Up we go

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Where is the next red hold? Oh, there it is: around the corner. In order to reach it with my left hand, I have to secure my right foot, let go my left foot hold and swing my body over. Caught it. My hands are sweating: I’m getting tired. I glance down at my climbing partner. She smiles at me some 10 meters below. I’m not even halfway up the wall. It is not the time to get tired. I turn my head forwards and focus on the red dots above me. Up they go forming a nice vertical path. I take a breath and start following them.

“I wish I could like climbing”, my friend said when I took him climbing with me over the summer, “but I just don’t feel good on the wall”. It is normal to feel uncomfortable above the ground. The studies show that the human beings have naturally a slight fear of heights. However, a little bit of nervousness and adrenaline is fun. The feeling when you have not been climbing for a long time and take that first fall with an auto belay is wonderful. Is it really going to secure my fall or am I going to drop down like a rock?

Even though acrophobia, the fear of heights, is claimed to be one of the most common phobias (I could not find credible sources to verify this statement circulated on the internet) there are plenty of people in the world who enjoy heights. Enough so that it is profitable to build an indoor climbing centres. The world’s largest indoor climbing arena is located near Edinburgh. Of all the places they build the largest one in Scotland! That actually makes sense, since the outdoor climbing season in Scotland is short and dispersed because of the rain and cold.

Edinburgh International Climbing Arena, just call it Ratho, has hundreds of climbing routes for sports climbing and bouldering. There are routes ranging in difficulty from 2 to 8b (French grading) something for everyone from a first timer to a competent climber.  Over there a father gives instructions for a little kid who dangles on the wall. On the wall next to them a teenage girl spurts up making her friend grin as she tries to keep up with belaying her. Two walls to the left an experienced climber warms up with a 7a route.

The highest routes in the arena reach 28 meters, promising a good exercise for any sports climber. People on the walls move upwards like little ants following a set route. When they reach the top they mimic spiders and lower themselves down with the rope. Every now and then sudden chinking fills the air when someone falls from the wall and the rope catches the bolts and tightens in the hands of the belayer. There is no shouting or aggressive behaviour. Just focused faces, tense muscles and wide smiles. Well, there is some shivering as well. Being an old quarry, the climbing arena is rather chilly. Big hall does not store heat well and the only way to keep yourself warm is to move. To climb.

Even though I’m already too tired to climb, I tie myself to a rope. I am wearing a wool sweater and leg warmers: not a very sporty outfit. I’ll climb this easy route up and then belay my partner. Maybe the rest of our group is ready to go after that. If not, I’ll just choose another super easy wall to keep myself warm, or maybe I should retreat to the cafe and buy a steaming hot cup of tea…

Sunny Woods

 

img_5581“The sun is shining!” Do you know what that means in Scotland? it means that people in the room turn to gaze through the window and say: “Ay! It is beautiful, isn’t it”.

On a sunny day Scotland is charming. That is the time to go outside and take a wee walk. Right next to Stirling there is a small town called Bridge of Allan. It is an old spa town but there are no spas to be seen. However, the town has a space perfect for relaxation – the relaxation of the mind. The soft hills behind the town are covered with parks and forests. They provide a calm green space and offer a break from the traffic, noise and stress. You don’t have to go far, you don’t have to stay long, and you don’t have to pay a penny for it.

The woody area has several sections: Mine Woods, Mid Woods and Low Woods. Maybe there are more to be found if you explore the area very carefully. The Mine Woods is a popular area for locals to take their dogs for a walk or trainers for a run. In the midst of the woods there is an old disused Wolf’s Hole Quarry where local climbers go bouldering. These high rocky walls offer a great place for a fun vertical exercise.

The easiest way to get up to the woods is from the far end of the Bridge of Allan. Nearby the train station, before crossing the bridge, there is a stone fence on your right hand side. In that fence, there is a gap that takes you to a path. The path starts climbing the hill through the woods. Soon there is a sign welcoming you to the Mid Woods. Then it is up to you, where you want to go. You can follow the main path and end up to the park. Cross the park to the Wolf’s Quarry and head to the Mid Woods and check out the golf course which is on the other side of the woods. When you decide to leave the  woods you’ll get to walk on the streets of a little wealthier neighbourhood. Large Victorian houses and their high stone walls with iron fences are almost as interesting as the woods itself. Those houses live on the hills above the town, enjoying the peaceful atmosphere.

Definitely a good way to get some fresh air and enjoy the Scottish nature. Mind me, it is a thing to do on a sunny day, and autumn in Scotland is no autumn in Hawaii. If you say “the sun is shining” in Hawaii, the people will look at you: “I know. It always is”.

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Windy Linlithgow and its Cool Palace

My hair flutters around my face, sneaks into my mouth and tangles in my neck when I reach out of a window. The wind blows from the loch where a group of brave fishermen hunch in their small boats. It blows over the green neatly cut grassy fields pushing and pulling the dog walkers and making the tourists quiver. I retrieve from the window and move to the cover of the big stone walls. The stones are cold and the room I stand in provides no warmth as the fire that used to light the fireplaces has burned dead years ago. There is an interesting looking passage on the right corner: narrow corridor with low ceiling leads to darkness. Maybe that will take me to the cellars or maybe I’ll find another kitchen from the other end. A pigeon flies past me and somewhere in the darkness its friend calls after him.

The ruin of the Linlithgow Palace is an interesting and fun day trip destination. The admission is not as painfully high as for Edinburgh or Stirling castle: only £5.50. The Royal Palace is, of course, a ruin so it does not have as much to offer as the big castles, but here you can wander around freely without having to stand in line or steer through annoying crowds. My friend and I explored the rooms, corridors and stairways like little children (I think kids will like this place even more than I did), dark cellars, small corners, and he great hall were all accessible. The lady at the entrance advised us to tour the ruins in chronological order starting from the oldest part of the palace, which was built in the 1400s, following the information signs and ending our visit to the newer parts and then climbing up to the tower with a view over the town. We got astray from that route after the second room. But that is the beauty of the palace. No “wrong ways” and no “keep out” signs or “do not lean” commands.

Had the day been a bit sunnier it would have been lovely to go to the park next to the Palace and have a little picnic on the grass. Unfortunately, it was insanely windy and rather cold, so we decided to visit Linlithgow’s shops and cafes. We got rid of chills and cold fingers with hot tea and sweet cakes at Vintage Tearoom. Even though the town is small it has nice cafes and we found some strange shops full of random stuff. We also got a glimpse of a wedding party that was celebrating a spring wedding at the St Michael’s Paris Church. Cherry blossoms, bagpiper and dressy people. Quite a nice place.

Whisky Virgin

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“I think everyone should work in a bar before they turn 18”, one of my Scottish friends said. In that way people would learn to appreciate bartenders and treat them properly. At first I thought: “No way! I would never want to work in a bar”. But then I thought again. It would not be that bad to work in a pub in the UK. Sure, drunk people are always drunk people, but the pub culture in the UK is actually quite nice. And what I have noticed, people in pubs are often cheerful and friendly. You can find the “give me a beer, I want to get drunk” people from night clubs, but in small pubs, people are more relaxed.

There is a one really cute whisky pub in Stirling. I have to call it cute because a place that is called “Curly Coo Bar” and has a sign of a happy highland cow is definitely cute. It is also cozy and warm and has a great selection of whiskys as well as gins. Beer lovers and wine drinkers can surely find something from there but whisky is the thing.

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I took my brother and his girlfriend there when they visited because Alpi likes whisky and it would be a pity to leave the country of whisky without having a wee dram. The owner of Curly Coo is lovely and knows about whisky so even if you don’t know what you want, she will help. So basically Alpi just said he wanted something peated and she selected a nice (but reasonably priced) one for him. Then she turned to Ella. “What would you like to have today?” she asked. Ella had never tasted, barely even smelled, whisky but she developed a sudden interest in it when she saw all the bottles lined on the shelves and the little whisky glasses on the table. When she said that she would like to taste whisky, the bar owner was thrilled. “I know exactly what I’ll give for you. This is so exciting”, she went to pick the bottle. Now, I’m not a huge whisky drinker so I can’t remember what was the name of it or even from distillery it was from, but it was good. The best thing was that Ella actually liked it. She had been introduced to the world of whisky.

When we were sitting at a table and enjoying our drinks the bar owner returned to us asking Ella whether she liked it. “Now, I have this little book where I collect first timers’ comments”, she handed a notebook to Ella, “Could you write down something about you first whisky. As much or as little as you wish. And any language is fine”. The notebook was filled with marks from people all over the world. The memories of their first ever whisky and Curly Coo were saved on the paper.

I had my first proper dram of whisky in that same place over a year ago, but I don’t think I mentioned the owner that it was my first so I didn’t get to write on the notebook. Nevertheless, I do remember my first whisky. No doubt Curly Coo has seduced quite a few people and taken their whisky virginity.

Dancing Down to Liverpool

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Do I need a passport to cross the border?

The thought hit me on the back seat of a minivan after 50 minutes of driving.

No, surely they would not check who crosses the border of England and Scotland, they are practically one country anyway. But then again, I never checked if they would.

After driving by the sign that announced I was now in England without even having to slow down let alone being stopped by border control, I stopped worrying. This was my first time crossing the border. First time in Northern England. I had visited London several times before, but London is London and England is lot more than that. It was high time for me to see some more of the country.

I was going to spend the weekend in Liverpool with my University’s dance team. It was a competition weekend and we were buzzing.

After 5+ hours of sitting in the car we arrived to Liverpool, the city of Beatles. The city where the most famous boyband grew up. That is where the Strawberry Field and Penny Lane can be found. Indeed I heard that the city is full of Beatles related tourist attractions. Unfortunately all I saw was a picture of the four of them hanging in out hotel room. And on the corridor. And on the wall in the reception…

As our purpose of being in the city was dance competition, we spent the most of the time at the competition venue nearby Chinatown. Decorative and colourful gate of the Chinatown, asian shops and Wok and Go noodles surrounded us. However, inside the competition hall we were isolated from everything that was happening outside. We enjoyed the excitement and nervousness while we waited for our turn. We cheered for other teams and admired those who really knew how to dance. And when we were on the stage, we did our best. By the time the competition was over, it was late and we were tired. Too tired to tour the city, but not too tired to go out. So it happened that colourful Chinatown changed to loud and flashing nightclub. Nightlife of Liverpool. Strange faces and lots of fun. It is true that dancers can always dance. Even after competitions it is possible to dance until 4am.

The day of our departure brought the tiredness. It was cold but bright day, and the thought of fresh air felt appealing. We got an hour to walk around the outdoor shopping mall that was very much more interesting and stylish than generic shopping streets in big cities. Glass walls and water, white and steel. Modern. We walked down to piers, where the wind was strong and people zipped their jackets and tightened their scarfs. When I saw ice cream stands on the pier I wonder who on earth would want to buy anything cold right now. My friend did. She drunk a bright blue slush while I shivered and tried to smile at camera that another one of my teammates was actively using.

Liverpool was positive, I thought afterwards. I am sure there is lot to see and do for visitors and maybe it is a very nice place to live. I think I have to go again, with more time and no competitions.

They are the little things that make the difference

IMG_4207Back to the wonders of life in Scotland. So, there are things I like, such as the accent, and things I don’t like so much, such as the rainy-always-autumn weather. It is pretty easy to get used to that kind of big differences whether I like them or not. The little differences are the ones that make Scotland still feel strange. They are the differences that make every country and culture feel different from each other.

Scotland has left hand side traffic. Okay. It took a while to get used to look to the right first before crossing a road, but that is okay. Down in London it reads “look to the right” on the pavement at the crossing, but here we do not have that luxury. Here they do not seem to be interested in making pedestrians life easy anyway. Cars do not have to stop for pedestrians at the crossings if there are no white stripes painted on the ground. And there usually are no stripes of any kind, just a little dent in the curb so that you know that this is where you should try to cross.

Also the traffic signs are different from Finnish traffic signs and for example give a way -triangles are often painted on the pavement. It took me half a year to realize that. I never knew who should go first because I didn’t see the triangles and I didn’t know if the left hand side traffic reversed all the rules as well! Luckily I didn’t drive or bike among the traffic before that enlightenment. Now that I do bike everywhere I have noticed that cars do not use lights during the day. It makes it difficult to know wether they are moving or not. To make it even more difficult to know which cars are moving, cars can park on both sides of the road which ever way they want to.

The traffic is not the only thing that is upside down here. Why do the doors open inwards? I have understood that this is the case in most of the countries, but it is strange to me. Should we not be able to get out of the house easily in an emergency situation? I also think it is more logical to have doors to open to open space (hallway, yard, street…) instead of to the room.

Why do the light goes on when I turn the switch down? My logic says that down is off and up is on, it just makes much more sense. Why don’t they have double windows here? It would prevent the wind and damp coming into the house and reduce heating costs a lot. Why is everything carpeted? Why is grass always super green? Why are dirty outdoor trainers allowed at the indoor gym? Who do they not have simple old fashioned can openers? Or cheese cutters? Why do they not have grounded cardamom in Tesco? Why is skinny milk red and whole milk blue?…

There are little things that I ran into my everyday life. Some are obvious, some are not. They might make me feel out of place but not every strangness is negative. I really love the mountains in the horizon, and being able to go to the mountains for a day is something I can not do in the Southern Finland. People are also welcoming and warm. It is really nice how strangers open and hold the doors open for others and how older people call me “dear” or “hen”. I am quite willing to pay £2.40 for a latte if the lady at the counter says “Tha’s two forty darlin”

Winter on Beinn Ghlas

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I found winter from Beinn Ghlas.

White mountains look peaceful against the pink soft morning sky. Gradually the sky turns blue and the mountain peaks tint to pink and orange as the sun climbs higher. I have woken up well before the sunrise to bike to the campus where I met my fellow mountaineers for the day. Now, when we are driving towards the southern highlands, the day lightens up promising bright and chilly weather.

It is Valentine’s Day but I am not planning to fill the day with roses and pink hearts. Instead, I have pair of crampons and an ice axe in my pack back and I am going to learn how to use them properly. A St John Scotland Mountaineering instructor will take us up to a Munro, Beinn Galas, and teach us to use the winter gear in practice. I have done Beinn Ghlas before, but never in winter conditions. I am excited.

After sorting out all the gear, putting on extra layers and going through the plan for the day, the five of us heads to the hill. The clock says 9.40. Other hill walkers are enjoying the day as well: Red, balck and blue dots move up and down the snowy slope. There is plenty of room for all of us and we pass people nodding and smiling. “Grand day, huh?”  Closer to the top two men greet us on their way down. They have red cheeks, puffs pulled up to the chin and snowflakes on the eye browns. “It’s a fine day. The view on the top is not the best, though”. The footprints on the snow indicate the path but we keep our maps near just in case. After all, one of the rules on the hill is that you should never trust blindly on the weather or other people’s decisions.

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Before continuing to the steeper slope we stop to practice some ice axe techniques. Soon the small patch of the slope next to the path is filled with footprints, axe holes and sliding marks. We shake snow from our clothes and I replace my wet mittens with my spare pair. Now I know how to lean on an ice axe when the slope is very steep and I also know how to stop or at least slow down my fall is I slip. “Remember that this is a skill you should not need to use” our instructor says, “the goal is not to slip”.

We strap our crampons on before the icy climb to the top and continue our way. 10 spikes chew the snow and ice underneath each of my steps. The path is not very difficult and it would be manageable without crampons, but we are here to practise how to use them and I rather enjoy having inch long spikes attached to my feet.

After walking for a while we dive into a cloud that covers the top of Beinn Ghlas. That is where the map and the compass prove to be handy. Because of them we know that the pile of stones on a seemingly highest point of the hill is not actually the peak. Whiteout makes it impossible to see the real peak to this stone pile but we study the map carefully. One lady nearby overhears our conversation and lingers around as she obviously does not have a clue where to go. She secretly follows us when we make our way to the top. There where we smile, notice that the guys we met were right: the view is really not the best today. Everything is white as milk.

We are back to the cars around 3.30pm. Tired drive back to the university feels like forever. The sun is already setting and the mountains wear their orange suit again. One day of winter on Beinn Ghlas ends up with rain falling on me while I bike back home through green fields.

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