Category Archives: Cam

The final Saga

This, sadly for us,  is the final entry detailing our travels.  We will post in the weeks coming of our reflections on the year now that we’ve been home for almost 2 months.

Kaia wrote most of a very detailed blog about Iceland’s history, language and other key cultural elements as well as some of our activities.  But alas …. the web version of WordPress is also glitchy, and the 90% of her entry vapourized.  Agh!  She was leaving for camp that day so she’s left it to me to redo the entry.  Cam

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Thanks “mormor” for your guest appearance on our blog last entry.  You noticed things that I didn’t even see! I will emphasize different things in my entry here.

Iceland has always seemed rather “epic” in my mind.   Everything about it seemed exaggerated; waterfalls, hot pools, volcanic activity, remoteness, midnight sun … and I never met someone who’d been there that wasn’t really taken with the country.  It seemed like a fitting “last stop” on our journey this year.  We were especially looking forward to the long days; the very northern tip of Iceland is just slightly north of the Arctic Circle and we would be there on the longest day of the year.  We were also looking forward to having mormor along for this leg of the journey.  She had already been to Iceland, twice, but wanted to experience it with us.

Iceland was first visited by Roman sailers in the 3rd century AD – likely blown off course.  They did not settle though.   Celtic monks followed in the early 800s.  Permanent settlement was begun by Norwegians and Celts in 874, when Infolfu Arnarson named his settlement “Reykjavik” which translates to “smoking harbour” (smoke from hotsprings).  Sixty years later (930) the settlers formed a government (Alþingi) that is now recognized by some historians as the earliest example of democratic government.  Most early settlers were fleeing strife in Norway – their king sounds like he wasn’t the easiest guy to get along with.  These people were vikings, and most of them worshiped Norse gods. Around the year 1000, King Olaf Tryggvason of Norway threatened to attack Iceland if they didn’t adopt Christianity, and at that year’s parliament, they took on the new religion … en masse!

Much of Iceland’s history is full of internal and to an extent, external conflict.  Early settlement’s family stories are told through “sagas” which were written in the 1300 and 1400s (writing had now taken hold) about events 200-300 years earlier.  Families feuded, and conflicts often ended brutally.  But the sagas describe things rather matter-of-factly, so make for some rather surreal reading.  People are identified by their settlement areas (eg. Cameron Jackson of Peterborough arrived at midnight to avenge the earlier slaying of his brother.  But along the path he met Kaia Cameronsdottir who dissuaded him ….)  Yes, my dad’s name was Jack, and Icelanders still identify their children through the father, though even this tradition is facing some challenges among the newest generation of parents in Iceland).

Some other historical highlights include:

  • in 1627, European pirates based in Algiers raided Iceland in search of slaves.  They made off with 400 residents of Westman Islands and sold them into slavery back in Algiers.  Thirty years later a ransom was paid to repatriate most of the slaves.  Mediterranean raid on Iceland … who’d a thought!
  • during the 1700s the Christian church successfully persuaded Icelanders to leave behind the notion of retributive justice and adopt instead the notion of punishment.  Prior to this, justice was very much “an eye for an eye” which resulted in a never ending sequence of family and inter community violence.  Through the church they then passed judgement on the accused.  So now, instead of getting butchered by your wife’s brother’s father, you could be burned at the stake, or if you were a woman, bound, put in a sack and thrown in the rapids at þingvellir.
  • through the ages the country has experienced a continuous steam of volcanoes and earthquakes; these are a defining part if Iceland. This is obvious to the tourist almost every step of the way. More on that later.
  • Icelandic woman fought for and achieved suffrage several years before Canadian women (1915)
  • 1918 became autonomous but still under King of Denmark; after WWII became an independent republic with an elected President
  • after becoming autonomous in 1918, Iceland declared itself officially neutral in international affairs.  During WWII Britain was worried that Germany would occupy, so in 1940 established their presence there and subsequently turned this role over the Americans.   Amidst great domestic controversy (many Icelanders were and still are fiercely independent in nature), Iceland joined NATO in 1949 and a large base was established in Keflavik (50km west of Rejkjavik).  When Rejkjavik outgrew its local airport, it took over the base at Keflavik which now serves as Iceland’s international airport.  So … if you fly to Iceland, be prepared for a 50 minute drive into Rejkjavik!

Betty has already described our journey – 1 week with a camper, out and around the Snæfellsness peninsula then out and back along the south coast.  We could have done the classic circumnavigation route (1400km) but didn’t want to spend all our time driving.

Snaefellsnes peninsula route
We drove around the Snæfellsnes peninsula
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then headed around the “Golden Cirlce” route and east as far as the glacier lake of Jökulsárlón. From there we returned to Reykjavik along the coast via the Westman Islands.

Instead of a diary sort of approach, I’ll instead use the photos to help make some impressions and tell some stories.

Good morning!
Good morning!  I slept up top with the kids, while Yvonne and Betty staked out the lower bunk.  Our bedrooms opened to the big wide world of Iceland.
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Typical. Wide open landscapes, with cool or cold wind blowing. This was actually one of the warmer dinner times … with all jackets on.
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Virtually all of Iceland is treeless; much of it is covered only in moss and lichen. Ancient volcanic cones like this one dot many horizons.  Note the relatively fresh lava field in the foreground.
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Looking across to the Olafsvik (“Olaf’s harbour”) at the foot of the Snæfellsjokull glacier.
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A rather inspired ocean’s edge lunch stop.
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Kaia, caught between a rock and a hard place.
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We saw a surprising number of cycle tourists like this guy. At a certain level, it might seem appealing (things roll by at human speeds …) but we all agreed that there are much better places to cycle tour. Distances are great here, the wind howls, there is virtually no shoulder, and its flipping cold and often rainy. Hard core, man!
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When I saw this church I immediately thought of a similar photo I had taken in southern Germany – see below.

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atop on old volcanic cone at the tip of Snæfellsness peninsula.
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Hike down from the cone
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Sheep were everywhere. This guy was spectacular!
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We noted that Iceland lambing was about 2 months behind Germany, for obvious climate reasons. These guys were only about a week or two old.
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Þjóðgarðurinn Snæfellsjökull. In case you are rusty on the Icelandic language and character set, this is the Snaefellsjokull National Park – in the middle of the summer no less!

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The monument to acknowledge half giant Bárðar of Bárðar ‘s saga. To get a flavor of such a saga, have a quick read through the “Coles notes” version on Wikipedia.
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The kids and I hiked up to this crack in the cliff where you climb into the crack through the winter’s residual snow and ice. Hundreds of gulls soared in the thermals above.
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classic Iceland … almost barren landscapes, views so far …
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This (geothermally heated) hot pool was tucked off the main road a few km. The main pool was 32degC. Another small one was 38. I believe this one was 42!
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Regular readers have seen us blogging in some rather unusual locations this year. Yvonne and Jake are hard at work here.
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This art was on display at the Settlement Center in Bogarnes. Self contained audio interpretation provided a great sense of early settlement, mostly through the recounting of saga highlights.

From the Snæfellsness peninsula we returned through Reykjavik and set out around the “Golden Circle”.  I don’t think many tourists to Iceland have NOT done this famed loop.

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Stop #1 on Golden circle. Þingvellir (“Thingvellir”). What a place! This geography teacher is standing on a plate tectonic boundary. That’s the North American plate on my left, and the Eurasian plate on my right – they are pulling apart at about 2cm/year. It is in fact this plate separation that gave birth to Iceland is is responsible for all the volcanic activity.  I show all my geography classes a video that features Dr. Iain Stewart standing in this very place, telling viewers in a VERY Scottish and VERY enthusiastic voice “I want to show you how the planet works!”.
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The other thing that makes Þingvellir (“parliament plains”) a special place is that this is where the first Alþingi (“parliament”) met. Once a year, starting in 930 Icelanders from all over the island would trek overland and by boat (no small feat!!) and pass new laws and dispense justice in this outdoor setting.  The lögsögumaður (“lawspeaker”) would stand on top of the cliff (“Law Rock”) and recite the country’s laws. Keep in mind that during the first 200 years, Iceland was an oral society only. Participants would camp in the plains to the right of the cliff. Remarkably, these outdoor parliaments continued for 800 years until it was suspended for 45 years then moved to Reykjavik.
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Betty at Golden circle stop #2: Geysir.
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The main geysir erupts irregularly, about every 5 minutes give or take 3 minutes. It is quite explosive and shoots up about 15m and showers the area with scalding water.  Not long after we left I read a news story about some young kids getting burned here 😦  Many people try to capture the exact moment the the bubble swells up and erupts. This was my best effort.)
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I know I am breaking a few copyright rules here … but thanks to the photographer who took this spectacular postcard photo!
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Stop #3 on the Golden Circle: Gullfoss. Recall from Betty’s blog that a “foss” is a falls. This huge falls is where the heathen law speaker of the Alþingi flung his idols of Norse gods after Iceland swung over to Christianity in the year 1000.

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Seljalandsfoss.
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You can walk right behind the falls … as long as you’re game for a shower.
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Skogafoss
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There was a fantastic trail leading to the precipice. Note the hundreds of gulls that are nesting in the mist on the far side of the falls.

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This sight was common. I’m not sure if anyone has every lived in these, or whether they are used as root cellars.
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One of many glacier tongues of Vatnajökulsþjóðgarður. C’mon, don’t you recognize that root word from before? It’s a National Park.  This Glacier is the largest one in Europe outside of the Arctic – what you see is a TINY part of the ice mass.
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Oh, the wide open spaces …

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The basault columns at Svartifoss above really looked like organ pipes. We had hiked up from the popular glacier tour center of Skaftafell. There were all sorts of glacier outings in including ice climbing and full day traverses, but costs were exorbitant. At this point in our trip, we felt like we had experienced lots of high adrenaline adventure (for much less money!) so were quite happy to simply set off on a hike.

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Kaia and I set off for another glacier overlook while Jake and Yvonne went back to meet up with Betty on her flatter hike.
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Another tongue of the Vatnajokull glacier.

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This was one of only two places in the country where we found trees.
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Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon.
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Jake thought it was a cool place to skip stones.

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Betty mentioned the dive bombing terns that drew blood. This family quickly aborted their walk through a tern nesting area.
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It was all about these little guys.
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This moss covered lava field stretched as far as the eye could see.
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The basault columns on the black beach of Reynisdrangar.  Basault columns are (I think) always hexagonal in cross section, for some mineral crystallization reason.

Our final destination in our week journey was the Westman Islands (“Vestmanaeyjar”).  Settlement of this archipelago of small islands got off to a rather notorious start when a group of slaves from Ireland killed their captain/master Hjörleifr (he apparently didn’t treat them terribly well).  They escaped and settled on what is now known as Heimaey island in the group.  Recall that justice in early Iceland was retributive.  Hjörleifr’s brother Ingólfr found the Irish slaves and slaughtered them all.  From that point on (875 AD) the islands have been known as Westman Islands, because the Irish were referred to as Westmen by the Norwegians to their East.

Settlers of the Westman Islands had a tough life, living on fish and puffin eggs which they collected from the cliffs.  Puffin numbers are now in sharp decline so egg collection has all but stopped, but most of the uninhabited Westman islands have a single cabin  that was used by the puffin egg collectors.  I snapped the photo below as we approached Heimaey Island after the 45 minute ferry ride from the mainland.

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Puffin egg hunter’s cabin
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Our “campsite” that we randomly drove to at 11PM after arriving on the island. Little did we realize at the time that we were parked on 42yr volcanic ash from the volcanic cone “Eldfell” about 800m away!  Fitting that our camper is named “lava”.

The Westman Islands are notorious for another reason: their recent volcanic activity.  Surtsey island rose out of the ocean in 1963, and in 1973 Heimaey Island hit the world media map when an enormous eruption started.  There were 5000 inhabitants of the island at the time, and most were evacuated.  A few remained to “fight” the lava flow using a previously untested technique of pumping cold ocean water onto the advancing face of the flow.  The eruption lasted 6 months and literally consumed about 20% of the town, but the water pumpers were able to slow the advance and were able to protect the harbour from becoming completely closed off. The eruptions added 2.5 km² of new land to the small island, including our campsite.

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This brand new museum tells the story of the town’s struggle with the 1973 eruption. The building is constructed over an excavated house that was buried by the eruption. The curators have done a fabulous job using multimedia to convey the urgency, despair and ultimate perseverance of the townsfolk during the struggle.
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Ouch!  400+ other homes met this fate or worse.
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The furthest point of advance of the 1973 lava flow.
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The four of us climbed the 200m high cone Eldfell (“fire mountain”).  Look closely and you can see Kaia and Jake near the top. Betty started up but it was so windy she literally got blown off the trail and retreated to the van.
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On top of the Eldfell cone. You can see clearly how the lava flowed into the town. It was REALLY windy up here!
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While admiring the view from the top of the cone, Jake picked up this rock and noted that it was “hot”. We said “couldn’t be … must have been in the sun”. But when he went to put it down he realized that the smooth rock it was on was also warm.
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We quickly then realized that we had found a “vent”, and the little cave inside was too hot to leave your hand for more than about 1 second. We were astounded, and I actually wondered for a few moments if the cone was becoming active again! Nobody we’d spoken to about the cone had said anything about this vent, though we learned later that it is a well known place to roast hot dogs. Apparently Bill Clinton was served one of these hotdogs when he visted a few years back.
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I believe this is Surtsey – the island that erupted out of the ocean in 1963.

We were a bit overdue for a shower, and this becomes an issue with 5 people living in a small camper.  So we headed off to the swimming pool in Heimaey and discovered to our delight a fantastic outdoor play area.

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3 pools; hot, hotter, hottest. The large swimming pool is behind me, inside.
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On the right you’d shoot out then bounce your way down the black trampoline slide. All in geothermally heated hot water!
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climbing wall, another slide, basketball court … they know how to do it up, these Icelanders!
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I set off with Kaia and Jake to climb the peak adjacent to the harbour. We were told it had some ropes and ladders so were excited … but Betty figured this one would be a good one to sit out!
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We shared the peak with sheep, puffins and clouds. It was otherwise a pretty fantastic view back into town and out to the other islands.
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The five of us went Puffin spotting along the coast, but found the sheep much easier to see.
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Jake is in the spotting “hide”, and indeed there were a bunch of puffins swimming in the ocean below us.

The Westman Islands had proved to be well worth the “detour”, and our family never minds a ride on the ferry.  The island really speaks to the remoteness, resourcefulness and courage of the early and more recent Icelandic setters.

Our final day back to Reykjavik involved further exploration of Iceland’s volcanic reality.  Most people know that homes in Reykjavik are heated with geothermally warmed water, but I was surprised to learn that a whopping 96% of buildings across the entire country are heated this way!  26% of the country’s electricity comes from geothermal power stations, and I wanted to see what such a thing looks like, so we stopped at the Hellisheiði power station – one of 5 in the country.

High pressure steam is collected from many smaller wells then piped to the power station. (photo from the net)
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We wondered why all the steam pipes ran zig zag like this instead of straight or bending lines. See if you can figure it out – I’ll tell you in a moment.

Iceland power recently built quite a spectacular visitor center at the power station and we quickly found ourselves on a guided tour.

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The steam is fed through 4 generators like this to make electricity. The “waste” steam is then converted back to hot water and piped 30km to heat buildings and domestic hot water.  As the hot water returns to the power plant it runs under Reykjavik’s roads and sidewalks so that plows are not needed in the winter.  I thought this was an urban myth, but apparently not!  The cooled water is then pumped back down into the ground near the wells where the steam is drawn from to complete the cycle.
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A week is a long time to spend in a small van with a mother in law who is full of hot air.

Geothermal power appears quite environmentally benign but there are increasing concerns about the impact of steam extraction on geologic stability – much the same as concern over small earthquakes around area of intense oil/gas fracking.  Speaking of concerns in Iceland about electricity consumption, I learned of quite an interesting controversy that unfolded earlier last decade.  26% of electrical power in Iceland is geothermal – the rest is hydro power, so 100% of electricity is renewable, and there are many more untapped rivers in the country.  The government decided about 10 yrs ago to diversify the economy by attracting large foreign investment aluminum smelters with cheap electricity.  Bauxite ore would be brought from half way around the world to Iceland, processed on the coast, then shipped as aluminum to market.  The new hydro project and associated smelter  was sited in a very economically depressed (“desperate”, according to the government) area and was to help bring Iceland into “the modern age”.  It became a flash point for contrasting notions of development and huge protests greeted every step of the project.  Environmentalists believed that the hydro power should be exploited on smaller scales and used to power locally-grown industry like the electrically-lit and geothermally-heated greenhouses that are supplying an increasing percentage of the county’s vegetables.  Icelanders pride in their wilderness and self sufficiency. Ultimately though, 5 massive dams were constructed (“Kárahnjúkar”), 70km of penstocks were drilled out by the Italians, a huge powerhouse was built by the Germans and the American Alcoa Aluminum company completed their smelter in 2008.

photo is from the net

A second similar dam/smelter has just come online further north in the country, though the controversy and conflict persist.

By the way, the reason they zig zag steam pipes is because the heating and contracting of the pipes causes expansion and compression, and the zig zag takes up the associated stress.  Pretty elaborate solution though, huh?

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We left Hellisheiði power station where I had a smile on my face and headed down the road where we soon stumbled into warm fuzzy Icelandic wool shop that brought a smile to the knitter Yvonne’s face.

We didn’t spend time in Reykjavik when we arrived so did leave the later part of an afternoon and evening to explore a bit.

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The “Whales of Iceland” museum featured life size recreations of a couple dozen species of whales around Iceland. This is a sperm whale, but the great blue whale left an even greater impression on us!

We had some time in the early evening to explore the many walking streets of Reykjavik.

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The striking Hallgrimskirkja in central Reykjavik. The church is named after the renowned Icelandic poet Hallgrimur Petursson, and you can climb to an observation deck near the top.

I took some time to browse through a great little music store.  I’d come to appreciate that Iceland has a  vibrant music scene, and is rather over represented by new young talent internationally.  I’m now enjoying my 2014 indie sampler.  Have a look and listen to the popular folk band Árstíðir here.

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Trolls (or “little people” as they’re sometimes referred to) play a special role in Icelandic folklore. Apparently, many folks still believe in them, and few will openly admit they flat out don’t believe they’re real.
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Even Reykjavik shared the cycling passion we saw in our other European cities.
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Betty treated us to our final dinner of the journey in this downtown restaurant. We’d spent the previous 7 days driving past sheep and new lambs, and they are virtually the only livestock on the island. So Betty, Yvonne and I had lamb … REALLY good lamb. Kids ate fish. As Betty mentioned in her blog, we took time to reflect back on the year to recall our favorite places, experiences, people, meals, and started to try to figure out what we’d learned and how we’d changed. We’ll share those thoughts next entry.

We enjoyed the strong sun above the horizon when we left the restaurant at 11PM and found our way to the trail head of our midnight hike.  Betty bid us farewell as we set off to celebrate the longest night of the year with a midnight hike.  At 64° N latitude (just shy of the arctic circle), the sun set at about 1AM and rose again at 4AM, but it stayed light the entire night.

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It was a quiet, contemplative hike/climb. Partly because we were coming to terms with the end of our journey, and partly because it was about 1AM and we were tired!
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You might recognize this one from an earlier post. We’re near the top of Mt Esja just outside of Reykjavik.  Its about 1:30 AM.

It felt fitting to end our journey with a hike.  It is something we all enjoy doing, and we’d hiked in every country we visited this year, save a couple.  Hiking was also the activity that gave us time “apart” … if you consider 10 or 20 steps “apart”.  On a journey of 10 months where we were mostly within a few feet of each other 24 hrs a day, a few meters of separation for quiet contemplation was often welcome.

We grabbed 3 or 4 hrs sleep then headed back to Reykjavik to a swimming/bathing pool.  The low but strong morning sun felt great as we lounged in the many different hot pools and the one VERY cold pool.  A good soak seemed like a fitting way to prepare ourselves for the long journey home.

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We said our goodbyes and thankyous to Stein, Bàra and their two children Làra and Dagur. They had provided us with travel suggestions and food but especially with some explanations about how the less visible aspects of their country work.

We’d really enjoyed Iceland.  It was so different than anything else we’d seen or done this year.  The people were gregarious in the best sense of the world.  I would love to see more, but I have to say I found Iceland prohibitively expensive.  A week was all we could afford, and with the exception of the camper costs, we were doing everything low budget.  It is so expensive, in fact, that Stein travels once a year to the USA to shop.  He buys electronics, clothes, toys and other stuff for the family, and the savings compared to Iceland purchase easily pay for the round trip.  Iceland is of course rather remote, but that alone does not explain the exceptionally high cost of living.  Maybe a reader can fill me in by leaving a comment.

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Last fight .. of many this year. Jake was looking forward to the individual media screens that Iceland Air has on the planes.
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Our most conscientious blogger, hard at work after only a few hours sleep, and hours away from Canadian soil, friends and family.  Her brother is enjoying his own TV screen, watching the secret life of Walter Mitty which was filmed in part in the wilds of Iceland.

The smiling faces of Canadian Immigration and Customs officers were so welcome at Pearson airport, but our taxi driver to my mom’s house in Etobicoke was over the top grumpy when we crammed the four of us and our luggage (which now included a bicycle trailer) into his car.  “Why didn’t you hire a van?”  We bid Betty farewell at the entrance to the brand new rail link that connects the 3 Pearson terminals to each other and to downtown (built for the PanAm games) and felt sorry for her need for one more ongoing flight to Ottawa -we were exhausted.

Yes, it felt great to be back in Canada, and to see mom again and sleep in familiar beds.

But I have no idea how to end this blog entry.  How do you close this year? Yes, we are home, but the journey lives on in our minds, chatter, emails and activities each day.  Thanks to our readers for staying with us this far.  And talk to you next week.

Cam

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Blown away by the wind power of northern Germany

If you follow our blog at all regularly, you will realise that we haven’t made it home yet in our blog, and there has been a long lull in our writing. We indeed are settled, or I should say settling back into our home. We’ve been too busy unpacking, planting the vegetable garden and visiting with family and friends to write. But we are looking forward to writing about our final few weeks in Europe/Iceland. Cam.

Wind power.  Love it, or hate it.  Controversy abounding about this energy source seems to have polarised people’s views.  Here in Ontario, most of us talk about wind power in the abstract sense – few of us live within sight of wind farms.  But there were very few places during our cycle through northern Germany where you couldn’t see a wind turbine.  In fact, for much of our cycling in this region, we could see vast wind farms – with so many turbines that I had to stop my bike to be able to count.  I got up past 40 once before I gave up.  And I, for one, like to count wind turbines (just ask my kids).

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If you have no interest in renewable energy and just want to know where we cycled and what we did, you can skip down to just above the map below.  Otherwise, read on about the world leader in renewable energy …

Germany in general and northern Germany in particular (that’s where the wind blows best) has seen a HUGE growth in wind power over the past 15 years.  It is in part due to the dominant political climate in this part of the world that looks towards renewable energy for energy self sufficiency, and that actually cares enough about climate change to do something substantial and ambitious to reduce emissions.  But the German story is something much more than this and it deserves a bit of attention.  I had intended to write a fairly substantial piece on the German renewable energy story, but in light of the fact that my last entry (green Freiburg) was rather long and thick in content, I will stay short here in hopes that one or two readers will still peruse my entries :).
Germans have always been uneasy about nuclear energy, though they leaned heavily on it in the late 1900s.  They also relied heavily on coal – some domestic and much imported.  Oil and natural gas were imported.  Hydro is all but non existent.  And of course, Germany’s well known manufacturing base is hungry for electricity.  A visionary in the late 1990s by the name of Herman Shear (passed away just a couple years ago) started agitating for a renewable future for Germany and by the early 2000s (he was then an MP) his plan was really taking hold.  The cornerstone of his “Energiewende” (energy turnaround) plan is the Feed In Tariff (FIT).  Under the FIT, independent renewable power producers were guaranteed access to Germany’s electricity grid, and were given 20 year fixed price production contracts.  Their price per kWhr of generation depended on the technology.  Roof-top solar PV got the most, ground-mounted solar next, industrial scale solar next, wind and biomass next most.  The prices were set to provide significant incentives for producers to invest, and recognised the different build costs of the technologies.  The prices also reflected the reality that solar produces when it is needed the most (mid day) and the idea that roof tops were otherwise useless areas (whereas fields and yards can and should be used for other things).  In all cases, purchase prices were more than what the Germany utilities were selling for – so it was subsidised as green energy, and as a significant job creator.  Importantly, the purchase prices dropped over the year to reflect dropping production and installation costs.
Germany had very ambitious targets for wind and solar PV.  And in every case, they blew their targets out of the water.  They would reach the 5 year goal in the 1st year, for example.   They would surpass the entire EU target all by themselves.  Superlatives abound.  Money poured into solar and wind manufacturing, and new green collar job creation boomed.  Germany had, in only a half decade, established itself as the world leader in renewable energy policy, technology and manufacturing.  They are now surpassed only by the USA and China in terms of new production coming on, but these two economies are of course much larger than Germany’s.  And almost all of this growth owes to the FIT.
Dalton McGuinty’s liberal government in Ontario took note of Germany’s success and in 2008 created a Green Energy Act that was modelled very closely on the German approach.  We too call our incentive the FIT.  In fact, Ontario Environment and Energy officials toured Germany and met with Herman Shear in their research.  So if any Ontario readers wonder where all the roof top solar PV and the steady growth in wind power comes from …. thank (or scold, if that’s where your politics are) Herman Shear and his progressive colleagues.  Yvonne and I installed 15kW of solar PV on our two roofs 5 years ago.  We produce much more than we use on an average day.  On a sunny summer day, the two roofs produce 90kWhrs, while our (one) house uses 5kWhrs.  Our investment will pay itself off in a year or two from now.  The rooftop solar PV (micro)FIT started at 82 cents/kWhr (we got in then).  I believe it is now down in the 35 cent range.  This drop recognises the substantial drop in equipment cost and installation efficiency – which is another sign of success.
Anyone who reads the word “subsidised energy” might rightly worry about rising electricity costs.  Germans were worried.  In the end though, the cost of electricity in Germany related to the FIT program rose by only about $50/yr for an average household.  This was the cost of vast improvement in energy security, weaning off nuclear power, and tens of thousands of new high paying jobs.  It is worth noting that after the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan, Germany decided to close out all nuclear power – even if the plant had service life left.  This has ironically resulted in a return to domestic coal power (and increase in CO2) while the country awaits further roll out of solar, wind and biomass power.
We met many Germans during our travels this year.  I would ask them what they made of their renewable energy leadership.  Surprisingly (to me, anyway), most did not know they were leaders.  And also surprisingly, most that did know just laughed, and told the story of the huge offshore wind farm in the north sea that ran out of money before the electrical cable that connected the turbines to the shore (grid) could be installed.  They were hugely cynical.  I asked some Germans in Germany about this and they acknowledged that they are cynics by nature and are their own worst critics.  There is some push back against the FIT in Germany for sure, but the basic approach steams ahead.
OK, I’m done on the FIT.  And YES, this is my short story!  🙂  Those with an interest in the German story should read Chris Turner’s “The Leap”.
Jake’s Holland blog leaves us hunkering down during a huge wind and rain storm in a fabulous little greenhouse that we found in a little campground on the east coast of Holland. 

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We made our way to the town’s harbour to take the ferry across the Eems inlet the next morning and discovered a large group of people waiting to board some zodiacs.  Their leader was wearing a t-shirt with “Hansa Green Tour” written on the back. 

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This of course caught my interest!  I learned that these energy professionals were touring solar, wind and biogas sites across Germany and Denmark and were meeting with local officials to study policy approaches.  I then found the trip description on their website and laughed when I noted that the tour gave a prize to the participant with the lowest transportation carbon footprint.  Charging stations for electrical vehicles had been mapped out across the route, and a tow truck was following the tour in the event that a participant ran out of charge.  A significant portion of the participants were apparently driving Teslas, and the rest “just” regular lower end electrical vehicles!  Welcome to northern Europe!!  The tour was in town (Delfzijl) to see Holland’s latest huge wind farm that was built on the shore of the inlet.

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Hansa Green Tour participants are in the little zodiacs, dwarfed by the new turbines. I have to admit that I was a bit envious of the tour participants, but the tour price appeared to be inversely proportional to their carbon footprint (that is unaffordable to me!)
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Most of the new turbines had yet to begin production. This one appears to be in final testing stages.

The journey across the Eems inlet that separates northern Friesland (Holland) from Northwest Germany took only about 30 minutes.

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Yes, we've arrived in Northern Germany!
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We noted that the large German wind manufacturer Enercon's nacelles (the part on top of the post that holds the hub and blades) was a much different (cone) shape than the rectangular nacelles of the Danish giant Vestas. I bet your world stood still when you learned that.
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Volkswagen has situated one of their large manufacturing facilities at Emden where we landed. Germany has to make the most of its few sea ports.
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These shrink wrapped VWs were about to be driven on to the car carrier here. I'm guessing that the wind turbines were owned by VW.
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We had only ridden about 1km from our ferry dock when we came across all these wind turbine ("spare"?) parts lying around the port.
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Cycling past the town's tall ship in Emden.

Emden turned out to be a fabulous little city.  The inner port was dotted with maritime museums, the tall ship above, and a great little fast food fish stand where we gorged on lunch.  A large international film festival was starting the next day, and walking streets and cafés abounded.  We spent most of the afternoon trying to line up tours of a wind turbine manufacturing plant and an actual wind turbine.  On the latter, you can climb 60 or so metres up a wind tower to an observation deck located just below the nacelle.

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Photo from the net

They were however not offering the tour during our time frame.  I know this because I used google translate to translate back and forth emails about 3 times with their German-only speaking contact 🙂  I was very persistent with our contact at Enercon’s HUGE production facility in Aurich and managed to get us a tour at 9AM the next morning.  Aurich was about 40km away though so we needed to set off in the late afternoon from Emden.

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Enjoying the late afternoon sun as we cycled into the wind turbine landscape of Northwest Germany.
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This part of Germany is also referred to as Friesland, and shares its love of transportation canals with Holland across the inlet. This particular one was a canal "roundabout" - 4 canals joined the central roundabout through individual locks. Can't recall ever seeing one of these before!
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no, not 9 blades on one turbine ... I just like when 3 turbines line up!
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perhaps not recommended in the bicycle safety guide, but it worked for me, and Yvonne got comfortable with this approach too.
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We found the PERFECT place to make dinner. Soft afternoon sun, beautiful boat to gaze at, and a picnic table to boot.
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Actually, Yvonne did almost all our meals (I don't like cooking on her camp stove). Note the beer ... we were back in cheap Germany again. And note Kaia - she was (and still is) hands down the most conscientious blogger of the four of us.
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Jake is now part of the dinner prep team.
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It's the little details that matter in the transportation game. We saw good bike locking facilities at even the smallest, remote bus stops.
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When we arrived in Aurich we got a little sneak preview of our next day's tour. Holy jumping big blades, Batman!

I used the satellite photo feature on google maps to locate a forest right near the Enercon production facility in Aurich.  We weren’t too sure how discreet the forest site would be for camping so planned our arrival to have just enough light to set up the tent before jumping in (yes, that’s about 11PM!).

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We awoke in the morning to this lovely sight - probably one of the nicest campsites we found in Germany. Note that the German flag had been reinstalled on our bike trailer safety pole.

We camped only 1.5 km from the Enercon factory so thought that the 15 minutes we’d left to get there would be ample.  But it turns out that the “factory” is actually a huge campus of factories and support buildings, all with significant security, so it took quite a while to navigate to our tour desk.  The four us met with 2 other Enercon employees visiting from their Spanish operation and our very energetic and extremely knowledgeable guide, Timo. Unfortunately, cameras are not permitted inside the buildings for competitive/security reasons.  I say unfortunately, because the visuals of the production of 55m turbine blades in different stages of manufacture are really quite breathtaking.  This facility produces blades for their 3MW Enercon 121 turbine model, which means that the rotor diameter is 121m.  The hub sits atop towers that are anywhere from 100 to 150m high!   Enercon makes blades for their other turbine sizes in 9 other factories around the world (though 6 of them are in Germany).  Their largest, with blades 70m long sitting on 135m towers crank out an amazing 7.5MW.  One of Enercon’s competitive advantages is that their blades can be “feathered” in high winds (change the pitch) so that they don’t need to be shut down like some competitors’ do (they DO need to be shut down above 30m/s which is storm like).  The generators that sit in the hubs were produced in the next factory over, and the towers and hubs in other facilities in northern Germany.  Enercon bought the local train company outright so they could customise it to get their blades to the port 45km away.  This business is not for the faint of heart!
The factory is massive, of course, and was a hive of activity.  Blade manufacture is still done almost entirely by humans.  In this case, 3 shifts of 300 workers work around the clock, producing 1 blade per shift.  So that is blades for 1 turbine each and every day.  There were about 35 stations that the blades moved through … and at 55m long you can imagine that the task of moving the blades from station to station is not insignificant!  Blades are a combination of fibreglass, resin, and lightweight plywood.  And when spinning at such high velocities, there is no room for error.
Our guide was full of great anecdotes, and quite enjoyed describing his ultimate boss, the Enercon owner/founder, Aloys Wobben.  This fellow is now relinquishing control due to his age, but he is apparently both very laid back on the shop floor (wanders around, just watching and smiling, blending in) and very demanding of his team.  In earlier years he would be working on design issues at home on a Sunday, and when he thought he had a break-through he’d call up his senior team to come over to the house to provide feedback on the new idea.  Telling him that you’re in the middle of Sunday dinner with your family was not an option!
Eventually the tour moved outside and I was able to pull out my camera.

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Different countries have different requirements for the painting of the blades. Germany was 2 red stripes on the tips.
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That's me. Wow!!

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I was impressed by many things on the tour.  But mostly I came to realise how complicated, high tech and large scale (physically) the wind turbine industry is.

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Enercon had just finished construction on this biogas generation facility that fed electricity into its manufacturing plants. The flexible roofs allow gas to collect in the digesters below, and provides a low pressure feed of methane into the electrical generators. Feedstock includes mostly manure and agricultural waste.

From Aurich we continued east across northern Germany … right into an Enercon wind farm!

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Look for me at the bottom of the tower.

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Google maps was actually quite impressive in its ability to find cycling paths. But in a few rare cases like this, the paths got a bit "rustic".
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We were still in the "Frieseland" part of Germany where navigable canals are pervasive.

A full afternoon of canal-side pedalling brought us to near Varel where we camped.  At this point we actually had a “deadline” to arrive at Yvonne’s Aunt and Uncle’s farm in Denmark where they and Yvonne’s mom would be waiting for us.  Sadly, we were out of time for riding in Germany so planned to catch the train across the rest of northern Germany, then north from Lubeck to the tip of the penninsula at Puttgarden where we’d catch a ferry north to Denmark. 

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This would normally be quite straight forward, even though the trip involved 4 different train connections.  However, it became pretty clear to us the next day on our first train leg out of Varel that this was not just any day.  It was Friday afternoon of a weekend with a beautiful forecast!  We could barely move with our bikes  amidst the throngs of travellers at the Oldenburg train station and wondered how we could possibly fit into the next train with our bikes – especially in light of the many other folks standing beside us with their bikes.  At that point a Deutsch Bahn official approached us and asked us if we’d made a booking for our bikes on the intercity train.  No, we hadn’t, and now it was impossible because they were all sold out, and you have to reserve at least 24 hrs in advance. That meant we’d need to take a series of regional trains, and our journey would extend from 7 hrs to 9 hrs, including the many waits at stations.  Lesson learned.  For anyone planning to take bikes on trains in Germany, here’s how it works:
Intercity Express trains: no bikes allowed
Intercity trains: reservations required
Regional trains: no reservation req’d, but sometimes you need to pay for bikes
We arrived in the port of Puttgarden at 9PM and quickly cycled to the ferry terminal to see if we could catch the 9:20 ferry to Denmark.  Just in time.

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For some reason, I really enjoy riding onto car ferries.

The 1hr journey put us into Rødbyhavn Denmark a little later than we’d wanted to be looking for camping (10:30PM), but we were excited to get to Denmark.  Yvonne’s late father Flemming was Danish and her mother Betty is an honourable Dane – she speaks Danish, cooks Danish, thinks Danish, and has visited Denmark probably 40 times.  Yvonne travelled to Denmark almost every summer as a child, and the kids and I have been 4 times, thanks to Yvonne’s Dad’s desire for his family to stay connected to this fantastic part of the world.  Making this all possible over the years was Flemming’s sister Marianne’s wonderful farm 1hr north of Copenhagen where we would stay.  More on that in a later blog entry.
We weren’t really too sure what we could find campsite-wise in the falling darkness, but after 5km of rather random cycling we stumbled into the absolutely perfect freedom campsite – in a little park surrounded by thick forest, with a picnic table to boot!

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Next morning. Not bad, considering we found it in almost dark! We "lowered" the German flag on our safety pole and raised the Danish flag. We all agreed that the Danish flag looks pretty good beside the Canadian flag.

We had about 210km to cycle to the farm, and decided to try to do it in 2 days.  We’d been talking about putting in a really full day to try to beat our best day from Holland, and this seemed to be the day. 

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As soon as we hit the road we knew we’d chosen the right day to ride … we had the wind at our back, and were riding between 25 and 30 km/hr for long stretches of lovely bike path.  Yes, Denmark too has fantastic cycling infrastructure, and Yvonne and I had cycled through Denmark when she was pregnant with Kaia and knew we’d be treated to highway-side paths all the way.

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A rare stretch without path. But in Denmark wind turbines are ubiquitous. Denmark boasts the highest percent of wind power in a national grid - now up to 25%! They started 25 years ago through something like Germany's later Feed In Tariff. That said, wind power is still somewhat controversial in Denmark (they treasure their aesthetic agrarian heritage) and the country has fairly recently decided to focus almost all their new wind developments off shore.
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With cycling speeds up to 30 km/hr, Kaia thought it was important to beef up little Galdis's safety protocol. He is strapped in now with a helmet and has a reflective chest harness.
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We weren't the only ones logging lots of km this day. We saw two big groups go by - all with similar jerseys.
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A Danish femail man.
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If truth be known, the thing we were most looking forward to in getting back to Denmark was the bakeries. Dutch ones were great. German amazing. Danish? Out of the park! We had our budgetary priorities clearly established by this point on the cycle tour - spend as little as possible on accommodation (we're only there for a few hours anyway) so we could go nuts at the bakeries. And its not too often that you can happily ignore calorie counts (6 or more hrs of riding!)
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I'm glad this 3km long bridge had a dedicated cycle lane!

Yvonne had popped a spoke the day before and it became apparent that we had to have it fixed, but didn’t want to lose too much time on our record distance attempt day.  A very obliging guy in a bike shop in Vordingsborg fixed it for free while we dined on sandwiches at the edge of the supermarket parking lot, then away we went.

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Our route north to Køge passed along the east coast for a while.

We’d done 60 km by lunch, and were feeling pretty good until we hit a really hilly and side-windy section of about 20 km. Record-setting was in doubt until things levelled out again and we got the speed back up.  We watched our previous best of 104 km roll by with a whoop, then 110, and cruised into Køge on the coast at 120.  But by the time we’d cycled around the port, found dinner, and another freedom campsite, the odometer looked like below.

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I was proud of my family. Before our trip, the kids had never done more than 38km. And now this with loads. They were really tired but not complaining.

We’d actually decided to take a campsite that night to charge our google map-enabled phone, but they wanted about $40 for a little piece of grass.  We all agreed that we could probably get enough charge into the phone during a bakery stop the next morning :), so we headed to another urban forest.

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You'd never know that we were in a pretty decent sized town. We rolled the bikes through some forest paths for a couple of hundred metres and here we were.

We got an early start the next day because we still had a long way to go and wanted to arrive in time for dinner at the farm.  It was a fairly non-descript sort of day/ride, though I very clearly remember our lunch – that we made on a table just outside a fabulous bakery (OK, yes, I’m obsessed …).  We cycled north past the western outskirts of Copenhagen and finally hit recognisable turf in the city of Hillerød.  Aside from having all the great attributes of Danish towns (like walking streets, cycle shops and bakeries), Hillerød is known for Frederiksborg castle built on top of the ruins of a 1500s castle during the early 1600s by Danish King Christian IV.

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Frederiksborg Castle. We'd visited the castle on a previous trip so we cycled past.

We were pretty excited at this point.  We had but 25km of cycling left to reach the farm, and we knew it was all through a large beautiful (Gribskov) forest.  The well-marked gravel paths would take us right to the farm gate, and we knew the last few km very well.

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Bike route 33 - Hillerød to the beach at Gilleleje, right past the destination of "Gyldenlund" (Mariana and Borge's farm).
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I really loved these trails, but the very steep little hills were killers with the heavy trailer. I'd been taking pain killers on and off the whole cycle tour because I'd strained my knees trekking in Nepal. As it turns out, I would not have been able to put in another day riding - my knees were done. How's that for timing!
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Bittersweet feelings here for sure. 1700+km of magnificent riding coming to an end. But so looking forward to seeing Betty, Marianne and Børge at Gyldenlund.

We found the tiny path that cuts off the cycle trail towards the farm and all started ringing our bells to announce our arrival.  Børge and chocolate lab Bruno were the 1st out, then Betty and Marianne as we rode the last 100m through their field.  Their farm feels like a 3rd home to us.

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Great to be home!
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from left: Betty, Marianne and Børge.

Earlier in the year’s journey, I had wondered whether our cycle tour through a relatively familiar Europe could hold a candle to the exotic locales of Nepal, Indonesia and Vanuatu.  Of course, they are very different, but the cycling was everything and more than I’d hoped for.  We rode very well as a family and Kaia and Jake really found their legs. We had only 1 flat tire and 1 popped spoke over seven weeks on four bikes.  We ate well.  Yvonne and I drank well. The depth of history and the associated architecture astounded us.  It was wonderful to reconnect with friends we’d met during other journeys.  We were so independent, being able to easily get anywhere we wanted, and because we were willing to freedom camp, we spent no time worrying about or planning where we’d stay each night.  We were outside 98% of the time, including sleeping in our tent all but a few nights.  We were active, and became fit.  But perhaps what stands out the most was the inspiration we all received by the remarkable initiatives the Germans, Dutch and Danes have put in place to help people get out of their cars and on to bicycles.  It truly is a pleasure to cycle in this part of the world.  We included this part of the world in our journey because we wanted to see and document their leadership in sustainable transportation and renewable energy.  I did not get as far as I wanted to in documenting the energy story, in part because of the language gap for me in Germany.  But we were (excuse the tired expression) blown away by the cycling and public transit infrastructure.  After weeks of riding, when we thought we’d seen it all, we’d each day discover new innovations that made our heads race, thinking of possibilities back home.  Yvonne will pick up on this thread in our next entry.
As I write this a full 5 weeks after completing our journey, my knees still keep me off my bike.  But I trust they will heal soon with more rest, and I’m rearing to hit the trails and roads around Peterborough and Haliburton.  Cycling rocks!

Cam

Almost home … what are we looking forward to the most?

About an hour ago, we started coming home.  At 11:30 PM tonight we started a hike up the mountain overlooking Reykjavik.  Sounds like a crazy time to start a hike? We wanted to fully experience the “white nights” here in Iceland on the longest day of the year.  At the top of our hike (1:00 AM), in what felt like broad daylight, we turned to come down, and realised we were now on our way home, after 10 months away.  In fact we’ll be back at my mom’s in Toronto before the day was finished.  Wow.

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Near the top of Mt Esja, Iceland at 1:00AM, June 21st

We had a fantastic dinner in Reykjavik with Yvonne’s mom Betty who has been travelling with us this past week, and we mulled over our year.  Made lots of notes regarding our fave countries, experiences, moments and learning.  And on the suggestion of one of our readers, we reflected on what it was that we’ve missed the most about home … or what it was that we were most looking to coming back to.  It is the wee hours of the morning now, but still so light out.  I thought I’d post some of our thoughts before we arrive back in Canada.  Our blog has been relatively quiet of late.  That’s in part because the never ending light has resulted in … never ending days for us.  Haven’t really slowed down enough lately to sit in front of a keyboard.  But look for lots of updates in the days to come.  And we’re also looking forward to sharing some thoughts on being back at home.
So, here’s what we’re really looking forward to back at home (beyond, of course, seeing family and friends)

Kaia:
– knowing the city well and being able to get around independently (by bike)
– having choices for clothes in the morning
– having some lazy days

Jake:
– having a house to live in
– lazy days

Yvonne:
– speaking the language and knowing the “rules”
– consistent access to clean underwear
– listening to CBC radio

Me:
– having my own kitchen to find food and cook in
– the lake, smells, and activities of the cottage
– working in our vegetable garden
– listening to CBC radio

One thing we’re ALL looking forward to is summer weather.  Germany, Holland and Denmark were mostly quite cool.  No hot days.  Iceland has been downright chilly.  A local remarked to me yesterday how “nice a day” it was, and I appeared a bit puzzled .. it was about 12 degC out, on June 19th.  Then she clarified and said “it’s not raining, and isn’t that windy”.  🙂  Just checked the Peterborough forecast … 25degC here we come!

Cam

Oozing green in Freiburg

We “landed” at Yvonne’s aunt and uncle’s fabulous farm in Denmark a few days back after our longest cycling days of the trip. Our days have been more relaxed of recent. Our bicycles were sold yesterday and we are off to Iceland this Sunday. Yvonne’s mom Betty joined us at the farm and will travel with us through Iceland. We arrive back in Canada June 21st, in time for Kaia to attend her graduation. Yes, clearly that’s a bit cheeky 🙂 It really does feel like we’re coming home, now. Bittersweet for sure.

You will find what is perhaps my most ambitious blog entry of the year below. If you don’t know me well, you will see below that I am passionate about sustainable energy, transportation and urban planning. That is my excuse for the detailed entry. People have from time to time asked us about the intent of this blog. There are many intents. The driving motivation behind this entry however is to share with anyone who is willing to read, the exceptional leadership shown by Freiburg. We, especially in North America, have SO much to learn from cities like Freiburg if we hope to divest ourselves from fossil fuels as politicians around the world are now (and finally) agreeing with scientists that we must do.
Cam

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For those who follow clean tech (green energy, electric cars, etc) and sustainable urban design, Freiburg Germany is rather iconic.  It has entire neighborhoods that are energy producers, and it is home to solar module manufacturing and extensive solar PV research. Cycle and transit use is very high.  This was an obvious destination for our cycle tour, and we were pleased to learn that it was beside the Black Forest which we had also been looking forward to visiting.  Also enticing was the city’s well known old time charm; it was founded in the year 1120 and boasts numerous walking streets.  Although heavily bombed in WWII, the city has rebuilt the downtown core and instead of widening streets for cars, many downtown streets were built just wide enough for trams, bikes and pedestrians.

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A little bit of history is very helpful to understand how this city of 200,000 has progressed so far environmentally.  During the 1970s, a nuclear reactor was proposed about 20km outside of the city.  Germany, like much of the world in the 1970s, was waking up to the bleak global environmental reality, and in particular to the challenges of nuclear power.  A huge public outcry over the reactor took hold in Freiburg and was ultimately successful in stopping it’s construction. 

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Images courtesy of the Innovation Academy

Perhaps even more important than the actual prevention of the reactor though was the political coming of age of Freiburg’s citizenry.  They had discovered their voice, and there was no turning back.  Politicians in Freiburg know now that they must listen to their constituents. Freiburg is what it is because of strong and ongoing grassroots interest.  And because of its very progressive Green Party mayor who has been elected to a second 8 year term.  Alas, democracy is alive and mostly well in Freiburg.  I say this with more than a little envy and resentment after watching just the opposite sort of political (un)accountability unfold in my home town of Peterborough in past years.

The movement away from nuclear energy forced Freiburg residents to answer the “if not nuke then what?” question head-on, and in doing so their commitment to renewable energy  and energy efficiency was born.  Years later, acid rain in the Black Forest from coal produced electricity production and growing concern about climate change strengthened their resolve.  Then along came the national government’s very aggressive green energy policies of the early 2000s and solar power exploded in Freiburg.

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courtesy Innovation Academy

We were very lucky to have connected with some Warm Showers hosts in Freiburg.  Upon arrival in town we immediately cycled over to Peter and Sabina’s flat.  Peter is a transplanted Brit who has traveled the world many times over as a publisher of English as second language learning resources.  His partner Sabina was born in Bremen Germany but grew up in California and now teaches English at the University in Freiburg.  They’ve been in Freiburg for about 5 years now, and open their home to passing cycle tourists through the warm showers network.  Peter gave us a fantastic walking tour of the nearby neighbourhoods.  He understood our particular interest in sustainable urban design so was able to illuminate some fantastic stories that have unfolded in Freiburg.

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This house just down the street was built a few decades ago with a goal of becoming energy neutral. Most solar PV is fixed to rooftops. Some PV panels in fields are mounted on "trackers" that move to follow the sun through the day and the seasons. This house actually rotates to follow the sun! Perhaps it isn't the ultimate solution for residential energy, but certainly is a clear indication of the culture of innovation in Freiburg.
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This "Heliotrope" is a more modern Freiburg version of the house above and is in fact a net energy producer.
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Next to the rotating house is this one - with solar thermal (hot water) and solar PV (electricity). This rooftop was a common sight.

We walked through the district of Vauban which was built in the 1990s on old military barack land.  This area features 3 story blocks of flats that share ample green spaces in lieu of private yards. 

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This shared green space features of all things a wood-fired bread oven!

Cars are not allowed in the neighbourhood. Instead, there are parking garages in the surrounding areas.  But because Vauban is directly connected to town with a frequent tram line, and because Freiburg’s cycling infrastructure is so well developed, most Vauban residents (many with families) choose not to purchase cars.  In fact, car ownership (per capita) is only half of the German average.

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The tram runs right through the center of Vauban
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Cars from the city's car sharing program (stadtmobile - "citycar") are allowed to park in Vauban and are well used. Proponents of the car share program are aware that a very large portion of a car's carbon footprint stems from the materials and energy from manufacture, so reducing the number of cars being used is important. Members of the carshare program are given free transit passes and half price tickets on intercity trains.
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While Canadian cities are just starting to get their heads around car sharing, Freiburg is promoting their "E-car" sharing program. Ha!
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This is the scene in front of one of the Vauban kindergarten/daycares. I think the parked "vehicles" speak volumes.
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This school bus holds about 6 little kids.
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The local public school. Green roof over a very well used bike/scooter shelter. Not bad!

Many of the rooftops in Vauban were covered with solar panels (thermal and PV) and most of the neighbourhood buildings get their heat and electricity from a biomass-fed combined heat and power plant.  This approach of using the “waste” heat from electricity production produces fantastic efficiency results.

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Vauban combined heat and power (electricity) plant. It uses 80% wood chips and 20% natural gas. Heat from the plant is carried underground to the buildings; individual buildings do not have their own furnaces. Photo from the net.

Peter emphasized that Vauban’s sustainable approaches did not happen overnight.  Instead the moves forward underwent extensive and rancorous debate and ultimate compromise between different views and interests.  But importantly the citizens had a meaningful voice throughout.

Adjacent to Vauban is the “Solar Settlement” and Peter toured us through this neighbourhood too.  This community generates more electricity than it uses, and the rooftops in the photos below leave no doubt about how this is accomplished.

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This commercial area is also energy positive. Just as importantly, it demonstrates the compact, mixed us design where residential, retail and commercial land uses are mixed to minimize the need for transportation.

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You can see the commercial/retail (in front) located adjacent the residential (behind). From the net.

One of Peter’s passions is wine.  Perhaps the Brits are not well known for their distinguishing tastes of fine wine, but Peter knows his wines and sits as a volunteer advisor on ensuring continued success for local Frieburg vineyards.

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Freiburg's other little claim to fame in Germany is that it boasts the most "urban" vineyards. This one is a stone's throw from Peter and Sabina's flat.

Peter also volunteers with high school youth at risk and had a meeting with them that afternoon so we thanked him for the tour then set off on our own to discover Freiburg’s downtown.  Many things struck us about the downtown, but one thing stood out more than any other:

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bicycle share program

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Freiburg’s transportation plan explicitly aims to improve mobility while reducing auto traffic and benefitting the environment.  Wow …. a transportation plan that explicitly sets out to reduce automobile traffic!!  The plan also clearly prioritizes environmentally and health friendly modes such as walking, cycling and transit.  Finally, we had arrived at the city we set to find in our German cycling adventure.  Cycling lanes and covered bike parking abounded.  Trams and busses were going by at all times in all directions – usually with lots of folks inside.  Beautiful walking streets were packed with shoppers, walkers and diners.  The city was intentionally planned to be compact so that it was both a) not far from anywhere to anywhere and b) had sufficient density of people to make the investments in transit and cycling infrastructure economical.  We would learn the next day of an amazing transit pass, too.  We were all smiles as we were surrounded at each intersection by other cyclists.  And they were cyclists of all sorts, shapes and dress.  Older folks.  Kids.  Suits, dresses, jeans, chic 30-something get ups, and only a small amount of lycra.  Bikes typically were not fancy.  Many just 1 speed (Freiburg is pretty flat, though).  But almost all had the European styled wrap around handlebars. 

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Our straight-bar mountain bikes were certainly not earning any style points against these beauties!

We will have much more to say about cycling cities in later blog entries when we share what we saw and learned in Amsterdam, Groningen and Copenhagen.

The big catholic church downtown was breathtaking.  It mostly survived the WWII bombings.

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These are all wood carvings above the main entrance.

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McDonalds ... really!?
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Doner shops ("donairs" in Canada) are ubiquitous in Germany. That's just fine from our perspective.

Freiburg actually has created a self guided “green tour” so we set off on our bikes to take in a few sights with what remained of our afternoon.

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Solar research institute at the university.
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I am standing in front of 13 stories of "building integrated" solar PV at the train station.

One of the stops we didn’t get to was the large football (soccer) stadium whose roof is literally covered in solar panels.  This idea apparently came from the football club itself, and fans who donated money to cover the cost got 1st dibs on (limited) seasons tickets. 

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Freiburg football stadium.

Wow.  Similarly, many university roof-tops are covered in panels that were financed through a scheme that allowed profs, staff and students alike to be share holders in the green energy venture. Another innovation in Freiburg is the solarization (is that a word?) of the full (and closed) landfill site.
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In addition to a heavy dose of solar energy, Freiburg draws from six wind turbines. This part of Germany gets more sun and less wind than northern Germany, but the community wanted to increase its renewable portfolio, and these turbines are actually communally owned (citizens invest and receive energy producer dividends).
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With our heads buzzing with inspiration we cycled back to Sabina and Peter’s to find dinner ready to go on their backyard wood BBQ.  Drinks, salad and sausages went down so well over some great conversation with these very engaging hosts.

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They have a lovely terrace with a garden shed (that Kaia and Yvonne slept in) above and behind their building.
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Kaia and Jake impressed our hosts with their refined culinary skills ... that is golden brown roasted marshmallows. Sabina understands North American campfire culture and had the marshmallows ready to go.
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This is the heating system for Peter and Sabina's building. It is actually a small scale combined heat and power system. They generate their own electricity (from natural gas) then use the waste heat from the generator to heat the air and water for their building. These small but VERY efficient systems are promoted through Germany's Feed in Tariff program and are becoming increasingly popular in Germany. I had never seen one before.

The next morning brought some pretty awful continuous rain so we enjoyed our comfortable surroundings with our hosts and got caught up on some blogging.  We were very relieved to see the weather break because our green tour in the afternoon was on bicycle.  We had contacted the “Innovation Academy” the day before because we had learned they knew very well the green ins and outs of Freiburg.  I don’t think they had ever been contracted by a family before, but they were more than happy to share their wisdom … for not an insignificant price.  The first part of the tour was actually a 40 minute PowerPoint overview of the city’s initiatives and some stats on their successes.

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In this slide Steffen from the Innovation Academy is showing us the exponential growth of solar PV in Freiburg.
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These figures are impressive from a North American point of comparison. Recent stats were just about to be released that had the modal share of cycling even higher, and auto use lower.
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The city's carbon reduction goals are notably more ambitious than national and international levels. And unlike Canada, they actually have reached their interim goal, even though their population grew significantly!

The presentation was actually excellent, and Steffan kindly gave me a pdf copy to use in my teaching.  He touched on energy, transportation, planning and waste management, all of which Freiburg excels at.

We then headed outside to meet our cycling tour guide Luciano.  Luciano is involved in many aspects of sustainability planning and was able to take us to key representative sites around the city to better appreciate the strategies.

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Luciano. Born in Chile he had lived in Luxembourg and now makes his home in Freiburg
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We started at the main transportation center, where tram, train, bus and cycles converge, to allow for easy transfer between these modes. In this photo, bus on left, train tracks on right, and tram runs across above. Huge cycle garage is just out of sight to the right.
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City tram riders connect on these stairs to the regional (commuter) and inter city trains.
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You need to have an electronic access card to get into this secure, dry, and multi story parking garage.
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Yes, this goes right around in a circle ... on two floors!!!
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OK, this one is pretty hard core ....
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Luciano is telling us about the city's transit pass. For about 50 Euro ($60 Cdn) per month, you can travel on any mode of public transit within the city and within a 60km radius of the city, 7 days/week. Equally impressive is that the card is transferable - you can hand it (legally) to your friend or family member to use at any time. Clearly, Freiburg is serious about helping people to get out of their cars!
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This old bridge is adjacent the transportation hub. 1st tram, then car, now VERY busy cycling bridge.
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This very visible counter measures bike traffic across the bridge above and the corresponding amount of CO2 reduced by not driving (some assumptions have been made, obviously). Simple math suggests that there are, averaged for the entire year, 3000 trips/crossings per day!
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The four of us have at times really struggled with our bikes up and down stairs - especially when they are loaded. These simple enhancements made a big difference. Put your tires in and then roll .....
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Cycle route signs are ubiquitous in Freiburg (and most of Germany, for that matter). As tourists they were SO helpful.

Luciano then changed the focus of the transportation story to road design.  Like North American cities, Freiburg’s urban planning catered to cars in the 50s and 60s.  But over the past few decades planners have changed the profile and nature of many of Freiburg’s streets to decenter the cars and provide for safe walking and cycling.

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Notice that ultimately bicycles are being separated from pedestrians (these collisions can be serious too) and that four lanes give way to two, with on-street parking. This model is being used around town, but is not universal or without its critics.
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Many cycling accidents happen at intersections so it is important to clearly delineate bike lanes here. Notice that even in this rather wide street profile, only two lanes are dedicated to auto traffic.
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Here is one street about 50 years ago.
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Here is the same street today. Cars are allowed to drive only up to the same speed as bicycles (30km/hr). Trees were added, and sidewalks widened. Less road space for driving. Traffic has been calmed

When most people think about “greening” the energy system, they think of renewables like solar, wind, hydro and biomas. But the “low hanging fruit” of green energy is not energy production, but energy conservation and efficiency (that is, it is cheaper to save energy than build new generating capacity). Freiburg has been REALLY ambitious in both retrofitting the old building stock and creating very high efficiency standards for all new buildings. Through incentives/subsidies entire neighbourhoods have been insulated, windows upgraded, air leaks sealed etc. The poster child for Freiburg’s retrofitting though is a very nondescript apartment building in the Weingarten district from the 1960s.

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This apartment had become so run down and energy inefficient that it was slated for demolition. But energy specialists stepped in and used it as a demonstration project for efficiency. The building was gutted and heating/cooling systems and windows replaced. Heat from the sun (passive gain) was maximized. The building is now very popular among the lower income tenants of the area because utility costs are so cheap.

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All this listening and cycling was hard work 🙂 Time for Bavaria's best snack - a fresh pretzel! (OK, Jake will no doubt remind me that Freiburg is NOT in Bavaria ... but they still serve up pretzels here)
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This combined heat and power plant (CHP) was built to service the retrofitted apartment building and other neighbourhood buildings.
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Most of these energy standards are national standards. You can see the tightening of expectations through time. But note that Freiburg's standards are now notably tighter than the national average, and that in fact the newest standards have houses producing or otherwise gaining (through glass) as much energy as they consume. Wow.

The final focus of our green tour was urban planning. Progressive cities the word over recognize that it is smart for reasons economical, environmental and quality of life to plan compact cities where people can live, shop, and work without having to get in their cars. Connections to the city center are provided by frequent transit. Sometimes referred to as “New Urbanism”, these medium density neighbourhoods typically feature retail on the ground floor, commercial on the next floor, and then two or three floors of residential. Green spaces are shared. We all had a big but dark chuckle during the initial PowerPoint presentation when Steffen was explaining this concept. To help us understand, his presentation showed international photos of the opposite to compact design, and up came sprawling Toronto! Any of the newer subdivisions in my city of Peterborough could easily be substituted. Steffen then remembered we were Canadian and apologized. That’s OK Steffen … no apologies necessary.

We had visited Vauban earlier with Peter, so with Luciano we went to the newer neighbourhood of Reiselfeld. Whereas Vauban emerged through a rather messy, citizen driven process, Reiselfeld was planned by the city government.

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Note that the tram was constructed at the outset, and that virtually all residents live within 400m of the tram.

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The tram in Reiselfeld. Freiburg (or maybe someone else?) discovered that trams are much quieter when they run over grass. Luciano had us listen to the difference as the tram moved from grass over a road then back onto grass. Wow!!

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Reiselfeld's main intersection. It's a bit hard to see in this photo but there are cafes, restaurants, grocery stores, hardware stores etc etc all along the street level. And of course ... there is a bicycle shop!

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The residents above this large grocery store don't need to worry about borrowing eggs from the neighbour. Food is only steps away.

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Cycling is such a great way to do a city tour. It is so easy to get around, things pass in slow motion, and it is easy to stop and chat along the way.

One of the key aspects of this neighbourhood design is the concept of shared public spaces. Instead of people having their own private yards (discourages interactions), green spaces are shared. There is enough room for being social and for quiet contemplation. Apparently this is one of the main reasons for residents reporting very high levels of quality of life.
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Jake was happy to not have cycle bags on the back of his bike when we discovered this bmx/skateboard park.
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There are fabulous play structures tucked into this playground.

Not surprisingly, residents of Reiselfeld are keen to take advantage of the ample sun in this part of Germany.

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Notice the use of green roofs here. Green roofs dramatically reduce heating and cooling needs, reduce storm runoff and help keep neighbourhoods cool.

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Vacuum tube solar thermal (hot water).

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Unlike Vauban where cars are kept to the outside perimeter, the approach used in Reiselfeld is to have residents share the transportation corridors. Speed limits are kept to 30 km/hr. From our experience of 60 minutes riding around, this approach seemed to work very well. That said, car ownership and use within Reiselfeld is well below national averages.
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This rather innocuous photo has very important symbolic value. Planners in Freiburg recognize that "hard" city limits are needed - to protect forests, wetlands and farm fields, but also to discourage the sort of urban sprawl that is rampant in North American cities. We are on the outside boundary of Reiselfeld, gazing across the city limit. Land on the other side is protected from development. This hard boundary was difficult to negotiate politically, but apparently citizen voices in Freiburg carried the day against low density developers' lobby. Yes, I am envious.

Vending machines in Canada usually sell candy, chips, or soft drinks. We were disappointed to see many cigarette vending machines through much of the rest of Germany. But what is sold out of vending machines in Reiselfeld?

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Yes - bicycle tubes, to keep people on the road. The different colours represent different wheel size and thicknesses. OK ... I am NOT in Canada!

And so ended our green tour with Luciano. He knew his city, knew the environmental story, and was an excellent communicator. It was SUCH a rich 3 hours we spent with our two Innovation Academy hosts.

All four of us were pretty wound up after this tour, and were again buzzing with stories and questions when we arrived back at Peter and Sabina’s to make our Mexican dinner. Freiburg hosts an incredible “density” of sustainable living and if you have managed to read all the way to this point (I doubt it!) you can appreciate that we are now full of ideas and many real examples to share with our Peterborough community and any other that is interested.
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Thanks for your leadership, Freiburg!

Cam

The Beckoning Bavarian Alps

We leave Holland tomorrow, to return to Germany at its northwest corner via ferry. Holland has been an AWESOME ride!

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OK, how many of you knew that Germany had some gorgeous alpine topography?  I didn’t.  Of course, we know  of the Alps in Austria, Switzerland, Italy and France.  But Germany has its own little piece of this great feature.  We wanted to visit Freiburg in southwest Germany because of its exemplary green infrastructure and planning, and wanted to visit some friends in Zurich, Switzerland (on Germany’s southern border), so decided to head to the south of Germany to see the famed Neuschwanstein castle and to do some hiking.

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We cycled two days from Munich to Schwangau in southern Germany.

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As Jake mentioned, we spent another half day in Munich to take in more of the down town atmosphere.  By the time we got back and packed up our stuff at Gotz and Liza’s, it was 3PM which is not an ideal time to start a cycling day.  Getting out of a city the size of Munich on bicycles is not much fun, even when there is an OK bike path.  So many stop lights, so much traffic, and the path is always jumping between road and sidewalk.  It took us the better part of 2 hrs before we were again amongst the green fields that we so enjoy cycling in.  I, in particular, also continued my admiration of the extent to which rooftop solar PV had been deployed on homes and barns.  I will do a separate blog entry later to explain why and how Germany has made such astounding progress towards a renewable electricity portfolio.

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We saw a few of these bike-mail carriers. Easy for them to stop and get in and out, especially on narrow streets.

A pastry stop (crucial part of our afternoon routine), a few water breaks and 55km later, we found ourselves riding beside the lovely Ammersee (“see” is a lake).  The campground we’d set our sights on didn’t accept tenters, so we had to scramble a bit because it was now 8PM.  We ride very well in the later afternoon and early evening it seems (fewer distractions and we become more goal focused!) so often find ourselves still going at this time.  We ended up finding an outdoor ed. center right on the lake and got permission to camp in their fire pit area.  The manager’s son had gone to the teacher of the intermediate level class staying overnight to seek her approval.  What a different world.  I can’t imagine in Ontario a manager even considering asking for permission.  A bunch of strangers camping 100m from the class? Not a chance.

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Kids taking advantage of a few minutes of downtime and a picnic table to blog while Yvonne and I set up the tent and made dinner in the fading light.

Until this point in our cycling we had not really encountered anything like a serious hill.  That was to change the next day.  We use google map cycling routes almost exclusively to find our way, and one of the nice features of these routes is that you can see the elevation profile

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This is the 1.5 day route we followed. Note the 2nd half had us climbing about 300 vertical meters.

Climbing on a bicycle does not need to be unpleasant.  But we have all our gear on our bikes, which changes the picture notably. The kids have full bike paniers (bags on the back rack) plus sleeping bags tied on.  None of our empty bikes are light.  Yvonne has heavier bags and our tent.  And everything else is in my trailer which probably weighs about 50 pounds.  So hill climbing was a challenge.  I was so impressed with how Kaia and Jake did.  Some hills were very steep up for maybe 20 minutes at a time, and nobody got off their bike to walk.  I was flat out in effort at one point, just trying to get the next pedal stroke.

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Hard do see here, but this was actually pretty steep.

A sense of accomplishment was enjoyed and you can imagine how well the post-hills pastry break went down that afternoon!

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Typical lunch stop. Sandwiches are the usual fare.

The ride from the top of the hill in to Schwangau was lovely – flatish, great bike paths, and ever-growing mountain views.

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Kaia's little Orangutan "Galdis" was really enjoying the fading afternoon light.
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This farmer's field turns into a little ski hill.
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We stumbled onto this magnificent 450 yr old church in the tiny settlement of Steingaden. Clearly the congregation must come from the countryside. That said, it was explained to us that the Catholic churches are struggling with declining numbers and are having to close some churches. Every one we stepped into was magnificently ornate and well kept.

Our typical routine approaching dinner would be to look for a supermarket an hour or so before our planned stopping point.  We’d buy dinner ingredients and make sure we had enough for breakfast  – sort of a “just on time” approach to avoid carrying too much food. Our campsite on the Bannwaldsee was typical of German campsites.  It was geared 90% towards long time trailer leases, and 9% towards short term camper/caravan travelers.  The last 1% was tenters like us, and there was only 1 other tent among the hundreds of trailers.  We really miss not having a picnic table at these campgrounds, but are rather blown away by the other camping amenities.  Like in this case the very clean and large bathrooms and showers, laundry room with a drying room, dish washing up room, little store, outdoor patio, huge party/event room (beer hall) and full restaurant.

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Still early in the camping season, most trailer leaseholders had not yet arrived so we poached one of their picnic tables for meals.
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This Bavarian beer tasted like Hell.
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Sunset over the Bannwaldsee.

We had been lamenting since starting cycling that our trailer was too full.  After food shopping, the cover would barely fit on.  So next morning we spread all our things out on the grass and made a pile of what we now knew to be non essential things.

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A trip to the post office was next in line, and about 7kg of stuff was on its way to Canada.
  
Neuschwanstein castle was only 2km away from the village of Schwangau and the approach to the castle is outstanding.  This castle is best known for being the inspiration for Walt Disney’s castle.

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The castle was built by Bavarian King Ludwig II starting in 1868.  Unlike other Kings of this area/era, he did it with his own (well, mostly borrowed) money – instead of public money.  He really was building his “summer house”, after all.  Ludwig had travelled widely and incorporated architecture from other European castles, and honoured other religions and world architecture in huge murals inside.  Ludwig started staying in the partially finished castle in 1884 but by this time had borrowed huge sums of money and become quite a reclusive King.  In 1886 parliament sent a posse to arrest him (he was apparently no longer “fit” to govern, though was later found to be not the case in hindsight), and they brought him back to Munich.  The next day his body along with the body of his chief “arrestor” were found dead in a nearby lake.  This mystery apparently has never been solved.  Sadly, all this after Ludvig spending only 112 nights in the castle that he had poured his pockets, heart and mind into for 2 decades.
Immediately following his death, the Bavarian government finished the castle and opened it up to paying guests and tens of millions of visitors have now been through.  Apparently, during the summer, as many as 6000 go through in a single day!
Even on our day in mid-May, it was busy.  You purchase tickets for very specific entry times, and your group is guided through together.  Our entry time was 1.5 hours after ticket purchase.  That was OK though, as it gave us the necessary time to hike the road up to the castle and to take the walk to “Marienbrucke” which is a bridge over the rather spectacular gorge adjacent the castle.

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Marienbrucke

No photos are allowed inside during the castle tour, as this would make it difficult for the guide to keep people moving.  This is unfortunate because the inside of the castle is at least as impressive as the outside.  One huge gallery room with a stage is devoted to Richard Wagner whom Ludvig greatly admired.  It looks like it was built so the King could be entertained by various musicians; in fact, he would just enter alone and imagine Wagners’ operas being performed.  Yes, he was a tad ecentric.
Ludvig II loved this area because he spent his summers as a boy in the neighbouring and equally impressive Hohenschwangau castle.  This castle too is open to visitors.

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From Neuschwanstein, looking towards the sister Hohenschwangau castle.
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Hohenschwangau castle.

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I wasn’t sure what to make of the Neuschwanstein castle before visiting.  It had a lot of hype.  And the Disney connection didn’t exactly sell it.  But I have to say, it was VERY impressive.  The setting, the furnishing and the rather dreamlike overall architecture set it apart.

En route back to the campground we came across an outdoor BBQ chicken seller.  Our Munich bike tour guide Tony said that the quintessential Bavarian dinner was a half chicken.  And we had no food (Sunday) so …

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When in Rome ...

I noted a poster on a wall for a traditional folk concert at one of the close by churches.  My family wanted to stay put for the evening so I headed off on my bike for a short trip to the church.

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The church has a pretty spectacular setting at the foot of the Alps!

The concert by the MarianSingers was a mix of duets, small ensembles, and my favorite – a group of 8 men doing yodelling harmony.  Brilliant!  Equally impressive was the inside of this catholic church.

The following day we set off for the Bavarian Alps.  They rise  up dramatically from the farming plains, and the access point for a hike up was only 2km from our campsite. 

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Our objective is the top of this mountain. If you look carefully you can see the cable car tower.

I had spoken to a tourist info person the day before and learned that there was a rather dramatic route up the face of the mountain.  She said as long as we were strong hikers with very good footwear we ought to be OK.  We’d have to hold on carefully to the cables that were strung up.  The kids liked the sound of this so away we went.

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The trail got pretty steep pretty fast.

Not too far into the hike we came across some rather disconcerting signs.  There were warnings in German with signs of rocks falling on people’s heads (you’re supposed to wear a helmet, apparently) and other pictures showing how to fasten your harness and repelling gear for safe movement up and down cliff faces.  We were part way up the mountain already.  And I distinctly remembered the tourist info woman saying we could do it.  So we pressed on, figuring this was the management’s way of dodging legal problems if someone gets into trouble.

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Look way way up ... and the little dots are hikers further along our trail. At least we knew others were on the trail!
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I zoomed way in to see their trail, and was not pleased to see the ladder.
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The cables were reassuring, and the views were really starting to open up.
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We were camping on the lake on the right.

At one point, which was about half way up the mountain, I looked up not too far and saw a couple of people hanging off their ropes on a large vertical face that had only little iron nails sticking out for hands and feet.  Shortly after we came around a corner and saw a ladder that went up vertically for about 20 ft.  At this point I figured we had made a big mistake.  So I asked a guy hiking behind me “do we have to go up that way?”  He assured me that yes, it was the only way.  Hmmm.  But then a few moments later another guy came up and said that if we continued around the bend the regular path continued – the ladders and cliff face were only for those with climbing equipment. The first guy then apologized and said “sorry, I’ve never done this hike before”.  WHAT?  You’ve never done the hike before and you assured a family with youngish kids that they’d have to hang off a vertical face?  Thanks, buddy!
Phew.  I finally realized that this hike would turn out well.  We were all enjoying the steep trail with the cables.

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This was the last section of trail.

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Most people get to the top of the mountain in this cable car. We'd decided we'd ride it down.

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One last pitch to the top. Most of these hikers were on their way down following a more gentle ski slope.
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View from the top, looking north into Bavaria. At this point we were only a couple of km from the northern Austria border.

We enjoyed lunch at the top.  We really felt like we’d earned it (1 vertical km up) and had enjoyed the rather spectacular trail.  Good thing there was a restaurant at the top, though. It was a holiday and EVERYTHING is closed on Sundays and holidays in Bavaria.  So we couldn’t buy groceries for the day down below.   Once again I was amused and rather amazed by the steady stream of 0.5L and 1L  beer steins that were being downed by just about every other guy up there.  And it was only about 5 or 10 degC and they were all sitting outside! 
The view back into the Austrian Alps was fabulous and I was drooling looking at the hiking map with trails galore from peak to peak and hut to hut.  But most of the high mountains were still under snow so going further was not really an option.

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The final part of our hike up, as seen from the cable car.
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A different set of spirally switchbacks. This is the luge/toboggan run set up under the cable car.
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Just had to try it ! Kaia and Jake are being towed up ahead of Yvonne.

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I was pleasantly surprised at how fast you can get going in these things.  Whihoo!

From the cable car base we cycled about 8km into the neighbouring and larger town of Fussen.

Fussen is one of Germany’s oldest towns and dates from the period of the Roman Empire.  Several of the churches date back to the 800s.  It was on the trade route between Italy and the Roman provincial capital now known as Augsburg.  It was a delight to walk around that evening.  Huge, ornate churches abound, and the city has an extensive walking district full of cafes, bakeries and outdoor seating.

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Fussen, courtesy of the net.

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Read the blue lettering on the window carefully. Ha!

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Dinner that night was at the most scrumptious Greek restaurant.  I’m not sure what I liked more – the savory flavours or the medieval town ambience & architecture of the restaurant.
After a very full day we set off on our bikes again to return to our campground.

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I was quite enamored with this firewood holder.
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Speaking of firewood ... rural Germany depends to a very large degree on wood for heating. Almost every farm we saw from bike paths had large wood supplies from their carefully managed forests.

Cam

Frankfurt was a pain in the butt

I am typing this blog from my seat on the train from Füssen in southern Germany to Zürich, Switzerland.  I have a table, electricity and a wonderful view out my window (though it’s cold and raining).  We’ve cycled about 550km so far – it’s been wonderful.
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Yes, Frankfurt was exactly that – a pain in the butt.  But through no fault of its own.
We booked the airline tickets for this trip back in July last year.  I had been thinking about Germany since then, and in particular thinking about Frankfurt, because that was the only place I knew for sure that we would visit (that’s where our flight from Abu Dhabi landed).  I knew we would be there for at least a couple of days, because we needed to buy bicycles for our cycle touring.  And we weren’t exactly sure when our parcel from Canada with our cycling gear would arrive, so that might make us wait.  We had packed a large box back in August with cycling shorts, shirts, gloves, racks, paniers (bags that attach to racks), lights etc. and left it with friend Javier.  We needed an address in Frankfurt for Javier to send the parcel to so used the “warm showers” network to locate someone. Warm Showers is a network of cyclists who open their homes to other cycle tourists passing through their town – for a place to stay, perhaps a meal, shower etc.  The expectation is if you use the network for a place to stay, you open up your home in return.  Javier mailed our parcel via surface back in early March, so we were hopeful it would be there when we arrived.
First impressions of Frankfurt were excellent.  Within moments of arriving at the airport from Abu Dhabi we found ourselves on a bus from the airport to the city center.  From there we immediately caught a train north about 10 stops, and walked less than 400m to the city’s one campground and had our tent set up – all in about 90 minutes from the airport.  So far, so good.  Next day we set out to buy bicycles.  We wanted to buy 2nd hand, but there were no 2nd hand shops, and the buy-sell happened on the weekend with hit and miss availability (and apparently these are mostly stolen bikes anyway).  So we headed off to “Stadler” bike shop.  It was HUGE!

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It was quite overwhelming, I have to admit. There were probably more than 300 bikes in the shop, and an equivalent amount of other cycle paraphernalia.

We were there for about 4 hours but in the end settled on 4 bikes and a large cycle trailer.  We were pleased with the purchases – we spent about $350 Cdn (including some missing racks, upgraded tires ..) for each bike, and  hopefully will get about $250-300 back for each when we sell them in Copenhagen after 7 weeks of riding.  $100 each for 7 weeks transportation …not bad!

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Kaia was pretty happy about her new bike!
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The Stadler shop had a large test track set up, in addition to some large aisles for roaring around on. It made a real difference for getting the feel of different bikes.

We were pretty excited when we left the shop, though we did not take the bikes or trailer with us.  They wanted to make sure the bikes were tuned up and needed to put our more narrow (read “faster”) tires on.
Yvonne had been tracking the progress of our cycling gear box and it had arrived in Germany two days before, and was in the Frankfurt area this day.  We were quite excited to pick up the box the next day then head back to the cycle store to do the final setups then hopefully cycle out of town later that afternoon.  HA!
The night before, it dawned on me that our travel insurance that came with our Airtreks ticket purchase had run out when we left the UAE. So that morning Yvonne bought insurance online and we were back in business.  Later that day a small irritating pimple at the top of the back of my leg started to become increasingly painful.  The trend continued into the next day, and the next, to the point where I knew I needed to see a doctor.  Sitting down on both “cheeks” was no longer an option.  This had happened twice already this trip, and in both instances some prescribed antibiotics fixed things up nicely.  So I figured a quick visit to the hospital to see a doctor, run to the pharmacy and I was good to go.  Doc took one look and said it needed to be lanced.  He wasn’t kidding when he said it would hurt a bit … no freezing … ouch!  Told me to come back the next day to have the dressing changed.  Next day, different doctor, takes one look at it and says “surgery”.  I figured a local, with some freezing.  No … full on, general aesthetic, in 2 hrs time!  You gotta be kidding me!  I came in yesterday for some pills, now am heading to the O.R.  Except I’d just eaten … had to wait 6 hrs.

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Waiting for the operation. My room had a perfect table for the family to blog and play cards on. And Jon Krakauer's "Into Thin Air" (1997 Everest climbing disaster) kept my mind at ease.
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Just about to head to the O.R. This super friendly and nice nurse (I really wish I could remember his name) was from Albania and was asking about nursing in Canada. He was ready for a change, and was fascinated by the thought of a family traveling around for a year.

Surgery went well but they kept me in for that night and the following night.  I noted from other conversations that German hospitals do not seem to be in as much of a rush as Canadian hospitals to discharge their patients.  Before being discharged the doctor asked me what I’d be doing when I got out.  I told him very sheepishly that the plan was to cycle tour.  He winced (big open wound, about 1″ from bicycle seat).  He told me that I’d be a whole lot better off with at least 4 days of no riding.  OK, I will hang around a bit more in Frankfurt while Yvonne and kids set off on the bikes.  Then I’ll train to catch up.

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You can imagine how happy I was to see the outside world again.

Through all this time, we had been trying to locate our package from Canada.  We couldn’t leave without it.  It had arrived at the correct address but because it had my name on it instead of our host’s it was “returned to Canada – recipient does not live at this address”  No!!!!!  To make a very long and exceedingly frustrating story short, we finally found someone who could put their eyes on it, in a depot about 50km from Frankfurt (on its way back to Canada).  He said they could redeliver it.  But after about 15 phone calls, emails and a trip to another depot, we’d given up hope with German Post.  So Yvonne and the kids took two trains out of town and walked 2km through farm fields to reach a post depot in the middle of nowhere.  15kg parcel on Yvonne’s head and they walked back to the train station (the passing tractor driver did not have room for all three of them and the parcel).

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YEA, we finally have our bike stuff!
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Yvonne recalling skills honed in her time in Mozambique. Actually, it was the only way to carry this box any distance.

Next day back to bike store to pick up bikes and do final outfitting.  Now things were getting exciting!

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Putting pedal cages on Jake's new bike.
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In Frankfurt we noted that bicycles are ubiquitous. Even this young woman in her chic business attire is test riding a new bike.

Now fully outfitted for 6 weeks of cycle touring, Yvonne and the kids headed out to ride back to the campground … and moments later got pummeled with hail, while I rode the train back with my bike.  We spent a few hours organizing our stuff … most for the tour, big box ready to mail back to Canada, and another big box with all our backpacks up to the farm near Copenhagen to await our arrival.  About to head to post office, then realized it was a holiday and unlike Canada, virtually EVERYTHING closes.  So Yvonne and the kids set out with their loaded bikes and I headed downtown with my bike to book into a hostel for the evening.  I posted the boxes next day then found a train to catch up to my family who by that time had been riding for two days.

The package and surgery challenges seemed to occupy much of our mental energy and time during our week in Frankfurt, and we felt like we saw virtually none of the city.  We did get to know the WiFi enabled cafes downtown and the cozy ethnic restaurants around the campground quite well (campground had absolutely no cooking facilities – not even a table, so we did not ended up using our camp stove). 

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Apart from our street vendor sausages, this was our first authentic German meal. I know it was authentic because we were surrounded by senior citizens eating the same thing. Sauerkraut rolls with potatoes. YUM!

We struggled a bit in our tent at night – it was still April when we arrived and we awoke to frost several mornings.  We are traveling with light summer sleeping bags so Yvonne and I had a few relatively sleepless nights (not sure how the kids slept through …?)

That aside, Frankfurt is actually a very charming city, with an extensive walking street section downtown and beautiful bike paths all along both sides of the riverfront.  Art, theater and music abound. When the sun even hints at coming out, Frankfurters (sorry … couldn’t resist) flock to the riverside in droves with their picnic blankets, food and especially their beer.

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Walking streets extend for hundreds of meters in both directions and are FULL of people, artists and performers.
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Yes, bicycles everywhere.
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The bicycle taxis are quite high tech and comfortable by the looks of it (better than the "rickshaws" of Kathmandu!)
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What's this store doing in Germany? Well, I guess if they can have Tim Horton's in Dubai ... ?
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We liked this guy's setup - he had a propane tank on his back and a little BBQ hanging in front. We liked even more our first go at German sausages!
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Downtown Frankfurt. Note the walking streets.

Perhaps what impressed us most about the Frankfurt we saw was its public transportation system.  The city proper has a population just a little more than 700,000 but there are 5.5 million in the greater Frankfurt metropolitan area. There are trains coming and going in every direction with multiple transfer stations.  We never waited for more than about 7 minutes for any train, and they accept bicycles.  Trains head way out into the suburbs and neighbouring communities.  Where there are no trains, there are trams.  Where there are no trams, there are buses.  All coordinate beautifully.  For 10 Euro ($12 Cdn) our family could travel all day on any of these modes.  I think the crazy complex spider web of the transit map below gives some sense of how effective it is.

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This transit map shows only trains and trams. Add busses and it gets hard to read!

We drooled over their transit system.  Most people admire the Toronto’s TTC.  And the GTA’s GO system works for many people. But they still pale in comparison to Frankfurt.  Put Frankfurt’s transit system together with the city’s extensive bicycling infrastructure and you understand why we never saw a traffic jam in Frankfurt (I know, we were there only 1 week, and there are no doubt snarls).  We were to many places in town and getting there was a breeze.  Never even considered a taxi.  One of our primary sustainability interests in our Europe segment of this trip is public transit and cycling infrastructure.  We’ll have lots more to say about these ideas in later blog entries.

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This tram served the hospital I was in. It reminded us of the ones in downtown Honk Kong.

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The very first house we saw when we left our campground the first morning had solar panels.

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This was indicative of what we’d encounter throughout Germany.  Roofs across Frankfurt – on homes, factories, commercial and institutional buildings – are adorned with solar PV.  This was no surprise – indeed we decided to come to Germany primarily to see first hand how they have been so successful in rolling out their solar, wind and biogas electrical power.

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This little plug-in electric commuter car was plugged into a solar-sourced charging station downtown.

Our setbacks in Frankfurt were clearly “first world” problems.  After all, it was here that we learned of the Nepalese earthquake.  But our trip thus far had been so much without hitches, we did feel we were spinning our wheels.  Or in this particular case, NOT spinning our wheels.  It was great to watch Yvonne and the kids cycle away.  And it felt great for me to board the train south the next day to find them.  Our 2 days in Frankfurt had stretched into 8 days.  And now as I write this two weeks later, we are planning to train some sections we had hoped to cycle as a result.  We really enjoy taking the trains here, but we REALLY are enjoying the cycling and don’t want to give that up.

Cam

Solo trek to Mardi Himal

While hiking up then back down the deep Mardi Kola valley to the Annapurna Base Camp (see earlier blog entries) I noted on the map that there was another trail/trek perched high up on the ridge on the east side of the valley.  It was hard to believe that a second trail could be running parallel, so much higher than our trail.  This trail apparently snaked along the ridge climbing abave 2000m, 3000m, then up to 4100m at the Mt Mardi Himal viewpoint.  A rough route rose further to the Mardi Himal base camp, but this was clearly well above the snow line. 

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You get the sense here how fast the Himalayas rise towards the north. Both the Mardi Himal and ABC treks start in the lower green region and rise to the white snow. The photo is about 50km top to bottom.

The more I thought about it, the more I was intrigued.  Our route out of the ABC valley took us over this ridge much lower down, so I tried to convince the rest of my family to do this extra side route.  They had loved the ABC trek but were thinking more about a rest than climbing back up another 2500 vertical meters for an additional 4 days of trekking.  So that answer was “no”.  Fast forward a few days.  We planned to spend our last few days around Pokhara at the Annapurna Eco Village which is more or less near the bottom of the ridge that snakes up to Mardi Himal.  I then schemed a plan to depart from the eco village (and my family) for a solo trek up to and back from Mardi Himal.  I had only 3 days altogether, so I’d have to move quickly.  But I like walking.  And when alone tend to walk quite quickly, so it looked possible.  I chose to go without a guide, mostly because I wanted the solitude, but also because I knew that once I reached the ridge, it was pretty hard to get lost following the ridge line up.
We had a lovely 1st night at the Eco Village (Yvonne will describe this in a final Nepal entry) and then after a tour of the village’s “eco” features (very impressive!) I set off.  I was really excited to be returning to the Annapurna area for more trekking, and was quite enjoying the very modest day pack on my back (sleeping bag, water and some warm clothes).  For the ABC trek we chose not to hire porters so I had quite a considerable pack (kids were traveling pretty light) all the way.

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The morning was clear as I left, and I could again see Annapurna south and Hiun Chuli mountains. We trekked around these mountains on our way into the Annapurna Base Camp.

We had hiked up about 600 vertical meters the day before in order to get to the Eco Village.  So I was a bit disappointed that I had to drop all the way back down into the valley before starting the climb to Mardi Himal.

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Farms I passed on my way back down to valley bottom.
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I walked with these 3 boys for a while. They were on their way to school, but it was not just another day for them. They had a few weeks earlier finished their grade 10 exams. In Nepal, you have to pass these exams to proceed to higher education, so their was so much riding on these results. Within an hour's time they would be getting their results. I wished them luck, then headed my own way.

Not long after reaching the valley bottom, a fellow on motorcycle stopped to offer me a ride, which I accepted.  Turns out, my trail turn-off was only 500m ahead, but it was nice to chat a bit and he carried me across a river that would likely have meant wet feet if I was walking.  I found my trail turnoff, and the climb began.

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They don't fool around with trails going up hill. No time for switchbacks - just build stairs going straight up!
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Small scale sawmills abound in Nepal. All furniture is hand made from this lumber.

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Almost all tilling is still done with beasts.

I had what I thought was a pretty good map.  The route looked pretty simple.  Follow the valley to the town of Lwang turn-off.  Climb to Lwang.  Then from Lwang take the very long and uphill trail to the ridge, then follow the ridge to “Forest Camp” to spend the 1st night.

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Approaching Lwang. From here I would try to find the trail heading up through the forest.

When I reached Lwang, my plan started to come a bit undone.  A guy who spoke English told me that the trail I was thinking about had many many unsigned junctions, and there was little chance I would choose the correct branches to find the ridge top.  I should instead traverse along the hillside until I reached the town of Gahlel, from where it would be “easy” to hike to the town of Kalimati and up to Forest Camp.  I heeded his advice, but none of his route was on my map, so I was a bit apprehensive.  But he made it seem very easy to find Ghalel – just pointed and said “don’t go up, don’t go down … just straight”.  How hard could that be?
I was quite happy at first – a nice trail followed the valley at a constant elevation as it passed fields, terraces and homesteads.  But the trail gradually become more and more faint, and I could not find anyone to ask for confirmation.  I could see no sign of a village ahead.  This fading trail trend continued, and 30 minutes later I found myself scrambling across steep terraces and bushwhacking through the forest.  I had a very long way to go today and this is not what I had in mind.

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These "sort of" trails would just peter out.
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Eventually I found this trail that continued in the right direction.
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What my direction-offering friend had either forgotton to tell me or perhaps didn't know the words in English to describe, was that there were some deep cut valleys that had to be dealt with on the way to Ghalel. I mean REALLY deep cut valleys! When I reached this point and saw a gaping drop between me and what I now figured out was Ghalel (look high up to the right) I was very much at a loss about how to proceed.
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I few minutes later I encountered a woman at this house and called out to her "Ghalal?" She pointed across the valley. I shrugged to say I didn't know how to get there. She pointed that I could descend about 500 vertical meters to valley floor and climb back up, or hike WAY back into the river valley and come around the other side. I shrugged again, and she pointed up the river valley, so away I went. I was at this point very much reconsidering my choice to hike without a guide!

The trail was tiny.  I didn’t really know where I was going.  And I was quite concerned that I would run out of light before reaching Forest Camp.  But I have to say I quite relished this portion of the trek.  The trek to Poon Hill and ABC had been quite a trekker super highway. I was now in a valley virtually devoid of trekkers, high up on the hill, hiking past terraced field, forest and stone homesteads, heading deep into a side valley.  I felt like I was in the “real” Nepal.  

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The other side of the valley that connected to Ghalel was a huge cliff face but I kept my trust in the woman’s directions and kept to the path.  Sure enough, it crossed the river then climbed above the cliff and eventually emerged in Ghalel.  I was (naively) relieved and figured I had a nice trail to follow the rest of the way.
The route from there to Kalimati followed a new road that had been recently carved from the mountain side.  I caught up to a woman who was hauling an unbelievably heavy sack of manure on her back (I know this because I asked her if I could try to pick it up.  Barely.).  She assured me that forest camp was within 2 hrs reach.

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Another 45 minutes put me in Kalimati.  I inquired twice here about the trail up to Forest Camp and got the same answer – it was 3 hours away (so much for those earlier assertions …), and there were many junctions.   At this point it was 3PM … and it gets dark around 6:30.  As you can see, the weather all day was pretty marginal, and wavered between cloud, mist and rain.  So I did not relish the idea of getting caught out in the forest for the night.  Hmmmm…..   So I asked if there was anyone I could hire to guide me up to the camp, and after some loud hollering around the village an older guy Chinta showed up a few minutes later ready to go.  I was so relieved.

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My 1 hr guide Chinta from Kalimati

We moved quickly up through the steep, wet and very muddy forest – me with my nice hiking boots and Chinta with his flip flops 🙂   I was not sure what his plan was to get back down to his village before dark.  I asked him, and he said “no problem”.  This meant that either he would stay overnight at the camp or would come back down in the complete darkness (how could this be possible?).  But if he said “no problem” …. who was I to argue?

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It turns out that a guide was very necessary.  So often trail reached a little grassy area, with no departing trail in sight.  Several times there were junctions that I would have been just guessing at.  And it was so foggy that I, in the lead, lost the trail a few times.  After an hour and half of walking, he asked to see my watch.  Only then did it dawn on him his predicament about getting down in the daytime.  He then said he would walk another 15 minutes with me then I would need to finish on my own.  I was apprehensive, but he gave me very detailed instructions about what to do with several upcoming junctions, then I paid him and said goodbye.  His directions were spot-on and by 5PM I happily wandered into Forest Camp.  I had been walking since 9:30 in the morning and not stopped for lunch.

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Mine was one of 3 guest houses at Forest Camp on the Mardi Himal ridge. Dining room is on the right. It is very modest and run by a lovely family. Breakfast was prepared and served by the 14 yr old daughter, because mom had headed down to Kalimati in the pitch black ...after serving us dinner. She arrived (after climbing the crazy trail I had come up on the day before) by 7:30 AM with a huge mattress on her back. Wow.

It was very cool at that point but I had been sweating so went for a very cold shower (they simply divert the camp water supply so it pours into the little shower room).  When I entered the dining hall I was met by five guys in their 30s speaking German.  Turns out, one of them (Lucien) moved to Pokhara 3 years ago.  His friend Henys followed him 2 years later.  Then 3 more friends came to visit for a few weeks, and they were on this trek together.  They are fantastic guys and the conversation that night was lively.  I especially appreciated after spending the day trekking alone.
Next morning we had breakfast together then set out for High Camp.

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Break for garlic soup at Low Camp with my new German friends.
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Lucien and a little "Low Camp" puppy. Lucien was fascinating guy. As an almost pro soccer player in Germany he was injured and rather lost his way in life for many years. He finally got himself together, sold all his possessions and bought land to farm on Sarencot just outside of Pokhara. He and his new Australian wife grow their own crops and gardens, keep chicken and other livestock and haul their water every morning. They live just like local Nepalis. Henys and his girlfriend liked the lifestyle and moved in last year. Lucien was a natural leader within the group and "mothered" this friends as we made our way up the ridge and to the high viewpoint the next morning.

Not too far above Low Camp we broke out above the trees and WOW … it was just the trail I imagined it to be while hiking way below towards ABC.

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Chomrong can be seen up high on the left (we stayed overnight on way to ABC) and the ABC trail can be seen left to right.
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Yes, still Rhododendron season!

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The rate of development on this trail was quite remarkable. Apparently this trek didn't really even exist 5 years ago. Now there is Forest Camp, Low Camp and High Camp. Halfway to High Camp I found this almost complete new guest house. And a second guest house is just being completed at High Camp. Keep in mind that all consumables and much of the building materials have to be hauled by porters 3 vertical km from the valley below. Yes, tourism is a huge part of the Nepali economy. But I can't help but wonder how the experience will change ... maybe the Mardi Himal 10 years out will be like ABC is today?

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The last hour of walking to High Camp was like this .... different breathtaking views around every corner. Of course, I wouldn't have complained if the clouds had moved on ...

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High Camp. 3800m. You can see my room door - the view out from my room was pretty fantastic!
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Inside the very rustic dining area at High Camp. Guests included a retired Brit, 4 Nepali teachers, a New Zealand family that used to live in Pokhara and a solo 19yr old woman from Germany on a Buddhist pilgrimage in Nepal and India. My German buddies stayed in the other (new) guesthouse.

It was cold and cloudy so we mostly hung out inside reading, chatting and drinking lemon ginger tea.  Then all of sudden the New Zealand doctor shouted that the clouds had cleared so we rushed out to this view:

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Fishtail (Machhapuchhre) mountain (7000m) never gets old on me. It is a sacred mountain to Nepalis and as such is not climbed, nor are foreigners welcome to do so.
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Henys (left), Lucien (C) and Falko (R). We will meet up with Falko in Cologne, Germany in a few weeks' time.
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They were still finishing the guesthouse that I stayed at. Trees had been felled below Forest Camp by axe then squared by cross-cut saw (that is, two guys with a hand saw). The huge timbers were then hauled up about 1500 vertical meters on porters' backs to High Camp. These guys were then sawing the timbers into small lumber for furniture. I was cold so offered to help saw for a while. I was surprised how fast we made it through the wood.
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Some other guys were building this beautful rock wall. All the stones had been dug out from the ridge, and these guys were tirelessly (and tediously?) chipping the rock to create perfect rectangles before putting the rocks into the walls.

I had planned with my German friends to head further up the ridge to Mardi Himal viewpoint early in the morning.  We met in the dark at 4:50AM dressed very warmly with headlamps going.

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1st light ....

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Henys always had a grin on his face.
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The final 30 minutes were through the snow.
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It felt pretty fabulous to be up there. We of course wished we'd had a perfectly clear morning (like all the mornings on our ABC trek) but were still happy to have the view we did.
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A couple of Americans Hailey and Isaiah caught up to us on our climb. Here is Hailey.
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We made it to the Mardi Himal viewpoint (4100m) and were greeted by the prayer flags. The Nepali name for prayer flags ("Lung ta") translates to "wind horse". There are either Buddhist prayers or horse images on the flags. The horses speed the prayers to the sky.
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Me, Sergei, Henys, Stephan, Lucien, Falko and Lucien. This one enlarges nicely - give it a "click".
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I had a really long walk ahead of me so I said good bye to my friends and took off ahead to return down to the guesthouse. I was sorry to leave them - they had been so open, engaging, and really brought my journey to life.
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Weather changes so fast up here. Within minutes almost all visibility was lost. Fortunately the trail followed the ridge so I did not get lost.
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That's Mt. Mardi Himal above the German guys.
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Arriving back to High Camp. An omelette and some coffee later, I was on my way.
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About an hour down the trail from High Camp I ran into this porter, and inquired as to what was in his basket. "Wine", he answers. I asked if I could try to lift it, but could barely - it was soooo heavy! And he left from Sidhing (where I was headed) 2.8 vertical km below, earlier that morning. With that load. Unbelievable what these people can do.

I moved quickly down low camp and headed down the very steep trail towards Sidhing.

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Here is a quarry where rock is dug out then delaminated. In this case, they were rebuilding many of the steps on the trail, so these would be hauled up goodness knows how far before being put in place.
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My destination at this point was the far end of this valley. I would normally not push so hard but we were leaving for Kathmandu the next morning so needed to get back to Pokhara to meet up with the rest of the family.
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Just can't get enough of these Nepali terraces! In this case they were used just for grazing.
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There are an increasing number of roads like this being punched into villages. I think there must be some government priority to connect villages by "road". But can so easily see here how vulnerable they would be to earthquake-induced landslides.
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Only moments later I came around a corner and saw this across the valley. Road construction right through the terraces. I wonder if the people who worked so hard to create the terraces are compensated?
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The bottom of the valley is finally in reach. I had descended 3.1 vertical km over the past 7 hrs and my knees and thighs were complaining.
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I could not trust the planks in this bridge - they were all rotted out. So I slid my hands along the steel cables just in case. Likely nothing to worry about though ... locals come and go across all the time.
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Road-side wheat. I really came to love the rustic look of the stone homes.

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I was getting near the highway I had planned to catch a bus from when a fellow sitting next to the road called out to me and pointed to an empty chair and insisted I sit down to rest.  I had at this point been walking for 11 hours without a stop for lunch.  I sat.  He was quite an engaging chap and within a few minutes told me that he was fundraising for his church.  A church!  My eyes expresed my surprise.  I’d met so many Hindus and Buddhists, and a few Muslims.  But no Christians.  Said he had been moved by reading the bible.  After a while he got around to asking me if I could perhaps chip in to purchase a few bags of concrete.  He left for a few moments so I asked the fellow sitting next to him “how big is the congregation?”  He smiled, and said “just his family”.  The pastor graciously came to realize that I would not be one of his benefactors.  Soon after a local bus came by in my direction headed to Pokhara so I jumped on.

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It took a rather interesting route down the valley. The smoothest gravel was that in the river. So .... the bus drove down the rather wide river, crossing side to side for about 5km.

One fellow got on with his bike.  Intermodal transportation is always a welcome sight.  But I have to say I was surprised by what form of transportation was awkwardly loaded onto the bus next.

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Fortunately they thought to anchor this massive wheel before it went careening down the aisle!

I was quite happy to reach Pokhara, meet up with the family and settle into some great food.  I had really missed them – this was the longest that any of us had been apart since we left in September.  But I really enjoyed the time alone.  I have always noted that you see and hear more when you hike alone.  And you are much more likely to connect with others along the way when you don’t have an easy conversation awaiting with your friends/family.  I would highly recommend this trek to those who might be considering.  It experiences only a tiny fraction of the traffic of the better known treks and gets you up into some fantastic mountain views.  If you choose to access the ridge via the Mardi river valley like I did, you will get even more of an authentic rural experience.  But best go sooner than later … this trek may get the better of itself.

Cam