Missing Mongolia

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Fall is upon us in the eastern U.S. and no matter how much I wished for these cooling breezes and drops in temperature and humidity over the past three months, I am already feeling nostalgic for summer. More than the weather, however, I am missing the yawning span of free and easy vacation days that are one of the perks of being a university professor.

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More specifically, I am reminiscing about the weeks I just spent in Mongolia, a place that in itself brought back poignant memories for me: my days of horseback riding as a young child and teenager, sleeping under the stars on a totally black night, county fairs, rock-hopping in mountain streams – all thousands of miles and decades away. As I ride a last wave of nostalgia with my final post on Mongolia, I revisit a summery landscape that caught me by surprise.

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I’ve said it before: I’m not a desert lover. One of my new travel mates in Mongolia couldn’t wait to get to the Gobi. I, on the other hand, would have been quite happy to park myself in a ger out on the steppe and never leave, riding my horse off into the soft, green hills. I’ve never been drawn to arid landscapes and don’t naturally like places that are dry, brown, or barren. But just as I did at Zion National Park in the U.S., Wadi Rum in Jordan, and other famous desert destinations, I put aside my distaste for desiccation in order to see one of the world’s famous deserts.

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I traded a shiny-coated horse for a mangy camel, elevation for endless flatness, and verdant hills for rust-colored cliffs, but the Gobi’s sere, simple beauty grabbed me after all and seems to have stubbornly parked itself in my memories.

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Sunset happens precipitously here; one minute there is searing heat and glare and the next, the sun has sunk below the horizon in the blink of a squinting eye. Mornings are equally hasty in arriving, with the deep blackness of desert night quickly shattered by sunlight that has no natural barriers. I am missing that unimpeded view of the sun each morning and night here in my city home.

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The Gobi has a few salmon-colored, ridged sand dunes, but on the whole it is a land of reddish dirt patterned with olive-green scrub grass. Four of the usual Mongolian suspects ply the paths; that is, the sheep and the goats, the horses and the camels, always in those pairs.

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Vehicles are few and far between, and with no marked roads, routes, or landmarks, I have no idea how they find their way around. There were long periods of time on our drives when we saw no other vehicles and when faced with a choice of three identical dirt paths at just slightly different angles, our driver always seemed to know exactly which one to take. (I normally have a very good sense of direction, and I occasionally had the feeling that we were doubling back after making a wrong turn, but that was just a hunch. We did always end up where we wanted to go!)

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One exception to the stubbly green topography was the Flaming Cliffs, a series of sandstone formations that are most famous as the site of Roy Chapman Andrew’s expeditions in the early 1920s that led to the discovery of the first dinosaur eggs, as well as thousands of dinosaur bones, all of which were packaged up and carted away on the backs of camels to their new home in the American Museum of Natural History. After a hike of only several hours on the parched cliffs, I found the notion of mounting such an extensive expedition in this harsh and remote environment – nearly a century ago, no less – to be truly staggering.

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A final stop in the Gobi provided a brief respite from the heat and sun as we hiked deep into Yolyn Am, a narrow canyon in the Gurvan Saikhan mountains that is home to an ice field that often lingers the whole way through the summer months. We stream-hopped back and forth until we could go no farther into the gorge, but try as we might, we did not glimpse any lammergeiers, the large birds after which the canyon is named.

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The Gobi was the last stop on a wide-ranging trip around Mongolia, chronicled in the posts below, and the final travel spree of my summer break. Soon it will be time to stop looking back in longing and start contemplating the next memory-making escape.

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Want more Mongolia?

Danshig Naadam: https://lexklein.wordpress.com/2016/09/06/danshig-naadam/

Framing a House Mongolian Style: https://lexklein.wordpress.com/2016/08/26/framing-a-house-mongolian-style/

A Steppe Out of Time: https://lexklein.wordpress.com/2016/08/19/a-steppe-out-of-time/

Ulaanbaatar’s Contrasts and Surprises: https://lexklein.wordpress.com/2016/08/16/ulaanbaatars-contrasts-and-surprises/

Nothing Narrow Here: https://lexklein.wordpress.com/2016/08/01/nothing-narrow-here/

On the Edge in Seoul

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Bracketing my glorious time in Mongolia last month were two short stays in Seoul, Korea. Knowing that flights into and out of Ulaanbaatar could be iffy due to windy conditions, I was happy to arrange a day south of the Han River on the way there and two days on the north side coming home. After my husband’s trip to Korea in the 90s that was full of unfortunate stereotypes (mostly dog and smog), I knew I would not be accompanied there anytime soon, so I had to make this happen on my own. Luckily, I fared much better!

A common theme of the two stopovers was an old/new mash-up – historic structures and streets pushed up against the edges of the very modern parts of the city. Both sides benefitted from the contrast: temple bricks and wood with the patina of time added texture and depth to the glint of skyscrapers in the Gangnam area,

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while the blocky, mirrored facades of distant towers made a contemporary backdrop for the monochromatic old hanok houses and their curly-edged rooflines in the more northern, traditional part of the city.

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In Gangnam, my hotel was sleek and cool, but at the push of a button, the curtain panel drew back to expose a giant Buddha standing amid lanterns and upturned eaves in the Bongeunsa temple complex.

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In Insadong a few weeks later, the tables were turned; my lodging was small and backward, but my view was into the future. There, a morning stroll along the edge of ancient Changdeokgung Palace led me uphill to Bukchon Hanok Village, a 600-year-old urban area from Joseon Dynasty days, which looked out over an array of new high-rises shimmering in the summer haze.

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Seoul is a huge city, but its most captivating sights always seemed to be at the edges of my vision: a quiet man on the edge of the urban Cheonggyecheon stream,

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artwork on the edges of buildings in Insadong,

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the boundaries between fanciful old design and the angular solidity of new architecture,

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a glassy line-up on the river’s edge, or a tiny restaurant wedged into a zigzag alley.

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Seoul teeters on the edge between ancient temple cuisine and trendy coffeehouses; dank, lukewarm showers and fancy, self-heating toilet seats; gritty fish shops and Samsung’s funky HQ; old men in drab clothing and young girls in full-blown Hello Kitty. I barely dented the surface of Seoul, but in three short days I walked these borders of past and present, ageless and innovative, to find a city looking both forward and back in a most agreeable way.

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(Huge shout-out to Shelley, a Seoul resident and blogger at Travel-Stained, who really gave me the biggest edge of all with her priceless advice on where to go and what to see in my short time there.)

Danshig Naadam

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Eight centuries ago, Genghis Khan and his armies rampaged across the steppe in central Asia, conquering lands and peoples to create a Mongol kingdom whose reach exceeded that of any other empire before or since. History gives us a view of the Mongols as vicious and unkempt heathens, but we know from books such as the 13th century The Secret History of the Mongols that cultural life on the steppe was alive and well, ritualized in both athletic and spiritual realms.

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Mongolia’s most famous festival, Naadam, has its origins in the steppe celebrations and competitions that began in Genghis Khan’s day, perhaps in concert with weddings and other spiritual assemblies. Then and now, sporting competitions took place in three areas: horseracing, archery, and wrestling. Starting in 1639, these “Three Manly Sports” were integrated into an event called Danshig Naadam, a yearly gathering of nomads, nobles, and monks from across the country to participate in both sports and spiritual activities.

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Nowadays, Mongolia aficionados may know that Naadam is held on July 11-13, and in fact, it remains a national holiday on those dates. But that festival – still the most popular time to visit Mongolia – is actually the secular celebration of this ancient gathering. After the 1921 People’s Revolution, the government recast the event as a sporting event only, eliminating the religious and spiritual aspects.

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With the end of Communism in 1990 came a return of Buddhism, and the monks and monasteries began to flourish once again. Finally, in 2015, the city of Ulaanbaatar and the monasteries came together to reestablish the original Danshig Naadam festival, held August 6-7, adding back the religious competitions and cultural performances, such as the Buddhist tsam dance, to the Three Manly Sports.

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We spent two days enjoying the carnival atmosphere of Danshig Naadam. Like a state fair, the festival is filled with animals, game booths, crafts, picnics, cotton candy, and happy crowds under the beating summer sun.

About an hour outside of Ulaanbaatar, at Hui Doloon Hudag, the main stadium and the other sporting venues became my substitute for the Olympic Games this summer. In marked contrast to that modern extravaganza, however, here the opening ceremony featured bleating Buddhist horns and clanging cymbals, chanting monks, and colorful parades of horses and flags.

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Also unlike modern sporting events, the competitors here wear traditional clothing and follow ancient customs as part of their sports. In wrestling, male participants don an unusual outfit of briefs, a skimpy open-chested, sleeved top and leather boots with upturned toes, and they perform an ancient eagle dance before and after they clash. Top-ranked wrestlers choose their opponents, so early matches are uneven and quick, while later ones can be long stand-offs. Matches are not timed, and competitors lose if they touch the ground at any time with a body part other than hands or feet.

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Mongolia has a horse-based history and culture; children learn to ride early and are seemingly as comfortable on horses as we are in chairs. The main horse race at Danshig Naadam is a 30-km cross-country event with children aged 5-13 as jockeys. By the end of that age range, many children are already too heavy, so the races are usually won by tiny youngsters. We stationed ourselves near the finish line and, true to form, this year’s winner looked like a 6 or 7-year-old boy, galloping in a cloud of dust as he whipped his mount to victory. Boys and girls compete together in this race, and many of the top finishers we saw were female.

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Men and women both compete, but do so separately, in the archery tournaments. The handmade bows and elegant costumes captivated me so much I don’t even know who won these events! Men shoot from 75 meters and women from 65 meters; both are so accurate that officials stand right near the targets to repair the walls after a hit.

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Danshig Naadam was a great way to experience Mongolian culture, ancient and current. Families rode in from near and far, on horses or in pick-ups, and set up tents for the festivities. Competitors and spectators alike were dressed in colorful fashions, and there was a sense of holiday merriment in the air.

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I felt very lucky to be part of the real Danshig Naadam festival in only its second year back in existence after its Communist-triggered hiatus. If you have a chance to visit Mongolia in summer, aim for mid-July or early August to take advantage of these fabulous opportunities to mingle with Mongolians at their most famous festivals.

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Part of a series of posts on my trip to Mongolia in August 2016. Other posts can be found here:

Framing a House Mongolian Style: https://lexklein.wordpress.com/2016/08/26/framing-a-house-mongolian-style/

A Steppe Out of Time: https://lexklein.wordpress.com/2016/08/19/a-steppe-out-of-time/

Ulaanbaatar’s Contrasts and Surprises: https://lexklein.wordpress.com/2016/08/16/ulaanbaatars-contrasts-and-surprises/

Nothing Narrow Here: https://lexklein.wordpress.com/2016/08/01/nothing-narrow-here/

 

 

Framing a House (Mongolian-Style)

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When we build a house in most of the world, we start with a permanent foundation and frame the structure from there on up, and we hope and expect that our home will exist in that spot for years to come. In much of rural Mongolia, there is some beautiful house framing going on, but the resulting structure – a ger (often known as a yurt in other languages) – is a fully collapsible and movable one that has been used for thousands of years.

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I’ve spent a good amount of time in tents the world over, and I expected a fairly similar abode when I went to Mongolia last month. I was in for a striking surprise in several respects. For one, gers are quite large and sturdy. Gers are sized in terms of the number of expandable panels, and a typical ger for a family might be a 6-panel affair. Each panel is an accordion-like grid of lightweight wood strips that folds up into a bundle that can be loaded onto a camel (or these days, sometimes a pick-up truck) for transport to the next season’s pastureland.

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Between each lattice-work panel is a post, and the panels and posts are lashed together with leather or rope ties. Between the front two panels is a wood doorframe and heavy wood door.

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In a ger of this size, there are usually at least three couches or beds that serve in those capacities, respectively, during daytime and night. One side of the ger is used for food preparation, and other sections have traditionally been designated for men, women, children, and guests. In the center of the ger is a wood-burning stove whose chimney rises through a hole in the tent’s ceiling.

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My second surprise was how complex and stunning those ceiling designs were, in both the gers for tourists and those of the nomadic families.  An open circle, or crown, at the top of the tent has a series of radiating poles – a gorgeous geometric array of orange or red painted rafters – that settle onto the side panels. This roof is often self-supporting, but in larger gers, it may sit on the support posts between the side panels. The crown is partially open for the stovepipe and for air circulation, but it can be covered with a canvas tarp that usually lies over the roof for extra protection.

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The entire structure is covered with felt, usually made from sheep or goat wool from the family’s animals. This material insulates the ger in both hot and cold weather and is often wrapped again in a canvas covering that is more water- and sunproof. The entire tent is held together by long ropes tied horizontally around the dwelling.

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(As a fun aside, we visited the Mongolian version of Costco one day to gather supplies outside Ulaanbaatar, and what should we find in the back of the store but a generic ger! Like most things in a big box store, this one was plain and characterless.)

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Gers are round in order to redirect the fierce winds on the open steppe. Their circular shape helps them resist gusts from any direction, which is critical in a place with no natural windbreaks like trees or tall grasses and shrubs, and their rounded tops protect the roof from being ripped off.

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A nomadic family can disassemble and reassemble a ger in an hour or two, and most family-sized gers can be transported on two or three camels. We were lucky to see one camel loaded up with long poles as the summer grazing season was coming to an end during our trip.

We were even luckier to spend half of our nights in Mongolia in these aesthetically pleasing and comfortable tents. I loved tucking my modern belongings into the lattice-work walls that have characterized these gers for centuries. I slept like a baby with my crown view of the stars and my door open to the sweeping grasslands (in spite of a hungry visitor one night – a vole? – who ate my snacks right out of my backpack, and a toad that hopped in one night after it was too dark to find him to scoot him out). We visited a number of families on the steppe and in the Gobi Desert, sitting around their stoves and enjoying their unmatched hospitality in their cheerful gers.

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I think a good quarter of my photos are of gers gers at sunrise, gers in the distance, gers on a glowing evening, and gers with their charming owners – and I’m sure one of those remembrances will end up in a frame of its own on my wall one of these days!

Part of a series of posts on my trip to Mongolia in August 2016. Other posts can be found here:

Danshig Naadam: https://lexklein.wordpress.com/2016/09/06/danshig-naadam/

A Steppe Out of Time: https://lexklein.wordpress.com/2016/08/19/a-steppe-out-of-time/

Ulaanbaatar’s Contrasts and Surprises: https://lexklein.wordpress.com/2016/08/16/ulaanbaatars-contrasts-and-surprises/

Nothing Narrow Here: https://lexklein.wordpress.com/2016/08/01/nothing-narrow-here/

A Steppe Out of Time

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I’ve always had a fascination with the word “steppe,” a term I’d read in various books to describe the land over which impossibly exotic characters ranged – legions of Russian soldiers, swarms of Genghis Khan’s archers on horseback, camel trains of nomads traversing a vast, empty plain. I pictured the steppe as a massive shelf, an unbounded plateau taking a giant stride down from Russia and Siberia into Central Eurasia. I might even go so far as to say that I went to Mongolia solely to see the steppe, with its grasslands and treeless plains that spread out for miles and miles under massive blue skies. I saw the foray into this land as a rare opportunity to step off the grid and into the pages of history right up to this day.

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In my last post, I noted my surprise at the newness and modernity of Mongolia’s capital, Ulaanbaatar. While I took pleasure in getting to know that city, my real joy in Mongolia was heading out to the steppe land west of UB. With one of the lowest population densities on earth, Mongolia is literally wide open, and I wanted to get out there and breathe in the vastness and, maybe, see a little of the life that takes place there, a life that feels far removed from that in the city.

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The Mongolian grassland plateau is part of the biggest steppe region in the world, one that stretches from Eastern Europe (Ukraine) through Central Asia – a number of the ‘Stans (Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan), Russia, and others. While there are now paved roads connecting most of the country’s provinces, the majority of roads on the steppe are bouncy dirt paths, often with no discernible lanes or traffic patterns.

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The verdant plains of summer spread out like ruched fabric, rising and dipping, folding and wrinkling like thick, crumpled velvet. Often, the greenish-yellow moors are framed by brown and purple mountains, unfolding in layers for miles on end. The vistas are like watercolor paintings, gradations of color and light stacked from foreground to background until they melt into the heavens.

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Little white gers off in the distance dot the landscape, and herds of animals roam freely, the sheep with the goats, the horses alongside the camels.

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Unlike the leap into the 21st century that UB has taken in recent years, much of life on the steppe takes place just as it has for centuries, with people living in harmony with the land. Nomadic families move with the seasons, packing up their gers and their animals at least four times a year to find new pasturelands. In summer, access to water is critical, while winter brings a need for grasslands with minimal snow cover. In spring, the herders look for early flora to nourish the animals before birthing time arrives, and in fall, they seek out later-growth foliage to fatten up before winter comes around again.

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Both the livelihood and sustenance of these nomads depend on their animals – primarily horses, camels, cattle, sheep, and goats. The Mongolian diet is heavily based on meat and dairy products, and days revolve around animal care and putting up food for future seasons. On a visit to a wonderfully engaging nomadic family, we helped milk the mares and the cows, then cut huge blocks of soft cheese into smaller pieces that were dried on the roof for winter consumption.

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We drank airag, a fermented mare’s milk, nibbled on mutton dumplings, and savored a creamy rice pudding made with the cow’s milk we had helped procure minutes earlier. Animal fur, hair, and skins can be sold for use in the city as rugs, the famous Mongolian cashmere, and other products as a way to earn money to buy agricultural staples the nomads cannot grow (rice and flour among them), animals to breed (the most expensive, a camel, costs about $750), or supplies, like the gers themselves ($1000 or so).

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Traditional herding life is likely to change and fade out in coming years as pressures to join the global economy increase and as younger generations develop ambitions beyond a life in the country. The families who still make their home on the steppe may live simply and freely, but they take small bites of the world beyond. They use solar panels for energy in their gers, their children go to school (which is compulsory), and, of course, they own cellphones, which are almost as attached to their ears as they are anywhere else! The darling girls I bonded with one evening knew their way around an iPhone – insisting we take selfies together and then taking (many, many) videos of me riding their horses.

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I didn’t get enough time on the steppe. I understand the difficulty of taking people out into such unpopulated, unsupported areas and I get that most people can only take the ger camps for so many nights before craving a real shower and some wifi! But I could have stayed much longer, waking at dawn to see horses wandering through camp, bouncing down the dirt roads into the green suede hills, stopping to photograph a shimmering, lemon-lime wheat field or a posse of Bactrian camels, meeting the industrious and endearing local people, and reclining outside my tent at midnight to see the entire Milky Way clouding up a night sky unpolluted by other light sources.

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The steppe was a rare treat, a dream come true, a step out of time and place, a pause button in the universe that I needed to see and experience for myself. If history holds, I will crave a return someday soon, and I will add Mongolia to the list of places I’ve felt compelled to revisit.

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Ulaanbaatar’s Contrasts and Surprises

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The first stop on my two-week sojourn in Mongolia was the exotic-sounding capital, Ulaanbaatar. I had pictured a frontier kind of town, a high-altitude patchwork of nomadic ger tents and hulking concrete apartment blocs, jumbled together in a hazy valley. Part of that vision was accurate, but I also found sparkling glass skyscrapers, quaint Buddhist temples, an old Soviet department store, and upscale malls in this city trying very hard to be the next swanky Asian destination.

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Founded in 1639 as the headquarters of the leader of Mongolian Buddhism, Ulaanbaatar (“Red Hero”) became a permanent city in its current location on the Tuul River in 1778. The city lies in an east-west valley surrounded by four sacred mountains and is still home to hillsides full of gers, the traditional Mongolian round tents, on the edges of town.

In 1990, when Mongolia emerged from Russian communist rule, the population was only 500,000, but UB now has 1.4 million residents, almost 50% of the country’s total population. (The escape from Soviet grasp also marked the change of the city’s spelling from a Russian-based transcription to the current one, for those who have known this capital as Ulan Bator.)

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As a result, the capital city of this young democracy is growing by leaps and bounds, creating marked contrasts between old and new. The Choijin Lama Temple sits in the shadow of the glimmering Blue Sky Hotel and other glassy towers.

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The posh Shangri-La Mall, opened just 6 days before my arrival and the site of the country’s first IMAX theater, rises up from a weedy field.

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On the other side of that scrubby grass and trees is another anomaly: a colorful amusement park in the middle of the city.

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Huge construction cranes teeter over a battered log cabin.

Humble venders sit in shabby kiosks less than a block away from a Louis Vuitton store, and the Gandan Buddhist monastery peers down upon a sea of those boxy Soviet buildings as well as the shiny new high-rises.

 

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I loved the city. I expected to tolerate it in between forays out into the countryside, but I found myself looking forward to our sporadic returns, and not just because it was a respite from sleeping in a tent with no running water or electricity! It would be a tough place to live permanently – it’s blazing hot in the summer and the coldest capital on earth in the winter – but I enjoyed every minute we spent in this curious mix of the traditional and modern laid out under a huge canopy of blue sky.

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Stay tuned for the “real” Mongolia: the steppe landscapes and the nomadic families that live there, a glimpse of the Danshig Naadam cultural and sports festival, and the Gobi Desert – all coming up in future posts!

Morning in the Gobi

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Dawn and dusk have offered some of the most beautiful scenes here in Mongolia. I’ve spent the last few days in the Gobi Desert on the southern border of the country and was able to capture the sun rising over the pale green scrub that stretches for miles, as well as the soft, blue-tinged white of the gers as camp awakes each morning. It is a setting of great peace and quiet; I am sorry to leave it.

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Nothing Narrow Here

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Could there be a worse Weekly Photo Challenge prompt for me this week? The only narrow thing I’ve seen in the last few days was my airplane seat in the economy section of a U.S. carrier that should be charged with inhumane treatment. And that was not a pretty picture, literally (I did take one) or figuratively, so I’ll spare you.

No, these next few weeks are not going to be “narrow.” I’ve just landed in Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia, to begin a trip through this vast, wide-open country. A land of unfurling skies, rolling grasslands, and big new ambitions, Mongolia and its most famous leader, Genghis Khan, have nothing narrow about them.

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Genghis Khan cut a huge swath through the world in the 13th century, leading relatively small, nimble armies of highly-skilled horsemen with insane archery skills against robust militaries from Korea to Vienna, Russia to Viet Nam, and all over Central Asia. In 25 years, this man (who was also known to be physically large) conquered more territory than the Roman Army did in centuries.

Those with a narrow knowledge of Genghis Khan know him solely as a rapist and pillager, and those things he apparently was, according to most sources. But he was a complex character to many historians; some see his numerous accomplishments as “worth” the multitudes of deaths he ordered, while others can’t see past the killing, even as it led to a whole new world order. In the fullness of time, men and events can lose their distastefulness when seen in the context of later developments, and revisionist history has a way of softening the personality traits and actions that “great men” used to change the world. When we narrow our eyes and look closely at Genghis Khan, what do we see as his legacy?

In coming days, I hope to learn more about this multifaceted man and his role in Mongolia’s history, and I will venture out into the land of the nomads who still populate much of rural Mongolia. There will be few shots of small things or narrow spaces; my eyes, camera, and mind will be prepped for panoramas, wide angles, and the very big picture. Stay tuned!

Can’t See the Forest for the Trees (and other little things)

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On our last two weekend escapes from the hot and humid city, we’ve hiked some very small sections of the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail in western Pennsylvania.

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It is a woodsy walk, overall a 70-mile traipse through more than 20,000 acres of dense trees, cold streams, ferns, wildflowers, and prodigious clumps of rhododendron. The LHHT starts in Ohiopyle State Park and ends near Johnstown; along the way, there are shelters every 8-10 miles and enough varied terrain to keep hikers happy for days. There are great views from the higher ridges, and the entire trail sits at about 2500’ of elevation, so even on a sweltering day like one we had this weekend, the air is cool and the path largely shaded.

But that’s an overview of this trail I want to thru-hike some day. Yesterday what I focused on were the details, those little features that make every walk in the woods a mini treasure hunt.

In the Costa Rican Cloud Forest

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In a post on family travel a few months ago, I briefly introduced the other eight feet that wander the globe with me from time to time. While we’ve had many good vacation times overseas, the five of us have also spent some time volunteering abroad, a vastly different way to really learn about other lands and cultures.

We all agree that our first and longest work tour was the best – a nine-day building trip in the Monteverde area of Costa Rica. We had been to the country before and remembered technicolor sunsets over the Pacific, ziplining through the jungle canopy, and nature walks in the rainforest, but nothing prepared us for the level of poverty we would experience for a week and a half the second time. This trip was the polar opposite of our previous one and, as we soon found out, it was quite different from our life here at home, too.

We arrived in Santa Elena, deep in the Monteverde cloud forest, to heavy rains. The road into the town was unpaved, and even when wet, its firm ridges rattled our van and our brains for what seemed like an eternity. We dropped our bags in the spartan rooms we were assigned, let out tiny screams when we spied a gigantic spider in the shower and tiny sighs when we felt the thin, rock-hard beds, and then bolted out to walk into town to find food and an internet café.

Water rushed down the hill, swirling around our ankles and backing up into the kiosks set up along the well-traveled route. This was hint number one of the dirt to come. Staying positive, we loaded up on beverages and snacks and returned to our simple accommodations to start a routine that we would follow for the next nine evenings: taking turns showering off the day’s grit and then assembling for beers in a courtyard of plastic chairs.

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Each morning we would ride for over an hour on rutted dirt roads into a tiny village in the hills. Here, our overall goals were to dig a hole and two trenches for a new septic system, finish the interior of a school lunch building, dig a culvert, and paint a community center. There were no power tools to use; we mixed concrete by hand and transported it by wheelbarrow, both backbreaking jobs.

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We framed walls, tiled floors and countertops, built bookcases, cleared a landslide (and felt a powerful temblor one afternoon) and laid pipe in our new trenches. Yes, we were exhausted. And filthy.

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We worked under a volunteer philosophy called servant learning in which we were asked to follow local instructions and leadership; we were there to provide manpower and friendship, not control. Oftentimes, the work did not progress in a way we ever-so-efficient Americans were accustomed to. We moved concrete blocks into a pile to make room to dig trenches, then had to move them again to build walls. We built walls that had to be deconstructed when room measurements were inaccurate.

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We cemented a floor before someone mentioned we needed to run pipes under a counter. We had to chisel out spaces for electric sockets, hacking into 2x4s and drywall. With no levels available, we eyeballed our shelves for squareness; once propped on the uneven floors, that notion proved moot anyway.

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And we found all sorts of interesting things in our new trenches!

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Beyond the work, we forged a deep affection for the villagers. At first, they were shy, speaking in quiet voices with eyes lowered. They cooked us tiny tasty tortillas for lunch each day and worked alongside us before and after the meals. They were masters of their own domain, and even though we thought we knew better, most of the time their ways were the best ways to get things done. As the days passed and we worked together for hours on end, the formality began to crack and we laughed with our new friends, the adults sharing a smile over a wheelbarrow gone rogue and the kids rustling up impromptu soccer games when they got bored digging holes.

At the end of our work tour, the villagers arranged a dance party for our final night. With a boom box and tables laden with food, we celebrated our building accomplishments and cemented the brief but deep friendships we had formed. We wore our finest outfits; for all of us, Ticos and Americans alike, this meant a clean shirt and pair of jeans, a simple dress or skirt. Our final night together, we were partners of a different sort, dancing the night away in the simple community room that we and many former volunteers had helped build and raising our glasses together to the national slogan: Pura Vida!

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“Pure Life” is not just a saying in Costa Rica; it’s a way of life, a lifestyle quite opposite to the one many of us live at home. It is a life of simplicity – and contentedness with that simplicity. Costa Ricans don’t stress out about things, they are grateful for what they have, they don’t worry or dwell on negatives, and they have a humble and relaxed way of looking at life. Pura Vida expresses a feeling of eternal optimism and, as opposed to what we might feel in their circumstances, they would say and really mean what Pura Vida expresses: “Life is good!”

Meatless in Mongolia?

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I’ve been a vegetarian since 2009 and have rarely felt any need to eat meat since then. My reasons for choosing a meatless diet were many and varied, ranging from a waning interest in the taste of meat in general to the environmental and health concerns of raising and eating animals from huge, industrial farms. (Truth be told, my aversion started even earlier – after I read Alive, the book about airplane crash victims in the Andes who ate human flesh to survive. But I digress, unappealingly.)

I have not been a zealot about my stance, however, and many people outside of my family and closest friends are not aware I’m a vegetarian, even when I share meals with them. I’m reluctant to ask dinner hosts for special foods and have always quietly found plenty of things to fill my plate in almost every setting. When I’ve traveled, I’ve sustained myself perfectly well, even on arduous treks in locales where meat is prized, like Nepal, where I hiked for weeks in the high Himalayas, fueled mainly by carbs and eggs (and the occasional protein bar!).

So why am I even considering eating meat in Mongolia next month? For one, the traditional Mongolian nomadic diet is highly meat- and dairy-centric, with vegetables and fruits very hard to come by in the grasslands that cover much of the country I’ll be crossing. They are not easy to grow in the strong winds and harsh climates (both summer and winter) out on the steppe, and the nomadic population is on the move from season to season and could not tend them anyway.

(Pixabay)

(Pixabay)

Animals, on the other hand, move along with nomadic families and provide a consistent source of meat and dairy products to their owners. I’ve read that I can’t even count on eggs here, as I have in other meat-oriented cultures; Mongolian herders do not keep chickens because they are considered dirty (not to mention difficult to herd!). Beyond logistics, Mongolians also believe that meat is critical for the spirit as well as the body; in fact, they are often disdainful of vegetables, considering them food fit only for animals.

This disapprobation would not be enough to persuade me, but one other factor might: the strong sense of hospitality that Mongolians dearly value. In the nomadic grasslands, travelers are always welcome in any ger, the round tents that herdsmen and their families live in. The custom is to walk into any tent, even a stranger’s, and there are many greeting rituals that include vodka, snuff boxes, tea, and food. Much of my upcoming trip will be spent in the grasslands, staying in ger camps and meeting the local people. I’ve been told to bring along some small gifts, and I know from previous travels that refusing what is offered to me may be considered rude or offensive.

(Pixabay)

(Pixabay)

Will I need to eat a few bites of meat to be polite? Will I find enough to eat during my days on the steppe without resorting to meat? I don’t think I have a philosophical problem with it; many of my objections to meat are moot in Mongolia, where animals are treasured and raised responsibly. The bigger question is whether it will be at all appealing, or even bearable, to eat some of the animal products I may be served?

Have you ever had to, wanted to, or refused to put aside your preferences or beliefs when traveling?

1, 2, 3, 4, 5 (Cinque) Terre

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Day hikes are the appetizers and desserts of trekking aficionados. When I can’t get away for a week or more, the next best thing is a jaunt that still requires a backpack and provisions, a destination, and some great scenery. And the Cinque Terre, literally ‘Five Lands,’ is the perfect place to spend a day on foot and rack up some numbers, traversing the five small towns that form a colorful string along the rugged Ligurian coast of western Italy. We did just that to top off our Tour du Mont Blanc circuit hike one summer.

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Uno: We based ourselves and started our walk in the busiest and northernmost of the Cinque Terre towns – Monterosso al Mare. Here there are many accommodations, restaurants, and even a beach, all set in irregular stone streets that surround the seashore and harbor. The town is famous for pesto, anchovies, and lemons, and we loaded up on pizza, pasta, and limoncello as a well-earned reward for our long Alpine hike and, in my case, the rigors of driving a little stick-shift car on the outrageously steep and twisted roads into the region.

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Due: After a hearty breakfast the next day, we set off for town number two: Vernazza. This fishing village is the most picturesque of the group, and we were very lucky to get a beautiful approach shot before a morning rain shower swept us into the harbor and onto the main plaza. Fishing boats bobbed in the curved waterfront (and rested in the village streets), an old castle loomed in the background, pastel-colored buildings haphazardly climbed the hills, and villagers and tourists alike crammed under the few awnings and overhangs in the piazza for protection from the short-lived squall. With the passing of the mini-tempest, the old men went back to untangling their fishing lines, the adolescent boys to ogling the scantily-clad young female visitors, and we to our hike.

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Tre: We climbed out of Vernazza on a series of winding stairs and terraces, feeling almost voyeuristic as we passed private patios and stereotypical lines of laundry dangling off skinny houses.

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We were now on our way to Corniglia, the only one of the five towns not directly on the water. Perched high on a rocky hill and surrounded by vineyards, Corniglia was the quietest of the villages, and we decided to stop here for a relaxing lunch amid flowering bushes and old stone walls.

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These two first sections were the toughest – close to 4 miles overall of steep hills up and down – and we hit the highest point of the day on the way into Corniglia.

Quattro: The smallest enclave, Manarola, was the fourth stop, following a relatively flat and easy route of just over a mile after lunch. Like its big sister, Vernazza, it is a jumble of vibrant facades that spill down the hill into the harbor. It is bright and busy, filled with shops and boats and locals, but has a smaller, more relaxed ambiance – the ideal time and place for an ice cream stop and whiling away some time just people-watching.

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Cinque: By late afternoon, we had arrived in Riomaggiore on a cliff-side trail, dubbed Lovers Lane, that overlooked the brilliantly-blue sea.

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Farthest to the south and east, Riomaggiore is the largest town of the five and feels more accessible to the outside world than the other villages. Here, those same painted buildings form a V around one final scenic harbor, and the railroad provides an easy return to Monterosso, just in time for more limoncello and pizza.

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More Numbers: The Sentiero Azzurro, the Cinque Terre’s most popular walking trail, covers about 7 miles overall and can be walked in either direction. Most people walk south to north, starting flat and easy, but we did it backwards. In recent years, the path has been closed in some sections; heavy rains have washed out parts of the route and rock slides have blocked the path in and out of Corniglia. In addition, the Italian government is limiting the number of hikers to 1.5 million this season (a high of 2.5 million trekked the trail last year) to protect the area, so I’m glad we got there when we did!

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Jubilation in the Mountains

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Is there anything more restorative than a walk in the woods? This past week I was able to hike for a few days in the area around Aspen, Colorado, and I lapped up every minute of it.

From loading my backpack for the day (does anyone else find this an oddly satisfying task?) to spending hours at a time with no other human in sight, I allow time to fade from my consciousness. I’m in a zone I can only find on a woodsy trail, and a Rocky Mountain high is a real thing (even without legal-in-Colorado help). I hike by myself the first two days and feel the deep joy of being out in nature, alone with my thoughts and the sights and smells of the mountains.

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The aspen trees sport feathery leaves at an elevation of 8000’ but at 10,000’ they are still naked soldiers lined up in ranks up and down the sides of the mountains. (The aspens intrigued me; please indulge me this gallery of trees!)

Some paths are still blocked with snow, while others are beginning to grow a spring carpet of colorful mosses and tiny wildflowers.

DSC_0494The trails are wonderfully diverse; I start on a shaded path alongside a stream, emerge into some prairie-like flats, then climb on exposed red rock one morning.

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A hike at a higher elevation begins at lake’s edge, climbs gently through dense aspen thickets, then rises steeply over rough root systems and rocks until I am forced to stop when the route is fully snowed over.

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My obsession for the four days I am there is to get a great shot of the Maroon Bells, (supposedly) the most photographed mountains in North America. I go after breakfast one day, but the three-peaked mass is partially shrouded in cloud cover. They are visible – and impressive – but the color palate is drab and cold, with water, trees, stone, and sky all a similar dark gray-blue-green. I am not completely disappointed (and get in a fantastic hike on the almost-empty Crater Lake Trail), but I do have that familiar feeling of seeing my target mountain in less-than-perfect conditions.

DSC_0568I return that afternoon to find even thicker clouds, but the peaks and the swoop are in slightly sharper relief. I snap away, hoping the wind will die down enough to allow the iconic reflection of the massif in the lake. It is not meant to be, and I leave the White River National Forest feeling better about the clarity of my new photos but still not very satisfied.

Version 2Unlike my usual self, I decide I simply must have a better photo and set my alarm for 4:15 am to try to catch the sun rising on the face of the Bells. The next morning, four of us bundle up and head to the lake once more. Hopeful and shivering cold, we walk the shore of the lake, pacing up and down the beginnings of several trails, then set up with a few other hardy souls for the spectacle to come. The sky is clear and slowly turning orange behind us and pinkish blue in front.

IMG_3237Ten minutes after official sunrise, the crests ignite! We are all clicking away as the rosy light gradually lights up the whole face. Suddenly … jubilation! The lake grows still and flat, and the fire on the mountain is mirrored in the water. It is this amateur photographer’s dream come true, and I snap away with both Nikon and iPhone until my batteries fail. (I did say amateur.)

Version 2If you search for images of the Maroon Bells, you will find photos that blow your mind. Mine are no match for those, but I am happy with them, and happier still that I made the effort to capture to the best of my ability a place I may never get to see again. I was indeed jubilant as the rising sun hit those peaks, but the whole time I spent in the mountains was a source of deep joy that will sustain me until I can escape the flatlands again!

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Face of a Pilgrim

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Although I was tempted to submit many of the dozens of portraits I have taken around the world in a giant mosaic for this week’s photo challenge, I chose to post just this very special one.

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This beatific woman allowed me to take her photo alongside the wall of prayer wheels surrounding the Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet. She is one of the pilgrims who have traveled to Lhasa to pay their respects at the home of the Dalai Lamas of the past, as well as the temples and shrines in this most holy of Tibetan Buddhist cities.

What I don’t know about her is how she got here, or from where. Many pilgrims arrive in Lhasa after journeys of several months from faraway rural areas, and the most pious of them do it by prostrating themselves the entire way. They sink to their knees, push their arms and hands ahead of themselves to lie down flat on the ground, then slide their arms and legs together again to stand, only to repeat the supplicating motion over and over again for days, weeks, and even months. (And I think yoga-barre-Pilates is hard!)

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Other pilgrims arrive in this city at the top of the world by car, bus, horse, farm vehicle, or on foot. It is a humbling vision to see them in our midst; we are there to try to absorb this mysterious country’s culture for a short time while they have waited a lifetime to get the chance to come to Lhasa. They are everywhere, twirling their hand-held prayer wheels, prostrating outside the temples, and walking circle after circle around the Jokhang Temple, the Potala Palace, and other sacred sites.

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This dear woman was but one of these gentle, devout people that make up the Tibetan population, but her sweet, weather-worn face is a poignant memory of all of them.

Earth

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Earth, capital ‘E’: I immediately picture the planet, that beautiful watery ball floating through space, green and yellow and brown patches dotting the blue, all under a wispy swirl of high-atmosphere clouds. I have no photos of my own (yet!) that depict the Earth, the whole Earth.

Small ‘e’ earth, I am intimately familiar with. My feet know its ground: squishy sand, hard-packed dirt, spongy tufts of mud-grass, stern granite slabs.

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My eyes follow its paths, up and down mountains, around trees, alongside streams.

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My nose breathes in its fertile scent – decomposed leaves, fresh shoots, the oxygenated freshness right after a rain.

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My hands sift sand, move rotted logs, dig deep in boggy peat.

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Big Earth is made small for me through the earth it has in common. The rhododendrons I adored as a child in Pennsylvania spring from similar soil in the Himalayan valleys of Nepal. The sand in Delaware buckles into ridges just like those on the Tasman Sea shore.

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The grasslands in South Dakota rustle like the savannah in Tanzania, and the scree on a pass in Patagonia slips and slides under my boots just as it did on high slopes in Tibet and the Alps.

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I like the abstract idea of Earth, and in my mind’s eye, I see myself, a tiny dot, crisscrossing it with a mission, but what I really love is earth, that organic foundation of it all, the part I get to actually touch, see, and smell as I ramble the globe.

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Inspired by the Weekly Photo Challenge: Earth.

Grudgingly (Pretty) Great

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I was dragged to Utah a few summers ago. Not quite kicking and screaming, but definitely taken against my will to hike in Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks, which, from all pre-trip appearances, were a collection of arid, rust-colored landscapes that made me thirsty just looking at them. The two parks and Utah in general, however, had long been at the top of my husband’s wish list for a hiking trip, and since all of our travels for years and years had been my choices, I gave in. (Nice of me, I know.)

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I’m always looking to escape from the U.S. at least a few times a year, often, admittedly, to see things that are quite similar to the places I eschew here at home. (I was desperate to see dusty red Jordan, for example, but snorted at the idea of dusty red Utah.) But I knew I needed an attitude adjustment because my own country contains a vast assortment of destinations, and I finally succumbed to my husband’s pleas to see more of our homegrown scenery, particularly the national parks.

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I am a big fan of state and national parks. My parents stuffed our family of six in the car for innumerable trips to these treasures in the eastern and southeastern U.S., and I’d adored them. I loved road trips, first of all, and even as a child, I relished being in the untrammeled outdoors, sinking my boots into pine needles in the Appalachians and breathing in the earthy smell of the dark, loamy soil in the Great Smoky Mountains. We clambered over rocky balds in the Shenandoah Valley, swished through dune grasses from Cape Cod to the Outer Banks of North Carolina, and explored spooky Mammoth Cave and other caverns and hollows in Kentucky and Tennessee.

But what all those parks had in common was greenery and/or moisture. I loved the mossy clumps along woodsy paths, the smell of mildew in an old cabin, the dripping of leaves on my rain jacket in a forest, even the clamminess of a bathing suit at the shore. The desert had none of that; it was dry and dusty, odorless and often colorless. It made my eyes and nostrils itch, and I hated the grit it deposited on my skin. In short, it left me cold.

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But I went. Our first stop, Zion National Park, had more varied terrain than I’d expected, and I started the trip on a surprising high note. We had an invigorating wade through the Narrows (water!),

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numerous hikes through treed paths and ravines (green!), and some good steep climbs to various outlooks, including Angel’s Landing.

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The scenery was truly majestic, and I ate my negative words about Utah many times in those first few days of hiking.

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I adored the little town of Springdale where we based ourselves, and I looked forward to walking into Zion every day for a new and different adventure, even gaining an affection for the (dry, dusty, red) slot canyons.

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Bryce Canyon was our next stop. For years, I’d heard people rave about Bryce Canyon and, really, how could I not find the surreal assemblage of hoodoos fascinating? I’m glad I saw them. They made for some great photos.

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But we trudged for hours and hours through this baking forest of pale, parched towers and, dare I say, it was pretty boring and exhausting after the first oohs and aahs.

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It did redeem itself at sunset, when the shadows and cooler air sharpened my sense of the place, replacing the desiccated blandness at high noon with a pleasing line-up of variegated figures in the evening.

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In the end, Zion and Bryce and the land in between were a nice sampler in our quest to see more of our national wonders. I left impressed and grudgingly appreciative of both parks, although Zion was the hands-down winner in my book. The trip served a second purpose – getting us on a mission to see more of the national parks – and we followed it up with a trip the next summer to Glacier National Park, much more my kind of place!

This year is the U.S. National Park Service’s 100th birthday – get out and see one of these national gems soon!

A Dinner to Remember

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I am traveling this week between my old and new homes, so I will be lazy and recycle a story of a dinner I will never forget for this week’s photo challenge.

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My first real connection with the wider world started with a little goat, a katsikaki, as it was called in the tiny arid villages of central Greece. I was a teenager at the time, on my first trip out of the United States. I had just spent a few weeks at a Greek Orthodox camp on the western shores of the country, and now I was traveling into the heart of the Peloponnese with my yiayia and papou to spend a week at Papou’s childhood home.

A distant relative was driving, and as we crawled along the rutted and twisted roads of Arcadia, my grandmother told me stories and taught me Greek in the back seat while the men sat up front, smoking silently as we rode. The road dipped and curled, backtracking endlessly upon itself as we climbed and descended the mountains and valleys. Although the windows were down, it felt as though we were looking through dirty glass as the dust swirled around us and the brown scrubgrass, muted green olive trees, and hazy summer sky melted together in a miasma of July heat. The car seemed to float across the landscape, its progress slow but steady in the oppressive warmth and constant thrum of cicadas and other chirping insects.

When she was young, Yiayia said, she had been rich and pretty and courted by many wealthy Greek suitors. She talked of trips on the Orient Express and her engagement to a young shipping magnate who had given her a silver ring encrusted with diamonds to herald the connection between the two aristocratic families. But that union was not meant to be, as my headstrong grandmother threw over the young scion for a dashing and hardworking immigrant new to America – my Papou.

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It was his village we were riding to – a remote enclave of some 100 people, isolated and poor, deep in the heart of the mainland. Even the name conjured up images of ancient, black-garbed peasants, gnarled olive trees, mangy scrounging dogs, and mule paths that were now used as roads. Thoughts of the Orient Express, or even Athens, lay irretrievably far away as we pulled into the town square, a tiny area in front of the church. Old women emerged from the tiny stucco houses to wrap themselves around Papou’s neck – the long-lost son of the village. The widows keened over my grandfather’s arrival, but the children and young adults turned their attention to me – a blonde, green-eyed teenager in a jean skirt.

The week passed in slow motion, with morning trips up the hill to fresh water wells and afternoon gatherings in the tiny square for coffee and too-sweet pastries. Knots of old men and widows clustered in the streets, and farm animals emerged from under the houses to roam the village by day. The goats were the ring leaders, the billies bullying and the ewes taking up camp where they wished. Their babies, the katsikakia, were still innocent and irresistibly darling. The little one that lived under our house was my favorite, with its narrow head and silky ears. It scampered on the slender legs of a fawn and craved affection like a puppy as it moved its soft body into my legs. I spent hours with the tiny kid, hiding in the cool stone pen under the house, traipsing along with him to the well, and feeding him extra morsels of food away from the watchful eyes of Aunt S and Uncle T, my elderly hosts.

Finally, it was time to leave the village and return to Athens. Our bags were packed, the car was checked for the return drive, and goodbyes were said throughout the village. Sweet little Aunt S set the table with her finest belongings and spent the afternoon cooking a farewell feast for my grandparents and me. The house was festive; delicious aromas filled the air and the adults were cheerful as they sipped their retsina and smoked companionably on the grapevine-draped porch.

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We took our seats at the table and were touched at the time and expense our poor relatives had invested in this meal. It might be years before American visitors came again, and S threw everything into making our last night special. The wine continued to flow, the small plates were passed, and S left to bring in the main course. She walked through the blue-painted door with a huge platter in her hands and a look of pure pride and happiness on her face. She came straight toward me. Puzzled, I glanced at my yiayia; the adults were always served first here. Aunt S beamed; “To katsikaki sou! …your little goat!” Stunned, horrified, nearly hysterical, I looked back at my grandmother. “Smile,” she hissed. “Say thank you … and eat it.”

I grew up that day, choking down this token of my relatives’ love and respect for me and my grandparents. They had given to me what I loved most in that tiny village and, as wrong as it all seemed to me at the time, it remains a hauntingly strong memory of that first trip away from home.

Frustration at Fitz Roy

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I am obsessed with mountains. Many of my travels are fueled by a desire to trek or just lay my eyes on a specific mountain, and our first trip to Patagonia was no exception. My goal was simple – to get as close as I could to Mount Fitz Roy in Los Glaciares National Park in Argentina. I have no technical climbing skills, and it’s too late to start, but my fascination with the world’s most difficult ascents can be satisfied with circuit treks, base camp visits, and partial climbs. I am willing to hike for weeks on end, up and down, through heat and cold, to glimpse the heights that stir men’s souls.

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Fitz Roy drew me because it is so extreme. Not the highest of mountains – the Himalayan peaks have double the elevation – Fitz Roy is still considered one of the world’s toughest climbs. The sheer verticality turns away most comers; in some years, more people summit Everest than even attempt Fitz Roy. Fitz Roy also attracted me because it is so fearsome-looking. Its stony gray face looms threateningly over a remote and barren landscape, raising goose bumps on my skin even from a distance – even from a photo! Often sheathed in cloud cover, the pillar pushes dramatically upward, a knife piercing the usually leaden skies above. The mere thought of clinging to its wind- and rain-lashed face brings shivers.

As we approach the small town of El Chaltén for the first time, our driver pulls over and suggests a photo of the spike and its neighbors from afar. In a hurry to get to our lodging and dinner after a long day of travel, I demur at first, saying that we are hiking to a better vantage point the next day. He pulls over anyway, looking at me pityingly, obviously more aware than I that this may be my one and only shot of the unobstructed peak.

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We meet briefly with the guide we have hired for the next day and he lays out three hiking options. The longest (estimated at 8-10 hours round trip) is a trek to Laguna de los Tres, a high-altitude glacial lake with the most spectacular view of Fitz Roy. We will not be dissuaded from taking this route, even when he warns us that tomorrow’s weather will be atrocious. We fortify ourselves with the coziest dinner ever – thick local stew and dark home-brewed beer at La Cervecería, a warm cocoon of rustic wood benches and tables crammed together in one snug little room.

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Our trek day dawns gray and foggy, as predicted, and we pile on warm and waterproof layers for the hike.

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My spirits are already sinking, but we try to stay upbeat and optimistic as we walk, first through gently rising lenga forests, then past ice-cold streams and glacier tongues, and on up to the barren flanks that house two base camps for real climbers.

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The closer we get to the lagoon, the denser the fog becomes and the more heavily the rain falls. We are now fully draped in rain ponchos, our hoods and hats and headbands underneath deadening the senses. Our pants are drenched; there is no sheltered place to stop and eat, and our legs and lungs are burning as we near the apex of our climb.

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We stumble over slick rocks, seeing nothing but our own boots and the back of our guide. He suddenly halts and points ahead. We are on the shores of the lagoon, a murky pool of dull liquid, topped with a gloomy mist so thick it hovers mere inches from the surface. Behind the lagoon and the damnable vapor lies the best view of Fitz Roy in the world, but it is not for us to see today.

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I am not a good sport about this. I have tears in my eyes and sulky words for my family and the guide, who is cranky himself at our insistence on completing the hike. We yank our lunches from our backpacks, eat soggy sandwiches in disagreeable silence, straining for a tiny gap in the murk that never appears, before turning helplessly downhill for the five-hour trek back to El Chaltén. It is the most disappointing day of my travel life, and even my strapping son collapses in exhaustion and frustration at the end of the day.

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Like many disappointments, however, the day allows us to focus on smaller scenes of beauty, like the delicate calafate berry below, and serves as motivation to go back to this enigmatic mountain and charming frontier town at the bottom of the world someday.

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When Superlatives Don’t Suffice

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A spur-of-the-moment decision landed me this very morning in a landscape unlike any other I’ve visited. Fresh off a long-distance move and caring for a sick mother and dog, I had no travel plans in sight, but my one itchy foot just would not be scratched and, last-minute, I booked a trip to a place out of time – literally and figuratively.

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Like Nepal, Onfoonapfoda has a 45-minute time zone, but instead of being 5:45 ahead of GMT, it is 3:45 behind, making my destination in the lower mid-Atlantic Ocean a mere 15 minutes ahead of my departure city in the eastern U.S. Once I figured out my connecting flight times (no mean feat!), I was here, feeling fresh and ready to explore.

My first stop was the capital city, also called Onfoonapfoda, but shortened by natives to Onfoona. Like Reykjavik, this tiny town is a colorful collection of small buildings, but here they are an eclectic mix of Nordic, French, and Portuguese influences, the result of a patchwork colonial past. Imagine boxy, metal-roofed structures, brightly painted, in small squares reminiscent of the Place des Vosges, all nestled up against the sea.

Close to the equator, Onfoonapfoda’s flora also makes for a jarring juxtaposition with the cold middle-of-the-Atlantic air and the surprising elevation. Snow-capped peaks rise up from fields of rice and palms; meanwhile, the sun shines brightly even as winds from the Antarctic continent buffet the low-slung buildings and dune grasses on the shore.

Mere miles away, volcanic fumaroles steam amid waving grasses and rolling hills (see initial panoramic photo above), and lenga forests, typically endemic only to the southern hemisphere, flourish here, along with the beautiful calafate berry.

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Small tropical birds flit above buffalo crossing the perennially-foggy main island road, and ostriches (presumably brought by sea from the western tip of South Africa) herky-jerk through deep canyons, stopping only when they reach the sun-warmed hoodoos inland.

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Meanwhile, offshore, there are giant floating icebergs of a supernatural blue hue, which I will not have time to view by boat.

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I have much more wandering to do and little time to take in the magnificent array of landscapes here. My flight leaves just after midnight tonight (0:15 am to be exact), so I’ll be off now to do it justice. Hope your *first day of April* is as exhilarating as mine!

*Adding a little notation here on April 2 to draw your attention to the day I took this “trip.” Happy April Fools’ Day! A few of you guessed, but many wanted to go to this magical little island! Photos are from Iceland, Argentina, Nicaragua, France, the American West and Southwest, Mount Everest, Uruguay, and South Africa.

Perito Moreno

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Surely the date function on my camera had malfunctioned. Last week I read about the collapse of a famous ice arch at the Perito Moreno glacier in Argentina, a place we had visited back in … I thought 2014, but apparently 2012! A review of my travel documents convinced me that yes, it has been over three years since our wide-ranging trip to Argentina and Uruguay and, to date, I have written very little about that journey.

Why not begin with the glacier in the news and our trek there? Almost two weeks ago, on March 10, an ice bridge on the glacier collapsed for the first time in four years. Enormous chunks of ice fell into Lake Argentino, producing huge waves and a thunderous blast. The passage forms and collapses every three to four years, with the most recent rupture before this being in March, 2012, which must explain the shallowness of the arch when we saw it in December of that year. By the time it collapsed this time, the ice bridge was 250 meters wide and 70 meters tall.

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Our excursion to the glacier was an active one. First, we traveled by boat across the lake, from which the massive front wall of the Perito Moreno glacier is visible. From afar, it looks like most other glaciers (ho hum),

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but up close the scale is mind-boggling. The face is riddled with deep fissures, jagged points stretch up like veiny fingers, and the entire mass groans and creaks as if it’s alive. In fact, it is alive; scientists believe Perito Moreno is one of only a few Patagonian glaciers that are growing, and nearly all glaciers are constantly moving.

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We were lucky to see and hear several large chunks calving from the face while we were there; I can only imagine the boom when the bridge finally ruptured.

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Once on shore near the edge of the glacier, we walked a short distance to the ice itself, where we donned our crampons for a hike on the frozen surface.

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For several hours, we trekked this otherworldly landscape – white, as expected, but also every shade of blue, gray and even black. We jumped over thin rivulets of water and avoided plunging into larger lagoons in the ice.

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Gullies and crevasses crisscrossed the route, and the going was more up and down than I had expected. Ascending was exhilarating – it felt like mountain climbing in miniature – but descending was a little scary until we got the hang of the crampons.

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In addition to the trek, there are also large viewing platforms and walkways for those who don’t want to see the glacier from atop. This structure affords the best view of the ice dam and bridge and provides another perspective on the size and shape of this massive and impressive glacier.

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Until this outing, I never saw the appeal of glaciers; they were dirty and boring, I thought, but Perito Moreno was both a marvel and an adventure – a highlight of our time in Los Glaciares National Park in Argentinian Patagonia.

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