Saturday, March 29, 2008

From Marrakech to the Mountains

A Struggle to the Summit of North Africa

Realising that you "have" to take some time off work before mid-December is not the worst thing that can happen to you. The thought was a long weekend to somewhere in Europe, maybe 2 days, maybe 3. Then the thoughts progress as they invariably do and you think maybe one more day, maybe I'll head to a further reach of Europe. The little bug in your mind says, why not take a week, in fact sod Europe why not head to Africa…..oh no, that is too far away and too costly….but I have always wanted to go there and Africa is the one non-polar continent that I have thus far not been lucky enough to visit…what about North Africa….

And so it came to pass that Dave and I booked up flights to Marrakech (Morocco) and got on with our lives. Some culture, maybe a trek on foot, or on a single humped animal (I automatically think bi-humped, but a colleague of mine informed me that the dual humped camel lives in places such as Mongolia, not North Africa and/or the Sahara).

Then you know how it goes….week before you finally get away….sitting in front of the computer…staring at the screen…mmmm…google…"trekking Morocco"….light treks……medium treks….mountain treks….mountain climbing…..highest mountain in North Africa….in snow conditions…."strenuous to tough"….that is what we're talking about…….the seeds were sown.

The excitement you feel when you see something that not only you have never seen before, but longed to see for so long. A true buzz of life injected into the jugular. That is how I felt looking out the plane window over the arid plain between the sea and the Atlas. Grand snow-capped mountains guarding the south. And to think we would be climbing the highest of them all – Jebel Toubkal.

It is strange when you land into a country and culture for the first time. You may have seen it on TV, read about it, or heard about it from mates, but it takes a while to actually get it. The more you travel and see new places, the more aware you are of just how little you know when you arrive. Jumping out the taxi and into dusty, crowded street Mohammed 5th, I was consciously aware that I could not make judgements easily. From paying the taxi driver, understanding levels of negotiation, to looking women in the eyes – you only learn these things with time. This is the enjoyment of a new place.

Not knowing quite where we were or where we were going, we sat by the street in a little coffee shop that seems typical of the city, taking the scene in and chatting with a delightful Spanish lady called Laia. One of those people with deep, open eyes who is taking in life. Refreshing.

The place was hustle and bustle, but not quite to the extent I expected. No India. A positive - the women rode motor-bikes and made eye-contact. The hawkers hawked.

On first entering a Riad (town mansion) the serenity is bright. We stayed at the cheap Riad Charma. Like your standard Riad it has little to show to the outside world but once through the low door you enter a fine courtyard surrounded by 2 story white balconies and a polished floor inhabited by healthy orange-trees. London can not reproduce such calm. Initial impressions of the people was also exceedingly friendly, though the guard stays up.

We spent a day and a night wandering through the old twisting streets. Through the colourful markets selling, to my shock, more than just tat. Some real artisans. A place simply teeming with sights, smells and sounds. Past aggressive snake charmers and onto one of many balcony restaurants overlooking the famous Djamaa El Fna - the grand square at the heart of the city sprawled with food stalls, hawkers selling everything from rugs to monkeys, spices - herds of humanity. Watching the sun drop behind the main mosque as the call to prayer wrung over the noise and bustle of the square as smoke rose from a hundred cooking pots. One of those moments.

Into the new town, back with a couple of bevvies to talk into the night with Laia and a bunch of Aussies.

Arranging the wished for climb proved straight forward. The "guides" (read business men) tried to put us off with stories off too much snow, possible danger, very difficult this time of year…come try our camel trek – read more money, less effort on their part. We persevered and struck a bargain that while well below their asking price, was still above the going rate if done solo. We knew it, they knew it, we were happy, they were happy. Business. This is the problem with time. Not enough of it and plans have to change. If I had months, or just weeks I would say screw the middleman….this time we used him as best we could.

Off to the hills and up to the Refuge:

From the heat of Marrakech, with clear weather, you can see the mighty Atlas hogging the horizon with their teeth-like snow settled summits.

Driving first through the dirty plain, initially littered with water-guzzling water parks and golf courses and then dirt and villages, the mountains slowly approach. Into the winding foothills and past many a local Bereber adorned with Obi-Wan Kenobi/Tatooine esque brown hooded robes.

I love the excitement of looking round every winding, sloping corner, peering and leaning to see the next grand vista. Searching for that mountain - our aim.

After a couple of hours we arrived at the base of our trek, Imlil. Freezing cold in the frosted shade of the morning. Once a further 7-8kg has been added to each of our packs and another couple of kg of climbing gear at the next village we have a full 20 odd on our backs.

The villages we pass as we climb are simple but beautiful. We stay a while in the charming house of a local family. A place covered in scrubbed tiles. We eat heartening bread with sticky butter and tea until we are full. Nothing like filling up the stomach for pure energy purposes. Not fuelling fat production on a stool in an office.

Note of etiquette that I found rather interesting – breaking wind is seen as particularly rude amongst these people – a struggle for many a foreign trekker as increasing altitude plays havoc with their guts

The trek out from this last village took across a snow-strewn boulder field and then, via long trodden tracks up the side of a mountain side and along the widening, heightening valley until we reached a little hamlet that exist for two purposes – a tea and munch stop before the lengthy trek to the Toubkal refuge and more interestingly a local holy site. Moroccans have a particular tradition of venerating Muslim saints and here, across a bridge (blocked to non-Muslims like us) exists the site of one such saint. Pilgrims trudge up the valley all year round.

Our progress was thus far comfortable, but not rapid. Personally I was not quite right, but happy to be far far away and going further. Up into the deeper snow with inevitable slips with our heavy packs despite my trusty trekking boots bought to climb a Bornean mountain when I was 18. Around a headland and what a view. For me, there is a point when mountains become intimidating and to a point over-bearing. This was that point.

Steep, snow and ice clad slopes leading to jagged imposing summits. We trekked on, past the last hut and my breathing became heavier. Before I knew it I was having to stop every 5 minutes to catch my breath. Then 2 minutes…then 30 steps. As we climbed up and into the long stretched out valley of our destination I ever slowed.

Strange, for this was at only circa 3,000m. I’ve been up twice that without similar breathing problems. When it strikes, IT STRIKES.

No point in heading back. Dingo and Asiz are encouraging, but I am slowing. A trick of perspective adds a degree of cruelty. In the distance the small refuge does not seem far. Only 30 minuets away one feels. Soon I realized that it was not a small refuge close-by but a large refuge a good hour away at my diminutive current pace.

I was down to 20 steps between stops, heart palpitations and general weakness.

Minor headaches kicked in. If I trudged more than 15 steps my vision blurred and I had to stop. No point in turning back, refuge is hours behind and I can see my destination.

A break of minor entertainment is brought by the passing of a group of shorts and skate shoes clad freezing Aussies. There mates had come through a couple of weeks earlier on sun baked dirt. The snow had come and they were left high and anything but dry. I even afforded my self a little chuckle with one of the guys and his boogie board.

On again as the light began to fail. Behind us sheer beauty. A “V” between the slopes of the valley lights up in darkening blood red as the stars come out. Breath-taking is a rather apt expression for my situation. A simply awesome view for Dingo and Asiz as looked back from ahead.

The final 300,250,200,150..100…80….60……40………20…………10m. Pain, pain………….RELIEF! We had made it before the light went – just.

A night of staring into space in front of the fire, warming the numb feet and fingers. A bitter headache as I toss and turn fully clothed in my sleeping bag within the freezing bunk room.

3,300m and my mind is doubting my will to do such things. When it hurts it hurts. People have told me over and over and now it strikes home!

Purgatory – recovery:

Asiz shook me awake before first light, I tuned away. A couple of hours later the same. A splitting headache, weak, and short of breath - I was going nowhere, let alone further up a mountain. Asiz got the message and Dave (btw Dave and Dingo are the same guy) and he set-off for the summit. I finally got some sleep after a painful night as the temperature rose back towards zero.

Past midday I scrambled out of bed. Better than last night but the walk to toilet left me gasping for air. For the first time I properly take in the surroundings. At the head of the steep long valley a concrete building, part of the French mountaineering association (Club Alpin Francais de Casablanca), keeps continual groups of keen climbers in varying conditions of warmth. Freezing dorms, kitchen, Asian toilets and dining area contrast with the sympathetically heated communal room (at least after night fall). Kneeling on the far edge of the latter room, staring out at the valley before me I drew a big breath. What a place! I feel sick but alive.

Climbers start to come back. I hear from the first in that Dave is making good progress – the sort of news I like to hear. A couple of hours later he bombles down with a big grin on his face. Good on him.

A night of cards, recovery and chill. Should I attempt the climb tomorrow? The thought was spinning around my head. Seriously in two minds – my situation had rather shaken me up in a way I am unaccustomed to. We stand in the cold air that freezes to the bone, and stare at the magical stars over the looming peaks. Draw in breath.

We wake, I’m 60%. No more. Enough, just about to give it a go. Dave is a great sport and up for a re-climb. Asiz is not quite so keen….but convincable.

Toubkal is not usually a particularly challenging climb, but in the deep snow it shattered most of those who attempted it while we were there. Dave is practically running.

With doubt and caution, the layers are shoved on one after another (not that I’d taken many of them off I am afraid to say). I’m shivering. Crampons strapped on and we are off. Fuck it. No more doubts – no point.

So Dave, Asiz, me and second Dave start the slow ascend, criss-crossing the steep first face adjacent to the refuge. The latter of the party is a cool 60 year old who is up here on his own and particularly good company. I befriended him the day before and he took up the offer of joining us.

Trudge by trudge, over the next 4 hours up and over the first two faces we make it to the pre-summit. The others are racing along. I make steady progress but take my time lagging a bit behind – better to make it slowly than to have to turn back with symptoms like I suffered just 36 hours before. Every time you look around you are blessed by newly adjusted picture perfect views as you take in the increasingly thin air. You digest it deep and it replenishes. Only at height or submerged do you appreciate such an essential.

Some snacks, an encouraging smile as usual from the big guy (Asiz), and we transverse the only really precipitous bit. Inching across a steep drop clutching the ice-axe, up, up and onto the summit.

WOW! I get it. This is what I live for. These moments connect together where your mind is in bliss. The self-significance drains away and leaves gaping open-eyes and pure feeling. Love washes out the fear and you’re essence is content.

From all sides around the tragedy of an iron frame pyramid (erected by the government to mark the highest point in North Africa – 4,200m – just under 14,000ft), the Atlas stretch out.

We are at the summit of a great spine that jags out the earth in whitened glory. This falls down into foothills on either side and then to the far-off hot plains. Past the clutches of the cloud, a glimpse of desert – the endless Sahara stretched beyond. My word. Again my breath is taken away.

At the top time lasts for an eternity and a minute. Manly hugs (we convince ourselves), thoughts staring into the distance and we are off. Like that… we leave this staggering place behind.

Dave was still bouncing, the other three of us a bit less so (I was perhaps 70%). We slide down the mountain.

Down and Out……

Contrary to the insinuation of that title, getting down and then out was pretty straight forward and pleasant.

The couple of hour descent from the summit to the lodges was slow, steady and beautiful. A couple of slips and many a trudge were interrupted by a Moroccan documentary. We had noticed some guys with cameras and big fluffy sound devices following a couple of climbers – father and son from France. We caught them up at the summit and as we descended the camera increasingly flitted to us. Different, but not much to write home about.

Their part in my memories of that week in North Africa were cemented by a comical evening. Post-climb, we huddled by the fire, played cards and chatted about the exploits gone by and to come. Warming the chilled parts and drying out the boots. One more hearty chicken terrine brewed up by the wonder chef Asiz and good conversation. This idyllic scene was disturbed by two groups of people.

On the one hand a bunch of Spaniards. When in big groups, people often seem to take on characteristics of their background, or at least they heighten. Like the universally criticized British med tourist, who becomes a drunken lager-lout, so a bunch of Spanish climbers became the most noisy, unthinking group of sober people I have met. To look past the general levels of noise violating the atmosphere, the real corker was people coming into our room, throwing their wet shit all over our stuff, walking all over it and generally being absurdly inconsiderate. Dave, lost the plot with this lot. I have not seen him quite like that before, but they deserved it.

The Moroccan film crew made a re-entry. For context, shall we just say a certain number of the company were suitably chilled on local products when the microphone started going around. Seeing such people struggling in a multi-lingual translated Moroccan interview was something else. Nice to know that we had had a good “clumb” up some mountain people could not remember.

The next morning we were the last to awake in the lodge (as usual). The four hour descent to the origins of our climb was slippery and gorgeous. The Atlas hold their own majesty and mystery and we were soaking it up. The sliding, bum-bone breaking nature of the way down was not helped by either Asiz having to go down in sandals due to his damaged foot, or the dodging of numerous donkeys carrying bags of those who did not see fit to carry their own.

Hamam, hospitality and home:

After the last few days, all I wanted to do was get back to Marrakech and chill. We were pretty knackered in all truth and Asiz’s generous offer of another hours journey beyond Marrakech to his home village just seemed like too much. Against the wishes of tired bones, we took his offer. You have to take up these opportunities and my word was it worth it.

Stopping by some market on the edge of the big city in the dark early evening, we bundled from the taxi into the back of a little van. Squeezed is an apt word when you are sharing a small space with Asiz. Mountain of a man.

We traveled for 50km or so through God knows where to, at least from our perspective, God knows where. A smallish village beside a shallow valley within the open plain that is the region. Up and around a few dusty streets and into Asiz’s house. Far bigger than I expected. He has built himself, with the help of tourist money and a lot of hard graft, an expanding demi-mansion of a place. The new part is adourned with a greeting room which could comfortably fit 50. The old part is cosy and warm. His children, boy and girl of not many years, are cute but a little shy. I don’t blame them. His wife is quiet, but smiles.

Before we have settled in we have bucket, towel and soap in our hand and are heading back down and through those dusty streets to the village Hamam – Turkish bath to many. A multi-roomed complex fit with old man smoking hashish on the door. We are welcomed in, strip down to our boxers and are giggled at by all the young boys. The Hamam is single sex, but alternates men/women through the week. It is men’s night.

Beyond the first room, are three rooms connected with open doors. Mud-brick, domed ceilings and dripping walls. A claustrophobic dark atmosphere full of sweat-sodden men. We saunter through to the far room. The heat builds as we move through the complex. In the final room is the heat-source. We knelt down working up a sweat by a large boiler. Here are a couple of older men who do not know quite how to deal with us. Avoiding eyes. Here at my most exposed – naught but a modern loin cloth – my mind suddenly focused. Here we are in a place I do not even know the name of, in the depths of a local hot house. No one knows we’re here apart from those round us who we do not know and we have put ourselves in the hands of man-mountain Asiz. The odd looks heighten these thoughts, but then a ramble of kids come in and lighten the atmosphere. Chucking water all over the place and being told off by their elders. What awesome cheeky smiles.

Asiz reappears and starts to rub me down with strange gluttonous soapy stuff. A little awkward but when in Rome… This is the start of a cleaning ritual that has several stages and has the result of a cleaner me than I have met before. From sweating to soaping to dunking to rubbing to sweating. Over a couple of hours we moved from room to room and eventually to the climax. A bone-breaking massage from the big man. Pain. Then the scrubbing. A coarse hand-brush scraping off layer after layer of skin. As my back was rubbed near to the point of bleeding while Dave looked on half laughing half concerned (especially as he was next), I realized what an amazing experience this was. The smells of soap and sweat. The echoey sounds of splash and rub. The steam. The mildewed arching walls and peering faces in the dim light.

Exhausted, but as clean as a whistle we laboured back to Asiz’s for feast of food and collapsed asleep.

This incomparable hospitality was topped off with gifts of robes and fossil Asiz had collected on his travels through the desert. Words cannot describe his generosity. This was not for payment – we paid nothing and he would not have accepted it if we offered – this was humbling Berber hospitality the likes of which I have barely ever seen.

Back to the road and via a taxi, a horse-cart and long thankful good-byes and we were back on our own in Marrakech.

A final day through the markets, around deserted rotting palaces and a long meal overlooking the famous square. What rounded this off, was the company of Jez and his lady. Dave was traveling with the Aussie when I first met him in Ecuador. We had traveled up to the north, across into Colombia and through Guerrilla territory via a couple of mind-changing weekends in Cali. So nice to meet up with old friends.

What a fantastic few days. Another place that has managed to grab a small piece of me - and not only the layer of skin I left in the Hamam…

Friday, March 28, 2008

...the Eurasian Railroad

A good walk around Irkutsk, through the town and along the promenade. The city surprised me with its pleasant atmosphere. Perhaps my opinion was scewed by the beautiful weather which showed the place and its people in the best light possible. After the Babushkas we had become used to, the sight of dozens and dozens of young attractive people all around was invigorating. But beyond this there is the gritty poverty and graffiti which we had glimpsed in Vladi. Some drinks a few hours kip at the station and we were off again, again in Kupe (2nd class), on board for the three days to Yekaterinburg.

The charming thing about being on trains for this long is that not much changes. Life is in stasis while you chug along. Just vodka, chats, cards and meeting locals in the dining cart. There are though subtle changes as you cross such vast distances. Trees became ever more common until that is all you could see for hours at a time, punctuated by the odd town.

The highlight of these few days was at its heart inherently comic. In the dining cart we had started chatting to and having a beer or three with some students. We continued this on a stop at Omsk (I had to get that in there along with Tomsk and Chomsk…hahahaha) and into the night. As it happened they were a troop of comedians, traveling from their university to a comedy competition in Novosibirsk. From fascinating chat this advanced into them showing us clips from their shows and eventually degenerated into Dave and I standing either side of the smokers' end of the carriage (only open air bit by the toilets) with a pack of comedians behind each of us convincing us to shout ever more rude and absurd insults at each other in Russian (“your mother blows goats”) to everyone’s huge amusement.

It is not a stretch to say this evening may have changed my life. It is certainly pivotal. I got on particularly well with one of the guys and he asked me a question that knocked me aback. We showed each other pictures of our loved ones and he asked me if I was married to my girlfriend. I said no and he retorted “why not?”. I did not have an answer. Plenty of vodka, some serious inflicting of thoughts on Dingo and some private inward reflection later I was staring out at the mists of first light over Siberia when I became steadfast in what I wished to do…and 6 months later I did it… but that is another story.


The comic troop shared with us some poignant reflections on youth in Russia. For instance, in general they did not touch the national drink and pastime - vodka. In Russia one consequence of vodka is widespread alcoholism that rips up families and causes men to die years before women. It is in many instances a terrible social evil. The nature of a cold dark country that has traditionally been full of privations is a huge contributing factor, along with the inter-linked psyche of the people. Apparently many kids do not touch the stuff because of what they have seen it do to their elders. I fear these students were very different to the average.

None the less, on our short trip vodka was a convenient social lubricant that, when good, did not even leave the inconvenience of a hangover (I did not believe it, but it is true – my God Smirnoff is shit). We were on top form when entering Yekaterinburg, the capital of the Urals, at 1 am in the morning. We had made it back to Europe and we planned to party. Dumping our bags in the lockers we jumped in a taxi and asked where we should hit the town. After a trip round the center we ended up at an all night hard (I mean HARD) techno club and hit more beers. I was not on top form (due to a bit of a bug) but we managed to have as good as time as possible until the headaches were strong from the banging foundations. We wandered out into the morning light to the central lake, back to the station and a few hours kip.

We squeezed a lot into 24 hours in the city. Again, large parts were crumbling, but at its center were shiny new signs of the commodity wealth from the mountains.

The Church of the Blood, dedicated to the last Tsars, the Romanovs, who were so infamously murdered just a few km from the town, is a beautiful place. The serenity and sorrowful charm of the church touched me. The opera on the other hand just got us into trouble. After a first half that had involved two of us falling asleep (me included – come on we had only slept for 2 hours and this was not exactly an enthralling production) and one of the Daves being caught staring down a pretty flutist's chest with opera glasses from row 1, we thought it was best to leave….. and we did at the interval. Onto a weird British themed pub complete with books by Brunel, Old Speckled Hen and, peculiarly, pretty ladies in short tartan skirts waiting tables - just the place to put us in the mood for our final train journey. A night and a day through thick forests to Moscow.

The Final Leg

This time we went Platskartny, third class, and it was perfectly comfortable. Instead of individual cabins you have blocks of 8 beds with a pathway on one side. Generally more social. All in, the full 10,000 odd km only cost us GBP 200 in train tickets. If we had traveled platskartny all the way we could have knocked a third more off that. Now that is a bargain, especially compared to prices quoted back home for trans-Siberian travel, let alone internal British rail.

(A little calculation. A ticket from Guildford to London peak time costs about GBP 25 for a trip of under 50km. If you extrapolate that out to the distance of the Vladi-Moscow trans-sib estimated at 9,500km, that comes to 190x5 = GBP 4750 – that is nearly 24 times the price per km – interesting)

As our final leg progressed, some sadness crept in. The quasi-trance like state you can reach when you are trapped on a train nowhere near anywhere, with only the worries of the present before you, cannot last.

A rather strange but largely interesting lady entertained us for significant parts of the way. When she was not talking about Japanese tea ceremonies (interesting to a point, but a small one), talk of politics was fascinating. She re-iterated what we had heard through out our trip. Putin is genuinely popular. Why you may ask? Well, a decade ago, shops were empty and people were hungry. Now the shops are full and many people are prospering. Fair enough, despite most of the reason for this being high energy prices, the CEO should take some credit. It is also because after the embarrassment of a drunken Yeltsin, this healthy man comes across well (Russians seem to put a lot of emphasis on this point and Putin harbours this image carefully in state controlled media).

What is seriously worrying is the other key reason for his popularity. International bravado. From a super-power Russia fell fast and hard. This left many of the people feeling bitter. The sight of Yeltsin smooching with the West as the economy plummeted and a few oligarchs took the wealth of a nation must have grated. Now here was a man who stood up to the outside world. He said strong words and flaunted Russia’s remaining power – its nuclear stock pile and fossil fuel reserves. One worries when a man’s power and popularity flows from his shows of strength and conflict with the outside world. It is not so long ago that an embarrassed neighbour rose up under similar rhetoric of being wronged and renewed strength.

These are but only passing thoughts, though worryingly borrowed from some wise people. I dearly hope they do not wander from the realm of conjecture to reality.

Whatever you think of such musings, one has to be concerned about a country where a powerful governor can be elected on the official campaign line that he is better than his rivals because at least he admits he is corrupt (such was divulged by the same lady on the train in relation to her home province of the Urals).

The last night on the train rolled gently by and we came into the vastness of Moscow. The train pulled in and we lit a celebratory Russian cigarette. Walking slowly down the platform, bashing into each other with our packs on, we were pretty chuffed. We had made it almost 10,000km by rail in just a couple of weeks with many an adventure and thoughts on the way and here we were…to have fun.

Thilo went off to see the Kremlin and Dave and I wandered the back streets of the central district taking in the atmosphere. A city of contrast, great past, intimidating present and no doubt interesting future.

One last night out on the town. To a techno club via being overrun by young American climbers who had just done Elbrus (they had signed an agreement not to drink a drop of alcohol in Russia as some of their friends had had “drinking problems” when they were 15 - which would be common to most Brits and called growing up – I mean come on, this is Russia) and Dave and I having another one of our long drawn out crazy philosophical conversations that lead everyone around us to think we were losing the plot (thoroughly enjoyable pedantic discussions that were a feature throughout our trip. Then we were packing for the off.

The eternal flame at the Kremlin

Sixteen fascinating and highly enjoyable days with the boys. Packed with katoshka, omul, vodka, new acquaintances and experiences. Our bare scratching of the surface of this world power has set my mind racing. I have a thirst for more which I will, I hope, one day quench. Like the atmosphere in that Kremlin cathedral on day one, it is the juxtaposition of familiarity and unfamiliarity that has gripped me.

...the Jewel of Siberia...

We had flown half way across the world and traveled thousands of km by trains to reach this famed lake in the heart of Asia and in no single way did it disappoint. Lake Baikal is the deepest lake in the world. From steep cliffs it dives deep, encompassing 20% of the world’s fresh water (more than the five great lakes of N America combined) and from top to toe curves some 500km. Asia is being ripped in two and this is the scar. Many many years from now it will form a new ocean, but for now it is a concentration of beauty at the center of Siberia.

We caught our first glimpse from the train as it passed along the southern shore. Though it looked huge, you never got a true sense of its immensity as its thin elongated shape means you can always see at least two shores (at least where we went). We hopped off at Irkutsk, stretched our legs and, via a misled attempt to catch a ferry, headed for the bus station. There we met a rather strange couple of Americans who helped us translate our needs, but alas the bus was full. A few discussions later we were squeezed into a taxi speeding off north through the increasingly empty valleys.

I slept very soundly for the majority of that journey (vodka and poker had taken its toll), but the glimpses on waking were of lightly grassed sloping hills and valleys with the occasional rocky outcrop. A land shaped by the retreating of ice. And then…we arrived. Largely ignoring some rude chaos caused by a couple of soldiers trying to arrange a car queue on to the only ferry to our destination – Olkhon Island – we climbed up the adjacent cliffs and were graced with some of the best views I have ever being lucky enough to witness. Birds and blue sky above, the ground dropped to crystal blue waters and across to the island and beyond. Dingo was rather jealous of the rest of our ease in clearing out our systems – apologies for being so crude but these little things play a big part in any such adventure – an immaculate sensation with such serenity around you as many will know but less commonly admit.

Across the bay that is frozen for much of the year (the original Trans-Siberian railway used to run a track across the ice over the winter period with the predictable nasty accident or two), we sped on again in the taxi, past the odd tiny village and cattle. We arrived at a little village about half way up the island at Nikita’s Guest House. The ex-Soviet table-tennis champion has set up one of the most delightful hostels possible. A collection of wooden buildings covered in intricate carvings and made according to local tradition. A place that genuinely gives back to the community as well as giving so much to those who stay. Peaceful and serene, you can sit in the main hut listening to stories from all round the world, sing and be merry. Not to mention the simply delicious food.

One day the four of us ventured out, across the plain and into the forest with a rough aim of finding the highest point on the island. We were quickly taught a lesson of the extremity of the climate in Siberia. After slowly climbing through the trees for a couple of hours the snow started – in blumin’ June!! As we carried on it blew harder and harder until the tracks disappeared. We ventured further attempting to use signals (knife cuts etc) to mark our path but after a while Dingo and myself decided enough is enough. If we kept on we were likely to lose the path and would need to rely on my compass leading us back to the coast…and then take an educated guess as to north or south as we had no proper map or bearings. Dave and Thilo were eventually convinced to turn round (it took some convincing with Thilo) and soon we had found our way back to the path. Some good Russian sausage cut with my Swiss Army and we trudged home arriving soaked to the bone and rather knackered. No better way to fix this than a banya followed by a hearty meal. A banya is the Russian equivalent to a sauna. A sort of steam room with birch twigs. The less said about the look in Thilo’s eye with a wet flailing branch in his hand and loads of bare flesh to beat the better… very scary.

Perhaps the best views were from the top of the island. We reached the high, sheer cliffs by jeep and my word was it worth it. Coupled with views of a magnificent beach near the village, this looked more like the Med than Siberia. The water is startling turquoise, stretching out to deep deep blue over the chasms beneath. Beyond, the water stretches to cliffs crowned with the last of the winter’s snow. Hopping round stark rock formations, watching the birds and, if you have my imagination, looking down on what just might be nerpa nerpa – the only fresh water seals in the world (OK, I admit they could have just been rocks). I love that place.

On the way back some silly boys' talk lead us to strip off and leg it into the icy cold waters (6-7 degrees C) to the amusement of the ladies who had joined us in the jeep (it is worth mentioning that Jenny was a particularly interesting and fun companion – taking a break from her studies in Irkutsk and Cambridge). I did not last long as my most intimate parts violently re-entered my body and the chills took over. I think Dave stayed in the longest and Thilo definitely came out the worse being a victim of collateral glass from locals chucking vodka bottles out from the beach, but a thoroughly fun experience, if not necessarily recommended.

On the more adventurous side we rode crazy horses along the shore (Dingo just does not get on with the beasts) and Thilo and I had an interesting experience with a bunch of drunk local soldiers. What do you do when a Russian equivalent of a VW camper van tries to run you off a cliff, stops, reverses and a couple of drunk soldiers stick their heads out ushering you to come forth. Well…of course you go over and spend the next half hour downing their vodka to scary multiple toasts, trying to refuse as politely as possible their offer of smoked omul from the floor (a local fish that apears to be the staple diet here) and doing our very best to communicate. When they started to hurtle down the hill to find more of Vodka, we insisted on our exit to their disappointment. We left with positive hugs and shakes. Nice.

Though of all of this and more, it is the Siberian sunset that will stay with me (and no doubt my friends) to times when only a couple of marbles are knocking together in the head. Each day we would climb to the top of the West facing cliff, Dave would build a fire, we’d crack open the bevvies and just stare. Stare out over the water to the far cliffs and the ever deepening reds of the sky. Truly something else, it bought tears to my eyes and left me content. I can only say thank you.

Riding the Trans-Sib to the middle of nowhere…

There are a number of trips that the world offers which have immediate resonance with both those who live to wander and those who do not. Undoubtedly, one of those is to ride the Trans-Siberian railway. For a long time I have looked forward to doing just that. Those I’ve met who have done so give mixed reports. Some are enthralled and others are bored (numerous mentions of millions of trees). On a pissed night with Dingo, a trip to Moscow-St Petersburg was transformed into an attempt to find out just what it is like to ride the rails of the longest railroad in the world – roughly half-way round the globe!

Soon Dave and Thilo were in on the embyonic plan. The potential spanner in the works was that now being corporate whores and all we could only take 16 days – not long for 9,500km. Further, coming into summer we heard that berths can be hard to find and to book at home costs at least $1,000 for the train alone. Solution – go the opposite way to the crowds and buy no tickets at all. So instead of setting off from the capital and heading south through Mongolia into China we stuck to Russia and bought our flights to Vladivostok – the ‘Lord of the East’ – and planned to fly it by the seat of our pants. What is the worst that could happen – late back to work… tragedy.

Now to say Vladivostok is far from London is an understatement. Although it is not on an all too dissimilar latitude, it is in fact just a few km’s from North Korea and just across a short channel of water from Japan. Truly far east. Only Aeroflot (God-bless-em) sell tickets from London and with a most of a day stop in Moscow.

So straight from work via a few pints with Jez (Aussie travel mate from Colombia who happened to be in London), a comedy incident with Dingo nearly pissing his pants on the tube and a landing in Moscow where the passengers gave a earnest round of applause (it concerns me that this practice stopped a generation ago in most parts of the world but continues with verve on Aeroflot).

Moscow the preview:

The main thing that struck me when entering Moscow that early morning were the quasi-futuristic Soviet towers that rise out of the city. Like something crossed between 1984 and Gotham City. Being someone whose early years were spent on the other side of the iron curtain, standing beneath the old ministry of foreign affairs my mind moved to those for whom entrance did not necessarily come with an exit…. Quite likely James Bond inspired biased tosh, but I can’t deny the feeling.

We settled down for an early morning kip beneath the Kremlin (no the guards were not particularly amused) and on waking explored the magnificent old fortress. I was seriously impressed by the grandeur of the setting on the river. Red towering walls enclosing the golden domes of cathedrals and grand palaces. Of all sites, three were most evocative. The marvelously imaginative St Basil’s with its curling and twirling multi-coloured domes (strangely much smaller than I imagined it), Lenin’s cubic tomb (again, like with Mao and Ho Chi Minh I managed to resist the urge to see a little plasticated man – especially as I understand one of Lenin’s dying wishes was to be buried next to his mother in St Petersburg – Stalin was never the nicest or most trustworthy of men now was he) and the Red Square itself. One of those central meeting places of humanity which have an atmosphere unto themselves.

At record 30 plus degrees in May it was a fine excuse to take shade and in doing so take just about my favourite picture of the tip – don’t know why but…… it just curls my grin…

Dingo, Dave and I wandered out into other parts of the city. A strange mixture of real poverty, old soviet tower blocks and obvious signs of new money. The number of luxuries in windows and price-tags on certain streets in the center is mind-boggling. From the cheap side the Kremlin is even more striking with its shine and beautiful gardens . People have told me it pales in comparison next to St Petersburg – now there is a site I must see.

To one side of the Kremlin is the most magnificent church. The old one was crushed by Stalin to make way for a planned super-skyscraper. The monstrosity was never built and now the church stands again. A story of the prevailing strength of religion. On more than one occasion in Russia I saw queues outside churches on a Sunday . More than 70 years of official Atheism seems to have lead to a rejuvenation which stands in stark contrast to Western Europe.

For a brief moment, a sorrowful chorus in one of the cathedrals of the Kremlin knocked me aghast. A faith that was at once so familiar and distant. The lady's voice touched me immensely and I was left with a desire to learn more about this particular stain of orthodoxy.


As always, it was great to see Thilo. After meeting at Moscow airport, we ceremonially downed a beer and before we knew it landed in Vladi – the night is very short when you travel due East.

A weekend walking up and down the gray hills of this once closed city with its grand bay and rotting remnant of the Pacific fleet. It was comic trying to order train tickets while still trying to get my head around Russian Cyrillic script. While achieving such small things we sipped bevies with locals over-looking the pacific stretching before us. A cold place even at this time of year. The recent jump in Russian prosperity has not exactly flowed out to this region, but there are contrasting images from the rot and graffiti in new shops and Japanese tourists.

A rather heavy night out involving being turned away from (likely) mafia run clubs, far too much vodka (of course), mirrors, obscene dancing, saving Dave from himself (no more comments here – that is Bassett by the way) and wee hour street wrestling…..left us with a hangover that was good to put on a train after a bit more rambling.

The old green train to Kiev. It looked exactly as it should and I had a contented smile on my face as I climbed aboard in the dark and waived goodbye to the old rail-yard. We were off and thousands and thousands of km’s lay before us.

Three Straight Days:

Before we had time to explore our surroundings a perhaps overly jolly Russian couple had jumped in our Kupe (2nd class little compartment – if you remember old British Rail swing-doors, basically one of those individual compartments but with swing down beds – very comfortable all in all – sleeps 4, sits – oooh well in our case up to 12…).

Vodka cameout of everywhere and being offered all around. Russians seem to share much on these long journeys and hard alcohol is a core part of that. After a bit of time and one of the boys being made to feel rather uncomfortable by strange flirtation from this buxom woman, we managed to usher them out in as polite a way as possible. A reasonable course of action when you combine our knackeredness with the coincidence (arising from friendliness or other motive) that led people to attach themselves to the only non Slavic people on the train (I use this phrase to include numerous Ukrainian staff on the Kiev train) within moments of stepping on. A few more vodkas and I slept like a baby.

On we rolled for three days. Skirting up and past North Korea, and across the stretching boggy plains that run past Manchuria and Mongolia. For me this was a blissful time and just what I needed. After working into the night in the London legal world, to be “trapped” on a train was ideal. I barely even read. We played poker, explored up and down the train, smoked continuously, and drank. Personally I spent hour upon hour staring out the window as the seemingly endless expanse slipped past. Quite, quite calming. It allowed my mind to breathe. To think.

We found only a couple of others on the train that spoke any English. The nice Ukrainian attendant of our carriage and this slightly odd semi-lawyer type person who seemed a bit like a shadow – like one of those dogs who has been beaten so many times that he would shrink back at barely the lifting of another’s hand. What was even stranger about the latter was his companion. A bear of a man. An ex-soldier who took a particular liking to Dingo. He explained through his interpreter, sign language and sound effects how fucked up fighting had been in Afghanistan and how he killed. His reaction to Thilo (a German) was, as I remember, a greeting of “Achtung…tut tut tut tut tut” or something along those lines. After a few vodkas we wandered back, but not before Dingo had had the life squeezed out of him by the most affectionate of bear-hugs.

Dingo enjoying the experience

The diet on such a journey and indeed in such region seems to be fat, with a bit more fat curdled in fat, with some pickled veg and cabbage on the side. Not great for your guts but good to soak up the local favourite. I swear the meal in the dining carriage could have clogged the artery of an ox. Only a fool would complain to the chef- a most memorable sight – a huge bellied man, in his greased up wife-beater, covered in a few days' worth of sweat. He looked like he should be shovelling coal into a steam engine…. So as far as we were concerned he cooked just fine.

At each little stop you would get off and wander round for a couple of minutes. Nice to stretch your legs, buy some slightly different fatty food, and watch the people of each town come to life as the train came in, bringing opportunities for sale with it. The majority of these places were small, poor and shacky. These are people far from most things in a simply huge country. Only once did we really attempt to break out. That was at Ulan Ude, a large town of mixed Slavic and central Asian folk (very closely related to the Mongols) with large industry. A huge rail junction where trains split south to Mongolia or East as we had come. The book had informed us that the biggest Lenin head in Russia was but only a km or so from the station. As soon as we stopped (for a scheduled 30 mins) Thilo, Dingo and I set off. It felt so free and even naughty to run from the train, up over the bridge and out. We ran like fools in the rough direction but found no head. It is quite a feeling, being out of sight and away from a train with all your belongings on it. Your only back up is that you “think” it is stopping for half an hour. Despite all the potential drama, and after a good run and Thilo staring at some beautiful lady (classic pretending to take a photo of something else and getting caught) we made it back with a little to spare.

Off again and we were getting close to our first proper stop - Irkutsk and on to Lake Baikal. Without a doubt one of the most special places I have ever seen. I opened my eyes and left a part of my heart there.