Bassingham Bash 2016

From the start I wasn’t sure whether or not to enter this one – not only would it be my second ever 5 mile race it would also be the afternoon before a 20 mile training run ready for my next marathon. Racing in the afternoon isn’t something I’ve done often either as I don’t really run that well in the afternoons.

By this time two months had passed since my ankle injury in Moscow and it had improved considerably. Not only had I been trying to let my ankle recover, I’d also been trying to build back up to where I was before the injury and trying to get some longer miles in before September. Though I found it hard work to get any decent miles in, especially without walking – that is until the weekend before this race when I managed to do 11 miles without walking. The days in between however I struggled to run more than just a couple of miles without needing to walk – hopefully due to the heat.

If I wanted to run 20 miles the day after this race then I’d need to seriously question what sort of pace I would go for. When running I tend to not be particularly sensible, but I needed to think about the long game here – this wasn’t to be my target race. Thinking about why I was doing this race – when I entered it I’d thought that this one might be a bit of fun. So with that in mind, by the time race day came around I was convinced that instead of going for a flat out sub 7:00 min/mile race, I’d take it leisurely and go for somewhere between 07:30 and 08:00 min/mile.

For the first time ever I was going to a race with family – my Dad drove me to Bassingham and then whilst I picked up my race number he went off to have lunch and find landscapes to photograph. It was nice to catch up with a few people I’ve seen at races before and have talked to on Twitter, and then we all headed over to the start. As I wasn’t going to go all out for this one I decided to start at the back and just see where I’d end up.

Bassingham Bash 2016 route

After about 10 minutes the race started on time and the crowd of runners started to head off. As this wasn’t a chip timed race I hoped I’d be able to start my watch at the right time but wasn’t entirely sure where the start line was until I saw some flour marking the spot.

For the first mile the course loops around the village and crosses the start line for a second time. I took this easy, but because I’d started at the back I overtook quite a few people. I decided this was okay and I should just carry on running at whatever pace felt easy. By the time the first mile marker appeared the village had now been left behind us and the course was heading out into the countryside for a bigger loop.

Over the next couple of miles I felt it get warmer and warmer, and I think because of this it actually made the strong force of the wind (seriously, we’re talking about 40mph here) a little more welcome than it would normally be. In some places the wind really did make a difference to pace, but I wasn’t bothered by it – I was here to have fun and enjoy the scenery of rural Lincolnshire. I was having fun and glad to have entered the race.

At mile 3 there was a water station so I decided I may as well have a bit of water. I grabbed the cup and squeezed it closed, successfully avoiding spilling any – took a quick sip and discarded it. By this point every step was heading back towards the village and eventually I started to recognise some of the road from having been down it in the car earlier. It also occurred to me at this point that whilst I’d overtaken a number of people on my journey from the back of the pack, I hadn’t yet been overtaken by anyone. It made me wonder if I was going too fast, but rather than look at my watch I decided to just stay at a pace that felt easy – let my legs decide what’s right.

I think it was around 4.5 miles into the run we were back into the village and this is when I saw my Dad standing on the side of the pavement and taking photographs! This was the first time in three years of running that a family member has watched me run – and getting a few photos at the same time was brilliant.

About a minute later I crossed the start line for the third time and was soon directed through a gate onto the playing field for the finish. I couldn’t see the finish though so was unsure when to allow myself a bit of speed. Eventually though as I got around a corner I saw a sign about 20 metres away that said “FINISH” so quickly tried to get up to sprinting speed, but failed to get up to speed before I finished. As I finished though the person who finished before me stopped moving completely the second he crossed the finish and I ran into the side of him – unable to stop quick enough.

I stopped my watch and looked at the time – 34:03. Oops! Taking into account this was my watch time, and not the gun time – that was a little faster than I’d intended as my aim had been to run around 40 minutes, but the odd thing is that it never felt like I’d pushed myself that hard during the run – it felt easy. Easy enough in fact that I hadn’t felt the need to walk which when pushing hard I’d often feel like I want to. It was a nice enough race for me to instantly have decided that I’ll be back next year to race it properly, and with an actual goal time in mind.

At the finish for this race you’re handed a bottle of water, and then if you head into the hall you’re given a mug saying “Bassingham Bash 2016” and a slice of some really nice cake!

When the official results were released my official time was 34:14 (so took around 11 seconds to cross the start line) in position 46 out of 192 finishers (first 24%).

Leicester’s Big 10K 2016

After failing to get the PB I wanted in Nottingham I decided to enter Leicester’s Big 10K again thinking that would be another good chance. I was wrong though – following my ankle injury whilst in Moscow I failed to do the Two Castles Run I’d entered for when I returned, and even by the time I did the #ukrunchat Shrewsbury Half Marathon my ankle had not healed. So just like last time I’d ran it, I would be running this one whilst recovering from an injury and off the back of a lot of missed training. Just over a week before the race I had it checked out and was told it’d take a couple more months of healing before it was right, and I should be careful when running on it.

By race day I had lost any confidence of being capable of attempting a PB – instead I decided I should just run and see what happens. Which in all honesty is all you can ever do, even if you set a target. I was no longer going to set a target but figured that a sub-45 would be nice.

On the day of the race I’d still got blisters from where my ankle support had been running during training runs over the past week, but I had at least managed a sub-7min/mile paced 5.5 mile run a few days before in the summer heat. When I first got there they hadn’t set up the start line so I wandered around for a while and eventually came across a couple of friends who I stood talking to until it was time for the race start. Unlike other races where the start is prompt, they waited for those in the queue for the 6 portaloos to make their way over to the line before starting.

As the race started I ran at a pace that didn’t feel too bad, but was slower than I’d have been doing had I been planning on a PB. It was a relatively traffic-free run, and as I knew about the congestion at an archway the last time I did it I tried to time myself to reach it without having to stop. After the first mile I was 10 seconds down on what I’d have wanted for sub-40, but felt that it wasn’t too bad – I knew I wasn’t going to PB and I just needed to see what my ankle would allow. Moments later I passed a friend who was there to support her sister, and was there cheering us all on.

Half a mile later the route then left the park for the first time, and the full force of the sun was beating down on the runners. It was hot, and it felt like it was getting hotter. It didn’t take long before I felt that I needed to walk to cool down, and to wipe the sweat from my eyes (I’d forgotten my #ukrunchat buff I’d normally use for this). I kept going though and almost made it to 2.5 miles before walking – the first of many times. At 2.5 miles the route went down hill back into the park, passed the water station (which I walked through and poured water over my head), across the car park and down some steps to the canal.

I’d forgotten about the canal path. When I went to have my ankle looked at I was told I could carry on running on it as long as I was careful and kept to flat surfaces. The canal path was anything but flat and it felt like it wasn’t doing my ankle any good. Apparently the race this year was in July as the council was supposed to be working on the canal path in April when it otherwise would have been. It seemed they hadn’t actually done anything though and I found this time I needed to ease off to take some of the stress away from my ankle.

The route passed the start-line and also where we’d all be finishing later, but kept on running straight passed it and this time took a different route through the park until once again we left it and went around the outside as before. By this time I’d had enough – the heat, my ankle, and lack of training was really showing and I’d walked far too much of the course. I figured though if I could run as much of the last two miles as I could then perhaps I could get a sub-45 time which would at least be better than last time, when I ran with a bad knee.

It was hard work and I pushed on as often as I could, but the walking breaks still felt like a necessity. I do at least manage to run down the hill and through to the canal and along some of it this time however, though I couldn’t run the full section of the course along the canal without needing to walk. Back in the park one last time I saw the “400 metres” to go sign and started to pick up speed, but then slowed again to a walk. I could see the finish – it wasn’t that far away really, so I started running again and once hitting the grassy surface I picked up speed for the final 200 metres. I decided to push a little harder for this and was up to 4:16min/mile by the time I crossed the line. Moments after they made an announcement that they needed paramedics at the finish line for a runner that had come in just after me.

I finished with an official time of 44:02 in position 44 out of 457 (putting me in the first 10% of finishers). Considering how bad it had felt I guess that wasn’t too bad, though had I not injured myself in Russia I think it could have gone better. As unfortunate as it was, I guess we all have races like this and I just had to do the best I felt I could do on the day. Just that best happened to be slower than my run a few days before.

This being my first race (and second run) with my new Garmin Forerunner 235 it also happened to be a useful chance to see what sort of extra stats it could produce. Although on Friday’s run I got a VO2 max score of 54, today’s race had been 53 – so not too big a difference. Also, although it didn’t feel like I’d worked that hard, the heart rate monitor indicated I’d averaged 171bpm (about 130 higher than my average resting heart rate) – so again was interesting to see how much it increased, and an indication that I was actually working fairly hard.

I know from this race I’ve got a lot of work to do to get back up to the speed I was before my ankle injury, and I’ve still got more time before it will have fully healed. My next race is now Bassingham Bash in August so I’m hopeful I’ll have recovered and improved enough by then to get a time I can be a little happier with.

UKRunChat Shrewsbury Half Marathon 2016

My original plan upon returning from my trans-Siberian adventure was to run a 10K and then do the Shrewsbury Half Marathon. I didn’t really know what to expect from this race; but after missing Coventry Half due to illness, and barely having recovered enough to run the Milton Keynes Half,  this one would be my first proper Half Marathon of the year.

However, whilst in Moscow I managed to slip on some stairs at a metro station and twisted my ankle – something that resulted in a loud cracking sound. In the first instant I thought I’d broken something, and could barely walk on it for the next couple of days whilst still trying to hobble around Moscow to not miss out on the sights. The day I did it however it had swollen so much it looked more like an elephants leg than the ankle of a human, and the following day it started to show signs of bad bruising. The photos I took of it really didn’t show how much it had actually swollen and bruised though.

With how difficult it was to walk on it initially I knew I couldn’t run on it and didn’t get to run again that week. This didn’t help when over the previous several weeks I’d only done 5K runs (and the odd 10K). In fact, the last time I’d seen 13.11 miles on my running watch was during the Brighton Marathon in April. Training hadn’t gone well, and whilst on holiday I’d dropped from my usual minimum of 4 runs a week to have only run 3 times in 16 days.

By the time I should have been doing the Two Castles Run I hadn’t run for almost two weeks, so attempted a short 2.5 mile run instead; but found between the humidity, and the discomfort from my ankle it didn’t go well. I had one week to go until I’d be racing Shrewsbury and was still incredibly under-prepared and unsure if I could still run. I had just one week to heal and to try and prepare myself for a longer run. To make the most of this healing time I chose to not run again until race day, even though I was eager to try.

 

Friday

It got to the Friday before the race, and my ankle still didn’t feel right, but after work I drove to Shrewsbury anyway as it had been arranged as a #ukrunchat weekend. The day passed reasonably quickly and just after 16:00 I was on my way. It took 2hrs20 to get to the YHA Bridges hostel, and had a tingly foot for the last hour. The hostel was formerly a school house until there weren’t enough children for it to be used as one; eventually in 1931 it became a youth hostel and is now one of the oldest in the country.

When I got there I didn’t think there was anyone there to start with, but then came across Nicola (@addingvalue2u) showing @jen_f16 around and was shown to where I’d be sleeping. There are a few rooms there, and us guys got the room named “Long Mynd” which is named after the nearby hills.

The Long Mynd room

By 19:30 the rest (almost) of those who would be staying this first evening had arrived, and we had a three course meal consisting of minestrone soup, sausage casserole, and sponge cake with blackberries. Amazingly this only cost £12.50, and whilst there also paid for the next day’s food as well. Once we’d all done the washing up we then headed down the road to the pub where they had Wi-Fi. Since the area had no mobile phone signal this was our only link to the outside world. We sat inside and talked whilst outside they had something called a Sineater festival going on which was playing some “music” that sounded more like feedback from a microphone. This was there way of celebrating the summer solstice.

By 23:00 we’d all headed back to the hostel, and I went straight to bed whilst the others sat up and talked in the dining room for some time after.

 

Saturday

It was a very sleepless night, but I got up a little after 07:00 to some light drizzle. After a light breakfast (crunchy nut cornflakes and a banana for me) we headed out for a morning walk.

The path we took was off road and muddy, and due to the mist and rain we couldn’t see much other than sheep – but apparently over Long Mynd it’s possible to see views across the valley to Wales. Not this day though. We walked for around 2 hours and covered 7.5km and my ankle handled it more or less okay. It was a little questionable though when I stood on the side of an embankment photographing a derelict building and slipped in the mud on the same ankle. Fortunately it seems I was lucky and between the ankle support, walking socks, and walking shoes it cushioned it pretty well.

Back at the hostel we had a second breakfast – bacon cobs (or rolls depending upon the part of the country you’re from) and tea. It might sound like we were being Hobbits (see Lords of the Rings), but I think technically it was more of a brunch/lunch thing really. After that we sat around talking until 13:00 when we headed out to the Shrewsbury showground for an afternoon of talks.

With the roads closed in Shrewsbury for a carnival from 13:30 we had to take a diversion which meant we couldn’t get to the talks until 14:15. After a couple of hours hearing about various running related topics, we headed back to the hostel for the remainder of the day – having gained a few extra people along the way. For the next few hours I sat in the hostel’s garden with the others, and even had a go on the swing in the garden.

For the evening meal it was a vegetable soup, lasagna with chips, and for dessert it was an apple and rhubarb crumble with custard. Once everyone had eaten and the washing up done, we headed over to the pub again to spend the remainder of the evening. This time we were outside and got to hear some of the “music” from the Sineater festival a little closer than previously. It was a good evening, and I really enjoyed it. I was also amazed by the size of a Wolfhound – I’m pretty sure it had been crossed with a horse.

With a race the next day, most of us headed back to the hostel just before 22:00 so we could get some rest for an early start.

 

Sunday

I had been awake for some time when I got up at 05:40. Some of the others were already up too as some were going to be marshalling the Shrewsbury Half Marathon and so needed to be there before the runners. I always have crunchy nut cornflakes before a race, and today was no exception. Once I’d eaten and was all packed I headed over to the West Midlands Showground in Shrewsbury where the race village was located. I was almost 2 hours early, but it was one last chance to talk to others before the race – and there were plenty of #ukrunchat people to talk to!

Knowing I wouldn’t be able to manage what I normally would due to both lack of running and my ankle I decided to go for the sub-1hr45 pen. I did think this was a bit optimistic but figured that people starting there would be going about the same pace as what I’d be starting at, even though I knew at some point I would be walking.

To start with I headed off at a pace that felt okay, which I knew earlier in the year I’d have been able to do as a relaxed pace, and one which it felt like my ankle could for the time being cope with. This first bit went from the showground headed south through the town and passed the castle. The support was great and everyone was getting cheers as they passed. Around this time I said “hi” to @1SteveMac and @runginger. I’d not gone far and had already seen some familiar faces!

After we crossed the River Severn we started to encounter more hills and I soon found that my ankle was no so good at the up-hill sections – it wasn’t bending the right way without it causing discomfort. Going downhill on the other hand was okay so I came up with a strategy to not push too hard up the hills and to instead walk the majority of them.

Although I’d hoped I’d have been able to run at least half the race before giving in to my ankle I did start to walk to get up a hill just before mile 4. At this point one runner ran passed calling me a disgrace for walking before I’d even made it half way. Obviously he didn’t know I was injured, but it felt a little unfair for some random person to judge.

Once we got to the farthest point in Kingsland we then looped back and the majority of that back to bridge was down hill, though still found the need to walk occasionally to try and let me ankle recover. During the frequent walking breaks that followed the rest of the runners that passed me were encouraging and acted the way most runners do – proving that although there was one idiot, the rest were good people.

On this loop back to the bridge I passed and high-fived @DouglasKurt and then @FiaCarter, and waved to @jen_f16 – I don’t think I’ve ever recognised so many people in one race before!

By the time I got to mile 7 the ankle support was starting to have a detrimental effect. It was making my foot warmer and was causing it to sweat, which in turn caused blisters where the support was rubbing against my foot. This further discomfort caused the walking breaks to become more frequent. As my watch rolled around to one hour into the run I’d just reached the 8 mile marker – 2 miles less than I would normally have wanted to be at by this point. Even though I went into the race not knowing if I’d even get more than a few miles into it without needing to pull out, I did feel a little disappointed by this, but then I was also pleased that I’d still managed to get as far as 8 miles (even if that did involve a lot of walking).

Not long after this I saw @runginger again as he passed me, and a few miles later I saw @1SteveMac pass me as well. I’d hoped after this, as I passed mile 10 that I’d be able to run the last 3 miles without stopping. I couldn’t though – the blisters were getting more uncomfortable and were getting to the point where they were worse than the ankle. Even at mile 12 I though I could run the last mile, but couldn’t do that either. After half a mile the course went off road and onto a gravel path – the worst thing my blisters and ankle could imagine.

I tried to run as often as I could, but it was extremely infrequent. Eventually I saw the “mile 13” marker and started to run – determined that no matter how uncomfortable it was I would run this last bit as fast as I could manage. As it turned out wanting to minimise the time I was on my feet for sped me up quite a bit and I’d just reached 4min/mile pace as I crossed the finish.

It was a nice course, and very well organised, but it was a race I was glad to be over. Somehow though I still managed to finish with a time of 1:44:12 in position 263 of 1339 finishers (first 19.6%). It was also good to see a friendly face at the finish as @Sherieamore1 and the other #UKRunChat ambassadors were keeping everything organised at the finish and were doing a good job of making sure the finish was not overcrowded as some races I’ve seen previously.

To start with you’re handed a water bottle and a goodie bag that included:

  • finisher’s medal,
  • a packet of salt & vinegar crisps,
  • jelly tots,
  • strawberry SiS REGO rapid recovery,
  • £5 off at Chiquitos,
  • a copy of the June/July issue RunABC Midlands,
  • two sachets of Truestart Performance Coffee.

They then followed this up with handing over some Sun Pat peanut butter, and a finishers technical tee! I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a great selection in a goodie bag at the end of a race. Throughout the race they’d been taking photos as well and these were automatically posted to Facebook not long after crossing the finish line – for FREE!

The event was very well organised and had the feeling of a big event, in a good way that is. The route was well marked, supported, and marshalled and had a good variety of scenery whilst managing to provide some challenges (at least to an injured runner anyway). It’s a race I’m very likely to do again, but without the ankle injury hopefully.

A massive thank you to @Howard50at50 for organising the weekend before the race, and to @iRunJoe and co. for the race itself – it was an enjoyable one!

Russia Day 16 – Moscow to Birmingham

It was an early start – the earliest one of the trip. As our flight was at 06:05 we needed to be on the road by 03:00. The hotel did however provide a packed lunch for us to take with us for breakfast, though it was still quite an early one.

As is usual for Russian airports we had to have our bags x-rayed on entering the airport, and then after clearing passport control having hand luggage scanned a second time. The whole process wasn’t that slow as fortunately there weren’t many people about – it looked like they’d have struggled with the numbers we get through some UK international airports, though in fact they actually have several different ones depending on where your flight is going.

Whilst waiting for the gate to open for boarding I sat and had the breakfast I’d been provided with – croissant with a jar of jam and marmalade, an apple, and a ham and cheese sandwich. There was also a salmon sandwich, but not liking salmon I discarded it. To kill a little more time I also bought a Matroyshoka doll for 2800 roubles.

The plane to Frankfurt, the first of two flights, began boarding at 05:40 and only took 20 minutes before we left the gate. During the flight they served breakfast; I went for the waffles with morello cherries – an unusually good breakfast for a flight.

It took a while to get to the gate for my next flight once landed in Frankfurt – I had to take the monorail to a different set of gates and then go through security again. This time they got me to take my cameras out of my backpack and put them in their own tray, my laptop out of it’s case and in a different tray with my Kindle and iPhone, my backpack in another tray, and then the rest of my belongings in another. It seemed crazy! To make this take even longer they then did an explosives test on my backpack, though I guess with almost 4 hours to spare I did have time to waste.

At last though, I was ready for the flight home – the trans-Siberian adventure was over.

Russia Day 15 – Novodevichy Convent

Once again the Metropol hotel was able to amaze me. At breakfast we were greeted by a waitress who after seeing we were British even switched to using perfect English and even a fairly British sounding accent, and led us to a table. I quickly noticed that the breakfast hall was incredibly well decorated with a very high glass roof which helped to amplify the sound of the lady playing the harp on the stage. Live harp music is not something you see at every breakfast! The food and drink at breakfast was also an incredibly good selection.

The original plan was that we’d be picked up at 10:00 to be taken to the Novodevichy Convent, though we asked the guide if we could first visit Lenin’s Mausoleum. Fortunately he agreed to this and by 10:00 we were queueing to get through the security into Red Square. To enter the mausoleum there was then a second security check and once you’ve entered the building you’re not allowed to talk – not that it stopped a bunch of Chinese tourists from doing so. It’s weird seeing the body of Lenin – it’s preserved so incredibly well as a result of the embalming process that with the texture of the skin he looked like a wax model.

We were then driven to the Novodevichy Convent, another UNESCO World Heritage site, where we spent the next hour walking around the grounds and going inside the two churches there. To take photographs here we each had to pay 100 roubles – which wasn’t bad really.

Apparently one of the towers there which is under restoration has been so for some time due to a fire that broke out during the previous restoration work. Most of the buildings there were ordered by Sofia Alexeyevna, but begun construction under the reign of Prince Vasili III, the Grand Prince of Moscow. The buildings are in the Muscovite Baroque style which is common to many buildings in the area.

Adjacent to the convent is the Necropolis of the Novodevichy Convent, which is also known as the “heroes cemetery”. Despite the entrance only being around the corner, at best 200-300 metres, the guide insisted we drive there. We spent about 40 minutes in this cemetery being shown some of it’s more famous residents such as Boris Yeltsin, and Anton Chekov.

It was wandering around these tombs where I got the impression that our guide, Vlad, was a strong supporter of Communism. The reason for this is when we encountered the grave of Mikhail Gorbachev’s wife he commented that Gorbachev should not be buried in Russia as “he is a traitor”.

For those that don’t know, the reasoning behind this is that it was Gorbachev was the last leader of the Soviet Union and was responsible for making the government more open and restructuring it (referred to as perestroika) which eventually led to it’s dissolution in 1991.

All morning the weather had been toasty warm, but just as we were leaving the cemetery there were a few spots of rain, hinting at the weather which was to come. Back at the hotel, having made a few phone calls during the course of the morning, our guide estimated that we’d be picked up at around 02:30 though wasn’t totally sure as he’d been given the incorrect flight information by Audley Travel to start with (allegedly).

We then set back out, during a thunderstorm to get lunch. I decided to have a club sandwich, which would then turn out to be my last proper meal in Russia. By the time we left the rain had more or less stopped and it was only a short walk to the metro station.

For the afternoon we’d decided to visit the Tsaritsyno museum and park which was located quite a way out of town. It took over 30 minutes by metro to get there, but was very easy to find the entrance to.

These grounds were originally owned by Tsaritsa Irina, sister of Tsar Boris Godunov, but later was taken over by Catherine the Great. If the weather had been better I think we could have spent quite a bit of time there due to it’s great scenery and the number of different buildings that were there. We were however on a schedule and the weather wasn’t great either.

We did however do a reasonable amount of walking, despite my swollen ankle, and managed to see most of the buildings there – though buildings such as the great palace were only from the outside.

Finding our way to the metro station at the opposite end of the park wasn’t too difficult and we were back at the hotel before 18:00. To finish the trip we went back over to Burgermeister where we’d had lunch and had a dessert – I went for their strawberry cheesecake which was amongst the best I’d had on this trip.

Our time in Russia had now come to an end and in a matter of hours we’d be heading to the airport to begin our journeys home.

Russia Day 14 – Back in Moscow

The flight to Moscow wasn’t a particularly early one, though we were told to get there 3 hours before the flight, despite it technically being a domestic flight. As we checked out of the hotel they gave us the packed-breakfast we’d asked for and it was pretty much the same as the one we’d had from them a few days previous.

As expected, we arrived at the airport too early to check-in so had to wait around for 40 minutes until we could. When I entered I had to empty part of my suitcase as they thought that my shower gel and electric toothbrush together looked a bit suspicious. The business class line was really slow though as it was taking them on average around 10 minutes to process each person. When I got to the front the lady behind the desk pointed at the business class sign and said this is for business class customers only – which I was! I guess they don’t expect someone in shorts.

Getting through security was then pretty quick and we had about an hour to wait until boarding would begin. Unlike the previous business class flight we didn’t get a separate vehicle for transferring us to the aircraft. Once it left the gate it then taxied down the runway before turning around at the end at taking off – something you wouldn’t see at busier airports as they need to clear the runway as quickly as possible. Once again we got a meal on the flight with proper cutlery and some fairly “posh” food.

We landed in Moscow at 12:50 local time, but it still took 20 minutes for us to collect our luggage, which was followed with a 1hr15 drive to the city where we then encountered a 45 minute queue to get passed the Kremlin. Apparently the traffic was due to a VIP arrival which was holding up traffic due to closed roads.

The Metropol hotel is where we’d be staying the next couple of nights and looks incredibly decorative inside – it has even had famous guests such as Steven Seagal, Sylvester Stallone, and the late Michael Jackson. I didn’t stay long though and soon headed out in search of the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics.

I’d got my phone giving me rough directions to the best metro station to get and we made good progress there, even though it was raining. This however soon had a disastrous consequences – going down the stairs in the metro station I slipped and twisted my ankle with a loud clicking sound. At first I was concerned I’d broken it, but after the initial shock I was able to limp to the underground carriage with some effort. The metro ticket only cost 50 roubles per trip so was far cheaper than travelling in the UK and the trains are more frequent too. It then took around 15 minutes to reach the stop we needed and headed out into what was now sunshine.

The Space Museum was really easy to find – as we walked out of the metro station the other end we could see a large memorial to the Russian Space Program. Around the back of this was the entrance to the museum. On my way to the entrance though I tried tightening my shoelaces, thinking it might give my ankle more support, but this back-fired when the laces snapped. When I eventually limped to the entrance it cost 250 roubles to enter, and then another 230 roubles to be allowed photography (without flash).

Even with me hobbling around on my bad ankle we got halfway around the museum pretty quickly and then paused to have some lunch in the cafe there. I went for a double hamburger, which was incredibly greasy and took around 25 minutes to arrive – so couldn’t really count it as fast food though. It felt like the cafe was there to cater for Americans based on the decor and the contents of the menu.

The things to see in the museum were a mixture of genuine and mock-ups, though not all the mock-ups were 1:1 scale. It was definitely worth seeing, and worth the 250 roubles to enter (and the 230 roubles to take photos). In the first room it reminded me a little of the entrance to the Johnson Space Center – it has a large focal point to the room and is then surrounded by smaller exhibits, which in this case includes a Vostok descent capsule.

By the time we left the museum it was almost 16:30 which meant we could potentially get back across town on the metro before their rush hour. Sure enough we made it and walked almost all the way back to the hotel. To rest my ankle a little I sat outside the hotel whilst my friend rushed back in to get a different lens for his camera before we then headed over to Saint Basil’s cathedral.

The entrance for Saint Basil’s Cathedral was 350 roubles, though there wasn’t a massive amount to see inside. Once you’ve seen so many Russian Orthodox churches I feel the interiors start to feel pretty similar – if we hadn’t seen the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood in Saint Petersburg first then I might have been more impressed by the interior. The exterior though is still impressive, and is an iconic part of Moscow’s Red Square.

When visiting the cathedral and red square we had to go through a security check upon entering due to there being a large market on – this did make it more difficult to get exterior photos of the cathedral but after completely circling the building I think we took sufficient photos. As we’d now left the restricted part of Red Square we decided to have a look around the GUM to see why it had been recommended to us.

This time upon visiting GUM we didn’t need to have our bags searched – we were just waved on through. We soon realised though that there wasn’t much in there other than expensive shops. I’m not particularly keen on spending ages looking at shops, and even less so with a bad ankle that was starting to feel swollen so after about 20-30 minutes of wandering around we eventually left.

Not long after leaving GUM I spotted a souvenir shop so we headed over to have a look – I bought a model of Saint Basil’s Cathedral and a decorated egg for a total of 3000 roubles. I considered getting one of the famous Matryoshka dolls as well but these were considerably more expensive and would be at least 4000 roubles by itself.

Not far from that main shopping area we found a small restaurant down the alleyway that led to Revolution Square. The service there was incredibly slow though, and my friend’s meal was delivered cold. I went for breaded pork, which with the tip only came to 700 roubles.

Once back at the hotel I found my ankle had swollen to at least three times it’s normal size so was glad that I could finally rest it after an eventful day.

Russia Day 13 – Back in Irkutsk

I got up at 04:00 in the morning as the sun was rising over Lake Baikal. We weren’t entirely sure what time we’d be arriving in Irkutsk as we’d had many conflicting times provided by different sources. We were up early enough though to have a few bits to eat for breakfast and then get ready for leaving the Trans-Siberian Express behind us for the last time.

We pulled into the station at 07:15 and by 07:25 we were at the Courtyard Marriott and checked in. It was a relief to be able to check-in early and shower, and whilst there we also ordered a packed breakfast for the next morning.

Heading out just before 09:00, since it had been almost 4 hours since breakfast, we thought we’d try to find something in terms of either a second breakfast or brunch. We couldn’t at first though – it seemed everywhere was closed and in most cases would not open until 10:00 or later. Eventually, a place called Coffee Company was open where I had a large cup of Earl Grey (yet the smallest they did!) with a croissant coated in chocolate sauce and nuts.

We then started what they call the “Green Line” in Irkutsk which is a trail of 30 sights which you can find by following a green line painted onto the paving stones. The route is supposed to be about 5km so in theory shouldn’t take too long to do. Though when you factor in trying to find where the green line goes when it frequently disappears due to it being worn, the time for taking photographs on the route, and crossing the roads – it all adds up.

By 13:30 we’d done about two thirds of them, and decided it’d be time for lunch. This is when we came across a place called DonOtello which has a menu in English available. I went for the chicken burger with fries, though my friend’s meal didn’t arrive until 15 minutes after I’d already finished eating mine. It’s been a common occurrence for one of us to get our food served first all over Russia, yet every other country we’ve been to it’s always been served at the same time.

We eventually finished going around the sights at 15:40, so even with lunch amongst the sights, a complete route of 14.6km took us around 4 hours. If I’d been running the route I’d have expected it to take little over an hour – but you can’t really compare this to a run.

After dropping off our cameras back at the hotel we browsed the internet and found a place for an evening meal called Asador Pectopah (“pectopah” being the Russian for restaurant) that did steak. It was quite easy to get to using Google Maps, but I think if we’d been looking out for it on the street we’d have missed it. I think to be honest only the locals would realise a restaurant was there at the time as the entire front of the building was hidden behind scaffolding.

I had a 300g fillet mignon steak with fries and barbecue sauce, followed by an apple strudel. It was quite a good steak and in some ways reminded me of the one I had eaten in Argentina a few years previous due to it’s thickness. This did however mean that although the steak was mostly cooked “medium”, it was a little bloodier than normal in the middle. Including the tip, the meal cost 2800 roubles per head, so the equivalent of about £28 in the UK – easily our most expensive meal of the trip, and a stark contrast to the other meals in Irkutsk, but after days of questionable meals on trains it was worth it.

For the next day we’d be heading back to Moscow for a couple of days to finish the sightseeing that was interrupted by this trans-Siberian excursion.

Russia Day 12 – Trans-Siberian Express II – The Return

After the last train experience we realised that the facilities on the train carriage would close before we pulled into a station. As we predicted we’d reach the border crossing at around 04:00 Ulaanbaatar time we had an alarm set for an hour before. It didn’t quite work out this way though – 04:00 came and went and at 04:40 we pulled into the station at the Mongolian border of Sukhbaatar. Though by this time I’d fallen asleep.

At 07:30 the Russian lady who was one of the two conductors for the train went down the corridor opening each door and saying “Border crossing. Toilet outside”. It didn’t really make much sense though as we couldn’t see anything – but when she insisted on us leaving the train we did as we were asked.

Once off the train I could see that the rest of the carriages had gone, and there was no train engine to move us either – there was just the three carriages remaining. Eventually we were able to find out that what the conductor meant was that we’d got until 09:00 to use the facilities on the train station (at a cost of 10 roubles) which is when the officials would board the train. Once they had boarded no one was allowed to leave the train, and our planned departure time was 11:00.

As before, we gave over our passports and they disappeared with them before collecting the customs declarations and completing a quick search of the cabin whilst we waited outside. The whole process only took about an hour, but we still left the station 15 minutes later than planned to arrive at the Russian border at 12:00. For this one we handed over the immigration form we’d been asked to complete during the transit between border stations along with our passport. This time they took a photograph of each passenger – the same as did when we first entered the country in Saint Petersburg. An hour later they had finished, and we could now consider ourselves to be on Irkutsk time.

The train didn’t leave immediately though – it then hung around in the station with no real purpose it seemed until 15:00, though our carriage got renumbered and additional ones were added in this time. These long stops were frequent, and seemed pointless – if they were to let other trains pass then I could understand it, but they didn’t seem to be. It seemed to be for the purpose of delaying our arrival only.

Once we left the border one of the two Russian conductors went through the cabins and tried to sell souvenirs. They tried to persuade us to buy some by trying to suggest we were wealthy due to us having bought two tickets each to get more space in the cabin (four people would have been beyond cramped). When no one onboard wanted to buy souvenirs one of them even tried to hold the onboard facilities hostage until people had, but the other one put an end to that though. Someone on this non-smoking train was also smoking which was an annoyance.

Early evening I then had chicken soup again for an evening meal before trying to get an early night due to our expected early arrival time in Irkutsk. This didn’t quite work out however due to the amount of noise at one of the stops around 22:30 when some passengers got off and some new ones boarded. Eventually though they quietened down and I was able to sleep.

Russia Day 11 – Gandan Monastery

It was a late start for the tours today which meant I could go out for a longer run first thing in the morning. This however was in theory – in fact a very sleepless night meant that I got up for breakfast at 08:00, and afterwards went for a run of only 5km. A little shorter than planned, and with many stops due to the traffic lights on busy roads, but it being at a higher altitude than normal did at least make up for it a little.

By the time I got back there was just enough time to shower and repack my suitcase before being collected for today’s tour. For the morning we were heading over to the nearby Tibetan-style Buddhist Gandantegchinlen monastery. When communism destroyed a lot of religious buildings, part of this one survived as a museum. The original copper statue of Buddha was melted down by the Soviet army in 1938 to cast bullets with. This however was replaced in 1996, six years after the independence of Mongolia, and the statue Avalokiteśvara is now the tallest indoor statue in the world.

To start with we went around some of the smaller buildings around the monastery and was told about Buddhist beliefs and a little about Buddhist lama life as we went around them. One of the ones we went in included a number of lamas that were praying around the middle of the room. We had to go around the room clockwise and was told we should not have our backs at any point to the Buddha statues.

The last building we went to was the one that housed Avalokiteśvara. Although we weren’t supposed to take photographs in the other buildings, in this one we could if we paid a fee of USD$10. As always I didn’t really want to miss out on the chance to take some photographs so paid the fee. Shortly after someone told me I wasn’t supposed to be taking pictures of the Buddha, but as soon as I shown them my pass they nodded and walked off.

Having finished our tour there, we then headed to the city centre to the Genghis Khan square. It was very busy though as a large number of schools were using it for graduation photos, and was also being set up for their “Mother and Children” day which is a national holiday. Once we’d been told about the place, the guide let us then wander around the square with an agreed place for meeting up.

It took quite some effort to get to the government building to photograph the statue of Genghis Khan, but eventually did manage this. As we were around a quarter of the way around the guide came over to us thinking we’d lost her. We hadn’t though and carried on walking around.

We’d still got some time left over afterwards so the guide took us to a nearby souvenir store where I bought some Mongolian stamps for 10,000 Tughriks a pack, and a fridge magnet. We were then shown to a nearby cafe that had free Wi-Fi and also a nearby restaurant where she recommended we make a reservation for 18:00. By this time it was 13:00 and so was taken to a European style restaurant where we’d be eating lunch.

The lunch stop today was “Castle Restaurant” inside an amusement park, and we had to be escorted into the castle so they could be sure we didn’t want to use the playground. Despite the fact we’re a little old for that. The castle was empty except for one table that was setup for us and the guide. This was then a four course meal – something similar to bolognese on a pastry wafer, then soup, and then a main course of beef sausage meat wrapped in bacon and pastry, and for dessert a chocolate sponge.

The afternoon was then ours to do with as we wished. We were dropped off at a shopping mall and advised how to find the souvenir shop in there. I bought a t-shirt for USD$7, and then we wandered around for some time before heading over to Cafe Bene for a cup of tea and to use their Wi-Fi.

Although our reservation was for 18:00 we headed over to the Broadway restaurant at 17:30 to make sure we had time to eat before meeting the guide at 18:45. It didn’t matter we’d made a reservation anyway as the table we’d reserved they’d decided couldn’t be used anyway. We weren’t really hungry though as it wasn’t that long since we’d finished a large lunch. Despite this I had a lasagna and drink and we made it to the meeting point a little early.

The traffic, for once, was not crazy either, so we also reached the train station with 1hr45 to spare so our guide decided to take us somewhere we could buy a drink, which I didn’t need, and to use their internet. I didn’t really need to use the internet for anything but somehow managed to waste the time we had there before being taken over to the train station.

We said goodbye to the guide and boarded the train where we’d be staying for over a day. This train was a little nicer than the last one, and there was a tiny bit more room due to it being 4-berth, but this did also mean it didn’t have it’s own basin like the last one. Unfortunately this one also didn’t have power in the cabins, so realised the next day would be without the ability to charge laptops or Kindles.

Just after 20:15 we were on our way back to Russia for the last part of the trip and was given Mongolian customs forms to complete along the way.

Russia Day 10 – The Winter Palace of Bogd Khan

Breakfast was at 08:15, and we were on our way out of the national park just after 09:00. Today we would be visiting the winter palace of Bogd Khan – the last ruler of Mongolia. The breakfast was quite basic, but considering how many people they have to cater for, and how remote the place is I think they did a pretty good job!

It took a couple of hours to get back to Ulaanbaatar and across town to the palace of Bogd Khan. From a distance we could see just how much air pollution hung over the city like a fog. Apparently the majority of Mongolia’s winds blow from the north to the south, and the positioning of their coal power stations meant that they were positioned such that they pollute the city. They were however constructed during the Soviet time so may be something they hadn’t considered at the time.

When we arrived at the palace we were warned that photography was not allowed anywhere on the site, but for USD$26 we could buy a pass to take photos. My friend thought it was far too expensive, but I decided it’s a trip I’d only make once so didn’t want to miss the opportunity to photograph one of the few old buildings on Mongolia.

When we arrived at the palace we were warned that photography was not allowed anywhere on the site, but for USD$26 we could buy a pass to take photos. My friend thought it was far too expensive, but I decided it’s a trip I’d only make once so didn’t want to miss the opportunity to photograph one of the few old buildings on Mongolia.

The last emperor of Mongolia had four residences, but this one is the only one which remains after the majority of historical buildings were destroyed during the time of the Soviet Union. It was quite evident how much cultural destruction took place during that period, not just in Mongolia but also in Russia.

There are a number of buildings inside the palace, the majority being religious temples. We went around each one and was told about the purpose of the buildings, the history, and about the artefacts that were on display inside. At one point we were questioned over me taking photographs, but once they saw the photography pass around my neck it was soon cleared up.

In addition to the old buildings are a couple that were created by the Russians so are not of the same style. In the larger of these is a massive collection of the Bogd Khan’s belongings including a throne, a carriage, and even a ger made from the hides of many Snow Leopards.

Our lunch was not far from the palace, and not far from the office of the tour company we’d used. This restaurant served what our guide referred to as European food and was a three course meal of broccoli soup, breaded chicken and fries, and Neapolitan ice cream.

After lunch we were taken to the Soviet monument, the Zaisan memorial. This memorial is to honour the soldiers who died during the second World War and is located in the south of the city not far from the palace. The murals around the circular part of it depict the conflicts that took place and also the Soviet achievements after the war. From this point we could see all over the city and got a better idea of the amount of construction that is taking place. Apparently due to how harsh their winter can be they only have a few months each year to get as much building work done as they can manage.

Once we’d finished we were then taken to a Kashmir shop, something I didn’t really want to do so looked around quickly in case there was actually something I might want to buy. As there wasn’t I sat in the lobby of the building waiting for us to leave.

For the first time in days, we then checked into a hotel; the Ramada. We had a little over an hour there to shower and get ready for then being picked up for the remainder of our tours for the day. This did however also give us some time to pick up some more food for the train journey back to Irkutsk.

Our guide met us at 17:15 and took us to a Mongolian cultural show performed by Tumen Ekh. After driving through the traffic for a while it was evident we were going to be late so our guide took us the last part of the journey on foot. Photography at this one was allowed, at different rates: USD$10 for photos, a slightly higher rate for a video camera, and more for a professional video camera. For my Canon EOS 5D mk3 they considered this to be the USD$10 band – not strictly accurate, but it was okay with me!

The performances, especially the first singing one, reminded me a lot of the performances I’d seen in China. Though there were a lot of differences too such as the throat singing that produced some very unusual sounds. It also included a contortionist where she was able to lift her own body weight with her teeth.

After an hour and a half the performance was over and we were taken to a Mongolian Barbecue restaurant for food. It reminded me a lot of the one I visited in Sowerby Bridge in England, so it seems the English one did get a lot right! I had two servings of peppers, noodles, chicken, and sweet and sour sauce. This was then followed by chocolate mousse and a fairy cake. Even after all of this we got back to the hotel a little after 21:00.