There is something delightfully delicious hidden at the core of every backpacking (i.e., multi-day hiking) trail. The almost monotonous repetition of steps over a few days in a row brings peace, clarity, and solace in the heart and mind – the way meditative processes always do. The stamping of the feet on the ground echoes like an intimate conversation with the Earth who turns from a mere base into a divine Story-Teller and talks in archetypal riddles. And, although at first, a hiker may feel a bit awkward – as if wearing slightly misfitting clothes – in an environment so far away from our urban awareness, gradually, the vibrational gravity of nature sets a tempo to which all beings get synchronized, creating a unity beyond what our conscious minds could ever fathom. Ultimately, every such trail is nothing less than a sacred pilgrimage: a path towards wisdom, a treasure-hunt adventure, a holy grail out of which we are offered the drink of immortality.
Rarely can a one-day or two-day hike reach such depths. It is the time spent on the path that truly unveils the magic, so, what may initially appear as a challenge is one of the most substantial advantages of the experience. The length of a trail, though, the unpaved passages, the arduous ascents, and the steep descents may be daunting for many. The potential lack of adequate amenities, especially as far as shelters and restrooms are concerned, is often discouraging and unnerving. However, there are trails of only moderate difficulty and, yet, unsurpassable beauty, available for those who would like to get a taste of such an expedition without having to train too vigorously in advance or get too uncomfortable on the way. Below, I share my experience on five favorite backpacking trails that, I believe, should be on everyone’s bucket list.
- The Great Wall of China
All travelers to Beijing have spent a few hours on the Great Wall of China. Hiking on its ramparts though for a few days in a row is an entirely different and much more fascinating experience: there is a sense of freedom – as if riding a mythical beast – and a false feeling of dominance over forces that, in reality, are too strong for our human nature. Solid and renovated at parts, crumbling and ravaged at others, the Great Wall is not merely a symbol of power: it breathes power and emanates intensity, perpetually reverberating the echo of soldiers, peasants, and horses.
Given the size of the Great Wall, the duration of such a hike is up to the discretion of the hiker. I spent six days trekking on the parts that extend only a few hours away from Beijing, and felt quite satisfied and fulfilled. A few more days would not have made a big difference; instead, they would possibly be just an unnecessary stretch.
Overnight stays on the Great Wall are forbidden, so every night we receded in one of the nearby villages, staying at small family-run guest houses which, although basic, were clean and comfortable, with proper restrooms, shower facilities, and free Wi-Fi. Compared to many other trails, this was pure luxury. As a cultural experience though, these visits to the villages would rate rather averagely. The interaction with the locals is limited due to the language barrier and the short time spent in their proximity, while I also found the lack of colors and the dominance of grey quite dull.
There is no altitude challenge on this hike, and the trail is, for the most part, very well defined. The biggest difficulty is the extremely steep inclination which often reaches up to 70%, the endless number of crude and uncomfortably high stair-steps, and the wave-like path that is almost never flat and smooth.
Spending a few days on the Great Wall guarantees several hours of absolute serenity, as one stands almost alone, humbled amidst the grandeur of the surrounding structure. These moments become even more precious when compared to the clamor and cacophony of the overpopulated touristic parts of the Wall, which, unfortunately, are unavoidable. Prepare for stunning panoramas, otherworldly sunrises, compelling sunsets, and a thriving natural landscape. And, when rising on the top of the towers stretching your eyes to embrace the vastness, you will be able to grasp to its fullest the strategic and historical importance of this enormous construction, as well as the human ego that, inevitably, has left its stamp on the stones.
- Sapa Region in Northern Vietnam
The Sa Pa region is situated in the North of Vietnam, next to the borders with China. A mountainous area with numerous villages and different ethnic tribes, Sapa is a backpacker’s heaven. The paths indolently unfold through rice fields, water streams, and bamboo forests, while the interaction with the locals is always colorful – literally and figuratively!
Sapa is a broad area, so the length of any hike is, once again, at the discretion of the hiker. I spent six days trekking from village to village, which was pleasant and satisfying.
Each night, we were hosted by a family who had turned their abode into a guest house (with respective accreditation). In these lodges, the upper-floor storerooms are usually transformed into sleeping rooms, with mattresses (placed on the floor acting as beds) and mosquito nets; the kitchens are adequately equipped with utensils, and the restrooms (which are in the yard, separate from the rest of the house, with squatting toilets and, sometimes, warm water for showers) are relatively renovated. These lodges are plain huts, comprising of wooden planks put together in a rather loose way, with big gaps in-between that allow the cold and humidity to pass through. Still, one sleeps on a decent mattress with a roof over the head, and the occasional hot water is a real luxury.
These trails are very comfortable. The only difficulty we encountered was due to the continuous rain that had turned the paths into a muddy and dangerously slippery terrain. The mud was so thick and sticky that, most of the time, we felt we were skating on the surface, while, every night we had to scrub it off our shoes before going to bed.
This trip is mainly a cultural exploration since the travelers have the opportunity to go through the areas of the Black H’Mong, the Tay, the Giay, and the Red Dao people – all with their individual clothes and jewelry, separate origins, and distinct financial sustainability. There are areas that are more barren, and others that are lush and fertile. The locals’ behavior changes depending on the productivity of the land: sometimes they are silent and remote, other times, smiling and communicative. One cannot but admire the colorful presence of the women who, though quiet, are resilient and hard-working, having an impact on the economy of the area and the cultural experience of the trekkers.
- The Druk Path (the Path of the Thunder Dragon) in Bhutan
The Druk Path follows the footsteps of an ancient trading route that connects the two largest cities and valleys of Bhutan: Paro and Thimphu. Hiking along mountain ridges, praying in old monasteries, fishing in mystical lakes, and conversing with the forest deities are all included in this adventure that is destined to enchant every visitor, luring him on the same path again and again.
It takes six days to complete the trail, walking at a moderate pace that allows the hiker to reach each camp in the mid-afternoon hours.
This trip is a pure backpacking experience, which means that one sleeps in tents, and nature serves as a restroom (though at the camps we had our portable toilets as well). Showers are unavailable, warm water is prepared only for morning ablutions, and proper sleeping gear is necessary as the nights on the mountains are quite cold.
In general, this path does not include very steep ascents or descents. Still, as it stretches along the ridges, it reaches an altitude of around 4,000 m., which is not to be taken lightly. A good physical preparation in advance, a slow and steady pace, and consumption of plenty of water are necessary to avoid the frustration and dizziness of mild altitude sickness.
There is something extraordinary about Bhutan which is hard to define in words. It may be the myth about its gross domestic happiness, its unspoiled nature, the serenity along the paths, the subtle spirituality that almost urges the traveler to hum “Om Mani Padme Hum” at the tempo of the hiking pace, or the small number of visitors that makes everyone feel like an explorer discovering untouched territory. Do not postpone your traveling plans for too long: although still pristine and exclusive, Bhutan is not immune to change and, despite its government’s efforts, it may soon evolve into a touristic destination.
- Summiting Mt. Toubkal in Morocco
Atlas Mountain is North Africa’s greatest mountain range and Mt. Toubkal its tallest peak with an altitude of 4,165 m. (the tallest in Northern Africa and the Arab World). The path that we followed started from Aguersioual (a short drive from Marrakesh), and passed through traditional Berber villages, waterfalls, the Imlil valley and village, shrines, and gorges, before zig-zagging up towards the summit.
If one aims only at summitting Mt. Toubkal, this can be achieved in just two days. Otherwise, hiking the numerous trails of the Atlas Mountains can take much longer and depends on each hiker’s preferences. Our expedition lasted for four days, which, including the summiting accomplishment, was more than enough for me.
While on the trails of the Atlas Mountains, we stayed at guest houses in the villages and they were all clean and comfortable with shower facilities and warm water. On the night before the summit day, though, everyone must stay at the Toubkal refuge where rooms and dining tables are shared with all guests in communal harmony, with no separation between men and women. There is a friendly ambiance of comradeship in such lodges that surpasses the mild discomfort, and, in my memory, it represents one of the best moments on the trip.
This is not just a trail that reaches an altitude of 4,165 m; it is a trail with a summit day, which translates into a very early start in the middle of the night, a vigorous push to the summit, and then a protracted descent that stretches beyond the mountain lodge all the way down to Imlil. Summit days are always very long and tiring and, admittedly, they are not my favorite – despite the motivation of a tangible goal and the satisfaction of conquering a mountain peak. Additionally, the path during the summit day is covered in snow, and frequently one has to wear crampons. The rest of the trail though is of moderate difficulty and very manageable by anyone in decently good physical condition.
Besides the obvious advantage of ticking an important summit off one’s bucket list, this is a cultural adventure. The Berber villages are wild and untamed: pockets of rich history that have been influencing the broader region for centuries. Connecting with the land, the myths and prejudices, the financial challenges, and the potential opportunities over a glass of Moroccan tea or a table with warm bread, olives, and tajine is rewarding on its own.
- The Classic Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, Peru
Several Inca trails lead to Machu Picchu; however, the Classic one that starts at the 82nd km (or the 88th km) from Cuzco is among the most popular. It passes through cloud forests, dense jungle, old Inca settlements, and small farmhouses, while it is populated with many llamas, deer, rare bird species, sacred snakes, peaceful Spectacled bears (which unfortunately I did not see, as they are, indeed, elusive), spirits, and ghosts.
This is a 4-day trail which, in the beginning, ascends towards an altitude of about 4,000 m, and, on the last day, descends steeply towards Machu Picchu and Aguas Calientes (the Machu Picchu village). Once at Machu Picchu, many buses connect the archaeological site with the small town, however, on the day that we arrived (which was a national holiday) the queues were so long that, despite the frequency of the itineraries, it seemed impossible to take any ride. We finally hiked down to the village cutting through the slopes on a well-defined path that takes around one hour to descend.
We camped all the way to Machu Picchu: three amazing nights under the stars, the milky way, and the Crux, overviewing the valleys, talking about spirits and eerie presences, influenced by the energy of the path. There are some, relatively decent, restrooms along the way but we also had private portable toilets at our camps.
On the second day, the path ascends towards Warmi Wañusqa, or “Dead Woman’s Pass” (a pass that resembles the shape of a supine woman), at an altitude of 4,200 m. This is the toughest day, as there is a significant gain in altitude that may cause temporary dizziness. However, as soon as one traverses the pass, the trail descends and, with the most difficult part behind, the hiker can enjoy the grandeur of the surrounding landscape.
This trail has been officially labeled as a pilgrimage since this had been its purpose for hundreds of years. Although the Sun Gate and Machu Picchu are the desired destinations – admittedly, of great importance – for me all the treasures were hidden along the path. Visiting the sites without stepping on the footsteps of the Incas seemed almost inconsequential. There are unspeakable beauty and energy on this land – something elusive and yet strong; an intangible presence that transcends time and space, building bridges of knowledge and transformation that seem to go beyond the boundaries of our rational understanding. Experiencing it first hand is probably the ultimate objective – the real destination – of this adventure.
Photos: © Konstantina Sakellariou