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Running 15k at Istanbul Marathon

To be honest, I seriously decided not to get into the starting line.

It was almost 7am in my hotel room at Çemberlitaş, the heart of old Istanbul. It was comfortably warm and dry, with a cup of coffee. Beyond the window is the darkness night of Istanbul winter. It was raining, and according to the weather forecast, the temperature is below 10 degree Celsius. How do you expect me to get out of the hotel and walk to Haghia Sophia for our shuttle bus? And running under this weather? Forget it!

But then, when I put my cup of coffee, I found a piece of paper on the table. On it written the famous mantra for every long distance runner: “Pain is Temporary, Pride is Forever”. Yes, I came to Istanbul to run from Asia to Europe. Through the Bosphorus strait. The rain and cold probably temporary, but the pride of running through Bosphorus is forever.

Little that I know about the pain of running in the winter.

Marathon Race Expo

“So you are here, flying from Asia, for the Marathon?” Gülay, our walking tour guide looked surprised. We took a city walking tour a day before through Istanbul’s historical building.

“Yes I am”, I said.

“It is the only time of the year where Bosphorus Bridge open for pedestrian”, Gülay, our tour guide told us. “It was possible to walk through the bridge at any day before. But due to some suicide and other incident, it is no longer possible. Good luck with your run.”

Light drizzle welcome me as I open the door of our hotel. I charged forward, careful on the slippery pedestrian. The disposable plastic raincoat provided by the organizer did well to keep me dry, but did poorly to keep me warm. I was soon joined by many others wearing the same disposable raincoat, the other runners, as we walk to Haghia Sophia.

Waiting under the Rain

There was already long queue of runners queuing up at Haghia Sophia. It was indeed a different sight compared to our walking tour a day before. Not many people took picture. Instead the chatter is full of running experience, at least from the one that I can understand.

The air feels a bit colder when you stop walking and just standing there. Many people, myself included shake our legs or just move around just to shake of the cold, which made worst by never ending drizzle. To try to forget the cold, I started a conversation with a fellow person behind me.

“Where was your last run”, I asked one of the runners

“Tehran Marathon”, he answered

“Iran?”, I asked in wonder

“Yep……”, he said. Few buses pulled over near the front of the queue

“Wow, I would love to run in there. Good luck with your run”, I said

“You too”, he said. The queue has started to move towards.

The bus provided temporary relieve from the cold. We drove through quiet Istanbul street, passing through roadblocks being set up to secure the running route. In fact, I feel that the bus was backtracking our running route, kind of like a preview. We passed the bridge over Golden Horn, through the running route in Karakoy and Beksitas. The water station along the road is still being set up, including one gate of Vodafone, the event’s main sponsor. And finally, we reach the bridge, the Bosphorus Bridge connecting Asia and Europe.

Our bus stop right on the other side of the Bosphorus bridge, on the Asian side. And with it also goes our place of warmth. The fact that we now have sunlight does nothing to the weather, raining and chilling.

I walk around the starting line to look for the bag drop. Found the bag drop bus for 10k, around 20 of it, followed by 42k. And that’s it. No bag drop for 15k?

“The other side of the street”, one of the organizer’s staff told me. “Right at the end of the road”

“Thanks”, I said. Walking to pass some 30 buses was not fun, but at least it kept me moving than standing still and freeze.

Clear Sky Ahead

What happen after the bag drop is something that no training can prepare you. We are again standing still under the rain and cold, waiting for the starting time. Only then I feel that my shoes and socks were wet, soaked by the rain. Any long distance runners know that wet shoes and socks are recipe for very painful blisters. It will be a painful run.

Relieve come when finally the flag off ceremony started. We started singing a song which I think national anthem, in Turkish. One by one, we throw or disposable rain coat aside, myself included. No gun shot heard but the pack has finally moved. Slowly at first, getting faster and faster. And finally I passed under the starting gate. Istanbul Marathon has begun.

Running on Bosphorus Bridge was really a one-in-a-lifetime experience. The strait is so big, well over 1 km wide, and is a major shipping lane. Big cargo ship will pass under your feet, under the bridge, just like when I cross it. From the highest point you can see the hilly part of Istanbul’s European side, which made an interesting terrain.

The bridge itself shakes as thousands of runners trampled through, just like several 18-wheelers passing by. Some people stopped in the middle to take picture of this magical moments. However, noone can stand still for too long, as the strong winds that blow was very cold and will make you shiver, no matter how long one has run.

Bridge Stampede

It was close to 2 km mark when we finally off the bridge and turned left. The route was getting dull compared to Bosphorus Bridge experience, so I started to pay attention to fellow runners around me. I ended up following groups of runners with similar shirts. They sing and chat together, and although I don’t understand what they are singing, it helped to pass the time. Some of them have the word “Coach” written on their T-shirt.

And then I heard voices behind me. A group of runners were pushing someone in wheelchair, asking for a way to pass. The coach and his runners spontaneously clapping and shouting words of encouragement. I don’t know what words to say, so I just clap.

The route become more interesting once we turned into the main road of Besiktas. We reached the first water station not far from 5 km mark. They only have water, and blocks of sugar. I took 2 of it, and spit half of it. I think eating sugar is just too much even during a run. There are no sport drinks available.

I was still tagging along with the coach and his team as we turn into a downhill. It was a long downhill, with wet slippery road from the morning rain. Instead of speeding up, I choose to be a bit careful while hoping my knee won’t give up.

Some time later, on the left side, there are a big European-style gate. Several guards manned the security post in front of it, so it must be a very important building. My brain must be freezing from the cold and lack of oxygen, because it took me a while to realize what building it is. It is the gate of Dolmabahçe palace, the palace of the late Ottoman Empire.

From Besiktas, the running route continue to Karakoy, mostly known for Galata Tower and Galata bridge that pass throught he Golden Horn. We didn’t pass through Galata Tower, but we did cross the Golden Horn through Galata Bridge. Nike, one of the main sponsor, set up spectators booth, stage and music on the bridge that made the run more like festival than a sport event. It is definitely a relieve for the sore feet in the 2nd half of the run.

After the bridge and the fanfare, the real test of mental game begin. First, the fellow runners in 10k category has finally reached their finish line, while for us the 15k runners took another road to continue. Not far from the branching, we can see the 15k finish line, across the street from where we are. So close, yet still 5k away, as we need to continue along the Golden Horn for 2.5km, before taking the U-turn to the finish line. The sun has getting higher, and my wet socks has caused painful blister on my feet. The sighting of the finish line only make the run feel harder.

The Finish Line

For the rest of run I was running at autopilot mode. I kind of missed the beautiful scenery of Golden Horn, at least until I arrived in the next water station. Thankfully they have cold sponge, and apple! Yes, someone is actually peeling fresh apple for the runners. Whoever he is, I thank him for the fresh apples.

Powered by the apples, I took the U-Turn and run the final 2.5k of the run behind group of people pushing a wheelchair. We were joined by a group of pacers, which we stick until we cross the finish line.

The blister in my feet has become unbearable that I decided to take off my shoes and limping to collect the finisher medal. The cold pavement of Istanbul winter actually helped to numb the pain as I walk away from the finish area with a thought: If I decided to take the Full Marathon, will I be able to finish the race in the cold winter? Definitely not with wet socks, I hope.

Finisher 15k

Turkey Trip 2016

The news on Turkey is barely encouraging few hours before our departure. Just 5 days ago, a bomb blast rocked a city near Syrian border. Well, the city is actually quite far from Istanbul and Goreme, our 2 main destination. But even if you googled Istanbul, there were 3 bombs and 1 attack in the first half of 2016.

And to add more to the situation, Turkey are still in the state of emergency following the failed coup in July 2016. The state of emergency is expected to stay until January 2017.

So, why are we going after all?

First, and this is what we are counting on, the media often over-report a certain situation that is not really accurate, just like we learn from recent US presidential election. I have checked with several Turkish friends who lives in Istanbul. The situation wasn’t as bad, although most of them recommend to avoid tourist crowd.

Second, the fear created by point 1 above has created a low tourist season in Turkey. This in turns results in everything being sold at a discount, mainly hotel and local tour. For example, we were able to book a family room in 3-star hotel in the heart of old Istanbul within 10 minutes walk from Haghia Sophia for 213 Euro for 3 nights, breakfast included. This also include 1-way airport transfer and half-day city tour for 3 adults.

Night view of Bosphorus Bridge

Third, and my main reason for the trip, is to join Istanbul Marathon. Why Istanbul, you may ask. Because, it is the only event in which you can run from Asia to Europe, through Bosphorus bridge, which is normally closed for pedestrian. This will be once-in-a-lifetime run where you can run between 2 continent.

So here we are, sitting at the airport waiting lounge, anxious to wait for the boarding call and start our Turkey trip.

Post-trip edit: Our guess of security thankfully turns out to be true. While most public place such as Ataturk Airport and Grand Bazaar was guarded by armed guard, we still feel safe walking around Istanbul street. Even at night, there are still few women walking alone on the street, a thing that I use to measure security of an area.

Paper Map

4 PM at the office, and I have this thought: How many traveler these days still using paper map to find direction?

Photo credit: “Explorer,” © 2011 Sakeeb Sabakka, used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license.

I still remember, during the good old days, before Google Map, 3G, and GPS device, every time I arrived in new country, the first thing that I look for is free tourist map at the airport.  The map is my primary guidance to find places and public transport

Did I get lost? Yeah, for sure I did get lost. And what did I do? I ask around. And asked around created the interaction with local people. It is the old romance of traveling that is missing these days, interacting with locals.

Not only that. When you walk with paper map, your eyes won’t be fixed on the red pin that move as you move. You are forced to see your surroundings, and recognizing landmarks to match with the map. And while doing so, you might encounter some unplanned interesting stuff that can enrich your experience.

Once upon a time on my first trip to Bangkok, Thailand, I was exploring the city on foot. I bump into streetside stall with a lot of people lining up. I joined the queue, and it turns out to be the best street food in Bangkok that I’ve ever eat.

Photo Credit: Queue by Charles Haynes

Had I follow Google Map, I probably won’t ever bump into the street food. Either I’m taking a different shorter path, or my eyes is so fixated to follow the red pin that move.

This post is made in response to WordPress Discover: Analog

Hike to the Top of Pasumpahan Island, West Sumatra

In front of me lies a 70 degree climb, almost vertical. An old fix rope laid from above to help hikers climb up and down. There are few knots on the rope, either because the rope being too short when it first laid out, or the rope broke at one point in time and reconnected.

I’m anxiously waiting for my turn to climb. “Maximum 3 person”, was written on a wood board at the bottom of the climb. There are 3 people already on the climb, each of the, huffing and puffing to pull them up the hill.

“This is not so bad”, I said to myself when I reached the top of the climb. I catch up my breath and look to our guide, asking “Where is next?” He smiled, look and point to another fix rope next to him. “This way. There are 3 climbs to the top of Pasumpahan Island”

Third and Final ClimbPasumpahan Island lies at Teluk Bungus, where the main port of West Sumatra lies. During the road trip from Padang, we can see those big cargo ships scattered near the port waiting for their turn to dock.

Pasumpahan Island is not the only island in Teluk Bungus. It neighbors the more famous Sikuai Island and Pagang Island, where you can play some water sport. Both island can be easily seen as we sail to Pasumpahan Island.

The easiest way to get to Pasumpahan Island is to book one day tour. The tour usually include boat, snorkeling gear, lunch, coffee and tea. It can also be combined with a visit to nearby Sikuai or Pagang island. They leave early in the morning and will drop you back to the main land before sunset.

We were, however, a bit behind schedule that day. Loading 70 people into 3 boats was not easy task. Due to low tide, we need to use smaller boat to transfer to larger one that moored further to the sea. And the high sun didn’t help those who already on the big boat, waiting. Or maybe we should be grateful that it wasn’t raining. At least, all the bored ugly faces turned to happy smiling face once we set sail. The breeze of the sea and smell of the ocean was a good cure for boredom.

In fact, the trip to Pasumpahan island was far from boring. Some of us was busy taking selfies against the background of the islands and blue sky. Others asked me to take group picture. Few people sitting in the bow, taking picture of the scenery: calm water towered by green hills. Despite look calm, the ocean still hide a lethal power, as seen from white bubbles that formed when the surf hit a rock.

The hill of Pasumpahan island soon become visible on the horizon. It gets more intimidating as we sail closer, daring us to climb to the top. But when we get close enough to the shore, our attention turned to the postcard perfect Pasumpahan beach.

Postcard Perfect
Postcard Perfect Pasumpahan Beach

Coconut trees lined up on top of white sands of Pasumpahan beach. The hue of the ocean turn from dark blue to light blue. The ocean floor got shallower as we approach the coast. Coral fish visibly swim through the pristine water and hard corals, welcoming us to Pasumpahan island.

Once we set foot on the sands, I noticed that there aren’t really much building on Pasumpahan island. Right on the shore is a big dead tree branch. Several board hanging from the branch. Written on the board is various welcome message and quote about island life. Behind the big dead branch is few gazebo that we use to put our stuff. And behind the gazebo is the main reception building. There are no room. The only accommodation if you decided to spend the night here is to camp, just as like many people do when we were there.

Welcome to Pasumpahan Island
The sign of Welcome on Pasumpahan Island

We don’t waste much time at the shore. After taking group picture, we head directly to the climb. The sun is high when I complete the 2nd climb. At this stage, many people start to sit down to catch their breath, sitting under the shade of large trees. There are only 1 more climb that separate me from the peak of Pasumpahan island.

I decided to climb and grind my teeth instead of resting. At the final push, the steep hill in front unfold to reveal the most spectacular scenery of Teluk Bungus.

The Island of Teluk Bungus
The View from the Top of Pasumpahan Island, and the mountainous West Sumatra

Island and mountain lined up as far as the eye can see. Each island is capped by trees, which seems like green helmet.. Some island have white sand beach at the shore. Others have rock wall boldly stand facing the ocean. The dark blue ocean turned lighter as it approach the sandy shore. But against the rock wall, it trashed violently, creating white foam. The wall stands, but the ocean simply keep smashing, knowing that one day the wall will fall.

Around 100 meters from the peak, traversing small rocky path infested by bushes, there are lower peak that directly fall into a cliff. From this peak, our boat is no more that white spot on the shore. Our friends who didn’t climb moved around like ants on the sands. In the distance a boat sailed, leaving behind a white trails that soon disappear. An Indonesian flag perched to mark the peak of Pasumpahan island.

This is Indonesia
The second peak

When the weather started getting hotter, and more people crowd the peak, I decided to climb down. Standing on top of the first rope, I remembered one quote from Everest climber: Going up is only half of the journey. Sure that Pasumpahan peak is not Everest. But the task ahead to climb down does seem daunting.

Finished with the first rope, I heard someone asking for water. She didn’t look well, but coherent nevertheless. I passed her my water bottle, trusting that I will be at the bottom soon. Just before the second rope, another signboard with these words written on it: Be careful! No hospital nearby.

Careful. No Hospital Nearby
Be Careful! No Hospital Nearby

The situation get more tense when we were held for over 30 minutes at the third and final rope. Remember the limit of 3 people? Without spare water, the longer I stayed on the hill, the bigger the risk of dehydration.

Fortunately one of the local guide notice that we are moving too slow. He hopped around the cliff, without the need of any rope, and perched himself on a rock. He then held the rope to help stabilize it. And the traffic started to improve significantly.

While sitting at the beach with cold drink later that day, I was thinking of how beautiful it is so watch the sunrise above the hill. This will be a feat that can only be achieved if we camp he night before. Well, maybe someday once I get pass my reluctance toward camping.

Camping Ground
The Camping Ground

Big Tree Farm Chocolate Factory Tour

Who doesn’t love chocolate? Men and women, old and toddler, Asian or Caucasian, everybody love chocolate. So, when Grace mentioned about a Chocolate Factory tour at Big Tree Farm, we are all excited. What else that make us excited than a possibility of chocolate tasting?

Big Tree Waroong
The warm hall of Big Tree Farms Chocolate Factory. It is full of sunlight.

Big Tree Farm’s office & factory is at the northern part of Denpasar, around 1 hour from the downtown of Denpasar. At the end of a small road, a big bamboo building appear from the corner. Yes, Big Tree Farm’s office is entirely made from Bamboo.

We arrived a bit late to Big Tree Farm’s factory. The knowledge sharing has started for few minutes, and in the big hall on the third floor, we join a group of teenager from French. I think they are the sons and daughters of French living in Bali.

Chocolate Knowledge
Open air hall at Big Tree Farm’s Factory. This is where we have our chocolate knowledge sharing session

The knowledge sharing session shares about the process of Chocolate production. First, Chocolate Pods were plucked from the trees. The pods then cut in half, and the beans extracted and fermented. The results are dark hard shell chocolate beans.

Once hardened, the beans are roasted and peeled. Big Tree Farms use cold roasting process, which roast the beans at lower temperature than other factory. The cold roasting process took longer time, but produce beans that is richer in taste, and less bitter from burnt beans. To me, the roasted beans taste much like coffee mixed with chocolate.

The various stages of Chocolate Processing
The various stages of Chocolate Processing

Big Tree Farms packed and sold some of the roasted and peeled beans. Other roasted beans are further crushed into nibs. When mixed with cashew nut, the chocolate nibs become what our guide said as “The most dangerous snacks in the world”. Once you eat it, you will never stop. And she is right.

Chocolate Cashew Nibs
A handful of Chocolate Nibs, mixed with Cashews. Once you eat this, you will never stop.

Some of the Chocolate Nibs goes into packaging to be sold, and other goes to the next production stage: milling. In this process, the Chocolate Nibs is further crushed with heavy wheels. This process extracts the essential oil in the beans, resulting in paste-like chocolate. During the tour, we are shown with the gigantic milling machine.

Chocolate Mill
Chocolate Milling Machine, crushing Chocolate Nibs and producing Chocolate Paste

The Chocolate Paste from milling process is then packed and sold, or further separated into two product: Chocolate Powder, and Chocolate Butter.

At the end of knowledge sharing, we went for a tour through the factory. We can see the part of factory where they roast the chocolate, mill, or even further process the chocolate paste into finished product, such as chocolate bar. Unfortunately, the production was pretty much done for the day

Don’t forget to buy some finished Chocolate Product to take home. The whole knowledge sharing and tour took close to 2 hours. And we think that, those 2 hours are well spent for a different kind of experience in Bali.

For more info, please visit Big Tree Farms's Website.