Three weeks in a van.

 I just came back to London again after spending close to three weeks travelling with this fellow (Rob) in his campervan, through France.
The first few days we spent in, and around, a picturesque village (Orpierre) in Southern France. The village is surrounded by large cliffs and is therefore a rock climbing Mecca.
Was hard to keep our feet dry at times :)
Final pitch of the 150 meter multi-pitch route Brazil (5+) in Orpierre.
There were also some impressive overhangs for the rainy days.
After Orpierre, we drove for a couple of hours to Chamonix in the French Alps.
There were impressive glaciers (here Mer de Glace) and majestic peaks. As the lifts hadn't opened yet for the summer, the valley was still quiet and not too crowded.
For our first alpine route (usually long climbs on a mix of rock and snow) we took one of the few lifts that were open to the top of Aiguille du Midi (3842 m).
Our fellow passengers up to the top of Aiguille du Midi were a mix of tourists and mountaineers. As the tourists headed for the gift shop and the look out points, Rob and I exited the lift station through a narrow ice tunnel, put on out crampons, tied in and then exited out on a narrow ridge (the one you can see in the above photo) through a small gate.
In alpinism, route finding is one of  the most essential skills. Whiteouts are not uncommon (when visibility and contrast are severely reduced by snow) and walking in the wrong direction can have very serious consequences (for example stepping over a vertical cliff with a 500 meter drop...).
As we were travelling on a glacier we had to be tied together by a rope. This way, if one of us would falls down a snow covered crevasse (a very deep open crack), the other person could perform a crevasse rescue.
Up the peak on the left was where we were heading. The climb was called Pointe Lachenal Traverseé and had a fairly easy rating of AD. Still, falling off was not an option. From the surrounding taller peaks we at times heard load roars as avalanches were crushing down the slopes.
As Rob had to leave for a few days I got the chance to go on a solo, three day hike on the Tour du Mont Blanc (one of the most popular long-distance walks in Europe). It was stunningly beautiful, taking me up and down one mountain after the other. As the summer season hadn't started yet, I was all alone on my hike and couldn't had had a better way of recharging my batteries after an intense first year of my PhD in London.
I managed to find some great camp spots just at the border of the snow line. The night time temperature was just around zero; therefore, not to cold.
The tent that Rob lent me and the gear I brought along. Walking sticks were essential for carrying a heavy pack and for keeping my balance on the steep downhill sections of the trail.
Marmots (large squirrel like animals) at times popped up their heads through the snow.
Mountain goats are impressive climbers, effortlessly traversing steep rock.
For our next alpine route we hiked up to the Glacier du Trient where we spent two nights (~2800 m). The peak we had in mind was Aigiulle du Tour (3540 m) via the route Table de Roc (PD). Table de Roc means table of rock and you can (quite) clearly see this table in the above photo. The table was a difficult section of the route and rather exciting...
Our tent spot, at top of the glacier. It took a while for us to to dig it out but then provided us with comfort throughout windy nights with negative temperatures.
Rob and I inside our tiny tent. We spent a substantial amount of time in here and sometimes it was rather difficult to come up with things to do (I think Rob read the one paragraph route description at least a hundred times...).
The glacier in the background and as you can see, the weather wasn't very good. Unfortunately, the closer we got to the summit the more worse it got...
We had to be careful as it was the early summer season, avalanches and rock slides were common.
Amazing photo (I think) of Rob descending the route after we made it to the summit. No summit photo unfortunately as we had near whiteout conditions up there and neither of us were particularly keen on capturing the "Kodak moment".
Rob and I on our way down from the glacier. When the skies were clear the views were breathtaking! In the background, on the right, you can see Mont Blanc, the tallest mountain in Western Europe (4810 m).


Life in London

I have lived here in the UK for a little over six months. Over the course of these six months I have learnt the adventure of daily London bicycle commutes (I cycle around 20 km a day here, and traffic is intense...), learnt the difficulties in finding reasonable housing -- which is affordable (and in the end, I think I was pretty lucky), clocked more hours at work/university than I have ever done before (which gives me a strange mix  of satisfaction and happiness, stress and, sometimes, despair...), and also seen a few beautiful places (some photos at the bottom of this post), which for me is an occasional necessity to clear my head after too many hours in front of the computer screen. Now, on to the housing situation.

During my first three months in London I moved three times. My living standards subsequently went from horrible, to bad, to currently, actually pretty descent. As I arrived London in September last year I had booked a couple of nights at a hotel with the plan of quickly finding a place to live (which turned out to be quite stressful). I browsed the Internet for spare rooms, went to see a few places and then, without to much thought, accepted a room in Willesden Junction in West London. As the days past and I settled into my new accommodation, I realized that my housing situation was far from ideal. Why? Well to name a few: the landlady was a hoarder collecting trash nightly and stashing it in her house and backyard; there was no heating and on top of that there was no hot water, which lead to me being constantly cold; the landlady was very particular of what us tenants were allowed to do and not, and she kept putting up notes (all over the place) and also pushing these notes underneath my door. Actually, of all the places I have lived (India, Spain, Canada, etc.), I would rank this place a solid number one for being the worst. The landlady eventually realized my discontent and allowed me to leave without losing my deposit; hence, I went back to browsing the web...

My next room, in Tottenham (a not so glorious part of London where the 2011 England riots began) was warm and cosy, but lacked a window, which made it resemble a prison cell. Additionally, the room also had a quite strange odour to it. On top of that was the lady living in the house who was obsessed with cleaning. I remember in particular one morning where my morning breakfast collided with her morning vacuumimg. As I stood by the stove making my oatmeal, she was sitting by the kitchen table, vacuum cleaner in her hand -- staring -- just waiting for me to finish so she could get on with her daily routine. Although cheap, I was not very keen on staying in this place due to the above circumstances and was lucky to be able to move in with my climbing partner at the time. He lived with a few mates in a house in Wood Green in North East London, and Wood Green is what I now call home. My room is a nice double sized one, I have room for my precious bicycle, a desk and some possessions I have brought along. My house mates are three cool guys, all from England, two of them born and raised in North London. Occasionally, I have difficulties understanding one of the guys as his accent is 'pretty' thick. But, I am making my best to pick up as much cockney lingo as I possibly can :) Sadly, my climbing partner friend soon leaves for a one year climbing road-trip, Luckily though, it gives me an opportunity to meet up with him in random places throughout Europe, and I have already bought a plane ticket to the Alps where we will be doing a few weeks of mountaineering in June!

I have now covered my living situation. Next, I would like to write a little bit about what I spend most of my time doing here in London, which is a Ph.D. within medical imaging at UCL. Doing a Ph.D. means that you spend an insane amount of time on a very narrow subject, for very little money, often with not much help, which in the end, hopefully, leads to a tiny contribution to the collective knowledge of the world (great explanation). The overall aim of my Ph.D. is to improve detectability of abnormalities in images of the brain. More specifically, brain magnetic resonance imaging; and even more specifically, by improving the resolution of these images by solving something called and inverse problem.  Solving an inverse problem involves estimating a quantity from incomplete measurements. In the context of what I am working on, these incomplete measurements are low resolution images, and the quantity I would like to estimate, a high resolution image:

I decided to do a Ph.D. because I like the freedom (under responsibility) it brings, the fact that I literally learn new things every single day, and the opportunities of work anywhere in the world the degree brings (if completed...). But, it wasn't a decision I made overnight and I think a good amount of both care and thought should go into it. Indeed, four years is a long time!

The Lake District. A frozen lake in the Alps? No, this photo is actually from England! The Lake District to be more precise. I went there for winter climbing, and the conditions were amazing.
Isle of Portland. From winter climbing in the previous photo, to sea cliff climbing on the south coast of England. Portland, a small island 2-3 hours south of London.
The Peak District. The peak district is, just as the lake district, an English national park. More climbing (obviously), this time on gritstone. Apparently termed by British climbers as "God's own rock".
Thames, London. The river Thames is the longest river in the UK and passes through the capital. Occasionally it floods, in this photo I walked past it a few days after a 'supermoon', which might have lead to it being flooded.


Hasta luego Madrid (y España)!

Hasta luego together with vale are probably the two most common things to hear in a conversation here in Madrid (and maybe joder - but let's not go into the details on that one). Vale means OK, hasta luego see you later, and one thing I could ask myself is: when will I see Madrid again? With only a few more days in Spain before I leave for London this Saturday, what will I miss, and what will I not miss that much?

Increíbles puestas de sol. Situated at the Meseta Central ("The Inner Plateau"), Madrid is 654 meters above sea level. This might be one of the reason for the often spectacular sunsets seen in the city. Another reason might be the dry air; since the ocean is far away from this corazon of Spain. By the way, note the kids playing on the roof of the parked car in the bottom left. This was their usual evening routine while their parents attended the church service next door (seen from mine and Lina's balcony in Usera).
I have spent over nine months in Europe's third largest city and next up is the one holding the number one spot [1], and you know what; I am not even sure the big city is for me?! But, what I do know is for me, is the work I am doing, and which I will continue doing in London, at UCL's Centre for Medical Image Computing (CMIC); the opportunities it gives me, to see and explore, in depth, many places of the world, and also meeting and mixing with people from all over! So, well yes (as I have already mentioned), maybe London is not my ideal place, but since the CMIC PhD is one of the best I could have found - period, I think it is a fair compromise :) And, I would lie if I said I was not excited about my upcoming move (but a bit daunted by the prospects of finding a place to live; an affordable place that is).

Mis amigos. Much to my surprise. on the day of my birthday, my friend Vero "lured" me into one of the storage rooms of the lab saying: "I found a thing that could help us with our experiments". I opened the door and was greeted by a "Happy Birthday!" and many familiar, friendly faces! I suspected nothing and I don't think I have been that surprised since my 25th surprise-birthday party in Sweden.
But! Please allow me to get back to the matter at hand, which were my feelings and thoughts about Madrid and Spain. I arrived Madrid early December last year, after an intense trip with way too much luggage (I think I carried close to my own body weight in three backpacks, from Vancouver, via Seattle, Boston, New York, Stockholm, and then finally Madrid), and was immediately amazed by the mild winter weather and the blue sky, at six in the afternoon. The Spanish weather is something I will miss (living in the sunniest country in Europe [2] is a luxury for any sun-deprived Sweden and most of the times I don't even remember the last time it rained). On the other hand, this summer was the hottest Spain had experienced in a long time and sometimes at night, trying to sleep in 37 degrees Celsius, panic was close at hand.

Escalada. If you love climbing, Spain is the country for you! Madrid for example, is crawling with places where people have just attached holds to walls or underneath bridges (Planetario de Madrid, in the photo, is one such example [3]). I don't know if the term urban bouldering/climbing exists, either way it is something one can easily enjoy in Madrid. To boot, the rock climbing is world class and everywhere, with a weather that is sunny and predictable. Maybe you didn't know, but the hardest rock climb to date was done in Spain [4]. 
One thing which has been quite challenging - seeing I arrived Spain with zero Spanish knowledge - is (yes, you guessed it) Spanish. At the start I was pretty ambitious about my learning. I used online tools like Memrise and Duolingo (both really great I think), and did intercambios (language exchange) with my co-workers. But ever since I found out that I was going to leave Spain my motivation somehow ceased to exist. Still, I think I now have sufficient command of the language to make myself understood quite well (if I am just allowed to talk slowly :). For example, I am staying my last few days in Madrid with a Colombian family - with a yet undefined number of family members and every time I come home from work there are new faces around - where they barely speak English and I think I am doing pretty well. I especially like to talk to the abuela (grandmother), who speaks in a very soft - almost seductive way - saying: "Me encanta, me encanta" constantly ("I am enchanted, I am enchanted"). I will miss learning a language. It is fun, and difficult! But, it will be great to be in a country where I can talk to anyone without starting out saying: "Perdona, pero yo sé solo un poco Español" ("Excuse me but I know only a little Spanish").

Un país muy hermoso. I found this nice, vintage map in the glove compartment of my car. I was already thinking of buying one so that I could mark the places that I and Lina wanted to visit and had visited in Spain. And now - after spending some months on our living room wall, first in Legazpi and later in Usera - it will be a nice memory from our stay! Plus, it is was also a great way of getting to know the geography of the Iberian Peninsula :)
Spain is an amazingly beautiful country with a diverse climate. Almost every weekend I took off from Usera, got on the M30, and positioned my little Golf in the slow lane; while all the Spanish drivers zoomed past in the outer ones (and the Spanish drivers I will not miss, phew, this country must have some of the most aggressive drivers in the world!). Whether it was for hiking, climbing, or just some sightseeing, I never ran out of alternatives and there are still so many places I would like to visit. So, as for a little list of places I liked and would recommend:
  • All the smaller towns close to Madrid: Toledo, Segovia, Ávila, Cuenca, the list goes on...
  • Granada: Cool city next to the Sierra Nevadas. Best tapas I have ever had was at Restaurante Aixa!
  • La Pedriza and the mountains north of Madrid: Was my oasis close to Madrid. Beautiful national park with tall mountains and crystal clear pounds for swimming.
  • Montanejos: Hidden gem of Spain? Mainly known to climbers because of the over 1,700 climbing routes in the area; but also stunningly beautiful !
  • Picos de Europa: Maybe the most spectacular hike I have ever done [5] was in this rugged mountain range, five hours north of Madrid.
And these are some of the places I still would like to visit:
  • A Coruña: Perhaps not the city, but the region.
  • Cádiz:  City and port on southwestern tip of Spain.
  • Minorca: Island next to Mallorca, supposedly less touristy. Many people have told me it is well worth a visit.
  • Mulhacén: The tallest mountain on the main land of Spain (the tallest in Spain is Tiede, a volcano on Tenerife in the Canary Islands). From the summit of Mulhacen, on a clear day, you can see Africa!
  • The Pyrenees: The mountain range in-between Spain and France, maybe to hike the GR 10 [6].
Mi coche pequeño. To sell a car in Spain, having a very limited proficiency in the Spanish language, might have been something of the most stressful I have done, in a very long time. On top of that, to also be moving out of my apartment and preparing a conference presentation, phew... Fortunately, Lina's organic stress relief tinctures (from the depths of the redwood growths of Northern California) gave well-needed consolation. Nonetheless, I am happy I had a car and it was easily worth all the trouble. It took me and Lina around Spain, me and Monica on fun climbing trips, and also somehow passed the Spanish ITV inspection without any trouble. En riktig pärla! :)
So, since I have travelled quite extensively throughout Spain, do I have a number one place to recommend? Hmm, many times there are just so many factors that can make a trip great: the people, the weather, the planned, the unplanned, and more! As I have already mentioned, seeing some of the Spanish cities were really nice, or hiking through the mountains, or climbing in spectacular places, or just having slow days in Madrid. So instead of choosing a "favorite" place, let me instead tell you about an experience we had, slightly absurd (but not even close to the craziest place ever: the Indian fort Muru-Janjira). During a kayaking trip to a national park close to Segovia we found this little bar next to the river, along with its own artificial beach (maybe they had brought the sand from Egypt, just like the beach in Barcelona). We sat down, ordered some drinks, enjoyed the sunny weather and gradually realized that the bar offered a very, very unique live performance. This live performance consisted of one single person playing the drums, the drums! The man seemed to have an endless amount of both energy and enthusiasm and was shouting for people to step out on the "dance floor". The music varied wildly, from traditional Spanish music to AC/DC, but the show reached its climax when all of sudden - and to our big surprise - we heard the all-time classic love ballad "My heart will go on" from Titanic. The amazing thing was - well in addition to the guy playing along on his drum set - that the Celine Dion was replaced by... a pan flute!

La gente. Here he is, the most enthusiastic drummer ever! Please visit the national park of Hoces del Río Duratón for a great experience :)
Now the "only" thing left to do is to take all my stuff (a lot of stuff...) to the airport and then hopefully this evening we will arrive London. Yes we, because fortunately my dear mom arrived yesterday from Sweden, which is a big relief, since she can help me with all my luggage and it will also be fun to do some sightseeing together with her in London! So, over and out, and my next blog post (unless I disappear somewhere between Madrid and London) will be as a PhD student at UCL. Then, I will hopefully be able to tell you that I found a nice place to live and also that London is a city I enjoy being part of!

Últimos días. Yesterday morning, my last day at work, I spent hours making cinnamon rolls (kanelbullar - a popular Swedish treat). Seeing I had quite a number of cañas (small glasses of beer) the night before, it was a challenge... But they turned out alright and was huge success in my lab! Also, I managed to pack my bicycle (with all my climbing gear included) in this little package you can see above. Soon I will be biking down the streets of London!
[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_largest_cities_in_the_European_Union_by_population_within_city_limits
[2] https://www.justlanded.com/english/Spain/Articles/Culture/Climate-in-Spain
[3] https://www.google.es/maps/place/40%C2%B023'38.0%22N+3%C2%B041'13.6%22W/@40.393883,-3.687113,18z/data=!3m1!4b1!4m2!3m1!1s0x0:0x0?hl=en
[4] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V1P97VVt6_k
[5] http://www.wikiloc.com/wikiloc/view.do?id=941619
[6] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/GR_10_%28France%29