Do not adjust your sets. We haven`t actually moved yet. Here`s the plan. Kiki (other half) and I both work for the investment bank UBS. We`re giving that up, buying a caravan, spending six months travelling around Europe (then I`m going climbing in China for a month) and then getting married in Crete. After that we`re moving to Seattle, where I have a job working for Microsoft. Phew.
We resigned on Monday. It seems that in order to give up your wordly posessions and take up the life of an idle itinerant, you do seem to have to do an awful lot of mundane organising work. We have to rent out the flat, buy caravan, get towbar put on the car, sell two motorbikes and then work out exactly where we`re intending going...
So obviously one of the key things one should sort of whilst getting away from the humdrum monotony of modern society, kicking back your heels and settling down to a simple, humble existence is... erm... work out where you can get an internet connection. Using GPRS will be crackpot expensive and as yet my brother Tony is refusing to defraud T-Mobile out of anything at all, so I think we`re going to resort to something that it seems is called WarDriving. This, as I`m sure you know (!), is the act of driving around with a laptop switched on looking for open networks. There are lots of websites about it, and most of them seem to be much more interested in collecting data about where these networks are than really using them much (they typically wire GPSs into the laptop, and log the coordinates of where the open network was). My plan was much more a "laptop beeps, screetch to halt and download email" one.
It seems the most popular WarDriving software for a Windows PC is called NetStumbler - I`m going to install this and perhaps have a try with it at the weekend.
So I phoned Elephant to find out whether our car insurance would cover us for this trip. It would appear that, while most of the countries we want to visit are actually covered by the insurance (with the rather odd exception of Andorra, and the more understandable one of Russia), Elephant will only cover me for thirty days out of the UK. "Paul" assured me that they were really quite flexible about that, until I told him that I was after something more like two hundred days, and he bowed out gracefully and said I was somewhat out of luck. I realise it`s going to be tricky for Elephant to actually prove that we have been out of the country for a particular length of time, but given that rather a lot of our belongings will be travelling with us I think it`s not really worth the risk. Time to find someone else, and I`m not entirely sure where to look.
It seems there`s a company called Stuart Collins (http://www.stuartcollins.com/index.shtml) - well actually I think it`s one bloke - who write insurance for ex-pats driving UK cars around the continent. I got a quote from him and it`s about 15% more than Elephant, which is a lot less than I thought it might be. My plan is now to switch to them (him) as soon as we leave the country, currently planned for sometime near the end of April. It`s looking less and less likely that we`ll get insurance anywhere that will allow us to drive into Russia, so we might have to get the train from Finland or just skip it.
We`ve agreed to buy a caravan. It was on eBay and we saw it last weekend - when you buy things you don`t understand very much, you tend to buy people as much as you buy items, and Nick and Lila (the current owners) seems nice, straightforward, honest types. After seeing quite a few at dealers, we reckoned that buying from private individuals seemed to give you more of the ancilliary stuff (awnings, alarms, things to transport water around in etc)... the main perk you get from a dealer is a warranty, and given that we`ll be out of the country rather shortly, I don`t see how useful that would be.
We`ve gone a bit over budget, but I think we`ve got something we would be happy to spend a few months living in, which is the main thing...
We booked a ferry crossing yesterday. After a bit of thinking about routes, we have come to the conclusion that we don`t know what our route is going to be. Having never done this sort of holiday before, it`s very hard to tell whether we`ll like zooming 1000km across country and then staying somewhere for a week, or moving on a small distance every day. Perhaps a mixture. Perhaps we won`t like anything at all.
Anyway - we decided that we do at least have to get into continental Europe at some point, so I went ahead and booked a one-way ferry from Dover to Calais on May 1st. Was only £75 including the caravan - I`ve paid more than 180 for a return journey with just the car, so I thought that was pretty good. We`re travelling out on a bank holiday, which might help as I`d imagine it`s not the most popular time to head off.
We`ll have two weeks in the UK beforehand, during which we`ll hopefully begin to get an idea of what style of travelling we like. As a result of not planning an itinerary properly, we`ve no idea really what parts of Europe we`re going to head to - we`re both still very keen to try and get the nordic coutnries in, but it remains to be seen whether we can really manage the distance or not.
All I can tell you now is that we`ll be in France on the 1st of May, and we`ll be in Greece by the 28th of June (because that`s when I have to fly to China).
Caravan picked up! Coldest evening for a while, and Nick and Lila (the previous owners) were remarkeably tolerant of the fact that we all had to make a number plate, and they had to help us hitch it all up.
We drove to Morrison Towers where it`s going to live for the next three weeks, popped down our legs, gave up trying to work the alarm without the instructions or a torch (both at home) and eventually got home at about half midnight. We might roll up on Saturday and poke around it a bit more, but Grant mentioned that he was laying gravel on his drive on Saturday, so I`m not sure it`s a great day for anyone who clearly owes him a favour to turn up at his house.
So I had a go at trail biking with the other unemployed Raes - Dad (retired) and Keith (studying). Was all rather good fun, though a bit more tiring than the other sorts of motorbiking I tried. I couldn`t believe how light these bikes were - just 70 or 80kg - mine weights at least 200kg and it`s not even a big bike. If you`ve only ridden largeish road bikes, it`s very strange to realise the front wheel is slithering out from underneath you, but that you can remedy the whole situation just by poking out a foot and steadying everything back up again. Much more like riding a bicycle than riding a motorbike, I thought.
We did about two hours worth of it, which was plenty for me. Once you`ve got stuck once, the back wheel turns into a sort of wheel-o-mud and the only way you can clean it off again is to get out of the muddy stuff and drive through some water, or some heather or rocks. That`s all well and good, but when the muddy stuff is the next 100m uphill, all you can do (as far as I can see) is get off and push the damned thing at the same time as giving it a few revs. 80kg it might only have been, but somehow it was made worse by the fact that my father tended to have just zoomed up to the top of whatever slithery muck it was, and would be sitting there waiting for me to finish pushing the bike up before he whizzed off up the next mud-river.
Great fun though, and I think it would be a valuable education for anyone who rides a road bike. Unlike the car, I think most of us road-only bikers would have to admit that we haven`t much of an idea of where the edge of traction really is, and what happens once you go past it. Here you get to experiment a bit with that, without the risk of damaging the bike or yourself very much.
And speaking of that, I managed to have two offs, which I think meant I was trying. The first one happened as I followed dad across a damp patch about a foot wide - he whooshed across it in his usual style, and as I went into it I very gently touched the brakes. Which seems isn`t the done thing. The front wheel went into what turned out not to be a damp patch at all, but the remnants of one bored highlander`s attempt to find Australasia. The front wheel vanished completely, the bike stopped, I leapt energetically over the handlebars into a bog and the bike fell over. My second off came just at the end as dad and Keith drove effortlessly down a muddy track to head back to the road, and I headed behind them looking I`m sure like I`d been doing this sort of thing all my life. Until the front wheel hit went into a rut, the bike went left and I continued straight on at a not inconsiderable pace. I bounced a couple of times on my arm (ow), once on my shin (ow ow) and then came to rest when my head (wearing a helmet, thank christ) hit a rather large rock. Apart from the (borrowed) bike steering not exactly straight, we both seemed fine. According to the telemetry data from my Garmin 305 Forerunner thing (will post a link if I manage to create something online) I was doing about 20mph, and my heart rate hit 180. Not sure how useful that knowledge is, but there you are.
Well, so far I`ve had three real days of unemployment - I`m not counting the ones where I was away trail biking in Scotland, as that was much more like a holiday. I`m only counting the ones where I was in London, Kiki was working and I was being a House Husband without any babies to look after.
I had quite a few things I was hoping to do whilst unemployed, and I`ve done terribly badly at them. I`ve completely failed to go to a matinee performance at the cinema - hopefully I`ll manage this later in the week. I`ve failed to drink ANY beer before 6pm, which is frankly embarassing, and even worse I`ve not watch any daytime TV whatsoever, let alone Trishia. The best I can do is claim to have listened to the same episode of the Archers twice, which is pretty hopeless.
I`ve embarassed us further by letting down our gipsy side as well. Not only have we not bought a dog on a string or any burnt mattresses, to my complete chagrin the caravan now has a number plate that`s exactly the same as the one on the car.
Today I sorted out the MOT and put the SV650 on eBay, then looked further into getting my mail redirected (turns out you need more ID than you do to buy a gun in Wal-Mart) and cashed a couple of cheques. Once again, no beer during the day and no TV. I hang my head.
I`m off to dinner this evening at the Reform Club, courtesy of Steve Hemingway, who mentioned that he was a member after a couple of beers one evening and lived to regret it when I harrangued him until he took us. Maybe I can be a sort of New Pikey?
Next Move (the letting agents) have rented out out flat. To three reasonably young blokes, which alarmed us slightly but we actually met them today when they came around to take some measurements and they seemed perfectly nice. Mind you, most young blokes probably seem perfectly nice in these sorts of situations. They were looking for a furnished flat and, of course, while ours is furnished now it won`t be furnished when they move in. We felt rather guilty pointing out all the furniture we were taking with us, but at the end of the day I suppose it`s rather their fault for renting an unfurnished flat when they don`t have any furniture. They`re going to do an IKEA run... I suspect they`ll end up needing more than they think they do, but I`m trying not to feel guilty about it. We`re leaving them the lightshades, some curtains, a bed and a wardrobe. Oh, and the bath/toilet mats. We`ll need to buy more in the US, but as I pointed out to Kiki there`s a reasonable chance they will not bother buying any at all and just pee on the carpet, so leaving them might be considered an investment.
I got a call from Microsoft today telling me that we most certainly shouldn`t be moving house until my visa application was approved. It seems that somewhere down the line the movers and MS got crossed wires, and the movers are all set to pack up the house on Monday - but MS won`t pay for it. They have a rule that prohibits them paying for anyone`s relocation until their visa is approved, which makes sense really. After a few nervous hours MS have agreed that our move should go ahead on Monday, but that if my visa application doesn`t go through we will have to reimburse them. I can`t imagine it`s cheap, but what can I do? We have tenants moving in on Wednesday and there`s precious little chance of us organising anything else.
I can`t imagine my visa won`t be approved (we find out in 15 days, according to the lawyers) but then I`m not wonderfully keen on staking quite so much on it.
Out to Castle Morrison to pack some stuff into the caravan. We took pretty much a whole car-load but it actually all packed away in the caravan remarkeably easily and we should have room enough for another car-load. Which is handy, because we certainly have another one. It`s rather tricky working out what you need for two and a half months living in a caravan, a month climbing and being at three weddings (one of which is yours). Sellotape? Matches? A notepad? Some envelopes? And how many pairs of socks?
Moving house for us has always been a case of hiring a van, stealing some cardboard boxes and getting on with it. Moving house seems to be something of a different business when a corporate is paying for it. Well, hopefully paying for it. Two gentlemen (in suits!) turned up last week to assess how complex our house move was going to be - they explained that pretty much all we have to do is stick labels on the things that aren`t being packed. We don`t need to put _anything_ into boxes.
And today the movers turned up. It`s 12 noon, and already they`ve got the great majority of the house into boxes, dismantled our sofa, taken our sideboard off the wall (after wrapping and packing all the crockery) and they`re in the middle of taking down the bookshelves (which were of course still full of books). Remarkeably efficient. I do think we`ve packed most of what we actually need with us, but the only thing I`m nervous about is those little piles of things we quite clearly meant to take with us, but hadn`t put in the nominated "things we`re taking with us" area of the house. I was ambling along this morning when I realised that my wallet was sitting on the sideboard, about to be put into a box. I alerted Kiki, who is now unable to find her house keys...
Right. We will be in (nights of):
13th-15th April: New Forest, Hampshire
16th-17th: North Devon
21st-24th (approx): Lake District (Ambleside)
25th (approx)-27th: Edinburgh
28th-29th: Northumberland (Hexham)
30th: Somewhere South a Bit
1st May: France Somewhere
The Lake district is a weekend; Nev Woods will likely turn up for some outdoorsey stuff - we can accomodate a couple of people ourselves but once we`re full you`ll need a tent.
A bicycle made for two
Three days worth of Camping Holiday in Britain and it`s rained reasonably consistently. Must admit it doesn`t entirely seem like we`re getting away from it all - as we chose to start our travels on the Easter weekend, everywhere is mobbed. On the upside, at least we`re not being held up by bloody caravans all the time now.
I know I`m generally metric, but the car puts these figures in miles, and I have to confess to still secretly measuring fuel consumption in mpg. Come to think of it, I`m not even sure what the metric equivalent is.
Distance travelled so far: 160 miles
Average fuel consumption: 18 mpg
Fuel consumption is rather what we expected. In fact, umm, it`s significantly better than my Mazda RX7 was. I think we`re somewhat over the maximum towing weight of the caravan but it`s actually towing fine, probably because the car is fine towing anything up to the size of the average bungalow. Despite horrendous wind yesterday when we started off, towing has generally been okay... I`m not normally nervous driving anything, but it`s taking some getting used to the size of the caravan, mostly when you`ve ended up on a country road with giant ditches on either side and a truck coming the other way. I`m going to have a good bit of practice at this, so I imagine I`ll be an expert just as we get to the countries with the worst drivers.
We had a dinner of Moet & Chandon and Spanikopita (Greek feta cheese pie, as I`m sure you`re aware) last night, to celebrate the start of our jolly. We might have had something a bit more feast-like, if I wasn`t still vegetarian for Orthodox Lent. I`m allowed to eat fish on Sunday, then next Sunday we`re suppose to spit-roast a sheep. I`ve checked the caravan and there doesn`t seem to be any spit-roasting gear included, so we may have to improvise. I`m told a whole sheep isn`t easily purchased in the Lake District, so we may have to stop in at a pet shop on the way and see what they`ve got.
We hired a tandem today. I thought we were going to get about 100m on the thing before having to take it back but actually it was remarkeably easy. We didn`t fall off once, though we had a couple of ungraceful stops. It`s quite a good way to travel as you can balance out the effort during the trip if one of you is an attractive, slender athlete and the other one is a bit dumpy. We followed the prescribed route around 20km, with a rather long pub stop on the way. My attempts to get Kiki to take a photo from the back of it failed, so you`ll have to make do with one of me standing next to it. It`s actually remarkeably good if you`re trying to follow a prescribed route, because the person on the back can read the map. I`m going to try and upload the data from this Garmin Forerunner thing at some point, so you can have the joy of watching exactly what happens to my heart rate when I am sitting eating chips.
We`re off to North Devon tomorrow (Watchett). Autoroute tells me it`ll take two hours, so it`ll probably take three.
Let the words "popular seaside town" stand as a warning. I bet they say that about Southend. In the context of seaside towns, "popular" means that the town has a Butlins, or would dearly like to. For those unaware of what Butlins is, it`s perhaps the nearest thing the Brits have to Disneyland, though depressingly somehow much worse. Whilst Disneyland has months upon end of glorious sunshine and a selection of tasteful themed rides for kids and adults alike in a tastful landscaped garden surrounding, a Butlins venue (for sadly, reader, they are many) is situated on some British excuse for a beach and as the rain passes overhead they alternate between Guess My Brother`s Surname competitions (during the day, for the kiddies) and Beer-Forfeit Fancy Dress Karakoe (in the evening, for the parents). Watchet doesn`t have a Butlins, but its next door neighbour Minehead does, and I bet the Watchites are furiously jealous. All they have is a seafront promenade with an ice cream stall and a couple of gruesome pubs. The sort of pubs that feature white tables, battered faux-leather chairs, TV on Emmerdale with the sound off, more fruit machines than a Las Vegas Wal-Mart and are so brightly lit you think you might have stepped into an interrogation room.
We did have one pint in Watchet. In order to get into the spirit of things, we entered their version of a raffle which involved writing your name in one of a hundred or so numbered boxes on a large piece of paper. As they started the draw, we eyed up the prizes and had a sinking feeling that the small pile of Things We Probably Ought Not To Have Brought was going to have a large faded orange teddy bear added to it. Fortunately not! The large teddy bear was won by someone who looked to me like a twelve-year-old, but as she was smoking she was clearly at least fourteen. She was just about to walk off with the bear when the gentleman drawing the box-numbers out of a hat pointed out that there was some sort of "be sick on vodka jellies" kit that was still to be claimed as a prize, and convinced her to take that instead. We didn`t win anything at all, fortunately.
The caravan site at Watchet was actually rather nice - apart from some (ptooey) St*tic Caravans it had about ten pitches for tourers, all on the top of a very nice bay and pointed directly out to sea. We elected to take the very end pitch (mostly because I didn`t want to have to back the caravan in in full view of two sets of twitching lace curtains), at the end nearest to the entrance. The problem with this was that as we backed in, we stopped all the traffic trying to get out of the site. In the eventuality, this was only one car, and he waited very patiently as we backed up onto some chocks in order to level it, and unhitched. It all went quite smoothly actually, so he didn`t have to wait long. As he drove past, he said "obviously not novices!" out of the window, which made my little heart swell with pride. We`re practically pros! We`re in the club!
The next morning we drove (unhitched, and leaving the caravan) as fast as we could out of Watchet, past Minehead (and past the rather spectacular Dunster Castle, which casts a regal presence gazing out to sea over the Minehead chapter of Butlins) and on down the coast towards Devon. We thought we were staying in Devon, actually, until we realised from the signposts that it was in Somerset. Anyway, we were attracted to North Devon mostly by the "25% gradient" and "unsuitable for caravans" markings on the map, and the road did indeed turn out to be both steep and pretty much unsuitable for caravans. It led us up and down to a town called Lynmouth - a fantastically attractive little village, though a little touristey. Its main theme appeared to be the fact that thirty two of its inhabitants had been killed in a devastating river flood during the 1950s, which they were milking as much as possible. Along with the "Flood Museum" and the "Awesome Power of Water Exhibition" (I`m not joking, unfortunately), I half expected to see the "put your swimming trunks on and ride along the murderous path of the flood on an authentic floating recreation of a pensioner". The flood museum, like a lot of these such places, was unfortunately very detailed on minutiae but a bit scant on what actually happened. As far as I could work out, the two rivers that converged inside the village flooded at pretty much the same time, washed away a large number of the buildings and severely damaged many others. Unfortunately, though, the museum itself had far more pictures of Price Philip (who visited them shortly after the disaster, and again fifty years later) than it had diagrams of where the water went, so I might be barking up the wrong tree. Our parking was running out, so I didn`t have time to investigate further.
Observant readers will know that I have been fasting for Orthodox Easter, to ensure my place in Heaven. Or at least give me enough bargaining power at the Pearly Gates to offset my membership of the National Secular Society. As keen students of Orthodox Easter will know, this involves not eating meat for the forty days of lent and then being essentially vegan for the last week. In the Greek Orthodox Church, "meat" means anything with a backbone - so I can eat shellfish, squid and such. I`ve been eating scampi as well, which I maintain is exoskeletal but I will admit does appear to have the beginnings of a backbone, if not one which would actually provide it with the ability to stand up in the particularly near future. If Saint Peter wants to argue about scampi and backbones at the Pearly Gates, then frankly the queue is evidently short enough to just let me in anyway. I can`t imagine Heaven is teeming these days. Anyway, I`m now into the last week of fasting, so I`m vegan. I managed to bollocks this up within the first hour of day one by absent-mindedly getting out of bed, wandering to the other end of the caravan and eating a Jaffa Cake, which appears to contain Milk Chocolate, and egg. I realised this while still masticating, but sadly couldn`t bring myself to spit it out. Since then I`ve been pretty good... the only time I may have muffed up slightly was when I ate a "vegi-burger" in a pub, which might rather have contained egg. Apparently they often do. It`s a lot harder being vegan than it is being vegi - in a lot of ways I`ve quite enjoyed being vegi and I think I`ll actually carry on doing it for certain meals. Indian food, for example, is often very nicely prepared except for the shitto meat they buy. We`ve all been at that stage halfway through our Chicken Bhuna to find the chewing action stopped short by... something... something quite hard, though a little maliable and definitely not a part of the chicken we were intending eating. Well, vegi indian food contains all the same herbs, spices and sauce but without the "hmm, is that a foot or a collar" moments. So I think I`ll carry on being vegi for indian takeaways. Indians themselves eat a lot of vegetables, so the ones you get aren`t the "bought three weeks ago" effort you get in pubs, but actually quite fresh and reasonably presentable. Anyway, on Sunday I get to eat meat again, which I have to say I`m quite looking forward to. We`ll be in the Lakes, hopefully with our awning erected, and hopefully with weather fine enough we can whip out our as-yet unused barbecue.
One of life`s great pleasures must be sitting in the car listening to a Greek woman pronouncing Welsh place names. Once we`d established that "LL" was pronounced much like "Χλ" and "w" was "ooh", her pronounciation ended up being as good as mine, which is no doubt appaling. I don`t know what the other letter sounds are. What`s "FF"? And is Welsh a phonetic language, like Greek? Who knows. Without the Internet in any meaningful way, I`ve no way of finding this stuff out. I`m not actually missing the Internet as much as I thought I would, apart from those times when you end up idly wondering whether "sport mode" on the car is better for towing, or whether there was always a border between Ulster and the rest of Ireland.
This was by far the longest section of our journey - 500km, compared to around 150km for each of the other days. I`d found the other days much more tiring than I`d expected but this one worked out fine, mostly because the great majority of the journey was motorway. On the motorway you have about 50cm on each side of the whole entourage, there aren`t any overhanging trees and there`s precious little change of you having to reverse up the road to let another caravan and associated tailback through (which happened this morning coming out of the tiny roads around Plymouth). We accidentally timed it wonderfully to spend the latter part of the journey coming up the A5 through the Welsh valleys just as the sun was setting, which gave us a pretty spectacular view of the scenery. We arrived relaxed and buoyant at our campsite, and within about five minute had managed to bury both the car and the caravan in what looked to the untrained eye like a slightly damp patch of grass but was actually a cleverly concealed mud pit. Eventually we unhitched the caravan and managed to use the motor mover and some elbow grease to get it back onto the gravel track (making me think that this motor mover thing isn`t perhaps the complete extravagance I formerly believed it to be), only to discover that the car couldn`t actually move on its own either. As my father may be reading and shaking his head, I hasten to add that I hadn`t spun the wheels until it dug itself into a rut, but had in fact given up as soon as the wheels spun for just a second or two. I`ve been playing with Landrovers and hiking plenty much in muddy fields and I`ve never before seen one that looked quite so innocuous but was quite so gloopy. Eventually (after revolving the caravan and re-hitching it to the car) we managed to find a slightly less soggy pitch and squelch the caravan in, again using the motor mover. I`ve driven the car up beside the caravan... god knows if we`ll get it out again tomorrow. If it rains I`m not sure we`ll ever see it again.
Miles travelled: 700
Average mpg: 18.4
Bottles of wine remaining: 14 or so
Portmeirion is an interesting place. It`s a town that was built almost completely from scratch by a gentleman call Clough William-Ellis and intended to capture the atmosphere of a mediterranean resort. Depending on your point of view, CWE was either a glorious architectural visionary or someone who had more money than sense. Perhaps both. Anyway, he knocked up this village (as far as I can see without much of an idea of where it was going to generate revenue) over a period of fifty years between 1925 and 1975, when he died. The place is run by a charitable foundation, and most of the buildings in it are owned by the hotel (situated at the bottom) and rented out as holiday cottages.
It`s certainly a curio. If you ask me the whole place could do with a lick of paint, but the gardens surrounding are splendid, and apparently house a legendary collection of rhododendrons. I`ve not seen any other collection of rhododendrons, but they looked nice to me. The cafeteria was a bit dilapidated-looking, with a menu featuring "vegetarian option" as one of the dishes. Yum! It turns out that "vegetarian option" was a vegetable lasagne, which I ordered shortly before realising it was covered in cream, which I`m not supposed to be eating for the final week of orthodox easter. I, umm, ate it anyway, possibly in the process submitting to eternal damnation.
The funniest thing in Portmeirion were the tat shops. All tourist venues are required by law to have a shop selling "authentic insert_name_here fudge", or miniature national flags on little sticks. Portmeirion had several of them, with the best one selling all sorts of random kitchenware. I`d be intrigued to know who exactly visits Portmeirion and comes away with a new bin for the kitchen.
After wandering around Portmeirion until we thought we`d justified our £6.50 entrance fee, we wandered off to the Llanberis pass, from where two of the popular approaches to Snowdon (Wales` highest mountain) depart. We were far too late in the day to try and climb Snowdon itself, but we wandered down the Miners` Track for an hour or so until it started getting steeper, at which point we sat down and had a biscuit. Oh, and, umm, I had one with milk chocolate in it by mistake. Sorry Jesus, but being vegan is a lot harder than being vegetarian. I think it would have been much easier in London, which is full of pretentious tossers mucking around with diet fads, but when you`re standing at the food counter of a bar in Betws-y-Coed trying to explain that you don`t eat meat or any animal products you can see them thinking "you`re from London, aren`t you".
So I made a mistake here. I have stayed at the rather nice Great Langdale campsite quite a few times, which lies under the shadow of Great Gable, and Scafell Pike (England`s highest mountain). After looking on their web site and calling to check whether we needed to book or not, we turned up there to discover that they don`t actually take caravans. Tents and camper vans only, apparently. So back up the rather windy road we had to go, aiming for the nearest caravan site that my navigation doofer knew of. After it tried to take us down a road with a 2.5m width restriction we eventually managed to roll up at the site rather later than we`d hoped. As Marcroft and Nev were joining us, we gave them directions to the new site and Marcroft duly turned up shortly after we had. Which was handy, as he was just in time to help us put the awning up. Nev had left London rather late, and didn`t expect to arrive until the wee small hours. As we were about to go to bed (at 1am - something of a record for us at the moment), Marcroft sneaked outside for a surreptitious pee before turning in. After a couple of minutes he bolted back into the caravan saying that just as he was about to relieve himself a man with a torch turned up, pointed it at him and called "miss!". We were a little confused as to why anyone might address someone urinating standing up as "miss", but Paul was so upset by the whole incident he ended up using our Portapotti, which he`d not seemed very keen on earlier.
We all met at the caravan at 0930 the next morning for breakfast. Nev and Lucy had arrived at approximately 1am, and pitched their tent. Nev had just been walking down past our caravan when he spotted a man standing in the bushes. He shined his torch over and called out "Chris", but the man promptly zipped up his flies and ran off.
After a somewhat leisurely breakfast, Nev and I went off to climb Middle Fell Buttress. I use the words "I" and "climb" somewhat loosely in this context, as I naturally wasn`t going to lead anything, and I certainly hadn`t picked the route. Or brought a helmet, or any rope. Basically Nev was going to climb Middle Fell Buttress, but he needed someone to come up after him and remove all the gear, which is what I`m best at in climbing. My entire gear rack consists of a belay plate and a nut key.
It was a splendid climb - four sequential pitches of quite easy rock without too much exposure, apart from the obvious 150m down. Reasonably solid belay stanchions - the only real problem was that there was quite a lot of traffic, and quite a few beginners. We skipped past a couple of groups, but still ended up queueing at a couple of the belays. Still, the weather held up nicely apart from a few gusts of wind. The last pitch we adapter slightly and it ended up being a very nice climb - huge variety of hand-holds, which always makes you feel like you`re making tactical route decisions and not just following the same route everyone else uses.
Miles travelled: 1094
Average mpg: 18.9
Bottles of wine remaining: 12
Now that Marcroft, Neville and Lucy were here, we decided to have a pop at a proper hike. Coniston Old Man (not the Old Man of Coniston, it would appear) seemed like a splendid choice. Well, Nev said it would do, and we all tend to believe him on these sorts of things. We drove down to Coniston in two cars, in case we ended up splitting into two groups, which we didn`t end up doing anyway. We found what appeared to be the car park, paid the princely sum of £5.50 per car as we reckoned we`d be more than four hours, and off we trotted. As we walked up the really rather steep paved hill from the car park, we kept having to stand to the side of the road as quite a large number of cars were still continuing up the hill. As we got towards the top of the now relentlessly steep road, we spotted an enormous free car park and a huge track leading directly up the side of Coniston Old Man. Humpf. Undeterred (though a little sweaty, as it was shaping up to be a rather warm day and that road had really been rather steep) we set off up the Coniston Old Man Motorway. I suspect the track was originally used for slate mining, as it was wide enough for a car to drive up and much larger than the ones on, say, Snowdon or Ben Nevis, so not something the National Trust would likely knock up.
Whilst on the subject of slate mining... there is quite a lot of slate mining detritis on Coniston Old Man. In a way the juxtaposition of rugged mountain and decrepit heavy machinery looks rather charming - my photographer brother Keith would have a field day, no doubt. But in a way it`s really rather a shame that we can`t clear up our rubbish properly. Apart from the remains of buildings and huge piles of slate, there are huge steel cables running all down the mountain from what would appear to have once been some sort of hoisting mechanism. As far as I can see all that`s been done to tidy this stuff up is to pull down the midway supports for this hoisting mechanism, which if you ask me verges on making it look worse rather than better. The mining junk stretches almost to the summit and encompasses a great deal of the next valley, so it`s really quite expansive. I realise when your mine stops paying out your first thought is probably to what the hell you`re going to do to pay the bills, and not what to do about the stinking mess you made of an attractive landmark, but it`s a bit of a pity. Not sure whose fault it is. Probably mine, consuming all these fossil fuels driving around the country taking photographs.
Speaking of detritis, I`m not sure if you`re ever had the joy of emptying a Thetford Cassette Toilet, but as you open the spout and pour, there`s a button you can press on the body of the device which ejects a fine misty blueish-tinged spray of toilet content onto your left leg. Upon consulting the manual, this button seems to be to allow air into the top of the cassette to help you to pour faster. If you ever find yourself in future emptying a Thetford Cassette Toilet, don`t press this button too eagerly, as the level of content must be below the button`s level before the button is pressed.
Where was I? Ah yes, Coniston Old Man. Upon reaching the summit (about 750m climb from our car park, and 550m from the free car park) we elected to head down the ridge and around the back of a lake directly into the town of Coniston, making our walk circular and allowing us to pretend that we deliberately parked where we did. The magnificent weather held all day, as you`ll hopefully see from the photos. Perhaps this contributed to the eagerness with which Nev and Marcroft jumped into the aforementioned lake, then emerged yelping perhaps seven or eight seconds later. Nice sunny day it may have been, but we discovered why none of the other assembled hiking groups appeared to be swimming.
We ended up back at the car after about five and a half hours - we could probably have done the walk quicker but Nev had to stop every couple of minutes to climb something, swim, jump in a puddle, fetch a ball or sniff other Nevs` bottoms. A superb day out in the end - we managed to navigate a slightly novel route without a hitch, everyone was tired but not exhausted and we had sunny weather with a light wind all day. Smashing.
About a year ago, Kiki and I attended level one (of four) of the RYA`s Dinghy Sailing Course, at Stoke Newington Reservoir. We had a super time, but then somehow failed to find enough weekends to do level two and it all rather fell by the wayside. Imagine my joy when a query to 82ASK (text message 82275 a question and they`ll answer it for you, for a quid - more useful than you`d think when you are rather internet connectionless) revealed that we could hire a dinghy in Coniston, just a couple of minutes from our camp site. Kiki politely declined this chance of a lifetime, but Marcroft and I were thrilled to discover that actually every single dinghy was available for hire, and there was a smashing breeze to give us a turn of speed.
As Kiki sat down with a coffee and (sadly) the camera at the lakeside cafe, Marcroft and I leapt enthusiastically into our dinghy. I didn`t remember quite as much about dinghy sailing as I thought I might, and after briefly crashing into the ferry about three feet after pushing off, I realised that one important part of sailing a boat is holding onto the tiller. A few seconds later, though, we were off and making reasonably good speed across the lake. And getting faster, in fact. I let out some sail and steered a little more into the wind, reducing our speed to what felt like about thirty knots as I wondered how in the name of christ we were going to get back to the jetty we`d just started at. We got to the other side of the lake, executed a tack that would have been improved by my holding the rope with the sail attached to it all the way through the turn, and not having the tiller under my leg once we`d turned around. An even faster ride back across the lake resulted in a tack so close to capsize that I am stil largely unaware of what happened. What I hadn`t realised was that Marcroft, somehow, had been under the impression that my cries of expletives and plaitive mumbles about not being as easy as I remembered it were all bravado, and actually I was in complete control of the entire unfolding disaster. As we approached Mach 1 back across the lake, the enormous waves ripping over the bow of the boat as I lay on my front trying to untangle the sail-rope-thing from the steering bit at the back, Marcroft chortled heartily and heaved even harder on the jib thing, which I`m thinking now was perhaps making us go even faster. As I wondered whether swimming back to the jetty was actually impossible or just ludicrously dangerous, fortune finally favoured us. Our forth tack resulted in us facing directly into the wind, sitting on opposing sides of the boat, the tiller somewhere up my trouser leg and the rope thing wrapped around my midrift, the whole setup zooming at a great speed towards a rocky beach on the far shore. We ran aground at a mere seventy miles per hour or so and to my delight appeared to be completely stuck. The force eleven gale was flapping the sails so loudly that we could barely talk and the wind even on the side of the boat was enough to make us feel it was about to be pushed over. We felt the best plan would be to put the sails away completely (they just didn`t seem to be our thing) and try to paddle the boat back to shore with the two canoe paddles we`d helpfully been left in the boat. As we tried to get the sails down, a nice man from the boat hire place in a speedboat turned up and, after a not inconsiderable amount of difficulty, managed to get down the sails, tow us off the beach and take us back to the jetty. The owner of the ferry we crashed into appeared to find the whole incident really rather amusing, and toasted our bravado at taking out a dingy in such hilarious weather, when nobody else would dare. I decided against asking for a refund for the remainder of our two hour boat hire fee (we`d used nearly an hour, though perhaps only twenty five minutes of what might pass for sailing). The chap who towed us back suggested that next time we might like to rent a motor launch, as it seemed more our sort of thing.
Once back on dry land, we took the awning down again - I reckon it`s going to be a good thing to have in warmer countries, as it`s surprising how handy having some of your own outside space is. We failed to get the barbecue going yesterday, and I failed to buy the necessary connector today. Hopefully we`ll get one in Edinburgh, and then we can start cooking outside a bit.
With a jaunty 9am start, I gave my sister Joanna her first driving lesson - something I agreed to at a some what late hour in the pub last night. I probably wouldn`t have done it if the rest of my family hadn`t looked quite so horrified by the idea. Jo doesn`t have a provisional driving licence (though she`s 18) so we did it in the sports club car park across the road from my folks. Given that the car is automatic and possibly not the hardest thing to drive (I`m struggling for a while trying to think of something harder), it all went jolly well. Apart from one brief moment where she either had better spatial awareness than I`d given her credit for or was about to drive into a tree. Tricky call.
Continuing my Trying New Things ideas, I had a go at some fishing with my brother Keith. He`d arranged to go with a friend of his (Ronny) and I rather rudely tagged along. Still, they were very good natured about it. Keith spent a goodly while teaching me to cast and by the time we got to the end of the afternoon (which was quite soon, as we`d turned up at four and the place shut at five) I think I was pretty much casting like a pro. I was very pleased to have caught more than Keith and Ronny, but discovered later that the idea was to bring fish out of the loch and not fling the shrubbery behind you into the water.
As soon as we got home from this hunting expedition, I finally made the racketball date my mother has been asking me for for about three years. Previously I`ve always found an excuse to get out of it before, as I had a speaking suspicion that my mother would be past the point of letting me win in case I got cross. This time, though, the excuses had run out. We tried to play doubles - racketball is very similar to squash but with a more springy ball, and the way racketball doubles work means that the person on the team best placed to hit the ball hits it - you don`t take turns, except for the serving. Teaming me up with Joanna meant that she was pretty much always in the right place to hit the ball, and I found that my niche in this game involved seeing where the ball was going and ambling out of the way so that Joanna could hit it. Mum spotted this fairly quickly and I landed up in a singles game with her instead. She pretended to miss a few shots, gave me as many lets as I needed on service, started forgotting to count up her own points and then realised that even the combination of all of these efforts was going to result in me losing badly and getting cross, and stopped counting completely. Towards the end of the game I was actually managing to hit the great majority of shots with the stringy part of the racket, but I`m not sure ball sports are entirely my thing.
I can`t be bothered writing multiple entries for multiple places any more, so you`ll just have to make do with Things I Wrote Since The Last Diary Entry. Perhaps people would prefer that, who knows.
As some (either) of you may know, we were at Stuart and Nicola`s wedding in Hexham. More specifically in Langley Castle, which isn`t really in Hexham at all but it`s close enough. We booked a caravan site near Haydon Bridge and headed down from Edinburgh - as we didn`t leave until 2pm or so, we didn`t arrive until after ten. The fact that it was dark was indubitably a major contributor to the fact that we went off in the wrong direction just before reaching the caravan site, into someone`s drive. During the somewhat laborious process of getting out of this person`s drive backwards (something we discovered the next day that we didn`t have to do, as there was a turning area) I managed to gently nudge a telegraph pole with the caravan. Pictures of the damage are on this site, should you be the sort who relish in the misofortune of people swanning around without jobs. There`s nothing actually broken, just a small bit of bodywork remoulding and some brown paint that wasn`t there before. From the look of it some sort of previous damage had occured on the same corner of the caravan, and been filled in a little.
I went for a run before the wedding - pretty much my first one since we started travelling. I`d been making brash boasts before we left about perhaps running every day, but that really hasn`t happened. Anyway, I ran off and decided to continue down the narrow country track that our campsite lay on, which wound nicely through the lowlands just next to the river. After about 0.5km, it turned left up a hill and didn`t stop climbing until the clock nudged twenty minutes and my heart rate hit the highest I`ve ever seen it. I ran back down again in that sort of half-running, half-falling way that people have when they appear at an oasis after being in the desert for three days.
The wedding was a rather irreligious one, to the point of excluding any religious words from any of the readings, vows or any music played (no Robbie Williams` "Angel" here) so I was quite keen to see how it went. The venue was really very nice - it`s a large building in nice private gardens, but I have my doubts as to whether it was ever really a castle or whether it was some sort of 1920s folly like Castle Drogo. I didn`t have that many doubts really, as I could probably have asked someone at reception and they`d have told me. At the time I was more interested in drinking beer and Kiki was more interested in dancing. Something we both managed to keep up all night, and strangely although Kiki was the one up on her feet all night, it was me that fell over.
The non-religious ceremony was good, and the parts that could have been awful ("and now Nicola and Stuart will read the vows they wrote themselves") were actually quite touching. Strangely, though, there`s still a part of distinctly atheist me that enjoys church weddings more. I`ve always believed that we should take out of religion what we can before we ditch it - this always included buildings and festivals, but I never thought about including actual church ceremonies. Perhaps as we become less and less religious, we`ll also think of ways to pep up the wedding ceremony. At the end of the day you really just need the bride and groom to tick a couple of boxes and everyone can fuck off, but somehow now that everyone`s dressed up to the nines and have all filed in here, you need something else. What better than some religious nonsense that nobody listens to anyway?
After losing the sweepstake about the combined length of the speeches, we settled down to some nice boozing and the whole evening went very nicely. I don`t think I`d realised how much I`d miss the company of other people whilst travelling - we generally keep ourselves to ourselves on the campsites and the only people we actually socialise with are people we already knew, who we come across en route. This will of course be happening less and less as we go through Europe, so perhaps we`ll eventually have to start chit-chatting to the caravan fraternity about diesel engines and stabilisers.
And as a practice, here`s some stuff about stabilisers. For the caravan dunces here, a stabiliser is a device that clips onto the towing end of the caravan and stops the caravan and car moving laterally independently so easily. There are a few different sorts, but our one is a whole new tow-hitch on the caravan which grips the towball with carbon fibre plates instead of just metal. These provide a damping action - the overall idea is to stop the caravan swinging around willy-nilly in high winds or when trucks pass you. Anyway, ours has been working very nicely but making a rather loud creaking noise whenever we turn around corners. This is pretty much hidden on the motorway, but rather visible when you are driving down windy roads through the middle of small towns or trying to pitch up on a campsite where everyone else is asleep. I replaced the friction pads like the good caravanner I am, but it didn`t seem to help much. A quick search on the internet (at our pre-France internet pitstop in Kent with Grant and Tiffany again) revealed that I just needed to sand the towball down a bit in order to stop the noise. I borrowed Grant`s electric sander and we buffed away for a few precious minutes together, but that doesn`t seem to be quite enough. It`s much better, but it`s not gone away. Fortunately I stole one of Grant`s sander pads, so I can have a further manual grind tomorrow. Keep your eyes glued for an update.
And so into France. I`ve done the UK->France trip rather often on the way to the Nürburgring so nothing much was different apart from the 55mph average motorway speed. We decided to drive all the way down to Paris on the first day and after negotiating two comparatively hairy road systems into and out of Paris we ended up at our campsite near Rambouillet at 21:59, which was fortunate as they closed the gates at 22:00. The pitches were all rather dainty little ones surrounded by hedges, and we had our own electricity supply, water tap and waste water disposal. It said it had a bar, but the sign on the door of it (it looked like a pretty shit bar anyway) claimed that it was "exceptionally closed".
And so off to the Palace of Versailles, where of course the treaty that ended World War One was signed. We both expected it to be a, well, palatial affair well outside town but in actual fact it`s slap bang in the centre of Versailles. Inside it`s the usual fare for a palace with some splendid roof paintings, mostly done by the same chap. I forget his name - he was Louis XIV`s personal artist, and apparently back then an artist would as much a project manager than anything else, and would allow students of his to do the great majority of the actual painting while he sat around defining an overall vision for the piece. And no doubt drinking wine and humping court ladies, or men, or whatever he fancied. Anyway, his name`s on the bottom of a lot of the ceilings (does that work?) and jolly nice they are too. Actually I couldn`t see a lot of the rest of what was in there because of the truly breathtaking throngs of tourists taking photographs towards the ceiling (see pictures attached).
We were finished with the palace in about an hour, and outside are some amazing gardens. Despite being right in the middle of town, I`m not joking when I say that the landscaped part of Versailles` gardens extends pretty much as far as the eye can see. There`s a steady slope down to two man-made ornamental lakes - I tried to involve Kiki in a dialogue about how hard it must be to make a symmetrical ornamental lake but she seemed to think it was a silly sort of a conversation. Presumably you`d have to have entirely flat ground to start with, which must have been a real job of work in the sixteenth century. If anyone wishes to discuss this, please give me a ring.
I know I said I`d post our European itinierary on the first of May, but this hasn`t been sorted out yet. Right now we`re thinking we`ll stay here for another couple of days and then head to Switzerland, but we`re not quite sure. What we do know is that we have to be back in this direction - Reims to be precise - for Mark and Marjorie`s wedding in a fortnight.
Miles travelled: 2045
Average mpg: 18.5
Bottles of wine remaining: 8
Countries visited: 2
For those unaware, "bouldering" is the art of finding a piece of rock - not necessarily a particularly big one - and clambering up it in an ungraceful fashion. Sometimes there are prescribed routes one must take, and sometimes you just have to get to the top. The reason it gets a special name and isn`t just called "climbing" is mainly because you don`t ever use any ropes, as the rocks aren`t high enough to cause you much damage from falling off. A particular route up a particular boulder is generally known as a bouldering "problem", and climbers give them tossy hippy names because they`re just crazy, and way out there.
South of Paris is an area famed around the world for its bouldering - Fontainebleau. I seem never to be able to pronounce its name properly as it starts off with a slightly squiffy version of "fountain" and ends up with something that you expect to be the colour bleu but is actually bleau. I tend to pronounce one half of it properly and the very act of doing that makes me mispronounce the other half. So generally it`s Fountainbleau or Fontainebleu. Anyway, the reason it`s famous with boulderers (look it up in the dictionary, I challenge you) is because the town is surrounded by a sandy forest full of lots of oddly placed rocks averaging around two or three metres high splattered around much as if they`d fallen there specifically for boulderisation (don`t look it up). I don`t know how they got there, because the lady at the tourist office wanted EUR25 for the guidebook. For the same reason, we didn`t really get any bouldering done. Our rock-climber sandals-in-the-house type friends Dan and Nicky told us that it was very easy indeed to find where the bouldering was to be had - they had colour coded paths through the forests demarking various levels of difficulty, and only a child could fail to find them.
We tried, we really did. We eventually found a little signpost which showed the colour codings, and then set off into the forest to find either yellow (embarassingly easy) or white (children`s) boulder problems. After about two trees we lost the yellow path completely, and then eventually had to make do with following the blue one. We had no idea what difficultly level it was supposed to denote, but there were a lot more blue marks on trees than yellow ones. Eventually we came across a boulder with a blue star on it. Does that mean "climb me"? We peered at each other for a while and neither of us seemed particularly eager to give it a go, so on we wandered. Someone`s helpfully covered all of the paths through the wood with about two inches of fine sand, so moving a hundred metres takes you in the region of an hour. Eventually we followed some blue daubs up to another boulder. On it was painted in blue what appeared to be a bathroom tap - perhaps this meant "climb this one, starting left a bit" or "climb the one around the corner". We elected not to climb it at all and continued. The next one had a large blue letter "Z" on it. Does this mean "move to the right a bit, climb diagonally leftwards and then come off to the right again"? As the following one had a letter "Y" on it, we deduced that it was instead some sort of sequence that we were working backwards in. Perhaps the bathroom tap was a new special French letter (of the alphabet), introduced to stop people Frenchifying English words instead of using the French ones. As we`d got up rather late, it was now somewhere around six in the evening and neither of us were any closer to swapping our loafers for climbing shoes, so we elected to call it a day after a couple of staged photos. Where did we go wrong? Well, we didn`t have a guidebook. And I think at the end of the day neither of us are quite keen enough on bouldering to just leap at something and give it a go, and we were both a bit full of lunch. Oh, and there was nobody else there apart from a couple of old ladies walking a dog. I think if we`d spotted other feckless unemployed youths jumping around doing their bouldering stuff, we might have plucked up the courage to have a go at one too.
And so onto Eurodisney. I`ve been to both the other Disney parks, despite them not really Being My Thing, so it seemed a shame not to complete the set. After forking out EUR8 for the special Disney parking, we then had to pay EUR108 to get two people into the theme park and Disney Studios (which are next door to one another, but unconvincingly separate attractions). Having already blown two days` worth of our budget it seemed a shame not to fork out a further EUR15 for two British Rail sandwiches that had been lightly toasted a couple of days before, at the Disney New York Sandwich Somethingorother. I`m sure writing New York on something makes it more valuable, in a similar way to housing it in brushed aluminium and having a couple of LEDs on the front.
The studios and the main theme park are largely indistiguishable from one another - there are a few more plants in the theme park and the studios have a very slightly film-ish bent to them, but there`s only so much you can theme a rollercoaster. Oh, and speaking of which, I went on my very first one. The Aerosmith-sponsored "Rock and Roller Coaster". I`ve always maintained that I quite enjoy a bit of zooming-around excitement but only really if someone`s given me a steering wheel, some bits of string or a stick and told me that I`m in some way in charge of where the thing is going to go, even if in real life I`m not much. I always thought being chucked around on a roller coaster was a curious way to want to enjoy yourself. Well, it is and it isn`t. The being-chucked-around part wasn`t all that much fun, but I did quite enjoy being upside down and I couldn`t help but marvel at the engineering work that was in the thing. For the petrolhead in me, there`s also quite an enormous amount of oomph needed to fire the little carriages up some really quite considerably steep slopes at quite a pace, which is rather jolly. Afterwards, Kiki didn`t want to get into a conversation about whether it was powered by compressed air or not, and seemed much more interested in how worried she was that her handbag was going to be rock-and-rollered into cyberspace on the steep bits. On the upside, I don`t think I actually heard any of Aerosmith`s music, which was being poked into my head through speakers in the seats.
Also in the studios was an Opel-sponsored cars-skidding-around show. It wasn`t called that - it was called something so breathtakingly crap I couldn`t actually spoof it. "Moteur Action Stunt Show Spectacular!" I think. I`ve been to a few cars-skidding-around shows, but this one was definitely the best one. They had a splendid big film set of a village behind it, and a huge big screen on which you got to see the main presenter (yes, presenter) introducing the cast (yes, cast) and the other two presenters (yes, two more) introducing and training the various members of the audience who volunteered to take part (no, not driving). The fact that it seemed to have to be presented in a mixture of French and English meant that the presenters all had to talk twice as fast as a normal human being in order to keep up, which made things even more thrilling. Having arrived half an hour early as instructed, we then had another half hour or so of geeing-up the audience before any cars actually turned up on stage. The premise was that they were pretending to be shooting stunts for a film, and there were various car chases with a goodie in a red car and some baddies in six black cars and two black motorbikes. Actually, once it got going it was all quite well done. The whole thing was very well coordinated and the car-chase aspect of it was quite fun. The audence participation was pretty rubbish but no doubt necessary (they basically all just had to run away screaming in one "scene"), and they gave away some interesting tricks as to how things were being done as the show went along. What they didn`t give away was how the six Opel Corsas chasing the good guy (in something that looked a bit like a small 1980s concept car) were all rear-wheel drive and sounded like motorbikes... I tried to take a picture of the underside of one after the show but failed. They all had blacked-out windows, and I imagine when the chap said "these are all prototype cars" during his "don`t try this at home" speech, he wasn`t kidding. I doubt they`d ever seen an Opel Corsa. The motorbikes which featured in the show also appeared to have some sort of cutout switch to ensure that wheelies didn`t overcook, as you could hear the engines stop and start as they wheelied across the stage. All that said, though, it was mighty impressive driving. Obviously I told Kiki afterwards that this sort of thing really wasn`t all that hard, and it was just politeness that stopped me getting out of the Waitrose car park that way.
The main theme park is all much the same thing - it`s well done, rather cheesy but juuuust not cheesy enough to feel hatred towards it. It was certainly busy - the big rides had queues of up to an hour, and queuing space for far more. Disney are masters at the art of queueing - every ride has a twisting, turning lead up to it so you can`t actually see how many people are in front of you, and you get to look at a different photo, or animation, or robot for that particular ten minutes of your queueing experience. They place you nice soothing music, and you can rather see they`ve done this before.
Once you`ve finished your little train-tour of how special effects are made, featuring Jeremy Irons (only on a TV, I hasten to add), perhaps you`d like to get lost in the Alice of Wonderland Maze. I wondered for a while what Lewis Carroll would have made of all this, but that was soon superceded by wondering what Mark Twain might have thought of it, and particularly what he might have thought about having the Authentic Paddle Steamer Ride named after him.
An enormous amount of the whole park is about stuffing your face with food. Apart from the aforementioned sandwich and an ice cream, we didn`t really eat, but I`m not joking when I say that about half of the attractions in there are restaurants of varying sorts. If you do ever eat in there, I`d recommend the Blue Lagoon Restaurant. It looks rather romantic, and the Pirates of the Caribbean Authentic Floating Log Ride Thing goes straight through the middle of it. I`ve no idea what the food`s like, but I`d imagine the whole place has pretty similar "better than adequate" nosh.
I failed to collect £10 from Marcroft in return for a picture of either myself or Kiki being given a piggyback by a popular Disney character. I did look out for any opportunities, but they never came up - there weren`t any characters wandering around shaking hands with everyone, and there didn`t appear to be plastic effigies of them anywhere either.
I am due an apology to an ant. A number of ants had made our car home as it was parked outside our flat in Stoke Newington, and before I could stop her Kiki coaxed two of them out of the door in the Eurodisney car park. Language barrier aside, I think they`ll have a really tough time coping with weather and if they`re reading I do wish them the best. Perhaps it`ll turn out to be a blessing in disguise.
Back in 2000 or so, I visited a restaurant in Paris with Emmett and Marcroft, at Emmett`s recommendation. We had a splendid meal and a great evening, and it`s been in my mind as one of my favourite dinners. As we were at Versailles, I think Kiki was mighty impressed with my dropping "I know a little place in Paris we could pop into for dinner tomorrow", though perhaps let down slightly when I had to phone Emmett in Bahrain to find out what it was called. On the way back from Eurodisney, we did indeed stop off at what I now know is called Brasserie Flo (7 Cour des Petites-Ecuries, Entrance from 63, Rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis) and had a jolly nice dinner. The atmosphere of the place is very convivial and it`s a little off the beaten track - you really feel like you`re eating dinner somewhere that the French go. I`m not sure the meal came up to quite the standards of the one I recalled with Marcroft and Emmett, but I`d also not drunk several pints of beer beforehand owing to having the car with us and, well, Disneyland not being really that sort of a place.
Miles travelled: 2505
Books read: C:2, K:2
Bottles of wine remaining: 7
Countries visited: 2
I`ve been to Zürich before but really only passing through on hiking trips - I`ve never stayed for a sustained period of time. What a fantastic place. Very attractive, clean, superb public transport, and within fifteen minutes drive of the city centre you can be swimming in the nice clean lake or partaking in what`s indubitably some of the best mountaineering in the world. OK, maybe a bit further for the mountains, but you can cetainly be hiking within fifteen minutes. And it`ll be somewhere with nice paths, and unobtrusive but accurate signposts telling you where you can go next and how long it`ll take.
The campsite we`re staying in is probably the second-worst we`ve been in, after the Betws-y-Coed mudhole. Everyone`s wedged in much as if it was a dealer`s forecourt rather than somewhere you`re supposed to live for a while. You have to pay CHF2 (just under a quid) for the showers, and they close the front door between midday and 3pm, and don`t give you anywhere to park temporarily. When we called them up and they said "just turn up!" they didn`t mention that one. Oh, and the electric points are all at one end of the pitching areas, so we had to push the caravan right across the gravel when we found our cable wasn`t long enough. Anyway... this site is great, because it`s smack in the middle of town. No doubt that`s why everyone else is here too.
We left France early in the morning (well, 8:30, which seems early now). After arriving in Zürich we went to visit Kiki`s friend Kalina and peer at her new baby, over in Uetikon on the east side of the lake. Now I`m not against babies, but they don`t hold my attention for too long when they can`t talk. So much more interesting to me than the baby was the two African Grey parrots that Kalina`s husband Dan had in a very nice aviary. One looked more like a rat than a parrot, due to having pulled most of its feathers out as a declaration of discontent at being removed from the breeder`s cage and put into Dan`s. It`s really quite a poignant protest - to make yourself vulnerable and immobile (she can`t fly) in a situation you distrust is somehow almost worse than suicide. I do fancy keeping birds again myself, but probably not parrots. I reckon one of Dan`s could have taken my leg off.
Back across the lake by ferry at Dan and Kalina`s suggestion, and a fine one it was too, and out to dinner with Kiki`s Croatian friend Jasmina and a selection of her chums, who mostly worked for UBS or were Croatian. I always feel somewhat humbled by people who can speak more than one language flueuntly, and the effortless way in which this lot switch from English to Swiss-German and Croatian was quite depressing. I was tempted to make up a new language and pretend to chatter it to Kiki, just so I didn`t look like a small-town boy. After dinner we headed to a club called something like Shipyard (in Swiss-German, obviously) where apparently the trendy young people of Zürich hang out. And us, for an evening. Dancing not being my sort of thing, I managed to do my characteristic sway for a little while before someone told me I didn`t have to, and I could instead stand outside drinking beer.
Off for a spot of rugged outdoorsness the next day with Jenny Allan, who generously took us for the standard Tourist Hike, involving a super cable-car ride up to a ridge (I want to call it Ffestiniog, but I think that`s in Wales), then an hour and a half walk along to a nice mountain-top restaurant with splendid view of the city. Ate some food (over budget again), looked at the views and then back the same way again. Out for dinner in town with Jasmina again later on (over budget) and then I drove back to the caravan site leaving Kiki and Jasmina to talk about boys, which they did until somewhere around 01:30. Not entirely sure how Jasmina`s monday work performance was.
Sorry, this isn`t very interesting, I`m not sure how I can spice it up. Perhaps you`d like to hear my medical woes? I`ve had what appears to be a fairly minor eye infection over the last couple of weeks but now it`s got a bit worse. Now that my eye is, umm, largely crusted over, I elected to go to the doctor. There`s a nice walk-in medical centre next to the main station, and after you`ve taken your ticket there`s about an hour`s wait before you get to see a doctor. Anyway, I did all this, the doctor pronounced (in perfect English, as usual) that I did indeed have an eye infection and gave me a prescription for three different antibiotics (cream, drops and pills). I knew I`d have to pay for this but I honestly had no real idea of how much it would be - I`d have been unsurprised by anything up to £200. The appointment with the doctor cost me about £15 (very reasonable, I though) and the prescription around £35 (for three items, so not too bad). I may be able to claim this back from our Boots travel insurance, but I haven`t looked into it yet. The doctor kindly altered my prescription slightly so that I can start drinking again before Mark and Marjorie`s wedding on Saturday in Champagne...
Unless anyone tells me otherwise, I`m recommending not bothering with Lichtenstein. The main town, Vaduz, looks much like Switzerland but a bit more industrial and with a bit less impressive scenery. In my personal opinion.
Highlight of this day-trip was driving into Austria by mistake. Like Switzerland, driving on motorways in Austria reqires a permit, or vignette, a little sticker that goes in the windscreen which you can buy at motorway border crossings. As we crossed the border in a town but ended up on a motorway we realised we were in fact fugitives from Austrian law. After we managed to get off the Austrian motorway and cross the Swiss border in another town, to avoid unpleasant questions about our lack of a Vignette, we realised that my passport was in safe keeping at the campsite back in Zürich. We gave the border control chap my driving licence instead, smiled a lot and looked foreign - he pointed at the "naughty people" spaces they had reserved and told us to park oofer zair for a minute. After about five minutes he turned up, gave us our documents back and waved us in. I imagine that the five minutes involved him phoning Interpol; running our digitally scanned number plate through a worldwide database of stolen vehicles; electronically cross-referencing our ID details with the UK`s own systems and then comparing the retinal scans they`d secretly taken against a worldwide gene database to see if we had natural tendencies to crime. Or perhaps he went back into the booth and consulted with his colleague. "Ist this ein passport?" / "Nein" / "Hmm... ist student cart?" / "Nein" / "Zis picture look like zat guy out zere in de beemer?" / "Yah sure, I say so. He has a wery distinctive noze" / "OK, danke".
At some point we saw a truck on fire on the motorway - I`ve a feeling it might be in Austria, but as I`m going to claim not to have been on an Austrian motorway, let`s say it was in Switzerland. Traffic was stilll running with one lane cut off, and the heat from the blaze as we went past was quite extraordinary. It didn`t look like an overly flammable cargo, so I`d imagine driver was safe and well. I`m afraid the photo doesn`t really cut the mustard, but Kiki wouldn`t let me take any more as we got closer.
Bear with me, I have to hype this one up a bit as it`s the most exciting thing that`s happened so far.
Tuesday saw yet another very pleasant night on the beers in Zürich, this time with Kiki`s mates Tanja and George. Tanja is former-UBS and they`re also unemployed, having spent over a year pootling around the place, including six months living on a boat sailing around Australia. Which they made sound rather fun, but I`m not exactly sure where we`d fit it in.
Anyway, early start to Wednesday because they`d stayed with us in the caravan and George had to pick up his camper van from where he`d left it in town before the parking charges started at eight thirty. This also meant that Kiki and I started early heading to Interlaken, which was actually only around 150km away. Thanks to Nev Woods and UBS London (for doing some superb research on what to climb up near Interlaken, and for paying him as he did it) we had some fine ideas. I`m sure Nev wouldn`t mind if I quote his text messages verbatim, just in case anyone else was looking for stuff to do:
"Walk up to Keine Scheidig, or catch the train and walk back to Grendelwald"
"Mannlichen is very nice but may be too high this early in the season. Interlaken is lovely and low or get the Grindelwald yellow bus to Bussalp"
"From Kscheidegg there`s the Eiger trail, walk to Lauberhorn, or into Alpiglen at the base of the north face"
"Was it you that borrowed my Grivel G12s?"
Despite all this fine research, it`s now looking a bit less likely that we`ll do this. About two thirds of the way to Interlaken you pass through the village of Lungren. I probably couldn`t tell you much about Lungren as it`s just outside one the tunnels the Swiss enjoy making so much - once your eyes have adjusted to the light, you`ve already passed through the town.
As it happens, though, I can tell you plenty about Lungren, as that`s where I`m sitting now. There`s a steep hill coming out of the south side of it, and almost as soon as the car had grumpily kicked down a gear and started hauling our home up it, there was a rather loud "pfffsshht" noise and a not inconsiderable amount of steam and liquid started pouring out from under the left hand side of the bonnet. It`s a busy single-carriageway road and not a very wide one, so as it looked like steam and not smoke I elected to look at the temperature gauge instead of out of the window, and stop in the next place we possibly could. As we struggled up a steep winding hill many miles from home in a foreign country pulling an enormous caravan with clouds of smoke billowing around the car, the BMW chirped up with its typical German humour. "Ding!" it said, in that soft way it does, as if the elevator you`re travelling in has now reached the executive washroom. "Ding! Check coolant level", it said on its little LCD screen. Then, as the clouds of smoke began to obscure my view of the steep mountain pass ahead, it did it again, just in case I`d missed it. Perhaps I was asleep.
Fortunately there was a small level-ish gravelled area in a hundred metres or so, at which point we turned the engine off and peered at the steam for a while. I began to feel a little uneasy. Kiki`s heard me rambling for hours in the pub about cars of all shapes and sizes, and as far as I could see she had decided her role in this escapade was to sit there muttering "bollocks" and sighing every so often, whilst mine was going to be to fix the car. Not wanting to be shown up as a tire-kicker, I announced that I was going to fix the car. I`d taken the precaution of once finding out where the bonnet release catch was, and so I pulled it energetically. The bonnet opened nicely on some little hydraulic pistons (ah, BMW) and there was lots of shiny engine stuff for me to get started fixing. I expected a few more silvery bits, but it seems 7-series BMW owners prefer to be confronted by lots of bits of black plastic instead, no doubt to make it all a bit quieter. Quite a lot of the black plastic had been sprayed a fetching shade of green by copious quantities of coolant, so using my Car Fixing Skills I followed the trail of the greenest parts to the radiator, where a rather large hose appeared not to be connected to a rather large hole nearby. "Ahah!" I said out loud, to impress Kiki. "I think the Radiator Hose Connector has become disconnected". I thought for a while as to whether there was a more impressive automotive word which meant disconnected, but I couldn`t come up with it. "Bollocks", said Kiki. The hose had one of those hose tightening clamps around it but it still appeared to be holding onto a little ring of plastic inside the hose - there was yet another small broken-looking ring of plastic lying on top of the headlamp cover. The part on the radiator also looked sheared, so it seemed that somehow the connector had really just shattered as we started climbing up the hill, leaving the hose and probably the radiator spraying coolant everywhere.
It was at this point that my automotive knowledge somewhat let me down. How much pressure is there normally in a radiator hose? Since the Lancia blew up I always watch the temperature gauge like a hawk and I knew we`d not been overheating - was it coincidence that it had sprung off as soon as we started climbing a hill? Or just coming out of a town with slow traffic? Was this a symptom of some much greater car malaise? Blocked radiator?
Kiki had started to read a book and I could see my "useful man to have around" points diminishing at an alarming rate. Everything had cooled off a little bit now, and I undid the hose clip on the waggly end of hose. And here, dear reader, I did the only piece of Motor Diagnostic Work that I was quite impressed with. To stop the broken end of the radiator connector disappearing down the hose into the engine, I held the hose pointing down at the ground as I squeezed it gently to see if I could get the bit of plastic out. The bit of plastic shattered into three bits, which fell out onto the ground (phew). The lone ring of plastic that had flown onto the top of the headlamp cover broke just as easily when I prodded it. Was it because the plastic was hot? Are they always this brittle? All these are actual questions, incidentally, please send me text messages if you know the answer. Anyway, there did seem to be juuust enough plastic left on the radiator`s connector to reattach the hose to it using the circlip, so I did. I managed to get Kiki out of the car - superficially in order to inspect my superb motor handiwork, but mainly so that when the car burst into flames it wouldn`t have been wholly my fault. "Let`s call the AA", she said.
The AA wanted £500 to cover me for six months, so I explained that that wasn`t an option. "Bollocks", said Kiki.
We decided to refill the coolant and try and see if the car would drive at all with my bodged repair. After putting all of the coolant I had with me (500ml) in, carefully using the 50/50 water mix stated in the car manual, we started just pouring in water. The outside temperature was somewhere around 20 degrees C, so I reckoned the chances of freezing at night weren`t all that high, and if we overheated we could just wait for a bit. After using up all of our drinking water I checked the manual to discover that the coolant system holds a flabbergasting twelve litres of the stuff. Kiki wandered down the hill to the town to get some more water, and when she got back announced that she`d spotted a campsite on the other side of the lake. I ran down to the site, knocked on doors, tapped on the window, rang the phone number but found nobody and waddled back up to the car. Basically the options were:
Plan 1: Carry on over the pass (about 6km, and we`d no way of telling when it stopped going up and went down) to Interlaken (about another 20km on motorway on the flat), which is a large town and will almost definitely have a BMW dealer
Upside: Whatever happens, it`ll be closer to a BMW dealer
Downside: We could get stuck somewhere on pass that`s not as easy to stop as where we were already; car could overheat and, well, die
Plan 2: Pitch the caravan where we stopped in the lay-by and try to drive the car to Interlaken
Upside: The car will be stressed less if there`s no caravan, so we might get further
Downside: Caravan might get nicked/broken into
Plan 3: Head back down to Lungren, plop the caravan in that campsite in the hope that they`ll not throw us out, and then work out what to do
Upside: Very good chance of making it there, as the car won`t have warmed up before we stop
Downside: The car may need to be towed somewhere with a garage
Plan 4: Call ADAC (German recovery company which operates across Europe)
Upside: Car will get fixed, somehow
Downside: May cost £££ as we`re not members; caravan will cause problems (will they take us to a site? Doubt it)
Plan 5: Pitch caravan where it is; call ADAC
Upside: Car will get fixed
Downside: One of us will probably have to stay with caravan for... days?
If you choose option 1, turn to page 14. If you choose option 2, turn to page 6. If you decide to stay and fight the dragon, roll one dice and turn to page 4. If you skipped through these options, I can`t really blame you. I did when I was rereading it, so they might even be wrong.
We went for Plan 3. Fortunately, just before we left, the chap at the caravan site phoned me (I assume they must have got caller ID, as nobody answered when I phoned) and told me we`d be welcome to stay there. We crawled down the hill with the car dinging and telling us about how much coolant we didn`t have, crept slowly into the campsite and pitched up. I walked back into town and fortunately found a general car repair place with a Swiss gentleman who spoke excellent English and told me he`d turn up at our campsite the following morning to peer at the car.
Well, it`s now the following morning and he`s just been. He thinks (as I do) that it may well need a new radiator, which is probably going to be expensive and time-consuming. I`m going to drop it off there (I can get to the garage before the car gets warm) at 11:30 for a better diagnosis. Whilst we are technically itinerants, we`re due to be back in Reims (about 550km away) for Mark and Marjorie`s wedding on Saturday, and we`ve also pledged Vassili and Anna and lift there from Paris. Right now it`s Thursday and we`re stranded in Switzerland with an undriveable car which probably needs a part that`s going to come by post. Hmm.
Distance travelled: 4872km (it`s no good, I`m switching this to Metric)
Books read: C:2, K:4
Bottles of wine remaining: 5
Countries visited: 5 (UK, France, Switzerland, Austria, Lichtenstein)
As it became apparent that we were unlikely to get to Reims by car, we bought a train ticket instead. It involved getting the last train from Lungern to Luzern, then another from Luzern to Basel and then the sleeper from Basel to Paris. As we`d pledged to pick up Vassili, Anna and Ioana in Paris, we opted instead to hire a car at the Gare du Nord as they had no other means of getting to Reims on time for the wedding. Our return journey was on the TGV to Berne, a night there and then back to Lungern via Interlaken - I`m sitting writing this on the train to Interlaken.
As our first train didn`t leave until after 9pm on the Friday, we decided it would be rude not to take the cable car up the mountain directly next to our campsite. It`s a rise of about 900m to Turren, at about 1600m, and then a chairlift ride up another 400m to the summit of Schoenbüel. The lady at the booking office assured us that the large restaurant at the top of Schoenbüel was indeed open, despite us being distinctly out of the skiing and hiking seasons. When we got to the bottom they started the cable car especially for us and we shared the ride up with some mechanics, who in turn started the chairlift for us and plopped us onto it. As we approached the top of Schoenbüel we`d seen a grand total of zero other tourists, and as we alighted from the chairlift the only people there appeared to be a very nice elderly German couple sitting looking at the view. We found a restaurant employee who answered "no" to our "sprichen zie Eenglish" question, and "non" to our "Francais?" followup. The jolly German tourist weighed in to help us - he knew no English other than "I eem seeventee seeven!", but this certainly beat us not knowing the German for "food". He and Kiki managed to establish that the restaurant was willing to serve us either "chicken nuggets" or "fish nuggets". We got the feeling that we ought to be thankful for even that, so we opted to have a plate of each. We admired the truly splendid view for about ten minutes before the lady in the restaurant put on some sort of nineties pop compilation CD, which sadly you could also hear if you were sitting outside.
We`d not paid for the chairlift ride back to Turren, so we headed down to look for the "road" that the woman at the bottom insisted would lead us nicely back to the cable car. As there was still a reasonable snow covering in a lot of places, we ended up on a rather more novel route to the cable car, which I like to think of as Kiki`s Swiss mountaineering baptism. I suspect she likes to think of it more as Chris failing to find the proper way back.
In the evening, our two Swiss trains arrived with Swiss precision and the French sleeper from Basel to Paris was predictably difficult to sleep in. If anyone has any ideas about how to actually sleep on a train, plane or ferry I`d be delighted to hear them. Earplugs don`t help me much and either drinking beer or taking sleeping tablets just serve to up the ante, because if you don`t manage to sleep you`ll be even worse off the next day. My idea of going for a run shortly before we left seemed to help a bit, but I still got the feeling that if anyone whispered my name during the journey I`d have heard it.
The wedding went well - Reims is in the heart of the Champagne region, and whilst driving around you go past the gates of many of the famous champagne houses. The reception was held inside the Ruinard grounds, and so naturally the only thing you could drink all night was Ruinard champagne. This sounds good on paper and it certainly was rather splendid, but once you`ve had a few pints of expensive champagne it has a slightly syrupy feel to it and at 4am I couldn`t help finding myself imagining that the drink in front of me had magically transformed into Stella. After a fairly long and quite involved service of an hour or so in a quite magnificent church, followed by a transfer to the champagne house for some drinks. This was a somewhat welcome interlude for us, because we hadn`t got changed yet. Our original plan was to arrive in Reims on the Friday and, no doubt after a couple of drinks with other wedding guests, get into our finery on Saturday morning and then head to Paris to meet Vassili and Anna off the Eurostar and whisk them back down to Reims for the service. As our car was sitting in Switzerland with its legs in the air, the plan now required considerably more time for us all to get to our hotel in Reims, get changed and _then_ head to the service. Eurostar weren`t very keen to bring their timetable back an hour, so what happened instead was that we completely ran out of time to get changed and instead arrived at the reception just as it started, wearing our civvies. We hid fairly successfully at the back; at the end of the service the guests wait outside the church to greet the bride and groom and as they approached the groom looked at me with a horrified expression. "Where`s the kilt?" he said nervously, as I looked at my trainers and muttered some humble excuses. I discovered subsequently that he wasn`t so much offended by my lack of vestigial deference to his nuptuals, but concerned as he`d promised the French contingent at the wedding the spectacle of a man in a skirt with no pants.
Once at the champagne house we didn`t start eating until around nine, and the food carried on coming until the two (French and English) wedding cakes were dished out at what must have been about 2am. There are no speeches at French weddings, so the bride`s father was doubly impressive by not only making a very good one but making it whilst seamlessly switching between French and English. Roger, one of the two best men, has to be congratulated for making his whole speech in le very finest English schoolboy French, which je understoode particularlement well as ca est what je can parlez aussi.
Whilst others danced, I spent most of the time at the reception avoiding a progressively more drunk French gentleman who was insisting that I sung him Flower of Scotland, and showed his wife what I had underneath my kilt. He kept telling me that he was okay with me showing his wife my undercarriage, but I had difficulty getting him to understand that his acquiesence wasn`t really the obstacle. Whilst attempting to get out of the singing part of the deal, I mistakely used the phrase "maybe later", and he came and found me every half hour to remind me. At about 3am I was cajoled into singing the first two lines and then decided that if I wasn`t drunk enough now to solo the whole thing, it was unlikely to happen. As I made my customary one trip to the dance floor to sway incompetently for two minutes, the gentleman seized his opportunity, whooshed onto his knees and took a rather good flash photo of my hirsuit posterior and the rearward portion of my testicles. Delighted that I had turned out to be wearing everything he hoped, he ran around the dance floor to show the snapshot to his delighted wife, and then continued to proudly show it to the great majority of the guests on the dance floor, who peered at it with quite an interesting variety of reactions. It`s the first time I`ve ever had a critical public appraisal of my testicles, and personally I don`t think it went too badly.
Compared to Switzerland, I couldn`t help not being bowled over by France. A lot of the place is somewhat disorganised, the streets are just a bit dirty and a disappointing proportion of people working in the service industry are either rude, incompetent or both. Perhaps our view was coloured somewhat by the fact that we spent a couple of hours hanging around the Gare du Nord railway station, which I`d imagine most French people wouldn`t count as their most appealing tourist attraction, and perhaps it was because we`d been staying in a particularly attractive part of Switzerland.
Ah yes, and the continuation of the car saga. The chap phoned me on Friday to say that the car would be ready to pick up on Saturday, and that there was actually a problem with something as well as the radiator. He told me what the part was in German, but that didn`t help very much. I got the impression that he meant the radiator issue had been caused by this other thing, whatever it is. We`ll hopefully pick the car up and get the no doubt sizeable bill this afternoon - perhaps I`ll have more of an idea then of what else was wrong with it, or perhaps I`ll never know.
Distance travelled: 4872km car, 1115km train
Books read: C:2, K:5
Bottles of wine remaining: 5
Countries visited: 5 (UK, France, Switzerland, Austria, Lichtenstein)
If you`re reading this because you secretly enjoy hearing about other people`s misfortune, especially those on holiday, then the final bill was CHF1,417.10. It works out to be something like £630. If you`re also interested in what it was that was wrong in a car-person sense, pray read on.
I do have a photograph of the bill but GetJealous appears to scale photographs to just about the point that you can barely see them, so I`ve no doubt it would be unreadable. It says:
Kühler [radiator] CHF550
Kühlmittel [coolant] CHF36
Arbeit [labour, I think]
There`s a breakdown here, but basically the total is CHF336
Then there`s some tax and stuff to top it up. The chap tried to explain to me that something else had broken which he thought caused the radiator damage - no doubt this is the Lüfterkupplung. I know nothing about that word other than that I`m intending using it as the name of my band. Any ideas?
It impressed me that the labour cost barely £150, especially that he actually came to visit us on the caravan site and then came out on his bicycle to rescue us when we broke down in the road. I`m also jolly pleased that the breaking-down-in-the-road incident wasn`t the car overheating and breaking something major. Oh - and I`m now even more sure that the car didn`t overheat when the hose first popped off, because I looked it up in the manual and it`s one of the car`s Priority One Dings. So, non-moving temperature gauge aside, it would have told me we were overheating if we were.
After driving around a little in our newly repaired motorcar, we upped sticks and moved to "Manor Farm", the campsite near Interlaken that we were aiming at sometime around a week ago. In some ways it`s been a handy reminder to avoid places that say "popular with Brits" in the guidebook, as the buggers are all over this place. I think around half of the cars parked here have British registrations, which is something we`ve not been used to over the last few weeks and somehow makes us feel a bit less impressive about how far we`ve gone. On the upside, though, they had a convertor to change our power cable to a Swiss one and they told us where we could get our UK gas cylinder filled up. Gas cylinders on the continent not only employ different connectors but also pump gas out at a different pressure - it always amuses me that pretty much the only power connector that`s homogenous throughout the world is the car cigarette lighter, which clearly was never an electric socket to start with.
We were very pleased with the size of the pitches here, until we realised we`d used two by mistake. After correcting this we discovered that there are little drains you can poke your waste water tube into to save you carting the stuff across the site, which is rather neat. Or perhaps we`ve been caravanning for too long.
There are two main tourist areas around here, so being tourists we went to them. To the South-East, Grindelwald is a ski town not dissimilar to Chamonix and faces directly onto Wetterhorn, Schreckhorn and the Eiger - three of the most impressive mountains in the Berners Oberland. The Eiger is doubtless the most famous, its North Wall ("Eigerwand") having been centered upon by Nazi Germany in the 1930s as a suitable objective to prove its might. After a few teams tried and failed, Heinrich Harrer finally managed it and then wrote about it in his book, "The White Spider". He also wrote a more famous book called "Seven Years in Tibet", which is about something else. I haven`t read either of these books but I do own a copy of TWS and I thought I had it with me, but I don`t. Partly because of this lot but mostly because it has places to get pissed in, Grindelwald is pretty popular with Brits.
The second local tourist trap is the Lauterbrunnen valley, headed by the Jungfrau - one of the more spectacular Swiss 4000m peaks. The valley itself is steep-sided and contains legions of spectacular waterfalls which drain the surrounding peaks of snow and carry off the water from the glaciers Kiki and I are permanently melting by zooming around here munching fossil fuels. About two thirds of the way down the valley are the Trummelbach Falls.
The Trummelbach Falls have to be one of the most impressive ways to see the raw power of falling water. They have eaten through the rock to such a degree that they`re now tens of metres underground and for eleven Swiss Francs you can see them by walking through a network of tunnels that some enterprising people have dug. Presumably because of variations in rock density, they take a rather curious path including at least a couple of sections where they seem to corkscrew back on themselves. Once underground the noise and spray is quite incredible and viewing the falls is really a surprisingly visceral experience. The most spectacular parts are in the rock maybe a hundred metres or so above the valley floor, so the enterprising Swiss people have made a rather pointless underground elevator to get you up there, instead of the perfectly good steps that you use on the way down anyway. The elevator has completely glass sides to it, presumably to impress you with the engineering work involved in making an underground elevator because there certainly isn`t any view. It must be amusing for the chap who operates the lift, seeing all of the tourists peering around the place during the journey waiting expectantly to see a giant waterfall out of one of the sides of the elevator, when in actual fact they`re just going to see a rock-hewn elevator shaft. I can only assume they got some Swiss equivalent of lottery funding. "We`d like to apply for a million Swissies to dig some holes under the Trummelbach Falls. What`s that you say? Five million minimum? No, that`s fine, I`m sure we`ll think of something".
Whilst getting the camera soaking wet, I was amazed to see the difference between my flash and non-flash waterfall photographs. It would appear that the flash reflects spectacularly upon the mist coming up from the falls rather than the waterfall itself - there`s an example of the difference in the photos below.
Whilst in Grindelwald we decided to come back and try to climb Kleine Scheidegg, a 2000m peak which sits above the town and below the face of the Eiger. Well, I say "we decided", but it was more an act of persuasion on my part, and I`m not sure what I`m going to do when it turns out there`s not a Mulberry factory outlet on the top. Fortunately for Kiki it poured with rain right on cue as we woke up the next morning, so it`s been postponed to the following day and I`m now sitting in the caravan writing this instead.
Oh, and talking of sitting in the caravan, last night we had a game of Command and Conquer in the awning. Because Kiki insisted on working from home until about an hour before we were thrown out of the flat, we failed to ship our broadband equipment to the US and, after some trouble working out which plugs would fit where, we eventually got the networking stuff to work here. The game CDs were in both laptops, so we sat in the awning in the pouring rain to the familiar sounds of "missile launch detected", and such. We have to play against the computer rather than each other, in the interests of marital harmony, but it was quite a fun throwback to life in London. I can`t see us doing it very often - we`re living quite an outdoorsey life at the moment and I`ve no doubt there`ll be plenty of time in future for peering at computers, both at work and at home. Having moved the television onto and off its stand every time we pitched up for the last month we`ve eventually extradited it to the boot of the car, because we`ve not yet switched it on and it`s looking increasingly unlikely that we ever will. I can`t say I miss it, though I would rather like to have Radio Four back...
Distance travelled: 4960km car, 1115km train
Books read: C:2, K:6
Bottles of wine remaining: 4
Countries visited: 5 (UK, France, Switzerland, Austria, Lichtenstein)
We were supposed to be climbing Kleine Scheidegg today but as it was pouring with rain we didn`t. As I`m now lacking a Book Club to ramble onto about the books I`ve read, I`m going to write it here. I`ve not written a book review before so bear with me.
I rather enjoyed this book - it basically follows two members of a Hungarian national basketball team around the country for a few years in postwar communist Hungary. I don`t know whether Fischer is Hungarian or not (his paragraph-bio claims he`s a Brit) but either way he`s certainly done his research and the book is as much about life, death and politics in Hungary as it is about basketball. Actually there`s not a lot of basketball in it, so perhaps that`s not hard. One thing that makes me hope he`s a Brit is his use of words I don`t understand. If anyone would care to let me know what the following mean, I`d much appreciate it:
You need to actually know what they mean, rather than have a guess or think you`ve heard them before. Answers on a postcard.
The book has a quite charming tone to it, and Fischer does well at following two characters at once. In some ways the plot is a bit directionless but he gets away with it by sticking in a healthy chunk of Hungarian history to keep you happy. I found the second half a lot easier to get through than the first - I think his prose can be a little sticky to read and the language improves as time goes on.
Readers who were also members of Book Club will know that we score books one (good) to five (bad) in the three categories used by the Hardens` restaurant guides - food, service and ambience.
We were supposed to be climbing Kleine Scheidegg today but, well, we didn`t get up in time. It`s a hard life.
The Rough Guide to Europe says that the Jungfraujoch "Top of Europe" cable car ride isn`t worth the ludicrous amount of money they want you to pay in order to go on it (about £70 return) and that instead those desperate for a high-level cable car ride should go up the Schilthorn (£35 return). There are advertisements for the "Top of Europe" one pretty much everywhere in this area of Switzerland and the postcard photos from the top of the thing are so numerous you can`t help wondering whether perhaps you have been there after all. The Schilthorn is marginally less heavily advertised, but the adverts are much worse because they home in on the fact that On Her Majesty`s Secret Service was filmed at the revolving restaurant they have on the top. They`ve even written "007" on the cable cars, in a horribly un-Swiss tacky moment.
And while on the subject of Swiss Tack, I do think that the cable cars are it. Whilst the word "understated" would pretty much sum up the rest of Switzerland, the cable cars add a bit of Butlins to the world`s most sensible country. I`m in two minds about the things - they undoubtedly give a lot of people the chance to take in views that they wouldn`t otherwise, but they do completely spoil the countryside. I know how irritating it is to spend two days climbing a remote mountain peak and eventually hacking your way over the summit cornice in wind so hard you practically have to lie on your stomach, to discover that the focal point of the view on the other side is a group of seventeen Japanese tourists eating Mister Frostees at the Airborne Cuckoo Clock Authentic Swiss Restaurant And Funicular Railway on the peak opposite. I think many of these railways and cable cars (the Jungfraujoch and the Schilthorn being prime examples) were built with the technological achievement in mind rather than any environmental considerations - I wonder whether in fifty years, when the technological achievements seems a lot fewer, they might start taking them down.
Because I took the cable car right to the Schilthorn`s revolving restaurant, I feel somewhat unqualified to say that it shouldn`t be there, but I can`t help feeling it shouldn`t. The blurb at the bottom proudly states that the cable car and restaurant were built because mountaineers had proclaimed the Schilthorn to bear some of the very finest views in all of the alps - I bet the mountaineers have clammed up now about what contains the second-finest views. As I sat admiring the view in what I hoped was a mountaineery sort of a way, my concentration was interrupted by an Englishman and an American at another table having the most preposterously high-volume hair-brained discussion about Christinanity and what it meant to them, the high point of the conversation being the phrase "well, you can`t just die and then there`s nothing after - what`s the point?". And perhaps this is the worst thing about the cable cars and funiculars - as well as providing those less mobile with the possibility of ascending to the top of the alps, they also provide those with thirty five quid and a spare afternoon the chance to get pissed, talk about the weather or pick their noses at the top of the alps. Surely that can`t be right.
I`m a huge Kurt Vonnegut fan, so when he announced that he was quitting writing books on account of being too old it was a pity but not a great surprise. Anyway, all of a sudden out popped this book - it`s not a novel, and more just the general ramblings (and some artwork) of an old man fed up with the way society seemed to be going. The doodles are classic Vonnegut, though perhaps not as good as the ones in Breakfast of Champions, and the prose is instantly recognisable - probably because a lot of the novels comprised general grumblings about life instead of the more conventional "plot" approach. I think it would be fair to say that his main gripes are American imperialism and human beings "making whoopee" with the few remaining fossil fuels - the former I can understand entirely and the latter... well, guilty I suppose. And I did feel rather guilty, perhaps for the first time, as he outlined exactly what we were doing and why. I also felt rather guilty when I read that people should never use semicolons, as they only ever did so to prove that they went to university. I`m doing my best.
I can`t help feeling this will be his last book - not least because he`s getting rather old now, but because he really does seem rather fed up. Perhaps that`s what being old does to you. I`m not sure who will succeed him as honourary president of the American Humanist Society, but surely nobody can beat his acceptance speech when he took over from the dearly departed Isaac Asimov with the words "well, old Isaac`s up in heaven now".
Hardens Restaurant Guide Scores (1 good, 5 bad):
All this for free. And you still complain.
First things first. To demonstrate that we truly are modern, switched-on sorts of people, we immediately seized upon the advice of "Michael", who wrote on our message board: "If you make it to Interlaken, don`t forget to visit the Hooters bar there - it`s THE spot to be seen in that fashionable Swiss town". I`m assuming Michael is Mixalis Masouras. If not, we took the advice of a complete stranger. Perhaps that makes us even more modern and switched-on.
I`ve never had the pleasure of going to a Hooters bar before, and especially not with my future wife. They have an interesting selection of signs with appropriate sorority humour (the toilets are labelled "used beer disposal") and the waitresses wear shorts that would best be described as underpants. Also rather a lot, though not all, of the other customers were men. The food was actually jolly nice, and not too badly priced either.
After polishing off our Hooters Burgers and bidding good day to our waitress, we wandered outside into the rain and peered into the windows of the Rolex dealer right next door, who is probably anxiously seeking a new commercial property. All over Switzerland people are very keen to sell you preposterously expensive mechanical watches, and to explain to you just the fiendish amount of work that goes into making something that is dashed nearly as accurate as the quartz clock in your microwave. Some of these are really quite pricey. It wouldn`t take you long looking in shop windows in the average Swiss town to find a watch made by a company you`ve never heard of on offer for more than thirty thousand pounds. Why do people want mechanical watches? It`s a comparatively little-known fact that Rolex make quartz watches - they restrict the proportion of them to less than 5% of their total output, and they claim that demand doesn`t really exceed that. They`re no cheaper than the mechanical ones. Obviously there`s a huge amount more art involved in making a decent mechanical watch than there is in making a quartz one, but it`s almost refreshing to see people buying watches more because of the challenge involved in making them rather than their timekeeping qualities.
On Sunday we eventually climbed Kleine Scheidegg. It`s a 1000m climb covering only around 7.5km of ground, so it`s fairly a relentless uphill plod. As you reach the top there are splendid views of the North face of the Eiger, and across to Wetterhorn and up to the Jungfraujoch. I can`t verify the splendid views, because there was a fair amount of cloud around the place when we did it. I didn`t like this hike very much - not because of the poor views, which are never a great motivator for me, but for a number of other reasons. First off, for about two thirds of the way you follow a very similar route to a nearby tarmac road - there`s something somewhat depressing about sweating away plodding up a slope only to find that the view from the top of this particular section is of a man driving past you in his rusty Nissan Sunny. Secondly, like many of the tourist peaks in Switzerland, it has a bloody great funicular train driving up it twice an hour. The hiking path pretty much follows the train line, and as you come into view of the Eiger Nordwand you see at least four chairlifts going in various directions for the ski runs. Once you finally reach the top, after some four hours of quite invigorating hike, you find a large railway station which serves as a junction between the Grindelwald and Lauterbrunnen valleys for the Jungfraujoch railway, amongst others. And four restaurants, a few hotels and the obligatory shop selling you Toblerone and Rolexes. We took the train back down again, but I`m now a bit fed up of this. The next mountain we climb up is going to be served so poorly by public transport that everyone at the top will be wearing hiking boots.
On the way back down, Kiki took a rather good photo of Manlichen, the next-door mountain that she wanted to continue up to but I couldn`t much be bothered. No doubt the shop on top had some extra-special new Rolexes in stock, or perhaps the cable car was the longest brown-coloured eighty-two person cablecar in southern Switzerland, but we sadly missed it. If anyone wants a higher-resolution version of this photo (or any others), drop me a line as the GetJealous pictures are rather small. You`re likely to have to wait until we have broadband again to get it but I`ll stockpile emails.
The next morning we headed over to Zermatt without the caravan for a spot of tourism. We have a Rough Guide book which seems geared somewhat towards backpackers, so when it said "the only way to reach Zermatt is on the spectacular narrow-gauge MGB trainline", I didn`t realise that Zermatt was in fact a car-free town. We ended up getting the train from wherever the road ran out. It was the second train of the day, because earlier we`d loaded the car onto a rather neat train not unlike an open-topped Eurotunnel to circumvent the Grimsel Pass. It`s a bit odd sitting in the car zooming along in pitch darkness.
Zermatt is very attractive, though entirely geared towards the tourist industry. Instead of cars it has legions of small electric vans, most of which appear to belong to hotels. To contribute to the general air of motor-vehicle free peace and quiet, the only other things that are allowed to drive around are bloody great diesel-engined trucks. So instead of a general hum of traffic you have silence for periods of a few minutes, interspersed with what seem to be the loudest trucks known to man.
I was keen to go to Zermatt not just to peer at the Matterhorn, but because I`ve been reading "Scrambles Amongst The Alps In The Years 1860-1869", by Edward Whymper. He was an artist sent on a commission to the alps who turned professional climber, and actually went on to explore a great deal of Greenland and claim many first ascents in the Andes. If you`re looking for a book about the alps and have already read Killing Dragons (Fergus Fleming) then I can`t recommend Scrambles enough. Whymper takes a great interest not only in the climbs themselves but in local diseases, how glaciers are formed, the digging of railway tunnels and anything else that crosses his mind. It`s a fascinating glance back into an era when a single person could invent a new sort of tent, and then the next week come up with a controversial proposal about how glacial moraines are the result of rockfall onto the glacier, and not the excavated glacial detritus at all.
The book is full of Whymper`s own drawings, and I`d been looking through it to see if I could recreate any of these as photographs. I`d earmarked a couple that looked possible during our Zermatt trip, but in actual fact the weather procluded either of his two Matterhorn views (one from the Riffelberg hotel, which still exists, and the other from the Thedule Pass - now serviced by ski lifts of various sorts). The one photograph I thought I might manage was one entitled "The English Church at Zermatt". My sat-nav device from the car had a "point of interest" that was optimistically titled "Anglische Kirche" or somesuch, and I was sure I was onto a winner. Kiki heaved a familiar sigh as I whipped our my TomTom (umm... that`s the sat-nav device) and chased it around town enthusiastically. We found the church and I took a couple of photographs - the whole area appears to have been built up substantially but I think I got a reasonable shot, despite leaving out some of the foreground. Both Whymper`s and mine are below. If anyone else has a copy of this book and is interested in trying to seek out any others then please let me know - I think the side-by-side shots would make a great coffee-table book. No that I have a coffee table right now.
The Matterhorn was a great preoccupation for Whymper, who eventually climbed it in July 1865. Well, I say "climbed". There was always a lot of idle speculation as to whether George Mallory, who died whilst attempting to climb Everest in 1924 but whose body has yet to be found, actually summited and died on the way back down. Although the logical evidence points somewhat against it as what most view as the crux of the Everest climb was still some way above him when he was last sighted, the idea is at least supported by the statistical fact that 80% of Everest deaths occur during the descent. When Edmund Hillary was asked how he`d feel if photos on Mallory`s camera revealed that he had indeed summited, Hillary said that he`d regard it as a magnificent achievement, but to say that you`d climbed a mountain you really had to come back down again too.
Edward Whymper and his whole team were certainly at the summit of the Matterhorn on July 14th 1865, but unfortunately four of them got to the bottom a lot quicker than the others. One of the more inexperienced members of his party slipped and fell, dragging off French guide Michael Croz and another two British climbers. Whymper and Peter Taugwalder braced themselves to take the strain on the rope, but it snapped as it drew taut and the four fell to their deaths. The rope, it transpired, was a flimsy one they hadn`t been intending climbing on and there was much speculation at the time as to whether Taugwalder had deliberately put this rope between himself and the inexperienced Brits, or perhaps even cut it intentionally. Both of these theories are now regarded as pretty unlikely, and the whole incident has just served to intensify the Matterhorn legend. You can climb the Matterhorn more easily these days, but rather than being a fantastically tricky climb (though it`s by no means easy) it`s rather a lottery as the primary danger is from rockfall, which is heavy and constant.
All of those who died are buried in the main church at Zermatt - I must say it was really quite a sombre moment for me standing by the graves. I couldn`t help recalling the last lines of Whymper`s chilling chapter "The Descent of the Matterhorn":
"Climb if you will, but remember that courage and strength are not without prudence, and that a momentary negligence may destro the happiness of a lifetime. Do nothing in haste; look well to each step; and from the beginning think what may be the end."
We found a campsite with WiFi. I`m trying not to sound too excited about this, but it`s quite nice to have eBay back after all these weeks.
It also looks to be the best campsite we`ve been at so far - the chap even came out to help us pitch up, with his special jack for lifting up the caravans. I said I didn`t mind doing all that stuff myself, but he told me that most of their customers were somewhat older than we were and appreciated the assistance.
Having spent the entire evening playing around on the internet, we`re determined not to do the same thing all day tomorrow. Still, at least now we can work out what to do locally without bumbling around finding brochures or asking people.
Distance travelled: 5664km car, 1115km train
Books read: C:2, K:6
Bottles of wine remaining: 3
Countries visited: 5 (UK, France, Switzerland, Austria, Lichtenstein)
This book is a veritable treasure. I expected it to be rather more something the author was expecting to sell based on the title, but how wrong I was. Uncle Fester has clearly invested a great deal of time and effort into researching all aspects of production, covering everything from which brand of drain cleaner provides the highest sulphuric acid content to suggestions about what sort of disguise to wear when trying to buy large quantities of nitromethane from motor racing suppliers.
Providing chemistry lessons where necessary, Mr Fester takes us on a journey from good old nitroglycerin to the many ammonium nitrate-boosted variants, with interesting add-on sections on fuel-air explosives and how to manufacture blasting caps. There`s even some interesting speculation on the content of the device that Timothy McVeigh set off in Oklahoma, and some subtle criticism of how he could perhaps have set it up better, from one lover of explosions to another.
Mr Fester is clearly a real enthusiast, and his excitement comes across gloriously in this book. In the three-page preface he deals perfunctorily with the nasty question of who might use his book and for what, and in a lot of ways I can understand his approach that the problem is with people, not with explosives. However... while you can buy plenty of books that will explain how to make different sorts of explosives in laboratory conditions (or get instructions from the US Patent Office), there can be few other publications which give you quite such practical instructions for the layperson intending blowing stuff up. His "hardware store nitro" recipe looks remarkeably straightforward, and as he explained to me that serialising production of plastic explosive was a much safer way of producing large batches than cooking a load of the stuff up in one go, I couldn`t help but feel a little irksome. If someone had decided to blow me up, wouldn`t this book be handy? I`d much rather they spent a few months trying to creating fuming nitric acid for themselves with hopefully disasterous consequences than found out in two pages. Now that I know how to make nitromannitol and it`s not turned me into a murdering lunatic, why should I be worried that anyone else reading this book also posesses the same instructions? Has some of the War Against Terror nonsense actually sunk into me?
Aside from whether it causes the death of many innocent civillians or not, the book is spectacularly poorly edited - not only are whole paragraphs repeated in various segments, but the "diagram below" is quite often on another page entirely, and there are hyphenated chunks which clearly once split lines but don`t any longer. One page charmingly switches into a whole new font for a couple of paragraphs, and then back again.
In the end, I`ve decided that I didn`t like this book at all. I didn`t like it because it made me want to cook up just one small batch of nitroglycerin. Not because I want to blow anything up, but because Uncle Fester tells me that "it has been my experience that anyone who is not brain damaged can easily master the process". I`ve even spent some time trying to think of things I`d like to blow up, but I haven`t got any.
If any reader has a target they`re keen to devastatingly explode into smithereens and can come equipped with a glass bowl and rubber stirrer (avoiding glass-on-glass friction and rubber-on-plastic static electricity, as any aspiring explosives manufacturer will know), please get in touch.
Hardens Restaurant Guide Scores (1 good, 5 bad):
After doing some careful research to find a mountain that didn`t have a cable car or a funicular railway going up it, we eventually picked one that had a cable car going only _halfway_ up it. This mountain was Hoher Frassen, right behind our campsite. Being quite lazy sorts of people, we took that cable car, ate in the inevitable restaurant at the top and then walked up to the second restaurant (Frassenhutte), decided the top was too far, gave up and walked all the way back to the campsite. The scenery was very nice, the weather was excellent and it was great not to follow a railway all the way up. Rather disappointingly there was some sort of cable car setup at the Frassenhutte, but it appeared to be for goods rather than people. I suspect that what happens is that the cable cars are eventually declared unfit for human service and become "goods-only" ones - we saw quite a lot of these in Switzerland and I rather doubt they were built specifically to carry goods.
Right, enough of that. I`ve decided not to spend too much time on things that aren`t particularly exciting for the reader, so let`s move onto something technological and whizzy. I have a Garmin Forerunner 305 GPS device - it`s really meant for running, cycling or other such going-around-in-circles pursuits but if you wear it whilst hiking it sits there remembering where you`ve been. There`s a web page (www.motionbased.com) where you can upload these tracks, and it allows you to then export them in Google Earth format. If you don`t have Google Earth, please download and install it from http://earth.google.com/. It won`t do anything bad to your computer, I promise. Once you have it, download the file http://chrisrae.com/euroblog/nuziders.kml - this is the hike we did today. If you double-click on it (once you`ve got Google Earth, dad, that`s what the "which program do you want to use" thing means) it`ll whoosh up and show you a nice satellite picture of the map. The red line poking out to the left about two thirds of the way up is where we got the cable car - we then walked up to the hut and all the way back down to our caravan.
Now, here`s the really neat thing. Below and to the right of the up/down/left/right scrolling arrows underneath the main display is a "tilt" control. Hold down the mouse button on the lower "tilt down" icon. There you go. Either you think that`s kind of neat, or in your heart of hearts you were never really going to enjoy this computery part. Dad, the reason Google Earth is now saying you don`t have an internet connection is because you unplugged that funny grey box to plug in a light to find your spectacles to read this.
If you thought that was at least vaguely interesting, try http://chrisrae.com/euroblog/kleinescheidegg.kml , which is the walk we did the other day just under the north face of the Eiger. Also, try clicking on View..Play Tour (or pressing F10) and you`ll see the exact path we took. I`ve no idea how to change the zoom/tilt on the tour playing part, so don`t ask me. If you know more about Google Earth than I do and can improve this fine multimedia experience, please let me know.
The title of this particular entry is somewhat misleading, as we didn`t go inside Schloss Neuscwanstein or go as fast as the car would. Anyway, artistic merit etc.
Neuschwanstein is a big castle in the south of Germany - it was half built by Ludwig II of Bavaria before he died in 1886 and finished off in something of a hurry subsequently. It`s plausibly claimed to be the castle that Disney modeled their Disneyland ones upon, and implausibly claimed to be the most photographed building in the world. Kiki and I have actually been here before, but when we arrived the castle was shut for renovation. So here we are back again. There`s a rather steep twenty minute walk up to the castle and from the entrance you can either go inside (if you`ve paid), or wander around the grounds (what we did). There were hordes of tourists everywhere, so we ate some lunch, pootled around the grounds taking a couple of photographs and then nipped off again.
As we`d gone all of ten kilometres into Germany, it seemed rude not to zoom the car up and down the autobahn a bit, as it doesn`t look like we`ll be back in Germany at all during this trip. There was rather a lot of traffic and I wasn`t overly keen to blow anything up, but it would appear it does 220kmh on the speedo, which was over 210 on the GPS (the speedo is remarkeably accurate). It whooshed up to that really quite speedily so I suspect it would probably do 230 or 240. At that it would be redlining in fourth, which is interesting - I expected top to be geared a bit lower. I realise the photo isn`t of 220 at all, but I had a degree of trouble getting the photographer to stop squeaking and take the thing.
Once we got back to our lovely wifi caravan site... erm, I mean, our lovely caravan site with the superb views and excellent facilities... the car informed me that it was about time it was serviced, so we`ll have to start looking into the easiest way to go about doing that. I`m not sure if they still do this, but at the time our floating sofa was made BMW had a system whereby the car decided when it needed to be serviced based on how hard its life had been. It was last serviced at 93k miles and we`re still under 100k, but I suspect that towing the caravan rather bumps up its "hard life" counter. Perhaps it`s not that sophisticated. Perhaps it has an autobahn detector.
Distance travelled: 6001km car, 1115km train
Books read: C:3, K:6
Bottles of wine remaining: 1
Countries visited: 6 (UK, France, Switzerland, Austria, Lichtenstein, Germany)
This may not be of much interest to you if you don`t go to campsites.
This place is great. WiFi is a superb idea for campsites - it means that if any of your residents happen to be writing some sort of journal, they`re pretty much bound to log in and say nice things about you. However, it`s not just the WiFi that makes this such a fine campsite. Being embarassingly monolingual, it`s a huge benefit to me that they speak perfect English. This was particularly handy when I`d loaded all of my clothes into the tumble drier along with a dispenser full of washing liquid and was about to hit the green button on what appeared to be the "standard programme", and they kindly proposed that I use the washing machine instead, and helped me translate the instructions. That evening, the female half of the junior Dünsers (the site is family-run) approached me in the utility room waving the German tumble drier instructions and humbly asking for some help in translating it into English. No problem, I thought, it can`t take more than ten minutes to suss out between us what everything is. But, umm, it turned out that the only part she was stuck on was that she didn`t know the English word for the fluff that accumulates on the drier filter. Ah hum. How embarassing. I didn`t have the heart to explain that I didn`t know the German word for "yes".
Some other reasons this campsite is so good. The loos are so gloriously clean I`d eat off them. The pitches are stepped such that you get a splendid raised view over the mountains from the front of your caravan, unless you go to the bizarre effort of pointing your caravan such that you can`t see the view any more, which almost everyone else seems to have done. All of the water/waste/bin facilities are easy to find without everything being covered by silly little signposts. I had a ponder about all of this, and I think what makes this place different is that the owners actually care about doing the whole thing properly. The waste water connectors were covered by little steel plates - when Herr Dünser lifted the plate to show us where the connectors were, the thing was full of ants and maggots. "Hmm", he said as he shovelled them out, "I think they like the heat from the steel plate. I might have to think of something else".
They have their own web site, at www.camping-sonnenberg.com. If you end up there, tell them you were sent by the Brits with two laptops.
We decided our next stop would be in Saltzburg, which had a few BMW dealers and looked like a splendid place to get the car serviced. On the way we experienced our longest traffic jam as yet - actually, pretty much our only traffic jam. We were held up for the better part of two hours on the A8 between Innsbruck and Saltzburg, for what appeared to be nothing more than roadworks. We stopped the caravan in a lay-by and had lunch in the middle of it, which made it marginally more bearable.
We went to two BMW dealers looking to get the car serviced, but neither of them could give us an appointment before at least a week or so, so we instead phoned one up in Vienna and booked her in for the 6th. This means we`ll be in Vienna on the 6th of June, which gives us a bit of structure apart from anything else. As we were now ensconsed at a somewhat averagey campsite in Salzburg with a rather nice restaurant (Panorama Camping Stadtblick) we thought we might as well do something townish and cultured. We elected to go and see the Stuttgart Philharmonic Orchestra playing a couple of snippets of Bizet and Berlioz followed by the whole of Mahler`s first symphony. At EUR42 per ticket for a seat at the back of the balcony it was somewhat out of budget, but the Mahler especially was splendid stuff and we celebrated afterwards by spending even more money eating at a restaurant nearby. Once you`ve spent your daily budget you`re in that pleasant position where spending even more money doesn`t really count. Watching other people being creative always makes me feel a little inadequate, but I must say it was impressive. We`re going to try and see something else in Vienna, most likely an opera, if we can find a way to book it.
When the rain refused to stop we upped sticks and moved from Salzburg down to Hallstatt, further south in the mountains. As I write this we`re staying in Camping Am See, about 4km out of Hallstatt with splendid views of the Hallstattsee lake and up to the salt mines. And speaking of the salt mines, that`s where we were today.
There have been salt mines above Hallstatt for a quite remarkeable amount of time - some seven thousand years. The parts you can visit as a tourist are based around a section of the mines which was opened in 1719 - practically yesterday. Salt mining isn`t something I`ve dedicated a great deal of time to thinking about but here`s a bluffer`s guide. The salt found in mountains is there because natural salt flats were covered up by tectonic action. Until the Middle Ages, the best way to get this stuff out was to just digging out chunks of rock and then process them on the surface (presumably by soaking them in water and letting the salt crystalize, but we weren`t told that so I`m guessing a bit). From the Middle Ages onward the concept of "solution mining" appeared, whereby you basically pump water into salt seams, let the salt dissolve into this and then pump the resulting brine back out. This still happens today in the Hallstatt mine, but the processing plant is now several kilometres away in Ebensee.
The mine tour was very interesting, and whizzing down a Miner`s Slide was all rather fun. They were a bit vague about whether the miners used this slide to get to work or not, but the miners definitely did use a little sit-astride train like the one we were whisked out of the mine on. You can`t go into the mines without a guide (presumably because other parts are in use), and I must say the tour was well organised and interesting. The only part I felt somewhat peeved about was their endless harping on about this mine being gloriously famous because of the legendary "Man in Salt". "Man in what?", I hear you say. Ah yes, but he`s legendary. Apparently the perfectly preserved body of a miner was found here in 1734, actually embedded in salt. The miners of the time carefully removed the body from the salt, carried him down to Hallstatt and promptly gave him a nice pre-Christian burial. Nobody knows exactly where the body was buried, pretty much nobody saw it before they buried it and the miners who found him thought he was maybe 150 years old. According to our guide, though, "we now know him to have been from before 2400 BCE". How we now know that I have not the faintest idea.
In the early evening we headed to Sankt Wolfgang, which is a very tourist-trappish town north of here, with an attractive church and a million gift shops. Highlight of this trip was seeing a sticker on the back of a car which appears to represent something, but I`ve no idea what. Hockenheim racing circuit? Florida rotated 90 degress? You be the judge.
Thinking about it this might be the first time anyone has ever used that title for anything.
My brother Keith is joining us for a week - he flew to Prague and arrived in Salzburg at 0015 on Thursday, so we hopped up there to pick him up. We elected to catch some more classical music while we were there, and we signed up for Mozart at the Castle, which is perhaps unsurprisingly something of a tourist event. It was performed by a quartet and somehow we ended up seated at the very front, right next to the lead violinist. It was very interesting indeed - I`ve never before sat so near a performer and it was intriguing to see him physically lining himself up for notes and even how breathing was carefully fitted in with playing. I was pleased to see that I could even follow roughly where he was by reading his music, though I still don`t entirely understand how the parts where other people play and you don`t are worked into the notation. He appeared just to know when to start again, but no doubt it`s in the music somewhere. You get a lot more violin music onto two pages than you do piano, no doubt due to the fact that your hands aren`t both playing different notes. I imagine the quartet play the same thing every night so they had quite a polished performance.
Having collected Keith, we decided to complete our set of Tourist Attractions in Hallstatt. The Man in Salt aside, the next main interesting thing to visit in nearby Obertraum is the Ice Cave. This is, well, a cave full of ice. The cave is the relic of a large underground river system and the ice remains inside it because the underground temperature varies fairly little throughout the year. They say that the volume of ice in the cave is expanding, which is somewhat unusual these days.
This was rather fun actually - the start of the tour is reached by a cable car, and as we ascended the rain we`ve been having for the last fortnight turned into snow. When we got to the top - at only 1400m or so - it was snowing quite heavily. The Ice Cave itself was very interesting, despite the fact that our tour guide would have had difficulty beating a gnat in a shouting contest. The ice was smooth and even-coloured - there must be some truly fantastic ice climbing in there. Keith spotted a set of crampons at the side of the tour walkway, so perhaps people do get to play in the ice now and again under the pretence of performing maintenance or something. It made me rather fancy the idea of having a shot at caving sometime.
Having run out of things to do in Hallstatt when it`s raining, we upped sticks and moved to Dobriach, which is at the south of Austria near the Slovakian and Italian borders. Our route was altered somewhat by an enormous mudslide across the road just south of Hallstatt and then we ended up stuck in our second-worst queue of the trip trying to get into a tunnel.
Eventually we checked into Camping Burgstaller, which is legendary for having "toilet blocks which deserve an architectural award", according to our guidebook. My brother Keith, an architect, thought that this didn`t seem an unreasonable idea but his ideas for the name of the award were sadly unprintable. The sanitary facilities themselves are certainly something unusual. The shower cubicles have three shower heads each and their own little washbasin, and the toilet brushes have a unique self-cleaning spray system apparently designed by the campsite`s own management. Their unusual fascination with toilets is borne out by the fact that most of their advertising literature centres purely on the loos.
The weather brightened up considerable here, so today we made the most of it by going on a romantic electric speedboat ride in the nearby lake (a bargain at ten Euros for an hour) and then renting a VW Beetle-based buggy for an hour (another bargain, at twenty Euros). After driving it around the local roads for half an hour we eventually found a delightfully gravelly-looking empty car park, and slid it around there for a while until Keith drove it into a large concrete box with a resounding clang noise (video at http://chrisrae.com/euroblog/mov01543.mpg). Fortunately, by some miracle of fortune, it hit the wheel squarely on and no damage was done. However, we saw this as a fine moment to finish off the less-than-successful doughnut lessons and head back to town.
In the evening we headed off to see a local band, Drauter Flitzer, who are world famous for their attractive red suits and mullets. The reason I mention this is because as a result of my losing an unfortunate bet about what altitude this campsite was at (I said 240m, Keith said 380m, and the answer was 650m) I was required to ask at least one member of the band for their autograph after the performance. Keith generously procured me a poster of theirs from the public noticeboard in the campsite, so I`d have something for them to sign.
When we arrived there were fortunately a fairly large number of people gathered to see them. They rattled out various songs equating to what must be the German equivalent of Chas and Dave, and then dived into much more experimental, off-the-wall material such as Smoke on the Water, and I`m a Believer. Once they finished their three-hour set, I seized my opportunity and managed to get all three autographs, even including the gentleman on the left who was distinctly retiscent to sign and told me in English that he actually liked "Arab music", and "only played this stuff for money".
The poster will naturally be going up in the caravan, and I`ll be trying to think of some sort of forfeit for Keith to lose.
I`ve decided to make my titles more pithy. Let me know how I`m doing.
Keith, being an arty sort, made us go to two art exhibitions in Vienna. One was the museum of architecture; I`m not an expert in the field but a lot of the pictures they had on display of postwar Hungarian architecture looked rather like council estates, which Keith confirmed was true. The other was the museum of Modern Art, which had only two floors open due to an exhibition being prepared but which we could at least visit for a discount price. One of the floors had mostly bits of household rubbish stuck onto boards and mounted onto the walls, and the other had photos and videos of people covered in blood and animal innards masturbating.
For Keith`s final evening with us we`d arranged to meet Mike Bailey. I`d like to casually introduce him as "a friend of mine who lives in Vienna" but actually I haven`t seen him since we both graduated from the same university so, in the words of Ford Prefect, he`s just this guy, you know? But, crucially, this guy has lived in Vienna for several years. Mike generously used his Vienna insider knowledge to take us to a bar whose staff didn`t know any German and which only had menus in English, and then introduce us to one of his local Vienese friends, who turned out to be a British ex-pat. Actually we had a rather jolly evening, and I`ll be delighted to entertain him if he arrives in Seattle looking for an authentic ex-pat night out.
One great highlight of the evening was getting rid of my brother Keith, who left on the 23:30 sleeper without his trousers. I believe he was wearing a spare pair.
The following morning (I forget which days are which), we departed Vienna for Slovakia. Back in 2003, myself and a chap named Andy Arden headed south in November to climb the highest mountain in Poland. To cut a long story short, we spent a week trying and then gave up and went home. Not one to leave unfinished business, I returned in July 2004 with the great majority of my family (Andy was busy at home making his own family), reassured by the fact that in summer the climb was a simple afternoon walk. After three hours of pissing rain on that particular afternoon, the family expedition also gave up. Now Rysy actually lies exactly on the border between Poland and Slovakia, so having had the Polish side defeat me more times than was strictly necessary, I thought the Slovakian side might open up some fine opportunities for summit-bagging.
All this found Kiki and myself standing at the bottom of the Slovakian side of Rysy yesterday morning, wondering how on earth there could be so much snow on the top in June. There are actually two huts on the way up on the Slovak side - one near the bottom, and one near the top - and we were immensely reassured to discover that they were both open. I can tell you now that the lower hut serves a splendid Goulash, and that the upper hut is manned only by crazed snow-monsters. The climb was certainly doable but the only people we saw ahead of us turned around, and eventually at around 1950m we gave up too. Kiki had fallen in one too many deep portions of snow and my offer of an ice axe was met with an appropriately chilly response. Had we been actually staying in the higher hut, Chata Pod Rysmi, I suspect we`d have pressed on but as it was we had to get all the way back to the bottom to collect the car and the weather was steadily getting worse. The locals protested that they`d never seen quite this much snow in June, which made me wonder for a brief second whether perhaps there was some sort of deity looking down on us who`d popped "stop Chris Rae climbing Rysy" high on his list of objectives. Only a brief second.
The campsite we were staying at, near Poprad, had a rather curious poster boasting "The smallest mountains in Europe!", no doubt created just to humble me further. It also had a rather tatty hotel which had apparently been damaged badly by storms in 2003, along with a lot of the rest of the campsite. These storms must have been quite something - all around the area were completely uprooted trees and flattened areas of vegetation, even now. They appeared to be in the proces of burning a lot of the uprooted tree stumps but the devastation was still extraordinary. It reminded me a great deal of photographs I`d seen of the Tanguska Event (oh for the Internet, to check the name of the thing) where it`s thought than an asteriod exploded in mid-air above a largely uninhabited area of Russia in the 19th century (check century on Google, someone) and caused utter devastation of an area around the size of, erm, Wales or something. Or maybe Ealing. Either way, this campsite will for me hold the tender memory of being the first place that Kiki had a go at driving the car. Apart fro reversing and a brief confusion about which ones the accelerator and brake were, it all went rather well. If it were America, she`d have her licence.
Slovakian roads are unlikely to be envied by any other country in Europe. The Hungarians make a point of showing how much richer they are than the Slovakians by sticking a great big new shiny bit of tarmac right on their side of the Slovakian border. No doubt they sit at the border control giggling at the tourists zooming off the Hungarian super-highway onto the Slovakian pothole-fest. The Slovakians retain a certain sense of aloof dignity by allowing the men on their pedestrian crossing signs to wear a rather fetching trilby.
We`re in Hungary to meet Joana, my sister, who`s joining us in Budapest for the next section of our trip. Where this goes is rather up in the air - we were hoping to head to Romania and then south through Bulgarian or perhaps Serbia, but a last-minute check of the car insurance reveals that pretty much anything in that direction is completely out of the question, so we are now thinking of heading to Venice and getting the overnight ferry to Patra, in the Peloponese south of Athens. Watch this space, I suppose, thought you`ll probably find out a week late.
Shortly after arriving in Hungary we discovered that we`re actually within spitting distance (depending on your physiology) of Kekes, the highest mountain in Hungary. It`s not really all that high, there`s a road all the way to the top of it and a millitary installation right on top. We drove up the road, hiked up the rest and took the obligatory summit photographs. Fortunately it was raining as we got out of the car, so at least we were wearing our waterproofs to make it look marginally more difficult.
Oh yes, I almost forgot. The Hungarian men. Whilst standing outside the caravan in my waterproofs pondering how rainy and cold it still was, four teenage Hungarian gentlemen raced past me towards the showers wearing just their underpants. I did my best impression of a one-man round of applause, and they shouted something back to me in Hungarian. I like to imagine it was something akin to "woohoo!" but I`m not entirely sure.
This is a funny old book. I assumed it was going to be either a prurient romp or a wildly over-hyped lighthearted romance, but it turned out to be neither. It`s a flabberghastingly open first-person tale of a love affair that`s just not really going to work out right. I expected the main character to be unaware of the social stigma attached to jumping twelve-year-olds, but that wasn`t the case either. He`s clearly well-read on historical child-bride precedents, and quite aware of the legal and social ramifications.
I didn`t actually buy this book (honest) - I found it one morning on the end of my desk at UBS, and I noticed that on the bottom of the back cover it says "The Independent - Promotional Copy, not for resale", so I didn`t feel too bad about not trying to find its original owner. It was one of the choices that I`m surprised never featured in the Book Club I was a part of in London, so I eagerly popped it in my bag. Now here I am sitting by the beach in Croatia, and I can`t work out whether I enjoyed it or not. I found reading it really rather uncomfortable - it is a splendidly sexy book, but unfortunately about a topic that`s morally difficult for all of us. Why should you have to know someone`s age before you can glance a double-take of admiration as they pass you in the street? A couple of hundred years of culture and law is a fairly short length of time in the overall scheme of things, yet this grey area is so unspeakably awful we can`t even talk about it, and the fierce penalty of statuatory rape hangs over the head of anyone who dares suggest that the state don`t know best when they themselves are ready for the most human of instincts. Humbert Humbert, Nabokov`s narrator, takes what`s probably the most sensible of courses and announces that pretty much everything in the book is going to be morally repulsive, and then gaily continues onwards in syrupy, indulgent and embarassingly effectual prose to go on about how sexy twelve year olds heading out of the school gates are.
The language is a little tricky at times - Nabokov originally wrote in Russian but is clearly a linguistic enthusiast and is perhaps a little bit over-keen to demonstrate just how many English words he knows, and just what splendid wordplay he can use to make an otherwise pleasant sentence less readable. It`s a pity, as the characterisation is superb, particularly that of Lolita`s one-dimensionally awful mother.
In an oddly similar way to Uncle Fester`s superb Home Workshop Explosives, I can`t entirely work out whether I enjoyed this book. Nabokov very successfully creates a narrator whom you`re desperate to pigeonhole throughout the book, in order to simplify the whole business. He`s not stupid, he`s not old, he`s not lonely by necessity and, perhaps most off-puttingly, he`s not in the least part unattractive to women. He has a curious drive which is both shocking and illegal, but he writes about it with flourish and fervour that you can`t hate him simply for that. I`m afraid I must hand over to Martin Amis, who writes on the back cover:
"Lolita is comedy, subversive yet divine... You read Lolita sprawling limply in your chair, ravished, overcome, nodding scandalized assent".
I`ve given up on the more pithy titles again as I can`t think of one. Perhaps I`ll alternate.
We were intending staying at our Hungarian campsite for two nights, but we decided it was a little too unpleasant and the fact that it had nowhere to empty a chemical toilet rather made up our minds when we discovered ours to be full. Up, up and away to Budapest, where we were to meet my sister Joanna. We elected to stay in Fortuna Camping, near Torokbalint, just to the west of the city itself. I can`t entirely work out whether the campsite owner hated me from the start or had a rather dry sense of humour, but the first time I walked into reception he made a large fuss about having had to give up eating his dinner in order to serve me, and the second time I woke him up from the sound sleep he was having on his sofa. The third time I swear he deliberately misheard my request for bus passes and forced me into buying three loaves of bread after accidentally nodding frantically and saying "yes" to the wrong thing. As we left he deliberately said "three nights, yes?" whilst writing down only the correct two, apparently "just to see if I was paying attention". I like to think we left on rather good terms when I tried to sneak a 200 Forint note past him as a 2000, just to see if he was paying attention. "Ha ha ha", he bellowed, "I learn from you, you learn from me!".
Joanna successfully collected, we elected the next day to visit Budapest. It`s a very attractive city, and if you ignore the state of the roads, very pleasant to travel around. The public transport system (both above and below ground) is extensive and reliable and so we spent a pleasant day bumbling around town. In the castle district there was a hum of excitement as a flotilla of "PRESS" minibuses and a wide selection of police vehicles drove past us and parked up. We asked around a little to see which foreign dignitary or figure of note might be visiting, but we all failed to elecit very much apart from Joanna, who managed to get a ten minute lecture from a nice Hungarian lady who`d misunderstood our question and thought we meant the statue we were standing in front of. Or perhaps she`d rightly decided that it was a much better thing for us to be interested in.
In the afternoon we went to the Thermal Baths. I sadly still have no idea whether the Thermal Baths contain water which is heated naturally but I can`t believe they do, as the temperature in the warmer one was a mind-boggling 37 degrees. This is really quite warm, and exceedingly pleasant. I`m a big fan of warm baths (fortunately my proof-reading prevented that going into print as "warm bats") and this was great - about 1.5m deep and as warm as a nice warm bath. In fact it felt a good deal warmer than that once you`d been in the colder pool and out again. We stayed there for three times the recommended twenty minutes and then sat like listless prunes in a nearby cafeteria trying to regain enough energy to eat dinner.
Oh yes, I meant to mention. We now have a plan which doesn`t include travelling through countries where we have no car insurance. We`re skipping Romania and instead heading west, to end up in Venice next weekend, from where we can get an overnight ferry to Patra, in the Peloponese, a mere three hours` drive from Athens. I hate sleeping on ferries, but this one has something called "camping on board" where you`re allowed to stay in your caravan and use the ferry facilities. They even have water and electricity for you, apparently. No doubt they place you so close to the engine rooms that you`ll wish to god at 4am that you opted for a sweaty ferry cabin instead, but we shall see. Report to follow, no doubt.
This means that we`re skipping some of the more interesting countries (Romania and Bulgaria mainly), but upon further investigation there didn`t seem to be a lot we could do about the car insurance. I`ll have a while in Greece (with the internet) to look into it, so we`ll maybe be able to catch them on the return journey. On the upside it means we get to visit Croatia, which we`ve always been keen on.
We were intending to stay at Lake Balaton for a day or so on the way down to Croatia, but a chat with a Belgian gentleman at our Budapest campsite put us off slightly, as he thought it was more touristy than Disneyland. We opted instead to drive all the way to Croatia in a day, stay near Zagreb and then the next day head to the coast.
This is what we did, and this is where we are. From where I sit a man barely stronger than I could throw a stone into the Adriatic. Croatia looks and feels very like Greece, except that the roads are much better quality having felt the benefit of some healthy post-war reconstruction. As far as camping goes, Croatia is very well-developed - some of the largest sites in Europe are here, though a very large number of them are nudist. Most of the visitors appear to be German, along with the inevitable Dutch who seem to get everywhere.
Kiki and Joanna spent the day sunning themselves; I was burned by about 10am and so spent the day finishing off Lolita (separate article, for those interested). This evening we`re intending heading into nearby Rovinj for some drinks and food.
We`re leaving Joanna on Friday night at Ljubljana and, very handily, picking up my ex-colleague Ed, who appeared to be landing on the same Easyjet flight that Joanna is departing on. At the moment we`re not entirely sure whether we`ll camp near LBJ or bring Ed back down to Croatia, but being wild people of leisure we have plenty time to decide.
It`s strange now to see an end in sight for this particular part of the trip - a week today I`ll be in Greece getting ready to fly to China and climb up mountains. I had a last-minute desperate flurry of equipment-finding - some of it I bought in a local shop, but most of it came from the internet. It`s strange to be sitting in thirty-degree heat on the beach ordering water-bottle warmers, balaclavas and down-lined underwear.
And so Joanna departed, and in rolled Ed Colley, a UBS ex-colleague of mine, on the same flight. Naturally, Kiki and I spent the intermediate fifteen minutes snogging.
Ed, Kiki and I stayed for a night at the exotically titled "Ljubljana Resort" campsite. It featured no fewer than three swimming pools (all of them exactly 1.35 metres deep), a sauna (where I got to see Ed naked) and "Adrenalinski Park", which seemed to mostly consist of firing children a quite considerable height into the trees using some rather rickety-looking elastic contraption. After an evening of swimming and adrenalinski, we headed into Ljubljana for a jolly night out - it`s surprisingly like Greece, and was mercifully free of the British stag dos (DOs? do`s? does?) that had been with Ed on the plane. Some surprisingly good food accompanied the jolly nice beer ("Union", apparently) until we had to go home.
The next day we headed for Venice, via what is apparently Slovenia`s most visited tourist attraction. As I`m sure you know, these are the limestone caves at Postojna. I was quite taken aback by these in almost every way. Not only is it mind-bogglingly touristy, it is also one of the most extraordinary natural spectacles I`ve seen. After battling through several restaurants, endless gift shops, currency exchange, donkey rides et cetera you find yourself at the mouth of the cave, having paid a quite remarkeable sixteen Euros to get there. There you climb onto a little train - I`d say each train took around a hundred people, and there was a train perhaps every three minutes. The train zooms you about two kilometres into the caverns down the course of a now-dry river, through some absolutely wonderful caves and multi-coloured limestone structures. This was perhaps the oddest part of the whole experience - the train goes at such a pace that you can barely take in the vista, yet the scenery is so amazing that you can barely believe you`re looking at it. At the end of this Million Years of History Rollercoaster the passengers are tipped off onto a concrete platform in an utterly awe-inspiring cavern. Everywhere there are limestone structures that could easily have been the glorious centrepiece of another cave tour (and believe me, we`ve been on quite a few cave tours this holiday, so I know what I`m talking about), but no time for that now! You must hurry to the muster point for whatever language it is you`re wanting a guide in. Sure enough, mounted on some of these enormous backlit stalagmites are signs reading "Deutsche", "English", "Italiano" and such - each one mounted above an ominous-looking grey megaphone for the tour guide to be amplified through. Throngs of tourists busily squeeze this way and that in order to get under the megaphone of their choice. As I remarked to Ed, you could easily be forgiven for thinking you`d ended up in hell.
One tour departs every two or three minutes, in order by language. The Italians are always behind the English, which probably explains why the Italian guide knew quite so many different English ways of saying "stop bloody dawdling" to the backmarkers. No doubt inspired by the trains, the tour guides rattle along at a decent pace, stopping perhaps five times on the route to give what is actually a very well-informed and interesting commentary. It takes ten years, apparently, for a millimetre of stalagmite to grow, and Ed and I were pretty sure that many of the ones we were looking at (or our concrete path was plonked upon) were at least ten metres high. As we contemplated several hundred thousand years of natural history, the Italian guide poked us with a stick and we had to run after the English group, who were busy sprinting through another jaw-droppingly beautiful cave. Many of them barely had time to stop and take the digital photos which they weren`t allowed to take, and which would come out looking crap anyway. Once we`d seen the final gapingly enormous cave where orchestral concerts were once held, we were back onto the train for another jet-propelled ride into the daylight. And plonk, there we were, out in the open with the thronging millions. I can`t help recommending the trip if you ever end up in Slovenia, but it might be worth taking some sort of psychadelic drug. Don`t take a camera, as your photos will either be crap (like any other flash photo) or shaken to buggery (like any other non-flash photo taken in the dark). Photography tips here free of charge.
And so on from Slovenia to Venice, or more accurately somewhere beginning with C a mere 50km from Venice. Costanja? Something like that. The campsite was the largest we`ve yet been to - if you`re a caravanning sort then "2800 pitches" will make you go "ooh". If you`re not a caravanning sort then you might be more impressed by the fact that the site enclosed two swimming pools, nine restaurants, a beach and several shops, including a jeweller for a reason I can`t quite fathom. Despite as yet being engagement ring-less, Kiki and I elected not to bother buying one in Elizabethi Duki. The site even has its own weekly newsletter, and a complex system of loudhailers positioned all over the place to give a real big brother swing to things. I`ve a feeling this system was bought in error, as all it`s used for is to broadcast certain banal truths at set times of the day. At 10am it`ll say such things as "today the beach is next to the sea - why not have a swim" and at lunch it`ll announce "our shoe shop is open now, with a wide selection of shoes for you to buy with money". Kiki, Ed and I
did sample both swimming pools and the sea (well, Kiki poofed out saying it was too cold) but overally I`m not sure I`d say the site was our sort of thing. Most of the other clientelle were Germans - finally we appear to have found the outer radial reaches of the Dutch.
Eventually it was time for Ed to pack up his swimming trunks and go home. I should apologise here for there being no pictures of Ed, and no pictures of the last few campsites we`ve stayed at. I`ve been wearing flip-flops and shorts and as such haven`t been transporting the camera around as much as I have been. I`ll improve things, I promise. Where was I? Ah yes. Ed`s flight departed from Venice on Sunday night at 2140. Our navigation doofer told us that the journey would take us 40 minutes, but when I asked at the information desk the lady there told me "an hour... at most an hour and a half". Given that we weren`t exactly coinciding with rush hour anywhere, we elected to leave at 1945, with the intention of getting Ed to the airport somwhere before nine. After a brief confusion in getting Ed`s passport back from the check-in desk, and a brief period in which Kiki persuaded the nice lady Ed had threatened not to call security, we drove straight into some of the worst traffic we`ve seen. After an hour we`d travelled somewhere in the region of four kilometres - it would appear that the ideal weekend break for most Italians is one had on a campsite, and one finishing at 1945 on the Sunday. Eventually we dropped Ed at the airport half an hour after his flight had departed, whereupon he reminded us what being an investment banker means by paying a sum I can`t bring myself to disclose for a one-way British Airways business class flight to Heathrow which departed in twenty minutes. I sure hope he enjoyed his sandwiches.
The following morning we allowed two and a half hours to get back to Venice to take our ferry. As the traffic had now vanished this meant we arrived at the ferry two hours early, but in actual fact it didn`t seem to matter much as plenty of people were there already, and boarding had commenced. As I mentioned previously we`d elected to "camp on board" - this means they give you electricity (in cables tugged down from the ceiling) and water (from the toilets). You`re not allowed to use gas, but you can of course sleep in your own caravan or camper. This is a splendid idea. I`m writing this sitting on the top deck with a splendid view of the Ionian, having had a much better sleep last night than I ever have before whilst travelling. The food on the ferry (Minoan Lines) is actually extremely good, and they even have a games room where they lend out Backgammon boards and such like. Admittedly there`s some vibration and it`s a little on the warm side as far as sleeping goes, but having your own personal space is fantastic. The ferry is taking us from Venice all the way to Patra, in the Peloponese, whereupon we`ll drive for three hours or so to get up to Athens, then another hour or two to Evia. We`re leaving the caravan there in the meantime, so I think our arrival in Evia will count as the end of this particular leg of our travels. Once we`re there I`ll have a couple of drinks and try to write something dewy-eyed about how lovely it`s all been.
Distance travelled: 10053km car, 1115km train
Books read: C:4, K:9
Bottles of wine remaining: 1
Countries visited: 11 (UK, France, Switzerland, Austria, Lichtenstein, Germany, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Slovenia, Italy)
We got the caravan to Evia and pitched it up. Boy, is Greece warm. It`s rather amusing that while the car is reporting an outside temperature of forty one, I am wondering whether I`ll have to buy a new set of ski goggles for climbing Mustagh Ata because mine are only rated to minus twenty. Speaking of temperatures, I`d like to take this opportunity to whinge about the crapness of the caravan fridge. It tells you gaily in the manual that powering the fridge on battery is only good for maintaining a particular temperature, rather than cooling the fridge to a particular temperature - so you ought to pre-cool the fridge on mains or gas, and then switch to the battery. What a lot of bollocks. I cooled the fridge dilligently on mains before switching it onto battery in Evia - after a day the temperature in there was an icy thirty-two degrees. My Magnum had evaporated.
And speaking of electrics (watch my seamless transitions), this week I had the joy of visiting the office of Kiki`s sister, Eleftheria. She works for a chap who acts as an intermediary between the Greek government and people wanting to develop more ecologically-friendly methods of generating electricity and fancy a grant for it - currently this is predominantly wind. I mean the type of energy they`re using is wind. Anyway, as we argued about the advantages of wind power and Greece`s own position somewhat behind the rest of Europe in this field, all of the lights went out and his computer screen abruptly went black. We`d been hit by one of the power cuts that had been blighting his office lately. I asked him whether any potential alternative energy clients had ever been stuck in the lift, but I`m not sure how amusing he found it.
I`m speaking near-perfect Greek now. I know the entire alphabet (in both upper and lower case) and I can do three words in the past tense. The Greek person I`m best at communicating with is Kiki`s father, who has developed a quite excellent ear for the exact sort of Greek I speak. A sentence such as "eho theloume na fao ke esis to vrathi" is heard by Pop Tsagkarakis correctly as "I`d like to eat with you this evening", but sadly many other Greeks are a lot slower off the mark and hear it as "I have we want I eating and you [plural] the evening". I think the reason more tourists don`t speak much Greek is because the locals are so bloody pedantic.
I`ve packed my mountaineering gear! You`ll be pleased to know that all you need in order to escape the rat race and face the great outdoors is 250 litres of luggage packed full of the most expensive equipment imaginable. I had a lot of mountaineering gear before this trip but I sadly had to shell out the better part of a thousand English pounds on new stuff I didn`t know I`d ever need. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you (select parts quoted from the kit list):
"expedition down parka with hood". You have a down jacket already? Ha ha ha. You poor deluded soul. It continues, "It is important that your jacket is 700+ fill down, baffle construction (not sown through seams) and has a thick insulated hood". 700 fill! Go on, I dare you. Look at the fill rating on your down jacket. If you can fit it in the car, I guarantee you it`s not 700. How much for one of these? Well, the first one I found was £325...
"1 pair down pants that fit comfortably over underlayers". They just toss it in lightly, as if you already might have down trousers. I managed to get the trousers and jacket for a mere 150 quid from eBay. The rest was harder though.
"1 pair overboots. The brand -40". Succinctly put. Overboots, for those like me who had no idea, are sort of monster gaiters that your entire boot goes completely inside. They`re made of neoprene (diving suit material) and the Forty Below ones in particular have a double titanium shell to keep the heat in. They are 125 quid. Ah hum. Can probably wear them to the shops once I`ve got them, as long as I`m wearing my double-skinned plastic mountaineering boots. Actually the boots aren`t mine, I borrowed them from Andy Arden who had a baby and doesn`t need them any more. But you get my point.
The "gloves" section is so amusing I`m including all of it:
"1 pair liner gloves (polypro)"
"1 pair medium weight fleece gloves"
"1 pair nylon shell gloves"
"1 pair wool, fleece or down mittens"
"1 pair overmitts. If they do not have wrist straps consider sewing one on so that you can either attach it to your jacket or cinch the strap to your wrist so that you do not loose your mittens in high winds"
I had, hmm, two of these items. The overmitts, to save you looking it up, are eighty quid.
"1 expedition weight balaclava"
"1 lightweight balaclava"
This is going to be chilly, isn`t it. Oh, and in addition to a "normal" down sleeping bag, I need "1 down sleeping bag (rated to 30 F or below)" - this is minus forty in new money. The first sleeping bag I found rated to minus forty was five hundred pounds. The one I have with me is borrowed, fortunately.
"2 large (7,500+cu.in.) duffel bags for gear. Must be durable for use with pack animals". This is 110 litres for non-Americans. I already have an enormous kit bag, but it seems it`s not quite a hundred litres. A mere hundred quid for an even larger one which will manage life on a camel.
"1 pair mechanical ascenders". Eighty quid. And will come in handy when... hmm... taking too much gear on an alps expedition.
"3 one Liter water bottles, one is a pee bottle". I only have one right now and, well, I want to keep using it without wincing.
"2 water bottle insulators". You have to be kidding! I don`t give a toss if my pee free... hmm... ah, only two...
And so it goes on. See http://www.mountainmadness.com/asia/mustaghata.cfm for the whole trip itinerary, and the comedy kit list.
I was nervous about this trip a few days ago, mostly because I read Norman Croucher`s account of the first British attempt on it in 1982 (where someone died) and Sven Hedin`s account of the very first attempt in 1880, where they gave up and returned because the snow was too deep. I`m a little concerned on the snow front - I`ll be keen to find out exactly how many people are skiing, because I`m certainly not. Oh yeah, the snow shoes were a hundred quid too. Anyway, after packing my stuff the nervousness has mostly gone - I think I`m as prepared as I ought to be, and I have at least a good chunk of the experience I`ll need to manage it. I think my greatest disappointment would be to feel that I overshot my attainable goals in giving it a whirl, and I don`t think I`ll feel that. We shall see.
And speaking of money, I now have an independent income. I put some blatant links onto http://english2american.com/ asking people to buy me a pint and, would you believe it, five people have in the last three weeks. It`s odd, but actually recieving money for something I`ve written has made me feel rather pleasant lately - I even pretend to myself in bed at night that I`m a creative sort of a person. Not in a dirty way.
I did the last of my equipment purchasing whilst Kiki`s hen-do took place in Milan. I know very little about this apart from the fact that David Hasselhof accompanied them for a small part of it. Photos attached. The last time I left Kiki alone she was propositioned by Rick Astley in a dingy nightclub in Cannes. I reckon she has a real talent for picking up fiendishly successful men.
And so to the dewy-eyed trip summary. I`ll try to keep it brief, mainly because right now I feel not so much dewy-eyed about caravanning as a little apprehensive about the China trip. We have, however, had a splendid time. As we left the UK there were a great deal of unknowns. Would we like travelling at all? Was our relationship hinged around living in London and eating out every night? Could we live in a caravan? Should have got a motorhome instead? We`d never been caravanning before - how far would we really want to travel in a day? Would all our stuff fit in? Should we have left longer for the trip? I think the few weeks before we left London were the most stressful of our life together so far, made perhaps worse by people repeatedly telling us how lucky we were.
In the end, most of these questions are somewhat grey areas. Who knows if we`d have preferred a motorhome - in the event we kept congratulating ourselves on getting a caravan so that we could leave it somewhere and drive around in the car. But then we`d probably have been congratulating ourselves on buying a motorhome so that we could drive at over 95kmh on the motorway. We overestimated how far we could travel in a day, and the car broke down, which largely scuppered Norway and Sweden, a part of the trip we were both looking forward to immensely. We stayed too long in Switzerland, which meant we didn`t spend nearly long enough in Eastern Europe, which was the main part of our route that neither of us had spent much time in. Kiki says we didn`t spend long enough relaxing, and also that we didn`t see enough Tourist Sights. Ti na kanoume, I might say in my near-perfect Greek. Probably the most important thing I personally have to draw from this whole extravavgant jolly is the fact that, after two months in a caravan, Kiki and I are getting on better rather than worse. We`ve had a few trials and tribulations (contrary to popular opinion, you still have to try quite hard to have a nice time when you`re not working), we`ve had decisions to make together (such as how many handbrake turns to do in the rented beach buggy, and which clothes to pack) but after spending two solid months together I can`t help feeling that I`ll miss her more in China than I would have done if we`d not taken this trip.
I was hoping to end that paragraph on a thinly-veiled dig at the Future Mrs Rae, but I`m uncharacteristically tongue-tied.
Distance travelled: 10942km car, 1115km train
Books read: C:5, K:11
Bottles of wine remaining: 1
Countries visited: 12 (UK, France, Switzerland, Austria, Lichtenstein, Germany, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Slovenia, Italy, Greece)
I`ve been convinced by reading the message board that I have a clamouring crowd of fans.
I`m in Istanbul changing flights - I`m about to travel twice as far as I need to east (to Beijing) and then back again on another flight (to Kashgar). Right now I posess what might be the last internet connection I`ll have for a while. I`ll write something about the China climb near the end of July, possibly once I`m back in Greece. I have some UBS notepaper and a pen (disappointingly with no minimum temperature rating on it) with me so I`ll probably write some notes when I`m there, and either write one large report of the climb or split it into sections.
There`s a thing somewhere on this page that says "click here to email me if this site changes" so I`d propose doing that.
And Ed, you are of course correct on the temperature conversion front. I was confused slightly by the fact that the sleeping bag I`ve borrowed is in fact rated to minus forty in both measures. I`ll probably be far too hot.
I spoke to Chris a couple of times in the past few weeks, the last being a few days ago via satelite phone, as he was resting in Base Camp after a few long days going up and down from camps I and II and acclimatising...
The first time we spoke, he was in Kashgar, which apparently is very interesting... They spent some time in the Sunday market, which is renowned in the area, where Chris got himself shaved in the same way that locals do! I am told it was quite a spectacle, which earned him a lot of respect from his fellow mountaineers as he could have easily got his throat slit :) His group also took a motorbike tour, ending up in a village where they sampled yak milk and other similar delicacies. There are plenty of photos of the shaving and the motorbike tour, which are going to follow when he writes his trip report...
The next time we heard from him, they were at Base Camp. His expedition is quite small (3 + the guide) but camped with them is a really large group of 40 people in total (including porters), so they have brought with them an electricity generator. Oh the hardship! The food is also excellent, and it seems there is a good chance I am gonna be replaced by a porter :) The main reason he called though was to say he had lost his passport or it was stolen... I started trying to arrange for a replacement /new passport, as he would otherwise miss his flight back (takes up to 8 days to get a new/replacement passport in China). I spoke to the UK Passport Office, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the UK Embassy in Beijing, the airline, the travel insurance company, looked at booking flights to go over there and spoke to the Chinese Embassy in Athens (we thought we might have a holiday there, while he was waiting for the passport) only for him to call back a few days later to tell me he found it at the bottom of his bag!!!! I think he was only doing it to make the blog more interesting, the cheeky monkey! :)
He is doing generally well and is really enjoying himself. He had a bit of trouble with the altitude at Camp II, but was hoping he was gonna manage OK. Mountain Madness, the expedition organiser firm, are posting updates on their website and Chris has written a small piece of the first one. If you fancy reading it, it is at http://www.mountainmadness.com/newsroom/newsroom.cfm
As for me, I am in Athens at the moment, where contrary to the UK, it has not been THAT hot. For the past few weeks, it has been quite windy with the temperature at late 20s. That sounds good by UK standards, but believe me, for Greece, for this time of year, it is more like spring, rather than summer. I mean, you need a jacket in the evenings...! It has also been raining quite a bit, and me and mum where stuck for a whole w/e in the caravan due to the heavy rain and had to tackle a mudslide to get out. Not what one expects of Greece in the height of summer... But I guess generally, our trip has been plagued by unusual weather all over Europe. Thankfully I got a tan before we arrived in Athens, in Croatia, but the way it is going I am losing it fast...
Hope you are all having a nice summer! If anyone needs to contact me for the wedding or otherwise, I am firstname.lastname@example.org Cheerio!
Me again. I`m going to write a proper report on the Mustagh Ata trip, but in the meantime I do at least have some photos. The pictures are at http://chrisrae.com/album/ma2006. There are 170 of them, but console yourself with the fact that I cut them down from an original set of 700. For the more dweeby among us, I recorded my heart rate and GPS path - I did a writeup of this at http://forums.motionbased.com/smf/index.php?topic=3313.0 and the resulting Google Earth file is at http://chrisrae.com/hosting/ma2006/ma2k6.kmz.
For anyone more interested in the potted version than whatever long-winded ramble I come up with, I did summit, and my passport turned up.
It`s taken me a few weeks to collect my thoughts about this. They say that people who`ve been to war come back somewhat unable to talk about the event as it`s so different to everyday life, and I feel strangely similar about China. So far all I`ve managed to come up with when people say "so, tell me about China" is the fact that car insurance isn`t manditory there. One notable exception to these people is one of my Greek relatives-to-be, who is under the impression that I climbed Everest, a misunderstanding I`ve currently not corrected and an accidental glory I`m secretly basking in.
I don`t know if you`ve ever watched any mountaineering documentaries, but they tend to be fairly boring affairs until somebody dies. I`m sorry to report that nobody died on this one, but I`ll try and hurry through the "got up, walked up a bit, came back down, slept" parts. I`ll start at the beginning.
The documentation on the expedition itinerary said "fly into Beijing", so I did. This might have been a mistake, as a cursory glance at a world map would show Kashgar, our ultimate destination, to be almost exactly halfway between Athens and Beijing. Urumchi, where we changed planes, also appeared to have direct flights to Istanbul, where I was changing flights anyway. Where was I going with this, it isn`t very interesting. Let`s hurry on.
I`ve not been anywhere in Asia before, so I wasn`t wholly sure what to expect of Beijing. I was due to be met at the airport, which almost ended up in calamity when I picked up Chris Reigh`s taxi, on the assumption that he (or she) was a spelling mistake. As the taxi driver and I shook hands and got into the lift, he explained to me that we were going to go straight to the office, at which point I chose to duck out gracefully. I then made the mistake of assuming that the person holding up the "CHRIS LIVINGSTONRAE" sign was my taxi driver, when he was in fact the person who was there to tell me that my taxi driver wouldn`t be at the airport for another half hour as he was stuck on the expressway. When the taxi driver showed up, we headed off. Beijing`s general standard of driving is approximately the same as Athens`, though with a bit less speed and a bit more pulling out in front of people. Horses for courses.
Standing in the middle of the road outside the airport was a small child begging. All the drivers were averting their gazes except for one, who pulled up aside him. As I smiled, ready to witness an act of real human kindness shine out in the smog of the city traffic, the driver leaned as far as he could out of the window in an attempt to stub his cigarette out on the unfortunate`s face. This is clearly an everyday hazard of begging, as the child skipped lightly aside and without missing a beat peered even more plantively at another driver just further than an arm`s length away, who was therefore pretty much obliged to give some cash to the poor little kid who`d narrowly avoided having a cigarette put out on his face. Just as I began to wonder whether this whole thing was an elaborate ruse, my taxi driver almost crashed into yet another bus and my attention was diverted to the car-jammed "expressway" ahead of us, where a taxi in as poor condition as the one I inhabited had left its entire rear bumped in the fast lane. The taxi driver and his remarkeably kind customer were heading up the middle lane together in an attempt to retrieve it.
I met the other Mountain Madness clients at the hotel. One was called Ian, formerly worked in sales for Credit Suisse and was on gardening leave between that job and a hedge fund. The other was called Brad, was once a chef but now received a steady income from some shopping malls he owned in Atlanta, lived in Colorado and pretty much spent his life in the mountains. Mountain Madness had generously booked us into a hotel-cum-brothel. During the course of the twenty four hours or so we were there, Ian and I received three phone calls asking if we wanted "massage", followed finally by a knock on the room door at midnight, shortly after we`d arrived back from dinner. Ian answered it to find a Chinese gentleman with two young ladies he`d thoughtfully procured for us, and the tagline "massage! very cheap!". It seemed an odd way to advertise to westerners - it`s almost intriguing that he clearly felt the largest stumbling block we`d likely have would be an inability to come up with twelve dollars. And no, I`m not entirely sure whether that was for the pair. And no, we didn`t ask the price, he volunteered it. Perhaps it was negotiable. If I was a prostitute in Beijing, I think I`d risk operating without a pimp - this chap was about four feet high and looked like he`d come off the worse in a late-night street fight with a mosquito.
Ian and I walked around Beijing a little in the late afternoon. The map we bought from the hotel appeared to show us being within spitting distance of the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square, so off we went. It turns out that Beijing is in fact a remarkeably large city, and a centimetre on our map worked out to something near a kilometre. Upon arriving at the Forbidden City we discovered that it was forbidde to visitors after 4pm, but that didn`t deter the hordes of Chinese people at the gates who descended upon anyone white-looking and volunteered to be a tour guide. We met a young Chinese art student who spoke very good English and, after helping us out quite a bit with our orientation and recommending some sights, asked if we`d like to come and see an art exhibition that his school was running in order that we might give him some feedback on his works, which were exhibited there. We politely declined, partly because it looked a little shady, but mostly because we were running out of time for our whistle-stop sightseeing. It looked marginally more shady when we arrived at the hotel to discover Brad, who`d purchased three paintings from a lovely young art student who had chatted to him for quite some time and was apparently trying to pay for her sister to go to university. We heard later in Kashgar that this was a rather popular current Beijing ruse. I`m not sure I`d say it was a scam per se, so let`s call it a method of advertising.
The following afternoon we flew from Beijing to Urumqi. I can`t tell you much about Urumqi, other than that it has a nice airport and is pronounced "Oo-room-chee". From there we flew to Kashgar and met our guide, Ted. For some reason I expected him to be a jovial bearded gentleman, which unsurprisingly he wasn`t. I was now almost halfway back to Athens, a fact reflected in the time zone. All of China is officially on one large time zone, but in reality many people in Kashgar (and no doubt the rest of China) shun the official government line, which involves the sun setting at eleven thirty at night, and set their watches two hours back from Beijing. As it`s not very popular with the People`s Republic, all the advertised times for things are in Beijing Time and it can cause a degree of confusion.
I`d built myself a mental picture of Kashgar consisting of two men and a tuk-tuk, but in reality it`s a large town, with over two hundred thousand inhabitants. It lives at the western edge of the Takla Makan desert, and was once an important hub on the silk road as it saw the meeting of the two roads which passed to the north and south of the Takla Makan. Now it functions as the "nearest large town" for many country inhabitants, and a centre for the many variants of the mining industry which exist around here. We checked into the "Seman Hotel" (pronounced Shoo-mahn, apparently), which used to be the Russian Consulate, and after a couple of beers we turned in. Perhaps surprisingly there was no massage available in the Seman Hotel, but then no toilet paper either. Until 1949, when it was "liberated" by the Communists, Kashgar was in Eastern Turkestan. Turkestan`s population were Uyghurs (pronounced "weeger"), the largest Turkic group in Central Asia. Recently the People`s Republic have been eagerly injecting as many Han ("hahn") Chinese as possible into the more remote parts of the empire, in order to make them all a bit happier about being Chinese. The Han are already jolly happy about being Chinese, because they have all the nice jobs and lots of the money. One of the PRC`s great weapons in this effort has been to build railways into the back and beyond, and since the railway was extended to Kashgar in 1999, the Han population has swelled. Official statistics show the Han as 49% of Kashgar, but this number tells us more about the clandestine nature of China`s Hanification programme than it does about people in Kashgar. The recent opening of a "they said it couldn`t be done" railway into Tibet (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/4950464.stm) is another fine example of the Han by Railway ideal.
The next day we trekked to a gigantic natural arch, which can be seen from a long way off to the South but is only approachable from the North. Eric Shipton, who was British Consul in Kashgar during the 1940s, laid claim to the discovery of the first manageable route to it and it was this that we followed. It`s regarded as being "probably the largest natural arch in the world", and it is jolly big. Its vastness is only appreciable once you`ve climbed up a small hillock to discover that you were only gazing at half of it, and the rest sinks into a valley below. It`s largely impossible to photograph the whole thing, so what you can see in my picture is only the top half. An enterprising Chinaman had built a few ladders in order to get up to the hillock, and was charging for their use. He accompanied us all of the way up, no doubt to make sure that we didn`t double-back and use one of his ladders twice without paying.
Kashgar lies 1200m above sea level and the walk to Shipton`s arch finished at around the 3000m mark, so all of this could legitimately be counted as acclimatisation. I decided I could get quite used to this particular form of mountaineering, as most of that acclimatisation had involved sitting around drinking beer or bumping down a dirt-road in a jeep.
The following day we went to Kashgar`s world famous (well, world famous if you`ve heard of Kashgar) markets. The animal and, well, non-animal markets are held on the same day, and one can travel quite easily between them by taxi. They used to be both held in the same location, but eventually the Chinese decided that they`d had enough of people dragging donkeys into the centre of town and moved the animal market out a bit. You can see why they did this, as the road approaching the animal market is something of a chaos with various carts and drawn animals trying to fit in with the rest of the everyday traffic. Both markets were a splendid hoot. There was really quite a large volume of trade going on at the animal market - for each trade that goes on the buyer and seller are joined by an intermediary, who seems to do nothing other than manage the bargaining and help seal a deal attractive to both parties. It looks like an immensely simple job.
People are extraordinarily keen to sell you things in China. They expect you to be fairly forceful if you`re not interested - a friendly push is perfectly acceptable, and "no" or hand-waving just means "I need to be chased around the market". Brad`s splendid plan of taking his wallet out of his pocket, frowning and saying something like "thanks very much, but I have loads of those at home" caused us to have a fairly steady stream of knife-sellers tailing us all around the market. The knife-sellers` preferred way to show the sharpness of their wares was to grip your hand, roll your sleeve up and shave a clump of hairs off your arm, something that caused a little alarm the first time it happened, and something that caused Brad to leave the animal market looking like a monkey who`d had a lead role in the American space programme. Yes, they sell knives in the animal market. They sell knives everywhere. I don`t think there`s a man in Xinjian without a knife. When the guide translated my own knife-seller rebuttal, "I don`t really like knives much", was taken as "I don`t like THAT knife much - do you have any larger ones?"
Whilst moseying through the animal market we were accosted by a rather elderly looking gentleman who gesticulated at a wooden chair, plonked next to a selection of other wooden chairs where several local Uyghur men were being shaved. As I had a considerably bushy beard it seemed a shame not to take advantage of this fine opportunity, so down I sat. The chap produced a small bar of soap, whipped a no doubt filthy razor blade out of a vase of the local water that I`d been so carefully trying not to drink and proceeded to lacerate my face in several places, amid the gasps and winces of the rather large crowd of onlookers that had gathered. Eventually his colleague stepped in and explained to our interpreter that the chap hadn`t been entirely expecting me to sit down, that the pronounced shake he had was due to nervousness and that this was most likely the first time he`d ever had to shave a paleface like myself. While the whole experience was rather splendid, I felt a bit of a moron for so obviously subjecting myself to the various blood and water-borne diseases that I`d fortunately been innoculated against. As yet I`ve no symptoms of anything terrible.
As we left the animal market, a gaggle of knife vendors... what is the collective noun for knife vendors? A block? A sharpening? Where was I... as we left the animal market chased by Brad`s entourage, we caught sight of a tractor pulling a trailer carrying about a cubic metre of nothing but bouncing intestines. As it zoomed past us, a small portion of what we deemed to be bowel flopped off the top and landed at our feet. We held Brad back, just in case the tractor driver mistook his waving for an intention to purchase.
The everything-but-animals market was in town, and a much more conventional affair. It was separated into quite organised sections - cloth and clothing over there, pots and pans over here. Plastic binoculars (Brad bought a pair) and torches here. Knives everywhere.
Like most markets, haggling is compulsory. Due to the considerable language barriers, each stallholder posessed a pocket calculator. When you pointed at an item, he would type its price into the calculator, and then immediately pass it to you. You then had to peer at the calculator, peer at the item and then type roughly half of what he had typed, and hand it back to him. He`d sigh, shake his head, type 90% of his original number in and then hand it back. You sigh, shake your head and make to leave the stall. He snatches the calculator, grabs your sleeve and pulls you back in. You type 60% of his starter price, he types 80% and you agree 75%. The numbers vary somewhat - the best I managed to trade at was 60% of initial price, the worst was 85%. I`m one of those people who hates bargaining for anything, but in this instance it was particularly fun. Quite often, other stallholders would gather around to watch the moron westerners bargaining a 300%-inflated price down to a mere 200%.
"But what is this", I hear you cry, "a goddamned shopping trip?"
Mountaineering stuff in Episode Two. I promise.
Now we did some mountaineering stuff. After another evening of Beer Acclimatisation at 1500m, we all hopped onto two buses. "All" actually involved quite a few of us. There were only three people on the Mountain Madness trip I`d signed up for (http://www.mountainmadness.com/asia/mustaghata.cfm) but climbing at the same time as us, and sharing a great deal of hardware and porterage, were a group of twenty-one from a company called Summit Climb. Including SC`s two guides and the eight or nine Tibetans who were going to help us carting equipment between camps, the exodus from the Seman Hotel numbered somewhere near forty. As our bus pulled away from the hotel and Ted cheerfully called out "I hope you`ve all got your passports", I realised that I didn`t have my passport. While we weren`t actually intending leaving China, passports are required to cross the border into the Tajik Autonomous region. This isn`t an autonomous region at all, but it`s a part of a game the PRC like to play with its ethnic minorities where it pretends they get to decide some stuff when really they don`t much. Anyway, after a last-minute check in the small bag I was leaving at the hotel we decided that my passport must be somewhere in the luggage I had on the bus, and off we went.
As we got to the border, it had become singularly apparently that my passport was not in fact in the luggage I had on the bus. Faced with the prospect of being sent home before the trip had even started, I was somewhat ashen-faced as we rumbled up to the opposing-looking Chinese border. I`d include a photograph of it, but photographs were quite definitely not allowed.
The border control worked in a reasonably standard way. There was a little office, with one door on one side of the border, and one on the other side. People were expected to file into one side, show their passport to a Chinese army officer who ticked their name off a list of expected immigrants, and exit from the other. Following a pre-arranged plan, all forty of us piled into the office as the poor conscript tasked with crowd control struggled to retain some order. Everyone swarmed the desk to show passports to the nervous-looking immigration officer, and after seven or eight legitimate passport-holders had exited from the Tajik Autonomous Region door, I slipped out too. After a brief period where we worried about them counting the people who`d been through, looking for the missing "Chris Rae" on their list, we gleefully hopped back onto our bus. I was at least getting to Base Camp.
Before base camp (just wait, the climbing stuff is coming) we spent another night acclimatising at Karakul ("black lake"), some five hours` drive from Kashghar on predominantly paved roads. This meant sleeping at around 3600m, which actually gave me a bit of a headache, but the superb view of Mustagh Ata more than made up for it. Karakul is surrounded by an amazing array of glaciers and flanked by two 7000m mountains - Mustagh Ata (7546m -http://www.peakware.com/peaks.html?pk=187) and Kongur (7719m - http://www.peakware.com/peaks.html?pk=144). Mustagh Ata is climbed very regularly during the summer but until 2005 Kongur had only been climbed once, by Chris Bonnington in 1981. In 2005 four separate Russian expeditions topped out during the summer, so perhaps that`s the end of its Bonnington-dubbed reign as "Asia`s Elusive Summit" (http://www.noordinaryjoe.co.uk/forum/topic.asp?TOPIC_ID=1031).
At Karakul we were each allocated one tent (almost all ready-pitched by the Tibetans), and started on what was to become a familiar routine. Breakfast in the mess tent at seven, lunch at twelve and dinner at six. Apart from an occasional one-hour-later transpose, this was to be our feed schedule for the next three weeks. The food was on the whole very good indeed - spicy, which I like, though incorporating parts of chickens that I don`t normally eat. Lots of lamb, lots of vegetables and lots of rice.
We ambled around Karakul for a couple of days. Acclimatisation is a strange business - in a nutshell the accepted modern method of summiting large mountains is "climb high, sleep low". The acclimatisation routine on Mustagh Ata is much the same as that on Everest - you move from base camp to camp one carrying some gear, dump the gear at camp one, then move back to base camp. After a day resting at BC you then go to camp one, sleep at C1, take some gear up to C2, dump it, then go all the way back down to BC. Then start from BC, sleep C1, sleep C2, dump at C3, back to BC and, after a few more days` rest, head up to sleep at C1, sleep C2, sleep C3, summit, back to C3 for a night and then back to BC (BC is a somewhat too far from the summit in a day). Everest is exactly the same as this but there are four camps, and obviously the summit is 1300m further into thin air.
Having said all this, Karakul wasn`t actually base camp. Base camp was another 1200m higher, but Karakul was en-route and an ideal chance for us to acclimatise a little before heading to BC. It`s worth bearing in mind that base camp on Mustagh Ata is at almost exactly the same height as the summit of Mont Blanc, which itself requires a few days of acclimatisation to realistically have a shot at.
Anyway, we ambled around the lake acclimatising and taking photos, though sadly no longer drinking any more beer. The Mountain Madness crowd had the advantage of a guide (Ted, just in case you weren`t paying attention) who spoke both Chinese and Uyghur, and had several Khyrgyz friends who were herding in the area. It sounded like a splendid idea when he suggested visiting these friends of his, but I could barely believe the next part. We were to go on motorbikes! What sweet joy was this! Thinking I`d be deprived of internal combustion engines and beer from the moment I arrived in China, here I was being presented with a blast on a motorbike!
The next morning it turned out that I was in fact to be a passenger on a motorbike, ridden by one of the Khyrgyz. I couldn`t hide my misery, and had to confess my misunderstanding to Ted and the Khyrgyz (sounds like a band). Five minutes into the trip we stopped on the road to fill up with petrol (in what appeared to be a private residence), and suddenly a gentleman appeared with a motorbike for me! For me! After a brief delay while I worked out that Chinese motorcycle gearboxes appear to go N-1-2-3-4-5 instead of 1-N-2-3-4-5 like everyone else`s, we were off. I wasn`t wholly sure of the legality of this whole operation. I believe foreigners are only allowed to drive in the centre of towns in China, and nobody had offered me a crash helmet. Like every other vehicle on the public highway in China, the speedometer and odometer had been disabled so I felt quite the explorer whizzing along the silk road on my borrowed steed. As we left the road and headed down rough paths towards the Khyrgyz` pasture grounds, people popped out of yurts (Khyrgyz` summer huts) to watch us pass. Apparently foreigners on the back of motorcycles were becoming a more common event, but foreigners riding their own were still rather unusual. I managed not to fall off spectacularly in front of any of the locals, though my attempt at steely composure probably didn`t do much to conceal the fact that most of my bike-riding had been in central London which, whilst not without its dangers, doesn`t have a lot of sand or streams.
Once up at the Khyrgyz pasture ground we were invited into a yurt for some yak`s milk tea and bread. It`s very difficult to describe this without sounding like one of these ghastly travel people who gush on about how humble the natives are in Peru, and how one simply must go elk-hunting with the dear Titbonk tribe of the Amazon, who`ve almost all been murdered because ghastly travel people used all the rain forests to print The Lonely Planet. Anyway, let`s give it a go. Yak`s milk tea is actually rather nice. I know you have to say that when you try something quaint and regional, but really, it is. If Sainsbury`s had it, I`d buy some. It`s nice until the point at which they put yak butter in it, at which point it doesn`t become repulsive but simply tastes like some perfectly nice tea with butter in it. The bread was rather less delightful - western China seems to specialise in a sort of bread that resembles a nan bought in an Indian restaurant and left on the patio for a day or two. It`s very hard indeed, and really too dry to get down unless you`re drinking some liquid as well.
The Khyrgyz are a pretty easy-going lot. While the women sit in the yurts cooking and cleaning, the men get down the the important business of herding stuff. This seems to involve mostly riding around on motorbikes, eating and smoking cheap Chinese cigarettes. When we arrived at the yurt, a few of the men popped in for some tea, and to allow all of us a chance for some mutual peering at funny foreign people. Whilst I think the food and drink was offered out of a genuine sense of hospitality, we did get the opportunity to buy some knives and traditional Khyrgyz hats, and we politely declined both with no hard feelings. Ted showed the men a few pictures of Turkic people around other parts of Asia - there seems to be quite a strong sense of community among the Turkic-originating peoples, and they were all keen to hear Ted`s tales of what the others had been up to. At least that`s what I think his tales were about. It`s quite possible they were about this unbelievable moron he`d ended up guiding, who`d somehow lost his passport during a two-day stay in a hotel.
Once back at Karakul we prepared for an early-morning start up to base camp the next day. I think everyone was ready to start on the mountain - although I`d been having a splendid time, I couldn`t help but feel that I`d told all my friends I was going on a mountaineering trip, when really I`d just been drinking beer and playing on motorbikes. I`d barely had cause to wear anything over my T-shirt, let alone bring out the moutaineering boots and my down jacket.
Base camp involved an hour or so more of paved roads (in the buses, naturally) and then onto a dirt track. Some enterprising Chinese company had popped an impromptu toll barrier across the route and, after a brief argument with the gentlemen operating the toll, we drove over it in the bus. This resulted in another argument, followed by us driving up the road. I`m not entirely sure what the end result was.
A couple of hours up this dirt track, it was decided that the buses weren`t going any further as the ground became a little marshy. We met various locals with mules and donkeys and, while they began the fight over whose donkey got to carry the sleeping mats (which were both rather large and rather light, so quite a prize for a man who doesn`t want to wear out his donkey), we started the walk up to base camp. Yes, A walk! With hiking boots and everything. And carrying, umm, three or four kilos. Hey, we don`t want to overdo it here.
After three or four hours we arrived at what was to be base camp. Some of the donkeys had beaten us to the camp, so quite a few tents were lying ready to be pitched. I pitched mine and dived inside. Most of us either had a headache already or were shortly to develop one - I had a rather more unpleasant reaction and had to lie very still for an hour or two, as otherwise I was pretty sure I was going to vomit everywhere. I know I always react badly to altitude initially but I tend to improve, so I wasn`t overly perturbed by this. It would have been nice if my sleeping bag had been there, but one could argue that if I was that bothered about it I should have carried it up myself.
Our gear continued arriving on a steady stream of donkeys well into the night. There was a small chunk of glacier to cross on the path, and I have not the faintest idea how the donkeys managed it in what was pretty much pitch darkness.
After yet another rest day, I think everyone on both expeditions was pretty keen to get started. We sat down and had a Mountain Madness powwow about the equipment and supplies we needed to carry up the mountain. As well as having tents and stoves carried to each camp by porters, we were to have 10kg each carried all the way to C3. I have always had doubts about guided expeditions using high altitude porters, and I suppose to a large extent I still do. Can you really say you climbed something if someone else carried your tent? Of course, Edmund Hillary did - in fact, until very recently, Everest had never been climbed any other way. What if someone else carried your tent to base camp and no further? What if you flew to base camp? This can obviously be carried all the way back to "what if you were wearing boots", and "what if you brought some food with you". It all harks back to a vague idea I once had about trying to climb some mountain somewhere naked from sea-level, forraging for nuts and berries on the way up. Kiki wasn`t mustard keen when I announced that it`d be a great thing to do during our holiday to St Lucia, and seemed even less happy when I appointed her official photographer. I don`t recall her exact words, but in the end I didn`t do it.
I`ve decried guided expeditions in the past. I think that the greatest challenges of mountaineering (certainly the sort I might pretend to do) are the planning of an expedition, and then making the right decisions at the right times - this usually means the difficult choice not to bother going any futher in a particular situation, or not to start at all on a given day. On a guided trip you`re mostly robbed of this, and relegated to plodding when you`re told to.
High peaks, however, are extremely impractical, perhaps even downright dangerous to climb without a guide. There are many potential hazards which will hit you the hardest on the biggest peaks, and some that only exist at high altitude. Of course you can train for these eventualities and, once you have a few high peaks under your belt, no doubt lead your own expeditions. But bear in mind that for any peak over 6000m it`s going to take a good few days of travelling just to get to the bottom, at least a week to get to the top and a good few expeditions before you are well-versed in local weather and treating altitude illness. As a normal individual trying to hold down a job now and again, I personally think this rules me out for climbing anything about 6000m without a guide. And I haven`t even got started on the red tape and logistics. How one would go about hiring twenty donkeys, persuading the PRC to issue the required permits, arranging for a live sheep to be brought up to base camp once a week or keeping the Tibetans in cigarettes is another thing entirely.
On top of all of this is the numbing inaccessibility of these peaks for rescue. Even in the wilds of Scotland or the Swiss alps it`s rather unusual to lose mobile phone reception for more than a few hours. If you don`t expect phone reception, you can leave notification at your hostel as to where you`re going, and at 9pm they`ll call out the mountain rescue with a helicopter to poke around for you. If you absent-mindedly get lost in a snowstorm above 7000m one evening, you have no mobile phone reception. However, don`t worry too much about that, because there is no rescue - the well-oiled organisations we`ve come to rely on in Europe just don`t exist. Even if you had a hotline to God, you`re three days` walk from basecamp and a helicopter can`t fly much higher than there. It`s minus 40 at night and in a few hours you`re going to start suffering from altitude-related illnesses which _drastically_ affect your judgement. I hope I don`t have too many illusions about my mountaineering skills, and they`re just never going to be that good.
A guide isn`t a magician, but the advantage afforded by having someone with you who`s spent a lot of time at altitude is a large one. When we climbed Orizaba in Mexico I`d say that Phil, Nev and I were amongst the best-prepared groups on the mountain, that including several guided expeditions. You`d have to have been there to realise that this wasn`t necessarily saying a great deal. However, I also remember us nearly setting one tent on fire during a cooking accident, and I remember us having to slope back to base camp to try and find another expedition being dropped off by truck, because we`d run out of gas. Great character-builders these were, but unfortunately just not doable further away from civilisation.
I`m sure we were about to start climbing, but I`ve lost my track again. Climbing in Episode Three. I promise. The first paragraph will start with some climbing.
Sorry for the brief interruption to the Mustagh Ata tomes. This was caused by my wedding, which took place yesterday near Chania, Crete. Many thanks to all those who came along - we thought it went jolly well. For those who couldn`t make it, I`ve posted some photos up. They were taken by my brother Tony and my now sister-in-law Eleftheria.
I might write some more blog entries about it, but they`re unlikely to cover the whole planning and execution for fear of putting off any potential marriage candidates.
I`ll do the next Mustagh Ata entry soon.
I was young free and single when I wrote part two, and I`m married now - this has involved a lot of organisational headache so please excuse me if I cover ground I`ve already been over.
Here goes with the climbing. The hike from base camp to camp one was on a rubble-covered scree slope, in a fair amount of heat even for people who`ve been living in Greece for a month. T-shirt and shorts type weather. As this was an acclimatisation hike more than a camp-stocking hike we carried very light packs, but even so the altitude was telling. It was an 800m climb up a steady incline, which took is just over four hours. I didn`t know at the time that the combination of increased fitness and acclimatisation would cause the same hike to take me just over two hours with a half-full pack in a couple of weeks. Once we arrived at C1 (5200m) we ate our sandwiches, chatted for a while and sat taking in the view for a while in order to acclimatise. Apart from the headache I felt pretty good, and I imagine I speak for the rest of them when I say I was pleased to discover that the three of us were all happy with a similar pace. Ted`s girlfriend Ashley appeared to find it a great deal easier than the rest of us did, but I personally decided that it was almost definitely because she was leaving before the main climb and didn`t, erm, have to conserve energy as much as the rest of us. That was it. We hopped back down to base camp and had a rest day. I`m going to start having "rest days" on all my hikes in future.
Did I talk about food? I don`t think I did. Whilst the food at base camp was really rather pleasant (apart from the chicken heads), the food further up the mountain was a little more basic. All you eat at the higher camps must be cooked on a stove inside the tent using snow that you`ve melted. I remember as well as anyone how quickly snowballs melt and drip all over you once you`d made them, and how quickly a snow-covered hiker turns into a puddle. Melting snow to cook with, however, is much more of a pain in the tits than you`d imagine. There are two basic tasks involved - collecting the snow (usually scooped up with your bowl into a stuff-sack) outside, and melting it inside. Collecting the snow meant putting gear on and going out in the nasty wasty outdoors, so in reality what usually happened was that I lay inactive groaning for a while, and Ted (my allocated tent-buddy) made some grumbling noises and then went out and collected all the snow. Melting the snow, however, meant lighting the stove. The stoves were home-made affairs (no stove manufacturer will ever make you a stove for cooking inside a tent, for fear of litigation in the inevitable ten thousand tent-fire incidents) and ran on disposable canisters of propane-butane gas mix. In very cold temperatures the gas inside the canisters unfortunately contracts so much that nothing comes out when you turn the tap on, and the only real way to get any gas out is to heat it. And so, almost every time we cooked, we found ourselves in the jolly position of sitting in a flammable tent, several miles up, three days from assistance and completely uncontactable, holding a lighted match an inch underneath a gas canister.
After our rest day we headed back up to C1, with the intention of staying the night and then making some headway for C2 the following morning. Once we got to C1 the tents were already pitched - we were now staying two-to-a-tent instead of the luxurious single tents at base camp, so I was paired up with Ted. C1 lay on rocky scree just below the very highest sliver of ground before the snowline, and the Mountain Madness tents were at the very top. Facing down from our tents we saw the snow to our left, the enormous Kartamak glacier over a very sharp drop to the right and the other ten or so tents of the camp spread out below us. From a distance the whole setup must have looked a little precarious.
We arrived at C1 in the early afternoon and started melting snow immediately - this actually takes somewhere around an hour each morning and evening, so the novelty of playing at being a mountaineer soon palls. My headache got steadily worse, and as evening approached I dedicated my time to lying on the floor trying not to vomit whilst Ted cooked my dinner. All of the food was of the freeze-dried just-add-water variety. It was actually remarkeably good, but so it should have been as each sachet meal cost in the region of 4 quid, which would buy you a jolly nice dinner for two in Kashgar.
Brad appeared to be in fine form, but the very beginnings of a cold that Ian had had at base camp appeared to be getting to him. We went to bed at around nine, the usual sort of time for the higher camps, and I slept really quite badly, mostly because every time I started to doze off I found myself very alert and hyperventilating. I don`t know whether it was really due to a lack of oxygen or just a mild case of High Altitude Paranoia, but it was extremely unpleasant. If the higher camps were going to be worse doses of this, I was going to be spending a week drinking in Kashgar.
Although I`d had a bit of practice at base camp, this was also the first night where I rather had to pee in a bottle. For those of you who haven`t done this before, peeing in a bottle is a funny old business if you`re a man, and a not very funny old business if you`re a girl. It had taken me quite some time hunting in Athens for a disposable plastic milk bottle with an enormous enough girth for me, but eventually I`d found one and bundled it into my luggage. Kiki`s mother had washed it out carefully beforehand, bless her - I`m not sure she knew exactly what it was destined for. Anyway, whilst seasoned mountaineers can pee in a bottle whilst prone in the comfort of their sleeping bags, the rest of us find that we have to sit up (still in the sleeping bag) in order to perform. As I`m sure you know, the act of urination requires a certain degree of relaxation, and that relaxation is difficult to attain when you`re squatting in front of two other gentlemen with one knee resting rather painfully on a discarded ice axe and the other attempting to compensate for the considerable slope your tent has been pitched on. Combine these factors with the knowledge that you`re about to open your bladder inside your own sleeping bag, and the horror stories you`ve heard about urination accidents in base camp, and peeing becomes really quite a task. Once you`ve finished you just tip the bottle contents out of the tent immediately - you`ll only forget to do this part once, when you wake up with a frozen bottle of pee and realise that you`re going to have to spend the day with it in your jacket pocket trying to warm it up.
Dear reader, console yourself with the fact that you`re not a woman. Unless you`re a woman. For a woman, peeing in a bottle is as easy, in the words of Barbara from the Summit Climb party, as getting a cat to pee in a bottle. I`m reliably informed that it involves a funnel, some swearing and a high level of risk. It`s such a complex and hazardous procedure that many of the women on the Summit Climb expedition elected to don a complete set of mountaineering gear (including boots) and brave the elements, even at the higher camps. If you`re on Diamox (more on this later) this could be three or four times every night.
Once you`ve got the hang of peeing in a bottle, it`s actually great. How many times have you gone to the Lake District camping, had a few beers, leapt into the tent, undressed and realised that you need to pee three times before going to sleep, and now it`s started raining? The bottle is your friend.
The next morning it was freezing cold. Despite ventilating the tent quite well we had little bits of frosted condensation all over the zips, the cooking aparatus and all my clothes. From now on, all the mornings are going to be freezing cold. I might not mention it each time, so you`ll have to imagine it. Ted, who seems to be a mornings person, was up bright and early and out getting snow for us to start melting. Yay! Another hour of snow melting. Wasn`t I doing this BEFORE I went to bed? Isn`t it DONE?
After eating some rather nice oatmeal, we made contact with Brad and Ian - initially by yelling, but eventually by getting off our portly posteriors and going to their tent. Ian looked considerably worse. He`d hardly slept at all and announced immediately that he was not going towards C2, but was instead heading back to BC. I had to admire him - as I mentioned before, perhaps the hardest part of any mountaineering trip is deciding when to turn back, and here he was very near the start of the expedition quite sure that if he was going to make the summit, he had to shake off the cold first. He knew as well as we did that a day skipped on the acclimatisation left him at a considerable deficit, but there wasn`t much else he could do.
The glacier just above us was quite heavily crevassed. Jon Otto (China`s favourite logistics man) and Phil Crampton (Summit Climb`s guide) had placed marker wands and fixed some sections of rope, so we just had to follow the wands and clip into the fixed rope where necessary. This meant being roped together, so Brad, Ted and I started to tie in. As we were tying the ropes we met two parties who`d been up for an early-morning sortie above C1. Both parties had had a man fall into a crevasse, and both unroped. They were extremely lucky, but it was a much closer shave than anyone had expected and two people (Roger and Alan) dropped out of the expedition immediately. Although it probably seems an unusual decision to the average reader, I couldn`t really fault their sentiments at the time - I`ve been in a crevasse once and it is really an extremely unpleasant experience. Although shaken, they were in generally good spirits and cheerily wished us good luck. One of them remarked that if he ever climbed a mountain again, it wasn`t going to have snow on it.
Slightly sobered by this knowledge, we started towards C2. The ice was reasonably hard and we wore crampons from the outset. I`ve never been clipped into a fixed rope and tied to other people at the same time, and it`s really quite tricky not standing on at least one part of the rope fairly regularly, especially with crampons on. After a bit of tangling we began to get the hang of it and started making a steady but slow pace upwards. It`s really quite amazing how slow a pace one makes on high mountains - it`s probably about one footstep every five seconds or so. Professional mountaineers aim to walk slowly all day almost without stopping - eating and drinking must be done on the way, so food and drink must be handy in jacket pockets. I`m a great subscriber to this but for the first few hours we had quite regular stops in order to retrieve food, sun cream, sunglasses et cetera from rucksacks.
The terrain from C1 on is a steady climb up snow. If you were to have the classic picture of Mustagh Ata from the north (Karakoul) in front of you, the mountain has a wedge shape - very steep to the left and shallow to the right. C1 is at the snowline on the shallower (right) side. In most pictures from Karakoul, it`s just past what you can see to the right. With a few variations, it`s a steady incline of perhaps 20 degrees. The up the mountain is of more snow; the view back down behind you is a splendid vista of the Karakoul valley, and directly behind you are the various mountain passes into Afghanistan, Kyrgystan and Tajikistan. Many of these passes are quite simply closed to foreigners, with no exceptions.
After skirting around a few clearly marked slots, the crevasse field dried up and we were off the fixed ropes. Compared to the BC-C1 hike, the going was really very hard. We had quite a few stops and I had to ask for quite a few more - my headache was terrible, I was feeling extremely nauseous and completely lacking in energy. The nausea was perhaps the worst part; performing strenuous exercise whilst wanting to vomit is not the easiest thing in the world.
After four hours or so we met Phil (SC guide) and a few others at one of the few slightly flatter parts, and I announced my intention to go no further whatsoever. Brad was feeling "tired" but I quite honestly felt like death. I flumped down without taking my rucksack off, and leaned back breathing heavily and concentrating on not vomiting in front of these nice people.
Some time later - I suspect not very much time, as nobody else noticed - I woke up. How I fell asleep I had no idea, but I was still sitting in the same position, and now I had to vomit in front of these nice people. I staggered to my feet, smiled meekly at Phil and vomited all over the place several times. Ted took this as a useful sign that I probably wasn`t going to camp two, and we started to head back down to base camp. The hike took an absolute age, and I felt gruesome the whole way. I think my condition was made much worse by the fact that this didn`t bode at all well for the rest of the trip, and I arrived back at BC feeling healthier but in rotten spirits. I spent the next rest day feeling sorry for myself, and guilty for stopping Ted and Brad from making C2.
Ian`s cold wasn`t any better, so the spirits of the whole team were somewhat down. Just two days ago it had seemed perfectly reasonable to assume that we`d all make the summit, and now it looked like only one of us had much of a chance.
Where we`d ended up with Phil, it seemed, was what came to be known as "camp 1.5", at around 5750m. Chatting back in BC, it seemed that a lot of the Summit Climb people had also failed to make C2, so there was a good deal of talk about making a potential camp one-and-a-half just above where I stopped to evacuate my stomach. The news that other people were having trouble was obviously rather cheering, but the simple fact remained that the climb from C2 to C3 was likely to be equally hard, or harder.
Despite not feeling a great deal better, Ian decided that he rather had to join in the next sortie up the mountain for fear of being so far behind on the acclimatisation schedule that he`d have no chance at all.
The following morning, Ted, Brad and I started for C1, with the intention of heading up to C2, sleeping there for one night and then trying to climb to camp three. Given that C2 appeared to be practically impossible to get to (for me at least), I wasn`t in the greatest of spirits when we got to C1. At C1, however, I slept much better than the previous time and woke up feeling quite eager to get going. Ian was in fine spirits and Brad (as usual) seemed unstoppable, so off we went.
About half an hour in, the wind picked up rather unpleasantly. About an hour in, snow started falling. Four hours in, at C1.5, Ian declared that he couldn`t go any further. The visibility was very low - we could see the next marker wand, but really no more. Ian looked really rather unwell, and we elected to return to C1 en masse instead of splitting up. Neither Brad nor I had ever been to C2, and there was no question of Ted leaving Ian to descend on his own, as the great majority of the crevasses were below us. It was somewhat agonising to turn around exactly where we had before, but there was no doubting the logic. I felt much better than I had the previous time, but I knew that C2 was at 6200 and that C1.5 really was barely halfway there. Even Brad seemed a little perturbed.
We headed back to C1. Having failed to make C2 twice in a row, we had to get there now. The following day, Ian decided to head back to BC for some more R&R. I think we all knew that this really meant the end of Ian`s summit chances, but he was in good spirits and charmingly optimistic for Brad and I. That afternoon, Brad, Ted and I eventually made it to C2. Whilst not exactly a piece of cake, the climb from C1.5 to C2 wasn`t nearly as bad as C1 to C1.5, mostly because the ascent was generally a little less steep and for large parts we managed to remain unroped, which made the going a lot easier. I felt woefully tired but relieved, cheered partly by the fact that Brad, the seemingly undefeatable mountaneering machine, had spent the last hour of the climb swearing loudly and practically had a fist-fight with a recalcitrent snow-shoe. It`s wrong to gain from other people`s misfortune, but it made me feel a lot less like I was holding the expedition up, which I`d rather thought until then.
At C2 we were three-to-a-tent, which is cosy to say the least. When they say "three man tent", they sure don`t expect anyone to have any stuff with them. That night the weather turned really quite gruesome. Very high winds, and a lot of snow, a good chunk of which made it into the alcove of the tent and completely covered all of the equipment we`d had to leave outside. When we woke up, about ten centimetres of fine powder snow put the nail in the coffin of any ideas we might have had about getting up towards camp three. We sat around for an hour or two optimistically waiting for this snow to, erm, blow away or something, and then trudged slowly all the way back down to base camp.
In base camp, the other teams appeared to be in similar positions. We already had a pretty good idea of this as Ted and the other guides were keeping a strict schedule of night and morning radio calls to keep abreast of what was going on upon the mountain. This was a more complicated affair than it might have been, because BC could only hear C1, so any messages from the higher camps had to be relayed via C1.
It seemed that only two people (Ben and Nigel, both on skis) had made any progress above C2, and even then they`d given up after just a couple of hundred metres. Time constraints meant that all of us were now going to make a summit attempt _without_ having spent a night at camp three, which didn`t look to have great chances of success. Because I knew I adapted to altitude very badly at first exposure and took a day or so to get used to it, I regarded this as being the end of my chance of the summit. This bothered me a lot more than I thought it would - I hadn`t realised when I started this trip quite how important it was going to be for me to summit, as I`m not generally that focused. I`d spoken to Kiki (then girlfriend, now wife) a couple of times on Ted`s satellite phone as she tried to help me sort out another passport, and I told her that evening that I was fifty-fifty for the summit. I think she was a little surprised, but to be honest I felt it was a lot less than fifty-fifty, because there was no way I could spend a night at C3 without spending the next day recovering at base camp.
Ian was now resigned to staying in Base Camp, and divided his time between reading books and chatting to recuperating climbers from the Summit Climb expedition. Brad, Ted and I rested in Base Camp for two whole days before making our final C1-C2-C3-summit attempt. During these rest days, Ted`s girlfriend Ashley became my favourite person in the world. For some reason she`d been under the impression that I couldn`t manage to successfully perform a perfectly simple task, like checking that the bag that I`d left at the Seman hotel didn`t contain my passport. As she was returning to Kashgar anyway, she popped into the Seman hotel and, well, found my passport in the bag that I`d left at the Seman hotel.
Boy, was it a relief to be clambering up this revolting scree slope for the last time. As Ted skipped lightly up it, he announced cheerfully that the whole of Aconcagua was like this. I crossed Aconcagua off my list of Things to Do. I slept well at C1 despite some pretty horrible weather and then made it to C2 in reasonable shape, spurred on mostly by the fact that I`d never have to do this again, whether we made the top or not. After a much better night`s sleep at C2, we started the climb to C3.
But wait! What sweet pleasure was this? The climb to camp three was EASIER than we expected! The weather was lovely, the incline was shallower and in four hours we were at C3, ready to start feeling ill again. But further joy - I didn`t feel nearly as ill as I had upon my arrivals at BC, C1 or C2. We were now at 6700m, a full thousand metres over my personal altitude record, but I felt in remarkeably good spirits, with only the usual nagging headache and tiredness, and no nausea at all.
I managed to maintain this state all night - in more ways than one, unfortunately, as I didn`t sleep at all. As we awoke at 5am to a bright morning with no fresh snow, we began to wonder whether this really was attainable after all. Ted and I were both worried about my lack of sleep, but there wasn`t much we could do other than start up for the summit.
Within an hour or so we were up and climbing. The climb was as gradual as the C2-C3 leg, and we were in good spirits for the first couple of hours. After that, though, the lack of oxygen began to really take its toll. As we reached 7000m I felt really quite elated - for me reaching 7000 was the best consolation prize I could manage if I didn`t make the summit.
We climbed on - since C2 we`d been on snowshoes rather than crampons and, while they do certainly do their job, they add some ill-required weight to your already extremely heavy boots. Our packs were now almost empty, containing nothing more than some ultra-warm clothes, a bit of emergency gear and some food, but the thin air more than made up for this and I felt like I was carrying 20kg again. As we broke through 7000m in the early morning, I began to feel as if I was running out of energy.
Both Ted and Brad were tiring too - once you get very high up, oxygen starvation really does addle your brain and having even a simple conversation about which direction to head in becomes both amazingly tiring and amazingly complicated to think about. Conversation, therefore, tends to be limited to "can we stop now" or "my snowshoe is falling off" type chit-chat.
By now I had pretty much given up looking ahead of me for a clue as to how far we had to go (the summit was still very much out of sight) and was instead just watching my altimeter readings. Too much effort was involved in looking away from my feet, which required constant supervision otherwise I stood absent-mindedly one snowshoe on the other, or slipped in the icy snow. At 7100m I first felt the sensation of quite honestly running out of energy. I`d eaten a decent breakfast for the altitude (appetite is a great victim of AMS) but the lack of sleep was starting to get to me. At 7200m, I was gutted to find that I was slowing to a stop. Ted and Brad were making good but sluggish progress, and I quite simply just stopped. They waited patiently as I leant on my ice axe and panted for a while. I really couldn`t see how things would be different when we started off again, but I couldn`t bear the idea of turning around. We carried on for ten minutes, and I had to stop again for another five. If they were starting to get pissed off with this, they did very well not showing it.
At about 7300m, I stopped for fifteen minutes. For every step I now had to take several large gulps of air, and I felt as if I hadn`t eaten anything for weeks. Brad and Ted stopped with me, but I don`t think they realised how close I was to turning around. If anyone else had suggested it, I`d have given up. There was a rocky false summit just to the right of us, but I knew the real summit was another quarter kilometre above us. I managed to eat one of the reconstituted something-meat sausages Ted had procured for us - a no mean feat, as it`s almost impossible to eat anything.
I don`t know if it was the sausage of unknown origin, the sight of the false summit or just a "pull yourself together" instinct, but I suddenly switched into "do or die" mode. I started off again, surprising Ted and Brad, and steamed uphill (if one step every five seconds is steaming). For the next two hours I plod, plod, plodded. I didn`t really feel much less tired than I had before, but somehow I had developed this grim determination to summit. The summit turned out to be a sort of rocky patch with a few flags stuck in it and some French skiers sitting around. Ted and Brad arrived there some ten minutes after I did, looking really quite shattered. As expected, I was feeling tired but exhillerated - we shook hands rather solemnly, took a couple of photos each and started to head down. It`s amazing how hard it is taking photos up there - not only is it a complete pain removing gloves and getting the thing out of a pocket, but it`s amazingly hard to concentrate on things so complex as keeping the horizon straight and pressing the right button. I pressed some buttons a few times and then gave up. Ted told me subsequently that the only conversational words he and Brad had exchanged on the last few hundred metres were when I`d suddenly upped and zoomed off, and Brad was lead to gasp "is Chris on fucking drugs?".
Back at camp three a few hours later, I was asleep within two minutes of getting into the tent, with all my gear on. I awoke after a couple of hours and we cooked and headed straight to bed. We were yet to engage in the whooping and back-slapping that I thought would be a part of any successful mountaineering expedition with Americans in it, but I was too tired to care.
The following morning we had to descend all the way from C3 to BC. The weather was glorious and, as Ted was skiing and we weren`t, Brad and I walked down together. It was really now that the sense of achievement kicked in, coupled with the great joy of not having to climb up this thing again - particularly the C1-C2 stretch.
At C1 there were a selection of Khyrgyz and Tajiks wanting to porter loads back down to BC for some cash. Brad, Ted and I lapped up this chance and hiked back to BC alone with relatively small packs. Halfway to base camp down the scree and thinking of nothing in particular, I missed my footing, fell backwards and slid for a not inconsiderable distance on what turned out to be the skin covering my right arm. Startled as much as hurt, I jumped back to my feet to discover that one side of my arm had turned into a mess of gravel and blood. So it`s true that 90% of accidents happen on the way down! Well I never. I was consoled only by hearing from Ted at BC that Alan Hinkes, arguably Britain`s best living high-altitude mountaineer, dropped out of a Kanchenjunga expedition because of an injury he sustained at base camp whilst trying to teach his sherpas how to make a cake. Imagine explaining that to the sponsors.
Back at BC the atmosphere was a little unusual - approximately half of the climbers on the mountain had reached the summit, fewer than most people had expected. It`s fair to say that a handful were inexperienced or not quite prepared but what really struck me was that most of them was just plain unlucky. A few had caught the cold that was going around base camp; a few more had picked up diarrhoea or bad AMS; a lot had hit bad weather. I know everyone says that joining a high-altitude expedition is by no means a summit guarantee but I don`t think it had sunk in for any of us what this really meant. If you join a mountaineering trip you should make an estimate of your summit chances based on your health, mental attitude and fitness, and then toss a coin for the rest.
Knowing that we had to be on the plane at 8am out of Kashgar, we decided not to have too wild a night out. I was greatly surprised, therefore, to find myself at 5:30am completely drunk and sitting in a street-side cafe trying not to vomit whilst looking at the whole guinea-fowl that Ted was enthusiastically eating. Back in the hotel I was awaked by Brad banging on my door and shouting at 7:30. "What is it" I mumbled. "Get up!" yelled Brad. "Why?" I said. "I DON`T KNOW" he moaned.
We boarded the plane twenty minutes after it was due to leave and in an embarassingly high state of inebriation. I can`t tell you much more about that journey or the morning, as I don`t recall a great deal.
The whole trip was absolutely extraordinary. Much more than I expected I was completely taken with China, particularly the rural parts. I`ve never been anywhere before in my life where people don`t know the English words "yes" and "no", or where people would go out of their way so much to make you welcome even if it didn`t look like there was going to be any money in it for them. To get into the United States I am required to fill in a selection of forms, have my retina and fingerprints scanned and sit for five minutes being questioned about where I`m staying, and when I`m planning on buggering off again. To get into the ghastly communist citadel that is the People`s Republic I am required simply to have a visa - and if I don`t have one, I can get one at a desk in the airport, all in English. Given that most things in China currently cost approximately one fifth of what they do in the UK, I`ll be amazed if fifty years down the line the USA isn`t begging to have back all the business and tourism that disappeared to the other side of the planet.
This is the end - lots of other things happened, but I`ve already written too much. If you ever decide to climb a big mountain then remember to toss that coin. If you ever plan to visit China, can I come too?
The sharp-eyed among you will notice that it`s not traditional to have a stag do after the wedding. Fear not. The stag do was before the wedding, but the writeup is after. If I put in the correct dates, it would never appear on the front page of the blog thing.
Both of my eager fans have asked me when the stag do writeup was going to appear here, so I thought I`d better write one. All the wedding planning made me rather lax about blogging, and I have a terrible memory, so it might not be very good. I`ve also left some parts deliberately ambiguous, so that their bland reality will be known only to those present at the stag do, and everyone else will be forced to think that I`m concealing something wickedly exciting that they missed out on.
My best man (Marcroft) and I agreed some time ago that the only real place we could have the stag do would be the Nürburgring racing circuit. After briefly consulting their calendar, a good weekend seemed to be that of 26th-27th August - the circuit was open to the public on the Sunday, but there was a VLN race that we could all watch running on the Saturday. This looked like an even better idea when it turned out that our friend Euan was intending racing in the VLN, so we`d have a team to root for. This decision made, I rather left the planning of the whole thing to Marcroft, who is to Event Planning what Stevie Wonder is to tennis.
To my surprise, he did a splendid job. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I was the only person travelling to the event from Athens, but Mr Marcroft had managed to get a splendid turnout from my chums, and a good mix of car/non-car people.
As is always the way with weekend trips, we kicked off the Friday evening by staying out until 5am and getting so drunk that we were largely incapable for the whole of the next day. John Ross managed to do this in such a spectacular fashion that he was bedridden until 9am on Sunday (on his own). Fortunately, we`d elected to stay in Adenau, the party town of the region - whilst Nürburg has only two bars, Adenau has three, and only one of them feels like somebody`s front room.
On the Saturday we got up somewhere around lunchtime and went to watch the VLN race. I`d had a call from Euan rashly telling me that we were all very welcome to turn up in pit 31 and meet the race crew. A good chunk of us rolled up and we chatted for a while with Euan, Job (the team manager) and the two other drivers. The race started just before we arrived, so there was quite a lot of action in the other pits and down the pit lane. I could swear it was actually the same pit box they`d been using for the 24h race two years before, where Marcroft and I had pit-crewed. I hoped this part was vaguely interesting for the non-car people, but I couldn`t entirely tell.
We moseyed over to Brünchen to spectate for a while. Watching a race isn`t quite as exciting as watching the tourist-days, because people don`t slide around or crash quite as much in racing cars as they do in cars belonging to their employer or their mum. Go figure, as the Americans might say.
Then we went drinking in Adenau again. My memory is a little hazy. I think there was some electronic darts. There was a visit to Cherie Bar, which we thought might be a strip club but, as I think we realised when we discovered that we had to knock on the door to get in, wasn`t. This is one of the parts I`m leaving up in the air, as I proposed in the first paragraph.
On Sunday I made it to the track for 9am (well, 9:15), aware that I was unlikely to be able to drive for several hours. The track was decidedly wet anyway, so I wasn`t overly bothered. I passengered with Daniel Walker a couple of times, and then left him on his own at which point he decided to spin off at Adenau Forst, one of the few places you can spin off without hitting anything.
Eventually I did a couple of rather scrappy laps with the one-litre Punto that Avis had generously given me. Okay, so I don`t actually know whether it was one litre, but anything that`s struggling in third gear up Kesselchen can`t really be anything else. It`s a jolly nice car actually - with a bit more oomph it might really be quite fun. Compare this, dear reader, with the truly horrible A-class Mercedes that my brother had hired, which appeared to operate some sort of sophisticated fly-by-wire steering system. It was faster than mine in a straight line, but I`m not sure it had been designed for turning much. Luke had a Ford Focus "C-Max" - it`s like a normal Ford Focus but with a marginally more off-roady feel. Luke took full advantage of this by driving across the grass at Hocheichen giggling and squeaking "mo-o-o-o-ment!!!".
I went out again with Daniel, who drove around very competently. I then left him on his own at which point he decided to spin off at Brünchen 2, one of the few places you can spin off without hitting anything. With my dad (a man not wholly alien to spinning cars on racing circuits) in the passenger seat, who seemed to thoroughly enjoy the whole affair.
Mr Marcroft, never a man of very many laps in a weekend, decided to have a quick spin around in his mini. He got as far as T13 (perhaps 5% in) before completing a neat one hundred and eighty degree spin and coming to rest a couple of inches from the Armco.
As the rain became heavier, Trev became a little less vocal in his proposals that I drive his Ferrari. Fortunately, I`d made the remarkeably far-sighted move of selling my old Impreza to Mr Paul Hollingsworth, and then inviting him to bring it to my stag do. He`d rather generously put me onto the insurance and I did a couple of laps earlier in the day, and finally one really rather good one in the absolutely pouring rain. I have decided that it`s actually much easier to drive when the whole track is covered in water rather than just small sections, as the whole lot becomes like a jolly predictable automotive skating rink. I think this last lap must go down in my memory as one of the best I`ve ever done, and certainly one of the only ones on a busy track where I`ve never been passed by anyone.
Oops, I forgot. Earlier in the day we went go-karting, in the indoor place by the F1 circuit. We split into two groups - "competitive" and "non-competitive". First up were the "competitive" group (unsurprisingly incorporating the whole of the Rae family).
I qualified second - Fred qualified first. Fred`s not someone whose self-confidence needs a boost, so it`s always disappointing to find something he`s actually quite good at. Well, I say "always", but actually I think this is the first time I`ve found something. Anyway, after about three corners I spun completely, got stuck in the tirewall and was extricated by the track staff a couple of seconds before the entire field lapped me. I managed to pass a couple of people and eventually caught up very slowly with Fred. I couldn`t get past him for love nor money, until eventually he pulled over on the straight, waved me past and chased me for a while instead. I let him past again and we carried on fooling around until the end of the race. I don`t think I`ve ever been quite so exactly evenly matched with someone on a karting race, and it was all a great hoot. Our fastest laps were 0.001 seconds apart, with Fred being faster due to what was clearly some sort of technical problem with the timing gear.
Next up were the "non-competitive" group. Key signs of non-competitiveness appear to be ramming each other, shouting, forcing other non-competitive people off the track and eventually beating the "competitive" group in fastest lap-times. The less said the better.
Our Sunday evening was rounded off with a rather delicious dinner at the Pistenklause (http://www.am-tiergarten.de/) and a rather rowdy session of arm-wrestling, in which every single attendee partook, including my father. It`s quite extraordinary how much your arm hurts afterwards, and for how many days. I don`t think Kiki believed my explanation, but I dread to think what she thought we were doing.
The whole event was really quite splendid fun. It was great to see a lot of people I hadn`t seen for a long time, and really rather odd to see people I never expected at the Nürburgring (Phil Mac, Shewan, Mitchell, Stu Smith et cetera). I hope they had a pleasant time. My passenger laps with Daniel were impressive, both in terms of the car and his knowledge of which direction it was about to squirm into. The ones with Luke were moments to treasure as ever - as Mr Potts once said to me, "that was brave! No, wait, what`s the other one?". Laps with Tony were somewhat disappointing as it`s only going to take a couple more trips before he`s faster than I am, which is annoying.
What I hadn`t really figured out was that my family were arriving in Greece a mere two days after the end of the stag do - almost a fortnight before the wedding. This meant a fairly unbroken two-week run of drinking for me, from which I`m yet to recover.
The photos, incidentally, are all Paul Hollingsworth`s. I don`t think I took any.
Seems a shame not to round this off, so here it is. This is the end of the blog. I`ve had a great time writing it, but I think there`s a point at which you have to accept that people aren`t going to be too interested in "got up, went to work again" blog entries. If you`ve become addicted to travel blogs you might want to read our friend Sarah`s round-the-world blog - http://www.ian-and-sarah.com/RTW/RTW%20Home.html. That will be a hyperlink if the people at GetJealous paid attention to my requests.
Many thanks to all of you who posted entries on the message board - when you`re travelling it`s easy to convince yourself that nobody is actually reading your prose, and it`s wonderfully relieving to log in and find entries on the site. And thanks to those of you who managed to make our wedding - we had a great time; hope you did too.
The next time we do something like this, you`ll be the first to know.