Hiking in Nepal: Namche Bazaar and a View of Everest (Day 3)

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After the grueling climb to Namche Bazaar, it was REALLY nice to arrive at the Khumbu Lodge for a two-night stay as an acclimatization day for the group headed to Everest Base Camp.  I liked the Khumbu Lodge as it had all the amenities I “longed for” (sounds so dramatic!) and the staff and service were great.  I think the group as a whole liked it a lot.  Good start to our time in Namche!  (No, I did not get a free stay or perks for writing this.  I, like my companions, really liked this lodge!)

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The Khumbu Lodge in the center of the photo

We sat in the dining room catching up on Internet-based things and rested before showering and getting ready for dinner.  I loved the almost 270 degree view from the dining room and the spaciousness of the room.

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Namche Bazaar from the dining room

Namche Bazaar is the most sizable town on the route to Everest Base Camp.  It is nestled on the side of a mountain, carved on its sides sort of auditorium style.  Its alleys are covered with steps and unevenness so one better pay attention – no smooth sidewalk in sight!  (I exaggerate perhaps just a little…).  Of course, it is loaded with souvenir shops but also all the practical places needed for life as a local and as a trekker (drug stores, food markets, coffee shops, etc.).

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A typical ‘street’ in Namche Bazaar

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View over Namche Bazaar

Our schedule had us doing a short hike on the morning on day 3 to a point at the edge of the town, high up, with a fantastic view of Mt. Everest in the distance with Lhotse next to it (the world’s fourth tallest mountain).  We spent a good bit of time on photos and just enjoying the beautiful spot and sunny day.  The short hike was  steep so it was a good warmup for day 4 when we would exit past that same point.  There was a small museum at the top of the climb that was well worth the time to check out and learn more about the area.

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At the monument honoring Sherpa Tenzing Norgay

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Everest on the left and Lhotse on the right

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Everest, Lhotse and Ama Dablam on the right

Coming back down we made a stop at another local private museum, the Sherpa Culture Museum, at a place where Sir Edmund Hillary had camped on his way up and that he later visited a few times when a hotel was established.  It had a neat collection of household items from the region and also a short movie as well as a souvenir shop (the other one was a public museum with no shop).

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Ticket to the Sherpa Culture Museum

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Map on the Sherpa Museum ticket

Sherpa Culture Museum

Sherpa Culture Museum

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Typical Tibetan design in a window at Namche Bazaar

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Yep, this is the real thing. Good for burning in a stove…

Later that day, I was thrilled to discover Hermann Bakery where I ate a nice pastry and enjoyed a latte.  Plus, we got to used a very fast Internet connection (that I could also tap from my hotel room!) which always makes me happy.

This last photo will be the image of Namche Bazaar that sticks with me forever – a gorgeous spot in the Himalayas!

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View from the lodge’s dining room

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Read on:  Day 4 – To my turning point: Deboche

 

Hiking in Nepal: On the Way to Namche Bazaar! (Day 2)

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On Day 2, we left our teahouse in the tiny spot of Tok Tok (9,000  ft / 2,800 m) at around 8:45AM to head, following the route to Everest Base Camp, to Namche Bazaar, a rather bigger town than most in the area (actually, THE biggest).  This would have us climb over 2,000 ft in the last 2.5 hours of the hike that day, a rather ambitious and challenging effort (except for the super fit and those used to the altitude, perhaps – I fell under neither success category…).

Leaving our spot in Tok Tok, we stood for a group photo as one of the trekkers was not continuing beyond Tok Tok.

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Group photo!

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Our first bridge of the day was right outside the teahouse – watch out for the pack animals!

On the trail to Everest Base Camp…

Soon thereafter, off we went walking on terrain that was becoming familiar to us:  rocks, dirt, steps, pack animals, farms, debris from the earthquake, reconstruction, and the river.  It is a rugged but peaceful terrain; except when the pack animals come – at that point you make a quick move towards the inside of the trail, not the side facing the steep dropoff!  On this day, we would cross the river four times if memory serves me right.

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Steep climbs every day!

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Pack animals: these were carrying a very light load

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Typical stop for trekkers

Entering the Sagarmatha National Park

Later that morning, we officially entered the Sagarmatha National Park (which is the park where Mt. Everest sits) via the Jorsalle gate (which is right outside of Monju on the way to Jorsalle).  There was signage offering good advice for trekkers in dealing with acute mountain sickness (there are always those who are unprepared…).  More importantly we passed a traditional kani gate which incorporates prayer wheels and colorful paintings on the walls and ceilings.  This gate marks our entrance in the sacred valley of the Sherpa (a term that refers to an ethnic group, not a job, as we learned…):  the Khumbu.  I loved the rules suggested to those who enter the valley (see photo).

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The kani gate marking the entrance to the sacred valley

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Ceiling painting

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Wall painting and the ever-present prayer wheels at the kani gate

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Warnings about acute mountain sickness

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Follow these rules!

Breaks from the trail:  tea and food

While the actual walk is rewarding despite the challenging parts, one of my favorite moments is when we stop 🙂  Yes, it is about getting a break from the effort.  But it is also about the camaraderie over that cup of tea, lemon or mint with the latter being my favorite.  As we all have different paces, non-walking time is when we get to share with those we don’t keep up pace with (or those who can’t slow down easily!).  After tackling the first mile (which was not a walk in the park), we made a restroom stop at Benkar but did not even sit-  this was not our morning break for tea.

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Brief stop to use the ‘facilities’ and take a snack out

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Resuming our hike with a nice downhill

So we trudged along and, after we entered the Sagarmatha NP, we later hit our morning break at Monju (or Monzo) at a place that I would stop at on the way back to Lukla.  The outdoor terrace was very spacious and comfortable (perhaps because we were the only ‘crowd’ there) and the temperature was great so we enjoyed sitting in the terrace sipping our tea!

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Tea time in Monju!

And then we proceeded to Jorsalle where, not 30 minutes later, we would have lunch outdoors by the river at a teahouse there.  It was a great stopping point right by the trail (as most are).  It was a good break before the final push, and I mean PUSH, to Namche Bazaar – we would be starting a serious vertical climb over a rather short horizontal distance.  Heaven help me!  We left our lunch ‘resting place’ at around 1 PM.

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Approaching Jorsalle, our lunch ‘town’

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Lunch time in the sun!

Bridges crossing the Dudh Kosi River

Before I get to the monster climb…  This day was made fun by the many bridges low and high, short and long we would cross.  If you are not a fan of suspension bridges, this may not be your favorite day but the most important thing to mind are the pack animals, not the height of the bridges!  Here are some images from the “day in bridges.”

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Pack animals have right of way – if you are smart!

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Lovely scenery from the bridge’s vantage point

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One of the smaller bridges we dealt with

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Beautiful spot (notice the prayer flags)!

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Loved walking this close to the Dudh Koshi River

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And then we got to this… (the bottom bridge is closed now)

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And we are about to walk across the highest one!

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View down from the highest suspension bridge

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View down from the highest suspension bridge

And our awesome endpoint:  Namche Bazaar

The route to Everest Base Camp is not a steady uphill.  No place ever is (even Mt. Kilimanjaro has its downhills as you climb) but this was as much going down as you have gone up in many stretches.

In fact, this day, on a 5.3-mile (8.5 km) route, our net climb was around 2,300 ft (about 800 m) – we climbed much more (upwards of 4,000 ft) and descended a good bit.  But after lunch what we faced was mostly a severe uphill, especially after the last suspension bridge (the highest one).  And the trail was very rugged to boot.  Hard stuff.  I didn’t know how I could finish it.  And remember, we were climbing to our end point at over 11,300 ft (3,400 m) so the thin air was having an impact (as a reference point, once in Namche Bazaar, we would be at 67% oxygen level vs. sea level!!).  I had to stop every now and then just to catch my breath especially after a stretch where the ‘steps’ (rocks) were higher. Not knowing how much more I really had was both a blessing and a curse.  Certainly I would not want to know how much more most of the way but maybe during the last 30 minutes I would have wanted to know that Namche was THAT close.

With the incredible climb at the end, Namche Bazaar could not have come sooner.   So, it was awesome when we rounded a corner about 2.5 hours after lunch and we saw this town incredibly nested in what looked like mother nature’s own amphitheater:  Namche Bazaar!  It was a photo op moment for sure and we had earned the rest day coming up on Day 3!

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I shall name this photo: “The first time I saw sweet Namche”

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The moment I stopped when I rounded the corner – best moment ever!

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My trek roommate and I celebrating we had survived

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Check out other related posts!

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

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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

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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

Flying into Dangerous Lukla Airport in Nepal

Lukla, airport, Nepal, dangerous, Himalayas, travel, flight, airplane, landing, takeoff, runway

I recall seeing a few years ago a TV show about the world’s ten most dangerous airports. Tegucigalpa, St. Maarten and a few others made the list.  And so did Lukla, Nepal.  Lukla is the typical starting point for anyone trekking along the route to Everest Base Camp, or to other points in the Himalayas. The alternative to the 35-min flight to Lukla (LUA) from Kathmandu is a long bus ride plus a few days of trekking to reach Lukla. I was not thrilled at the prospect but there really was no realistic choice.

Heading to Lukla

The Lukla airport was built by none other than Sir Edmund Hillary himself in 1965 to facilitate developing the trekking business the local population needed; it was just a dirt airstrip until just 1999.  Flights in and out of Lukla (a town of a few thousand inhabitants perched high at around 2,840m / 9,300 ft above sea level) mainly fly in the morning when the weather and visibility are what they need to be for a successful flight (read: does not crash).  Only planes that can handle short takeoff and landings can operate from Lukla as the runway is only 1,500 ft long.  Flights can easily be canceled for the day if the conditions are not right which could be more than one day in a row, leaving hundreds stranded in this small hamlet.  So beyond the flight involving a “dangerous” airport, one gets to worry about will the flight even go and what happens to the rest of the itinerary if the day is bust…  In any case, there are several airlines that run flights continuously in the morning to and from Lukla.  It is like a bus service of sorts with planes making quick turnarounds at either airport to take advantage of the right weather.

Lukla, Tara Air, boarding pass, Nepal, flight, airline, travel, Everest

Boarding pass to Lukla

The domestic terminal in Kathmandu is small and easy once you get past the chaos of getting to the airline counter and checking in.  After being dropped off, we walk along a covered walkway to a building in the back past a new building under construction.  The old building was old indeed but it was functional.  Once the flight is called (other Lukla flights were called too), we stepped out and there were 2-3 buses awaiting to take people to their planes.  It was a bit confusing and finally someone pointed us to our bus based on our boarding pass.

The plane sat maybe 20 people and we were not full.  I got a seat on the left so I would be facing north (towards the Himalayas).  Unfortunately, the windows were very dirty which assured that photos would not be National Geographic material (that is my excuse anyway…).  Gosh, if they’d let us, I would have gotten off the plane pre-takeoff and cleaned my window!

Himalayas, Nepal, window seat, airplane, flight, Tara Air, Lukla

The taller Himalayas via dirty window

Himalayas, Nepal, window seat, airplane, flight, Tara Air, Lukla

At times, the ground was not far below us…

Himalayas, Nepal, window seat, airplane, flight, Tara Air, Lukla

Small village – one can see the local stupa left of center

Before taking off, the flight attendant (yes, there is one) checked our seat belts were fastened and handed out hard candy (to choke on when the plane jumped?? no, thanks) and cotton balls for our ears.  That and getting us in and out of the plane was all she had time to really do on such a short flight.

Dangerous Airport?

The danger reputation stems from the fact that the runway starts at the edge of the mountain and runs uphill (a 12% grade) until either the plane has stopped and turned or, it has met the wall.

Lukla, airport, Nepal, dangerous, Himalayas, travel, flight, airplane, landing, takeoff, runway

The full runway (control tower on the right)

I have read and was told by a pilot that part of the issue with landing is that the uphill nature of the runway (the far end being higher than the end nearer to the pilot) can trick the eye giving a false sense to the pilot of the aircraft’s vertical position before landing, potentially leading to accidents.

Lukla, airport, accident, danger, Nepal, runway, flight

A plane meets the wall

On the reverse (the takeoff), either the plane catches air at the end of the runway or it drops when the runway runs out until it catches lift.

Lukla, airport, flights, Nepal, runway

See what I mean about “up or drop” (Source: www.theaustralian.com)

Truthfully, and maybe naively, neither landing nor takeoff worried me. What worried me was the turbulence that can be encountered on the way to and from Lukla.  Not helping with things was the name of our airline:  Tara Air.  I was happy until someone pronounced it “terror” air which sent images flying all across my brain of a small plane jumping around due to high winds – a terror inducing ride ahead?  Tara Air, Lukla, Kathmandu, Nepal, flight, airline, airport, Himalayas, trekking

Upon boarding, I looked into the seat pocket in front of me and found the air sickness bag which left no doubt as to what its purpose was…Tara Air, Lukla, Nepal, air sickness bag, vomit bag

The flight into Lukla had gone very smoothly – no turbulence at all!  And then we started circling.  I was thinking to myself:  “so close and now we start circling” – was it weather-related, I wondered?  The delay turned out to not be about fog or weather issues and we experienced no turbulence. Lukla airport only has four parking spots for the planes so we had to wait for a plane to take off to get a spot.  The flight back from Lukla was also completely smooth giving me a 2-for-2 no-turbulence flights.

Back to landing in Lukla:  it was pretty darn cool as the small plane’s cockpit was open to us so we could see the runway ahead as we landed – or the mountains we were flying into before that!

Lukla, airport, flight, Nepal, cockpit, cockpit view, Himalayas, airplane

The view out of the cockpit

Leaving Lukla, the plane actually took off the ground before the runway ended so no drop was experienced, maybe to the chagrin of those in the plane who love roller-coasters – but not me!  Here is a video of my own takeoff – notice when we leave the runway before it ends (it is a noisy video so make sure you are not at max volume!).

In the end, as you may surmise, this was a far better choice than the bus and the walk 🙂  And now I can say I “survived” one of the world’s “most dangerous” airports!

ilivetotravel, Raul Pino, flying, window seat, travel, Lukla, Nepal, Tara Air

Happy flyer

How Does One Pack for A Trek in Nepal?

hiking, trekking, packing, Nepal, trip, travel

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!

hiking, trekking, packing, Nepal, trip, travel

 

On the Camino de Santiago I Went – Another Pilgrim

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The Camino de Santiago, or the Way of St. James, is an ancient pilgrimage indeed with a timeline of over 1,000 years.  Pilgrims from all over Europe would come from far and near to visit the place where St. James (or Santiago) is buried:  under the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain (Galicia, to be more precise).

Camino, Santiago, St. James, The Way, pilgrimage, Europe, routes, travel, trekking, journey

A map in O Cebreiro showing the many routes pilgrims took from all over Europe to get to NW Spain

In modern days, though, not all who “do” the Camino are necessarily doing it for spiritual reasons but I would find hard to believe that most don’t get something spiritual out of the sacrifice and effort doing the Camino requires.

The Camino is a joy not only for the experience of trekking these ancient “ways”.  I have to admit that the social and culinary were also part of my Camino.

croqueta, food, Spain, Camino, foodporn, foodie, delicious, travel, photo

One of my favorites from my childhood re-encountered in the Camino: croquetas!

I will aim to share about the experience in a couple of different ways in this and upcoming posts:

  • The first way will be to simply share what everyday was like using photographs and other thoughts – whether you ever plan to or want to do it.
  • The second will be by sharing what I did to prepare and do the Camino, in case you are yourself hoping to, or actually planning to, do the Camino.

Why I went

I first learned more about the Camino when I met a co-worker back in 2003 who had just done the Camino from St. Jean Pied de Port – so about 30 days’ worth of trekking (close to 800km or 500 miles).  It all sounded hard and just too much time.  Over the years, as we became good friends, I enjoyed hearing stories about what the Camino was like and the friendships he struck along the way.  It made me curious about the Camino though I never thought I would want to “walk” for 30 days.

Years later, as I got more into trekking/hiking, I started thinking that I -some day- would want to do it (or part of it, to be more precise).  Watching the movie “The Way” helped inspire me but not tons more.  The coup de grace was when an organization I do treks with, Trekking for Kids, announced they would do a trek to do the Camino in the summer of 2014.  That sealed the deal.  Combining both my desire to do the Camino with the mission of Trekking for Kids (to improve the lives of orphaned and at-risk children around the world) was the perfect reason to go.

Trekking for Kids, trek, Bayti Centre, voluntourism, Essaouira, Morocco, travel, photo

The group of trekkers and the children and staff of the Bayti Centre in Essaouira

How we did the Camino de Santiago

The Trekking for Kids trek mixed a few days at a center for at-risk children in Essaouira, Morocco, called Bayti Centre, followed by seven days on the Camino (read more about our time at the Bayti Centre here).  Because the overall trek had to be kept to less than two weeks, the starting point of the Camino had to be picked such that we could do the minimum required distance (100km for those walking; 200km for those cycling) to be able to get the “compostela” (or the certificate issued in Santiago de Compostela that validates that you did the Camino) yet stay within the desired overall trip duration.  In addition, it had to allow for the travel day or two between Morocco and the start of the hike.

The preferred route was the traditional Camino Francés which is sort of parallel to the northern coast of Spain but further inland.  It is likely the most popular route of all though I wonder how the other routes are (and secretly hope I can check out some day!).

This meant we would need to start the hike at the last possible point we could and still meet the minimum walking requirements:  the town of Sarria, which meant we would do more than the 100km minimum (at least, 110km).  There were, however, a couple of important towns right before Sarria that were worth seeing (O Cebreiro and Samos), yet we did not have time to hike through them (would have required one or two more hiking days) – so the itinerary included driving through these towns before being dropped off on the trailhead from which our hike would start.

Our Camino route

Our hiking itinerary was as follows (click on the Day to read the post for that day!):

  • Day 1:  Begin at Sarria.  After a very short (“warm-up”) hike, we would overnight at Barbadelo.
  • Day 2:  From Barbadelo to Portomarín
  • Day 3:  From Portomarín to Palas del Rei
  • Day 4:  From Palas del Rei to Boente
  • Day 5:  From Boente to Salceda
  • Day 6:  From Salceda to Lavacolla
  • Day 7:  From Lavacolla to Santiago.

The map that follows highlights in a blue oval the town of Sarria, our starting point (immediately to the right, you will see Samos; further to the right, you will notice O Cebreiro).  The purple line that connects the blue oval to Santiago de Compostela to the west (left, on the map) is the route of our itinerary.Galicia, Camino, Santiago, Compostela, camino frances, Frenc route, Sarria, map, pilgrimage

On to Day 1!

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The Machame Route: Our Route to the Top of Mt. Kilimanjaro

Moorland on Mt. Kilimanjaro, Tanzania

 (At the end of this post, see the series of posts written post-climb about this route!)

I am a few days away from leaving for Tanzania to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, the rooftop of AfricaEager anticipation and a modest level of anxiety are my constant companions these last few days before the trek…  How fun will it be to finally see the mountain?  Did I have the right pieces to deal with the extreme cold?  Will my body cooperate?  Will I summit?  etc.

As I do a final review of the gear list, I am checking against the hike itinerary to be sure I am accounting for the right number of pieces given the varying climate zones we will encounter.  Let me share with you what the climb of Mt. Kilimanjaro looks like.  Mind you, this itinerary is based on going up the Machame Route (one of several routes available).  The Machame Route is known to afford better altitude adjustment, offer better views, and typically have much less trekker traffic.  All of these make it -ding, ding- a winner for me.  Especially the better altitude adjustment since it increases the odds of summitting, something that is not assured even with a good fitness level since the lack of oxygen at high altitude can hit every person very differently.

Here is a view of the routes to climb Kilimanjaro to which you can refer as you read the day-by-day breakdown below.

Routes to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro

Source: apartmentinlakeview.com

Itinerary to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro via the Machame Route

Day 1Adrenaline day!!  Start at the Machame Gate at 1,800m/6,000ft.  Head up to Machame Camp at 3,100m/10,200ft.  It should take anywhere between 5-7 hrs depending on the number and duration of stops along the way.  We should be covering around 18km/11miles.  The habitat will mainly be forest.  I am praying that adrenaline will carry me through the mud or whatever we encounter on this part of the hike!

Day 2 “I can’t believe I am here” day.  Continuing the climb, we go to the Shira Camp at 3,840m/12,600ft.  This day we go for 4-6 hrs covering about 9km/5.5miles.  The habitat here is moorland.  You may ask what “moorland” looks like (like I did).  So here you go, courtesy of http://www.africaimagelibrary.com.  The landscape looks surreal, doesn’t it?

Moorland on Mt. Kilimanjaro, Tanzania

Day 3Reality check day!!  We leave the Shira Camp and move into semi-desert habitat.  We head to the Lava Tower at 4,630m/15,200ft but descend to 3.860m/12,700ft to camp overnight at the Barranco Camp at 3,860m/12,700ft.  As you may notice and wonder (like I did), why if we go up do we go through the effort of going BACK DOWN??!!!  Seems counter-intuitive but after hearing the explanation, it makes perfectly good sense:  you want to climb high to force the body to exert itself at altitude but then climb down so you can sleep at lower altitude (which means more oxygen) to help the body adjust better.  OK, maybe also just the lay of the route contributes to this approach.  This is the type of factor that helps improve the odds of making it to the summit.  This hike will take 5-7 hrs and cover about 15km/9miles.

Lava Tower in Mt. Kilimanjaro, Tanzania

Lava Tower (Source: scottkress.com)

Day 4“OK, how much worse can it be compared to yesterday” day.  This day we cross Alpine desert to go up to the Karanga Camp at 4,200m/13,800ft.  This day we go up, and stay up.  But we are not camping at the maximum height reached the day before so we are still sleeping lower than our maximum exertion the day before.  Total time climbing should be around 4-5 hrs covering about 7km/4miles.

Day 5The “are we there yet?” day.  Continuing to climb without descending, this day we move to 4,600m/15,100ft going for 4-6 hrs and covering 6km/3.7miles which seems a cake walk compared to the prior days given the shorter climb and duration but I am sure it will be anything but (you will see why as you read day 6)!  We will stay at the Barafu Camp this night.

Day 6 The big day!!  This day we actually wake up at midnight (midnight between day 5 and day 6 – which means little sleep which will make ilivetotravel a little cranky – if he can muster the energy for that!).  Why do we barely sleep this night?  So we can see sunrise at the summit!!!  It will be a long hard night for most of us as you can imagine.  My headlamp will absolutely be my second best friend after all the layers of clothing that will keep me warm.  Uhuru Peak (the tallest peak on Mt. Kilimanjaro) sits pretty at 5,896m/19,340ft.  It will take us 7-8 hrs to go 7km/4miles.  Yes, twice longer than the same distance on Day 4.  Why?  Well, it will be slower going due to the altitude.  Pole, pole (slowly, slowly in Swahili) will rule this day.  There will be ice/snow towards the summit and I hope to see the glacier that, it is said, will be gone in 30 years or so at the current rate.  Stone scree will also be present so our gaiters will play an important role in keeping stuff out of our boots.

On this same day, of course, we have to get off the summit.  So on to 7-8 more hrs. of descent to the Mweka Camp at 3,100m/10,200ft to what it will feel like drowning in oxygen!

Day 7The happy day!!!  OK, Day 6 will be a VERY HAPPY DAY for those of us who summit.  But Day 7 is happy in other ways – we get to celebrate our climb and we get to shower!!!  We climb down to the Mweka Gate which sits at 1,830m/6,000ft, walking down for 4 hrs and covering 10km/6miles through a forest habitat.  A beer will never taste as good as the one I am planning to have that night at dinner!

Again, another view of the route (there were a few good ones so I couldn’t just use one…).

Machame route to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro

Source: apartmentinlakeview.com

Climbing Kilimanjaro is not without risks

The key to a safe and successful climb is to be aware of what is ahead of you (literally and figuratively).  Going slowly, staying hydrated all the way, minding where you are walking, and very important:  listen to the lead guide and his aides.  We are lucky to have a veteran of Everest, Kili and the rest of the Seven Summits (tallest peaks in every continent) which makes me feel much better.  Able to detect altitude sickness early, knowing the landscape well, supportive leadership, etc. are very important traits in a lead guide and we have that in our lead guide, Luis Benitez, one of the leading high altitude mountaineers in the world.  In addition, I have been on a prior trek with Trekking for Kids and everything is well thought through and planned.  So Luis and TFK are what make me feel confident that I will have a safe and successful climb regardless of the highest point of my climb:  at the summit or somewhere on the way there!

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I have added to this post the writeups for each day AFTER the climb so you can read more about each day!  Also here is a post about the actual clothing I took to climb Kilimanjaro item by item with the corresponding explanations in case it helps you plan your own hike!

Day 1 – Getting Going

Day 2 – The Moorlands and Reaching the Shira Camp

Day 3 – A Lava Tower and then All Hail Broke Loose!

Day 4 – The Barranco Wall and Its Challenges

Day 5 – Rocks Everywhere!

Day 6 – Reaching Kilimanjaro’s Summit:  Uhuru Peak

The descent from Uhuru Peak

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

Map of Romania and Moldova

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!

Traveling for Good – A Trek in Romania

I have pondered may a-times how lucky I am that I can travel to places around the world mostly for personal reasons and sometimes even for business.  I, like many others, are blessed with the opportunities possible in this day and age to make long distance travel possible.  In 14 hrs I can be in Seoul should I choose.  50 yrs ago, maybe a lot less years ago, that trip would have taken much longer to do.  And on and on I could go about how good we have it.

And then I realized that I can do these trips not only because the world is smaller and technology facilitates many things.  I can travel because where I was born and where I live have afforded me opportunities to be in a good enough situation to travel, something many people in other less developed countries may never have.  But I go further the more I think about it:  even if I didn’t have the wherewithal to be able to travel, I still don’t have to worry about many basic things.  Malaria is not a threat in my country.  Water safety is not a concern (usually, anyway).  There is good medicine accessible within a mile or so from where I live.  Etc.

Many people in this world have to worry about such things.  Forget about whether they would have the wherewithal to travel abroad – they have to worry about the basics that you and I, dear reader, more than likely will never have to worry about.  Yes, we do have issues too but not at the scale of what a good portion of our fellow human beings have to worry about.

It is with that in mind that I decided to do a trek to help some folks who may have a lot less of the basics than most of us.  A friend of mine founded an organization a few years ago that organizes treks in support of orphanages around the world.  They have gone to base camp in Everest, to the top of Kilimanjaro, done the Camino in Spain, hiked to Machu Picchu, etc.  This July they are organizing a “lite” trek in the mountains of Romania – the Transylvanian Alps – and I have decided to join them for the first time!  The organization is called Trekking for Kids.  The trek will begin and end in Brasov in central Romania, an area with well-known beauty and famous (or infamous as the case may be) for Bran’s Castle that inspired the Dracula story (I even hate to mention it but had to!).

Trekkers raise funds that directly fund the projects that will be done for the targeted orphanage (capital improvements, sustainability-oriented projects, etc.).  Not only do we fundraise for the orphanage but we will pitch in with sweat equity while at the orphanage as well as just be with the children.

I am thrilled to be undertaking this challenge.  It is a lite trek but that is 4 days in a row of hiking and I have not done more than one day ever… My longest hike was over 20 yrs ago…  So I will share a little between now and July about preparations for the trek and then share with you the experience once the trek is done.  I am hoping my troublesome knee will cooperate as it has been acting up the last 3 years.  But I hope it all works out for the best first and foremost for the kids in that orphanage in Brasov, Romania!

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If you’d like to support the orphanage projects via Trekking for Kids via my trek, go to their site, click on “Donate” on the top right, go to the “Select Trek or Fund” box and select “Romania 2012”, and then (don’t forget!), select me as the Trekker you are supporting!  (If you prefer to pay by check, please email me so I can get the form to you which will also provide you with your tax receipt.)

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