Saturday, November 17, 2012

Vitamin Ski

The November Blues arrived shortly after I returned from Morocco. Grenoble had become a dark, lonely place, and the grueling French school system often kept me occupied until well after sunset. Where I had seen endless possibilities of hiking and biking trips earlier this year, I only saw wet trails in the dark.

There is a light at the end of the tunnel of in-between seasons that is the month of November. The start of a new season; the return of vitamin ski. Today, I finally got it and the dose has cured me - at least for now.

Sophie admires the view from the top of the Grand Motte lift, Tignes
Tignes in Haute-Savoie has lifts that go all the way up to 3400 meters, and is also partially located on a glacier. So the skiing there is pretty much year round. A light dusting covered the mountain tops around and the sun shone gloriously.

I combed the hills for possible powder stashes - and managed to make a few joyful turns in fresh, loose snow. The snow cover wasn't great however, and even the tiniest of offpiste expeditions was likely to hit a few rocks.

Sparse cover in the valleys, but winter is coming!
This was day 1 this season - I can wait to see how many I can do this year!

- The Wild Bazilchuk

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Morocco, part 2: Other stuff we did

In Morocco, drivers seem not to follow traffic laws. Scooters are the most popular form of transport, and they zoom along the highways and through the tight alleys of Marrakech with equal carelessness. According to Wikipedia, the rate of traffic-related death in Morocco isn't particularly hig. I cannot fathom why.

Transport for the whole family. Letting the 8-year old drive is definitely a good call.
Here are some other things I observed and/or learned while in Morocco.

Food and Drink
The Moroccans break fast like the French - as if it is just a warm up to lunch, or maybe an afterthought of dinner, as a opposed to an actual meal. Most often, breakfast consisted of bread with jam, and coffee or hot chocolate. As my growling stomach would have told you every day at 10 o'clock if you asked it, this can be quite insufficient for an active day.

Luckily they do other meals better. The traditional way of cooking is called 'tajine'. A tajine is a special clay dish that you fill with potatoes, vegetables, and meat, and then cook over charcoal with a conical lid.

Tada - lunch by locals in a small town in the Atlas Mountains
We ate a lot of different tajines in the Morocco. By far the best were those served to us in a traditional Berber house in the Atlas Mountains. This particularly family does bustling business letting tourists into their house to poke around, and then serving them lunch.

Audun, Øyvind, and Ingvild inspect the Pepsi soccer-themed cups we got. Host Mohammed looks on.
Apparently the host, Mohammed, has been doing quite well. According to Pierre-Alain, our mountain biking guide, he has built a new story onto his house. The second story is wider than the first story - one has to question the structural stability! The house stands 'Insha'Allah', as they say.

We were served food on matching, Christmas themed plates and large Pepsi cups. It was a bizarre experience compared to Western restaurants. The perfectly spiced lamb tajine served on them was, however, delicious.

After the meal, Mohammed showed us how to make mint tea. I should preface this by mentioning that sugary mint tea is ubiquitous in Morocco, and is drunk after each meal. Learn to like it.

Making tea, like a boss.
The proper way to make tea involves 3 teapots, a precise mixture of green tea and fresh mint leaves, and large chunks of sugar. Watching him make tea was kind of like watching juggling - pretty impressive.

Impressions of Marrakech

Arriving in Marrakech after 4 days in the mountains is like being woken by a cold glass of water in the face - shocking, but refreshing. We stayed in a traditional Riad on the interior of the walls of the Medina, or old city. Accessing our riad involved a trek through tiny alleyways so convoluted I half expected to find a minotaur at the end.

Instead of a half-bull, half-man, we found a Moroccan man and women who spoke broken French and broken English, eager to welcome us into the spacious, open apartment.

Moroccan decor in our riad
Bike storage in the open-air courtyard of the riad. Marius shows off his headlamp.

From this base we explored the old city. Marrakech's old Medina is best described by sounds. The sound of tiny scooters buzzing by you, honking their horns. The sound of shopkeepers asking you to just come and look at their wares. Snake charmer's flutes. Cheap mosque loudspeakers calling people to prayer five times a day. Tourists haggling with shopkeepers. Locals haggling shop keepers. Arabic, French, English, even snippets of German or once Swedish, all imploring you to buy something.

The cacophony of the streets combined with the blazing colors of the plethora of wares in every store and on every street corner make for quite an experience.

Just chilling on my scooter.
We spent the whole day exploring and shopping for tidbits. I am an extremely weak haggler - I don't want to deprive anyone of their livelihood! Luckily Ingvild and Synne are harder to cheat, and although we probably payed a tourist premium it was still pretty satisfying to haggle a necklace to half of the suggested price.

Synne considers how much she's willing to pay for a pair of leather sandals.
In stark contrast with the stressful souks (markets) are Marrakech's hammams, or traditional spas. When we discovered that there was a spa literally 20 meters from our riad, Synne, Ingvild and I had to give it a try. We spent 2 hours being steamed, slathered in mud and massaged, and returned thoroughly relaxed.

We also found peace our second night in Marrakech, after a full day of sightseeing, in a third floor restaurant far above the bustle of the streets. Across the city rooftops in dark, the Koutoubia Mosque was a beacon of light.

Marrakech cityscape by night, the mosque to the far left.

Marrakech was a beautiful, really different city - but one day was enough.

One last thing
Why are there so many cats in Morocco? And what do they want?

Take me to your leader.

- The Wild Bazilchuk

Friday, November 9, 2012

Morocco, part 1: Bring a bike

What do you get when you load up 7 full-supsension mountain bikes, 6 Norwegians and 1 American on a plane to Marrakech? A week of biking in the Atlas Mountains, exploration of the souks of Marrakech, good food and good company.

Steep switchbacks down to a Berber village.

I'll start by introducing the cast of characters on trip:

Couple #1: Ingvild and Øyvind 
Couple #2: Synne and Ap

Couple #3: Me and Audun (We do the photogenic couple thing really well)

Watch out, Morocco, Marius is in town - and he loves to bike!
Pierre Alain, the founder of Marrakech Bike Action and our guide

Biking in Morocco
Ingvild shreds

The mountain biking is Morocco absolutely incredible. Unfortunately, there are no guide books, and the last map was made during the 70's. So basically you need a guide. Our choice, based on recommendation on a mountain biking forum, fell on Marrakech Bike Action. Our guide was Pierre-Alain, the founder of the company, a tough Swiss who's look sort of remind me of a pirate, and who has been mountain biking in Morocco for 18 years.

We did 5 days of guided enduro mountain biking. "Enduro" means that we didn't do most of climbing ourselves; we were shuttled up to the tops of passes and would bike down, although there were occasional climbs involved. We biked a lot of challenging trails, however, so I was glad to save my legs and my head to the downhill.

Headed down the hill

What surprised me most about the biking was how varied it was. From smooth singletrack through the forest to rocky switchbacks through a Berber village to tiny, exposed trails across the sides of steep slopes, I was challenged in a variety of ways. The climate in Morocco is dry, especially compared to Norway, and this provides really nice surfaces to bike on, although Pierre-Alain said that is can get too dry and loose when there's no rain at all.

Ap takes in the view
Personally, the hardest trails for me were the really exposed trails. Especially one trail called 'the String' brought me to my knees. It is so narrow there really was only space for one bike at a time, and the valley floor was far, far below.

My personal favorite trail, and I think most of the groups', was 'the Magic Carpet'. This is one of the more famous trails that Pierre-Alain has discovered. The trail is rolling, at times open, a times tight, and the ground is grippy - the sort of trail that allows for going fast!

Synne, Ap, Øyvind, and Audun enjoy the Magic Carpet

The sights you see while biking through Morocco are also quite different from European countries. In the High Atlas Mountains, there are countless tiny Berber villages. I was fascinated to see how differently these people live. It's like turn the clock back a couple hundred years. These people spend most of their lives in and around their villages, and the idea of someone flying all the way to Morocco just to mountain bike around on their mule trails must seem strange.

The Berber village at the top of the Magic Carpet trail - complete with a mosque.

The kids really get a kick out of seeing tourists. In broken French, they asked to try our bikes or for some sweets. They would try to help us fix flat tires, and loved it when we gave away old water or soft drink bottles.

Ingvild and the local kids

Speaking of flats - we had a lot of them. My boyfriend Audun had no fewer than 6 in his 5 days of riding, probably due to his aggressive riding style. By the last day, we had no extra usable tubes, but luckily no one punctured (Insha'Allah!). Riding tubeless is definitely a good idea if you are headed to Morocco.

After giving such a good review of mountain biking in Morocco, I should mentioned the one day that didn't go so well. After a rain storm in the night, several rivers had flooded the roads we need to cross to get to the trails we intended to bike.

Flooded road. The guides try to decide what to do; Marius looks on

So we ended up driving to the hills just outside of Marrakech and climbing up a rocky, godforsaken pass. At the top of the pass, it started pouring rain. There was no proper trail down the pass, and the steep descent was on loose, spiky rocks. The landscape was completely barren, except for thorny bushes which would leave a good 5-6 thorns in you hand if you brushed in to them.
The descent of mountain biking Hell

After descending the pass, we got completely soaked biking around on dirt roads to meet the car with our luggage. I personally remember this particular ride as 'mountain biking Hell', although with so much other good bike, some bad luck was expected.

I'll sum up this post with a quiz:

1) Do you like mountain biking?
2) Do you like having fun?

If the answer to both those questions is yes, go to Morocco. And bring your bike!

- The Wild Bazilchuk

P.S. As you may have noticed, this part 1. Yes, that means I have more to write on Morocco! More to come in the next couple of days.