Across Continents

Ken's Blog

Rock and a hard place

October 22nd, 2011

We met for coffee in downtown Vancouver. Our previous encounter back in one of the former Soviet Central Asian states a year or so earlier. In his nation of birth. But now a Canadian citizen. And we’d kept in touch. Able to chat freely, no need to worry about being overheard, we discussed his country he’d left at some length.

Fledgling democracy, lacking an effective opposition. The State security apparatus might have been weakened by the fall of the old Union, but it was still there, even if its focus had shifted. No longer the evils of Capitalism, instead Islam. My contact had studied abroad with others from his home nation. Only to discover that at least one must surely be an informer, reporting tittle tattle, trivia, back to his masters in the shadows.

But at least, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, he’d been able to travel abroad. For, until then, it’d almost certainly not been allowed. His family considered to be too much of a flight risk. One had been a Hero of the Soviet Union. But another had been imprisoned in a Gulag.



Changing values?

June 28th, 2011

She’d looked bemused. Why, I asked? Seemed I was the first person she’d met who’d actually incapacitated someone using plastic tie-wraps. This wasn’t, she quickly added, the sort of thing people normally did. I’d recounted the circumstances in a rather matter-of-fact way. Without fuss, melodrama or embellishment. Merely describing how it was. Something that had been necessary. I’d felt very strongly about this.

She wasn’t questioning why I’d done it. Just the apparent shift in my values that placed this sort of thing on a par with, say, fixing a puncture. What you did to get the job done. But had I shown a little moral flexibility? Crossed a behavioural boundary I might later regret? Found her observation thought provoking.

Details of the incident add little to the narrative. Suffice to say it’s a rarity on the road. Distraction rather than detraction. Simply put, a situation had arisen to which I’d chosen to deal with, well, logically. Applying the rules. In this instance, the doctrine of reasonable force. The usual moral, legal and practical arguments. Carefully, if quickly, considered.

Decision made, dealing with the miscreant was just a process to be followed through. Unexpected response from a Westerner. Art of surprise. Swiftly executed. The offender rendered harmless. To himself or others.



The problem with Sovereignty

November 19th, 2010

The problem with Sovereignty is you can do pretty much what you like. Unless you care about your standing in the international community. Or you’ve vast natural resources. Misbehave and we might invade. Cynical view for a cynical world? Perhaps.

North Korea had got me thinking. The hermit state features frequently in the news in China. Or, to give its proper title, the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea. Perhaps they’re possessed of a particularly ironic sense of humour. Maybe not. You do sense political satire not big over there.

But North Korea’s not alone in adopting a blatantly misleading title, to the consternation of much of the civilised world. There’s the Democratic Republic of Congo. And Laos, People’s Democratic Republic. Rated worse in the corruption stakes than Azerbaijan. Which I imagine takes some doing. Perhaps it’s down to the latter’s recent “free elections”. A concept I find particularly hard to grasp in Azeriland.


Hidden worlds

September 7th, 2010

Quite by chance I’d stumbled across the gay and lesbian community during my travels through Central Asia. Whilst same sex relationships are not illegal in the countries I’d passed through, they are far from socially acceptable.

A hidden world, quite unfamiliar to me, tolerated in the cities by predominantly Muslim societies, the odd clue in listings magazines, clubs that drift around between venues, a brief mention in the guide book, little else. Places where one might meet, discreetly, even if the location is sometimes quite public.

Denied the de-facto freedom of expression of identity taken for granted in most Western societies, family pressure to conform to accepted norms, and the result? Shell marriages, even emigration to more tolerant nations. Terribly sad.


Central Asia – a postscript

July 23rd, 2010

It’d been a brief foray into Central Asia, a region, for much of its history, closed to foreigners. Azerbaijan, endemic corruption, nepotism. Across the Caspian, relatively prosperous, stable Kazakhstan, the nation others aspired to be. Probably. Kyrgyzstan. A country still trying to find its feet. Enthralled by barren steppe, imposing mountain ranges. Intrigued by politics, the recent ousting of a President, forced to flee into exile. Fascinated as to how vast oil and gas revenues had influenced things. Humbled, always, by a warm and generous people.

I’d learnt a little along the way of nearby Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Time, and to some extent restrictive visa requirements, had precluded a visit, for now at least. Quite distinct from the other Central Asian countries I’d passed through. I’d met a few Uzbeks, garnered quite a bit about their homeland, shaped as much by the Silk Roads as arbitrary Soviet era borders. But no Turkmen.

In fact, my only insight into Turkmenistan came from their TV channels I’d picked up in Kazakhstan. North Korea meets Michael Jackson’s Neverland. Lots of young children entertaining their Leader. Something of a Presidential personality cult in evidence. Seems a journalist had actually made a documentary along these lines, but it was difficult to confirm this. She’d died in prison. And no ATMs. It’d have to be worth a visit. Assuming their Secret Police don’t get to me first.

[Author’s note: Some debate as to whether Azerbaijan is in Central Asia, geographically at least. But culturally, linguistically, and ethnically, I thought so. Besides, it ends in Stan. Sort of…]


Loneliness of the long-distance cyclist

July 22nd, 2010

“Alone he rides, alone” Lionel Johnson 1867-1902

Language difficulties, punctures, the odd minor ailment, these are all problems you expect on the road. They’re solvable, sometimes with a bit of ingenuity, some lateral thinking. You just get on with them. But then there’s loneliness. Never far away, lurking, waiting for the moment to reappear, catching the solo traveller unaware.

You may be in the most beautiful of places, surrounded by the most kind, generous and hospitable people. And still be immensely lonely. But is it such a terrible thing? I find myself reflecting on what I’ve left behind to spend four years venturing on a bicycle around the world. Family. Friends. A green, lush land, cosy, comfortable, familiar. A reassuringly simple world. Truly beginning to appreciate what I have to return to.

But then the insidious self-doubt, sometimes destructive thoughts. Gnawing away at one’s self-confidence. The perils of an idle mind. You tell yourself this will pass, you know it will, just a squall. And yet it seems quickly entrenched, unwilling to budge, like a parasite growing stronger as it saps your own strength. Pedals seem harder to push. Colours ebb away. Sounds fade.

You learn to cope. Because you have to. Sometimes the very things you might think would exacerbate the situation help push it back into the shadows. News from home, the smallest of tidbits, mere morsels. An e-mail from friends, however brief. The anonymous ticking over of the website visiter counter, knowing that someone, somewhere is thinking about you, however fleetingly. Family photographs, of growing nieces, celebrations, simple gatherings.

And keep the grey matter occupied. On the road. In the tent. Every waking moment. Leave no room for loneliness to creep in, to gain a foothold. So hard to dislodge. Listening to music, composing the next blog post, plans for the next few days. Just doing stuff. Enough, but not excess or else you overwhelm yourself, making yourself vulnerable to another episode.

Writing about, talking about, discussing it is very cathartic. It’s not an affliction, an unspoken evil, simply a natural consequence of travelling alone through an environment where communication with others is difficult, either because there are few people or a language barrier. Not surprising. Humans are, after all, a social creature. Nothing to be embarrassed about.

Being amongst other people, even if conversation is limited to just a few words, can make a good deal of difference. The merest of social interaction, a simple smile, a warm handshake, just a nod. A little kindness towards strangers. It all helps.

But most of all, interaction with native English speakers, or those who understand the real nuances of the language, of Western culture, the unspoken subtleties. A real craving, seeking out Western style cafes in the cities, the odd ex-pat bar, or simply staying with those working overseas. Australians, Americans, Brits, it doesn’t really matter. No longer alone. Just for a moment.

[Originally written and recorded for 10Radio – Community Radio for the 10 Parishes in Somerset – You can drop Ken an e-mail via the ’Contact’ page on his website – he’d love to hear from you]


Visa games

July 7th, 2010


The application form for a tourist visit ran to ten pages, and required a myriad of supporting documentation. Details of your itinerary, employment, income, any criminal record. Whether you’d ever been a member of the Armed Forces, the Judiciary, even a security company. Or the media. Evidence of your ability to support yourself whilst visiting. If successful you might even need to register with the Police once you’d arrived.

Shades of the old Soviet Union? But this wasn’t some xenophobic, far off nation. No. It was the UK. Which is worth remembering when struggling to obtain visas on the road. I’m surprised anyone gets to visit Blighty, other than as an illegal immigrant. Not sure I’d even qualify for entry.

Keeping out miscreants, economic migrants, I can quite understand. In any country. That would be reasonable, almost a necessity, but I’ve seen much more evidence of paranoia as the rationale behind visa regimes than I have of a desire to exclude those who threaten a nation’s well-being. And political whim, drifting around in the breeze. Treating innocent travellers like pieces on a chess board.

Obtaining visas at Consulates is all about first impressions, a first taste of officialdom. Insisting on easily circumvented requirements, hindrances rather than genuine mechanisms to exclude undesirables, does little to instil a favourable opinion. Rather, by frustrating the genuine visitor, it suggests you lack confidence in your own system of Government, perhaps a degree of xenophobia. Something to hide.

You’d at least expect visa requirements, and fees, for a given nationality and place of residence, to be consistent between Consulates. But no. Substantive differences. Some insisting on visa support – the purchase, from suitable agents, of letters of introduction, airline tickets, hotel bookings. Adds little to the process, other than increasing the cost. Which means less money to spend when you actually get there. And guidance on immigration rules is often plain wrong. In fact, the only consistent feature seems to be that visas for US nationals are always the most expensive.

But what of the UK’s own visa regime? I’d travelled with an Azeri national with considerable experience of the system. He thought it robust, but consistent. There at least appeared to be a rationale behind it. And there was always an Appeals process if you felt you’re application hadn’t received proper consideration. English fair play.


Silent running

May 19th, 2010

Not quite sure exactly what lies ahead. All part of the adventure. Sharing my experiences may well be more tricky, more sporadic. Judging from my experiences in Azerbaijan, a decent internet connection is likely to be restricted to the cities, so just a few opportunities this side of the Chinese border. Beyond that point? Internet access in western China remains effectively closed down since demonstrations there a year or so ago.

But, rest assured, even if all seems quiet, I’ll be busy keeping up my journal and video diary, looking for every opportunity to share my experiences whenever circumstances allow. So please be patient. And be hopeful I don’t eat to many those lovely plump breasted carrier pigeons first.


All in a (couple) of days work..

May 3rd, 2010

Visa montage

Ever wondered what it’s like to delve into the Byzantine world of visa collection in foreign countries? Probably not. Ever tried it yourself? Even less likely I think. Before you do, maybe sit back and enjoy a bit of armchair adventure as I wander around Tbilisi in the rain. And if you are doing this for real here in Georgia, suggest you read my notes at the end. Here goes…

First stop the Azerbaijan Embassy. About half an hour’s walk away. Opens at 1000 for a couple of hours, Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. I think. Have my Letter of Introduction, inviting me into the country, completed visa application form, couple of passport photos, and my passport. And I’ve a map. Latin script, whereas the street signs are mostly in the Georgian alphabet. This delays me a little, but the small queue outside the Embassy appears to confirm the Consular section is open for business.

A police officer ensures only one person at a time is admitted into the Consular section – actually it’s a doorway with a heavy steel grill through which you pass your paperwork. Raining. Should have borrowed an umbrella. I queue for about twenty minutes. Bit fraught – everyone else seems to be Turkish and waiting in an orderly line doesn’t come naturally to them – need to be assertive. Then it’s my turn.

I hand my documentation to the Consular official. Visa will be ready in three days. I explain I need to press on to Azerbaijan as soon as possible. Return tomorrow afternoon at four he advises, and gives me a slip to pay the visa fee at a local bank.

Bank - web version

So far so good. Sort of. The bank is nowhere near the Embassy. Probably. There are three streets in Tbilisi that share the branch address on the payment slip. I make a bit of a guess and, it turns, out, get the right one first time. I don’t realise this straightaway, as it takes a while to find the bank. Not exactly a High Street name in Georgia, the place is barely recognisable as a bank. Forms to be signed in triplicate. Twice.

Next stop should be the Kazakhstan Embassy. Searching the web for an address yields at least three possibilities. All of which, it turns out, are wrong. After a while I begin to wonder if they really do have a Diplomatic Mission here. The Georgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs website’s list of overseas representations in Tbilisi makes no mention of it, suggesting this to be the case. But I remain convinced I’m right.

You’d think a half decent taxi driver would know where the Embassy is, but they also seem to be new in town. Still raining. I hit on a plan to visit a local travel company, guessing that they might have dealings with the Consular staff. They don’t, but Nino and her team does quite a bit of phoning around and comes up with an address.

I head off up a steep, muddy road, climbing up above the city. Seems an unlikely location for an Embassy, but I’ve confidence in Nino and her team. I spot a Police post. Success. Or at least, I’ve found the right place. Turns out to be less than a kilometre from where I’m staying. The Consul is unfortunately absent, explains his very helpful assistant, so I should return at eleven the next morning. I leave with an application form to fill in. And a few leaflets about Kazakhstan to read.

Eleven the next day. Back at the Kazakhstan Embassy. Still raining, but there’s a canopy to stand under. I wait a while, soon joined by a surly woman who fiddles constantly with her umbrella. The door opens. My turn to enter. But no. Would I mind letting the woman go first? She is with child apparently. I doubt this very much, but concede because the Consular official has asked politely. I wait a little while longer, then its my turn. I explain my endeavour, the need to make several entries into the country, and, in turn, he helpfully explains the visa options. I pay the fee and leave.

Next, back to the Azerbaijan Embassy. I arrive a little before four. Still raining. A few people, Turkish I think, are hanging around outside the locked gate into the Embassy compound. There’s no recognisable queue as such, so I make my own. By the gate. A policeman opens it up at four precisely and, after a bit of jostling, I’m admitted. I hand over my passport and the visa fee receipt from the bank. Bit nervous – whilst waiting outside I’d noticed the fee shown on the noticeboard was over a hundred dollars. I’d paid considerably less. Would I have to repeat the whole process? No, I’m given a visa, its validity a bit more generous than I’d expected. Success. Think I’ve earned a coffee, a respite from the rain, before I contemplate collection of my Kazakhstan visa. But that’s for another day…

[Whilst the process of visa collection can be time-consuming, sometimes a bit fraught, a little bureaucratic, the author found the Consular staff to be very understanding and helpful. And they all spoke very good English.

For anyone coming to Tbilisi in search of visas for the ’Stans, the Azerbaijan Embassy can be found in Kipshidzis Street in the Vake district of Tbilisi. Look for the main Chavchavadzis I. Gamziri thoroughfare on any half-decent map, the street is a little to the north of the western end of the road.

English Tea House

The bank where you should pay the visa fee is on Marjanishvilis Street, almost directly opposite the English Tea House, close to the bridge across the River Mtkvari that runs through the city. The correct street has a Metro station on it with the same name. Incidentally, the Tea House offers Whittards teas in rather quaint teapots, but you do need to ask for milk. I mention this because at this point in the visa hunt you’ll be in need of some refreshment.

The Kazakhstan Embassy can be found at 23 Shatberashvilil Street 0179 Tbilisi. I’m very confident of this because I’ve been there. And I’ve copied the address off the very helpful Assistant to the Charge d’Affaires’ business card. So ignore anything else you read on the web. Or in supposedly very reputable guide books that advise there’s no Diplomatic Mission here. Funny, because it looks like it’s been here a while… For more information please feel free to get in touch via the Contact page]


The Plan

April 9th, 2010


"Maps are an invitation to adventure"

Presidents for Life. Megalomania. Xenophobia. Repressive regimes. Bloody uprisings. Endemic corruption. Central Asia sounded like proper adventure. I thought my plan had both elegant simplicity, and boldness. Follow the Silk Roads into China. Sadly, it’s no longer a case of simply jumping on the nearest camel and riding into the sunset. You must first master the shifting sands that is Central Asian bureaucracy – letters of introduction, restrictive visas, dubious tourist vouchers, suspicious fees – often frustrating, certainly time-consuming, but, I hope, ultimately worth every ounce of effort.

Through the Caucasus – Georgia and Azerbaijan – my route should take me to Baku on the edge of the Caspian Sea. Then a cargo ship across the Caspian Sea, possibly a ferry, details, like the timetable, remain hazy. Next the Central Asian state of Kazakhstan, albeit briefly, before the long-haul – almost two thousand kilometres – across Uzbekistan, mostly semi-arid desert. Lots of sand. And scorpions. Back into Kazakhstan, another fleeting visit, and then, civil unrest permitting, into the Kyrgyz Republic – Kyrgyzstan – and a mug of tea in Fat Boy’s Cafe, Bishkek. Finally, then, through the mountains to China.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that sailing to Turkmenistan, rather than Kazakhstan, would have offered a more direct route across Central Asia. Quite correct, but hopelessly impractical – they’d grant me just a five day visa to ride the equivalent of Land’s End to John O’Groats. Well, any country entrusting its promotion overseas to a State Committee sounded ominous. Pity really. Always wanted to visit somewhere with no ATMs. Might drop them a postcard to let them know the Cold War’s over. Assuming they have a postal system.

[To see a larger version of Ken’s route through the Caucasus and Central Asia, click on ’Route’ and follow the link. The author is indebted to professional illustrator Claudia Myatt – – for turning his incoherent scribblings into something meaningful. And thanks to adventurer Alastair Humphreys for the quote from his book ’Moods of Future Joys’ – visit him at]

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