Week 16 (France 11)

Where were we?

Same as always.  Or feels like it.

At least it’s still beautiful

Where should we have been

Last Friday we got back on the train in Almaty for our longest journey yet, 73 hours not including a four hour change.  We arrived in Novosibirsk on Sunday morning and had a few rather scratchy hours on the platform before getting on to the actual Trans-Siberian railway for our journey to Irkutsk.  We are getting good at the long distance travel now and a day and a half passed relatively quickly with Uno, Quiddler and Netflix…  We arrived in Irkutsk very late on Monday night and headed straight to our accommodation, which had been chosen entirely on the basis of proximity to the station.  The next mornng we were up and out for the easy one hour bus journey from Irkutsk to Listvyanka, on the shores of Lake Baikal. 

Lake Baikal. Largest and deepest freshwater lake in the World.  Image from pixabay.

We had agonised over the timing of this part of our trip and had ended up having to cut it short to maximise time in Mongolia, so we sadly did not explore more of the shores of Baikal or into Buryatia (the area of Russia to the East of the lake).  Instead on Thursday we headed back to Irkutsk for our early morning departure to Ulaan Bator.  We arrive this evening. We are beyond excited.

What did we really do?

After our long, long, lost in the woods adventure last week, we had another full day out in the majestic Chartreuse on Wednesday, climbing Le Grand Som. At 2026m, it is not quite the highest mountain in the area (that’s Chamechaude at 2082m, which is the pointy mountain which appears all over anything we post), but it is probably the most formidable. We took what we understand to be the most approachable (but longest – it took us over seven hours including stops) of the four possible routes to the top, from Ruchère, about 30 minutes of wobbly driving from the house.

Highlights were Sophie spotting what we think was a marmot above us on some scree (although as it was rather larger than we expected it may have been a confused badger out for a midday stroll in the hills), finishing a Netflix movie over lunch at 1700m, dancing a Tiktok at the summit, making snow angels (yes, really) and Magnus enjoying his new walking shoes. In fact, Magnus enjoyed the walk so much it was declared his 5th favourite walk ever. (His 4th favourite walk is down to the river and back so the competition isn’t what you might call stiff).

Wild flowers of the week were, in no particular order: wild laburnum trees (probably stupid of her but Harriet didn’t realise they grew wild), the very odd, non-photosynthesising (really) birds nest orchid, globeflowers (buttercups on steroids), alpine pasqueflowers, and what looked like wild rhododendrons but are apparently rusty-leaved alpenroses.

On Monday we left three of our four children entirely unsupervised and headed into Grenoble. Magnus, who, you may recall, gets on splendidly with the windy road down the hill, was brought with us; mostly to prevent danger to life and limb if we left all four of them alone. We popped into Decathlon (again) so that we could get the shorts we entirely failed to buy for him last time.

Then on to the independent republic of Carrefour.  A supermarket so large you can see it from space. (It is possible that not all of that is entirely true).  Even as someone who enjoys a foreign supermarket this wasn’t much fun.  It was too big, too confusing and too hot.  It also, oddly, didn’t have lots of things that we can buy in the smaller Intermarché in the nearest town: no oats and no Special K, although it did have 75 different types of mustard and the world’s most expensive fondant icing (at €17 per kg).  It is strange too what “exotic foods” are available.  They had marmite (which we didn’t buy) but not golden syrup.  They, again, didn’t have tahini (which seems odd when you consider France’s history of involvement (to use as anodyne a word as possible) in North Africa) but they did have Thai curry paste. Great joy when we brought that home…

Is there really more of a market for lime marmelade than tahini?

In good news though, Magnus wasn’t sick.

He may, however, have come close to dying of boredom. Incidentally all those plastic bags are the biodegradable sort. The meat wrapping sadly isn’t.

Having finally managed to get Lucy back onto the school roll she has been inundated with school work. We’ve had various technical difficulties with some of it (her school-issued iPad is in a box in Kelso) but she has done what she can with a surprising amount of enthusiasm. It has been lovely seeing the quality of the work she produces.

Months of anticipation were nearly satisfied on Friday when the pool men came. This provoked a brief foreign-country-etiquette panic in Harriet (Do you offer French workmen coffee? Do they drink Nescafé? Answer a) yes and b) that might be a cultural step too far. They got a cafetière). As we type the pool is full of chemicals and still unswimmable in. We wait, tantalised, for tomorrow morning when we can use it. Sophie and Aurora say they are going in before 8 am. Given that the temperature will be about 12 degrees we expect that they will be out before 8 am too.

So near…

With a nearly nine-year-old requesting millionaire’s shortbread and a failure to be impressed by the versions without golden syrup, Harriet had a go at taking on Tate & Lyle’s finest. It was remarkably easy and turned out looking very much like golden syrup. It doesn’t, however taste much like golden syrup, being noticeably lemony (that’ll be the lemon juice). The first batch of millionaire’s made with it is nonetheless in progress.

You know what they say about the proof of the puddimg..

We enjoyed some good shorter walks too although one was enlivened by a bit of minor drama when Aurora lost her footing while clambering about in the river. No harm done but she was rather shocked and distinctly unamused to be wet.

Before the fall…

This week’s garden highlights are the roses. No idea what sort they are.

We had some real world intrusion in the form of the potential loss of over £1000 from the refund of our Russian train tickets. Having cancelled on the basis that we would get a full refund (less £90 fee) now the moment of payment has arrived (late) the company (who will temporarily remain nameless) seems to have multiplied the deduction significantly more than ten-fold. We have emails confirming how much they will pay and are in “discussion” with them about the change, but if we don’t get a positive resolution soon you can expect to see us going Defcon 1 (names included) all over Twitter.

Partly as a result of that dispute and partly because we are aware of the imminent expiry of our Russian visas (cost also in the squillions) we took a difficult decision this week and have made a claim on our travel insurance. This might seem like something we should have done months ago, and we did indeed contact the company in our first week here. However it turns out that we can only claim if our entire trip is “curtailed” (which of course in reality it has been since we arrived here in March). If we claim under this condition it brings the policy to an end and leaves us uninsured. This is not so much of a worry if we remain in France but is, of course, more of a problem if we travel further afield. Our decision to make a claim is therefore an explicit and long-resisted acknowledgement that the curtailment is not temporary, as we had hoped. It is very unlikely that we will get any further on our trip. This year at least.

We suspect it may not be a straightforward claim

In better news, one of Harriet’s wild-pipe-dream-1950s-parenting hopes for this trip was that we would all read to each other. Courtesy of JK Rowling this has actually, and rather to our astonishment, happened this week. She is releasing a new children’s story, The Ickabog, online in daily instalments. It has become part of our routine and we are enjoying the drawing prompts too.

The late lamented Mrs Dovetail. By Magnus

A real sign of normality returning to the village nearly moved Harriet to tears on Friday evening. The printed weather forecast which is normally a daily feature outside the tourist information office is back. It seems like (and is) such a tiny thing but having not been there for nearly three months its return really did feel momentous. Restaurants reopen here next week too.

And the fountain is back on.

Our walk on Thursday was less impressive on paper than Grand Som but in reality no less exciting. We drove down and across the gorge of the Guiers Mort and up into the Forêt Domaniale de la Grande Chartreuse where we headed up a (in some places terrifyingly) vertiginous path. There was, once, a road to the Col de la Charmette and after crossing the ridge and descending through the ancient beechwood we followed this back through the gloom of the long Tunnel des Agneaux to the car. We had brought head torches (Ben and Harriet had walked it once before without) but nonetheless it’s amazing how scary a dark drippy tunnel can be when you can’t see more than 10 metres in front of you.

There was no Trivial Pursuit this week. This may or may not be connected to the fact that we have acquired a Netflix account. Recommendations please?

How was it?

Good bits

Magnus: I liked Grand Som and getting the pool running again. My new shoes were absolutely awesome. I am really excited about my BIRTHDAY!!!!!!

Sophie: The pool man coming was great because it means we can go in the pool tomorrow. I liked the view from the walks. And I love mine and Aurora’s new room.

Lucy: I enjoyed our walk up Grand Som it was very pretty and I had some good chats. Staying at home with Sophie and Aurora was fun. I also liked the Ickabog and doing Minecraft with Sophie, Aurora and Magnus. And having the hammock back up.

Aurora: Helping Mummy with Magnus’s cake, staying in the hammock for ages, watching the pool get cleaned and the TikTok at the top of the mountain.

Well what else would you do when you reach the top?

Harriet: Ben wondered last week if we should lose the “good bit”/”bad bit” distinction and for me this is true this week: my good bit is also a bad bit. I think I have, finally, accepted that it is likely, if not inevitable, that this is as far as we will get. This is a bad thing for obvious reasons, but it is also a good thing as it means, despite what I say below, that the actual bad moments have been fewer and further between. There has been, I think less raging at the situation in which we find ourselves and more acceptance. This is probably better for everyone.

Less philosophically, we have done amazing walks this week. The views never stop getting better, wherever we go. I love the sounds and smells too. It is all so fresh and green and alive. The wildflowers, whether familiar or less so, are a constant source of pleasure.

I have really enjoyed reading to the children and I have loved seeing them work collaboratively on Minecraft.

Ben: In 30 years of coming to the Chartreuse, I have never climbed Le Grand Som, and it was fantastic to do it with my family this week. One of the silver linings of the Covid cloud has been our chance to explore new places, climb new mountains and walk new woods. Our walk above Chartreuse de Curiere on Friday, while slightly vertiginous at times for me, was magical. The beechwood, the birdsong, the feeling of centuries of almost untouched nature – I am loving being in these places.

Bad bits

Aurora: Fighting with everyone, not having Duplo A.

Ben: Screens in general [he taps into a small screen…]. I know I’m spending too much time on a screen, and I’m pretty sure we all are. When there is something which needs to be done, from setting out the lunch table, to a small amount of academic work, or getting shoes and socks on, there is inevitably at least someone on a screen, and a necessary nag to get them off. Sometimes it’s me. And when the screen is a valid “necessity”, for insurance correspondence, or creating or printing academics, or even watching a film, it is too small, too fiddly and not as good as an alternative laptop / TV / etc.

We are also over three weeks past the midpoint of our trip with very little prospect of moving on. This is not a good thing.

Sophie: I don’t like how there were some bits on the walk where you could fall off the cliff. Also I found the tunnel creepy and that’s it.

Harriet: The bad bits are the same old, same old really, a bit like many of our days here, no matter how beautiful or varied our walks. While I have now accepted that this will probably be as far as we get I still have moments when I am terribly sad about that, and moments when I am very bitter and angry. I find thinking about where we should have been hard, but I also don’t want to let go of that. Perhaps I fear that if I let go of it then we really won’t ever go.

Most mornings I wake up to a sinking disappointment that we are still here.

Lucy: The mahoosive workload I have from school and just general scratchiness.

Magnus: Sophie moaning on the walks (all of them).

She does like it sometimes.

What did we eat?

We didn’t eat it as such but Harriet is rather pleased to have made her own golden syrup. Even if parts of it were more difficult than they should have been:

You could even call it partially inverted sugar syrup (Credit: Harriet’s brother, Seb)

On the heels of the children’s surprising approval of turnip daal, we made it again. Though with just the one turnip this time:

We accompanied it with naan bread, always a winner, but we were a little nervous about this naan as the yeast for it had sat in the car while we walked up Grand Som. We weren’t sure what seven hours in a hot car would do to all those little live yeasts. Turns out they were ok.

When the yeast mixture is frothy…

How are the tadpoles?

In a word, elusive. In two words, camera-shy They are definitely still there but we barely see them. The current theory, to add to the one about them staying away from the sun, is that as they are maturing they are much more aware of what is around them. We are now potential predators, so even if they are on the surface as soon as we approach they tend to disappear under the water.

They still have no legs though.

This one decided to pose…

What’s next?

We just don’t know.  If we are not going to go anywhere other than France, we need to have a plan of things to do here before we just drift our way through to August.  Any suggestions welcome.

We do though still remain committed to going anywhere we can if that ever becomes possible.  It just doesn’t seem likely that it will in the near future, if at all this year.

In the short term, tomorrow is Magnus’s ninth birthday, so we have presents and plans for that.

Is this as far away as we will get?
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4 Comments

  1. What a brilliant blog with fantastic photography, don’t give up, things are changing all the time, and hopefully you’ll break some new ground soon – you’ll all be so super fit and resilient. Love Ele

  2. Nicky Burridge

    I love your blog and read it every week. Reading about your travels (even if they weren’t the ones you planned) are the closest I’m likely to get to travelling for some time. I really like the ‘good bits’ and ‘bad bits’ section. I think it gives a great insight into the realities of traveling and makes the blog a very rounded read. It’s not just interesting to see where you have been and what you have done, but also to read about everyone’s responses to it, both good and bad. I think the emotional response to what you are experiencing is a big part of travel and the best and most memorable travel writing captures that, which you do very well. I am so gutted for you not to have been able to do your original route, though!

    • Thank you so much! It means a huge amount that you read it! Feel free to recommend it to your friends – with the caveat that it’s rather less exciting than it should have been… it is gutting though but we are trying to keep positive (ish – this week has been hard). On the upside we are going to be back on the road on Monday. Within our permitted 300km of course! So not Mongolia yet…

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