After a scenic train ride up to Machu Picchu, the sun finally came out – it is a special place indeed. I ended my week in Pyongyang, North Korea, ready for my next marathon, following a slightly convoluted trip (involving Marmite).
Day 85 – Peru, rest week nearly over, Cusco markets
I said goodbye to some new friends today after a pretty great day. This resting malarkey is brilliant. Today we mooched around the markets of Cusco. A very lazy start to the day, but once we made it to the market area, I was blown away. The strange and wonderful sights and smells were extraordinary. Picture this – a large, single-floored warehouse with tiny, narrow walkways creating aisle after aisle. There must have been over 300 different stalls selling meat, clothes, fruit, nuts, toys, rice, fish, bread, juices and sweets. Yep, there was a lot. The small, round friendly faces of the locals peering out through hoards of items covering their stands. Everyone certainly goes with the whole quantity over quality approach.
This massive room, slightly sloping at one end and divided into sections, was also full of flies. Not surprisingly the meat section was a favourite. Bull horns lying around, trotters, cow jaws including teeth, eyes, you name it. This area of the market was pretty grim for a softy like me. Having worked in a butcher’s a long time ago I’m familiar with meat being hacked apart. I am, however, keen on a little hygiene, but health and safety was not on the menu here. Toddlers and children running around ferrying knives to other friends or family members, almost like a ‘You can borrow my machete if I can borrow your meat cleaver’ kinda deal. Fascinating. Brilliant for content for the documentary too.
After stopping for thousands of photos and film of kids playing marbles in the street, we made our way to a chocolate museum. When I say museum, I mean shop. Great ploy, though, and I actually learnt a lot. For example, I now know that 100% coca bean chocolate is not for me. Beyond bitter. Great, in tiny, tiny bites, but not possible to gorge on. And I like to gorge. Anyway, chocolate and market complete, some more admin and here I am tucked up in bed ready for an early start once again to get to the foothills of Machu Picchu. A must-see, and I’m super excited.
Day 86 – Peru, nearly the end of rest week, bus, tuk tuk, train, walk, hotel
Leaving Cusco for the Machu Picchu foothills was a trek before the trek. I’m sure some of you have been to this great place already, but I thought it would be less difficult. I paid for a bus to the train station from Cusco; they dropped me somewhere else and told me to get a taxi. Not a great start. Close, but still, not quite the station. A tuk tuk was all that was needed, though, and a luxury train journey followed. Snaking along the old tracks between the huge mountains with a fast-flowing river to the left, the entire train had stunning views of the lush mountains ahead, behind and above – very similar to the green, lush Thailand wilderness, actually.
There have been many occasions on this journey so far where I have been overwhelmed with kindness from individuals. It’s not just the people though. Thanks to my assistant Carla and my accommodation manager Chrissy I’ve been fortunate enough to stay in some very lovely hotels. (Don’t get me wrong, I’ve also slummed it – slept on airport floors and been kept awake by some lively sex from the bunk above my head.) Some special hotels have given me a few nights here and there for free, supporting me, the journey, and helping to reduce my personal bankruptcy claim.
I arrived at 2pm just in time for afternoon tea. Brownies, tea and coca leaves. This hotel was more of a lodge – individual cottages draped in varying colours of green from the tropical canopy all around, large, deep leather armchairs, fruit, Inca art and gorgeous ancient tapestries in every corner. Tall wooden ceilings, stone brick work, and each and every room with fantastic views. No matter where you were you could hear animals, birds and the torrent of the river below. The occasional train on the tracks just next door. A real train, not a new, boring train. THANK YOU Inkaterra Hotels!
Day 87 – Machu Picchu, Peru
These Inca folks are blooming brilliant.
A day of two halves. Grey, heavy and wet fog covered my little haven of mountainous paradise this morning. I set off at 4.30am with the hope of filming a great time lapse over Machu Picchu as the sun rose. After three hours the clouds poured into the valley even more. The rain falling heavier was a sure sign my photo opportunities were going to be limited. The small Inca village high in the hills, now only ruins, was still pretty special in the rain. Stonehenge looks like child’s play in contrast. It was peacefully eerie at times. Before making my descent back down I decided to sit it out and hope for good weather. A cuppa, a giant brownie and a good couple of hours’ people watching, and it still wasn’t much better, but the sun was trying hard to burn through the cloud.
The second half of the day began to the sound of cheers from other visitors praying for sun. The sun had finally pushed through and we could see shadows for the first time. I wiped the drizzle from my camera lens, changed the batteries on the GoPro and ran, camera in hand, up the steps to find the best spot. The mood of the mountain had changed. Sun cream, sunglasses and everyone stuffing jackets and waterproofs into bags. The Incas settled here, 500 years ago, because they wanted to be close to the gods. It was all very apt to be at the mercy of the weather. Alpacas roamed the grounds of the beautifully precise maze of mortar-less stonework. The 500 or so people who lived in Machu Picchu had such a special place here. I wasn’t expecting the scale or the sense of such peace. I didn’t want to leave. Thank you to the sun. And thank you to all those who are supporting this journey. I leave for North Korea and Marathon 35 very soon. Peru, you have been colourful, friendly, altitudey, and just the rest I needed, if you can call it a rest.
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Day 88 – Last day in Cusco, Peru, stopover
Stranded with 15 Israelis at a train station at the foot of Machu Picchu in the middle of the night. Not something I thought odd. This is just another one of those times that I count myself lucky, in hindsight. Lucky, because I’m fortunate enough to talk about these incredible experiences, but at the time I wasn’t quite as positive. We were all transferring back to Cusco awaiting our pre-booked and paid-for transfer. An hour later, and after lots of broken conversations, we collectively decided it would be best to bail on the original paid-for plans and jump in a random bus taxi. Outrageously cheap for a two-hour journey, we paid about £1.50 each and hopped on to a scruffy mini bus, not entirely sure if we’d reach our destination. I’m pleased to say we did.
All sleepy-eyed and shaken around in a bumpy bus we scattered to our respective hotels on arrival, only a couple of hours’ journey by bus to Cusco after sadly saying bye to the literally awesome Machu Picchu. It was 11pm before I arrived back at the Marriott Hotel. I was eventually asleep by about 1am. Another long, but brilliantly entertaining, day. Thanks to the Marriott here who once again have looked after me very well. This hotel is stunning. I don’t want to leave tomorrow, but so many great things to come.
Day 89 – End of rest week, goodbye Peru, Cusco to Lima, with a bump
Last-minute gift buying for family and friends was super fun today. I haven’t really been able to splash out on bits and pieces due to baggage constraints or cost. I’ll be back in the UK in a few weeks for the London Marathon, so I feel safe to stock up on bits and pieces now. The beautiful vibrant market here in Cusco was where I spent my remaining hours before returning to the hectic life of running a marathon every other day. North Korea is going to be one hell of an experience. And I’ll be there in just a few days. Rest week has been awesome, but it’s time to get back to it. I still have hundreds and hundreds of days ahead of me with another 162 marathons to go.
Leaving from Cusco wasn’t all plane sailing though. Or plane flying for that matter. Everyone seated, safety announcements done, and everyone comfortable, ready for the flight. The broken audio of the captain’s voice came on the radio to instruct the cabin crew to take their seats and prepare for take off. You know, all the usual cross-check mumbo jumbo. We rounded the end of the runway and all awaited the inevitable surge of the engines as the captain pushed back (or forwards, never did understand that saying), and off we go. Hurtling down the runway, increasing in speed ready for the wheels to leave the ground. Engines loud and the cabin rattling.
In a split second the engines were thrust into reverse and brakes applied. Seconds before leaving the ground, the pilot aborted take-off. Everyone confused and after our heads hitting the seat in front of us, we were a little shaken up. An emergency stop in a plane isn’t the usual way things happen. Long story short, we weren’t really told anything for a long time and everyone was left pretty nervous. We taxied back to the stand, but were told to stay on the plane. Over 40 minutes later we were given the news that there was an electrical fault and it needed repairing. Eventually, after a long nap from me, and lots of nerves and panic from everyone else, we were in the air. In the air on the same plane that couldn’t take off hours before. Safe, maybe?
Day 90 – 20 hours flying, Lima to Beijing via Toronto
I arrived in Beijing at 4pm local time after 13 hours from Toronto overnight. This has got me all confused. I have no idea what day it is or where I need to be and when. My mind is very foggy. I must admit, the 12-hour time difference and waking up on the other side of the world still scrambles my brain.
I’m writing this in the cosy bedroom of Adrian and Hannah’s apartment in downtown Beijing. The little plug-in heater in the corner of the room and the sounds of this enormous city are my lullaby as I struggle to keep my eyes open. Before my eyes shut completely and I drift into the land of nod, let me tell you about Adrian and Hannah. Adrian very kindly contacted me about eight months ago having heard about my journey. He is one of 12 of the incredibly friendly and indeed, international, team members of Koryo Tours. Among other things, Koryo is the principle tour agency taking ‘foreigners’ to North Korea, along with other exotic locations.
After many phone calls, they have now re-arranged my itinerary to ensure I can visit this country this year, on the off-chance things may change and access be denied in future. I don’t need to go into detail as to why this may or may not be the case; the word ‘Trump’ probably sums it up nicely. Plus it’s North Korea, so you get the idea. I have one big thank you for Adrian and the Koryo team. Sponsoring this part of my trip has saved me several thousands of pounds and lots of headaches. I hope my write-ups and experience will give them the return they deserve.
Aside from the genuinely outrageously kind support from the company, Adrian’s wife has also filled my belly with brilliant food. (I’d like to clarify here, I have done the eating myself, and Hannah did the cooking. Just so we are clear. No force-feeding occurred.) You may assume that I’ve just tucked into some classic Chinese dish, but as they are both British, I’ve actually been treated to a cracking veggie lasagne and accompanying bits and pieces like veg and bread. Some chat about photography, an official briefing of the do’s and do not’s of the country, and I am packed and ready for NORTH KOREA!
Day 91 – Beijing, China to Pyongyang, North Korea
Stop press! Although I’m now in one of the most amazing countries on the planet, and somewhere very few people get to see, the big news of today is I ATE MARMITE for breakfast. Most of you don’t know my inner feeling as well as I do (despite my attempts at complete transparency), but my love of Marmite runs deep. It’s Day 91 and I’ve been Marmite sober for too long. Breakfast spread rehab is cruel. Hannah and Adrian fed me a divine early breakfast this morning. I even had the luxury of breaking the seal on a new Marmite jar. I know, right. Here’s the run down. Hot cross buns (from Sainsbury’s in Wimbledon, flown in especially) (probably not) with actual butter, a mug of Earl Grey tea, with actual milk, and four pieces of hot, crunchy, French baguette with lashings of melted butter and Marmite. After being away from little comforts like this which are incredibly privileged, I know, I scoffed down this yummy food like a heathen with a dirty big grin on my face and drips of the tasty black lava down my chin.
I am showered, bags on and ready to go. North Korea, let me at you. We jumped in a tuk tuk to the office to meet the rest of the tour group. These guys were instantly friendly and obviously runners. You know the type. Just my kinda people.
Skip forward several hours and I am now lying on another bed in a different country feeling equally tried. This wasn’t just any other country, though. I am in the brilliantly bonkers world of Pyongyang, North bloody Korea. Before I get too excited let me state a few things that should be known. First of all, I’m writing this in real time but won’t be able to post this for several days due to the complete ban of internet and cell signal. Literally nothing. Also, North Korea is not to be called North Korea. In my briefing yesterday we were all given very clear lists of do’s and don’ts. It goes without saying the don’ts column was rather top-heavy. We should only refer to the country as Korea or the DPRK, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Not very accurate, I realise, but to be obeyed nonetheless. For more info check out @koryotours
British Endurance Athlete | Motivational Speaker | Adventurer
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