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Trans Am Bike Race

Images to come soon!

While on parental leave in Golden, BC, I started chatting with my friend’s friend Anton Lindberg about bikes. Anton had a frame designer friend, Freddie Sandström, who had agreed to help him with a custom titanium bike packing frame, and I felt that I wanted one too, and that perhaps the Trans Am was the right excuse to get one. After very many iterations, the design was finalized, and eventually the frame arrived.

Here it is, the ride waiting in the motel room, with only hours left before the start.

Last summer, I rode down to Slovenia together with friends Martin and Tomas – with Tomas’ brother Martin providing the luxury of a follow vehicle, and then started talking loosely with Martin about the Trans Am. Not very long thereafter, we were signed up.

The Trans Am Bike Race (TABR) is an annual self-supported race along the Trans Am Bike Route, which starts in Astoria, OR and ends in Yorktown, VA. Some more info about it is featured on Wikipedia. There is also a full-length documentary called Inspired to ride (which unfortunately does not resonate much at all with my personal experience). It traverses ten states, three mountain ranges and a variety of landscapes over the course of 6 730 km (4 200 mi). All racers carry all they need themselves. It is allowed to sleep at hotels and shop along the way, but no individual support is allowed, and there are no check points or aid stations.

In the 6 months leading up to the race, I focused on doing longer rides, and to sort out gear (complete list with some comments is available here). Martin and I were signed up in the pairs category, and in order to ride together, we set out for a ride from Lund to Stockholm. We only made it half way, before being stopped by ice and snow. The consecutive try, now from Stockholm to Lund, went much smoother.

After a lot of preparation and riding, we finally arrived in Seattle and rented a pick up, which we drove down to Astoria, where we spent three slow days leading up to the start. I had a slight cold, and did not feel much like racing, but there we were. I went to the bike shop to have my tubeless setup done, but they messed it up, so I went with tubes in the end.

Our ride of choice to get ourselves and all gear from Seattle to the start in Astoria.

Martin and Peter Jackson (from Alaska) at the briefing and bike inspection meeting, the day before the start of the race.

After a briefing the night before, the start went off at 5 am on Sun June 2 and 70-some racers set out. The field spread out fast and we tried to pace ourselves and not be carried away. The Pacific Northwest provided good riding conditions and beautiful scenery. We rode the first 100 miles to Pacific City together Luke Rathgeber, who is a German guy our age, with a background in pro team racing. Later he unfortunately had to scratch due to Achilles’ tendon problems. The first day we made good mileage, and ended up at a very friendly B&B.

Are we there yet? Rolling out of Astoria at 5 am, on June 2, 2019.

Our strategy for the race was to do 200 miles (320 km) per day, and sleep 6 h every night. That is a lot more sleep than many allow themselves for these events. Being two, we felt that the biggest challenge was to be synced in terms of tiredness, mood and gear, and that being well rested would serve that purpose. It turned out that the strategy worked very well. We were very seldom too sleepy, and we stuck to averaging 200 mi per day.

Speaking of strategy, several people pointed out that being paired would be an advantage, as it allowed us to draft off each other. This is true, but was only useful the first two days, and on flat sections where we both had fresh legs – which was not very often. In fact, it often felt better to ride side-by-side or with some gap, as the small accelerations needed to keep drafting soon became too much for tired legs. The aero advantage was also limited by the slow speed, averaging just above 20 km/h. Other downsides of being paired were that there were two bikes and two bodies, which needed attention, often not at the same time. We were aware of this and tried to be really disciplined about making re-supply stops short and sparse. Perhaps this explains that the previously fastest paired riders had taken over 24 days, while the individual record was down to under 17 days. There was also a major advantage with being two. At least for me, 20+ long (typically 15+ h) days on the bike would become very boring without company. So while we both feel that we would have finished the race faster alone, I am very happy for the company that Martin, and later also Garth, provided.

On the second day we left the Pacific Northwest and moved into drier terrain. We were both amazed by how beautiful Oregon was, and felt good about the riding. There was a hostel along the way that served free food to us racers, and really boosted our morale to carry on. We heard that there was a church community center down the road that provided free lodging. However, we never found it and ended up sleeping out.

The Oregon interior was very varied and became our favorite section landscape-wise.

Riding along Hell’s Canyon in Oregon was another favorite of ours.

The next morning I had a sore throat, which just got worse. By the evening I had bleeding sores and the next day I had huge difficulties swallowing and lost the ability to talk. We got some stuff at a pharmacy, and rode on, communicating through sign language. The following night we spent at a B&B and for me it was the worst night of the trip, with very little sleep. Nevertheless, we got going early the consecutive morning.

Struggling on with a soar throat, that luckily got better after two hard days of riding.

Via a Swedish online forum, I got the advice from Gunnar (who is one of two Swedes who has previously completed the Trans Am Bike Race) to regularly rinse my nose to keep it humid. It worked quite well and over the course of two days I regained the ability to talk and eat normally. Besides my throat condition, our main focus was to get enough electrolytes and water, as the interior of Oregon got very hot. We soon ran out of electrolyte powder, and moved over to drinking Gatorade (the orange one is the one I find least disguesting).

On some stretches, it was necessary to carry lots of water to get by.

Idaho was then a bit more normal temperature-wise and after crossing Lolo pass in perfect conditions (overcast, light tail wind), we were accompanied by a strong tail wind and pushed over the next pass and onward to Jackson, Montana. The last 30 km in the dark we were riding on wet road with thunder to the right and behind, but never got rained on. In Jackson we stayed at the most friendly place. The manager was up with us until way past 1 am and helped us with laundry and made us food. The next morning was cold, but I felt well rested. This was the one of few days with headwind and later lots of rain too.

Getting closer to West Yellowstone, the rain turned to sleet, then to snow. We had heard that there was a fishing lodge  down the road. We tried to phone, but did not get in touch with them. Nevertheless, we pushed on, now all wet, in the dark and freezing temperatures. We hoped for the road surface not to turn into ice, and it never did. Arriving late, everything was closed, but I managed to locate the house of the owner and he got us a cabin. By this time Martin, who did not have rain pants, was turning hypothermic. Fortunately, there was a heater, and we managed to dry out our clothes.

Pedalling into the storm. Still, it was only a mild drizzle and we were happily unaware of the blizzard to come,

Drying out after the snow storm.

The next morning we woke to winter wonderland and with a light tail wind it was an easy ride to West Yellowstone, then on to Yellowstone. I got a flat on my rear tire, then we moved through the park but ended up at a road closure.

Riding through Yellowstone just days after sweating in the desert sun.

Here we sat down at a restaurant with new found friend Garth Elson from LA and timed it perfectly for the re-opening. Further down the road Martin and I saw two grizzlies, but rather far from the road, and with rangers present to direct the traffic. The same day, we rode through the Grand Tetons and by late afternoon ended up climbing a pass in heavy hail. The sun set and temperature dropped while we were still climbing. One of Martin’s jockey wheels froze but was easy to de-ice. My drive train started freezing up too and I was worried that the shifter cable would get stuck. With still one hour to the pass, we started to get ice building up on the tire side walls. We realized that a frozen over road would mean either walking down or sleeping in the snow. As we submitted the pass, we found ourselves on some ice patches, but fortunately, the road was dry further down on the other side and we made it safely to a motel before midnight.

Riding through Wyoming was not my favorite. The external conditions were OK, but I just did not enjoy this stretch very much. We caught up with “the Italians” Paolo and Max, who we ended up passing and being passed by almost every day. Late in the evening I got a second puncture, which was not a disaster, although it felt so at the time, as it meant losing some time and more night riding.

Wyoming. Next town up is Jeffrey city – an almost abandoned uranium mining town in the middle of nowhere.

We made sure to stay visible throughout the dark hours. Unfortunately it has happened more than ones that racers have been killed by cars in the dark.

On the day we entered Colorado, I was feeling strong and cycled chatting with Garth and Martin. Colorado was exactly as I had imagined it landscape-wise (none of the other states were). The day we passed the Hoosier pass, I did however feel weaker again, probably from heat and sun exposure. Fortunately the pass was followed by a very long down hill tail wind stretch.

Entering Colorado.

Hoosier pass, after a long slow climb for me. Then it was all down hill and tail wind.

Moving on to the desert plain, I got my third flat. We pinched 4 tubes and the rim tape applied by the shop in Astoria was all wrinkled up. This really made me loose my mood. We spent 90 min getting things sorted, and still ended up with a slowly leaking rear tire, as the sun set with 50 km to go to lodging. It was broken down into 5 km sprints, with tire pumping in-between. To make the endeavour even more interesting, there were plenty of rattle snakes on the road shoulder, absorbing the road heat just after sunset. I was done once we arrived and got a room.

The high altitude desert us a cold place in the early morning hours.,

Colorado, just as I imagined it.

Fortunately I spotted a bike shop the previous evening, just 2 blocks from the motel. They opened 9 am, but I went just before 8 to try my luck. To my surprise a mech showed up and let me in the back door. She was the most professional mech I have met to date. Within 10 min I had a complete tubeless setup which last for the remainder of the trip. I cannot recommend Great Duvide Ski Bike & Hike highly enough, and we sent them (and some others) post cards as one of the first things after finishing the adventure. We were rolling again just after 9 am and although the landscape was not exciting, I was so happy to be riding again.

Getting the tubeless setup sorted in Pueblo.

Then came the most surreal portion of the trip. Open fields and wide open horizons with a small white speck straight ahead, which we saw for well over an hour. It turned out to be a silo. The silo thing was then repeated several times as we moved on into Kansas.

Welcome to the flats.

Approaching one of the silos.

Exciting riding in Kansas.

In Kansas we planned to stay one night in Scott City, but everything was booked out both there and in the city before. This made for a long day, but without too much wind it was easy going and the night riding was a nice change away from the monotonicity of daytime Kansas. The next days a strong S wind picked up, which mostly meant side wind, and the occasional head wind hell, during sections of up to 20 mi going S. Again we had Garth’s company for a bit, as moving though the utterly flat and featureless landscape. East Kansas got a little better with wetlands and trees blocking the wind.

We got pulled over by the sheriff in Kansas. He was very friendly and wanted to make sure that we stayed safe. He was not aware that there had been two fatal accidents during previous editions of the race, but said he would make sure to keep an eye out for unsafe drivers.

Finally, some trees showed up along the road side, close to the Kansas-Missouri border.

Entering Missouri, we were soon greeted by rollers, which soon turned into ridiculous rollers. While the 11-36 cassette with 38t 1x front was good for most of the trip, it definitively was a bit on the tough side for the Ozarks. Pushing on I tore some fibers in my left quad, which made for painful riding the next two days. The night riding was OK, but the steep never-ending rollers made for hard riding (the hardest?) during the hot hours of day. We muscled on through, with one day exceeding 5 000 m of climbing (without even any single long climb) and eventually reached Illinois.

Roller hell.

Good morning, time to get drenched in the Ozarks.

Before entering Illinois, we met up with Garth again, went past the Italians, and also passed Michal from Poland. Michal had been up with the lead but now appeared to suffer from something, and indeed permanently slowed down to finish far after us. In Illinois we had to take a southern detour through Cape Girardeau. We decided together with Garth to push trough to there and were hit by some fierce but warm thunder storm rains in the dark along the way. The next day we crossed a river and then literally cycled in the flooded Mississippi for a bit, before moving into a mellow roller landscape, that took us to the ferry crossing at Cave in Rock. The ferry took us across to Kentucky. Later, the ferry broke down, rendering some riders a 47 mi detour, before it got fixed again.

The Missisipi river basin was flooded, and there was  barely enough road to get us through (with some riding in 30 cm of water).

Kentucky was more rollers, but mellower. It felt like a rain forest with fire flies, turtles, tortoises, and an abundance of road kill. After a while we entered the Appalachians, marked by longer and steeper climbs. Outside the city of Hazard we stopped for an early hotel might, as we were already drenched and thunder storms were forecast for the night. The next morning, starting 4 am, made for a wet day with lots of small climbs, and then some larger.

One of very many road kills, decorating the road side along the route.

Magic light after a torrential downpour in the Appalachians.

Amazon rain forest? Kentucky!

Martin’s foot after a day of Kentucky rain.

Virginia was the last state between us and peace of mind. The landscape became noticeably less rolling and we were accompanied by a welcome tail wind through the last two days. The second last day ended with a long steep climb up Vesuvius (not the Italian version). Martin was sleepy and we stopped for a 2 h bivy, rather than risking a mishap during the long descent in the dark. The night was cold and windy, but it was no problem to fall asleep. The next morning, both Martin’s and my bivy liners reeked of ammonia. Wiht inadequate protein intake, our bodies were consuming our muscles, which got truly noticable the weeks following the race.

Virgina had a European feel to it – deciduous forests and Victorian architecture.

After some more rolling landscape leading up to Charlottesville, the landscape flattened out and the riding got easy. The Italians and Garth were too far ahead to catch, and there was nobody near behind us, so we took an easy day and enjoyed the surroundings. As it got dark, we entered a very long and quite nice bike path. It turned into as rough surface parkway made out of blocks. We had been warned about it being as pain, and I had constructed a pessimistic mental picture, so the actual riding felt easy. With 20 km to go we grew impatient and floored it, moving at normal road bike speed for the last stretch. When we had 10 km left, I felt for the first time with confidence that we would make it. Martin’s rear tire was worn through the first layer of weave, and mine was getting there too. But 10 km you can do on the rim, or with one leg, or even crawling half-dead.

Ten minute power nap after only 2 h of sleep the during the last night of the race.

Finally we reached Yorktown and the Victory monument. Garth was waiting for us there. Our friend Anton had driven all the way down from Brooklyn and arranged a nearby hotel room. He had brought us food and beers. Garth had previouly had two beers, which rendered him near unconscious, and after having one I too could see how that happened.

Anton rode the TABR two years previously and met his wife Amy (another of the racers) along the route. They now live in NY, and had invited us to stay with us until our return flights. Anton picking us (including Garth) up was such a luxury! We cannot thank him and Amy enough for making the post-race days flow smoothly and be a memorable part of the journey. We were hanging out in Brooklyn, went to a concert in a park, ate and had a few more beers. It was pride  week and the 50th anneversary of Stonewall, so there were festivities everywhere.

Martin’s rear tire after 6800 km without a single puncture.


The above was a rather chronological account for the TABR. But what was it really like? Mostly (estimated by me to 70 % of the time) the riding was right-out enjoyable. Elements such as heat, cold, rain, snow and wind posed challenges, but it was never these objective challenges that made the riding hard. As far as wind concerned we were very lucky and only had monster head winds for less than 50 miles in Kansas. We did, however, have some intense climbs in the heat, and we got caught in blizzards as well as torrential rains.

The moving was slow. Before the trip I was a bit concerned by aero aspects, and tire roll, but moving at just above 20 km/h, these turned out to be secondary concerns. When speaking of gear, it also turned out that one set of clothes was enough (as they can be washed).

Bodily agonies were manageable throughout. Early on I got a bit of saddle sores, but managed them well with alcogel, chammy and antibiotic salve. There was only really one day, during which they were significantly bothersome. Sitting in the TT bars posed no discomfort whatsoever, but I got a partial paralysis of my right pinky finger (temporary ulnar nerve damage also known as cyclist’s palsy), which is getting better, but likely will take a few months to recover from completely. In Kansas I noticed a bit of knee irritation and moved the saddle up 4 mm. It helped. Unfortunately, I broke the collar bolt in the process, but very luckily found a replacement within 5 min, which made for a quick stop. (The post then slipped, but we managed to secure it by slight over-torquing). The worst discomfort by far were the bleeding wounds in my nose and throat. They responded to treatment consisting of rinsing, using HALLS tablets, and a buff, but never got perfect during the trip. My upper arms were most of the time sprayed with blood from blowing my nose. In the steep hills of the Ozarks, I tore some muscle fibres in my left quad. While painful, it worked OK to cycle on ibuprofen and paracetamol, and the pain was gone a few days later. We were on pain killers most of the time; ibuprofen 400 mg 3-4 times per day and paracetabol 500 mg 2-3 times per day. This is not recommended in conjecture with physical stress and we were careful to stay hydrated and watch for signs of kidney issue. Both of us developed saddle sores, but they never got out of hand. It was mainly the part of the bum/leg chafing at the edge of the saddle that got pimple-like irritations. We scrubbed with alcohol in the morning and evening and did the same with the ads of our bibs, which we also tried to wash as often as possible. During the day we used plenty of chamois creme in conjecture with antibacterial oinment and during the night we used the same oinment together with skin repair creme. During the first half of the race my lower arms got severely burnt in the sun from sitting in the TT bars, despite using sun screen. Next time, I would for sure bring thin white sun sleeves.

So back to the main challenge: motivation and mental state. Here it certainly helped to be two. It was often that one of us was a bit lower than the other, and we knew from prior experience that things always get better, even if sometimes all feelings would tell you otherwise. Martin bonked really hard on a climb in Wyoming, and for me the worst part was on a similar climb later on. I downed 7 snickers bars and 2 cliff bars within the course of an hour. It felt awful at the time, but soon enough energy returned and we could pedal well into the night.

While it was sometimes tough to pedal, I never actually felt like I would rather want to be somewhere else, or that I would like to quit the race. I also didn’t feel much like racing. In fact, racing is not my thing and it stresses me out, so I thought of the whole thing as a speedy bike packing trip. I had my phone mounted between the TT bars and with bone conducting head phones that leaves the ears open to hear traffic, it was possible to listen to music, pod casts, and to make video calls to family back home while pushing on.

We spent most nights in motels or hotels. We preferred motels, but many of them did not have night desks, so sometimes hotels it was. A shower, cloth was and good sleep is the perfect mental reset. Some days, the circumstances (weather and availability) rendered bivying the logical option. We spent three nights bivying. It worked out fine, but I always felt more rested after sleeping inside. Normally, I always sleep outside when touring, but then with a tent, proper mat and sleeping bag – not only a bivy bag and minimal mat. The main morale booster was of course to have Martin (and later sometimes also Garth!) to chat with.

Prior to the trip, several persons had asked me how it would be like cycling as a pair, and some had even discouraged it. Martin and I had previously cycled from Lund to Tehran together. During that trip, we decided to split up for some sections to get some time by ourselves. Now, I felt that we knew each other better and we had had several open dialogues about our objectives and how to handle inter-personal aspects. All in all, I think it worked out really well. We only had three arguments during the trip, and they never got out of hand. Each time, the issue was forgotten within an hour, and each time the issue was just a very minor lack of communication combined with us being tired or stressed. I think it also helped meeting up with Garth every now and then. Being American, he had interesting things to say about people and history, and provided new things to talk about (as we were running out of discussion points after a few days of riding).

Could I recommend the TABR? Yes, at least to anyone comfortable with long days in the saddle, who is not expecting things to always go as planned. And I think it is necessary to embrace some degree of suffering and recognize it as normal for the experience to turn out positive. Also, it is a too long race. Both Martin and I knew that. By the time we arrived in KY, we felt it would be OK to do something else for a while. Strangely enough, I was starting to fantasize about road cycling without luggage back home.

Would I do it again? Likely not the TABR (at least not in a while) but I would for sure be into doing the shorter (4 000 km or so) Transcontinental Cycle Race (TCR) in Europe, or the Silk Road Mountain Race in Kyrgyzstan. Actually, the latter I would more likely want to do out of race, to have some time to kick back in the tent, read kindle books and sip a bit of whisky with a mountain view.

Shortly I am off to a 2 week cargo bike tour through Europe with 1.5 year old Oskar and wife Ingrid. It will for sure be different, and an adventure nonetheless.


Update: when writing this, it has been two weeks since the finish. We spent almost one week in Brooklyn, taking it rather easy. Unexpectedly, I did not sleep more than on average 7 h per night during this week, and did not feel sleepy from that.

Chillng out in Brooklyn after a long ride.

After goodbyes and a direct flight from JFK, I landed in Copenhagen around lunch time. Three hours later I was on the cargo bike with Oskar, heading for a dip in the sea in perfect summer weather. The next day made for another cargo bike excursion, and the third day I went to run intervals on the track with my local group. During the session I noticed that my legs were dead. I could not run faster than 4 min/km, which also meant I could not get heart rate and breathing going. Since I had not been running for a while, I also felt that some muscles in my legs would need training before being able to run faster. The day after, I went out to cycle intervals with my club. Again, the legs were limiting. It felt OK to go steady by myself at 350 W, but any acceleration to close gaps felt impossible. Reading other people’s accounts, I expect it to take at least a few more weeks, before being able to do high intensity stuff.

 

After longer endeavours, it is not uncommon that I get a bit depressed, and feel generally bad. This never happened this time around, and it wad very simple to transition back into normal lite in society. After working for one week, I went on parental leave and have had no problems at all, except that I got a bad cold from my son. It really hit hard, and one night I slept for more than 18 h non-stop, which I guess is a sign of a worn body.

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Kyrgyz ski tour

While hiking with Harry in Narphu last year, as a warm-up for Richard’s Mustang trail race, we met a couple from Revelstoke, BC. Jules and Will were on a backpacking trip around the world, and shared interesting skiing memories with us. It turned out that we had several favorite locations in common. The previous winter they had ended up in Kyrgyzstan, living inside a Soviet UAZ Buhanka terrain van, and ski touring mountains in the Tian Shan range. It sounded like a fun adventure, and Will hooked me up with Alex Johnsson, who is an American, living in Bishkek with his Kyrgyz wife, making a living from organizing travels.

Johannes, Maurice and Joachim (two Germans and one Norwegian, who we knew through skiing in Canada) were not late to get on board, and we started to plan out a trip. Alex was very friendly and shared with us all the info we needed.

Eventually we all met up at an airport in Istanbul and flew down to Bishkek, where we united with Alex at the Blue Camel hostel, to have a look at the vans. Joachim and I got a dark green one, Maurice and Johannes a creme gray. Alex had fitted the vans with heaters, speakers and several USB outlets for charging. The green also had a roof rack. We figured out how the lo/hi gear system worked, and packet up and set off. Driving through Bishkek felt shaky, but we soon got a hang of tings. After stocking up on supplies, we left the plains and headed for the mountains west of Bishkek.

Me, waking up after a good night’s sleep.

The next morning we woke to a sunny day in a snow clad valley close to the Too-Ashuu ski area. We set out, but after digging a snow profile, realized that we could not do much touring there due to very unstable snow pack. Instead we kicked back outside a restaurant with some locals and read books in the sun, before driving on to another valley system containing the Otmok river. According to Alex there was a place called “Hotel California” at the entrance to the valley, but we never found it. On the way there, Johannes drove one van off the shoulder of the road and into deep snow. It dug itself down as we tried to get it out, and we snapped the towing cord, when trying to drag it out with the other van. After two hours of digging and putting twigs and branches under the sunken wheels, we were finally on the move again. The evening got really cold, and the next morning we set out in freezing conditions. The snow pack was more stable here, and we made a few laps in the sun, with Maurice flying a drone to get some shots.

Even the Buhanka can get stuck if you try hard enough.

Johannes investigating snow pack stability.

Finally we found some reasonable snow. Not sure what the blue cabin is for.

The snow was OK, but not amazing, so we packed up again and started driving east. We drove along the north shore of lake Issyk Kul, where temperatures were warm, and flowers had started to bloom. We stopped at small villages and had a relaxing hot spring visit in Chong-Oryuktyu, with peaks of the Tian Shan forming a pretty back drop.

Crystal clear Issyk Kul.

Dinner time with master chef Johannes.

Then we arrived in the city of Karakol. Joachim was down with some nasty airway infection, so we parked him at a very friendly home stay, where he was attended by a doctor twice per day. We then moved on east to Jyrgalan valley. This area had been recommended to us by Will and Jules, and it features a lot of great terrain. There had been a lot of natural avalanche activity, and we found weak layers on several aspects, but still were able to put in some relatively safe skiing.

Joachim got better and on a trip with him we suddenly saw some people in working clothes and helmets in the middle of the snow. It turned out that they were operating a miniature coal mine, and they invited us in to have a look. It was among the most unsafe work environments imaginable, but interesting to get a glimpse at. Following the coal mine visit, we made a lap on a local mountain side, then relocated again.

Joachim, mining for coal.

 

Leaving the coal mine.

As the snow conditions were not ideal in terms of safety, we spent a fair amount of time road tripping with our vans. We soon figured out that comfort increased when going fast over pot holes, wash board and rocky gravel (as the car would then fly over the uneaten ground, rather than go through all the holes). We had a gravel race up to one of the largest uranium mines of the Soviet Union, situated at Min-Kush. It was evident from the architecture that the small mountain town was once a rich place, featuring solid log houses in a region largely devoid of forest. The former glory was long gone, and it really felt like a place with no future. We drove through town up to the actual mining site to find that there was still a lot of excavator and truck activity going on.

The half-deserted uranium mining town of Min-Kush.

Along the way, we were invited for food.

At one point during the trip, the creme van started making a strange noise. We suspected a wheel bearing, but could not isolate the problem. In Karakol we had it diagnosed as pertaining to the transmission. There was no shop in town that could or would work on it, but we got the transmission removed and loaded in a Bishkek-bound taxi. While waiting, we spent time resort-skiing at the Karakol ski area, which had surprisingly fun spring slush. The transmission arrived already the next day, and was installed without complication.

This is where the creme van started to make a strange noise.

And here we are, doing some debugging.

The transmission is out, and will soon be driven to a workshop by taxi.

We returned a few times to Jyrgalan and also made side trips to an interesting canyon landscape, called Fairytale canyon, at the south shore of Issyk Kul.

Joachim in a desert canyon landscape.

Safe route choices were necessary in Jyrgalan.

Toward the end of the trip we drove up to the Chonashu pass. The drive was scenic in big mountain landscape. Close to the pass we were greeted by the workers who kept the road open and were invited into their base for bread and tea. Despite lack of language, they managed to communicate that the valley was out of bound for foreigners without a special permit, as it lay close to the sensitive border to China. This was a pitty, as we heard that there might be good skiing, and that there were hot springs at the Englichek army base. It would take us at least two weeks to secure permits in Bishkek, so this adventure will have to wait to another winter – or summer on bike.

The road maintenance crew invited us for bread and tea at Chonashu pass.

The second week of the trip, I started to sleep on the roof rack. Joachim was still not feeling 100 %, and wanted to run the heater in the van. It turned out that my arctic down sleeping bag was more appropriate for the outside. Amazingly it never felt cold, despite temperatures dropping as low as -20 C. Also, the stars were just amazing in the absence of light pollution.

Mural painting in Karakol.

After camping out like this for a while, we made it back to Karakol, in time for the Noruz, which is the Persian spring festival. We were hoping for the real deal with nomad horses, and got mildly disappointed. The highlight was for sure being invited to a large family get-together, where there was food in abundance (including all parts of an entire horse).

Resupply stop.

Maurice, blending into everyday life at the market.

We were invited to Noruz dinner in Karakol.

Street food was another highlight of the Noruz festival.

After an eventful two weeks on the road, we returned the vans and said goodbyes. It turns out that it is Alex, and the same vans, that service the Silk Road Mountain Race featured in the inspiring documentary Wild Horses, which is an annual bicycle race through Kyrgyzstan. There is reason to believe this is not the last time I see the Buhankas. And regardless of bike race, the country had so much nice terrain, that it would almost be a shame not to return to ski in better snow conditions.

No words are needed for this one.

Come to Kyrgyzstan!


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Sweden – Slovenia

This has been an experiment into packing lighter and doing longer days. The company could not be better: Martin (who I cycled to Iran with previously) has a crazy long list of rando adventures behind him, and Tomas is a good mix of 100 kg headwind locomotive and emergency mechanic. Then we had the other Martin, driving down to Slovenia at the same time, and being kind enough to meet up with us twice or three times every day – a real luxury.

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Martin and I outside our house. Same place as we started our Eurasia trip more than 4 years ago.

After picking Martin up at the airport, we set off from my house. We got 50 m, then I noticed that my casette was skipping. Back to the garage, new casette, and off again. The first day was a short 70 km ride to Ystad, where we met up with the other Martin and Tomas at the ferry after downing a pizza.

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I had a bad cold and the ferry ride did not help much. We made another casette swap to a brand new one in the hut, then off to sleep. In the morning I did not feel great, but a 240 km ride it was, nontheless. Luckily, the condition improved gradually during the day.

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Last minute wheel fix on the ferry.

The biking Martin’s girlfriends’ parents live in Germany, close to Frankfurt am Oder. We were invited for a barbeque and so diverted from the Polish headwind to find fantastic hospitality and lots of tasty food!

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Poland had several roads of interesting quality.

The next day we pushed on to Czechia, finishing off with a nice long climb, and realizing that the country we had entered provided more scenic riding, but also more hills. So the next day turned into a real roller coaster in scorching sun. I was moving slow, still not feeling 100 %, so after 220 km we called it a day at a fantastic countryside guest house that Martin (the one with the car) had found.

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Martin and I riding in the evening.

Then more hills, into Austria. And rain. Still fantastic riding, but slow. The last pass was undertaken in dense darkness and light rain. Tomas had no lights and so we rode closely together, finding our way down to the valley and the cold pizza awaiting us in the hotel room.

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End of Austria also meant end of rain.

It tured out that the previous day had only been a warm-up. Now awaited 7 passes, totalling 4600 m ascent over 210 km. It went smooth, but the weather was shifty: 30 C and sunshine in the valleys, 11 C and heavy rain on several of the passes. The latter felt little cold on the long descents. Nonetheless, the evening turned out to be a really nice one weather-wise. Then Tomas blew out the side wall on his rear carbon rim on a long gravel descent in heavy rain (the front rim had died just two days before). Being Tomas, he removed the tire and casually continued the descent (now on asphalt) riding 40 km/h as if nothing had happened. Luckily Martin met up with us, and provided a new wheel. The last pass – from Villach in Austria to Kransja Gora in Slovenia, was brutal. It had a long stretch of 18 % incline, and again it was pitch black by the time we got there. Tomas and I had to get off and push for a bit of the crazy steep, while Martin muscled on. Then it was an easy roll down past Kransja Gora to the house we had rented in Gozd Martuljek. It had been 5 days of fun in great company, averaging 250 km per day, and with lots of quality climbing. Although it had been an effort, it felt sad that the trip was over.

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Mustang trail race

Since many years back, I have had a fascinations with moving fast on foot through the Himalayas. During several visits, I got to know Richard, who is doing a tremendous job with promoting trail running in Nepal (check out trailrunningnepal.org). In recent years, he has been very successful with coaching and promoting Nepali runners, most notably Mira Rai, who is a Salomon sponsored athletes on the Sky Running World Series, was voted National Geographic Adventurer of the Year 2017, but foremost she a very nice person with a passion for running. Mira was joining the Mustang trail race, as training for an upcoming Sky Running race in Yading, China. We were also joined by Chhechee Sherpa, who was training for the trail running world champs in May in Spain (Richard has completed a successful crowd funding campaign to sponsor a Nepali national team!). Apart from the runners mentioned above, the race comprised a few more promising Nepali talents, a good mix of “western” runners, and none other than Lizzy Hawker (most UTMB wins in the history of the race), marking the trail with bright pink ribbons for us to follow.

Day 0, the warm up day, we walked from Jomsom to Kagbeni, being the entry point to Upper Mustang. Rather than following the river bed, we took a 900 m climb over a pass to the village of Phalyak, where we had noodles and tea. From there some took the direct route to Kagbeni and some of us claimed a second pass. Reaching the second pass, Lizzy suggested walking a ridge line, rather than taking the more obvious route down. She was joined by a small group of Nepali runners and me. It was a nice hike across, with the roaring afternoon wind of Mustang almost blowing us off our feet at some points. The view down towards Muktinath was stunning, so was the fast, running descent on steep sandy switchbacks, back to the river bed and the village of Kagbeni.

As always with Richard, organization was ad hoc stellar. We stayed at a fantastic place, ate incredible food, got to know each other, and readied ourselves for the first race day.

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The windiest ridge. Above Kagbeni, with a fantastically fun descent ahead.

Stage 1 arrived. We had breakfast, and visited the monastery in Kagbeni, while our permits were registered with the authorities. Then the race started. After some initial 10 km on jeep track, we headed up a dried creek, followed by an amazing descent in a canyon, running through villages with lush green fields, in the otherwise harsh desert landscape of Mustang. A final steep climb took us to Chele, the goal of the day.

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The race started, not surprisingly, uphill. Photo courtesy TRN.

While most of the uphills were walked, I felt good, and was carefully monitoring my heart rate, in order not to burn myself out.

Stage 2. This day was the biggest day of the race: 26 km (which does not sound a lot!), with 2000 m of climbing, and all run at altitude. A landslide had taken out the originally planned route, but Lizzy had found a good (but steeply climbing!) alternative for us. At 12 km, there was a check-in-check-out stop, for visiting the cave at Chungsi. Inside is an old statue of Guru Rimpoche (Sanskrit: Padma Sambhava), who spread Buddhism in the area some 2000 years ago. Then more climbing, and a fantastic descent to the finish in Ghemi. Right before the finish I found Alex, who – Nepali prodigies apart – was leading the race some 20 min ahead of me. He had sprained  his foot badly and was cooling it in a cold stream. Luckily our kind, knowledgeable and helpful doctor managed to patch him up into painful, but runnable shape. While Alex and I were fortunate to arrive around lunch, this was a brutal day for some of the runners, who had several more hours to go, exposed to the sun, and the increasing merciless afternoon winds.

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Resting, and watching life happening, slowly as it does. Photo courtesy TRN.

In Ghemi, we stayed at a most amazing place, owned by descendants of the king of Lo. We had a nice dinner, and headed early to bed after Richard’s daily briefing.

Stage 3. By 7:40 am, we were running. Fist on the flat, then up hill past a long main wall, and the red cliffs overlooking the village of Drakmar. At this point we took a sharp left and climes a steep pass (wiggling through a flock of horses) up to a 4000 m plateau. Here Anju, our photographer and film maker, had taken the drone out and shot some sequences of us sorry runners, crawling uphill across the plateau.

I felt strong, and had a fast start. Chhechee was flying ahead, but other than her, I was alone in the landscape. Then Mira came casually jogging by, chatting effortlessly.

There was a check-in-check-out stop at the momentary Ghar Gompa. Alex came in not long after me, and it was good to see that he was able to run, albeit painfully.

Then a 4300 m double pass, and a very long gradual descent to the walled city of Lo Manthang.

Runners then came in during the passing hours. One person was struggling with altitude, but made it all the way, accompanied by his partner, our doctor and crew. (Unfortunately, he developed acute altitude sickness during the night, despite our very gradual approach, but was air lifted to safety the following day – all managed in the smoothest way possible by the crew.)

The following day was a rest day. We visited the old and impressive monestsries of Jampa (the oldest, 700 years old) and Thubchen (600 years old), washed clothes, relaxed and I bought a mandala thanka, painted in the traditional way with natural pigments of the Newar palette on cotton canvas treated with glue made from yak skin. The artist is part of a group, guided by Italian restorer Luigi Fieni, restoring ancient monastery art in and around Lo.

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View over the walled city of Lo Manthang.

Stage 4. Waking up, I did not feel motivated. Maybe it was my stomach, maybe the rest day. The first part of the day was slight uphill along a river bed. Runnable, but I put in some walking. Then a steep uphill to the amazing landscape of Konchung Ling. It looks a bit like Bryce Canyon, except with a Himalayan backdrop, freshly dusted with overnight snow. After sitting around and absorbing the landscape (and letting the stomach settle), the trail went back down, around the corner to a hydration stop, then short climb up to a cave complex near the villages of Nyphu and Garphu. This is, as Richard put it, perhaps the first sky scraper – 5 stories carved into the mountainside, used as a hide out in old days, when enemy armies were on the advance. Then the trail marking ceased. The locals really like the pink ribbons, they are good for decorating horses, motor bikes, and children. I caught up with the leaders and we walked together until a ribbon was spotted in the distance. We were now running into the wind. Short stop, jacket on, small pass, and then all gentle downhill back towards Lo. The last 7 km were very runnable and great fun. Unfortunately my watch messed up the GPS track here (later discovered crack in heart rate sensor, perhaps related?). A final steep climb to the walled city and short dash later it was time for the daily routine of cold (by preference) shower, laundry, battery charging and noodle soup. Then kicking back, watching Anuj footage from his drone and enjoying being detached from the noise of the western world. Dinner, briefing, repeat.

Stage 5. This was the easy stage turned hard. After a night of poor sleep, it was hard getting up, and a whole lot easier enjoying the breakfast. We walked a kora around the city wall, as the locals so every evening and morning, then on the count of three by two local children, set off on a slow uphill slug that went on for 7-8 km. The descent on the other side was on the most amazing trail – soft sand in contorted canyon ravines, down to the village of Adhikary. From there, the route followed a river bed, and although it was only the slightest of uphills, I had a difficult time. The destination village of Yara is a timeless place. I spent two hours on a roof top watching nothing in particular, which here includes beautiful traditional clay houses, people working in the small fields below, and a stunning landscape of huge eroded sand fins, into which caves have been carved, probably more than 1000 years ago (the cave complex near Nyphu, which we visited yesterday, was hacked into the rock more than 2000 years ago).

Stage 6 was different in that it started with a common walk up to Luri Gompa, a cave monestary some 5 km and a few 100 m climb from where we spent the night. After a climb on some questionable wood construction, 700 year old paintings of Buddha could be admired, alongside a splendid view down valley. Then we ran. First all the way back we had walked, 2 glasses of water, then uphill to a plateau, followed by steep drop, river crossing and another water station. Ahead was a 700 m climb, but having slept well, it felt easy. Running down on the other side was lots of fun. The last bit to Tanggy, the trail found itself wedges between steep rock in a narrow canyon that served as a channel for the heavy head wind. Upon arriving, washing up and having some noodle soup, I went fossil hunting in the river bed. Some finds, nothing museum class. What was nicer than the fossils, was the view. Tanggy is a classic Tibetan village with white clay houses and chhortens in white and terra-cotta red. The backdrop looking back was fins of sand stone, carved out by the wind. Below the village are green terraced fields, and beyond them the river.

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Me, jogging along. Photo courtesy TRN.

Stage 7 was my favorite. It started with a sustained 800 m climb, which felt really good. Then, after a second little pass, the trail went along a winding and highly runnable ridgeline, with views of the Annapurna range ahead, the valleywe had run up in previous days to the right, and a Grand Canyon like landscape of odd shapes and colors to the left. By now the body had gotten use to the altitude, as well as an adjustment to running after a winter of skiing only. Rest heart rate had gone down to 40 from over 60 during the week (almost as low as at sea level for me), and the air felt quite all right to breathe. Running along the ridge at a slow pace was an effortless undertaking, sparing all energy to enjoy the magnificent views. Then came the massive downhill to Chucksang. The trail was a bit firmer than previous downhills, which made it a bit harder for me, but still not too bad. Rishi was just ahead during the entire descent, and I passed him just meters before the finish line. All in all, with the ridge top trail, the views, and feeling well throughout, today’s run is up there with the very best trail running experiences imaginable. The only possible down side was Chucksang, which was a bit too comfortable and modern. I really liked the villages of Yara and Tanggy, with their remoteness both in terms of land and virtual communication.

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This is what the small villages of Mustang look like. Likely to change, as roads are beging completed throughout the region.

Stage 8. Melancholic, or just a realization that there will be more later. The 1200 m climb past goats and beutiful landscape. The nights snow, starting at 3800 m, had already melted by the time I got there, and after the pass followed a long and perfectly runnable descent to the ugly concrete mish-mash village of Ranipauwa, built to cater Indian pilgrims (mostly flown in to Jomsom, then jeeped and horses to Mumtinath temple). The finish was at the iconic (?) Bob Marley Rasta restaurant and café, where we had post-race lunch before bussing back to Jomsom, except those brave who walked in the sand blasting head wind river bed.

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The last downhill.

Synopsis. The Mustang trail race is over. After almost not starting due to previous illness, it turned out a wonderful experience. The organization and team were fantastic, as were the runners. Mostly it was a fantastic landscape and cultural experience, but it was also a race. Having not run previously this year (but ski toured a lot), I was happy to

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It is a bit hard to capture vastness of landscape and the howling wind in picutres, but they are both there.

Finish 5/21, as second non-Nepali, beaten by Alex from Barça. And being beaten by Chhechee Sherpa (winner of the brutal 46 day Himal race 2017) and Mira Rai (team Salomon) was not exactly a disappointment. Anyway, it is the landscape and the checkpoints at caves with ancient Buddhist paintings that made the deepest impression on me. And the proximity to Dolpo, prompting for a return to the area to do some running on my own in a hopefully near future. The warmest thanks to Ram, Lizzy, Richard, the doctor, Neer, Anuj, and the rest of the team for making this trip a memorable and fun experience – highly recommended if you like the mountains, regardless of running fitness.

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Narphu

As a warm-up for Richard’s Mustang Trail Race, Harry and I headed out to the valley of Narphu. I met Harry back in Sweden, where he ses doing an internship befors finishing his engineering degree in Canada. He had since been living almost a year in Kathmandu, teaching at a school for Tibetan children from remote mountain villages.

Fried momos is a good start of any trip.

The trip started out a bit bad with a useless jeep driver, who didn’t want to fulfill his commitment, which eventually caused us one night’s delay. The first afternoon’s hike from Koto, to the village of Meta was then undertaken in varied but OK weather.

Trail-side shower.

From Meta, the hike to Phu was really nice, crossing two low passes and then following a river gorge, before eventually climbing a steep set of stairs to the plane on which the village resides.

The trail from Meta to Phu.

After following a river bed, there is a climb up to the valley of Nar village.

The 800 year old stone houses of Phu looked more like a part of the surroundings than anything else. Once an important stop for salt trade with Tibet, Phu has become a dying village. We saw very few people, and it appeared all the younger generation had abandoned for the valley cities.

The village of Phu.

During the night in Phu, I had difficulties breathing. They got worse, and by midnight I was seriously concerned, knowing a helicopter evacuation could realistically happen first by noon the next day. With arterial saturation having dropped to 59 %, I started taking diamond and dexametasone, and packed up. By 4 am, we got up and started the walk back the river. It was a really hard walk for me, even with Harry kindly carrying some of my things.

Narphu valley view.

During my 8 previous trips to the Himalayas, I have never experienced altitude issues, despite aggressive acclimatizations. This consequently came as a total surprise, with Phu at only 4200 m and previous nights at 1000, 2600, and 3900 m. (Later, I checked in with a Kiwi altitude doctor in Manang, who was rather certain that my issues were a combination of altitude and a chest infection. Indeed, the antibiotics treatment eventually brought me back to normal.)

After a good night’s sleep, we woke up to a thin layer of fresh snow, and made our way to the regional capital of Nar, sitting on a cliff. In my state, the climb felt awful, but doable. Weather had turned bad, and we were inside a cloud as we arrived. This was a bit worrisome for the next day’s crossing of 5300 m Kang la.

Walking down the main drag in Nar.

After food and some heavy negotiations, we hired a guy to carry some of our stuff to Kang la, since I was still in a rough state. We set out at 4:30 am, and reached the pass at 10 am, after being baked in the sun-reflecting snow. Very much like the jeep driver, the guy we had hired tried every opportunity to quit on us, but without luck.

Hiking toward Kang la.

Taking a break at Kang la.

From the pass followed a 1600 m descent to Ngwal, with most of the drop in snow-covered scree. Harry had developed an issue with his knee, so this took some time, but went fine. By the time we arrived, the wind was howling. After having met only 3 foreigners in Narphu, we were now back on the main tourist highway of the Annapurna circuit, with WiFi, jeep road, cafés, and everything else you don’t want to associate with the Himalayas.

Looking back at the time in Narphu, I must say it was a fascinating place, to which I wouldn’t mind to return. The illness and variable weather turned it into a challenge, but not to an extent where landscapes and villages could not be enjoyed.

The next day, we hiked the short distance to the city of Manang. It sits in a beautiful valley, overlooked by the Annapurna massif. I was last here in 2007 with my friends Maria and Ronnie. There has since been a road constructed, and a manifold in tourists. With the scenery still fascinating, the place had lost its magic to me.

Harry, back on the Annapurna highway.

Our original plan was to hike up to Tilicho lake, and cross the Mesokanto la, to Jomsom. We found out that nobody had done it yet this season, and that a group had been turned by waist deep snow the day before. Since the crossing normally requires a rent (or, as we had planned, a descent in the dark) and since we had one broken knee and one person still recovering, we decided for the much easier option of the 5400 m Thorung la.

In recent years, a lodge had been constructed at 4900 m, making for a short day up to the pass. Upon arriving at the lodge, it started to snow heavily, and I was pessimistic about crossing the next day. (A few years ago, while I was in the Khumbu, groups of unexperinced tourist had died from exposure in a snow storm on Thorung la). However, we woke to clear skies and only a few inches of fresh snow. Gore-Tex socks on, it was an easy hike to the pass. Actually, having started to recover, this was by far the easiest day for me.

The landscape close to Thorung la.

Upon the long descent to Muktinath, we took a jeep to Jomsom, where we relaxed at Himalayan Java, and I started sorting our practicalities for my upcoming trip to Upper Mustang with Richard. Apparently my passport was needed in Kathmandu for issuing the USD 500 entry permit to the restricted area, once the kingdom of Lo. Fortunately, I was able to courier it with Harry on bus just in time.

The next two days, I spent in Jomsom, almost fully recovering from illness, working, drinking coffee, and planning out a visit to the school in Kathmandu where Harry was teaching.

Then arrived the plane with Richard, his crew, the other runners, and the gear I had left behind in Kathmandu.


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Golden, BC

This winter has been the third in a succession of ski bum season, the second of which in Golden, BC.

So why Golden? Well, I must confess I had my eyes on going back to Gulmarg in Kashmir for an extended period of time. Recent political unsettlement and the relative immobility that comes with traveling with a toddler made us decide against. Side note: Yesterday (April 12) I met a fun couple from Revelstoke in the Nepali Himalayas (coincidence!), who had planned to spend the winter in Gulmarg, but left early due to a combination of marginal snow conditions and non-consolidated hoar layers causing deep and wide slides, killing at least two persons during their stay. So, lucky we didn’t go there this year. (They also told me that Billa, who runs the heli ski operation in Gulmarg, has moved to Golden, which is even more coincidential.)

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Oskar trying out my helmet.

Having chosen not to go to Gulmarg still left a lot of options. We were keen on Canada, being a cheaper food and accommodation wise than most of Europe, didn’t feel an urge to go to the US, and knew that Japan would be a bit more expensive, particularity as we wanted a place of our own to stay. Consequently we went for a Rockies road trip last year to try out a few places, new to us. We really liked Red Mountain and Whitewater close to Nelson. However, the former had so slow lifts that doing baby sitting laps would be a bit of a drag, while the daily drive between Nelson and Whitewater put us off. Revy was also on the table, but being busier, more touristique and also more expensive made us finally decide for East Revy (Golden).

A good thing to know if you are traveling with a toddler, is that they have stopped allowing them onto the gondi in harnesses, so all options left are touring, or leaving with someone.

A fascinating thing, was that nothing much had changed in Golden. The expected boom (indicated by construction of new condos near the hill) never took place. It was still as sleepy as always, with the nice exception   of the newly opened Whitetooth brewery, and the fact that Kicking Horse mtn was the only North American stop on the Freeride World Tour this year.

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Lunch at our favorite Japanese restaurant in Golden, togethre with Rachel, who came visiting from Vancouver.

After settling in, we quickly found a nice routine. There was a really friendly crowd of ski bums and we made several new friends. The skiing was also really good. It did not beat the 2011 el niña year (which was exceptional!), but we had lots of good skiing both at the hill, in the slack country, and occasionally at Roger’s pass. I also took a four day field course in avalanche safety at the pass, which turned out to be really good.

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Johannes on top of Rudy’s ridge – the slack country classic next to Kicking Hourse.

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…Followed by an after ski beer with Oskar.

Half-way through our stay, my mom came visiting for two weeks. She and Oskar would hang out at Double Black café (where we were by now part of the furniture), while we went skiing. Then we took our awesome ’93 Lincoln town car for a ride to Vancouver, where we stayed at a friends place, went to Deep Cove, Point Grey, Sea Wall, and a nice run/hike at Seymour from Lynn Valley. The weather could not have been better: 18 C, sun, and no wind!

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Summer weather with mom and Oskar at Deep Cove.

Driving back, we took the Sea to Sky Hwy detour over Whistler. The road between Whistler and Kamloops turned out to be one of the nicest drives I’ve done in a long time. We were moving on a small empty road through a hilly dry landscape, with the occasional village here and there.

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Our thirsty Lincoln ’93 Town Car at the gas station.

After leaving mom in Calgary, we had another ten days of skiing. One day I joined to friends to go touring at Icefields, where he had seen a really promising couloir from the highway. The other days we took turns as usual, with many short tours up to the ridges next to the ski area.

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Ingrid on her way up one of our favorite runs at Roger’s pass.

The season went by very fast. Oskar was the one of us making most new friends with skiers from all over the world. It was also fun to see that he liked being outdoors a lot, and enjoyed being in environments with much going on around him. Hopefully he too will enjoy skiing in a year or two.

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Indian Himalayas Part 4 – Nubra Valley

After waking up at 4 am and having a snickers for breakfast, I started pedaling uphill north of Leh. Six hours later, I was on top of Khardung la, which was at the time being the highest motirable pass in the world. The climb itself was long, but rather uninteresting. There was a Hindu temple at the top with a loud speaker emitting a horrible non-stop noise, so I was quick to start the descent to Khardung, where I pitched the tent in a garden of a family who invited me for dinner.
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Looking back at Leh from the climb toward Khardung la.

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This is supposedly the highest motorable pass in the world.

Next morgning, the downhill continued through the so far most impressive landscape of the trip. Reaching the Nubra valley floor, I continued to the region capital of Diskit, then on to Hunder. The presence of
sand dunes and Bactrian camels makes Hunder feel very much more like Central Asia than India. It is fascinating to imagine the days of the Great Game, when caravans of these camels would transport goods (and explorers/spies) across the tibetan passes.
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The Nubra river, before it splits into the Shyok (left of mountain in center) and NUbra (right of same mountain).

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Bactrian camels, reminding about old times when the Nubra valley was a principial trade route to Tibet.

The road passed the huge Thoise air force base, past which civilians have only been allowed in recent years. Another couple of hours later, I rolled into the Balti village of Turtuk. It used to be Pakistani until the Indians claimed it by military force in 1967. The population speaks Balti and Urdu, and it feels more like Afghanistan than India. After leaving suspect electronics in Turtuk, I cycled on to see how far it was possible to get. While Turtuk is the last place the army allows tourists to visit, I was not turned around before arriving at the actual line of control. From there, one could see the characteristic immense granite faces of the Karakoram range, a region I hope to return to  with the bike some day.
The last days in Leh, I bumped into five German/US/Canadian motor bikers, who were traveling for some extended time. They were all going rafting the next day, and Tim generously lended me his bike – an Enfield classic 350 – in the meanwhile. With it, I went for a half day trip to the Hemis and Tiksey minestsries. Particularly the latter was an amazing place, truly from another age.
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The Enfield I borrowed and took on a one day monastery tour around Leh.

The last evening, I accidentally met two British cyclists (the only cyclists in addition to two Belgians, one Swede I met earlier). We had dinner at a roof top overlooking the palace in Leh, and exchanged trip ideas. They warmly recommended Morocco’a Atlas Mountains, which they claimed to be very scenic, while being conveniently close to Europe and cheap.
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The view from Il Forno, a roof top wood ove pizza place kn down town Leh.

In retrospect, cycling from Shimla to Leh, and on to Nubra, has been an interesting geographic and cultural experience – moving from the Victorian era style architecture in Shimla, on to the green lush hills of Hindi Himachal, to the Tibetan cultures in Spiti, continuing via the Changtang Morei plains with its Changpa nomad inhibitants to Leh, and finally onto the Balti villages of the Nubra valley system, at the foot of the Pakistani Karakoram range. Few such short trips manage to encompass as wide diversity in nature, culture and world religion (Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism and finally Islam).
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Looking back up the Shyok valley, from the spot where it narrows off before reaching the Pakistani border.

 

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Indian Himalayas Part 3 – Manali-Leh Hwy

After crossing Kunzum la, we took the detour to Chandra lake. It was a scenic place, and it was also where Filip’s rear tire side wall tore. We managed to source needle and thread from locals, and Filip made a good job of sewing the tire together, after which we moved it to the front wheel.
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Mechanical intermisson on top of Kunzum la.

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Chandra lake

After Chandra the road turned really bad with sand, rocks and a multitude of river crossings. Also, there was a strong head wind. Next morning I had a sore throat and took it easy while Filip cycled ahead on a detour to Manali to source parts for his breaking bike.
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Traffic jam caused by the bad road.

We met up again the next evening at the hotel Ibex. There was a nasty rain storm that evening and I figured Filip had stopped in Keylong, but he showed up soaked just at nightfall.
The next day was dedicated to crossing the scenic Baralacha la, marking the entry to the old kingdom of Ladakh. I cycled ahead and was met by a hail storm at the pass, so I sent  a message to Filip over sat, saying we’d meet further down the road.
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The river bed widened on the other side of the Baralacha la.

Another two passes later, we were on the Morei plains, being part of the Changtang, or Tibetan plateau. There was again a tail wind, and while cruising along, tents of yak-herding Changpa nomads could be seen partway up the surrounding hills.
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Last camp before climbing up onto the Morei plains.

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Leaving the valley floor and entering the Tibetan plateu.

We took off from the main road to visit the salt lake of Tso Kar. Filip hiked up a nearby hill, while I got food poisoned in a changpa tent. The following day was rather aweful. It was hot outside, and I could not keep any food down. To make things merrier, we were crossing the almost 5300 m Taglang la. At the top I had had it, shivering with fever. It did not feel like a good place to stay, so I rolled down to the first settlement and collapsed at the first place available.
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My tent next to Tso Kar…

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…and the Tent of a Changpa nomad passing through with his horse.

Eventually I woke up and went outside to have some tea. To my surprise, sitting next to me was Mark Brightwell, a Brit formerly with the Ghorkas, who I have been running with in Nepal before. It was nice seeing Mark, and I found out he was leading a five week mountaineering expedition, and was waiting for a doctor to be flown in from London, as their altitude medicine specialist had herself developed high altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE) and had to be evacuated. I’ll likely see Mark again in Mustang next April, as we are both friends of Rich, who is arranging the annual Mustang trail running race.
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Looking back down from the Taglang la, after a horrible climb.

Next morning I decided I had recovered enough to move on, and it was all downhill through a colorful red valley, with many stupas and the odd monastery. The last part of the road to Leh was utterly uninteresting, and passing through unimaginably ugly army bases.
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This Buddha at Thikse monestary is over 10 m high, passing through three floors.

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Wall painting at the same monstary…

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…and the view from the room

It was nice to arrive in Leh, and recover from the stomach bug. Filip went ahead to Nubra, while I took another rest day.


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Indian Himalayas Part 2 – Spiti Valley

In Reckong Peo, we went through the process of acquiring inner line permits, necessary for visiting within 40 km of India’s troubled lines of control toward China and Pakistan. Filip’s bike had a rough start and we also spent time replacing four  broken spokes.
We cycled on into the valley, accompanied by a strong tail wind. In Pooh we stopped to see the village’s summer festival. I was hoping for the traditional deal, and was rather disappointed.
Pooh

Entering the summer festival area in Pooh.

Next day provided a long and beautiful  climb up to Nako. After the following downhill the Spiti valley opened up and changed character. We spent the night at Ki Gompa, with an excellent valley view. One of the monks told us that a new road was being constructed in a parallel valley. It was accessible via a not yet completed bridge, which would be possible to cross with bicycles. This route turned out to be one of the best so far. Since the bridge was closed, there were no cars, and the surface was perfect new asphalt.
Nako

The view from just above Nako is quite stunning.

Ki Gompa

Ki Gompa, where we spent the night, is spectacularly perched on a rock.

Spiti

Big scenery in the valley just after Ki Gompa.

In Spiti, I also almost lost my sat phone. They are strictly forbidden in the sensitive boarder areas. At an army check point, a soldier found it and asked if it was a sat phone. I told him it wasn’t, it was a GPS. He was not buying into it, but before he had the opportunity to examine it closer, I pointed out that it was not as good as the gps of the new iPhone, and handed mine over. It worked, he was sufficiently perplexed by this piece of Steve Jobs legacy to forget about the sat phone, which I tucked back in my front pack.
Tibetan village

In the inner part of the valley, the road passed through traditional Tibetan villages.

nallah

The last 60 km of Spiti also offered interesting roads.

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Indian Himalaya Part 1 – Shimla

Arriving at DEL, I spent time at all four ATMs. Three failed to dispense cash in a number of interesting ways, while the fourth fortunately worked, although at 10 000 Rs per time Filip arrived shortly after me, and after buying a SIM card we managed to get in touch with our driver and headed off to the foothillls. After 2 h in a complete grid lock, things eased up to  normal traffic jam for another hour. Then we were on the country side. Flat, hot, and populated. Upon reaching the hills, we regretted not spending the night in Kalka and taking the historic narrow gauge scenic railway from there to Shimla the next day.

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Main square in Shimla – ready to roll.

Next morning we assembled the bikes.
Filip spent 2 h fiddling with his peculiar packing, then we were off! The climate was nice, and it is easy to understand why the Brits moved out here from Delhi in the summer. We passed scandal point, the cathedral and a pharmacy, then climbed out of town. The afternoon we cycled through lush hill sides with tree plantations. At one point we passed the Indian national high altitude training camp. The guy at the gate was very suspicious of us and far from keen on chatting. There was no obvious place to pitch a tent, but we found a dhaba where we spent the first night.
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Fruit plantations on the Himalayan foot hills, close to Shimla.

Next morning, parts of the national road cycling team went by as I had breakfast and Filip was packing up (now twice as fast as yesterday!). The day featured a 2000 m descent, strewn with Tata trucks and cows, providing an interesting obstacle course.
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This was the first of several sections of intesting road conditions.

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This is another example of interesting road conditions.

We reached the entry of the Spiti valley, after only being subject to one monsoon downpour. The landscape changed from green hills to narrow rocky river gorge. A tail wind funneling between the walls, blew us up to Rekong Peo.
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For long sections, the road was carved directly into the sheer mountain side.

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