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.

Things We Brought to the Balkans – We’re On Our Way

Flying over Istanbul

What does one bring on an eight day trekking trip to the Balkans, followed by a several day sojourn in Dubrovnik, you ask? Well, here’s some of what our merry band of hikers thought appropriate:

a deflated basketball (because one of us has a theory that former Yugoslavian countries will be rife with basketball courts and eager players), a pin to inflate said basketball, massive amounts of immodium (I had to convince that one that 48 tablets really would be sufficient and he didn’t need the 96-pack), reading materials to include Rue Morgue (I leave it to your imagination) balanced out by an astronomy magazine and Foreign Affairs, and a laser helmet (whose purpose I also leave to your imagination).

And here are the destinations from whence we are all coming (some of us took some pre-vacations, as you can tell) – with the hope that we will all converge within a 12 hour window in the town of Pristina, located either in Kosovo or Serbia, depending on what map you are looking at: Orlando, Austin, Boston, Athens Greece, and Istanbul.

This is a live and happening blog post as I write from the patio at The Golden Hotel in Pristina, likely one of the least touristy cities there is. And correspondingly cheap. Lunch for six was under 20 euros. The first wave of arrivals has all made it successfully, even though two mistook the sign for the prayer room at the Istanbul airport for the rest room sign. Oops. We are all going on over 24 hours with nothing but airplane sleep, but still managed to stagger down through the neighborhood we are in to the main drag.

The Pristina Airport is a far cry from Istanbul’s

It’s a pedestrian area, low rise buildings in various states of renovation and dilapidation. Kosovans seem happy to see us. Note the 4th of July banner!

But it’s an absolutely beautiful day and I believe it to be Saturday. The main activity in Pristina seems to be hanging out at cafes drinking coffee or beer or wine. So, we are appropriately entering into the spirit of it all as we recover from what can only be described as a grueling day of travel.

Tomorrow- Peja and the trek begins!

Slow and Steady – Turtlehead Peak, Red Rock

Three bruises, a blister, and a pair of ripped hiking pants.  But they were all worth it for the views at the top of Turtlehead Peak.  After an amazing dinner at what must be the only calm casino environment in Las Vegas (if not the world) — Sage at Aria — we were up at literally the crack of dawn to start our adventure in Red Rock Canyon.

I had my share of trepidation about this one.  I knew it was 2000 feet of altitude gain in 2 miles, 800 of which were in .4 miles.  Sounded steep, and it has been a full year since I’ve  managed to climb anything other than stairs.  And this was compounded by the fact that I managed to do quite a number on my feet on my last ten-miler and am paying the price of some badly treated blisters.  I was triply concerned when I exited our one-day rental car to start the hike  and realized I was limping!

But the adrenaline of being in the mountains kicked in and soon we were trotting along at a pretty decent pace.  The trail starts at an old stone quarry with monster chunks of limestone on either side.  From there, it gradually rises up.  Well, gradual for a while.

I was expecting a brown, dry, barren landscape.  But that’s not what we found.  A surprising number of low growing green shrubs flanked the trail, but even more remarkably, a ton of flowers – pinks, lavender, some bright yellows, and every now and then a brilliant red, sprouted up all around.  And interesting shapes, too.  Some dripping like crystals in chandeliers, others swollen seed pods, some wispy and feathery.

Turtlehead Peak is famous for its vanishing trail on the way up.  In fact, calling it a trail may be an exaggeration.  Once we got beyond the initial wash, the few trail markers seemed to disappear and we were confronted with a rocky, scree scramble heading toward the ridge. We’d encountered two other intrepid hikers (needless to say, a lot younger than J and me) and they were having an equally difficult time figuring out how to journey from the to the ridge.

I knew we were in trouble when J convinced me to go up and over a bluff – while I was certain the easier route lay below. After all, the lower route is exactly where the other hikers were. Nonetheless, up and over we went, only to be faced with another even steeper section. J, apparently believing left and up was always the right way, pushed on; I, certain a better way lay below, kept going along my own personal trail.  But after a bit – and seeing J well above me and the ridge towering above that – I realized I needed to get onto some semblance of a trail that would carry me on up.

So, with Ossy’s words (Shifting Winds Lead to Cotopaxi Summit) echoing in my ears, I started thinking to myself – right, left, right – just find your next step – and wend your way up the side.  I found myself on a couple of ledges and unstable spots – but shaky legs and all, eventually wound up next to J, with trail markers in sight. I’m pretty sure that little scramble is the source of the arm bruises.

From there, it was simply a steep slog to the summit.  The foliage changed to small scarred trees (sort of like what I remember from the North Carolina coast).  Once we got to the top, and with the elation that even a 6300 foot peak can bring, I totally lost my concentration and managed to stumble on a relatively flat surface. Bruise #3, the leg bruise.

We spent about thirty minutes at the summit, ate our power bars, and took photos of the sculpted peaks surrounding us. A little yoga, of course.

What goes up must come down. Miraculously, we were able to see trail blazes the entire descent – which simply confirmed how far off the trial we (I) was on the way up.  The descent went much faster, but there was the one moment where I realized sitting down and then stepping onto the next rock was the best way down one section – resulting in that unique, not to be replicated – R -I-P – of your hiking pants. I knew it was a risk when I decided on that strategy. Those pants have been with me since Kilimanjaro in 2011, though, so what better way for them to meet their maker.

We hiked back to the parking lot by the sandstone quarry, watching the people who’d decided to try to climb the sandstone cliffs as opposed to hiking on up to Turtlehead Peak. It looked hot and miserable.  In fact, the way down was cooler than the way up, even though it was then close to noon, as the sun had retreated behind the clouds.

After finishing the 13 mile scenic drive through Red Rock Canyon (you have to, because the loop is one way only), we were back in Las Vegas in 40 minutes.  Back to the land of casinos and cards.  A red eye flight to Florida awaited us.  As well as a wedding of the son of dear friends M and S back in the swamp.

 

To the Balkans via Red Rock, Nevada

Turtlehead Peak, photo by Bob Wick

Last Sunday I spent a wonderful 35 minutes running up St. Charles and winding around the Irish channel neighborhood of New Orleans.

The Irish Channel

Yes, after almost a year long break I’ve decided I’m back into the running world. Not sure I’m ever going to make it back to seven milers, but it felt wholly liberating to run up one of the most beautiful boulevards in one of my favorite cities in the world.

But I’ve been having a motivation set back. J and I looked up the difficulty level of this summer’s adventure to the Balkans and it was a whopping 5 on a 10 point scale. Everest Base Camp was a 7. Stok Kangri a 9 (and I think that’s an underestimate). Without some sort of “you might die if you don’t train properly” incentive out there it is very difficult for me to put on the backpack and hike those extra flights of stairs in the office building, much less brave a run in the mid 90 degree weather we are already experiencing.

So, what better than to try to combine work trip number 3 to Las Vegas with a hike.

The mountains in the distance call…

I started off by googling “hardest hikes around Las Vegas.” Uniformly, Turtlehead Peak kept showing up in the search results.

It is a high desert hike with 2000 feet of elevation gain in 2 miles. There’s no shade and “bring lots of water” seems to be the main advice. Start early before it is even hotter seems to be another one.

We haven’t hiked in that environment since Sedona, during the year of the Grand Canyon (see Journey through Time -Out of the Grand Canyon and on to Sedona – Part 3 ), so our desert boots may need some shining.

Frankly, from what I’ve read this hike promises to be more difficult than any we are doing in the Balkans (famous last words; I could be totally wrong). Any difficulty will be compounded by the fact we plan to take a red eye back to Orlando that night to make it to a Saturday wedding.

The upcoming combination of heat and dry desert air, extreme steepness, and lack of sleep should be enough to get me out there. We’re going to hike in the Black Bear Wilderness today. Despite the mid 90 degree heat.

Yes, that is an alligator.

The Swamp Comes Home – Navigating the Blowers

Don’t read this post if you have an aversion to water. You’ll recall that despite the swamp in the name, FromSwampToSummit isn’t really fond of snorkeling (FromSwampToSummit Goes Snorkeling). It turns out she’s not fond of house floods either.

It had been a fairly normal Tuesday up to that point. That is, the point that I received a frantic call explaining that my once a week housekeeper had tried to tighten a valve to the main water supply line to a hall toilet. It had snapped off, breaking the PVC pipe in the wall, and now a geyser of water was spewing throughout the house. Of course, neither of us knew where the main water shutoff was. If this blog does nothing else but convince some reader out there to locate his or her water shutoff, I will feel I have done some good in the world. It took me about ten minutes to find it once I got home – and by then the water had been pumping out for close to an hour.

Since then, life has been a steady stream of blowers, suction pads that look like giant octopi, plastic sheets with tubes leading into tanks. All the furniture has been moved out of the front half of the house, and the equipment has taken over like some sort of alien invading force. Triffids? (Yes, a reference to John Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids.)

We are presently relegated to living in our small guest addition, which reminds me, once again, why I would be a terrible inhabitant of a tiny house despite the oh so cute curbside appeal of such places. Oh, and did I mention that the flood completely covered our 70 year old parquet floors that we just had refinished with over an inch of water? I really didn’t understand water pressure until now.

Venturing into the main house to try to locate my clothes is a mountaineering challenge worthy of any summit. Not only do you have to hop over the blowers, navigate crossings of tubes and drainage pipes, and tiptoe along the narrow ledges of the plastic floor sheets, you then have to squeeze yourself into the crevices between the furniture currently located in the master bathroom, and then inch your way into the closet. There, you hurriedly pick out anything you can find to wear and take a deep breath to start the journey back. It is not a short process. As you can see below, all the doors have been removed to assist in the drying process. Baseboards came off later, once we passed the lead and asbestos tests.

I’m afraid training was largely on hold this week, while we simply coped. There’s seemingly no end in sight. It’s remarkable how quickly water is absorbed by thirsty wood floors. Getting to the other side of this is going be a summit in and of itself.

The Economics of Adventure Travel

Trekking in Nepal

When people ask about our next adventure, I know the real question they have is…how much does all this cost? I’ve been thinking about answering it for a long time, but perhaps it’s less awkward to do so in a blog post.

The internet is filled with blogs from twenty-somethings who grab their backpacks, buy rail passes, stay at youth hostels, and make their way around the world before embarking on a more sedate life to come, all apparently on the proverbial shoestring.

Backpacks are required – on the Speyside Way

But suppose that you’re well beyond your twenty-somethings, are well established on that more sedate life to come, and are now ready to do all the things that you didn’t do way back then. And while you may have more resources than you did years ago, you don’t want to spend every last bit of your savings on the possibility of making it up a 20,000 foot mountain somewhere — that is, unless you’re planning to retire on top of one.

So here are a few hints as to how we’ve managed over the last eight years to climb Kilimanjaro and go on a safari in Tanzania, climb Mt. Elbrus and visit Moscow, hike the Speyside Way in the Scottish Highlands, trek the Inca Trail in Peru and the Everest Base Camp Trail in Nepal, climb the Ecuadorian and Mexican Volcanoes (ok, we didn’t summit the Mexican one!), and make it to the top of Stok Kangri in India. And how we’re planning to trek through Montenegro, Croatia, Kosovo, and Albania with family and friends this summer.

  • Consider using a U.K. based company. While we have had fantastic experiences with some well-known U.S. companies, the reality is they are more expensive. You’re typically paying for a U.S. guide to be with you at all times, and I’m sure they would argue that there are higher standards of accommodation, safety, etc etc. And while on our beginning climbs we certainly wanted that, as we became marginally more experienced, we felt a lot more confident.
  • Our last few trips have been with three different U.K. companies that utilize English-speaking guides local to the area. They have been great. In Nepal our guide was the son of a gurkha. And in India our guide was a native of Ladakh, the site of Stok Kangri. Nothing could beat making a special trip to Upper Pangboche to celebrate Buddha’s birthday at an ancient monastery with our Nepalese guide.
Monasteries on Buddha Day in Nepal
  • Be flexible about accommodations. You really don’t need a five star hotel everywhere you stay. With the less expensive companies, we’ve typically had a very nice hotel in whatever major city we’ve been in, followed by a mixture of small guesthouses, tea houses (well, that’s all there is on the Everest Base Camp Trail), and this summer’s trip to the Balkans promises whatever are called “home stays.” I think one’s on a farm.
Yak ‘n Yeti Hotel in Kathmandu
Our accommodations in Ladakh
  • Don’t worry about the food. It’s fine. Quite frankly, I haven’t noticed any difference between the food on the more expensive trips than the less expensive. It’s really more a function of what the food is like in that location to begin with. On Mt. Elbrus, you’re stuck with whatever the cook decides to serve to the barrel dwellers that day regardless of who you’re traveling with. Some of the best food we ever had was in India, provided by a head cook and his two sons.
Barrel dining
  • Be willing to fly economy! I’ve travelled for 24 plus straight hours in economy class. On international flights there are free drinks. There are plenty of movies. It’s going to be miserable anyway, so you might as well wallow in misery in economy rather than spend thousands of extra dollars. (Ok, for those of you who are adept at frequent flyer points I do acknowledge there’s probably a better way, but I’ve never been able to make it work.
  • Gear is a one time cost. Admittedly, there’s a certain outlay to begin with, but the more you use it, the cheaper it is! HOWEVER, do not skimp on the cost of 1. hiking boots, 2. backpacks, and 3. hiking poles. You will be sorry if you do.

So how much money are we really talking about? Let’s get down to dollars and cents. Exclusive of international airfare, we paid less than $2500 each for a 12 day trip to India, inclusive of three nights at a hotel in Delhi, four plus nights at a hotel in Leh, domestic flights to and from Delhi, and trekking/camping with a team of 20 horses to lug our stuff around, not to mention a host of guides and cooks. As for Nepal, we paid less than $2500 per person for two weeks, inclusive of all lodging, food, and domestic flights (the famous flight into Lukla on the world’s shortest runway at 11,000 or so feet) for a private trip with J, M, and S, one main guide and two porters, arranged at dates of our convenience. And this summer? Eight days in the Balkans for $1,240 each.

It’s doable, both financially and practically. Don’t let the idea you can’t take two straight weeks off daunt you. I’m a lawyer and I connect via email for all but a few days on these trips, as I find that determining the world hasn’t ended without me actually reduces my stress. In the immortal words of Nike, just do it.

Letting Up the Pressure – Running and Walking Through the Holidays

Mt. Elbrus from the Baksan Valley

I started running in 2014. We had just summited Mt. Elbrus, but I felt I was too slow on the descent and needed to increase my cardio training. True, some of it could have been due to the third degree sunburn I had managed to achieve. But, regardless, we knew there were a number of higher mountains in our future – the Ecuadorian volcanoes were on the burner for 2015 – so the cardio was essential.

Making our way up Cotopaxi

I started slowly; fast I am not. And over the next several years I worked my way from a 5k to a bit over 7 miles. There were times I felt I could have gone further, but I just didn’t. My standard was a 5k on the treadmill Wednesday nights before yoga and a 5 to 6 mile run on Saturday mornings.

But all things change. This past summer we actually achieved our goal of summiting an over 20,000 foot mountain – Stok Kangri in Ladakh, India. My Wednesday yoga class time was moved up to 7 pm, making it practically impossible to get a 5k in between yoga and work. And more importantly, I felt I was getting slower and slower.

For Type As like me that means that Friday nights started to be filled with an existential dread (ok, not quite that bad) of how my run would be the next day. Could I achieve under 12 minute miles consistently? Why didn’t I ever get an under 11 minute like I used to? What’s wrong with me? Can 4 years of aging make a difference? What does this say about my next climbing or trekking expedition? You get the picture.

Then, a few weeks ago, I just stopped. I simply made the conscious decision, somehow justified in my head, that what I really needed to improve was my general walking speed. So I would just become a fast walker.

I started with a very brisk three mile walk to meet a friend for (of all things) a stroll through a “fairy door” exhibition in a nearby park, and realized I could keep my “splits” at 15 minutes per mile or less. After a few sessions of that, I decided to “walk” to the Y before a Saturday yoga class. And as I took off down the road, on what felt like a crisp day, at least to us Floridians, I suddenly realized I wanted to run. So I did. And it felt good to let my legs move freely without obsessing about what my Fitbit was showing. I’d run to the end of the block or the next tree or whatever the mark was and then keep going at a walking clip for a while – and then run again, whenever I felt like it. And ironically, I discovered that when I run I’m running faster than I did and overall end up with 13 to 14 1/2 minute miles and a decently elevated heart rate.

I’ve been using this run- walk technique for a few weeks now. And I’m looking forward to my Saturday morning training sessions again. Friday nights aren’t filled with worry. As I wend my way through the neighborhood, I’m noticing more things – a new home renovation project, which trees are blooming, the latest development in the never-ending series of drainage construction projects by the lake where we live.

It was like letting the air out of a balloon. But not in a disappointing way. Letting up on all that pressure let me enjoy it all again. I’m going to try to remember that as we enter the upcoming Thanksgiving to Christmas marathon.

Seen on the edge of the lake

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!

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.

Back to the Beginning – Our Journey to Leh, Ladakh, Jammu & Kashmir, India

This title sounds a bit like “Trinity Park, Durham, North Carolina, United States, Earth, Milky Way, Universe,” which I found very amusing to list as my address in middle school. My travel diary for our Stok Kangri adventure – which was indeed to such a remarkably named location – starts this way: “My Fitbit claims it is 10 am but by now we having been traveling long enough I only have the vaguest idea. I believe it’s about 2 am Sunday in Orlando after I woke up on Saturday morning at 2:15 am.”

Kira the cat is uncertain about the backpacks

2:15 am was our planned wake up time. Yes, we were very paranoid about all that could go wrong between our house and the airport for a 6 am flight, not to mention the packing that remained to be done before we boarded our Uber. What? You don’t think it’s a good idea to go to a cocktail party the night before a big trip?

After quite a long wait at the airport – because nothing did go wrong – we made it to JFK, and boarded the same Emirates flight to Dubai that we took last year on our way to Nepal. It was probably the same plane. The flight was full, lots of Indian families traveling back to visit relatives over the summer holidays. I read; watched two movies, including The Shape of Water; and crossed Northern Europe and Russia on the way to the UAE. Fortunately we didn’t have to change terminals this time, although it was still quite a substantial walk to the gate. We boarded our next flight in good time and were on our way to Delhi. Turns out New Delhi is really just a portion of the ancient city of Delhi. Hence the use of both names. For those of you who have asked.

The views upon the takeoff from Dubai are so strange. Canals carved in the desert resembling tattoos.

Once we arrived in Delhi we knew to look for the e-visa line thanks to our travel companion S who’d arrived a day before and encountered no queues there. We were duly met by our Delhi group leader and transported to the Ashok Country House hotel. We passed numerous chain stores (like Benetton), all closed as it was Sunday. “Normal” looking stores were interspersed with carts and people selling anything you could imagine. The hotel was dated and a little quirky but perfectly nice, and we went off to the pool to meet our fellow trekkers. It was 112 degrees Fahrenheit. Our group ranged from two 61 year olds down to two 27 and 28 year olds. Four from the US and seven from the U.K. All of us seemed quite compatible and we shared a few Indian beers. We all found it remarkable that the alcohol content was given as a range – a “light,” which was “up to 5%” or a “strong,” which was between 5.2 and 8%.” Did that mean a light could have 0?

Our wake up call the next day was 4:30 am and we were off to the domestic airport in Delhi for the hour and a half flight to Leh. In contrast to Katmandu, there weren’t any monkeys at the airport, though. See Leaving for Lukla or Monkeys in the Airport. I think we were the only westerners in the entire plane. At the Leh airport we met our guide, R, who was from Ladakh. There is a big military presence – soldiers with scary looking guns everywhere and signs warning if you violated the rules you would not just be shot, but shot dead. You could tell we were near disputed borders. Ladakh was its own kingdom until 1834 and its residents are very conscious of having a separate identity from India. It’s largely Buddhist, and shares a lot culturally with Tibet. The Dalai Lama was to visit while we were in India, over his birthday, no less, and his was cause for great celebration.

Ladakh is very barren, a high plateau landscape. A few planted fields separated by poplar trees. Our hotel, the Hotel Mogol, had a rooftop cafe, a restaurant, and our room was large. It worked.

Our first day in Leh – which is at around 11,000 feet – was supposed to be spent acclimatizing. One reason we picked this particular guide company was a really good acclimatization plan. We were to have several days hiking around Leh before starting the trek and climb. Day 1 involved lunch, beers, a nap, and a yoga class at the Mahabodhi Yoga Center for several of us. It was remarkably similar to a US yoga class and felt very familiar.

Mahabodhi Yoga Center

Afterwards, we met R for a very rapid stroll to the “market” and the “local market.” Streets were covered with rocks, mud, motorcycles, people, mangy dogs, all vying for a spot. Lots of cafes and guest houses. Leh is bigger than you would think from its population figures, and we were there during the tourist season for visitors from the rest of India. According to R, after Ladakh was featured in a 2009 movie called “3 Idiots,” it became a popular tourist destination – which has brought benefits but also increased trash, not to mention the noise pollution of hundreds of rental motorcycles cycles revving their way along the main streets.

The hotel served dinner at 8 pm. There was hot water in our rooms between 6 and 8 am and 6 and 8 pm. We had another couple of days ahead of us to explore monasteries and visit the second highest drivable pass in the world at 17,500 feet.

Life was good. And, as you’ll see soon, there was to be an oracle in our future.