Wednesday 7 December 2011

Racing The Planet - Nepal - Pre-race

I’ll post the full  race review soon, but the pre-amble is a fair read in itself, so I’ll post now to get the ball rolling!

I flew out from Heathrow on the Tuesday morning before the race, which started Sunday.  It’s unusual for me to go out to a race that many days in advance but given the reliability of transport in Nepal, I’d read it was wise.  Travel guides recommend allowing 3 days to journey between Kathmandu and Pokhara, which is a mere 200km, because of delays in air or road travel.  Turns out they were quite right.  My first challenge however was leaving the UK.  I had booked separate tickets; a BA flight to Delhi and a Kingfisher (Indian airline) flight to Kathmandu.  I got to Heathrow and the BA check-in assistant wanted to see my Indian VISA.  I explained I wasn’t staying in India, as I’d be in transit to Nepal.  I showed them my e-ticket for Kingfisher, and so began a 40 minute wait with various conference calls and managers all turning up to decide if they were even going to let me fly, and subsequently how they could “con” the check-in system to bypass something on screen which was blocking it.  Eventually someone came along, and just said “do it, and put me down as responsible”.  They said they couldn’t issue me with a boarding pass for the second leg, but could check my bags through to Kathmandu.  I’d have to contact the ground staff in Delhi when I got there.  I thanked the guy for sorting it out.  I don’t think he was entirely convinced I’d be alright when I got to Delhi, but at least I was a problem solved at his end.

I took off about 4pm, and arrived in Delhi about 6am local time.  I had a 7 hour stopover before the next flight.  If I would have needed a fast connection I’d have been in trouble as the situation in Delhi was an utter shambles.  I got off the plane and went with a member of the ground staff to the international connections “lounge”.  This is an old area of the airport, straight out of the 1970s with brown and orange carpets and nasty seats all of which were occupied with tired and annoyed looking international visitors.  The girl told me that I needed to wait for the Kingfisher representative, who would come along “shortly” to issue my boarding pass.  In the 2 hours that crawled by afterwards I observed a series of angry outbursts by pretty much everyone as they were fobbed off with excuses as to why they had been there for anything from 1-7 hours.  There were kids crying, kids asleep on the floor, people asleep on the floor.  An utter mess.  The Kingfisher rep eventually decided to make the 5 minute walk from the main check-in desk to the international connections and issued my ticket.  It was a relief in the end.  I’d decided already that getting angry about it wasn’t going to make me feel any better and I was lucky I had time to spare.  I fared better than a fellow competitor Angus, who was refused passage at Heathrow for the same reason; 2 separate tickets  He had an onward flight with Air India, and the BA rep who dealt with it clearly wasn’t prepared to make an executive decision that day.  He got delayed 3 days and had to book an alternative flight, with Kingfisher as it transpired.  I found this out when we were both stuck in the same transit purgatory in Delhi on the return flight.  Angus had a wife and 2 kids with him as well, poor guy. 

By booking 2 separate tickets I’d saved over £100 on the airfare, but suffered a stack of hassle as a result.  Delhi is not a place you want to be getting a connection, take it from me.  I understand that BA are only partnered with Jet airlines in India (Kingfisher may be in the club next year).  So, if you want a hassle free flight then that may (and I use the word cautiously) be the way to go.

So, issued with my boarding pass I came into the international terminal 3.  Unlike the 1970s hell, this was a shiny new-build terminal with modern seating, shops and restaurants; actually very impressive, a glimpse at how far India has come in the last 10 years and, it transpired, how far ahead when compared to its poverty stricken neighbour, Nepal.

I’d done a lot of research into the airlines (looking up accidents etc), and Kingfisher has an excellent record.  The flight was excellent.  It was a new Airbus jet with courteous, attentive staff, and all announcements given in English as well.  No sooner had I sat down on my seat and they were offering around cans of beer; I smiled to myself at the cultural differences.  The safety video starts with a speech by the airline chairman where he says he’s handpicked every member of staff and told them to treat you like a guest in his own home.  Maybe a few more airlines should take this approach.  I’d certainly fly with Kingfisher again, especially since they bumped me up to business class free of charge, without request, on the way back!

I landed in Kathmandu about 4:30 in the afternoon.  I’d glimpsed the Himalayas above the clouds, but Kathmandu and the entire valley for 100’s of miles in every direction was shrouded in fog, and would remain so for several days.  This prevented virtually all internal flights from departing, meaning that all competitors would have to suffer the same 6-12 hour bus trip that I had already decided to take.  I’d looked up the Nepal aviation safety records; they are appalling.  Lots of tourist flights just crashing into the sides of mountains in bad weather, poorly maintained aircraft whose undercarriage didn’t open when landing (a story I read in the paper while I was on the bus!).  In short a lot of unnecessary deaths; I wouldn’t be flying anywhere in Nepal.  I’d rather suffer a 7 hour bus journey in some discomfort, than risk a 40 minute flight into the side of a mountain.  The roads are statistically a lot worse of course, narrow winding roads on cliff edges with daily fatalities, but, if you pick one of the large tourist coaches (not the riskier mini vans or cabs) then I figure in a crash you’re likely to come off better.  I witnessed a number of road accidents while I was there, one involving a large tourist bus like mine just 2 vehicles ahead.  A lorry brakes failed and it slammed into the back of the tourist bus.  No one was seriously hurt, but both vehicles were badly damaged, and everyone (including me) was delayed for an hour while the local population milled around deciding how they’d deal with the road block.  If that lorry had hit a small car or mini-van there would have been several dead tourists.  I’d picked the right mode of transport I decided.

Anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself.  I landed in Kathmandu and then had to queue for 1.5 hours to get a 15 days VISA, which had to be paid in pretty much any currency apart from Nepalese rupees!  They have a nice sting running at the airport.  They don’t take their own currency, but helpfully have a cash machine which dispenses Rupees (which charges commission), and then a currency exchange desk right next to it which charges to exchange those rupees back into Dollars or Euros etc, also for a healthy commission as well.  Nice way of picking up some extra cash from the incoming tourists eh.  No you’re right, it’s not, and it’s a nasty scam.  Not taking your own currency, whose every heard of that?  I had read that US Dollars were still the king of currency over there, and had enough to pay my way through without falling victim to scam number 1.
I fell victim to scam number 2 though.  Outside the airport was a barrage of locals asking if you wanted a taxi?  I had arranged to be picked up by a rep from a hostel I would be staying at, so found a guy who was holding my name on a card.  I indicated I was the person and he welcomed me and said the taxi was nearby.  A guy who I assumed was the taxi driver immediately took my suitcase and we started walking over to the car, but another guy was walking over too, and he was the driver.  So, we walked about 100M to the car, and the guy with my case put it in the boot and held out his hand you “for tips”.  I was pretty pissed off, but effectively back into a corner.  Essentially there are a bunch of parasites who mill around the exit pretending to be taxi drivers, but all they do is snatch away your bags and want tips.  Of course you probably have no low value notes as you’ve just arrived.  I had nothing smaller than a $5 note, the parasite was cheeky enough to ask for a $20.  I gave him the $5 begrudgingly.  So, watch out for that scam.  Nepal is full of this kind of thing, and awash with fake goods.  The observed the airport police happily accepting bribes to bump people up the queue in departures etc.  The country has some way to go, but all this is a result of the abject poverty which is evident everywhere. 

Arriving in Kathmandu from a western country is a culture shock.  It’s how you know (or have seen on Tv) many cities of India to be, overcrowded with motorbikes, mopeds, tuc-tucs, cars, buses, lorries and non-stop honking horns.  Horns are widely used everywhere in the East of course, about 10 times a minute per car (literally), and are necessary to avoid an even higher road death rate than the current horror figures.  Most of the city is essentially a slum.  There is waste and rubbish lying in the streets and rivers, open defecation by residents, everywhere is dirty, disgusting and of course horrible pollution hangs in the air all the time.  A lot of people wear pollution masks, including the police directing traffic all day.  I have no idea how effective they are, but I can tell you, your throat and lungs hurt after a few hours walking around the city.  I’d like to tell you that there was something nice about Kathmandu, but there isn’t.  If you’re thinking of going, my advice is Kathmandon’t.  Fly in and get straight out.  I spent 3 days in total there, either side of the race and I saw nothing worthy of a visit.  All the big “cities” are essentially the same too.  You need to stay out of them and go to what Nepal is famous for, the mountains, to finally draw a (clean) breath, stare in awe and understand why you’re there.

Sadly, I wasn’t there yet.  It took about 30 minutes frightening driving through the streets of Kathmandu, to travel just a few miles to the hostel.  There are no road rules and every car is banged up and repaired.  I had been recommended to stay in a hostel by a past visitor who had it was off the main streets and a bit quieter.  Unusual for me to stay in a hostel and not a hotel, and it was a decision I regretted upon seeing the accommodation.  I’d been told to book a place called the Elbrus Home, and not to be put in it’s “sister hostel” if it was full.  I’d been insistent on this in my email, but yet was told it was full and got dumped in this 3rd floor dump which would have been shut down by environmental health in every civilized country in the world.  The room was just too bad to describe.  The toilet had rusty taps and the toilet was leaking from the bottom all over the floor.  I’m not sure when the bed sheets on the nasty bed were last cleaned, but it wasn’t recently.  Sadly, I had no time to arrange an alternative and I was leaving at 7am the next morning, so I figured I’d just put up with it.  I slept in my sleeping bag liner that night, badly, due to the car horns and singing from nearby bars until about 1am.  I’d had a quick wander around the streets first, sufficient to see why the place was called North Fake central.  Every other shop sells fake clothes, mostly North Face.  Some of it isn’t bad quality, but some of it’s pretty bad.  I’ve heard stories of clothes found filled with newspaper rather than down, though I find that a little hard to believe!  Nevertheless the whole city is awash with trinket stalls, selling singing bowls, Gurkhar weapons, gemstones and fake outdoor clothes.  There are literally 2 or 3 shops selling the real clothes, and they are fixed price, unlike the small shops where you can barter then down to under 50% of their asking price.  I bought a few real  and a few fake items on the way home, so honed my haggling skills.

I ate in an Italian restaurant (I ate Nepalese at every other opportunity in the subsequent time there though).  The restaurant was actually really nice, a complete surprise and totally out of place in the city.  It’s a calm oasis, a shelter from the chaos outside the walls.  It’s called Fire and Ice, if you ever visit.  Shortly after I went to bed, and as mentioned slept badly, in my sleeping bag liner, in a room that looked like it belonged to the Mother Superior out of Train Spotting.

I got up at about 6am and went down to “breakfast”.  Breakfast was, it appeared, a piece of toast cooked on a small portable stove.  The bread tasted of meths, which was probably what fuelled the stove.  I ate it out of politeness and declined the kind offer of a second piece.  I paid the bill, which was a princely $12, which was about $11 more than it was worth.  They asked me if I needed a room on the way back home?  I said I didn’t.  Actually I did, but there wasn’t a cat in hell’s chance I’d be staying there again.  I made a mental note to find a better place to stay.  I took some advice from other competitors when the time came and I stayed in the Malla hotel on the way back.  It cost me about £80 but I got a two room suite, breakfast and it was a decent 4 star standard I’d say.  Really nice place, highly recommended if you have to spend a night in Kathmandu anytime.  

Anyway, I finished off the meths flavoured toast, paid the bill and one of the guys who worked at the place (he was a nice guy actually) took me over to the bus station a few hundred metres away.  The bus station was just a rough ground courtyard with a bunch of coaches that had seen better days.  I had paid $20 the most expensive “Greenline” coach with air conditioning, and a lunch stop included.  The air conditioning turned out to be a bunch of 6 inch fans in various states of disrepair, bolted to the chassis above the seats. Turns out there isn’t actually any air conditioning on any of the coaches, just fans.  The temperature wasn’t that warm, as the fog and cool weather was very much in control.  It took an hour for the bus to reach the outskirts of Kathmandu, crawling through the chaotic traffic.  Then there was a holdup as part of the road had collapsed into the valley 400M below, so all traffic was taking it in turns to drive on one side of the road around the “pothole”.  I leaned over in a vain effort to keep the bus on the road and out of the pothole.  I winced a few times as lorries came hurtling towards us, overtaking other traffic.  After a few of those, I stopped looking at the road ahead, was thankful to be seated at the back, and just trusted my life to an alarmingly young looking bus driver.

The bus made a few stops along the way for toilet breaks and one for lunch at quite a nice Riverside hotel, where I got my first sample of Nepalese food.  Dhal Bhat seems to be the local favourite.  A platter of rice, dhal, spinach, curried vegetables and a few other items too.  I quite got the taste for it during the course of my stay there.  After the lunch stop it was another 3 hours to Pokhara, the last 2 hours were really very bumpy, a nasty piece of road than shook you to the bone.  Everywhere was till shrouded in a light fog, with visibility restricted to about ½ a mile.  Then we came upon a sign which said “Welcome to beautiful Pokhara”, as we entered the city.  The site that greeted me wasn’t one a beauty.  It looked just like Kathmandu, houses with rubbish all around them, essentially slums everywhere.  It wasn’t until several days later that I discovered why Pokhara was beautiful.  When the fog eventually lifted there is a stunning view of the whole Annapurna mountain range in the distance ‘behind’ Pokhara.  Pokhara isn’t beautiful at all, but it’s backdrop is stunning.
Once again a guy had my name on a card at the bus station.  I carried my own luggage this time,  to his tiny cab.  Every taxi is a 800cc Suzuki Martino; a tiny car.  Not one of them could get my suitcase in the boot.  It always ended up on the back seat.  The cab took me to an area called Lakeside, the reason for which I’ll let you figure out for yourself!  He dropped me at the Sacred Valley Inn, another hostel.  However, unlike the recommendation I’d been given for the dump I stayed in whilst in Kathmandu, I’d done my own homework on Pokhara on TripAdvisor and picked the no 1 place to stay.  It was very cheap, about $15 a night, lovely and clean rooms, really nice helpful owners and very secure.  I had a few nice Nepalese meals and some great Cheesecake there; loading up on calories before the race.

I had one night in the hostel which was situated right on the main tourist shopping street.  The shops were the same as Kathmandu; selling fake outdoor clothes and trinkets mostly.  I discovered while unpacking some things that both my GPS watch and my camera had both mysteriously stopped working during the travel.  The hostel owner sent me with a taxi driver into the main town but both items were checked and not worth fixing, or unable to repair.  Back in the UK I had the same confirmed.  Very odd.  So, I then ended up spending £80 on another compact camera, after all may only ever visit Nepal just once, so a camera was essential.  You can see why there have been no photos up until now can’t you?  Don’t worry there are plenty to come in the main race report.  Next I ended up buying a cheap digital watch for about £3.  It had a stopwatch and that was it.  I would not be using my GPS on the event it seemed.  Ah well, that would save me 50g carrying spare batteries at least; every cloud eh?  I bought a few other bits of pieces of shopping; souvenirs mostly, wasting a few hours wandering around the town before going back to the hostel to sleep.  It got dark soon after 5:30pm in the evenings, so I was in bed not long after that to try into the right sleep pattern for the race.  I woke about 7am (it gets light about 6am), had some breakfast and then got a taxi to the main race hotel, the Fulbari Resort and Spa.  The grounds are immaculate, as you can see below with the first picture from the new camera.  

From a distance the place has the look of a 5 star hotel, but up close you realise something went wrong along the way.  I think maybe they ran out of money? Rooms are unfinished; plug sockets didn’t work, wires were hanging off the plugs/wall (in all the rooms I saw!).  Both rooms they put me in were not made up from the previous guest (unmade beds, no towels, and bathroom in a bit of a state!).  The front desk and staff customer service left a lot to be desired too.  All the competitors made the same observations, but no one was particularly bothered as we were not spending much time there.  The hotel had its charm and with some more money spent on the place, it might reach a 4 star standard.  However, as an aside, we had absolutely no grounds for complaint; compared to the conditions that 99% of the population live in, the hotel was a palace.
No sooner had I checked in then I got a lift back into town with Eric La Haie and some of the other Racing The Planet staff.  James Love a friend from the MDS 2008 and Atacama Crossing 2010 had texted me from Lakeside to say he was eating and shopping.  So, I luckily dropped on a lift into town, which was about 15 minutes drive away due to the state of the roads.  It was good to meet up with James, and we had something to eat, and did a little bit of haggling for some shopping for him before returning to the hotel for the pre-race welcome.  

Around 215 competitors from all over the World crowded into the main dining room and were addressed by Mary Gadams (RTP CEO), Samantha (Race Director), and also the medical staff too.  The race briefing was excellent; very thorough, and we were warned that anyone who was pulled out of the race would not be allowed to start any subsequent stages in a non-competitive capacity because of the low standard of Nepal hospital medical care, and medivac extraction difficulties.  They quoted up to 10 hours to extract someone with Sherpa’s from some parts of the course, and even longer to fly out of the country to somewhere that had a decent standard of medical care.  That was fairly sobering!  The weather had been very poor, quite cold and it had been raining, but was due to pick up.  In fact the next day it did, and it was stunning blue skies and perfect visibility, not to mention quite hot for the rest of the week.  There was a very high quality field of competitors; lots of previous Racing The Planet veterans, many 4-desert completists, and previous champions too.  The event had attracted Ryan Sandes, South Africa’s superstar trail runner; he had to be hot favourite I thought.  I’d been in the Atacama 2010 race with him when he’d torn the race to pieces and finished all 6 stages in a record breaking time under 24 hours.  Also there was Marshall Ulrich, the veteran American ultra running legend.  I was looking forward to meeting him, having recently read his Running on Empty book.  Marshall is now 60 years old, and was there in a 3 man team with two friends called the Stray Dogs.  It would transpire that in my hour of need Marshall would offer me some “beyond the call of duty” help, and I’d end up with the best ultra running souvenir ever.  More about that in the main post!

Race briefing over, we all had a buffet dinner in the hotel.  After that I spent the evening catching up with old friends and familiar faces from all four corners of the globe.  It’s amazing how many people you get to know from all over the World, when you do these events.  Me and James met up with Jack from South Africa again; Jack had also been in the same tent as me and James in the Atacama Crossing 2010.  Jack is an absolutely rock solid competitor, you always know he’s going to finish a race.  The three of us had requested to be in the same tent, but we didn’t know who the other four people allocated to Tent 23 were.  We’d meet them the following day.  We had a fairly early night to rest up.  I ended up with a room to myself after a competitor pulled out of the race the day before departing for Nepal.  The next morning, after breakfast, I packed my rucksack.  It would be slightly heavier than usual, on account of advice to take a sleeping bag liner, a waterproof jacket, and I had increased my calories to more than 18,000; way beyond the requirement to carry 14,000.  I wasn’t going to run out of food like I did in the Atacama Crossing 2010!  I was also carrying a few “Beet It” beetroot endurance shots, which I have been drinking for a few weeks.  Some research over the last two years shows some interesting performance gains, and the shots are being used by members of the UK Olympics squad, some premiership football teams and rugby teams too.  So my pack would weigh in officially at 7.5kilos, though it was a little lighter than that (about 7.3kg) but they were only roughly measuring them in half kilo splits.

The admin day was very efficient. We queued up, got our race passports stamped at the various tables when our medical history was checked, our packs weighed, kit and calories confirmed etc.  

The kit check was easy, and I had my spreadsheet showing all my calories as my food was vacuum sealed, as usual, into daily bricks of food.  Instead of a race T-shirt we were given a really good quality Marmot light waterproof jacket.  In the end I opted to use my own as it was lighter, but I’m sure the race jacket will see some action back in the UK winter.   An American guy getting kit-checked at the same time as me had forgotten his 20 safety pins.  I popped back to my room and supplied a girl he was friends with my spares.  I’d brought a lot of spare kit  spread between my hand and hold luggage in case one of them had gotten lost in the travel to Nepal.  I didn’t realise it until later that day but I’d just met two of my tent-mates, Steve and Martina.  After the admin check we all loaded onto one of about 8 coaches for the hour long drive to camp 1.

We drove through Pokhara and towards the Annapurna mountain range, the skyline dominated by Machuparre, Fishtail mountain.  It’s 6993M and has a peak shaped like a fish’s tail.  It’s sacred to the God Shiva and has never been summitted.  A British team got within 50M of the summit in the 1950’s I think, but had agreed not to stand on the summit out of respect to local custom.  After that no permits have ever been issued to climb it anyway.  The bus then drove onto a very bumpy and vertiginous mountain track with a sheer 300M drop to death just a couple of feet away from the right hand side wheels.  I was actually quite scared as the bus slowly bounced and rocked its way at walking pace along the track.  I actually wanted to get off and walk, I hate heights.  I eyed the door nervously, wondering how in how much of a split second I could leap over the seats and dive through the door in the event that the bus toppled over the edge.  A few people took photos, I’ll have to get one from someone I know and post it.  I was far too worried about dying than taking photos at that point in time! After a torturous couple of miles, the buses descended to the valley floor, much to my relief and we exited onto some agricultural land where camp 1 was waiting for us.

Lots of local people greeted us with garlands of flowers and marked our heads with the Hindu spot (The Tilaka I think it’s called).  See the photo of me below.

There were lots of local school children, and some musicians. 
  It was a really nice greeting and made that first night a little bit more special.  Of course then standing and looking up and 6 and 7000M peaks for the first time in my life was breathtaking.  
Eventually, I made my way over to Tent 23 and met the other tent mates.  There was me, James and Jack  of course, then Martina from San Francisco, but originally from Germany, Steve – a friend of Martina’s boyfriend, also from San Francisco, Roger from New Zealand and xxx from Australia.  We all commented that the tent looked a little small for 7 people, let alone the 8 people they were designed for.  They were not the usual high quality canvass tents that RTP use, that can comfortably sleep 10.  They were narrow, single-skin waterproof tents with one opening and only enough room to lie right next to each other with just about enough room to store your rucksack by your head or feet.  The space wasn’t the worst surprise the tents had in store for us, we’d get that in the middle of the night onwards!  It rained!  It didn’t rain outside the tent, it rained inside.  7 people all exhaling in a single skin waterproof tent means, roughly 7 litres of water condensing on the tent ceiling, and then dripping and then raining on us all, all night.  Ewwwwwww!  Sadly we had to put up with that all week too.  The body sweat/breath rain on everyone else in the tent could well have helped spread the plague that swept through the camp during the week; a bacterial infection that had more than 25% of the competitors in the medical tent, after vomiting and with diarrhea.  We would have to be really on top of our hygiene and alcohol gel use, and even then it was in the lap of the God’s as to if we got sick.  We spent the evening getting to know each other before settling down to sleep.  Despite the rain, I got a reasonable night’s sleep.  Just before I dropped off I wondered how the race would play out.  I was nervous of course, but looking forward to the sights and terrain.  We’d seen the roadbook and knew we’d be covering over 9000M of ascent on the course.  We also knew that there was a final 5:30pm cut off (as well as earlier cutoff’s at earlier CPs) each day.  That coincided with sunset, so clearly RTP didn’t want people on the course after dark.  Could the terrain really be that challenging?  The short answer was yes, though I was blissfully unaware of that as I drifted off to sleep.

Have a good week, I’ll get the main race report up soon!

1 comment:

  1. Sounds as though it was an epic adventure in itself just getting to the start of the race! I had no idea that the aviation record in Nepal was so bad... scary!
    Great write up- looking foward to more!!