Tag Archives: hiking

One last climb up a slippery slope

With five days left till the end of our trip, we weren’t planning on doing any more strenuous activities. Definitely not hiking anywhere in the Caucasus mountains near the Russian border. Not even though the leading robber baron of Svaneti (and his son), had been arrested and put behind bars in 2004. We were set on lazing about in Tblisi, maybe do our laundry, some souvenir shopping, or get a scrub in a hammam.

But when the outgoing guests at Leo’s Homestay went on and on about how great the Caucasus mountains near the Russian border were, we thought, what the heck, one more for the road.

So we hopped on a mashrutka (mini-bus) to the Tblisi bus station and then looked for another mashrutka headed to Kazbegi. The second mashrutka was full, but we found a taxi driver who offered to take us for 40 GEL (20 Euro), which was less than half the standard fare. We soon discovered that he was crazy. Apart from driving on the wrong side of the road and overtaking at blind corners, the guy made it a point to swear and menacingly point at every single cow (there were many) and dog on the road. All the way to Kazbegi.

Kazbegi is three hours from Tbilisi on the Georgian Military Highway, which is known for its potholes. By the way, these photos were taken from the mashrutka on the way back. We didn’t take any photos on the taxi ride there as we were busy being scared shitless

The Georgian Military Highway is an ancient passage from Tbilisi over the Caucasus to Vladikavkaz in Russia. The landscape, as you can see here, is amazing

There are a couple tunnels along the Georgian Military Highway. This is the only one that is still in use

We arrived in Kazbegi (1,750m asl) a good three hours later, a little peeved but at least still in one piece, and checked in to Emma’s Guest House  run by Leo’s friend, Piqria Burduli. It was a bargain too: comfortable rooms, great views, and good food (dinner and breakfast) for just GEL35 (17 Euro) per person.

In Kazbegi, which is the last town before the (now closed) Russian border. Google has set up a mini market here

Another photo of Kazbegi

There are apparently many wonderful walks to be had in the mountains surrounding Kazbegi. We tried to do the most basic one: a two hour walk up to the 14th-century Tsminda Sameba Church situated on a hill at 2,200m asl. Here’s the rest of story in pictures:

View from Emma’s Guest House. We tried to climb up to that church (the little dot on the hill in the middle)

Passing the small village of Gergeti to get to the foot of the hil

We got a bit lost in Gergeti. A girl and her dog then showed us a short cut

We then met some ladies who showed us another short cut

We overtook the ladies at some point

One set of legs gave up a short distance from the top. Luckily, there was space for us in a passing Lada Niva!

The view that made Kazbegi famous among backpackers. On a good day you can see mountains towering up around it, including Mt. Kazbek at 5,047m asl. Another 900m ascent from here will take you to the Gergeti glacier

The Tsminda Sameba church, which has become something of a symbol of Georgia. Beware of the dress code though: to enter, men need to be wearing long pants and women need to wear long skirts

View of Gergeti and Kazbegi from the top of the hill

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The Big Breakfast

Desperate to escape the heat and tedium of Batumi, we headed to the hills of Borjomi one day earlier than planned via the night train to Kashuri. After a sweaty start (the air-conditioning wasn’t switched on until much later), it turned out to be a pretty comfortable journey. We shared a cabin with a friendly Iranian who had gone to Batumi for some sea and sun. It turned out that he owned a jewellery shop in Tabriz and was also studying English (he had brought along his homework to do on the train). Visibly thrilled to find out that we were from Malaysia, he invited us to visit him in Iran.

The train was scheduled to arrive in Kashuri at 4.49am. We were up much earlier to keep an eye out for our stop. Just how we would recognise our stop, we weren’t actually sure, as the station signs were all in Georgian. But it turned out that there was no need to worry after all, as the train attendant was kind enough to wake up from his sleep to alert us as the train pulled into the station.

The marshutkas (mini buses) were not running yet, so we took a taxi to Borjomi. The taxi driver was chirpy and chatty throughout the 40 minute journey, even though it was five in the morning and we couldn’t understand a word he was saying.

We reached Leo’s Homestay at 5.45am and waited a good 15 minutes before giving Leo a wake-up call. We felt a little bit guilty when Leo and his mother, Marina emerged bleary eyed. While Marina began preparing breakfast, we followed Leo on his morning walk at the Mineral Water Park.

The Mineral Water Park was established in the 1850s, and had been a popular destination for Russian tourists, including the Tsars, during the Soviet era. The water here is said to have curative properties, namely for diabetes and various stomach related illnesses. The park also has a very nice amusement park as well as free wifi!

There are two types to choose from: cold river water (above photo), which is strangely carbonated and tastes just a little bit salty, or hot spring water, which is nice if you like sulphur. Here, Leo is showing us the gas bubbling up from the cold river water

This is Leo’s neighbour, who works at the Mineral Water Park. In the morning he cuts the grass with a long sickle, and in the afternoon he mans the trampolines. He’s 70 years old and still has a physique “like Stallone”. He took off his shirt to show us

We went back later that day to check out the hot swimming pool, which is a pleasant 2.5km walk through the woods behind the park. It seems that the thing to do here is to jump into the pool. Dylan tried it and soon discovered he’s not twenty-something anymore

Genius seems to run in Leo’s family. Leo himself is a champion pianist and chess player. He would delight his guests by performing one or two pieces on the piano each day, making the apartment seem like a concert hall (check out a live recording here). He also invited us to a game chess but we politely declined, not wanting to embarrass Malaysia. Marina taught herself to speak English, and is now one of the few people in town who can speak it. In her younger days, she also taught herself to read and write Russian, and spent her time translating a few Russian books to Georgian, just for fun.

While poverty was an obvious feature of Batumi, people here seemed to be better off (our indicator was that there was no one begging on the streets). Still, Leo says, jobs are hard to come by, and many are unemployed. No doubt due to their resourcefulness, Leo’s family seems to get by particularly well. A few years ago they turned their first floor, one-bedroom apartment into a guesthouse, and constructed a small wooden extension on the side, where Leo and his parents now sleep. The guesthouse can fit seven quite comfortably, with three beds in the original bedroom and four in the living room.

As there were few guests, we had the original bedroom to ourselves, for just 20 GEL (10 Euros) per person

Breakfast at Leo’s is a feast. Marina prepares up to five dishes single-handedly every morning (sometimes preparation even starts the night before). All this at only 5 GEL (2.50 Euro) per person

Breakfast in the living room on the second day. The menu was totally different each day!

Leo recommended taking the old narrow gauge railway up to the Bakuriani resort. While the hill resort was rather dead since there was no snow, the two and a half hour train ride was quite pleasant and passed through some beautiful pine forests and meadows. The two-carriage train functioned as somewhat more of a mini-bus, stopping to pick up passengers (villagers, woodcutters, etc.) anywhere along the tracks.

One of many meadows along the way that looked like something out of Forks (Twilight fans would understand)

That night we walked down to the town square to watch the Euro 2012 semi-final game between Spain and Portugal. A projector had been set up, with the side of a building used as a giant screen. It was a BYOB (Bring-your-own-bench) event, and we only watched till half-time as our legs had gotten a bit tired from standing throughout.

We psyched ourselves up to do a walk in the Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park the next day. After checking in at the park office (no entry fees, but donations are accepted), Leo gave us a lift to the start of the trail, which was 2km away.

In line with the Cabutlari policy on hiking, i.e. when given a choice, go around rather than up the mountain, we chose Trail 6 (Wildlife Traces Trail), which at 13km was one of the shortest trails on offer and from the topographic map, did not seem to lead up to any scary peaks.

As has become tradition for our hikes, the rain and howling wind joined us just one hour in. It was a pity, as the mountains looked as though they would have been stunning had they not been almost totally enveloped in clouds; and the meadows full of wild flowers looked like they would have been a nice place to sit or roll around, had the cold wind and rain not been piercing through our wet clothes and into our bones.  On the bright side, the trail did live up to its name. We did indeed come across many traces of wildlife – fresh scat (technical term for animal poo) of what could have been deer, bear, lynx and horse were spotted at many points on the trail. We also played hide and seek with a cheeky squirrel.

Looking for wildlife traces. The Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park was established in 1995 with assistance from WWF and the government of Germany. It’s the largest park in the Caucasus

The meadows on the ridges are filled with pretty wildflowers, many of which are supposed to be endemic (not that we know which ones)

The underside of one wildflower that we found quite interesting. Notice the beetles feeding on the nectar

Flowers on a different bract of the same plant, yet to bloom

On hindsight, it might have been a good idea to have either checked the weather forecast, or worn our waterproof pants

After crawling laboriously uphill, then slipping and sliding downhill for what seemed to be forever (but was actually just six hours), we made it back to flat land. It was still some 2km to the main road, so we were happy to pay 20 GEL for a taxi from the park back to Bojormi. And the rain continued incessantly till the next morning.

All in all, it was a great three days. And if all goes according to plan, we will be back in a few years to visit Leo and Marina, and purchase a second-, third- or fourth-hand Lada Niva to drive back to Malaysia with.

Leo’s trusty Lada Niva, a Russian-made car that’s ubiquitous in these parts. He had an LPG engine installed. We’re crazy about it

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Plitvice Lakes

If you are Malaysian and have an e-mail account, at some time of other you would probably have received a chain e-mail containing a number of photos of pretty waterfalls, which the e-mail claimed to be from a certain “Sungai Jagung” (Corn River) in the state of Kedah, northern Peninsular Malaysia.

We had to endure two days and two nights cooped up in our rooms in a guesthouse in the village of Grabovac in Croatia, watching re-runs of sitcoms, while waiting for the episode of bad weather to pass. But when the rain finally ceased on the third day, we were finally able to confirm that the e-mail was indeed a hoax. So, ladies and gentlemen, while there is no question that no such river by the name of “Sungai Jagung” exists in Kedah, the waterfalls shown in the e-mail are actually from Plitvice Lakes National Park.

The e-mail in question is still kept carefully in Dylan’s Inbox

Created in 1949, the Plitvice Lakes National Park is the oldest park in Croatia. It was also one of the first natural areas in the world to be listed as a World Heritage Site, having been inscribed in 1979 in recognition of its “outstanding natural beauty, and the undisturbed production of travertine (tufa) through chemical and biological action.” It is now a major tourist attraction, as well as an important refuge for plants and animals, including the European brown bear.

It’s a spectacular place, and also interesting from a geological perspective (Google it, we’re not going to get technical today). The lakes are generally divided into two groups: The Lower Lakes and upper Lakes. The Upper Lakes have smaller pools and cascades, with very pretty natural gardens. The Lower Lakes are more spectacular, with limestone gorges rising up around them. Visitors can choose from a number of routes that traverse across and around the 20-odd lakes in the park. The routes, which range from 2 to 6 hours, are very doable, and the park authorities provide bus and ferry services to get around the less scenic areas. We noticed that the majority of the visitors (on the day we were there) were senior citizens.

A waterfall in the Upper Lakes

Although a little bit narrow, the boardwalks are gorgeous and add to the beauty of the lakes

One of the larger waterfalls on the Upper Lakes

These pretty rheophytes grow everywhere in the park

Cascades near the start of the Lower Lakes

Quite a few trees were in bloom


Panoramic view of the Lower Lakes

The tallest waterfall in Croatia, at 78 metres. It’s named “Veliki Slap”

In 2000, Sara envisioned creating this exact boardwalk in Penang, Malaysia, when she was doing her degree in Housing, Building and Planning, without any knowledge of the Plitvice Lakes’ boardwalk.

Zoomed out of the above shot

This post is dedicated to Bob. May he rest in peace.

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A walk in the Pyrenees

One of the items on our “things-to-do-in-Spain” list was to take a walk in the Pyrenees. Deciding where exactly in the Pyrenees to take this walk was quite tough, as the Pyrenees is rather long, with many regions and trails to choose from. After some mulling, we decided on the Ordesa valley, which the internet says is where “the Pyrenees is at its most majestic”.

So we bought ourselves some wind resistant jackets, raincoats and gloves and made our way to the sleepy hamlet of Torla, which is the closest sleepy hamlet to the Ordesa y Monte Perdido National Park, which, as its name suggests, is where the majestic Ordesa valley is. We were hoping to do a two-day walk, and spend a night at one of the park’s refugios, which have bunks available on a first-come-first-serve basis.

What the internet didn’t say (at least to us) was that most of the trails in the park are closed to the public until May. The very informative ranger at the park’s new visitor and interpretation centre in Torla informed us that unless we had mountaineering experience and equipment, we could only do the start of the classic GR11 trail. The other catch was that since the shuttle bus to the park would also not be operational till May, we would have to walk another two hours to get to the park, bringing the grand total walking time to 10 hours. This sounded like a plan, nevertheless. Plus it was free (there is no entrance fee for any of the national parks in Spain).

The plan. Seemed easy enough

The interpretation centre was quite impressive by the way, and befits the park, which was the first protected area to be established in Spain (way back in 1918) and together with an adjacent park in France now constitutes the Pyrenees-Mont Perdu UNESCO World Heritage Site. What we particularly liked about the centre was that it paid tribute to the various naturalists (not scientists!) who helped unravel its natural history, as well as the local communities living around the park who still maintain their traditional culture and ties with the land.

Naturalists are the coolest dudes anywhere in the world, even if some may be somewhat chubby

What Sara is holding may look like a detonation device, but is just an audio guide

So first thing the next morning, garbed in our newly purchased hiking gear and ignoring the weather forecast (85 percent probability of precipitation; temperature range 5-12 degrees Celsius) we set off to the Ordesa Valley. The first leg: a two hour hike to the park’s car park!

Looked like rain right from the start

Crossing the Rio Azaras

After a very pleasant two and a half hour walk, mostly uphill through pine forest without a single other person in sight, we came to the car park. It was full of cars! From what we could tell, mostly day trippers like us who were here to do the same route. Among them were senior citizens, young children, parents carrying babies – either the trail is very easy, or Spanish people are very tough.

Big tree or small person?

Ain't no sunshine. Trying for a calendar shot

Mossy forest

The route turned out to be pretty tough but doable – a wide trail up the valley with a reasonably gradual ascent. The highlights were the waterfalls and views of the snow capped limestone massifs. We’re no geologists. But if were were, we would probably have been impressed by the stunning morphology of the area – the calcerous peaks, the glacier carved valley floor, the vertical uplift of sedimentary deposits, etc.

Getting close. Can't decide if that's one tree, or two

Possibly the last of the first set of waterfalls. We lost count

Maybe the beginning of the second set of waterfalls. If this were in Malaysia, some unimaginative idiot would probably have named it "Telaga Tujuh"

Our favourite view

The Cabutlaris couldn't resist getting into the frame

We decided to call it a day and head back about a minute after taking the above photo. Good thing we did, because it started to drizzle, then rain, and finally hail for a while. It was 5pm and drizzling when we reached the car park. We managed to hitch a ride back to Torla from a nice couple from Barcelona.

About a minute of sunshine after the rain and hail on the way back

The same minute of sunshine catches Sara reaching into the backpack for an apple

The next day in Torla. Sunshine and blue skies. Arrgh!

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