Beer World (part nine): Bhutanese brews

Chillies drying in the sunshineBhutan is an odd place. It’s tiny, not even twice the size of Wales and with about as many people as Leeds, which makes its position, squeezed between the behemoths of India and China, all the more precarious. And yet it has never been successfully invaded. The British, of course, made some token efforts. Tibet was more determined, sending waves of armies into the country over centuries. Yet neither managed to subdue the place. And more recently, when some Assamese separatists chose to base themselves in the south of the country, the better to wage their insurgency in India, the Bhutanese army chased them out.

Things you might know about Bhutan include the fact that it is tricky and expensive to visit as a Westerner. Tourists were first allowed to visit in 1974, but it wasn’t until 1981 that you could arrive by plane, rather than on foot. They recently started experimenting with democracy – the first elections were held in 2008, a gift of the fourth King to his sceptical people, most of whom would appear far happier with monarchy than voting. You might also know that TV and the internet were only allowed in 1999, another gift of the fourth King, but one that was embraced with far greater enthusiasm than politicians. The fourth King also decided that the country should measure its progress not by GDP, but by Gross National Happiness.

A pot of ema-datseIndeed, Gross National Happiness is probably the most famous thing about Bhutan. That, and the national obsession with chillis, especially stewed in cheese sauce as the signature dish of Bhutanese cuisine, ema-datse. There may be a link between the two. Maybe. There is cheese in just about everything, not just the chillies, so it’s no surprise that there are a lot of cows too. But instead of lush pasture, it is the green and gold of rice that stirs in the breeze. And yet the country still has a very Alpine feel, with snow peaks and pine forest – about 70% of the country is still forested – and the valley floors turned over to agriculture. Even the ubiquitous painted buildings have a Swiss feel (except that in Bhutan the paintings are of dragons and penises). Indeed, a number of Swiss nationals have made the Himalayan kingdom their home.

An elusive Red Panda basks with some Bhutanese Swiss cheeseOn my first night in Paro, an uninspiring buffet dinner – the first of many – was significantly improved by a Red Panda, an accomplished weissbier, brewed by one of those Swiss émigrés: he also makes cheese, but not the kind that goes into ema-datse. The beer itself is sweet, but no more so than most weissbiers, and it is well-balanced: perfect for one, a little cloying after the second.

So, I soon hunted out other offerings. My first Druk 11000 – the favoured pony in the limited stable of Bhutanese beers – didn’t happen until I reached Thimpu, the capital city. Or more accurately, a dusty patch of ground above the city, outside the gates to the Queen Mother’s Palace.

A Druk 11000, a pony and a stray dog convene outside the PalaceWe had just finished our trek over the mountains from Paro, during which I had been moaning about wanting a beer; our driver greeted us at the trail end with a box of momos, some vicious chilli paste and a couple of bottles of cold, golden beer. 11000 has a hefty ABV, but while it is undoubtedly maltier and more flavoursome than most south Asian lagers, it still lacks the kind of presence you would expect from an 8% brew. Later that day I would drink another and think that it was nothing so much like a weird tasting Carling, but there, on the roadside, among the ponies and dogs at the end of a trek, it tasted of heaven.

A bottle of Druk Lager - for once the beer was worse than the foodAnd for all its limitations, 11000 is still a much better proposition than the 5% Druk Lager. Despite its ABV, it is thin, slightly metallic and essentially wet – it is however very fizzy, although that doesn’t help. Think bad Budweiser (the US kind) and you’re almost there. Of course, the fact that the worst beer made in such a tiny country is not dissimilar to one of the best selling beers in the world is some achievement. And that I had a choice was not to be sniffed at: later in the trip, especially when the great Red Panda drought* began, the 11000 became a reliable tipple. (*For some reason, the nearer we got to Bumthang, where the stuff is brewed, the bottled Red Pandas became as hard to spot as their namesake animals; when I made it to the brewery shop, I made sure of a few bottles to accompany the cheese – cow and yak – that I bought.)

A bottle of Druk Supreme, getting ready for bedTowards the end of trip, while the Black Necked Cranes danced in the marshy bottom of the Phobjikha Valley, I finally found the last of the local beers: Druk Supreme. Another 5% brew, it has infinitely more presence than the similarly powered Druk Lager, and compares well to a Kronenbourg 1664. While that sounds a little like damning with faint praise, the Supreme and the rest of the handful of domestically produced beers are infinitely better than most things I’ve tasted in neighbouring India or Nepal – and that even includes the underwhelming Druk Lager. Aside from the Red Panda, I had had no expectations and I actually felt quite blessed. And that was before the whisky.

Yes, whisky. Without an ‘e’. Because Bhutanese whisky draws a fairly straight line to Scotch, and not in an ‘embarrassing in comparison’ kind of way. I was trepidatious at first and, leaning on the bar at the Dewachen Hotel, I ordered the safety of a K5 – five Scotch malts blended in Bhutan. It was good. Better than many of the more popular and ubiquitous blends found on bars across the UK. It was actually special.

Emboldened, over the next days I moved onto the Bhutan-originated whiskies. By the time we were back in Paro, I had decided that Coronation was my favourite: a little peat (the mossy, old carpet kind, not the antiseptic kind) and lots of flavour. After that, Special Courier deserves a mention: peatier, but without the depth offered by Coronation. Then there is the evocatively-named but thin tasting Bhutan Highland, which had just a little too much raw grain spirit about it to be pleasant. But three out of four is not bad.

While Bhutan has unexpected pleasures for beer and whisky drinkers, wine drinkers beware. Not because the quality isn’t there – everything is imported, of course, as there is nowhere suitable for growing wine in this vertical country’s thin air, so you will find a good range of reliable New World single varietals, almost always by the bottle. No, the problem is the price, which goes up rapidly the further east you travel: there is one airport in the west, at Paro, and one ramshackle road to haul everything eastwards on panting trucks. Those haulage costs fall heavily on bulky wine destined for wealthy foreigners. Stick to an 11000 with a Coronation chaser and you’ll be fine.

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One morning in Reykjavik: drinking coffee, talking Icelandic music

‘Are you looking for anything specifically?’

‘Thank you, no. I’m just looking around. But thank you.’

‘No problem. Would you like an espresso while you look?

‘Um, actually, that would be lovely. Thanks.’

‘OK. Our recommendations are on this table. Some are new releases, some are older. Take a look while I get you your coffee.’

The 12 Tonar shop in ReykjavikI had booked the guesthouse in part because it was around the corner from my favourite bar in Reykjavik, in part because it was just up the hill from Mal og Menning. But mainly because it was across the road from the mighty 12 Tonar record shop. I was only passing through, on my way back from walking in Hornstrandir, and would only have an evening and a morning in the city before my flight left Keflavik. I had wanted to make the most of my time.

After breakfast at Kaffibrennslan on the main drag, I had taken a brief loop about the city. I have been to Reykjavik a few times now, but not for three years, and despite the compact familiarity, I still found charm gilding every street and building. I had planned to end my morning at 12 Tonar, before picking up my bags from Thor’s. I had allowed myself half an hour.

Before my look of bemused wonder had attracted the attention of the guy behind the counter, I had already done a couple of turns around both floors. I had listened to a few unknown tracks on the sofa-side players and lingered over a Rökkurró t-shirt before reminding myself I was here for records, not clothing.

I don’t know exactly when Icelandic music became such a thing in my life. I suppose it crept up on me in stages, like the midnight sun on a long summer’s evening. I remember swooning over the Sugarcubes in the 1980s like everyone else, but was more drawn to the clashing, barking voice of Einar than to Bjork’s elfish range: if the more famous Sugarcube sounded on the verge of madness, Einar seemed well past the line. After that? Sigur Ros in the 90s, of course, but not so much.

Then in 2012, driving around the West Fjords in a hire care without any records, we stopped at a cafe. They sold a handful of records on the counter next to the cakes. We bought an album each by Bjork and Sigur Ros and, on the recommendation of the woman making the coffee, a copy of Í Annan Heim by Rökkurró. My current obsession, if it can be dated at all, started in the next two or three days of driving, listening to that on loop.

Back in the UK, while filling in other Rökkurró records, I stumbled across Sudden Elevation by Ólöf Arnalds, opening up a whole new set of possibilities; a half-remembered hankering for a band called Mammút led me back to 2008’s Karkari, and then to Oyama. Fortunately, 12 Tonar deliver to the UK, but what I really craved was another recommendation over coffee.

By the time the guy with coffee and a calm reassuring beard returned, I’d already picked up an unknown EP of covers by Ólöf Arnalds (to satisfy the completist in me). He pointed me straight to the new-ish Mammút record, Komdu Til Mín Svarta Systir. Then, without being asked, and based on just my few minutes of me gushing about Icelandic bands I liked, he picked up a record from the recommendations table, a record by a band I had never heard of, let alone heard, and simply said, ‘This is a great record.’

Now, I’ve worked in record shops. I know how the ‘recommendations’ rack works. The staff, generally speaking, do not have strong feelings either way about the greatness or otherwise of its contents; it is merely a promotional tool to shift new or stubborn product to unfocused punters like me. But something about the shop, about the guy, about that recommendation in a cafe in the West Fjords, made me believe. So when he led me, my records and my empty coffee cup to the counter, I followed willingly. He was already removing the outer sleeve from the nameless record I had yet to say I wanted; he rang it and the other two through the till and I paid, full of the most glorious glow of retail happiness.

The next morning, back in London, while I tipped dirty waking gear into the washing machine and tried to adjust to an additional 20 degrees of heat, I put on the record. I eventually worked out that it was 0, the second record by Low Roar. I played it again, and I am still playing it while I type this. It is a great record. And he’s not even Icelandic.

12 Tonar deliver: buy records from them. And if you’re ever in Reykjavik (seriously, why aren’t you?) then stop by for a coffee and some seriously good recommendations.

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Hornstrandir – Return to the Edge of the World

Looking over Hlöðuvík to AlfsfellPeople abandoned Hornstrandir in the 1950s, on account of the lack of work and the appalling winters: once the herring swam off to other places, the ferocious darkness lost whatever charm it might once have had. But in summer, Hornstrandir is rich in charms, not least its remoteness and seclusion. Made a nature reserve in the 1970s – the only mammals permanently in residence are the protected Arctic Foxes – it is a beautiful place, popular with Icelanders and walkers in the brief summer (mid-June to mid-August). I visited for a day walk in 2012 and determined to return. In June 2015, with a group of five friends, I made it.

My journal and some pictures are here:
1 Hesteyri to Hlöðuvík
2 Hlöðuvík to Hornvik
3 Hornvik to Veiðileysufjörður
4 Veiðileysufjörður to Isafjordur

A fuller set of photos will be on my Flickr page here, just as soon as I get around to sorting them!

I’ve written about other walks in Iceland, including the Laugavegurinn and the Fimmvörðuháls pass.

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Hornstrandir Day One – Hesteyri to Hlöðuvík

26th June 2015: Hesteyri landing stage to Við Hlöðuvíkurós in Hlöðuvík (13km), over Kjaransvikursgard (c.430m)

Boarding the Bjarnarnes, our 9am boat from IsafjordurAt last, I have made it back to Hornstrandir for three days of serious walking; the edge of the world again. And it is serious walking, as the first day has shown despite the short distances involved.

The trip has been a long time in the making: I first heard about the place in 2009, from the guide when I walked the Laugavegurinn; then I came here for a day walk in 2012 on a road trip around the West Fjords. Here I am again, along with five friends who rashly said ‘yes’ to an email last December. I am not sure all of them quite knew what to expect.

Landing in Iceland was reassuringly familiar; the transfer from Keflavik cut through the lava fields on the way to the city as it always does, only this time there were a thousand-fold more of the pretty but invasion Nootka Lupins thronging the roadside, blue heads bobbing. Another change: instead of the journey ending at the BSI, the bus rolled on to the domestic airport for a harum scarum flight up to Isafjordur, the gateway to Hornstrandir. From the plane, we had perfect views of Snaefellsnes and its glacier-clad volcano, of Breiðafjörður and tiny Flatey island; of the West Fjords covered in far too much snow. A night in Isafjordur: food and drinks at Húsið, then a sleepless night at the blameless and lovely Gamla guesthouse, before the 9am boat this morning.

***

Coming ashore at HestyriThe skies were clear blue as the Bjarnarnes cut out of the harbour and into the fjord; the forecast was for more of the same. At Hesteyri, the boat could not tie up, so we were decanted into a Zodiac to carry us and our gear to shore. Hesteyri was busy for an abandoned village, with a launch-load of cruisers over from the massive ship at anchor outside Isafjordur. But we were quickly away, crossing the stream below the Doctor’s House and heading up into the hills; Kagrafell to our left, Kisturfell ahead of us and the water to our right. The path was easily discernible, way-marked by cairns fairly soon after Hesteyri was left behind. Our course was clear, as was our first obstacle: a massive, seemingly vertical, bank of snow where the path should have been, rising about 100m above us.

We took a detour, heading north beneath the icy slope until it was a more manageable 30m to climb. Kicking steps into the crystallised snow, we climbed to the ridge before turning back south to rejoin the path (we would later find that this snow bank was not much of an obstacle, relatively speaking, and that we should simply have taken it in our stride, instead of losing an hour on a detour.)

Climbing the first snow bankAWe found the path easily, running along the shelf above the north west flank of the fjord. Under the mass of Kisturfell, a line of cairns stretched out ahead of us across a rising landscape of snowfields and loose rocks, formed into islands in the white. Occasionally, the path was a path rather than a trace of wind-blown footsteps through the snow, or a guessed-at line through the rocks. But the cairns were always there to pull us on and upwards to the fjord’s head and the final abrupt ascent to the pass at Kjaransvikurskard (c. 430m).

Cairns lead off to Kjaransvikurskard Again the last section was a snow bank and we paused beneath it before the final push, debating who should lead the line and who should follow, in what order. A French couple skittered down the slope, bored of following the line of the traverse; an Arctic Fox ranged nimbly across the snowy fellside above us, unconcerned by neither us nor his footing. Then on and up, a daunting track through the snow to the pass. Just before I reached it, my already quaking legs (I’m not good on steep snow…) were rocked by the first blast of wind curling over from the north. It blew harder at the top and, recovering among the rocks, my coat got its first outing while I admired the view back down the fjord to Hesteyri and out towards the town of Bolungarvik on the ‘mainland’.

Coming up Kjaransvikurskard On the other side, the path picked a steep descent through rocks before the already familiar pattern of snow fields and rock islands resumed. The snow fields were easier going on the way down, but soon the terrain became a series of marshy terraces, stepping down over the strata, all the while following the rapidly flowing brook towards the sea. By the time we had to cross one of its tributaries, it was a fast moving river, cascading over low falls.

Our first dubious ice bridgeWe avoided our first foot wetting by cutting nervously over a slender ice bridge; in two weeks it would have disappeared completely, but for now it held. It was here however that our trusty cairns ended, and with them any trace of a path, so we picked our way through marshy, florid turf under looming Alfsfell.

On the shore at HlöðuvíkThe imminent beach was announced by the stacks of drift wood, tree trunks logged in Russia, giant pick-up sticks thrown into crazy tangles. Some tents appeared beside the river’s final approach to the sea, but we were the wrong side of the mountain for this to be the campsite at Vid. The French inhabitants told us that the real campsite was indeed 1km further along the shore, that theirs was a ‘fake’ campsite (we would learn soon why they had decided to make camp there). They also suggested that the best way to cross the river was to balance across one to the tree trunks perched precariously across the stream. Two of the group followed the advice, while the other four unbooted and strode through the fierce and icy flow.

From there we traipsed (it was nearing 7pm) along the sandy beach, ready for the comforts of camp. An Arctic Fox sauntered past, between us and the surf. At Vid, the fake camp made sense: a persistent wind blew from the north east, along the coast, making pitching our tents interesting, keeping a stove alight more so. But tents were pitched and dinner was made and eaten, whisky was drunk, and sleeping bags rolled out, even as the daunting prospect of tomorrow’s route hung over us, literally and metaphorically.

The campsite at Hlöðuvík

I’m now in my tent, the nagging wind pulling malevolently at the fabric. The sun is still shining, even though it is half past eleven. It will shine through the night, but after today’s exertions, even it will not keep me from sleep.

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Hornstrandir Day Two – Hlöðuvík to Hornvik

27th June 2015: Hlöðuvík to Hornvik (Höfn) (10km), over Skalakambar (310m) and Atlasgard (327m)

The north coast of Hornnstrandir (the cliffs at Kjalararnupur)It’s 10.30pm and the sky is overcast, so we have retired to our tents. Alex is shouting muffled trivia questions from his, as others sort themselves for the night, moving packs around sleeping bags, trudging for a last visit to the latrine, or to brush teeth, back to the breeze. It has been a hard day’s walk; apparently only 10km, but it felt like twice that. As a consequence, the original plan – to walk around the bay for another 3km to the campsite at Hornsá has been abandoned and we have landed at Höfn campsite instead. In doing so, we have also opted out of the night walk up onto the cliffs at Hornbjarg, but the low cloud (the tops are buried under a thick grey mat) has made that prospect less appealing in any case.

The daunting start to the day turned out to be much less daunting in the execution, but was still hard going. We started out at 10am, leaving Vid to our only neighbours, two Icelanders who pitched up around 9pm yesterday. Almost immediately, there was a river crossing, so the day began in wading shoes. It was a broad river, very cold, and we crossed on the beach, at the top of the surf line. Boots back on, we skirted a grassy path above the beach until we reached a clutch of houses above a landing place, marked by two traffic signs, arranged one behind the other so that boats can determine the safest way in by aligning them from the water.

The path edges upwardsBeyond the colourful houses, the path rose to meet a waterfall, crossing just below the last full fall. Then the track snagged its way up to a little flat-bottomed cove, set around a tarn that fed the waterfall; above us, the steep walls of the cove hung like an amphitheatre. Our path snaked up above us to the where the strata bared their teeth in cliffs under hanging snow. But there was a problem: Mark’s leg had given way on the way up to the plateau, making such a climb – any climb – difficult if not excruciating. Alex valiantly offered to walk his own pack up to the ridge with Theo, a 180m climb, before returning alone to take Mark’s. It was a feat of considerable stamina and greater generosity.

Halfway up to Skalakambar Following him, the four of us zig-zagged up a reasonable path until the exposed strata, where things became a little trickier (much trickier for Mark), the path picking its vertiginous way through the rocks to Skalakambar. The last 10m of the climb was over loose gravel and a scramble over the cliff’s lip between two cornices, more a summit than a pass. Over the lip, the wind snapped in and the valley behind Haelavik spread out below us, all white and dark grey blotches as far as the next pass, Atlasgard, off in the distance.

The route to the Atlasgard passBefore the first snow field, we bumped into an American couple who had been on our boat. They were essentially doing our route in reverse – they gave us an optimistic account of what was to come, and we described as best we could how to approach Skalakambar from this side. Then we were off across a long stretch of level snow. A rocky island, more snow, more rocks, all under the rising walls of mountains and ridges; behind us, the sea. Blobs of Lambagras appeared in the rocks between the snow.

A sketchy ice bridge below AtlasgardAnother couple, two Germans, gave us an even more optimistic account of the path ahead, alerting us to an ice bridge, a little off the path, that would save us wet, cold feet: the river here was again wide and fast following, but now its banks were cased in snow. The ice-bridge had seen better days and looked precarious, deeply cracked at both ends, its span simply resting on icy hinges, a keystone. In days, it would be gone, but we knew it had been crossed only an hour before and it was marked with fresh foot prints to prove the point. We took our chances, and no misfortune befell us. Before beginning the gradual climb up to Atlasgard, we stopped for lunch in a sheltered spot by the river and a friendlier pool of ice melt. Hidden from the raking wind, it was idyllic.

The path rose, first on a snow bank, then through rocks and stony heath (the Icelandic kind), crossing a few streams along the way. So gentle was the ascent that, by the time we reached the final rise, there was only a 30m traverse to make through loose gravel, but avoiding the snow that filled the rest of the pass. The views back down to Haelavik were stunning, the rivers lacing the valley floor silvered in the weak sunlight.

Starting the descent into RekavikThe way ahead was a short zig-zagging descent onto a gentle grassy valley floor under the jagged ridge of 667m Darri. This was Rekavik, and the meadow revealed the first orchids, along with clutches of marsh marigold, saxifrages and roseroot too, and a hundred more varieties that I couldn’t identify. The path rolled down towards the sea, closing on the river as we reached its end at a beautifully isolated beach.

Driftwood cluttered the beach and the river’s bank, seagulls and swans bobbed it the bay and Harlequin ducks wave-jumped in the surf near the river’s mouth. The water was much less cold than the day’s earlier crossing and much less forceful too: it felt almost like paddling at the beach and we sat and chatted in the sun, watching the ducks as we rebooted.

The view down to Rekavik beach with the Hornbjarg ridge in the backgroundIt was going well: a reasonable path on the brink of a low cliff passed basalt stacks and a striking basalt wall; stacks stood a little out to sea, clustered with seabirds, safe from the foxes. We could see the camp at Hornsá across Hornvik, below the dragon’s teeth ridge of Hornbjarg and there was talk about curtailing the route, camping at Höfn instead: we had made slow progress and the additional 3-4km did not appeal to some. What happened next sealed the question.
The path took a turn for the worse, descending rapidly, rudely, around a gully, before becoming an undulating, narrow, unreliable ribbon. A couple of landslips made things even more interesting, before the path dropped onto the rocky beach. A large spur from the cliffs above blocked the way, but fortunately two ropes had been suspended, one to haul yourself up, the other to slow your descent: it was actually a lot of fun, especially abseiling down the other side.

Basalt stack on the beach at HafnarnesOnce down, we followed the rocky shore for maybe 100m before a thin path appeared in the turf behind the beach. It followed the coast around, sometimes fraying, sometimes even, until the campsite at Höfn came into view. Above the delta that spreads behind the beach at Hornvik, a sand cloud rose on the wind and drifted; the snow on the mountains behind caught the light of the lowering sun. Across the bay, the peak of Midfell, the emblematic mountain of Hornvik, looked on, but the cloud never shook free from the saw-teeth of Dogunarfell, and I had to fill in the omission from memories of pictures.

The party was very strung out by this point – we had largely given up on keeping in eye contact. Each was keen to arrive and used whatever energy we had remaining to achieve that. The path passed the remains of a 19th century turf house, slumping back into its elements. Then I was there. The campsite.

An Arctic Fox, at Hofn campsiteWe discussed with the warden (a rare and reassuring presence on Hornstrandir) where we might best pitch our tents; as we did so an Arctic Fox scampered along the grassy ridge above the warden’s hut and toilet block (there is a flushing toilet at Höfn, and two taps – the water still comes direct from the streams, but it felt very much a modern convenience; there was even a picnic bench, although most people chose to sit on the ground or on the tree trunks littered about). By the time we had set up camp and had begun making dinner, the fox was back again, trotting this way and that between the clutches of tents (there were maybe 15 tents in addition to ours but scattered over a wide area) causing excitement wherever he went.

It is midnight now, and the birds are still singing joyously. Tomorrow should be an easier day – just the one pass to get over – and the weather forecast is good.

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Hornstrandir Day Three – Hornvik to Veiðileysufjörður

28th June 2015
Hornvik to Veiðileysufjörður (Botn) (11km), over Hafnarskard (519m)

The beach at HöfnIt is almost 8am, but I am still the first up, at least in our group. Some other groups are eating breakfast, others still are already striking camp. It is cooler than yesterday and a slab of grey cloud hangs low over the peaks of Hornbjarg. The cloud masking the mountains at the back of the bay are whiter; this is our route and I am grateful for it. The rush of surf and the plumes of sand, snatched in gusts from the dunes, are more intrusive than the nearer German party packing their things. Despite the presence of more people than I’ve seen for almost 48 hours, this is the epitome of peaceful solitude.

***

It’s evening now, and the weather has turned. It turned, to be honest, with the wind that first ripped into us just below Atlasgard; a vicious, remorseless wind, racing in from the north east [later, back in the UK, I would see the gale warnings on the weather websites], that even here, in a campsite by the sea, batters the tent angrily. It has brought a little rain and much colder temperatures, and it refuses to die, despite our curses.

Setting off across Hornvik valley floorThe day’s walk began calmly enough, stretching out along the valley floor, behind the dunes of Hornvik. The plumes of sand said that there was already a strong wind in valley, but it did not trouble us and the ramble through the meadow slid by. There were even little board bridges over the criss-crossing streams. A broad waterfall cut a gash in the hillside ahead of us, and I prepared myself for the day’s first foot wetting.
But the path rose up to the right before we reached it, zig-zagging then traversing the sharp slope; a narrow track, but perfectly navigable and not too testing of the lungs or legs – we hardly realised that we had gained 150m by the time we reached the lip of the ascent.

It was clear that we had left behind the gentle greenery below; instead, a plateau of snow and rock and chaotic surging rivers stretched out ahead of us. The rivers made sense: from below, we had seen their product in the gushing waterfalls that lined the valley walls, cascading over the strata, white and energetic; one, hanging on the distant opposite wall, fanned out broadly, almost pillared, and was named by Theo as the temple falls. It remained visible to our left, then over our shoulder, as we set off across the gravel and rocks, the low cloud becoming a more immediate concern.

Setting off towards AtlasgardSnow field, rocky island, cairn, stream, snow, always rising: the pattern of the next few miles was soon set. Almost without noticing, we were at 400m. We paused, just below the cloud, to take on some snacks and water before the pass. The intention was to have lunch on the other side, once we were out of the wind, not realising that we would never be out of the wind.

Another snowfield, another solid reserve of jumbled rocks, then a rising snowfield seemingly without end, its far shore lost in cloud. Visibility was poor, maybe 30m, but was to get worse. We reached the next rocks and another plateau, then more snow. Useful visibility was now 10m ad we had only the tracks of others in the snow and the ghosts of cairns to guide us. We walked in slow measure, keeping the person in front of us about 5m distant, no more no less; the whole caravan pausing when it became too stretched.

Where the visibility started to get tricky...Eventually, we hit a snow wall, maybe 10m high, marking the pass. It was maybe only 50 degrees steep, but the snow was ice, the wind was gusting wildly and the top was only sometimes discernible: it was another daunting prospect. Alex and Theo went first, soon to disappear over the lip. I went ahead of Mark, to kick out steps in the ice to make his ascent easier (and mine more secure), while Adrian and Simon waited below. Kicking out the steps was hard work, but for the last few metres I was effectively on all fours, although upright, crawling up like an inelegant Spiderman, stuck to the wall be the now driving wind. It was the wind that carried me over the lip and onto a narrow ridge of ice – I simply had to let go and let the wind pick me up.

Visibility was still poor, but the wind had taken on demonic proportions, raking the pass malevolently; it should have shredded the cloud, but the stubborn opacity clung about us. The footsteps beyond the cairn at the pass led off to the left, leading down diagonally into the thick unknown. As we traversed down, the murky shapes suggested some dimensions to this limitless world of white and eventually we reached a rocky outcrop and the reassurance of a cairn. But the wind continued to whip down.

Looking down into Veiðileysufjörður We snaked together a path as other cairns emerged and receded into the cloud, and slowly an actual path on the ground formed itself. Visibility returning, we let the wind push us downwards. At about the same time that the vegetation returned, the shape of Veiðileysufjörður appeared through the murk, lifting the mood greatly, if prematurely. For a time, the path behaved itself, interrupted by largely benign snow fields on its gradual descent. Only the wind lessened our enjoyment of the beauty unfurling around us.

And it was beautiful. Stunningly so. Even when everything turned to water underfoot and the path became stepping stones through a million streams, it remained beautiful. A fast-flowing river crashed down the valley to our left, spouting over falls and rapids; our tamer streams gurgled and chuckled over rocks and cut caves through the ice.

A stream cuts through the iceWe neared the bottom and turf returned. The path cut close to one of the incalculable waterfalls and we crossed our last snowfield; soon we dropped inelegantly onto a little stony beach. A group of teenagers, guided by a bullish Icelander, overtook us gradually, inveigling their way into our now strung out line. Just after a hinge of snow, hanging over the beach, the path climbed again to roll along the lip of the low ledge above the shore, then cutting out across marshy ground to the campsite at Botn.

There was no shelter from the still strong wind, which punched us with sudden gusts; the ground was rough and stubby, uneven. It was a disappointing place then, and offered no obvious respite. We debated our options: there was another campsite further along the fjord, but that could only be reached at low tide and there was no guarantee that it would be any more sheltered than Botn; a boat was coming – the teenagers were taking it – and the idea of trying to sneak aboard was muttered. Eventually, we reconciled ourselves to a night here and sought out sheltered nooks, in which to hide from the wind’s attentions or wrestled with it for control of our tents: a light rain washed through and hastened our efforts with the tents.

On the beach at BotnCamp was set and, while others cooked and ate in their tents, I walked around a low rise to a little beach, somewhat sheltered, to watch the sunlight play among the clouds in the fjord. Eider ducks with their ducklings did their thing on the rippled sea, and I became convinced that this spot, under high crags and streaming waterfalls, a ledge of precarious snow at the back of the beach, was the finest place on the face of the earth.

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Hornstrandir Day Four – Veiðileysufjörður to Isafjordur

29th June 2015
Waiting for the boat at Veiðileysufjörður (0km), (0m)

The campsite at BotnOne of the few merits of Botn campsite is that it is exactly where the boat arrives: just below the latrine, the Zodiac comes ashore on the beach to shuttle you out. It is 9.20am and most of our gear is packed in readiness for the 9am boat that will take us back to Isafjordur. The wind still rips through Botn in powerful gusts, as it did all night. I did not have a lot of sleep, a half-open eye watching for the first sign that the tent’s fly-sheet was about to be ripped from the earth and flung across the fjord on the angry air. And yet, despite the lack of sleep, the thought of return, of buildings and of reliable ground, of not having to walk for miles with 15kg on my back, has lifted my spirits.

It’s not even raining. I know that tomorrow, or maybe in two days’ time, I will find myself missing this, longing to return, but for now I have no regrets to be leaving. A bed and food that has never been dehydrated are strong lures; getting out of this wind at last, more so.

Sitting among the bog bilberries waiting for the boat
Simon has spent much of the morning down on the beach watching two families of Eiders cosset their ducklings; Alex and Theo are still in their half-unmade tent, taking the last of its shelter, watchful for the first sign of a wake line in the fjord. My own nook, in the crease of a ridge, is among ripening bog bilberries and creeping birch.

Out boat on the fjordIt is 9.30am and the 9am boat has yet to make an appearance in the bay. I contemplate a morning tot of my remaining whisky – the prospect of passing from Zodiac to boat still make me a little anxious – but decide against: there is a wake line in the fjord. Time to help Alex and Theo strike their tent, and make final preparations for the beginning of our return.

Loading the Zodiac

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“A fantastically intelligent book about individuals, elephants and relationships” – what people are saying about Being Someone

launch

The author at the launch (Photo by Kate Jones)

 It is three weeks since my debut novel was published and, while Being Someone has yet to make me rich and famous, I did end up in Tatler. A little incongruous among the truly glamorous parties the title normally carries, my launch was held in a Clerkenwell art gallery, the walls bearing prints of the cover art (a piece by US artist, Jennifer D Anderson). It was enormous fun.

Since then, Being Someone has found its way onto the Underground and been reviewed by The Bookbag in the kindest way: apparently “the writing is exquisite. Adrian Harvey is the sort of author who could write about the phone book and you wouldn’t be able to stop reading” Which is handy, because the novel I’m working on currently features a lot of postcodes.

“lucid, engaging and emotionally intelligent, with a filmic quality borne of the narrative style and the profound sense of place”

But the nicest thing about the past three weeks has been the way readers have responded to the book. Finding out that it worked, that the intentions behind the work are realised in the reading, is immeasurably rewarding. I don’t know if I set out to write “a beautifully melancholy book” but I did want to create “characters we recognise, loving and failing in ways we instinctively understand”.

It goes without saying that Being Someone is available to buy – it’s on Amazon or you could pop into your local bookshop and order it. No pressure, of course.

 “Absorbing, highly descriptive and addictive; … It is a starkly honest work”

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Good advices – tips on writing a first novel

Front cover of 'Being Someone'Writing a novel is easy. You just need a bit of time, an idea and considerable curiosity. Re-writing a novel, now that’s the hard part. On the eve of the publication of Being Someone, I thought it was time to reflect on how I got here, about what I wish I’d known then that I do now.

I finished the first draft of my debut novel about two and a half years ago. In naive satisfaction, I posted here about the sense of achievement that completion brought me. Of course, I recognised that it was just the end of the beginning; except, in reality, I recognised no such thing. In short, I had no idea how much more there was to do: sure, I knew that there was a re-drafting process to go through, but how onerous could that be, after the triumph of the first draft?

It took two years of re-working to get the manuscript into a state fit enough to be seen out on its own. It also took a huge amount of advice. Much of this was specific and I owe a great deal to the various readers and editors who have, ever so politely, pointed out quite where I’d gone wrong. It was seldom comfortable, but it was always helpful.

Beyond the comments on Lainey’s limitations and the psychosis of James (someone even psychoanalysed my narrator, and concluded on a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder) there are three general pieces of advice that I got that might be useful to you, should you be embarking on what, for me, is one of the most rewarding things you can do with your life.

  1. Don’t get it right, get it written

Writer’s block is, unsurprisingly, a fear of failure. Committing words to paper, by which I might be judged, was at first terrifying. After all, they might not be the right words. Only when I realised that no-one had to see those words until I was happy with them, at some distant future point, did I discover ‘flow’: a frankly sublime state of fluency, within which words, sentences, and paragraphs appear unbidden, cascading in the most almighty torrent of bliss. I had set myself a net word target of 1000 per day of writing; pretty soon I had upped this to 1500, slightly ashamed at my initially paltry ambition. Even then, I surpassed my target with gratifying regularity; I came up short maybe three times.

2. It’s laying pipe

But it’s not simply getting the words down, beautiful or otherwise. The process of writing a novel (or at least re-writing one) is a window on the mechanical elements of others’ fiction. From the formulaic to the avant garde, the fiction that works is that which takes you, the reader, from point A to point B; each paragraph pushing the narrative and character development on. There is very little room for verbal passengers. So the first step in writing Being Someone involved not paragraphs, either crafted or scrambled, but an A3 sheet of paper. It was pencil-scratched over with arrows and boxes, linking plot incidents in forward-backwards loops; characters, unnamed, ill-formed, bumped into each other along the way, all just junctions in the pipe work. My greatest satisfaction on completing the first draft was that the end product was, by and large, faithful to this original sketch-map. I still have it, and will keep it long after the drafts and redrafts have been returned to wood pulp.

  1. Kill your darlings

This is perhaps the most cited piece of writing advice of the last hundred years, but its glibness belies its brutality in action. A phrase, an image, a scene of which you are immensely proud does not advance the pipeline of narrative or character: no matter how fondly it is held, it must be put to the sword. You can kid yourself that you’ll store it away for future use, but unless your filing system allows for remarkable cross-referencing, it will in fact go the way of countless beloved words from my manuscript: forgotten and lost forever. And you can’t allow that to bother you. How to make it easier to smother your pearly genius? I refer you to the first piece of advice – don’t get too attached in the first place. They’re only words, after all…

My debut novel, Being Someone, was published by Urbane Publications in May 2014.

Note: the title of this piece is a nod to the REM song of the same name, not a typographical error…

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The tastes of Istanbul

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt starts like hay fever. Except neither of us suffers from hay fever. Even if we did, this would be a strange place for it: we emerge from the station at the top of the dinky underground funicular railway into the area that bears its name, Tünel. This is the gateway to Beyoglu, the modern heart of Istanbul. At the other end of the Istikal Caddesi, Turkey’s Oxford Street, is Taksim Square.

The helpful woman at our hotel recommended the restaurant: along with the prospect of some great food, a visit to Ece Aksoy provided the ideal excuse for our first trip across the Golden Horn. The trouble at Gezi Park has died down by now, surely.

Except, within metres of the station, you can feel the tension in the air. Everyone on the street is facing one way, craning their necks towards Taksim. And the itching around the eyes, that burning at the back of the throat, that is not hay fever. That, is the trace of tear gas carried on the evening breeze.

We don’t admit it at first, neither to ourselves, nor to each other. But when the locals start to take masks from their backpacks, it is clear that the situation at Taksim is far from resolved. We press on, ducking into a side street to where we think we might find the restaurant.

Searching the narrow streets is unusually purposeful: this is no shambling saunter of discovery. We stop in a bar to ask directions. A Canadian couple are already hiding out, drinking beer, watching, waiting. The staff have an edgy nervousness to them, but they helpfully point us in the right direction and we set off. Through the backstreets, other tourists are weaving, uncertain; locals in masks and plastic construction-site helmets head off towards the epicentre.

Turning a corner, a sudden gust of wind forces a lungful of gas down the narrow alley and into our faces. What has been until now mildly uncomfortable becomes painful. We turn on our heals and try to outrun the gas.

Then we are there. The restaurant is in darkness, and the owner politely tells us that they will not be opening that evening. It is perhaps the most reasonable thing in the world, and yet I still try to the challenge the decision, saying we have a reservation, only slowly aware that her inconvenience is much greater than mine.

Good sense seeps in and we turn tail and – if not run – then certainly scurry down the zigging and zagging lanes that lead through Galata towards the water. The air is clear of gas and tension almost immediately, and normal city life resumes: boutiques selling guitars, hats, and consumer electronics cascade down the steps, passing the Galata Tower, and we become tourists again. Hungry tourists.

We know of one other highly recommended place to eat: the Karaköy Lokantasi, tucked away on an inauspicious street in the soon-to-be gentrified wharf district of Karaköy. We find the place and, after a short wait for a table (the place is buzzingly busy), we are welcomed into its refined but relaxed embrace. At the counter, we order too many mezzes: sumptuous fava, laced with just the right amount of dill; the most succulent mucver ever tasted; peppers, beetroot and samphire; cacik made with homemade yoghurt; wine and raki and an oozing chocolate fondue. Soon the taste of tear gas is just a distant memory.

The next day, we will return to Beyoglu, and we will walk as far as Taksim Square. We will sit in Gezi Park and welcome the shade and the breezes that it affords, and we will wonder why anyone would want to put a shopping centre there. And I will imagine my next trip to Istanbul. Once things have quietened down, perhaps.

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