Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The Art of Map Reading

Bosnian Countryside

Ahh, the art of map reading! It’s embarrassing to admit, but looking at maps is one of my favorite pastimes, that and watching the weather channel with my Dad when I’m home (which I’ll save for another post!). I can study maps for hours on end and I never run out of things to think about: endless road possibilities, alternate routes, scenic roads, places of interests, landmarks,…the list goes on an on of things to find on a map! And with google maps, basically my pastime has turned into an obsession!

First of all, I identify my starting point and destination and mark the places I might want to see along the way. In case the latter doesn’t exist, well, then I move on to the second step, which is locating the roads. I look for small roads that are still pretty direct, but have less traffic . Since maps are flat, I make sure I pay close attention to the curves I see as I follow the road, and especially look for arrows going up or down, which indicate a grade change.

At the same time I’m taking into consideration the total distance of my route. You can see the tiny road segments labeled with kilometers as well as longer portions of the road. I try to plan a route anywhere from 90 to 120 kilometers a day, although most of the time I shot for the longer distance, because naturally coming from the world of road biking, I think I can manage!

The fun begins when your destination isn’t a place that you are dying to see and really has little to offer, in which case, the guidebooks are no use, so my creative juices start to kick in. I’m counting on my destination town, whatever it may be just, because it happens to be where the 100 or 110 kilometer marker puts me. I immediately have high expectations for this place, say Kljuc, for instance, a town I was set on arriving at yesterday in western Bosnia. Comparing it to other towns that appeared on the map that I’d passed through, Kljuc would most certainly have hotels, restaurants, heck, maybe even a tourist office to help me. In fact maybe it would even be some little undiscovered town, quaint and interesting to see. And if not, well, the hotel rooms would probably be super cheap because they are desperate for tourism. I start imagining all this in my head, and pretty soon, I have my heart set on making it here! I’m a little nervous about camping in the wild in Bosnia with the landmines that are still around everywhere, not to mention the wet weather and below freezing nights, so I look for rooms for rent or hostels. Kljuc, just so you know, didn’t actually have any official hotels, it’s not that quaint after all, and really has no need for any. Luckily I managed to find a “sobe” for rent close to the bus station after a little boy on his bike guided me there with the map his father drew for us on a napkin

Today, my map skills, or lack of, should I say got me in trouble! Actually, it was probably a combination of my stubbornness, ability to always push myself just a little bit more, and seeing things the way I want to after looking at the map! To preface the situation, my rides have been a bit shorter this week due to the nasty weather. Therefore, today I thought I could make up some time and push through and do a longer day, 110 kilometers. My destination was Travnik, home to a unique Mosque, and the midway stop was Jajce, known for it’s waterfall and walled city and fortress. Unfortunately Bosnia isn’t like Italy where the kilometers are all off and the distances usually turn out to be closer than recorded. In Bosnia, they are more precise, when they actually put the distances on the road signs.

My route had me following what seemed to be a flat road with some scenic parts. There were some zigzags, but no gradient arrows, and so I envisioned a pretty flat road for the first 30 kilometers or so. In fact, I had even confirmed this after asking the lady at the bakery this morning picking up my morning burek. A local woman is always a reliable source, right? Of course she’s probably never rode her bike more than the length of the town, 800 meters, but I believed her because she gave me the answer I wanted to hear, stating that the road wasn’t that hilly!

Plenty of Water in this Country

What was I thinking!?!?! I’ve totally underestimated the terrain in Bosnia & Herzegovina. Today it dawned on me during one of the 90 kilometers I did uphill, that Sarajevo was an Olympic town, a winter Olympic town, no less. Suddenly it all started to make sense. Bosnia & Hercegovina was also just voted as National Geographic’s top picks for mountain biking in the world. Guide books say it is an outdoor paradise, and that although it doesn’t have any major peaks, it has something like 30 mountains over 1,000 meters tall, a significant number for a country its size.

This all came to me right before my lunch stop. I tried not to let it affect me too much, but when I got back on my bike and headed for Travnik, I started to suffer. I thought my route had another 42 kilometers, but in fact the road signs showed 54 kilometers, and since my map had run out and I was too lazy to pull out my GPS on my phone, I continued pedaling estimating that I had another 2,5 hours. I had climbed prior to lunch, but that was nothing compared to what awaited me after lunch. I followed the Krsa river through a valley and once I left it, I realized that I was headed into an area surrounded by mountains on all sides except where I’d entered. Suddenly a truck caught my attention off in the distance, not at eye level, but well above and as I followed it I could see it make a switch back.

At that moment, I basically lost it. I had an hour and a half until sunset, 25 kilometers to go and a climb that looked eternal. On my road bike, this would have been a piece of cake, or at the start of the day, as well. But I had 105 kilometers in my legs and I was anything but feeling “fresh”. Doing the math, I realized, I would be lucky to make it up top before it got dark, let alone down anywhere on the other side. I was so mad at myself but tried to come to terms with no hot shower or roof over my head. Again, not a big deal, but with the continuous threat of rain, if not snow at this higher elevation and below freezing temperatures at night, wild camping didn’t sound appealing. I should have video taped myself climbing, but I think I would have had to edit out the bad words, as they were the only thing left I could say as I foolishly tried to make it up the hill. I let out a big “YES!” hollar as I saw the oncoming traffic coming to the top of the climb on their side, which meant my downhill was just about to begin. With 30 minutes before sunset, I had made it to the top and now had, what I hoped would be a 15 kilometer descent to Travnik (again, my thinking was a bit too optimistic, as it flattened out for the last 5 km and I actually had to pedal!)

Going back to the art of map reading….It is amazing how much you can read into a map and how you can make a map show you exactly what you want to see (flat, curvy, and beautiful roads, maybe even a downhill, but definitely no uphills) especially if ladies at bakeries confirm that fact!

Lesson learned? I need to be less ambitious when calculating kilometers,….I keep forgetting I carry about 40 kg of gear. Second lesson, although I doubt I will start doing it, consult a route making website, like mapmyroute, to calculate the elevation change. But really, I can’t be bothered, I prefer to use my imagination to see what I want to see on the map! In fact I think I can even spot little dots on the map for all the Burek stands in Bosnia- brown dots for meat, white for cheese, and green for spinach!

What's in store for tomorrow?  Sarajevo.  My host has confirmed that it is a long uphill climb from Travnik, but I'll figure out a way to make it flat, or at least that is a good excuse to visit a bakery bright and early tomorrow morning!

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