it.

The pass was highly militarized and we had to show our passports to move forward, even though we were still in the same country. We also learned that satellite phones and detailed maps were completely banned in this part of India. So much for my rescue plan at the summit.

We were now at 17,500 feet and it was freezing with light snow. I was grateful I’d dressed warmly and had my hiking poles – those who hadn’t were pretty miserable. After we stopped we struggled up a nearby hill – quite icy and couldn’t go as high as planned because it was simply too slippery.

But what was near the top was a small hut, lots of burning incense – and an oracle – a woman in a purple and yellow shirt dancing around the hut screaming and chanting. It turned out the day was a holy day – the one time a year that the oracle – from a local village – comes to this spot. Other villagers were there to light the butter lamps and pay appropriate homage. I think C from our trip has video. If he reads this he should add it to the comments.

After a very quick tea at the crowded small tea house – where most were huddling to stay out of the cold – we drive back down through a steady rain that only occasionally cleared.

Once back, we had a delicious lunch of momos (dumplings) and listened to R give our trek briefing for the next day. J and I went back to town to pick up some last minute things – amidst the pouring rain in what was supposed to be the dry season.

In the meantime, S had somehow managed to run into a rabbi doing evangelical work in Leh. He got into a conversation about the synagogue his wife attended in Alaska and ended up with a dinner invitation for 10 pm at night. He may be the only American/Alaskan to experience a Lubavitch Jewish dinner in Northwestern India. Just another example of the unexpected things that can happen in Ladakh.

The next day – the true Odyssey started. The one to Stok Kangri- where I started this series – Days 1/2 – The Stok Kangri, Ladakh, India Expedition.  But there’s still more left- after the trek, Base Camp, the summit and the Death March down – there was still our stay in Delhi. That awaits.