“Submission” – Best Novel of 2015

Best seller in France and other literate countries

Best seller in France and other literate countries

Submission” by Michel Houllebecq is a triumph. It’s maybe the best novel he will ever write – with his familiar middle-aged male anti-hero finding redemption in the arms of Islam, rather than the destructive spiral down evident in his previous works. The plot has been much talked about in the wake of Charlie Hebdo and subsequently Paris. A middle-aged French academic, Francois, witnesses the Muslim Brotherhood ascend to power after the 2022 Presidential election, and the subsequent Islamization of France, including the Sorbonne where he teaches. The media have used the word “controversial” to describe the book, because they lazily assumed it was a critique of Islam. It is nothing of the sort, it’s a critique of modern consumer society, just like his other books. The depiction of Islam seems to be quite neutral and accurate – a patriarchal, illiberal cult with a political mission to control society via an exclusively male elite. I’m not clear what’s “controversial” about that. The reception to the book has been mixed. There are two camps – those who have read it (very positive reviews) and those who haven’t (he’s an Islamaphobe). In fact the book doesn’t cast any judgement on Islam – it’s just a scenario. A scenario that may suit some (middle aged sexually frustrated blokes) and not others (feminists, jews, gays, people with an education), but could lead to a more stable society, somewhat at peace with itself. Personally I don’t like the idea, but my opinion won’t matter. In the end ‘submission’ might be the easy option, which is exactly Houllebecq’s point.

Says it all

Says it all

Some critics have also poured scorn on Houllebecq’s predictive power, seemingly unaware that by deriding his imagined future, they are implicitly making predictions themselves. As far as I can see his portrayal of a gradual Muslim takeover via the current political process, given a hopelessly divided France, is the only way Islam can succeed. Terrorist attacks certainly help cow the population and encourage division, but the ultimate route to power is through co-opting the existing ruling class, not via violent revolution. The so-called ‘moderate’ Muslims in France, the UK and elsewhere realize that. Only last week Mr Establishment himself, Catholic UK Labour MP Keith Vaz, said that the reintroduction of blasphemy laws would be fine with him. How the mask slips! Houllebecq also has decent form on imagining society’s future. His 2001 novel “Platform” culminated in a Islamist terrorist attack on western tourists in Thailand. That prospect would have been considered far-fetched in mid-2001, ahead of 9/11 and ofcourse the Bali bombs in October 2002.

As with previous Houllebecq classics like “Whatever”, “Platform” and “Atomised”, the main character is a cynical, lecherous hedonist whose life is crumbling around him as he enters middle-age. His satire of modern French society, and modern academia is as savage, accurate and funny as ever. As an expert on nineteenth century French author Joris-Karl Huysmans, Francois retraces some of Huysman’s steps towards his (Huysman’s) eventual embrace of Catholicism, mirroring Francois’s own spiritual journey from despondency and nihilism, towards Islam. Francois comes to realize that the reinstatement of a patriarchal society will actually give men like him social status, and renewed purpose, through continued access to the the only thing that motivates him, sex with young women – via polygamist marriage.

The novel is definitely one to re-read, and somehow I found it uplifting. Well-written, poignant, funny, and a clear warning that simultaneous handwringing over terrorist attacks, while appeasing the nonsensities of “moderate” Islam will only yield one result. I would also recommend his earlier works, especially “Atomised” and “Platform”.
This very good interview with Houllebecq in the Paris Review is also worth checking out.
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Sweet Caress: The Many Lives of Amory Clay

Judge the book by its cover- underwhelming.

Judge the book by its cover – underwhelming.

Sweet Caress” is one of those most disappointing of things; a bad book by a favorite author. I’ve read everything (fiction-wise) that William Boyd has ever written and as soon as I heard about this I knew I would buy it.

The book is a fictional set of memoirs by a character called Amory Clay whose life spans most of the 20th century. Boyd’s used this same technique before in his most acclaimed novel “Any Human Heart“, so I had no doubt he could pull it off. He’s also successfully written females as the main character – in his clever thriller “Restless“. The sad reality is though it doesn’t work in this case. Boyd still writes beautifully and the novel starts well….but the character doesn’t develop for me. Her love interests, which are central to the book just feel random. A selfish american bloke, a fat french clown, a shell-shocked English soldier (supposed to evoke her Dad) and tedious descriptions of each man’s penis (Big, small, bendy..who cares!)

The 1930s Berlin section just doesn’t evoke the place, and her reaction to fairly cataclysmic events is pretty much indifference as far as I can tell, all the way through the book. Even some of the research just seems below par versus previous Boyd books. The Vietnam section appears to be drawn from watching “Platoon” – cliched beyond belief. I get the impression the publisher wanted this, and Boyd did the best job he could even though he must of known it wasn’t working. Just a very average book interspersed with dull, grainy photographs. I finished it out of loyalty to Boyd but if I was on Amazon I’d give this 2 stars maximum. Bizarrely it has some positive reviews, but as I’m learning, doing book reviews is difficult, whether you like the book or not, and I think some of the reviewers maybe have gone on reputation.

Amory Clay’s family has a fun way of describing people & things to each other through the book – using four words only. A neat idea I think. For “Sweet Caress” I would choose: Boring, pretentious, flat, arduous.

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Suite Francais

This poster gives away a bit of the plot. She's cuddling zee German!

This poster gives away a bit of the plot. She’s cuddling zee German!

Warming to the wartime romance theme, the next film I decided to watch on my October round-the-world plane medley was Suite Francais, which despite the title was a Hollywood production. Michelle Williams what can I say? You are a most fantastic actress, and apart from the misguided “My week with Marilyn” this movie continues your fine form. The plot is ostensibly a romance between the lonely Lucille (Williams), who’s husband is a POW in Germany, and a lonely German officer (played by some German bloke) billeted with her and her scary mother-in-law (Kristen Scott Thomas playing it beautifully) in their pretty manor house. Really though the film is about how a close-knit community copes when an outside influence comes to bear (topical I think) and captures the class-ridden hierarchy of French village life very well. We all tend to think if the Nazis came to town and occupied us we’d be the heroes, blowing up railway lines and sabotaging the Onion soup etc, but this film shows it’s never that simple. It also shows that in order to resist effectively, you have to engage and collaborate with the oppressor to some extent. Just like in an office environment.

Another reason to watch this movie is that Peter Bradshaw of the Guardian only gave it 2 stars and said it was a bit dull. You know when he doesn’t like something it’s potentially good, as this is the film critic who gave the woeful god-bothering allegory “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” 5 stars. His review of Suite Francais is classic of the type with a series of breathtakingly stupid statements like: “The movie version’s final words sonorously remark that the war would continue for four more years – not something Némirovsky could have known.” The Nemirovsky he refers to is Irene, the original author of the novel on which the film is based, who died at the hands of the Germans in 1942. The manuscript was later found and only published in 2004 and is apparently worth a read. Presumably as a film critic Bradshaw is familiar with “adaptations” and “versions” and “screenplays” which kind of allow the film maker to do exactly what the fuck they like, whether for good or ill, and in this case they are clearly looking back with a bit of hindsight. Durrrrrrrr. Anyway, don’t worry about Bradshaw, watch the movie and the extraordinary way that Michelle Williams manages to be sexy without really being that sexy. The only thing I really didn’t dig was the mournful piano playing. I know it’s what brings them together but If I’d made the film I would have had them bonding over a card game or something, to avoid it.

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“Testament of Youth” and “Ted 2”

Good actress & hottie, absolute hottie.

Hottie, absolute hottie.

I don’t go to the cinema very often in Singapore. There are few movies to watch, with the public only responding to children’s action films, usually involving a superhero, or men and women that illegally race cars on public roads in Nevada, Tokyo, and probably elsewhere.

The lead character in the average film shown at a Singapore cinema will look something like this.

The lead character in the average film shown at a Singapore cinema will look something like this.

That said the last film I saw in Singapore was ‘Everest’ which was exciting even though I knew the ending having read ‘Into Thin Air’. The cinema was empty as you would expect, given complexities like plot and character having to be absorbed. Moreover, “based on a true story” is probably the box office death knell for any film. What self-respecting adult wants truth, when flying CGI men in lycra bodysuits or gigantic robotic insects are available? Anyway I digress.

So how do I catch up with world cinema? Via one of Singapore’s finest institutions (well corporations really) Singapore Airlines. Long haul flights are the chance to watch anything half-decent I’ve missed, and delve into the magnificent world of European cinema. So on the way to SFO I watched 2 films. The first ‘Ted 2’ was truly dreadful…a kind of warmed up entrails of the first ‘Ted’. Seth Macfarlane hang your head in shame. The scene where the blonde lawyer girl wasn’t familiar with the Rocky franchise was quite funny admittedly. The improv comedy night scene where Ted shouts “9/11” and “the offices of Charlie Hebdo” was good also, but did not make up for the rest of the schmaltz, and tastelessness.

Wahlberg and Ted incredulous as it turns out there's not enough dope in the world to make their sequel funny

Wahlberg and Ted incredulous as it turns out there’s not enough dope in the world to make their sequel funny

So next i decided to go serious and watch Testament of Youth, an adaptation of Vera Brittain’s classic First World War memoir of the same name. Normally I’m skeptical of any film set in the First World War given the propensity for cliches, and overblown action sequences where whistles blow and honest men clamber into the field of fire, It’s not that that didn’t happen, but it’s been done, and Peter Weir’s Gallipolli is still the benchmark, 35 years on. However, a hot girl in the trailer playing the lead (Alicia Vikander) swayed me. And my Mum always told me to read the book which I never did so I felt like I should see what it was all about.

The cover of the 1980s paperback that my Mum tried to foist on me when I was too young to read about women.

The cover of the 1980s paperback that my Mum tried to foist on me when I was too young to read about women.

The plot is simple. in 1913/14 Vera, her brother and his mates are all on the verge of going up to Oxford, and life’s major problems consist of overbearing parents and being chaperoned by some fat woman when you go on a hot date. Needless to say, war creeps up in 1914 and all the lads say tally ho and off to France to fight the Kaiser’s evil Boche hordes. Our heroine Vera is left trudging off to Oxford, miffed that her beau John Snow Roland (Kit Harington) is no longer going to be there for some late night blue stocking hi-jinks. Incidentally, the cinematographer sets most of the Oxford scenes outside the Radcliffe Camera which is deuced odd, and clearly Somerville College was a lot prettier one hundred years ago, that’s all I can say.  When Vera realizes that it isn’t all going to be over by Christmas, she decides to leave Oxford to train as a nurse…and the rest is…well you’ll have to read the book or watch the movie.

Vikander with Vera Brittain's daughter Shirley Williams who became one of my Mum's favourite Labour ministers until she went all weird and joined the SDP. Picture courtesy of the Telegraph.

Vikander with Vera Brittain’s daughter Shirley Williams who became one of my Mum’s favourite Labour ministers until she went all weird and joined the SDP. Picture courtesy of the Telegraph.

It’s a real slow burner of a film, and gets better as it goes on. Vikander’s performance is understated and powerful, while the rest of the ensemble cast (Miranda Richardson, Hayley Atwell (mmmm!) Dominic West, Emily Watson) are very good. Only Harington disappoints for me, though I may be biased against him. Anyway, despite myself I enjoyed it and thought it was moving, and said alot more about the First world war than anything involving a horse as the main character. I’m much more likely to read the book now, and I know it’s a bloody thick book, so that’s something.

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Station Eleven – “Survival is Insufficient”

StationelevenUKHC

I’ve read a lot of novels in 2015 but Station Eleven is the best so far. Emily St John Mandel’s premise isn’t exactly original – sometime around 2010 99% of the world’s population has been wiped out by an aggressive swine flu pandemic. Civilization collapses and the “lucky” survivors are left living one day to the next, hunting for food and forming small farming communities.

The twist is that Mandel switches between the lives of the protagonists before the biological cataclysm, as well as various periods up to “year 25” after the event. The novel is character driven, although there are enough moments of tension to keep you interested in the plot. The focus is not on a Hunger Games/Mad Max style violence and degradation, but on the survivors attempts to hold on to what is important and retain some semblance of the previous civilization, regardless of the odds. By juxtaposing this with various characters stories in the years, weeks and days leading up to the outbreak, Mandel asks some real questions of the reader. In a world of impermanence, what is really important to you? How do you distinguish what you want from what you need? Is information technology an unambiguous force for good, or is it a commercially driven distraction? What are the parallels between pervasive narcissism on social media and the lives of celebrities? I could go on.

There were so many times reading this when I was just stopped in my tracks and starting thinking more clearly about my own life. You cannot ask more of literature than that.

 

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State of Origin: Haters will hate

The Melbourne Cricket Ground or MCG, looking magnificent.

The Melbourne Cricket Ground or MCG, looking magnificent. Pictures courtsey of the NRL.

The latest match in the 35 years of State of Origin was true to type. A ferocious physical confrontation, thrilling ball movement, repeated swings in momentum and a victory to the (marginal) underdog. The game was played in front of a record crowd of 91,500 at the AFL (Australian Rules Football) cathedral that is the MCG and was easily the most watched TV program in Australia in 2015. Highlights here

Contesting a bomb. The AFL loving Melbourne public might have appreciated this bit.

Contesting a bomb. The AFL loving Melbourne public might have appreciated this bit.

Despite the continued fascination with the annual three match series by the broader public, it still isn’t short of detractors both at home and abroad. The morning after the match the AFL dominated media in Melbourne weren’t keen to talk about the game’s excitement or huge audience, but instead became fixated with some disruption to the minutes silence for the late legendary Aussie Olympic runner, Ron Clarke. Hysterical headlines like “State of Origin overshadowed by minute’s silence disgrace” abounded and the AFL/soccer/rugby union fans joined in full force on Twitter.

Social media adds balance as always

Social media adds balance as always

Instead of blaming the 40 or 50 idiots out of 91,000 that couldn’t keep quiet, or tarring the people of Melbourne, the rugby league haters seized on the one negative aspect of the whole evening to bash the entire sport.

What’s curious about this is that it happens every time. Despite being a relatively niche sport, people actually feel threatened about any success rugby league does have. If it hadn’t have been the disrespect shown to Ron Clarke by a small minority of the crowd, they would have picked on something else.

When a young player is arrested for an off-field misdemeanor, it’s the game that is at fault. When a player is subject to a bad injury, it’s the game at fault. This standard is never applied to other sports, but both in the UK and Australia, negative publicity is magnified for rugby league, by a media that rarely wants to focus on the game itself, for fear rugby league might finally be taken seriously by casual sports fans, and not just aficionados like myself.

Michael Jennings, unlucky to not get Man of the Match was arrested for "obstructing police" on Friday morning, encouraging another torrent of handwringing.

Michael Jennings, unlucky to not get Man of the Match was arrested for “obstructing police” on Friday morning, encouraging another torrent of handrwinging.

In Australia the rivalry between AFL (the main sport in Victoria, South Australia, & western Australia, and rugby league (the main sport in New South Wales & Queensland), and latterly soccer (Association Football – beloved of recent immigrants and a growing section of the self-hating Australian upper-middle class) is the driver of this in the modern era, with the mullet headed boofheads of AFL and the polyglot sporting monculturists of soccer somehow feeling able to claim the moral highground.

AFL - 22 blokes with mullets chasing a seagull.

AFL – 22 blokes with mullets chasing a seagull.

That’s baffling given AFL is a drug riddled, and somewhat rigged sport, while as we all now know, soccer is corrupt from top to bottom.

Anyway, State of Origin game III 2015 takes place on July 8 at 8pm AEST, and no doubt it will be a sell out at Suncorp stadium in Brisbane, and attract another huge TV audience. Being unable to ignore the game, the anti-rugby league media will be sharpening its claws for a fight in the car park, a player’s marital dispute, a boozy night out by the Queensland kitman or some other distraction.

Jonathan Thurston - JT was superb behind a beaten pack in game II. He could be the decisive creative figure in game III.

Jonathan Thurston – JT was superb behind a beaten pack in game II. He could be the decisive creative figure in game III.

I’ll be focused on the game. Some of the world’s best rugby players are on show including the peerless Jonathan Thurston and the phenomenal Greg Inglis for Queensland. NSW have a tough, young forward pack led by the floppy haired youngster Aaron Woods and some talent in the backs including the great Morris brothers. Can’t wait.

 

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Richie Benaud – A Civilized Role Model

How i'll remember him. In the BBC commentary box. Picture courtesy of the BBC.

How i’ll remember him. In the BBC commentary box. Picture courtesy of the BBC.

Paying tribute to Richie Benaud is not a minority sport. Pretty much all Englishmen (& many women) & Australians over the age of 30 are united in mourning today as he was hugely popular as a cricketer & broadcaster in both nations, with the BBC in England, and Channel Nine in Australia.

The key to his success was his understated, calm delivery, knowledge and generosity of spirit. He wasn’t controversial or partisan, and crucially he never attempted to be funny. He was very funny though, because the humour came naturally when something amusing happened. He was part of my childhood & youth that I will always treasure, and contributed to my love of cricket a lot more the the public schoolboy silliness of BBC radio’s Test Match Special crew.

He was a great role model for me – and I hope in some small way he was an adult who tempered my youthful attention-seeking mode of conversation. He was the quiet voice of authority and demonstrated you didn’t have to be hysterical, regardless of your strongly held opinions, or which team you wanted to win.

Sadly his legacy has been betrayed by the BBC who have dumped cricket as they search for ratings with non-stop cooking shows and Top Gear-like dross. Channel Nine on the other hand have put more money into cricket than ever before, but have lowered the standard of commentary to unprecedented depths. With the honorable exception of Mark Nicholas, their team of ex-Australian players try so hard to be funny with their non-stop “banter” that they now detract from the cricket. Here’s a superb takedown by the Guardian if you want the gory details about ‘Tubby’, ‘Slats’ and ‘Warney’.

RIP Richie – you truly will be missed.

 

 

 

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The Silk Road to Powder

Living a dream

Living a dream. photo credit www.heli-ski.kg

As Bodhi says in Point Break: “If you want the ultimate you have to be willing to pay the ultimate price”. In this case the price was S$7,000 ($5,000 approx) which was something of a bargain to be flown to Kazakhstan and back, driven around Kyrgyzstan, ferried about in a giant Russian chopper for a week, to be terrified beyond belief numerous times, to sleep happily in a warm yurt, to meet the strange, tough people of central Asia, to enjoy as much vodka & beer as I could drink, to ski dry powder at 4000m, to stand in the dark and see the stars at their most vivid and wonder why i worry about the future even though it doesn’t really matter. It was that kind of trip and I still get flashbacks months on.

I read about heliskiing in the Tien Shan mountains of Central Asia way back in the 1990s in Onboard magazine, and it finally happened in February 2015 when I headed to Kyrgyzstan with my friends John Aitken and Charlie Fullerton. Before we embarked I only had the vaguest notions of what to expect, and any research I did just raised more questions than answers. We only confirmed we were going in late December and I wasn’t clear on the details of where we would stay and how many days heli we would get, until the week we set out. The combination of travelling to a remote and little known country, the scale of the Tien Shan peaks, and the prospect of being flown around by an old Russian military chopper, certainly generated a rare sense of adventure.

The TienShan mountains we were skiing, just above the Issy Kul lake near Karakol, Kyrgyzstan

The TienShan mountains we were skiing, just above the Issy Kul lake near Karakol, Kyrgyzstan

We first flew to Almaty in Kazakhstan, staying overnight before heading to the Kyrgyz border in a cab. The flight on SQ to Bangkok, then Air Astana to Almaty was uneventful and they didn’t charge us for the massive ski/board bags. We skirted the Himalayas on the Indian side, and as it was a blue sky day, and I was in the right window seat, saw the Annapurna sanctuary and other great peaks. Air Astana even had a relic of a lost, glamorous era of air travel, in the form of big beers (well i was impressed anyway). It’s a decent airline and I would recommend it.

Efes on Air Astana

Efes on Air Astana

Almaty is a post-Soviet city with the resultant drab architecture, but has a nice atmosphere. It feels as European as it does Asian, and I enjoyed a lovely horse steak, and we visited a few bars before turning in. Next morning was a two hour foggy drive to the border across the steppe. As soon as we neared the border we could see the mountains above the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek. Our Kyrgyz driver met us on the Kazakh side and even helped with my 20KG ski bag which was cool.

DSC_0734

Heading across the steppe to the Kyrgyzstan border near Bishkek

We then drove for 6-7 hours to reach our base at Karakol on the southern shore of the enormous and beautiful Issy Kul lake. Our driver Almaz was the fastest thing on wheels and did not respect red lights or other vehicles so we got there about as fast as we could, managing to catch the occasional nap. Kyrgyzstan’s status as one of the Central Asia region’s poorest countries is clear from the infrastructure, with many roads potholed, gravelly and muddy with meltwater from the winter snows. You can also see the economy remains tied to agriculture, with lots of people riding horses and plenty of happy looking livestock.

We camped & skied in the Terskey-alatau mountains just south west of Karakol on the southern eastern shore of Issy Kul. Map from www.mapsofworld.com

We camped & skied in the Terskey-alatau mountains just south west of Karakol on the southern eastern shore of Issy Kul lake. Map from www.mapsofworld.com

We stopped a couple of times. First to eat at a god-awful motorway rest stop, and then to help the police arrest a “gangster” who was reluctant to leave his vehicle. Alamaz couldn’t wait to get involved and could obviously handle himself, bringing the skirmish to quick conclusion in the authorities’ favor.

Issy Kul is 113 miles long and the second largest mountain lake in the world behind Lake Titicaca. It never freezes as it's slightly saline so looks spectacular against the huge peaks of the TienShan.

Issy Kul is 113 miles long and the second largest mountain lake in the world behind Lake Titicaca. It apparently never freezes as it’s slightly saline so looks spectacular against the huge peaks of the TienShan.

After finally arriving at the comfortable and friendly Green View Hotel in Karakol we met up with Charlie who had flown direct to Bishkek, and hit the town for some beers & food. While we did not explore Karakol thoroughly, it’s a pretty drab, sprawling place with the post-industrial blight of the Soviet era obvious.

A photo of Karakol I took from the heli when we were going to refuel. The town doesn't match the surroundings, that's for sure.

A photo of Karakol I took from the heli when we were going to refuel. Interlaken it is not.

However we found a nice enough bar/restaurant after a brief taxi ride and I enjoyed a bizarre savoury pancake with mutton & cheese while the lads had a kebab which came in a paper bag with stale bread. Beer was good though.

Kyrgyz cuisine was strange but hearty. Mountain food!

Kyrgyz cuisine was strange but hearty. Mountain food!

Next day it was onto the snow for the first time with a trip up to the Karakol ski resort which is up a steep snowy/muddy road from the town. The terrain is pretty expansive and it had some nice bars and one hotel.

Looking back down towards Karakol with the mountainous border with kyrgyzstan in the background and the start of Issy Kul far left. Les Menuires chairlift also visible.

Looking back down towards Karakol with the mountainous border with Kazahkstan in the background to the north, and the eastern shore of Issy Kul far left. Les Menuires chairlift also visible.

The lift system was comprised of chairlifts of questionable provenance. This orange one I used to ride out of the centre of Les Menuires towards the Meribel valley back in the 1990s and they still had the signs to prove it. Brought back memories of La Masse and some good times.

DSC_0769

There were Les Menuires signs at the top and bottom of this rickety orange chairlift. Chances are I’d ridden it at least 50 times before in a different life back in the 1990s!

The snow was icy hardpack but it was nice to have a warm up and for our last run we had a 2 minute traverse and got a few powder turns in, giving us a taste of things to come. The views were also awesome with the Issy Kul lake stretching away as far as the eyes could see and the border range with Kazakhstan beyond.

John struggled on his Jeremy Jones powder board which wasn't made for ice. Charlie's Lib Tech was still in Bishkek so he was on some kind of fibreglass dinner tray. They still had fun though.

John struggled on his Jeremy Jones powder board which wasn’t made for ice. Charlie’s Lib Tech was still in Bishkek so he was on some kind of fibreglass dinner tray. They still had fun though.

There were bigger Tien Shan peaks behind us looking south.

There were 5,000m + Tien Shan peaks behind us.

After an excellent kebab in a mountain restaurant we then met our driver Slavan and headed for Yurt camp out in the wilderness. It was here when the adventure really started. The drive into the mountains was around 45 mins until we reached the trailhead situated at a small farm. We then took to Skidoos, with Charlie riding pillion while me & John were dragged along on a plastic tray.

Our chariot into the wilderness

Our chariot into the wilderness

It wasn’t the most comfortable 4 km of my life and I was relieved when the giant helicopter hoved into view, sitting on a plateau just above a picturesque Yurt camp.

The Mi8 TV-1, a military version of the Russian helicopter dating from 1961. This one was built in 1980 according to the pilots.

The Mi8 TV-1, a military version of the Russian helicopter dating from 1961. This one was built in 1980 according to the pilots.

They greeted us with beer which was nice and we met some of the other guests, a mixed group of mostly Brits who all worked at an international school in Almaty. We then got to settle into our Yurt which we were sharing with the guides.

Our cosy Yurt. There were 12 of us in there!

Our cosy Yurt. There were 12 of us in there!

Inside it was all bunk beds with a wood-burning fire at one end. I was excited about sleeping in a Yurt after reading Tim Cope’s brilliant book “On the trail of Genghis Khan” and it didn’t disappoint, being cosy but clubbable. It reminded me of the good old days (not sure I felt that at the time) staying in a 16-bed dorm in a hostel in Bayswater road back in the summer of 1999.

It was toasty. I love camping and despite the sub-zero temps, it's just as good in the winter.

It was toasty. I love camping and despite the sub-zero temps, it’s just as good in the winter.

The toilet facilities were rather basic. Clean but cold. Less said the better. The washroom was rather Red Army 1942, and consisted of a weird Sauna tent plus a freezing stream which they had dammed to create a pool.

After a pre-heli briefing with the guides which thoroughly scared me, we sat down to dinner. The food was pretty decent and we polished of plenty off freeflow beer & vodka before heading to bed around midnight. The heli pilots were partying til about 2am but I felt quite fatalistic, and was unusually excited for the coming day.

First heli-skiing day dawned with a bright blue sky and after porridge and eggs for breakfast we got our kit together and readied for the off. Have to say I became pretty nervous during the wait – probably about the heli rather than the skiing (that was soon to change). Here’s the big bird coming into land (actually the vid is from Day 2). It always felt like it would land on top of you but landing close is the only safe thing apparently due to the rotors or something.

My memories of the first drop are pretty hazy to be honest…The snow was nothing special as I recall and the run ended in a 5km proper combat ski traverse through a forest. It took about an hour and I had one big stack and we all had to rescue the boarders multiple times as there wasn’t much of a gradient. I can’t imagine what the logic was behind the choice of first run but it certainly got us sweating.

Legs were like Jelly by this point and didn't expect the photographer to appear from behind a tree!

Legs were like Jelly by this point and didn’t expect the photographer to appear from behind a tree!

The runs got better from there and enjoyed some nice snow although I struggled at the top. It definitely wasn’t Japow and my Volkl Mantras were sinking right through it unless I went pretty fast, which was hard to sustain.

Some of the snow was amazing, some less so!

Some of the snow was amazing, some less so!

The lads on the boards were doing better and really flying, although the exit runs were too flat for them for the most part and they often had to get one or both feet out. Every single run seemed to end in a long traverse through the trees, which was pleasant enough but wasn’t quite what I expected, Here’s a video of the third time I went through the trees just before lunch – Be warned it’s 8 mins of pootling along through a pretty forest, but not sure why the heli couldn’t have landed further up the hill!

The guides were pretty technical apart from the sweeper Dennis, a young Kyrgyz lad who just straight-lined everything and knew how to jump. If he was from Canada or France he’d be in ski movies for sure. After 3 runs we had a packed lunch next to the chopper in fairly balmy temperatures and I actually had to apply some more sunscreen.  It was then we found out it hadn’t snowed for more than 6 weeks…which put the conditions into perspective. Not bad at all.

Sometimes it was a smooth ride

Sometimes it was a smooth ride

The last run of the day was probably my favorite. The boarders and a couple of the skiers went with the rest of the guides down a steeper route, while I chose to follow the oldest, but canniest guide Oleg on a more leisurely path. There were some nice turns above the tree line at the top (3600m) then down into the forest and back to the Yurts, leaving the heli to make its own way back. By this stage, although I was tired, I was feeling a bit more confident and really loved being out there in the complete quiet, without lifts whirring, mountain restaurants, or any other real sign of human activity.

Descending towards the Yurt camp in the valley. There was a beautiful light, complete silence. Magic.

Descending towards the Yurt camp back down the valley. There was a beautiful light and complete silence. Magic.

Being greeted in the Yurt camp with beer and barbecued chicken was a perfect end to the day and we got our fill as the other group were about an hour after us, having being taken into a forested gorge which apparently was an absolute nightmare. John was almost catatonic and it’s fair to say we were all knackered. I wolfed dinner and retired to bed with my Kindle before 9pm and got a good 12 hours sleep in.

Fish from Issy Kul, potatoes, rice, bread....just what was needed.

Fish from Issy Kul, potatoes, rice, bread….all major food groups…just what was needed.

The next heli ski day was completely different. There were no less than 14 guests in the heli as a random group of 6 Austrians had come for the day. Plus the 4 crew, 4 guides and a photographer made for a packed chopper.

The big bird takes off after leaving us on windswept plateau.

The big bird takes off after leaving us on windswept plateau.

 

The terrain they took us on was higher and more open and the snow was generally very good. The Austrians, who I’d naturally assumed would be godlike skiers, were nothing special, and one, who was on a board, even dropped out after first run.

Big wide open runs made it easy

Big wide open runs made it easy

The big group did mean it got a bit more tracked out but I was much more comfortable than the previous day and let my skis go a bit more. The runs were also shorter with no tree dodging exits so we got plenty of turns in, and all in all it was great fun.

Because of the size of the group we didn’t do anything steep and a lot of the runs were gentle and open – just the way I imagined like it.

The 12 hours sleep the night before had also done me good and even the final run of the day through a thickly wooded gorge was fun. The snow was amazing, presumably because the sun never got on it and while the Austrians tumbled and lost their Teutonic cool, I felt, just for a moment, I was back in Hokkaido!

The beers afterwards went down even more easily and I must admit the partying was probably a bit hard this night given what was ahead. Freeflow vodka is addictive, what can I say?

The heli crew were enjoying John's company.

The heli crew were enjoying John’s company.

I’ve already written about the events of the last heli day in a separate post. The one thing I didn’t mention was the aborted landing we had at the first drop. We seemed to come into the ridge to hard and bounced off, with the whole machine wobbling. It was the only truly scary moment in the heli of the whole trip, and we were all relieved when he came back round and landed on a lower part of the ridge without incident. Here’s a 50 second video of the successful drop.

After that, and in between all the avalanche anxiety, there was some great skiing though.

Being in a different valley was interesting and on the way down to the heli we happened on another Yurt camp. What a life this fellow has!

Got fogged up...I was sweating.

Got fogged up…I was sweating.

I was feeling relieved to get off the hill unscathed and get to the chopper!!

I was feeling relieved to get off the hill unscathed and get to the chopper!!

Not sure if it was the night before or the strange granular type snow, but I got really tired and only did 3 runs in the end. We were a few valleys away from the camp so took the Heli back. It stopped off in a field near Karakol for some refueling and attracted a large crowd who raced to see the whirligig in their Ladas.

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Men & their Motors

Quite a crowd!

Quite a crowd!

When we took off again the pilot flew crazy low sending the locals scattering before pulling into what seemed like an unwisely steep ascent, before letting the heli fall, which left you feeling weightless for a moment. Was unexpected, but thrilling in its own way, especially given the size of the chopper! The heli and pilots had just arrived in Kyrgyzstan after working in Afghanistan for the previous few months so I guess they were entitled to have a bit of fun just like us.

The night was one of some disappointment but some celebration. Snow was forecast and even we paid for more time in the heli, it wouldn’t be likely to be flying the next day. So what do you do? Well we hit the beers and the vodka and reviewed some of our video footage on Charlie’s laptop in the yurt.

Cosy Yurt

Cosy Yurt

This one which features some rather tired skiing from me, a lost John, and where me & Charlie both questioned John’s eyesight, proved a favorite.

The next morning dawned and the camp looked beautiful after maybe 18 inches of fresh.

Winter Camp!

Winter Camp!

Looked beautiful when the sun came out!

Looked beautiful when the sun came out!

We packed up and decided to head back to Almaty that day rather than try the questionable delights of Karakol. Before we left we had the fun of joining head guide Nikolai’s birthday celebration with the other guides and the pilots. I provided a bottle of Johnny Walker Explorer’s Edition (a very smooth drop) and the guys had a bottle of Red label which went great with some fresh pancakes, Nikolai is obviously held in very high esteem by his peers and after seeing his YouTube channel including his ascent of Nanga Parbat you can see why. He is a tough, capable and decisive ski guide, but never arrogant,  disdainful or impatient. Glad he was in charge!

Liquid breakfast with pancakes chaser

Liquid breakfast with pancakes chaser

We finally left, drunk, mid-morning on the skidoo – this time with me riding pillion and Charlie suffering the bumps. The road we had driven in on was gone, covered in snow so you couldn’t see it at all, so we took about an hour to get out of the valley.

skidoo drag lift

The lads are never happier than when spooning!

The road had disappeared. No snowploughs in these parts it seems.

The road had disappeared. No snowploughs in these parts it seems.

Back in Karakol we bought a bottle of vodka and drank it and talked bollocks as we went the 6 hours to the border. It was beautiful with all the snow and the lake and until I drifted off to sleep it was a wonderful drive!

DSC_0966

Conversation was rather rambling 3 hours into the journey

A pretty snowbound Mosque near Karakol

A pretty snowbound Mosque near Karakol

The border was absolute chaos on the Kazakhstan side with a riot rather than a queue for only two or three immigration officials. It really felt like it would come to blows and carrying all the ski gear with a weird 6pm hangover wasn’t ideal. When we got through we were lucky to find our old taxi driver who took us to the border the previous week and then we had the long, boring drive across the steppe to Almaty.

The next day was a free one for us as we were all flying Sunday night so we decided to check out Almaty’s local ski resort, Shymbulak, which is only a 20 minute taxi from the city. I have to say I was blown away by the facilities and the mountain was a decent size. It felt like a European resort and there was easily enough terrain for a day. The lifts were modern, and the stylish, sunny bars at the base were a great place to hang out, listen to some tunes, and have a beer and a kebab.

The lads make a spectacle of themselves at the behest of Famous Grouse

The lads make a spectacle of themselves at the behest of Famous Grouse

It had snowed the previous day (the same storm that hit in Kyrg), so conditions on the piste were perfect which may have colored my perception somewhat. I got my Volkl’s, which had suffered a number of serious rock impacts down to the base, repaired at the resort, so hired some skis which were 161 Fischer’s. Truth be told they were more like snowblades but it was fun after the intensity of the heli-skiing.

There was even a glacier at the top which was 3200m

There was even a glacier at the top which was 3200m

This kebab in Almaty was awesome. just want to put that on the record.

This kebab in Almaty was awesome. just want to put that on the record.

In the evening we headed back into the city, swapped to a rather rough & ready hotel on the outskirts and then hit the town. There’s a good atmosphere in Almaty and I would recommend it. People, especially the girls, dress up and everyone is friendly. We started with a rather lavish Georgian meal with Georgian wine and then went to various bars. It was a fun end to a very exciting trip.

Thanks to Charlie for doing a lot of the organization, and I would be happy to recommend Sergey and the team at Ski-Pro Kyrgyzstan to anyone who wants to head to the Tien Shan, whether it’s ski touring or heliskiing,

All photos Sony Z3 Compact smartphone
All videos Contour Roam 2 action cam http://contour.com

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On Avalanches

My recent trip heli-skiing in Kyrgyzstan was more challenging than a week in Val d’isere or Zermatt in all kinds of ways. Just considering the skiing itself the exposure was significant with steeps, rocks, gullies, trees, streams, variable snow conditions and physical duress due to the 5 or 6 long off-piste runs per day. It was often what the French would call ‘Ski de Combat’ and at the end of the day everyone was exhausted.

AvSnapshot 2 (3-10-2015 4-40 PM)

Slip sliding away….Little avalanches here there and everywhere. A still from my Contour Roam 2 headcam

The only thing that really scared me though was the avalanche danger. Three weeks before I was on the Swinging Monkey chair in Niseko Japan and I shared my lift with a dreadlocked, serious looking, loud American chap who was sporting a pair of fat Black Crows. Turned out he was from Juneau, Alaska, the capital of big mountain heli skiing. I decided to get some Gnar points by casually dropping my upcoming Kyrgyzstan adventure into the conversation. This stopped him in his tracks and he said: “Continental Snowpack. Stay safe dude, stay safe.”  As is my modus operandi, I didn’t ask him the significance of this but noted for future reference. He duly skied off into the Japanese mist leaving me to ponder my fate.

I duly looked up what a “Continental snowpack” means, and for our purposes you can assume the snowpack is hard to read, variable and thus avalanches frequently, without warning and often weeks and weeks after the last snowfall. A great source of avalanche science is the excellent Meted Avalanche Forecasting website which has a full explanation of how snowpacks are classified.

The question that’s really intrigues me is what’s safer – heading into a remote location with a potentially unstable snowpack, but with the best equipment and experienced, risk-averse guides –or – getting off a chairlift on a powder day in the Alps and following someone’s tracks and then seeing some fresh and just hitting it, without any preparation, equipment or expert assessment of the danger?

The night before our first heli day we had a briefing with our 4 guides and they said the snowpack was unstable and was almost certain to avalanche at anything steeper than 30°, which wasn’t exactly what I wanted to hear. So the next two days were a bit of a surprise – we did all kinds of terrain including runs from 3600m and although the guides gravely tested the slopes and took us along ridges and spines when they could, I completely relaxed. Even from the heli I didn’t see the signs of avalanche activity. How wrong I was.

Day 3 dawned and we headed further east from our Yurt camp to get some more fresh. The terrain was steeper and the snow seemed a tad heavier than the previous day. There were only 4 clients this time (vs 14 the previous day) so we set for more action, or so we thought. The first pitch was excellent, and I got to go first and distracted by only one set of tracks from our lead snow sniffer, Oleg. This took us about 400m down on to a spur with a choice of a short, steep pitch left or right before the terrain flattened out into the valley. After everyone had completed the first pitch Oleg duly went to scout the left hand route. The slope which was maybe 40° at the top immediately avalanched below him, so he skied down that avalanche path and radioed up that we should try the other route, as it wasn’t stable and getting to his avalanche path would involve exposure.

Nikolai Gutnik, the lead guide, and something of a mountaineering legend in Central Asia, headed off to scout the right route which led into a narrow gully. This too avalanched, and due to the terrain trap, he radioed that we should go back to plan A. We went one at a time and traversed the steep pitch following Oleg’s tracks, before hitting the avalanche path. This slide was only 10-15m wide, and maybe 200m long, but had gone to the base and so was rocky and difficult. Everyone got down without incident but it was, to say the least, scary, especially as it was about the only properly steep skiing we did on the whole trip.

In the afternoon we again did some steepish – 28 to 30 degrees-  pitches and these too avalanched, although this time it was only the top 12 inches or so that went. Here’s a photo of me showing the size of the slide.

In the path. See the video below.

In the path. See the video below.

Here’s a video of me skiing into an avalanche path and setting off a small slide as I turn left to right… The guides knew the snow base just wasn’t super deep but even so it was unsettling and given the rocky nature of the slopes, injury would have been pretty much certain.

There wasn’t a run we did that day that wasn’t affected by the unstable conditions and I was glad to get back to the camp without incident (well there was a daft stunt the heli pilot pulled, but that was kind of fun!).

Compared to a powder day in the Alps I think it was more dangerous, although my recent Alpine experience is limited. In the Alps I never carried avalanche safety equipment but I did follow the advice of the pisteurs, avoid areas where there were obvious signs of recent avalanche activity. Maybe I was young and dumb lived in a fool’s paradise when I did my seasons from 1997-2000 but I never felt in danger like I did in Kyrgyzstan. In the early season I’ve never seen snow just sliding off like I saw there and you got the impression it was fairly constant feature of skiing there.

And there’s no comparison with Japan at all. I’ve never seen an avalanche in Niseko after 4 weeks skiing there, despite the massive regular snowfall, and that’s one factor that will keep me going back.

Here’s a video created by Nikolai our guide with some pretty good footage of avalanches in the Kyrgyz backcountry.

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It’s all Greek to me

There’s a complete disconnect between how the mainstream media reports the Greece debt crisis and the reality. This New York Times report, assumes that for Greece, a sovereign entity populated by 10.7 million with a 25.8% unemployment rate, it’s necessary and desirable to pay back its estimated $250 billion in foreign debt owed primarily to European monetary institutions like the ECB, and European banks.

A pre-dinner drink in Athens in 2015

A pre-dinner drink in Athens in 2015

The reality is that it isn’t necessary, and definitely not desirable – a nation like an individual can declare bankruptcy and renege on some or all of its loan agreements. There would be nothing ground-breaking about this process that has happened to sovereign entities hundreds of times before. The only historical footnote would this would be the first country in the euro currency bloc (since it was formed all the way back in….drum-roll….2002!!) to declare bankruptcy, and as a result would be the first country to leave the bloc and return, presumably, to the drachma (the old Greek currency). In global terms there are dozens of examples of partial or full sovereign defaults since 2002, with Argentina, Iceland and Zimbabwe probably the pick of the bunch. Private creditors took a 53% haircut in the on their Greek bond holdings in 2012 but this was never going to be enough with much of the write-off being replaced by new emergency loans from the ECB and IMF which sent the country’s debt to GDP ratio back to its current unsustainable level of 175%.

Short of physically invading Greece, seizing its assets and enslaving its citizens, there is nothing the rest of the EU can do to stop Greece simply refusing to pay.

The Germans have been to Athens before....

The Germans have been to Athens before….

In fact enslaving the population though austerity (low government spending, with high tax to generate a surplus for the creditors) and seizing national assets via “reforms” (in the shape of a privatization program) is precisely the effect of the current debt payback terms. These terms are being policed by the “troika” made up of the EU Commission (unelected Supra-national executive body), IMF (unelected Supra-national financial regulator) and the European Central Bank (unelected Supra-national central banking entity), at the behest of their own balance sheets and some private creditors (think banks and hedge funds).

So really Greece has nothing to lose, and any extension of credit terms under discussion is simply kicking the can down the road. This is clear from the NYT article (emphasis is mine) “There is little doubt that the lenders will continue to scrutinize Greece’s finances, and they could make additional demands on Athens before making the next loan disbursement, which would be €7.2 billion, or about $8.2 billion — money the Greek government needs to meet its debt obligations.” So let’s get this clear – they (the ECB via other EU governments) are lending Greece more money to satisfy an existing debt repayment stream to European institutions and private entities. There is no aid for Greece’s impoverished middle class or unemployed youth. All the so-called “bailout” cash returns to northern Europe. It’s an accounting circle-jerk to keep the lunatic ‘European project’ on track.

So why are the new Greek government even negotiating? One would hope it’s to buy time as they plan their Euro exit, and the adjustment process to follow – a possibility that is completely ignored by the NYT article.

Polonius had it right. "Neither a borrower nor a lender be; For loan oft loses both itself and friend."

Polonius had it right. “Neither a borrower nor a lender be; For loan oft loses both itself and friend.”

What the ‘pay your debts’ scenario completely ignores is the moral obligation on lenders/creditors to take responsibility for their own credit exposure. In this case multiple institutions kept lending money to a small country, with a clearly dysfunctional tax collection system and a (previously at least) corrupt government, on the tacit assumption that the mechanisms of the single currency would somehow guarantee repayment. Well the new Greek government should call their bluff. And the lesson for Europe and the world is that you can’t expect private financial institutions to behave responsibly if they believe they are shielded from risk by a mishmash of bonkers political accommodations, like those that underpin the EU.

German Fin Min Wolfgang Schauble. I guess he thinks he's doing the right thing but his moral compass is confused.

German Fin Min Wolfgang Schauble. I guess he thinks he’s doing the right thing but his moral compass is confused.

What the financial markets most fear is a government actually following up on its democratic mandate and who can blame them given they typically have their own men in the positions of power. German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble, said in late December ahead of the Greek elections that “New elections change nothing about the agreements that the Greek government has entered into.” An interesting interpretation of democracy and one to be pondered by German voters!  This is a reflection of the bloated size of the financial services sector in modern developed economies and their consequent influence over public policy and the regulatory climate they operate under. Often politicians confuse the interests of the financial sector with the interests of the country or body politic as a whole.

Thus the German, French, Dutch, UK etc governments are dead against  a Greek euro exit knowing a default would impose massive costs on huge private institutions that form a significant sector of their own economies. But why should a Greek taxpayer care about that? The average Greek does not have $23,700 (the external debt divided by the population) to simply pay back and won’t work for the rest of his life to make up the shortfall, so they logically and legally voted for a Government that would tell the shylocks and spivs in Frankfurt, Paris & London to go and stick it.

Nobody forced these besuited, MBA cradling, ivy-league baboons to buy Greek bonds so why shouldn’t they share the responsibility for their own catastrophic misjudgments?

The note should be a Euro but you get the idea.

The note should be a Euro but you get the idea.

If Greece goes, its economy would crater in the very short term (6 to 12 months) with runaway inflation as the price of imported goods soars on the return of the drachma. This would undoubtedly be painful on a collective and individual level with a short term fall in living standards from even the current low levels, but the end of the pain would already be in sight. Overnight there would be a boom in tourism (as well as being the best place to holiday in Europe it would now be the cheapest) and traditional industries like agriculture would benefit from a leap in productivity (people would have no choice but to work harder). Unemployment would fall, tax revenues would start to rise faster than expenditure, and a very rapid return to growth would follow, as in Iceland post 2008/2009.

All this could be yours for not a lot and the Greek economy would finally recover!

All this could be yours for not a lot and the Greek economy would finally recover!

Ofcourse once that happens the international credit markets would reopen and Greece would be able to borrow again, just as Iceland and Argentina found – although presumably the lending institutions would engage their brains this time and price the debt according to the real risk of default, rather than putting their faith in a daft twentieth century Franco-German inspired political agreement.

The problem with this rosy scenario for the rest of the Euro zone is that the citizens of other indebted nations like Portugal would likely follow Greece’s lead and seek exit, which would impose more losses on the aforementioned Gnomes of Frankfurt. That’s the nightmare scenario for bankers, but is what should and can happen. You can only buck the market for so long and it’s time the Euro’s debt ponzi was laid bare, and the rich of northern Europe started paying the price for their political naivety and avarice.

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