Sunday, March 25, 2007

passports, permits and plans

Pre-departure planning continues to move ahead at speed ..

Finally on Tuesday the visa agency responded with our much anticipated passport numbers - so, all being well, our agency in Russia should have purchased the Trans-Mongolian tickets as they went on sale today.

I got my international driving permit this week (£5.50 from large post-offices) which looks a little like a ration book from the war - complete with translations in languauges I can't even identify, much less speak. Curiously it appears to entitle me to drive everything from a motorcycle to a heavy goods vehicle (with or without trailer) - vehicles I haven't even driven in this country, much less passed a test for ....

My thoughts have now turned firmly to planning our time Mongolia in a little more detail - and with hundreds of thousands of square miles of unowned, unfenced land to explore there are plenty of options. We hope to arrange our own transportation and local guides, so this part of the trip should have a real expedition feel to it.

After Mel rejected the first of my proposals for this part of our trip (I'll allow you to work out why from the link) - I'm now looking into feasibility of travel by chartered Jeep to the Gobi Desert in the South, before making our way North to Khovsgol Nuur and swapping to horseback to explore the National Park surrounding the lake.

I will leave you with this photograph I took on the staircase of a guesthouse in Chang Mai, Thailand when I travelled there in December 1999. I can only suppose they had experienced previous cases of mistaken identity - although I remain unsure of what the checking procedure would have actually involved ...

Thursday, March 22, 2007

winter skills training in the highlands ...

We decided we should learn some mountain skills in the event of any, shall we say, adverse conditions we might encounter en-route. So, despite the onset of heavy colds we headed north for the 6-hour drive to Kingussie, our base for a February weekend of winter skills training.

Day 1 - Our instructor Richard picked us up and took us to the ski-lift at the bottom of Cairngorm mountain - the combination of snow & glorious winter sunshine had brought the skiers out in force, but sadly only those with ski-passes we're allowed to take the easy way to the top.

After a quick "this is how to carry your ice-axe" lesson in the carpark (shoved in the gap between your rucksack and back, with the axehead resting on the back of your neck - apparently) we hiked uphill for about an hour to reach serious snow, rock and ice.

The first part of our day was spent teaching us how to move safely on steep frozen surfaces - kicking or cutting steps with ixe-axe, navigation techniques, and then as we ascended further to over 1000 metres we got a quick lesson in mountain weather, as it went from sunshine to blizzard and back again in 45 minutes.

There was no real lunchtime with Richard as "you get cold when you stop" so it was a a case of eating as much as we could in 3 minutes before moving on to the second part of the day, ice-axe arrest - otherwise known as what to do if you fall off the mountain.

Our training consisted of us practicing a serious of simulated falls, in increasingly alarming positions - culminating in a rapidly accelerating headfirst slide backwards down a steep icy mountainside, with only your ice-axe to stop you falling. If you have ever had an ice-cube down the back of your t-shirt, you can probably imagine how we felt coming down off the mountain.

As we returned to the guesthouse, our colds returning with a vengence we knew the next day would only be harder. So there was only really one thing for it. We went to the pub.

Day 2 - Despite reports from the Tipsy Laird of "feeling better" at 11.30pm the previous evening, Mel's cold had worsened.

On the promise from Richard of a quick detour to the petrol station in Aviemore for some beechams powders I decided to carry on - and we headed back up to the ski lift car park once more.

This time we headed for another part of the mountain, and after a 45 minute march we arrived in the sheltered Corrie where we would use crampons (spiky feet) for the first time. It was about 3 minutes after being asked to follow the rest of the group up a steep slope of solid clear ice that I remembered my fear of heights - all that was keeping me from a dangerous slide down the hill was a few short spikes on each foot. In the end it was just a case of head having to overule heart and although it was probably the most difficult part of the weekend, with a little practice I was soon moving around with greater ease.

Crampons-fitted, it was now time to tackle our first Munro (Scottish peaks over 1000m) and we climbed the frozen wall of the Corrie - we were rewarded with some stunning views of the Cairngorm plateau (right) as we reached the top. After walking along the ridge, we made the final ascent to the summit of Cairn Gorm at 1245m, the UK's 5th highest mountain and site of a famous automatic weather station .

Whether we'll have to call on these skills while we're away I really don't know, but it was a very memorable weekend and an interesting glimpse into the world of serious mountaineering. I think Mel will remember it more for sitting by a log fire, watching the red squirrels in the trees outside the guesthouse - but there are certainly worse places to have a cold!

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Monday, March 19, 2007

6 weeks to D-Day ...

Departure Day that is - just 6 short weeks until we leave, and plans are well underway.

We have officially started running down supplies of dried and tinned goods - the cause of a few interesting food combinations - if anyone out there knows a good recipe for desicated coconut & mushroom ketchup please let me know.

The latest on travel plans is some difficulty with international train tickets from Russia, with the continued absence of our passports at the visa agency being the primary cause - with the kind help of my long-suffering travel agent I hope to get things resolved over the next week.

I found a great website this week detailing a one-man struggle to travel around Mongolia on horseback, it grabbed my interest as this is likely to be our first wilderness destination and chosen mode of transport. He has some very interesting parallels with our own plans - not least the part about not really being able to ride.

Now I really must learn the Mongolian for "quiet horse" ...

Thursday, March 08, 2007

stumble of the penguin ...

Here's some pics and video from my Antarctic Peninsula trip in 2005.

After a 4-hour domestic flight from Buenos Aries (and nearly 48 hours after leaving Leeds) we finally reached Ushuaia - sitting on the banks of the Beagle Channel against the backdrop of the stunning mountains of Tierra del Fuego - and the start point for our voyage.

Ushuaia bills itself as the southernmost city in the world, but it's really just a small town of around 5,000 people with a thriving harbour catering for frieght and Antarctic tourism in seemingly equal quantity.

Many of the wooden houses outside the centre of town are on wheels, so moving house means literally just that, no need for packing etc.

The other notable feature of Ushuaia is the Irish bar (yes, everywhere really does have one) with a signed Maradonna shirt on the wall behind the bar. They have a fine collection of vintage-style Guiness posters, but curiously no supplies of the black-stuff itself ...

Our 2 days sailing across the Drake Passage were calm by normal standards (the previous trip had taken 4 days due to an encounter with a pair of hurricances), but it was still enough to give us a first taste of "Drake Shake" - the continual rocking motion that sent most passengers scurrying to their cabins with profound seasickness.

When we reached the calmer waters around the peninsula the weather cleared and we enjoyed a day of drifting through incredible scenery (see opposite), with regular zodiac rides that took us up close to the kind of wildlife you normally only see on TV.

Over the next 4 days in and around the peninsula we saw whales (humpback and orca), seals (weddell, fur, elephant & leopard) and a staggering number of birds.

The Leopard Seals (left) are the Antarctic's top predator, but seemed happy enough to let us drift right alongside in our Zodiac. While the Elephant Seals (right) are just big and very smelly indeed - at well over a tonne I didn't get too close.

One of the major highlights of the trip was hanging out with the Penguins - every morning around 6am we'd get kitted up and head off in the Zodiac's to go see them.

These chaps are having a little difficulty getting down to the beach ...

Finally this short video was shot on the way back, with the notorious Cape Horn in the background. It should help you imagine the effects of Drake Shake ... in fact, despite 4 further nights in Buenos Aries and a long trip home I could still feel the swaying when I got back to Leeds if I just closed my eyes ...

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

6-inches from death ....

I think I have discovered how this blogging works.

Sunday, create blog.
Monday morning, wonder what to write about.
Monday evening, first on the scene in a near fatal road accident.

So anyway Lee, it was nice talking to you while we waited for the police, fire and ambulance to arrive, cut you out and take you to hospital. The 6-foot fencepost through your windscreen was a real sight .. we honestly didn't know what we we're going to find when we got to the car.

I'm not sure which will be the more painful - broken bones knitting back together or the "feedback" you're no doubt in for from your parents on your driving.

Mel & I wish you a speedy recovery - and sorry for the joke about your car needing a wash.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

We have a plan ...

So, this is the very first post.

When we decided to make this journey last Autumn it all seemed fairly simple - get a passport, leave work, get on a train, and well - go !

Since that day, the last 4 months has been an avalanche of guide books, magzines, browsing websites - all of which seem to have served the same basic purpose - to overwhelm us with a whole world of travel possibilities.

Our final intended route should give us plenty of opportunity for seeing a diverse range of the natural & cultural wonders of the world - the criteria for selection being to get us well and truly off the beaten track, to places you can't easily reach on a fortnights leave from work.

  • Leg 1 - Asia - 1 May 2007 to 19 September
  • Leg 2 - Australasia - 19 September to 21 November
  • Leg 3 - Hawaii, Central & South America - 21 November to 3 March
  • Leg 4 - USA & Canada - 3 March to 7 May 2008

Pre-trip preparations are well underway, and for those of you thinking about similar endeavours consists of roughly the following areas

  • passports, visas etc.
  • vaccinations - LOTS of vaccinations
  • flights - a round-the-world (RTW) package has so many rules, route changes are innevitable
  • money - making sure you have enough & getting bank accounts web accessible
  • house - tenant, bills, insurance etc, etc ...
  • last dental checkup (yes Mum) - a month before d-day
  • tax return etc.
  • kit - enjoy shopping for new gear ... it may be the last time you can afford it for a while
  • leaving parties - I recommend at least 3 !

I'll be putting in place the final arrangements over the next few weeks - in the meantime Mel is finishing her MBA so we can both leave with (relatively) clear consciences ...

Before my next post, why not check out the degrees on confluence project in my top 5 links ...