Monday, 7 August 2017

Intermission - a weekend through Parâng

Right then, between moving to a new place, work and studying for the upcoming exam, I haven't been able to post updates as often as I'd have liked, and I expect the frequency of my posts will remain low until November. I have, however, been able to escape the torrid weather that's beset pretty much every city in Romania this past week by going on a short week-end trip to the Parâng Mountains, so here's a brief story of how that went, with plenty of photos:

August 5th
After a rather hectic few weeks topped by the unrelenting heatwave that was sure to keep only the most enduring people (and the Untold festival-goers) in the city, the idea of going to the mountains for a couple of days appealed to me instantly. The team, consisting of Andra, Călin and Tudor, after researching the weather forecasts, which predicted somewhat undesirable thunderstorms in most of the Carpathian mountains, suggested we go to the fairly easily accessible Parâng massif (one of my more adventurous destinations).
The city of Petroşani lies at the base of the Parâng mountains, a roughly 4 hour drive from Cluj-Napoca, with a high ski resort (at roughly 1800 m altitude) easily reachable via chairlift, which we took advantage of, after having left Cluj rather lazily late morning. We arrived at the resorts around 14:00, just in time to enjoy lunch and a cold beer. Afterwards, in full weekend-relaxation mood, we all took a quick nap before starting the short climb towards the Parângul Mic (Little Parâng) peak, roughly 1 hour away, whence we would enjoy the sunset (and I the night).
The resort before heading up towards the peak; not an impressive shot, but I like the sun rays

As I stepped over the last few meters of the gentle incline that had led to the peak, panting and aching all over, it dawned upon me how long it had been since my last serious mountain trek and how quickly I'd lost any semblance of endurance gained in Nepal or elsewhere. While still a great year for me as far as trips go, 2017 still has room for improvement.
Whatever momentary discomfort the climb may have caused either of us, we were quickly rewarded by a wonderful view of the setting sun, which I'll now go over in excessively numerous shots:

The team just about the reach the peak; left to right: Tudor, Andra, Călin

The rolling hills behind Petroşani under the twilight sun

And a wide view of them

Behind us, towards the south-east, the moon was rising.

Group shot, basking in the dusk; Călin slightly less impressed

Tudor, Andra and a gazillion flies.

The sun, just as it's about to set, in all its glory.


Our enjoyment of the sunset was perturbed somewhat by the billions of little flies buzzing silently, yet annoyingly around us, only to be replaced, as dusk was falling, by the far more aggravating, giant, mutant, freak fucking mosquitoes which we could hear homing in on our sweet sweet skin from meters away and which succeeded in driving away, by 21:30, the rest of my companions, leaving me to enjoy the starry night in solitude.
Ah yes, I forgot to mention, my plan from the beginning was to sleep atop Parângul Mic, taking full advantage of the warm temperature and fairly benign weather forecast to fulfill one of my long-time ambitions - sleeping alone under the stars. Now, for a guy who talks so much about travel this and mountains that and adventure the other, I have a pretty long list of fears of doubtful compatibility with the above-mentioned lifestyle (such as, if you'll remember, my fear of steep descents). Two of them were about to be crossed out tonight: sleeping alone in the wilderness (well, that's debatable, seeing as how the resort was about an hour's walk away and I could still see the lights and hear the shouts - happy birthday, by the way, whoever celebrated August 5th in Parâng!) and, irrational as it may seem, bugs of all sorts, spiders in particular.
I spent the 3 or so hours between my friends' departure and getting into my sleeping bag doing a combination of stargazing, resort-gazing, adjusting the sleeping bag's position, taking photos, reevaluating my life's choices and contemplating its meaning and sense, and just walking around checking stuff out. The firmament was dominated by a very bright, very nearly full moon and the only time I used my head torch was when adjusting camera settings. 
A late-evening view of the Parâng ski resort and the city of Petroşani behind it

Final position of my sleeping bag, away from the metal-lightning-deathtrap I hoped to avoid

Metal deathtrap, with city lights around it and star lights above.

Yet another moon shot

Time went by more quickly than I anticipated (I was worried I'd get bored just standing around by myself like a twerp) and before long I was confronted with the very important decision of gritting my teeth and tucking myself the insufficiently bug-proof sleeping bag minutes after seeing two medium-sized spiders crawling nonchalantly some three meters away (a perimeter sweep was mandatory before bedtime, you understand) or else packing everything up and heading back down to enjoy a beer at the resort.
Already itchy in several places from those fucking mosquitoes (who had, thankfully and surprisingly, receded in their menacing buzzing), I decided the damage was already done so I wormed my way inside the sleeping bag. As a side-note, I'd made a seemingly wise decision at the time to move my mat several meters away from the large, metal, pyramidal.. pole type structure marking the peak, having taken into consideration the slight chance of thunderstorms the weather forecast had predicted. Unfortunately, I couldn't find any suitable area of perfectly flat terrain, so I ended up sleeping at a very slight inclination, which led to my bag sliding very slightly off the mat throughout the night. Not too annoyingly so, certainly not enough to make me sleep on the cold earth, but enough to have to slide back every time I woke up. Which, predictably enough, happened quite often (not being used to sleeping in such conditions), but in the end I slept better than I'd feared I would and woke up certainly better rested than I had that night before Thorong La.

August 6th

When morning came, I was awakened by both dawn's light and the fluttering of small wings and sparrow-like little birds were frantically flying around and above me. And truly, what a great feeling it was to wake up in nature, naught but birds making noise around me. I took a deep, satisfying breath of fresh mountain air before getting out of the bag, packing things and then just sitting around enjoying the sunrise for another hour or so.
Not a bad view to wake up to.

The sun rising with a sea of mist low above the forest.

And a close up of that misty sea.

Lacking a bike or a dog, I had to come up with a different way of taking self-proclaimed creative shots; Sleeping Gear Drying in the Sun makes for a good tableau name, no?

Morning glory

The resort, more quite than it had been when I went to bed.

Once again, the creativity, originality and sheer awesomeness of Stuff Laid Out in the Sun

I'd say the little guy was basking the morning's sun, but the buggers were so frantic in flying around, I doubt he stayed there for more than 5 seconds

Some plantlife to go with the bird.
By the way he held his legs, I'd say he was still learning to walk

How this guy managed not to die of thirst in that heat is beyond me

I headed back to the resort to regroup with the others and, after a nice breakfast with plenty of tea, we all headed out, around 9:30 o'clock, towards the Mija Lake, a 3 or so hour walk going around the Parângul Mic peak, which we performed uneventfully. The weather, which had started out clear skied, took a slight turn for the worse, with clouds starting to gather above us (not that we were complaining, they brought welcome respite from the heat).
At the lake we spent the noon break eating snacks we'd brought, as well as delicious, freshly picked blueberries, and cooling our feet in the crystal clear water. We also had some fun making splashes for the camera, hopefully without disturbing the aquatic wildlife too much.

Not a great shot, but once again, I like the subtle sun rays, especially from an angle you don't normally see them

Small mountain stream with flowers on both sides.

Reaching the clearing with Mija Lake

Clear water reflecting the mountains above

Abundant vegetation around the lake; Tudor and Andra in the background, to the right


On the way back the weather became decidedly worse, and the clouds which had been gathering since late morning finally let loose a summer rain - not a terrible deluge or anything, but enough to warrant taking out the rain coats and hurrying back to the resort. Although we weren't quite on the ridge and the Parângul Mic peak provided a more tempting target than us for any stray bolts of lightning, it's still never the most reassuring of experiences to hear rumbling thunder when you're in the mountains.
But we made it back safely and, sooner than any of us would have liked, we were on the chairlift back down, then in the car back towards the city and the busy week that follows.

Thursday, 20 July 2017

Nepal - entry 11

Chapter 5 - The Grand Push

May 8th

I close my eyes at 10, hoping to fall asleep quickly and only wake up when the alarm sounds at 4 o'clock. All's quiet around, save for my occasional deep breaths and Adriana's stuffed nose (she's nearing the apex of her cold, which seems appropriate, as we're nearing the apex of our trip, as far as altitude's concerned).
Five minutes. Ten minutes. Can't keep lying down still like that, have to adjust my position, I turn to one side. Better, this will do it, I'll be out in no time.
Another five minutes. Ugh, getting uncomfortable, have to readjust, perhaps turning to the other side. Yes, it feels better, won't be long now. No need to get anxious, it's only been what, half an hour, I still have a good 5 hours and a half of restful sleep to go.
How long has it been? Is this bed getting stiffer? Why's my right side getting numb? Damn sleeping bag, I can't properly lie belly-down, it cuts down my possible sleeping positions by a quarter!
Have I fallen asleep yet? It seems brighter outside, is it bright out? I wish I had access to some sort of device that could help with the tracking of time, perhaps something small, hand-held, the lights up, you know, so you can see it in the dark?
Relax, you're just a little tense because you have a big day tomorrow and because, you know, you're getting nearly half as much oxygen as you're used to back home (actually checked that fact up!). Just take it easy, try counting down, surely you'll fall asleep!
One, two, three, four.. Why are my arms shivering? Come to think about it, my feet are pretty cold too. Did I not take out the sleeping back specifically to avoid being cold?! I'm sure it just takes a while for my body to produce enough heat, the bag will insulate me, once I've warmed myself up properly it'll be fine.
Okay, let's try again. Six, seven, eight.. I wonder how tomorrow'll be? Climbing here wasn't a cakewalk, but I'm sure it won't be too much harder, right? And the stuff posted at Thorong Phedi, about the dangers of altitude sickness, pulmonary or cerebral oedema, emergency evacuations, that's all just to make people extra-cautious, nobody ever gets those, right? Plus, I've properly acclimatised, I'm sure I've nothing to worry about. Still, having to inhale deeply every other breath, even when lying still, that's not great, is it?
What are you doing, don't think about all that! Don't think about anything, just focus on falling asleep, it's what, eleven thirty? Come on, four hours of sleep, that's reasonable, just go to sleep.
All right, let's try again. One, two, three.. What kind of a dumb thing to say is that, just focus on falling asleep? Who the fuck ever voluntarily struggles to fall asleep? There's not a fucking off switch available, you know!
All right, all right, just, you know, try not to think about anything, like they do in the movies, the ones with any sort of eastern spirituality or meditation or, more exciting, martial arts. Clear your mind! Never mind what time it is or how much is left, what'll happen tomorrow or how the entire Nepal experience will be hard to top, just focus on your breaths and you'll fall asleep.
Yeah, I can do that, in, out, in, out.. Nepal experience hard to top, why would you bring that up, it's not even halfway done and there's so much else to do, is this really a top priority thought to keep me up at night? And why am I still shivering?! That's it, time to put some more clothes on. Smart thinking, by the way - go to sleep scantily clad and supplement clothing as I get progressively colder (rather than say, the other way around), brilliantly constructed plan.
All right, you're better (one might say smarter) dressed now, getting warm and comfortable, surely it's only a small matter of time before you fall asleep. It's probably no later than midnight, you have a whole 4 hours of sleep, enjoy!
Have I fallen asleep yet? I don't feel fully rested, is it time to wake up yet? I can't keep staying in the bag any longer! It's too much of a pain forcing myself to fall asleep, maybe it's already been four hours, maybe the alarm's just about to go off.. I could check I guess, haven't opened the phone since I started the trek, it must have a nearly full battery.
Yes, I suppose it's preferable to wondering whether or not it's time to wake up, you could check the time. I'm sure it's nearly 4 though, it seems so bright outside.
How the fuck can it only be 11:45?! God damn it, I am not going through another four hours of this. Come on, fall asleep, fall asleeeeeeep!
Adriana seems to be sleeping. Her breathing's pretty regular at any rate. Yeah, she's probably asleep. I wonder if Nicu and Adrian are. Or any of the other tens of people here for the night. Surely I'm not the only one having trouble sleeping? I wonder if there's anybody outside. Do people smoke this high? Can they? I can't imagine surviving here with a lungfull of smoke.
Stop thinking about useless, stupid shit and fall asleep already! Between dozing in and out and pontificating the feasibility of peoples' smoking habits, you might have got past another half hour. You don't want 4 o'clock to come without a wink of sleep.
 Yes, well, not only have the attempts so far failed to yield results, I think I may have put too many clothes on, I'm starting to get too warm. Also, that last tea before bed might have been a bad idea, bladder's starting to feel a bit full.
Nuh-huh, no way, you've only a couple more hours to go, just hold it in. Do you really want to be going out into the freezing cold and the stinking toilet? Morning's almost here, just keep your eyes closed for a while more.
All right, I can do that, just need to take another look at the phone, see exactly how much time's left.
1 o'clock. Are you happy now? Does this make the next three hours more bearable? Do you now rest easily, assured that you're basically halfway through your allotted sleep time?
I can't hold it in anymore, cold and stench be damned, I need to go. Just put a couple of extra layers on, go out quietly and.. whoa, what an amazingly clear sky and bright, full moon! So that's why it felt like morning kept getting closer. This is a perfect photo opportunity, I should really go back inside and get my camera.
It's quite cold though.. and rummaging through the room's sure to wake Adriana up.. Plus you didn't bring your tripod, you'd have to spend way too much time finding a suitable spot to put the camera on.. This isn't the best opportunity, surely there'll be plenty of chances along the road, you need to get some shut eye tonight so stop getting distracted by pointless, if beautiful, sights and thoughts!
Fine, but I'm taking some more clothes off, it's too damn hot in that bag!
Now there isn't enough wiggle room!
Now it's too tight!
Now it's too wide!
It's still too hot, I'm going to open the side!
It's getting cold.. not too cold, but definitely cold!
What time is it?
2:15. 2:45. 3. 3:20. 3:45. 3:50. 3:51. 3:52. 3:53. You get the picture.
Finally, time to get up!
Eager to finally and definitively get out of bed, I rush to put on my down jacket and start stuffing the sleeping bag into the backpack. There's already plenty of activity outside, people hurrying to get breakfast and start their climb before the sun rises. I take a few moments to look around the camp that's quickly becoming an anthill before heading towards the main hall with the rest of the group.
When you get used having meals at relatively regular times, your stomach kind of begrudges you shoving down breakfast 3-4 hours earlier than it's used, so I go for what I figure is a light breakfast: a chocolate pancake - enough carbs to hopefully see me through to lunch, in an easily digestible form, not to mention tasty as hell. I wash it down with an extra large mug of tea - must keep hydrated, no?
After breakfast, we head back to finish packing, whereupon I quickly realise, hastily and, I hope, inconspicuously, walking away from the room to behind a more secluded corner of the building, as I throw up the entirety of the tea I'd had, that hydration's best done gradually. Breathlessness and nausea so far, slowly starting to tick off the whole list. Thankfully the pancake stubbornly stayed in.
We finish packing with the sun already up and trekkers reaching the camp from Thorong Phedi, where they'd spent the night, and we start to trudge our way up the path. It quickly becomes abundantly clear that today's climb would be a struggle, as it takes no more than 10 steps to get me gasping for air. 
Morning view of the high camp, before the sun's risen, and the people starting their way up.

Overall fitness plays a great role, no doubt, and I see people who look to be in better shape than me (as much as you can tell how good a shape somebody's in beneath a winter jacket) walking past us or taking fewer breaks, but there's also a level of physical strain that you can't very well train for that, predictably, comes from the altitude. However much you train at home, assuming you home's not high in the mountains, you're still training at 21% atmospheric oxygen; it's doubtful you'll reach the same level of performance when you're nearing 10%.
Having said that, you know, to put things into a perhaps slightly overdramatic perspective, back to the climb!            
And another look back, from slightly higher up, as the sun starts to shine upon the distant peaks. Line of people forming down before a frozen portion of the trail.

Not long after leaving the high camp, we come across a frozen portion of path that's clearly too slippery to cross safely, so we have to deviate slightly to avoid it. The trail goes through various degrees of inclination, but even the most gentle ones are a challenge and I have to constantly remind myself to breathe with each step. Inhale, exhale. Inhale, exhale. Inhale, exhale. Each step forward, a small battle fought and won, and battle by battle, victory would soon be within reach.
Makes me feel tiny.

It's all so well worth the effort, though. I need only raise my eyes slightly and look around to be rewarded with some pretty damn amazing sights. Rocky slopes blending seamlessly with snowy peaks, the constant, jagged mountain line constantly behind us in the distance and the never ending climb always in front of us.
Adriana, with Dawa right behind her, coming up a slightly steeper portion.

The trek's highly circulated, we must have gone past or been passed by tens of tourists. For the first time, I envy those who travel lightly with the brunt of their weight carried by porters or, remarkably, horses. Some are even carried themselves by horses. My envy fades away when I imagine reaching the final, high point, knowing I'd done it on my own. Stupid, useless, arrogant pride, but it served as added incentive to push on.

I take few photos, far too few to fully capture the beauty around us. I mainly focus on catching my breath and drinking bits of water whenever we stop. Eventually, the rocky slopes that lead us out of the high camp give more and more way to the snow that's starting to slowly cover the surroundings in their entirety in sparkling white.
Sturdy horses.

The path's thankfully well beaten, so we don't have to add "stepping through meter-deep snow" to the list of obstacles to overcome. One more battle. And then another one.
We hear it before we see it. Climbing from behind a bend, fairly gentle slope, there's celebratory shouting coming from ahead. No doubt people excited about reaching the pass. A few more steps later and we can see the colours - Buddhist prayer flags, just like we'd seen in the photos - we're here!
The final push.

We close the distance easily, enheartened by the sight ahead, welled up with unexpected energy from unknown springs. Twenty steps away. Then ten. Then five. We've done it! We have reached the highest point of the Annapurna Circuit, Thorong La. The place is full of people happily taking photos, congratulating themselves and enjoying a justifiably overpriced tea from the tiny cabin selling them. 
Success indeed. Note the couple to the left.

We, too, savour these moments. We rest our legs and our hearts, we take vanity pictures in front of the large post marking the pass, we take photos of the lovely scenery around or we just sit for a bit and do nothing but enjoy being there. I gather a few tiny rocks to bring back home - surely pebbles brought from 5416 meters make for better gifts than souvenirs bought in tourist traps? We say goodbye to the district of Manang, which we leave behind us, to the east, and look enthusiastically westwards towards new adventures in the district of Mustang. In front of us a grand valley opens, with distant mountain peaks at the horizon.
I'd be remiss not to add a full group photo, all of us slav squatting it up there. Second photo on the blog not taken by me, thanks kind stranger!
Mustang lay ahead. I don't know the two people from above, but if you know a couple who traveled the Annapurna Circuit this spring and crossed the Thorong pass on May 8th 2017, maybe they'd like to have this photo.

After basking in the glory of our achievement and the warm, late morning sun for about half an hour, we move forward on the trail, beginning our long descent. While tiring in its own way, especially considering the strain it puts on the knees, going down is a bit less taxing on the heart and lungs, so we're able to go down with fewer pauses and make decent time.
The pass quickly falls from view as we descend.

At first, the landscape seems unchanged from what we'd seen before the pass, as for the first couple of hundred meters or so everything's pretty much entirely covered in snow. As we progress though, I begin to notice something I can't quite put my finger on that's different to what we left behind, in the Manang district. 
And the Mustang valley opens wide before us.

It's the colour of the mountains around us, it's somehow different, and looking closely I'm unable to tell what it is, but as I glance in the distance, to the faraway hills bellow us, I realise - everything's brown, where, given how low they were, it should have been green! No trees, no grass, no signs of vegetation anywhere on the slopes ahead of us, only dry, arid, rolling hills as far as the eye can see.
In all its aridity. The green patches far down are isolated. Many people going down.

Beautiful, long valley view in front of us notwithstanding, the descent is rather dull. Once again, we pass or get passed by several groups, but nothing noteworthy happens as we make our way down the nearly 1500 m difference in altitude before stopping for lunch at a nice, small teahouse at the base of the climb, probably the last place to sleep for tourists daring enough to attempt the circuit clockwise.
The place where we stop for lunch is right in front of us.

 On that note, the Annapurna Circuit is traditionally done counter-clockwise, starting in Besishahar in the east and ending in Birethani in the west. There are several reasons for this approach, most important of which it offers more time for acclimatisation and the climb from Thorong Phedi to Thorong La is less demanding than the one from Muktinath. However, for whichever reason (mostly to challenge themselves, I suppose), people sometimes choose to try it clockwise, in which case they cross the pass starting from Muktinath (at 3710 m altitude), or maybe the tea house I've mentioned above, two hundred meters at most higher, putting a 1500+ steep climb between them and the other side of the pass which, as you can easily imagine, can be a bit of a struggle, especially if not properly acclimatised.

Lunch turns out as great as can be expected after a long, hard climb and an even longer descent, but what impresses me (and everybody else too, I think) most is the freshly squeezed rhubarb and sea buckthorn juice, a refreshing drink that completely revitalises me.
The last bend and small climb before reaching Muktinath.

From here it's only about an hour more to Muktinath, our destination for the night, and already the trail is becoming more and more crowded, mostly with people who had crossed the path, but also a few tourists going the other way. The aridity of the hills around us becomes even more obvious as we continue going down.
A hill covered in prayer flags, right before Muktinath

The village within sight.

As we reach the outskirts of Muktinath, I'm surprised, expecting to see a village similar to the ones before, to walk upon a fairly wide, if dusty, road, with several story tall buildings, some even made out of concrete around it and plenty of cars on it. Muktinath is a major touristic and, more importantly, religious centre, with several important Buddhist and Hindu temples visited by both tourists and pilgrims, but more on that tomorrow. 

We cross the main village road towards our hotel (yes, a hotel, not a tea house), walking by small stalls with locals selling souvenirs, looking somewhat surprise at unexpectedly tall hotels before eventually reaching our own accommodations for the night. 

View from atop the hotel; the pass, now completely enshrouded in clouds.
We get there early enough to be able to do some laundry, have an early dinner, enjoy a cold beer (now that we were past the high altitude portion of our trek) and a hot shower and go to bed still looking back with excitement at the wonderful, if demanding road that brought us here.

Father (I assume) helping child get dressed. Voyeuristically taken from our hotel rooftop.