Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava might have nearly bankrupted the city of Valencia, but I challenge anyone visiting the City of Arts and Science in Valencia not to say… it was worth every billion.
Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava might have nearly bankrupted the city of Valencia, but I challenge anyone visiting the City of Arts and Science in Valencia not to say… it was worth every billion.
Travel sickness occurs when your eyes and inner ear tell a different story to your brain. If you’re being bounced up and down on an ocean wave or thrown side-to-side on a hairpin road, your brain can’t make sense of the world. It’s normally a quite unpleasant experience.
Relaxing, and keeping your eyes on the horizon, is the well-established solution. Indeed a good solution for most problems in life.
Relaxed though I was, I had quite enjoyable experience of conflicting messages being received when I took to the road for a few days in Turkey’s far East.
I’d hired a car from the small town of Kars in Turkey’s North East. Hiring wasn’t a particularly simple process. Kars doesn’t have the usual international complement of Hertz, Avis or Europcar.
After a bit of research I’d found what looked like a moderately reputable national Turkish chain. I booked a mid-sized car online, selected the snow-chains option and left it at that.
When I arrived in town late the night before I was due to pick up the car, I realised I hadn’t been sent the address for the rental agency. Google couldn’t help and nor could the hotel staff.
After a few emails and phone calls I soon established that even they didn’t have an agency in town but had palmed my booking off to a local firm.
Kars is a pretty small town. It didn’t take long by process of elimination to track down the agency.
It was a beaten up, old, diesel fiat. It had 150,000 km on the clock. I scraped the snow of the roof and we looked around the car. There were far too many dents and scratches to note on the official-looking rental form. It wasn’t exactly as if I was spoilt for choice. And I was anxious to hit the road.
I took a few photos of the car’s dilapidated state and hoped that would do.
The guy showing me the car spent considerable time pointing out the spare wheel in the boot. The spare had clearly been well used and was partially flat. I couldn’t quite work out why he was so insistent on pointing it out.
“If you get a flat tyre, you’re fucked” I imagined him saying as I helpfully translated.
It had taken us whole minutes – even with the help of google translate on his iPhone – to agree that the fuel tank was half-full and I’d bring it back half-full. I couldn’t face another ten minutes of google-translating to work out what he was going on about.
I set my phone in Sat-Nav mode and chucked it on the dash. I took the keys, swung my bag on the back seat and, after a bit of coaxing, managed to get the car to start up and I drove off.
Central Kars is made up of a small grid system of roads. There had been a dusting of snow over the previous few weeks, which had suffered that horrible freeze-thaw effect of turning beautiful snow into treacherous ice.
I tried pulling away in second gear to save spinning the wheels and noticed that the clutch was pretty worn.
Driving around town was less than pleasant, but I was soon out onto the dual carriageways, which were well surfaced, clear of snow and ice and discomfortingly quiet.
High on the Anatolian plateau and with the snow-capped mountains forming backdrop it was hauntingly beautiful. And quiet.
I’d wanted to visit the ancient Armenian ghost town of Ani some 40-odd km southeast of the Kars. It was about 40 minutes drive to Ani. I don’t think I saw another car on the way.
There aren’t many tourist attractions in this far-flung corner of Turkey. And I’m always a little suspicious when any guidebook tells me that something is a ‘must see’. So many ‘must see’ tourist attractions are always a disappointment.
As arrived at Ani there was only one other car parked outside the gates. I paid the few Lira entrance fee at the little ticket window – waking the clerk up in the process. He hadn’t had much business all day.
I was conscious that I didn’t have too much time. This far East darkness came early in the afternoon. It was cold enough as it was, and I hadn’t much fancied driving in the dark in case the car packed up. According to the weather forecast, minus 14 was predicted overnight.
So I was conscious that time was short, which is perhaps the best way to enjoy an experience as it encourages you to live in the moment.
Ani is described in my Bradt travel guide as ‘haunting’ and I can find no better word to describe it. The remains of the town overlook a deep ravine. The emerald coloured river at the bottom marked the border with Armenia. There were a few desultory looking military checkpoints dotted around, but the boder looked porous at best. The fences on the Turkish side of the border were topped with barbed wire, but cut through with holes. Hundreds of years ago Ani would have been the centre of a great metropolis. Now it gave the impression of a lonely and isolated frontier.
The town, my guidebook told me ‘grew up on a major east-west caravan route, amazing great wealth which its Armenia rulers later used to endow the city with sumptuous churches… its size and magnificence in the mid 10th century, nothing in Europe could touch Ani, and only Constantinople, Cairo and Baghdad were its rivals.’
The remains, were vast and made all the more imposing with the backdrop of snow capped mountains.
Being quite so alone in a the ruins of what was once a city of such magnitude was, to use that word again.. haunting.
But time was pressing, and after about 40 minutes I knew I had to get going. It was now late morning and darkness wouldn’t be too far off. I jogged back to the car and set off.
I drove back towards Kars, where I took the opportunity to fill up the car with diesel. Such was the isolation in these parts, I thought it was prudent to have a full tank.
The pump attendant filled up the car whilst I nipped into the shop in search of a loo. Despite it being a big petrol station, geared up for passing lorry traffic, the place was deserted.
The pump attendant – despite speaking no English – seemed insistent on offering me Nescafe. My immediate thought was that this was either a money making scam or a bid for a tip. It’s the one thing I hate about travelling off the beaten track – you keep your wits about you to avoid being scammed – but it does mean thinking the worst of everyone.
But it turned out to be genuine. I hadn’t eaten all-day, let alone sat down for a coffee. I paid for my fuel and stood in the desolate forecourt with the sugary Nescafe and felt instantly recharged.
After Ani I initially had no real plans. I’d not booked that night’s hotel and had been anticipating the freedom of a car and a load of options.
I had vaguely decided to drive to Doğubayazıt as the major town at the foot of Mt Ararat – the highest mountain in Turkey and the fabled home of Noah’s Ark. I knew I couldn’t climb Ararat – you need to wangle a permit, and that takes months.
But there’s northing I love more than hanging around mountain towns and I was keen to see the Persian influence this far east. Doğubayazıt sits just 10 miles form the Iranian border.
And so with a full tank of fuel I started the long drive south to Mr Ararat.
The car stereo wasn’t advanced enough to allow me to plug in my music, so I scanned the airwaves repeatedly for something – anything – to listen to. There’s wasn’t so much as any decent Persian pop. Just a lot of Arabic and Persian wailing. I’m all for soaking up a bit of ethnic music, but there are limits.
I drove for what seemed hours over clear wide roads. The road would climb from time to time to pass over a gentile mountain pass. Only the signs on the road reminded me quite how high I was. The road frequently crested 2200 metres, which would be a serious mountain pass in the Alps. Only on some of the higher passes did the clear tarmac give way to a light covering of snow and ice, but it was nothing too troubling.
As the road crested the next set of mountain passes I passed close to the Armenian border, I started flicking through the radio stations again.
Somewhat bizarrely I came across RFI – Radio France International, which seemed to be broadcasting out of Armenian capital Yerevan. It was vastly more listenable than anything else I could find.
Slowly the dark and heavy overcast clouds began to part and the sun intermittently came out. It was strikingly beautiful against the golden landscape. I passed a delightful few hours with the generally easy driving. It was amazing how quickly I tuned into the French. With no one else to talk to in the car, I quickly found myself starting to think in French too.
The road began to wander and get thinner as it tracked the side of a valley. The odd switchback began to feature.
It was an oddly surreal experience – my ears telling me I was in France – but the view screaming Central Asian Steppe.
Igdir was the first major town I came too. It’s main drag was a bustling thoroughfare. I half contemplated finding somewhere to stay and calling it a day, but the evening light was so beautiful I decided to push on.
I stopped a little outside Doğubayazıt as I had no idea where I was going to stay.
I peered down into my phone to look at the map. It was starting to get dark. I was tired and in need of a shower and a good meal.
I tapped away on my phone. Within a few minutes on Booking.com I found the Tehran Boutique Hotel. A new build hotel, which at about £20 a night look clean and decent and one of the better offerings in Bogubeyazit.
After hours of such piece and quiet on the open road the arrival into town came as something as a shock.
I reach a junction with the main drag through town. It was heaving with lorries, and cars, and donkeys pulling carts. This was the main route from Turkey to Iran. By now it was starting to get dark. I realised I’d have to change my driving from relaxed to assertive if I wanted to get anywhere. I forced the nose of the car out into the traffic, weaved around the cars and joined the throng going left.
In its reassuring calm voice my satnav soon suggested a right turn to my hotel. But the alleyway looked narrower than the car so I borked and carried on.
After a few hundred meters I came across a slightly more substantial road and slipped off the main road. The road was heaving.
I eased the car further into the town as the road got thinner. Cars coming the other way were just inches from my door. I turned left and right getting deeper into the rabbit warren of the city. Parked cars and market stalls would occasionally require me to mount the pavement and come perilously close to brick walls of neighbouring buildings. Never before have I quite had to squeeze a foreign car through such small gaps.
I got tantalisingly closer to my intended hotel, but a maze of one way streets – armed with vicious looking one-way enforcing spikes buried into the tarmac – soon carried me off in the opposite direction.
It was now all but dark and the town was immensely busy. It occurred that I might be better off on foot.
I was conscious that I was now tired and cranky and this would be prime time for mistakes to happen – the kind of mistakes that involve the grawnching sound of metal being scrapped across concrete.
As if my magic I saw what might possibly do as a parking space. In the couple of seconds it took me to assess whether the space was any longer than my car, the traffic behind me started, almost in unison, a cacophony of horn blasts.
It took more seconds of arguing with the clutch to engage reverse. More horn blasts.
It was a narrow road so even swinging the car around to do a parallel park was difficult, but somehow I managed to fit the car in the space in one smooth reverse move. ‘One take Wainhouse, I congratulated myself’
I scraped up anything valuable looking from the cabin and set off to see if the hotel had rooms.
It did. And it had a car park too.
The next day I woke with a strange knot in my stomach. I looked out the window. It was snowing. Hard.
I’d been planning a leisurely wander around town including a visit to Isak Pasa’s pleasure palace just outside of town before leaving after lunch for the drive back to Kars. I had a flight booked the next day from Kars back to Istanbul.
I checked the weather forecast which showed more snow all day and a low of minus 18 overnight. Whatever happened I knew it would be a pretty serious deal if I got stuck overnight in that with a crummy broken-down car.
I went up for breakfast on the top floor of the hotel to mull over my options. The views were supposed to be stunning over Mt Ararat, but all I could see was a swirling snowstorm. I hadn’t slept particularly well and all I wanted now was a lazy day reading and watching the world go by in this slightly remote town. I knew it was going to be a tough day.
There were three roads out of Doğubayazıt. One led to Iran, about 15km to the East. I had no visa.
The other was back over the switchbacks and mountains the way I’d come the previous day. I really didn’t fancy that. As in really, really didn’t fancy that.
And the other route was West via Agri and Horasan, which added about 150km to the route I’d taken the day before.
I knew that if I was going to try, I’d have to leave early to get as much from the limited daylight as possible.
But I had another coffee, then another breakfast. All trying to put off the inevitable moment. Perhaps somehow hoping another option would reveal itself to me.
I thought about trying to buy some snowchains. But I figured that would take a couple of hours and would make it even more likely that I’d end up driving in the dark by mid afternoon. I’ll risk it during the day I thought. But I’m not driving in the dark.
I looked up the longer route on Google maps, trying to see if there were any tell-tale switchbacks. All in it looked like it was about 320km to Kars. That’s a long trudge through heavy snow.
I asked at the hotel reception what the roads were like, but the helpful guy who’d checked me in the night before wasn’t there – and now no one spoke any English.
I paid up and walked out the back of the hotel, where the car was parked. There was already a thick covering of snow on the steps down to the car park. The fresh snow covered an expanse of marble, which it turned out was extremely slippery. Almost immediately my feet went flying and I landed heavily on by back, slightly knocking the wind out of me. Scrabbling around for something to hold on to I then slid down the steps. This didn’t bode well.
Slightly freaked, I climbed up. I was uninjured but felt a huge wave of adrenaline suddenly start to pump into my system. I felt strangely and uncharacteristically apprehensive. Hello fear.
I felt strangely and uncharacteristically apprehensive. My last folly with a car and snow was when I managed to get a Toyota Yaris stuck in a blizzard on the Georgian Military Highway somewhere south of the Russian border. It was probably this rather hairy experience that led to my nervousness now.
I drove slowly back towards the main road and turned right before doubling back on myself. The road was disconcertingly empty.
As I left town a saw a few cars pull in, their drivers fitting snow chains. I gulped and pushed on.
It was a decent dual carriageway. But with the snow it was hard to tell where the edge of the road lay. I drove down what I took to be the middle of the two lanes. There wasn’t enough traffic for this to be a problem. There was a bit of traffic on the other side of the road. I took this to be a good sign that the road must be open. Feeling slightly more comfortable I pushed up to 60kph.
It can’t have been much longer before I came across the steaming wreck of another car which had spun off the carriageway across the central reservation, its front end smashed in. Another car going the other direction has stopped to help.
I gulped and involuntarily eased back on the throttle to get a better look. I didn’t speed up again for a good while. After about an hour I reached a major junction. I pulled over to check the car over – there had been a disconcerting graunching noise from somewhere below the car every time I went over a bump. I had tried to ignore it, hoping – wishing – it would go away. But now there was somewhere convenient to stop.
I flung open the door and stepped out. My feet sunk through the snow which settled around the bottom of my calves. I immediately saw the problem. All four wheel arches were snarled up with solid snow and ice. So much so that if I tried to turn the front wheels – normally quite necessary in the process of steering – they would grind against the ice. And if I went over a bump the ice would hit against the tyres. I tried as best I could to break off the ice.
In the ten minutes or so that I spent trying to re-habilitate my car, only another two vehicles passed. None came other way.
When I climbed back into the warm cabin – I’d left the engine running and heater blowing – I realised quite how cold and numb my fingers had become.
I pulled away again slowly but almost immediately saw two cars coming back down my side of the road with their hazard lights on.
I wound down my window and stuck my head out. Without stopping, the first car crossed over into the other lane and drove back the way I’d come.
The second driver, seeing my wild gesticulating also wound down his window and in response to my arm waving and bellowing, just shouted “closed”. It was the only English I had heard all day.
‘That’s it’ I thought. I would be stuck in Doğubayazıt for God knows how long. Whilst I was mulling over my options (Did they ever plough these roads? Would I be trapped till summer? Would I have to buy a house, settle down and start a life here?) the driver crossed the carridgeway and started driving – the wrong way – down the other side of the road.
This seemed mighty dangerous. And if the road was closed at a mountain pass surely it would be closed in both ways. I had to make a split decision. At least if I was driving the wrong way down a dual carriageway there would be one car in front of me.
So as quickly as I could I crossed lanes, turned on my hazard lights and made off in quick pursuit. I didn’t want to lose the car in front.
The road rose quickly and after about ten minutes the problem became apparent. There was a queue of stationary lorries for about 400 meters and, at the front, a series of jack-knifed lorries and one huge juggernaut which appeared to have slid sideway off the road. Gulp.
I dared not slow down for fear that I wouldn’t get going again up the hill. I could feel myself hunched over the steering wheel. Gripping tightly. Another bucket load of adrenaline released itself into my system. I tried to relax. To breathe slowly. Let my shoulders relax.
As the snow closed in I eventually lost contact with the car in front. And it was what seemed like hours before I came across any other cars coming the other way.
Eventually at another junction I crossed back onto my side of the road and felt only slightly better.
In parts I could only barely make out the sides of the road. I worried if I misjudged things I’d go sliding off into the ditch.
Over some more mountain passes I came across more stuck lorries – just spinning their wheels.
Eventually I came to a town – Taslicay. It was barely more than a one road town. A few snowploughs were starting to make a desultory effort at clearing the main drag. A few people were hitching. I’d never even considered picking up a hitcher. But now I thought – just a small thought – of how comforting it would be to have someone else in the car. Even if that person didn’t speak a word of English. But I didn’t stop.
By now the snow had either eased or I was feeling gung-ho enough to carry on. I drove on through the slightly bigger town of Agri, then on to Eleskirt
I came across a few snowploughs as the morning wore on. Again this reassured me, that if the worst happened I could – I would – abandon the car and hitch a ride to safety. I followed a snowplough for what seemed like ages. Then – in an act of mighty folly – decided it was going too slowly and decided to overtake it.
As morning turned to afternoon the roads gradually got better. Gritters had started to have an impact and I could, in patches, begin to see tarmac again.
I reached Horasan – one of the larger towns on the Anakara – Kars – Armenia route about four hours after starting setting out. The main road seemed to have had more attention from the gritters and snow ploughs.
I drove on to Karakurt when I realised that apart from being shattered by the concentration, I had a caffeine withdrawal headache. By now I was increasingly confident I’d make it to Kars before dark. I’d not wanted to stop before as I couldn’t be sure I could spare the time.
As I came up to a junction where the road split for Kagizman and Kars there was a collection of market stalls. I pulled in amongst the minibuses that ply the route. Attracting a little more attention than I’d planned I sized up the stall and found what looked to be a small travellers café.
Inside was a small cast iron wood-burning stove and a scene that could have been from anytime over the last thousand years. Elderly men and women sat round the stove, all dressed in conservative black. The walls looks like they contained about a thousand years dirt.
It was one of those places where taking a photo would have been distinctly not appropriate. So I tried my best to mentally imprint the image on my mind for later.
In the corner a young guy manned a gas stove. ‘Coffee? Café?’ I asked tentatively
With a little shake of the head ‘Chai’ was the answer. For such a simple job he seemed to take such pride.
So I took a sweet Turkish tea. There was nowhere inside to sit so I stood outside happy to take in the fresh air and stretch my legs.
Another guy about my age was standing there smoking, who I took to be the driver of one of the minibuses. ‘Kagizman?’ he asked pointing down the road. ‘Kars’ I replied pointing the other way. ‘English?’ he asked. ‘English’ I replied. We stood there in reflective silence.
He had reached the limit of his English and I the limits of my Turkish.
Feeling restored I set off again for the hour-and-half’s drive to Kars which despite re-freezing snow passed off uneventfully.
Arriving in Kars again came as a shock to the system. It was just starting to get dark. After doing my best to make progress on the dual carriageways, I had to consciously slowdown when I reached the smaller roads in town. I kept braking too heavily on the small town road and firing the ABS. It would be ironic if I crashed now, in town, I thought.
Again the wheel arches had become blocked with ice to that each time I turned more than a few degrees there was an awful grinding noise.
I had planned to keep the car until the next morning when I’d drop it off at the airport. But suddenly I wanted to be shot of it. I found my way through town, where the guys in the hire company seemed surprised to see me.
I tossed them the keys and gave the car a once over, checking I’d picked up everything. I had a rummage around the boot, beneath my bags, where I came across I large red bag that wasn’t mine. I peeked inside. It contained snow chains! I laughed to myself. They seemed puzzled why the snow chains remained obviously unused.
I’d not booked a hotel for that night in Kars – I had’t been sure I’d make it this far – but the Grand Ani Hotel was just a few steps from where I’d left the car. Despite its name it wasn’t particularly grand.
Delighted to be shot of the car, I checked in and climbed the stairs to my room. I fell on bed with a big grin on my face.
For the first time in hours everything was still and calm. My eyes and brain knew I was stationary. But my inner ear seem to still be bouncing along those bumpy roads.
Despite the sensory overload and conflicting messages, my brain knew I was safe. Travel sickness is great when it stops.
There is a certain style to the public announcements when you travel in Turkey. On Turkish airlines, as you taxi to the runway, the safety briefing intones that in the event of an emergency, before the assuming of the brace position, you should loosen your collar and tie. It’s said without satire. The undertone being that, emergency excepted, collar and tie are not only required, but expected to be tight and drawn. You don’t get that sort of class on easyJet.
Some days later, in Istanbul, when I boarded the new YHT high-speed train service to Ankara, the announcement – in Turkish and English – bade passengers to please use ‘indoor voices’ when talking to others.
The indoor voices translation stuck out as slightly dated but all the same, entirely current. Too many people on trains talk into their phones at a volume that gives the impression they are trying to convey themselves across the great outdoors.
The last time I threw my bags onto a train and set off in search of adventure, I was in China and taking the Huang Shan Express in a desperate search for nature. Then there were no English language announcements. And I couldn’t comment on whether the Chinese announcements were delivered in any kind of style.
Both China and Turkey have of late set their sights on a massive expansion of high-speed rail. Both nations see rapid expansion of their infrastructure as a symbol of national pride.
Imposing landscapes are there to be conquered by civil engineers. Both countries are also using the railways – as they used to be used – to tame and tie-in their rebellious frontier provinces.
Whilst China has built thousands of miles of high-speed rail, and even constructed pressurised railway carriages for the high altitude trip to Tibet, Turkish railway projects seem beset by delays.
China of course – with a population over a billion, has both the money and manpower to build quickly. It takes resources to move mountains and dig tunnels.
Turkey though is perhaps beset by its past. Its experiment with a vast expansion of its railways dates back to the 1930s when the route from Anakra to Kars was built. The line has seen scarce improvement since. The train trundles slowly across the Anatolian plateau, through tunnels and bridges that cover the headwaters of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers.
My plan was to take the Eastern Express from Istanbul to Kars, a small town on the Turkish / Armenian border.
The Eastern Express used to run the length of the country, nearly 2000km from Istanbul in the West to Kars in the East. And I had signed up for the whole trip .
But the new high-speed service has now taken over the Istanbul – Anakara section, cutting the route shorter. Now all that remains of the old route is the section from Ankara East. Even so it’s still a 4 hour ride to Ankara, followed by a 25 hour-long train trip from there to Kars.
I had been looking forward to a day’s enforced relaxation. I had a small stack of books I was hoping to work my way through – but I also have a legendary ability to happily spend hours staring in wonder out of aeroplane, car, train or boat windows watching the scenery go by. When in motion, I’m never bored.
The day before setting off I had visited the beautiful Haydarpasar station on the Asian side of Istanbul, which has now sadly been mothballed pending the completion of the new high-speed line into the city centre.
Trains from Istanbul currently depart from Pendik station, some 25km East of town in the Asian suburbs of Istanbul. Truth be told, it’s a bit of a trek to Pendik station. The impression slightly reinforced by the metro line which goes there not yet having been completed. I took the metro to the end of the existing line then – after eyeing up the chaotic queue for the bus – jumped in a cab for the remaining 6km.
Pendik doesn’t have anything like the magisterial architecture of Haydarpasar.
I turned up just after 9am for my 9:30 departure. In the bowels of the station – which has all the charm of a soviet-era shopping mall – you go through a ticket check and rather desultory security check.
The train is cheep. I paid just £25 for a business class seat, including a meal served at my seat. But the wide seats and carefully honed announcements made it feel more upmarket.
The first part of the trip is slow and winding, but agreeably so. First you trundle along the coast of the Aegean. Looking out to sea, there are a huge number of merchant ships. Turkey is still a big maritime trading nation.
After an hour or so the train starts the laborious climb through tunnels and valleys from sea level up some 600 meters on to the Anatolian plain. From here the views sweep out before you and the train quickly accelerates on a modern dead straight track.
The train is well connected, with free wifi. But it seems several of my fellow passengers had not heeded the announcement about indoor voices. I slipped on my Bose headphones and listened to music. It was all very agreeable.
Soon a Turkish breakfast is delivered to my seat. After eating and multiple rounds of coffee, you are in Ankara before you know it. The four hours goes quickly.
I had taken the early morning train from Istanbul. I’d wanted a few hours to explore Ankara before my evening departure. I’d also had in mind that I would find a nice little shop and stock up on a bottle or two of red wine and various Turkish delights for the long train ride ahead.
In Ankara it was noticeably colder than Istanbul. I thought about dumping my small bag before trekking around the capital. But at the station there were only automatic left luggage lockers. Each time I pressed the English button on the computer screen the system appeared to crash. I didn’t hold out much hope that it would keep my bags safe so hoisted my duffle on my back and started to walk into the old town.
It’s a long old climb up to the old town and the citadel. Not long after leaving the station it started to rain, so the streets quickly became muddy and slippery. Ankara felt fairly soviet. And not in a good way.
The rain quickly cleared. I took in the view from the citadel, had a brief wander around the touristy shops around the old citadel walls. It was eerily quiet with a strange light that seemed to promise – or threaten – snow.
I grabbed a bite to eat in a restaurant that would at best be described as basic. But it was nice to take the weight off my shoulders.
I then trudged back to the station. Everyone else seemed to be trudging too. The cold air gave an impending feel of a harsh winter approaching.
I know it’s never a good idea to judge a city by a few short hours shuffling around one small part. But with everyone dressed in sombre-looking clothes and seemingly trudging through the ennui of daily life, it felt a sharp contrast to the careless fun of Istanbul I’d experienced a few hours earlier.
It was getting dark by the time I got back to the station around 5pm. I never did find that nice deli I’d been dreaming off.
So after an hours wait in the warm central waiting room I went off to board the train.
Across the platform the latter high-speed train from Istanbul was just pulling in. Assuming this is normally on time – and I can’t vouch for that – it would be an extremely easy transfer across the platform.
My ticket show I was in wagon 7, at the very back of the train. I’d booked a two-berth compartment that I’d have to myself.
The forward cars of the train were pullman seats which looked relatively full. But at the back of the train it was all quiet.
I found my carriage where a stocky smiling middle-aged conductor-cum-purser checked my ticket, helped me aboard and showed me to my little compartment. He spoke no English but was friendly and welcoming. A more personal public announcement. Just as stylish.
Just a few of the compartments seemed to be occupied – and as we slowly pulled out of the station, everyone stood in the corridor and watched, much as you go on deck when a ship is leaving port.
As we shunted off into the Ankara suburbs I thought there would be a mad dash for seats in the dining car. Unsure about security I had locked by bag to the compartment walls – but after a bit of signing I convinced the conductor to give me a key to the compartment. I locked up and went to explore.
Just a couple of carriages down I found the dining car all but deserted. This was probably positive as there only seemed to be one menu to share – helpfully with an English translation.
Throughout the trip it remained virtually deserted. Indeed it seemed to be primarily used for feeding the train staff, who when the car was empty – apart from me – drank coffee and smoked by the kitchen, all the while listening to tinny Turkish pop through a mobile phone speaker. The chef, I noticed, smoked whilst he cooked.
I ordered a lamb kebab and was delighted to see that the menu featured a variety of Turkish red wine. Half the wine though seemed to be ‘off’ or ‘finished’ which were two of the limited English words the waiter knew. The others – I was asked this a lot – were ‘where are you from?’.
I settled down with a book and whiled away a few hours as we trundled away from Ankara’s suburbs and off in darkness of the Anatolia plateau. All the while doing my best to ensure the rest of the red was also ‘finished’.
Despite the narrow bed I slept well.
I woke early and raised the blind in the compartment to a view of exotic looking valleys, small streams and scrappy peaks. It’s from here that the Euphraties and Tigris rivers begin their long journeys into Syria and Iraq.
It was still early and I knew I had a lot of time to kill. After some desultory and ultimately unsuccessful dozing, I got up, washed and changed then went back to the dining car in search of coffee and breakfast.
Again I was alone in the carriage apart from the train staff. I felt like I was on a ghost train. With such cheap tickets and so few passengers I couldn’t work out how the whole operation made money. My guess is that it probably doesn’t – I flew back to Istanbul on a packed and much less enjoyable flight a few days later for about the same amount. The days of the slow train must be numbered.
The train trundles on slowly through tunnels and over bridges taking an excessive but enjoyably winding route. It stops frequently at remote village stations where there’s no platform. Occasionally I’d see a few people climbing off the train before, with a jerk we’d start off again.
And so I passed a lazy day. Eating, drinking and listlessly reading and taking in the view.
Later int he day, after a late lunch, leaving Erzurm it starts to get dark again. As dusk falls the train starts climbing up and over a 2300m pass. Through the dark the snow now looked more serious.
My carriage was was now entirely deserted apart from me and the conductor.
About half an hour before Kars the conductor signalled that he wanted to take the sheets of the bed. He handed me back my ticket and – so I assumed – explained that we’d soon be arriving in Kars.
After bit of screeching and rocking the train pulled up beside a deserted and icy platform. I grabbed my bags, shook the conductor’s hand and headed off into the Kars night. But not before adjusting my collar and tie.
They say we dream every night. Most mornings though, as we wake, our dreams are quickly cast aside as we re-enter the real world. To save our sanity, our brains quickly discard what couldn’t, shouldn’t – and indeed didn’t happen during the night.
Sometimes though, you wake from a deep sleep and for a few fleeting moments you are simultaneously in the dream and awake. As you wake, you try to clutch on to the memory of the dream. But try as you might, you can actually feel your mind forgetting; wiping the dream from your conscious memory.
As I sit here now, just a few days after my biggest race of the year – the Ultra Trail Mt Fuji – I’m struggling to make sense of quite what happened.
I can remember that it was awful. But somehow I can’t quite remember the pain and the desperation. My brain, perhaps struggling to comprehend what happened that night, has tried to consign the memory to the bin of bad dreams.
The memories are now a bit cloudy, but below I try to clutch on to the memory of the dream.
I arrived in Tokyo late on Saturday evening and spent a few days sleeping off several months of accumulated tiredness in a hotel room high over Shinjuku.
There’s nowhere better for this than the setting of a big international chain hotel, where the time of day ceases to become relevant. You can sleep, eat, read, swim and binge on boxsets – all completely separated from reality.
As the coach started climbing into the mountains, Mount Fuji was only intermittently visible through the clouds. But it was bright and broadly sunny.
On the recommendation of a friend I’d booked into K’s House – a nice hostel on the south side of the lake. I ended up in a nine-berth mixed dorm. It was fairly quiet when I arrived, so I was able to select a lower bunk – thinking this might be easier after the race.
Kawaguchiko seems to lack the urban centre that makes other climbing towns – Chamonix for example – quite so attractive. But I found a nearby restaurant and spent the afternoon reading and eating.
Later, back at the hostel, I ended up sharing the dorm room with a group of friendly Singaporean and Malaysian runners. Some were back to right unfinished business from last year. Others were trying their first 100 miler.
It occurred to me that I was now the experienced one in the group. It’s funny how you go from being a nervous novice – to an old hat quite so imperceptibly.
I slept not particularly well that first night. And on Thursday woke to rain. Heavy, relentless rain.
It seems I’m cursed with bad weather in ultra races. Three of my four attempts at the sister race – the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc – have been decimated by snow storms or weather bombs.
I suppose I hadn’t expected anything different. And I didn’t have that sense of foreboding that you sometimes get in the Alps when the thunder echoes down the valley like an omen from an unhappy god.
I went with a group from the hostel to register for the race and pick up our drop bags and running numbers. It all seemed rather low key and quiet for an international race. But I suppose nothing compares to the scale and drama of things in Chamonix.
In the expo I studied a section in one stall marked ‘bear bells’. I vaguely recalled reading something in the runners’ guide about bears being active in the area and that bear bells were strongly advised. But I hadn’t given it too much thought. I did now.
I wasn’t really convinced that a rabid bear, on hearing a tinkling little bell would scarper off into the woods to hide. Rather, wouldn’t a hungry bear, on hearing an odd sounding bell, come out of the woods to see what was making the noise? Then eat you.
I spent rather longer than I should have done weighing up the options. But the bells were cheap and could easily be silenced. I bought one and thought I could decide whether to use it later on.
In all my bear thought, my friends from the hostel had long gone.
I walked back and had another chuckle at my running number – 666 – the number of the devil. I left my stuff and went for a soak in a nearby Onsen. It was a nice relaxing day.
On Thursday evening information started filtering in about various course changes because of the state of the course in the rain.
On Friday morning we woke to more news about deviations to the course. Everyone looked anxious, all trying to redraw the route on their maps.
I announced to anyone who would listen that there was no point sitting around being nervous, and that I was going for another soak in the Onsen. Extreme relaxation being the order of the day. The UTMF starts at 1pm – I like races that don’t start too early.
After a good scrub and soak I returned to the hostel to find everyone looking more nervous and still studying maps and revised cut off times.
The start was low key – there was none of that magic Vangellis music that marks the start of the UTMB.
We ran along the shore of Lake Kawaguchiko, trying to settle into a rhythm. The path was fairly narrow and we kept bunching up on some of the narrower sections. Soon we reached a road where some volunteers stopped us.
My Japanese not being what it should be, I first though this was to let the traffic past. But after waiting a couple of minutes I couldn’t figure out what was going on. Runners were backing up behind me.
On closer inspection it looked like a huge backlog had accumulated at the base of the first climb – the path being too narrow to accommodate everyone at once.
I was probably held for about 15 minutes – which seems a lifetime when you’re in a race – but I later heard that some people further back had been delayed for about 40 minutes. They must have been pulling their hair out
Even once we were on the hill it was slow going. Frequently backing up to standstill. Everyone waited patiently in the line.
No one spoke at all for the first few hours. I remember thinking that if this was the UTMB in France, the French would have been in uproar about the delay.
“Mais non! Putaine! Qu’est il se passé ici ? C’est fou!
After a fairly long road section we finally reached the first aid station. This had taken nearly three hours – longer than I’d anticipated. I’d eaten two chocolate bars already and drunk a fair bit of water such was the humidity. I began to think that perhaps I’d not packed enough food.
With my heart rate still pushing 160 I arrived at the aid station. I suppose in hindsight I should have given my self a couple of seconds to catch my breath. But I guess I was caught up in the quick pace. I virtually inhaled a pack of Pringles, along with some hot Japanese soup – of contents unknown.
I was in and out of the first aid station in six minute flat, having probably taken on board 500 calories. It was flat after the first check point – this probably encouraged me to push on too hard. I should have eased back, giving myself time to digest.
It was already dark when I arrived at Aid Station A2 just before 18:30 on Friday evening. I wasn’t feeling great and couldn’t really face eating or drinking too much. I realised I’d started that subconscious scanning the room for the ‘If I was going to be sick, where would I be sick?’ point.
I had drunk a fair bit before the aid station, but found with it being so humid and raining, it was really hard to judge how much water I was losing through sweat. I’d no idea if I was getting dehydrated or not.
The aid station was packed and smelled as you’d expect a room of several hundred muddy runners to smell. I was in and out in 15 minutes.
But just around the corner. I felt it coming – and was promptly sick in a bush by the side of the road. It was all fairly quick and painless – mostly the coke I’d just drunk. I remember thinking ‘glad that’s over with – I’m sure I’ll be fine for the rest of the race.’ How wrong I was.
It was three hours to the next Aid Station – W1. (I never did figure out why some aid stations were called A1, A2, etc and others W1, W2, etc… I thought it to do with the level of provisions provided but couldn’t make that fit.)
I was only sick once more before I arrived at that next aid station at W1 at around 9:30pm – after 8h30mins running. Though I was pleased to still be holding a decent running pace on the flat.
But as soon as I tried to drink some coffee I knew it was about to happen again. I quickly made my way to the corner of the shelter and puked again. This time my stomach seemed more painful. Not just retching harmlessly but going into spasm.
I then realised I was quickly getting cold. I rummaged in my bag and pulled out my long leggings. After battling to get my shoes off, leggings on and shoes back on again, I started to leave the shelter.
Then I realised the leggings were not only on back-to-front but also inside-out. I sighed. I wasn’t really bothered about my appearance – that went long ago. Inside-out I could live with – but their reverse sense was actually constricting my movement. So I went through the laborious process of re-dressing myself. It was going to be a long night.
I left the aid station and again had to kneel down to wretch – there wasn’t anything left in my stomach. This was becoming tiresome.
And that’s where the wheels really started to come off.
The seven-and-a-half hours between leaving Aid Station W1 at 10pm on Friday night and arriving at the next Aid Station, A3, at 5:34am on Saturday morning would have been seared into my memory – had they not been too awful to remember.
Writing this now in the comfort of warm surroundings, it seems embarrassingly melodramatic to recall. I can’t quite believe it was as bad as I thought.
It was just a modest 23km between those two aid stations. But my average speed over those seven-and-a-half hours was barely 3km/h – significantly less than 2 miles per hour.
That average speed belies a relatively long flat and runnable section. It hides the 100 minute mile pace that took me climbing that mountain. You could literally crawl faster.
Leaving W1 we immediately started climbing. It didn’t seem like a distinctive path – just a 45 degree brutal climb up a muddy hill to the highest point on the course.
In the dark it was hard to pick out a path through the trees. Very quickly it became less about walking and more crawling and scrabbling on all fours. Grabbing hold of tree trunks, branches, roots, anything that you could find to stop you slipping. Even just trying to grab on to the raw mud.
Running poles had been banned on the race this year – so you simply had to claw at the earth with your bare hands. It was almost impossibly steep. The rain over the previous few days had turned the soil into grease.
People were surprisingly helpful. As you let out a yelp as you started sliding uncontrollably a hand would shoot out to help pull you back to safety.
I was conscious now that I’d not now been able to keep anything down – neither food nor water – for the best part of three hours.
Normally when you know there are a thousand metres of vertical elevation gain ahead of you – you have to get the calories in to support your effort, to literally give you the energy. But nothing would stay down.
It was slow going and technical climbing for everyone. I had that to my advantage – even with more energy I wouldn’t have been able to go much faster.
For a while I managed to stick with the pace of the queue of people trying to climb. But every so often I’d have to pull over and dry heave. The crowd began to thin out. The altitude wasn’t extreme, but as my body starting burning fat, I’d keep finding myself panting and short of breath. It had been two hours of relentless climbing and still I was nowhere near the top.
The simple cathartic act of being sick had by now transformed into an all-encompassing spasm of my stomach and abdominal muscles. It began to occur to me that this was perhaps how a hernia started.
As my abdomen went into spasm each time it felt like someone was tightening a zippy tag around my internal organs. It started to occur to me that something might go pop and I’d bleed to death. I’d be the first person to literally puke myself to death. You might laugh. I didn’t.
Normally when you’re sick in an ultra marathon there are at least a few minutes afterwards when you regain your energy. A little shot of post-puke adrenaline that propels you forward.
But now all I wanted to do afterwards was to lie down and sleep. I took to the habit of turning off my headlamp each time I knelt down to be sick. Somehow not able to face seeing what was – or wasn’t coming up. I’d lost count of whether it was seven or eight times I’d been sick. In the dark and alone kneeling on the mud, all I wanted to do was sleep.
As I tried in vain to push and pull myself up that hill, it started to dawn on me that my race was rapidly coming to its conclusion.
Before an ultramarathon you spend a lot of time visualising your race. As if thinking over the possibilities to mentally prepare yourself for the physical reality.
You imagine yourself at the finish. It’s a strong image that helps you prepare for the worst. Perhaps you imagine yourself heroically hobbling to the finish on a broken leg. Or carrying an arm that has been severed from its socket in an ungainly fall.
Maybe you have an image of crawling over the finish line just seconds before the race cut off. You try to imagine everything and how you’ll pull through and conquer all.
In truth you also imagine yourself not finishing or DNF-ing – those awful words Did Not Finish.
You imagine this in equally heroic terms. Perhaps being airlifted off a mountain in the back of a search and rescue helicopter. Or hunkering down in cave to escape a lightening storm and missing a cut off. Or fighting off a bear.
What you’ve never prepared for is your race finishes as a pathetic whimper.
You feel like a shit – a stain on humanity.
You are curled up on the side of a steep slope. You are soaked through with a combination of sweat and rain. You are caked in mud. It’s on your hands and face. In your ears. Between your teeth.
You’ve lost count of how many times you’ve been sick. You smell of sick and stale sweat.
After being sick again I turned off my headlamp for a moment. For a moment totally alone in the woods.
Now might be a good time to mention the bears.
In the race briefing, it notes that it was strongly recommended to not wear headphones so you can keep alert for bears. They reiterated this warning – again and again – at the start with the warning that bears had been spotted in the area.
Bears in the popular imagination are teddies. Cute and harmless. But ask anyone who has been attacked by a bear and you’ll be told they’re actually several hundred kilograms of violent hungry aggressive killing machine.
Earlier in the year on a brief holiday in Langkawi I’d been enjoying an early morning run through town when I came face to face with two angry and possibly rabid guard dogs. Only by virtually throwing myself off a harbour wall and into the sea did I escape a mauling.
The feeling of abject terror sticks with me today. And those dogs were small compared to a bear.
I was under no illusion that an encounter with a bear would be a fight to the death. The bear would fight and I would be death.
I’m not sure whether it was that niggling fear at the back of my mind. But as I lay there in the mud, I thought that if I were a bear, now would be the time I’d strike.
The severity of my situation began to dawn on me.
I knew my race was over. I couldn’t drink or eat. I had not even enough energy to stand. But I also knew that I had to at least try to get myself to the next aid station – that however much sleep or death seemed preferable I couldn’t leave myself like this on the side of a mountain.
Slowly though as I trudged on my mental attitude went downhill. I was losing the battle to stay positive. And this was possibly the biggest threat to my well-being.
In a bid to stay alert to my surroundings I didn’t want to listen to music. So I was trapped with my own spiralling negative thoughts.
The will to give in to sleep was becoming overwhelming.
Eventually I judged that the negative thoughts were becoming more dangerous than the lack of awareness.
So I tried the music. Full blast. Songs that normally would help me up my pace and help with motivation. Somehow though now they just were amplifying the negative feelings and making me worse.
I switched to podcasts in the hope they’d be a distraction. Flicking through I came across Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time. He had a collection of guests talking about perpetual motion. In my increasing delirium it seemed more than appropriate, it seemed destined. They might have even mentioned Sisyphus which seemed particularly apt. But soon too the melodic tones of Melvyn proved too soporific. So I switched them off.
As we climbed higher there were increasing numbers of others lying by the side of the path. Some sitting with head bowed. Others flat out asleep. All looking like they’d given in to death. Through the murk of the woods you could hear countless others chucking up. The sound made me feel worse.
It’s hard to know what to do when others are like this. Do you stop to check they’re ok? If they just want to rest they’d not appreciated the constant questions. Should you let them sleep? What can you do?
Eventually – the word doesn’t do it justice – we reached the summit of at Yukimidake at 1605 metres – the highest point on the course. A couple of marshals were stationed there and welcomed us. Many of us slumped to the ground overwhelmed by the cheers and at the prospect of going down hill.
It was a false hope. As soon as we started down hill we realised how slippery the track had become. It became an exercise in trying to control yourself between grabbing one tree and the next. Everyone fell at some stage, legs going flying from under you and body falling like a sack of potatoes – only with less life in them.
It was even slower going. It required more concentration than my addled mind could muster. It can only have been a decent of a couple of hundred vertical metres before the next climb to up Kumamoriyama but it took an age.
As I reached the next climb I decided I had to try something different. I took out an energy gel from my backpack. Gagging at even the thought of it, I ripped off the top and squirted its thick contents into my mouth where I held the gloopy mess, trying to breathe through my nose for a long as possible. I hoped at least some of the energy would be absorbed through my mouth.
Then I swallowed. About five second later it all came back up again. I sighed. I just wanted everything to be over, to be free from the negative thoughts, from the pain and from the mud.
Each of my breaks were now taking longer and longer. I eventually rose and laboriously started the next climb.
But the desire to pull out my space blanket, leave the trail and pass out under a tree was now overwhelming. I had come to terms with the risks of bears, or hypothermia, or choking on my own vomit. I just wanted sleep. There was still something though knowing I had to continue. These thoughts fought against each other in my head.
Then after about another hour of battling these thoughts, from somewhere deep within something clicked.
“Oh fuck off, Owen” it bellowed. As if I’d got tired of myself and my bitching.
I can’t be sure if it was just within my head or whether I shouted out loud.
But either way its vehemence came as something as a shock.
“Really, Fuck You”
There followed a tirade of personal abuse that was so personal, so foul-mouth and so sustained that it really shocked me.
I wasn’t used to being spoken to like that. Not least by myself.
For perhaps the only time in the race it brought a tear to my eye.
It wasn’t about finishing the race – I still knew my race was over. But it was more about telling my self to “shut the fuck up”.
I was now more awake. It was still slow going. Countless hours going downhill, sliding and falling. That aid station seemed impossibly far away.
After a few more hours I started sipping water. I’d often still be sick but started to get the impression that perhaps less was coming up than I’d managed to take in.
If I couldn’t drink the water, I realised I could now start using it to wash off my face and hands. That at least made me feel slightly better.
More hours passed and we eventually emerged from the muddy hell of the Tenshi mountains onto a relatively flat path just as dawn was breaking. I managed – I don’t know how – to start running. Thinking, perhaps, that it would bring the inevitable end closer.
Eventually, after several false hopes, we rounded a corner and reached the aid station. It was 5:34 on Saturday morning. There was a huge crowd. With no idea of the cut off times, I’d expected to be pulled from the race having missed the cut off time.
But the other runners still seemed industrious rather than dejected. I asked – more screamed out – what was the cut off time? And was told it had been extend from 5am to 6am.
I’d had about 2.5 litres of water in my backpack at the previous aid station. A lot still remained. Others had taken far less and had been without water for ages. We were all dehydrated.
There was chaos in the aid station with so many people trying to get water at the same time. There was one hosepipe, which couldn’t keep up demand. People were pushing and shoving to try and get water.
Given I’d not been able to drink I amazingly still had some water left in my backpack, even after 7-plus hours. I queued for some coke, which I sipped and used to fill one of my drinking bottles.
During the night I’d promised myself a sleep at the next aid station. But I clearly didn’t have time.
By now I knew I had to give it a shot to try and finish. I left the aid station at 5:45am – with just a 15 minute buffer before the cut off time. It was going to be tight.
I later discovered that some 600 people had bailed out of the race at that aid station. That’s testament to the carnage that happened overnight. Stuck in your own private hell, you forget that everyone else is suffering too.
I left the aid station knowing I had to get a move on if I had any chance of finishing. I also knew that I had to try and re-hydrate.
By degrees I must have started to feel better. I tipped some energy powder into one of my water bottles. It wasn’t a lot of calories, but I figured if I could keep it down it would help.
The most technical part of the race comes at the beginning. I knew there was a longer flatter section ahead of me.
There was a fairly ugly path tracking along a straight section beneath some power lines. I was now motoring at nearly 6km/hour. The memory of that night was already disappearing. Determination replacing desperation.
It was more open and less wooded by now and I figured that music would be helpful. Matthew Herbert’s Strong found it’s way onto my ipod. I picked up the pace. Perhaps mustering a smile.
It took just an hour and a half to the next aid station at W2. I didn’t stop there for more than a few minutes.
It was still grey and overcast. Intermittently drizzling. I was being driven forward by the prospect of my dropbag at aid station A4 at 90km along with the mental boost of reaching half way.
It was another 2 hours and 20 minutes to the next aid station. I arrived just before 9:30am. At A4 I changed my shoes and socks. Spending longer than necessary tending to my feet. I was deliriously happy to be in new, clean, dry trainers.
The heals of the trainers I’d been wearing had been destroyed by a lazy heal-strike as my running gate had deteriorated on the down hills. The shoes were wet and filthy.
As I considered putting the old shoes back in the dropbag to take home – I thought ‘I’m really too old to be washing out worn out trainers’. I picked them up as if they were radioactive and carried them to the bin. The act of throwing away the trainers was hugely cathartic. As if they carried all the bad memories of that night.
I managed to sip some warm miso soup and miraculously it stayed down. I had a disposable toothbrush in my dropbag and before I left I brushed my teeth – and tongue. I washed my face and felt utterly transformed.
I was now well ahead of the cut off. Confidence comes from building up a barrier on the cutoff. I stopped a couple of times to change socks and apply anti-blister cream to my feet.
I ploughed on eventlessly. It was still cloudy. Not once did I have a view of the fabled Mt Fuji for which the race is famed.
As I approached aid station A7 I knew I had a couple of hours in hand and decided that I was going to try and get 15 minutes sleep. I knew this was risky. I’d never tried sleeping during a race before. I knew there was a chance I’d wake in a different frame of mind – not willing to keep running. Or that I’d not wake and miss the cut off.
But I was conscious that I needed to find out if I could sleep – I knew this could be useful in other races. I’d also made my peace with not finishing the race. If it all went wrong I knew I wouldn’t be devastated.
At the next aid station at A7 at 120km it was starting to get toward dusk. I topped up my water bottles and found the room where they were letting people sleep. I left my shoes at the door.
There was a room full of blankets and just one other guy in there – seemingly dead to the world. I wondered how I was going to wake myself up. I set an alarm on my phone and another on my watch for 15 minutes. Then thought that I needed a backup. Just outside the room I found two people who were obviously waiting for another runner and who were speaking English to each other.
I asked if they could wake me in 15 minutes. Their first inclination was clearly to demure – not wanting to take responsibility for me. But I begged and they agreed.
I went back into the room and lay on my back. It now occurred to me that actually falling asleep might be a problem. I wish I’d asked the people outside to give me longer.
I tried belly breathing with my hands on my stomach – to calm my mind. The next thing I knew I was being aggressively shaken.
“Mr Owen, Mr Owen, time to get up.” I opened my eyes, annoyed that I’d been woken before I’d fallen asleep.
But I had slept. Very, very deeply by the sounds of things. Slept through my alarms too. The guy had had trouble rousing me. He’d been alarmed, briefly, that I might have descended into the deepest form of sleep. The form that needs no rousing.
As I quickly came around and thanked him, I immediately felt better. Utterly renewed by my bout of 10 minutes sleep.
I went to the loo – pleased that my gut had started functioning again and that I was now passing water so wasn’t too dehydrated.
I left A7 with my headlamp on, prepared for the second night in the woods.
Again it all seemed eventless. I chatted with a few people. With a nice Australian woman doing her first 100 miler. With some Japanese guys, with a French woman living in Seoul and a Hong Konger. All helped pass the time as we ran. And I was delighted to be holding a decent running pace.
Later that second night we started climbing again. Quite technical climbing, for which they had laid a rope. But you needed all fours to scramble up the rocks.
Again this caused us to bunch up and there was a fair amount of queuing. Which probably didn’t help my time, but I was beyond caring now.
At Aid Station A9 they held a kit check. They first weighed my bag – a whopping 5kg. They checked I had waterproof trousers, maps and a few other items of mandatory kit. A number of people, it latter transpired, had been disqualified for missing items.
I managed some hot food at the aid station – Udon noodles which I ate cautiously. But it stated down.
Over the next climb I felt the sleep demons coming – I was wandering all over the trail. I had to stop to force down a caffeine energy gel.
At the final aid station A10, I saw they had a crew of physios working on peoples sore legs.
But it was my shoulders and upper back that were sore. I tore off my shoes, backpack and goretex and climbed onto the massage table.
After a brief discussion of what was wrong he spent 10 minutes manipulating my spine and shoulders. It hurt like hell but I emerged re-energised.
I’d had a niggling pain in my upper back from a climbing injury a few weeks ago. Even this seemed to have gone. I almost felt better than when I started.
The final 15 or so km passed quickly. I knew there was just a final 1300m peak to summit then it was downhill to Kawaguichiko.
On the decent I bumped into the Australian woman I’d spoken to earlier. It was great to see a familiar face. She was bright and bubbly. We spoke about finishing strong – and how much it meant to us. How if you weren’t sick when you crossed the finish line, you’d clearly not tried hard enough.
On the final decent as we reached the lake there was a solitary individual playing the saxophone. It was a haunting sound.
And so that was it. We ran around the side of the lake. Across the bridge and back into town having circumnavigated Mt Fuji without once having caught sight of it. Hidden all the while in the clouds.
I kept upping the pace, testing my body if I could hold the speed, then slowly upping it some more.
My feet felt good. My quads – which normally feel like they’re being attacked with daggers at the end of a 100 miler – felt equally strong.
There was a fair crowd as I came into finish at just after 6am on Sunday morning.
It felt strangely anticlimactic. I felt I could carry on. I almost wanted to carry on. Having suffered and survived the first night, finishing now felt like cheating.
Finishing in just over 41 hours meant I had eked out a good four hours over the cut off time from those measly 15 minutes after the first night.
I can’t say I felt a lot of emotion at finishing. All the emotion had been sucked out of me during that first night.
I hung around for a while to watch a few more racers come in.
I’d wanted to watch the final racers come in just before the cut off – those are the special moments in an ultra.
But it was too long to wait and I was growing cold.
I trundled back to the hostel where I found virtually all my new friends up and milling around – many had pulled out the previous night. It turned out that upwards of 60% wouldn’t finish that year.
I had a long shower and put virtually everything into the washing machine.
After a change of clothes and a coffee I had another brief sleep and didn’t then know what to do with myself. It was still early. I went out for lunch then came back to the hostel.
I saw another runner slumped on the porch. He’d finished in 45 hours and had just made it back to the hostel. He was caked in mud and looked shell shocked – unable to comprehend what had happened. Smiling but still utterly dazed.
I shook his hand and helped him to his feet – offering him my heartfelt congratulations. Oddly I was more proud for him than myself.
Him bemused, tired, dirty, hungry and hobbling. And me clean, rested, full and walking well, it occurred to me that the memories of the race had already started fading.
I can’t say I felt pride or achievement. Just quiet contentment and confidence.
And a little unsure whether I had ever really run.
The years seem to have flown by. I first touched down in Tokyo a little over a decade ago. Back then, having spent relatively little time in the Far-East, everything seemed new and delightfully foreign. I was wowed by the towering heights, bright lights and narrow alleys of Shinjuku and nishi-Shinjuku.
But on returning to Tokyo this week – my third trip to the city – I found the buzz oddly missing.
That first trip, all those years ago, must have had an impact. It willed me on to spend more time travelling around Asia. In doing so, it meant that now Seoul, Hong Kong, Shanghai and Bangkok all seemed to offer more buzz and a more impressive urban skyline.
But still I enjoyed gently strolling around Tokyo in the warm autumn sunshine. It felt civilised and refined. And then somewhere south of Shibuya I found my way into the bijou neighbourhood of Daikanyama.
With less buzz and a much smaller scale, I found myself in love all over again with the city and the small intricate feel of the neighbourhood.
With relatively little traffic, modernist architecture and lots of space for bikes, it felt quiet and relaxed; dare I say it – a little European. And that felt refreshingly foreign too.
It’s late. And you’re lost. You’ve been driving for the best part of 10 hours. So you’re quite tired. It’s dark but you think you might recognise this part of the motorway from about 20 minutes ago. You scrunch up the map and throw it onto the back seat. You need a hotel. And a shower. Your standards are now pretty low.
Freed from the map you figure that the next slip road looks promising. You exit the motorway. Do a lap of the roundabout, skirt through a mean looking industrial estate and come face to face with a Novotel. Its blue neon lights glistening in the dark.
Normally you’d be hard pressed to get excited at the prospect of a Novotel. But now you’re delighted. It’s your most pressing needs – food and shelter. You’ve conquered a long drive and found your way around a strange city. You’ve driven by the seat of your pants.
Yes they have a room. And yes they can knock you up something to eat.
You’ve winged it. And won.
This vignette used to play itself out semi regularly for me after I passed my driving test some 15 years ago. I quickly learned how easy it was to pick up a rental car and – to quote Springsteen – head out on the highway looking for adventure.
Over the years I got better at holding a map with one hand and the steering wheel in the other. Sometimes in my trusty old Saab, and further afield, renting an automatic (I discovered this made multitasking much easier) I developed a knack for seeking out adventure behind the wheel.
But then about eight years ago something happened which made the whole thing both much easier and much less unpredictable. Nokia released a smartphone with built in (almost) worldwide satellite navigation. At the end of a long day, a long flight or a long drive, you could fire up the app and be guided to a hotel, restaurant or city of your choice.
Suddenly that thrill of hurtling down an autoroute and having just seconds to decide whether or not to come off at the next junction; or whether you’d run out of fuel before you found a garage; or of not knowing where you’d finish the day – those thrills were all gone. In large parts of the world you no longer needed to wing it.
I thought of this as I passed through Haneda immigration this week. I’d flown late at night after a busy week at work and hadn’t had time to plan anything. It was a miracle I’d packed anything. I’d rushed to the airport then slept on the plane. And woken to a realisation I had no idea where I was heading or what I was doing.
It was midnight on a Saturday night / Sunday morning. I’d been to Tokyo twice before, but each time arriving at Narita.
I’d arrived with no cash and no maps (Nokia’s maps don’t work in Japan). And no Japanese sim card. And with no hotel booked.
The airport information desk said the last train to town was at 10-past-midnight.
I found an ATM and tried to remember the exchange rate. Did I need 3 thousand Yen or 3 million Yen?
Then I hurriedly tried to make sense of the ticket machine for the monorail. I threw some money into the slot and pressed randomly for a ticket to anywhere downtown.
I hauled my luggage up the stairs and onto the platform where a train was just pulling in.
Was this the right train? Which way was it going? Downtown or end-of-the-line suburbia? No time to decide. Jump on or miss the last train.
No maps. No guidebook. No wifi. No idea where I was going. My heart still pounding from a rush up the stairs. I jumped on.
Despite being in one of the most wired cities on the planned, I had virtually no technology to help.
As I surveyed the carriage for a map, a big grin crossed my face.
I’d forgotten the fun to be had in not making plans and just flying by the seat of you pants.
The doors closed and the train sped off into the night and a city full of possibilities.
During my last few trips to Shanghai, something strange always starts happening around day three. I start to crave greenery. By day four or five, I’m starting to feel rather uncomfortable.
When I’m whisking my way back to the airport – gazing out from the elevated highway or from the maglev on the urban sprawl – I realise what I’ve been missing. Nature.
Sure there are little parks, and even some rather charming tree-lined boulevards in the old French concession. But these patches of greenery are so manicured, so small and controlled, that it reinforces the urban feel rather than bringing nature into the city.
If you want to run outside – and there is only so much I can take running on a hotel treadmill – there are scant few options.
Century Park, in Pudong, is the only moderately large patch of greenery. But I’ve never been a fan of having to take the metro to go for a run. But one morning I rose early and felt my legs twitching. So I slipped out the hotel and – not quite being able to face the metro all lyrcaed up – slipped into the back of a cab to Pudong.
As we pulled up to the park, I noticed the stream of cyclist doing laps of the park in the cycle lane. Not commuter cyclists, but recreational cyclists, with expensive looking racing bikes – going as quick as they do around Regents Park in London. For a country where once cycling was so ubiquitous, it’s yet to go full circle and become cool again.
When I jogged over to enter the park, I was met with a surprise. A ticket gate and a charge to get in.
It was only 10 RMB – about a $1.50 – but I was pushed for time and didn’t want to break a note and end up with a handful of change on my run. So I made do with a couple of laps around the perimeter. Just me and the cyclists.
But as I ran, that old Joni Mitchell song, Big Yellow Taxi, popped into my head.
They took all the trees / And put them in a tree museum / Then they charged the people / A dollar and a half just to see ’em
So on my latest trip to Shanghai, I vowed that after the working week I would leave the city and find some mountains nearby for a spot of trail running in the wilds of China.
As usual, I’d not had time to properly think this through by the time the plane touched down in Pudong. But I had a few days of work to sort myself out.
A few brief moments scouring a map and a flick through a guidebook over breakfast the next day – and I settled on Huang Shan. The Yellow Mountains. a few hundred kilometres south west of Shanghai.
Staggeringly scenic, said the guidebook. Ancient bamboo forest with contorted pine trees disappearing into the mist. I was set.
The concierge helpfully booked me onto the sleeper train departing late one evening at the end of the week. The tickets arrived the next day, but had been booked into a ‘hard sleeper’. Another trip to the concierge to explain this soft southerner would really rather a ‘soft sleeper’. The new tickets arrived the next day. A bargain at $40 one way.
The night train departs from the colossal Shanghai Station and takes a winding route through the night, initially going north through Suzhou and Nanjing. I settled down in the little sleeping car. Glad not to be suffering a hard sleeper.
The next morning the night train terminates in the smallish town of Tunxi before disgorging its passengers into an animated square outside the station.
I’d slept well. I’d washed and cleaned up on the train, but was by now in desperate need of coffee, with the beginnings of a thumping headache from caffeine withdrawal.
Tucked away in Tuxi old town – my Rough Guide on my kindle informed me – was a charming coffee shop serving real imported coffee. So I hiked into town.
Restored after perhaps the best coffee this side of Milan I headed back to the station to take a tatty old minibus up to the foothills and the small town of Tangkou, which serves as the basecamp for the mountains.
I arrived late afternoon in beautiful autumnal sunshine. Even in the sun, Tangkou’s new town is pretty brutal – with charmless concrete buildings lining the main drag. The old town, a little further up the road is more rustic and somewhat more basic.
I checked into a cheap hotel and bedded down for the night.
The next morning the weather had changed. The rustic old town that was, in sunshine, mildly interesting was now cold, muddy, rural and basic.
Again, I set out to find coffee. In China, the smaller the town the harder the task. Starbucks might be ubiquitous in Shanghai, but Shanghai felt a long way away from Tangkou old town.
To the best of my knowledge the only place serving coffee in Tangkou was ‘Mr Cheng’s restaurant’ on the main road. I know this because – with the help of Google translate – I asked a lot of people in my search for caffeine.
It was only marginally warmer inside the little restaurant than out. The rain poured down. I pulled out my maps and guidebook and wondered how long I could wait-out the weather sipping, by now slightly more mediocre coffee.
A man I took to be Mr Cheng was friendly and spoke good English. Perhaps the only one in the town. He thought the weather had drawn in for the week.
I was pushed for time and had to be back in Shanghai later in a few days, so made a snap decision that I’d have to run the mountains that day – rain or no rain. I didn’t to come this far not the summit the mountains.
For a handful of yuan Mr Cheng offered to drive me to the trailhead. I sprinted back to my hotel, changed in record time, grabbed a wad of cash, a bottle of water and my Goretex. Fifteen minutes later I was being driven through the driving rain the start of the trail.
I had only briefly read further down the guidebook – past the section on the mystical beauty of Huang Shan.
So beautiful are the mountains, the guidebook went on, that it is the ambition of every Chinese to conquer it…. don’t expect to climb alone, it said…. depressingly like visiting an amusement park.
I was arriving in late November, well outside the peak season so the paths were at least quiet, but the entrance fees were still steep.
They took all the trees / And put them in a tree museum / Then they charged the people / A dollar and a half just to see ’em
I’d have been happy to have just paid a dollar and a half. In all I must have paid around $50 just to run on those paths.
I understand it costs for the upkeep of the park, but it still grates to have to pay to experience nature.
And so I ran. The first couple of hours took me through the bamboo forest to Yungu temple. With my head down and hood up in the driving rain, I’d perhaps not been paying enough attention to my surroundings. So it clearly came as a surprise both to me and the troop of baboons who were sat eating in the middle of the path.
As I ran around the corner I almost charged straight into them. In a storm of shrieking – from both them and me – they scuttled off in every direction and I backtracked, looking for something with which to defend myself. Being rather alarmed that I’d somehow gotten in-between the baby baboons and their mother, I thought I was going to get a beating.
As calm descended, I realised I’d not had any rabies jabs and that given any closer encounter I might have struggled to get quick enough access to decent medical care.
So I paid more attention to what was around me. Peering through the forest, through the clouds and driving rain. I wasn’t expecting to get much of the famous views.
The paths in the park are impressive. Stone steps lead all the way up to the summits. Running up them was tough. Laying the stone slabs all the way up to an altitude 1800 meters must have been a herculean task.
I was running without a backpack so stopped at the little stores that lined the paths to buy water and coke. And once an ingenious self-heating boil-in-the-bag rice meal.
It had been cloudy and wet all day. And then, as I worried it was getting late and would soon be getting dark I decided to find the path home. There was then, for a brief second, a gap in the clouds.
The peaks in the distance came into view. I was suddenly alone on the mountain and gobsmacked by the view. For a few brief moments I was in awe.
They may have put all the trees in a museum. It may have been an outrageously expensive way to experience nature. They may have built an extraordinary ugly town at basecamp. But they hadn’t yet paved paradise.
With that the clouds closed in, the rain started up and I turned to run the 15km back down hill to the entrance.
And then ran another 5km back into town to avoid the need for the Big Yellow Taxi.
Every sport has its own set of rules and traditions. Some are formally written down. Others simply passed on as a sort of etiquette, refined over the years.
Take Golf for example. We’ll leave aside that it’s technically a game and not a sport. Much like tiddlywinks. Though clearly less physically demanding.
Golfers, seemingly without fail, wear those ugly Argyle patterned jumpers. To the best of my knowledge there’s no written rule that says you must dress in this silly way. It’s just what people do it fit in. Traditions passed on over hundreds of years, without anyone stopping to think how comical they look.
Surrounded by other players doing the same, the absurd attire becomes sane. A badge of identity. It presumably takes an outsider to point this out. You might have guessed: I’m an outsider.
Which brings me to another absurdity: the world of extreme endurance sports. For this, I’m very much on the inside.
Whilst the Ironman Triathlon might be pushing 30, the sport of ultra-running is still relatively new, at least in Europe.
You might think this wouldn’t leave enough time for strange traditions to develop. Though we’re not doing anything as daft as Argyle, endurance sports do have their own oddities and ways of behaving.
The strange thing though is that two of the biggest endurance sports – Ironman and Ultra-Running – which are similar in so many ways, actually attract very different people. And there’s surprisingly little crossover in participants. Each have their own set of rules.
Nowhere is this difference more evident than when you’re waiting nervously before the start.
At the Ironman, as the athletes prepare their £4000 bikes in the transition zone, you’ll hear a lot of brash talk and boasting personalities. Amongst the shaved legs (this is to Ironman what the Argle is to Golf) you can practically smell the testosterone. Casual boasting is the done thing.
Some few thousand feet higher, at the start line of the Ultra-Trail, it’s a very different feeling. Brash boasting is definitely out. There is no one-upmanship to be had on the cost and sophistication of your bike. It’s just you and the mountains.
At the start it’s the done thing to look miserable and terrified. And perhaps slightly tearful. To talk down your chances rather than talk them up. There’s no written rule that says this. It’s just what everyone does.
I’d run the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc on three separate occasions, and spent the last five summers in Chamonix for one run or another, but skipped last year to run in Leadville.
Coming back to Chamonix after a year out – and on the back of an Ironman just two months earlier – I’d somehow lost track of the unwritten rules.
As the 2300 runners gathered in the Place Du Triangle De L’amitié for the UTMB, I’d forgotten the fear I’d had in previous years. Forgotten that with a 50% dropout rate, for most of us the race was going to end in pain, misery and failure.
Yet somehow I felt bullish and confident. I wasn’t hollering this at the top of my voice. But I was breaking the rules.
Well you know what they say comes before a fall…
The heavens opened just before the start at 6pm. And it rained all night. Great torrents of rain came through my Goretex jacket. Like someone had stuck a hose down both the sleeves.
The nausea started about 2am. Great waves of nausea. I managed to hold-off being sick at Les Chapieux aid station and after nibbling on a bit of food jogged pitifully on.
Cold, wet and holding back the vomit, my mind kept wandering back to the fluffy white bed that was waiting for me back at the hotel.
Why really was I bothering with this race? I had nothing left to prove, I’d run it three times already. Through the rain and snow. Through a stress fracture and horrible knee injury. I’d done it already. Why not call it a day? It was the first time I’d seriously considered quitting a race.
Just before dawn I trundled unhappily into the aid station at Lac Combal, only 64km in, where upon taking up the foetal position I was immediately sick. Two doctors came over and tried to entice me into the medical tent. They had caught me at my lowest ebb.
Strangely it was probably their offer of help that drove me on. Through my heaves and retching I told them to leave me alone. They were really quite persistent. Again I told them to bugger off.
I knew that if I went into the warm embrace of the medical tent I wouldn’t leave. I think I was about to tell them to ‘fuck off’ but instead was just sick again. They stayed, hovering over me.
So I finally had something to prove. I pulled myself up from a pile of my own filth and despair and told them, with a smile, that I’d had a bit much to drink last night.
Sometimes a bit of bravado and a bit of brash is what’s needed.
The dawn slowly broke. My stomach settled. The crippling visions of a white fluffy duvet slowly subsided and the rest of the race became much easier. Through the second day and through the second night I began to enjoy myself.
My confidence had been well founded. I finished in a little over 40 hours 30 minutes.
Through all four times I’ve run the race, I’ve learned one thing: It doesn’t always get worse. And sometimes you need a bit of bullshit to get you through.
But you need to know the rules before you can break them.