Briançon to Brunissard – D23

Briançon to Brunissard. Day 23.

You’d never guess we’ve just had two complete days and three nights off in Briançon. If you’d watched me inching my way up to the the Col des Ayes you’d be forgiven for thinking, ‘Poor thing! He’s on his chin strap. And that great big bloke with him seems to be cruelly pushing the pace, despite carrying 22kgs on his back.’

You’d be right. Two days off seems to have had exactly the opposite effect. Instead of leaping up the mountain this morning, chamois-like, I was more like Brian the Snail. Legs felt like lead. Richard was thanking me for setting such a moderate pace. But the truth is, I couldn’t go any faster if I’d wanted to.

We’d started off well enough in the cool of the morning. The GR5 south out of Briançon describes a somewhat erratic and drunken path up and over a spur and then inexplicably switches back. All that height you’ve gained is lost as the path takes you back down into the valley. There’s nothing more depressing than expending energy to gain height only to lose it needlessly. We might just as well have tabbed a couple of kilometres down the main road and picked up the GR5 at Villard-St.-Pancrace, whereupon it hooks south into a steeply wooded valley that leads inexorably to the Col des Ayes – the gateway to the Queyras Natural Park. A quick look at Paddy Dillon’s graphics from Trekking the GR5 by Cicerone best illustrates this somewhat erratic start:

The Col des Ayes sits at 2,477m, so we were climbing steadily for over 15kms and gaining almost 1,500m. At the 10km point we were averaging 4.1kmh, which is pretty good, but as the path broke out of the fir tree forest that always precedes any route to a col, it steepened as we approached the col and we both felt a little lethargic. Our overall pace had dropped to 3.7kmh.

We’d been cracking along until we stopped for iced teas at Chalets des Ayes, an idyllic spot where three horses worked in close cooperation switching their tails back and forth to keep the flies out of each other’s eyes. Initially, I thought, ‘why are these three horses standing so closely together nose-to-bum?’ But, as I watched them it suddenly dawned on me that they were all flicking their tails in each other’s faces and keeping the flies out of their eyes. How clever is that!

But then it was time to push on to the Col des Ayes and, perhaps because we’d stopped and relaxed just as we’d been getting into our stride, it became hard to pick it up again and we never recovered the momentum. So, we kind of staggered to the top of the col rather than springing onto it triumphantly.

But, the views, as ever, were spectacular, both from the direction we’d come in (first picture below) and the direction we were going towards (second picture below).

We decided to take another breather. It was only 1.15pm and our destination, Brunissard, was only about 7kms away in the valley below – all downhill. So, why rush?

I fired up the Jetboil and made a delicious half-litre of tea with lemon. I’d bought a large lemon in Briançon with a view to having lemon tea, which in my view is much more refreshing than contaminating it with milk, or worse still, condensed milk.

While at the col I noticed that Tami Eiserer had posted up on Facebook a whole load of pictures of a tour of the Moscow metro I’d had a hand in providing for some of Fox Sports personnel during our coverage of the FIFA World Cup there earlier in the summer. It was strange to see these pictures as my mind had been wandering back there quite often during this walk, thinking about Raiya.

Once in a blue moon in this life you meet someone who is really exceptional. I can’t quite put my finger on why. But, you just know that there is something about them that is unusual and different. They have a presence or light about them that is almost magnetic.

Almost at the start of the Fox Sports’ deployment to Russia in late May, we’d been given a ‘dark day’ – a day off, more or less – one Sunday. One of the staff, Lauren Selman, shared and interest in rowing and asked if I’d be interested in going with her to the international rowing festival. So, off we went, on a Sunday morning only to discover that it wasn’t international at all. All six lanes had Russian teams. No prizes for guessing who won (and who lost). So we bailed out of that and took the Metro up to Izmailovsky market to join some of the others. It’s a vast flea market almost at the outskirts of Moscow. Most tourists eventually gravitate to this Mecca to tat. It’s where you can pick up stuff that would cost much more in the tourist shops in the centre. It’s the done thing to haggle there. It’s that kind of place – selling all sorts from badges, fur hats, wooden dolls to Soviet era flight suits, commie flags, militaria, carpets etc. etc.

In the main part, near the entrance, your nose will lead you to a series of BBQ pits worked over by a group of cheerful Asiatic men grilling all manner of meats. Behind them is a kind of rickety wooden multi-story ‘restaurant’ (I use the word really loosely) structure that wouldn’t pass a health and safety inspection in a million years. But it has a kind of ghastly charm – more like a Wild West saloon minus the hookers. Wooden, rickety, uneven and slightly chaotic.

So, famished, Lauren and I ordered kebabs and went upstairs and waited for them to be delivered. It was then that I noticed this little old lady, no more than 4′ tall, dressed in a blue nylon coverall, moth-eaten trainers, scarf and wearing thick glasses – the epitome of a Russian babushka. It was hard to place her age. Perhaps 60s, or 70s. But, she bustled about purposefully, fussing attentively over the tourists. Even though they didn’t understand her, I did and could see she was really trying hard to make them comfortable. When she wasn’t doing that she was wiping down the tables, removing rubbish. She was doing a totally crappy job with remarkable cheerfulness and attentiveness to customers in what was in effect a bit of a shit hole. She just had something about her that is hard to describe.

And she fussed over us magnificently. When I spoke to her in Russian she immediately became animated. ‘How long have your worked here?’ I asked. She waved a hand scolding me said, ‘I don’t count that kind of thing.’ She just had the most amazingly positive attitude about everything – her country, her president, her job. She added so much value to our meal that I gave her 500 Roubles at the end. She tried to give it back saying it was more than her pay, but we made her take it. 500 Roubles is about £6! It made me wonder how someone could do such a thankless job for so little but with so much enthusiasm and evident care for the customers. She’d completely won us over. Her name is Raiya.

Over the following two months we’d occasionally return to the market at the weekends, always hopeful of seeing Raiya in action. And, boy, was she a mover-shaker! Not only did she sort out the customers, but she’d be seen stalking around the BBQ pit area occasionally ticking off the young Asiatic cooks, berating them for some slackness or misdemeanour.

At the end of our time in Russia some of us had a whip round. We collected probably more than a year’s wages and put it all into an envelope. Izmailovsky market also partially opens on Wednesdays and the kebab area also works on that day. On my last Wednesday, John Moore, the Vice President of Environmental Health and Safety and I went up there, hopeful we’d see Raiya. Fortunately, she was there. We had a kebab. She did her usual fussing about and I gave her the envelope and said she wasn’t to open it until she got home and that it was a present from us all for looking after us so well. And then we left.

I often think of Raiya and how she does such a thankless job so wonderfully. So, if you happen to find yourself in Moscow and at a loose end on a Saturday, Sunday or Wednesday, take a ride on the dark blue line up to Partizanskaya Metro station. When you get out of the station turn left and look for the big windmill, head for it and you’ll soon come to the entrance of Izmailovsky market. Then just follow your nose and you’ll find Raiya there. You won’t be disappointed. She’ll make your day.

Curious, the thoughts you have while sweating up some French mountain.

After the brew on the Col des Ayes, we had a leisurely stroll down to Brunissard at the top of a stunningly beautiful valley. By 3pm we’d found our gite, washed our clothes and hung them out to dry.

Tomorrow is a bit of a pig of a day to Ceillac. Two ascents, with the longest in the afternoon. 25kms. But, we’re looking forward to seeing Phil Neame and Godfrey McFall in the evening and embarking on the last thirteen days together.

Stay tuned!

Today’s Vital Statistics: