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).

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