Category Archives: Travel and life / Utazás és élet

The Danes 5 – Working hours and work ethics

Danes at work 

So here we are again. While the rest of Europe is witnessing heavy storms and even snow in certain parts (in the middle of May I might add) good old Vikingia is witnessing ‘extremely’ good weather with 20 C temperatures and only partly cloudy skies.

This also means that the average Dane’s work drive  decreases proportionately with the rise of temperatures. But I guess that goes for everyone.

So when do Danes work, how much and most of all how do they work? Given that I work in the public sector, in academia, my observations might be one sided. However, some general observations can still be made by talking to other people and looking around in town.

When and how much do Danes work?

There used to be a saying when I was interning in Brussels ‘Nothing happens in Brussels before 10 o’clock’. And boy it was true. Most of the people started working or arriving to work at half past 9 am, staying in the office till 6 pm. It might sound like 8 and a half hours but one forgets the 1.5 hour long lunch break. Brussels followed the more French way of beginning work late, leaving work in the evening with a nice lunch/siesta in the middle.

The Danes are more used to the 8 am – 16 pm set-up. However, it is sometimes rare to find someone in the office at 8 am. Most of the people arrive around half past 8 and by 4 pm they are long gone. There is also a half an hour lunch break which unlike in Brussels, is kept really short. While in Brussels this is the time to pig out, and eat well, in Denmark most Danes eat a sandwich (or rye bread with lever paté, rugbrød med leverpostej) and keep the lunch break as short as possible.

leverpostej på rugbrød

If there is a meeting, Danes are quite punctual but I would not say that they are as punctual as Swiss. There is a general sense of being a bit laid back.

Like all around Western Europe the average working hours per week are decreasing. The average Dane works 35-37 h/week and unlike the workaholic Americans, they do quit the office before 4 pm (on Fridays before 3 pm). Also, Danes have a considerable amount of paid holidays as well as a lot of useless small public work-free days, such as Constitution Day (Grundlovsdag), Pentecost, Prayer Day (really???) and so on. If such a day falls on a Thursday or Tuesday, you bet that someone will have a nice long weekend taking Friday or Monday off as well. Also, given that a lot of jobs require a laptop, many Danes sometimes don’t even show up, as they are ‘working’ from home. Let’s believe that they do so.

One might ask how they can work so few hours but have such high wages. Well several explanations exist. The first one is that Danes are really efficient and they do the same work in less amount of time. Ammm…..Neeeaaahhhhh… The second explanation might be that most of the work has been done by their forefathers who set down a well-functioning system in the 60s and 70s and this generation is enjoying the benefits of a system where you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. A third explanation has to do with modern globalized economies. Many Western economies are the heads of economic octopuses that stretch their tentacles to many other countries. Let’s think of major/global Danish companies such as Tuborg, Carlsberg, Grundfos, Vestas etc. If as a company you manage to outsource the shitty work to low paying countries but keep the office jobs in your country, then you can afford to have well-paid office jobs in the home country and the taxes paid by these companies will produce great revenue in the home state.

I think the answer is all the above three combined, with the last two explanations being the key factors for high wages and low working hours. From what I have seen, I can say that there are people with way better working efficiency. Tough luck for us Eastern Europeans who have a 50 year old communist draw back and a 20 year old ‘transition’ period filled with Western privatizations and corrupt politicians.

Also, speaking at least from my experience as an inhabitant of the second biggest Danish city, the city dies after 6 pm. Yes, you got me right. After 6 o’clock it is muerto! The buses all of a sudden come as often as the Halley’s comet. Most supermarkets close by 8 pm and boutiques, stores close by 5 pm. Oh, and good luck finding a bank or public office open after 4 pm. This is extremely frustrating (plus a lot of shops are closed on Sundays) if you come from a place where you are used to non-stop shops, late opening hours etc.

How do Danes work?

If you ask an international person, the questions can vary but most will ask you. ‘What? Danes work?’. Like I said, the laid back attitude and the low amount of working hours and early closing times create the impression, that well, Danes don’t work. What I can say is that they have the best free-time/work ratio in the world; meaning that every Dane has enough time to go to work and has enough time for family, friends and hobbies. And I must admit, I do respect them for this, as you also have time to enjoy life.

hygge

But I think you can do this once your society has reached a point where the roads are built, the universities are well functioning, the hospitals are clean, the politicians are less/least corrupt. Once you have this stability, then you can work less and enjoy life. But try explaining this to a guy in India or a guy from Eastern Europe, that chillax dude. Life is good! Quite simply, a society can afford to be laid back, after some previous generations have busted their asses to reach that stage.

Another good thing in the work mentality is that any type of work is respected. Back home, you are a respectable citizen if you are a lawyer, doctor, architect. Here it is different. As long as it is honest work, it is accepted and not looked down upon. Also, the hierarchical relationship is latently present, but the boss-employee relationship is a lot more horizontal.

A thing, which I find weird and probably not as good for the individual, is the lack of support given to excellence. Due to the overly egalitarian Danish society, sometimes people who are more talented than others don’t receive any recognition for this. It is considered quite impolite, almost bragging, if you talk about a good result you’ve achieved at work. Sometimes it is more important to attend the common ‘group’ social activities than one’s ‘individual achievements’. I do personally feel that the Danes are not the most competitive of people and in general are not used to the more competitive and ‘let me climb up the ladder’ attitude of most foreign employees.

So there you have it, the Danish working hours and work mentality with its ups and downs. Would you like working like this?

The Danes 4 – ‘Small talk’ and Danes – two parallels which can’t even intersect in the Bolyai type of hyperbolic space

chiacchierare

‘When in Rome, do like the Romans do’ or so they say. As you have probably guessed by now, the Danes are a particular bunch, even among other Scandinavians. I will focus today on whether Danes are familiar with the concept of ‘small talk’.

Everyone knows what ‘small talk’ is. The Italians love it and call it chiacchiera(re – if it is a vb), although besides chatting, it might also mean gossiping. I would say that the best at gossiping are 70 year old rural grannies in Transylvania sitting in front of their porch. Here I only want to write about the type of chatting, when you bump into someone and stop for a couple of minutes to catch-up and exchange a couple of benign words. You know, small talk. I personally cannot stand gossip and gossipers.

Well, apparently Danes are not really familiar with ‘small talk’. For example, if I bump into an Italian friend or acquaintance I consider it rude not to ask that person, how he’s doing or what has he/she been up to. And this is how a small conversation of several minutes starts and becomes what we call ‘small talk’.

I noticed at work that Danes never stop for a two minute catch-up. You can work with the same guy on a corridor for over a year and when you pass him, the only thing you will get is a bleak ‘Hi’ which has to be followed by an equally bleak ‘Hi’. At the beginning you think that maybe they don’t like you, or you are awkward, weird, or maybe they don’t like immigrants? But then you realize that they do this among themselves as well.

So I decided to do a little experiment at one point. I was already working in the same place for over 6 months and to be honest was quite annoyed by this whole ‘Hi’-‘Hi’ thing. So at one point, when one of my colleagues said ‘Hi’, I stopped and asked him ‘Well, how are you on this fine morning?’ What followed reminded me off the typical weirdo guy in school, who sits in the back of the class and when you approach him, doesn’t know what to say. Or maybe, the 15 year old kid who gets to speak to the love of his life for the first time, but whatever comes out of his mouth is just wrong. I was amazed to see that grown-up people in their 40s suddenly could not find a word to say.

I could already see the scenario in his head ‘Oh Gosh! Oh Gosh! Should I say I am fine? Or amm, the weather is nice or amm….’ And this is how you end up with the most weird conversation of ‘well the weather was nice in the weekend and I was at a BBQ on Saturday’, skipping the part where you have to say ‘Fine, thank you. What about you?’ and after that I would ask ‘So what have you been up to this weekend?’

After this I did the same ‘empirical’ research with several other colleagues and got equally awkward answers. Danes simply don’t small talk for a couple of minutes. If you have something to say to them it has to relate to your work or they might come to your office to ask you a favor, about work of course. Or you might convince one of them to join you at the Friday Bar (it is a more rare occasion than spotting an extinct Dodo bird), although he/she will probably leave in 1 h, because many ‘important’ things need to be done, such as probably vacuuming on the wive’s orders.

So my dear Danes, I am trying to bridge this social gap but it doesn’t seem to work with ‘small talk’. Next time, we’ll look at how to become a ‘member of the group’.

The Key to Danish Happiness

In my previous post I wrote about the Scandinavian success model and this time I thought of writing about Danish happiness. According to the 2013 Forbes list for the happiest countries in the world, Denmark ranks second in the world after Norway and followed by Sweden. “Well it figures” some might say after reading the last post on the Nordic success model. This list is based on the Legatum Institute’s prosperity index, which analyses 89 factors in 8 categories: economy, entrepreneurship, governance, education, personal health, safety, personal freedom and social capital. These studies follow strict methodological rules and look at factors that are mainly rigid and appear in every possible sociological survey.

Happiness chart

from: http://www.prosperity.com/RankingTable-1.aspx

Last year I heard the speech of a CEO (forgot his name, but remembered the message) and he states that a truly happy person is the one who manages to balance family, friends, health, personal ambitions and the workplace. So I thought of looking at these factors in the Danish context and whether there is more to it than meets the eye.

Family – Without generalizing, the average Danish family follows the Nordic family pattern. Kids start doing side-jobs in their teenage years and the child mostly leaves home at 18, 19 years of age. Of course there are other examples as well. For certain people, coming from cultures where the family is so tight knit, that it becomes suffocating, the Nordic families might strike them as colder. It does not mean that the parents do not care about the kid, but it means that parents realize that the kid needs to become independent and learn to live by him/herself. Of course this is easier in a system with a stable economy, part-time jobs and study-financing. Quite frankly a lot of my 26, 27 year old friends from home still live in the parental home for not having to pay extra rent from the already low salaries.

Friends – As said last time, the Danes have a ‘group mentality’. If you are part of the ‘group’ you are okei, but don’t even plan on going to a party uninvited, as a lost international, because they will ask you rudely to leave (happened to me twice). So yes, they are happy with the friends from the ‘group’, but in general will not make too much effort to open up for others. “We already got our gang. Why do we need someone extra”. This holds also true with how Danes relate to people. I asked my teacher during Danish class, whether she thinks it’s normal to go to a 4 day workshop with Danish colleagues, have a good time, drink etc and the other day they pretend they don’t even know you. The answer was “Why should I care about you the next day, just because we had a good time the day before”. So, you can draw the conclusions.

Personal health – I will not be too critical about the Danes in this regard as in general they do exercise a lot, bike, jog and a lot of middle or third aged people go to the gym. Of course you have plenty of people who don’t and they are known for using too much salt and have a ‘sweet tooth’, but in general they take fairly good care of their personal health.

Personal ambitions and leisure – Now the first part might be a bit of an oxymoron in a society that teaches you not to be better than your peer. So what ‘ambitious’ means for a Dane might mean something completely else to a foreigner. Quite frankly, I find Danish people good at what they do, but not overly ambitious. As to free time, Denmark ranks the 4th in the world on the OECD list when it comes to the ratio between work time and leisure time. And it is true that the average Dane works 35-37 h/ week and has plenty of time for the family and personal hobbies. And a lot of people do have personal hobbies, whether traveling, sailing, running, cycling, sauna clubs etc.

Workplace – Whatever job you do, it will pay extremely well in Nordic countries and will allow anyone to have a decent living. You will not have your brand new Mercedes (especially due to the horrible taxes to register a car) but you will afford yourself many things. As said before, Danes don’t strike me as the most ambitious and this can have repercussions on your work life. Firstly, you should not be too ambitious at work, yet alone talk about it. You should be a bit average and attending common workplace social events are sometimes more important than your personal achievements. I am an ambitious person who needs competition, so the Danish system might be too lax for me. Secondly, Danes are not critical and I do believe that sound and good criticism leads to better work as long as it is not overdone.

But there is something still missing. If you walk down on the streets of Sicily you see smiley faces, people who are fairly warm to you and who have a natural sense of what happiness means. And I think this is where the key lies. Happiness is relative and it depends on what people are used to. The subtleties in life differ from region to region. I am ethnically Hungarian and there is a saying that when God created the Hungarian, he said go enjoy the good things in life. So we like a good wine, a good meal and a hot blooded woman (over generalizing again). But what a Dane finds happy, an Italian might not. To be frank I would call it ‘blissful ignorance’. Quite simply Danes are used to being happy in their own environment, which for others has amazingly bad weather, cold people and tasteless food. So if a Dane was born into this, of course he will be happy with what this country has to offer in terms of weather, food, people plus all the economic factors the afore-mentioned survey listed. However, this will not make an Italian or Hungarian guy happy, who is used to better weather, food and warmer people.

The interesting thing is talking to Danes who lived many years abroad in countries where these three factors are different. They don’t behave like Danes anymore 😉 Once you get the taste of ‘honey’, it stays.

Aarhus, 29 April 2013

The Scandinavian Success Model

nordic council 

When we talk about the Scandinavian region, the first images that probably pop-up in our heads are red bearded Vikings, Swedish supermodels, Finnish mobile phones, the Northern Oil Emirates of Norway, Danish beers and Icelandic geysers. However, there is more to the story. This region, lying between the latitudes where wine is not produced anymore and where polar bears start showing up their furry faces, is one of the most economically stable and prosperous regions. Countries in this area regularly top the charts of human development, education or freedom to conduct business. But why did this region become so successful, given that the climate is harsh, the people cold and grumpy (although the Danes like to boast that they are the happiest on the Planet; just look at their faces on the bus) and the food is not exactly on top of my ‘must eat list’ (unless you prefer liver paté with onions and fish-balls).

Well in order for a society to prosper factors such as natural resources, social cohesion, religion, moral codes, education and so on play an important role. Let’s start with some of them.

a)      Natural resources – When it comes to natural resources, Denmark is not the ‘richest’ of the Northern lands. It is tiny, flat and has a bit of coal, wind for energy and some oil in the North Sea, but not too much. On the other hand, countries like Finland and Sweden are almost the size of or bigger than Germany (which is huge in European terms) and have vast forests, coal, iron and even fairly good agricultural lands in Southern Sweden. But the all-time big winners are the Northern Oil Emirates of Norway. The former underdogs, who were either ruled by the Swedes or the Danes or both, became the 4th biggest producers of petroleum in the world and one of the biggest producers of natural gas. So naturally they became the richest of the five. So the first big factors are natural resources and surface area. As we can see, the tiny and resource scarce Denmark is ‘poorer’ (whatever that means here) than the way larger and oil rich Norway. However, we also forget that the Kingdom of Denmark is still sovereign of the autonomous Greenland and with the opening of the Northern Ice-caps we might just see some Danish oil interests popping up on the shores of Greenland.

b)     Small population, social cohesion and trust – Now, if we check the demographics, Sweden tops the charts with a whopping 9.5 million inhabitants. For a country which is 20% bigger than Germany, it has the population of Paris. Denmark, Norway and Finland follow with their 5.5 million inhabitants, and Iceland has the population of a smaller city (they even have a website where you can check if someone is your relative so you accidentally don’t end up with your cousin after a couple of rounds of beer). Therefore, the amount of resources that these countries have (and they are quite vast) only have to be split among a small number of people. If we look at the current ethnic set-up, around 20% of the people are not Scandinavian (not counting Finland). But this is only due to the last 20-30 years of immigration. The bases of these societies were laid down by small populations, which were ethnically almost homogenous (not counting some Samis up in the north and some Germans in Southern Denmark). Therefore, the number of people and the type of people that had to be convinced to follow a certain social model was quite low. It is easier to convince 3, 4 million people in the 1950s and 60s, belonging to the same ethnic group, to follow a modern type of rich socialism, then to do so in a country of 50 million, which is also ethnically heterogeneous.

The other extremely important element is social trust. I cannot but emphasize how important this is. Some say it is dwindling in the last years, but for a person who comes from a system where the last one you trust is your government, Scandinavian countries are just a different thing. People trust their Government, the Government trusts the people and people trust one another. Given their historically small and homogenous groups, this might explain why trust is so high among people belonging to the group, but so low when it comes to people coming outside of the group. It takes ages until you befriend a Scandinavian, but if you do so, it stays for life. Social trust is also beneficial for business. I was amazed to find out that most business transactions in Denmark are carried out without lawyers and complicated contracts. Therefore, transaction costs are way lower. 

c)      Religion and moral conduct – now you might think why this is important, in societies that are more atheists than religious. Well because a lot of the morals that underline our societies came through religion, whether we admit it or not. And until recently, these countries were not just ethnically but religiously homogenous. Try explaining to someone like me, who comes from a city with 7 historic religious groups that in Scandinavian countries there are still concepts such as state religion, state church etc. The predominant Lutheran, protestant religion had also an effect on the working mentality and moral structure. All protestants know that you have to work hard but then again feel guilty for the wealth you acquired, so you have to give away some of it. The puritan-protestant model can also be seen in the northern states of the US and in general in the northern parts of Europe, which until this day are economically the most developed ones. Minus the catholic Austria and parts of Catholic German Switzerland and Southern Germany. But they are Germans, so quite efficient regardless of religion.

Another unwritten moral code is of course the Jante Laws. This is a set of commandments every good Scandinavian should follow, such as ‘You’re not to think you are anything special; You’re not to think you know more than us.’ It is an extremely important part of Scandinavian morals and society. And this can be seen at the workplace and during education where everyone is given equal chances and opportunities and you cannot boast or brag about your own achievements. You are as good as the ‘group’. Now tell this to a person who was used to always striving for more and being better than the ‘group’ he came from. As good as it is from a societal point of view I have two big comments. Firstly, it dis-favors individuals who excel as they will never get any reward for this. So you might kill excellence. Secondly, this mentality works in the Scandinavian ‘group’ but as anyone who has been living here for a while you will notice that the Scandinavian ‘group’ as such feels better than all the others. So these rules only apply within their group but they will make sure that you know that ‘they’ are better, than ‘you’ (plural).

d)     Education and Innovation – any successful society needs a high level of education and especially Finnish students are among the best in the world. In general Scandinavian youth is well educated and you can talk to them about various topics. This is also backed-up by free education and study-grants which are given to every student, and in countries like Denmark they can amount to 700 euros a month (and are non-refundable). Leaving university one finds that research is seriously backed-up and researchers, post-docs, doctoral fellows are paid proper wages just as any other employee. The principle is quite simple: you cannot create proper research and innovation on an empty stomach. And these countries rank high when it comes to innovation concerning the environment, reforestation, recycling, renewable energies, microbiology and so on.

 

e)      Language – Language is an important factor as well. Let’s not forget that the four Scandinavian languages are all related and at least in a written form Danish, Norwegian and Swedish are mutually understandable. Plus Icelanders learn Danish in school just as Finns learn Swedish. Besides this all Scandinavians speak excellent English (some German and French) so this means that new ideas can be dispersed more quickly and business can be done on a global scale.

f)       Taxes and wealth redistribution – Taxes in all of these countries are quite high if not too high in certain countries like Denmark. People are also taxed progressively so the higher the income the more tax you have to pay. This means that wealth is redistributed at such a level that anyone earning money in one of these countries can have a decent living. This also reflects in the attitude towards work. Scandinavians are proud of any type of work they do, while in other countries certain jobs are looked down on. Besides this, the high amount of taxes provides for free education, study grants, pensions, free health-care and a social net that makes it impossible not to have a decent living. The downside of such an overly generous system is that a lot of free riders can and do abuse the system and earn more money from all sorts of benefits than an actual employed person. Study grants give everyone equal chances at getting a proper education in life but this also means that a certain number of students will ‘stay’ students as long as they can get free money from the state.

g)      International cooperation and trade – Vestas, Grundfos, IKEA, Tuborg, Volvo, Carlsberg, Nokia and Statoil are just some of the internationally renowned Scandinavian businesses. All of these countries rank high when it comes to freedom of doing business and a combination of educated people, speaking foreign languages and innovating researchers, means that such companies can prosper on a global scale, bringing some of the proceeds back home. Also, all five countries are part of the European Economic Zone, three are EU Members and all of them form part of the Nordic Council. This latter means that there is a small EU within the EU and people coming from these 5 countries can easily resettle and work in any other. Besides Finland, the rest of the countries kept their currency (the Danish Kroner is pledged to the euro though) and their banks are not so exposed (not counting Iceland). The Northern Oil Emirates of Norway are even one of the biggest lenders of money, without any sovereign debt. Besides their openness to international trade and cooperation, at least Denmark and Norway are quite good at protecting their own markets, with high-level market entry barriers and quite a bad record on behalf of Denmark with complying with EU rules or opting out of many policy areas. Sweden also has state monopoly on alcohol. So besides their openness to foreign trade, they also keep their Scandinavian reserved character and try protecting the local markets as much as possible.

So there you have it. The countries that 100 years ago were mainly eating herrings and potatoes are now leading global economies. So if you don’t mind the cold and the Scandinavian cold character you might just come to one of these countries, as they seem to cope quite well with the crisis.

Aarhus, 25 April 2013

The Danes 3 – Bureaucracy

Denmark is no exception to bureaucracy, so before you start doing anything, take care of bureaucracy first! It might take a while, but in the end it will work out. Although you might get some white hair during the process

I. THE CPR NUMBER – THE ‘MAGIC PILL’ FOR EVERYTHING

 When moving to Denmark, there are three institutions you need to pay a visit:

aStatsforvaltnings (State management/Registration Office) – in order to legally live in Denmark, non-EU citizens need a ‘residence permit’ and EU citizens, staying for more than 3 or 6 (in case of job seekers) months, need a ‘registration certificate’.

b.  Borgerservice (Citizens Service) – once you have the residence permit/registration certificate you have to go to the town hall in order to get registered and receive the Danish Social Security number (CPR number).

In the same time you will need to choose a General Practitioner and you will receive a ‘yellow card’ (health insurance card) in your mail after 2 weeks

Important – You cannot have a CPR number without the residence permit/registration certificate!!!

The CPR number provides access to your bank account, library, university facilities, public institutions! You need one to exist!

c. SKAT (tax authorities)every person in Denmark has a tax card. For university employees this is withheld by the university, but you still need to register at SKAT.

d. International Citizens Service !!!there is a brand new ONE STOP OFFICE in Aalborg, Aarhus and Copenhagen, where there is a representative from all three above mentioned institutions and you do all your paperwork in 1 day!!

Be aware that if you do not choose ICS the whole procedure can take up to 1 month, a period in which you cannot open a bank account, and thus have no salary

II. BANK ACCOUNT – NO ACCOUNT NO SALARY

–          In Denmark you can only open a bank account, once you have your CPR number!
–          It takes approximately 5-10 working days to open a bank account
–          All information will be received by post (PIN number, cards etc.)
–          You shall also receive a NEM ID, which is a set of codes you will use to login to your bank account or when taking care of bureaucracy matters online (tax, registration etc.)
–          Be aware that in the first 3 months you will only get a provisional card which in many cases is not accepted in all places!!!
–          Only after the bank is sure that you are here to stay for a longer period of time (generally they look at whether you have received at least three salaries) you may apply to get a VISA DANKORT, which is accepted everywhere
–          Opening a bank account at Danske Bank costs 300 DKK (40 euros) which shall be deducted from you first salary
–          The two most widely used banks in Denmark are Danskebank and Nordea
–          Every employed person in Denmark has a mandatory NEM Konto (account) which means that the authorities can check your account when there is suspicion of tax fraud.

III.  EMPLOYMENT CONTRACT AND SALARY

–          Make sure you give your CPR number to the salary department and make sure they note it down correctly → in Denmark the authorities know your account (NEM Konto) by simply providing them your CPR number
–          the salary arrives on the last working day of the month
–          the amount stated in the contract is the gross amount – for.e.g. at a PhD level the overall taxes and contributions for the gross amount shall be around 42%

IV. CHANGING THE ADDRESS

 –          When you have changed your address you will need to notify this to the Borgerservice because you will receive a new yellow card
–          It is possible to do it online or by simply going there
–          You will also need to go to the Post office and fill out a form with your old and new address

Aarhus, 16 Nov 2012

 

Climbing the highest point in Europe. Mt. Elbrus (5642 m) – Part 2 – “Where has the oxygen gotten to?”

The hotel accommodation was more than a big surprise upon our arrival. After 3 days on the road, spent in 40 degrees of South Ukrainian and Russian heat, any minimum form of civilization was welcomed. Instead we got more than we were hoping for. A 4 star hotel with free meals, nice beds and what we haven’t seen for a couple of days; hot showers. We ate and went up to our room to celebrate our arrival with a bottle of wine from home. Soon enough our guide, Dima, appeared, a guy straight out of the Russian story books. A man without a clear image of where he actually comes from (from all parts of Russia, according to his own account), living somewhere in the forest. A freelance guide and climber, who climbs Mt. Elbrus 15-20 times a season and as we soon found out, drinks a form of fermented local milk (with more than an abundant amount of salt and pepper) and is able to casually smoke at 5000 m.

The plan was laid out before us, in a mix of Russian, English, sign language and occasional moments of double guessing whether this guy will actually be responsible for our lives up there. The plan was simple. The first two nights we would spend at the hotel, with one day for acclimatization between them. Then we would go on the Mountain, have 3 days of further acclimatization and attempt to reach the summit on the fourth one.

Day 1

The first day started as in a fairytale. We woke up at 7.30 am, had a good night rest and a wonderful breakfast. The day’s goal was Cheget peak at 3600 m, an initial acclimatization climb. The gear we needed was also quite light. Hiking boots (I took my La Sportiva Nepal Extremes, which are proper insulated mountain boots and handled the job easily), shorts, a base layer and a raincoat. We also managed to meet our group of eight people, only two of us being non-Russian speakers.

The climb itself to Cheget peak was quite easy but with stunning scenery. We managed to mingle a bit with the rest of the group and also have some linguistic talks with our guide, Dima, who turned out to be quite skilled in the theory and history of languages. One of our team-members already showed signs that the summit will be something almost unreachable for him. But he persevered to do the first day’s walk. Our view of Elbrus was overshadowed by a layer of clouds and mist which made our descent quite wet and forced us to spend an hour in a small restaurant/outpost where a good glass of wine and tea, with some Russian soup made the stay quite enjoyable.

The air above 3000m is already thin and you can feel the change in altitude. Your body gets more easily fatigued but physical activity is not yet too strenuous, so any normal, healthy human being can do a climb till 3600 m.

Day 2

The second day also began with good breakfast at the hotel and packing. We packed up all our equipment with the food provided by the agency and headed to the cable cars. The cable car journey is an adventure in itself. It is done in two steps. The first ride is quite pleasant if you manage to get one of the new cable cabins. The second leg of the journey is a whole different story. Single, old, rusty, commy chairs hanging on a piece of wire provide the ride. You have to jump on them and then secure yourself with a metal rod 😀 The cable car system takes you from 2000 m to around 3600 m. Our initial enthusiasm declined a bit with the amount of clouds and rain that followed us through our cable car ascent. From the end point, we packed all our luggage on a snow-cat which took us to 3750m, and our NOT 4 star accommodation, the Azau barracks 😀

The barracks are what they are supposed to be; old containers, pinned on some rocks. The toilet is an outpost, hanging on the edge of a cliff. The journey to the toilet is an adventure itself, so I recommend not using it in the dark, as you might end up with a twisted ankle or who knows, at the bottom of the cliff. There are three barracks, which can accommodate 8 people each. Electricity is only available between 9-11 pm, a time when almost everyone is fast asleep (or trying). There is a fourth barrack where two women cook for the teams and there are also two long dining tables. The food is simple but definitely does the job. The ladies cook well and put everything on the table, that your body needs in the upcoming days. It is recommended to eat dairy products and meat, and also drink plenty of fluids while not yet climbing.

Day 3

We started our third day with an early rise and proper breakfast. We had to gear up for our first day of acclimatization. The day’s goal was to reach 4200 m in elevation and then come back to the barracks. For this climb you already need crampons, proper mountain boots and walking poles. I wore a base layer and a fleece on top. I used a base-layer and gore-tex trousers for my legs. It is advisable to have a balaclava or a face mask, due to the risk of having sun burns. For my feet, I had a first layer of thin socks and a second layer of warm socks. You also need a first layer of gloves, but mittons are not yet needed. For extra assurance, it is also good to have a gore-tex jacket when you stop or if the weather changes. The weather conditions were excellent. The sky definitely cleared out and we managed to see the summit in the distance.

Whenever you climb, a small back-pack is enough. Some chocolate and a thermos of tea or water is a must! Don’t even think of doing even an acclimatization walk without a thermos. It is also better if the water is warm, as cold water makes you sweat more.

Our group had a steady rhythm. Dima dictated the rhythm, which is one step one breath. At the end of the walk the terrain gets a bit steeper. There are also occasional water streams in the snow and small cracks. Try avoiding them. The temperature is close to 0 C in the summer, so do not worry too much.

We did the climb and came back to the barracks by mid-afternoon. The appetite at this altitude changes and many climbers either do not feel hungry or eat less than usual. Sleeping is also a challenge. My first night was delirium tremens in its fullest 😀 If you have ever been high and sleeping afterwards, this is definitely the feeling. Your body is adapting to the lack of oxygen, so sleeping can be tricky, and by most you will manage to actually sleep just a couple of hours.

Day 4

An early rise, a heavy breakfast, water in the thermos and the daily packed lunch (a fruit, chocolate, biscuits, a small sandwich). The day’s goal was to reach 4800 m, the upper part of a place called “The Rocks” and then descent to our barracks. The difference in altitude was already 1000 m, and the air at almost 5000 m is much thinner than at sea level. For this day I took double gloves and an extra fleece. I only used the gore-tex jacket when stopping or when descending.

The group had an excellent rhythm, with few stops but a steady pace. On the steep section, Dima, also did the classic “S” type walking, where you slowly wind yourself up the slope, instead of going frontal. It is less tiring and you can do the climb without having to constantly stop (and freeze :D). At 4800m the daily temperature was slightly below freezing. We were also told how to use the ice-axes in case we fall and we had a general instructions session (mainly in Russian, but by this time we got used to the fact that people in Russia think that everyone speaks their language; especially “the English speaking” guide provided by the company).

By this time the body definitely feels the lack of oxygen and every movement slows down. To make things worse, the last section of this walk is more than steep and can be a bit excruciating. On our way down everyone was left to descent in his own pace. At this point Hunor got a bit ill, as his body took some time to adapt. He instantly fell asleep in the barracks but managed to fully recover.

We also had a group gathering and decided to skip another day of acclimatization, due to fears that the weather might change on the day we initially decided to summit. So with one day less of acclimatization, we decided to go to bed early, as at 2 am we had to wake up and get ready for the summit.

Day 5

The alarm went off at 2 am. We all woke up feeling exhausted. None of us managed to sleep well. Also the idea hit us, that this is what we came for. So we had to make it right. We silently had breakfast and filled our thermoses. Luck had it that both Hunor and I had our ‘periods’. Both of us blew our noses and due to an already high blood pressure at this height, the blood vessels in our noses ruptured. Not exactly an ideal way to start a climb, with a make-shift paper ‘tampon’ in our noses. There was an eerie silence in the group. We all knew that 10 h of heavy climb will be needed to reach the summit and then several hours to descend. We put our harnesses and carabineers on as well. I personally put 1 layer of thin socks and 2 layers of thick socks. I also put one base layer pants, a fleece layer of pants and the outer gore-tex one. I put two base-layers, 1 fleece and the gore-tex jacket. I also had an extra layer of fleece in my backpack. Double gloves, face-mask and warm hat.

The temperature in the morning at 4500 m plummeted to -15/-17 C. The winds also picked up as well. We turned our headlights on and continued the climb. The best way to walk this section is by using the “S” type, due to the steepness of the slope. If anyone thinks this is child’s splay, this is the time when it is recommended to turn back. The member of the group, who had problems with the first walk to Cheget Peak, didn’t try to summit and the wife of one of the guys turned back at this point. What ensues from 4500 m and until you reach the saddle between the two peaks is a good couple of hours of grueling and painful climb. The most strained parts of the body are the lower legs. Our nose-bleed was still in a semi-operational phase 😀 and the air is as thin as it gets. Before reaching the saddle I had the toughest moment of the climb, where I simply dropped in the snow and could not move for 5 minutes. My mind was blank and there wasn’t any clear thought I could grasp. It really is a matter of mental strength and determination to do the remaining climb from this point onwards.

Elbrus has two peaks. We took the southern route, which passes by the first peak (on the right), then goes down to the saddle and follows up to the second peak (the higher one, on the left).

The saddle is the part where your body is given the opportunity to rest. The route slightly descends and it is advisable to sit down and rest before attempting the last leg of the trip. We set down in the snow and instantly fell asleep. We got up again at 10 am and geared up for the last part. Sasha, our second guide, took the lead while Dima set up the ropes for the descent. The guides know the mountain and told us to reach the summit in 2-3 hours, as the weather was about to change (even if it is completely sunny). The first part after the saddle is remarkably steep. The first 1,5 h have to be done on this section.

This is followed by a plateau and on the plateau you can spot a small hill, which is the highest peak. By this time we were so weak, that even the idea of the summit did not give us extra energy. Step-by-step we went ahead. 10 m before reaching the summit, we grabbed our shoulders with Hunor and summited together. This is the moment when a grown-up man is allowed to cry and the moment I cannot describe, even if I tried. Everything comes together and suddenly makes sense. You can barely move but you feel a deep sense of happiness, mixed with the knowledge of one’s self.

Making the summit is only half the deal. One must also descend from it. And our descent was met by an incoming snow storm. Dima made the preparations and hooked us to the ropes which were put on the side of the first peak. We slowly descended and re-grouped in the saddle. After resting, Dima took the lead and tied us together. We took the ice-axes in our left hands and one walking pole in our right ones. The path was narrow, and the slopes steep, so any slip could mean a long slide to the bottom, with almost zero visibility. We did an agonizing descent till 4800 m, when several members of the group started quarelling in Russian with Dima. We stood there with Hunor not understanding what was happening and I yelled at all of them to explain what the hell was happening. Several found that being tied together after the steep section was useless. So we untied ourselves and did the following section like this, in conditions of minimum visibility. One of the guy’s knees started failing so we called a snow-cat. We waited for the snow-cat to pick us up at around 4300 m, where we celebrated our climb with half a liter of coca-cola, which Hunor found in the snow.

Day 6

After our climb we slept like angels for the first time. 12 hours straight, without even going to the toilet (hazardous to our lives). We packed up and went to the cable cars. The ride down was a mix of accomplishment and nostalgia that the best part of the adventure was over.

We rested at the hotel and went in the evening to have a victory dinner. Dima came completely shit-faced and handed out our certificates. We ate good local food, drank vodka and wine and left Dima dancing on the table with the waitress. Not even the Russians could handle our Hungarian Pálinka, and quoting one of our Russian friends, “it feels like baby Jesus is walking on my veins”.

One last night at the hotel and another long and strenuous drive back home.

Some important things to know

–          Do not underestimate any mountain! Above 5000 m the weather conditions are extreme and without proper acclimatization, you can have brain or lung damage.

–          Always have enough fluids in a thermos but do not drink too much during the climb

–          Try walking the steep section in the “S” style as you will not stop so many times and expose your sweaty body to the cold

–          For the summer climb, a pair of Nepal La Sportiva Extremes or any boots in this range (one guy even did it in Scarpa Mantas) is sufficient. You do not need plastic boots, although the most commonly used plastic boots were the good old Scarpa Vegas/Invernos. Just make sure your boot has a layer of Thinsulate or Gore-tex if you are not using plastic ones. It also has to be crampon compatible with a fast locking system (so rigid soles)

–          Have at least 4 days of acclimatization before you summit. It is a high mountain and the biggest danger to the body is the lack of oxygen. By the time you reach the summit you will feel like a vegetable anyways.

–          Try sleeping, even if sometimes it is impossible, and eat as much as you can before doing the climbs. During the climb do not eat too much and drink too much. You will feel like vomiting constantly so it is also difficult to eat or drink.

–          Due to the poor hygiene of the toilets, we did not do number 2 for over four days 😀

–          With the proper equipment, guides and days for acclimatization, any normal, healthy individual can do it, who also exercises regularly during the year

Climbing the highest point in Europe. Mt. Elbrus (5642 m) – Part 1 – “Boss need little present”

So here we are. Back home after a 4800 km long journey through several ex-Soviet countries (some of them not even recognized). We did what we went there to do. On the 1st of August 2012, at 12 o’clock we managed to summit Mt. Elbrus, the highest point in Europe at 5642 m.

The journey itself was an adventure that deserves a couple of words.

As any “properly planned” trip, ours started with not being able to find Hunor’s (the lead driver’s) license. No problem – so we said – mine should be enough for the both of us. The bags were packed, part of Hunor’s equipment had not arrived yet and with plenty of food we set out for what was to become a daunting couple of days on the road.

In Romania, nothing much happened. Partly good, partly bad roads. Lots of winding roads through the mountains, and hills, and plains and we reached the Moldavian border in the afternoon. The plan was to reach Odessa (Ukraine) by nightfall and overnight there. The Moldavian border control asked for Hunor’s license. We simply said we lost it and I had to cross the border, so nothing too much to worry about. The Romanian they spoke in Moldova was a funny mix of Romanian with Russian words and a Russian accent.

Moldova in itself did not offer too much. It is one of Europe’s poorest countries, the roads can range from good to horrible and the small towns and villages are quite run down. The excitement started when after almost an hour of driving from Chisinau we stumbled upon the first Russian army tank and a “Stop” sign in red. ‘Dammit’– we thought. It looks like this whole Transnistrian thing is alive and kicking. For those who do not know yet, the eastern side of Moldova (Transnistria) is an unrecognized, de facto independent country with its own currency, leadership and heavily protected borders. We were stopped by two heavily armed Russian soldiers and we were told to follow a small road (probably used by tanks) to get to the border control.

By this time Hunor was driving again, and just before the border control a police officer stopped us, telling us in Romanian that we did not see the “Stop” sign. ‘Stop sign? Where?’ – we asked. ‘There’ – the police officer said pointing at nothing. So we looked at each other. Hunor slipped a 10 dollar bill in our passports and miraculously the problem got solved; with the condition, that the other driver (me) had to drive through Transnistria.

The border control was yet to start. Our passports and car papers were handed over to several Russian speaking soldiers and officials. Everyone spoke only in Russian; they sometimes laughed and sometimes looked serious. The bottom line was that another 5 dollar bill was slipped into someone’s pocket. The advice followed as well – go ahead and do not stop. We drove slowly in one of Europe’s strangest regions, where the statue of ‘comrade’ Lenin still stands tall and the ‘unknown’ worker’s memorial is the central park’s main attraction. But we must hand it to these transnistrians. Their women are drop dead gorgeous!

There is a strange feeling in the air when going through Transnistria. You have the feeling that someone is permanently watching you and people are reluctant to speak to foreigners, either because they do not speak the language or not too many outsiders pass through (or maybe Big Brother is watching them?).

We continued our journey towards the next border control with the Ukraine. For those travelling for the first time in such a region, you are not given a passport, but a paper (everything in Russian) is stamped instead and you will have to hand in this paper when getting out of the “country”. This however seemed easier said than done. Before entering the Ukraine, we had to go through the same routine; military personnel and officials taking our passports, checking our car, speaking only Russian and our passports ‘disappearing’ in different buildings. We thought everything was over when they told us to pull over and go into ‘the office’.

Comrades ‘Igor’ and ‘Sasha’ were sitting at a table and looking suspiciously at our passports. One of them was pointing to the stamped papers and was asking us, where are our papers? We explained to him in a semi-English, semi sign language that they took it from us. ‘Igor’ and ‘Sacha’ looked at each other and then looked at us. Noo…They? They did not take it. We do not have the papers, well, then we can go back straight to Moldova. ‘Igor’ looked at Hunor’s sunglasses. ‘Mafia! You are mafia.’ – he said. ‘Two boys travelling together, uh?’ – and he showed the sign of two homosexuals. We looked at them and started speaking in Hungarian, just to frustrate them as well.

They told Hunor to leave the room. So here I was with two corrupt transnistrian officials and our passports in their hands. ‘Igor’ pulled me aside and miraculously he knew what to say in English. ‘You know. Boss good man. He need little present’. I looked at him. ‘How much? 20 euros?’. He looked at me with his disgusting smile. ’20 euros? No! No! 50 euros’ and started laughing. I told him we are students and we do not have that money. He looked at me again and said ‘No money? Nice computer in car, nice boots. You have money’. In the meantime Hunor came in and asked me in Hungarian what they want. I told him they want 50 euros. Hunor started swearing in Hungarian, but keeping his normal tone. ‘You two mother fucking pieces of shit. You should go and f..”. I nearly cracked up, when one of them asked me. ‘He speak good or bad?’. I responded, nearly bursting out of laughter. ‘He speak very good. Transnistria great nation.’

There was not much to do. They wouldn’t budge for less than 50, so we gave them the big bill and we got our passports back. Luckily the Ukrainians were slightly more civilized and we were on our way to Odessa. But surprise in Odessa. The hostel we booked (‘The Fat Swan’) was nowhere to be found and no one picked up the phone. So after an hour of searching and people speaking no English, we found a cheap hotel, with a bathroom the size of a toilet.

We woke up early in the morning and took the great Ukrainian sun-flower fields, so we could reach Rostov in Russia (810 km away) and overnight at one of the couchsurfers. Luck was not on our side though. We reached the Ukrainian-Russian border by 9 pm and thought that we will have an easy passage.

It took us an hour to get through the Ukrainian check and we waited another hour in ‘no men’s land’. Before entering the Russian passport control we filled out all necessary documents, we got the stamps but Mr. ‘Vanja’, a Fat old F..ck (F.o.F., in other words a corrupt, bored customs official) had other plans.

Before leaving, Hunor translated his own delegation in Russian, saying that the company car we drove in is delegated by the company to himself. The translator messed up the birth year of 1984 with 2012. Everything else was the same. And Mr. F.o.F. Vanja managed to spot the “big problem”. He looked at us and pointed back to the Ukraine. We started arguing, even slipped a 40 dollar bill in the passports but he threw them back. He said he needs a correct paper. We bagged him to let us fax something, but to no avail. We asked the passport control whether we can still cross into Russia, once we go back to the Ukraine and get a fax. They answered in the affirmative.

So by 1 am we were on the Ukrainian side again, in a copy room, where we were “receiving” our new fax. We took the old document, copied it and found the numbers “1, 9, 84”, glued them and faded the lines with enough copies, that it looked like a new copy. We crossed the Ukrainian control, to go back into Russia. By the time we got to the Russian control at 3.30 am, passport control decided that “well, we cannot cross into Russia again with a one entry Visa”. So once again the whole bargaining started with dumb officials, calling up the bosses, trying to explain in English the situation to only Russian speaking guards. Our luck was about to change when all of a sudden a young official, speaking fare English, managed to convince them to annul the old stamps and give us new ones. By 5 am we reached customs, but Mr. F.o. F. Vanja told us that he will not work until 7 am.

So we managed to sleep until 7 a.m. and went into his office with the ‘new fax’. He looked at us and was asking where the stamp is. We explained it is a ‘fax’. A small argument ensued and suddenly we heard him ‘slipping’ the words ’50 dollars’. We got into the car, gave him the 50 bucks and left disgusted. We gave him 40 the previous night, but he did not accept them.

At least we were in Russia, speeding to Terskol (at the foot of Mt.Elbrus) to reach our team in time. And speeding is not a good idea in Russia. On half way through the Russian leg of the journey, the Russian road police pulled us over. 133 km/h (we had a maximum of 110 km/h) in a 90 km/h zone. Hunor was in a good mood. He talked to them and came back telling me that they need 40 dollars. Two minutes later he comes back and tells me. ‘Hahaha. I told them this is our first time in Russia, so could they only charge us for 30 dollars and give us back the rest in rubbles? And also whether they could let us take a picture with them? And they said yes!”

So not only were the Russian police kind enough to give us back 10 dollars’ worth of rubbles from the bribe money, but they were even happy to take a picture with us. We took our pictures, continued the remainder of our journey and to our big surprise, we ended up staying in a 4 star hotel, with Mt. Elbrus waiting for us J