Hiking in Nepal: Lukla to Tok Tok (Day 1)

My trek in the Himalayas followed the route to Everest Base Camp.  I only had two weeks’ vacation so I was short one week to make it all the way to “EBC” since my visit to Nepal included an extra number of days to help in the re-building of a school that was destroyed during the April 2015 earthquake in the village of Kumari.

However, I went on this trek with Trekking for Kids because I knew some of the folks going and it was not a bad time to be away from work (is there ever a good time??).  So my trek was going to be from Lukla to Deboche, past the Tengboche monastery.  As it turned out, that ended up being a good choice since my stepfather died back home the day before I left Nepal for home.  But, before that turn of events, I was already glad I had chosen to not go all the way.

Day 1 took us from Lukla (2,860 metres (9,383 ft)) to Tok Tok (2,760 metres (9,o55 ft)). While an overall descent, there were plenty of climbs and descents along the way!

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Our starting point and ending point for day 1

Starting the trek:  getting to Lukla

Starting the trek in Lukla required first getting to Lukla.  As I shared in an earlier post, either one does a local bus and then a few days’ hike to get to Lukla or one flies into one of the “most dangerous” airports in the world:  Lukla (LUA).  I did the latter for a couple of good reasons:  that was what was pre-planned by Trekking for Kids and I didn’t have enough vacation time anyway!

You can read the details in the earlier post but the short of it is:  I made it to Lukla alive and without too much suffering 🙂

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The Lukla airport – a very short and dramatic runway!

Getting the trek going:  leaving Lukla

After we landed in Lukla, getting our bags was a piece of cake (the airport is tiny, after all).  From there to our breakfast stop (at a hotel we would return to at the end of the trek) was a very short walk (Lukla is tiny, after all).  We got there and, as we had left Kathmandu at the literal crack of dawn, we proceeded to have some breakfast before heading out.  Our guides had to sort our things with the porters we were picking up in Lukla so we had ample time.  I can’t really recall what I had but nothing too heavy as we were leaving for a few hours’ hike.Everyone was itching to go and, when we finally did, I think we had a little bit of adrenaline flowing!  Close to leaving Lukla, we came to our first gate and prayer wheels and the backdrop was phenomenal in the deep blue sky ahead.  It was a sign of the great day ahead!

Though we started the hike at over 9,000 ft, we warmed up pretty quickly as the hike progressed.  It felt so good!  Hamlets in this part of Nepal are charming probably because of the color applied to the window and door frames and we started noticing this early on.

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Approaching a hamlet

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House along the trek route

We crossed our first hanging bridge on this day (one of two hanging bridges that day).  It was not too high (I am not afraid of heights, thankfully) and it was certainly long.  We would follow this river all the way to near Namche Bazaar.  We also crossed another bridge, a truss one, that day.  I noticed that some parts of the route, as it passed through small “hamlets,” were paved with stones while others were dirt paths.  It was nice to have the variation in the route – just like it was nice to have all the uphills and downhills mixed.

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Approaching the Dhudh Kosi River and the hanging bridge

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Beautiful waters, courtesy of glacierland!

Buddhist faith along the route

Along the way we passed different-sized prayer wheels and collections of Tibetan tablets (in sanskrit) that are so iconic and that speak to the concreteness of the faith in that region of Asia.  I tried to not miss spinning prayer wheels and we certainly made sure we passed the “monuments” on their left as tradition/faith requires.

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Sanskrit tablets and a stupa

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A prayer wheel asking to be spun

A hiker has to eat!

Along the way we stopped for lunch at a beautiful spot where the route made a 90-degree angle.  The place, the Wind Horse Lodge and Restaurant was a perfect spot, idyllic, for the stop.  We sat outside at tables on the small lawn, graced by marigolds along the edges.  Until clouds rolled over and it started getting cold.  We promptly found tables indoors and the lunch was pretty darn good:  fried noodles and rice along with fried mini empanadas (my Latin roots betray me as that is not what they call them there!).

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Lunch!

Ending our hike in Tok Tok

Bellies full and feet rested, we proceeded on our hike.  I try on these treks to not study the route we are going to take as I don’t want to be “expecting” the next stop or calculating how much longer we have to go – I want to enjoy the moment though, I admit, at times when I am feeling tired, I start trying to figure out how much longer I have to go 🙂

We arrived at our teahouse in Tok Tok (River View Lodge) and, as usual, it is a great feeling to hear the words “We are here” when we arrive at our resting place for the night!  It was a tiny spot nestled between a hill and the river.  I wish it had been a tad warmer to stay outside in the evening.

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My room at the teahouse

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The dining room (aka, hanging out room) at the teahouse

In the end, it was a spectacular first day trekking in the Himalayas and I slept well that night!  I leave you with one of my favorite views from that day!

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Just magnificent

 

Building a School in Kumari, Nepal

Prior to my trek in the Himalayas along the route to Everest Base Camp, I spent 3 days in the village of Kumari, Nepal thanks to Trekking for Kids‘ work to support this village.  The village, as many places in Nepal, was severely impacted by the April 2015 earthquake that struck the country.

The recently-built medical clinic was quite damaged and the school that served about 400 children was pretty much destroyed.

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Most damaged part of the clinic

Trekking for Kids had planned a trip to Nepal (it has been going there for years to bring hope to orphaned kids via its treks) and chose to direct the funds raised by us trekkers towards the re-construction of the school.  The school certainly will provide a better environment for the kids to receive education but it will also encourage parents to send the kids to school which helps reduce the risk that human trafficking poses for these children.

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Makeshifts structures -and outdoor spaces- serve as temporary classrooms

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Teacher holding class outdoor

Our stay in Kumari

We left Kathmandu on our way to Kumari, a village development center in the Nuwakot district.  Though it seems to be about 30 miles from Kathmandu, as the eagle flies, it took us about 3.5 hours.  The first 1.5 hrs were on a paved road that we left after a quick stop at a roadside kiosk.  From then on, we took a dirt and bumpy road that in the rainy season is impassable, driving past terraced hills and lots of green.  Occasionally we would pass small rural homes and saw a little bit of life in the countryside.

In Kumari, we stayed in the medical clinic compound, a very large space that was fenced and gated.  The medical clinic laid near the far end and had been badly damaged by the April 2015 quake.  Though damaged, a couple of spaces were still in use for examinations and to house the pharmacy.  Behind the clinic, there was a small structure housing the women’s and the men’s restrooms (2 stalls each) plus one basic shower.  Along the sides of the compound were tents used by our group and others supporting the construction work and our visit.  I imagine the tents were donated post-quake to help with temporary housing for locals but I think I heard tents were not very successful in Nepal as they were too foreign for regular folks.  Not sure if our tents were indeed originally intended for that temporary shelter but they look pretty clean and unused.  I will have to say that they were a little larger than the small two-people tents I have used before so I was glad for the extra “comfort.”

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The Sukman Memorial Polyclinic, our tents to the right

Staying in the compound was far better than I had been expected.  The grounds are well kept, the indoor restroom was a pleasant surprise, and though I only used it one of the 3 days, it was nice to take a shower after a day’s hard work.  The compound also had a kitchen and outdoor (covered) seating area so all our meals were there.  I tended to wake up very early and enjoyed a cup of tea while soaking in the quiet and sunrise.  It was a little cold at night but not frigid.  We were a 5-minute walk to the work site (the school grounds) so all-in-all, I was pleased with the setup they had prepared to host us, not having too much time traveling to- and from- the work site so we could maximize time at the site.

A grand Kumari welcome!

When our small caravan was approaching the medical compound, we noticed a lot of people were there waiting for us.  The more we walked, the more it seemed the entire district had come to welcome us.  We left our stuff in the cars (someone would take care of that) and after an initial greeting which included music, we were taken up a dirt road towards the school grounds which were located above the medical compound.

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Walking from the clinic to the school grounds

As we made the final turn up the dirt road that passes the school grounds, we noticed schoolchildren were lined up waiting for us – loaded with long necklaces made from orange marigolds (like Hawaiian leis).  As we walked along the kids, teachers, and others, these “leis” were placed on our necks.  They must have spent long days making these (the flowers were all fresh)!!  Some of us ended with a heavy yoke of these leis around our necks but it was a very joyful welcome – much appreciated!

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Schoolchildren awaiting us with the marigold necklaces!

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Some of us sporting the massive and heavy leis

After we got to the covered space that had been set up for the welcome ceremony, we took our seats and then all the children and other locals stood behind us.  At the end of the ceremony, 3 hours later or so, I was very impressed the locals stayed the entire time, in the sun.  There were some local figures present but maybe the draw was the two emcees (MCs) who I take had come from Kathmandu and were well-known.  The ceremony entailed many speeches in Nepali or in English as well as some dances/songs by the local kids.  I soaked it all in though, at that point, none of us had eaten anything since breakfast and I, for one, was hungry and trying hard not to pull something out of my day pack when so many in the crowd were probably as hungry as I was.Mukari, Nuwakot, Nepal, trekking for kids, photo, school children, Samsung Galaxy, travel, voluntourism Mukari, Nuwakot, Nepal, trekking for kids, photo, Samsung Galaxy, travel, voluntourismMukari, Nuwakot, Nepal, trekking for kids, photo, school children, Samsung Galaxy, travel, voluntourism

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School administrators, civic organizers, the MCs and the trekkers

Sweat equity

Trekkers like me commit to fundraise $1,000 towards the projects chosen for the specific trek.  The projects funded are normally anchored on capital improvements or new infrastructure.  In this Nepal trek, the school was the main project our funds would support.  I am proud to say that my group of trekkers and I raised over $33,000, much higher than the minimum we each committed to raise (thanks to any of you who donated!).  This allowed us to also fund the construction of new indoor restroom facilities at the school, something the children had never had before:  one restroom with several stalls for the girls, and the same for the boys.  When I go in these treks, I often leave pondering the things I have taken for granted all my life… and I am humbled at the blessings in my life.

Shree Bikash, school, Kumari, Nuwakot, Nepal, construction

Plans for the new school

One of the three days was focused on us pitching in in the construction efforts.  Trekking for Kids’ approach is to ensure local labor performs the projects and local materials are used.  But trekkers get to get down and dirty lending a hand.  In these projects, trekkers got to help both with preparing the foundation for two of the new school buildings as well as with pouring the new roof for the restroom building.

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Foundation trenches completed, next step was to lay rocks at the bottom

I worked in the crew that helped dig the trenches for the school buildings’ foundations and then “harvested” rocks from the debris field from the former school building from the side of the hill and tossed them (via human chain) up to fill the bottom layer of the trenches.  While we were happy to help, it was clear the locals who worked on the project and the local teen youth group that was volunteering to help were much more effective and fast than we were…  It was certainly an honor to be able to humble ourselves for such a good cause.

Other trekkers helped prep the restroom roof before the concrete was poured by framing the area and cutting and setting up the rebar.  At the point the concrete was being mixed and poured, the locals took over.  It was interesting to watch their methods!

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Cutting rebar

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Roof being readied for the concrete pouring

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Roof being poured with the sewage tank visible in the lower part of the photo

Finally, our trekkers helped finish the digging of the “sewage tank” that had already been started with the use of mechanical equipment.  Hard work indeed!

And just having fun

Working on the projects is something trekkers enjoy doing but trekkers always enjoy the opportunity to be with the kids.  The kids made us smile with the great welcome they gave us so I certainly enjoyed giving back in this way to them.  We got to be with the kids during school hours and afterwards, including one afternoon dedicated to fun and games that went late.  The kids thoroughly enjoyed the mini-carnival games, the arts and crafts, and a good early dinner!

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One of our trekkers, a former teacher, spends time in the classroom

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The kids played games in the afternoon

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Kids enjoying an early dinner

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At the end of the day, kids line up for parting gifts!

As for me

The treks themselves, of course, helped keep me challenged and appreciating my own life’s blessings.  But, in the end, I would not be doing these treks if it were not for the opportunity to make a difference, however small, in the lives of children around the world.  It is faces like these that keep me prioritizing my travel budget and vacation time for doing these treks (at the expense of doing more with my own friends and family), that keep me “pestering” friends and family for donations to fund the projects, and that keep me accepting conditions during my treks that are less than what I’d prefer during my vacations.  Take a look, can you blame me?Kumari, Nuwakot, Nepal, kid, child, school, service, volunteer, Samsung Galaxy, photo, travel Kumari, Nuwakot, Nepal, kid, child, school, service, volunteer, Samsung Galaxy, photo, travel Kumari, Nuwakot, Nepal, kid, child, school, service, volunteer, Samsung Galaxy, photo, travel

Check out Trekking for Kids and pass the word about this great organization to others via word of mouth and social media!

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A beautiful Nepali sunset over our camp

How Does One Pack for A Trek in Nepal?

In about 6 days, I leave on a trip to Nepal.  Once again, I will be trekking with Trekking for Kids to improve the lives of children around the world.  This is a special trip for several reasons, one of which is the devastation from the April 2015 earthquake calls for the world’s support for this developing nation.  It has been long enough where our presence will not be a hindrance to the important efforts that happen immediately post-earthquake.  Our aim is to fundraise the monies needed to re-build the school in the remote village of Kumari, pretty much destroyed during the earthquake and still not recovered.  The school serves about 400 children and we got news this week that the building permit and plans were approved by the local authorities.  If you would like to contribute, please visit my fundraising page and donate, nothing too small (or too big!).  After we visit Kumari and spend a few days with the kids and doing some projects, we will depart to do a 5-day hike that, weather permitting, will allow me to see Mt. Everest in person.  I will not be going to Everest Base Camp as it takes an extra week that I cannot afford with work but that’s OK.  I will get to spend time with some folks I have trekked before and I am looking forward to that!

So the point of the post was to share with you how it looks to pack for this type of trek with multiple elements to it.  This is my spare bedroom, all loaded with my stuff.  Now, to figure out how to fit it in the orange bag on the left and the hiking backpack that will serve as my carry-on piece.  Wish us luck!

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Kilimanjaro: The Descent from Uhuru Peak

Going down the mountain from Uhuru Peak began around 20-30 minutes after we had arrived in Uhuru.  Such is the story of ascending Mt. Kilimanjaro for many.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if you could picnic up there or, at least, at Stella Point and soak in the achievement?  Yes, it would be except the thin air would begin doing a number on many people so it is not recommended.  Being well-led, after all the picture-taking at Uhuru, we began the process of coming down.  A process that would take about 8 hrs that day (YES, that SAME day we had just walked up 8 hrs without a full night’s sleep) and about 3-4 hrs the next day.  Think about it, 5 days and 8 hours to go up but about 12 hrs to come back down.  In reality, altitude issue aside, Kili can be climbed within a day or two.  But altitude acclimatization requires prudence and time…

Starting the descent of Kilimanjaro

We passed Stella Point without much fanfare – or picture-taking – this time.  We were now on a mission to lose altitude quickly.  And quickly it was to be!!  I had not been prepared for what came next.  We supposedly had crossed a field of scree (small pebbles) on the ascent (which I mentioned not remembering that part).  Well, it was time to come DOWN the field of scree.  And I was very unprepared on what technique was required here.  All I knew is that it was like skiing except you had to watch out to not pop out a knee (a terrifying thought, really).

So I began to walk down the scree, putting one foot down, using my hiking pole to stop its slide (as you step on the scree it shifts down, taking your footing with it), then moving the other foot and repeating.  Well, this was taking a little bit of time and other trekkers were passing me fast.  After maybe 5 minutes or 10 of this, the same guide who had carried my daypack on the ascent, locked arms with me and proceeded to take me down the scree.  It was an exhilarating and scary ride!!  We were going very fast and we were mainly sliding downhill.  At any given moment, either of us would lose his balance but Said, the guide, would ensure neither one of us fell.  That continued to be true pretty much for the next 3 hours with the exception of certain patches were there were rocks and the sliding paused for a stretch.  The only people moving faster down that field was a trio consisting of a guide and 2 trekkers, one of which had begun to have severe nausea and the other two were on either side of the trekker taking her down the mountain STAT.  They flew past us and continued the high-speed scree-field crossing at that very fast pace.  I have never experienced this mix of thrill and almost-panic at the same time.  Looking back, it was rather fun.

View of Barafu Camp on Mt. Kilimanjaro

Our approach to Barafu Camp

A break at Barafu Camp – just a break, not a stay

Soon enough we sighted Barafu Camp from which we had departed not quite 12 hrs before.  A break was coming!  This was where we were going to have lunch, change out of the warm clothes we had worn for the ascent, and replenish water bottles, etc.  There was a little delay in the lunch being prepared so the stop was about an hour longer than expected.

On my way down the scree, I failed to pay attention to my feet and two-thirds of the way down, I realized I had a blister and was at risk of getting two more.  I stopped, got some duct tape, and took care of things, as I learned from the Trekking for Kids lead when I hiked in Romania last summer.  Once at camp, a fellow trekker had some magical thing she had gotten at REI and she SO kindly took care of fixing the blister.  Whatever it is she had gotten at REI worked like magic (I have never had to use moleskin before but she said this was better).  The remainder of the hike after lunch, I did not even feel my blister!!

Taking care of a blister earned while climbing Kilimanjaro

Thanks, Melanie!!

Though we were tired, we had to keep going to our camp for the evening, the Mweka Camp, named for being the first camp on that route for those who enter the mountain through the Mweka Gate.  Some were asking why couldn’t we stay in Barafu to overnight.  I was quite happy not staying for several reasons:

  1. We had arrived before noon.  Staying would represent a loss of an entire afternoon of moving and getting closer to exit the mountain.
  2. Getting to a lower camp meant Day 7, the last day on the mountain would be a short one:  a downhill hike of 3-4hrs and – bam! – off to the hotel, a great lunch, and most important:  the first shower in a week!
  3. I hated the inhospitable environment of Barafu Camp with it being so rocky and so dusty.  I was done with the dust and didn’t want to have a fall like I almost had suffered the day before when I tripped on a tent cable while minding the rocks I was stepping on.

So I was quite happy with moving on.  If I had only known what was coming our way…

Rocky road to Mweka Camp

Pretty quickly the second part of our descent on Day 6 became a nightmare of sorts.  Though the views were great most of the time, the terrain was rocks that you had to navigate carefully (at least those not super experienced).  Some of us started feeling that our knees were being hit hard and had to slow down some.  My legs were extremely tired at this point and the knees, though not hurting yet, were wearing out with every step.

Descent to Mweka Camp in Kilimanjaro

The rocky way down that never seemed to end

After a couple of hours or more, we saw in the distance a colorful array of tents.  Yes!  We weren’t terribly far!  To which our guide quickly replied:  “That’s not our camp, that is base camp for the Mweka Route ascent and we are not allowed to stay there since we are no longer on the ascent; you see that piece of metal over there (he pointed to a structure far, far away)?  That’s where we are going.”  Our collective jaws dropped (and almost hit rocks, I am sure).  NO WAY, José!  (OK, his name was Luis, not José.)

We continued our descent and, at times, it felt that that piece of metal was actually getting further away (I swear that it did look that way!).  A couple of times our path became a smooth dirt trail which would thrill us tremendously only to turn a corner and resume the very rocky terrain.  It was an exhausting, frustrating, and demanding-on-the-knees 4.5 hrs hike – I almost wished I was back in Barafu, resting and breathing dusty thin air at 15,000 ft+ altitude…  But not quite.  It helped me push forward knowing that what we were doing was the best approach.

Trekker in Kilimanjaro after 6 days of no shaving

Though exhausted, I trekked on. Or was I just considering jumping off the nearest cliff??  (This is what 6 days in the mountain look like!)

The most difficult part of my climb – the descent

Most of these 4.5 hrs were the most mentally and physically difficult part for me of the entire 7 days.  Yes, the accelerated heart rate on Day 4 slowed me down and made me worry.  Yes, on ascent night I wondered if I would make it when I had to surrender my backpack.   Yes, we were getting more and more oxygen on the descent as we went – to the point where, somewhere along these 4.5 hrs, we must have reached an altitude to which our body had acclimatized (I am sure were not adjusted to 15,000 ft though we had spent part of the day on Day 5 there).  But, I just didn’t see an end to the rocky path on Day 6 and the Mweka Camp kept looking very far away any time we spotted itIt was a true test of will power for me to finish that path.

Finally, camp!

But, all good things come to an end (!), and we reached the Mweka Camp.  The customary “signing of the guestbook to prove we had been there” done, we approached our tents for a final night of camping.  Hot water was brought to us and I happily washed off my face and did what I could to clean myself before having dinner.

Dining tent in Kilimanjaro

Our mess tent was a palace that night!

That meal may not have been spectacular by some standards but we were exhausted and we loved sitting around that mess tent, eating and reflecting on what we had just done.  I didn’t linger – I was tired and wanted to get everything ready and go to bed.

Dining tent in Kilimanjaro camp

Happiness in a tent

Getting off the mountain

On Day 7, we woke up all ready to go:  This was our freedom day!  Don’t get me wrong, I was eager to climb Kilimanjaro and enjoy the mountain.  But once we had reached the summit, we were ALL about getting to the hotel and a nice shower.

We trekked down for maybe about 3 hrs from 10,000 ft or so to the Mweka Gate at 6,000 ft (3,800 m).  The climate zone went to full forest again, as we had experienced on Day 1.

Uproote tree in the Mweka Route on Kilimanjaro, Tanzania

The clothing was lighter and so was our mood.  Someone even rode the emergency stretcher that was laying about during one of our breaks…

I found my happy place:  the Mweka Gate hut!

Finally, the sight we wanted to see:  the Mweka Gate hut where we would sign in one last time, proving we made it to that gate AND the place where we would sit around for an hour+ to wait for the certificates that would prove we HAD climbed Kilimanjaro (though there was no book to sign at Uhuru Peak…).  We were not getting those certificates just yet… Zara Tours would also be issuing one and we would receive them both that evening at the celebration with our guides and porters.

Exiting the Mweka Route trail to hiti Mweka Gate in Kilimanjaro

About to leave the trail!!! I found a happy place!

While waiting, folks would come by selling us stuff but we knew we could get all that cheaper elsewhere.

At Mweka Gate waiting for our certificates for our climb of Kilimanjaro

Waiting leaning against the wall and sitting in the shade. With a beer in hand. Heavenly. (I am sitting to the right with the red t-shirt)

Kilimanjaro trekkers from Utah

Trekkers from Utah wishing that the park was using a computerized system…

However, one of my fellow trekkers eyed a beer seller and he looked at me and, of course, I wouldn’t leave a buddy drinking on his own.  Especially after a week of no alcohol and a hike of 3 hrs… That’s when the first beer was bought.  Others in the group looked at us like “really?”  20 minutes later, most everyone had a beer in their hand!  And off we went to the bus, to get to the Springlands Hotel and back to being clean!!!

Trekkers leaving Mweka Gate after climbing Kilimanjaro

On the way to the hotel! (Photo courtesy of K. Shuman)

The descent, as you can see, was a mixed set of emotions and terrains.  It is amazing how little time it takes to descend.  The feeling of accomplishment once you get to the Mweka Gate is incredible.  And so is the entire experience of spending 7 days on this incredible mountain, home to the roof of Africa:  Kilimanjaro!

One final look up at Kilimanjaro from the final stretch of the Mweka Route

One final look up at Kilimanjaro from the final stretch of the Mweka Route… I was up THERE!!!!

Kilimanjaro Hike: Day 6 – Reaching the Summit: Uhuru

Here we go, the BIG day.  Day 6.  The day we reach and pass Stella Point on the rim of Mount Kilimanjaro and get to Uhuru Peak, the highest point of the mountain – the highest point in Africa!!!  I should say, the day we attempt to reach Stella Point and Uhuru Peak.  I will do my best to convey how this climb feels like on Day 6 but the physical and mental efforts are hard to put in words.

You will notice how the middle of this post is photo-less.  First, do not worry, there are pictures towards the last third of the post!  Secondly, that matches what happened for me in the ascent:  Much of what happened in the middle was not captured by a camera because I was too focused on going up and, for part of it, even my mind didn’t capture any images…

 Uhuru Peak in Kilimanjaro

The goal: Uhuru Peak

Day 6 consisted of four parts – it was to be a LONG day:

  1. From Barafu Camp to Stella Point (expected to be about 7 hours)
  2. From Stella Point to Uhuru Peak (expected to be 45 mins to 1 hour)
  3. Coming down from Uhuru to base camp (Barafu) for a brief rest and lunch (about 3 hours)
  4. Arriving to Mweka Camp where we were over-nighting (about 4.5 hours)

I will cover here only the ascent on Day 6 (#1 and 2 above) and not the descent that happened that day.  I will cover the descent on Day 6 (#3 and 4) with the final descent of Day 7…

Leaving Barafu Camp to hit Stella Point

Barafu Camp at 15,100 ft (4,600 m) was a hard camp to like.  But I could have stayed there a few more hours sleeping that night…  Four of our group left at 11 PM to have an extra hour to reach the summit.  The rest of us saw them leave camp and finished prepping and having a snack prior to heading out.  At midnight, we left the relative comfort of this camp to do what we came here to do:  tame Uhuru!

I was pumped even while wondering what would happen, how it would end 8 hrs later (ah, the fool… the end was NOT reaching the summit, but reaching our camp for the night).

What did I wear on the way to Uhuru Peak?

I wrote about the particular items here but as a quick recap:  Though it was very cold at camp given the altitude and the time of day, we were instructed to dress such that we were slightly cold since we would warm up during the climb.  So, I wore my two tight woolen tops, then my Merino wool light jacket, and my hard shell jacket (protects against wind and water though, mercifully, we didn’t have precipitation).  The synthetic down jacket would wait until the breaks (when, since you are at rest, you don’t want to lose the heat your body has generated) or until it finally got too cold even while walking (which it did).  In terms of my legs, I wore my long wool underwear (all the wool layers by the skin helped wick moisture away from the skin) under my convertible hiking pants and then my hard shell pants.

The only place I felt really, really cold was my toes though I was wearing sock liners and the thickest wool socks REI had.  I think we had milder temperatures, if that’s possible up there, than normal as I had been told I would be exceedingly cold.  Whew!

Time is a funny thing

During the climb up to Stella Point, it is amazing how time flowed.  The hourly 5-10 minute breaks (a lot shorter than the breaks on prior days) provided respite from the effort and allowed for drinking some water (in one break they surprised us with hot tea! one of the happiest moments in those 7 hours!), eating a little something, and handling nature calls.  That last one was a little more of a pain than it had been before because it was dark.  But when nature calls, it calls.  And no pee bottle here.  In any case, I worked my way up by focusing on each hour’s walk.  I was not looking at my watch much but when the break came, I knew an hour had passed and that was an hour off the 7 hour count…

And who said it would be a piece of cake?  No one.  They were right.

After the first hour of the climb, my heart rate starting racing and I was out of breath a lot like on Day 4 after we had passed the Barranco Wall.  We had been climbing bigger rocks (requiring big steps) which was exactly what had caused my troubles on Day 4.

That was going to slow me down and, tonight, falling behind could mean being turned around.  The guides had been clear with the first subgroup that if we got to Stella Point at the same time as them, they would have to turn around at Stella Point.  It meant they would take a lot more than an hour reaching Uhuru and, having already been at that altitude an extra hour than us, it would have been too much time up there.  So, I knew that if I fell behind too much in my group, that I could miss getting to UhuruThat realization really hit me hard.

One of guides, Said, told me to give him my daypack.  My heart sank.  As soon as the path became less pronouncedly rocky, I told Said I could take my daypack back because I was back to “normal.”  He shook his head and said he would keep it.  At first, with pride stepping in, I said no, I could take it.  And then I realized that it may be the worst thing I could do.  I needed to save my energy for the big rocks ahead.  I resumed my climb, daypackless.  Boy, am I glad I did…

I believe I was the second or third person to lose their daypack.  I felt this would take away from the feat should I reach the summit.  I had nothing to fear.  Within a few hours, more than half (including the 4 guys in this subgroup) had lost their daypacks too, including our star athlete who had run across deserts and had been carrying a daypack every day of this climb loaded at 30-40 lbs.  I have to digress and mention that this guy, a dentist from northwestern Canada, would carry all  sorts of candy in his daypack and, all throughout the week’s hike, would pull out a DIFFERENT bag of candy (gummy bears, sour patches, etc.) to pass around at breaks.  Needless to say, Stan became everyone’s friend fast!

It is worth pointing out how carefully our guides were watching each one of us even after we surrendered our daypacks.  Clearly, ensuring no one exhibited dangerous signs of altitude sickness (the ones that represent life-threatening danger).  But they REALLY wanted us to make it to Uhuru as long as we were not exhibiting the serious symptoms and did everything they could to assist us.

The lights are not always at the end of the tunnel…

Though we had a full moon, we still needed to illuminate the path ahead by wearing headlamps.  I remember that I would look up ahead on the trail and see what was becoming a downer for me:  a long trail of headlamps zigzagging the slope of the mountain.  And then you didn’t see any.  That point would get closer and closer, and it felt good to know we were reaching a “milestone” of sorts.  But once we reached the milestone, I would look up and see, yet again, another LONG trail of headlamps going all the way up to a point far up the mountain.  After this, I decided not to look up anymore…

Sleep and memory loss – all in a Kili climber’s night!

Maybe halfway up to Stella Point, I was dozing off.  No, not during breaks.  This was as I moved my feet up that mountain and as my arms moved the hiking poles.  The lack of oxygen and being tired had everything to do with that.  And through chats post-facto, I learned others were also dozing off as they walked up.  It was insane.  I decided that I needed to occupy my mind but I was too tired to alphabetize countries or come up with some other mental activity.

Looking at the Southern Cross, which someone pointed out, gave me something think about (or try to look at without tripping).  Some folks had music in their portable devices but I had not brought mine.  I actually wanted to listen to the folks stepping on the mountain, focus on the quietness of the surroundings.  I like not feeling “trapped” within myself when it comes to sounds.

A “happy” place.  Say what?

Towards the end of the third hour, our lead guide, Luis, told us that we needed to be sure we were not spending our every last drop of energy in the remaining part of the climb.  I thought to myself  “huh?”.  He said that coming down would be very hard too so it was important we managed our exertion level.  I was not sure how we would do that but then I started thinking maybe he was trying to subtly tell some people to give up their daypack…

Then, he said, “guys, the next few hours are going to be very hard; find your happy place because you are going to need it”.  I remember thinking, in my tiredness, “my happy place?  my happy place?  what IS that??  a beach?  no.  wine?  no, wine is not a place.”  I had no energy to conjure a happy spot I didn’t have previously.  And then, all of a sudden, the faces of my sister’s, cousins’ and friends’ kids came to mind.  Their smiley, happy faces.  So I started calling roster on all of them seeing those smiley faces.  I had found my happy place.  And it kept me distracted easily for another hour.  I say “easily” because I think it is after an hour of that that my memory goes blank…

Yes, what happened in the last 2-3 hours prior to Stella Point are a big blank.  I have no idea what happened, when we stopped, what was I thinking, nothing, nada, nil.  Comparing notes with others later, I am not the only one to whom that happened.  We had been told the last bit before reaching Stella Point would be scree (small pebbles) so for every step forward, there would be a step back.  I have no recollection of scree, of steps forward, or steps back.

And then it happened… Steeeeeeeellllllaaaaa!

So I was in some zone when all of a sudden, to my right, I see a glimmer of light on the horizon.  Sunrise is beginning!  It was like an injection of adrenaline straight to my heart – and mind.  Watching the sun rise and trying to take good pictures became the priority as we continued walking up.  I was awake!

Sunrise from Kilimanjaro as we neared Stella Point

Glorious!

The sun finally broke through the horizon and we could see that Stella Point was just like 20 minutes away.  It was one of THE most incredible moments in my life.  You see, at that moment, I had no doubt I would make it (though how could I really tell how the higher altitude and serious lack of oxygen would hit me 20 mins later?).  It didn’t matter, I just knew I was A-OK!

We hit Stella Point and I couldn’t believe how quickly it came upon us (I don’t think I could see it from the final approach).  This was unbelievable.  I was at over 18,000 ft and would only have one more hour up to Uhuru Peak after a short break at Stella Point.  We laughed, hugged, and even teared up some.

Some of the trekkers and guides at Stella Point on Kilimanjaro

Some of the trekkers and guides at Stella Point (I am on the far left)

My eyes couldn’t believe the view outside of the mountain and INTO the mountain.  Remember the top of Mount Kilimanjaro is a crater from a long-extinct volcano.

Kilimanjaro crater

Looking around the top of Kili

Immediately the picture-taking began in front of the brand-spanking-new green sign with yellow letters (TERRIBLE design… you had to be RIGHT IN FRONT OF IT for the letters to show well in a photo).  In any case, pictures were taken and then we proceeded to get to Uhuru Peak…  Time was of the essence as, at that altitude, you do not want to linger despite the fact that we noticed tents in the crater.  In any case, we had to mosey to the peak and we couldn’t dilly daddle.  We had to move.

Uhuru Peak, here we come!

Mt. Kilimanjaro used to be covered in glaciers.  Today, the glaciers are there but they are not as dominant as they must have been.  They are expected to disappear completely in a few decades.  Still, seeing them from a distance was impressive with the African horizon behind them.

Glaciers atop Kilimanjaro

Glaciers atop Kilimanjaro

The hour walk (or maybe 45 mins?) up to Uhuru was much easier and less steep than the prior few hours though we still went up 660 feet (200 m) or so to reach it.

Trekker and guide walking up to Uhuru Peak in Kilimanjaro

Said and I headed to Uhuru Peak

Everyone was in great spirits and then…  we saw it – the big green sign marking Uhuru Peak!!!  WE WERE THERE!  Laughter, smiles, even some jumping-for-joy all around.  We caught up with the first group and it was so awesome to see all of us together at the peak – the probabilities were that they would be already on their way down when we got to Uhuru or (hopefully not) that they wouldn’t reach it.  So the fact that we all were there together, this group that had been together for about 10 days, was truly priceless.

At Uhuru Peak

One of the many celebratory photos taken: here with Liz and Len Stanmore

Immediately we got close to the sign to wait our turn to stand in front of it and capture the moment in a photo.  Phenomenal moment of joy for all of us.  And just as happy as we were, our guides were beaming that we had all make it – asante sana, guys!

And so reaching the summit of Kilimanjaro comes to an end

The story of the descent is for another post – and the descent was painful.  However, I will share one reflection here about having reached the summit…  Even if I had surrendered my daypack no one moved my legs forward and upward for me, as Luis our lead guide told us once at base camp.  Every step I took on that blessed mountain was my own.  That is the real achievement here for each trekker:  the strength of will and of body to push forward and upward when you think you don’t have it all together, when you feel the next big rock may be the one that tips the climb over for you and sends you back to camp, when you don’t know what is your “happy place”.  I will treasure what I learned that early morning the rest of my life.

At Uhuru Peak, the summit of Kilimanjaro

A very happy trekker at Uhuru Peak!

Back to Day 5

… On to the descent

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Other posts about the Kilimanjaro trek:

–  Preparing for the hike is more than training and gear

–  The Machame Route:  our way up

–  7 things you will not see me without as I climb Kili

–  Day 1 of the hike (starting the climb!)

–  Day 2 of the hike (getting to Shira Camp)

–  Day 3 of the hike (the Lava Tower and hail)

–  Day 4 of the hike (Barranco Wall)

–  Interview with fellow Kili climber and Ultimate Global Explorer

Kilimanjaro Hike: Day 5 – Rocks Everywhere

Ah, the final day before summit.  Day 5 was taking us to the promised land of summit base camp for the Machame Route.  Not a day too soon.  Sure, one more day of acclimatization would have only helped.  But after four spectacular days, now I was beginning to crave reaching the summit.

Hiking the Machame Route from the Karanga Camp

The day began as all the days with the morning routines that set us up for the day’s hike.  The tedious, the necessary, and the helpful all were taken care of and we took off from the Karanga Camp at 13,800 ft (4,200 m) for a seemingly short 3.7 miles (6 km) hike up to the Barafu Camp at 15,100 ft (4,600 m) (at that altitude, short walks are challenging!).  Did I mention that after all these days of sleeping bags, tents, daypack, large backpack, jackets, zippable hiking pants, rain gear, etc. one gets REALLY tired of zippers?  Velcro all the way, bay-bee!!!  (Thanks, Sarah for your help fixing zippers!)

Rocky terrain on the Machame Route headed to Barafu Camp on Day 5 of the Kilimanjaro climb

Me helpfully pointing the way, like a modern Columbus. Rock on trekkers, so to speak  (Photo courtesy of K. Shuman)

Day 5 Headed to Barafu Camp on the Machame Route over rocky terrain in Mt. Kilimanjaro

Happy that I showed them the way (lol!), I trail with the stylish plastic bag over my daypack. Not sure why. Not a cloud on the sky.  (Photo courtesy of K. Shuman)

The route was devoid of vegetation.  Rocks everywhere.  Small rocks though.  Like debris almost.  And some neat views, as usual on this mountain!

Great view of Mt. Meru, close to Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania

Great view of Mt. Meru as the group treks on.  (Photo courtesy of K. Shuman)

Mt. Mawenzi, one of the 3 peaks on Kilimanjaro

Mt. Mawenzi, one of the 3 peaks on Kilimanjaro; it peaks at over 16,000 ft.

Our time at the Barafu Camp

The Barafu Camp was a camp of sorts for us:  we were setting up as usual except we were NOT going to spend the night at this camp.  You see, at night, midnight specifically, we would we leaving this camp to summit.  But that, my friends, is Day 6 so out of scope for this post!

Approach to Barafu Camp in Mt. Kilimanjaro

Our final approach to Barafu Camp (Photo courtesy of K. Shuman)

Signing in at Barafu Camp

At the camp hut to sign in. The stylish looking guy with a plastic bag, an orange jacket, a buff sipping water through a hose… That’s not me…

This camp was VERY rocky.  I had to mind almost every step to not trip or step on a rock that would give way from under me.  To walk around our tent to reach the vestibule on the back (vestibule is a generous term; it was a place to put our bags zipped away and protected from any rain), we had to be extremely careful.

Barafu Camp in Mt. Kilimanjaro

Me trying to make my way around all the darned rocks! (Photo courtesy of K. Shuman)

I woke up in the middle of  one of my naps once it was dark to go to the toilet-tent and, though there was a full moon (it was beautiful especially on summit night), while minding the rocks, I missed noticing the cable holding another tent down and I almost had my face meet a rock that would have likely broken my nose or jaw (and end my attempt to summit).  Luckily as I started falling, I caught my balance and didn’t hit the ground.  BIG whew.  And added respect for the camp…

In any case, this camp was a little bit surreal because of the landscape.  We were also on a steeper slope than we had been at any other camp.  However, always looking for the bright side, some of us concluded that at least we were towards the “exit” of the camp on the way to the summit so we would save, oh, about 4 minutes once we started heading up to the summit…

Barafu Camp in Mt. Kilimanjaro's Machame Route

Barafu Camp – see what I mean about the slope??!!

Though we were not staying overnight, this camp was very important.  We were to have a nice late lunch and then do two very important things:

1.  Pack/Prepare for departing for summit at midnight.

2.  Resting/Sleeping whatever we could to have more energy for the climb that night and to also allow our bodies to get as used as possible to the higher altitude.

Trekkers happy in Mt. Kilimanjaro

Three very happy -if tired- trekkers at Barafu. Myself with the awesome Laura and Kristin!

Being active after getting to camp was not the best thing to do as the body would not get to recover.  So we were advised that whether we napped or not, that we lay down for as long as possible.  Not being one to ignore advice from experts, after lunch I did all I could do to prep for that night’s departure (we were stopping at this camp after coming down from the summit) and proceeded to get comfy and lay down.

I was very pleased that I napped (can’t recall how long a nap but it was long) not once but twice with the final one leading me to wake up around 10:30 PM which was great!  I was able to say bye to the first group of 4 from our group to depart (they were leaving an hour early to be sure they had ample time to make it to the summit by sunrise).  Then I took care of a few things before sitting back down at the same mess tent where I had just said goodbye to our first group an hour before to wait for our own departure.

I couldn’t wait to get going… – but, wait, that’s midnight so that story is part of Day 6!

Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania

The summit beckons…

Back to Day 4

…  on to Day 6 – summit night !

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Other posts about the Kilimanjaro trek:

–  Preparing for the hike is more than training and gear

–  The Machame Route:  our way up

–  7 things you will not see me without as I climb Kili

–  Day 1 of the hike

–  Day 2 of the hike

–  Day 3 of the hike

–  Interview with fellow Kili climber and Ultimate Global Explorer

How to Plan a Trip – and then Increase Scope: The Desire to Travel!

When I decided earlier this year on doing the trek in Romania, little did I know how a one week trek was going to become a 16-day trip – but I am talented that way:  plan a vacation and then add more than originally intended to practically double its duration and scope!  Let me share with you how that happens to me using this trip as an example.  I will also use this post to lay out the overall trip to Moldova and Romania so that, as I write about it, readers can see how it all comes together…

Note:  I hope you subscribe to the blog (if you have not already done so) so you can keep up with the writings and read as you have the time.  The trip was incredibly different for me and I hope what I share helps give a better glimpse into these countries!!

First Things First:  What Led Me to Take a Trip Now and to Romania?

Fine questions!  As I announced in a prior post, the main purpose of this trip was to go on trek with Trekking for Kids to help an orphanage in Romania by raising funds for projects to improve the orphanage and also to just be with the kids and bring them something different from their day to day.  More about the orphanage part of the trip later but I will say now that if you want to help children around the world and tackle some great mountains (Everest base camp, Kilimanjaro, Machu Picchu, etc.), you should look into Trekking for Kids.

Trekking for Kids

An Itinerary Takes Shape, with Some Randomness

On to how I planned my itinerary….  The trek was about a week so I knew I had to take advantage of getting to that part of Europe to see something more.  Can’t waste a good and dear trans-Atlantic crossing…

Among the choices was a return trip to the Greek islands (for R&R after the hike; something I would have really enjoyed), or visiting any of the countries that surround Romania.  Of those countries, I had already gone to Bulgaria so that left the Ukraine, Moldova, Hungary and Serbia – none of which I had visited.  I eliminated the last 2 as I felt those are easier to get to from places like Austria, Croatia, etc. so I w0uld be more likely to see them in the future.  That left the Ukraine and Moldova. Moldova started peeking my curiosity as it is so much less known to me and, likely, to my compatriots.  As I researched the country, it sounded like it had some interesting things so that became the destination.

My plans then were to land in Bucharest and go to Moldova ahead of the hike part of the trip.  I proceeded to research hotels in Chisinau, the capital of Moldova (pronounced KISH-now).  I had not yet figured out how I was going to see the country and what it had to offer.  As I read reviews in Trip Advisor for hotels, I ran into a comment that a reviewer from the UK had made about a guide he hired for a one-on-one tour of Moldova.  I sent the reviewer a few questions and with his strong endorsement of this guide, I proceeded to contact the guide, Dumitru, to see what itinerary he would recommend for a 2-3 day visit and what the costs would be.  Dumitru offered several options and mentioned, in passing, that he could pick me up in Iasi, Romania if I wanted.  Immediately curiosity kicked in as I wondered why he would think I would go to Iasi.  There had to be a reason…

So off I went to research Iasi.  Turns out it is considered to be the cultural capital of Romania and that it had a hotel designed by Monsieur Eiffel himself.  That was all I needed to hear but now I had more logistics to research and more time on my vacation calendar to slice off.  (I will say here and likely repeat in a future blog how great Dumitru was!  Should you need a guide in eastern Romania or Moldova, hit me up for his email.)

Researching Trips Rocks

If you are thinking to yourself “this guy must love researching stuff”, you would be correct.  Doing research for me is the beginning of the trip:  I started learning the moment I started studying the maps of Moldova and Romania, or when I read some bloggers’ writings about these places, or when I chatted with a fellow Twitter friend about his trip through the Transniestra…

Figuring out the Logistics…

In any case, I decided due to my arrival date in Romania and the start of the hike that I could not afford taking the train from Bucharest to Iasi.  While distances are not long some times in Eastern Europe, what I consistently found out or heard was how artificially long the train rides are; case in point, a 6-7 hour drive from Chisinau to Bucharest could take twice that by train!  So I decided to fly to Iasi the morning after arriving in Bucharest foregoing looking at the landscape as I traveled.  Once in Iasi, I would have that afternoon and evening to explore it (almost enough time).  The next morning, I would be picked by my Moldovan guide, and then fly back to Bucharest from Chisinau, Moldova 2 days later.

My 3 days in Moldova would mostly be centered in the middle region of the country given where most of the key sites are but a trip north was planned to visit an important fortress in the town of Soroca on the Ukrainian border.

Romania

Once in back in Romania, the situation required less planning as most of it was handled by the trek organizers.  I only needed to take care of my hotel after returning from Moldova and plan my sightseeing the day after.  The trekkers would spend one night together in Bucharest before heading to Transylvania (the town of Brasov – prounounced BRAH-shov) where our trek and orphanage work would be “headquartered” for the next week.

The Travels I Did – A Map

I find a map helps visualize things so I quickly marked on this Romania/Moldova map the key travel routes and the method of transport I ended up using.  Clearly, I did not see all that Romania has to offer.  I hear Sibiu, Timisoara and Cluj-Napoca are well worth seeing too.

By the way, as a footnote, there is some kinship between Romania and Moldova.  In fact, the languages are practically the same and there are many cross-border family ties as, at some point in history, they were both one country.  Apparently, it is still a topic today (reunification or not), but I do not know enough to explain the situation here… Suffice it to say that Moldova has, itself, a region in the east that wants to separate from Moldova (it’s called the Transniestra and it was in the news in the 1990s due to civil war-like clashes with the Moldovan government)!

Romania Moldova Map

Final Itinerary and Key Activities in Romania and Moldova

To sum it all up and serve as a guide to writings I will create (I will add links here as the writings are published), here is a detailed itinerary of the trip…

Day 1 – Depart Atlanta, connect in Amsterdam, and land in Bucharest at midnight local time.

Day 2 – Depart Bucharest in the morning and land in Iasi in the morning.

Day 3 – Be picked up by my Moldova tour guide in Iasi and cross the border into Moldova.  Visit the Frumoasa and Curchi monasteries.  Brief stop in Orhei.  Visit Chateau Vartely, have lunch, and sample the wines.

Day 4 – Tour Chisinau, and travel to Soroca.

Day 5 – Visit the Milestii Mici winery and the Capriana Monastery.  Fly to Bucharest.

Day 6 – Sightsee in Bucharest, including its Palace of Parliament, and meet the hike group.

Day 7 – Travel by road to Brasov (3-4 hrs).  Explore Brasov and visit the orphanage.

Day 8 – Begin the hike on the Wallachian side of the Carpathian Mountains.

Day 9 – Second day of the hike into Transylvania via the Strunga Pass.

Day 10 – Third day of the hike.

Day 11 – Final day of the hike and night out in Brasov.

Day 12 – Explore more of Brasov.  Afternoon and evening at the orphanage with football (soccer) match included.

Day 13 – Hike with the kids.  Return to Bucharest.

Day 14 – Depart for Paris.

Day 15 – Hang out with nothing seriously planned in Paris.

Day 16 – Fly back home!

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If you can relate to this approach to trip planning and/or have stories of your own, I’d love to hear them!

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