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The Big Walk part II: Istanbul to Belgrade

Adventure RevolutionJames Hipkiss

After returning from last years solo hike from Aachen to Budapest (http://www.explorersconnect.com/resource/-/trekking/-/long-distance-trekking-aachen-budapest-15289/ ), I soon started dreaming about the next long distance hike.

On the 26th of April 2014, after working half-a-year as an outdoor guide in Oman to gather money for the next big walk, fulfilling my long time wish of hiking in the Nepalese Himalayas and a little hitchhiking adventure in SE-Asia, I finally I landed in Istanbul,the starting place of my second long distance hike, this time across eastern Europe. The idea was too walk from Istanbul as far west as my legs and money would go, mainly exploring the various mountain regions of the Balkans. Below a rough outline of the route, some general impressions of the different regions as seen from the eyes of a walker, highlighting a few of the numerous lovely, scary, crazy experiences I had while on the road.The first leg was from Istanbul to Edirne. I soon realised that European Turkey mainly consists of farmland, not ideal for he that seeks forests and mountains.

Wild camping was almost impossible (due to the lack of wild), although pitching my tentin a park was usually not a problem. Luckily there was the grand hospitality of the Turks who do everything to make one feel at home and proved to be good company, the lively talks fuelled by a thousand cups of sugary tea. Usually after a short visit to the Muhtar (village chief) I would be offered a place to sleep in the community centre, medical centre, or could pitch my tent in the garden of the mosque, often observed by a small and curious crowd. He that walks is treated well in Turkey, perhaps a remnant of the tradition to help the pilgrim on his way to Mecca.After Edirne I crossed the border into Greece, although not after being saved by a Gypsy ladyat the border who came running after me screaming wildly: it turned out I was walking straight into a military zone. In a day I crossed the small stretch of Greek territory between Edirne and the Bulgarian town of Ivaylovgrad. All changed the minute I crossed the border with Bulgaria.

Immediately I was on higher ground and in a real forest (oh how I had missed the smell of pines). Bulgarians, at least in the southern parts, do very little farming (maybe the rugged landscape is to blame) but rather herd cattle, goats sheep, which is great for hiking (except if a herd crosses your path, then the shepherd dogs, huge monsters, go crazy). They don't seem to need to classify major portions of the land as national parks to keep the wild the wild. Due to the way the land is used it mainly consists of forests and then little pastures for the cattle to graze, which makes for a perfect camping spot.I was slowly moving westward, sticking close to the border with Greece and roughly following the valley of the river Arda as it winds through low-mountains of the eastern Rhodopes, passing lovely little towns on the banks of the river, like Madzarovo, which I observed as follows from above: basking in the light of the low-lying sun, in the centre of a former volcanic crater, surrounded by fields with horses. Vertical rocks partially covered with woods are towering high above it, and the river Arda flows lazily through this valley.

The contrast, both due to the landscape and the prevailing weather, were amazing. Ascending from another valley, sitting down and observing: thick clouds going from white to grey to black against a light-blue sky casting shadows on the hills covered with dark-green woods with here there the vertical, gray coloured rock formations pushing through the vegetation, the hills sloping downwards to the long stretched valley of the river flanked by fields of light-green grass and brown patches of agricultural land only interrupted by the occasional tiny village consisting of houses with red-tiled rooftops and a tiny mosque.After reaching Smolyan (and into the western Rhodopes) I quickly gained altitude. While doing so I noticed that the tempo in those (primarily Muslim) villages was very different, slower; less cars, more donkeys, the land being plowed by horse, not machine. And when one enters a city (something is quickly called a city there), the clash of different tempos can be quite hilarious. For example, while relaxing on a bridge in Kardzhali an old gypsy was driving a broken down horse carriage over a busy street; his horse got scared by all the cars, so it stopped and started walking backwards; consequently, the man would go mental on the poor beast, hitting it and screaming at it, getting out of the carriage and pulling the horse to a move, getting back in, the horse stopping again and so on and so on... meanwhile a traffic jam of honking cars was forming behind this spectacle: delicious to see.

Moving further west, the low-mountains started turning into more serious mountains with various peaks of over 2000 meters, rich in mountain caves and impressive gorges. After 24 days of walking I got my first taste of snow on the Golyam Perelik, with 2191 meters the highest peak of the Rhodopes. Via the Shiroka and Beglik mountain lakes (1600 meter) I climbed to Golyama Syutka (2185 m.) from whereI could see the rugged snow covered peaks of the Pirin Rila mountain ranches, inspiring a healthyamount of respect and need for caution: for good reason, as I would find out three days later when I started my climb to Musala (Arabic for close to God), with an alt. of 2926 meter the highest peak in all of the Balkan countries.Thinking of that climb still gives me the shivers. After hiking for about 10 km to where the serious ascend would start (at 2000 meter) I considered briefly if maybe I should turn back: a hard wind was blowing, loads of cloudsetc... not really proper weather to ascend such an exposed mountain solo.

But then a little sun pushed through and I decided to give it a go. At an altitude of about 2600 meter I got into serious snow: 2 layers, an old half-hard one, with a tiny layer of fresh snow on top, which sometimes I could walk on and sometimes I would crash through. Under this layer there were huge rocks so the danger of getting stuck between them, or breaking an ankle or a leg, was very real. All alone, of course no phone reception: if this would happen, there was no way of getting help. No tracks in the snow: nobody was there or had been there recently. Ascending higher and I got into the clouds while walking though virgin snow fields. The air and the ground were the same colour, nothing but whiteness, so I had to rely solely on the track on my gps. A little gust of wind cleared the clouds a little and I saw I was walking 10 meters from a cliff, a drop of hundreds of meters! It was getting late and I still had a long way to go (besides the altitude I had to conquer several times due to the continuous ups and downs, I also had to do it over a total distance of some 30 km). Further up, and I got a little, just a little bit too low on the mountain.

Unable to get back up, I had to maneuver through the deep snow on an incredible slant to a place where I could get back on track, almost sliding down the mountain a couple of times. But slowly, and very carefully, I was getting closer, and around 18.00 I knew I was going to make it. Tired both mentally and physically, it took me more than an hour to traverse the last km to the top, which I reached around 20.00. Now it was only a matter going 500 m further where, according to my map, there would be a shelter. Unfortunately, as it turned out , to reach that hut I had to descend some 200 m down over of spine 1 m wide made of ice-covered rocks where some kind of sketchy via-Feratta like cable construction was build. As I had no gear to attach myself to the cable, I had to rely solely on my hands. It was one of the scariest things I have done in my life, that descend, cutting my hands that had lost all feeling on the cable, swinging from left to right in the wind.

But in the end I made it, found the emergency shelter (which actually had some beds), got into my sleeping bag and crashed.It would still take me four days to walk to Sofia, with another climb over Vitosha mountain (2290 m.), offering a breathtaking view, especially at night, of the capital of Bulgaria. After 35 days of walking I could finally allow myself a couple of days rest.Enter Serbia. Where in Bulgaria there exists a good infrastructure of mapped trails, the opposite is true of Serbia. While there are certainly trails in the numerous mountain ranches, finding detailed maps of these regions was close to impossible. This meant I had to try to figure it out by asking the locals who, besides the obvious language barrier, had a hard time understanding why I did not want to walk over the asphalted road. The enjoyable aspect on the other hand was that it truly felt like an exploration. Everywhere surprised villagers would inquire about what I was doing. And because of all this I got in contact with so many different kinds of people: farmers, motorcycle gangs, students, foresters, mountain rescue volunteers, gypsies, small-town families; but no matter what kind of people they were, there would always be two constants: unlimited hospitality - the people would give me food, offer me shelter, a couple of times people I had just met 15 min ago gave me the keys to a house etc; and, strong home-brewed Rakia - the national drink which is poured after breakfast, with lunch, after dinner and next to the beers in the evening. Lovely crazy Serbia: the only country where I have seen police men on duty drinking a beer.

When I, in my innocence, pointed this out to the people I was with at the time, they simply said: well, you know, its really warm today, so its normal they are having a beer... I thought it unnecessary to point out that water would probably suffice.Despite the lack of (mapped) trails I managed to stick to mountainous terrain until I got close to Belgrade: from Dimitrovgrad at the border with Bulgaria through the Suva mountains (1808 m.) to Nis; from Nis through the Jastrebac mountains (1491 m.) to Kursumlia; from Kursumlia via the Lepa Gora mountains to the top of the Kopaonik (2000 m.) at the border with Kosovo; from Kopaonik (national park) via the Zelinj mountains (1784 m.) to Kraljevo; from Kraljevo through the Kotlenic hills and Rudnik mountain range (1132 m.) to Arandelovac; from Arandelovac through the hills to Belgrade. Indeed, the whole southern and central regions of Serbia are scattered with numerous small but impressive ranges and with a little effort, provided one does not mind backtracking after reaching another dead end, one finds numerous unknown treasures, for you alone to enjoy.

Truly a country of hidden mountaineering potential.After 60 days of walking, Belgrade would prove to be the end of the Big Walk part II. Due to some minor physical problems but mainly the lack of money, I called it good, for now... While flying to the Netherlands, I suddenly realised that after walking from the border of the Netherlands and Germany to Budapest last year, and now from Istanbul to Belgrade, I have almost completely walked across the European continent (excepting the Netherlands and the Hungarian plain between Belgrade and Budapest) all the while managing to stick mainly to higher ground. And that I find a nice thought.