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The Rinjani Masters

A common response to the invite had gone along the lines of: “Who climbs a volcano for their stag do? Tell me you are flying to Bali and then straight onto Bangkok?”

A good number had politely declined a three-day hike with in excess of 7km of vertical ascent and descent; however, seven good friends signed up for the adventure.

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Frank was one of them. An ultra-marathon runner with a wild head of hair, he had recently attended his brother’s wedding where the groom had headed down the aisle on crutches as a result of a stag do injury. With good reason therefore, my fiancé was comprehensive in her questioning of our plans.

Before setting off to summit Mount Rinjani, on the Indonesian island of Lombok, I had supplied a spreadsheet of timings, locations and telephone numbers. In a moment of excitement, I had also described the major eruption in the thirteenth century that had resulted in an awe inspiring crater lake seven kilometres in diameter and a mini global Ice Age. That had invited many more questions.

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To join Frank and I, our comrades also numbered two friends who spent most lunchtimes in the gym, two avid cyclists and, another who ran 100km for fun each week.

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The last earned the nickname Concave Cuong for his physique: that of a man who needs a new pair of running shoes every couple of months.

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As merely an infrequent half-marathon runner, I felt like I might be the weak link in this well exercised group – so I organised a pre-event, under the auspices of ensuring we had all worn in our gear, to walk the wilds of Singapore. Those of you who know Singapore will know the city-state tries its best, but our 15km jaunt through the jungle surrounding MacRitchie reservoir felt like taking the Piccadilly Line to prepare for the Trans Siberian. You could fit twenty-two of Singapore’s tallest mount, Bukit Timah, stacked on top of each into our target – Gunung Rinjani.

Nevertheless, the ‘boot wearing in’ session around the reservoir and up the mound went to plan and the following weekend, we were carrying hand luggage full of dark rum, scotch and enjoying a 9am lager at Changi airport.

– – –

Having left a successful career in the City behind to travel with me ten years ago, my best man James never returned to the UK or the rat race and now runs his own television production company. He’s a gutsy, passionate man who counts presenting and boosting client investment amongst his many talents. He doesn’t list travel logistics. And so it was that our outward (and return) journey would take an entire day via four airport terminals; fortunately, it diverted via a seafood lunch and a stack of Bintangs.

We arrived at base camp in the early evening where John, the owner of the adventure company we were to use, regaled us with stories of inconsiderate European trekkers who left their litter and loo roll all over the mountain.

John’s long white robes, songkok and glowing smile immediately command your attention and put you at ease. I had spent some time liaising with him in advance of this trip as I had some rather unusual requests; he was a no-man as well as a yes-man, which inspired confidence.

He had begun with “no, we don’t do that”, moved on to 500 dollars a head and we negotiated from there. See, I wanted to have a silver service dinner, tables, chairs and a wine cooler to be transported up to the crater rim at 2600m (what were you thinking?!). I assured him I would bring the champagne, we’d sit on the floor, and the last of my friends to sign up for the trip would have the honour of carting it all up the volcano. We had a deal.

After the volley of abuse at other tour operators for leaving rubbish all over the mountain, John then got onto the meat of the conversation and described the precipitous drops that awaited the photographer who inadvertently stepped backward to get a wide-angle view on the summit. This ensured our full attention at the following safety briefing. A sense of adventure, quickly formed camaraderie and genuine boyish excitement filled the air as we headed to sleep.

– – –

5am wake up calls are welcome in very few circumstances, but the following morning was most certainly one of them. The sun rose over the volcanic valley of rice paddies that flowed down towards the sea just as lava from Rinjani once had. The beach-clad Gili islands were just visible over the sea to Bali. The mist burnt off and the air was moist and clean. The inhabitants who farmed fields or carried tourist’s water up the volcano did this every morning, but for me, a city dweller all my adult life, this 5am call was the very definition of magic.

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The first day was a tough, but exceedingly pleasant hike up to 2600m and the crater rim – through fields of elephant grass, incised with river valleys that during this dry season were often just black sand and volcanic dust. It was hot, but the peace of the wind in the ears of the grass was calming. At the same time, the expanse of space that rose unforgivingly to the volcano peak was electrifying for a city dweller.

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Pine trees replaced elephant grass, the incline grew steeper and the clouds we entered after lunch gave a feeling of intimacy, of enclosed endeavour to the group of maybe a hundred hikers treading the path that day.

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The group very soon hit a modus operandi: Alistair and George, the two gym boys, would forge on ahead with our porters, with the remainder of us puffing along behind. At each stop where we reunited, Alistair would (justifiably) carry a swagger of the alpha male, and we’d all have to bring him down a notch.

By 5p.m. we’d all reached our campsite. Fifty or so two-man yellow tents were pitched in threes and fours all along the ridge.

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Occasional breaks in the cloud revealed the far side of a sheer walled valley full of rock falls, tropical trees and a trickling stream. It had been a tough, adventurous day, and the location was simply spectacular.

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To reset the alpha balance that evening, we insisted Alistair move his tent to make room for the dinner table, as it clearly was the best site; grumbling subsided and we ate.

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As darkness fell, the temperature plummeted and we all huddled around a fire, sharing viewpoints and our tales from the day, lubricated by good measures of our stashed spirits and our Cohibas. The stars you cannot see in Singapore appeared and the moon rose over the mountain ridges. The sheer scale and awe of nature grips me on hiking trips. In cities, man gives the impression of temporarily being in control – out here, where the scenery is awesome, there’s no data, help is hours away, I really feel I am lucky to have been invited in by Mother Nature to what is firmly her patch.

– – –

Breakfast in the early hours (we’re talking 2.30am) seemed on first inspection to be pancakes and coffee. By the second bite the taste buds had awoken and it was clear that the pancakes were laced with raw onions and served in an even stronger onion jus. The coffee tasted like mud. Aware we had a thousand metres to climb to the top, I munched my way through two plates of what is certainly the foulest breakfast I have ever had to eat.

What followed was difficult, dangerous and utterly rewarding.

We navigated by the light of our head torches – the moon having set. A trail of these little white stars flickered off into the distance all along the ridgeline and headed up to the volcano summit.

Step by step was the mantra. A steep dusty incline, punctured only by a few thorny trees onto which we could grab for support was followed by a couple of hours hiking along the ridge-line and I was acutely aware that one wrong move off the path could mean a thousand-metre fall.

Just as when the cloud had descended the previous day and brought a sense of intimacy to the struggle, the sun’s rise this morning removed this cloak and revealed the immense landscape into which we had been invited. The 6km wide crater lake was on one side and the serenely flat Bali Sea on the other.

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The last hour was a trudge up a completely exposed pile of volcanic sand and scree. At 3,500 metres on precious little sleep, my brain didn’t function at all well, but at least the risk of a calamitous fall had rescinded and it was just a physical battle that remained: me versus this huge pile of sand.

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At the summit, I found Alistair and a dangerously chilled George who had been in the bitterly cold wind for an hour. Over the next half hour the other exhausted members of our party joined us: James and Frank with their spectacular beards, and concave Cuong.

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The highest point of Rinjani is a three metre square patch of rock reached via an even narrower isthmus. Two metres in any direction from the middle of it and you would fall off the mountain and die. Given the physical exhaustion of everyone who summits and the jubilation running through their veins, I find it amazing that more people do just that.

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Nonetheless at the time, we weren’t thinking about dying (too much) and passed around a little metal sign reading ‘Mt Rinjani 3726m’ that lives atop the peak. We knew we only had a short period of time up there before we all became like George, so it was body warming hugs all round and a quick series of photos.

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We lolloped down the scree slope. Each leaping stride we took ten times the length of those climbing in the opposite direction.

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On the ascent, at 3,400m, Phil had reached his physical limit, found a boulder and hunkered down on the leeward side to watch the sunrise. Usually found in a neatly pressed short sleeve shirt, Phil is only a handful of years younger than my father. That he had reached within 500m of the summit was a fabulous achievement. I was relieved to see no sign of him there when we returned. I had struggled on the ascent with leaving him, my mind awash with the tales of exposure suffered by previous adventurers.

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Our second breakfast was unmemorable, as it had not an onion in sight. I was keen to press on down the valley side as quite incredibly, in spite of our achievement of climbing and descending almost two vertical kilometres before 9.30a.m. – we still had a full day ahead and we were behind schedule!

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But the route down to the valley floor was sheer. The porters danced the loose rocks; but for me there was no sensible way down at times without a rope. One missed step and you could have cracked your head and that would have been it. A day later, I would understand better how to descend at pace: to allow myself to not always be in control, but to only seek temporary ledges to support my weight, en route to a place where I could stop and stand. However at this moment, I had no faith in my path finding, I was exhausted, scared and a complete novice.

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We arrived down at the crater lake in the late afternoon, and soon abandoned hope of hiking out that night. Instead, we headed to a hot spring, found a superb campsite on the lakeshore and had time to celebrate our achievement.
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That evening, it was finally time to try out the pit toilet. Each night our guides would dig a small round hole, erect four poles and wrap around a canvas sheet for privacy. A toilet roll lived atop one of the poles. I unzipped the door to provide a quite literally smoking view, before dropping my sunglasses into the hole.

Throughout the weekend, our group left nothing but these re-covered in pits on the mountain. However, we walked through hundreds of metres of undergrowth strewn with shit-covered wet wipes and had to choose campgrounds with care to avoid piles of rubbish.

It didn’t ruin the weekend at all, but inconsiderate tourists are slowly killing this great Indonesian mountain, and by not stopping it, the guides and porters are limiting their own livelihoods. That a citizen of a country where it is taboo to throw litter willingly does so on the other side of the planet really upsets me.

Having spent quite some time in the toilet tent fishing out my glasses, I had missed out on lots of tough talk regarding going for a swim in the freezing crater lake. On many family holidays to Newfoundland in my youth, I swam in a variety of stunning and freezing freshwater lakes. Once you’re in, the cool water is a fantastic tonic to any troubles you may have, physical or mental. James and Alistair joined me in the nippy dip. It was still a good deal warmer than a Tajik river that will forever stick in the memory!

In my latest attempt to counter Alistair’s alpha-ness, I had earlier informed the guide he was vegetarian. On the first morning, the size of the breakfast banana pancakes had been a concern to this self-proclaimed super-eater and he had requested extra eggs be packed to feed his protein yearning. Giving him a plate of vegetarian rice for dinner seemed apt. This plan backfired. Unawares, Alistair took taken one of the plates full of chicken and I was left eating the fried rice.

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The lake fell perfectly still after our swim, and after dark it was evident just how alone we were. Around the crater there wasn’t a light stronger than a torch. The night sky was a lighter shade of black than the crater sides, and as the stars sailed overhead, we each appreciated just how fortunate we were to be there sharing that moment. How physically tired, how cheerful and how appreciative of the friendship on our adventure. I was donated lumps of meat from my fellow diners, we chilled a bottle of champagne in the lake, and fashioned a drying rack out of branches, on which we dried our swimming trunks and towels.

We shared opinions that night over the fire whose sparks took turns to singe our freezing swimwear.

– – –

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The walk the following day was incredibly tough on the aching muscles and joints, but packed full of views to numb the pain. We hiked largely alone, each comfortable spending time with the mountain at our own pace. The lush forests of the early morning gave way to panoramic views of the crater later. Condors soared on updrafts and I stopped to watch a troop of macaques leap overhead in the jungle canopy and stop to munch.

By the time we re-joined Alistair and George back at base camp in the valley where we had begun in three days earlier they were on their second round of Bintangs. Ramadan meant it was rather difficult to restock the beer fridge; however George came to some arrangement with a man on a motorcycle and 20 minutes later, we were again sipping (warmish) Bintang and enjoying his cutting humour.

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Alistair was using the feeble Wi-Fi to search out some more appropriate Stag Do entertainment in Senggigi (the island’s capital), but it being a Muslim island in Ramadan where horse and carts are still a normal mode of transport, he wasn’t having much luck. Here I would have hoped to end the tale, but there was one final twist.

– – –

There were hugs and thanks all round; we jumped into a couple of 4x4s and headed for our resort and its pool to rest weary legs.

After an hour of discussing immigration and politics in the speeding Nissan, we got to the small village of Pamenang at dusk. Dusk during Ramadan has an extra special meaning, as the majority of the population will be indoors breaking the fast. As we sped through the quiet village, a cat ran in front of us. Our driver swerved one way, lost control, swerved the other way and then the car ploughed into the ditch, skidding along for a few seconds before colliding with a concrete block, pirouetting through 180 degrees and landing facing the wrong way on the side of the road. Both axles snapped.

When we landed, I couldn’t breathe at all well. We scrambled out of the car and I spent some time calming down on the day bed outside what I suppose was a community centre. I’d also ploughed one of my teeth deep into my lip so was gushing blood. No one was seriously injured. Had it not been Ramadan, and had we not been wearing seatbelts, I expect someone inside or outside the car would have died.

The car was a write off. Alistair abandoned all hope of finding a strip club in Senggigi and we waited for a replacement vehicle to take us onward. Our driver from the airport on the outward journey had taken in excess of three hours and clipped the wing mirror of an oncoming vehicle during one seat-clenching overtaking manoeuvre on a bend. I vowed at that point to never remain in a car driving inanely. I had read that car accidents are the most common cause of death for tourists and now first-hand, I had almost become a statistic.

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Three weeks later, commuting to work on the metro, I was still struggling with the transient pain of two cracked ribs. But the sight of a blue lake on an advertising poster made me smile and recall my addiction to the friendship, the adventure, and the combination of exhaustion, achievement and beauty that a mountaintop sunrise brings.

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Who climb’s a volcano for their stag do? You should try it, but please make sure you wear your seatbelt.

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Photo credits to Alistair, James, George & myself!

Inspiring adventure

My wife and I (I hear you cheering!) have returned from our adventure honeymoon overlanding from Chiang Mai back to our home in Singapore.

Happy Wedding CoupleWith the months of wedmin behind us, and memories of a most incredible day of support from family and friends (not least from my bow tie and braces adorned Ushers!) we’ve now got time to reconnect with how we love to spend our time!

Watch this space for plenty more videos, blogs and podcast in the coming few months!

cappadocia down a cobbled lane

Had you been hiding up a cobbled country lane, 10km south of Mustaphapasha in the gathering gloom one warm summer’s evening in late July, you’d have spotted two British lads. As they forced their rented Hyundai into a muddy parking spot opposite a very small sign attached to an apricot tree that read ‘Keshlik Monastery’, you may have caught them discussing where they planned to stay that night.

They had no great expectations of their visit to the monastery. They had had an incredible day, first crawling around underground Christian cities of the 6th and 7th centuries. Later, meeting Yuvus, who’d shown them carved frescoed churches from a similar period on the inside of rock cones in Soganlu, before inviting them to share a stiff Turkish coffee in his first floor flat. Unknowingly, they had also gained a knife, from two hitchhiking climbing brothers to whom they had offered a lift late in the day.

They had stopped only because there was still light, and their ‘off-the-tourist-trail’ day had been so great, that they felt dropping in to another spot mentioned only in one line in passing in the Lonely Planet seemed like a good way to pass the time before dinner.

They were to be pretty darn impressed by the time they got back in the Hyundai.

Having met a sensible looking guy at the entrance and negotiated a fee for a tour, they headed straight for a great hall carved from the rock face at least fifteen metres long, ten metres wide and six or seven metres high. Its vaulted ceiling was immediately apparent among the almost pitch black cavern. As was the soot that covered the entire place, due to many a shepherd who had kept warm here in years past. But what was to become visible once Mohammed, their guide, flicked his torch switch was quite remarkable.

Every wall, ceiling and pillar of the exquisitely excavated interior of the 9th century St Stephanos church was covered with frescoes, and graffiti in a plethora of languages. Scenes from the Last Supper, images of Mary, Jesus and Roman Soldiers jumped out in vivid colours. All had been severely vandalized by Russian, Greek, French and Turkish speakers over the past few hundred years. However this simply added to the intrigue and amazement the boys felt at that moment.

Once awed, they headed back into what seemed like bright sunlight, but was in fact the early twilight. Their eyes adjusted, they headed around a total of sixteen Monks’ houses and a dining room, complete with badly worn carved tables and benches sunk into the ground of the hall – another huge cavern. A kitchen, with bread ovens and a carved preparation table was attached, as well as an office.

Mohammed continued the tour, when he didn’t know the correct word in English, he resorted to French, German, Spanish or Italian. His vernacular covered all these and some more surprising languages including Afrikaans.

The delight was ongoing for the Brits.

They wandered amongst Mustapha’s wheat and onions, marrows and courgettes, speckled about the ruins of houses and chapels almost a thousand years old. “My grandfather lived here, and my father, and now I, with my wife” said Mustapha, offering them an apricot. They spotted watermelons and apples too, the food seemed endless and varied, and Mohammed seemed both genuinely interested in the historic aspect of his plot of land, as well as the produce he grew there. He’d cleared out two outbuildings in the past year, revealing far less eroded features of walls and cobbled floors.

The final halt on the tour was a gigantic baptism pool, aside a room of dark columned graves. As if to corroborate the mystery, a Jewish tree of life had been carved into the wall above the baptism pool. It almost became more magical to stop asking questions and just accept the place.

As they left, Mustapha insisted on handing them the name of his Friend’s hotel in Mustaphapasha. The boys had no intention of staying there, but took the opportunity to be once more flummoxed by the filing cabinet alongside his table in the open air under another apricot tree. His surly wife kept quiet and did nothing.

Keshlik rounded off an eye-opening day almost devoid of tourists by Turkish standards, the best the boys had in Turkey. They climbed back into their Hyundai and headed into an evening that was to incorporate chamber music and a twelve-course tasting menu.

What a combo.

I have made up the name Mohammed, as I can’t remember the guide’s name – an detail unfortunately lacking from those few minutes that will last forever in my travelling memory.

khivan bugs

The feeling of a fly taking a leisurely meander across my cheek is one of the most infuriating I know. These ones are the non-biting type that like shit and hence I blame for my middle section feeling like one large cork that is being extracted in fifteen directions simultaneously from the bottle of Chateau Magrit that is my torso. Stimulating, yet totally devoid of pleasure.

They’re quick too, so there’s never the short-lived pleasure that is achieved with the successful swatting of the mosquito that’s diligently filling up with your haemoglobin. At least you win the skirmish with mosquitoes, flies win the war without getting even a knick.

If I wasn’t going on about flies, I’d be going on about hornets. The world’s largest hornets infest the restaurant across the square, mottled in the evening sun. I’d be there if one of Khiva’s endless torrent of summer weddings hadn’t taken over the place for the evening. Bride and groom looking dour and drawn after a day’s walking around the picture-perfect city under the 40+ degree sun. Still being teenagers, they have the stamina to last.

As it is, I’m sat under the essential shade of a birch tree. Uzbek pop music to accompany the wedding is pumping away at a volume that is disagreeably loud at 200 metres. There is a passing whiff of chicken shit and children have gathered around the spectacle of a man typing away on his laptop and words appearing on the screen. Never before have I seen word processing as a spectator sport.

I don’t necessarily object to chicken shit; it reminds me of holiday’s on my grandparent’s Newfoundland farm as a child. I’m the only person I know who feels this way, but on occasions like this – it is extremely useful.

When travelling, the difference is often the mundane, not the well known.

bridge over the oxus at urgench

Sat on Itamar’s pack, wedged between James’s unwashed thighs and Ramil’s never washed T-shirt and holding up my own seventy litre rucksack to promote the circulation of available air, I cross the Amu Darya at Urgench. We’re on our way to Khiva, where 150 years ago judgement, as an approximation for justice, was passed and the punishment involved pushing the condemned from the top of minarets on market day to a painful splatty death below. I’m ecstatic.

Our Daewoo Damas follows an even smaller Daewoo Tico, tea-cosy would have been more a more appropriate name, nipping left then right in an attempt to pass the dawdling piece of powered kitchen quilting. The driver uses the horn more as a keyboard when passing pedestrians, playing out a one-tone melody to ensure they don’t intersect his erratic path. One group of ladies is narrowly avoided as they struggle across the uneven surface in heels to join a dusty bride and groom having wedding photos taken a few metres on. Under her, now slightly off-white but dazzling pleated and frilled outfit, she’s wearing flip-flops.

The bridge is in fact a series of adjoined rusty floating hunks of iron, variously actual boats, square box sections of plate and actual sections of pontoon, held together with sturdy chains and the grace of God. Where the boats aren’t squared off at the bow and stern, the road zig-zags onto them from the side, before heading off to another section of the pontoon crossing. The whole set-up is reminiscent of a kilometre long game of Blockbusters, with rusty brown winning over muddy brown, just.

We pass the Tico, and cross a six-inch gap in the bridge with the murky silty river flowing some five or so metres below. Our next target is a Volga, best described as a Soviet Cadillac – complete with the sweeping bodywork curves, but eschewing the capitalist tail fins. It’s orange and carrying a precious cargo of £30 worth of watermelons, about two hundred of the large green fruit. Miraculously, none of them fall out as we jerk from pontoon to pontoon. Our driver takes his eye off the prize when avoiding an exceptionally large dent, and a Daewoo Matiz hustles by.

Two centuries ago, the Great Game between Britain and Russia was just kicking off as Muraviev and Moorcroft battled to reach the khanates of Bukhara and Khiva first. Then, the goal was as much to saturate the unpenetrated central Asian markets with each empire’s products as it was to retain or acquire control of India.

Now, the Asians are most definitely winning the new great game. Our taxi driver points to the crazy Matiz and communicates with us in Pigeon Russian. “Very good, Korea-Uzbekistan”. He points at a Lada passing in the opposite direction: “Russian – no good”, and asks me whether Ford is an American or British brand; we’ve only seen one on the whole journey. It’s a story mirrored in Turkmenistan, from where we crossed into Uzbekistan, except there (whilst talking to an LG employee) it was: “Hyundai, this is my favourite Korean company, Samsung is my second favourite, LG is third”. Joint venture foreign policy is the twenty first century annexation.

We reach the last link of iron and summit a 10 ft muddy mound, following a bus that, thanks to a clever and practised diagonal driving technique avoids grounding in almost cartoon style. Reaching the far bank, clothes and bodies are being washed in the still blisteringly hot late afternoon sun. Our driver hands over the official bridge toll of 500 som, about 15p. The new bridge is clearly being built, but whether the rusting pontoons sink before it’s finished is a matter of local debate. This is not the largest fee we are to face on the 40km dusty dual carriageway from the Amu Darya to Khiva. That tax goes to the smartly dressed policeman, in pressed green trousers and a square hat, who whistles and waves at us with a luminous orange stick further on. He takes the largest purple Uzbek note of 1000 som.

We stop for a few minutes just outside town to untangle bodies and bags with the intention of offloading some of them. Many other minibuses are doing the same, but the stallholders of the nearby water and snack mountains stand idly by. There’s no rush to sell the bag-blocked and bus-confined tourists a slightly overpriced but much appreciated bottle of tepid water. Sitting in silence, serving no-one and waiting seems to be of greater importance

It’s hot – between forty and fifty degrees outside; it has been every day since we left Europe’s last outpost of Dolce and Gabbana and wifi’d Baku two weeks or so ago. So much so that I now see having achieved any form of hydration at 7 p.m. as evidence a productive day. And I’ve got the enviable afflictions of mosquito bites in triple figures and bowels as loose as the Honduran constitution.

Pains aside, people here look far more Mongolian than Persian or Russian, and although we are a long way from the entrepreneurial streets of Bangkok, we’ve crossed the historic Oxus. Mighty and for centuries landscape defining, it has me excitedly following in the footsteps of many Great Gamers, and not that many others from lands afar.

I’m ecstatic, for we really are in central Asia now.

the rule of water

xela (quetzeltanango) and surrounds, guatemala, june 3rd 2009

Dont be disarmed by the smile: Volcan Pacaya melts through boots in double quick time
Don't be disarmed by the smile: Volcan Pacaya melts through boots in double quick time

Water dictates life in the Guatemalan wet season; and May is most definitely the wet season. Biblical downpours arrive each day, after four if you’re lucky, eleven if you forgot to pray to the Virgin Mary yesterday. Either way, you can be assured that it will basically start raining around lunchtime every day – for six months.

Between damp days focused on the daddy of Mayan ruins at Tikal, and the flowing red lava of Volcan Pacaya we are heading to San Andres Xecun, 30km from the rutted tourist trail at Xela in the Guatemalan highlands. The town’s highlights are straight out of children’s television: two bright yellow facaded churches. One has a mutli-coloured dome and a front is adorned with a selection of pink, purple and azure berobed saints, with monkeys (complete with hair!) poking out from between their legs – as if the colour hadn’t quite sealed the garish deal.

Monkeys on the San Andres Church
Monkeys on the San Andres Church

A young lady wafts the flies from her baskets of bread in the square abutting the church; she pulls me aside, “Where are you from?” she asks. “I’m English” – she smiles and spouts her love for the English and all things English. She has friends there and can speak the language she tells me. “We should be speaking in English then so you can practice!” I say; we’ve been conversing in the colonial tongue until now. So she does: “Jesus is my saviour; I love Jesus with all of my heart; I must repent for all sins committed on this earth to achieve eternal life in heaven”, I’m just a little stunned at the rote religious outburst.

The conversation moves onto films. She loves the cinema, and takes the bus to Xela regularly to see the latest Hollywood movies; “I love Mitchell Douglas”, she tells me. Well, maybe they’re not the latest blockbusters – but my bread selling friend still has disposable income of a sort.

We struggle up the hill in town to the second yellow church. The late morning sun still has the upper hand over the gathering storm clouds and dries the brightly coloured wools dyed by the local people to make so much of their clothing, traditional in style. Yellows, reds, blacks, whites adorn the teracotta rooftops.

“Jesus is my saviour; I love Jesus with all of my heart; I must repent for all sins committed on this earth to achieve eternal life in heaven”

The view under the forced dappled light of the overcast day is tremendous.

The second church of San Andres Xecun
The second church of San Andres Xecun
Cloth drying on the rooftops
Cloth drying on the rooftops
The view from the second church over San Andres Xecun
The view from the second church over San Andres Xecun

Back by the monkey-clad church, I ask my new friend if many tourists come through. “Yes, in minibuses in the afternoon, maybe three or four a day”, she says, “occasionally larger buses”. San Andres is unusual, and not just for its sunny hued churches. We haven’t been approached by kids for money, nor have we had fifteen chicken shaped over-gloves shoved in our faces when we were desperately seeking an umbrella; I haven’t seen a single souvenir stall. The residents have no want or ambition to turn their sentence in the guidebook into a paragraph. There is no overhyped market or non-existent relics; it’s a market town with yellow churches and wants to stay that way.

The bus to Xela
The bus to Xela

I bid my bread-selling, Jesus-fearing friend goodbye, and jump in our taxi to the day’s second off-the-beaten track location. Our taxi driver, we later discover, has no idea why we would like to go to Palmar Viejo and has no idea what is there; but a dollar is a dollar and he plans to drive us. He is the jovial sort and we picked him from a bunch as the car comprised only one piece, and even sported a flash of black and white squares to imply its commercial life; it’s doing him and us proud so far. He joked and beeped a number of people as we sped along the route. “That’s my brother, he’s also a taxi driver” he commented, ” it’s much easier than working in the fields”. Sure thing.

We wind down a good road into the lowlands and pass transport moving ordinary Guatemalan labourers to or from the banana plantations; the clouds begin to drop their load. Damp flat bed lorries move 30 men, women and children protected only by a flapping plastic tarp. In a scene deserving of the caption ‘survival of the fittest’ a young girl is left uncovered by the wanting sheet – she looks irredeemably miserable.

Later in the day, the eastbound carriageway of the Interamericana will be impassable where a landslide had submerged the road in mud; a tuktuk scrambling like a new born lamb persuades our driver to turn around. He thoughtfully waves his hand from the window as he u-turns, and heads the back to the nearest point at which the central reservation can be crossed. It’s useful for the dodging traffic to know there’s a landslide ahead, and not just lost Brit driving on the wrong side I suppose.

Once we’ve crossed over to the passable side, the hand is retracted and the window raised; a minibus driving down the wrong carriageway doesn’t need an excuse here as we dodge yet more seemingly unfazed motorists. We rejoin our carriageway past the blockage and continue having avoided collisions with monster lorries by a narrow, but safe margin.

Back on the steep road that leads to Palmar Viejo, we see tens of handmade signs advertising the services of local brake mechanics and a chap wanders past with a transmission on his back. They are kept in good employment by the strewn trucks we pass, who’ve puffed their last breath until they get much needed mechanic medicare.

“That’s my brother, he’s also a taxi driver” he commented, ” it’s much easier than working in the fields”. Sure thing.

Palmar Viejos rickety bridges
Palmar Viejo's rickety bridges

Further deluges of water cascade as brown opaque watser floods down the hillside in canyons that somehow flow under the road and out the other side; it is an engineering marvel. The road is a foot under water in places in the towns. Where it’s not, a torrent spurts vertically from the overworked drains and onto the road to top it up.

We are headed to Palmar Viejo, dubbed the Pompeii of Guatemala by the paragraph in the guidebook; it should have been a line. One evening in 1990 the river cut a canon thirty metres deep straight through the town. The altar of a church stands on one side of the gorge and the entrance door of the nave on the other. Two mercilessly rickety bridges provide a route to collect firewood.

Having wandered a little aimlessly with no sign of he aforementioned church, we approach a group of apparently lounging gents. One of whom agrees to walk us to his old home. He shows us a school, houses, and two churches – all derelict for 20 years and now deep in the jungle. Then, he disappears off into the undergrowth, transient – as indeed his settlements seem to be. The village was moved in 1990 and there are now three settlements: Nuevo Palmar, Viejo Palmar and Ruined Palmar Viejo. Come back in twenty years for two more incarnations.

The two-piece church in Palmar Viejo
The two-piece church in Palmar Viejo

Poverty, discomfort and hard manual work shape the lives of the people of the Guatemalan highlands, but water truly defines it. It dictates when you can travel, when electricity is on, when you can see beyond your nose, and sometimes even whether you and your fellow villagers will live or die.

Truly, a land at the mercy of water.