Thursday, 1 September 2016

Georgia - 4 days in Svaneti.

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Hiking in Georgia is one of the easiest things to do if you find yourself living in the country. So after living here for a month me and my girlfriend have done that many times. This time we decided to go alone together to beautiful Svaneti. It is possibly the most famous and touristic part for hiking in Georgia but that didn't stop us from enjoying it fully, here is our experience hiking in this area for 4 days.

Day 1 started with hitchhiking from Tbilisi to Mestia, now this distance is only about 350 km but still it will take you all day because of the single lane traffic most of the way and the mountain road especially taking quite a while. Hitchhiking in Georgia is a very common way to travel if you do not have the luxury of owning a car and you want to save some money on transport, it is very easy and you usually find yourself getting a ride within 5 minutes. We started by taking a bus (0,50 lari) to Tbilisi Mall and hitchhiking from there. As we expected it didn't take long for a car to stop. He took us to Kutaisi, about a third of the way already. He also picked up another guy who was Georgian, this was good as he could do some talking to the driver to entertain him as our Georgian is limited to hello and thank you.

After another ride from a friendly man from Turkey we got picked up by a minivan going straight to Mestia, quite lucky for us since we heard it would get hard to find a ride all the way to Mestia as it is a tourist destination in the mountains. After we arrived we thought Mestia looked quite nice and decided to eat some dinner there. After dinner we camped about 1 km outside of Mestia on the way to our next destination.

Day 2 was the first real day of hiking, our destination was Zhabeshi, a small town at the end of another valley near Mestia. the walk was abut 15km. A very nice walk with many wood paths and some nice views of the surrounding valleys, and bigger mountains still far away. Arriving in Zhabeshi it didn't really look like what we imagined, it was quite poor (even for Georgian standards) and we felt lucky to sleep in our tents and not a "guesthouse" in this village.

Day 3 was a shorter day, only 10 km, to a village called Adishi, this was a day with a couple of nice views but it was probably my least favourite day because it involved some road walking on a ski resort area, which my Pyrenean walks tought me to hate with a passion. Anyway, the upside was the village looked a lot nicer and we even stopped there to have a cold drink. After moving on a little bit we camped close to a stream where we were joined by some horses and piggies.

Town of Ipari, from our campsite

The next day we said goodbye to the pigs and kept walking, our next target was the town of Iprari. Before we could go there we were warned about a river crossing that would be too dangerous to do by foot. Rather then installing a simple bridge the locals choose a different approach, they had 2 guys with horses waiting and ready to charge you 10 Lari to cross a 5 meter stream. We decided we could do without the horses, hiked further up the stream and crossed were the water was more calm. Happy to save some money we said goodbye to the horseriders, who gave us the evil eye for not using their service, and kept going. This day was really nice with a full view of the awesome Adishi glacier. All day was filled with nice views, and this really motivated us. We arrived in Iprari early so we decided to keep going for a little bit, even thinking about walking to Ushguli all the way since it was just a simple road walk. Before we could finish the thought a car stopped and asked us if we are going to Ushguli, we said yes, and he said "hop in". They had just come from a funeral but that didn't stop the driver from driving fast and playing loud dance music.... oh Georgians.

Adishi glacier

That night we camped on some hill in Ushguli, the night brought a massive storm which nearly ripped our tent apart. But luckily it stopped and we where ok. The next morning we walked to the center of town to figure out a way to get back to Mestia. We didn't see any cars passing, so hitchhiking would take a long time probably. Also the parked minivans going to Mestia where quite limited, we saw only 1. Going closer we finally saw the was the same guy who picked us up for free yesterday. I guess he knows the tourists very well, because now he was charging 30 Lari to go back to Mestia, knowing we would be going back that way. We payed for the ride to Mestia thinking we had saved enough money by hitchhiking the rest. After some time we decided to hitchhike from Mestia to Batumi, a very modern city in the south and on the coast of the black sea, to relax for a day.

So that's it, our trip in beautiful Svaneti. The hiking route we choose is very easy and accessible should you want to do the same. This is a very easy route also, not having to worry about snow hiking or steep rock cliffs at all. overall we would recommend it, it is a very nice hike and you will meet many other hikers there.

Friday, 31 October 2014

Greenland I

This is part 1 of 3 of my trip to Greenland. There is a pre post trip you can also read.

The plane I took landed in Narsarsuaq on the 3rd of July and so my most planned trip ever began! I say most planned, it was however still not very well planned... since I had already forgotten about 1 thing, the boat ride to the starting point of the trip, but I soon found someone who could help me with that. As I was trying to stuff 15 days of food into my already heavy pack, I looked around at other people from the plane and tried to figure out if they where as crazy as me. I saw one guy pack a jar of Nutella and I immediately knew I was not alone.

It turned out he was going solo mountain climbing in a bunch of different places, when I proudly showed him my plan he asked me "Aren't you worried about polar bears?", to which I replied "Aren't you?".... After exchanging some more information about the surrounding area it was time for me to head off.

After the boat ride to the starting point I saw the boat go away and realised that was the start of two weeks of almost no contact with other people. But I liked the idea, it was part of the reason I picked Greenland as a destination. I wanted to know how I would cope with being alone for more than a few days. Since I hadn't gotten any sleep traveling I expected to be pretty tired, but I wasn't so I set of on up the first valley.

Despite the pack weight of 9 million tons (okay, more like 25 kg) I made good progress and was really enjoying the view. The map I used was an old soviet army map from the 1980's. Most of the towns on the map didn't exist anymore and the map scale was really small (1: 250 000), so I soon decided it would be better to just identify larger mountains in the distance and sort of aim for those in stead of trying to follow the contours of the map. This made navigation pretty easy after a while.

After a scary first ever packraft ride on the outflow of the Jespersen glacier I found a flat spot and put up my tent.

The second day started very cloudy, and according to Willem's report* it would also bring lots of bushwhacking. I maanged to avoid the bushwhacking by taking a little detour around a nice like. I spend this day mainly rafting across a few lakes and hiking between them. I also went swimming in one of the lakes which was really nice.

(*So in the previous post I mentioned my planned route is basically the same as Willem's (Belgian packrafter) route he did in 2013, this is mainly because it's the only way to get to Nanortalik. He had also published a very detailed trip report on his blog. Before the trip I decided to print it out as it might be a handy reference point. So if I mention Willem's report you now know what I mean by that.)

The next day the weather improved. I crossed a dammed lake and was suprised to see some buildings. There was some sort of hydro-power plant next to the dam so I assumed there would be people living there. When I went down I indeed saw some people. They also spotted me and by the time I reached their house a big family of 7 people was waiting for me. They didn't say anything at first, so I made the first move asking if any of them spoke english. They surpirsed me in that almost all of them did. They invited me in for coffee. What happened next was very weird... I walked in the house, and inside I see a huge tv, now even though it didn't fit the picture of Greenlandic live I had in my head it's not the weirdest thing ever... The weird thing what was on the tv at the time. It was the soccer World Cup, Holland vs Costa Rica. You must understand that for Holland it's basically the biggest sporting event for us. I had already accepted that I would not be able to see the rest of the world cup when I left, so this was totally unexpected.

So there I was, in Greenland, watching a soccer match with the nicest Greenlandic family ever. Marius (the farm owner) told me he was one of 3 potato farmers in all of South Greenland. He grows 30 tons of it every year, that's even more then my pack weight! They invited me to stay for dinner and spend the night, which I of course accepted. After dinner we had a little repeat of the world cup match outside on a field, this time Greenland won.

Greenlandic people seem to be obsessed with polar bears. Everyone I meet either asks me if I'm worried about them or tells me their own polar bear encounter story. Marius told me his son had to shoot one in 2013, when it came all the way to their home in late April. He said the stomach of the bear was almost empty, so it must have been very hungry to go this far away from the ice. His son showed me the tattoo he got for the occasion, which I thought was a pretty legitimate reason for getting a tattoo.

The next 2 days where mainly hiking because the wind was to strong for rafting. Also the mosquitoes where quite bad and the ground was very wet and soggy.... So to keep things interesting lets skip that and move on to day 6.

Day 6 was a big day, Willem's report was going on and on about how it was the most dangerous and unprepared section. By now I had already made up my mind that Willem has quite a neck for dramatic writing and not all is at it seems (no offence to Willem, it's a very nice write up still!). A couple of hours into the hike it does get quite steep but nothing spectacular until.... I slip and fall a couple of meters down and a rock follows me and lands on my ankle. At first it hurt a lot and there was a lot of blood, so I was really worried that it would be the end of my trip. I did however notice it wasn't broken, so I waited an hour to see what it would do before pushing my SOS button.
An hour later and it was still very painfull but I knew I could at least cary on. I did however have to turn around, there was no way I could continue to climb today. It took me 4 hours to go back down and when I got the foot of the fjord I had to make a decision. Either go back all the way to Marius's farm or keep going to Nanortalik by packraft, hoping the ankle would get better. On the map it said there was a town 2 days away, where I could maybe rest my leg for a while. If this town even still exists.... I decide to make camp along the shore of the fjord. The next day the ankle feels much better, (still can't hike on it though) so I decide to keep going towards Nanortalik!

Luckily I was able to raft for the entire day and hopefully end up in the town called Sletten. The weather was bad and windy which made progress very slow, and without a save place to go on shore I even had to hide in a cave for a little while when the tide came in. After a scary couple of hours in the cave (there was a jellyfish to keep me company though) the weather calmed and I finally made my way to Sletten.

To my great relief I found out it was not abandoned and soon found an English speaking person named Apa. He said I was the first "tourist" to come here in 2 years so he happily showed me around and introduced me to some other locals. One drunk guy took me on a ride on a quad bike and showed me some viking ruins nearby the village, the ruins where almost as impressive as this guys drunk driving skills (do not drink and drive unless you own the only vehicle of the entire vilage and there are no roads). Later that night they invited me to a party which was really awesome.

Apa playing Greenlandic tunes
More in part 2

Thursday, 19 June 2014

Alps 2014

I did a nice section of the Alp Haute Route at the end of may of 2014. It was partly to preper for a bigger trip (to Greenland) but mostly because I just had some extra time available and it seemed like a great trail to experience. It was quite early season, and there where almost no other people at all on the trail, which gave for an unforgettable experience.

I will upload pictures and write a little piece about this once I have the chance.

Sunday, 27 April 2014

Greenland pre-trip post

There have been a lot of requests for a blog post about my plans for this year so here goes! This year I'm going to Greenland. It will be a solo hike and packraft trip. I'll get to the packraft bit later (I didn't know what it was either until a little while ago), but first let's talk about the location.

On the 2nd of July I will be free from cubical life once again. I will take a train to Amsterdam, proceed to fly to Copenhagen and spend the night there and on the next morning fly to one of the larger towns in Greenland named Narsarsuaq which is in the southern part of Greenland. The plan is to head south and go towards pretty much the most southern point of Greenland. The route will mainly be based on a route from a Belgium guy named Willem who has done the same trip (see his blog here). The difference being my route will probably be a bit longer and there will be more high altitude climbing in the second part of the trip.

Here's an overview of the path (credits go to Willem, I simply edited his posted route), the red and blue lines are from Willem's trip, the orange parts are my additions. I will probably change it a little bit more in the future, and these are definitely only guidelines. The weather plays a big factor in these regions so I might not have the time to do all of it.

There is a small town in the middle named Tasiassuq. I will send a food drop there beforehand, 13 days worth of food. This place will be considered the half way point. I will start off this trip with 14 days worth of food. The total hiking days will be 25/26 ish. So there are 2 extra days worth of food I will carry just to be save.

The blue lines are parts that will be packrafted. Now this is something new for me entirely. Packrafting is basically the "light weight" option to carry your own inflatable raft with you for crossing fjords/streams and rivers. I have never done this, but on a trip in the Alps last year I met someone who did a lot of it and the way he was talking about it, it sounded really awesome. So after I found this route I was sure of it. The only issue is that packrafts are not cheap, the one I want to buy will set me back 1000 euro's easily (included all the gear), and the worst part is it will add about 4 kilo's to my pack weight which is already going to be very high because of the 14 days of food I have to carry. But nonetheless I want to try it anyway.

I'm finally able to afford the good stuff! 26 meals for 26 days.
I still have some things I need to do. The biggest of which being finding the correct way to send food to half way point (source online tell me it's difficult with customs and all this weird food), and buying and testing a packraft, which I will be doing next week. Other then that I already have most of the gear I need, I will be uploading a gear list when I have the time to make one, but I am aiming for a base weight of around 11 kg's (including packraft stuff, not including food/fuel/water).

There is a little bit of risk involved in this trip. It's going to be tough terrain and I will have to make sure I don't get lost since it's a very desolate place and there are no trails. The maps are not very good, some of them are from the Soviet military from 40 years ago. Also there are mosquito's everywhere. But I think the most difficult part about the trip will be that there are no other people in between towns...none at all. Being without human contact will be very difficult for me I think, but I am also very curious to see how it will affect me. I don't know why I do these things...

After 25 days I will arrive in Nanortalik and get to fly in a helicopter (secretly this is like 50% of the reason I'm doing this whole trip) back to the starting point and I'll have a day to relax before heading back home.

Monday, 7 October 2013

GR20, late season treat!

See all pictures here:

During my hike in the Pyrenees a friend told me about the GR20 trail in Corsica (an Island of the coast of Italy and France). It was supposed to be one of the toughest trails of Europe. In September I was home and fully recovered from the HRP hike I had done earlier. In fact I already got a job to save up money again over the winter. It was after I got confirmation that I got the job that I had 2 weeks of free time on my hands, In a flash I remembered the GR20. Within 24 hours I basically booked my flight and was at the start of another long trail. The GR20 is a 180 km trail that crosses the mountain chain that is on top of Corsica. The guide I had bought said it was easily doable in 16 days (16 stages at least). Since I had 11 days of hiking I would have to do it a little bit faster but I wasn't worried, since I still had my trail legs from the previous summer.

The plan was to take a train to Amsterdam, then fly to the capitol of Corsica (Ajaccio) and take a train to Bastia and find a hotel there so I could get going early the following morning. It was a very long day of waiting; 6 hours in Amsterdam Airport, 5 hours in Paris airport, followed by the announcement that the plane was delayed...damnit! so I missed the last train to Bastia, which meant I had to take the morning train in stead. Nevertheless after taking the morning train and a short hitch from Bastia to the starting point I was ready to go!

Church at the starting point

Since this was late September all the huts where unstaffed. They remained partly open, and you could use the gas and water they had. This turned out to be a very welcomed surprise. I was able to leave my cooking gear behind and just take a pot with me. It was very quite on the trail, I met about 5 people or so every day for the first week. They all seemed to have plans to hike in the summertime but where somehow delayed. I was baffled by this because this seemed to be the best time to hike it in my opinion. It was still warm, and the snow was gone, and the huts are still open and you don't have to pay for them.

There was an interesting section called the Cirque de la solitude which seemed to frighten everyone. It's basically a dip between two peeks with very steep climbs and descents and no way down except going back up to one of the 2 peeks. I didn't think it was to bad although I did have one close call at the beginning of the guide cables section. I forgot to take my gloves off and it was raining so it the guide cables where very slippery and I nearly fell, but after that wake up call I was very careful and didn't experience any problems. 

Guide cables at Cirque de la solitude
The first week there was a lot of fog and some days I didn't see anything at all! The GR20 is basically divided into 2 parts, the north and the south (I was going from the north to the south) and in the middle is a village (Vizzavona) where you can take a train to a bigger town to get food and stuff. One day before I got to Vizzavona I stayed at a very busy hut. There where about 15 hikers there when I got there. This was the most people I had seen together at one spot on the entire GR20. It was also pouring with rain outside and very cold so I could understand why everyone was there. There where some friendly Dutch guys there I could talk to. I had also been hiking on and of with a guy from Norway who was very friendly.
Some time later a man dressed in full cammo gear and carrying a backpack with a really big gun attached to it entered the shelter. He said something in French and went back outside. Someone translated for me that there where 17 soldiers headed this way and they needed a place to stay since they didn't have tents. Apparently they where from the French military and it's a tradition to hike the GR20 at least once if you join the service. As a result every single square inch of the 12 man shelter was used to sleep about 40 people...

The next day was really windy, me and the other dutch guys figured it must have been at least a 10 on the beaufort scale. After I got to Vizzavona I took the train to Ajaccio and stayed there for the night. The next day I looked at the forecast and saw that it was finally clearing up. The next week I would have sunshine all the way to the end, awesome!

Beautiful landscape on the north part

The last part of the trail was really really nice, the mountains where not very high or spectacular but the forest surrounding it was really nice and the autumn colour scheme was an added bonus.

During the last 5 days of the hike I had pretty much teamed up with 3 other guys. 1 guy from Norway who I mentioned before named Peter, another from Canada named Ben and another from Estonia who had some interesting stories, he was an ultra runner who had done a lot of races all across the globe.

Shelter life

There was a certain relaxedness about this trip that I didn't have on other trips, and I think it was because it was out of season. Everyone who showed up during this time frame pretty much all had the same mindset of being able to not worry about making it to the next shelter in time or before the rain. I really liked it. This was a pretty small trip, I only did 9 days of hiking, so the finish point didn't feel that special to me. It was only Ben who kind of saw it as a victory, and credit to him he did seem to have it pretty hard a couple of days before the end but he pulled through at the end and finished the same day as me and the others.

After the finish point
Final hitch
After the finish point I actually had 1 day left which I really didn't expect. Anyway I went with the guy from Estonia to the coast to find a beach and a hotel which was open (very hard to do out of season!). We ended up at a resort paying a third of the normal price for an insanely luxurious stay including an all you can eat buffet and breakfast, wohoo! After a swim in the same ocean I finished my previous HRP hike in, I headed once again for Ajaccio to fly home. This trip was exactly what I needed to finish a fantastic hiking year. Here's to 2013, and let's keep on walking in 2014!

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

GR 54 - Grenoble

After I had finished the HRP I decided it would be fun to hitchhike back to Holland. After a cooling down period of 7 days in Barcelona (which was near the endpoint of the HRP, so why not right?), I headed towards home.

As luck would have it I found someone who was going towards Grenoble pretty soon. It was a bit out of the way but I figured I might as well go since I've never been there. The guy who drove me told me all about what kind of city it was and it seemed like a nice place to stay for a day or 2. One thing led to another and I decided to stay in Grenoble for an extra day and look for hiking routes in the area.

I soon found out about the GR 54. A circle route going around one of the big 4000 meter high mountain areas which the Alps is known for. It was the "massif des Écrins".

The route was fairly easy going, and a little bit to much roadwalking for my taste, but quite nice nevertheless. It took me about 7 days. The temperature was quite hot which made it a little hard, but luckily there where plenty of villages along the way with water springs. I also saw a bunch of people riding on donkey's on the trail, which was surprising.

All together a nice trail, but I don't think I will be back to this region soon.

I will upload pics soon!

Monday, 16 September 2013

HRP 2013, Post trip report (PART 3)

Pictures from my HRP trip: Picassa link

The walk from Gavarnie to Salardu was the most intense (and rewarding) section so far. And according to the book the next section would be much of the same, so I was excited. Salardu was a very nice place with a public pool and rarest of all in the Pyrenees: an actual library, I was really happy to contact some people and upload some pictures of my trip so far. As we did after each section we took a rest day in Salardu. For food there was a bigger town further down the valley just a 20 minute bus ride away (again, Joosten doesn't mention this in his book, the main reason being he hates everything but rocks and trees). We would also have to carry food for 9 days, which was annoying but I guess if your gonna carry extra weight it might as well be food!

After Salardu we would be entering Andorra. In the book it was described as quite a desolate place with few markers, but we found quite the opposite. Where before Andorra we did not see a lot of people because of the unusual snow height for this time of year, in Andorra we saw quite a few group hikers, and with the newly added paint flashes we had no trouble finding the right way. The scenery was also nothing like the book had described... it was much much better. It was unbelievable, It was the first time I could sort of relate to the author of the book because you do kind of look around and think why do we need all these towns and buildings when you have mountains like this?! The trail was also very nice, and because of the recent (2008 I think) re painting of the trail we had no difficulties finding our way.

After 8 days of carrying food and not eating any hot meals I was really looking forward to the next town. After a descent which seem to take very very long we finally arrived in a little place just outside the border of Andorra called L'Hospitalet-près-l'Andorre. It had a hostel, 1 restaurant, 1 small shop and a train station, which made it a popular starting point for hikers and cyclers. When we limped into town we immediately went straight for the restaurant, where they promptly informed us that they where out of bread....what?
And since it was siesta time we had to wait 3 hours for everything else to open. Since eating my hiker food I had left was not an option (I refuse to eat hiker food in town, it's just....wrong) I decided to try and find some WIFI in stead. After a long wait the hostel finally opened and we where greeted by a very nice lady who even knew some German. She made us a very nice meal and took us in a car to a large town that had several big grocery stores. We did not feel like taking a rest day in this town since there was....nothing of interest, so the next day we loaded up on food and headed out for the final section, an 8 day hike through the Catalonian mountains.


The last week we hiked for a couple of days with a very interesting man from England, named Martin. He has hiked all over the world and was incredibly fit for his age. He seemed to be able to keep up with my downhill running mode forever, which is crazy considering he's 63 I believe.
There where two big climb left in this last section, one was called Pic Carlit. And it's apparently very famous in Catalonia. We decided to camp right below the final 1 hour climb so we could be the first ones up there in the morning.

View of Pic Carlit, from where we set up camp.
The next day we did indeed arrive first on the summit. It was an incredible experience, very calm and relaxing after an intense climb. From the top we looked at the other side of the mountain to see if we could see any hikers, we knew this was a popular mountain and a lot of people climb from that side of the mountain and go back. We did see some hikers, and then some more...and then a whole lot more. We could see at least 30 hikers in our first view alone! The first guy we met going up (when we where going down) looked very annoyed, I think he wanted to be the first one to the top haha. After that I started counting... to the base of the climb (which was like 5km) I counted well over 200 people. It was like the camino all over again. 1 good thing did come out of it, since it was such a tourist trap there where some restaurants at the bottom of the valley. After some beers we went on and away from the madness.

The next couple of days where filled with anxiety about finishing this incredible journey. Each day took us closer to the end and gave us the familiar mixed emotions of sadness and happiness about an ending adventure.

Only 8 hours to go!

We ended up hiking our last day with a bunch of other people congratulating us on the accomplishment. We where so exited we didn't care about the heat and lack of water. I think we took one 15 minute break the entire day. We also hiked 8 hours of trail in only 4 hours. The ending was kind of surreal, the transition between mountain life and basically beach party town life was very rapid. Nevertheless we had done it, 41 days, including 6 rest days, of hiking through the most beautiful landscape I've seen thus far.

The end...

After a dive in the ocean and a good night sleep it was time to say goodbye to my good friend Uli. He shared a big part of my adventure, and we've been through the best and worst of it together. He was headed north to see some cities in france while I decided to hitchhike to Barcelona to find a proper beach to lay on for a couple of days.

And so ends another adventure. This was one of more danger than I had thought, the snow scared me at first but after I learned to "trust" it more, it became a helping hand. The locals where very interesting people you won't find in a lot of places, they seem to truly get the mountain lifestyle. I met a lot of people, some of which I will never forget. I feel like I've learned a lot on this trip. Most of all the landscape was just unbelievable, It's good to know that such beauty exists somewhere.