Hiking Historic Skating Route

IMG_0131The Elfstedentocht (Eleven cities tour) is a historic long-distance skating tour event, almost 200 kilometres (120 mi) long, which is held both as a speed skating competition (with 300 contestants) and a leisure tour (with 16,000 skaters!). It is held in the province of Friesland in the north of The Netherlands, leading past all eleven historical cities of the province. The tour is held at most once a year, only when the natural ice along the entire route is at least 15 centimetres (6 in) thick; sometimes on consecutive years, other times with gaps that may exceed 20 years if the winter is not cold enough. When the ice is suitable, the tour is announced and starts within 48 hours.

There has been mention of skaters riding to all eleven cities of Friesland on one day since 1760. The Elfstedentocht was already part of Frisian tradition when, in 1890, Pim Mulier conceived the idea of an organized tour, which was first held in 1909 when 22 men competed. After this race, the Vereniging De Friesche Elf Steden (Association of the Eleven Frisian Towns) was established to organize the event.

The winters of 1939/40, 1940/41 and 1941/42 were particularly severe,  with the race being run in each of these years. The 1940 race, run three months prior to the German invasion of the Netherlands, saw over 3,000 competitors start at 05:00 on 30 January, with the first five finishing at 16:34. The event dominated the front pages of Dutch newspapers. 

DSCN0078The Elfstedentocht of 1963 became known as “The hell of ’63” when only 69 of the 10,000 participants were able to finish the race, due to the extremely low temperatures of -18 °C, powder snow and a harsh eastern wind. Conditions were so horrendous that the 1963 winner, Reinier Paping, became a national hero, and the tour itself legendary. Paping could not make out the finishing line as he was snow blind by the end of the race, and many of the contestants had frostbite, broken limbs, and damaged eyes. 

My dad participated 5 times in the tour (’29, ’33, ‘39, ‘40 and ‘41). I don’t know how many of those 5 he finished, but I have several ‘kruisjes’ the medal that is given to those who finish the tour in one day. 

In 2017 the NIVON, the Dutch organization that develops and manages long distance paths in The Netherlands announced the creation of the Elfsteden path as hiking trail. It follows as closely as possible the route the skaters take, but since (despite wearing wooden shoes) even the Dutch cannot walk on water, the land route is considerably longer: 285 kilometers. 

The terrain is beautiful, although somewhat monotonous, flat, wide open spaces, lots of canals, rivers and large lakes. The Montana car license motto “Big Sky Country” would apply very well to Friesland.

So how do you start a 300 km hike? Well, like eating an elephant, 1 bite at the time you start with 1 step at a time. I had arrived in Leeuwarden, the 2018 Cultural Capital of Europe. There I visited the Esher Museum and saw a parade of 15 meter tall giant marionettes. IMG_0130

And stayed overnight in jail! ( more about that later).

Dutch bakeries are the best in the world, so I had delicious croissants and strong coffee for breakfast and was ready to hit the road, or the trail in this case. 

The start of the trail is on the edge of downtown, however due to the preparations for a celebration the following weekend the official starting point with the statue of a skater was closed off. I left town and headed down the route. It could not really be called a trail, because as I would discover in the following days and weeks, the route uses existing roads and bikepaths for probably 90% of the time, which meant that you ended up walking on pavement or concrete most of the way.

DSCN0080In my case walking on hard surfaces is much harder on my feet then soft surface forest trails. The weather was perfect so no need to complain and even if I did complain there was nobody listening to it anyway. As I noted earlier, the terrain that you find in western Friesland is interesting, but somewhat monotonous. Wide open spaces, green fields, either with cows ( the famous Fries’ cattle) or agriculture, mostly corn, for cattle feed during the winter. But also numerous creeks, rivers, canals, lakes and other bodies of water. No wonder this type of terrain invites skaters during cold winters. The 300 km were roughly divided into daily distances of 18 to 25 km. Not a problem, but I quickly discovered that because of the Dutch summer holidays it was difficult to find overnight addresses. As a result, on several occasions I had to take a bus or train to a city 25 km further down the route to find places to stay overnight. Right after the first day of hiking that happened, so I took the train to the city of  Sneek and the next morning took the train back to where I had left off. 

IMG_0136Oh, about the jail, yes I was in jail for the first 2 nights in Holland, but this old jail had been converted to a youth hostel, so you fortunately got your own key to you own personal jail cell. Bars on the windows, heavy metal doors that closed behind you with a thud and the lock would fall in place with a grinding noise. On the last night back in Leeuwarden at the end of the hike I stayed there again: https://alibihostel.nl/en/

In addition to the 200 km skating tour/race there is also a 250 km biking route and now the 300 km hiking route. However, while I hiked the first 2 days, a Dutchmen, who happens to be the Olympic champion open water swimming, SWAM the entire route without stopping. He did that to bring attention to the need for funding for cancer research and managed to raise over 5 million Euros during and after his swim. He did not quite make it the 200 km because after about 160 km a doctor ordered him out of the water because he had been swimming for 36 hours without a rest and he became a danger to himself. When I left Sneek on the third day of the hike he had passed by that city only an hour before me, the next city IJlst I was still only 15 minutes behind him and in Balk that evening I finally caught up with him. 

The 4th of the official eleven cities was Sloten, just like Leeuwarden, IJlst and Sneek these are 500-600 year old cities. Narrow streets, cute small houses along the canals, definitely not made for today’s modern traffic. Beautiful house fronts and few modern conveniences. Food was easy to find, overnight accommodation remained difficult to find throughout most of the 15 days it took me to hike the route. The route between IJlst and Balk was truly boring, nothing but a long straight paved bike path. However, all part of the ‘fun’.

Finally, on the 5th day the terrain (briefly) changed, from wide open green spaces to forests and different vegetation because the heavy clay that is predominant in Friesland (and most of the western and northern part of the Netherlands) changed to sand for just a short section of the route. A nice change from the wide open spaces. And a nice change from the hard wind that I had been fighting for the last several days. No rain, but boy, that wind was trying to push me back most of the day. Finally after the sandy part around Gaasterland, the trail turned to the north and I had the wind in the back most of the time. Now the trail ran along the shore of the IJsselmeer, the former Zuiderzee. I hiked through some of the prettiest cities the entire route had to offer, Stavoren, Workum, Bolsward and Hindelopen. After those the trail moved back inland and Franeker was the next city. It is famous for the 300 year old planetarium, the oldest still in operation planetarium in the world. That was well worth the visit.IMG_0134

After Franeker the trail took on its rather monotonous character again, nothing but cows, agriculture and huge wealthy farms. Three hiking days to get from Franeker to the11th of the cities: Dokkum. As I mentioned before, my dad had skated this tour 5 times in his life. I carried one of his medals with me the entire way and I wanted to experience this route because he had done it, albeit on skates. I knew it would not be the most beautiful route, but I did want to somehow experience something similar to what he had done 75-100 years ago. On the last day I walked into Leeuwarden and ended up in jail again. 🙂

There are definitely nicer, prettier long distance hikes in The Netherlands, the Drenthe path, Pieterpad, Graafschapspad to name a few, but I just had to do this one for the reason I explained before. All together a great experience, but once was enough.

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Hiking Hong Kong

IMG_1763When you visit the concrete jungle known as Hong Kong, hiking is certainly is not the first thing that comes to mind. However, when I spent a week there, while Margriet was visiting international school, I decided to give it a try. And I can tell you there is more to Hong Kong than just high rises, mad traffic and hordes of people. There is a lot of nature around Hong Kong and numerous opportunities for hiking. IMG_1761

One of the first days I went to the far eastern end of the district and found several County Parks with numerous hiking trails. I first hiked in Ma On Shan County Park, an area with a variety of trails. The first one I tried starts out with about 500 steps up a staircase, just to get the blood flowing. After that it is a few km’s of nothing but big boulders. It resembles a dry creek bed and I don’t recommend hiking it after a good rainstorm. IMG_1765However the day I did it the sky was threatening, but except for a rather cold wind and low clouds at the top, it did not rain that day. A local resident fortunately showed me the start if the trail because it is well hidden in a village halfway up the mountain. Even though I had been warned about snakes in the area, the temperature was such that they did not concern me (too cold). When I got back down someone mentioned that a tiger had been seen that day in the area. I do have my doubts about that sighting though.

North of Kowloon numerous county parks are located relatively close to the city. In addition there are also several city parks, manicured and relatively small, not very conducive for hiking but nice for a stroll or a contemplative rest. IMG_1769

One of the most famous trails in the area is the Dragon’s Back trail south east of Hong Kong. It is an urban hiking trail with coastal scenery and easily accessible (MRT to Shan Kei Wan and Bus 9 to Tei Wan). The trail starts out relatively steep and climbs to almost 1000 feet, but then levels off and ends up back down near sea level. The Dragon’s Back is part of the 50 KM long Hong Kong trail.

So, at first glance Hong Kong may be nothing more than a concrete jungle, looking at it more closely it definitely offers very good hiking opportunities.IMG_1768

Koh Dach: An Island of Weavers

IMG_1526One day we boarded a ferry, on foot, to Koh Dach island. It seemed to be similar in size to our own Salt Spring Island. But instead of its variety of artists, everyone on this island is a silk spinner or weaver. For generations, people here have been spinning the silk worm cocoon into thread, dyeing it and weaving traditional Cambodian cloth. IMG_1510

Outside, underneath each house is a large loom. Old and mindblowing how they all still work. Some of the spinning is done with the use of a bicycle wheel to wind the thread onto spools.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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We walked about 10 KM, right across the island, along the road we shared with thousands of motorbikes and bicycles. And with oxen being led to greener pastures.

We crossed a temple compound. School was out, then school started again for the afternoon session. Little kids waved at us calling ‘Hello!’

IMG_1132We stopped for a break of fried bananas and cold drinks. Then walked on along rows of palm trees loaded with coconuts and huge bunches of bananas. There were mangoes and jack fruit.  IMG_1128

We stopped at one house to admire, and buy, some scarves woven of cotton and silk.

And, finally, we reaches the ferry on the other side of the island which took us back to the mainland, not far from the big city of Phnom Penh.

 

 

 

 

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The woven scarves are great for wiping sweat as you hike in the heat!

Are there Taxis in the Jungle?

IMG_081633º and we are hiking… It’s all Kees’ fault. He’s the one who loves to hike. When locals here look at us in astonishment and ask “why??” I shrug, point at my husband and say “ask him”. I know, I know. He loves the physical exercise. He loves the solitude of walking through the country side. He loves the challenge of long distance hikes with a big pack, walking day after day.

After trudging along for several long distance hikes in Holland, for a long hot one in Australia, for part of the Camino de Santiago, I decided that – much as I love him – I like walking but not long distance hiking.

And so we look for compromises. Active holidays with lots of walking but the comfort of a good room and no lugging of luggage day after day. Is a 15 day trek in Cambodia a compromise? I think so, although it is different from what we expected.

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Our wonderful guide Po

We found a website and liked what we saw. We received an itinerary and Cambodia Cycling & Trekking was very willing to tweak and answer questions. Each day we would walk – the itinerary told us things like “Day 3: Siem Reap to Kratie. Breakfast at the hotel, visit Kompong Kdei Bridge, transfer to Santuk Mountain, climb to hilltop pagoda, transfer to Kratie.”

What we didn’t realize, is that the ‘transfers’ that day amounted to driving 400 KM. Each day listed the walking distance, ranging from 3 to 17 KM. Three days seemed to be awfully short hikes, and 17 was a bit daunting but oh well.

Once here, we realize that the oppressive heat plays havoc with your body. I found that 4 to 5 KM was fine, after that things became a struggle especially when the ‘hilltop pagoda’ was on top of 800 steep, uneven steps in the blazing sun.

IMG_0907We had also not realized that the same guide and driver, two wonderful young, energetic men, would stay with us the entire time. It was wonderful to have our luggage transported and near us at all times. From the correspondence, we had understood that it would just be the two of us, with a different guide in different regions. It was great to get to know each other and to always have a local to explain things or to ask detailed questions.

The listed distances both in the car and on foot, were not very accurate. We soon discovered we had to be very flexible and keep asking for details. ‘500 metre’ often was one KM. A ‘half hour’ often was double.

IMG_1033On day 3 or so I got a bad case of food poisoning by eating at a remote restaurant. This completely zapped me of any energy. I skipped a day of hiking and enjoyed reading and writing in the air conditioned van. The next day we would walk to an indigenous village. Not wanting to miss this, I decided to walk but told our guide that 4 KM was too much for me. He agreed to drive further along and cut the hike in half. Unfortunately the road was blocked half way so we had no choice but to start walking. A local park ranger joined us, with a machete. Soon we left the road and plunged into the jungle, where he cut a trail for us. We trudged up and down hill, over logs, among brambles and thorns. It was all very gorgeous and interesting, but I should have never attempted this in my condition. I had not eaten in three days, my insides were cramping and – after a while – I thought I’d die. When we came to a small creek, I couldn’t scoop enough cold water on my head. But we had to keep going. I lost all sense of distance and time. But did hike for hours. ‘Can you call a taxi from inside the jungle?’ I kept wondering. I voiced that wish once I got really desperate. “A motorbike!” I said. Everyone here rides motorbikes everywhere and they all have cell phones. “If you know where we are, can’t you ask the driver to send a motorbike?” At first they laughed but soon they realized I was serious. I had started thinking, I’d pay 5 dollars for a ride out. Soon I was thinking 20. Then 100! Anything.

IMG_1225Two motorbikes actually did appear out of nowhere, in that dense jungle, zigzagging and jumping over boulders, coming down a deep dried creekbed. Alas, one was loaded with wood. The next one had no seat and was also fully loaded with cassava. Plus they were going the wrong way. I crawled on, sweat dripping down my face and splashing on the ground. My hands and knees were shaking. It was 34º.

About 10 minutes before we’d reach the road, we found a man with a motorbike who agreed to rescue me for 10,000 riel – about 2 dollars. He was a knight in shining armour on a white steed. Too bad he hadn’t come along earlier. But he took me to our van where I crawled inside and collapsed.

IMG_1140My favourite walk, perhaps, was a simple stroll along a dirt road through a village. On a Sunday afternoon when most families were lazing around their yards (pretty unusual here for these hardworking people) this walk gave us a chance to see the real rural life. At every house, a throng of little kids came running out of the dusty yard and greenery, calling “Hello! Hello! Hello!”, waving and beaming at us. When we waved and called back, more kids came running. Mothers waved with infants on their hips. Fathers grinned from behind their rice wine or cans of Cambodian beer. Dogs listlessly approached and then plopped down in the dust. Chickens scurried. Cows lifted their heads but continued chewing. We bought sugar cane juice from one of the many machines parked in a driveway. The woman cranked sugar canes through the press, folded them, repeatedly pressing them. The juice dripped into a bowl inside the glass contraption, she scooped it out into a plastic bag, and tied it closed around a straw. It was delicious! Sweet, refreshing, lovely.

IMG_0715The other fabulous hikes were around Angkor Wat where our guide led us through shady forests, along flat paths and on top of the ancient stone walls surrounding the temple areas. The hikes here were easy and pleasant and much more appealing than hanging out with lots of tourists. Plus, walking puts us in touch with the environment, either nature or the people around us, much better than driving by can do. So, that’s why we walk.

http://cambodiacycling.com/Trekking.html

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From Red Wool Blessings to Rubber Plantations

IMG_0924We visited a new temple rather than an ancient one. Bright orange robes of monks and a shiny gold altar sparkled amid the green of the jungle. We gave some money to a monk and in return he tied a thin red wool bracelet to our left wrist, chanting prayers, blowing on the knots he made, we felt blessed with his well wishes. I certainly hoped his prayers would help me as we climbed about one thousands stone steps to the top of Kulen Mountain. Once at the top, we walked beautiful flat trails in the cool jungle. We heard many birds and met one person searching for bees so that he could locate a hive, smoke out the bees and collect the honey which would fetch him $25 per liter. IMG_0951We walked to a small jungle village with scrawny chickens and dusty dogs. Homes are all built on stilts, for the monsoon season, and have a lower platform where people sit or sleep. Upstairs the room has a roof and sleeping space. The “kitchen” is underneath the house or next to it – a simple coal or wood fire with a few pots. Clothes hang on a strong between the posts under the house. As I watch women on their hunches, stirring a pot on a fire, I think back to my kitchen at home. A world away. IMG_0959

We reached the entrance to a National Park and walked along a small river where, 800 years ago, people diverted the water to run from south to north. They paved the river bottom with one thousand ‘linga’s’. A linga is a spiritual symbol: a square carving is a female stone, a round one symbolizes male. IMG_0931

These linga’s, together with a god image and lotus motifs, still decorate the river bottom. Amazing that 800 years of water has not eroded them. The river is thought to be a gift from Buddha and, once you see the river’s source, this is not surprising. It simply comes bubbling out of the earth: a crystal clear spring in a small blue puddle that grows into a powerful river.

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Downstream we saw many people who come out for the Sunday to rent a small wicker platform with a roof. They were all cooking food, having a picnic, playing games and splashing in the river.

Even further down stream we came to 3 enormous, 30 meter high waterfalls. I loved cooling off in the cold water. We are often the only westerners and little children call out “Hello!” waving enthusiastically.

The next day we walked through a rubber plantation. Rubber trees were planted here in long straight row. The trees have about a 4’ section of bark removed with a shallow line which ends in a small bowl catching the rubber, which is collected daily. But the price of rubber has dropped so it isn’t very viable right now.IMG_1057

Angkor… whát?!

IMG_0695When we leave the hotel with our guide at 8 AM it is still relatively cool. By noon we will be sweating buckets… On our first day of hiking, we drive into the vast area of Angkor Wat. During the 12th century, this was the world’s largest religious area encompassing some 400 square KMs. There were many villages in the area and people would come to worship at the elaborate temples.

Many of the stone buildings have now collapsed and the jungle is winning the battle. Stone carvings surrender to tree roots, some trees towering a hundred meters on top of an old wall. IMG_0781

With the new technology of lidar (laser imaging radar) they are discovering many more old roads, walls and buildings hidden by jungle.

We entered the ancient capital area at the South Gate of Angkor Thom and hiked through beautiful shady forest on a pleasant sandy path. This major attraction may be inundated by tourists, but théy are not hiking! We walked around a tranquil lake and listened to birds. At one point we reached a busier gate where endless throngs of traffic arrived. Walking through the woods, we had no clue there were thousands of tourists nearby! IMG_0704

We walked through Bayon Temple and heard about the many stories depicted in the endless stone carvings around the temple walls. This is ancient storytelling at its best: facts and myths intertwine in stone, leaving a legacy of stories and morals about Hindu gods and Buddhist beliefs. Stories of battles won and battles lost, of a sea turning to milk, of snakes and gods. IMG_0742

We continued our walk on top of the ancient stone walls surrounding the compound, for many kilometers until we arrived, via the Terrace of the Elephants, at Cambodia’s main attraction: Angkor Wat. It was constructed in the 12th century and dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu.

IMG_0825This most important temple towers 65 meters from ground level. Since the temple represents heaven, no buildings in the vast area of Siem Reap are allowed to be taller – a wonderful way to keep high rises from taking over the landscape.

All Cambodian Buddhist hope to visit this temple at some point, much like Muslims trekking to Mecca. The temple itself is gigantic and you can easily spend an entire day walking around, climbing the towers and watching the sun rise or set on this national landmark. My favourite moment was seeing flame orange robes of monks, as they walked by, against the blackened stone of the ancient temple. Like in other Buddhist countries most people serve their country as a priest for some time in their lives. This can be for a few days, for a month or for several years. While serving, the community provides for the monks, bringing them food. Unlike other countries, like Burma, I haven’t seen any girl monks/nuns yet.IMG_0804

Dutch National Parks

IMG_0537National Park Hoge Veluwe, Netherlands

We grew up in The Netherlands, left for Canada more than 40 years ago, but now come back often because of the fabulous hiking. The Netherlands has more than 10,000 KM of hiking trails – most of which are well maintained, well marked, good surfaces, relatively level and with affordable accommodations. (See our earlier blog: https://globetrottinggrandparents.wordpress.com/2016/02/18/holland-hiking-biking-and-much-more/)

This time, through Air BnB, we booked a cottage in the woods at a stone’s throw distance from the entrance gates to Hoge Veluwe, one of the Netherlands’ most well known national parks. You can buy different entrance tickets: one to walk in, or one to drive in. Being budget travelers, we parked outside the park and walked in. 100 meters from the gate, the park offers free bicycles. The bikes are basic without gears and with back pedal brakes rather than hand brakes, but that in itself is a fun Dutch experience for you. All bikes have a child’s seat on the back. You can leave them at a different gate or return to the same spot after a long day of riding the many trails. It’s a great way to see this beautiful wilderness area in the heart of the country. Trails will take you through forests, across heather fields (moors) and along large windblown sand fields with a lone tree clinging to the soil.

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The Dutch take anything on bikes, even doggies.

If you visit on a week day outside the peak season, changes are that you’ll rarely see another person. But don’t visit this park on a sunny weekend: there will be thousands of others with the same plan.

Bring lunch and have a picnic halfway, at one of several picnic tables. Or there are restaurants near the gates or at the park’s hub. That is also where Kröller-Muller Museum is located. This famous museum hosts an extensive art collection including Van Gogh’s and Picasso’s. To visit the museum requires another ticket or you can get in with an annual Museum Card.

For more details check out: https://www.hogeveluwe.nl/en?gclid=Cj0KEQjwid63BRCswIGqyOubtrUBEiQAvTol0aw33opZ00HbTIK6LhLql5p___pVPn9QMB4M_5YYnvsaAtev8P8HAQ

Surrounding the national park are many beautiful wilderness areas. You don’t need to pay admission to experience a good hike across heather fields. Check out towns like Otterlo and Hoederloo. National forests here offer a myriad of trails to hike for a day or for many days.

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Palace ‘t Loo (Low)

We also added a visit to Palace het Loo (pronounced ‘Low’ not ‘loo’…: https://www.paleishetloo.nl/en/#2016-03-01

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Entrance to the palace grounds

Paleis Het Loo is located in the heart of the Netherlands, on the outskirts of Apeldoon.  Dating back to 1684, this former royal palace has been open to the public since 1984. The furnished rooms and chambers show how the Royal Family of Orange lived and worked here for 300 years. The baroque gardens have a symmetrical design, taking the garden of the 17th century as an example, and are unique in the Netherlands. The painted ceilings, period furnishings and interesting artifacts make for a great tour. Don’t skip the stables with horse paraphernalia as well as antique sleds, carriages and cars.

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