Monday, 29 June 2015

Giving back and being James Bond

Do I look like James Bond?

I came here to give something back, but once again I was getting more than I was giving, and having loads of fun at the same time

As a UK Sport and National Lottery funded Athlete I am required to do a several 'inspire' voluntary appearances. each year. One of these was a talk I had been asked to do at Whitehall, which sort of explains why I was on their roof pretending to be 007but I'll get back to that later.
On the roof at whitehall

Being an eliteathlete can be selfish, introspective and very "me me me" "take take take", so I really look forward to volunteering.  For me its a chance to redress the balance in my life, not only by giving back but also by widening my experiences and meeting inspiring people.  I've had the opportunity to do some really great things, some truly bonkers things, and some incredibly humbling things, and without a doubt they have all, without exception made me smile a lot. Heres just a few

My latest was just last weekend where I was a VIP guest at the Proctor and Gamble Surrey Youth Games. Surrey County Council runs this event to help get kids into sport. It is aimed at all those children who are not County level but who want to take part in a competitive and yet fun arena. Apparently over 50,000 children have taken part over the years since the event was started, and it was absolutely fantastic to see children running about and having fun enjoying competitive sport.
Proctor and Gamble Surrey youth Games
 I met some amazingly inspiring people and sponsors who make this happen, not only believing in the benefits of an active community, these people are actually doing something about it.
Having fun at the games with the inspiring sponsors and organisers. 

Another recent appearance was at a request from my local council gym, who asked if I could be there for the official opening of the refurbished changing village and bubble pool.  I was even asked if I would get in the pool with the leisure centre management for press photos, which I politely declined, instead taking the time to meet as many people as I could.  I really enjoyed meeting all the kids on a busy Saturday afternoon and they all wanted to chat and hold my world championship gold medal.  I forget sometimes that, despite still being 'just me', wearing a GB tracksuit and hanging a gold medal around my neck I become someone who can influence, motivate and maybe have a little impact. It took a little while to clean off the tomato sauce and sticky finger marks from my medals after a 'meet and greet' in the centre café, but I was given a large helium balloon to take home (yay!) and there had been lots of smiling kids keen to tell me about how much they loved their swimming, so it was worth it.
everyone like wearing a gold medal!!

Possibly the most deferential was a Regatta for the Disabled where an incredible group of people organise bell-boat racing for children of all ages with varying abilities/disabilities. It was awe inspiring seeing kids struggle with independent mobility on dry land but then transform into confident paddlers working as a team to propel the boats down the course. It was simply magnificent to watch and I felt honoured to actually be asked to paddle in the boats with some of the children. We had so much fun together and, if I'm truthful, the medal I received for taking part at this regatta gave me as much, if not more pleasure than my world Championship gold medal. They now hang side by side in pride of place at home.
Me padding a bell boat and handing out prizes
So on to WhitehallI was asked to talk at a small conference on personal resilience. I was unsure what I could add of value, but the organiser had heard me speak at another function, and wanted me to talk about how I managed to overcome some pretty big hurdles and achieve what many people might have considered impossible. I hoped that my personal story of failures followed by success, and some lessons I had learnt along the way, might help this office audience see that their own 'something' is also possible if they can see how to put their minds to it. The talk was to be at the Department of Energy and Climate Change and in my ignorance I thought Whitehall was a building, not a road, so felt a bit of an idiot asking a policeman how to find it when I was actually walking along it!!

After my talk, which thankfully was enthusiastically received with lots of excellent questions, I was given the tour of the department and up onto the private roof where a scene from Skyfall had been filmed. They(I ) wanted to get to stand in the same place and at the same angle that Daniel Craig had posed in, looking over the London skyline. Clearly the only difference between us was that he was dressed as 007 and I was in my red GB canoeing jacket;-) This was definitely a money-can't-buy moment.  I wasn't given a helium balloon this time but I floated home nonetheless.

Me and Daniel Craig both trying to be 007
So whats next? I am about a month away from this years Worlds, and if all goes to plan, a little over a year to Rio (gulp). My training is hard, with constant pressure on me to perform to the highest level possible. But what I really enjoy is the part of my role as an elite athlete which allows me to give back. I look forward to these events and only wish I had time to do more

As we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the sameAs we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others. .~Marianne Williamson (teacher and author)

Sunday, 31 May 2015

Smile Laugh Sparkle :-)

As I walked around Prague the day after I had finished racing at the Europeans, attempting to be a tourist, I felt in a bit of a daze.  Normally I'm buzzing with excitement after a race, but today I was full of a strange mix of emotions which I couldn't make sense of. 

On the face of it I should have been elated. I had been classified into the new system as a KL3. I had gone on to win the gold medal in the first ever KL3 race. So all was good, and yet I couldn't help but feel empty.

Going through the classification process had made me really sad, and also annoyed. Sad that I had been forced to look back and think about my injury, re-opening the mental scars which I've worked so hard to heal. Sad also, bizarrely, that despite training so hard and getting much stronger I still have a significantly weaker leg, which classifies me. (Why does this make me sad ?!?!?) And annoyed that Para Sport at the top end isn't inclusive at all. It upset me so much seeing disabled athletes being scrutinized and challenged for simply falling outside of a classification boundary. I was also struggling with the concept that Para Sport is contradictory. It's confusing that you have to be bad and good at the same time. You have to have something wrong with you - and not just any something, you have to have the correct type of 'something wrong' to make it into a "level playing field".  Having ticked those boxes you then try to be as good as you can be by minimizing the impact of your disability, with clever, personalized training and specific boat adaptations.
GB para-canoeing is fortunate enough through National Lottery funding to be able support and invest in us, but what about all those paddlers who don't have funded programs? How is this now a level playing field..?

The thoughts in my head just kept on coming...  Was all this heartache really worth it? Half of me wanted to just stop and go back to a normal life. To have normal holidays and spend more time with my family and friends....

I had shared some of this angst with our team phsych earlier that week and he had talked me through how you can choose to frame things. "Things happen to us which are out of our control, but it's our choice as to how we feel about them. If we don't like how something looks or feels we have the ability to choose different ways to frame them". Great in theory, but I was still struggling.
focusing during my race
As I wandered the streets missing half of the tourist attractions, I tried to make sense of these random and contradictory thoughts.  I was thinking so hard that I barely noticed that it had started to rain  and in fact rain quite hard.

Just in front of me a little girl aged about 4 squealed in delight as the rain drops started to fall. She pulled a small plastic umbrella out of her dads bag and put it up. She then skipped and splashed in the newly formed puddles as she laughed her way down the road. Her umbrella was very pink and glittery, and on it were the words "smile, laugh, sparkle".  Looking around I observed that she was definitely the only person following this adviceThere was definitely a lack of tourists skipping through the puddles! Most of them, like me, were sheltering in doorways trying to keep dry.

I then smiled. It occurred to me that this umbrella was surprisingly profound. Smile  laugh sparkle was a new frame. The rain was the same for everyone and everyone except this little girl was getting annoyed by it. How could I frame the last couple of days differently? Could I put up my own metaphorical umbrella?? 

So instead of sadness I decided I would see things more positively. 

I worked out that I was actually relieved that I still have a weak leg and that I'm still able to classify and be part of the GB squad. I am loving this journey and the adventure it brings, and I am not having to face up to an abrupt end to that journey through not classifying. I am perfectly aware that I might still not make Rio, but that will be decided by training and by racing, not by a rule change

GB paracanoe Race HQ
could replace annoyance with pride. I am immensely proud to be part of the GB squad which has worked tirelessly to support us so well. Actually pride that despite all these distractions and emotions I had pulled myself back into race mode, followed my race plan and this process had won Gold for GB

should stop being critical about para-sport at the elite level being exclusive and contradictory. It showcases the elite and that's how it can inspire. In fact this is what provides me with focus and what drives me to train every day: The hope that performing on a world stage will inspire others, (abled or disabled) to believe they can do something despite all logic saying it's impossible.

Because this is at the core of what para-sport is all about. People pushing the limits of possibility, moving on from whatever tragic event changed their lives forever and having a go at something new. Being innovative in finding solutions that play to personal strengths despite a risk that it might fail. Eternal optimism that repeated failure won't stop them in their quest to be the very best that they can be. 

So on that rainy afternoon in Prague I built a new frame. I decided to remind myself to smile, laugh and sparkle at every opportunity and to metaphorically skip through the puddles rather than grumble at the rain. 
My awesome coach Griff and his athletes.

Monday, 6 April 2015

Classification changes in Paracanoe

This is not a happy or even a particularly positive blog. The world of para canoe is going through change less than 18 months from Rio. Because of these changes a lot of people's hopes and dreams are being shattered.  I understand the logic behind the changes, and in the long run it is in the best interests of the sport, but to choose to do it all now is awful. 

Sometimes when you are caught up in the middle of a change which you are physically and emotionally invested in it is very difficult to see the bigger picture. It is easy for your focus to spiral inwards, taking all rational and logical thought processes with it. This is how I have been feeling about the changes to paracanoe as announced recently by our governing bodies. 

paddling at the worlds 2014

The changes are drastic. Half way through an olympic cycle the original classification adapted from para rowing has been abandoned and reinvented. This means that all the para canoe athletes who were classified at the beginning of this cycle, who were confirmed internationally, who have trained daily for more than two years, and raced believing they are an A, TA or LTA have had their classification removed. We are all having to be reclassified under a new system before we can race internationally again. Worse than that, many athletes who were classified before are no longer even eligible to attend classification. Paracanoe no longer accepts athlete with any arm or hand impairments, nor any athlete with a neurological condition such as cerebral palsy. 
The first paralympic qualification race for Rio is less than 4 months away and at this moment in time there are no classified athletes and no one knows for certain what their new (if at all) classification will be. We are to be reclassified under the new system, which for me will hopefully be at the Europeans in the Czech Republic in May, by the newly trained classifiers. 
My team mates
This decision was made in an office somewhere by people thinking long term, but has affected real people on the ground now. It's not just the athletes who have been affected - our coaches and staff in support programs are all feeling it too. Real people have given up jobs, moved house, neglected personal relationships and invested their own money and time in a system they thought would be in place through to Rio. Yes I understand that elite sport is unpredictable and unforgiving, but most of the time if you don't succeed you can say, "I trained hard and I did my best - I just wasn't fast enough", or "I was injured". But to be thrown out of the running half way through a cycle because your disability doesn't fit the new classification system is terrible. 

When I put my logical head on I truly get why this had to happen for the long term good of the sport. The new classification is evidence based and has been created through good science. An extensive research project analysed all the different paddling styles of kayakers and paracanoeists with motion sensor technology and EMG back up. The data put paddlers into clusters which became the new classifications. KL1, KL2 and KL3.  The system is is now unique to paracanoe, rather than adapted from para rowing, and it focuses much more on what athletes can do functionally in a boat, not by a relatively simplistic assessment of disability diagnosis,  so I can see how it will be much fairer moving forward. But although the old system wasn't perfect it was the system in place for this paralympic cycle and changing it mid cycle is going to hurt lots of people.
On a personal front, it looks like I am ok, but like the rest of the world I find out for sure in May. I then have to have another classification in August to confirm it. But some of my team mates already know they don't fit the new classification system, and I know that people I have raced against and deeply respect will also be having their hopes and dreams shattered.

I crave the feeling of gliding through the water in beautiful places.
I am coping because for me it was never just about Rio. I paddle because I love to paddle, not just to win medals. I love training and despite it being hard and at times painful I never take for granted that it gives me freedom to forget about my wonky leg. The governing bodies giving my disability a new name can't take that away. I crave the feeling of gliding through the water in my boat in beautiful places and I love learning how to paddle at my best. 

The name of my classification might change, but it will never stop my enjoyment of my sport. It would be a shame if for some reason out of my control I could't stay with the program, but the journey to Rio is an adventure, but it doesn't define me.

Paracanoe will definitely be stronger for the changes we are going through. But for now, in April 2015, the year before the Rio paralympics, everyone involved is hurting. My heart goes out to all athletes and support staff involved, because these changes right now simply suck.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Bushcraft in November…. are we mad?

A weekend of wild camping and bushcraft with my mates in November seemed like a fabulous idea…... in sunny July.

I don't get a lot of spare time, but when I do I like to fill it with different things, adding sparkles of excitement and adventure to break up routine. This summer I coerced 4 of my most 'up for it' friends to join me for an adventure, and a weekend of bushcraft was booked for our inaugural foray into the art of surviving in the woods...  Between us, we had ladies who had never slept in a sleeping bag or a tent, used a lighter, chopped wood, or even owned waterproof trousers.... What could possibly go wrong?!? 
With much trepidation we arrived in total darkness on the Friday night in the middle of nowhere to meet Gary, the owner of Jack Raven Bushcraft, and our fellow bushcrafters. Every pastime or sport has it's uniform and it turns out that bush-crafters are no exception. We stood staring at each other - them in earth colours with well worn, checked woollen shirts, carrying just a small rucksack - us ladies standing there in our brightly coloured coats, pink hats, cashmere scarves and carrying very large bags… it was clear to all that we hadn't done this before.
We set out to find our camp. "Bushcraft is about living like our ancestors in the forest, Gary explained as we walked up the hill through a muddy field and into the woods. I was tempted to comment that my ‘ancestors’ had actually originated from West Ham, but chose not to, given that they were clearly worried enough about us anyway. 

I'm not sure what we were expecting that warm July when we agreed that sleeping in hammocks in the woods was a good idea. Much hilarity followed as we were given a quick lesson in ‘mounting and dismounting’ a hammock. In true cartoon style we swung uncontrollably in the dark and performed numerous accidental dismounts in various orientations and with different degrees of elegance. I apologise to my friends for not helping much at this point, I was on the floor laughing. 
Curled up asleep in the hammock
The loo was described in the brochure as a self composting toilet. It was "hidden" in large camouflage shed at the edge of the camp and consisted of a raised wooden box inlaid with a toilet seat. Next to it was a metal bowl for lighting waste paper and some sawdust for 'flushing the loo'. Posters around the wall supplied ample entertainment and to my surprise I found myself staying in there longer than necessary in order learn about animal tracks and droppings. 

The next morning we awoke at dawn and pottered bleary eyed over to the main teepee, where we filled our mugs with hot tea from the massive iron kettle hanging over the fire. Bleariness quickly vanished as we set about out first task- using sharp knives and saws to make a honey spreader out of a log. If I was stuck in the woods I'm not sure how essential this item would be, but I really enjoyed the carving process none the less. The final object looked more like a cross between a wonky ruler and a helicopter propeller, but despite being terrible I was still very proud of it! 
chopping logs
The next task was making a flame and, being a non smoker, I soon realised that I had never grasped the art of striking matches outside in the wind. Thankfully matches wasn't the only option and we had a fantastic afternoon 'playing' with fire. There must be something deep in our code which aligns us with fire as I felt compelled to try every firefighting option from wire wool to vaseline to bark shavings, with flints and fire starters, gaining immense satisfaction when the combinations worked. 
making fire!
Next came shelters and we followed Garry into the woods to learn how to keep safe, warm and dry using the forest around us. He assured us that the debris shelter resurrected from damp leaves would be toasty warm even in rainy November. We decided that it felt more like a coffin and not half as fun or exciting as the swinging hammocks which the girls were excited to return to.
Debris shelter
Having been up at dawn, I returned to my tent exhausted for an early night - Confession time, being in the middle of a big training block I had chosen a tent over the hammock (coaches orders). I snuggled down into my sleeping bag, belly full of delicious chilli with earplugs stuffed in my ears to block out the noise of the rain and fell instantly asleep. Apparently it rained a lot in the night and everyone was a bit damp come morning. But no one seemed to mind- it all added to the adventure and hilarity of the weekend. Luckily the fire was roaring and the heat from the fire cooked comforting bacon butties and also dried us out and warmed us up. Foraging and tree identification had us traipsing after Gary, hanging onto his every word. There is something deeply satisfying about having to search for and spot a half hidden edible leaf or fungus (Shopping in Waitrose will never be the same again as all their food is just so obvious!). My anti doping catalogue doesn't have a section for "brown mushrooms that look like rubbery ears" or "leaves with stimulant effects", so I stuck to bananas foraged from the fruit bowl, just to be safe.  
Mushrooms that look like ears
The last challenge was to make a fire from nothing except the rather damp contents of the Forrest around us. It felt a bit like a reality TV show as we all dashed off into the woods to find suitable tinder and logs as Gary had shown us. Much to my amazement I actually managed to construct a fire which worked - as did all the girls.  I glanced around at my friends who somehow had lost the bright colours and cashmere. Somewhere over that short weekend we had turned into a group of earthy bush-crafters with knives hanging from our belts, looking slightly disheveled and tending our fires, happy and at home in the woods.  
Girls make fire!
We all agreed that, despite the weekend being off the end of our comfort zones, we had all had a brilliant time. Yes it would have been nice to do in the summer, but that would have been way too easy;-)
The Team


Wednesday, 29 October 2014

kayaking, capsizing and zumba

It's October half term and now that the race season is over I've taken a cheeky week in the sun in order to play in the sea off the coast of Turkey.

Perfect place for an October paddle
My son thinks I chose the Neilson resort because of its good track record of providing a fun group of like-minded teens for him to hang out with. The real reason is that I could continue my training and, as a bonus, earn my 2 Star paddle sport award. (a minimum requirement if I ever think of getting into coaching at any time…)

The Kayak guide, a cheerful Scott called Ewan, was eager to be as accommodating to the group as possible. In a weak moment I suggested, "I would really like to practice paddling in rough sea". We both looked out onto the flat warm turquoise Mediterranean and I knew this was unlikely, but he promised that if the sea got rough he would take me out on my own to practice.

Perfect weather, perfect conditions
I was given my time table of sessions for the week which covered steering skills (always a challenge for me;-) rescue techniques (always useful and after my embarrassing inability to know what to do in Russia when I capsized in the middle of the lake I was keen to do this ) and lastly learning to paddle in different boats. They had Canadian canoes, closed cockpit white water kayaks and sit upons and not a sprint kayak in sight !

The week of formal sessions was built into making the most of warm waters whilst exploring the stunning local coast. One session was on practicing 'getting back in the boat at sea skills', which was built into a 3 hour paddle to a barely submerged shipwreck which we could snorkel around.

Nailing not capsizing!!
The Thursday session was billed as a capsize clinic and given my experience at the World championships, I quickly signed up - warm sea in the baking sunshine was a perfect opportunity! By Thursday the weather had changed dramatically. Unseasonal torrential rain with strong winds changed the sea to dark grey and made the prospect of capsizing on purpose particularly uninviting.

When no one looked keen to actually go in the sea we switched much of the capsize clinic to dry land, creatively running through boat emptying and theory while sitting in boats on the beach staying dry (ish) under the palm trees.

No one else was out on the water sailing or waterskiing due to the challenging conditions and I had decided an afternoon with my book was a good plan. Suddenly Ewan remembered my request and, realizing the resort safety boats were now free, bounced over and excitedly asked if I wanted to use this opportunity to practice on some properly rough sea. I looked at the rough sea within the shelter of the bay and didn't even want to think what lay beyond it… Before I could think of a good excuse not to - like how I get terribly sea sick (true) or the fact that a thunder storm was forecast (true) I found myself paddling with all my strength into a head wind that made the Nottingham regatta lake wind seem like a soft breeze.

calm before the storm
Ewan in the power boat was calling out instructions to me and Gill (a fellow kayaker who Ewan's enthusiasm had drawn into this adventure.) "The boat is stable - it's you who makes it unstable" had he been talking to my coach back home I wondered?

Suddenly we lost shelter from the bay and I was blasted by a massive gust of wind and huge waves, which tossed me about like a bucking bronco. Yikes!!! Why do I do these things to myself??  Ewan encouraged us to try and "let go" and then paddle in lots of different directions trying to keep to a straight line. It was incredibly hard not to tighten up with fear - this had been billed as a capsize clinic but I was really keen to stay upright so I forced myself to relax my back while still paddling. I won't say I managed to keep a straight line but eventually I successfully managed relax and to my surprise started to really enjoy playing in the waves. Whooop!

Out of nowhere a clap of thunder seemed to mute the crashing of the waves and howling wind. A fast return to the beach was instructed by the lifeguards via the radio that Ewan had in his top pocket. Ewan zoomed closer to try and get both us and our kayaks into his boat and safely back to shore before the lightening started.

Suddenly the stern voice barking instructions from the radio changed and Ewan paused in the middle of trying to haul an exhausted Gill up into his boat. "Is that?.. It can't be… is that a baby?", he shouted over the wind.  A small child’s voice singing baa baa black sheep had started coming out of Ewan's top pocket. We all just burst out laughing and Gill slid headfirst, like a seal, into the bottom power boat, laughing so much she was unable to move. Another sudden gust of wind caught her kayak and whisked it out to sea. It was most surreal having to chase frantically after it to the sound of a toddler singing nursery rhymes at full volume through the emergency radio.

So what's the perfect recovery after a session on rough sea when you are nauseous, cold, soaking wet, and the ground continues to sway under your feet? Well apparently it's a Zumba class…
swimming goggles would have been a good idea....

Heading for a hot chocolate, still in our boat shoes and wet clothes, we arrived at the bar at the same time as ladies in their gym kit were banging imaginary bongo drums at the start of their Zumba class. Somehow we became part of the class and after half an hour of trying unsuccessfully to follow what was going on (my weak leg was a definite hinderance to both me and the lady next to me) we were toasty warm, nausea gone, and the ground bizarrely seemed more stable!!

Hopefully I wont have to contend with conditions like this at regattas, but if I do I shall be better prepared! As a bonus I now have my Level 2 Paddle Sport qualification, adding to the successes of my 2014 season.
Adakoy - Neilson.

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Mongolia to London the long way... My off season adventure

All aboard The trans Siberian train!!
Travelling overland through 7 time zones by train has never been on my holiday wish list. But after an 'incident' for Simon in Mongolia involving a bike race, an unplanned dismount at speed, fractured ribs, a collapsed lung, and a doctor's note saying no flying, an overland trip home became the 'obvious' answer ... Yes, it is possible to get all the way home from Ulaanbaatar (Ulan Bator) to our very own doorstep using only 6 trains, 2 weeks holiday, and as it turned out, 2 litres of the finest Mongolian vodka...
Simon guarding his ribs in Ulan Bator

Trans Siberian Railway
2 weeks after the accident, 1 week after Simon had a chest drain removed, 24 hours after I landed from London via Beijing, and 2 hours after we picked up Simon's visa from the Russian embassy in UB, we found ourselves in a train compartment no bigger than a small double bed, which was going to be our home for the next four days. 

As I unpacked (ie squeezed our bags under the 2 bench seats) Simon dashed to the local food kiosk to buy essential supplies. He came back proudly holding 2 litres of vodka, 9 bottles of beer, 2 bottles of champagne, 3 tins of nuts and a bottle of coke. "Perfect" I said with only the merest hint of sarcasm...
our secret stash...

As the train began to chug its way through the incredible Mongolian countryside we were soon overtaken by a car, then a lorry, and then a horse!  A Mongolian passenger in the next compartment suddenly burst into song, then a German man well into his 60s passed our door without his top on (it turns out this is how he would travel the whole way to Moscow). We took all this in... This might be a long few days... Only 1 thing to do... Embrace the experience and crack open the vodka!!! 

Travelling across a continent or two by train and watching the world go by was an incredible adventure.  The train windows made it a bit like being in a huge cinema with 2, no 4 screens in the same room. One either side of the train, then looking both forwards or backwards - each screen showing amazing but different views. The guide book had said bring lots of reading material and be prepared not to finish it. How true!
never bored of looking out of the window...

About midnight we crossed the Russian boarder.  
There is something very Agatha Christie about standing in a dimly lit train carriage, wearing nothing but your pyjamas, with 2 Russian border guards flashing a torch into your face as they check your papers. Next came the security guard who was wearing a military cap, a tight grey boiler suit and knee high laced up black boots, who proceeded to search everywhere - even under the floor, and above the ceiling (I have no idea what she was searching for, the German's shirt perhaps?) Then the customs men came around in equally stern uniforms and searched our carriage again. They tut tutted loudly at all our alcohol (Not sure if they thought it was too much or too little...) 

The scenery in Mongolia had been beautiful, but open and quite sparse, with the occasional, isolated Ger (Yurt) or small settlement. We woke at sunrise to find ourselves winding through beautiful forests in the eastern part of Siberia. Being Autumn, the yellows, reds and golds of the birch trees, with the soft sunlight light peeking through, was spectacular.
Siberian forrests

Our first breakfast in bed consisted of coffee, Jaffa cakes and salami and tasted amazing! In my defence I was still on UK time, so this was more like a midnight snack... This may have been lovely but the novelty would soon wear off. A restaurant car had joined us at the Russian boarder and the food turned out to be ok, but not really special.  We chose to see this as a challenge, and with station stops about every five hours, we used these to forage for supplies. Each stop turned into a race against the clock - anything from 13 to 27 minutes to head out, find a shop or a kiosk and guess what the Cyrillic meant. 
results of our foraging in various Russian stations

As it turned out we mostly chose well and smugly feasted like kings on various pasties, pickled fish, meat, cheeses, bread, fruit and ice-cream washed down with fresh coffee, vodka, beer or champagne. Most passengers tucked into noodles (there were hot water boilers in each carriage) and I also tried out some great instant food samples I had brought with me from Sports Kitchen.  These water boilers also meant we had plenty of hot water to wash with, but with only a small sink in a tiny toilet, washing was 'basic'.

Still not bored of the scenery...

For the next three days the soft low autumn sun flickering through slender birch and conifer trees, across meandering rivers, lakes and fairy-tail like wooden huts. Brilliantly shiny onion-shaped golden church turrets caught the sun beautifully and we felt like voyeurs spying on various aspects of back door Russian life visible from the train window. Watching the world pass by, playing games and reading meant that neither boredom or stress existed for us on the trans-siberian railway. Time became an abstract phenomenon - it existed somewhere else, but it didn't really matter to us (except the small exact chunks of time where we stopped at stations for our foraging expeditions). 
Russia whizzing past..

98 hours after leaving Ulaanbaatar we arrived in Moscow, chilled but a bit bedraggled. (The naked German guy was the only passenger to look clean and fresh, newly reunited with his shirt - he might be onto something here! ) We had travelled first class on the train (you don't want to know what 3rd class was) and the theme was to continue. We turned up at the Moscow Savoy looking like a couple of scruffy vagrants. To give them credit the staff were very polite and not overtly put off by our dusty, tatty non-designer luggage (Smon with his race kit bag) and bodily grubbiness. To my absolute delight, not only did we have running water, but a non jiggly toilet that you could sit on without the need to hold on and that didn't blast you with cold Siberian air on flushing! 
Red Square

The only downside was the monotonous view. So showered and slightly more presentable, we headed out to conquer the sights of Moscow in 2 days. A Russian kayaker follower on Twitter, hearing of my return to Moscow a month after the Worlds, had offered her expertise as a virtual tour guide, which we gratefully accepted. We dashed around Moscow following her fabulous recommendations and became pretty adept at negotiating the Metro in Cyrillic, crossing the road (obediently) according to the flashing green man, and ordering coffee and cake in a variety of establishments. 
Compulsory 'oooo' selfie

We saw fabulous buildings, learnt some Russian history, (The Kremlin's Armoury museum was breathtaking, and a Vodka Museum gave great insights into centuries of state control) walked in wonderful parks, and ate in interesting restaurants. Our trip happened to coincide with three notable events: The Moscow marathon; A protest in Red Square against the government's stance in the Ukraine; and the whole of the Bolshoi ballet taking part in the ice bucket challenge....says it all really! 
The Bolshoi Theatre

Two more time zones crossed as we headed into Poland. Simon had chosen the Rialto Hotel, a wonderful arc deco establishment preserved in it's pre war era quirky elegance. It even had an Art Deco lift and air conditioning controls in the room.
Art deco air conditioning controls

Warsaw has a 'refurbished' old town (85% of the city was destroyed in the war) where tourists were expected to go, but Simon experienced an instant allergic reaction to being told by Tourist Information what we should do, so we headed to the other side of the river to Praga, a bohemian and slightly run down suburb. It was full of interesting buildings, shops, cafés and bars - we felt very conspicuous in our red jackets in this earthy area where the brightest colour apart from us was brown. In contrast to Moscow, Warsaw was excellent value and we found ourselves in a local cafes where the dishes were £2! Granted, there were few TripAdvisor stickers or tourists, and one establishment had no menu and a plastic manikin in the corner with a lop sided wig, dressed as a dinner lady/ drag queen - but the plum juice, local dumplings and cabbage were excellent! Yes truly!  Close to our hotel we also found a really top end restaurant with an amazing taster menu at ridiculously cheep prices.  I would definitely go back (to both establishments).

Plum Juice (with plumbs)- surprisingly ok!

Warsaw was a completely fascinating city. We spent our second day with an "alternative Warsaw" guide who said that falling in love with Warsaw was like a good marriage - you don't fall in love on your first 'visit' but as you get to know it more, the love grows.... but I loved it right from the start.  I loved how the pre war, communist era and modern architecture clashed but also managed to sit happily side by side, giving clues to its past, and I found the people forthright, but with a sparkle that gave a glimpse of their survival spirit.

Communist architecture sits next to pre war architecture.
  An alternative city tour in a communist era militia van with Raphael from Warsaw Adventures was a fantastic way to learn about the city, communism and the Ghetto - however I think the Polish Militia must have either been very short or not bothered about looking at the view, as both our eyes fell level with the fluffy maroon interior trim well above the windows. Simon's height meant that he was safely wedged between seat and ceiling, removing the need for a seatbelt or airbag, which was very handy as they were absent anyhow...
Polish Militia van

I had always wanted  to go to the ballet but never been. What better way to round off this memorable first visit to Warsaw than with a performance of Romeo and Julia, a modern take on the classic tale, by the Polish National Ballet.

A short 5 hour train hop later (with the most amazing rail car food!) and we arrived in Berlin in time for "street food Thursday", with our friends Martin and Carole. A fabulous night food market with delicious home cooked dishes from around the world. 
The Berlin Wall

We hadn't intended this trip to be educational, but staying right next to Checkpoint Charlie, in the heart of Berlin's "war tourism district", we found ourselves completing a really interesting history tour. Travelling from Moscow to Warsaw to Berlin, with tours and exhibitions in each city, bullet holes in buildings, and stories of courage and unfathomable human suffering, brought military and social struggles to life from three different regimes and cultures perspectives.
Museum Island

Berlin to Paris should have been the next short hop. 
To our immense shock the first German train was delayed - is this even possible!!? - meaning that our connection from Mannheim to Paris wasn't going to happen. The guard on board managed to find an alternative route via Strasbourg. The only problem with this was that we had chosen this leg (where the scenery was less interesting) to play more Quirkle (our favourite game, despite the current tally - Simon 21 Anne 1) and to get back to the Mongolian vodka. This resulted in a very rushed and stumbled train transfer for us and our 40 kg of luggage in Frankfurt, where we managed to mix up Stuttgart for Strasbourg. This resulted in us not arriving in Paris until I had lost a few more games of Quirkle, the vodka bottle had been emptied, and the sun had set. On the plus side, a taxi ride through night-time Paris to our friends apartment enabled us to see all the floodlit tourist hotspots, meaning we were free to go off the tourist route for the next day. 

Anne the packhorse (hurrah for GB canoeing making me strong)

I don't suppose many people go to Paris end up in the Compe du Trios Generals - a rather eclectic bar full of African artefacts, political commentary on France's influence in West Africa, and shabby green velour sofas (complete with tassels). This was our Parisienne friends' recommendation for quirky Paris (are you starting to get the picture that "off the beaten track" is our preferred adventure...?) and after a hibiscus cocktail Paris took on a slightly hazy quality, despite the brilliant sunshine and clear autumn air. Using a map sponsored by Eurostar meant that this 'off the beaten track' corner of Paris was obliterated by a large picture of the Eurostar train which made map reading a bit difficult. We eventually found a fantastic corner cafe and lost a few hours of Sunday afternoon watching the world go by, accompanied by confit duck an carafe of house wine. The purpose of ending up his far out was a walk in this outlying park with a view. The wine must have been stronger than we thought because unbelievably in the Park we stumbled upon a French steel band playing reggae in the glorious afternoon sunshine and a large  group of women spinning wool and knitting it into jumpers! 

This park, apart from/ because of its interesting inhabitants, was an absolute gem. We sat happily at the top of a grassy hill listening to the live music from a steel band and watching the group of ladies spin and knit with with Monmartre and the Paris city skyline as the perfect backdrop. And, of course, we ended our stay with a night time trip u the Eiffel Tower - it would have been rude not to, given our friends lived just round the corner...
compulsory Eiffel Tower picture

And home...
The last big train leg was from Paris to London and Simon had yet again pushed the boat out (if you can do that on a train?). First class on Eurostar with a 3 course lunch was a new experience for me.  Us - with our slightly scruffy, well traveled clothes and day sacks - also seemed a new experience for the rather posh couple who had to share our table (they did ask if they could move). I often think that other people in restaurants have amazing conversations which are really worth listening to, but the best this couple could manage was a very intent conversation about how vital it was for him to have his teeth polished that afternoon when they got back to London. The last two weeks had been an amazing adventure and Simon and I started reminiscing about our trip across seven time zones from Mongolia.  I noted how our companions stopped talking and started listening to our tale of highlights and crazy moments which definitely, without doubt, was the best adventure I have ever had. 
whiling away the time on the trans siberian express..