Category Archives: Adventurous

DSC_6974

Three weeks in Kyrgystan, wild mountains, bad roads and good company.

The wind is still blowing when I get out of my tent in the middle of the night, a warm summer wind which seems strange when I think that the hill where I’ve found tonight’s camping spot is at over 3000 meters. I turn off the light and while I wait for my eyes to get used to the darkness of a moonless night I can hear the blades of grass trembling in the wind.

Tonight is the last night in Kyrgystan and when I think of the road ahead I realize that it will be a while until I will hear this sound again. One by one the mountains in the distance become visible and start to see the snowy peaks of the Pamir mountains, rising like a barrier above the high grasslands around Sary-Tash. And the stars!

There are moments in photography when the camera can reveal things which are normally hidden from the human eye, and night photography is clearly one of them. It’s also one of the moments when I clearly don’t regret carrying the 2 kilogram camera after me. Sure, these moments are few and far between, but somehow looking back the effort seems more than worthwhile.

Kyrgystan has been great. Somehow it has a really good mix of wild places, stunning scenery, adventurous roads and exotic people while being at the same time “civilised”. In Bishkek and in Osh you have access to most of the comforts of modern civilization, and most larger tows and villages are well supplied. But it’s easy to take a detour and to find yourself in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by mountains, with yurts littering the landscape and with incredible skies above.

I really enjoyed the two and a half weeks spent cycling from Bishkek, probably also because I wasn’t alone. I shared the road with Spaska, trying to help with her attempt of going from zero experience in bike touring straight to crossing Kyrgystan and the Pamirs, on a two hundred dollar chinese bike bought from Bishkek. Comparing with the endless preparation most of us go through before starting a new tour it really shows that in order to try a bike adventure you really don’t need really need too much. Just a plane ticket to Bishkek (and Pegasus has really cheap flights), 200 dollars for a bike and the will to do it. As simple as that. And even if I had my doubts the bike handled quite well the corrugated dirt roads of Kyrgystan, Spaska handled the bike and the kilometers went effortlessly. Effortlessly depending on the road quality and on the elevation.

Elevation, the bane of big numbers at the end of the day seems ever present in Kyrgystan. It doesn’t matter which road you follow, sooner or later you find your self climbing towards 3000 meter passes only to descend back down to yet another valley on the other side. Rinse and repeat. And if you combine this with washboard roads it’s needles to say that we didn’t manage to cycle to many kilometers per day. I would even dare to say that if you keep off the asphalt 60 to 70 kilometers per day is a fairly good average.

One area where Kyrgystan really shines is related to how easy it is to find stunning camping places. It seems that with just a bit of efort you can find camping places which seem to be taken from the cover of bike touring magazines, usually with all the comfort you could ask for: incredible view, grass all around, some water nearby and far from the road. And I have to admit that camping in two is way more enjoyable than camping alone, albeit with the sacrifice of the time usually spent reading each evening.

The road we followed took us very close to the huge Issyk Kul lake before going southwards towards the central mountains high mountain lake of Song Kul, perched at 3000 meters and sorrounded from all sides by mountains. The area around Song Kul is definitely in my opinion on the list of things worth seeing while in Kyrgystan, even if in mid-summer it can become a bit too touristy. But the panoramic view of the lake, with clouds rolling on what seems like an infinite scenery is definitely worth seeing. From here came a long decent to the Naryn river which we followed to Kazarman, with a lot of passes, followed by yeat another 3000 meter pass and a long descent towards Jalal-Abad and Osh. Unfortunately Spaska had to abandon the plans for the Pamir for this year as she had to return to Andorra but I’m pretty sure that bothshe and the bike would have made it until Dushanbe.

Regarding tourism I have to admit that things are slowly but surely changing in Kyrgystan and generally the attitude of the local people towards foreigners isn’t as natural as in the Pamirs. In order to encounter the same kind of hospitality you have to avoid the beaten track, which fortunately isn’t very difficult to do. And while the kyrgyz seem to be a bit less friendly and less helpful then their tadjik neighbors a basic level of Russian is more than welcome in order to keep the conversation going.

And now for some practical consideration regarding cycling in Kyrgystan:

1 Road quality.

The roads can range from impeccable asphalt roads recently repaired by chinese companies to really broken gravelly and muddy roads. But probably the washboard patters which form on these roads are the most tiring as you really can’t go to fast without breaking the bike in two.

2. People.

This is a place where like in every country it really depends on your encounters but generally I would say that the kyrgyz people are generally more direct and less warm then their tadjik and uzbek neighbors. When you factor in the growing tourism in the past years there are quite a few moments when you feel more like a tourist and less like a traveler (the “hotel”-yurts around Song-Kul are a good example of this).

3. Scenery

Simply stunning, especially in June when there still is snow in the mountains but everything is incredibly green. The effect is even more impressive if you arrive from the Pamir. Coming from the barren and lifeless high desert of the Pamirs Kyrgystan seems so alive. If you factor in all the horses and the herds of sheep it makes quite a view

4. Food and prices.

Food in Kyrgystan is pretty cheap and it seemed to us that even if you wanted it would be difficult to spent a lot of money while cycling through Kyrgystan. Once you leave the big cities and the main roads the shops are few and far between and you end up cooking a lot and buying only the basic food stuff which is really cheap. On the plus side though the bread is incredibly good (like anywhere in central Asia), the Vodka is only slighly more expensive than bottled water and it seems that you can find a wide assortment almost anywhere.

Maintanance mode before heading out into Kyrgystan for the 200 dollar chinese bycicle.

Maintanance mode before heading out into Kyrgystan for the 200 dollar chinese bycicle.

DSC_6134.jpg

The first night's camping spot with a sunset which reminded us why we love bike touring.

The first night's camping spot with a sunset which reminded us why we love bike touring.

Rainy and misty day on the climb to Sary-Tash.

Rainy and misty day on the climb to Sary-Tash.

DSC_6238.jpg

Whereever you go in Kyrgystan a herd of sheep is never too far away.

Whereever you go in Kyrgystan a herd of sheep is never too far away.

Serious climbing towards Song-Kul.

Serious climbing towards Song-Kul.

Stormy clouds over the Song-Kul lake and the surrounding plateau.

Stormy clouds over the Song-Kul lake and the surrounding plateau.

The old soviet road kilometer markings which can be found through Central Asia.

The old soviet road kilometer markings which can be found through Central Asia.

Lunch break.

Lunch break.

Once again a rainy and a muddy morning.

Once again a rainy and a muddy morning.

Ready for the descent.

Ready for the descent.

The road to Kazarman, here climbing towards yet another 3000 meter pass.

The road to Kazarman, here climbing towards yet another 3000 meter pass.

For a child, as well as for a grownup a bike is freedom. Anywhere in the world.

For a child, as well as for a grownup a bike is freedom. Anywhere in the world.

DSC_6530.jpg

Searching for a shelder from a storm which was quickly aproaching from the distance.

Searching for a shelder from a storm which was quickly aproaching from the distance.

DSC_6577.jpg

Hitting the 10.000 mark on the return journey.

Hitting the 10.000 mark on the return journey.

Long live the kyrgyz working class!

Long live the kyrgyz working class!

The long descent towards Jalal-Abad.

The long descent towards Jalal-Abad.

Enjoying a dinner in Osh, after 10 days of camping and stove cooking. As a friend said you've got to treat yourself from time to time.

Enjoying a dinner in Osh, after 10 days of camping and stove cooking. As a friend said you've got to treat yourself from time to time.

Perfect tarmac on the road to Sary-Tash.

Perfect tarmac on the road to Sary-Tash.

Kyrgyz children and the apricot season.

Kyrgyz children and the apricot season.

The rather menacing kitchen cook and the old russian restaurant background.

The rather menacing kitchen cook and the old russian restaurant background.

Last morning coffe with Spaska, before continuing alone toward the Pamirs.

Last morning coffe with Spaska, before continuing alone toward the Pamirs.

The passes become higher and higher as I'm getting closer to the Pamirs.

The passes become higher and higher as I'm getting closer to the Pamirs.

In the distance the gateway to the Pamir mountains.

In the distance the gateway to the Pamir mountains.

Looking towards Peak Lenin.

Looking towards Peak Lenin.

The perfect camping spot.

The perfect camping spot.

Good night.

Good night.

12630771_10208010163908780_1062940027_o.jpg

12631060_10208010163308765_1365257544_o.jpg
12631095_10208010164908805_1630505384_o.jpg
12637309_10208010164228788_1033236047_o.jpg
12656074_10208010165588822_848648602_o.jpg

Drawings made by Spaska, but I have to add it was not all true, at least the dishes were Spaska's chore.

Drawings made by Spaska, but I have to add it was not all true, at least the dishes were Spaska's chore.

And finally a short clip also made by Spaska.

DSC_4216

Samarkand, poppy fields and snowy mountains, and some practical considerations about Uzbekistan

Probably the strongest impression I have from Uzbekistan is seeing the mountains after leaving Samarkand, the first mountains I’ve encountered after almost 3000 kilometers through flat high plateaus and deserts. Somehow I really missed the mountains and even if I knew that tough times (and tough roads) are ahead I was really happy with the change.

Uzbekistan at the end of April looks almost magical in some places, with high mountains in the background, immense green pastures dotted by an infinite number of poppy flowers. It seems one of the best times to cross the country before the scorching temperatures of mid-supper, with more that two months with temperatures above 40 degrees.

From all the countries which I’ve crossed I think that the mixture of peoples and races is incredible in Uzbekistan, especially near Buchara and Samarkand. You see almost everything from blue eyed persians, to children with mongol looks, to Turkic faces and the blond hair and round faces of the Russians.

Also there is a huge difference between how travelers are perceived in the touristic cities and in the countryside. The human contact which you encounter on the least traveled cannot be compared with the way tourists are seen in major touristic site like Samarkand. There you one of many, while a hundred kilometers away on a dusty mountain road you might be the first guy riding a bike which they’ve seen this year.

This being said in the short time I’ve spent in Uzbekistan I did encounter some incredible examples of hospitality, and being invited to spend the night at locals happened quite a few times in the countryside, with the only mention that a little bit of Russian can really help up getting some information across. And it’s incredible how much you can express with a small vocabulary. I clearly remember an evening somewhere in the south of Uzbekistan, when the Maqsud was politely set the TV to a Russian channel thinking that I would probably understand something from it. I somehow got the impression that his Russian was not much better than mine.

And now for the practical considerations:

1. Visas and Money

Uzbekistan is a place where you literally carry with you a bag of money as large amounts of small and almost worthless bills make a wallet a complete joke. Samarkand was also the first place after Turkey where I managed to withdraw money from an ATM which was more than welcome as my cash reserves where dwindling. On the other hand it’s really important to try and change money at money changers using the black market rate which is usually 20-30% better than what you normally get in a bank,

Visa-wise the Uzbek visa has been the most expensive visa for me, cosing in total 150 dollars, 75 for the visa and 70 for the letter of invitation. If you have  an embassy in Tehran which can issue a letter of recommendation for you can skip the letter of invitation but on the plus side if you do pay for a letter of invitation you get the visa on the spot in Teheran.

2. Roads and food

The roads are really bad sometimes, with long stretches under construction and a lot of gravel in some places. On the plus side most of the cars are Ladas or small Chevrolets and generally the traffic isn’t disturbing.

The food can be summed up in Plov, the rice dish popular in the entire Central Asia, Laghman, a very consisten noodle soup, and Samsa, tasty baked pastry with bits of sheep meat and onions inside. Samsa on the other hand can be a bit dodgy if you have a sensitive stomach and I did meet at least two travelers which got food poisoning from it.

3. Bureaucracy and rules.

Theoretically in Uzbekistan a tourist should spent each night in a government approved hotels, where you receive a small note saying that you’ve spent the night there. Also theoretically police can check you for these notes and police stops (and there is one going from each county the the next) or when you leave the country. While biking following these rule is next to impossible and my experience was that the police officers were ok when I explained this at police stops. At the same time you can always meet the bribe awaiting policeman. 

4. Scenery and sites.

Bukhara, Samarkand and Shahrizabz are amazing well preserved medieval silk road jewels and probably if you want to travel a bit back in time and if you want to get an idea what the silk road meant to the region they are a must see. I did like Bukhara much more than Samarkand which seems overly sanitized. When you add the variety of the landscape in the south-eastern part of the country and the relatively empty roads you end up with a place which is really enjoyable to cycle through.

5. People.

As I’ve said before the people are incredibly hospitable and also really diverse. Near Samarkand you encounter Uzbek villages and you almost always see people working in the fields, maintaining  an incredible network of irrigation canals and perfectly aligned fields. Then you have the city dwelling tadjik and the shepherd villages of the relatively nomadic Kyrgyz, all in just a few hundred kilometers. And they are all generally hospitable and friendly, but a bit of basic Russian will really get you a long way.

A bag of money worth around 100 dollars.

A bag of money worth around 100 dollars.

The 3 wheeled tractor, always popular in Uzbekistan.

The 3 wheeled tractor, always popular in Uzbekistan.

Curiosity and the chance of practicing a bit of russian.

Curiosity and the chance of practicing a bit of russian.

Work begins with the first hour after sunrise.

Work beggins with the first hour after sunrise.

Blue overdose.

Blue overdose.

Sanitized.

Sanitized.

Searching for the shadow.

Searching for the shadow.

Shahrizabz and the imense gate of the Timur's summer palace of Timur.

Shahrizabz and the imense gate of the summer palace of Timur.

The entrance to a 600 year old mausoleum.

The entrance to a 600 year old mausoleum.

Geometry.

Geometry.

The typical breakfast, yogurt and bread.

The typical breakfast, yogurt and bread.

School crossing with slanted eyes.

School crossing with slanted eyes.

Finding shelter from the heat.

Finding shelter from the heat.

Details.

Details.

Following the road.

Following the road.

Inside one typical uzbek home.

Inside one typical uzbek home.

Red, yellow, green and blue.

Red, yellow, green and blue.

Heading towards the Pamirs.

Heading towards the Pamirs.

Uzbek.

Uzbek.

DSC_3567

A quick dash across Turkmenistan, the Karakum desert, empty roads and the ancient city of Merv

Turkmenistan is a country which wants to see you across it as quickly as possible, with a transit visa lasting only for 5 days and with 460 kilometer to cross it at it’s narrowest point, between Serakhs in Iran and Turkmenabat at the border with Uzbeksitan. When you add the fact that border crossings only work from 8 in the morning to about 5 in the afternoon (with a lunch break in between) and that crossing each of the borders takes around 2 hours there really isn’t that much time left for pedalling.

When crossing Turkmenistan probably one of the most important things is how lucky you get with the wind direction. There really is nothing which can stop the wind when you are in the desert and if you can end up battling strong headwinds or flying with backwind at 30 kilometers per hour. In my case it around 50 / 50 , two days of backwind and two days of headwind / sidewind in which I manged to ride the distance between the borders.

Four days isn’t enough to experience a country, especially a country which seems kind of reluctant with tourists and foreigners, and a country which is made up mostly of desert. Probably the first positive thing which you notice when crossing the border is that the traffic seems to disappear, especially if you take the secondary road towards Mary. And after one month of constantly hearing the roar of engines while riding through Iran I cannot describe how pleasant it was to be alone on the road once again.

Three days later, after a windstorm followed by a short rain in the middle of the desert, in the fresh smell of evaporating raindrops rain drops on the tarmac I have a quiet lunch right on the tarmac. Still 50 kilometers away from Turkmenabat and 120 kilometers away from the last settlement my improvised picnic is interupted by a car every 10 minutes or so. One other memorable moment was when I got invited by a group of turkmen working in the fields to join them for lunch, this being the first time after two months when I saw vodka sitting comfortably on the improvised table rug, while the men were quite tipsy even though it was only midday.

One other revelation was around the city of Mary, when I saw after quite a bit of time a car signalling when it wanted to change direction. It’s amazing how traffic still seems to work in Iran even without what would seem to be one of the basic prerequisites, drivers indicating when they want to change direction. Also seeing for the first time a Russian women with a short skirt and with blond uncovered hair was also a big change from the Iranian dress code for women.

One other place which seemed a bit otherworldly was the ancient city of Merv. It was once one of the great cities of central Asia, and it’s actually made up of five different city sites as each time the nearby river shifted it’s flow or when the city was razed by a conquering army a new one was rebuilt in slightly different place. As everything was built from adobe most of the buildings have dissolved once again in the desert but one can still see a glimpse of what once once one of the largest cities in the world.

And now for the practical considerations:

1. Visas and border crossings.

As far as I know if you want to visit the country as a tourist the visas are pretty expensive and you need to be accompanied by a local guide, sleep in approved accommodations, things that you simply cannot do when travelling by bicycle. The only remaining options is a transit visa, which has fix entry and exit dates and is valid for exactly 5 days. The border crossing was also “interesting” and for a moment it seemed that in order to get in the country you had to face the worst version of soviet bureaucracy.

It took two hours, a lot of waiting, scanning everything from the bike bags through an x-ray machine, unpacking and hand checking everything, filling out forms in Russian and paying a tax of exactly 12 dollars. On the plus side the first border guard dressed in a crisp uniform did welcome me in the country with a big smile. Getting out of the country was a bit quicker though as I was near the closing time and they were rushing to get people through. A couple of Belgian travelers which missed the border closing by a couple of hours got “detained” the next day until the afternoon, after finally being deported across the border.

2. Road conditions and Traffic.

Roads are generally worse than in Iran with the side road between Serakhs and Mary being especially bad. On the other hand there are way less cars than in Iran and it was really enjoyable to be once again alone on the road.

3. Money and prices.

Changing money is a bit problematic and can be done only in banks at the official rate as far as I know, so the strategy which I used was to use up the last of my Iranian money and buy food from Iran for around 3 days and change around 20 dollars at a bank in Mary.  Prices on the other hand seemed a bit higher than Iran and due to the relatively high temperatures (around 34 – 35 degrees) I ended up spending quite a bit on water. I drank water as if I had a leak somewhere and I distinctly remember one evening when I had 8 liters of water with me, and nothing was left from it when I stopped in the next place where I could buy water.

4. People

It’s amazing how much the faces change just after you cross the border. Sure, you can see the odd turkmen shepherd in Khorasan but after you cross the borders narrow and slant eyes become the norm. And the difference is quite big when you come from Iran where people have a facial complexion which is quite similar to what you normally find in Europe. With just 4 days mostly spent in the desert I didn’t have enough time to interact with the locals, especially as most of the time was spent travelling through barren stretches of desert. The ones which I did interact with were just as hospitable as the turkish people in my opinion.

5. The cult of personality and school uniforms

From all the countries in Central Asia Turkmenistan probably is ahead in both of the fields. If the new marble buildings from Mary seemed relatively normal in Turkmenabat the route took me on a 4 kilometer boulevard flanked on one side by new barble buildings with the picture of the president while the other side had pretty run down old soviet blocks of flats, adding the the contrast. The mandatory traditional school uniforms do look incredibly good.

And now for the photo journal:

Ignoring the relatively angry looking faces they were quite friendly. I had to refuse the vodka though.

Ignoring the relatively angry looking faces they were quite friendly. I had to refuse the vodka though.

Curiosity at a checkpoint in the middle of nowhere.

Curiosity at a checkpoint in the middle of nowhere.

Zero traffic.

Zero traffic.

DSC_3492.jpg

There be camels.

There be camels.

Handsomeness.

Handsomeness.

The turkmen school uniforms.

The turkmen school uniforms.

At the gates of the once great city of Merv.

At the gates of the once great city of Merv.

Sultankala.

Sultankala.

One of the ancient temples.

One of the ancient temples.

Blue afternoon.

Blue afternoon.

Watching the sunrise from the tent.

Watching the sunrise from the tent.

One typical store.

One typical store.

Roadkill.

Roadkill.

Meeting the sand dunes.

Meeting the sand dunes.

Camping in the middle of the desert.

Camping in the middle of the desert.

Quiet lunch straight on the tarmac, Iranian peanut butter and jam

Quiet lunch straight on the tarmac, Iranian peanut butter and jam

Sandstorm.

Sandstorm.

DSC_3628.jpg

The beloved leader of the nation.

The beloved leader of the nation.

Still one of the most popular cars in the soviets.

Still one of the most popular cars in the soviets.

DSC_2548

Riding towards Ararat through the Anatolian plateau

Ararat is a mountain which you see from far away when you come from either direction and if the air is clear it’s probably visible from at least 200 kilometres in each direction. And as beautiful as the Anatolia plateau might be it is very high and relatively rough and so I didn’t manage to ride more than 80-90 kilometres a day, which basically means that I’ve had Ararat in the background for 4 days.

It’s more or less understandable why there are so many myths related to this mountain as it has a clearly distinctive shape and it’s huge compared to the mountains which surround it. From Igdir it basically rises 4000 meters above the valley floor.

Anatolia seems much more rural than other parts of the country, with little villages scattered across the endless grassy hills and with small cities which are few and far between, and so I ended up camping a lot and spending a couple of nights at the locals. It was probably the part of Turkey which I enjoyed the most, with it’s harsh and vast landscapes. It’s probably a good preview and a good training of what I’m going to see later in my journey along the Silk road. In my opinion if time is scarce and if one doesn’t mind a relatively hilly ride it’s an alternative to the Georgia / Armenia route for getting into Iran.

Dimineata pe racoare, trezirea a fost pe la 5:40 si oamenii erau deja in picioare.

In the morning the hosts were already up at 5:40.

Impreuna cu tractorul familiei.

Together with the family tractor.

Sate din podis.

Life on the plateu.

Pietre de mormant, la aproape 2000 de metri

Funaral stones, almost 2000 meters high in the plateu.

O casa tipica, asemanatoare cu cea in care am dormit. 2 camere, acoperis de iarba. Hobbit style

Hobbit style and the grass roofs of these houses.

Drumul stepelor.

The endless road.

Lumina asfintitului.

The evening light.

DSC_2570.jpg

DSC_2576.jpg

Miros imbatator.

Spring on the valley floor near Igdir.

4000 de metri deasupra drumului.

Rising 4000 meters above the road.

DSC_2492

Ani, the deserted city

In just a few minutes the sun is going hide behind a mountain in the background and I’m rushing with my camera in my hand in order to catch the last glimpses of light over Ani. I’ve been pedaling the entire day at altitudes over 2000 meters with headwind and I’ve managed to reach the site just before closing time. The guys at the entrance gave me 10 minutes, but that isn’t the problem, the problem is that the sun will set in less than 10 minutes.

I have no time to think about exposure and I just rush trying to make the best of it, because the place really does look amazing. It was once a city like Constantinople and 100.000 souls lived within with walls but it was abandoned completely 200 years ago. You can still see the old layout of the buildings, the city walls and the two ruined but still standing churches. And you can imagine for a short moment how would have been life in a city situated in such a scenic place.

I think that East Anatolia has been the most stunning part of Turkey I saw along my route, together with the mountains through which I’ve had to pass to get here from the coast. It’s completely different from other parts of Turkey and life here is harsh but maybe at the same time beautiful.

As I leave the citadel darkness sets in and I try to find the shortcut to Digor, and while asking to villagers I distinguish the “Misafir” word as one of the guys tries to convince me to stay at his house. I say yes as I’ve been really curios to see the inside of a typical rural turkish house. And during the evening and after the meal I’ve been offered by the family I find out that the guys from google translate really did something useful, and by using the smartphone we manage to exchange some information. For example I find out that military service is still compulsory in Turkey and that it’s 15 months long, that no wood is used to fire up the stove. One of the small girls is in her first year of English and she goes through her notebook searching for things to ask me, and in the process I manage to learn a few extra words in Turkish.

The next morning after I’m also offered breakfast I head towards Digor on one rough but beautiful road with absolutely no traffic. I really love this moments, somewhere in the middle of nowhere on a deserted road after experiencing a sample of genuine hospitality.

Plat ca o campie, dar la 2200 de metri.

Aventura!

Adventure!

Araratul in departare, la peste 200 de kilometri.

Ararat in the distance, 150 kilometers away.

Pedaland catre Ani.

Pedaling towards Ani.

La poarta cetatii.

At the ancient city gates.

Ultimele raze ale soarelui.

The last days of sunlight

Momente magice.

Magic moments.

Si a tinut 5 minute.

And it lasted less than 5 minutes.

Si dus a fost soarele.

And there it goes.

Drumul principal din fosta cetate.

The old main road.

1 luna.

1 month.

Sot si Sotie.

Husband and wife.

Si unul din cei 5 copii.

And one of the girls.

DSC_1252

Bulgaria – an exercise in solitude

It seems that besides the main cities almost no-one lives here. In comparison with Romania the villages are much smaller but further apart and just as in Romania partly deserted. And if you add the relatively cold weather I’ve add during the last week of February, and that the villagers where probably all inside their homes trying to keep warm it was relatively hard even to find someone to ask for directions.

The network of secondary roads is wonderful though, and I must return here for shorter trips during the late spring or during the early summer. During my crossing of Bulgaria the plan was to use the main roads as little as possible, and after 600 kilometers I can say that even though some bits where a bit longer and tougher the experience was clearly better. If I have enough time I always prefer a longer detour through rural areas to the busy main roads.

he other thing about Bulgaria is that it’s quite hilly, and during an 80 km day of cycling it wasn’t uncommon to gather around 1000 meters of ascent and descent. What I didn’t like about Bulgaria was the lack of human contact. In some places it was hart to find people but even if I found them the language was sometimes a barrier which I couldn’t overcome. I know few words in Russian but it seems that their Bulgarian equivalent is spelled sometimes quite differently and the few words which are the same in Romanian and in Bulgarian weren’t enough to really communicate with the locals. English was really rare and I was a bit surprised that I was able to even use German once. It was at the same time a really useful exercise in reading the Cyrillic script with all the signposts scattered around.

As highlights of the crossing I passed 3 UNESCO world heritage sites, the rock churches of Ivanovo, the Madara rider near Shumen and Nesebar, the island-town on the coast of the Black Sea. But besides these I have to say that I also enjoyed the rural countryside, with a mixture of old abandoned houses, sheep and cattle grazing on the outskirts of the villages and the remnants of abandoned communist buildings. And it all blended together the brown-grey colors of a sunless week with a weather which reminded me that even with all the climate change which is going on February is still February.

While I enjoyed the feeling of solitude which I experienced during this crossing maybe it was an too direct introduction to the journey ahead.

Prin Bulgaria profunda.

Through rural Bulgaria.

Atentie gropi.

Take care, potholes which could swallow a car.

Aripi frante.

Broken wings.

Locul de cort din seara precedenta.

Cold camping in february.

Adin, dva, tri.

Adin, dva, tri.

Tunel.

Tunel.

Prin viscol spre Shumen.

Riding through the storm towards Shumen.

Fortareata din Shumen.

The Shumen fortress.

Scarile ce duc la rege.

The stairs which lead to the Madara rider.

Privind de pe locul fostei fortarete.

Standing on the place where the fortress once stood.

NU!

NO!

Locul de inoptat.

The bivouac spot.

Nu trebuie sa mergi pana pe BAM pentru astfel de drumuri.

You don’t have to go to BAM for such roads.

Azuga

Taking out the skis on the first winter days, Baiului mountains

Winter is here, and as I push the ski through the one meter snow I find it hard to believe that less than one week ago I was riding my bike for 180 kilometres through the dry Romanian plains. But now a weather front brought the much needed snow, and as still have a couple of weeks before my departure it would be a shame not to take advantage of it. I can only hope that it will melt until then, but the chances are pretty slimb and I’m pretty sure that it wouldn’t neither the first nor the last snow I will encounter along the way.

But going back to the ski touring day, fresh snow usually means avalanche danger and in my opinion travelling in a group is a must. In the end it’s a trade, you provide avalanche safety and your team-mates provide the same for you. And so we’ve found ourselves as the four musketeers of the Baiului mountains, me, Bubulu, Balan and Dani, with an equally flexible schedule, an equal dislike for ski resorts and equal desire to find untouched descents in fresh snow.

The only problem for me is that I haven’t used the skis since last year in march, when we climbed a lot of 3000 meter peaks in the Vent valley in Austria. And each season the first time you put the skis on your feet and you try the first few turns you cannot help but wonder if you still know how to do it. But it quickly comes back and only the muscles lag behind until the specific fitness is once again built. I’m afraid that I won’t have time to build this fitness and use it, but skiing still is a lot of fun to me.

Encouraged by Bubulu I brought the wider and heavier skis, together with the heavier boots and I have to work a bit on the uphill parts in order to keep up the the racer equiped Dani and Balan. At least am I’m not alone with this problem, and Bubulu has an equally heavy setup. In total the tour gathered around 16 kilometers and 1300 meters of ascent (the equal descent), a couple of faces with powder on the Cazacu and Urechea peaks, a lot of fighting for opening the track in fresh snow. I couldn’t have asked for a better beginning of a rather short skiing season, and my only hope is that the other guys (some of them are amongst the fittest in Romania in mountain sports) haven’t waited too much for me. Next time it’s time to try out the light skiing setup for this winter, the TLT 6 with Movement Iki and with TLT Speed.

Sapand poteca prin omat.

Opening the track through thick snow

Poteci neatinse.

Untouched snow.

Padurea de argint.

The silver forest.

Incarcat.

Burden.

Racer.

Racer.

Deasura norilor.

Deasura norilor.

Fritz.

Fritz.

Inaintand pe creasta.

Making good progress on the ridge.

Privind catre Sinaia.

Looking towards Sinaia.

Gata de coborare, Jackal vs Atomic.

Gata de coborare, Jackal vs Atomic Tour.

Fu fain?

Fu fain?

40 de zil de Postavaru intr-un sezon.

Already 40 days of skiing for this guy.

Inca deasupra norilor.

Still above the fog

Ultima coborare.

The last descent of the day.

Alb si negru.

Black and white.

Litomsyl

Czech Republic on two wheels, Kutná Hora and Litomyšl

Our opinion after riding two days and a half against a small hurricane is that the Czech kilometer is longer than the German one. Considerably longer. Almost as long as a nautical mile. The signs also do not help, and on several occasions even though we were riding in the right direction, the distance to the next town seemed to be increasing.

But other than the Czech Republic welcomed us with open hands, and from the bike touring perspective it has quite some potential. On one side you have a large network of secondary roads, which do not have a lot of traffic, and almost every town has a rich cultural history.

We didn’t find to many informations regarding bike there, but armed with a road map we start of on a Thursday morning towards Kutná Hora with a steep climb, which signals the nature of bike touring here. The terrain is really hilly, at least in the eastern part and there aren’t so many flat areas where one could ride fast.

In Kutná Hora we catch our breath and we visit the Sedlec Cathedral , the ossuary, and the Saint Barbara church (both are UNESCO sites). 

Lumea de apoi.

The after-world.

I’ve spent quite a bit of time in the ossuary, which was relatively empty of tourists. It’s a sobering experience to spend some time in the old crypt, with the macabre interior decoration. The entire thing started in 1278, when a monk traveled to Jerusalem and brought back some earth from the Golgotha hill, and he scattered it over the cemetery.

Since then the cemetery was considered as part of the  holy land, and it was seen as “The place” to be buried. At one point there was also the legend that if buried here, the corpse will rot in just 3 days, and only the clean bones remain. And it proved to be quite a popular burial place, and it is estimated that only during the plague between 40.000 and 70.000 persons were buried here. And in order to cope with the overcrowding around 1400 the first ossuary was already built.

Auto portret

Self portrait.

Turcul si cioara care ii scoate ochiul

This heraldic coat of arms shows a Ottoman soldier and a crow which plucks his eye, commemorating a victory from the late 1600s.

Decoratiuni interioare.

Interior decoration.

Unul dintre multi.

One of the many.

Kutná Hora’s history is a one with a lot of ups and downs, as the entire Czech history. Once it was one of the richest towns in Europe, thanks to the silver mines around the town. This period ended after the 30 years war, when Czech republic came under Habsburg control, and it remained there for the next 300 years, in a period which is called the “Dark Age”.

History teaches us that nothing is eternal, no even the imposing Gothic cathedral upon which we are looking, with it’s beautiful spires and stone arches which stretch over a crystal blue sky.

Imposing isn’t the best word to describe it, because we’re not talking about the massive Doms of western germany, with it their large bodies and even larger and darker interiors. The cathedral is small in comparison, and I can only compare it with a small gothic jewel. It took 600 years to finish it, but it is well worth the time. And as with the Cologne Cathedral, the works were suspended for quite some time, as money ran out after the silver mines closed down. Saint Barbara is the patron saint of the miners, and the church has a large number of original frescoes.

Cel mai reprezentativ exemplu al stilului gotic tarziu din cehia.

The best example of Gothic architecture in the Czech Republic

DSC_6449.jpg DSC_6476.jpg

But after visiting the the town, it’s time to start battling the head wind, and to see how the rural parts of the Czech Republic look like. And from our point of view, they are half-way between Germany and Romania.

As we ride through small villages, with a lot of abandoned houses we feel the smell of burned wood, and we see the smoke rising the chimneys. It’s a familiar smell of the villages in Romania, and if we would close our eyes we could picture ourselves back home.

In each larger village there is an old shop, which sometimes is transformed in the franchise of local grocery chain. As in Romania, a lot of the houses are abandoned, and one can realize that the same process is happening throughout Europe, and that people are leaving the villages for the better prospects of a life in a city.

Peisajul tipic de pe drumurile secundare din Cehia.

The typical side road in the Czech Republic.

Inserare.

Dusk.

We easily find wild camping spot and we stay around the stove the tomato soup which should warm us on the inside in a rather cold day, spend pedaling against the wind. The night goes by as we warm ourselves in our down bags, a long 12 hour night.

Friday morning is cold, and the grass field on which we’ve camped is split into to two. The part which is in shade is covered by frost, while the other side is already melting the the sun. And we feel in the air the humid smell of the forest.

We skip breakfast and we start moving in order to get the circulation going, and we take our brunch by midday, when the temperature rises a bit, and it get’s comfortable enough.

DSC_6503.jpg

Exemplu de bucatarie ceheasca, un fel de pateu local de carne.

An example of Czech food, we had no idea what it was when we bought it, and it the end it was was some sort of a meet pudding.

Versaill-ul dintr-un satuc uitat de lume.

Visiting a small Versailles like castle in a forgotten village.

We reach Litomyšl in the afternoon, our second cultural destination for the trip. We know that the main site is a Renaissance castle, but before reaching it we circle around the the city, through the main square and through small cobble streets.

We finally find the castle, and we’re amazed regarding how cool it looks. The warm autumn light and the patterns on the walls work together to create sharp images. And we have the place all to ourselves, which also contributes to it’s beauty.

Dupa ce serpuim putin pe stradute cu piatra cubica, de undeva de dupa schelele unui muzeu ne iese in fata castelul. O constructie rectangulara, alba, cu peretii exteriori decorati cu diverse modele (sgrafitto) desenate in culori calde, nuante de galben, mustar, ori maro ce ma trimite cu gandul la soarele Italiei. Nici nu e de mirare, deoarece castelul a fost construit in stil renascentist declarat, in secolul 16.

Renascentist

Renaissance

Castelul.

The Castle.

DSC_6558.jpg

Geometry.

Eden.

Eden.

We leave Litomyšl in the late afternoon and we start once again going uphill, this time towards Zdar. And we climb, and we climb until we can sea small hilly peaks which should be around 800 meters high, and the wind of course blowing from the wrong direction.

Night sets in as we still haven’t found a camping spot, but just after darkness sets it we find a protected spot on a green field, and we starting cooking the usual soup to warm us a bit before going to sleep. It’s really interesting how all the tasks are so naturally split when travelling in two. For example even though at home I rarely cook while travelling that’s usually my responsibility, as is buying food. And so I’ve become an expert of quickly getting what we need from a supermarket, even if it’s a completely new supermarket and even if the language is unknown.

Din nou pe drum.

Once again on the road.

Sfarsit de zi.

The sunset of the day.

Apus la Strisjochhaus

The Fiechtl route in the Totenkirchl Sockel, Wilder Kaiser

We sleep late today, as the weather seems to be nice for the following week and as we don’t plan any epic routes for today. And so we spent a pleasant lazy morning in the bunk beds from Stripsenjochhaus, before we finally set out around 9 for today’s route, the  Fiechtl route, a 5+ 11 pitch route from the Totenkirchl Sockel.

I should say that during the 3 days spent at the Stripsenjochhaus hut we felt really at home, even though we were probably the only ones eating out our own bags. The hut is in a brilliant spot, and it’s one of the only huts which isn’t on a peak, but which still allows to watch both the sunrise and the sunset.

The Sockel has the advantage that it starts a bit lower and the routes end somewhere half-way up the Totenkirchl, so that the descent is a lot quicker. Also on the other hand the route has quite a few V, and V+ pitches so I’m sure there will be plenty of climbing.

After reaching the entry to the route, we start discovering the pitches of the route. And so we climb on an exposed traverse with good holds, followed by a small overhang and by some not so interesting pitches up to the middle of the wall. However the most adventurous part of route came just at the end, with an epic 60m chimney which didn’t seem quite that easy.

Even though my chimney technique isn’t the best, I think that the Wilder Kaiser pioneers were really good at it, and usually all the pitches which contained chimneys seemed harder than their rating. And I really had to fight a bit on the chimney, because it was relatively holdless, and a bit wet, and a bit overhanging,and with bolts each 10 meters. All these were more than enough to convince me to remain squeezed inside the chimney and to avoid climbing it on the outside. There is a certain safety given by the fact that you know that if you expand yourself a bit you’re not going to fall from the chimney. Near the end the chimney ended with a serious overhang, but the route avoided it just in the last moment.

After the 60 meters my skin was completely scratched, and reached the conclusion that climbing chimneys in shorts and a t-shirt might not be the best idea. Either way, I really recommend the route, which has as an added bonus a quick and pleasant descent.

After we got back to the hut, with the energy which I had left I dash to the car to fetch my DSLR hoping for a spectacular sunset. After a short evening run and a fast climb, we reach the 1800 meter peak behind Stripsenjochhaus just in time for some nice pics. We have the small shelter on the top all to ourselves, and we watch a weather front coming in from the west. Tomorrow we’re finally going to take a break after 3 climbing days.

 

High up on the Sockel

Mihaela on the epic chimney at the end of the route.

Almost up.

Even though the scratches aren’t really clear, it does show that for me climbing is a really physical experience.

Ravens soaring high.

Taking the D600 for a walk.

The view from Stripsenjochhaus

And the rushed sunset.

Wilder Kaiser.

Window view

Via Classica, Fleischbank

Via Classica from Fleischbank, Wilder Kaiser, day 6

This was the day when Mihaela was completely conviced that we’re going to spend a day and a night on the route, the we’re going to spend ages getting down from the mountain and other doomsday scenarios. At the same time in the previous days I saw that if we set our minds to it we can be decently fast on comparable routes, and I was pretty sure that the route is really worth it. In Romania it’s not every day that you get the chance to climb 15 length 600m route on good rock.

 At the same time coming from Romania, the experience of alpinism and of climbing in general is a solitary one. We don’t like a crowded rock face, or sharing the same belay with more than one team, with all the entangled ropes which come with the entire experience. Maybe it has something to do with Romania, where currently climbing doesn’t have the same popularity as in other western countries (one could also say that there was a downfall in it’s popularity after the 80s).

Either way, in Wilder Kaiser, as well as in other parts of the Alps, in a normal route people start around 8, maybe a bit earlier for the long routes. So if you want to be a alone, you need to start either really early or rather late (the later options means that you need to move fast). During weekdays in Wilder Kaiser that tends to be a minor issue, but on weekend it can become problematic.

 
Taking advantage of Mihaela’s doomsday predictions we manage to get up with the sunrise and around  5:30 we leave the parking place towards the Westwall from Fleischbank. We start with the same climb towards Stripsenjochhaus, and it’s interesting to think that so many figures in the history of alpinism have stepped on the same road, on the same rock in another century. Different people, different times but perhaps the same dreams and the same enjoyment of spending time in the mountains.

We get to the start of the route, between the wall and a snow slope, and we start to move quickly on the first easy pitches, gaining altitude fast. If it’s one thing which I dislike about alpinism, is the feeling of being tied to the wall when the difficulty increases and when you start moving slowly on the wall. But today, on Via Classica the difficulty of the pitches (all bellow a classical V) enabels us to move fast, and it’s really  a nice feeling. If training in a gym has benefits, one of them is that it enables you to move fast on harder and arguably nicer routes. But on the other hand spending too much time in an indoor gym isn’t my dream, and we’re glad that we can live our small adventures on easier routes.

 The pitches flow one after the other, with nice dihedrals and cracks, on good rock with a logical and clear line. Without knowing it we get to the middle of the route, where the hardest and nicest 3 pitches follow, ending with with a vertical chimney which is climbed o a series of vertical cracks.

The route is realy nice, and I’m glad that we both can enjoy the route. Most likely there will always be differences between us from the physical possibilities, on one  hand due to gender differences or maybe because we have different opinions about training. But on the routes which we climbed this holiday we could both enjoy what we’re doing.

 

The last 3 pitches are once again easier, and we reach the end of the route after 7 hours, unexpectedly quick, so we get to relax a bit before starting the long descent. The day isn’t over yet, and we have to find a way to get down from here.

And it doesn’t seem to be so simple, as we have to climb and descent another peak, abseil down some dubious, climb once again, abseil once again, and start the long descent on Elmauer Tor. Even though during the entire holiday we usually moved quicker than the climbing guide said, the constantly needed more time on the descent. 
But still the place is incredibly spectacular, and I take some photos which seem brocken from a kingdom of rock. On the way dow we passed the east wall from Fleischbank, which has one of the hardest routes in Wilder Kaiser, and which is sort of the equivalent of the “Valea Alba” wall in Romania. 

Towards the end of the descent a summer rain starts, enough to dampen our spirit but fortunately enough it’s followed by a rainbow, the perfect crowning of a perfect day.

 

The east wall from Fleischbank.

The gate to Elmau (Elmauer Tor)

Climbing on good rock.

Vertical.

At the end of the route.

On the way down.

The upper part of Elmauer Tor.

Vertigo.

An almost double rainbow.

The many colored arrow.