blue belt, Chomolungma, fenom navy blue gi, liudmila mikhanovskaia, Manaslu, Mount Everest, muay thai, nepal, winter swimming, women's bjj, world adventure society
A few months ago we got an email from a customer from Thailand who was having trouble completing an order on our website. The transaction eventually went through, the gi arrived at the destination and we even received a photo and a thank you note. This sparked our interest and we asked the customer, Liudmila, a few questions. What we discovered next was truly incredible.
Not only is she a jiu-jitsu blue belt but she has climbed Mount Everest! She is a philosophy teacher, a translator and writes beautiful poetry. Her other passions include high-altitude mountaineering, winter swimming, Muay Thai and traveling. Most recently she was named World Adventure Society’s first ambassador in Russia. Everyone please meet Liudmila Mikhanovskaia!
First of all, your English is superb. How did you get so good at it? And how did you start poetry in foreign language? This really requires a very good knowledge of the language and nuances.
Thank you! My mother’s English was very good by the standards of the time, and she started teaching me when I was four years old. Besides, I went to a school that was known for quality English instruction. My school classes were supplemented with regular short language study trips to the UK. In my last few years at school I began to attend the British Council and there won a competition for a 1-year full scholarship to Queen Mary College, University of London. After the year in London, I continued to live and study abroad.
Although my education is in Philosophy (I hold a Master’s), I choose to work as a translator and editor because the job allows me the freedom to travel and to carry on with the research I had initially wanted to do for a PhD but decided to pursue outside of the academic framework. In both my education and my job there is a lot of emphasis on the importance of language, on the exact meaning and weight of words, which, I feel, makes it relatively easy to for me to express myself in poetry. I have to say, however, that neither in my prose nor in my poems do I use complex words or heavy grammatical structures: I write to understand myself and to keep track of my thoughts and feelings as honestly, openly and simply as I can.
How many languages do you speak?
In addition to my native Russian, I can speak four other languages to varying degrees of proficiency: English, Spanish, Korean and Thai. I also have 5 years of background in German and know some Italian. Up next is Sanskrit.
From Russia to Thailand. This is quite a journey. What made you make that move and how did you cope with the logistics?
From my previous answers you may have guessed that Thailand was not the first stop on my journey. I stared attending Queen Mary in London when I was 17, which was almost 12 years ago. I have since lived, studied and worked in many countries: the Netherlands, Spain, Malta, Philippines, Nepal, South Korea and Thailand.
I originally traveled to Thailand specifically to train for an expedition and was living on location at the training camp in Bangkok. As my reasons for staying in the county changed over time, so did my living arrangements: during this past year of training BJJ I was renting an apartment in Bangkok. I have always done my translation and editing work in my ‘free’ time, usually at night, so I could train, study and explore in the daytime.
Regarding living in Thailand, it is a country very open to expats and travelers, whose needs, be it accommodation, food, healthcare, training or anything else, really, are readily catered for. I enjoyed my time in Bangkok and found it to be very comfortable.
In Thailand you trained Muay Thai as part of your preparation for the climb. You trained extensively for 3 years and then stopped. Were you tired or just bored? Was it difficult to walk away from something you invested quite a bit of time into?
I spent about 4 years living and training in Thailand, on and off. For the 3 years I trained exclusively in Muay Thai but about a year ago I discovered BJJ and later MMA, and added them to my training roster.
I did not necessarily lose interest in Muay Thai, get tired or bored: as I was getting better and more familiar with the martial art, I began to feel space opening up for me to do something else, something different. I generally don’t like to be wasteful with my resources, so I was simply slightly frustrated with myself in the context of Muay Thai while I was searching for a way to fill that newly opened space. Once I discovered BJJ, wrestling and MMA, my love of and interest in Muay Thai returned, and remain as strong as ever to this day.
That being said, I have walked away from many activities I had dedicated much of myself to. I believe that quitting for the right reasons is a better choice than staying for the wrong ones.
Tell us more about climbing. What is the hardest part?
For me personally the hardest part, without a doubt, is the mental game. It is very different from the immediate emotional challenges that one is faced with in martial arts training or in a fight or match.
High-altitude mountaineering expeditions, which is my favorite kind of climbing, can last for over two months. A million things can and do happen in the unpredictable mountain setting; a million thoughts and doubts arise and go to sleep with you every night; you grow weaker and weaker as days go by because the body, although it does acclimatize to higher elevations, still doesn’t get enough oxygen to function at 100%. By the start of the summit push, you are likely to be feeling drained or even sick. Although you are by then used to it, it is still hard to believe you can climb to a place called the Death Zone (above 8000 meters), get to the top of a mountain, get back down and even enjoy yourself in that state.
You have to do something your mind keeps telling you that you can’t do continuously in a remote, cold, unpredictable environment for days in a row. High-altitude mountaineering requires great mental stability and love of what you’re doing. Thus, although the mental aspect of climbing is the hardest one to manage for me, it is also the most fascinating and educational.
Do you carry all your gear to the very top (tent, sleeping bad, food) or leave at a camp closest to the top?
During high-altitude mountaineering expeditions several high camps are typically established between base camp and the summit. Tents are erected and some gear stored in those camps in preparation for the summit push. This way climbers don’t have to waste time and energy when the weather window is forecast to open. On summit day, which is when you climb from your highest camp to the summit and as far back down the mountain as you can, on ascent you only have the bare necessities in your backpack: water, a snack, a few essential spares, a camera, a walkie-talkie, oxygen bottle(s) if you’re using the gas, etc. You want to travel as light as possible on the way up, but you will have to collect all of your gear and carry it with you on descent through the lower camps.
Why is the descent so hard? From what we read, it is harder than climbing up. Is it true?
Many factors play into making the descent harder and more dangerous than the way to the top. First of all, there’s the physical aspect. Your body is beyond exhausted on summit day at the end of a long expedition; your muscles and organs are starved of oxygen, sleep and nutrients. The longer you stay in the Death Zone above 8000 meters, where oxygen pressure in the air is insufficient to sustain human life for longer than a couple of days, the more of your body’s systems malfunction or shut down. Problems, more or less grave, with motor skills, coordination, vision and breathing, for example, are common and obviously dangerous on treacherous mountain terrain.
An important sub-aspect of the previous one is the compromised brain activity. The brain needs oxygen to do its job properly, and after a long period of deprivation climbers struggle to think and to concentrate; hallucinations and memory black-outs are experienced by many. That, coupled with extreme physical strain, is not a recipe for a safe climb, be it down or up.
In my opinion, what really makes the descent more dangerous than the ascent is the psychological aspect of the challenge: whether you’ve made it to the top or turned around early, you know you’re done. If you’re done, you can relax, right? The hard part is over! And whenever you so much as whisper to yourself that something is easy, you automatically loosen your focus and your grip on the situation. That is the worst thing to do in a place where you are headed for safety but are still hours or days away from it. This is why mountaineers always remind themselves that “summit is only halfway”.
You climbed Mount Everest in 2012 with oxygen and attempted to climb again in 2013 without oxygen. Why was it important for you to do it the second time knowing how hard it is? Only 3 women have done it without oxygen before you and one passed away on the descent. Were you not scared?
This may sound cheesy, but I wanted to climb Everest again and to invest absolutely all of myself into the oxygen-less ascent because I just loved the mountain so much. It had been my wildest dream to at least climb on it, but even as I was leaving Tibet a summiteer, looking back on Chomolungma, the mountain’s Tibetan name, I was still seeing a dream, and more grand and unattainable than ever. It was bitter-sweet to realize how big of a heart it turned out that I had, and to not need that heart for anything outside of the high Himalaya.
I suppose, once you learn how dazzling the things your eyes can see may be, how strong your body and mind are potentially, how brave and free your spirit really is – once you know your true power, you want to feel it reverberate through your system at all times and with the greatest possible intensity. It’s not unlike an obsession or an addiction – one so great, it simply swallows up fear.
After 6 days of your climb with no oxygen, you aborted the mission. How hard was it? Are you happy with the decision?
I aborted the climb at base camp. I was in excellent physical shape after running 10km every day and training Muay Thai for 5-6 hours a day 6 days a week for 3 months in Thailand. I felt fairly confident I would be able to give the ascent without bottled oxygen as good of a shot as any climber out there.
However, I just didn’t dare step on the slopes of the mountain. I was not afraid – I was ashamed: ashamed that the small, plain, ordinary me would attempt something so amazing and beautiful. In my eyes, I was perfectly prepared but unworthy of the gift of that opportunity. I was unable to process an experience of that magnitude back then, so there was nothing for me to do but leave. Although I can’t say I am happy with that decision, I can’t regret it either because the person I was at the time could not have made a different choice. Would it be different today? Absolutely!
You had a very serious health scare that made you spend months in bed. Do you want to talk more about it?
I am a cancer survivor. I was diagnosed and treated almost two years ago. I am currently in good health and back in Nepal, close to the Himalaya, which it was my biggest regret that I wouldn’t see again when my prognosis was looking grim.
Do you still do winter swimming? Being in tropical climate, training must be limited.
I do it even though I’m not doing it, if that makes any sense. I won a silver medal as part of a team and a personal endurance swimming medal in the Ice Swimming Cup of Siberia and the Far East on a little more than a week’s notice. There was nowhere to actually swim to prepare, so I dug out a little pool in a small mountain river running through the Siberian village I was spending time in, and just sat there for a few minutes every day, focusing on controlling my breathing in the icy water.
Swimming was the first sport I ever took up and I have loved cold water (but not cold showers, mind you) since I was a baby. I am not a fast or a very technical swimmer but I enjoy myself in the water, extremely cold water too, and I trust it. This allows me to swim for extended periods of time even without a lot of training. I hope to attempt my next ‘test’ swim – my first after cancer – in a couple of weeks’ time in Tilicho Lake at 4949 meters/16237 feet near Manang in Nepal.
After all you have gone through starting BJJ must feel like one of the easiest things. Do you find it challenging? Why do you enjoy it? Do you think you will stick with it til your black belt?
Nothing I have ever learned has come easily to me because I have nearly always been playing catch-up. Fortunately, I like to commit and to work hard once I’ve chosen a path. With the pursuits I felt a real connection with, them being very challenging was simply irrelevant because I enjoyed the whole package.
Starting BJJ was indeed hard. I was extremely unwell physically when I took my first class. I was out of shape and emotionally tired of dragging my body around the world, still unable to take it confidently to the place I call home – Nepal. It was strange to start anything new at all in that situation, especially something as complex and multi-layered as BJJ. However, I needed to find an activity difficult enough physically and demanding intellectually that it would grab and hold my attention, distracting me from those aspects of my circumstances, like my health, I could do nothing about.
I may not have liked BJJ at first but it did immediately interest me as a completely new ‘language’ to teach my body, so I stuck with it out of curiosity. I am glad I did. BJJ showed me that I could still learn, and quite fast; it pulled me out of a very grim spot back into a place where I could train for 5-6 hours daily; it reignited my passion for Muay Thai and served as gateway into wrestling and MMA.
BJJ was, is and will be challenging for me, which is exactly what I appreciate the most about it. I can see myself training arte suave until black belt because it is a martial art in constant evolution, so there’s no ‘danger’ of getting comfortable or bored on the mat.
Do you have plans to compete in BJJ? How is the team treating you? Do you have lots of jiu-jitsu women to train with?
I had planned to compete in a tournament in Bangkok in September after earning my blue belt until an opportunity presented itself, and I left for Nepal just two weeks ago for an indefinite period of time.
I would love to go back to my old gym, Bangkok Fight Lab, in a few months to train and compete then. We have a fantastic coach, Pedro Sauer black belt Morgan Perkins, as well as a wonderfully diverse, interesting and supportive group of people on the mat, many of whom I have become friends with. There are about ten girls training regularly, white and blue belts from all walks of life, and most of them compete or have plans of competing soon, although there is no pressure from our coach to do so.
Did you have a hard time as a white belt? Were you ever frustrated to the point of wanting to quit?
Yes and yes. I had a hard time because my body was still adjusting to training full-force with a few missing bits here and there after my surgeries as well as with a reconstructed ACL, loose from overtraining. I was dizzy a lot and often in pain, especially when rolling with heavier guys.
As I refused to stop and kept pushing the pace instead, my body grew stronger and was soon learning the moves quicker and easier, moving more smoothly, too. Frustration on the mat was almost constant, to be honest, as I’d forget what I’d learned or couldn’t recognize the setup and execute a move during rolls.
Sometimes, when I would train BJJ for 3 hours in a row, my mind would shut down completely towards the end, making me look and feel like the proverbial dumb blond. I cried in the changing room I don’t even know how many times. I usually smiled afterwards, though, because my tears were tangible proof that I cared, that I still expected things of myself and that I lived, both physically and emotionally.
Who do you look up to?
The person I look up to the most is my mother. She brought up, and well, my elder sister and myself without any help (my sister’s father died in the mountains, and my mother separated from my father when I was just a 1-year-old) in ’90 Russia. As women, we grew up with the understanding that we had three options to get something – anything – done: 1) be competent at it ourselves; 2) have the financial resources to hire help; 3) forget it – it wasn’t getting done. Thus, when I first went to school and was told I was supposedly a member of the weaker sex, I had no idea what that was supposed to mean.
I am eternally grateful to my Omma for not introducing any artificially manufactured hierarchies, prejudices or dogmas into my life as a child. She never taught me about what I couldn’t do or whom I may not approach with respect and kindness nor what ideas or beliefs I shouldn’t consider earnestly before brushing them off as ‘wrong’. It is thanks to her wisdom and faith in my discriminating intelligence that I could keep an open heart, an inquisitive mind, attempt to do anything and fight until the last bell.
I can only imagine how much courage and integrity it takes for a mother to watch her daughter do what I do and to get hurt as badly as I do. I know of no braver person, and I am humbled to be loved by her.
What are your plans for 2017? Will you stay in Thailand?
My plans must necessarily depend on my health, which can still be shaky after the encounter with the Big C. Nevertheless, I want to plan for the best while being prepared for the worst.
I left Thailand two weeks ago for Nepal, where I will spend time with my second family, see my beloved mountains and lakes, and continue with my research. It would be great to train BJJ in Bangkok again for a few weeks after that. Next summer I would like very much to enter into the BAMS (Bachelor of Ayurvedic Medicine and Surgery) program at a university in India. I’d also love to catch up with friends from around the world I have been promising to see for years sometime somewhere.
In reality, I can’t know how much of these plans I will have the time and the strength to see through; I can only hope to “Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever” (Mahatma Gandhi).
To read more about Liudmila’s adventures, please visit her blog.