Saturday, August 2, 2014

Blazin through Berlin, Poland and the Baltics

Our travel continues to pick up speed now that we're in the final throws of our trip.  Since the second week of July, we've visited Berlin, Poland (Warsaw and Krakow), followed by a hop (Vilnius, Lithuania), skip (Riga, Latvia) and jump (Tallinn, Estonia) through the Baltics.  

Berlin was amazing- perhaps mostly due to the fact that our dear friend Olivia lives there.  It was so nice to stay with a good friend, sleep in a room without strangers and have a kitchen for making tasty meals or just catching up over morning tea.  Olivia had just wrapped up her year of teaching, so she was free to join us (lead us, rather) through her beautiful city.  

Unbelievable really, but we were there for the final World Cup match!  Being in Germany to celebrate their huge victory was more than we could have ever hoped for.  It was an evening game and was being shown on large screens all over Berlin.  Unfortunately, it was pouring rain.  We stood out on Olivia's porch for quite a while hoping for a break long enough for us to make it to the rail line, just a few blocks away.  First, we went to an outdoor beer garden where as you can see below, it was difficult to see the game over all the umbrellas so just minutes before the game started, we changed our minds and took off.  A friend of Olivia's was having a house party for the game- so we invited ourselves over and enjoyed the game from the comfort of being inside while watching the match on a massive screen.  Win-win.  On our way back from the house party, we got to experience the excitement and celebration in the streets.  It was a real trip highlight to be there.  

Another very special moment for us was being invited by Olivia's parents' summer garden house for tea and treats.  We toured Sabine and Joachimhe's garden, sampling like deer as we went.  After enjoying the garden's bounty, conversation, tea and sensational cakes- we mentioned that we had been traveling a year and a half on that very day and how nice it was to enjoy the occasion in their garden.  With that news, Sabine returned from the house with a lovely bottle of sweet wine to celebrate.  A wonderful visit.

As we were leaving Berlin, I decided that I didn't want to carry around my boots anymore.  We have no more treks ahead of us and after carrying my pack for this long- any reduction in weight is worthy of considering.  They're still in fairly good condition so I gave them my thanks as I dropped them off in the good will collection bin.  They've been with me for so many miles, countries and memories! 

From Berlin, we took an overnight bus to Warsaw, Poland, arriving around 6 am.  The hostel was about a 20-minute walk from the old city, which was charming.  It is hard to believe that the city has been almost completely rebuilt since the bombing that occurred during WWII.  Warsaw was heavily bombed by the German and Russian military, causing 85% destruction; the Jewish Ghetto was almost 100% destroyed.  On our second day, we took the free (donation-based) Jewish Ghetto walking tour which walked us through where the heaviest damage had occurred.  I am reading the Zoo Keeper's a wife now about this area.  I also found the Jewish Uprising Museum to be incredibly informative.  

These photos were taken in Warsaw after the 1939 bombardment. 

This is what the city looks like today.  It would be quite easy to be ignorant of the terrible atrocities and suffering while walking the beautiful streets.

Next we went to Krakow, Poland's cultural and artistic center.  During WWII, Krakow became the center of Nazi operations- forcibly removing the residents to create housing for the German soldiers.  Those removed were sent to the Ghetto and then onto concentration camps.  The movie Schindler's List was based on Oskar Schindler, a member of the Nazi party who owned an enamel pot/pan factory just outside of Krakow.  He saved many Jewish lives by hiring those living in the Ghetto, allowing them to avoid Auschwitz or other concentration camps.  The factory now houses museum about the city's history during this time and Schindler's original office.

Photos from Krakow-

From Krakow, we took a bus 60 km to the Auschwitz Concentration Camp.  I was amazed by the huge number of people visiting.  It seems that thousands of people must visit daily.  After a two hour wait to get in, we were able to take a self-guided tour.  It was exhausting and frustrating to be trapped in such huge numbers of people, unable to move or have any control of getting in/out of the rooms.  It was then, that I realized that I was feeling only a small dose of the helplessness that millions of prisoners felt throughout Nazi-occupied Europe.  The size of the camp was astonishing- long row building after long row building and then an equal number in the opposite direction.   

The concentration camp got it's start in 1940 as a holding cell for political prisoners.  By 1942, the camp began to grow in size and in inhabitants- a way for the Nazi's to clear the cities of Jewish inhabitants while also obtaining cheap labor.  While the Nazi's generally kept very accurate accounts of those in the camps- the elderly and young children were often not recorded and killed immediately upon entering the facility.  Before the camp was liberated, the gas chambers were dismanted and the records were burned, further obscuring how many were killed during the genocide.  The number killed at Auschwitz is thought to be at least 1.1 million (90% of whom were Jewish)- dying either in gas chambers, starvation or by sickness.  Those who remained alive were rescued by the Soviet's Red Army on January 27, 1945 (now International Holocaust Remembrance Day).

From Poland, we traveled into the Baltics with our first stop in Vilnius, Lithuania.  Lithuania was not only occupied by the Nazi's but was first occupied by the Soviet Red Army in 1940.  During the Soviet occupation, a large number of prisoners were sent into Siberian work camps. Then in 1941, Lithuania was taken by the Nazi's- who immediately set out to wipe out the Jewish population, murdering 95% of the Jewish population.  In 1944, the Soviets once again took control where it remained until 1991, when Lithuania finally became an independent country.

I didn't seem to take many pictures in Vilnius- other than of the canals which were my favorite part of the city.  

Our next stop was Riga, Latvia.  The country follows the same pattern of alternating occupation- and today close to 50% of the country speaks Russian.  I found the city and architecture to be beautiful.  We had quite a lot of rain while we were there but still managed to get out as much as we could.  We took a Soviet walking tour offered by our hostel which didn't offer anything too insightful other than that there is a very good Museum of Soviet Occupation. It is unassuming in it's typical dark block-like appearance, but the museum was the best on the topic that we've visited thus far.  The streets were also full of lovely cafés and remarkable buildings (thankfully not all Communist-era) which made it easy to enjoy several days there.

From Riga, we went to Tallinn, Estonia which will always hold a special place in my heart and memories.  A friend from college was recently living in Tallinn and shared a good deal of his knowledge on his favorite cafés, parks, neighborhoods and museums.  I honestly think we did 90% of his recommendations- even visiting some places multiple times.

The city is lovely and easy to get around once you master the public transport (free for locals!!!).  It's set right on the Baltic Sea with lots of green space.  The old city feels like you're still walking within the old medieval gates- with more restaurant options, beer gardens and cafe's than you know what to do with (thankfully we had Aaron's "What to do guide").

Yesterday was our last full day there and we considered taking the ferry across the Baltic Sea to Helsinki, Finland but the time on the ferry (5+ hour, RT) and the high prices there- we decided that enjoying another day in Tallinn was the way to go.  

Right now, we're waiting on our final plane into Amsterdam.  We'll spend a few days there and then head homeward!  The journey isn't over yet but I can't believe how soon it will be before we're back in the US.  But first, Amsterdam!

Friday, June 27, 2014

When things got weird in a Bulgarian wine cave

Melnik is a lovely little village set in the countryside in southwest Bulgaria, near the border with Greece.  There is one main street that runs just outside the center and two small streets that run through the village.  We found a room at the Staria Chinar, named for the old tree in the front yard.  It is an 800 year old Chinar and it's beautiful.  But the town isn't known for it's trees, it's known for it's own variety of wine, the Melnik grape, aptly named for the town (or vice-versa).

It's easy to have a good time in Melnik- there's great food and cheap wine (although we didn't try the plastic jug variety)... And there are hats that say "Bulgaria" available along the street for impromptu photo shoots.  

The town still has the traditional Bulgarian architecture, which we hadn't seen since we were skiing in Bansko.

Another eye catching trait are the sandstone cliffs behind town. 

Nate had visited Melnik about 10 years ago and remembered hiking up to a wine cellar somewhere in town.  As we were walking the small streets in town, we spotted a sign for Shestaka wine cellar- and hoped that it was the same one.  The sign's "100 meters up" literally means straight up a steep rock-lined trail.  

There was a 2 Lev ($1.40) entrance fee which covered 2 tastings of the 5 wines.  I paid an extra 3 Lev for all five tastings.  It was a lovely little cave, only big enough to squeeze in 10 people- but since we're both a bit claustrophobic, we were glad that it was just the two of us.  The cave was dug 250 years ago and has been storing wine ever since by the same family- the Manolev's.

The cave holds 5 varieties of wine.  I missed a lot in the translation but from what I understood, there is a "white", a "rose", a sweet Melnik, a semi-dry Melnik and a semi-dry Melnik/Merlot blend.

Honestly, they were all pretty dreadful, most with a heavy taste of vinegar except for the blend- so we bought a bottle of the blend for 5 Lev/$3.50. It was scortching hot outside so we stayed in the cave where it was cool.

Somehow we got off on the wrong foot with the wine cellar steward from the start.  Since Nate was talking with him in Bulgarian, I was blissfully unaware and snapping photos like this one below...   This may be the owner Mitko Manolev, a.k.a, "six fingers"- a nickname given for a family trait of having six fingers on the left hand.  I hadn't known about this before going- so wasn't looking for it but did think it was odd how his left hand was always shoved in his pocket (see video).  Looks like five below though...  Anyway, this could, or could not be, Six Fingers.  I see all dreams of ever being an investigative reporter slipping through my fingers (five, fyi).

It all became brutally clear that he didn't like us when I asked Nate to translate my question "What is the difference between all of the barrels, is it the age of the wine?"  It was like lighting a match to an explosive.  I had actually done a bit of homework on the local wines and knew that the Melnik wine was not aged beyond a year because they do not use preservatives (or perhaps they prefer the vinegar flavor) so perhaps I should have asked if there was a difference of age "within a year" but that seems like a mouthful to ask Nate to translate.

He immediately began lecturing Nate with a volume that increasingly escalated within the small cave.  I clearly had no idea what was going on- so he switched to English for my educational benefit as well (we had no idea he spoke English up until then).  It went on for quite a while and eventually I decided that I needed to get some on video and excused myself from the conversation.  Unfortunately, I stopped recording right before he started doing a Madonna vogue move (multiple times) while explaining how Americans are short sighted because we age our wines.  In his opinion, there is no reason not drink the wine right away.  Americans, in his opinion, age wine for "prestige" only and for no other reason.  I wonder if he has any idea that Americans are just one country of many that age wine... but it seemed wise not to fuel to the fire.  Poor Nate, he tried to be so patient with the guy- well, right up until the end.

Here's the video-

Maybe because it was clear that I no longer cared, the discussion switched back into Bulgarian for the remainder of the wine lecture.  I felt awkward pointing the camera in his face, so I recorded this next bit while filming my wine glass.  Nate translated- saying that it had to do with developing one's sense of taste for wine.  Since it is in Bulgarian, likely this will only interest my friends who speak it.  

Not surprisingly, the next day we treated ourselves to some great beer instead of going into another wine cave... 

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Getting lost in the Rila Mountains of Bulgaria

Trekking in the Rila Mountains is likely our last multi-day trek.  Our amazing trip now has an expiration date- we're flying back to the states in August.  Our plan was to hike from the Rila Monastery across the Rila Mountains to Belitsa, Nate's old hometown while in Peace Corps.  We would take about 5 days to get there, the first few days being the hardest as we ascended up and over the Rila Mountains, but that's not what ended up happening...

We caught a bus from Blagoevgrad to Rila for only 2 Lev ($1.40) and then a minibus to Monastery of Saint John of Rila, better known as the Rila Monastery for another 2 Lev.  The whole trip took less than 2 hours, even with waiting for the bus transfer.  It is an incredibly beautiful drive between Rila and the Monastery, which follows a gorgeous deep forested valley and the Rilska River.  

I have never seen such a large or beautiful Monastery.  It is rightly famous and well worth the time/energy to get there.  Now a UNESCO site, it is the largest Eastern Orthodox monastery in Bulgaria, built in the 10th Century.  

After we visited the monastery and grabbed some lunch, we took off to find our trail to the 7 Lakes... We never found the trail, just a useless map with no insights as to where the trailhead is.  

After spinning our wheels for a while- we decided that we must have missed it and didn't want to back track.  It was already around 4- so we changed the plan (Nate swears plans in Bulgaria aren't worth anything anyway).  We decided to head to Kirlova Polyana instead, about 7 km from the Monastery where we found a room for 30 Lev ($21).  

Day 2-
We got going around 11.  The road quickly turned into an unpaved road that led steadily uphill for about 3.5 hours. There were beautiful rock faces around us, HUGE boulders, waterfalls, streams, pretty flowers and great views.  

At the end of the road, we stopped for lunch for a half hour just before starting on the trail.  Once we got going again, we reached the hut in a little over an hour later.  This last hour was my favorite of the day.  There were orange butterflies and leopard frogs (thinks Nate) everywhere, but oddly- every one of the three bridges was broken.

We reached Fish Lakes Hut and it's just like the huts that Nate has told me about- old, musty, and worn down with age and use. Each room was a large dorm room with 10 beds (and some pretty sad beds at that).  But despite the state of the hut, the surroundings were gorgeous with two lakes, snow in the mountains and horses just outside.  Paradise for 10 Lev ($7) a night.

That night we watched the Holland vs. Chile with some fellow trekkers (a Dutch and Bulgarian) and the owner, below, who seemed to also enjoy the game.

Day 3
The first 1.5 hours were ripe with challenges. First, there was a steep climb overlooking the lakes and the mountain hut.  Beautiful and totally worth the climb!

Soon after, we started to hit snow pack on steep inclines that covered the trail.  There was no way around the first one- other than through it.  Nate and I selected different paths, kicking footholds in and weighing ourselves forward, digging our bare hands into the snow to keep us from slipping (believe me, not a second went by that I didn't wish I still had those trekking poles that I left in Nepal).  Then maybe another half hour went by before we hit a massive snow pack.  This time, we could climb around it but neither of the options were easy.   I chose to scramble over loose rubble while Nate went to the right right and climbed over massive boulders.  

This picture is from when I reached the top.  For scale, Nate is a tiny dot (invisible to the eye) on the left of the panoramic photo.

We rejoined once over the top, and walked over the rim into a beautiful and welcoming meadow.  

The walking was fast and easy as we descended deep into the valley- and that's probably exactly why it wasn't for another hour until we realized that we hadn't seen a trail marker since we climbed over the ridge.  At that point, we crossed the stream to the other side of the valley to see if we had gone right when we should have gone left.  

We then lost another hour and a half, hiking all the way back up to the ridge and realizing that we should have never even crossed over the ridge, but taken an immediate left above the snow, exactly where I was standing when I took the panoramic photo. 

We were feeling spent and I was running low on water. There were streams everywhere in the meadow and instead of hiking back down to one, I was convinced that we'd see another stream that was easier to reach.  We didn't.  In fact, there were no more streams because the newly discovered trail took us on another steep climb, higher than the snow melt.  

Once we got ourselves back on the trail, it was 3pm.  We discussed turning back and trying again the next day- but what we had just done was dangerous and hard- and I didn't want to do it all again the next day.  I suggested that we go for one more hour and stop at 4pm to see how much ground we had covered and if we thought that we could make the next hut before nightfall.

The trail was anything but easy and in that next hour, we hit yet another dangerously placed snow pack  and trail remained tough to follow. By 4pm, we had already lost the trail again several times and from what we could tell from the map, our next hour would be spent hiking down to the valley below us and then then all the way back up (at some unknown point that we couldn't see) to follow a chain fence along the summit ridge for what looked to be about 600-800 meters.  At this point, Nate was concerned that I was dehydrated and getting confused, which I hadn't noticed because I was too concerned with my increasingly noticeable lack of balance.  I was definitely dehydrated and he too was now running low on water.  In addition, the wind was picking up (we didn't know it yet, but a major lightening storm was rolling in).  Nate called it- we were heading towards water and safer ground.

This was taken at the point that were we called it and turned back.

It was clear, we either turned back or possibly end up with this guy.

We had been on (or off of) the trail for 5 hours by the time we decided to turn around.  It took us another two hours to get back down to the hut (mostly because we lost the trail AGAIN after coming back through the snow bank).  By then it was 6 and somehow we thought we could make it back to the previous days hut in two hours.  It took us three, getting us in just before dark at 9pm.  

Thankfully the storm (that was never predicted) didn't hit until a half-hour before we made back to Kirilova Polyana.  Out of nowhere, we heard thunder.  And then the lightening and rain started.  By the time we reached the second hut (first one was full- what luck?), the rain was heavy and the power was out.  At that point, we had been hiking for 10 hours!  The upside, we had made it- we were safe, warm and although too tired for dinner, were already looking forward to a great breakfast in the morning before a quick walk back to the Monastery where we'd catch a bus.  While waiting for the bus to town, we saw what is likely the trail to the 7 Lakes, departing from the parking lot of the Rila Monastery (but there was no trail sign to confirm it).

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Trekking through Bulgaria's Central Balkan Mountains

I just finished rereading Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods- a wonderful and very funny story of his section hikes through the Appalachian Trail that runs the distance from Georgia to Maine in the US.  I had picked the book up in Bled, Slovenia back in April - perhaps one of the last places that we've seen a fruitful book trade.  Nate and I watched the girl who was finishing the last chapter- and pounced on it when she added it to the book exchange shelf it.  I've been carrying it around since then along with a few others in my traveling library, convinced that the enjoyment of reading them would outweigh their toll on my back.  I feared that the English books would eventually run out so, I'd rather have a few on hand (which has now happened- the Balkan's has an abysmal book trade, English language or otherwise).  

As we reached our departure date for trekking in the Central Balkans, I knew that I had to get rid of any extra weight so I read voraciously- leaving books hidden in drawers, in hopes that they would find a home with someone, rather than be tossed in the rubbish bin.  Thus, A Walk in the Woods remained my last and only book- fitting for our own upcoming walk in the woods.  

We had spent a few rainy days in Veliko Turnovo watching similarly rainy forecasts for Gabrovo, where we would start our trek.  We delayed an extra day in Veliko Turnovo but the weather didn't improve any, so we decided to just get on with it and hope for the best.  Our next obstacle was that Gabrovo is not a tourist town- so there are limited hotels and they are all above our price range.  We didn't book anywhere and hoped that we could find a place once there; maybe an older couple would be at the bus station advertising their extra room, as we'd seen elsewhere???  No, no luck, there wasn't a soul at the station so we started walking towards town under increasingly threatening skies hoping that there'd be a visitors center with some kind heart who'd help us find an affordable room for the night.  We did find a map (mostly covered with graffiti) and a sign pointing us to the right building but we couldn't find the office itself.  We discovered that the office was in transition to another location across town but they called a woman to come over that might be able to help us out.  After much technical difficulty on a new computer system that no one knew how to use, our new lifeline eventually relented and used her phone to call around.  We gave her our budget range and were told that there were a few beds open at the local college dorm since students were gone for the summer. It was exactly as promised- hard to find, quite a ways out of town and cheap.  We ended up finding it- a large, dreary communist-type block apartment building within a sea of others- but we had a place to sleep so we settled into our college dorm room for two nights.  

While we didn't meet any of our neighbors, we quickly learned that the guy upstairs preferred his music to be played late at night and at a volumne loud enough to shake our window within it's pane.  I adjusted accordingly and took to having afternoon naps rather than my usual nighttime sleeping routine.  Nate instead took to yelling profanities at the guy in Bulgarian (which there's no way he would have heard over the music).  The weather remained dismal, but we couldn't stay in the dorm another night.  Our college days are long since over and we needed to get on our way, rain or not. 

The forecast for the following day would be cloudy but no rain until mid-afternoon.  We picked up a map at the park office, asked a few questions and planned our route so that we would reach our first stop before the rain.  

The actual start of the trail is in Etar/Etura but we decided to walk from Gabrovo and start up the first few kilometers of the trail and reach the first mountain hut near the monastery at a location marked GPS 7 on the bottom of the above map.  It was a nice walk and mostly flat until we reached the B1 trail in Etar.  At that point, we had to scramble up very steep and thoroughly rotten series of stairs and a several unmarked trail intersections but we did eventually reach the monastery.  We were thankful to know that soon we'd be in the hut, likely just minutes before the black skies above us opened up.  We passed the monastery and a sign advertising beer and BBQ.  We agreed that after a shower, we'd head back for both.  Life was looking good.

The mountain hut should be just a little further.  There were no signs for it and we were growing a bit concerned that as we continued on the trail that we had perhaps missed it and were walking further away.  We agreed to stop when we hit yet another unmarked intersection.  I stayed with our bags and Nate went back to see if he could find anything.  While waiting, I found a nice little camp spot under a tree that would buffer us from the rain.  We had hiked about 15 km already and the next mountain huts were in Shipka Pass, another 4-5 km on the opposite side of the Balkan mountain range.  

Nate returned to say that he had indeed found the hut... but that it was closed up.  Camping in the rain seemed worse than hiking in it- so, with that, we made a guess to turn right at the trail fork and carry on.  Within minutes, we passed by the back of the hut.  Not only was it closed but likely condemned.  I spent the next few minutes grumbling  and wishing that that the helpful girl at the park office had thought to mentioned it when we had asked if all of the huts were open.  We would soon learn that about half of the huts and hotels that are marked on the map had long since closed down.  As I summoned seemingly empty stores of energy for the additional miles, the rain began to fall.  It would have been a really beautiful hike up and over the mountain range, but the rain was heavy, visibility was minimal due to the thick fog and the trail was slick with mud after weeks of rain- sometimes even with unexpected sinkholes to keep things lively. 

We eventually hit the road near Shipka (GPS 6, bottom where the fold is), our last hope for a dry bed.  We followed the road at this point in hopes of catching the first available accommodation.  After passing several dilapidated homes, gas stations and shops- I determined that sleeping in one of those would at least be warmer and drier than the woods.  Eventually, we came across a small sign for a hut. Two wet but friendly looking dogs greeted us at the top of yet another set of rotten stairs.  We made our way up and were thrilled to see lights on and a fire going. We attempted the door, ready to throw ourselves and our wet socks next to the fire but the door was locked.  After repeatedly knocking, pleading, and knocking some more- we resigned ourselves to waiting in hopes that the owners would eventually come back and throw another log on the fire before it died out.  We were both soaked and now that we'd stopped moving and night was setting in, I was becoming increasingly chilled.  My fingers were too numb to unzip my rain jacket to add additional layers so instead I put my head down on the picnic table and balled myself up around my hands to warm them.  With that, it seemed to Nate that I had lost all hope (he wasn't too far off the mark).  

We'd already been waiting for over an hour, we needed a back-up plan.  Nate took off to see if maybe there was another hut down the road while I stared at the fire wishing that there wasn't a locked door that separated us.  After a while, Nate came back carrying a fresh water bottle saying that he had found a shop just down the road.  He was only able to see it through the thick fog because the shop had a neon open light!  I'd always hated those things until that moment.  It was hard to believe that there was anyone for miles, much less just down the road.  It seemed like Nate, I and the two dogs were the only ones in the Central Balkan range.  The shop owner had told Nate that the hut was definitely open and that the owners had probably just gone into town.  That gave us a renewed hope and after another hour or so, they indeed drove in and showed us to our room.  Within minutes we had showered, had our things out to dry and were on our way down as new people for a hot meal followed by a warm, comfortable nights sleep.

When we went down for breakfast the next morning, it was like walking into a different dining room.  The entire room was now festive with party napkins at each table setting.  We found seats and sadly watched two full plates of cherries removed from before us to be served instead to their proper recipient.  I must have been busy staring at the cherries because it wasn't until then that looked out of the window and instead of seeing the previous day's thick fog, I instead saw lines of tour buses and a massive monument perched ontop of a hill before us! 

We spent an extra day in Shipka Pass to rest and hike up to the monument between rain showers.  

We had a lovely day of sunshine the following day as we walked along the road from Shipka (on the left) to Buzludzha (GPS 8, on the right), the site of the Communist monument build in the 1981 and then abandoned and left to elements only a few years later.  

We passed by the monument on our way to find our next hut.  The first couple that we saw were abandoned and we were forced to walk further than we had hoped in search for a bed.  After finally reaching one, we were told that it was full.  Full?  We had been the only two people in a huge hut the night before- how was this one full?  Again it was a race before the rain started so I again watched the bags and Nate and his knowledge of Bulgarian went off in search of a room.  Turns out that there was one close by- we had walked by it but I had thought that it was just a private home.  Again, we were the only people there.  We dropped our bags, had a late lunch and set off with our rain gear to see the monument.  

It's a "healthy" climb up the steep path to reach the monument.  There's also a road for those with cars or motos.  The monument looks far better from below- as you reach it, you can see that the strong winds have ripped most of the roofing and ceiling materials off.  

With all of the rain, I imagined the inside to be the world's largest bird bath but we could hear people inside. We walked around the perimeter and only saw a small hole, which we learned later that yes, that was the entry point for the interior.  

That night, yet another massive rain and lightening storm rolled in right above us on the mountain and stayed the following day.  We took it as a sign to stay an extra day, plus the owner made a fantastic lentil soup.  The company was good too. 

It turned out to be a good thing that we stayed (other than the fact that we would have been miserable hiking with lightening dancing around us).  That afternoon 4 guys from Sweden who are riding their motorcycles around Eastern Europe stopped in while waiting for a mechanic.  They spoke English but no Bulgarian, the owner spoken Bulgarian but no English and the mechanic who showed up at 9pm (rather than at 5 as he had promised) spoke only Bulgarian.  Over dinner, Nathan became a key player in translating the complexities of BMW repair while I happily slurped up my lentil soup.  The guys were great and we really enjoyed hearing their stories.  Around 10, they learned that their bike would have to be towed to Sofia the following day, so they settled into the remaining rooms and pulled out a home-made bottle of liquor, made by the owner of a guesthouse that they had stayed at when in Romania.  The next morning, we shook off the mental fog left by the previous night's home brew to see the guys off and get on our way.  We continue to follow their trip at RushHourMC on Facebook.  The current trip is winding down but they have others planned for the future, including one through the US. They also took a video from inside of the monument that you should definitely check out as well as their FB page. 

With that, we were off as well. We had planned on hiking another few days but the rain showed no signs of clearing so we decided to bail and head for Stara Zagora.

We followed a seemingly never-ending switchback (the white squiggly line in the center of the map to the left of the fold) down the mountain for 19 km until we hit the tiny town of Kran.  Although we were positive that we were standing at the bus stop, not a single bus stopped for us.  Eventually a taxi came to our rescue and took us to the bus station in the next town over.  

Now a week since we got off the trail, it's STILL raining.  When I think of all the folks hiking the Appalachian Trail or similar long-distance trails with no mountain huts to find warmth in, no one to cook them delicious lentil soup after a cold/rainy trek and no option but to hike in the rain, it makes me feel blessed to be hiking here in Bulgaria.  We loved the Annapurna Circuit Trek in Nepal for the same reason.  It makes a huge difference when you don't have to carry the additional food weight and alway trust that you could find a fire and a meal to warm you up (although obviously in the Central Balkans- it is a bit of a search to find a functioning hut).  

Our next trek will be in a few days in the Rila Mountains- and the forecast is looking better!

Happy Trails. 

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Remaining in the Here and Now

As of the 15th of June, we have been traveling for 17 months.  It's hard to believe that I've been living with all my belongings strapped to me for this long- like I'm a turtle.  The idea of returning home to my stored clothing is overwhelming.  I'm already planning a yard sale- I don't even want to unpack the boxes.  I have to remind myself that I won't have to carry it all.  

And what will I do when I get back- where will I work?  Will I be able to bike to work?  Will I be able to find a good used road bike?  Will my cat forgive me for being gone this long?  And more- but that's enough for here. These are the random thoughts that fill my mind even though I will not be home until September.  On long treks, my mind is filled with these questions or of all the things I want to do when I'm home and of all the people that I want to hug.  

All day today, I've been bizarrely sluggish as we hiked through the amazing rock formations in Belogradchik, Bulgaria.  I felt that my legs were heavy, my motivation lacking and my enjoyment was at a minimum.  I couldn't put my finger on it and then I just saw the first pictures of Oyster Festival in my hometown (Arcata, CA) coming through on Facebook.  Yep, that's it.  I'm homesick.  

It's festival season at home- one of the things I have always loved most summer.  In fact, I love them so much and feel that they are such a vitally important aspect of a strong and compassionate community that I used to work for months with others to organize community festivals all because I loved watching the joy that eminates from the crowd as they spend those special days living in the moment- not worrying about their life stresses, seeing their friends and community all together in one spot, all listening to the same great tunes and appreciating the incredible artisans fill the space their beautiful creations.  

As I stood outside looking at the beautiful farms that surround me in Western Bulgaria, I realized that that I'm not living in the moment like those currently slurping oysters at Oysterfest.  I'm already planning for things that I can't control several months in the future.  Nathan found this great quote that I think is appropriate- "Worrying does not empty tommorow of it's troubles, it empties today of it's strength"- Corrie ten Boom.  Indeed.  Here's to refocusing and fully enjoying the present as we travel the final leg of our amazing trip.  My cat will forgive me and the rest will fall into place. 

The Belogradchik rocks and Nathan, who's always there to inspire and motivate me.

The Belogradchik Fortress.  

The view from town. 

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Turkish delights

We're now in Bulgaria and I have fallen in love, again, because as I recall my first few days in Turkey, I felt exactly the same way.  We flew into Istanbul very early in the morning from Hanoi and thankfully had the airport to ourselves.  We were the only one in the visa line ($20 for 60 days) and the immigration lines were a breeze.  After taking public transport into the city, we found our hotel in the old city and were given a room key despite the fact that it was hours before check-in.  My folks were flying in later that day, so Nate and I had most of the day to get some sleep and orient ourselves before their arrival.  It's been well over a year now since I had seen them.  I had gone home for Thansgiving in 2012 and stayed about a month on the east coast- seeing my folks (Alexandria, VA), my Aunt Nancy (Ocean Grove, NJ) and my brother's family (Brooklyn at the time).  Although I love our travels and know that I'll likely never get this opportunity again- it feels like ages since I've seen my family and friends.  Needless to day, it was an incredible moment to see my parents walking up the steps of the hotel.  Our 2 1/2 weeks together went too quickly even though we spent several days in each city in an attempt to not seemed rushed.  I'm so thankful though that we had this amazing trip together.  It's rare these days to get long visits in with our parents.  I feel incredibly blessed that in their 70's- they're in good health and have the ability to travel and walk over such distances. 

It would be easy to spend two weeks just in Istanbul itself- but we had four days there before traveling around Turkey along with a couple days at the end of our trip.  Most of the historical sites were in our neighborhood in Sultanahmet- including the Blue Mosque, Aya Sofya, Basilica Cistern, Hippodrome, Topkapi Palace, Great Bazaar, Archaeology Museum, and Gulhane Park.  When we weren't seeing one of these- we were taking long walks around the peninsula to see the old wall near the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus or resting on a city bench appreciating the many cats as well as the change of season.  It seemed as if millions of tulip bulbs were pushing through the beautifully landscaped gardens before our eyes.  It was definitely Spring in Istanbul. 

Even though we were not visiting during high season- there was still a sizable number of tourists!  It's hard to imagine how crowded Istanbul will be in just a few months.  The weather may not have been perfect but traveling on the shoulder season was still ideal with fewer tourists, the ability to make last-minute accommodation reservations and reduced prices.  

Highlights:  amazing Turkish coffee, fresh pomegranate juice stalls around the city, hundreds of stray cats and dogs that seemed to be very well cared for, alleyways full of outdoor seating (each chair with its own blanket incase you're cold), the Muslim calls to prayer, the multiple minarets in the sky line, the close proximity of the historic sites to one another and the beautiful mosques.  Turkey is also incredibly easy to travel through- the bus and train options are both easy to reserve as well as inexpensive (granted we were there during low season so it's possible that costs increase during the heavy tourist season).  Hostel beds were numerous which included breakfast (~$8-10/pp/night if outside of Istanbul & in the low season) and we were generally able to fine a hostel room in a hotel that my parents were interested in.

Lows: Nate got a cold which lasted most of our trip in Turkey.  (I think it was from the pollution in Hanoi but who knows). The cold developed into an inner ear infection and then into pink eye.  If there's a silver lining, it's that Nate had travelled to most of the same places 10 years ago that he was now forced to miss while recovering.  I was also suffering from multiple varieties of parasites that I had picked up (I think I've finally gotten rid of them).  Okay, so those have nothing to do with Turkey itself...  I found very few faults with Turkey.  I will say though that the restaurants and rug salespeople are ever present in Istanbul and it can be tiring fending them off.  Nothing on India though.  Also it was worrisome to see the number of riot police and large equipment (such as tanks with water cannons) placed around Istanbul and Izmir in order to respond to anti-government protests.  I always had the feeling that a mass-scale riot was imminent.  We did get caught in tear gas- but more on that later...

Here are some snapshots of our sightseeing in and around Istanbul.

Dad patiently waiting for me to take a photo before we rip into this yummy bread. 

A few cute pics of my folks in Turkey.

The Blue Mosque.

Aya Sofya.

Topkapi Palace.

The Spice Bazaar.

From Istanbul, we took an overnight bus to Goreme in Cappedocia.  As we drove into the area, hot air balloons were flying overhead.  We didn't partake but it was a beautiful sight to see so many of them.  

The famous Open Air Museum is a half hour walk from Goreme.  We toured churches and dwellings that had been dug into the earth, dating back to the 4th century.  Frescos from the 11th century still remain.  The volcanic landscape is well known for it's many pinnacles, known as "fairy chimneys", many of which are still inhabited today.  Most of the hotels in Goreme are caves, built into these remarkable rocks.

No cameras were allowed in any of the caves with frescos (even if the flash was off) so I only have a few from outside as well as a long dining table with bench that was dug into the ground.

Before we left, Memo from our hotel took me on a short hike between rain showers to the top of a nearby hill to see Goreme and the surrounding valleys from above. 

As we were leaving, another heavy storm was rolling in just as we were boarding our next 11 hour bus to Pamukkale, in southwest Turkey.  The lightening and hail had us on edge as we boarded, but thankfully, we quickly moved beyond it's reach.  We pulled into Pamukkale around 7am, had a bit of rest and a falafel lunch and then were off to hike barefoot (no shoes allowed) through the travertine terrace pools made of carbonate minerals.  We all thought being barefoot on such a cold day would be uncomfortable but the warm thermal waters felt great.  I was worried that my parents might slip on the loose deposits but I believe that I'm the only one who fell...  The travertines are quite large and are easily seen from the nearby towns.  They are a total of 8,860 ft. long, 1,970 ft. wide and 525 ft. high (per Wikipedia).

Travertine thermal pools.

Once we got to the top- we were at Hierapolis ("Holy City"), which was a Greco-Roman and Byzantine city built in the early 2nd century BC surrounding a thermal-pool spa.  


From Pamukkale, we took little 3-car train to Selcuk so that we could visit the ancient city of Ephesus.  Selcuk is a beautiful city with a small downtown filled with cafés.  The weather was rarely nice enough for us to sit outside for a long Turkish meal but I am sure it would be lovely during the warm summer days. We didn't feel like we had missed out though- as we were there in time to see the storks nesting on the old aqueduct! 

Ephasus was founded in the 10th century BC as a Greek city and abandoned in the 15th century AD. Durring the height of the Roman era, the city grew to have a sizable population of up to 50,000.  This site had strong ties with the start of Christianity.  Ephesus was one of the seven churches recorded in the Book of Revelations and there were several Christian Councils that met in Ephasus through out Ephesus' history.  It is thought that the Gospel John was written there.  

While most of Ephesus lays in ruins, the Library of Celsus remains a beautiful relic of the times. 

After a few days in Selcuk. We took a short train ride to Izmir where we had rented a 2-bedroom apartment close to the train station.  The apartment was well placed- walking distance (albeit a bit of a long walk) to the city center, the coast and the train station.  It was nice to have a private place to enjoy drinking tea together in the common room as well as having a dinning room table for us to make/eat our own food.  

While we were there, on 12 March, the city rioted over the recent burial of teenager, Berkin Elvan, a bystander who died 9 months after being hit by crossfire during last summer's protests.  We were downtown searching for the the Archaeology Museum when we were hit with a toxic cloud of chemicals.  Since we didn't know what was going on or where to go- we quickly walked away from the area up into a nearby neighborhood.  It was a good 10 minutes before we were in a place where the air felt clean enough for us to talk to one another.  Our eyes and throats burned and I felt as if I might get sick.  We thought it was a chemical explosion having to do with all the road construction- or perhaps even a terrorist attack.  We went home and researched it but couldn't find any news on what happened.  Soon after, we heard that there had been a protest that had taken place just across the street from where we had been- at the bus terminal.  Due to all the construction in the area, we hadn't seen or heard it.  There had also been large protests in Istanbul's Taksim Square on the same day.

It was a cheap flight back to Istanbul or a very long train or bus ride back so we flew, which gave us an extra day back in Istanbul.  It worked out perfectly because the best weather of the entire trip was on that day.  A good day for a boat tour of the Bosphorus!

One of the ferry stops was on the Asian side of the Bosphorus in the Tasksim region of Istanbul.  We hadn't explored that area yet and with the nice weather, it was a perfect day for an afternoon stroll before calling it a day. 

In typical fashion of a schizophrenic Spring- the following day was dreadfully cold and rainy.  We had left the Chora Church ("Countryside Church" in Byzantine Greek) for last because it was farther outside the main old city without easy transport to get to it. It has the best preserved Byzantine mosaics and frescos from the 14th century.  The journey there was a bit dreadful and upon arriving, we discovered that much of the interior was closed for renovation...  At least the famous frescos and mosaics were visible.  

The following day was beautiful again.  My parents flew out in the morning but Nate and I had all day before our train to Bulgaria departed that evening.  My college friend Megan and her friend Ravi were visiting Istanbul on holiday so we planned to meet at a wine bar near where they were staying in Taksim.  

Nate had read about Linda's Book exchange (on Şehbender Sokak No.18, Asmalı Mescit) that was only open from 5-7 on weekdays.  On our way to meet Megan and Ravi, we found it tucked down several alleys lined with music venues, cafés and bars.  We went back after it opened with our friends and were blown away by both the selection and the kindness of the folks there.  I highly recommend that if you go to Istanbul, you find this place early on in your trip.  Linda (an American who has lived in Istanbul for almost three decades) will loan you books to read as long as you return them before you depart.  There are many books on Istanbul as well as Turkish history for loan.  It's also a great place to exchange books- with hundreds to choose from which was a breath of fresh air compared to the handful of books that we generally find available at our various accommodations.  

After having time to catch up with our friends, we headed to the train station to buy our train tickets to Plovdiv, Bulgaria.  We had gone there several times earlier to buy tickets but the computer used to sell advance tickets was down (or some such story) so we had no idea how much money we needed for tickets.  It's always hard on the last day in a country to bridge the gap between having enough money but not ending up with too much left over.  Well, this time we underestimated.  We literally put every bill we had on the counter followed by dumping out all of our change.  We were still short but apparently close enough because he handed over two tickets!