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England! The land of our forefathers! The homeland! We had made it.

Our initial welcome consisted of the immigration officer giving me a massive grilling. How long are you going to stay? How will you support yourself? Are you planning to undertake any work, paid or unpaid?

Entering the UK with a stream of campervans and freight trucks

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Hiking the Tour du Mont Blanc: Part 3

Our first day in Switzerland was also meant to be the easiest day of the TMB. Most of it was sidling or downhill. Although everyone’s knees might have been a bit happier if there was a bit less downhill. We stocked up on food in La Fouly then kept heading down the valley. Along the way we passed the same kiwi couple that I had met while walking backwards a few days earlier. When we passed them for the second time a while later the guy asked “is that Brittany?” It turned out to be Dan who had gone to the same hall of residence as me. With our sunglasses and hats on, neither of us had recognised the other, although I had been thinking that his voice sounded eerily familiar. Dan had also been cycle touring so it was great to catch up and compare notes.

We came out of the bush and passed through a cute little Swiss village that appeared to be deserted except for several old men, each sitting by themselves in their front yards. My personal highlight was the property with an extraordinary number of garden gnomes.

Two of the many gnomes

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Hiking the Tour du Mont Blanc: Part 2

For only the second time this trip it was time for Andy and I to split up for a few days. Andy kept walking around Mont Blanc while I gallivanted off to Switzerland to hang out in Geneva.

Andy’s experience

That’s right folks, yet again Andy was flying solo…along with four other hikers (Hank, Parker, Hannah and Rowan for those who need a wee reminder). We left Refuge Robert Blanc after a fairly standard European breakfast (slightly sad bits of bread with butter, jam and plenty of coffee). After saying farewell to Brittany, we set off toward the Col de la Seigne which marks the border between France and Italy. The route towards the Col skirts beneath the ‘Glacier des Glaciers’, affording fantastic views of both the glacier face and the down the Tarentaise Valley.

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Hiking the Tour du Mont Blanc: Part 1

Straight off the back of the Tour du Ruan Andy and I were off to do a second even longer tramp. The Tour du Mont Blanc (or TMB) is a pretty well-known hike which circumnavigates Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in Europe, while passing through France, Switzerland and Italy. It’s 170km long and you do about 10,000m of climbing along the way.

On our half day back in Chamonix after descending from Refuge de Loriaz that morning we were lucky enough to see some of the Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc runners finishing. In about 45 hours these guys had just run the route we were about to spend 12 days walking. And they were the ones at the tail end of the pack.

UTMB finish line

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Hiking the Tour du Ruan: Part 2

The morning of day four on the Tour du Ruan we awoke to more rain and fog. After so much indecision the day before, we had a new problem to contend with – the ladder section. A whole different level from just a chain section. Once again I went to discuss our options with the refuge staff.

The ladder section covers 80 vertical metres and the people in the refuge basically told us it wasn’t a great idea if it was raining. Their proposal was that we avoid the ladders by taking a different route, however this would add an extra day to our trip. We didn’t really have an extra day, Andy and I needed to get back to Chamonix on schedule to start a second tramp the day after (we’re a bit crazy).

The staff didn’t seem thoroughly discouraging so we decided to just go for it. The day before that approach had worked out well for us. The weather was meant to get worse in the afternoon so we were advised to leave sooner rather than later, they also gave us some tips on the route once we hit the high point on the Swiss border. In the fog we might not be able to see and the signposting apparently wasn’t very clear.

Ready to cross the fog into Switzerland

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Hiking the Tour du Ruan: Part 1

After spending a day on logistics in Chamonix (map-buying, outdoors-store-visiting, pastry-eating) we met up with our NZ friend Corde who used to work with Andy back in Christchurch. It was great to see him again and also to get a bit of news about how Christchurch and our old office are going.

Our plan was to do the four day Tour du Ruan which is an alpine circuit we had found online. With no car available we were also tacking on an additional two half days to access and descend from our start/end point of the circuit. It had been surprisingly difficult to find information online about the trip and we maybe hadn’t done the best job of preparing Corde for what was to come. Initially we had told him we would be doing an easy three day hike then once we’d changed plans we hadn’t really made it clear how much more difficult the new walk was. “So it’s a six day trip… and the days might be quite long… and there’s about 4800m of climbing…. plus 800m to access the route… oh and apparently there’s a ladder section. But it’ll be fine.”

Once reunited with Corde we hopped on the Mont Blanc Express to take us up the valley. We got off at Vallorcine, just before the Swiss border, and took the requisite ‘starting tramp’ photo. Then I checked the map. Oops, we were meant to get off one station earlier at Le Buet. Sorry guys.

Ready to start the trip

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Touring the Vanoise

We set off bright and early to start our tramp, kicking off the day’s walking by… getting in a taxi. What a life. Mum’s group had organised a minivan taxi, a bargain at only €30, to drive us up to Refuge de l’Orgère. This saved us about 800m of climbing and turned a nine-hour day into a six-hour day. Totally worth it.

Modane from above

Our group was seven people in total. In addition to Andy, myself and my mum there was Christine and Peter, a couple from the Tararua Tramping Club that I have known forever, Jo who is also a member of the TTC but who I had never met before, and Mimi, Jo’s friend from France. They may not appreciate me explicitly pointing this out but Andy and I lowered the average age of the group significantly. The others were pretty excited to have some ‘kids’ joining them for a few days.

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Hiking in the Bavarian Alps = too much cheese

On Thursday we met up with Laura and caught the train to Tegernsee, from there we wanted to catch the bus to Kreuth. Laura was the unfortunate person who went first into the bus. Turns out we didn’t know how to pronounce Kreuth. “Crewth? Crowth?”. Eventually the bus driver understood. “Kroite!” (With a gutteral r) “which stop?” Umm.. pause… regroup. “Kreuth Rathaus”. The driver glared at us, it seemed like he didn’t agree with our choice but he did finally tell us the price. €3.70 each, €12.10 for three people. We tried to argue that 3.70 x 3 = 11.10 but to no avail, the language barrier and the surly driver was too much and we just overpaid by a euro.

Kreuth Rathaus turned out to be the right stop, in spite of the bus driver’s objections. It was a very un-New Zealand-like start to a tramp. In the middle of a small town on a road.

Start photo!

Day 1

We started walking at 10am through some fields with cows with bells. So European. For lunch we decided to do a side trip up Leonhardstein peak which was labelled as a black ‘difficult’ track. It involved similar scrambling to a lot of NZ tracks but there were some nice views and a surprising number of other people at the top. Also a giant cross. Where you would find a trig station in NZ it seems you find a cross in Germany. I would like to mention at this point that Laura brought three apples, a packet of blueberries and a tomato with her. I’m pretty sure she had as much snack weight as me and Andy combined.

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An attempt to plan a hiking trip in Germany (with brief interludes of drinking)

The first order of business on arrival into Munich was to meet up with our NZ friend Laura and sit in a beer garden. Munich is famous for its beer gardens, I think the biggest one holds something like 8,000 people. The standard measure of beer is 1L and they have the biggest pretzels I’ve ever seen.

Giant pretzel with Andy’s face for scale

We were meeting Laura with the plan to do some hiking in the Bavarian Alps. She was already in Munich visiting friends so it was a convenient place to meet. Unfortuanately planning a hiking trip in Germany was more difficult that we expected and when we asked for recommendations one German friend actually suggested we go to Italy to hike instead. Not a good start.

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Beijing Part 2: The Great Wall

Tuesday had the best weather forecast so we chose this day to head out to the greatest of walls. Based on a recommendation from a couple we had met in Xi’an we decided to walk from Jiankou – a ‘wild’ unrestored section – to the restored section of Mutianyu. However this couple had been dropped off further along than intended and ended up walking an extra three hours than what they’d planned.

After reading screeds of information online we decided to walk from Zhengbeilou watchtower to Mutianyu. Lots of tour agencies actually do this section so it sounded pretty safe. I was still feeling a bit sick and there are apparently some pretty dodgy parts further along the Jiankou section. You are walking along a crumbling stone wall that’s hundreds of years old after all.

We woke up at 6:30am (groan) and caught the metro then the bus to Huairou. A whole lot of taxi drivers were trying to convince us to get in their cars but we ignored them and found a local noodle shop for breakfast across the road from the station. The staff here were really nice, I don’t think they see many westerners. One of the guys sitting across from us kept asking where we were going. “Mutianyu? Mutianyu?” so we responded “No, Jiankou”.

Great wall flag

Andy finally got the perfect Chinese flag photo

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Huashan: The Number One Precipitous Mountain Under Heaven

Huashan is one of China’s five sacred mountains and is apparently known as The Number One Precipitous Mountain Under Heaven. Not to be confused with Huangshan which I think is The Number One Mountain Under Heaven and better known as the Yellow Mountain. Fun fact: ‘shan’ means mountain, so saying Mount Huashan is like saying Lake Rotoiti. Huashan is super close to Xi’an so it made its way onto our itinerary in our quest to do as much walking as possible in China.

After a combination of metro – high speed train – shuttle bus – (ticket office) – shuttle bus we made it to the base of the mountain. We had elected to climb up the Soldiers’ Walk route so that we could form a loop, descending via the main climbing route. The Soldiers’ Walk route is known for being really steep and having steps at 80 degrees incline. We planned to stay overnight at the top to give us enough time to explore all of the peaks of the mountain as well as walking up and down. As always we were trying to avoid using the cable cars for reasons relating to both money and pride.

It was mid-morning before we started climbing, so we bought some roast kumara from a stall at the base of the mountain. You literally buy an entire kumara, including skin, and just bite into it. They were pretty good, nice and warm. The weather was not looking as good as the forecast had indicated.

Soldiers' Walk

View on the way up Soldiers’ Walk

We started climbing up the classic Chinese stone steps. Everyone else had taken the cable car and we didn’t see anyone else for the entire walk up. The fog did start to roll in partway, and it also started to snow. Maybe there was a reason we were the only people on the trail. The views were awesome though, lots of sheer granite cliffs poking out through the clouds.

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