Across Continents

Ken's Blog

Almost forgot…

February 18th, 2012

And almost 1,800 blog posts, 2,000 photos and 700 videos…



Final flurry of statistics

February 18th, 2012

Miles ridden Almost 20,000 (about 30,000 kilometres) – so, by any measure, quite a long way…!

Revolutions (of the wheels) Sixteen million

Continents Four – Europe, Asia, Australia, North America

Countries 17

Border crossings 31

Visas 10

US States 12 (including night in Hawaii – no time to surf!)

Coldest -15 oC in New Mexico

Hottest Forties in Kazakhstan and China’s Gobi desert

Cyclones One – Yasi – Northern Australia

Highest point Over 8,000 feet – Emory Pass – New Mexico

Lowest point Turpan – pronounced Turvan – Basin, Western China – below sea level

Favourite nations New Zealand, North America, Serbia, Georgia (also the friendliest)

Most expensive country Australia (cost of living about 2-3 times that of the UK)

Cheapest countries China and the Republic of Georgia

Most corrupt nation – Azerbaijan – if you don’t pay a bribe you’d never leave. Ever.

Detentions by border guards 2 – Kazakhstan (shorter of the two!) and Australia

Uprisings (just missed) Bishkek, Capital of Central Asian Republic of Kyrgyzstan, and sporadic (unreported) ethnic civil unrest in Western China

Toughest challenges Loneliness – especially in China – and tropical humidity in Northern Australia

Lowest point Few hours after drinking kumus – fermented mare’s milk

Most bizarre moment Tearing around Republic of Georgia in a police car (sightseeing courtesy of a local Mayor!)

Most used words Nee-how – Hello! – and Sh-e, Sh-e, nee – Thank-you – in Mandarin

Least heard expressions Have a nice day! (in US – rarely said) and It’s free! (in (expensive) Australia – rarely heard)

Favourite foods Stack of pancakes with maple syrup – US – and stuffed dumplings – China

Favourite places Camping amongst wild bears in Alaska and the Canadian Yukon, and nights spent in Chinese truck stops – for less than 20 yuan – about two pounds

Bikes Just one – my trusty Somerset built two-wheeled steed

Punctures 10 – with just one in whole of North America

Spokes broken or loosened – not a single one, and wheels still look pretty true

Most elusive wildlife Wild bears in North America – saw just one cub – and deadly snakes in Australia – two in the wild

Most common wildlife Wallabies – like a kangaroo but smaller – in Australia

[With especial thanks to Tim for the encouragement to compile these…]



Outbound to Almaty

July 19th, 2010

Across the aisle a woman sat painting her nails, the solvent quite noticeable in the confines of the aircraft cabin. She was English, but expressed her frustration at the delayed departure in fluent Russian, delivered with native passion. Her two young children seemed oblivious, content with their crayons and a small jotting pad between them. Her husband sat behind, snoring loudly. Further up, a young man stared intently at his map. Pamirs. North West shading. Neatly groomed beard. Plastic mountain boots tucked under the seat in front. Clean, barely scuffed.

My own travelling companions appeared to share my stoicism. A Canadian mining engineer, bound for Bishkek, quietly spoken, unflustered, probably just resigned to the situation. He’d flown from Toronto the previous day. Had done quite a bit of cycle touring in the past, and shared a few anecdotes. And a young woman studying the fashion business. Paris. Haute Courtière. Freelance writer for Harpers Bazaar. We chatted about films for quite a while, her love of old movies, Casablanca, Alfred Hitchcock, Audrey Hepburn.

Two hours into the supposed flight back to Almaty and we were still on the apron. Technical problems. The only 757 left in the airline’s fleet, a single in-flight film that flickered between colour washed technicolour and black and white. Teased by the cabin magazine extolling the virtues of their other, rather more modern, aircraft.

I’d spent my last night in the UK for some time in one of the smaller London hostels, enjoying a final coffee in the well-kept courtyard garden. Listening to opera being performed in a large marquee in the adjacent park. Retired early, only to be woken suddenly by the fire alarm. 3.32am. Hastily dressed, standing for a while in the barely perceptible drizzle before the inevitable all clear. Dozed for a few more hours, restless, before rising just after five. Pensive.

Courtyard garden

I sat once more in the courtyard, alone, the damp air invigorating, helping stave off the inevitable weariness for a little while longer. Reflecting on my time back in the UK. A perfect, orderly world. I knew it wasn’t, it just seemed it. I’d kept myself busy, securing visas, a second passport, a stab at documentary making. And time spent with close family. My parents. And a chance to see my young niece, just a few weeks old when I’d last seen her days before departure the previous autumn. Memories for the road.


Nation of Convenience

July 18th, 2010

Assuming you’ve spotted the great British Bobby in the closing scene of the last episode of "Nation of Convenience"….

There were rules. Strictly business. Fresh visas, a second passport, a visit to see Laura and The Outward Bound Trust’s fund-raising team in the Capital. Confined largely to London and the Consulates, far from my own home in Somerset. Contact limited mostly to close family. I was here to get a job done, quickly and efficiently, before returning to the fray.

It’s established practice for those on long-haul expeditions to be able to return to their home country once in a while. Of course, some don’t. But, provided you keep it short, and it’s for good reason, that’s ok. An accepted necessity.

Just as the expedition has evolved into as much, if not more, a mental challenge as a physical one, the real issue I’d had to contend with was the psychology of return to one’s home country. Hence the rules, the absolute focus on treating it as a Nation of Convenience. No wandering off, drifting, getting too settled.

A few people, well-intentioned, had suggested I might return in secret, the minimum of fuss. But that would have compromised that most fundamental of principles, the unwavering honesty of the blog, if only by omission. And that’s how the mini-documentary, "Nation of Convenience" came about.

I’d been toying for a while with the idea of making a short documentary for the website. Something new. Fresh. I’d a little time on my hands between visas, thought it might be interesting to explore the political and cultural sides of London as if it was the Capital of one of the less reputable ’Stans. Lots of material. And a bit of fun as well. Thought it would help me stay focused, and, with a few carefully selected landmarks, allow my destination to be revealed gradually.

In practice, developing the storyboard, scripting, shooting and editing took quite a bit longer than I’d ever imagined. Wasn’t exactly finished in the Departure lounge at Heathrow, but close. Not quite as polished as I’d have liked, but it was only ever meant to be a visual essay. Might do another sometime soon. Working title "Enter the Dragon", assuming I don’t bump into Bruce Lee first.

[The author would particularly welcome constructive feedback on the "Nation of Convenience" documentary, his first stab at programme making. But no need to mention one of the continuity errors – the frequent swaps between red and blue t-shirts. Spotted that one! And if you’re feeling brave, see if you can list all the locations, and the landmarks in the background]


Nation of Convenience – Episode Three

July 17th, 2010

Nation of Convenience – Episode Three from Ken Roberts on Vimeo.

The final instalment of Ken’s mini-documentary about his time in a Nation of Convenience. Still curious as to which country this might be? There are a few clues in this episode, not least in the final scene….


Nation of Convenience – Episode Two

July 16th, 2010

Nation of Convenience – Episode Two from Ken Roberts on Vimeo.

In the second of three instalments, Ken continues his exploration of the politics and culture of his Nation of Convenience.


Nation of Convenience – Episode One

July 15th, 2010

Nation of Convenience – Episode One from Ken Roberts on Vimeo.

In the first of a three part mini-documentary, Ken explores the politics and culture of his Nation of Convenience


Drawing to a close

July 14th, 2010

China visa2

Ninety days. I smiled. A fresh visa, sufficient to cross China in its entirety. Last piece of the jigsaw. I thanked Yan for her help, not least for pointing out I’d be able to apply for three months rather than the sixty days I’d imagined. Leaving the agency’s small, stuffy first floor office, I made my way down the steep stairs and back into the busy street.

Small cafe across the way. Chance to reflect on the merits of Plan B. Success I thought, by any measure. I’d the visas I needed, more generous terms than I’d expected. I’d even acquired a second passport, enabling visas to be obtained on my behalf whilst I continued to travel. Insurance. I’d no desire to repeat this diversion. Ready now to leave this Nation of Convenience and return to Almaty. Hong Kong bound.

[Author’s note: If you’ve familiar with Mandarin characters take a close look at the picture above – bit of a clue as to where this Nation of Convenience is.. I did say I’d be bold and decisive!]


In the bag

July 13th, 2010

In the bag from Ken Roberts on Vimeo.

Ken describes his delight at obtaining a ninety day visa for China


Religious contemplations

July 12th, 2010

Footfalls on the gravel beneath the window. Sounded loud. Half expected the grey haired gentleman I’d joined in the hostel’s Quiet Room to tut. But he remained absorbed, aligning religious pamphlets into small, neat piles on the table in front of him. Sometimes he’d move one a little, like pieces on a chess board, and the process would repeat. Another man sat in the corner by the window. Silent. Contemplative.

I’d wandered in a little while earlier, clasping a cup of coffee and my notebook. The grey haired man objected at once. Coffee was not allowed. I swiftly pointed out that the sign on the door clearly stated this to be a Quiet Room, nothing more, and sat down across the table from him. He stared at me for a while. Occasionally I’d smile back. Flicking through the various pages of scribbles I’d made earlier, the wire spiral binding scraping a little on the table.

Abruptly he got up, hastily gathered his leaflets together and left. Just myself and the man in the corner. Then he too rose from his chair, slinging a small knapsack on his back. A wooden cross, about three feet in length and several across, engraved with Christ’s name, hung from it. He noticed I was staring at it. Told him I admired those who had the conviction of their beliefs to display them so publicly.

He spoke calmly, his words considered. He needed no church, no organised religion. Salvation, eternal life, or death, ever after, was between him and God alone. He had a sureness, a sense of purpose, humility. He sought not to convert, just to explain. Much more Christian than the grey haired gentleman.

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