Ohenro ,the Shikoku 88 Temple Pilgrimage in Japan is a 1200-1400 km circumnavigation of Shikoku, Japan’s fourth largest island. Pilgrims, mostly Japanese Buddhists, have been walking the pilgrimage for 1200 years since it was created by Kukai(774-935) who was posthumously awarded the name Kobo Daishi by the Emperor at the time. Kukai helped create Shingon Buddhism from his studies in China and from his interest in nature. He made Buddhism available to all. He was an engineer, poet, philosopher, he created a new style of calligraphy, created a Japanese dictionary, started the first public school. You have to honour people like Kukai.
Ohenro has been percolating in my mind for about 15 years since I first began researching adventures in Japan. While on my 2010 cycle trip I rode a part of Ohenro and visited Temple #51 and Temple # 75, Kukai’s birth place further stimulating my interest .
Today most Henro, the name used for pilgrims on Ohenro, will take some form of motor transport, possibly most commonly on a bus tour with a group. Some cycle. Many will complete the circuit in stages over a number of years. A great many complete the circuit many times. All approaches are considered legitimate. In the spirit of Kobo Daishi there is no differentiation amongst henro but it is the walking pilgrim, Aruki-Henro, that is most traditional and that appeals to me.
This egalitarian notion extends beyond your pilgrimage approach to your station in life. Two henro practices illustrate this. The first is called Osettai: The practice of offering gifts like food, drinks even accommodation to henro. The second is Takuhatsu: Begging for food, money or Lodging. Takuhatsu is not much practiced anymore but osettai is very common and henro are encouraged to accept offerings to show their humility.
The cultural aspects are probably the most important reasons for my attempt. But the physical and logistical challenges are very appealing and I guess if I happen to “find myself” or “become one with Kobo Daishi or the Buddha” that could be good as well. They say that there are as many reasons for attempting a pilgrimage as there are pilgrims.
Whereas this is the first formal pilgrimage I’ve attempted it is by no means my first pilgrimage. When I stood on top of a small mountain in the Gokyo valley in the Himalayas absorbing the scene that included 6 of the 10 highest mountains in the world I began to realize that the 25 days of trekking in the Everest region with Rich King was for me a pilgrimage. Viewing through my telephoto lens the Khumbu Icefall, the South Col, on up over the Hillary Step to the summit of Mt Everest I was connecting with Mallory, Hillary and all of the early mountaineers who had preceded us. While we were not attempting these highest pinnacles of the world’s mountains we could worship, if I can use that word lightly, at their feet. Many of the long trips that I have done over the years can also be considered pilgrimages to relieve a need that had been stimulated within me, most often from my readings and the interests that they have fostered. So…
I am booked to fly to Shikoku on March 13th and will begin walking . I have enough time to walk the full 1200 km but who knows what might happen. There is a high probability that I will have physical problems.. feet, knees, hip.. It is possible the weather will get to me or I just might run out of gas. If I have to take a bus or train it will not be the end of the world. I’m sure Kukai will forgive me and possibly I will be able to as well.
It is considered good practice to make a few resolutions before beginning Ohenro. Knowing myself I will attempt to …
• walk slowly
• take time at all and stay at a few temples
• observe and enjoy all things and be patient
• talk to people but enjoy my time alone
• drink and eat well
My postings may not be very frequent or interesting to read as in the interest of simplifying my trip I will replace my laptop with a tablet. So cursory notes and possibly cell photos but I invite you to join me anyway.
2017 Birding Photography
2016 was the first year that I worked at getting good photographs of North American birds. I made trips to BC, New Mexico and Arizona and made many forays out from Calgary. My collection pales in comparison to the 700-1000 bird species that will live and breed in North America or stumble in from Asia, Europe or South America. But I did get some good portrait and action type photos in that year. I continued my pursuit into 2017.
Around Calgary (winter, spring)
My first good bird photo of 2017 was on Jan 14 east of Calgary. Rich King and I were in my car in a line of about five cars following the Nature Calgary tour leader as he lead us along meandering range roads looking for Owls, Hawks and whatever else we might see on that sunny cold winter day. Terry Korolyk is a very experienced birder and has a good feeling of where to find our winter birds. We saw and I got pictures of Snowy Owls, Great Horned Owls, Horned Larks, a Short Eared Owl and a few others. I don’t usually get good photos while out with a group but it is always good to learn from someone like Terry and I will often return on my own when I can go at my own pace and try to set up for a good picture. On this day I was quite lucky as our vehicle procession stopped just as my car was in front of a lovely Rough-legged Hawk on a fence post. I dropped my window and whipped up my camera just as he was launching from the fence post. One shot only, all luck, no skill or planning.
Rough-leggeds breed in the arctic and mostly come our way in the winter, kind of occupying the Red-tailed territory who mostly migrate further south. A week later I got a few more shots of a Rough-legged flying up the Elbow River below Owen’s house.This post will touch on some of the bird photos that I took in 2017 that are of new birds for me, or where I improved my collection of an old bird or finally I might just include a shot that I like. At rough count I took over 3000 photos of about 100 kinds of birds in 2017.
During the winter I go out birding in the area around Calgary every couple of weeks mostly just to get out, sometimes searching the habitat of specific birds I might be looking for. Chickadees, overwintering Ducks, Flickers, Waxwings, Nuthatches both red and white breasted are some that I find.
I followed the mother Common Merganser and three of her four chicks up the Bow River along Bowmont Park during the spring melt. Ferrying chicks in this way is common for many water fowl and so it is the behaviour that makes this photo attractive to me. I saw her a few times during my walk, always working hard in the ferocious river current. What could have been so important about getting her brood so far up that dangerous river?
As spring ripens some of the migrating birds add colour to the mix. I found the American Goldfinch in the forest near my son’s house on the Elbow River.
Vancouver (Mar 10-17)
Tracking my progress: I would never have considered keeping track of my bird photography in the film camera days or until I started using Adobe Lightroom. With digital photography (since 2002) all of my photos are pretty well accessible. With Lightroom (since 2012) my photos can be cross-indexed and assigned keywords that identify aspects of that photo.
I drove out to Vancouver, joining my son Owen for the Vancouver Rugby Seven’s Tournament and stayed on for another five days to search for birds in the Vancouver Area. I booked an AirBnB in Tsawwassen and each day visited some of Vancouver’s many birding hot spots. It rained a lot but there were still lots of good birds waiting for me. While there I found an excellent new Birding Guide to Vancouver that helped me find good locations. I spent the whole time south of the Fraser River mostly in the area of Boundary Bay. One nice thing about birding cities is that you find your way to the birds by walking, usually in parks. Much of my bird photography is done from the car on little side roads as the car acts as a pretty good blind. But in Vancouver I got lots of walking in, always a nice bonus for me.
The first thing that hit me in Vancouver was the number of Bald Eagles. It takes four years for a Bald Eagle to fully mature and to develop its iconic feathers. Most that I saw were at some stage along that development and many were seriously moulting as well. I saw as many as a dozen in a single tree; I saw eight or ten young playing above the mud flats of Boundary Bay and there were almost always a few gliding above me in the grey skies. But mostly they were just perched on posts or in trees. At one time they were almost gone from the Vancouver area but protections now in place are working well.
A great site in the Vancouver area is the Reifel Bird Sanctuary, where I took these Wood Duck photos.
The nice things about Ducks is the males are so easily recognized, but often the females are less obvious. I like the pose of this male with a hint of a female in the back and have added a female in the interests of gender equity. I think she is pretty distinctive as well.
Also at Reifel I got Spotted Towhee. They should summer in our area but I have never seen one near Calgary. I got the Bewick’s Wren in a little park east along the Frazer. Its range just touches Canada in Vancouver. Both are new birds for me.
The area around the Fraser Delta is one of the best places in Canada to see raptors, particularly in winter. Much tougher than eagles I did get a few shots of a Coopers Hawk near Boundary Bay. A real prize for me was a Northern Shrike, also found along Boundary Bay. These lovely little songbirds could be classified as raptors if they had stronger talons. They hunt grasshoppers and other insects but also mice and voles like raptors. The Northern come to Calgary in the winter as they come south and we might see Loggerhead Shrikes in the summer, but both while not rare are uncommon.
I was a bit early for the Shorebirds, which is one of the main attractions of the Fraser Delta. I got some shots of Dunlin but nothing worth including. Unfortunately the 2018 Seven’s tournament is also early March. I added some nice birds here to my Lightroom repository.
Medicine Hat (April 29-May1)
My interest in Bird Photography arose in South Africa in 1985 while on safari equipped to capture the Big Five mammals. Riding around in land rovers looking for wildlife I found the birds much more active and challenging to photograph than the animals. Two other trips to the region in the 1990s consolidated that interest, which began to stimulate an interest in learning more about birds and how to get good photos of them. I have been in search of birds and taking photos of them in fits and starts ever since.
I have been reading Trevor Herriot lately. He is a Saskatchewan naturalist and writes wonderfully about the prairies and the threats it faces. I was born on the prairie but have spent my life in Calgary fixated on the mountains. While I don’t regret that, Herriot has heightened my interest in seeing more of the prairies while I can. You can read that to mean that either I or the prairies don’t have much time left.
In either event I headed down to Medicine Hat to see what I could find.I drove the back roads both on the way down and on the way back. The day I spent in the region I drove up into Cypress Hills Provincial Park. I saw lots of hawks mostly Red-tailed and many ducks on the small ponds that were still pretty full. When about 50 km east of Calgary Western Meadowlarks began to appear usually in full song. They are a delightful draw for me and are possibly the definitive prairie bird and indicator of prairie health. I also take videos so that I can get their song.
The best new species of this trip was the Ferruginous Hawk. I got many good shots on my drive near Pakowski Lake, south of Medicine Hat. It is our largest Buteo, is exclusively a prairie bird in Canada and as such has suffered from insecticides, poisoning of gophers and other habitat loss.
Near Cypress Hills I got a nice series of shots of a pelican dropping into a little lake, catching and swallowing a fish.
Creston Valley Birdfest (May 12-15)
Taking good bird photos is difficult. It helps to have a good camera and high quality long lens. Given those, it is still tough. Birds don’t often sit and wait for you to set up your shot. So you have to be ready in advance and able to focus on the bird in an instant. But above all, as Ansel Adams would say; “You have to be there!” Good bird photographers know when and where to go, they will be there before dawn for many days before they get the shot they are after, if then. I have so much to learn and improve…but that also is fun.
Heading away from the prairies for a while I returned for the second time to Creston’s bird migration festival. I had enjoyed it and learned a lot in 2016 and wanted to support them again. The Bird Photographer and presenter that I have appreciated most at the few festivals I have been to is Monte Comeau and I went to his seminar again, gaining more motivation.
As I have said before, I don’t usually get good photos when out with a group, but I went early and stayed over one more day. In part I was also experimenting with getting out in an inflatable kayak, a Monte Comeau practice. This is a bit laughable as I can’t swim and I am the least flexible old man among those of us whose heart still pumps. I went out on one of the many quiet Kootenay River channels when there was no one around to humiliate myself in front of. I launched well enough and it was lovely on the water but back at shore, struggling to get back out of the tight kayak cockpit I managed to flip over. The one smart thing I did was to put my camera in a dry-bag before trying to get out. I got a bit better and did manage to get some shots from the kayak but did change the boat for one I could manage better when I got back to Calgary.
I always get pictures of distant eagles and osprey and many ducks at Creston. No new birds this year from Creston as I have been there a number of times. The Osprey is from my kayak and I like the Great Horned Owl because he is really staring me down.
Bowdoin National Wildlife Reserve (May 17,18)
So what birds do I already have?: As I have hinted, I have taken bird photos going back over thirty years, but most are not included in Lightroom, my management system. I made a big photographic step in 2013 when Rich King and I went on a self-drive wildlife safari in Southern Africa for two months. I bought a pretty good long lens before this trip and I returned with many good birds. A similar trip that we made to Australia in 2015 was also very productive. My birds from those trips have been cross-indexed in Lightroom. Birds from earlier trips to India, South and Central America and New Zealand and others have not yet been indexed. I have 50,000 digital photos and 13,000 slides but possibly not enough “round-to-its” to index all of the birds that I have captured. Optimistically I might have photos of 600 of the world’s 10,400 birds.
I had planned on heading from Creston straight back into the prairie. My goal was Grasslands National Park in Saskatchewan but I did not want to drive through Southern Alberta again. So I headed down into Montana and drove to the North East corner heading for Bowdoin NWR, east of Havre. Lake Bowdoin is one of the many lakes that attract migrating and breeding birds in the prairie. A rough gravel road, about 50 km long meanders around the wetland reserve and a car acting as a blind is a good way to observe the birds. I did the drive in the evening and then again early the next morning.
Ducks and Shorebirds were the prime attraction. A couple of the really showy ones are the American Avocet and the Black-necked Stilt. Avocets in particular are very accommodating for photographers as they will run along the road in front of you and then fly back and forth giving lots of opportunity to catch their flight.
I added a Wilsons Phalarope here because I love their name and they are a little different. This shot is of a female showing breeding colours. The male is non-descript as he broods and raises the young while his mate heads south early in the summer.
Grasslands National Park (May 18-20)
Early settlers ploughed away much of the native short and long grass prairie habitat, but lots of grassland remained to provide feed for cattle and horses. The cattle and horses in effect replaced the functions that the Plains Bison had provided in creating a healthy natural environment. But as time went on the use of insecticides, poisons, excessive hunting, elimination of natural fires changed the environment once again. And then as mixed family farms were merged to form larger grain farms cattle and horses were eliminated. Without the need to contain livestock fences and the little strips of grass along road allowances could be ploughed and seeded. Now, possibly half of the prairie bird species are endangered or extirpated from the Canadian prairies. Yearly bird counts show prairie birds are declining for all prairie birds and at a higher rate than birds of other regions. Will efforts like Grasslands stop the downward spiral?
This was my major new destination for the year and I was anxious to get there. It is not far from Bowdoin across the border to Grasslands NP in Saskatchewan. I was a bit late getting there as I had torn a tire on the rough roads around Lake Bowdoin which meant buying four new ones in Havre. I spent the first night at Val Marie in a little hotel with a Chinese food restaurant. I was off at sunrise to do the 80 km gravel drive through the park. I immediately had some successes with a Sharp-tailed Grouse warming on a fence post in the early morning sun.
This was followed by Lark Buntings and Horned Larks running along the gravel road in front of the car and then flying up to perch on fence posts or rocks. Initially they appeared to me to be meadowlarks which were also plentiful. About the same size and lots of black and white. I was thrilled to find these iconic prairie birds so quickly.
At the first Black-tailed Prairie Dog town I spent a long time scanning all of the mounds, hoping that one of the countless little brown prairie dogs might actually be a Burrowing Owl. No luck. At the visitor centre I was told that when the young owls are being fed you can sometimes see the parents flying in and out of the burrows they have usurped for their nest. It was too early for that, but they weren’t optimistic about finding them at the best of times. I did also see some big old single male Plains Bison. Acting as an oxpecker a Brown-headed Cowbird was riding a big old male. Perhaps they would have been called Bisonbirds if the bison had lasted longer. I was hoping to see a Bison herd, but the mothers have taken the calves into the remote parts of the park away from the males and voyeuristic photographers. I think about loading up a pack with tent and supplies and walking out for a few days into this park.
I spent the night in a campground in the middle of the park to experience the prairie evening. I also walked many of the trails emanating from the car parks along the drive. I got quite close to some young Great Horned Owls, and Bobolinks. I only saw Bobolinks while walking. These strange little birds, like Swanson’s Hawks migrate back and forth between the prairies here and those in Argentina.
A strange bird to find here is the Marbled Godwit. It is one of the shorebirds like the rare Upland Sandpiper that are at home on the prairie far away from large wetlands. It also feeds along the gravel roads. I also saw a Loggerhead Shrike but my pictures of it are from too far away.
I always try to get photos of the sparrows I see and then try to identify them from the photos. Some of my shots here had me thinking that I had a Baird’s Sparrow, one of the prairie rarities. It had what I thought might have been two key little black spots on its cheeks, but further examination of my pictures revealed it to be a Vesper Sparrow, or at least I think so. Sparrows are a great identification challenge and without proper knowledge of their songs it is really tough. I really need to learn the differentiating songs better.
The hunting Northern Harrier was taken above the marsh along Frenchman River moments before he dove into the grass. As he didn’t come out I assume he caught what he was after. The less official name of Marsh Hawk helps me identify these lovely hawks.
I didn’t see any of the real rare prairie birds on my prairie trips but I was happy to find the birds that I did. Hopefully by the time I get back I will be better at finding them and birds like the Bairds, Spragues Pipits, and Chestnut-collared Longspurs to name a few will still be with us.
Edmonton Area, Elk Island Park (June 4-6)
Driving north to visit friends I stopped at birding sites near Red Deer and Camrose and then I spent a night camped at Elk Island Park where I used my new and better for me kayak. Heading up here puts me into the mixed forest area we call Parkland and so might reveal a few new birds.
Once again I saw and shot many ducks, some pelicans, a cormorant, flickers, a house wren and as always a few sparrows.
Getting out in my kayak as the sun came up cast a lovely hue on the birds that posed for me. Most common here were Red-necked Grebes. The neatest shots of the morning were coming around a corner amidst the bull-rushes I caught a Great-blue heron having his breakfast. He didn’t offer to share.
Much of my birding effort happens while at the family cabin in Kananaskis. In 2017 I spent quite a bit of time out on various lakes working on my kayaking skills, often with my big lens in my lap. I added to my extensive Loon library. Who will not be thrilled by a Loon call echoing across a dark mountain lake as the sun disappears. The little Spotted Sandpipers are always fun. it was a treat to find one sitting on her eggs on the gravel beach. I get lots of common birds in K-country, from Bald Eagles to White-crowned Sparrows. A new one for me this year was the Audubon Warbler.
I got some adequate photos in Europe and then back here as part of the Calgary Christmas bird count I found for the first time some Red Crossbills. My last bird pictures of 2017 were on Jan 30 in Kananaskis. Last year while walking on the cabin road without a camera I stumbled on a male Spruce Grouse with four females. I missed a good opportunity then but did find a lone male this year.
My photo collection did not expand as much as in 2016 but my knowledge improved and I really enjoyed the chase.
All for now.
Oct 23-28 Cycling to Frankfurt
My day in Nuremburg was mostly occupied with logistics to support my final bike ride of this trip. I wanted to cycle from Nuremburg to Frankfurt. So I needed to talk to someone who could recommend a good route and get the appropriate maps. I also needed to get a German sim card, some more Euros and a better pair of gloves for cold and possibly wet weather. I got little good help from the hostel, the first bike shop I found or the tourist information centre. But I was sent to a map store where the guy had all of the answers. He immediately said the only sane route was to follow the Regnitz River to Bamberg where it entered the River Main which went all the way Frankfurt (am Main). There were bike routes the whole way. We went over the Radtourenkartes (Bike Touring Maps) and picked out the two that I would need. When I made the decision to head to Nuremburg for my final bike segment I had little doubt that the German bike network would let me down. Hopefully I was right.
By noon I had all of my things sorted out and was able to walk around the completely walled Altstadt and picked up a little more history from the castle museum. Naturally all of the same characters I have met in Romania, Hungary and Slovakia come to play here as well. I added Charlemagne and The Holy Roman Empire (the First German) to my researches. I saw the loose collection of German principalities come together in 1871 to form the Second German Empire. The Third (Reich) we don’t need to visit much although with more time in Nuremburg I might have done so. I liked Nuremburg.
Oct 24 to Eltmann
I was out in the drizzle at 7:30, still fairly dark. It only took about ten minutes to get onto the bike trail following the Pegnitz when soon flowed into the Regnitz. There was a steady stream of bike commuters coming up the trail into the town centre. I missed the best photos in this rush to clear town worrying about whether I was on the right trail and making good progress. The commuter traffic lasted through the connected town of Furth and then I was kind of on my own. I would see the odd local rider but in the whole way to Frankfurt only one other bike tourer.
These bike trails are obviously mostly for local traffic, which creates a bit of a problem for me. The trails and junctions are very well marked, but the places on the signs are mostly just the local villages, which often don’t mean much to me. I am usually headed on down the way with my intermediate places 20 to 50 km away. Those are never mentioned. If I need to confirm which path to take I need to get into my map to find the little villages and pick the appropriate branch. This always means stopping losing up a few minutes, and I don’t always get it right. About 30 km out of Nuremburg the trail turned onto a canal that went dead straight for another 30km, and so I could sail along on that pretty well.
Another problem with these river side bike trails is that they miss the villages and so I went all morning without a coffee snack break. I left the trail near Bamberg for a stand up coffee and chocolate bar in a service station, not the kind of break I needed. It was drizzly again as I entered Bamberg, no idea from which direction. I went into a Chinese Restaurant for a buffet, to get my GPS working and to find a place to stay. I couldn’t find anything very reasonable and it was still just after noon, and so I picked out a place in Eltmann about 20 km down the Main.
I arrived at my pension, on a lonely side road in the village at about 3:00. No one was there and so I walked back into the centre where a woman walked me to the home of the pension owner. We were able to connect by phone to find out it would be 5:00 before I could get in. So I headed for a pub, where I had dinner and I think a beer or two.
Oct 25,26 Wurzburg
Getting a 7:30 start is a bit harder each day. The sun is still not actually up and so I am pushing it a bit. There is always some car road riding to do and so I often need a tail light on. The Main valley is a lot wider than the Regnitz and not as pretty so I just wheel on down the way. I don’t take many pictures but the fall colours are always there and often a barge to add interest.
On this day I am taking the first of two cut-offs. The Main is very serpentine and some of the loops are very large. Just after noon I headed up out of the river bottom to take a cut-off that would save me about 15 km, allowing me to get into Wurzburg early. At least that was the theory. The route I chose climbed quite a bit, and then meandered around for about 40 km, that I turned into 55 km. It went through villages and across fields, many in harvest.
On these cut-offs the trail often heads through little forests where the trail is almost always fine gravel, now covered with leaves. The weather also gives me some nice moody skies for the few pictures I take. All very nice, but with the route finding errors and the climbing I got into Wurzburg I am sure later than If I had stayed in the river valley.
To kill a little time I booked myself into Wurzburg for two nights. Again I stayed in a hostel and it was almost as nice as the one in Nuremburg. I wandered around the town the next day visiting all of the sites. Initially it was very foggy creating a nice pastel cast to things.
Still, I was not as taken with Wurzburg in part because my own idiocy. I was on an old car-free bridge, head in the air looking for a picture and tripped on a curb I hadn’t noticed, fell and broke one of my favourite camera lenses. This caused a couple hour funk until I went and got my back-up camera and headed up to the big castle on the hill. A good hill climb fixes most things, in this case my attitude but not my lens. The sun had arrived as I did the castle walk and then back down as I crossed the bridge that broke my lens a party seemed in progress. But it was just people enjoying the sun with a glass of wine. I joined in and gradually forgave the bridge and begrudgingly myself as well.
Oct 27 Mondfeld
I was taking the second of my planned river cut-offs. It was to cut off a much larger loop and so there was really no alternative, but my planned distance was fairly short. My night time options came early on this day, which is great, but it does make for a potentially long final day on the bike.
It was raining when I hit the street, but since I hoped for a short day I sat in a bus shelter for half an hour and then set off when the rain turned to drizzle. Immediately the longest climb of the day began. The road I was following left the Main to head into the hills. Still climbing my route left the highway and turned onto a lovely gravel path through a small forest. The sun came out brilliantly lighting the wet leaves scattered along the trail.
At each junction on this day I stopped to make sure I made the right choice. I missed a couple of times but checked myself in time that little extra distance was incurred. The wind kept getting stronger and on the high grounds I was quite glad I didn’t have far on this day to go
Just after a backerie stop the up hills became down hills and before I knew it I was back on the Main Radweg for a 10 km run into Wertheim. I had a long pleasant lunch and booked online a place a further 10 km down the way. About half way there was road riding the other bike trail. The wind got me in both and began to worry me about the longer day tomorrow.
I was staying in a real hotel and had some time to relax before coming down with my computer for dinner. I sat working on my computer and watching You Tube until the owner’s body language hinted that he want to shut up the shop.
Oct 28 Final day into Frankfurt
The breakfast was very complete and so I headed out fully tanked up for the day. I got away at 8:10, just as the light began to appear, trying to get as many kms in as possible before the wind picked up. A rubbing began to appear and it took two times looking for the problem before I took all of my bags off for a closer look. I had two broken spokes on the rear wheel and it was rubbing on the frame. Luckily neither broken spoke was on the cog set side. I cannot change those with the tools that I carry. Having spare spokes made me feel a bit better but I was angry because I had heard the rubbing yesterday as I was getting to my hotel but didn’t look into it when I had lots of time to fix it. Now I was losing valuable low wind time. But I was on the way in twenty minutes with only a little fear that another spoke might go.
The first hour and some was heading mostly west which seemed to be where the wind was mostly coming from. But it was hard to tell as the river did its bends and twists the wind seemed to follow it. But then the generally direction headed mostly north and I stayed on the west side which means I did get quite a bit of protection, particularly when on the narrow bike paths. It was the wind that worried more than the distance because I know how that can really kill my progress.
I wasn’t stopping much as the day was cold and grey. I got a few pictures but mostly I wanted to get on down the way before the wind became too bad. As lunch time came closer I began to feel a bit better because I was getting up the road. At two potential stops nothing materialized and so by the time I found a place I was getting quite close to Frankfurt. Obviously riding into the wind darkens my attitude more than necessary.
When I came out of my lunch spot a road sign said Offenbach 17 km. I estimated Offenbach was 10 km from Frankfurt. Pretty good. I headed back onto the river side bike trail. After a bit I stopped at a junction in the trail and it indicated that I had come 12 km from my lunch spot and now had 18 km to Offenbach. The tranquility of bike trail riding has its price to pay when you are trying to get somewhere. My disappointment was heightened because of how tired I was from fighting the wind all day. But I was close enough that I knew it would work out.
Riding through the continuous city of Offenbach and Frankfurt seemed to go easier and before long the sky scrapers of Frankfurt began to appear and then I recognized the foot bridge that crossed from the town centre and would take me to my warm showers hosts Anne and Jan. I stopped at a little trail side kiosk and had a hot coffee, the first since breakfast and a beer to celebrate my ride completion.
Oct 28-30 Frankfurt
I had a nice easy time in Frankfurt. I rode my bike into town each day and saw a few of attractions but mostly I visited with Anne and Jan who I introduced when I arrived at the beginning of this trip. They have traveled and worked in various parts of the world and have become “warm showers” hosts because they meet other travelers. I met some of their friends and we had conversations about travel and politics. We also ate very well. What a nice way of finishing a trip.
So this trip is done. Tomorrow I will be on the plane. Thanks for joining me. Until next venture.
Oct 15-22 Bratislava, Prague
(The photos in this post are not meant to be representative of Bratislava nor of Prague.)
Two nights in Bratislava, four in Prague, with a four hour train ride between. Both are capital cities, both have historic old towns and many interesting buildings and streets, both have a castle on a hill built in the 1200-1400 period that have been the domicile of kings and presidents. But the scale is very different. Old Bratislava is very small and the tourist trade while vibrant is very small. Prague goes on forever and the tourists must be measured on any given day in the 100s of thousands. I found ways of enjoying both places.
I stayed in the heart of Bratislava’s old town and walked everywhere except when I cycled to the train station to buy my ticket and then the next day to catch the train. My first venture was to walk up the hill to the castle where I got a little historical background for Slovakia. The castle is enormous. It has been very dilapidated and at one time consideration was given to destroying it. Inside it is now refinished a glistening white to match its exterior. And the views of the city are pretty nice.
In the old town it was very possible to walk around and get a good feeling for the layout in just the day and a half I spent there. I did enjoy the streets and some of the street sculpture was fun.
In Prague I stayed out of the centre a ways and tried cycling but it was not much fun. Cobblestone streets prevail, there is no appreciable bike infrastructure and the crowds at times were horrendous. But the whole public transportation network; metro, trams, buses is free to the plus 70s provided they have cycled across Europe (the qualifier may not be accurate). I walked a ton and used a lot or trams.
There must be 100s of interesting streets, 1000s of historic buildings, and lots of significant tourist attractions. Castle hill is an all-day outing. It’s a great hike up and it is like a small town when there. An enormous cathedral, one of the biggest castles anywhere, monasteries and streets where the commoners lived There are also no end of visitors, so go early.
Charles Bridge is almost too touristy, but certainly worth going to, and close by is the Old town square with its magical clock.
The web will be filled with better pictures that the few I have included, but my main enjoyment was walking the streets, any of which have tons of interesting architecture.
I went to Prague prepared to be disappointed by all of the tourist focused shtick, and it was certainly extreme in the three major tourist attraction areas. But as I said the city goes on and on and is just as architecturally interesting in the many streets where Czechs are all you might see. I never had a meal in a restaurant that had anything but Czechs to my eye. It is truly one of the exceptional European cities. I spent a lot of time not touristing just appreciating things. I even saw a couple of very good basketball games thank to the remote location of my hotel.
From Prague I took hopefully my last train ride to Nuremburg, where I took a day to prepare myself for cycling in Germany. I hope to cycle to and then follow the River Main from here to Frankfurt for my flight home.
Oct 11-16, Across Hungary,
A good cycle from Timisoara to Szeged, though a bit long and hot, got me back into Hungary where I hoped to find cycle friendly roads. I had to get cell connection again; my dependence on the smart phone mapping is now complete. In the evening, now committed to spending two nights in this attractive University town, I walked the three blocks in to the town centre and stumbled on an excellent restaurant. It is always a lottery when you are just going by looks. At any rate I was relaxed, looking forward to taking a day to get my cycle plans for Hungary together. If I was heading off in the morning then I would be trying to make sure I had all of my act together.
While sitting with an after meal coffee I decided to try my Hungarian sim card. I had bought it just a month ago and had been under the impression that it would need to be renewed after 30 days. It still worked. Maybe it was just under the 30 days. The next day, at Vodafone they told me I had lots of capacity left and that I had a year before it lapsed. Another language goof. Had I known I could have switched the sim cards at the border and ride to my accommodation easily. Oh well, we live and learn, I hope.
Mostly I spent the day on my bike riding around this pleasant town. Of course there is the large an impressive cathedral looking onto its big square called the Dom. On one wall of the Dom is a musical clock that twice a day goes into action. This one representing the University students going to class.
One architectural interest in Szeged are the early 20 th century Art Nouveau buildings. Like all cities of this size there are many attractive car free streets and street cafes. I ate once at a student hangout. It was semi-outside with couches and easy chairs; pizza and hamburgers were on the menu, but I had had a great Hungarian meal my first night here.
My potential route across Hungary was pretty straight forward, but I had lots of options along the way. It was all made attractive in the first place by a five day nice weather forecast. Nice except for the projected a NW wind. Naturally I am headed NW and will have to deal with it.
So Friday morning I got going at about 9:00 and my chosen roads out of town all had good wide bike ways. Finally I headed off onto the small roads that were designated as bike friendly. The head wind was apparent immediately and I was having a hard time getting any speed above 20 kph, a psychological factor for me. But it was a nice ride anyway. A few of the villages that I passed through had Halloween displays. I stopped at a pastry place for a bite near noon, and then had to stop again 10 km later for another energy boost. At about 75 km I looked for and found a panzio. When I checked in the weather channel indicated a 19 kph wind with gusts to 32 kph. It was the gusts that really sapped my energy.
My panzio had a fast food restaurant attached and I had a good time with the waitress and cook figuring out what I was going to eat. They had no English and Hungarian has no similarity to English. So we resorted to our smart phones which got me some pretty good food. Beer (surt) I never have trouble ordering. They were lots of fun.
The next morning, same wind forecast, I got away earlier, at 7:40. The wind has been easiest in the morning. So I had a pretty good morning. The wind is always there, I just have to be satisfied going a bit slower. This has been made a bit easier by the lovely fall colours. My route, on minor roads goes though largely agricultural areas but with large patches of trees that sometimes provide a little wind shadow for me. There are numerous opportunities to stop for fall pictures. I am amazed that there are still lots of roadside flowers to add to my interest.
I am not seeing any interesting birds, I think in part because of the wind, but there is still some harvesting of corn going on.
Near noon I crossed the Danube near Dunafoldvar, about 75 km below Budapest. Part of my route strategy had been to stay away from Budapest but to be close enough that if I wished to change gears and head to the big city I could do that pretty easily.
I considered stopping for the night at the Danube, there seemed to be a number of panzios, but it was too early. I knew that there was going to be an accommodation challenge ahead but the wind was not as bad as yesterday. I found my small road and headed on. As it turned out none of my hopes for early accommodation worked and I ended up in Szekesfeheryar, more than 50 tough kms later.
The next day was Sunday and so I started out on a bit larger road, hoping to go a bit faster. I was hoping the traffic would not be as heavy as normal. It was fine and so I stayed with it for the day. The wind never got much above about 10 kph. My 100 km put me into Gyor at about 1:30, and this was after a lovely lunch just 8 km outside of town. Gyor is on the Danube and the EV6 that I came down on. The Danube heads mostly east through Austria, Slovakia and the top part of Hungary. It then turns south at Eszertgom though Budapest. I have just cut off that turn, missing Budapest. I checked into the same place in Gyor that I stayed in on the way down the Danube. It is a bit expensive compared to what I have been paying in the last month but the food was great. I need one more really good Hungarian meal.
I did spent the afternoon walking around the old town and found a nice tower to climb. Another lovely old town.
In the morning I found the road out of Gyor with a roadside bike trail that EV6 follows. So I was back on the route I came down on a month ago. I would follow EV6 for the rest of the day. It was another lovely fall riding day, the temperature got up to about 22. I went through five or six small towns and one larger one before leaving Hungary into Slovakia as the bike route jumped up onto the dike along the Danube.
Immediately I saw some swans which I had not seen since leaving the river. The wide bike trail on top of the dike also brought out the cyclists, walkers and roller bladers. I only saw a few with full panniers but there are still a few of us out there. If possible the fall is even more impressive along the dike.
Bratislava Castle rises high above the river marking the end of this phase of my trip. The cycle across Hungary was wonderful, even with a headwind. I will now spend some time in Bratislava and likely head to Prague by train for some old capital city time.
Oct 8-11, Bucharest, Out of Romania
Established now in the little Vila11 near Gare de Nord in Bucharest, I came down at about 7:30 looking for some coffee. This little hostel is run by a Canadian woman who has lived in Bucharest for twenty years. There are all sorts of nice things about her place. She puts on breakfast and even though it doesn’t get going until 9:00 it is a nice change for me to have people to eat and visit with.
I made some instant coffee and talked a bit with a cyclist couple from Odessa on their way home. They were getting their bikes ready to catch the same train to Galati that I had taken a few days ago. It was still raining hard and so their panniers were wrapped in a kind of home-made rain cover. They only had a few minutes in the rain so they would probably work fine. When they left a couple from St Petersburg began getting their bikes ready to take on the plane for their flight home.
At 9:00, the other cyclists gone, I moved into the little breakfast room and began with coffee. Pancakes soon arrived. As I was eating a Romanian couple living now in Stuttgart came down and were preparing to leave on a train as well. I shared my tale of woe regarding not being able to get on trains. They were surprised and asked where I was trying to get to; Timisoara, I replied. They were heading to the train station and indicated they would look into it, and took my cell number.
I started to get ready to head out for the day, still worried and mentally working out all of my alternatives. At the top of my list was to look into a bus to Timisoara, but I was seriously considering boxing up my bike and taking a long international train or even flying back to Germany. At any rate, today, a rainy Sunday, I was going to head into the centre looking for the National Museum and hoping for some clearing later in the afternoon. A text arrived from my Romanian friends giving a train number that would take my bike to Timisoara. I finished fussing and within half an hour had a train ticket for me and my bike to Timisoara on Tuesday. Thinking about it I had probably gone to the wrong ticket window, asked the wrong things, got a tenant who had a bad day….Whatever, the critical worry gone, I could now appreciate my two days in Bucharest.
There is a pretty good subway system in Bucharest; I think about four lines. I bought a 5 lei ticket (less than $2) which was good for two rides which would get me into the centre and back again. It was very easy to navigate, even considering that I had a two line run going each way.
I got off the station that would give me a view of the mammoth Parliament buildings, one of the many Ceausescu projects that drove Romania into a downward tailspin that it is still fighting to recover from. It was still raining too hard so I found the Romanian National Museum where I hoped to polish up some of my conceptions of Romanian history. I was greeted by Trajan and a Dacian Wolf on the steps of the museum. Unfortunately, two floors were closed for renovations and these contained all history since the Romans except for an extensive special display on WWI. I did enjoy the Roman displays, taken with how extensive their efforts were in this region. There is a copy of Trajan’s column. It is full size and has been dismembered with 125 bathroom sized segments spread around two floors. The event on each segment was explained. I have seen the original in Rome and the other copy in London but cannot remember being aware that most of the events depicted on the column were from Trajan’s campaigns in Dacia, hence the interest here.
I did get some shots of the Parliament buildings and wandered around a lot of the old city. Being such a bad day there were not many people on the extensive car free (i.e. café) strips. I felt sorry for the young people huddled out of the rain with their menus trying to entice customers. The gloominess was enhanced by the vestiges of the many years of communist architecture and the decimated economy that gutted much of the old and beautiful Bucharest. Some of the old 19th century buildings survived, many seemingly occupied by banks; a few newer glass buildings are rising up, but the dozens of morbid apartment buildings left the predominant impression on me.
I finished my Sunday with a pleasant hour in one of the most attractive bookstores I have been in. The inside of an old building on one of the walking strips has been reworked to open up the four floors with books on the walls and the inside left clear as an atrium, with curving stairs connecting the floors.
Monday was clear and after finding a bike shop for a little work I cycled back to the centre, took a few more pictures, re-visited my book store and finished the day in Parkul Cismigu, a large park near the centre with swans, ducks and hundreds of people out absorbing vitamin C after many days of deprivation. I had my meal of the day in Bucharest early, while still near the centre, so I didn’t have to find something attractive near the train station, although the offerings inside Gare de Nord in Bucharest are better than in most train stations. In one store I filled up a shopping bag of drinks and snacks for the 13 hour train ride.
My train left at 10:00, and I was there at 9:30 hoping to get on early, as has happened more often than not. On this day the train didn’t pull in until 9:50 and there seemed to be a lot of people milling around to get on. So until I found which car I was on I was in a bit of a dither. A young woman helped me wrestle my load up into the car. It is three steep narrow steps and a good metre to heft things up. Luckily there were very few people on this car. Before the train left I removed my bags; I had planned to remove them before getting onto the car but it felt too rushed at the time. There was a spot half-way along the car that was open seated, not the closed six seat compartments of the rest of the car. The aisle was wider at this point. I settled in, my bags were all around me, my bike right there bungeed quite out of the way against a post. I was kind of hogging five seats in this situation and so I sat there waiting for the conductor or other passengers to arrive and ask me to move. For 13 hours this never happened and I was able to enjoy my time and the ride without worry about my accoutrements.
It was a beautiful sun filled day. The train ambled along initially headed towards Transylvania. There was snow on the mountains and the yellows of fall had accelerated their arrival since I had left just over a week ago. Some of my best pictures of the trip were taken through the train window. Why does it feel like cheating when I do that? It took three hours to get to Brasov and I had even recognized a few of the views from my castle tour with Dan.
As the day progressed I finished reading “Between the Woods and Water” by PL Fermor that I had been rationing since my trip began. He finished this middle of his trilogy on his walk to Constantinople as he was leaving Romania to go into Bulgaria. I am leaving to head back into Hungary so it is kind of appropriate. I had also bought an ebook version of Dracula by Bram Stoker that had audio. For many hours of this train day I sat gazing at the kaleidoscope slipping by the window as I listened to the band of intrepid Englishman chasing down their abominable foe.
A word on why I am chose my escape to Germany route that I did. I mentioned that I was greatly stressed by my trials of getting train passage for me and my bike. Except for my initial train ride from Frankfurt to Regensburg and my almost city ride out of Budapest, all of my trains have been Romania and none have been across borders. I have read about others having troubles in eastern countries as well and did not want to further complicate matters by heading into Bulgaria or Serbia as I had long contemplated. But as I was wandering around Bucharest in the last few days I realized that I did not want to begin experiencing any more countries/cultures. This trip has been mostly about Hungary and Romania and there is so much to think about with these peoples. I did not have room in my head at this time to begin yet another. I also had a very good experience cycling across Hungary and so I felt confident that I could re-cross Hungary, weather willing, without too much trouble and was eager to expand my Hungarian experience. Hence I am headed to Timisoara, and on into Hungary. I arrived a bit after 23:00, found my little Hostel Nord across the street from the station and went to bed.
The next morning I was out on the street about 8:30. I could have spent a day in Timisoara, there is lots of interest here, but my mind now is on getting back in to Hungary. I still have a full day of riding in Romania on roads that could be problematic. It took about 45 minutes for my cell to get me through the city onto my chosen road. As I expected the road out of town was narrow and very busy, but I was able to ride pretty fast and there were no aggressive drivers so it was not very stressful. After about 15 km the going to work crowd disappeared and the riding was lovely.
I was riding mostly west, the sun behind me, allowing good vision of things around me. The fall colours were out in full. With the sun rising behind me I was able to see detail that my ride east over the last six weeks has not allowed; most of my riding is in the morning. I was able to discern that the crows I was watching on this morning were actually Rooks, the light coloured bills apparent to me. I saw at least two buzzards and one little falcon, possibly a merlin. Close to Hungary I am again in a puszta. The fields absolutely flat. I had a slight tail-wind for much of the morning adding to my enjoyment.
Close to noon and after 70 km I pulled into Sannicolau Mare, the last major Romanian town. Leaving this morning I thought if I was slow I would spend the night here. I had a nice lunch and booked accommodation in Szeged, a major Hungarian university city, a further 50 km along the way, seemingly easy to reach. Leaving town the road was so quiet for a while I was worried I had missed the way. I arrived at the border crossing and the Romanian guy had a lot of questions about my entry into Romania. I’m not sure he ever really understood how I had got into the country without going through customs. But he, like the people I encountered coming in, shook his head and passed my passport to the Hungarian guy.
I pushed a reasonable headwind all afternoon and so when I entered Szeged at about 3:30 I was tired. And now my Romanian sim card didn’t work anymore. I flailed around town looking for a cell provider or the Information Centre without any luck. At a map in the main square I located the street my place was on. I checked into a lovely apartment and booked two nights. I need to get cell coverage again and I need to work more on my Hungarian plan.