Across Continents

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Low point

December 9th, 2011

Brawley claimed to be the largest town below sea level. I doubted this. My money would be on Turpan – pronounced Turvan – in the deserts of Western China. I’d felt especially confident on this point. I’d stopped there the previous year. I’d arrived at dusk. Another strip town. Less fast food outlets than some. Set in Imperial Valley, a strip of artificially irrigated greenery amongst otherwise inhospitable desert. A short ride over from my previous stop at Ocotillo. Past ramshackle trailers, some I thought abandoned, others probably not. Hard to tell. A State Prison. Brief stop in Seeley, an old man rummaging in the bins for discarded cans.



Marty and Pat

October 8th, 2011

Marty and Pat

Our third encounter. Just as I was about to enter a supermarket in Prince Rupert, they emerging. I’d originally met them back on the Haines Road, in Canada’s Yukon Province, a week or so back. Their large RV – recreational vehicle – parked in a small lay-by. I’d pulled in for a short break, conscious I’d still a fair way to go to make my ferry the next day.

There’d been a brief exchange of pleasantries. Marty and Pat. They had a daughter living in Guildford. And they’d lived in England themselves for a while. But no let up in the rain, so I’d headed off before I got too cold, and they took shelter in their RV. Also heading for Haines, but told there was no space left on the ferry south.

Next day onboard the M/V Matanuska I’d been caught by surprise. "Was I the cyclist we’d met?" asked Marty, for by now I’d showered and changed into more orthodox clothing. "Yes" I replied, adding I always sought to scrub up and use deodorant when amongst people. And, despite advice to the contrary, they’d managed to secure a place on the ferry. Heading south to spend a few days around the small port of Wrangell.



Bit of an airing…

January 24th, 2011

Back in China I’d written a piece about a young chap who’d decided to join me on the road. Laudable enough. But I’d felt uncomfortable. For one thing, how old was he? Late teens perhaps. And very persistent. In the end I’d had to be a little cunning. Eventually shaking him off. Cruel to be kind.

Intriguingly, it was this very story that an online cycle magazine – – has picked up. A further airing. Perhaps one day I’ll actually find out who the young rider was. You can see the full article at Round-the-world-cyclist celebrates 500th day

[Please note that Ken isn’t responsible for the content of other websites]


Chickens run

January 1st, 2011

Chickens run from Ken Roberts on Vimeo.

Nursing a sore head? Or just sleep deprived? Fortunately this isn’t a clip to tax the grey matter…


China – a few statistics

January 1st, 2011

A random selection of statistics, some serious, others just to amuse, chosen by the author after a particularly strong coffee… There’s quite a few, but it is a big country, and I’ve been here a while. Enjoy!

Population of China – Over 1.3 billion, 51% of whom now live in cities

Most surprising discovery The sheer amount of construction – infrastructure, offices, shopping centres, housing – true nation building

Biggest myth about China – You can see the Great Wall from space – no. Why should you be able to? It’s about ten metres wide, mostly earthworks and so the same colour as the surrounding terrain. More chance of spotting Hadrian’s…

Second biggest myth about China – Rice is the staple. Not exactly. Much more noodles in the west. Probably because rice grows in the more wet, humid south eastern part of the country.

Greatest Chinese invention – Toilet paper

Nicest city Xi’an, central China. Probably best known as the home of the Terracotta Army

Most distasteful sight – Spitting in the street, particularly prevalent in eastern China

Second most distasteful sight – Overweight men rolling up their shirts, exposing their midriffs, to try and keep cool in hot weather – city of Urumqi, western China

Most irritating discovery – Talking Chinese calculators

Second most irritating discovery – Blocking mainstream websites like Facebook, video hosting services such as Vimeo or YouTube. And The Outward Bound Trust’s own site.

Most intriguing discovery – The often low standard of English practiced by those who teach it in State schools. Especially their oral ability

Distance travelled from UK – About 16,000 kilometres / 10,000 miles

Longest (most epic) day – Riding into Kuytun, western China – 162 kilometres / hundred miles across the desert

Hottest day They blur. Somewhere in the Gobi desert, western China. Into the forties

Highest point Road tunnel east of the provincial town of Jingning, central China. Close on 7,600 feet. Second place goes to Lake Sayram Hu, in western China, near the border with Kazakhstan – about 7,000 feet. Quite beautiful

Lowest point – Turpan Basin, western China. Few hundred feet below sea level. See also medical dramas below…

Most photographed object – Me. By the Chinese

Most useful item carried – Letter of introduction in Chinese – one of four things that never leave my side – the other three being my wallet, passport and phrase book

Most novel (for a Westerner) place to spend a night Heavy Goods Vehicle cab, somewhere in the Gobi desert, western China

Item I most wish I’d brought with me – Phrase book with more than just ten pages devoted to Mandarin

Item I brought but probably shouldn’t have bothered with the phrase book I actually had…

Favourite food – Stuffed dumplings, similar to those found in much of Central Asia

Best coffee Hotel Ibis, Xi’an, Central China – not the free stuff included with the breakfast buffet, the one you have to buy from the bar

Best pseudo-full English breakfast – Fat chance. But did find some lovely tuna sandwiches and fruit scones in the city of Nanchang, eastern China

Stops by the police – Once – en route to Turpan in Western China – by traffic officers concerned for my safety in by then gale force winds

Most dangerous place to cycle – Chinese towns and cities

Most common TV advert – Breast enhancement lotions – not a jot of evidence they work….

Medical dramas Copious – if that’s the right expression – amounts of travellers diarrhoea, western China. Oh how we laugh about it now…

Number of manual workers eligible to take the Chinese Civil Service entrance examination in 2010 – Less than 200 – but, if successful, they’ve a 1:14 chance of a job, against the norm of about 1:1,000

Favourite Chinese language film – With English subtitles – Fourteen Blades – released 2010

Number of Chinese visas – A staggering four – a sixty day one from Malta (not used), two ninety day ones from London and a zero entry thirty day one obtained in Xi’an, China

Favourite white lie.. Asked by a border guard if my phone would work in China, I explained I really wasn’t sure, hadn’t had chance to try it…. It’s a satellite phone. Works anywhere on the planet. So probably ok.

And finally… Even the CIA – yes, The CIA, have their mugs manufactured in China. Bet they x-ray them….

[With thanks to Tim for suggesting I put some statistics together, and Claudia for encouraging me!]


Curious case of the bank note

December 31st, 2010

Curious case of the bank note from Ken Roberts on Vimeo.

Spot the mistake….


Reflections on China

December 31st, 2010

“Reform is China’s second revolution” Deng Xiaoping

China. A country under construction. Infrastructure. Offices. Shopping centres. Housing. The sheer scale astounding. A nation in the midst of an industrial revolution. Social change. Migration to the cities. Pace of change quite remarkable. Global recession seemingly no impediment.

Much has already been achieved. A lot remains to be done. The disparity between rural and urban brutally stark. Many in the countryside yet to see tangible benefits of change.

For the city dweller, a standard of living now much higher than in much of Central Asia, and swathes of Eastern Europe. At a cost, in real terms, far below that of many other nations. For the moment at least. House prices in the cities, home to over half of the population, rising rapidly, and the cost of food increasing ahead of general inflation.

Much more a consumerist society than a Communist country. But still a de-facto one party state. There is undoubtedly far greater openness, achieved in just a few decades. Nevertheless, the leadership remains intolerant of political debate, fearful of dissent. Exactly why isn’t openly discussed, making it difficult to judge.

In part it may be the very diversity of the nation, the desire for social cohesion at almost any cost, that stifles debate. A worry not without some foundation. Much smaller countries, and some rather larger entities like the Soviet Union, fracturing along ethnic or religious lines.

Whatever the reason, it remains that the real test of any political system is its ability to tolerate criticism, to accept alternative points of view. If you truly believe your model is the right one, why do you need to suppress discussion?

And the people? Exhibiting a friendliness towards strangers I’d first encountered in the Caucasus and Central Asia. Hugely tolerant of foreigners. Especially those whose grasp of Mandarin barely reaches double digits.

And the future for China? Still a developing nation, aspiring to take its place on the world stage. Overtures to Western nations, trade agreements with states big and small, securing exclusive access to commodities in Africa. First world membership likely to be determined, in part, by its ability to close the huge disparity between the urban and rural halves of the population. Whilst ensuring its hunger for resources, fuel for its industrial revolution, does not become a de-stabilising influence.


Tea stop

December 30th, 2010

Tea stop from Ken Roberts on Vimeo.

A late morning stop for photos results in an impromptu cup of tea – yet another example of Chinese hospitality.


Dissenting voices

December 30th, 2010

All travel has its advantages. If the passenger visits better countries, he may learn to improve his own. And if fortune carries him to worse, he may learn to enjoy it– Samuel Johnson, English author, 1709-1784, busy chap

Human rights. Where China’s concerned there are two groups that fret over such issues. Bona fide Chinese dissidents. And foreigners. Usually Westerners. Ordinary people. for the most part, content with their lot. For, whatever their society’s shortcomings, its darker side, the ruling regime seems to be delivering what the masses want. Life just keeps on getting better.

The West’s pre-occupation with civil rights annoys the Chinese Government. Compounded of late by the awarding of a Nobel Prize to one of their more well known dissidents. They assert that criticism of what they deem to be internal matters to be unfair. Overlooking all the very positive changes they’ve made. Improving the lot of their citizens. An argument I’ve some sympathy for.

Besides, there are far worse offenders than China. Too numerous to list. An arbitrary spotlight? Not exactly. More the recognition of China’s emergence as a major economic power. And the other countries? Either they’ve something the West wants. Or we just don’t care.

Where I struggle with China is with what appears to be harsh treatment of those engaged in legitimate public protest or campaigning. Not seeking to undermine the political system. Just wanting to draw attention to everyday issues. Those that impact directly on the lives of ordinary people. Staple of the chattering classes the world over.


Road to Shenzhen

December 29th, 2010

Road to Shenzhen from Ken Roberts on Vimeo.

Ken describes being back on some decent road – no potholes – as he plunges south towards Hong Kong. With a special guest appearance…

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