I don’t think I’ve ever been this exhausted before. It’s been a full two days in Wales (or in Welsh, “Cymru”, pronounced Sim-ree) but I feel as if I could spent my entire holiday here, just looking at the castles and hiking around the mountains.

When I arrived in Bangor yesterday, I instantly ran into some trouble when I left the train station and promptly forgot to visit any sort of information centre to inquire as to where the Bangor hostel was. So I once again (as in Salisbury) found myself hiking around an unfamiliar town, jumping out of the way to avoid cars on the unfamiliar side of the road and staring in bewilderment at the Welsh signs printed prominently above their English counterparts. Eventually I gave up and dragged myself into a bank, where I asked directions (yes, that’s American stubbornness for you I guess) and unfortunately the gentleman’s accent was so thick I still had no idea where I was going. In desperation, I glimpsed a bus station and stood there for another 20 minutes, asking every passerby and driver if “this one was going to the hostel” and finally got an affirmative.

The hostel was quite nice and beyond what I would have expected a hostel would be. I was checked in by a friendly group of students my own age; a Welshman, a Brit, and an Australian. My dorm room was empty when I dropped my stuff off, but I didn’t stay there for long – I was bound for Conwy Castle before it closed at 17:00!

I caught the next train out, backtracking my own steps back to see the “Heritage Town” of Conwy. I was greeted by the ancient mighty towers of the castle instantly, and got started right away. I was in love. They let tourists like myself climb all over the 21 foot high stone walls and sightsee, and they led me right away to the imposing 11th century castle, assembled by His Highness Edward II in 1282. I must have spent about 2 hours exploring the castle, every nook and cranny that I could reach. I chuckle now when I think of how history and reading notes always bored me when I was little – this time around I was itching to read every little sign and information booth possible so I could get the most of my experience. This was the first castle I’d seen that hadn’t been reconstructed and saved (like Versailles or the Madrid Palace) and the place was laid out so simply that I could almost see its original stone and wood in my mind’s eye. The whole place had a kind of eeriness that was offset by the cars and trains whizzing past it on either side, making it a lonely island of the past, haunted now only by the dozens of tourists like myself poking around in its depths. I got to play a little model for a group of British schoolchildren that were through with a Scottish guide (or at least I guessed, from his accent)…I was coming down through the Great Hall area of the castle, below where the kids were standing on the next floor with their guide, who said “…and ohvah theyr wheir that yoong man is stoondin is wheir they would poot the non-pehrishable foods” and I waved my hand, Vanna-White style, towards the corner that I was looking at, and they all laughed. “Take a bohwah!” the guide commanded me, which of course I did.

After Castell Conwy (Welsh) I had some time to poke about the city, which was amazingly preserved as one of the only remaining walled cities in Wales that still had its walls all standing. Originally constructed after Edward II defeated the Welsh prince of that era to symbolize his power in the region, the city was one of 6-7 forming a ring around the Snowdonia region to prevent further Welsh uprisings against his power. So even though I was now in Wales, I was definitely looking at what had originally had been a medieval English town. I made one other “little” stop in my travels (pun intended) at “Great Britain’s Smallest House” – a bright red but extraordinarily tiny building on the riverside that was only 3.1 metres tall. I paid my £1 entry fee and almost mashed my head open on the tiny doorway. They even had a fireplace in there and as the recorded guide told me, after the original occupant had left, both a couple and then finally a 6’3 fisherman had lived here. Simply crazy; I know I wouldn’t have been able to do it!

On my way back to Conwy Rail, I ran into another American tourist like myself, who had been coming up from Ireland and then from South Wales into North Wales before heading back. She had spent the day in Conwy, seeing the castle as well, but as we chatted we discovered that we were heading to the same place – back to the Bangor hostel. We traded travel stories and stories from home as we hiked back, and had dinner together that evening – I had a great tasting Welsh Beef&Ale pie, and she had an Indian curry. She joked that she had probably had as much Indian food as UK food on her trip already!

Now we come to this morning. I got up really early because I knew it would be uncertain as to how long I’d even need to get to the top of my next destination, the foreboding Yr Wyddfa (Mount Snowden) next to the village of Llanberis. As there are no trains running into the central parts of Wales, I took a bus, stopping by a grocery store in Bangor to grab some milk, a couple apples, and a loaf of “traditional cob” bread. Because it was so early, I was the only person on my bus out.

It was a grim and foggy looking morning, I noted with disappointed as I stepped off onto the pavement (sidewalk, for you Yanks) unlike the past two beautiful days. All around me were purple-shale roofed buildings and farther beyond that, hills and mountains with scag (fog) topped summits. Thanks to my friendly Welsh driver, I found the tourist centre without a problem and paid a quid for my map up the mountain. I asked them what the weather was like. The woman eyed me sceptically; I was dressed in jeans and a t-shirt and comically holding a pair of useless sunglasses. “The temperature up there is ten less than what it is down here, and it’ll be cold and damp,” she warmed me. I tried to think positively as I approached the foot of the path up the cliff; if it got too bad I could always turn back down, right?

The views were simply stunning, even only a quarter mile up the side. There was a quaint little café built into the side of the hill, where I chatted with the little Welsh owner who sold me a cup of cappuccino so I could use the water cooler (bathroom) for free. He had a high flutey voice, almost like he was unused to speaking so much English, and he told me that his family had been running this little centre (for the hikers) for a couple hundred years, and they had lived here before that for 700 years. I was duly impressed.

Only a little way up the mountain, as I was admiring the sheep and the clouds making long sweeping shadows down the mountain, I ran into a gentleman who was heading up a path next to mine. He introduced himself as Neil, and as we were both heading up the mountain in the same direction, we fell into step together and thus began a good hiking friendship. It was good to have a fellow Snowden-first-timer to chat with as we made the ascent, and before too long we were surrounded by scag and the sheep began to grow scarce. Neil told me that it normally wasn’t this scaggy, and that on a clear day you could practically see the shores of Ireland in the distance. As the hours moved by and we climbed higher and higher, I rapidly began to wonder just what the nearby train option would have been like instead! It grew darker as we climbed into the clouds and the wind whipped about us. I remembered the tour-office’s warning to me and felt my soaked hair and shirt. Neil and I both looked like we had been through a torrential downpour. And we weren’t even halfway yet!

The pathway alternated between huge heavy shale boulders and tiny shale fragments. It seemed like the mountains were made entirely out of shale, and Neil ensured me that that wasn’t too far from the truth. We now both were essentially half drowned and it was freezing up there. I did my best to protect my poor camera and money belt from the water, and I wondered about the status of the other half of my loaf of cob that I was still clutching in my hand.

Finally, we glimpsed the rail station looming out at us through the roaring mists, and beyond that, the shape of the summit behind it with a few ragtag hikers coming and going off of it. I noted that there were a few others in my same condition and I felt a little better. At last, after 3 hours of climbing, we had made it – the top of Yr Wyddfa at the height of 3,543 feet above sea level. There was a set of steps up to the final peak, and a stone pillar jutting from the rocks with a plaque adhered to it with compass points out to the various things that we would have been able to see, had there been anything to see around us but icy, eerie scag. We spent a few minutes at the top, savoring the feeling of victory, and then quickly started our descent to avoid any further frostbite!

We quickly learned that even though we were going downhill, this was even harder than going uphill. Our legs and feet began to ache as we had to take halting little steps down the steep slopes of the shale mountain, and apparently the scag was descending with us; we passed several scag-covered landmarks that we knew we had seen in the glow of the morning sun on the way up. But finally, we reached the bottom of the mountain, and Neil invited me to come with him to a local pub and have a pint or two on him. I gratefully accepted, and we spent another half an hour chatting at a Llanberis pub, where I had my first taste of “bitters” – a kind of semi-sweet yet (obviously) bitter liquor that doesn’t exist in the States. Neil had a long drive back home though, so he kindly dropped me off at the bus stop on his way past.

The bus ride back to Bangor was…interesting. I guess I hadn’t realized how much bitters and ice cold ales might affect me, so I sat there, slightly giddy, at the bus stop and fiddled with the rest of my cob – which was still good and not turned into a water mush. When the bus came, I alternated between trying to watch the beautiful rocky scenery and falling asleep in my seat. I watched with sleepy interest as a group of Welsh schoolchildren boarded by bus in Llanddeioniolen and they conversed around me in Welsh, a language which I think sounds a bit like a cross between German with an Irish accent and someone playing the flute.

The bus driver dropped me off at the hostel back in Bangor, and as I checked my schedule, I saw that the next train to Chester, back in Britain, was leaving in only 20 minutes. Gritting my slightly-soused teeth, I hiked my pack up on my back (it extends out about 3 feet behind me when it’s all together) and started to sprint across town to reach the station in time. Being that I was filled with a combination of tasty ales, bitters, and bread, it was not exactly a pleasant run! But I made it to the station in time (knowing Bangor like the back of my hand by this point) and collapsed, exhausted but happy on my train.

As I look out my window now and see the hills and mountains fading behind me, I feel a little sad. I wish I could have had more time in Wales as part of my journey. Such a beautiful rugged land seems to be almost done an insult by only giving it a day to see what it holds. But it’s today that has firmly cemented my plans to come back here as soon as possible (next summer holiday perhaps?) because well – with all the stories Neil was telling me about the beautiful vistas visible from the top of Snowden, I know I have to come back just to climb the mountain again!