Friday, November 29, 2019

Åland Islands On a Motorcycle


Aland is a collection of islands about half way between mainland Finland and Sweden. Although technically a part of the Republic of Finland, it is an autonomous region - with its own government, its own flag, its own license plates, and, most importantly, its own deal with the European Union. Aland is a tax-free zone, and if a ship calls at the port of Mariehamn on its way from one EU country to another, it can sell duty-free alcohol on board. Which is why there is a daily connection between the archipelago and the Estonian capital, Tallinn.

I had been fascinated by Aland for a long time, and even made the effort to get up in the middle of the night on occasion, coming back from Stockholm, to catch a glimpse of the island as the ship nuzzled up against the dock for ten minutes. But in the summer of 2019, several factors came together to motivate me to finally book the trip. The proximate cause was a trip report by a writer I follow, Amal el-Mohtar, who visited Aland for a literary convention, and had extremely nice things to say about it. In addition, I was struggling with a challenge I’d set for myself, to go abroad at least once in every month in 2019; I had nothing planned for July. Finally, the schedules lined up well: I could catch the evening ferry out of Tallinn after work on Friday, get off at Mariehamn at the crack of dawn on Saturday, spend two full days on the archipelago, and catch the returning ferry from Stockholm on Sunday night - then be back at work only a little late on Monday morning. I had enough experience with Tallink to book cheap, too: the boat there and back again cost me only just over a hundred euros.

So here I was, riding my Yamaha Fazer into the bowels of the Victoria I, on the way to a nearby destination that had eluded me so far.

The overnight cruise ferries between Tallinn and Stockholm are designed to entertain; there was a time when they were the affordable option to reach Sweden, but these days, a plane ticket is almost always cheaper. That said, I’d spent a lot of time on these boats, and there was hardly any novelty there for me. I checked out the duty-free supermarket, but I had no intention of filling my panniers with discount booze on the outward leg. The performance troupe that was in residence at the boat’s cabaret was offering an early-evening backstage tour, which I joined with interest, but I did not hang around for the main floor show, despite the coupons for half-off drinks that I got with my tickets: I had an early wake-up call, and a long day’s ride ahead of me, so I wanted to get as much sleep as I could. In my cabin, I watched the Estonian Song and Dance Festival on TV - it was happening that weekend, a once-in-five-years massive event. I had the cabin to myself, which was a nice surprise - I had booked a single berth, which normally means sharing the cabin with three truck drivers. But apparently Tallink will not put passengers heading to Aland in the same cabins as those heading to Stockholm, to let everyone get a good’s night rest, and the only other vehicles getting off at Mariehamn were cars whose families had booked entire cabins. So on the way there, and the way back, I got complete privacy at a discount price. Not bad.

Coming from Tallinn, the ferry calls at Mariehamn at 4.50 AM; and around 4 AM, a ship’s steward knocked on my door to wake me up and tell me to muster on the disembarkation deck. Even though every sailing features an Aland stopover, the procedure for handling passengers and vehicles is awkwardly ad-hoc: a security guard read off the names of foot passengers, while a loadmaster came up to fetch me - the only one in motorcycle gear - to reach the car deck via a service stairwell, since the normal passenger lifts are shut down until the morning. As the ship’s ramp dropped, I saw sunshine, and my Michelins rolled out onto Aland soil.

I’d expected the early arrival to be a problem, and indeed, Mariehamn was comprehensively closed, with the exception of a 24-hour Shell station. The solution I had in mind involved finding a nice quiet strip of waterside woodland where to hang my hammock and watch the sunrise. Searching for the right spot, I ended up at a campsite just outside the city center, quiet at this hour but absolutely packed with tents and caravans. As the mist burned off, I sat on the beach, accompanied by flocks of entirely unintimidated geese.

I had considered camping, but in this aspect again, Aland is distinct from the rest of Scandinavia: almost every bit of land is claimed, and you can’t just pitch a tent somewhere in the forest. The particular weekend I’d picked to go, it was because I could book a bed at the Godby Vandrarhem, the only cheap hostel on the island. Cheap is a relative term, and a bunk bed still set me back twenty euros - but in Scandinavia, that’s as good a price as you can expect for a dry warm bed and a shower, and no more than I would pay at a campsite. Hanging out on the beach as the holiday village slowly woke up behind me, I was reaffirmed in my decision: this far north, even July nights can get frosty.

A couple of hours later, I returned to the city and parked the bike at the Shell station - in view of its surveillance cameras, but in a spot where no car could have possibly fit. There are different schools of thought regarding bike security, with the common wisdom being to carry a cover that makes the bike invisible. When I’m off the bike in the middle of a city for a few hours in the middle of the day, I tend to just leave the bike in full view on the main street: there is nothing anybody can grab off the bike that isn’t locked inside a hard case, and visibility deters idle hands, at least while everyone is sober.

I walk through a park with some interesting public art - or maybe it’s a playground; or maybe it’s both - and find the earliest open cafe for my morning coffee, and a breakfast of a shrimp wrap. Seafood while traveling is always a calculated risk, but I figure that on an island with such a strong fishing culture, I am reasonably safe. After that, I stroll down the main shopping street, past the first booths of the weekend open-air market, towards the statue of Empress Maria Aleksandrovna. She was the godmother of the town - the furthest northwestern outpost of the Russian Empire. Aland was captured from the Sweden and incorporated into the Grand Duchy of Finland under Russian rule, which is why this Swedish-speaking archipelago stayed a Finnish dependency after World War I (and not, as one legend tells it, because you could reach the Finnish coast always within sight of land, whereas Sweden was over the blue horizon). All this and more I find out at the surprisingly engrossing Aland Museum of Culture and History. The history part is a series of well-annotated dioramas, with lovely anecdotes such as the fate of the Aland provincial banner - taken to Stockholm to be displayed at the funeral of a beloved king, and mixed up with the banner of Oland, a completely different part of the Kingdom of Sweden, to be returned only many decades later. I also realize that Reval, as Tallinn was called back then, has always been a key trading partner for Aland; as a fully fledged Hanseatic city, it was not that much less of a trade hub than Stockholm or St Petersburg. The culture part of the museum is partly a permanent exhibition of Mariehamn sports memorabilia - its football team apparently punches above its weight in the Finland league - and partly a very good audiovisual installation. The artist, whose displayed works include sculptures finished in a particular kind of velvet-like material, was even considerate enough to provide a separate piece of that material on the wall for visitors to touch.

I get back on the bike and head south. Stretching down from the town is a road that stretches across several tiny islands, combining them effectively into a very skinny peninsula. It is not a fast road by any means, but it does meander through extraordinarily picturesque bays, making it enjoyable even at fifty kilometers per hour. I follow a local biker to a tiny yacht harbor, then after trying to reach the southern tip and coming to a private-property gate, I turn around and head for the Stickstugan Cafe. If Aland is all of Scandinavia compressed into one tiny place, then Järsö island is Denmark - flat, watery, and incredibly manicured. The Stickstugan is hygge embodied: a summer cakery that sprawls behind a handicrafts barn that is stuffed with every possible kind of yarn and wool-based product. The cafe is a nice walk down a garden path that is very carefully constructed to be authentic, with extra tables inside an old greenhouse. This is the place that so enamored Amal El-Mohtar, and I know exactly what to order. The Aland pancake is a thick slab, served hot, with plum jam and whipped cream - enough to constitute lunch on its very own. I spend a pleasant half an hour in the sunshine with my coffee, pondering the local fishermen wrapping a square of pancake in a linen cloth to bring out for a day’s fishing in the cold Baltic waters.

Then it’s back to Mariehamn for its final must-see attraction: the museum ship Pommern. One of the biggest sailing ships ever constructed, it is a memorial to a very peculiar economic circumstance, and the peak of Aland’s relevance in world events. In the first half of the 20th century, as steamers took over commercial haulage, there was one last profitable route left for Tall Ships on the High Seas: the Australian grain trade. Fast clippers that were no longer needed by their British or German cargo lines were bought up cheaply by enterprising Aland Swedish businessmen, who raised capital by selling shares to a local population that had been pooling their resources and sharing the profits of extended voyages for as long as the community existed. Every year, as South Australia brought in its crops for the season, the grain was loaded into the cavernous bellies of Gustaf Erikson’s beautiful Windjammers. With a crew of no more than thirty, they unfurled their sails and rode the trade winds around the tip of South America, racing for the honor and glory of being the first to reach England; perhaps even to set an all-time record. They may have taken incidental cargo on their outbound leg to the New World, but it was just the one hyper-profitable run per season that kept them going; once the grain was in, it was cheaper to take the ships back to Mariehamn for the rest of the year. For the few decades when these eco-friendly bulk haulers could legitimately compete, they brought prosperity to the archipelago. The last commercial run around Cape Horn was in 1949, a full decade after the Pommern had been moored in Mariehamn for good.

But just because this beauty had not left the harbor, doesn’t mean it has been neglected. The attached museum of the Aland commercial sailing fleet would have been worth the entry price alone, but the vessel itself has been kitted out to the finest standards of modern interactive museum design. With full access from crew & officer quarters to the lowest bowels of the steel hull, the Pommern is an absolute delight - and if you are into this sort of thing at all, it alone is worth the trip to Aland.

It is now late afternoon, and I have spent most of the first of my two days in Mariehamn, so it is time to head north. I navigate a sequence of roundabouts that takes me onto the main road, past a supermarket advertising local goods - I will return there yet - and onto Godby. This village is the crossroads of the main island, and one of its larger settlements. My summer hostel is the residence hall attached to the archipelago’s main, and rather fancy, sports facility - complete with a full-length pool, filled but not accepting guests. (Presumably, young Alanders are encouraged to build character by swimming in the waters of the North Baltic throughout the summer.) The hostel is typically Scandinavian, which is to say, plain but comfy. My assigned space is in a large room with dozens of bunk beds, but as there is only one other person in the room with me that night, I cannot complain; I have my pick of location, next to a window but with a good blackout opportunity, and conveniently next to the chargers. I get the panniers off my bike and leave them in the room; the food I still have from the ferry goes in the fridge of the very well-equipped, clean and spacious communal kitchen.

I head further north. I had to suffer a stretch of unsealed road on my way in - summer is busy season for roadworks, but it’s worth it if they are kept so immaculate. On my way out, I clock another location to return to - the Stallhagen Pub - and navigate along back roads, through villages and loose settlements, across narrow causeways between lakes or deep inlets. My destination is Geta: not quite as far up as the roads go on a map, but as high as my bike will take me today. This is where pan-Scandiavian Aland has its Norway section: an outcrop of ancient volcanic stone that provides appreciable verticality and an Arctic landscape, windswept and beautiful. There is a campsite up here, with huts and motorhomes and tents; there’s also a pub which I don’t go into, a bird-watching or fire-observation tower which I do, and a well-marked hiking loop along the lava fields that are in the process of conquest by hardy Nordic shrubs. I happily share the path with a family, then return to sit in one of the stone and log thrones that are set up to overlook the downs and the sea beyond. If you do decide to pitch up on Aland, this is definitely the best spot.

I have time still, in the long Nordic summer evening, and so I take in an extra loop before heading back towards Godby. My Yamaha’s 110 kilowatts are certainly wasted on this island, where the speed limit is generally 50 and you never really want to go faster than that; even in the countryside, the roads meander between homesteads in a relaxed manner, without the visibility or the inspiration for great speed. Aland is often touted as a bicyclists’ paradise, and it’s not untrue, but neither is it an easy pleasure ride. The archipelago’s outline suggests that it just barely sticks out of the water, but in reality it is not at all flat. These hilly roads may be far less enjoyable without an engine.

Back at the hostel, I change out of my motorcycle gear, and put on some comfy shoes. Outside, a local couple is using one of the facilities to beat out their rugs; they have an absolutely adorable dog that they untie so it can play with me for a while. They have a house nearby, but they don’t live on Aland year-round; I wonder how many people do.

It is a three-kilometer walk to the pub, but I’ve got my headphones, and I can take a shortcut through the village. The Stallhagen Pub is attached to the eponymous brewery, the larger of Aland’s two local craft producers; I’m too late for a factory tour, but very much in time for dinner and a pint. I stay outside, enjoying the sunset on the lakeside deck, which carries the stage decorations of a summer play. The experience is very nice, and the beer is fine, if not exactly mind-blowing: Stallhagen is definitely on the mainstream side of the craft beer revolution, and I won’t find any of the freaky potions I love here. Eventually the sun sets, and I feel I’ve reached the happy equilibrium that will get me just about back to my bed so I can crash into it. I have plans for tomorrow, but I do not have an alarm set.

A leisurely breakfast allows me to greet the other hostel guests - some of them solo, but a family as well. I drop off the keys at the sports center, and this time I head east. My first and most important destination of the day is Kastelholm, a magnificent medieval keep that was built by the Swedes to secure the archipelago province (and also, on occasion, to warehouse an inconvenient royal sibling). There is an open-air museum attached, with relocated farmhouses from the area, and two more of those tiny, highly specific museums: the local jailhouse (in use until surprisingly recently), and a museum of the Aland postal service - not at all insignificant, as this was the fast mail route between Stockholm and Saint Petersburg. Kastelholm itself is well-preserved largely because it was understood to be indefensible against modern weapons by the early 19th century; when the Russian Empire took hold of Aland, it constructed a new low-slung earthwork fortress east of here at Bomarsund. I ride past that one, figuring I might stop on my way back if I feel like it - it’s a large open space full of ruins, the fortress itself having been thoroughly smashed by Anglo-French bombardment during the Crimean War, and it just doesn’t look as interesting - less so, even, than the factory shop of a chocolate factory a few kilometers back.

Instead I follow the road east, and take a local cable ferry across an inlet. This one is a true road extension, puttering back and forth all day without rest; but beyond the next few kilometers, I reach the end of the line on this side of the island. If I kept going east, I would be at the very start of a long multi-hop journey that eventually reaches the Finnish mainland outside of Turku. Instead I turn north at Vardo, and go to the end of another causeway. The ferry departs just before I get there, but I don’t have the time for a return trip, anyway - instead I take a breather and start heading back. Just in time, too; I roll into Godby and the first gas station I see on fumes. 

Just short of Mariehamn, I turn left and head onto the southeast side of Aland - this looks like the agricultural heartlands of central Sweden. Here I have a very specific destination in mind: the Open Water Brewery. These guys are much more low-key than Stallhagen, but they are My People. The factory shop is a few shelving units on the back side of a barn, but inside are the treasures I am looking for. One of the brewers is manning the counter, and we talk drink. He gives me a sample of their previous year’s cider, which apparently took up a double-digit percentage of the island’s entire apple crop for that season. It is crisp, fresh, incredibly flavourful and natural, not at all sugary, but also devoid of the vaguely urinal undertone that most bottled dry ciders have; it is beyond doubt the finest example of cider I have tasted to date. I can’t have a bottle, though; they’re sold out, and can only give little tasters from what’s left on the bottom of the house’s private keg. Alright then; I’ll just stock up on whatever beer seems interesting. I pick out however many bottles I think will fit in my panniers, then the master looks at my selection and says “that’s the 2018 version of that spiced stout, and it’s shit; keep that bottle for free, and I’ll replace it with the much nicer 2017 version we have in the back.” Later on, some friends of mine did a blind comparison test, including a certified beer sommelier, and the brewer was absolutely correct. My panniers barely close.

One more stop on this road: Amalia’s Lemonade Factory. The gift shop above the soft drink works is charming and full of wonderful local items, including the thing I am after: a gift box of truffles by Mercedes Chocolaterie. A Venezuelan has moved to Aland with her Finnish diplomat husband, and set up a business creating the most beautiful and delicious high-end candy from the best cacao beans that a lifetime of local connections can buy. I saw them before in that gift shop on Mariehamn’s main street, but it will be closed on Sunday evening. This place stocks them, and now I’ve got my obligatory souvenirs sorted. Outside is a weird minivan; I realize it’s converted for the use of a family with a paraplegic relative, whose motorized carrier wheels in and out easily. I feel sorry for the person, but also glad that Scandinavian society gives them an opportunity to remain outgoing.

Back west, with heavy panniers. I’ve still got plenty of daylight, and my boat to Tallinn is not until 1 AM, so now I head west, along Aland’s Highway 1, the only road with a well-trafficked bus route. Before now, I only knew Eckero as the name of one of the smaller players on the Tallinn to Helsinki ferry route, but the company’s bread and butter is the fast vehicle line from the archipelago’s Western edge to mainland Sweden; they have their own coach services on both ends of the sailing. I’m not there to look at the port, but rather at the Eckero Customs House, a neoclassical edifice that has recently been renovated, and now houses a lovely museum. When I arrive, it hosts a fascinating temporary exhibition of contemporary art and craft from small islands across the Baltic - including Estonia’s own Saaremaa and Hiiumaa. I enjoy a game of “guess the origin” as I review the beautiful pieces, most of which are at least partly functional. Then I sit down for a cup of coffee and a far less inspiring version of Aland pancake. After a little hike along the water’s edge and the remnants of the old trade warf, I am on my way back.

Before heading into town, I stop at that supermarket; it’s open late, and it’s a great opportunity to stock up on both local specialties and Fennoscandic staples that have mysteriously not yet made their way onto Estonian shelves. I grab some local black bread, cheese, apple juice, and remark upon the display of Stallhagen beer: by either Finnish or Swedish standards, it is surprisingly affordable - and I am used to the Systembolaget monopoly that restricts supermarket sales to weak beer. But Stallhagen is local and is not to be restricted; and Aland’s autonomy, along with its special tax status, gives a distinct advantage to local heroes. For the sake of fairness, there’s also a respectable selection of Open Water bottles.

I putter along Mariehamn’s street grid for a few minutes and park next to a rock bar that appears to be the only thing open late on a Sunday. The crowd inside is friendly - mostly a large group of locals engrossed in conversation (one of them, as I find out, is a Lithuanian girl that lives here), but there are a few stragglers at the counter with whom I make conversation over my supermarket burrito. What the bar is short on, however, is beer: the owner explains apologetically that it’s the end of the weekend, he won’t get a delivery until the start of the week, and the patrons had polished off his entire supply of the good stuff. My two choices are Carlsberg, which is too boring to contemplate, or a Finnish mass-market lager that is only slightly less insipid. At least it’s something for me to complain about on Untappd. Anyway, I’m limiting myself here - I still need to get my bike down to the docks at the end of the night.

Around 11pm, even this bar closes up. My new buddy - I forget his name - gets a call from his girlfriend and apologizes for having to leave me; I enthusiastically excuse him and tell him to go and make his woman happy. I have time to kill, but I might as well do it down at the port, so that’s where I take my overloaded Yamaha. They let me into the staging area early, and at least there’s a toilet there; I kill some time talking to a group of Russian bikers who came here the long way around, island-hopping from Turku, and are now taking the sleeper to Helsinki. It leaves an hour before mine. I watch the Tallink superboat appear way out at the mouth of the inlet, putter up, turn around, and back up to the ramp. It opens a single section, and me and handful of cars roll on board. The guards quickly rush us abovedecks, offering to take on the job of securing the bike - passengers are not allowed down here while the boat is under steam, and they only have ten minutes in Mariehamn. I am, again, the only person to have booked a shared berth for this half of the leg, and it’s bought me a private cabin. I fall asleep; wake up; disembark in Tallinn; and go straight to work.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

AsiaTrip: Low's Peak


I'd arrived at Laban Rata after one o'clock, having done the climb in a little over four hours. Dinner would not be served for another three, and a clique of anglophones quickly formed at the tables. This is the social spirit of backpacking at its best: it happens not on the Thai beaches of a full moon party, and not at an Amsterdam coffee shop, but at a place like Laban Rata, or like Lencois, the base camp at the Brazilian national park of Chapada Diamantina. It is built on sincerity stemming from exhaustion, and a default respect awarded to everyone who is present at the table: none of us have gotten here other than through the crucible. Be it the greying Austrian who left his wife and kids at the seaside resort to come on an impromptu trek and was the first one up the mountain, or the two English conservation students who'd been traveling around Malaysia on a sort of extra-credit holiday, or the two blonde Danish girls just out of high school, or the horribly sunburnt American who turned out to be in possession of Estonian roots and a very Estonian name - about as Estonian as could survive for a second-generation Floridian whose father had been born in a German displaced-persons camp.

Over the next few hours, the conversation had gone through every plausible topic, from Eurovision (explaining it to the American) to how Europeans are not *really* racist towards visible-minority immigrants at home (I smile and nod, and wonder to myself if this topic could have been discussed as earnestly if there had been a non-
white European within earshot; and no, Asians don't count). The night ends in a round of six-euro beers. The Austrian and the American stay up to drink, but I stumble down to my dorm hut for some rest - my alarm is set for 1.30 am, and an hour after that, I start climbing.

The blackout is soon interrupted: a few Malaysian climbers stumble in, and say that a bunch of people are still on the trail, and terribly late. These guys are part of a group of 37 people from a Kota Kinabalu college, who chose to take the Mesilau Gate path - which is 2km longer and tougher than the Timpohon Gate one. They'd started around 9am, like everyone else, but through some combination of inferior guides, a lack of preparation, or whatever else, the first people in the party did not get to Laban Rata until well after sunset, around 9pm - which is to say, they'd been climbing in the dark. A lot of people from their group were still down there.

I ask the guy if he's doing the summit climb tomorrow, and his answer amounts to a resolute "hell no" - which, in the circumstances, is perfectly fair. So I borrow his headlamp - I was going to rent one from the hostel, but he won't be needing his until I get back down in the morning...

///

I wake up in the dark, and and decide the bush shower is not worth attempting. Maybe the people in the main building have hot water, but the outhouse next to my hut sure doesn't. I stuff my feet into my long-suffering ankle-high orange Timberlands and go up to the hostel for breakfast, wearing more-or-less everything I brought - which amounts to a black fleece with my employer's logo (mercifully discretely) sewn on it, the thin synthetic cargo pants I bought in a mall in Salvador da Bahia because it was literally cheaper than doing laundry, my Australian kangaroo-hide drover's hat, and my climbing gloves - which are actually cheap ten-euro fingerless leather gloves I got from my moto shop back at home: they are meant for cruiser riders, entirely useless as riding protection, but have decent padding on the inside of the palm.

Byron comes to collect me, dressed like a polar explorer. Departures are staggered by handicap: my guide gets me out early, probably because he is not too sure about my climbing speed. I wave to the breakfast crowd - see you on the trail! The Austrian is there with the others, but his guide told him he might as well sleep in.

The start of the final leg is even more crowded than the base of the mountain yesterday, but it quickly thins out as the Japanese school groups fall behind. My borrowed headlamp's strap is useless, it keeps coming off; I fiddle a bit, and find that I can actually attach the lamp itself to the horizontal chest strap on my backpack. Much better!

We proceed up a very long set of steps, a wooden staircase attached to the side of the mountain roughly as far as the treeline goes, and then bunch up again slightly at a chokepoint: a thick rope, like a ship's mooring cable, shines white against the grey rock face. We are well above the tree line now, and there is obviously nothing natural to grab onto. I shrug inwardly, and follow the procession of climbers. Later that morning, while coming back down, I will be astounded by how different it looks: in the daytime I would be incredibly intimidated by this section, and would be quite reluctant to attempt it uphill. But in the dark, there is no context and no alternative: I must simply trust that if everyone else is doing it, I can and must as well. So I grab onto the rope and scramble up the broken rock face.

Half way up the summit trail is a checkpoint, where a park employee reviews our passes and makes a note of our passage - I assume it is mostly to know who to look for in the event of a disaster, rather than weeding out those who did not pay the climbing fee, because the shack is surely not that difficult to avoid for a genuinely motivated scoundrel. After we get through, Byron calls for a rest break: this is how he measures progress, time until sunrise against distance left to cover. I sit on the rocks and take photos of the distant lights - Kinabalu City? Some other conurbation? It feels about as far as the view out of an airplane window at cruising altitude, though I know we are still below four thousand meters. I wave to the British girls as they pass by.

Beyond the checkpoint there isn't really a trail, just a general direction along a broad barren incline. In the darkness, I lose Byron, but it makes no real difference: I'm not feeling very chatty, and the faint points of headlamp light ahead show me where I must go. I follow the incline, at first straight up, then start zig-zagging to trade total distance for grade. The climb is cold, lonely, and seemingly interminable, but I know how long I've been up here and how long I have until sunrise. Yesterday was worse.

Beyond the crest of the tilted plateau lies the last stage of the climb: a boulder-crawl up to Low's Peak itself. Now that the end in sight, I am motivated, and progressing with three points of contact at all times is actually less strenuous than walking uphill. Before very long, I make it all the way up.

Time to have my picture taken next to the sign. Low's Peak, four thousand and ninety-five meters above sea level; achieved without any specialist climbing equipment other than biker's gloves and mall-common Timberlands, by a fat bastard who's not seen the inside of a gym in years. Never mind that this is the terminus of a well-trodden gringo trail; it's a goddamn accomplishment, and I'm proud!

It's at least an hour until sunrise. That was the entire point of the exercise: sunrise at Low's Peak. The whole procession is structured around this, designed to give us this singular experience, because in all honesty, there are not that many other experiences to be had up here. Borneo is a tropical jungle, so much of the Timpohon Gate trail is covered in vegetation anyway; and when you do get a window out onto the expanse, it's nothing but a sea of green. Kinabalu stands proud and alone. There is neither the civilizational sprawl of Rio or Naples, nor the volcanic spectacle of Japan, nor the stark visual overload of Finnmark. And as the temperature rises throughout the day, so does the mist; the point of sunrise on the summit is that if you arrive late, you see nothing but the wooden plank affixed into the rock.

That gringo terminus feeling is predominant. Low's Peak is literally that - a pencil-point sticking out of a wider mountaintop. No convenient shelter is available. The windchill is a major factor, so as the extended line of tourist climbers bunches up again at their destination, the place resembles nothing so much as a group of ants clinging to each other at the tip of a toothpick: every single patch of less-than-vertical surface on the leeward side is taken up by a miserable European, shivering and washing down their energy bars with cold water. Everyone is exhausted, everyone is sleep-deprived, but closing your eyes on this precarious encampment is out of the question. Besides, there's always some Taiwanese or Israeli girl climbing over you to get to a point of illusory comfort beyond the next rock.

---

Dawn comes and we stare at the sun, appearing out of the haze. The Benetton cluster turns towards the light, snaps one last selfie and begins to disassemble. Byron - now looking like an Arctic explorer in the full gear he'd hauled up just to wait out the predawn chill - finds me and urges me to start heading back. Fair enough, there's not much more to see here.

This really is the highlight of the climb - not the way up, not the sunset at Laban Rata, and not the appearance of the sun, but the magic first hour of crisp fresh light above the cloud cover. After a rope-aided descent from Low's Peak itself, where I feel I am getting somewhat good at this boulder-crawling thing, we have a long walk down the barren incline. This is where I take my best photos, of other distant peaks silhouetted against the deep blue of altitude. A bunch of guides are sitting at an enclosure of piled-up rocks, waiting for their respective gringos to get down. I'm feeling good now, going down is less strenuous than going up, and Byron tells me stories. On the approach towards the now-irrelevant checkpoint, he mentions how a few months ago, a Frenchman lost his footing and tumbled down the rocky plateau. Luckily for him, this is one of the two points on the trail - the other being Laban Rata itself - where a helicopter medevac is possible; so he got a quick ride down, not that he enjoyed it.



A few months after my trip, a major earthquake near Mount Kinabalu resulted in the deaths of several guides and tourist climbers who were on the Via Ferrata - an additional post-peak activity that I had intended to do, but decided to skip after all. They were climbing along special equipment affixed to a vertical mountainface, which was dislodged in the quake. Nobody on the Via Ferrata survived, but as far as I know, nobody else on the busy mountain at the time was killed. This is a testament to the professionalism and care of the local guides and emergency services. In addition, the earthquake resulted in the destruction of a few of the freestanding mountaintop formations - some of the peaks in my pictures are no longer there.
After the rope section, which now becomes a brief unsecured absail, we dive back into the treeline. The stairs are definitely taking a toll on my knees, but I encourage myself with the prospect of breakfast and a nice sit-down at the hostel. I don't get much rest, though - I'm barely done with the hearty but uninspiring food before Byron drives me on.

As we leave the compound, I go through my pockets and show him the thing I bought specifically for this part of the trip, but that I did not end up needing: a bottle of high-strength insect repellent, the sort of stuff that is almost entirely poison. I brought some this time because I remembered not having it in Brazil - assuming I would be able to get it anywhere in-country; turned out it's really uncommon there. I'd ended up buying some regular beach-type stuff before going to the Amazon, and hardly needed it at all: my hostel on the acidic arm of the river was almost entirely devoid of mosquitoes in late February. So it is with Borneo, as between the dry season and the altitude, the insect life has been entirely unobtrusive. I toss the bottle to Byron and tell him to keep it, but not put it on synthetic clothing, because it will eat right through the fibers. The Malaysian seems fascinated and slightly frightened by the implication of a culture and climate that required the manufacture of such precautions on an industrial scale.

Ironically, because I set foot in Borneo, I was blocked from giving blood for a year. The rest of the trip - Thailand, Laos, Western China, Taiwan - was of no concern to the epidemiological authorities, and neither was the main body of Malaysia. Better safe than sorry, I guess.

As we descend, I begin to understand why the way down is scheduled to take as long as the way up, if not more. I missed a walking stick while climbing the mountain, but I am really missing it now. The summit trail is not steep enough to keep three points of contact with the ground or vegetation, but it is definitely too steep to be a taken at a brisk trot, as I would do with a downhill trail at home or in Europe. It is a series of large natural steps, and I have to jump down each one; I try to set a good pace at the outset, but the constant impact has a jarring effect on my knees. I may not have too much regard for my physical shape, but I did sort of expect the way down to be something of a walk in the (national) park. It is anything but. I know not to push too hard, as it is much easier to be injured in a fall on the downslope than on the climb, so as we keep going, I take increasingly frequent rest breaks. Mentally, this is easier than yesterday because I have my headphones on.

We meet the day's new shift of tourists going up, along with the cargo-carrying locals. Whenever I stop to rest, Byron is off to have a conversation - I'm sure that in his mind, he's already down the mountain and partying in town with his friends. At the halfway mark he goes off to the guides' hut to have his instant noodles, while I talk to a group of Westerners on their way up, and finish the last of my Pocky.

We dip down further into the treeline; the descent smooths out eventually; and I find myself facing a small but visible rise. It may be slightly daunting, but it's actually the end of the line; Timpohon Gate, the place where we started. We check out of the park, and Byron finds a little shuttle just about to leave for base camp. Once there, I say goodbye - he's eager to be off. The descent only took about four hours, which is a respectable pace.

I buy a polo shirt with the Mount Kinabalu logo and go down to a restaurant - this lunch buffet was part of my package trip. The food is not bad, but I'm far too gone to eat anything substantial. I get back to the parking lot and find the bus back to Kinabalu City. It is an astoundingly comfortable coach - it doesn't have the in-seat entertainment of Europe's nicer intercity lines, but the interior is ostentatiously appointed, and my deeply reclining seat affords me all the legroom I could want. If this is the standard of coach travel in South-East Asia, maybe my overnight trip from Laos to China won't be so bad!

I make an honest effort to enjoy the view from the panoramic window, but I zone out before the bus even begins to move, and spend most of the way to Kinabalu City unconscious. Back at my hotel, in a different room but reunited with my baggage, it is as much as I can do to take a brief shower and fall into bed. It's 5pm. I wanted to see some more of the city. I never did.

Thursday, January 07, 2016

AsiaTrip: Alternate Climb Path

I found the original text I wrote on the night train from Kuala-Lumpur to Penang. It describes the same thing as the previous post, but I can see no reason not to post it. The second part of it forms the start of the next chapter, but that's it for the reserves - everything from then on is recollected a year or more later.


I wake up at ungodly o'clock, surprisingly upbeat and full of nervous energy. I consider what to bring up to the mountain, and leave my large suitcase at the hotel before checking out - I will be back after a day and a night and a day. I've filled my fancy aluminium canteen with a liter of boiled water, and I also have a couple of boxes of Pocky from the nearest 7-Eleven in my backpack. No breakfast is available (at this hour or at all), and all I have eaten so far in Kota Kinabalu is the disturbing dessert. The last decent meal I had was on the plane. The last decent night's sleep I had was in Tartu.

I'm the last person on the minivan. Besides me, there is a young guy from some other part of South-East Asia, and a big bald American guy, from Hawaii as it turns out, with his Asian-American wife. They are doing not just the summit, but also the Via Ferrata on the way back - something I initially wanted to do, but reconsidered (wisely).

The road out into the countryside reminds me of Brazil, perhaps unsurprisingly - lush jungle, fringed with intermittent industrial sites and Catholic retreats. The extent of human habitation should not be surprising, but somehow is, to a European. Yes, people live on Borneo, and yes, all of them have a Samsung Galaxy.

At base camp, I am introduced to my guide, Byron (named after the poet - I asked). I see people carrying trekking poles, and wonder if I should get one, but decide against it. This will ultimately prove to be a bad decision. We get back on the bus, and it drops us off at the trailhead of Timphon Gate. There are four other climbers in our group, but as I have booked alone and paid for a separate guide, I suggest to him that we strike out ahead. I go first, at the pace that seems good to me; Byron is spotting me from the back. I feel a little bit of social awkwardness - were I alone, I'd just put in my headphones and listen to podcasts or an audiobook. I am absolutely certain Byron would not have been offended, but I still don't do it, electing to take in the high jungle of Borneo with all of my senses.

I love trekking because it offers me a means of introspection, a backdrop of physical effort that I can modulate to my own perceived stamina while meditating - a sort of living REM sleep. I also love verticality as only a person from a very flat country can. On a normal occasion, I could think of nothing more pleasant than a four-hour ramble along a verdant mountainside. So understand when I tell you: the Mount Kinabalu summit trail is many things, but it is not pleasant.

Indeed, it is open to the general public, and can be completed by anyone of reasonable physical fitness levels, without recourse to specialist climbing equipment or technique (other than gloves, a headlamp, and decent footwear). But all the reviews will tell you: it is tough. All of the marketing focuses on the achievement, not the enchantment. You start with a six-kilometer hike, during which you go from 1866 meters above sea level - already higher than most amateur trails in Europe - to something like 3200 meters. That is a gain of 1,4 kilometers, or around a 1-in-4 average grade (gaining 1 kilometer in height per 4 kilometers walked). Furthermore, half of that elevation comes in the last third of the trail. I had a tracker running on my phone for parts of the climb, and the maximum grade it recorded was 47%. To put that in context: there is a gorge next to the Highway Museum in southern Estonia, where road signs tell you in no uncertain terms to slow the hell down to 30km/h and drive extremely carefully. That is for a grade of, if I remember correctly, something like 13%.

I was doing fine for the first four kilometers - feeling the strain, but also feeling like I was within my stamina limits. I could do this. It would be tough, but I would feel better for having done it. At the four-kilometer mark came the lunch stop: at a roadside shelter, I ate the packed lunch provided by the tour operator - a few triangles of ham and cheese on plain white bread, and an apple: intentionally bland enough not to upset any guest's sensibility or stomach. While I ate, me and a couple other climbers - another big American with an Asian girlfriend, oddly enough - chatted with, or rather were aggressively chatted at, a jolly old Englishman in a woolen sweater and a Holland beanie, who volunteered various details about his life, such as having gone to prison for crashing a car after doing coke, and emotionally supporting a Mexican friend who was obssessed with getting back his wife who'd divorced him years before. ("He slept with one of the nurses, and told his wife." - "Well, there's his mistake," I quip back. "He should have slept with his wife, and told one of the nurses.")

After the lunch stop at the four-kilometer mark, though, the trail got significantly steeper. I kept climbing out of sheer stubbornness and resolve. By the five-kilometer mark, I had broken down, physically and mentally. It was only the innate composure and ability to suppress emotion that is the birthright of a North European that prevented me from weeping openly. The guides warned us to take rest breaks, but not to make them long - it would be difficult to start again. Several times, I simply stopped on the trail, unsure of whether I could start again - but I knew that there was no cable car with which to take a short-cut. A big part of why I travel is to put myself not just out of my comfort zone, but into a situation where I have to push myself, because there is simply no other recourse available. This was perhaps the greatest of these moments.

My guide saw that I was struggling, but of course, there was nothing he could do but encourage me. He did not know what I eventually realized - that I was doing this climb on a lack of sleep, and most probably a serious deficit of blood sugar. Looking up at the trail that was shooting ever higher above me, I sat on a rock, and closed my eyes, thinking of nothing and feeling nothing but the sun on my face.

Then I wolfed down a whole box of Pocky in one go.

The Laban Rata mountain refuge was just behind the next crest. I climbed breathlessly onto the volleyball-like pitch beneath the hostel building, as Byron high-fived me. I felt relieved, but only for a moment: this was the six-kilometer mark, and the stop for the day. I still had another three klicks, and eight hundred vertical meters, to go until Low's Peak - and I would have to do that at night.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

AsiaTrip: Upwards and Onwards

(The story starts back here. I could have sworn I'd typed up the next chapter on the overnight train from Kuala Lumpur, but I can't find it anywhere, so I am continuing as recollected.)

I wake up at an ungodly hour and semi-check out, leaving most of my luggage behind. Downtown Kinabalu is quiet, and the tour company's van picks me up for the two-hour drive to the national park. As the van leaves the city and meanders through the countryside, I start up a brief conversation with an American, a weightlifter type, and his Asian (but not Malaysian) girlfriend. For me, it's my first and biggest challenge of the trip; for them, it's one of many. The American's got a couple of walking sticks, for his bad knees, and pays to have his and his lady's bags ported up to the overnight hostel. I can appreciate that it's an affordable solution when your travel plans won't let you leave the bags in the city, but it still strikes me as odd and slightly presumptuous. You don't need your luggage for a two-day, one-night climb.

At the base camp, I get my mountain ticket and meet Byron, my guide. The park regulations mostly prohibit solo climbing, and my schedule is not conducive to finding clever workarounds - I'm not part of a group, so I've been issued a personal minder. As I stand in the parking lot with my packed lunch (cheese on white bread and an apple - maximally inoffensive), I look up at the towering Kinabalu. There must be something I'm missing. There's no way I'm climbing all the way up there, on foot, today!





We're shuttled to the park entrance, and I pass by my last chance to rent a hiking pole. I consider it, but am not sure, and then they run out. This will turn out to be a big oversight on my part; but for now it's morning, the sun is shining, it's not too hot, and I am full of energy. As we start up the trailhead at 1800 meters above sea level, I ask Byron if it's okay that we go on ahead. The others from my van are moving slowly, and I might as well take advantage of having a personal guide. It's not so much that I'm in a hurry - I just like hiking alone, at my own pace and with my own thoughts, without adjusting to others. Byron is happy to follow behind - his capabilities obviously far exceed any pace I can set. For a while, it's a pleasant climb, as we pass the porters going up and down the mountain with heavy loads, boxes of supplies for the hostel, luggage, and even giant cannisters of pressurized cooking gas, strapped to their backs valve-side down, like a third-world jetpack.



The first tourists we meet are a group of drenched Aussies sprinting downhill. Their guide follows behind, winded, exchanging discernible gasps of exasperation with Byron. The young Aussies are obvious professionals, mountain runners, from the same clique that comes here every year to set records. There's a plaque down at the park gate, displaying last year's top times. It will take me somewhere between four or five hours just to get to the overnight spot, then more to reach the summit in the darkness, and the rest of tomorrow to get back down. The record holder, a Spaniard, made it all the way to the peak and back... in under three hours, total.



There is a dozen-odd rest areas on the way up the trail, some more elaborate than others. For the first major section, I am happy with my pace - I may not have strength, but I like to think I have stamina. By the time we break for lunch, there's a respectable flow of last night's tourists coming downstream. The undisputed king of the lunch spot is a wiry old Englishman wearing several sweaters and a thick wool hat with floppy ears, a one-man ambulatory sauna. He tells us stories of bumming around South-East Asia with the missus on a creaky old sailboat, as well as his old mates from back home - including a tragic physician who desperately tried to recapture his wife's affections. "The poor dumb sod, he slept with one of the nurses and told his wife." (I wait one heartbeat and deadpan: "That's his mistake right there. He should have slept with his wife and told one of the nurses.")



I refill my metal canteen at the only waterhose that Byron dares recommend to a foreigner, and we continue uphill. Now it's a different story, though. I may have rested and eaten, but the upper part of the trail is significantly steeper. The cheer drains from me as my legs burn, but I have no choice except to push on. I stop bantering with Byron and focus only on the road ahead, and above me. I'm carrying my phone and earbuds, but I feel it would be rude to use them for distraction, so I let my mind focus on the drumbeat of random lyrics from a Lordi song. Onward and upward, only occasionally glancing back down the hill to measure my progress - by this time we are out of the jungle and there is some sort of view, although the fog has rolled in to obscure most of it. Byron urges me to rest, but my stubbornness wins out. I don't think I can afford to lose inertia, or I'll never be able to start back up again. I'd quit if that were an option, but this is not Mount Etna or Vesuvius, there is no overpriced cable-car option. It's Malaysia, it's Borneo, it's a mountain that admits us tourists on sufferance. The overnight hostel is closer than base camp, is all that matters.


Eventually I can't take it any more. It's Sunday afternoon in local time, and the last decent sleep I had was on Thursday. I've barely had any dinner, I've not had any breakfast, I've spent the previous day walking around Hong Kong, I've been up since five in the morning, and the two slices of plain white bread with even plainer cheese have not made a difference. Exhausted in a way I can't ever remember being, with no physical or mental stamina left, I sit down on a rock just off the seemingly near-vertical path and turn around to look out at Asia sprawling before me. I reach into my backpack, pull out my box of Pocky and wolf it down, waiting for the blessed rush of sugar, palm oil and processed carbohydrates to revive me. I close my eyes and just sit there, drained.

Byron waits patiently for a subjective eternity - maybe twenty minutes by the wall clock - and urges me on. I sigh and recommence climbing.

Just over the next crest is Laban Rata. Now I can rest.


Tuesday, September 29, 2015

E-voting, New Zealand, something something

Jon Worth posted this link on Facebook and asked e-voting advocates to address the points in it, specifically as it concerns the prospects of e-voting in the EU.
So I did.
So Jon asked me to put them in a separate blog post for easy reference.
So I did.

(As always, I encourage you to read that entire post to understand my replies.)

Myth 1: 

"How to verify that an eligible voter cast a vote that arrives at a voting system’s door remains an unsolved problem."
Wrong. Secure digital ID is a reality, and several countries have deployed state-backed PKI systems that identify persons online to a sufficient level of reliability (no lower than comparing the person in front of you to a passport photo). Now, most of the EU doesn't have digital identities deployed yet, but the eIDAS Regulation does stipulate that they ought to eventually. I know where they can buy an e-government-in-a-box, at very reasonable rates.

"They may have sent the correct credentials, but who is to say it was them who was doing the voting, and not some “helpful” malware installed on their computer?"

In the last couple of elections, Estonia has deployed a second-device authentication mechanism. You vote on a computer, and get a time-limited QR code that you scan with a phone app, it then talks to the e-voting servers and shows how your vote has been recorded. Furthermore, while many have tried, nobody has successfully demonstrated a viable in-the-wild attack on the authentication mechanism. As Jon knows, being subjected to such constant tests is how systems become more secure.

"Good luck with that when you have an online voting system, and malware to manipulate votes is discovered on many New Zealanders’ computers a day after the results have been declared."

Fortunately, e-voting allows you to re-do the process after malware has been cleaned out or the software changed to close the attack vector. And, like all critics of e-voting, this author makes the assumption that judges and scrutineers are infallible and incorruptible.


Myth #2: 

Technology moves so fast that computer systems built today need constant maintenance, monitoring and patching just to keep them operational. In the case of an online voting system, defences against the latest threats and constantly upgrading underlying software and operating systems will make the cost even higher than for the average system. It’s likely the budget for these systems will be in the millions of dollars a year.
Only relevant if you set up a separate designated system for online voting. The eIDAS Regulation requires digital identities to be provided anyway, and the system easily pays itself in the savings on bureaucracy eliminated by e-government. Nevermind the general benefit to the economy of digital identities being widely available.

Myth #3:

"“21 percent of non-voters said they did not vote in the 2011 General Election because they ‘didn’t get round to it, forgot or were not interested’ to vote.”. In a word, disengagement."

Yup, and the way it's been done with us - a long period where e-voting is available, in a very convenient way, before a paper voting day - makes it much easier to get around to it. Plus, don't discount the driving factor of being able to share an "I voted" screenshot to Facebook.

Myth #4:

"What is missing from an online vote is a paper trail — actual paper that can be counted again if a result comes into dispute."
Anyone who has paid attention to, oh, let's say the referendum in Crimea, or recent municipal elections in Russia, can tell you interesting things about the inviolability of paper trails in paper elections.

"With an online system, it’s impossible to trust the results of the count, let alone a recount."
It is possible, though, to build tamper-proof databases and systems with end-to-end encryption. (They exist for specific government purposes; but the overhead means they are uncommon and not visible to most people. Here is an example I found with some very quick google-fu, of a tamper-proof solution in an environment where the receiver does not trust the sender at all and expects them to cheat.)

It is possible to build an IT system that is secure as long as you trust one or two core administrators - same as a paper voting system is only secure as long as you trust the returning officers.

Myth 5:

"What our system can’t do, is verify that our voters clicked on what they thought they did (hint: malware can change web pages), or rely upon showing the voters their choices later (not only did we just break the “secret” part of secret ballot, but our malware is back and changing pages again)."

Well, I described above how that's been solved in practice, although it's true that the functioning of the system would be much more transparent and understandable to most voters if you give up the secrecy of the vote. There are philosophical arguments for it as well, but I doubt they would be broadly convincing.

"Scrutineers are told to watch out for husbands hovering over their wives at polling booths. In an abusive household, the victim has no right of secrecy, making coercion by abusive or judgemental people far easier. Outright vote selling also becomes simple. And in families with voting-age children living at home with their parents and disengaged with the election process, maybe a parent will decide that one extra vote for them won’t hurt?"

Again, has actually been addressed in practice. This is why you get to e-vote repeatedly over a long period, and only the last vote counts; you can vote how your boss/spouse/school bully tells you to, show them that you did, then vote the other way a few hours later.

"It’s too hard for one person to manipulate thousands of votes."

But not too hard for a group of people. And I've talked before in these conversations about how e-voting actually makes it possible to set up independent voting watchdogs that are much more efficient than the Carter Center.

Myth #6:

Er, this is just babble. Not sure how I'm supposed to respond to that. "No, YOU're stupid"?

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