The planned route (Click to enlarge)

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

26.2 miles of sheet ice and vodka

Several months ago whilst sat in a youth hostel in China we found a discarded and dog-eared Russian guidebook. Leafing through this Hol read about a Winter Games Festival in Irkutsk. A quick consultation of the Oracle (my all encompassing trip planning spreadsheet), and it became clear that we would be there bang in the middle of it. Spectacular luck. Delving around on the internet and we then found an invitation to join the VIth Annual Lake Baikal Ice Marathon. This is the point in the film version of our trip where off-key strings will start reaching a crescendo, the sky will darken amd a roll of thunder will reverberate in the background. Inspired by the irresponsible amounts of brown sugar on the porridge I was eating I immediately proclaimed we should enter. Oh dear...

The small issues of where we would train, the fact that neither of us had run anythink like a marathon before and that the whole thing was across the frozen surface of the world's deepest and oldest lake could wait. To prevent any back out we employed the same trick that got us on the trip in the first place and emailed lots of people about it. However, in the cold light of day we began to realise what we had undertaken to do. One of the few websites we found where someone had thawed their fingers out enough to write up their experiences was by a russian ultra-runner called simply 'Gorkov'. It wasn't reassuring. He wrote:  
The wind was blowing from the south, so the left side of the face required some attention, had to rub it from time to time.  The temperature must have been around -10C, not too bad.
-10 degrees centigrade... in the middle of the day... Not too bad? Holy Jeez. Also, what the hell does 'some attention' mean? Oh, he also said he had to stop and check a compass he had on him when the weather 'deteriorated'. Being lost on top of a giant lake in a Siberian winter? Never before had this been top of my to do list. Considering that I developed chilblains sitting typing at a keyboard in Kathmandu, many would call this undertaking foolish. Yet somehow we have two more people stupid enough to join us, and even a kit supplier to help us get over the ice with their specialist ice running footwear: Yaktrax.

So it is that Tim, Eoin, Holly (for the half marathon) and I will all line up on the icy start line on the 7th March. The course stretches a full 26.2 miles from one side of the lake to the other and, depending on the wind, the course is either up to around 5" deep in snow or is sheet ice. On a good day they say you can see the other end of the course from the start. Other people call this a bad day because of the mental strain of running for hour upon hour through a totally featureless landscape without looking like you are getting any closer to the finish. I assume this is why every 5km there is a refreshment stop. Not your usual Lucozade or Powerbar type fare here though. Hot tea and Vodka.

However, despite all our worries we have managed to crack on with some training. This in itself hasn't been that simple either. Air pollution is a serious problem in Kathmandu. Particulate matter concentrations of heavy metals often exceed threshold values at which human health is severely affected. And the worst time of year? Winter. The bowl shape of the Kathmandu valley traps the cold air causing it to stagnate, the brick ovens fire up and choke the air with black smoke, and the fine dust from the roads gets thicker and thicker with no rain to wash it away. Our first runs we were plagued by sharp chest pains and asthma like symptoms, in part due to the fact the whole city is 1,400m high, but since then we have found certain back roads that have fewer trucks on. That said there are still times when you have to run through clouds of thick black diesel smoke and dust, being chased by a rabid dogs whilst leaping over piles of burning rubbish.

On the bad days the advisories that say even staying in Kathmandu for a couple of days is a bad idea ring in your head, and you question the value of doing the marathon. But then 2 minutes later you turn a corner and you are running towards pink tipped 8,000m peaks tousled with cloud and the sun is dipping behind ancient temples and gold roofed monasteries. Some of my fondest memories of Kathmandu will be running around the valley. Eager kids running alongside you calling your name, misty mornings with the sounds of distant worship carried along rivers, and teams of traditionally robed monks having furious football matches on dusty fields.

We now have under three weeks left working at Volunteer Society Nepal before two of Hol's girlfriends come out. She has been craving lady chats for around 16 months now and we are both getting very excited about the prospect of starting our return trip on 13th February when we will head back into Tibet en route to Russia. I am sure the marathon training handbook doesn't read, "Have large number of rude sounding cocktails and beers with long absent friends in Kathmandu, sit in jeep for a week, sit on train for 3 days solid, go on beers with other friend you haven't seen in 17 months in Shanghai, sit on train for another 3 days solid, run marathon". However, this seems to be our only option. It'll be a huge relief to have finished it and be sat at the, no doubt vodka laced, Gala dinner on the evening of the 7th March. In our heads it is then just a hop, skip and a jump back to Europe and, as long as our knees hold up, we should be in rapid shape for the trip back across Europe on Carlos the tandem. Magic.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Trekking to Annapurna to welcome in 2010

Back in the poor and jobless days of October, there was a nasty moment
when we weren't going to make it into The Himalayas during our Nepal stint. Luckily though, after 6 weeks of working, we managed to justify a Christmas and New Year break in the mountains. So, after a little too much Marmite, chicken tandoori, Nepali beer and brownies (the strange combination of goods indulged in over Christmas) we headed off into The Annapurna region for 9 days of walking.

When we set out on our trek on Boxing Day we were not sure if the weather would permit us to reach Annapurna Base Camp, the highest and most exciting destination of the trek. If it snows at base camp there is a high avalanche risk and being without a guide, we weren't going to take any chances. Being the snowy season, we were braced with optimistic phrases about how unimpressive base camp would have been anyway. But we needn't have worried. On the day we planned to head into the big stuff we awoke to a clear, crisp sky and it remained that way for the next 24 hours.

Walking into the snowy bowl that makes up Annapurna Base Camp, which is surrounded by some of the highest peaks in the world, was one of the most breathtaking moments of the trip. We gazed and gazed and gazed and still couldn't take it all in. Rock broke away from under our feet as we gazed down a 50m cliff to a sea of boulders, brought down from glaciers thousands of years ago. Whisps of cloud flew off the tops of the icy peaks, as if to warn you against even attempting to reach such inhospitable heights. Mile wide glaciers moaned and groaned as the sun went down and came back up. Semi-frozen streams cracked and creaked their way through the snow. At sunset colours turned from blues and whites to pinks and oranges until a full moon tinted everything silver. Melted ice crashed down from mountain ledges and froze solid again when darkness came. Nick and I walked through this colossal land completely alone. Never before have I been so silenced by a landscape.

On New Years 2008-9 we were just picking up the trade winds somewhere off the Atlantic coast of Africa. This year felt almost as remote, sipping on whiskey in a dark stony teahouse, shrouded in the cold mist of the Himalayan foothills. Despite being in bed by 9pm the evening was a charming one. We had a handful of entertaining fellow trekkers to chat too (unsurprisingly, a couple of very enthusiastic Dutchies were the pick of the lot), hot coals to warm our feet by and a huge plate of Dal Bhat to fill our hungry bellies. At 7am on the first day of 2010 we awoke to panoramic views of The Annapurna Range, while golden cloud floated through the valley below us. In Nepal it is considered a very good omen if the first day of the year is clear, which is a relief. All in all, a pretty spectacular way to see in what is set to be a terribly exciting year.

In case any of you haven't heard yet, 2010 is the year of our homecoming and of me becoming Mrs Tuppen. For a long time such exciting (and a little terrifying) events have been a long way off, far too far away to begin to comprehend. Cycling back into Hyde Park has been an unconceivable moment, out there in the futuristic and unknown year of 2010. Suddenly, on the turning of the year, this all changed. Our mindsets did a complete u-turn. We are now on our way home and getting there feels incredibly close.

With this in mind, we skipped along the ancient trails of the Annapurna region full of joy and wonder at everything that passed in 2009, and everything to come in 2010. As if this wasn't mind boggling enough, our backdrop never ceased to leave us in complete awe.

Returning to civilisation after this blissfully simple world of walking from A to B, was a bit of a shock. Minds quickly filled with the admin of getting home; sending passports to the UK to collect our Russian visas, listing every single country we've been to in the last 10 years for the Russian authorities, training for an ice marathon, completing work in Kathmandu, getting permits to travel through Tibet, making sure Carlos is ready for Istanbul... The list goes on. But after an initial panic and finding a bargain happy hour, we happily sunk into our tasks.

One of our more enjoyable tasks was to visit some orphanages in Pokhara where some volunteer buddies were working. One orphanage proved rather entertaining. As hard as we tried to explain that calling a children's home 'The Innocent Children's Center at The Love Company' was not the best idea, the name remains. And despite having been told not to ask for financial aid from volunteers, the manager of this orphanage spent the last week trying to persuade one poor Dutch lad to buy a $700 buffalo for the kids and to fund his retirement. On hearing this we were slightly alarmed to notice that not all the kids had beds. In stark comparison, the other orphanage was a wonderfully homely home kitted out with all the toys, games and comforts kids could want. The answer to such success was a clever chicken farming scheme rather than depending on the wealthy Western folk.

After soaking up all the warmth we could from the Pokhara sun we headed back to our Nepali home in Pepsi-Cola, Kathmandu. A warm welcome from the kids and a plate of 20p momos from our local, quickly made up for the smog and cold. Increased electricity outages and the arrival of a comically talkative and heavily bearded Irishman have hindered work progress considerably. But there's still 30 days left to make our mark in Nepal... we'll see how it goes.

For those of you that want to be persuaded to go trekking, more photos of the mountains here