Uncornered Market » hiking http://uncorneredmarket.com travel wide, live deep Mon, 20 Oct 2014 14:21:30 +0000 en-US hourly 1 How to Pack For A Trek: The Ultimate Trekking Packing Listhttp://uncorneredmarket.com/how-to-pack-for-a-trek/ http://uncorneredmarket.com/how-to-pack-for-a-trek/#comments Thu, 27 Feb 2014 16:25:11 +0000 http://www.uncorneredmarket.com/?p=14432 By Audrey Scott

How should I pack for a trek? What should I pack for a multi-day hike? What is too much? And what is too little? How am I going to carry it all? Which gear and trekking supplies should I buy in advance and which can I buy on the ground? After receiving numerous emails, queries […]

The post How to Pack For A Trek: The Ultimate Trekking Packing List appeared first on Uncornered Market.

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By Audrey Scott


Packing List Trek

How should I pack for a trek? What should I pack for a multi-day hike? What is too much? And what is too little? How am I going to carry it all? Which gear and trekking supplies should I buy in advance and which can I buy on the ground?

After receiving numerous emails, queries and comments asking about trekking gear and how to pack for treks, especially when the trek is incorporated into a longer trip, we decided to assemble our packing advice for treks, short and long.

By way of background, during the first six years of our journey we carried all that we needed in our backpacks so as to be prepared for just about any kind of climate or activity, from beach to glacier. In retrospect, we made some silly decisions in those early days. As a result, we schlepped a few bits we never used. But through experience and experimentation and after about a dozen multi-day treks across all continents, we got smart not only as to what gear to carry with us, but also what to buy locally or rent.

And we figured out how to do all this while on a budget.

We’ve created two pieces of content for you. The first is below and includes thorough explanations of what to bring and why. We realize it’s extensive. That’s why we’ve also created a simple one-page downloadable trekking packing checklist to help make your next packing experience smooth and easy.

Packing Checklist Trek

Note: The following advice applies mainly to multi-day treks where your sleeping and eating arrangements are taking care of already (think guest houses, lodges, huts, tea houses, or home stays). If you are camping, then you’ll need to add food, camping, and cooking gear to everything below.

Skip ahead:

Trekking Packing Myths

1. You must purchase the latest and greatest trekking gear.

It’s true that some trekking clothing technology is especially useful for lightness, wind-resistance, waterproofing and wicking (GoreTex, fleece, Polartec, etc., come to mind). However, we suggest focusing on the trekking basics: clothing that is comfortable, breathable, light, easily layered. You’re not climbing to the peak of Mount Everest here. (If you are, that’s for a future article.) For a little perspective, watching locals breeze by you in flip-flops might make all your pre-purchased fancy gear seem a little unnecessary.

So there’s no need to overspend. Go for good quality, but resist the shiny bleeding-edge trekking toys. I know it’s hard. Outdoor stores are dangerous shopping vortexes for us, too.

2. You need to bring EVERYTHING with you.

For every trek we’ve undertaken, there’s been ample opportunity to rent or buy gear to supplement our trekking kit. For example, it’s just not practical for us to carry around bulky waterproof pants in our backpacks when we only need them a tiny fraction of the time. Same goes for walking sticks and sleeping bags. Do your research and find out what is available on the ground and at what cost. Ask the tour company you’re going with or reach out to other independent travelers who’ve experienced the same trek. When you land on the ground, shop around for the best price.

Audrey with Kilimanjaro Glaciers - Mt. Kilimanjaro, Tanzania
Decked out in rented trekking gear on the top of Mount Kilimanjaro.

Before climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, we’d traveled through Bali, Malaysia, Bangladesh, Jordan and Thailand — all from the same gear in our backpacks throughout. So it was more than worth the $65 I spent in Moshi, Tanzania to rent a sleeping bag, waterproof pants, waterproof jacket, walking stick, gaiters and more to get me to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro. Dan even rented hiking shoes for $15 which offered a little more ankle support and stability than the ones he’d been wearing. When we departed for our safari just after the Kilimanjaro trek I could just drop all that stuff off at the trekking shop and continue with my regular light backpack.

3. Real treks require camping.

This is all subjective. It’s true that camping and carrying all your own gear may give you a greater sense of independence and accomplishment and allow you to dive deeper into nature. However, we take issue with the assertion that camping equals a better trekking experience. In fact, some of our most memorable treks (e.g., Annapurna Circuit, Markha Valley Trek, Svaneti, Kalaw to Inle Lake in Burma, etc.) have been memorable precisely because of the local culture and human interaction dimensions surrounding our accommodation and food arrangements.

It’s the combined experience of nature and people (and the human nature that responds to the surrounding environment) that we find truly soul nourishing.

Packing for Your Trek: First Principles

1. It’s all about the layers.

This is true in all types of travel, long-term and short, but especially for trekking into high altitudes. Temperatures can very drastically during the course of a day. I always prefer to have an extra layer in my bag than to go cold.

Dan at Ganda La  Pass - Markha Valley Trek, Ladakh
Layers. The key to preparing for a freak Himalayan blizzard in June.

Even if the days are warm at low altitude, nights may still be chilly. On summit days you’ll often need to pile on everything you have to get to the top, only to peel it off layer by layer as you descend.

2. Rest and sleeping clothes.

I learned this from the folks at Erratic Rock in Puerto Natales near Torres del Paine National Park in Chile. They called the yucky, stinky clothes you’ll find yourself wearing every day until the very end your uniform. In light of this — and even if you are going minimalist — try to include an extra set of night clothes to change into at the end of the day. These clothes will be dry (quite important if you’ve hit snow or rain that day), comfortable and relatively clean. I usually pack an extra t-shirt, pajama pants and socks. I’ll further layer other clothes on top to stay warm at night. Regardless, the layer closest to my skin is dry and relatively fresh.

Oh, the little joys while on the trekking trail.

This technique also gives your wet and stinky clothes a chance to dry and air out overnight. The next morning you can slip back into your trekking clothes — yes, your uniform — and you’ll be ready to go.

3. Never skimp on sun protection.

As you advance higher in elevation, the sun becomes scary strong. So even if you tan beautifully on the beach without any sunscreen, be sure to pack ample and strong sunscreen. Carry a hat that will protect your face from the sun (think rollable foldable sun or jungle hat — we don’t need to look pretty while trekking). Trekking with sunburn — head, face or hands — is miserable. And if your sunburn is bad enough, you’ll almost feel flu-like. Not good for peak performance.

Also be sure to have sunglasses with quality lenses that protect your eyes. Otherwise, they too will become burned and sore.

Trekking gear: Bags and Clothes to bring on a multi-day trek

Backpacks and Bags

Small backpack: You’ll be carrying all your stuff on your back up and down mountain passes so the size, fit and comfort of your pack is important. Aim to carry a pack that is big enough to hold the essentials, yet not too big that it will weigh you down. The size will depend on how many days your trek is and whether or not you will camp. Don’t forget to bring a rain cover to protect your backpack in storms.

We’ve often repurposed our Crumpler laptop bag and rented backpacks from trekking agencies. They usually did the trick, but they were not always entirely appropriate and thus kind to our back and shoulders. This may be something you want to invest in before your trek.

Trekking in Ladakh with Crumpler - Markha Valley Trek
Repurposing our Crumpler laptop backpack for the Himalayas.

Camera bag: If you’re carrying a DSLR camera and multiple lenses consider packing a separate camera bag to protect your gear and to allow you easy access to it. We use a camera bag with a waist belt that allows the bag’s weight to rest on the hips rather than on the shoulders. We can still wear a backpack or daypack on top.

Dry Sack: You never know when it’s going to rain or snow, so prepare for the worst — particularly if you have gear that must remain dry. We carry a dry sack with us in order to protect our gear against freak storms or inadvertent submersions while fording rivers.

Dan Takes in the Mountain View - Annapurna Circuit, Nepal
Dry sack to protect camera and electronics against rain.

Trekking Clothes, Jackets and Shoes

Clothes: For a seven day trek we each carry one pair of trekking pants, thermal underwear (top/bottom), 3 t-shirts, 1 long-sleeved travel/trekking shirt, pajama/sleeping pants, underwear (what you’re comfortable with), 3 pairs of socks. I love my silk long johns as they are warm, comfy and take up almost no room at all.

If you are going on a shorter trek then you can cut back, but if your trek is longer you can still carry the same amount of clothes or even less. You’ll just need to “recycle” them more or find a way to wash them along the way. By recycle, I mean turn things inside-out, air them out, wash them. Whatever the best mechanism you have available to give it longer life and whatever your tolerance level might be. The most important thing is not whether you stink (there’s a good chance you just might), but that you are dry and comfortable.

As mentioned above, my approach is to carry and maintain separate trekking and sleeping (or relaxing at night) clothes.

Outerwear (jackets and waterproof pants): I always prefer to have the option to remove layers than to not have enough to put on when I’m beginning to chill as I head over a mountain pass or through a storm.

For jackets, we each usually bring a fleece jacket, thin windbreaker and waterproof outer jacket. We usually borrow or rent waterproof pants (and sometimes jackets) from a local trekking agency.

Hiking Shoes: Shoes may be the most important thing you bring with you so if you invest in one thing in advance, invest in a solid comfortable pair of hiking shoes. And break them in. Your shoes can literally make or break a trip. Ask in advance whether you need mid- or high-cut hiking shoes for ankle support as this may influence your purchasing decision. We don’t find ourselves often needing high-cut boots. However, if your ankles are weak or susceptible to turns and sprains, more support is better than less.

We wore Vasque Scree Low Ultradry Hiking Shoes for over a year and really like them not only because they are supremely comfortable shoes, but also because they are waterproof and quick drying (which we tested hopping across and into streams on our Markha Valley Trek in Ladakh). Vasque stopped making these shoes for women last year so I’m now using the Mantra GTX Hiking Shoes.

Flip flops or river shoes: At the end of a long day of walking you may want to take off your hiking shoes and give your feet a rest. But you’ll still need something on your feet to go to and from the outhouse or nearest bush. That’s where flip flops or river shoes worn with socks (yes, ignore the fashion police) are perfect. Outside of these situations, you may find river sandals either useful or required for crossing or fording rivers. Depending on the bottom surface of the river and the depth, we’ve also just managed in bare feet or with our waterproof hiking boots, given some time to dry.

Other Trekking Gear

Headlamp: Lights the way and keeps your hands free. If you’re staying with families in guest houses or home stays, you may find they are without electricity at night or in the bathroom/outhouse, a most unfortunate place to trip in the dark. If you’re camping, headlamps are of course absolutely essential.

Quick-Drying Travel Towel: Always good to start and end your day by washing your hands and face. Don’t expect hot showers on treks, nor running water of any kind. But on a few occasions we’ve been able to get a couple of bucket baths that were really, really nice.

Silk sleep sack: Arguably non-essential, but nice to have. Whether staying in home stays with provided bedding or sleeping in a rented sleeping bag, you sometimes wonder when the last time anything was properly laundered. And you may also wonder about bed bugs and other critters. That’s where a sleep sack with a pillow wrap comes in to provide a clean layer between you and everything else. Prophylactic!

Note: We do not carry a sleeping bag with us. If we need one for a trek or camping, we rent one locally.

Reusable water bottle: We carry a reusable liter water bottle on us and refill along the way. A CamelBak type water bladder in the backpack also works really well. Even if the trek has bottled water to sell, resist the urge to buy bottled water, as plastic bottle waste is an enormous problem at elevation and in villages around the world.

Water Purification: Some treks will provide you with clean, boiled water as part of the service (e.g., Kilimanjaro, Markha Valley). Sometimes there will be a program of UV (ultraviolet) purified or pass-filter cleaned water services in villages where you can refill your bottle with clean water for a small fee. Hop on it, maybe even pay a little extra. It’s worth it to you, the village, and the environment.

On other treks it’s up to you to somehow purify or clean the water you source from mountain streams or village taps. We suggest carrying a combination of a SteriPEN and sterilization tablets or drops. The SteriPEN uses ultraviolet (UV) light and technology to purify the water which does not affect the taste. The sterilization tablets or drops may make the water taste a little funny, but it won’t make you sick. We find water sterilization drops to be a little easier to abide and stomach than sterilization pills.

Sunscreen, hat and sunglasses: Bring the highest SPF sunscreen you can find and wear a hat at all times. The sun’s rays are exceptionally powerful at altitude and you’ll find yourself especially exposed when there isn’t a cloud in the sky.

Moisturizing skin cream and lip balm (with SPF): Creams and moisturizers may sound extraneous, but they can make a difference. Many mountain treks involve high desert where you will not only be exposed to lots of sun, but also arid conditions. Your skin and lips will dry and crack to discomfort if you don’t keep them moist. Treat them nicely: moisturize! And be sure to carry only a tiny lightweight container, not the original 32 oz. tube!

Walking stick: Highly recommended on most treks, especially for downhill sections. If you don’t bring a walking stick with you, then keep your eye out for a tree branch or limb that can be carved for the purpose. Two walking sticks or one, you ask? We’ll rent or purchase a set and share the set between the two of us so each of us uses one stick.

Snacks: Even if your meals are provided to you on a trek, it’s sometimes nice to have a little something to nibble on between stops. We usually bring a small stash combination of Snickers bars, granola/power bars, a jar of peanut butter and crackers. You’ll want a little bit of both salty and sweet foods.

Peanut Butter, Snack of Champions - Mt. Kilimanjaro, Tanzania
Peanut butter. Helped us up Mount Kilimanjaro.

Hand sanitation gel and soap: One of the best ways to avoid becoming ill: wash your hands thoroughly and often. If you feel a little obsessive compulsive with the hand cleaning, that’s a good thing.

Toilet paper: One roll, used sparingly. Better to be self-sufficient here. No explanation needed.

Medicines: You may be miles or days away from any doctor so be sure to have some basic medicines with you in case you (or others) fall ill. On our treks, we’ve picked up sinus infections and helped others who have picked up the wrong kind of gut bacteria. Having the basics with us allowed us to deal with medical issues immediately and to keep going.

We recommend packing: band-aids, aspirin/Tylenol, Cipro (or other stomach antibiotic), Amoxicillin (or other basic antibiotic to treat sinus infections), rehydration packets, anti-flu powder (a packet that dissolves in water that breaks fevers may work better than a pill if someone has been throwing up), and duct tape (magic in preventing and managing blisters). For a full list of travel medicines and how to use them, check out these travel health tips.

Note: You can easily stock up on medicines at pharmacies in many developing countries. Basic medicines such as the ones listed here and in the article above will likely be astonishingly cheap and will often not require a prescription.

Earplugs: A good night’s sleep on the trekking trail is supremely important for your condition. And although you may be sleeping in the middle of nowhere, there are still noises from roosters, howler monkeys, birds, lions, and not least other trekkers that will all conspire to keep you up. That’s where earplugs come to the rescue and help shut it all down to silence.

Batteries, memory cards: It’s usually better to assume that you won’t find electricity along your trekking route. If you do, consider it gravy. Be sure to ask your trekking guide or agency, or other route-experienced travelers (either in forums or once you are on the ground). Ask them all once, then again for good measure. Bring extra memory cards for your camera so you have ample space to snap away or record video.

This means you should try to bring extra batteries for your camera, headlamp, and anything else that’s battery-powered. If you’re carrying your smartphone with you consider bringing an extra battery pack and putting your phone on Airplane Mode to preserve battery life. If there’s electricity along your trek and you’d like to recharge, by all means bring rechargers. We do. But it’s just something else to pack — and something you must prioritize when the final bag stuff begins just prior to setting off.

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What did we miss? What are your go-to items for trekking?

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If you want all of the above in a nifty 1-page PDF checklist, then click below.

Packing Checklist Trek

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Ladakh Trekking: A Beginner’s Guidehttp://uncorneredmarket.com/ladakh-trekking-beginners-guide/ http://uncorneredmarket.com/ladakh-trekking-beginners-guide/#comments Thu, 30 Jan 2014 15:06:06 +0000 http://www.uncorneredmarket.com/?p=14411 By Audrey Scott

Every year we try to go on a big trek, one that takes us far far away and high into the mountains. For us, it’s not only a way to exercise our bodies, but to clear and challenge our minds. It’s a way to disconnect from all that is part of our daily life — […]

The post Ladakh Trekking: A Beginner’s Guide appeared first on Uncornered Market.

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By Audrey Scott

Prayer Flags and Mountain Views Greet us at the Top of Gongmaru La Pass - Ladakh, India
Prayer flags at the top of Kongmaru La pass (5130 meters/16,800 feet). Markha Valley Trek, Ladakh

Every year we try to go on a big trek, one that takes us far far away and high into the mountains. For us, it’s not only a way to exercise our bodies, but to clear and challenge our minds. It’s a way to disconnect from all that is part of our daily life — technology, social media, blogging — and reconnect with nature and ourselves.

Last year’s trek of the Markha Valley in Ladakh in India’s high Himalayas was one of our favorite treks of all time. We had dangerously high expectations, having dreamed of this region for over a decade. Fortunately, what we found in Ladakh and on our trek far exceeded what we had imagined, not only in terms of the stunning landscape but also the Ladakhi people.

Having fielded numerous questions about trekking in Ladakh — which trek to choose, how to find a trekking agency, when to go, how to get there, and more — we’ve created this Ladakh Trekking Beginner’s Guide. We hope it encourages you to make the long journey to Ladakh overland from jumping off points like Srinigar, Kashmir. You won’t be sorry.

Dan and Audrey Begin Markha Valley Trek - Zingchan, Ladakh
Ready to hit the trails. Day 1, Minute 1 of our Markha Valley Trek.

Short attention span warning: This is a long post. The reason: it contains all we wished we’d found when we researched our own trip to Ladakh. Although we bought the Lonely Planet chapter on Ladakh, we found it lacking in many of the details and practicalities we needed. Here is my attempt to put together all you need to know to choose, organize and then enjoy a trek in Ladakh. If questions remain, let us know!

If you’d like to skip ahead:

Choosing a trek in Ladakh

There are loads of trekking choices in Ladakh. Your choice will depend on the amount of time you have, how remote you’d like to go, and the difficultly level you seek. Some of the more remote treks require special permits as they may go into sensitive border areas, but trekking agencies can easily take care of this for you within a day or two.

Hankar Village and Mountain Views - Ladakh, India
Room with a view from Hankar village along the Markha Valley Trek.

There are endless variations of treks you can take in Ladakh, with many taking you to remote areas and can go up to three weeks. You can find a full list of Ladakh trekking options here.

Some of the more popular treks in Ladakh include:

  • Markha Valley Trek (6-7 days): This is the one that we chose because it combined hiking and landscapes with people and culture by incorporating homestays with families in villages along the way. For us, this combination is ideal and resulted in a trekking experience that exceeded our expectations. The Markha Valley Trek is also the most popular Ladakh trek and we’re told it can get crowded in the high season (July and August). If you travel to Ladakh during high season, take this into consideration and perhaps choose a less popular trek to avoid crowded trails and home accommodations.
  • Hidden Valleys of Ladakh, Zanskar Range (5-6 days, but can be extended): This trek takes you into the Zanskar range and through small villages throughout the valley area. Camping gear is required as it’s not possible to do homestays for the entire trek.
  • Nubra Valley (2-3 days): This trip doesn’t include as much trekking, but features more of a ride, trek and camel ride experience. We’ve heard it’s quite beautiful so it might be a good add-on if you have extra days in the area.
  • Kharnak trek (15 days): Begins like the Markha Valley trek but continues further south for another week. A Ladakhi trekking guide told us this is one of his favorite treks.
  • Rumtse to Tsomoriri (7-8 days): This was another favorite trek from a guide we spoke to because of the beauty of the lakes and the joy of interaction with shepherds along the way. This trek is on the short list for when we return.

To trek independently or with a guide?

Some treks require a guide due to the difficulty of the trail or local regulations. Other routes like the Markha Valley Trek can be done independently (e.g., without a guide) because the trail is pretty well marked and there are villages to stay in throughout the way. You then have the decision of whether to go on your own or hire a guide. Factors include: budget, your trekking experience, skill at reading trekking maps, and weather. Let’s examine these.

Although our Markha Valley trek could have been done without a guide, we were thankful to have one. Having a local guide provided us with the peace of mind that we were always on the right path (as some of you may remember, we have a history of getting lost in mountains). As luck would have it, we crossed our first Markha Valley trek mountain pass in the middle of a snow storm. Without our guide, we never would have found the correct approach. Two guys trekking independently with us said they would have turned back that day if it weren’t for our guide to help them find the path. Word to the wise: It pays to hitch a ride with Dan and Audrey…if they have a guide!

Our local guide also provided local context and culture (e.g., Ladakhi Buddhist) to the experience. We asked him many questions about his life growing up in a remote village in Ladakh and the changes he’d seen in his short lifetime. He served as an interpreter, providing us the flexibility to have conversations with families we stayed with or ask questions of people we’d met along the way.

Ladakhi Women, Mother and Daughter - Markha Valley Trek, Ladakh
Friendly mother and daughter running a tea house where we ate lunch.

So while trekking Ladakh independently may save you some money and perhaps allow you a little more flexibility, our experience proved to us beyond a doubt that the benefits of having a guide in this region far outweighs the costs.

Ladakh Accommodation and Sleeping Options: Camping or Homestay?

Some treks will give you the option of either camping or homestays (staying with Ladakhi families in villages). Here are the advantages and disadvantages of both.

Camping: The primary advantage of camping (if you are going with an agency) is that it includes a horse to carry your bags so you don’t have to haul your stuff on your back up to 5,000+ meters and back down again. Another bonus: you can sometimes camp closer to passes, making for easier ascents. A perhaps obvious disadvantage of camping: sleeping in a tent when it’s rainy and cold or blowing snow can be unpleasant. In addition, this option is usually more expensive as you’ll need your own cook and horse guide in addition to your trekking guide.

Homestays: If the trek you choose offers the option of homestays, we suggest taking it. Staying with Ladakhi families in villages throughout our Markha Valley trek was absolutely one of the highlights and delights of the experience. The people, culture and tradition ground you. Food (see below) is also a fun facet. Not to mention, homestays are typically less expensive than camping.

Grandfather Takes Care of Baby - Skyu, Ladakh
Proud grandfather in our homestay in Skyu.

What to expect in a Ladakhi homestay:

  • Home-cooked meals: All food is vegetarian, which is better and safer for the digestive system, particularly at altitude. Alert the trekking agency, your guide and host families in advance if you have any food allergies. Dinner is often quite hearty and is either a traditional Tibetan/Ladakhi meal like momos (Tibetan dumplings) or temo (twisted bread dumplings) with daal (lentils) or greens from the garden. All our dinners were made freshly for us and were very tasty. Breakfast, a little less remarkable, usually consists of Indian flat bread (chapatis) with butter and jelly, while lunch is some sort of bread with packaged sliced cheese, hard boiled egg and some snacks.
  • Sleeping area: Sleeping in homestays usually consists of mattresses on the ground with lots of blankets piled on top. If you’re trekking in the high season you might need to share your room with other trekkers. For us, we had our own room most nights. Take a sleep sack with you. Sheets looked pretty clean, but it was unclear when the last time blankets were cleaned.
  • Toilets: Expect bleak. Outhouses or compost toilets are usually attached to the house or just outside. They do the trick, but don’t expect any luxury here. Bring a headlamp so you don’t, um, accidentally slip and fall.
  • Common room: Some of the best memories at the homestays come from hanging around drinking tea around the traditional stove in the big common room. The bedroom is for sleeping, but this common room is where you should spend most of your time during a homestay.
Fisheye View Inside Ladakhi House - Yurutse, Ladakh
Traditional Ladakhi house with a big common room and stove.

What to look for in a Ladakhi trekking agency and guide.

Book a tour in advance or on the ground?

We did not make any bookings or inquiries for treks before arriving in Leh. We figured that we would use the two to three days acclimatizing in Leh (absolutely required if you plan to enjoy your trek) to research all our options and book our trek. Since we traveled in shoulder season, this provided plenty of time to make our arrangements.

If you decide to travel during high season (July-August), you may not have the same flexibility. Consider sending a few email inquiries in advance to be certain that agencies are not already at capacity with their guides and tours.

Choosing a trekking agency in Leh

You will see trekking agents everywhere in Leh. Many of them will have signs outside advertising their treks, as well as notices if they are looking for more people to fill treks with specific departure dates. The idea here is that the more people who trek together and share a guide, the lower the per-person cost should be. We originally hoped to join one of these treks, but the timing didn’t work out with our schedule.

Lake Reflections of Kang Yaze Peak - Markha Valley Trek, Ladakh
Lunch break with a view of Kang Yaze Peak. Markha Valley Trek, Day 5.

We walked around Leh for an afternoon visiting various agencies asking questions about trek options, costs, departure dates and flexibility to add on stops. Most of the trekking agencies gave us a similar price range so our decision was made based on the feeling we got from the agency (e.g., did the agency feel like a middleman or were they actually responsible for their own guides and tours), their patience, and their flexibility to accommodate special requests.

We chose Ecological Footprint in the end because we liked how the owner, Stanzin, explained all our options and was flexible to work with us to create a trek that met our needs, not just one that fit into a prepackaged box. In addition, Stanzin is Ladakhi and knoww the community well. All the tours he operates use local people and aim to invest back into the communities. So while the tour was slightly more expensive than what some of the other tour agencies were offering, we felt that the price was worth it for the quality of the experience. We believed that our money was well spent.

We can also highly recommend our guide from Ecological Footprint, Dorjee Tondup. He is young but wise beyond his years (21 at the time of our trek) and dispenses bits of perspective and peace everywhere he goes. His respectful approach to local people opened doors for us everywhere. His approach to everyone he met served as a lesson for life. He guides on all the major Ladakh trekking routes.

Our Ladakhi Trekking Guide, Markha Valley Trek - Ladakh, India
Our guide, Dorjee, enjoying a moment along the Markha Valley Trek.

Choosing a guide

Although you may or may not have the option to choose a specific Ladakh trekking guide, we offer a few questions and suggestions to help you find a good match.

1) Ask to meet the guide before you leave on your trek.

This is something we usually do before any trek to give us peace of mind that we’ll get along well with our guide. We’ve never had to change guides, but if you do think that the guide assigned to you will be problematic then ask for a change. Remember, it’s a long journey. It will be particularly long if you must spend it with someone who rubs you the wrong way. Not to mention, you’ll want someone you feel comfortable with and trust in the case that weather or health turn south. We know this firsthand because a guide from another agency who trekked alongside us in Ladakh annoyed absolutely everyone, including his own client. We spent energy trying to avoid him.

2) Ask for a Ladakhi guide.

During high season in Ladakh, demand for guides is high and so people come from all over India to guide for the summer. We don’t want to discriminate, but we feel that you’ll have a better experience with someone who is a Ladakhi guide because of the knowledge of local culture and language. Our trekking companions had an Indian guide, and while he knew the mountain trails, he didn’t know the families running the homestays or the Ladakhi language and culture.

3) Explain any special needs to the guide.

This goes for medical needs, as well as any other idiosyncrasies you might have. For example, we take a lot of photos so we stop a lot on the trail and slow things down. Alerting the guide in advance of this behavior lets the guide know not to worry when it takes us a while to go from point A to B. He can adjust his pace accordingly. One of the women trekking at the same time as us had back issues, so her guide would often carry one of her bags for her when her back ached. The idea: help your guide help you.

Estimated Costs for Markha Valley Trek (2013 Trekking Season)

Our total costs for our Markha Valley Trek (6 nights/7 days) including a guide, accommodation (homestay), food and transport to/from the trek was 13,000 rupees ($220) per person in 2013 (have heard that this has gone up to 17,000/person in 2014 with inflation and higher homestay prices). This also included a stop at Hemis Monastery on the way back to Leh. (Not all trekking agencies offer this, so ask about it. We really enjoyed the additional stop on the return and recommend it.)

Novice Buddhist Monks at Hemis Monastery, Ladakh
Why it’s worth stopping at Hemis Monastery on the return to Leh.

This was slightly cheaper than some of the other trekking agencies who had a standard fee of 2,000 rupees ($34) per person per day. A few places offered bare bone prices at 1,600 rupees per person per day. Understand that you typically get what you pay for.

Homestay costs on Markha Valley Trek:

If you do decide to do the Markha Valley Trek independently, find out in Leh what the official rate is for homestays that year. The official rate is a standard amount set every year by the homestay association so that the families all charge the same amount and don’t try to underbid each other (thereby causing tensions in the community). During the 2013 trekking season, the standard homestay rate was 500 rupees ($9) per night per person. This included dinner, breakfast and a packed lunch. Update: The 2014 homestay rate is 800 rupees per night and 1,200 rupees for the tent at Nimiling.

When to Trek in Ladakh?

The trekking season in Ladakh really begins to take off early-to-mid June and runs until September. The high season is July and August with August being the busiest month. Rains usually start late August to September. If you can time it, we recommend going early in the shoulder season in June. Note that weather is always the wild card, however.

Chortens in Skyu - Day 2 of Markha Valley Trek, Ladakh
Chortens in the village of Skyu, Day 2 of the Markha Valley Trek.

Our trek was mid-June and there was hardly anyone (6 people) along our entire Markha Valley route. This meant that the homestays were not crowded and there were no traffic jams on the paths. We experienced a surprise snowstorm on our second morning at the first pass, but that just added to the excitement and meant that all the mountains around us sported a beautiful covering of snow.

Acclimatization in Leh before Trekking

No matter which trek you choose, be sure to spend at least two days acclimatizing in Leh (or wherever the setting off point of your Ladakh trek happens to be). Take a walk through the old town up to Leh Palace and Namgyal Tsemo Gompa. This helps get the blood pumping and the legs moving. It also gives you some experience climbing hills at altitude.

Leh Palace and Namgyal Tsemo Gompa - Ladakh, India
Good acclimatization walk in Leh = climbing up to Namgyan Tsemo Gompa on the right.

If you are susceptible to altitude sickness, consider taking even more time to acclimatize in Leh. Your hike will be more enjoyable and successful for it.

Food recommendations in Leh:

Summer Harvest: Best momos in town. We feel confident in this statement as we sampled momos in four different restaurants and kitchens in town. Be sure to ask for the homemade hot sauce. We never ventured beyond momos (they were that good), but other dishes emerging from the kitchen looked tasty as well.

Best Momos in Leh at Summer Harvest Restaurant - Ladakh, India
Fried momos from Summer Harvest Restaurant in Leh, Ladakh.

German bakeries: Don’t ask me why, but Leh is bursting with German bakeries. They don’t all have their own ovens, so it seems like they get their baked goods from a central German bakery source. If you’re craving a cinnamon roll or some quasi European pastries, stop by one of these and enjoy with a chai. Quality is mixed, but when you consider how remote you are, you’ll be grateful.

Lassi guy: In the alleyway just to the right of the mosque on Leh Bazaar is a tiny place with this friendly guy making and selling yogurt and paneer (Indian cheese). For a few rupees he’ll create a fresh sweet or salty lassi for you and invite you in to enjoy a seat while he explains how he makes it all. Highly recommended.

The lassi man of old town Leh. His secret sits in the blue bowl: freshly made yogurt every AM. #phenomenalassi #Ladakh
Making Lassi in Leh.

Transport: How to get to Ladakh

Unless you have your own set of wheels (or wings) there are three main routes to get to and from Ladakh.

By Bus to Leh:

Srinigar to Leh: You have the option to take a two-day “Super Deluxe” bus (overnight in Kargil) or a 12-hour shared ride in a private jeep (with 6 other passengers). Both leave from the same area in Srinagar. Please note that the roads are only open for a short period each year, usually from May – September.

We flew from Mumbai to Srinagar and then took the bus up to Leh and a shared jeep for the return leg to Srinagar. If you have more time, consider taking the train from wherever you are in India to Jammu and pepper in a few strategic visits and stops along the way to Srinagar.

Our Super Deluxe Bus from Srinagar to Leh - India
Taking the “Super Deluxe” bus from Kashmir to Ladakh.

There are, of course, advantages and disadvantages to the bus and jeep. While the bus ride from Srinagar to Leh is long and not particularly comfortable, you are able to take a lot of photos out the window, as the pace is glacial, snail-like for much of the way. It’s also an experience to travel with locals (e.g., Buddhist monks hopping on and off) and fellow adventurous travelers. Suggestion: try not to focus on the missing guardrails along the way. A dose of fatalism may also help.

Cost: Bus tickets = 1,050 R/person. Jeep price depends on your negotiation skills, but usually costs between 1,500-1,800Rs/person.

Manali to Leh: This route from the south also features the option of a 2-day bus trip vs. 16-20 hours in a shared jeep. We didn’t take this route so can’t speak to it firsthand, but we met several people who did. The roads seem to be in worse shape than the Srinagar route, but you go over four large mountain passes which are supposed to be stunning. If you’re coming from Delhi, this is the more direct route. The roads are usually open for a few months of the year, again from June – September.

By Plane to Ladakh

Flying into Leh is certainly more expedient, but you’ll miss the beauty and adventure of the roads. The views from the skies in the mountains are supposed to pretty spectacular, however. Be sure to leave buffer days in your travel schedule if you fly as flights are frequently canceled due to bad weather.

Most planes fly from either Delhi or Srinagar. Try to book your tickets early as prices go up very quickly.

—-
Note: Originally we were going to put our trekking packing list here, but as this article was already rather long we decided to publish it in a separate post. Here is the Ultimate Trekking Packing List with all the details on what to bring with you on a Ladakh (or any other) multi-day trek!

Still have questions about Ladakh and trekking there? Ask away in the comments below!

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Markha Valley Trek, Ladakh: Hiking Through Canyons [360-Degree Panorama]http://uncorneredmarket.com/markha-valley-trek-canyon-ladakh-panorama/ http://uncorneredmarket.com/markha-valley-trek-canyon-ladakh-panorama/#comments Wed, 28 Aug 2013 09:05:52 +0000 http://www.uncorneredmarket.com/?p=13598 By Audrey Scott

First day of our Markha Valley trek. We weren’t quite certain what to expect for the remaining six days of trekking through the Himalayas, but we were sure the following day would be steep and uphill, to 4,950 meters/16,200 feet. So on our first day on the trail we were relieved to find relative flatness, […]

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By Audrey Scott

First day of our Markha Valley trek. We weren’t quite certain what to expect for the remaining six days of trekking through the Himalayas, but we were sure the following day would be steep and uphill, to 4,950 meters/16,200 feet. So on our first day on the trail we were relieved to find relative flatness, to lose ourselves in the red rocks of the canyon around us and to look off into the distance of the climb that awaited us.

Open the panorama to full screen to join us on that first day of our Markha Valley trek.

Panorama: Day 1 of Markha Valley Trek in Ladakh, Hiking Through Canyons

panorama directions

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Next Up: New Zealand, When I Close My Eyeshttp://uncorneredmarket.com/new-zealand-when-i-close-my-eyes/ http://uncorneredmarket.com/new-zealand-when-i-close-my-eyes/#comments Wed, 23 Jan 2013 14:54:16 +0000 http://www.uncorneredmarket.com/?p=12725 By Audrey Scott

This is a story about faraway places and our relationship to the somewheres we dream of visiting. It’s also about the fact that we fly to New Zealand next Monday. Some places on our planet seem to lend themselves to the imagination, that is to the image of the mind, to putting eyes closed and […]

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By Audrey Scott

New Zealand at it's Best!
This is a story about faraway places and our relationship to the somewheres we dream of visiting. It’s also about the fact that we fly to New Zealand next Monday.

Some places on our planet seem to lend themselves to the imagination, that is to the image of the mind, to putting eyes closed and attempting to place yourself somewhere you’ve never been. Think about it: there are endless beautiful places on Earth that evince all manner of beauty, but among them, there are a few special places whose reputation so precedes them.

One of those places: New Zealand.

Audrey and I explained this to a friend just as we’d firmed our flights into Auckland, “…but all we know about New Zealand: beautiful landscapes, sheep, Lord of the Rings, and the Maori,” I said. And in reality and fairness, we really don’t know all of that. Much of it is preconceived notion, expectations carved of fantasy.

Turns out our friend Ralph had lived in New Zealand for 18 years and added further “…like that, plus wine and yachting.” He laughed, and knowing what else we were after, suggested a few people to contact to get to the root of what and who New Zealand is. He finished with geo-contouring, “it’s like…Hawaii down there, Wyoming around the side, Scotland over there and Switzerland in the back.

And then there are the people, the Kiwis. Even the Scots, a patriotic group intensely proud of Scotland’s natural beauty and culture, urged us to visit New Zealand. As Craig, a rugby player decked out in a kilt at an Edinburgh pub, put it: “New Zealand. You have to visit. It’s beautiful like here, but the people are even nicer.”

A group of people even friendlier than the Scots? Now this I gotta’ experience.

But New Zealand is not just about sitting back to enjoy the beautiful scenery and friendly people; it’s also a place for action and context. It’s been a while since we tackled mountains. And it’s time we get back on track.
New Zealand Landscape

Crikey dick! We’re flying to New Zealand next Monday for a month!! We’re thrilled with the opportunity to discover just a bit of what New Zealand is all about, to move it from the imagined to the real.

Before too long we’ll be wearing our togs and jandals to the beach with a chilly box knowing that she’ll be right. (Did we get that right, Casey?)

So what will we be up to in New Zealand?

G Adventures has begun offering tours to New Zealand and Australia this year. And we’ll be on one of their first. Interested to see both the North and South Islands, we opted for the New Zealand Encompassed Tour and we’ll be flying across the globe (on the longest flight we’ve ever taken!!) with Air New Zealand.

New Zealand: North Island

Our New Zealand journey will begin in Auckland where we’ll kick off the first week exploring the North Island. We’ll snorkel and kayak in the Bay of Islands while sleeping on board a houseboat. From there we’ll head to Raglan where we hope to get up on a surf board after a few lessons. Surfing? Yes, a first for us. In Rotorua we’ll learn a bit about Maori culture (which, I’m embarrassed to say I know very little about except for the haka, the Maori war dance that the All Blacks perform every rugby game) by visiting a Maori village and enjoying a hangi, a Maori barbecue where the meat is cooked in the ground.

Then we launch into trekking with a hike of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing (including a peek at the Emerald Lakes), supposedly New Zealand’s best one-day hike.
the emerald lakes
From there we’ll continue on to Wellington, New Zealand’s capital city, for a taste of the urban.

New Zealand: South Island

After arriving by ferry from Wellington, we’re looking at some beach and hiking time at Abel Tasman National Park and Punakaiki. From there we’ll have a couple of days in Franz Josef for a glacier walk (of Franz Josef Glacier, of course) and a pop into the hot springs. Then comes three days in Queenstown, the adrenaline capital of the world.

Post-adrenaline overload in Queenstown – yes, we are thinking bungee jump — we’ll relax in Doubtful Sound with a bit of kayaking (so you’re laughing at relaxing by kayaking?). Then comes one of our favorite parts of any trip: wine tasting. How about that for balance — pump up the endorphins, then cut them with wine. We’ll spend a couple of days in Central Otago where we can bike the rail trail as we stop in wineries along the way. For us, the final stop of the tour will be in Kaikoura where we can hope to spot a whale or take the safer bet of swimming with seals.

An Extra Week on South Island – What to Do?

At the conclusion of our G Adventures tour, we’ll spend another week on our own on the South Island. At this moment, we are flexible and weighing various plans and options.

We’d love your help. What are your New Zealand favorites and suggestions? If you have recommendations on what we else we should do or whom we should meet or where we should eat, we’d love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below or drop us a line.

Although we may not get to everything, know that we read and factor all suggestions into our travel decision-making process. Chur bro! (How about that for some more Kiwi lingo?)

Follow along with our New Zealand adventure!

As we explore New Zealand’s outdoors, people, culture and wine, we’ll share what we find through photos, stories, updates and maybe a video or two. We will update our blog as often as we can, but we are realistic about time and connectivity constraints.

So, for real-time photos and updates of our New Zealand journey, be sure to check out our Facebook page and follow the #dna2nz and #gdaygway hashtag on Twitter and Instagram.

Postscript

You know New Zealand is magical. But then you go and it’s even more magical than you could have ever expected,” Ralph concluded.

When we set down in New Zealand, we will open our eyes. And we’ll no longer wonder what we’ll see.

—–

Disclosure: Our tour of New Zealand is provided by G Adventures in cooperation with its Wanderers in Residence program. Our flights are kindly sponsored by Air New Zealand. As always, the opinions expressed here are entirely our own.

If you plan to book this New Zealand tour or another tour with G Adventures, please consider starting the process by clicking on the ad below. The price stays the same to you and we earn a small commission. Thank you!


Photo credits to kayadams, LadyJaws, and magtravels.

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Panorama of the Week: Rainbows at Dawn — El Hoyo Volcano, Nicaraguahttp://uncorneredmarket.com/panorama-el-hoyo-volcano-nicaragua/ http://uncorneredmarket.com/panorama-el-hoyo-volcano-nicaragua/#comments Mon, 06 Jun 2011 12:00:18 +0000 http://www.uncorneredmarket.com/?p=8280 By Audrey Scott

While we’re not usually ones to wake up early, sometimes we’ve been rewarded for the effort when we have. Waking up to double rainbows while camping atop El Hoyo volcano in Nicaragua was one of those moments. The previous day’s trek to the top of the volcano was brutal at times, especially when Dan dragged […]

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By Audrey Scott

While we’re not usually ones to wake up early, sometimes we’ve been rewarded for the effort when we have. Waking up to double rainbows while camping atop El Hoyo volcano in Nicaragua was one of those moments.

The previous day’s trek to the top of the volcano was brutal at times, especially when Dan dragged me down Cerro Negro (volcano #1). Despite all the scrapes on my legs and aches in my muscles, I woke up energized by this sunrise view. Nature will do that to you.

Panorama: Sunrise Rainbows Atop El Hoyo Volcano, Nicaragua

panorama directions

If you do find yourself in Leon, Nicaragua, consider taking a trek with Quetzal Trekkers. They organize several volcano treks, including this one called El Hoyo. All the proceeds from the treks goes to helping street kids and we’ve found the dedication and passion of the volunteer guides hard to beat. A great experience all the way around.

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El Chalten, Argentina: A Beer, A Walk, A Patagonia Slideshowhttp://uncorneredmarket.com/el-chalten-argentina-beer-trek-patagonia-slideshow/ http://uncorneredmarket.com/el-chalten-argentina-beer-trek-patagonia-slideshow/#comments Tue, 22 Jun 2010 21:58:00 +0000 http://www.uncorneredmarket.com/?p=4123 By Daniel Noll

On the topic of trekking in Patagonia, the two names most bandied about: Chile’s Torres del Paine and Argentina’s El Chalten. Although their hunks of uplifted granite are similar enough, the prevailing style of hikes they offer are quite different. Whereas the “W” and Circuit treks at Torres del Paine are mainly about the long […]

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By Daniel Noll

On the topic of trekking in Patagonia, the two names most bandied about: Chile’s Torres del Paine and Argentina’s El Chalten.

Although their hunks of uplifted granite are similar enough, the prevailing style of hikes they offer are quite different.

Jagged Peaks - Cerro Torre, El Chalten, Argentina
Jagged peaks of Cerro Torre near El Chalten, Argentina.

Whereas the “W” and Circuit treks at Torres del Paine are mainly about the long haul, El Chalten’s strength: its day hikes.

On the edge of Argentina’s Glacier National Park (Parque Nacional Los Glaciares), El Chalten also offers the thrill of nature at a lower cost than its Chilean neighbor — with the added feature of a microbrewery on the way home from the hills.

In other words, two Patagonian trekking centers; two rather different experiences.

El Chalten and Landscape Fatigue

Like so many Argentine Patagonian towns, El Chalten sprouted out of the vastness in the mid 1980s. Although the impetus for its existence was a border dispute with the Chileans, it now exists as a trekking center almost solely to serve tourists. As such, you don’t come to El Chalten to immerse yourself in local history and indigenous culture — something already severely lacking throughout Patagonia. Rather, you come to El Chalten – nicknamed “The Trekking Capital of Argentina” – to trek.

Trekking Outside El Chalten, Argentina
Day hike outside El Chalten, Argentina.

In full disclosure, by the time we arrived in El Chalten we were experiencing a bit of landscape fatigue. We had just come off a trip to Antarctica, six days trekking around Torres del Paine, a look at Perito Moreno Glacier near El Calafate and a bevy of busrides across the vast, remote nothingness along Patagonia’s Route 40 (Ruta 40). In spite of that, El Chalten turned out to be a pleasant surprise and struck us as a trekking compromise for someone who wants a taste of big nature with some creature comforts and apres-hike treats like local microbrew tasting and handmade pasta sampling thrown in.

El Chalten Treks – The Long and Short of It

Because the snowcapped peaks, lakes and glaciers are within several hours of the town, it’s more than thinkable to sleep in, have a long breakfast, check your email, read a book, eat lunch — and then decide you want to get a bit of exercise and nature. Head out in early afternoon along the Laguna Capri or Laguna Torre paths for a half-day fix of exercise and shutterbugging.

For a longer walk after breakfast, tackle Laguna de Los Tres or Piedras Blancas a bit further afield. Don’t be scared off by the estimated walking times on the maps and trail paths; you will likely complete the walks well ahead of the estimates (always nice for one’s self confidence).

Audrey and Dan at El Chalten, Argentina
Hamming it up in El Chalten.

And for the hardcore trekkers out there, don’t fear. If you’re looking for more strenuous trekking or a camping experience, you can still don your backpacks and camping gear for one of the multi-day circuits around iconic Fitz Roy and Torre peaks.

Regardless of what you choose, one of the most refreshing aspects of El Chalten’s treks: the price. Unlike Torres del Paine, you can hike and camp in the park around El Chalten for free, without being nickeled and dimed by entry and campsite fees along the way.

And you’ll be happy for that since those nickels and dimes can go a good way towards a bock microbrew or two at El Bodegon Cerviceria on San Martin Street as you walk into town from a day of hiking in the National Park.

Slideshow from Argentine Patagonia: Ushuaia, Perito Moreno Glacier, El Chalten and Bariloche

If you don’t have a high speed internet connection or you would like to read the photo captions, check out the Argentine Patagonia photo essay.

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Torres del Paine Trek: 6 Days, 6 Lessons, Many Photoshttp://uncorneredmarket.com/torres-del-paine-trek-lessons-photos/ http://uncorneredmarket.com/torres-del-paine-trek-lessons-photos/#comments Sun, 02 May 2010 17:41:52 +0000 http://www.uncorneredmarket.com/?p=3854 By Audrey Scott

Most articles we read about Torres del Paine National Park in Chile focus on Patagonian meadows, turquoise lakes, and rose-tinted granite towers in sunrise. We’ll allow our photos to do that bit for us. Instead, we’ll take a different tack and share some of the lessons –- about yourself, your marriage (if you have one), […]

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By Audrey Scott

Most articles we read about Torres del Paine National Park in Chile focus on Patagonian meadows, turquoise lakes, and rose-tinted granite towers in sunrise.

We’ll allow our photos to do that bit for us.

Torres del Paine Reflections - Chile
Torres del Paine Reflections

Instead, we’ll take a different tack and share some of the lessons –- about yourself, your marriage (if you have one), Patagonia, expectations, life, and travel – you might learn from trekking in Torres del Paine.

Lesson 1: Indulge in Small Victories. They Are Good for Your Marriage.

On the first day of our trek, we teamed up with a group of other trekkers and began the 17.5 km (10.5 mi.) walk from the trail-head fully laden: enough food for 6 days, a tent, sleeping bags, copious layers and various camping and trekking bits and bobs.

“The extra weight for camping gear isn’t too bad,” I remarked to Dan halfway down the trail.

He glared back; turns out he was carrying the tent and the bulk of the food. As easy as this opening terrain was, this was the first of our trekking days. Our energy was high, but we were out-of-shape and stiff and we needed to be broken in.

Turquoise Lake Pehoe - Torres del Paine, Chile
Turquoise Lake Pehoe – Torres del Paine National Park, Chile

By the time we arrived at our first camp, Paine Grande, we melted across the wooden benches in measured avoidance of our first test: put up the tent.

Praise to the gods of all religions large and small that the shop that rented us our tent insisted that we assemble it before we left the store. Fortunately, there was no candid camera to capture that those moments of suspended fruitlessness. I think we were there for 30 minutes, maybe 45. And we had to go inside to consult the prepared tent twice to figure out where all the sticks and stabilizers belonged.

But such preparation paid off. When time came to assemble the tent for real at our first camp, it took maybe five or ten minutes.

Our Tent at Paine Grande Refugio - Torres del Paine, Chile
Victory with our tent!!

But something nagged. The rain and wind cover didn’t really look right and flapped in the wind.

Ah, so what. The tent is up.

In a merge of simple pleasures and life’s small victories, we stood back in the glow of our assembled tent and watched the sun set on a nearly perfect day.

Lesson 2: Wind Blows

No winds howl, rush and change direction like those that blow through Patagonia.

Nature's Harshness - Torres del Paine, Chile
Windswept Vistas at Torres del Paine National Park, Chile

What was supposed to be a quick 3.5-hour trek up to Gray Glacier on the following day turned into an exhausting five-hour haul in the face of howling Mother Nature. At the exposed mountain pass viewpoints, winds were powerful enough — easily in excess of 70 miles per hour — to knock us to the ground, packs on.

When you are forced to grab random strangers and defensively fall into picker bushes, you know you are in trouble. In these conditions, a 100-yard walk took about 45 minutes; it was exhausting.

Lesson 3: Take estimated hiking times on trail maps with a grain of salt.

After clearing the hellish and windy pass, Gray Glacier — our day’s destination — lay ahead, visible.

It can’t be much longer,” we muttered to each other in hopes that repetition of this phrase might make it reality.

Hamming it Up at Gray Glacier - Torres del Paine National Park, Chile
Finally arrived at Gray Glacier.

Ah, the mantra of the Torres del Paine trekker facing a map with grossly underestimated hiking times and a fully laden backpack.

We are convinced: the people who documented the Torres del Paine trekking maps never actually trekked Torres del Paine. The national park staff calculated hiking times assuming perfect weather, wind at the back, no packs and an average speed of Israeli trekkers straight from military service in full sprint.

Hiking Torres del Paine National Park - Chile
A beautiful day for trekking, Torres del Paine National Park.

Lesson 4: Much like life, trekking is a continuous exercise in expectation management. Your satisfaction may be aided if you expect the worst, for you reduce the risk of being disappointed.

We dreaded the return from Gray Glacier through the previous day’s wind tunnel. We braced ourselves for the worst and battened down our backpack hatches, but the weather had changed for the better and our return from Gray Glacier was pleasantly uneventful, save a rainbow or two.

Condor and a Rainbow - Torres del Paine, Chile
Condor flies into the rainbow.

That evening at Italiano campsite, we joined the other trekkers and sought refuge from the cold in a cooking shelter leanto. The night’s menu, an array of packaged foods: soup, pasta, rice, mashed potatoes. It didn’t appear hopeful on the culinary front.

But expectations be damned — camping cuisine reached new heights that evening. Collin, our fellow trekker, fashioned a new culinary masterpiece in ultimate comfort food: instant mashed potatoes blended with beef soup mix.

Surprisingly delicious.

Lesson 5: There’s freedom in the truth, even if it happens to be delivered by a guy in white sweatpants who says in the next breath, “Is it OK if I wear jeans hiking so long as they are not too tight?”

As the wind and cold drizzle drove us to huddle in the cooking shelter on that third night, Assaf, one of the least experienced but perhaps most astute Israeli trekkers, observed, “Why do people do this to themselves? Look at them — they are all suffering.

We laughed so hard. While at first I thought he was joking, a cursory look around revealed the cold, dark, damp and challenging truth in his words.

Lesson 6: A day that begins with a swollen face and mouse turds can end well.

When I awoke on day four, my left eye was swollen shut from a bug bite and mouse turds were scattered around the tent. As I tried to imagine what transpired overnight, I wondered whether I’d have to quit the trek and find a hospital.

Fortunately, as breakfast unfolded (unfolded? we had oatmeal with dulce de leche every morning – a delicious combination, by the way), the swelling in my eyelid and face subsided.

Camping Comraderie at Los Cuernos - Torres del Paine National Park, Chile
Chatting over meals.

During breakfast, everyone’s gaze was diverted from me and each shared his story of mouse frustration from the night before.

“They ate a hole in my tent.”

“They ate through my backpack.”

“They ate half our food.”

“They pooped in my shoe.”

These mice were relentless. Cooking gas containers had teeth marks on them. Even the nature-loving Canadian park rangers couldn’t abide these bold rodents and were driven to crushing a mouse in their tent in the middle of the night.

After a hike up the French Valley that delivered a smorgasbord of both weather and views, our motivating force to continue: wine in a box, rumored to be available at Cuernos, our next campsite.

Fisheye View from Top of the French Valley - Torres del Paine, Chile
Fisheye View of the French Valley

That evening, Collin’s mashed potato masterpiece was outdone by Vlad’s onion, salami and cream sauce pasta that he shared with everyone. And never had boxed wine tasted so good.

Besides what nature has to offer, this what a social trekking experience is all about: eating, drinking, laughing, sharing. Each has his own pace during the day, but everyone meets together in the end to share in life’s many simple pleasures.

For many, seeing the sunrise over the torres, the towers for which the park is named, is the highlight of their trek.

Cooking Tea at Sunrise - Torres del Paine National Park, Chile
Sunrise at the Torres.

For us, the highlight was the beauty in the progression of nature and the camaraderie of other trekkers to enjoy it all.

——–

There’s no denying, Torres del Paine National Park is beautiful. Take a look at the photo slideshow below if you don’t believe me.

However, we are going to buck the trend (of travel blogging and more specifically of coverage of Torres del Paine) by offering the trek a measured “Thumbs up.” We had read so many reviews and recommendations of this as one of the top treks in the world, so we were expecting a lot. We believe it might be better considered “a nice trek” rather than a trip of a lifetime. Again, much in life goes refers back to lesson #4: expectations.

Photo Slideshow: Torres del Paine National Park

If you don’t have a high speed internet connection or you would like to read the photo captions, check out our Torres del Paine photo essay.

Practical Details: How to Trek Torres del Paine Independently

Puerto Natales in southern Chile is the common jumping off point for Torres del Paine treks. There are early morning (7:30 AM) or afternoon buses to the Torres del Paine National Park for around $24 round-trip. Entrance into the National Park costs $30.

Camping vs. Lodges: We belabored the decision because we didn’t have any camping gear, nor did we have much experience camping independently. For us, the cost of the lodges ($50-$80/night/person) was prohibitively expensive, and the flexibility that camping allowed moved us to rent camping gear (something we had never done before). We highly recommend camping the entire “W” trek as this avoids more backtracking and allows you to camp closer to the main sights. The cost of camping per night varies between free for a few of the public campsites to $8-$10/person at the private campsites.

“W” Trek vs. the Circuit: We decided to do the “W-plus” trek, meaning that we began at the Administration building, which means we added an extra day to the trek (i.e., 6 days total). We really enjoyed the first day and the panoramic views it provided, so we recommend it.

Our decision to trek the “W” rather than the circuit was initially based on time considerations. If we had more time, perhaps we would have chosen to trek the full circuit (8-10 days), which adds the back side of the park to the “W”. It also reduces backtracking. Even in retrospect, we were done with camping after about six days so we didn’t have any regrets about ending our trek when we did.

Renting Camping Gear: The ideal situation is to have your own gear. However, everything you need can easily be rented in Puerto Natales the day before your hike. Erratic Rock offers great, free information sessions daily at 3 PM that provide information about the route, the gear you need and what to pack. They also rent gear. This is where we rented all our camping and trekking gear (e.g., tent, mat, sleeping bag, cooking kit, waterproof pants, waterproof jacket). However, it’s not cheap (e.g., $25-$35/day). We recommend to rent sleeping bags from Erratic Rock since they are comfort rated to -10 C (do not skimp on the sleeping bag!) and rent the tent and other gear from other local joints with more favorable prices.

When to go on the Torres del Paine trek: The high season for the Torres del Paine trek is December to February. We did our trek in mid-late March shoulder season. The positive: the trail and campsites were less busy and the leaves were changing to shades of yellow and orange. The downside: the weather was perhaps a bit more erratic and cold. We usually enjoy trekking in the shoulder season (we did the same for the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal) so this worked for us.

Our route on the “W” plus trek: Day 1: Administrative Building to Paine Grande campsite; Day 2: Paine Grande to Gray Glacier; Day 3: Gray Glacier to Italiano campsite; Day 4: French Valley to Los Cuernos campsite; Day 5: Los Cuernos to Las Torres campsite; Day 6: Sunrise view of the torres and return down to catch a bus out of the park and back to Puerto Natales.

Where to eat in Puerto Natales: La Picada de Carlitos restaurant (corner of Blanco Encalada and Esmeralda streets) is a large place usually full of locals and travelers. The food isn’t particularly gourmet, but it is hearty, tasty substantial and relatively inexpensive. The crab-stuffed cannelloni ($8) was our favorite dish. And no, it wasn’t crab substitute; nor was it skimpy on the crab. The grilled salmon was also substantial and tasty. An ideal end to a long walk through the woods.

The post Torres del Paine Trek: 6 Days, 6 Lessons, Many Photos appeared first on Uncornered Market.

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How Kazakhstan Nearly Killed Ushttp://uncorneredmarket.com/kazakhstan-nearly-killed-us/ http://uncorneredmarket.com/kazakhstan-nearly-killed-us/#comments Wed, 12 Dec 2007 03:56:53 +0000 http://www.uncorneredmarket.com/?p=6486 By Audrey Scott

Barely recovering from self-inflicted death march from Kazakh mountains. Copter airlift looked likely. Rappelling down waterfall = escape. — Our Twitter update from Almaty, Kazakhstan on 3 September 2007 My, how things can go wrong. Our trusty Lonely Planet guidebook told us to “skirt Pik Bolshoy Almatinsky (Big Almaty Peak) and follow the river gorge […]

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By Audrey Scott

Barely recovering from self-inflicted death march from Kazakh mountains. Copter airlift looked likely. Rappelling down waterfall = escape.

— Our Twitter update from Almaty, Kazakhstan on 3 September 2007

My, how things can go wrong.

Dan Hiking in Tian Shan Mountains - Almaty, Kazakhstan
Dan just over the mountain pass. Here’s where things take a wrong turn.

Our trusty Lonely Planet guidebook told us to “skirt Pik Bolshoy Almatinsky (Big Almaty Peak) and follow the river gorge down to the ski resort of Alma Arasan.” When we came over the pass, we did that. Or, rather, we thought we did. Instead, what we committed to was a steep descent through a different – and highly unrecommended – giant boulder-filled river gorge.

It dawned on us rather early that we had chosen poorly.

Almost three hours into this downhill scramble, we hit a waterfall about 100 feet high. There was no way to climb down. Our phone had no signal, so calling for help wasn’t an option. Disheartened and beginning to fear the waning light and our dim circumstances, we tried to climb around the waterfall and over the next pass 1000 feet above us. Pulling ourselves up the hill by roots, branches, and bushes, our hearts sank again and again as we stopped to take stock of our position and another way out. We faced cliff edges everywhere we turned.

Several more attempts later, we found a descent covered with fallen leaves and greens. It was impossible to tell whether a cliff lurked under each patch of loose rocks and vegetation. We were forced to inch down, testing the ground beneath us with each step. Although steep, dangerous and rocky, we managed to climb down to the riverbed again, bypassing the waterfall.

As our legs turned to lead and our movements to jelly, we knew we were in trouble. There we were on a simple hike in the Tian Shan mountains with an as-the-crow-flies view of where we needed to be, Almaty. However, with each advance seemed to come another waterfall or rockslide that would eliminate another way out. We were desperately lost, and as night began to fall, we pushed on, losing sight of both the ground beneath us and the risk we were taking with each step.

Mission Impossible in the Tian Shan Mountains?

Lost in Tian Shan Mountains, Final Waterfall - Almaty, Kazakhstan
Our final feat: rappelling down this waterfall. (Yes, it’s as big as it looks.)

Another waterfall 50 feet high blocked our path. Cursing and on the verge of tears, we spied a rope leading from the top of the waterfall. We had no choice, so we each hurled ourselves over the side of the rock, held on to the rope, and did our best Mission Impossible imitation, rappelling over the fall just above safe ground. The rope was not quite long enough, meaning a literal leap of faith was needed at the end. At this point, we had bottomed out physically and emotionally, but we felt the need to press on.

Our hearts soared when we began to notice trash strewn in the bushes near the stream we were following. Trash = people = we’re getting close to civilization.

More good news followed as we found a walking path just as the light dissolved into a grainy darkness. We raced quickly – staggering, praying that we’d find a road…or maybe some people. Instead, the path ended in a mudslide.

We had no choice but to backtrack and return to the riverbed.

We eventually found a questionably beaten path. It was 8:30 at night and we were enveloped in darkness.

Good Fortune and a Random Act of Kindness

Then, out of nowhere, we were spit out onto a dirt road across from a rest stop serving mutton shashlik (barbecue). We tried to flag down a car in hopes that it would agree to taxi us to town. Every vehicle was full as families returned to Almaty after a pleasant day in the mountains.

After a few dozen flagging attempts, a minivan packed with several families inside pulled into the parking lot. I, exhausted and covered in dirt from all of her falls, asked the driver in broken Russian whether he was headed towards Almaty. Before she could finish, the man responded to our obvious deteriorated condition, “Do you need help?

We imagined fitting into the back of their minivan (where luggage normally goes), but the man cleared his remaining friends and family to the back, led us to the large, plush seats up front and gave us a luxurious lift back to the safety and comfort of Almaty, its city lights, and its civilization.

To describe us as thankful for all of this good fortune is an understatement. After all, we were alive and we had a comfortable ride home. We were the very relieved recipients of a random act of kindness from a Kazakh family.

Safe and Reflective

Hindsight being 20/20, it would have been safer to have spent the night under the protection of a tree in the mountains and to resume our descent when we were equipped with better light and better judgment. We were very lucky. We had some scrapes and achy muscles, but things could have been much, much worse.

Hardships and poor decision-making aside, our foray into Kazakhstan’s Soviet past at the observatory and Kosmostantsia provided a grounding contrast to the polish and glitz of nearby Almaty. The mountain scenery, especially around Big Almaty Lake, is striking. Our only advice before you have your own Tian Shan Mountain adventure: buy a real hiking map.

How to Visit Big Almaty Lake and Kosmostancia

  • How to get there: Take a shared taxi or bus #28 to Kokshoky and follow the signs for Kosmostantsia. If hiking is not your thing, contact the Tian Shan Astronomical Observatory for transport from Almaty (see below).
  • Where to stay: The observatory offers basic accommodation and food in a funky Soviet-era junkyard mountain setting. We recommend it. Domicks (10 Euros/person) are the cheapest option with a shared outhouse and sink. There are nicer rooms for 15 euros/person that include en suite bathrooms and hot water. Engage the astronomer on site and gaze at the stars using high-powered telescopes (5 euros/person). Breakfast and dinner run 4 Euros/person.
  • Contact: Aivar (he speaks English): 87055222446, or email him at aivar086022 [at] gmail.com or aivar1960 [at] mail.ru.

Photo Slideshow: Kazakhstan: Tian Shan and Big Almaty Lake

If you don’t have a high-speed connection or you would like to read the captions, you can view our Tian Shan and Big Almaty Lake photo essay.

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Big Almaty Lake and Kosmostancia: The Hike and The Observatoryhttp://uncorneredmarket.com/kazakhstan-big-almaty-lake-hike-observatory/ http://uncorneredmarket.com/kazakhstan-big-almaty-lake-hike-observatory/#comments Wed, 12 Dec 2007 02:56:50 +0000 http://www.uncorneredmarket.com/2007/12/kazakh-reflections-mountains-and-junkyards/ By Daniel Noll

Sometimes we seek beauty and sometimes we find it. Sometimes we seek a thrill and it finds us, giving us more than we had bargained for. Along our journey into the Tian Shan Mountains in Kazakhstan, we encountered pieces of history, stunning landscape, a draining hike, and the softer side of Almaty. The only thing […]

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By Daniel Noll

Big Almaty Lake in Tian Shan Mountains - Almaty, Kazakhstan
Big Almaty Lake in the Tian Shan Mountains near Almaty, Kazakhstan.

Sometimes we seek beauty and sometimes we find it. Sometimes we seek a thrill and it finds us, giving us more than we had bargained for. Along our journey into the Tian Shan Mountains in Kazakhstan, we encountered pieces of history, stunning landscape, a draining hike, and the softer side of Almaty. The only thing missing: a map.

The Hike to Big Almaty Lake

In an effort to get up close and personal with the Tian Shan Mountains that frame Almaty’s southern flank, we began our hike towards Big Almaty Lake (Bolshoe Almatinskoe Ozera) on a Saturday afternoon in early September.

After more than 12 kilometers of uphill hiking – some of it balanced atop a large water pipe – we finally reached Big Almaty Lake. At 7500 feet in late afternoon, the lake is small, but striking. Its bright aqua hue is well-seated in contrast to the austerity of the surrounding mountains.

We were exhausted. After taking a few photos, we resumed our hike to face a few more turns and some more elevation in order to reach our destination for the evening, a Soviet-era observatory above the lake.

Bush Legs and a Night with the Stars

Satellite Dish at Tian Shan Observatory - Almaty, Kazakhstan
Sattellite dish at the Tian Shan Astronomical Observatory outside Almaty, Kazakhstan.

We were greeted at the Tian Shan Astronomical Observatory by an eerie silence, rusted vehicles, satellite dishes and observation towers. We didn’t see or hear a soul and wondered if our plans to spend the night there were misguided.

Like a scene from a bizarre science fiction film, people began to gradually appear from buildings we thought were abandoned.

Later that evening, the kitchen whipped up a dinner of “Bush legs” and potatoes. We were so hungry that we almost licked the plates clean. (For those uninitiated, chicken legs exported from the United States to the former Soviet Union in the early 90s were named “Bush legs” after President Bush, Sr. The name is still affectionately used today, so much so that our host continually teased us that the evening’s “Bush legs” dinner was especially planned for “the Americans.”)

Following dinner, the local astronomer, a mad scientist looking Russian man with long white hair, powered up one of the large 2500x telescopes. After cranking open the observatory panels by hand, he led us through a nighttime tour of a series of star clusters and exploding stars. Very cool. The astronomer echoed our excitement. He told us that he’s still in love with astronomy after almost forty years.

We were dragged back to earth a few minutes later when the smog and ambient light from Almaty crept in and prevented us from seeing anything more. The astronomer shook his head in sadness. “It gets worse every year,” he said.

While some do what they can to keep the observatory alive as an active scientific center, the odds are against it. The lack of funding is evident in the junkyard of Soviet-era rusted vehicles, buildings and equipment. But it’s Almaty’s rapid development that poses even more problems, threatening to make the observatory obsolete.

Kosmostantcia

The next morning we discussed our hiking plans with our host. “First to the Soviet-era meteorological research center Kosmostantcia and then down the Prokhodnaya river gorge to Alma Arasan ski resort,” we offered with unassailable optimism. He smiled, “You certainly like to walk.” Wondering if he knew something we did not, we set off for Zhusalykezen Pass.

Abandoned Truck near Kosmostantsia - Almaty, Kazakhstan
Rusted junk at Kosmostancia Research Center, Kazakhstan.

Upon arrival at Kosmostantcia, we were met with more Soviet trucks that looked well past their prime. The breakup of the Soviet Union froze them in time, on the edge of a much needed visit to the junkyard. In this post-apocalyptic setting, we half expected to see each vehicle commanded by a skeleton in the driver’s seat – hands on the steering wheel and a cigarette hanging from the mouth.

A few humans still lurk almost imperceptibly in a handful of half-destroyed buildings. It is an immensely lonely existence. If you sent a letter addressed to Nowhere, there’s a high probability it would end up here.

We continued over barren lands scattered with asbestos-covered trailers and abandoned weather station outposts towards Big Almaty Peak (Pik Bolshoy Almatinsky) at 10,000 feet.

Photo Slideshow: Kazakhstan: Tian Shan and Big Almaty Lake

If you don’t have a high-speed connection or you would like to read the captions, you can view our Tian Shan and Big Almaty Lake photo essay.

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Blue Eyes, Gold Teeth: The Fabled Land of the Svanshttp://uncorneredmarket.com/blue-eyes-gold-teeth/ http://uncorneredmarket.com/blue-eyes-gold-teeth/#comments Mon, 20 Aug 2007 03:03:49 +0000 http://www.uncorneredmarket.com/2007/08/blue-eyes-gold-teeth/ By Daniel Noll

When you get there, you’ll meet the Afghan at the telephone pole. These instructions given to us in Mestia by the Svaneti Mountaineering Tourism Center left us baffled. Is our mountain guide a member of the Mujahideen who’d lost his way and made his home in the mountains of Georgia? After all, in Svaneti just […]

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By Daniel Noll

Mountain Pass - Svaneti, Georgia
View of the high Caucasus Mountains in Svaneti

When you get there, you’ll meet the Afghan at the telephone pole.

These instructions given to us in Mestia by the Svaneti Mountaineering Tourism Center left us baffled. Is our mountain guide a member of the Mujahideen who’d lost his way and made his home in the mountains of Georgia? After all, in Svaneti just about anything seems possible.

Meeting our Svaneti Trekking Guide

The Afghan at the telephone pole happened to be a compact, blue-eyed, gold-toothed Svan named Avgan. His crooked nose hinted that he’d seen his share of conflict, but his gentle smile suggested something more thoughtful than a mountain brawler. Equipped with a walking stick and a leather military rucksack, he would guide us over mountain passes the next four days as we hiked 40 miles from his village of Mulahi to Ushguli.

Our journey here would be as much mental as physical. Avgan’s path took us surprisingly deep into the psyche of the region, whose nostalgic desire to re-capture its past is underscored by its current economic uncertainties. The beautiful mountain landscape that draws most visitors here became almost secondary for us, providing a dramatic backdrop and linking together our most memorable moments of Svaneti and its people.

Hills and a Struggle with Death

As we followed Avgan into the hills that first day, Audrey attempted to absorb, in Russian, Avgan’s continual shower of Svaneti mountain trivia. He was once a full-time mountain guide in Soviet times leading tourists from the bordering Russian republic of Kabardino-Bulkaria to Svaneti. Audrey, in her ignorance of Soviet geography, thought he was saying “Bulgaria” until she realized how difficult it might be to walk from Bulgaria to Georgia in one day.

Avgan spoke nostalgically of Soviet times when 40+ tourists used to cross the pass near his house and stay in his village each day during the summer high season. In Mestia, nearly 200 tourists would arrive daily. Hotels were packed, subsidies were flowing, petrol was cheap, roads were paved and life was good. The old days stand in stark contrast to today’s tourist trickle and deteriorating infrastructure.

Green Village - Svaneti, Georgia
Looking out over the village, our homestay for a night in Svaneti.

As we made it over our last pass in the early evening, we glimpsed our reward: a magical view at the base of a mountain where the village of Adishi and its iconic Svan towers marked our first stop and home stay. Although our hosts, husband and wife farmers, didn’t know we were arriving, they quickly assembled a feast in minutes – sulguni (cheese), puri (flat bread), meat, potatoes, and matsoni (Georgian yogurt). Everything was homemade and farm-fresh. Once the rachi (low-octane local vodka) came out though, the tempo changed and Avgan quickly assumed the role of tamada (toastmaster).

We had noticed a look of chronic sadness and exhaustion – a sort of depression – on the husband’s face. During an early toast we learned the cause, the death of his daughter several years prior in a car accident. A memorial hung on the wall behind us as we each poured a few drops of our drinks on the table in a nod to her and the deceased.

The mood eventually lightened as Avgan became more poetic. He led toasts to Svaneti being remembered for its mountains and not its guns, to future tourists, to his sons winning more mountaineering competitions, and so on. Audrey struggled to keep pace with the 10-minute long toasts, roughly translating Russian into English for Dan’s benefit.

At one point, Dan tried to explain how he couldn’t possibly squeeze in any more food or drink because he had eaten enough for 2-3 days. Audrey’s charades and attempted translation gave Avgan the impression that Dan was constipated. For the next laughter-filled fifteen minutes, Dr. Avgan listed a host of natural remedies such as warm milk and enemas in order to cure Dan’s “problems” and get things moving again.

Approximately ten shots later, we tried to excuse ourselves to our room. As we prepared to go to sleep, we were called next door into the daughter’s bedroom. Shrine-like and eerie, it remained as it was just before her death. Her clothes were laid out across the bed in the shape of her body, as if she were still there sleeping. In one final toast of sadness where a drop of liquor is poured on the floor to those that have passed, the father shared his continued grief with us.

When Avgan awoke the next morning, he kindly allowed an extra 15 minutes and gave a knock on our door at 6:30 AM. Considering how much rachi we’d consumed the night before, we were certain he was joking. After the third knock, we reluctantly extracted ourselves from bed and dragged ourselves to the breakfast table.

Heaping plates of Svaneti cheese mashed potatoes awaited our arrival. Stringy and paper-weight worthy, the potatoes loomed, almost mocking the rachi-carved pits of our stomachs. Our hearts began to palpitate at the thought. We could only manage a few spoonfuls of potatoes and yogurt and we were on our way to the clearest of the available mountain passes accessible from the valley.

Amazing Vistas and Abandoned Villages

The most difficult climb lay just ahead. A steep snow chute was followed by thick wild mountain rhododendron. We could feel new muscle groups coming into use as we pulled ourselves up with their roots. Once we reached the top, we were exhausted. Our reward: spectacular 360 degree views and a chance to nap in the passing sunshine. Avgan even gave us a lesson on how to make natural Svaneti Viagra from the roots of purple flowers. Even while resting it seemed that we were always learning something.

We descended next into Khalde, the village known for holding off Russian forces in 1876. Mention of Khalde evokes a spirit of pride and tough independence, but highlights one of Svaneti’s contradictions. Everyone is proud of Khalde’s resistance, but they seem to secretly hope for the return of the Soviet Union one day so that life may be good again.

Abandoned Village of Khaldi - Svaneti, Georgia
Lost memories in the abandoned village of Khalde, Svaneti.

Most of Khalde’s homes were in surprisingly good condition, particularly for having been abandoned ten years ago. After dislodging the front door to one, we entered what was once Avgan’s mother’s home. Photos remained on the wall, furniture was still in place, but no one lived there. The whole thing was eerily and morbidly fascinating. Finding some dusty plates in the cupboard, Avgan suggested we take our remaining food for lunch, but no one was hungry. It was clear that Avgan was intent on leaving all that remained of our aging food stash to the spirits of the house and to his mother.

We followed the cows home to the village of Iprari and encountered a young woman on horseback – in command and on the search for a few of the herd that lost their way.

Later that evening, we find out that the woman on horseback was one of our host family’s six daughters. Peaceful and sophisticated, the father seemed to reflect a lifetime of experience surrounded by women. Three daughters were still on the farm while the others had moved away because of marriage, studies or work. This story seemed to encapsulate the nature of life in this village, where young people move away when they have the opportunity. The village population was 150 people about a decade ago; only a mere 20 remain today.

The girls seemed wary of us at first, serving us food efficiently without much engagement. Later in the meal, Dan thanked one of the girls in Svan, “ivas suhari.” A foreigner attempting to speak even the most meager bits of the local dialect opened things up. The daughters couldn’t contain their surprise…or their laughter. All barriers seemed to fall at once.

After lunch the next day, which included some of the best khajapuri(cheese-stuffed bread), matsoni (yogurt) and honey in all of Georgia, one of the girls brought out a small stringed instrument and sang traditional Svan folk songs for us. Her voice seemed to carry all of Svaneti’s emotions at once – strength, sadness, pride, and a glimmer of hope. We were mesmerized. Click play below to hear for yourself.

We decked ourselves out in rain gear for the remaining ten kilometers to Ushguli. Audrey protected her camera bag under her windbreaker, giving the impression of a large belly. Everyone started pointing and cheering when they saw her – the hint that maybe one day that bulge would be a baby instead of a camera proved exciting for our host family. It was hard to pull ourselves away from their warmth, but Ushguli was calling.

Ushguli: The Highest Village in Europe

Because of the wet weather, the only path open to us was the main road to Ushguli, famed as the highest inhabited village in Europe. This label is confirmed by every second person you meet here. “Do you know…?” “Yes, I know…Ushguli is the highest village…”

About halfway there, a Russian jeep pulled up and greeted Avgan. We piled into the back seat where we’re introduced to representatives of Svaneti’s remarkably friendly police force. Their jackets, most likely a gift from a foreign donor, were embroidered “Criminal Police.” With a rifle poking out from the front seat, our jeep gave us an odd feeling of safety.

Once in Ushguli, we were stopped three times by different groups inviting us for a snack in the 200-meter walk from our home stay to the Ushguli Museum. Not wanting to offend Ushguli’s local police force, we accepted their invitation and shared beer and khachaapuri in the day’s drizzle while taking in the rich, rain-soaked mountain landscape around us – Svan towers, patches of glacier, green hills and plenty of cows.

Drinking with the Police - Svaneti, Georgia
Drinking with the police in Ushguli, Svaneti

Because of the rain and all the cows, Ushguli’s paths were a mixture of mud and cow puddles. With little success, we tried to hop around from one rock to another. Audrey’s reaction upon being engulfed in cow poop soup captured the moment, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much cow shit in my life!” Our hiking boots will never be the same.

Later as we huddled in our hosts’ kitchen to share dinner with Avgan, an older woman shuffled in. Dressed entirely in black and lugging buckets of fresh milk, she seemed to carry the sadness of the world in her dark eyes. Avgan greeted her warmly. She was his cousin from Khalde, the abandoned village we’d visited the day before. They hadn’t seen each other in over a year, so it was an emotional greeting. As Avgan described the condition Khalde was in, they both began to cry. As if to justify his actions to us, he explained that Svan men are allowed to cry. Not a surprise, given that sadness and nostalgia feature so prominently in Svan life.

Eventually, Avgan snapped out of his dark mood and resumed the role of tamada at our makeshift supra. The effects of the bad white wine hit us the next morning as our livers pickled around the edges. Avgan’s knock at 8 AM – with a bottle of beer to cure our hangover ills – didn’t help. We wondered how this 63-year old – appropriately nicknamed “the wolf” – could feel so good after so many successive evenings of drinking.

I made a promise to himself. Next trip to Svaneti, I’m a Mormon on antibiotics.

Home to Mestia

Jeep and Flat Tires - Svaneti, Georgia
Road trip, Svaneti style.

There is no public transport between Ushguli and Mestia, so we hired a jeep. As a result, we were the public transport that day and four additional opportunistic local guys jumped in with us. Invoking God’s protection, they crossed themselves; we began to wonder what we’d gotten ourselves into. Fortunately, our driver knew the area well and we stuck to the “no looking down” rule as our jeep veered toward the cliffside. To describe the paths that jeeps take through Svaneti as “roads” is generous. Comic relief came in the form of large inebriated men singing (shouting?) Svan songs. Ringing ears aside, the ride to Mestia was relatively uneventful and included only one curious stop to tighten the wheels on the jeep.

Strangely enough, we ran into the same policemen on the street in Mestia. Again, all smiles as they asked us how our journey went. As we told others in Mestia about our trek and rattled off the names of the villages we’d visited, we received approving nods and invitations to go drink some more. We would graciously decline, but appreciated the warm invitation all the same. Apparently, we were beginning to be truly accepted in this unique place.

Photo Essay: Hiking Across Svaneti

Organizing a Trek in Svaneti

  • How to get there: See the post Svaneti: How and Why To Go
  • Where to stay: The Svaneti Mountaineering Tourism Center (SMTC) can arrange home stays in Mestia and the surrounding villages. Their website also has a listing (click on the village names on the left). We stayed with Jora Kaldani in Adishi and Ucha Margvelani in Iprari. Home stays are clean. Toilet facilities tend to be simple, usually meaning an outhouse in the garden. Ucha’s house in Iprari (Kala) has a hot water shower, a welcome luxury after an exhausting hike. The agreed cost for accommodation and three meals is 35 Lari/person. You pay the families directly.
  • Where to eat: You will never go hungry, but if you are lactose intolerant or a vegetarian, eating to your needs may be a challenge. The food at the village home stays is all fresh from their farms, meaning cows and pigs. There is lots of cheese, khachapuri, matsoni, chunks of meat, kubdari (meat stuffed bread) and potatoes. Vegetables are in short supply, except at meals in Mestia.
  • Arranging a mountain guide: Unless you are an experienced mountaineer and can read old Soviet maps, we would recommend taking a mountain guide until SMTC is able to clearly mark all of the trails. Contact SMTC and they will find a guide for you. English speaking guides are also available. Cost: 50 Lari/day.
  • If you have a high-speed connection, stick around for the slide show below.

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