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.

Everest Base Camp – M and S Speak! Guest bloggers.

IMG_0142It did all start in 1991. Only one of our now four children had been born. She (A) spent much of her time in a plastic contraption that we called her rocket seat — a plastic rocker with a foam insert and a carrying handle that proved very useful for lugging her around to all the restaurants we still planned to go to with our good friends M and S.  The fact we were 29 and 30 and found ourselves with an infant offspring was not about to deter us.

As the years went by and the offspring expanded to include three others, we four parents found ourselves in high risk environments – such as a fondue restaurant with four under 8 year olds – with hot oil, fire and long sharp forks – and various other and sundry similar problems and situations. They are the subject of another blog post – or possibly even another website.

But throughout it all was always what we used to call our travel fantasies. It could be Vietnam, New Zealand, wherever. Just something more than New Smyrna Beach or – heaven forbid- the Outer Banks. We called it travel p**n – the fulfillment of our travel fantasies – but I’m concerned WordPress and Facebook will block the  phrase of what we actually called it. Just understand – it was supposed to be the ultimate escape and self realization.

Travel po**n kept us going through many a career shift, stressful work situation and the other vagaries of life in the ’90s and ’00s.

After some preliminary trips to see if we really were compatible adventurers – see Iceland Part 2 – The Golden Circle, or All Roads Lead to Fludir, we decided late 20’s angst could translate to mid 50s midlife crises. So we went for it. I’ve already published J’s and my experiences on our trek to Everest Base Camp with friends. Here’s the take from the other bedroom in our amazingly cold tea houses in Nepal and how it happened:

M and S speak:

“You could definitely do it!”

J nodded emphatically as he picked up the conversation thread from MR. As always, J’s contribution focused on the technical specifications. “It’s all trekking. There’s no climbing, so no ropes or crampons.  We go alongside the Khumbu Glacier, not across. Highest we get is only 18,000 feet at Kala Pattar—that’s the best views of Everest.  Kala Pattar is steep and there’s some scree.  But you should be able to make it!

MR chimed in eagerly at each reference, “It’s basically just a really long hike.”  “You’ve got boots and rain gear. You’ll just need to buy some poles.” And “Kala Pattar is an optional day. We could just leave you behind.” [They did.]
E familia.

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“Just leave me behind,” S called out, only half in jest.  He was sitting on a rock, head bent down, one arm stretched in front of him, palm facing out.  It was the universal signal of defeat.  We had updated the wills before we left but our Nepalese guide, Z, wasn’t having anything to do with S dying. “You have to keep moving, S.  It’s not good to sit too long at this altitude.”  I caught up to where S had planted himself.  It wasn’t like I was moving any faster.  Z exhorted both of us with the now familiar, “Tomorrow will be easier.”  Z told us things that weren’t always 100% true.  Like “rest days” were anything but.  Turns out every day was hard and “rest days” (a/k/a acclimatization days) were the hardest!

Since S and I spent most of the time staring at our boot tops, we are grateful for MR’s detailed posts which we can confirm are based on contemporaneous and copious notes.  S and I huddled exhausted around the yak-dung fires in tea houses fighting to stay awake long enough to eat dinner.  MR was on-line busily researching and cite-checking.  It was enough for us to simply say, “We did it!”

“We did it” began long before we were captured, smiling but completely, utterly spent, in the photo taken at Base Camp.

“We did it” began years ago at that very first meal with MR & J talking about how, one day, after the kids were grown, we would go on a “couples vacation.”  Until this year, that continuing conversation had yielded only a few extra pounds, a shared condo in St. Augustine for the Gentlemen of the Road concert, and a long weekend in Iceland functioning as something like cold-weather gear crash dummies for one of MR and J’s upcoming summit attempts.

“We did it” included:  going to a gym to attempt to regain something resembling good shape (and updating the wills just in case); buying a ton more gear than MR and J let on would be required; flying twice as far as we had ever flown; trekking ten times farther than we had ever hiked—and that was twenty years before; sharing close quarters and more about our bodily consumption and elimination than we were comfortable; and worrying that we might end up ruining someone else’s trip of a lifetime by succumbing to altitude sickness or injury.

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We did it” also included:  being graciously welcomed into the homes and monasteries of people from a rich and vibrant culture; sharing the trail and tea house conversations with travelers from around the world; getting, if not to the top of the world, then pretty close; beating back the demons that taunt us as we age with the bold statement that we’re not dead, yet; discovering that friendship can survive the trek to Everest Base Camp; and, having taken every step together as a couple, finishing the last, longest, hardest day together.   Our marriage is the stronger for it.

MR and J were right.  We could definitely do this!

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Leaving for Lukla or Monkeys in the Airport

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Twenty years ago, Husband J and I and our dear friends M and S used to sit in restaurants with small children in tow (who were frequently vying to see which of them could engage in the most dangerous dinner table activity involving condiments) and fantasize about the exotic trips we’d take once we were empty nesters. We started small – with St. Augustine, graduated to Iceland and discovered we actually made good traveling companions – and now I write this from Namche Bazaar in Nepal on our trek to Everest Base Camp.

But first things first. How did we get here? After enjoying a night at a hotel at the Hyatt, courtesy of our daughter A, we got up at the ungodly hour of 2:45 am to check in for our flight to JFK. At least we could return to our rooms after. At JFK we had the pleasure of the Airtrain tour of the whole airport since it turned out going from terminal 5 to 4 required visiting every other existing terminal first. Tours of the backsides of airports ended up being a theme of the trip.

Emirates lived up to its name, free drinks, good food and an unending supply of movies. After 12 long hours our gigantic Airbus descended in Dubai as gracefully as one of the egrets on Lake Ivanhoe. And we could even see the landing through the cameras affixed to the outside of the plane.

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We took yet another airport tram – this time to circumnavigate the airport in a short 45 minute journey from terminal 3 to 2 with a visit to terminal 1 thrown in for good measure. Terminal 2 was a far cry from the rarified and modern Emirates terminal. It was teeming with people, all wearing every variety of regional dress of the Arab world imaginable.  As usual, I realize how provincial we are in our outlook. Where were the groups of men in white robes, wrapped a bit the way the Masai wrap their cloaks, from? How about all the men in long cotton shirts, sitting barefoot in lotus position? And the group of ten or so women lying on the floor, completely encased in their black burkas, with one older woman awake and sitting guard over them?

Finally our four hour layover ended and we boarded FlyDubai for a four hour flight to Katmandu. I had the pleasure of sitting next to someone who immediately fell asleep and hogged the entire armrest, not to mention part of my chair. More about him later. There’s a karma story coming.

After finally getting some sleep on the plane, we landed on time in Katmandu. Fortunately we didn’t face another airport tour. Hint to travelers – get your visas before you arrive! It was the equivalent of a TSA pre. Our duffel bags all arrived as did our guide, Z.

Katmandu traffic is insane. The city was packed, people selling wares along the street, tiny shop after tiny shop. Hordes of motorcycles weaved between vans and vehicles, for all the world like a motorcycle gang out of Mad Max.

It took close to an hour for what we learned the next day was only a 20 minute drive. Finally turned into what I think was a more elegant section of town (it was dark) and to the very nice Yak ‘n Yeti Hotel. We had a lovely quick meal at the bar – and then spent another hour repacking and reweighing everything to get our luggage down to 15 kg. They are serious about the weight on the flight to Lukla.

A 5 am we journeyed back to the airport. It was a scene of chaos. Trekkers, guides and monkeys (yes, monkeys) running through the airport getting ready to board the 20 person flights to Lukla. Well, not the monkeys. Went through at least three metal directors and M and I kept getting relegated to the special women’s line – but never had to remove shoes and no one worried about liquids.

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The plane ride lived up to its reputation. 20 people, 10 a side and an open cockpit. It turned out we were one of the last flights out – the rest were canceled for weather reasons. We flew between sharp green mountains , clouds floating around us, and eventually a glimpse of the high snow covered Himalayan peaks, pasted against the sky like white jagged metal.

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Landing in Lukla is like landing on an aircraft carrier. The runway is short and if the pilot doesn’t make an immediate right turn you’ll run into the side of the mountain.

We deplaned, found the bathroom (first rule of travel – go to the bathroom whenever you get the chance), and had a cup of tea at a nearby tea house. We were ready to trek.