Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Hanoi - The Restaurant

The only way to really see Hanoi is to throw yourself in amongst the chaos and be a part of it.

It's a busy city, vibrant but not quite crazy. There's stuff to see... Ho Chi Minh's embalmed body, loads of ornate and beautiful Buddhist temples, lakes, palaces and opera houses.

But the city shows its best side when the offices close, the shops pull down their shutters and workmen hang up their tools for the day. As the light drops the food stalls come out and you learn that this is a city that lives on street food. Women hurriedly fill every square inch of pavement with pint-sized stools and tiny tables, and begin filling giant bowls with noodle soup and serving it to every passer-by for what feels like only a few pennies - the city turns into an enormous outdoor restaurant!

And then out come the street bars serving Beer Hoi - glasses of beer served to scores of people sat on their small stools on the streets, cheap beer and weak, but never as weak as you think!

Syria - The Military and The Climbers

"You have to dominate them. Let the soldiers know that you are the boss, that you will not be intimidated by them"

Monte Rosa is a beautiful crag situated in a lovely green valley about 35km outside of Damascus and about 900m from the Lebanese border. You'd not call it a warzone, quite, yet you wouldn't call it peaceful and undisputed either. Both sides of the border are heavily patrolled by armed military men. The valleys are decorated with rows and rows of bunkers, and the occassional stray tank on the lookout for invading troops and people who shouldn't really be there...... and this is where we wanted to go climbing!

Jurg, a very helpful Swiss climber living in Damascus, had come to our campsite to share a few beers, sell a few guidebooks and instruct us on the necessary 'code of conduct' for climbing at these crags. No loud noise. No bright colours. No drinking. Definately no cameras at all. Go climbing, keep quiet, draw no attention to ourselves, and should the military find us, stand up to them and their guns... ignore the rifle pointed at our heads and tell them we have every right to be there.

Hmmmm?! Syria was an interesting place!

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Pakistan - the Dark Days

The region spanning eastern Iran and western Pakistan is totally lawless. The few roads in the area are the main transport arteries for the booming Afghan drugs trade, and this is where the heroin and opium make their way westwards. The region is populated by Afghani refugees, drug runners, bandits waiting for drug runners, and overzealous, trigger happy cops and soldiers waiting to attack drug runners and bandits.

Not, perhaps, the best region for BiRT to travel through. We're hardly inconspicuous,

It's hot, dusty, turbulent and dangerous. The governments of most western countries consider it as out of bounds for tourists. But we were in western Iran and wanted to get to eastern Pakistan. As independent travellers maybe we could have bimbled through and enjoyed the experience, but as official 'tour operators' that option wasn't open. All insurances would be invalidated the moment we ignored government warnings which meant we were up for a massive transit. Get through it as fast as possible. No luxuries. No stopping. No nothing. Just driving.

24/7 driving until we were through the 'danger zone.'

It took us 6 days. It was hot. It was dusty, sandy, hot. So incredibly hot. Constantly moving, driving, bumping along on poor roads. And the dust got everywhere. Dust in our mouths, noses, hair, clothes, food. And it was hot. 40 degrees, 45 degrees, 50 degrees, I don't know how hot but hot. The height of summer, early July. In the desert. Fully clothed. Islamic territory. Long trousers. Long sleeves. Head scarf for the girls. We couldn't eat, we couldn't sleep, we couldn't think. All we could do was keep driving and try to drink. Drink the dusty boiling water.

All along we had a police escort. Joyful grinning maniacs who liked to show off their guns, pull over innocent cars and commandeer their water and food. Fire off a few rounds at west-bound vehicles. Just in case they were carrying drugs, guns or illegal people. Just to show off. They loved us. Novelty. Tourists. Tourists travelling through their hot and dusty fuedal no-mans land. In a giant crazy big red truck.

Poor truck. Couldn't cope with the heat. She was thirsty, needed feeding a constant diet of water and oil. Over heated time and again. Steamed. Bubbled. Boiled. The dust clogged all her filters, she had to work hard. But she made it. Trooped on slowly, through the dust.

The exhaustion set in. Daytimes no sleep because we were moving, bouncing and hot. Nighttimes no sleep because we were running the show and had to stay awake. Keep the drivers awake. Henry and Scottie driving. Round the clock the two of them. I don't know how they did it but they did. Amazing.

Three times in six days we tried to pull over to sleep. On the first, our Iranian police escort escorted us all round town, Zahedan on the border, until they decided we weren't allowed to check into any cheap hotels (for our own protection you understand) so we slept for 3 hours on the side of the road, in the truck, on the truck, on any flat bit of space. Dust and exhaust being blown into our nostrils all night as we sweated, sweated the hours away. No sleep.

On the second we stopped in Dalbandin. Our first town in Pakistan. We checked into a hotel and the police confined us to it. Not allowed out. For our own protection you understand. Most slept on the hotel roof to try and catch some breeze. We slept in the room to guard the bags. Up every 15 minutes to shower off, lie under the fan for 3 minutes, lie cool until the cool water was gone, then hot. Too too hot. Drenched in sweat within 5 minutes. Get up and have another shower. Hot. Crazy hot. Dunc couldn't breathe it was so hot. He had to go and sit outside. Sweating all night. Strangers started banging on the door at 2am demanding we leave the rooms. The hotel had sold our room to us and to others. Gun shots going off regularly through the dark night. Who knows what lives were being disrupted, ended, that night. No sleep. Just 5 hours of sweating and listening to the crack and report, the turbulence.

On the third, our escort made us park in a police station in Loralai. Had to park on uneven ground, for our own protection you understand. Arrived late. 2am. Left early. 6am. All night surrounded by police coming and going. Police have a busy life in Loralai. Shouting, guns, sirens. Music, laughter, noise. No more dust though. We were in a small patch of green in slightly higher land. Still hot. Stupidly sweatily hot. But no dust. Instead, mosquitoes. Hundreds upon thousands of mosquitoes. No sleep. Just 4 hours of sweating and swatting.

The other nights we just drove. Through the heat. Through the dust. No street lights. Dark days and dark dark nights. Backlit trucks, silhouetted by the head lights of other trucks. Kicking up dust as they drove. Dirt roads, dust roads. Donkey carts. Ox carts. Tuk tuks, cars and sweating kameez-clad men pulling trailers and hauling hessian dacks full of who knows what. All eerily backlit in clouds of dust. Shapes loom out of the dark. Most without lights. Driving was more than ever, an exercise in not hitting anything.

On the road we see a donkey. Hit by a passing truck. Desperately trying to get up but it can't. It only has three legs now. Dark days.

Sleep deprivation. Exhaustion. A tinge of madness. Heat. Sweat. Dust. Sandstorms. Dehydration. Filth. Dark days.

But it didn't feel dangerous. We never felt threatened. People smiled a lot. Lots of grinning and vigorous hand shakes. I'd go back. Maybe I'd travel more slowly. And sleep a little.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Malawi - Mulanje Madness!

There I was, high on some remote crag perched on a loose tussock, ferreting through moss trying to find a hold hidden beneath. Routes are often describes as ‘lichenous’, but this one was definitely mossy, and grassy, and shrubby. Hell, it was practically vertical scrub. Not quite what I’d daydreamed about all those months ago as I’d sat staring at gray Sheffield skies through the office window. I had imagined vast sweeps of granite that burn pink in the desert sun; multi-pitch ironstone crags rising proudly out of tropical rivers, where eagles fly overhead and crocodile spotting provides rest-day entertainment; rock spires standing sentinel over the African savannah with zebra wandering calmly by. No other climbers around, just my friends and myself, enjoying warm evening breezes and the sun setting on another perfect day, before another evening sat around the campfire in an idyllic campsite.

Then I found myself in the Mulanje Massif in southern Malawi, a small, isolated group of mountains surrounded by forestry works and tea plantations. A number of rock routes were established in the massif in the 1970s, including the longest continuous rock route in Africa, 1700m long. We had our sights set on several shorter routes, 300-400m, on the east face of a mountain called Chambe, most of which still lack a second ascent.

Armed with maps and a guidebook – a faded, hardbacked tome published in 1979 – our truck rattled along the dirt tracks from Blantyre, the commercial centre of southern Malawi, to Likibula. There we found a ramshackle collection of buildings that form the gateway to the Mulanje massif, and we began the five-hour approach walk.

Walking up through verdant vegetation, we were distracted from the oppressive tropical heat by the sickly-sweet smells of purple Bougainvillea, the echoing cries of baboons in the treetops and a never-ending insect chorus. The track took us past small trout-filled streams, a few wooden huts, and forestry plantations where bare-chested, bare-footed Malawian men put us to shame as they wobbled unsteadily past us at staggering speeds with 10-foot lengths of tree-trunk on their heads. Fresh pine smells gradually replaced the Bougainvillea scent as we sweated upwards through the contours, until eventually we arrived at the Chambe Hut, the alpine-style hut beneath the east face and our base for the next few days.

The guidebook described the climbing as ‘adventurous’. It said there would be ample vegetation. It said the belays and most runners would be on trees or the large Vellozia shrubs that are common in the region. But we thought to ourselves, we like adventure, and we’d seen photos of the face and figured that there was enough clean rock for us to pick our way between the vegetation. And tree belays, well, they’re generally pretty good. Even heeding the guidebook’s warning though, what the next day had in store for us was beyond our most pessimistic expectations. In common guidebook idiom, we were in for a ‘very interesting experience’.

But without the benefit of 20:20 hindsight, we were happily buzzing when we reached the hut. Talk of gear and ropes, food and possible descent routes filled the now chilly air. Blinkered by those day-dreamed images of vast sweeps of perfect granite and long, adventurous climbs following beautiful natural lines of open-book corners and splitter cracks, we looked up at the obviously green east face of Chambe from our hut with bizarre and misplaced optimism.

Eight of us planned to climb routes the following day, and with much nervous excitement we sorted our racks, packed our bags, and went to bed with the setting sun.

After a 3am alarm call we began the mile-long approach, only managing to reach the base of the route four hours later - four hours of hacking our way in the dark under, over, round, between and straight through the dense primeval forest. Long-dead moss-covered tree trunks which straddled stream-beds and boulders, low-hanging boughs intricately decorated with countless hanging vines, dense spiky shrubs damp in the pre-dawn dew and shining vividly green in our head torch beams and, later, in the soft early light of the day. More than once one of us needed help to extricate ourselves from the entwining branches and hanging vines. Someone commented, with wide bright eyes that revealed his freakish love of this kind of exercise, “it’s just like being in Jurassic Park!” and he was right. Brenda (our largest and therefore much-loved machete) was dented and tired by the end of those four hours.

Two pairs headed for the South Monolith Route, while Duncan and I, along with another pair, aimed for a route called Gordon’s Gully, VS-HVSish and, so the guidebook said, 300m of truly pleasant and well-protected climbing. The first two pitches followed easy angled slabs to the base of a series of discontinuous gullies.

We’d expected vegetation, and the slabs were indeed covered in grassy tussocks and small Vellozia shrubs. We hadn’t expected the tussocks to be the most solid features on the face. Apparently the average tussock can hold 60kg before its roots give out (oh good!) but this was nevertheless more weight than we wished to test the rock under – it was rapidly becoming apparent that the rock was horrifyingly friable.

The Vellozia plants had obviously suffered from woodworm, and to top it all off, it seemed that a forest fire had recently swept across the face (yes, the face, despite being 75-80o, is vegetated enough to be affected by the regular forest fires that sweep through the region). We ended up climbing on burnt grass tufts, belaying on rotten and wood-wormed shrubs, and avoiding a constant barrage of recently exfoliated granite plates that whistled down from above, with nothing and I mean absolutely nothing to call running protection.

We really should have taken the hint at that point, heeded the warning that those initial pitches issued. The other pair did, climbing 40m or so before backing off, having to abseil off three bits of tat looped around three clumps of grass (I kid you not…), but we didn’t. The first two pitches, according to the guidebook, would take us to the base of gully systems, and we thought we’d push on to that point at least.

But rather than get better at that point, the climbing got worse. The rock became looser, dirtier, more vegetated. Now, thick layers of intensely moist moss grew beneath the already plentiful vegetation. This vegetation became more rotten and wood-wormed. Worst of all, the climbing became an exercise in that bastion of traditionalism, chimneying. We spent hour after disgusting hour back-and-footing (with rucksacks) up several discontinuous gullies. Still there was no gear for protecting pitches or belays. Fear mounted with each passing pitch until is became too much to handle, and dissipated into a dull acceptance of our hideously committed position. There were no anchors we would willingly abseil off, and any abseil would surely bring serious amounts of loose rock and dirt down on our heads.

While going up was still an option and fearing an abseil retreat, we pushed on, climbing 10 pitches of moss and shrub under increasingly gunmetal-grey skies indicating an impending tropical storm. It was 4pm, before the threat of bad weather, the lateness of the hour and the risk of benightment, something not worth contemplating given the paucity of gear, forced the ab off we’d so wanted to avoid. The decision was cemented when we realised, looking around at features on the face, that despite having run out 350m of rope and climbed 10 pitches, we were actually no more than half way up this ‘300m’ route.

The ascent was scary, but the retreat really was the stuff of nightmares. It took seven abseils to put our feet back on solid ground and five were seriously marginal. Imagine committing yourself to tat looped around small protrusions in friable rock with another rock placed on top to stop the tat moving. Imagine trusting your life to a burnt, wood-wormed shrub two foot high and two inches in diameter with tat looped around its base. Imagine, if you can, some tat looped around a wobbly, flared, right-facing flake that is all of four inches from top to bottom and from left to right, and no more than half an inch thick.

In backing off the route we lost 25m of tat, a friend, two slings, some blood and a lot of sweat. But eventually we were back down and bush-bashing back to the hut by moonlight. By the time we got back at 7.30pm, about 16 hours after we’d left, both of us were exhausted but exuberant, happy and not a little surprised to find ourselves alive and back on solid ground!

I’ve been back since that day, walking and scrambling and exploring more corners of the beautiful Mulanje Massif. My rockboots and harness though, did not come with me.