Trip Report: 3 Day Presidential Traverse

Adventure Travel, New Hampshire, Uncategorized

This is a trip report on my absolutely incredible first 3-Day Presidential Traverse. To get details about my plan and learn more about what the Presidential Traverse actually is, check out my 3-Day Presi Traverse Plan.

I spent most of the summer training for my first Presidential Traverse. To say I was feeling a bit hyper about it would be an understatement. I did several overnight hikes in the Whites and plenty of day hikes. I strength trained and cross-trained and did everything right. But in mid-July, I had to accept I had developed an overuse injury. My knees were a mess. After summiting Mount Washington during the Seek the Peak, I was forced by my body to take a month off.

Then in August, I started looking for a fair weather weekend. But I was hit by rainy weekend after rainy weekend. I started to despair. I didn’t want to push it out until the fall. I had hoped to complete the hike in the summer when the sun still stayed up past 7 p.m. Then finally, one weekend in late August, the Washington Observatory weather report spoke of clear skies all day on Saturday. That was all I needed. It was time for my first Presidential Traverse.

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Day 1: Appalachia Trailhead to Valley Way Tentsite | 3.1 Miles

Friday was hectic. This late into the summer the sunset was at 7:30 p.m. and book time from the Appalachia trailhead to the Valley Way Tentsite was 3 hours. By my calculation, that meant I ought to start hiking by 4 p.m. in order to set up camp before dark. Cooking in the dark I could handle, but choosing a campsite and setting up a tent in the dark is not one of my favorite pastimes.

I left my office north of Boston at 1 p.m. on Friday. Normally, some of my more relaxed summer hiking excursions, I take the time to stop at Chipotle and get a burrito to carry up for dinner on the first night. Not this time. I was anxious about reaching the trailhead by 4, nervous that the persistent summer traffic would slow me down and I’d be limited to a two-day Presi traverse.

The trip went quickly however and I pulled into the Appalachia trailhead at 4:02 p.m. I was on the trail by 4:15 p.m. at the latest, my heart and mind racing at the thought that I wouldn’t make it to Valley Way before dark.

My feet hit the trail and I rushed through the woods. Though I tried to appreciate the experience of being in the forest; the wandering route the path took on its way up the side of Mount Adams; the way it wove prettily around rocks and streams; in truth, I climbed up that hill like the Devil himself was on my heels. Breathing hard and sweating, I arrived at the Valley Way Tentsite at 6 p.m.

Valley Way is a fairly large, unhosted tent site just below the Madison Springs Hut. There are only two platforms but many additional clearings spread out into the woods, probably unsanctioned but filled with hikers nonetheless. By the time I arrived, early in the evening on a Friday, the place was nearly full. After walking around a bit, I asked a couple setting up a bivy if I could share their clearing.

With my tent pitched sideways up the slope, I spent the night curled up in a ball leaning into the hill. Sleep took its time to find me that night, in part because I was hyped up for the next day, but mostly because I was actively trying not to roll back down the hill.

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Day 2: Appalachia Way Tentsite to Nauman Tentsite | 15.5 Miles

Filled with an eager anticipation for the day of hiking ahead of me and uncertain about my inability to finish, Friday evening I had set a 4:30 a.m. alarm for Saturday morning. Of course, when that alarm actually went off in the pre-dawn dark, my half-asleep brain was fairly certain I could still finish before sunset if I slept in for another half an hour. I rolled over.

At 5 a.m., the sky still mostly dark, just the faintest tinge of dawn turning the sky a rich deep blue, I changed into my dirty clothes, munched on a dry, cold pop tart, and was on the trail by 5:30.

Almost immediately, trail runners starting to pass me, jogging up the mountainside with their simple packs and minimal water supply. With my 20 pound pack on my back fully loaded with two liters of water, I was more than a little jealous.  They were the hare, I told myself, but I was the tortoise. I think I can, I think I can.

View from Mount Madison, White Mountains, New Hampshire

Mount Madison

Coming over the rise and around some rocks, I arrived at the Madison Springs Hut, pink in the fresh dawn light. Tucking my pack into a nook near the base of the hut, I grabbed my poles and took off towards the summit of Madison, less than a half a mile from the hut and my first peak of the day, reaching it by 7 a.m.

Up here, in the cool morning air, I peered through the haze towards Mt. Washington. The day was clear, but smoke from the wildfires on the west coast had blown across the continent on a jet stream, coloring everything a burnt orange. The people around me were mostly other Presi Traverse hikers, congratulating each other on making it to the first peak by 7 a.m. For the first time, I had the comforting realization that I may be doing this on my own, but I wasn’t alone. There were so many other hikers up here to do the traverse with me. We were all sharing the sense of eager anticipation. Could we finish? The excitement was palpable.

Back down to the Madison Springs hut, a quick stop for some hot coffee, and I headed on up the trail, still nervous about my ability to finish before sundown.

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Mount Adams and Jefferson

Without looking at my map, I walked out of Madison Hut and followed the signs that pointed the way towards Mt. Adams, following the Star Trail. You may think, outdoor enthusiast that I am, that I would’ve at least looked at the trail map and assessed the topo before heading off in the direction of my dreams. But of course, I did not.

The Star Trail, for the uninitiated, is by far the most challenging and rewarding way to reach the summit of Mt. Adams. Starting from the Madison Springs Hut, it curls around the base of the peak, teeters on the edge of the Great Gulf, and then lurches straight up the side of the mountain towards the summit.

The trail is pure, unadulterated New England scramble. A giant field of boulders leading inexorably uphill. It was awesome. I forgot all about my heavy pack as I picked my way up the side of the boulder field, constantly on the lookout for the little blue blaze and the short cairns that proved my only guide. This is less of a trail and more a test of your internal compass and agility. The final scrambled to the summit passes through a narrow chasm before emerging, victorious, at the peak. From here, Madison seemed like a distant dream, far off and long forgotten. Mount Washington appeared no closer, but Jefferson, previously invisible, sat just beyond my reach.

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A day hiking couple came up just after I reached the summit, we were alone at the top of the mountain and I learned they were also doing a Presi Traverse but in a single day. We were mutually impressed, I with their single day bid, they with my ability to do a hike like this with my heavy pack. They pressed on and I said goodbye, assuming I wouldn’t catch up with them again.

I set off, slowly picking my way down the rocky boulder-strewn landscape towards Thunderstorm Junction and Mount Jefferson.

In the weeks and months that led up to my Presidential Traverse, I’d heard many people say how easy it is to get lost up there. How could that be possible, I thought, trails are so well marked in the Whites.

Please trust me when I say, as a fellow skeptic, that it is incredibly easy to get lost and turned around on the Presidential Traverse, especially in low visibility or cloudy weather. Luckily for me, it was clear as a diamond for my traverse, but even then, Thunderstorm Junction is a confusing place. It took me several tries to figure out how to get back onto the Appalachian Trail, the cairns are not obvious and the signs point in confusing directions.

The way to Jefferson was my initiation into one of the realities of a Presidential Traverse, the illusion of proximity. The first two peaks of the day, Madison and Adams, are really quite close together, so although my route to the top of Adams was challenging, the distance between the two peaks was overall quite short.

From Adams, Jefferson had also looked fairly nearby. But that was an illusion. The trail to get there was rough and winding, going up and down and around several humps before making the lurching ascent to the top. A trail runner came up beside me as we pushed up the final ascent and introduced herself with a “God, I hope this is really the summit.”

It was. I stopped to take a break and have a quick snack. Happy to have made it to my third summit, eager for more. Mount Washington was finally starting to appear within reach. As I stood up and shouldered my pack I heard a surprised, “oh look who it is!” The couple from Mount Adams was sitting just in front of me, snacking away and taking in the view. We were pleasantly shocked to see each other, though they had been strangers on Mount Adams, now they were my hiking partners. We were in this together, and as I set off, we promised to see each other again for pizza on top of Mount. Washington.

The only thing that stood between me and Mount Washington was the small shoulder of Mount Clay. Technically not on the list of New Hampshire’s 48 4000 footers, and not technically part of the official Presi Traverse, I still wanted to include it in my hike. I stepped off and headed down the tricky granite boulder field towards Clay.

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Mount Clay And the Big Push to Washington

As I slowly picked my way down Jefferson, tentatively navigating the massive granite boulders, the pain and strain of this harsh landscape started to make itself known. My knees and feet started to ache with each step. My pack dragged on my back, straining the muscles along my spine.

To make matters worse, that tricky little thing we call perception started playing its game again. From the top of Mt. Jefferson, Clay had looked like an insignificant hump between me and Mount Washington. But by the time I made it down to the shoulder in between the two peaks, Clay was looming ominously above me.

For the first time that day, I had the thought “I’m not sure I can do this.”

Morale was at its lowest point. I pulled on the straw from my water bladder and took a big gulp, I swallowed once, twice, and then I felt and heard that terrible sound, the rasping drumroll that a bladder makes when it hits empty.

I had run out of water.

I stood at the bottom of the trail to Mount Clay and looked up. I wanted to reach that summit, but realistically, with no water left, the responsible choice was to take the path of least resistance. It was going to be a long, dry, thirsty walk as it was, I’d only make it worse by adding the several hundred feet of elevation change.

Reluctantly, I bypassed Mt. Clay and took the Gulfside Trail around its hump, heading up towards Mount Washington.

With single-minded purpose I strode along the rocks, resolutely ignoring my thirst and ignoring the various signs pointing the way to the Jewell trail and other options. I had but one goal: make it to the summit of Washington and refill my water.

Once I made it around the side of Clay, the air filled with the noises of Mount Washington. The roar of car motors and the chugging of the cog railway burst through my solitude, urging me ever onwards. As I ascended the final mile to the summit of Mount Washington, the sound rose to a cacophony.

Trail Runner on the Presidential Traverse to Mount Washington

During that final stretch of trail to Mount Washington’s summit, the trail runs parallel to the cog railway. Train after train rolled by, tourists peering out the windows at me as I struggled up the hill, tired and dehydrated.

This was simultaneously the most hectic and one of the most beautiful parts of the trail. The trail grazes the very edge of the Great Gulf, at one point so close to the edge of a cliff that a simple misstep could send you tumbling down hundreds of feet. The Gulf opened up beneath me and I could see all the way back down the ridge to Madison. Each peak loomed tall and crashed suddenly down into the Gulf, where the slope evened out into a pine covered valley. It called out to me, begging to be explored. But for now I was on a different journey, and turned my face upwards, towards the summit of the Northeast’s tallest peak: Mount Washington.

The final push to the summit went by in a flash. It was more of the same granite boulder jungle gym but somehow the rocks felt flatter and more forgiving up here. Perhaps to accommodate the hundreds of thousands of tourists that ascend to the top of this famous mountain each year.

I arrived gratefully at the peak of the mountain. Without even pausing to take in the view, I pushed through the throngs of tourists and made my way towards the water fountain. Taking several deep pulls of the ice cold water I finally relaxed. Time for pizza.

Perhaps it’s time for a note about the summit of Mount Washington.

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The Summit of Mount Washington

If you’re picturing the summit of Mount Washington, the tallest peak in the Northeast, as a place of solitude and tranquility, where weary hikers sit on rocks and soak in the glow of their achievement, staring out at the vast landscape and marveling at the glory of nature, you’d be wrong.

Mount Washington is a wildly overdeveloped summit, home to a cafe, gift shop, log cabin, and viewing deck, as well as a scientific observatory and weather research center. If it sounds overwhelming, it is, but it is part of a long tradition in New England of development on mountain summits.

The oldest structure on the summit of Mount Washington is the Tip-Top house, a former hostel built in 1853. The New Englanders of old just loved building on top of mountains. There was once a luxury hotel on top of Mount Moosilauke. Most of these hotels ended up blowing away or burning down, but the Tip Top house remains, and tourists can pop inside to get a sense of historic New England.

Those who would prefer not to have to hike to the summit of Mount Washington have options as well, the historic Cog Railway, building in 1863 but now a for-profit business, chugs up and down the mountain at regular intervals. The Mount Washington Auto Road gives ambitious road trippers the opportunity to drive to the top of the highest peak, an activity especially popular with motorcyclists.

All this means that when I reached the summit of Mount Washington, I was not alone. Smelly and covered in a day’s worth of dirt, I stood in line with clean smelling tourists fresh from their drive to the top to get my slice of pizza and a cookie. Hiking to a gift shop is one of the weirder experiences I’ve ever had in my years of adventure travel. The first time I summited Washington I thought it was pretty amusing. This time, I was just ready to get out of there.

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The Southern Peaks

From the summit of Washington down to the Lake of the Clouds hut just a few miles away, the trail was packed. I mean, slammed with people. It was early afternoon on a bright Saturday afternoon at the end of the summer on one of the most popular trails in the northeast. Of course it was packed, but still, I missed the solitude of the morning trails. I dreamed hopefully of a few miles down the trail when the crowds would disperse and I could walk along in silence, passing only other Presi Traverse hikers or the odd smelly AT thru-hiker heading up to Maine.

At the Lake of the Clouds hut, I stopped again to top off my water, aware that this was my last reliable water source before my final destination for the day at the Nauman Tentsite.

At the back of my mind was a low hum of panic. Convinced I had fallen behind schedule, I pulled out my phone and turned it on. 2 p.m. Then I turned to my map, convinced I still had 7 miles to go. That may seem insignificant, but up in the Whites, a pace of 1 mile per hour is not unusual.

Looking at my map, relief flooded my system. I only had 5 miles left. I was practically done! Even if I did hike at one mile per hour, I’d still make it to the campsite by nightfall. Hope and optimism surged through me. The despondent exhaustion I had felt a few hours ago on the top of Jefferson was long gone. Munching on a gooey brownie cooked by the genius crew of Lake of the Clouds hut, I shouldered my pack and set off towards the summit of Monroe.

The distance from Lake of the Clouds to Monroe is kind of laughable. It is a short and steep 300 feet of elevation gain, hardly enough to be called a separate mountain peak but then again, still quite a challenging scramble with a 20-pound pack on. From there, the rest of my hike rolled away into the distant haze. I was standing on the highest point, and although I knew it wasn’t all downhill, that I still had two more official peaks and one more unofficial, I felt like I had already finished the hike.

The rest of that afternoon was pure, glorious, unadulterated magic. The footing became smooth and sandy as the path wove its way along the top of the ridge, slowly ascending and descending the smaller humps of the Southern Presidentials. I crested the top of Eisenhower riding a high of adrenaline. This was the kind of hiking I always dreamed of. This was who I was meant to be. I was floating along, dreaming of a life where all I ever had to do was walk along mountain ridges just like this, experiencing and discovering new lands and never before seen views.

“Hello again!”

There they were. My friends from Adams and Jefferson, sitting on the ground at the broad sloping peak of Eisenhower, looking exhausted.

We took pictures and said goodbye, they were moving faster than I was and going further, I wouldn’t see them again.

My lighthearted journey continued to my final peak of the day, and last official peak of a short Presidential Traverse, Pierce. The trail dipped down below tree line for the first time since 6 a.m. that morning. The pines enveloped me, embracing me and welcoming me back into their arms. The expansive views of the White Mountains vanished and I entered their beating heart, the land of pines and moss and silence.

The summit of Pierce is unremarkable, shrouded in trees without a real view. But as I came over the final rise to the summit I heard the crack of a beer can and saw two people sitting down on nearby rocks.

“This is our 48th” They smiled clearly excited. They were finishing all 48 of New Hampshire’s 4000 footers. My heart swelled. I’d never actually been present to see anyone finish their 48. It felt like a fitting end to my day.

“Congratulations!” I raised my poles in their direction and continued on. The only thing between me and my dinner was a short descent to Mizpah Springs Hut and the nearby Nauman tent site.

Or so I thought.

The final descent was steep, a dramatic granite staircase tangled with tree roots and slippery with water. Each step sent pain ripping up into my knees and hips as the toll the day had taken on my body finally showed itself. Even more painful, the sound of people laughing and relaxing outside of the Mizpah hut drifting up through the trees for the final half mile of the trail, taunting me with thoughts of hot mac n cheese and sleep.

But nothing lasts forever, not even unforgiving downhills, and at long last, I popped out of the trail in front of the Mizpah Hut. The Nauman Tent site is literally right next to the hut, I’m pretty sure its the only place in the White Mountains where an AMC Hut has a tent site so nearby. It’s really super convenient.

By 5 p.m. I was pitching my tent on one of the platforms and getting to know my neighbors, a boy scout dad out for a solo hike and a group of three Appalachian Trail hikers who’d met on their second day and hiked together all the way from Georgia.

It was a pretty great night in the woods.

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Day 3: From Nauman on Home

I woke up a little after dawn the next morning and rolled over in my sleeping bag, safe in the knowledge that I only had to hike about 5 miles that day. Drifting in and out of sleep, I laid on my inflatable mat and basked in the feeling of having nothing in particular to do.

I heard the soft sounds of my Appalachian trail campsite comrades packing up their things. The slither of a tent collapsing, the click of tent poles, the hushed sounds of the first hikers setting out for the day. I decided to see how the outside world looked this morning.

Sticking my legs out of the tent, I crammed my feet into my hiking boots and stood up. Immediately my legs screamed out, shredding my peaceful state of mind. Overnight my muscles had transformed from human flesh into ice cold stone. Every movement hurt. I stepped tenderly across the campsite, carrying my water bladder down to the stream to refill. I had to take the stairs one at a time, gripping nearby trees as my calves screamed in protest. It took another hour of hobbling around for my legs to fully wake up and the pain to recede.

Sitting on my bear vault, I cooked up a pot of oatmeal. Normally on backpacking trips, I scarf down a cold pop tart and head out of the campsite as the sun rises, usually one of the first on the trail. But I had hiked almost the entire Presidential ridge yesterday and I was going to have a long, relaxing morning in the woods. I had earned it.

I munched on my cinnamon oatmeal while the Appalachian trail hikers packed up their things and ate their cold ramen noodle breakfasts. My other tent site partner, the boy scout father out for a solo hike, was approaching this morning with the same attitude as I was. We sat next to each other and watched as everyone around us packed up and headed out. We were in no rush.

“I’ve decided I’m going to skip Jackson.” He confided in me. “My legs aren’t feeling it at all.”

From the Nauman tent site, Presi-Traverse hikers have two options, you can take the Mizpah Cut Off directly down to the Crawford Depot, a two-mile hike, or head up to the peak of Mt. Jackson, not an official peak on the Presi traverse but still hit by many, and from there, either follow the Appalachian Trail over Webster and down to Route 302, or take the Mt. Jackson trail down to Crawford Depot.

Even as I packed up my supplies that morning, I wasn’t sure which route I was going to do. I headed on the trail up to Jackson, waiting for my body to tell me whether or not Webster and Webster Cliff were in the cards for me.

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Nauman Tentsite to Mount Jackson

The trail up to Jackson was quite beautiful. It wanders through a dense pine forest, sometimes quickly ascending before descending again, twisting through moss covered boulders with sunlight dancing through the trees.

The final pitch to the top of Jackson is sudden and steep, a classic New England scramble that requires full use of all four limbs and your problem-solving capabilities. I was winded and euphoric by the time I reached the summit.

From the peak, you have a stunning view of the entire ridge, all the way back up to Mount Washington far in the distance. Mount Tom, Field, and Willey are across Crawford Notch. On this morning the views were splendid and pine-covered mountains stretched in every direction.

Now it was decision time. Was I going to continue on the Appalachian trail to the lower Mount Webster, along the cliff, and down to Route 302, or head straight down from here to Crawford Notch. My legs had shown up for the climb to Jackson, but my knees were worn out from the day before, and I knew from the topographical map that the descent from Webster Cliff would be steep. I decided to take the shorter, gentler route directly down to Crawford Depot, saving Webster Cliff for another day.

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Mount Jackson to Crawford Deport

Getting off of the summit of Mount Jackson is much the same as getting up to it, a sharp, steep scramble down exposed granite. But it ends soon enough and the trail is your typical New England descent, massive granite stairs just a little too big to be comfortable on the knees, descending through gorgeous pine forests and passing by streams and rivers.

Close to the top, a fellow backpacker flew past me with a quick and cheerful, “hello!” as he passed. I remember thinking, the only people who hike that fast are Appalachian Trail hikers… but this isn’t the Appalachian Trail. I considered yelling out to him but I didn’t want to be a mansplainer. He surely knew where he was going, he was walking with such confidence. And by the time I finished this internal debate, he was already long gone.

I continued my slow descent.

The descent felt long. My legs were undeniably tired from the day before and I was ready to sit down and eat a big meal, maybe even have a tasty IPA. But the trail just kept going, sometimes crossing along the side of the mountain, rolling up and down.

After another hour or so, I saw a familiar face heading back up the mountain. It was the backpacker. My surprise must have shown in my face because he greeted me with a sheepish “hello again.”

“Are you an AT hiker?” I ask. He nodded.

“Oh no!” My dismay was hard to conceal. “I thought so when you passed me earlier and I was going to shout out to you, but I didn’t because I’m too shy! Ugh, I’m so sorry!”

He was surprisingly positive about it. “It’s ok! I’m still hiking. Where was the turn-off?”

“At the summit.”

“Oh, that far? Yikes.”

He pushed on back uphill, his spirits still high. I continued down, trying not to feel responsible for the extra miles and several hundred feet of elevation gain that my timidity had added to his day.

The descent took most of the morning, but I popped out onto the road around noon. The trailhead ends up at the far end of the lake, with a tiny road walk to get to the Crawford Depot itself. At the depot, I plopped my bag down on one of the picnic tables and sat down, staring around, basking in wave after wave of satisfaction. A quiet euphoria humming in my mind, tingling in my toes and fingertips, fluttering in my heart.

I had just finished my first Presidential Traverse. Next time, I’m going to try for a single day.


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A Trip Report of a 3 Day Presidential Traverse, one of the most challenging hikes in New Hampshire's White MountainsA Trip Report of a 3 Day Presidential Traverse, one of the most challenging hikes in New Hampshire's White Mountains

In Photos: The Deserted Mansions of Kep, Cambodia

Adventure Travel, Cambodia, Travel, Uncategorized

Kep, Cambodia. Or as the French once called it, Kep Sur Mer, is a small seaside town that was once a romantic getaway for the rich and famous of Cambodia’s bourgeois class. Jungle clad mountains rolling into turquoise waters made it the perfect escape for upper class Phnom Penhoise. That is, until upheaval, genocide, and decades of civil war ripped Cambodia into pieces, leaving behind only the ruined mansions of Kep, a ghostly reminder of what once was here.

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The Golden Age of Kep

Back in the 1920s, when Cambodia was still under French control, the French turned Kep into a seaside resort town. And when King Father Sihanouk of Cambodia negotiated a peaceful independence from France in 1953, the Cambodian upper class continued the trend, turning Kep into an elegant seaside getaway.

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Part of that transformation included the building of sophisticated modern and art-deco style houses in the mountains overlooking the sea. These structures, designed by some of the most fashionable architects of the 1960s, including the beloved Vann Molyvann, reflect the so-called “golden age of Cambodia.” To my untrained eye, they’d fit right in among the art-deco houses of Los Angeles’ Laurel Canyon.

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Kep’s Violent Upheaval

When the Lon Nol government took over Phnom Penh in 1970, expelling King Sihanouk, construction of these mansions was put on hold. That construction was halted forever when the Khmer Rouge came to power.

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Given its location in between Phnom Penh and Vietnam, Kep was affected by the war in Vietnam and the wars in Cambodia. When the Khmer Rouge took over the city, they rounded up Kep’s upper class, forced them into a gas station, and lit the building on fire.

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Kep’s fortunes didn’t look good even after the “fall” of the Khmer Rouge in 1979. A faction of the Khmer Rouge continued the fight in the hills and mountains of Kampot and Kep until well into the 90s. By then, the romantic lifestyle of the 1960’s felt like a dream, slipping away and tinged with horror.

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Today, Kep is finally in a full blown recovery. Khmer families travel from across the country to relax by the shore and enjoy Kep’s famous blue crab. Foreign tourists travel for a day trip from Kampot. Some, like me, decide to stay for a few days. Kep is a relaxed and beautiful seaside town but the scars of its violent past live on.

IMG_0177The Abandoned Houses of Kep, Cambodia

Just a cursory drive around the town reveals glimpses of Kep’s abandoned houses poking out of the jungle. Spend a day exploring the back streets and you’ll come across ruin after ruin, like a sick modern parody of Angkor Wat. Many of the houses have been reclaimed by the jungle, some are gone forever, marked only by the 1960’s era wall surrounding the overgrown plot of land.

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Still others have been reclaimed by Kep’s population, filled with squatters and families who, perhaps too poor or perhaps too afraid to relive the painful memories, live in the broken down ruins without rebuilding.

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In today’s Cambodia, where the land is more valuable than their cultural heritage, these ruins face an uncertain future. Many have already been torn down in the face of new development, and many more will soon be removed as well.

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But I was in love with these ghosts of Cambodia’s golden age. I found them compelling and haunting, pulling me back in time to a Cambodia before the fearsome pain of the Khmer Rouge wars. I hope, for Cambodia’s sake and for tourists’ sake, that someone protects these 1960’s mansions of Kep, keeping at least a few of them safe for the next generation of curious explorers.

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abandoned mansions of kep cambodia

Biking The Cardamoms Day 4: O Saom

Adventure Travel, Cambodia, Travel, Uncategorized

And on the fourth day, I awoke to the sounds of roosters crowing practically inside my inner ear. I tried, in vain, to stay asleep until my 5:30am alarm, but by 5 in the morning I had to give it up as a lost cause.

I laid in bed, feeling my legs and gaging my energy levels. They were still pretty depleted, if I was being honest with myself. And I was looking at a 125km day, through the mountains, down to Koh Kong. On top of that, I had really loved my afternoon in O Saom the day before and I fervently wished I had more time to enjoy the lake, this mountain village, and the people living here.20161114_102754

The Decision

The battle raged inside my head. On the one hand, my intense inner voice lambasted me for my laziness. Telling me to stick to my plan, not be a quitter, get on that bike and ride, damn it, never mind the burning pain in my thighs.

My more reasonably inner voice, the one that loves me and believes in a more laissez faire approach to life, told me to chill out. The reason I had set out on this journey in the first place was to spend some time in the mountains. Why was I in such a hurry to get to Koh Kong? The mountains were here, and I had 2 more days until I needed to catch a bus to Battambang. Just stay. Spend the day in the hammock reading a book and swimming in the lake.

Thankfully, the reasonable voice won.20161114_151315

I went to find the proprietor and let him know about my plans, then at 6am, laid back down in bed to go back to sleep. But of course, I couldn’t sleep and by 7am, my stomach was begging me for some breakfast.

A Cambodian Schedule

But Cambodians follow a very different meal schedule than most westerners, especially in rural areas. They wake up at 3:30 or 4, I assume they eat at this time, though I’ve never been awake to witness it, and head to work in the fields before the sun rises and the heat of the day begins. By mid morning they return home, and lunch is at 11 or 11:30. The middle of the day is reserved for napping in hammocks and spending time with the family. The late afternoon sees a bit more work being finished, then dinner is at 5, maybe 6 at the latest, and when they sun goes down, they go to bed.20161114_102802

All that is to say that I ended up cycling into town to get some breakfast and once again, had one of the best meals I’ve had since arriving in Cambodia. A simple red curry over Khmer noodles, called “nom wren chok”.

As I rode my bike the 2 or 3 kilometers from the village back out to my homestay on the lake, I started thinking.

On Self Reliance and Obstinacy

Something I’ve noticed over the years is the effect that the mountains have on my thought process. Somewhere in the struggle and overwhelming challenge of moving my body across mountains, I reach a point of clarity.20161114_162134

The mountains let me step back from myself and observe objectively. Especially when I am alone. Over the past two days as I cycled up, I found myself appreciating my own independence and faith in myself in ways I hadn’t before. I realized as I struggled up the unrelenting mud drenched hills, that I was listening to myself, without fear or anger or shame.

I don’t always have a lot of faith in myself, to be honest. When I am with another person, my desire to please them can get in the way, and I find myself unable to make decisions. Instead of listening to my own inner voice, I try to base all my decisions on what I think will make the other person happy. It doesn’t work out. Ever.

But here in the Cardamoms, alone and struggling through one of the hardest bike rides of my life, I was the happiest I had been in ages. I wasn’t worried about anyone else feelings, about their opinions of me, or comparing myself to someone else. When I want to take a break, I gently push myself a bit further, and then I take a break. I got back on the bike when I Was ready, and not before. And I loved every second of it. Even when my bike broke or I was too tired and had to hop in a car, I wasn’t angry or ashamed, it was just part of the adventure.20161114_162302

If I had been with a partner, who knows if I’d have been able to take this day off to appreciate the mountain village. I may have pushed myself on, dangerously and in spite of the painful fatigue in my legs, simply out of a desire not to appear weak or incapable.

The next step is to take this solitary version of myself, the one who honors her own opinion and respects her own desires, and marry that with the self that I display when I am with a partner. I hope I’m up to the challenge, but I haven’t yet met the person with the adventurous spirit that matches and balances my own.

I love my competitive nature. It makes me fierce and it pushes me to be a better version of myself. But when it gets to the point where I hurt myself, and I hurt the people I love, then it has gone too far. Then it is time to put my competition aside. In the end, the only person you are really competing against, is yourself.20161114_164206

Meanwhile in O Saom

The rest of my day in O Saom turned into one of those travel experiences that you read about in blogs and magazines. I spent the morning riding around in the back of a pick up truck with a Cambodian family, visiting their friends in the surrounded villages, picking up odds and ends, and having broken conversations with friendly strangers. In the afternoon, I rode bicycles and practiced funny yoga poses with some of the local children, then we all went out swimming. At sunset, I walked around taking photos of the lake, photos of the village, and spent a few moments sitting with the local women, while they brushed each others hair.

Really, it was like something out of a travel documentary.20161114_170056

I was not, however, the one and only foreigner to ever pass through this town. In the middle of the day I saw two foreigners go by on dirt bikes, without stopping. And as the sun was setting at the end of my wonderful Cambodian day of realization, two Australian guys rode up on dirt bikes to spend the night at the hotel. We shared a few beers, I admitted I was envious of their bikes, they admitted the thought I was completely insane for trying to ride a mountain bike through this terrain alone.

They were probably right.

I went to bed early, rested and restored, ready to attempt the epic 125km last day out of the mountains.

This blog post is a continuation of a series on my 4 day cycling trip across the Cardamom Mountains of Cambodia from Pursat to Koh Kong. Read about days 1 and 2, from Pursat to Pramoay, or Day 3 from Pramaoy to O Saom.

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Biking the Cardamoms Day 3: Pramaoy to O Saom

Adventure Travel, Cambodia, Travel, Uncategorized

Waking up on day 3 of my bike ride from Pursat to Koh Kong, I found, to my delight, that my legs contained no trace of the exhaustion I had felt the night before. By some miracle of protein and fried noodles, my muscles had healed themselves, and I jumped out of bed at 5:30 a.m. full of energy.

The Morning Ride

I set off immediately, thinking to eat breakfast in the outskirts of the town. First mistake. Town had no outskirts. The road was immediately through farmland, with no little villages in sight.

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Aside from the lack of breakfast, the morning ride was absolute perfection. If yesterday’s road had been the Cambodian version of a freeway: wide, flat, and crowded with trucks; today’s was a Californian fire road: winding across rolling hills, with small climbs and sudden descents. The first hour of riding was some of my favorite of the whole trip.

Through the growing dawn light, I passed through farm fields draped over rolling hills. Rows of corn, potatoes, and other crops that I didn’t recognized stretched off into the mist. In the distance, growing closer with every climb, were the steep mountain slopes. I pushed towards them in growing anticipation; excited for the brutal climb I knew I was facing, nervous that I’d have to do it on an empty stomach.

Breakfast with Strangers

Thankfully, on a little plateau close to the mountains, I passed through a small village. As I coasted through town, a spotted a small restaurant with a few people eating. I eagerly pulled over for some breakfast, ready to have a limited chat with the locals.

The usual surprise and “where are you going?” conversation ensued. I ordered another bowl of bor bor (rice porridge) and sat down to enjoy my breakfast. At some point during my meal, a man came and sat at my table, not an unusual occurrence in Cambodia. He asked the usual slew of questions, where I was from, how long was I in Cambodia, and where was I going. When I said “O Saom” he grabbed his knees in mock pain saying “Riding a bicycle? No way. Don’t do that. No way.”

That was my first indication of just how intense the rest of my day would be.

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The Climb

As I pedaled towards the mountains after breakfast I felt strong. Not confident, but at least eager. Not long after the meal, I began the climb.

Cycling across my last flat section of the morning, I came to the top of a large drop off. I looked across a valley and could see a mud road zig zagging its way up through the dense jungle-clad wall of mountain in front of me. I set off. Dropped into my low gear and chugged along up the mountain.

The road was in terrible condition, and I was climbing at the very end of the rainy season. In places the road was reduced to slippery wet clay clinging to a grade so steep I would have thought it impossible to climb.

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But of course, even as I struggled to push my bike through knee deep mud up a mountain, Cambodian families rode by on 100cc motos.

Every Cambodian who drove by cheered me on a little, or said “oh! Tired huh?” It was motivating, but no amount of motivation was going to get my ass up that mountain. Several times, more than several, I had to get off and walk the bike up a hill, slipping in the wet clay. I want to say it was demoralizing, but I loved every second of it.

For some reason, climbing and struggling up endless mountains alone inspires me. It brings out some long lost deeper version of myself who lives for a challenge. The fact that I’m alone makes me feel powerful and strong. The talk in my head was all positivity. Lots of “fuck yeah megan” and “you are such a fucking beast.”

No matter how much I rode, how far I pushed, the road kept going. I made it to the top of one climb, enjoyed a brief but very steep descent, and began the whole process again, climbing up another ridge. If there is one rule that I’ve learned from my years spent in mountains, it is this: there is always more up.

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Long, steep zig zags through dense jungle, along a muddy, rutted out road. The effort to finish was intense. But finally, at long last, I made it. I stood at the top of the last climb and looked out over a stunning view.

The jungle had been cut away (for electrical wires, of course) to reveal a massive lake far below me and a huge valley encircled by mountains, one of which I was standing on. Far in the distance, across the lake I could see a small village, most likely O Saom, my destination for the day.

The descent began. My legs were relieved and my soul was joyous. Descents on a mountain bike are one of the most exhilarating experiences, even when they aren’t technical. I flew down the mountain towards the lake, passing through a small village full of surprised looking people (surprised, no doubt, to see a barang woman go rocketing by on a mountain bike, unaccompanied).

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The road hit the lake and turned sharply to the right, cardinal direction I’m not sure. From there the road was mostly flat, but I knew I had to wind all the way around the massive lake before I would make it to O Saom. I probably had twenty kilometers left in the day, and it was only 11am.

My legs were pretty tired after that brutal climb, so I pulled over in some shade on the side of the road and laid down. Lunch was some dried mango and pineapple. There were no towns between that small lakeside village and O Saom, so I was without food, and very aware of the fact. After I had finished the mango, my stomach was still greedily asking for more.

As I laid on the side of the road and attempted to take a sneaky nap, two Europeans rode by on dirt bikes. They struggled through a tiny bit of mud nearby and stopped next to me, asking if I was okay. It was my first inclination that I was not, in fact, the only Barang in these mountains.

Even though they rode dirt bikes, and I was on a much more challenging mountain bike, I did feel a bit sorry for them. They were coming in the opposite direction, which according to them had no mud. The small bit they had just ridden through had really thrown them. I told them honestly, that the mud and shitty conditions were only just beginning. They were in for it.

Hopefully, they made it to Pramaoy in one piece. I may never know.

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One Last Hurdle

Rested, I hopped back on the bike to finish my last 20 kilometers of the day. I felt tired, but capable.  I knew I was going to finish. I had one more climb in front of me, nothing like what I had already completed, and then I would get to rest in beautiful O Saom.

At the top of the last climb, I stared out over the lake, ready to descend and bang out the final 14 kilometers to O Saom. I began the descent but I heard a troubling thumping noise. Stopping, I looked behind me to discover, much to my dismay, my rear tire was flat.

And I had no inner tubes with me. No tools. No hand pump.

In short, I was fucked.

But I was only 14 kilometers away from O Saom and it was still early. I could walk the rest of the way and hopefully get some help in the village.

I set off, pushing my bike down the descent and walking along the road. Cursing myself for my stupidity. I had even thought to myself, before setting out, I really ought to grab some inner tubes and tools, but had decided against it. Why? I don’t know.

I walked for something like 7 kilometers when a taxi drove by and stopped. The driver motioned to me, asking if I wanted a lift. I could have stubbornly refused, but it was hot, sunny, my legs were tired, and most of all, I was starving.

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I hopped into the taxi.

We drove 2 kilometers to the closest guest house. A wonderful place that doesn’t really have a name, other than the O Saom Eco Tourism Center.

Heaven is a Place on Earth

I was greeted by Mr. Lim, the owner, who speaks excellent English and is extremely friendly. Originally from Pursat, he has lived up in the mountains for 3 years with his young family. He runs the guesthouse, tour agency, and voluntourism spot. He accepts volunteers as English teachers or gardeners. He works to help the local community learn more about sustainable agriculture and best practices.

Not to mention the beauty. He showed me to my own private bungalow with a hammock hanging in front, surrounded by a flowering tropical garden. His wife made me a simply lunch of fried ginger and rice, and I ate my late lunch at the pavilion, looking out at a panoramic view of the lake and surrounding mountains. Fed and watered, I headed down to the lake to wash off.

I was in heaven.

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Standing in a lake, surrounded by moutains, pepper farms, and breathing in the kind of air that one only finds at high altitudes, I felt at home. My writing doesn’t have the ability to live up to the beauty of O Saom. It is unlike anywhere else I’ve been in Cambodia. The air is cooler, the agriculture is smaller scale, the atmosphere is quieter. I laid in my hammock and wished that I had given myself more time up here. I wanted to spend a month exploring the surrounding countryside.

But I didn’t have a month, I had 4 days. At 7 p.m. I fell into my bed utterly exhausted, dreading the 125km trek that stood between me and Koh Kong.

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This blog post is a continuation of a series on my 4 day cycling trip across the Cardamom Mountains of Cambodia from Pursat to Koh Kong. Read about days 1 and 2, from Pursat to Pramoay, and Day 4 in O Saom.

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Biking the Cardamoms Days 1 & 2: Pursat to Pramaoy

Adventure Travel, Cambodia, Travel, Uncategorized

The story of my trip cycling from Pursat to Koh Kong through the Cardamom Mountains started with me, sitting at my desk at work, daydreaming about being somewhere else.

Moving to Cambodia to work for an NGO was a dream come true for me. My expectations before moving here were very high. The reality of living in Cambodia, though, especially in the city of Battambang, has taught me something: I am happiest near the mountains.

But Battambang? Flat as a pancake. Here, they call a 50m tall hill a mountain and mean it seriously.

As I slowly realized that the only thing I was going to climb were the stairs to my fourth floor apartment, the reality of my situation, and my lack of mountains, became clear. As a coping mechanism, I began typing in variations of the phrase “Mountains in Cambodia” into google.

I discovered Cambodia’s storied Cardamom Mountains. The Cardamom’s aren’t famous for their height. The tallest peak, Phnom Aural, is just over 1,800m (5,900ft). However, they are blanketed by one of the largest and still unexplored forests in Southeast Asia.

The Cardamoms are some of the last territory in the region that is home to wild tigers, elephants, and nearly extinct Siamese Crocodiles. Additionally intriguing, as late as the 1990s, these remote mountains were the last home and battlefield of the Khmer Rouge. Obviously, I had to explore them.

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The road to Pramaoy.

Geographically speaking, the Cardamoms aren’t so far away from Battambang. Naively, I believed getting into the mountains would be easy.

As I typed in as many variations of “Battambang to Cardamom Mountains” as I could, I kept getting the same results: I’d have to go down to Koh Kong (2 separate 7 hour bus trips) in order to get into the Cardamoms. It wasn’t possible. There were no options for entering the Cardamoms from the north.

BUT WAIT.

Deep in the dusty recesses of forgotten google search results, I found a sliver of hope. A post, written in 2010, described a possible mountain bike trek through the Cardamoms, beginning in a town called Pursat, just 100km south of Battambang on Road 5.

But here in Cambodia, a country that is changing more rapidly than Putin’s opinion of America, a blog post from 2010 has limited viability for 2016 travel plans. In short, I couldn’t trust it.

The only post I could find to corroborate the story came from 2013. This second blog post contained a vitally important footnote: the author claimed it would be possible to make this bike trek without camping gear, going from Pursat to Koh Kong in three days, staying in the only two towns in the mountains with guesthouses: Pramaoy and O Saom.

Welp. That was that, I was going for it. I just needed to find a time when I had 5 days free, 2 days for travel to and from Battambang, 3 days for bike riding. There was never a question of if I  would do it, it was simply when. After all these years of exploration, I’m not hesitant about traveling alone. Even when it might seem like a crazy idea.

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Pramaoy at Dusk

And so I waited, biding my time as the months went by, following a rigorous training schedule not ever riding a bicycle, nor, in fact, even owning one. Still I waited patiently until the day would come that during some Cambodian holiday with little to no relevance to my life, I would take off for the mountain wildernesses.

Then during the water festival in November my work gave me 3 weekdays off, so I had 5 days, from Saturday to Wednesday, to get this shit done. Was I worried about my lack of fitness and preparedness? Excrutiatingly. I didn’t sleep well for weeks leading up to it. And when I did sleep, I would spend half the night suffering through illogical stress dreams. But I was determined. I had to get the fuck out of Battambang and find my way into the mountains.

When it came to planning, I stuck to my usual travel approach: don’t.

Okay, well, I rented a bike from a local bike tour business, went to the market and bought a small backpack to hold a change of clothes, rolled up my hammock “just in case” I didn’t make it to a guesthouse any night, and bought a bus ticket to Pursat the day before. It was tricky finding a bus company that would agree to take the bike, I was surprised by how many of them ended up saying no. Eventually I found a bus ticket on Sorya bus for $6 from Battambang to Pursat, including the bike.

The only thing left to do was start.

Day 1: Bus from Battambang to Pursat

After two sleepless nights of stressing out thinking I was going to die on the road, I picked up my bike from Soksabike around noon on Friday and biked to the bus stop outside of town for my 1:30pm bus to Pursat.

Following the great Cambodian tradition, the bus was one and a half hours late, so my 1:30pm bus left at 3pm. Naturally. Then the 1 hour ride to Pursat of course took two hours. Because, why not?

So it was that at 5pm I stepped off of the bus on the side of the highway in Pursat with no hotel reservations, no clue about the layout of the town, armed only with the confidence that everything would work out, eventually.

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Pursat at Dawn

Cycling around town, I discoverd that once you get off of highway 5 Pursat is a lovely place. There is a river with a park alongside it meandering through town and a massive central market. The city seems to be a center for agriculture and I was very comforted by the giant market with lots of families selling their produce. It reminded me, in a way, of the mercado central in Urubamba, Peru.

Riding around the attractive tree lined streets surrounding the market, I did see a sign for a small, family run guest house, and popped in to find out how much a room cost.

Inside, two young Cambodian girls weres playing a game on a smart phone, and when they looked up and saw me, they both froze, wide eyed, unable to move or greet me. It didn’t help that I forgot the Cambodian words for hotel and night, so I had no Khmer vocabulary and was forced to ask in English. After a long and awkward silence, they broke out of their stupor and put me in an air conditioned and only slightly moldy hotel room for $7 a night.

Got some dinner from a street side seller and took advance of the free cable TV to watch CNN in my hotel room, always an interesting contrast when traveling in Southeast Asia, and went to sleep early, determined to be well rested for my 110km journey the next day.

Day 2: Pursat to Pramaoy – 110km

I knew, because I had read a blog post about it naturally, that from Pursat to Pramaoy was 110km. What I did not know was the location of Pramaoy on the map, or how the fuck do you even pronounce Pramaoy!? It’s pram – owee, turns out, but I didn’t figure that out until hours into day one.

My alarm woke me up at 5am and I jumped out of bed, determined to have as many hours as possible to ride 110km. Have I mentioned I wasn’t in cycling shape? I figured (hoped) I would need about 8 hours to cover that distance.

On the plus side, the first day was meant to be completely flat, so I anticipated being able to finish a bit ahead of schedule.

Hopped on my bike by 5:30 and rolled slowly out of town, looking for the turnoff for the road to Pramaoy. It was easy to find, just past the bridge over the river on highway 5, the sign points to Phnom Kravahn, the Khmer name for the Cardamom Mountains.

The road is paved for the first 20 or so kilometers and the riding was easy. Cruising along at a good clip, watching the sky turn from dark blue to purple to pink and white and sky blue, while the sun turned the tropical forests and rice fields around me a beautiful mix of gold and green, I felt at peace. This was the way I was meant to live. Traveling, moving through the world, experiencing life at its most raw.

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Cambodian Rice Porridge: Bor Bor

After an hour of this, my stomach finally got in touch with my brain and reminded me that I hadn’t eaten anything yet. After a little less than 20 kilometers, I stopped at a roadside restaurant and ordered a bowl of Bor, Cambodian rice porridge. Needless to say, it was spectacular.

As I ate, I was joined by a collection of school kids and their mothers. They gathered around the table in what seemed to be a normal morning ritual. Only this day, the morning gossip hour was interrupted by the appearance of me, the foreigner. They asked me where I was going, and I did my best to have a conversation with them. At one point, one of the women put my bike helmet on her head and started walking around laughing at herself.

Stuffed with rice porridge, I payed my $0.50 and went along my merry way. Not too far after my breakfast stop, I passed through the town of Phnom Kravahn and out along a bridge across the Pursat river. After the bridge, the road changed from pavement to dirt and I thought to myself, here we go. Now the adventure really begins.

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My legs, end of day 2.

But all that really began was my slow death by dust asphyxiation. The road is a well trafficked road and is under construction for most of the way between Phnom Kravahn and Pramaoy. For the entire day I was covering my mouth with my karma scarf while trucks and cars roared past me, churning up huge clouds of dust. By 11am I was covered in dust, my shirt, pants, shoes, and face all a unique orange hue.

Aside from the horrible traffic and dust situation, the mornings riding was pretty easy, but not overly scenic. There was nothing particularly exciting or challenging about it.

I stopped for lunch at a shack that seemed to have been set up to cater to the construction workers who were working on the road. In Cambodia, it is fairly normal to eat lunch around 11 and then take a rest during the hottest part of the day, from 11 until nearly 2pm. When I popped into the shack and asked for food, there was a group of men sitting there who all immediately started to talk about me.

I was feeling tired at this point and anti-social, so I am somewhat ashamed to admit I pretended not to speak Khmer. I could understand a lot of what they were saying, but I didn’t want to struggle through a conversation, so I didn’t reply.

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Incredible Noodle Soup

Through a series of pantomimes, the woman running the shop put a bowl of noodle soup in front of me with some kind of meat and vegetables inside. It was one of the most delicious bowls of soup I have ever had in my life. The broth was light and fresh, not too salty but not bland either. The rice noodles were the perfect balance between chewy and firm.

After the soup, I crawled onto a pallet at the back of the shop and fell asleep for an hour.

When I woke up, around 12:30, the people in the shop were still talking about me! Only now, having eaten and had a nap, I had the energy to reply, so we had a bit of a limited conversation. I don’t want to over exaggerate the extent of my khmer. I can listen fairly well, and can say things like “I’m riding my bike from Pursat to Pramaoy” or “I work in Battambang” and “I’m staying in Cambodia for one year.”

We didn’t delve into the heavy stuff.

Around 1pm I hopped back on the bike to continue my day. I was anticipating more of the same. Flat, wide, dirt road, heavily under construction, with a slight hint at uphill grade sometimes. I felt confident I would finish the 110km day. 

And then.

As I’m basking in my post lunch nap energy, feeling strong and rejuvenated, I came across something unexpected. The road was moving in a huge sweeping arc up a huge hill.

Alright. This wasn’t part of the plan.

But I’m strong. I love climbing hills on bikes. And the grade wasn’t very steep. I dropped into a lighter gear and kept pedaling. Then, a few minutes up the hill, I noticed an older much more rundown road off to the left, half buried by this dirt mega highway I was currently pedaling. I’m guessing that this was the old road, the one I had read about in the blog posts prior to undertaking this trip. That old road looked rugged and tough. It was much steeper and would have been a challenging climb.

If anyone is reading my blog looking to follow my bike path from Pursat to Koh Kong, I should probably tell you now, the day from Pursat to Pramaoy, you follow a flat, highly processed road that is probably going to be paved in the next 2 years.

So I snapped a photo of the old road and the new, and continued to climb. And climb. And climb. And climb. The hill went on forever. It was ridiculous. Outrageous. My whole world was this uphill climb.

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Old Road and New

Yet as with all things, the hill did eventually come to an end. The road flattened out and after a few moments, went back down. I cruised down the hill and after that point, the territory was more rolling hills. Even after the climb, I was feeling strong, and I powered through the rolling hills for another hour.

But sometime in the midafternoon, something inside me broke down. I felt myself hitting the proverbial wall. I pulled over at one point to buy a snack and a drink from a roadside house, and when I hopped back on the bike, it was like my legs refused to warm back up. Pedaling became agony.

Not to mention, since I hadn’t been riding a bike before this, my bum was wicked sore.

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Feeling pretty goddamn tired at this point.

Pushed on for another hour or so, but by 4pm, I was wrecked. My willpower was completely crushed when I came around a corner and saw another climb in front of me. Tired and beaten down, I stepped off of my bike and checked my maps.me app to see how many more kilometers I had to go before Pramaoy. The map said I had ridden 105km and had 28 more to go.

No.

Fucking.

Way.

In that moment, I figured I had 2 options.

Option 1: force myself to ride the final 28 km through rolling hills, and probably get to Pramaoy around 6pm completely exhausted. Most likely, I would be unable to ride the 60km through the mountains that I knew awaited me tomorrow.

Option 2: Stop here and try to flag down a passing car or truck to give me a ride the rest of the way to Pramaoy. Swallow my pride, and save my legs so that I could continue my ride tomorrow.

I went with option 2.

I propped my bike up on the side of the road and sat down to wait for the next car. And I waited. And waited. And waited.

A woman, probably the matriarch of the family, came out of a nearby house and asked me if everything was okay. I explained my predicament to her, that I was riding to Pramaoy, trying to go all the way to Koh Kong, but that I was tired, my knees hurt, and I didn’t want to ride any more.

Her reply? She offered to let me sleep at her house, and to feed me dinner. I was stunned and so honored. I thanked her profusely, but explained that I really had to get to Pramaoy today, because tomorrow morning I needed to ride from Pramaoy to O Saom, the village in the mountains.

To give her credit, never once did she tell me just to toughen up and get back on the bike. In fact, when no cars went by for awhile, I did start to get back on the bike to keep riding, and that was when my hostess offered me her own solution. She called out her son, and told him to drive me and my bike to Pramaoy… wait for it… on the back of his moto.

So he rolled out on his 100cc honda motorbike, I propped my bicycle upside down in my lap and sat behind him, and he drove me out to Pramaoy. Which, it turns out, was really less than 10km away, my map had been wrong all along.

Pramaoy was perfect. Dusty dirt roads intersecting a town of small shops and restaurants in the middle of farmland with mountains in the distance. I took in the sunset over town, grabbed some fried noodles, and fell into bed completely exhausted. 

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I have one piece of advice for intrepid mountain bikers looking to follow in my footsteps: if you’re looking for a rugged, wild mountain bike adventure, skip this day. From Pursat you can just get a bus to Pramaoy/Veal Veng. Unless you’re doing a cycle tourism trip and want to ride every mile, just skip this day. The fast driving trucks and cars are relentless and it gets unpleasant. Save yourself the energy, bus to Veal Veng, and tackle the extreme challenge of the ride from Pramaoy to O Saom. It’s much more fun.

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Scenic Pramaoy

Stay tuned for the stories of Days 3, 4, and 5. Trust me, my adventure had only just begun…

Mud & Water: The Kindness of Strangers in Rural Cambodia

Adventure Travel, Cambodia, Travel, Uncategorized

The one true constant that I have found as I move around the world is the kindness of strangers. Of course, people have also been terrible. In every country I have met selfish people, hateful people, violent people, I’ve had things stolen, I’ve been followed home, and I’ve been harassed.

But these things don’t stick with me. I don’t remember the bad moments from Korea, Nepal, or any other country. What I do remember is the kind words and kind actions from strangers. The little moments when a stranger reached out to me, across cultural misunderstandings and language barriers, and offered me help or support.

20160914_180505But What About Battambang?

My weekends in Battambang are remarkable in their dullness. Please don’t think I am complaining. I work hard all week, slaving away at an underpaid NGO job, spending my lunch breaks and evenings creating content for my freelance writing clients to make ends meet. By Friday afternoon, all I can think about is the two days ahead of me filled with absolutely nothing.

Or actually filled with five to ten hours of writing, or seeking new freelance writing gigs… but also nothing.

This is a stark contrast from my life in Korea and Peru. In South Korea my weekends were full of partying, drinking, and weekend long excursions across the tiny country. In Peru, living in the Andes, my weekends were usually filled with hiking and backpacking adventures.

Here in Battambang things are different. It’s so goddamned hot every day, I can’t be fucked to leave my apartment. If I go out in the sun I’m immediately blinded and can feel the cancer cells erupting from my skin. Cambodia makes me feel that I am part Vampire, craving the darkness. Or maybe that’s the buffy I’ve been binging on…

Yet Sometimes I am Adventurous

One weekend, I made a conscious effort to get out of my house. A girl named Valerie recently moved into the apartment next to mine, and we hit it off right away. And even though I had been dealing with a persistent ear infection, and I knew I had other shit to do, I asked her in passing… want to go for a drive?

I wanted to check out a temple I had spotted on google earth. I got the sense it wasn’t a temple frequented by westerners, because I couldn’t find any mention of it in any blog, anywhere. Of course this only made me want to visit it more.

Now might be a good time to mention I haven’t really visited any of the tourist attractions in Battambang, except for the one I work for.

The Eventful Trip to O Krasang

20160918_124131So we hopped on my decrepit Honda Daelim 150cc motorbike and set off for O Krasang and the Angkor Era temple. What I hadn’t anticipated was that the road there would be a dirt road.

Or, in the dry season it is a dirt road. But now, three months into the rainy season, it was a muddy death trek of doom. When dry, the road would be wide enough for one car to drive safely, but two cars would have difficulty passing each other. In the wet there was one track, exactly the width of a motorbike tire and no wider, on which it was safe to drive. Everywhere else was either puddles or slippery muck.

As I set off onto this road, my whole body was tense. I wasn’t worried about myself or my bike. If I fell and muddied up the bike, whatever, it was just part of the story. But I was also responsible for Valerie’s well-being.

So this is what I am thinking as I start winding my bike along this twisting 5 inch wide strip of rideable road, desperately trying to maintain enough momentum not to get stuck, keep my eyes on the path in front of me, and not kill Valerie.

The tension was quickly broken by the source of my worry, Valerie. Instead of acting scared or stressed out, I heard her shouting behind me “Yeah, Megan, you got this!” “This is so cool!” and “There are so many cows!”

Pretty soon we are both laughing, and I was really enjoying the challenge of motoring along the muddy death trap. The road probably took 20 minutes to traverse, and I’m proud to say I didn’t fuck up once.

After the 20 minute joyous ride of doom, we turned onto a paved road and the rest of the trip was smooth and comfortable. 10 minutes later we pulled into this small temple in the middle of a Cambodian village. I probably don’t have to tell you that we were the only foreigners there. They didn’t even charge us an entrance fee. In Southeast Asia if they don’t charge you an entrance fee, it means you are the first foreigner ever to set foot there.

We explore the temple, wander around the footpaths into the jungle a bit, find ourselves in someone’s backyard, work our way back to the temple, and eat a picnic lunch. Eventually it’s time to go home.20160918_121306

On The Way Back, Things Get Interesting

As we are hopping back onto my trusty steed ancient scooter, I mention to Valerie that I had seen a different way home on the map. It would take longer, but be much prettier, following a stream as it wound through the jungle and farmland. Was she game to try? Valerie, the embodiment of adventure, consents. We decide to try out this wilder route home.

Of course, it isn’t a paved road. We find ourselves facing another muddy dirt path, winding along a murky river swollen from the recent rains. Overconfident from our recent success on the 20 minute ride of doom, I turn onto the street and rev the engine.

We hadn’t even gone a quarter of a mile before we’re faced with a muddy patch that outdoes everything we saw on the way to the temple. It makes my earlier “ride of doom” feel like a cake walk. Instinctively I know, 5 seconds too late, I can’t do this.

But of course, my hands don’t follow my brain. My brain says NO! Stop! Turn around! My hands drive the bike into the muck. I hit mud, I slide, step my foot to the side to catch myself, my foot hits the mud and slides uncontrollably backwards, my bike slides to the left and I fall into the mud. I feel Valerie fall behind me. I push my hands into the muck and they sink a good 6 inches. I try to push myself up and that’s when I realize… I’m stuck.

When my foot hit the muck, it slid backwards and Valerie fell on top of my leg, trapping me in the mud. I try to twist my face over to look at Valerie and ask her to get up. That’s when I realize she can’t. She is trapped under the motorbike.

Okay, I think, you’ve crashed your motorbike on top of your new friend. Time to pick it up so she doesn’t get hurt and hate you forever. I grab the handlebars and try to pick up the bike. But every time I try to move it, I just slide deeper into the mud. I can’t get purchase to leverage up the bike. I can’t move it.

Shit. I’m trapped under Valerie, who is trapped under the bike that I can’t move because I’m trapped under Valerie. Things were not looking so good.

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That’s when I heard him. A man ran over saying something in Khmer. He grabbed the back of the bike, I grabbed the handles, and we lifted the bike up a few inches, enough for Valerie to get out and me to stand up.

He took the bike and walked it out of the muck, setting it on its kickstand on the side of the road. I realized we had crashed right in front of a house with a family sitting outside. A woman came over to us. She grabbed Valerie and motioned to me. She led us into their compound and beneath the house.

Traditional Cambodian homes are raised up on stilts. Beneath the house, the family will set out tables, hammocks, and a few large jar shaped cisterns to store water. The woman led us to one of these cisterns to wash ourselves off. By now her husband had joined us again.

I thought they might give us a bucket to wash off the mud, but no. The husband walked over with a small plastic bucket and started to wash Valerie himself. She is laughing and saying thank you “akun, akun, thank you so much” over and over again. He turned her around, washing her legs, her arms, his wife standing behind him, pointing and fretting. They clean her cuts, her feet, he even tries to clean her face.

The wife steps up and tries to help me clean myself as well, but being the rather shy person I am, I gently shake her away and set about cleaning my feet. She settles for cleaning my shoes.

Once we’re all tidied up, we turn to the family and try to say thank you, over and over, in both Khmer and English. They shake off our thanks, smiling shyly. There is probably some huge gap of cultural understanding behind our desire to say thank you, and their unwillingness to accept our thanks.

Taking us in and helping us get clean would have filled my daily quota of unsolicited kindness, but of course, there was more. The family walked us back to the bike and watched to make sure we could get it going again. When I was too flustered to start the bike, the husband came over to start it for me.

We made the intelligent decision to take the paved road home, and the rest of the trip was uneventful. Except for the very strange looks we got from strangers as we drove down National Highway 5 on a motorbike completely covered in muck.

All in all, a good day made excellent by the kindness of strangers.

Pay it forward.

An Open Letter from a Rape Survivor about this Stanford Rape Crisis

mindfulness, Uncategorized, Yoga & Mindfulness

To the man who wrote that travesty of a letter defending his son the convicted rapist,

Before I dive into this, let me introduce myself. My name is Megan, I’m 27 years old, originally from the United States but currently living and working for an NGO in Cambodia. I love cooking, yoga, spending time with my friends, and when I was 18 years old I was raped in a frat house at my University. My rapist, who I had never met before, and about whom I know nothing, could very well have been just like your son. I don’t know. But I do know that I still carry the weight of that night with me today, almost 10 years later.

I want to begin by saying that I understand why you wrote the letter. You are a parent and it is natural to want to defend your child. But that doesn’t make your words true.

From the start, you assert that your son is a good kid with sentences like “he has a very gentle and quiet nature and a smile that is truly welcoming to those around him.” Fine. You’re his father, you are going to see him that way. But your gentle and welcoming son just got convicted, not accused, convicted of raping a woman. Opinion verse Fact.

Your story finishes with an account of your son’s struggles to fit in at school, and how he ultimately “fell into the culture of alcohol consumption and partying”. Give your son some agency, he isn’t a toddler anymore. He did not “fall into” drinking and partying like it was some malicious trap. He chose to go to parties, he chose to drink heavily. Was he influenced by peer pressure? Sure. But plenty of kids overcome peer pressure every year. Most kids at college do NOT rape an unconscious young woman behind a dumpster. Your son did. The problem is not drinking and promiscuity. The problem is a lot deeper.

You try to elicit emotion for your son by saying that his “life has been deeply altered forever…he is consumed with worry, anxiety, fear, and depression.” And you follow this misguided plea for sympathy with one of the most disgusting sentences I have ever read, asserting that 6 months of prison time is “a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action.”

After being raped, I was consumed by self hatred and completely lost who I was. I engaged in so many destructive behaviors, losing myself in drugs, sex, and drinking. Formerly a 4.0 student with a half tuition academic scholarship to a top university, I failed three classes in one semester and lost the scholarship. It took me 1 year to be able to tell my mother what happened. It took 4 years to be able to talk about it openly. I spend those years hiding inside a shell of myself, feeling alone, hated, ashamed, dirty. I thought my body was worthless, not my own. I didn’t think the rape was my fault. I knew it was my fault. Can you imagine how painful that is?

Was that a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action? Do you think six months in prison compares, even a little, to what we have to go through after we are raped?

Ah, but I forgot. Your son now has to register as a sex offender which will “forever alter…how he will be able to interact with people and organizations.”

After I was raped, I avoided classes, I avoided friendships, crawled inside myself, and effectively died. To this day, whenever I am intimate with someone, the rape is right there between us and I have to battle through that. I don’t know if it will ever go away. I live every day of my life in the knowledge that I am a rape survivor. It affects decisions I make. It affects my reactions and interactions. When men follow me or make comments at me in the street, interactions that other women find merely annoying, I find them traumatizing and often end up frustrated and in tears.

But we are missing one important distinction between my life of punishment, and your son’s: I didn’t decide to get raped.

I dressed up with friends, took some selfies, and got drunk at a frat house. I danced all night and yes, I kissed a boy on the dance floor. I was fresh out of high school where kissing a boy at a party was a big deal for me. Having sex? I only did that once I was in a committed, long term relationship with someone. And yet, that night I woke up out of a blackout to find myself being raped by someone I didn’t know, in a room I didn’t recognize. And for the next four years, I thought it was my fault. And I thought I was completely alone.

Your son, on the other hand, made the decision to try to attack a woman behind a dumpster. He made the decision to run away when he was caught. He didn’t wake up to find someone else inside of him, against his will. He willingly did everything that night. That is a major difference. The issue here is not that your son decided to drink, or be promiscuous. Both of those things are fine. Yes, college kids should be more moderate, but they aren’t going to be, they never have been. Drinking is not the crime your son committed, wanting to hook up with a girl is not the crime your son committed. Raping a woman who did not want to have sex with him is the crime your son committed. And nothing at all in your letter makes him innocent.

The fact is, your son’s choices and actions led him to commit a crime, for which he has been convicted and found guilty. He raped a young woman. He should be punished. After he is punished, he should be able to try to recover and rebuild his life. Your inability to understand the severity of your son’s crime is deeply troubling. I hope that you are someday able to see this mess clearly. Your son raped a woman. He should have to think about it every day. And then slowly he should begin to heal from it, to move forward from it, to become a better person who thinks before he acts and delves deep into his psyche to figure out why he committed such a hideous crime against a fellow human.

That you love your son is obvious. And he deserves your love. He will need your love. But he also needs to understand the true nature of his crime.

Drinking and flirting will continue to happen at college. That is not the nationwide epidemic problem we are facing. Plenty of people get drunk every weekend without raping each other. Rape is the problem. And in order to fix this problem, men and women across America need to educate their sons and daughters about consent, about the importance of respect, and of loving themselves and others no matter what.

I’m not going to address the young man that raped a woman and still thinks the only problem is that he drank too much. I want to be level headed and non-violent, so I will not speak what I am thinking and feeling.

To the young woman who has been labelled “victim” in this horror story: don’t listen to their bullshit. We aren’t victims. Someone committed a horrendous, invasive crime against our bodies, but we aren’t victims. We are survivors. Every day that you wake up and breathe, you are a survivor. When you smile, when you work, when you enjoy your life and the feeling of the sun on your skin, you are victorious.

I read your statement and it was the most compelling, well thought out, masterpiece of a statement that I have ever read about the experience of being raped. And I’ve read a lot of them.

I understand that you want to keep your name a secret, I would too. You want to be able to move past this and continue to live your life. But I also think it is a fucking travesty that you should have to feel any shame at all for something that you never asked for.

Just because we were drunk and at a party does not mean we deserved to be raped. Just because we drank so much that we cannot remember parts of our night does not mean we gave our consent. If anything, the fact that we were too drunk to remember should be evidence that we could not give consent.

It does not matter what you wore, it does not matter how much you drank, it does not matter. Rape is rape. And we know, deep in the core of our being, that we have been raped. The verdict of your case is a travesty, and you deserve better from our legal system.

The rape is not your fault. Trust in your heart. You will grow beyond this. You will become stronger for this. Your rape may never leave you. Fine. That is the reality. But you can use it to make yourself stronger. You have overcome something. You have survived.

Yoga teaches forgiveness. And I believe in this teaching. For me to fully survive, to move beyond my rape, I need to forgive my rapist, and let it go. I am not there yet. But I will be. I strive to get there every day. May we all be so strong. Forgiveness is the only way forward. But to reach forgiveness, we must also know the truth.

We are not rape victims. We are rape survivors.

With all my love,

Megan

Rescued in Nepal

Adventure Travel, Nepal, Travel, Uncategorized

This story is a piece of a larger narrative about a time I trekked for 24 days through the Annapurna Circuit deep within Nepal’s Himalayan wilderness. But for now, this story is a standalone tale of the unforgettable kindness bestowed upon me by the Nepali people.

For most people who set out to tackle the Annapurna Circuit these days, the trail ends in a town called Jomsom, two days walk down from the highest point of the trek, the wind blown, barren landscape known as Thorong-La Pass at 5416m (17769ft).

Most of the blogs that I read beforehand said that you couldn’t walk on past Jomsom because the path had been replaced by a Jeep road. Once I got to Kathmandu I found out that there was path from Jomsom, it was on the other side of the river from the Jeep road.

I had a map, and I had the not-so-trusty, never there when you need them red and white painted trail markers to guide my way. I left from Jomsom at 7am, bright and early to beat the afternoon winds that come sweeping up the riverbed. From looking at my map, I planned to walk along the riverbed until I came to a small village, cross one of two bridges which would take me over to the larger town, Tukuche, where I could get some lunch, cross back over to my private side, and continue on to my ultimate destination of the day, Kalbeni.

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Apple trees growing in a wheat field

And so we find our heroine leaving from Jomsom on a bright, sunny, absolutely perfect Himalayan morning. The path took me through riverside villages, farm fields of wheat, apple orchards, and an enchanting pine forest accompanied by the distant sound of a rushing Himalayan river. I visited a village with a Tibetan refugee center, and climbed up a narrow staircase cut into a rock wall to visit a farming village sitting atop a promontory overlooking the river with snow capped Himalayan peaks rising in the distance. If heaven is a real place, this walk is part of it.

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Pine forest and the trail marker.

But eventually it came to be noon, and then one o’clock. And though these villages were picturesque, they lacked the ubiquitous teahouses that characterized every village on the other side of the Annapurna Circuit. What this meant for me was nowhere that served lunch. With no food in my pack, I had to get to Tukuche.

And then I saw a posted map. It showed the village I had just passed through, and it showed the river with two bridges crossing it. But the bridges were crossed off.

No, I thought to myself, this can’t be. Surely someone in Jomsom would have mentioned that these bridges were gone!

But I hadn’t told anyone in Jomsom my plans. All my trekking friends were either ahead of me, or had gotten a Jeep out of Annapurna. I was alone. I had no food in my backpack, and the bridge that I needed to get the only town where there would be food was washed away.

Still, I held onto the hope that the sign was wrong and the bridges had been rebuilt. Until I rounded a corner five minutes later and the riverbed opened up in front of me. There were the supports for two bridges, but there was a distinct lack of bridge on top of them.

So just so we are clear. I had eaten a bowl of oatmeal that morning at 6:30am and had now been walking for about 5 or 6 hours. I’m starving. And there is a rushing Himalayan river of questionable depth between me and the only meal within a 10 mile radius.

What else could I do? I had to cross the river.

I took off my shoes, rolled up my pants, and stepped into the ice cold flow.

After only a few steps I could feel the current pulling at my legs. My feet were slipping all over the stones in the river bed. By the time I was up to my knees I was losing my balance and afraid that the heavy pack on my back would cause me to fall in and drown. I gave up and headed back to shore.

‘This is ridiculous,’ I told myself, ‘quit being a baby. You’re tough as nails and you are going to walk your ass across this river because it just can’t be that deep!’

I took of my shoes and my pants all the way off and stepped into the flow. I made it all the way out until I was up to my hips, not even a quarter of the way across the river, before I gave up and struggled back to the shore.

There was nothing for it, I realized. I was half crazed from hunger and going to have to walk all day without lunch. Hopefully find a house on this side of the river where I could get some food and a bed, but I wasn’t optimistic. Things were not looking good.

I had just finished putting my pants and shoes back on when I heard a shout. I looked up to see a small Nepali man walking out of the woods onto the riverbed, motioning for me to come meet him by the river.

I was a little nervous about approaching a strange man in the isolated Himalayan wilderness, but what other choice did I have, really? I desperately needed to cross this river and its not like I could pretend he was shouting and waving to someone else.

“Tukuche?” He asked me abruptly, motioning towards the distance village across the river.

Yes, Tukuche.

“Alone? Friends?” He asked, looking around.

“Alone.” I replied. He threw his hands in the air and rolled his eyes at me. What was a young woman like me doing out here, alone, on this side of the river.

Then he motioned for me to take off my bag. I tried to protest but he grabbed it, held it aloft over his head, and marched right into the river and crossed over to the other side like it was nothing. Depositing my bag on the distant rocks, he turned around, crossed again and held out his hand for me.

“Don’t look down. Look up! Look up!” he said, pointing to a distance mountain peak. And so I did. I looked up, and with a vice-like grip on my arm this tiny Nepali man half pulled, half carried me across a raging Himalayan river.

Successfully reunited with my bag and safely standing on the correct side of the river, I turned to say thank you and goodbye to my savior.

“You like Dal Bhat?” He asked. Dal Bhat is the national dish of Nepal and pretty closely resembles a typical Indian meal.

dalbhat

Dal Bhat with chapati and in the background, Dal Bhat with rice

I confirmed my love of Dal Bhat and he invited me to his house for lunch.

He strode, I struggled across the rocky dry riverbed, through apple orchards, and into Tukuche. Up until this point I had walked through villages, but only stayed in the teahouses, which are set up like basic hotels. Now, for the first time, I got to see the inside of a traditional Nepali house.

There was a large wooden gate in a stucco wall that faced the street. Behind the gate was a courtyard onto which all the doors of the house opened. When we entered, his wife and two daughters came out of one of the doors, saying something in Nepali before stopped dead in their tracks when they caught sight of me.

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The man who rescued me, took me in, and fed me.

My host, whose name, and please forgive my spelling, sounded like Uhmlahl, quickly detailed the story to his family, who immediately started laughing. His wife motioned for me to pass through a door in the back.

Taking off my wet shoes and socks, I entered their family room/dining room/kitchen. The walls, floor, and ceiling were all made of thick beautiful dark wood. We sat at benches around a long wooden table and his wife went behind a divider to cook.

Uhmlahl and I were soon served milky Tibetan tea and the most delicious Dal Bhat meal I have ever eaten. Lentils, rice, vegetables, I even got a fried egg. I did my best to eat it slowly and respectfully, but luckily in Asian cultures wolfing down your food shows your host that you appreciate their cooking.

Then two of Uhmlahl’s four daughters came out to sit with me. The youngest, Asha, was working on her English homework for school. She was too shy to actually talk to me, but she understood what I said and did look up and giggle a few times. The elder, 16, could speak English rather well and was happy to tell me about herself and her family. Turns out they had had two American college students come and stay a few years ago to learn about Nepali culture.

After lunch and conversation, I eventually had to say my goodbyes and continue on down the road.

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English School in the Tibetan refugee camp

What could have been the worst, most disastrous day of my entire Annapurna trek turned into one of the most beautiful experiences I had during my six months backpacking around Asia. I will never forget the kindness bestowed upon me by Uhmlahl that day, and I will try to pay it forward if I ever meet a Nepali man stuck on the wrong side of the river in America.

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A river stretches away into the Annapurna Wilderness

Pay it forward, guys. Beauty is everywhere. Adventure is calling.

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Annapurna Circuit Solo Trek

Hiking the Huayhuash Solo: Logistics

Adventure Travel, Peru, Travel, Uncategorized

So you want to follow in the footsteps of Joe Simpson from Touching The Void? Or you just want to see some of the most remote mountain wilderness outside of the Himalayas? You’re looking for the Huayhuash mountain range.

For 10 days during October, 2015, I hiked alone through the Huayhuash Mountain range. For those of you who are feeling a bit left out at the moment, let’s back up and go over some basic information to answer the question:

What exactly is the Huayhuash?

The Huayhuash Mountain range is an independent chain of mountains located in the Andes mountain range of Peru. The range contains some of the highest mountains in the world outside of Asia’s Himalayas. The highest mountains in the Huayhuash include Yerapuja, Peru’s second highest mountain, rising to 6617m (21,709ft!!), and Siula, the mountain you may know from Joe Smith’s book and subsequent movie “Touching The Void” which ascends a jaw dropping 6,344m (20,813ft). In short, these mountains are big, very big, some of the biggest mountains you’ll ever see.

Peru-SAM-Map

This map. So funny. The more you know.

The weather in Peru’s Andes is fairly regular. From May to September is the dry season. During these months you will almost never see rain, the skies will be mostly clear and you’ll get the best views. From October to April is the rainy season, with cloudy skies, rainy days and nights, and generally terrible conditions for outdoor adventure sports.

The dry season also means boat loads of tourists, yes even in the remote Huayhuash. It’s just not THAT remote. And during the wet, the views are worse, but you’ll have the place to yourself.

Rainy Season Hiking in the Cordillera Huayhuash

Conditions you can expect to deal with if you choose to hike during the rainy season.

So Megan, you said you were there in October?

Yes, I happened to do the Huayhuash in mid October. My trek through the Huayhuash was unplanned, through circumstances that don’t bear talking about, I ended up in the area of Huaraz with not much to do. Huayhuash it was.

If you hike during the wet season, know this: the mountains are reliably clear in the morning, with clouds arriving before lunch and rains arriving before dinner. Get up early.

Personally, I think the wet season was worth it. The place was close to empty and I had beautiful views 8/9 days.

So now we’re all oriented and we know where the Huayhuash is and why I wanted to go there, let’s get down to the business of logistics.

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Most people take on the Huayhuash with an organized tour which can be easily booked online, or from the nearby major tourist hub of Huaraz. But unfortunately for me, there wasn’t a lot of info on hiking the Huayhuash solo.

My first word of caution is this: if you aren’t an experienced backpacker, and if you don’t have a lot of experience in extreme mountain environments like those found in the Peruvian Andes, go with a tour. The Huayhuash circuit is long, arduous, and at times, dangerous. If you feel nervous about taking her on alone, don’t. There’s no shame in having a guide.

If you ARE experienced and want the challenge, here is where I suggest you begin:

  1. Get to Huaraz.

This is a city in the Peruvian Andes from where you can organize your gear, purchase maps, find friends to hike with, and get a bus to the Huayhuash starting town of Llamac.

A bus ride from Lima to Huaraz is short and can be pretty cheap. There are the expensive “safer” options of Cruz Del Sur and Civa, but you can also take the cheaper Z buss and I’m willing to bet you will be fine.

  1. Organize your gear.

This is probably the toughest bit of hiking the Huayhuash solo. Most backpackers don’t go around carrying tents, sleeping bags, or stoves. Ask around at your hostel or at the various tour agencies as most of them will rent out gear.

Casa de Guias is a good place to start for research.

http://www.huaraz.com/casadeguias/

Gear List

  • REI 2 person, 3 season, lightweight dome tent
  • Marmot Sawtooth Sleeping Bag (-9C/14F)
  • MSR Pocket Rocket camp stove
  • Pinnacle Soloist cooking pot and cup
  • MSR plastic collapsible spoon
  • 2L Camelpak
  • Steripen
  • Solomon hiking boots
  • 1 pair silk pants
  • 1 pair hot chilis fleece pants
  • 1 pair prana hiking pants
  • 1 pair rainproof pants
  • 1 rainproof shell
  • 2 fleece jackets
  • 1 underarmor shirt
  • 1 daytime lightweight hiking shirt
  • 2 pairs of socks
  • 2 sock liners
  • Topographical Map (purchased in Huaraz)
  • Notebook and 2 pens
  • Smartphone (to take pictures)
  • Kindle
  • Pair of collapsible Leki hiking poles
  • Kelty Coyote 65L Backpack – NOT RECOMMENDED, but it was a hand-me-down and super old and heavy.

And there you have it, add in enough food for 10 days and that was my pack. It was heavy and cumbersome but I did it.

Topographic Map for the Cordillera Huayhuash

My map and planning notebook

  1. Buy a topographic map.

If you’re going to hike the Huayhuash alone, a map is pretty important. There are a few spots where you might get lost. Also consider buying a compass. It isn’t necessary but it can’t hurt. Modern hikers have GPS machines ppppphhhttttt.

Inside the Mercado Central in Huaraz, Peru

Shot inside Huaraz’s Mercado Central

  1. Plan your menu and buy your food.

This is probably the biggest challenge of doing a solo hike in Peru. You do not have access to those pre-made camping meals from REI that are so popular in the states these days. Get yourself to the Mercado central in Huaraz and familiarize yourself with what is available.

There are 3 medium sized grocery stores in Huaraz where you can buy supplies but everything there is overpriced. Asked around and find the Mercado Central and you’ll find a giant warehouse full of vendors selling everything you need. There is even one woman who has a dry goods store with all the food you find in the grocery stores at half the price.

Take the time to plan a menu before you go shopping. I have met so many hikers in Peru who simply didn’t bring enough calories with them because they didn’t plan a menu. Its an easy thing to fix.

  1. Make sure you have a way to clean your water.

The water in Peru is undrinkable. Even up in the mountains in the remote Huayhuash there is livestock everywhere, pooping in streams and making you sick. Get a filter, a steripen, or iodine pills. You can buy the iodine pills probably at any botica, or outdoors store in Huaraz.

  1. Sorochi Pills

If you are new to the Peruvian Andes, you will feel the effect of the altitude. If you are nervous about this, it makes sense to purchase some sorochi pills, available at every Botica in town. If you’re into the more holistic approach, consider eating a lot of garlic, onions, or drinking coca tea.

One positive of the Huayhuash trek is the terrain. You will ascend to a pass and descend every day, so you will always camp lower than your highest point.

  1. Buy your bus ticket to Llamac.

There is a bus company right on the main road which leaves at 5am, getting you to Llamac around 11am. Tickets are fairly cheap, s/30 as of October, 2015. You should buy your ticket at least a day ahead of time.

  1. Make sure you have enough money!

Bring at least s/250 with you if you are planning to hike the whole Huayhuash. Every time you pass by a village, which is at least once a day, you will be asked to pay between s/10-s/45. They tell you that it is for “protection” but it is extortion and it is the worst part of hiking the Huayhuash.

The Peruvian government recently incorporated the Huayhuash as a protected area but not a national park. Before this change, the people who lived there were on their own. As such, there is no entrance fee, but every village charges a protection fee. Why?

Back in the 1980’s there was a known Sendero Luminoso training camp up there. You can apparently still find it, but I didn’t personally notice I was hiking by that lake until I was below it.

Two foreign trekkers were killed in 2002, and another four were shot in 2004, one of whom died from blood loss. These shootings were a result of people resisting robberies. Nowadays you aren’t at risk of being shot but you do need to pay the local strongmen close to $100 to hike through the mountain range.

Okay back to the cheerier subject. The Huayhuash is completely safe from violence today, and if you plan your trip well you will have an amazing experience.

Cordillera Huayhuash on a Solo Trek

Look out for my next post. I’m going to go through my 9-day itinerary, including suggestions of alternate routes and best hiking choices.

Happy Trails!

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Hiking Peru's Cordillera Huayhuash Solo - What to pack and how to plan

Street Food of the World: Chocho

Adventure Travel, Food, Peru, Uncategorized

Food: Chocho
Country: Peru
Region: Huaraz
Flavor: Savory
Spice level: 4/10

Meet one of my favorite street foods in the entire world: the Peruvian super food secret – Chocho!

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What is Chocho?

Chocho is probably the healthiest street food I’ve ever found. Basically, it is a salad made up mostly of the tarwi bean (we’ll get to that), mixed with tomato, onion, lime juice, cilantro, cancha (Peruvian popcorn), and maybe a spicy sauce and some MSG.  Peruvians still love MSG. Either someone forgot to tell them how hidious that stuff is for you or they just don’t care. Give me flavor or give me death.

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Mix all the ingredients up and you get a super simple, super tasty salad. The street vendors here come out to the markets early and sell it till it’s gone, usually by lunchtime.

Though I had seen the white bean, tarwi, while living near Cusco, the first time I ever tried this snack was not until I met a Peruvian family while hiking a little off the tourist trail in the Cordillera Blanca. One of the daughters gave me a big bag of the stuff and I could not stop eating it.

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Now, what makes this street food so special? Its main ingredien: tarwi. Tarwi, scientific name Lupinus Mutabilis, is a white bean that grows all across the high Andes. The plant itself is a beauty.

Here I am haplessly researching tarwi thinking “hmmm I wonder what the plant looks like?”

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It looks like the beautiful purple flowers that I have seen on literally every hike I have been on in Peru, ever. They are ubiquitous throughout the Peruvian Andes. I thought tarwi was this mysery bean that came from some secret tarwi bunker, but I was wrong. It grows everywhere.

The plant itself is a hero. It grows well in soil with low acidity and helps replace nitrogen in the soil.

More importantly for our gastromic journey, the plant then produces these little white beans that are a health bonanza. They are 40% protein and 20% fat. That is richer in proteins than either quinoa or soy.

The bean is inedible raw due to its high alkaloid content. The alkaloids give it a bitter taste and are poisonous. Easily fixed, by soaking the little guys in water for a few days the alkaloids are completely leeched out.

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I used to see the local women doing this in the markets in Urubamba and I thought the idea of beans sitting in tepid water was a bit gross. Having done a bit of research, turns out it’s totally logical.

In Cusco, they mostly grind the tarwi into a paste and eat it like a stew. Nutritious, but I find the Huaraz region’s Chocho a much more delicious way to ingest the magical tarwi.

Today I bought a bag of Chocho (2 soles) and a bag of pre-shredded lettuce in the market (1 sole). Total cost of my (very filling) lunch today? 3 soles, or about $1.

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So if you find yourself wandering through a market in the Andes, seriously don’t miss out on this one, get yourself a big bag of Chocho and start snacking.
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Peru Travel Tip for Foodies: Don't miss out on Chocho, the best street food in Huaraz, Peru