Across Continents

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Arrive the Cavalry

October 19th, 2010

A very welcome beer. Not back in Dunhuang as I’d earlier feared. On the train. I’d jostled my way through several carriages in search of some American students who’d come to my aid back at the station. Wanted to thank them for all their help, without which I seriously doubted I’d ever have been able to board. Not with the bike at least. Eventually finding them, I’d been invited to join them for a drink.

Their arrival at the station earlier in the evening had been fortuitous, the timing impecable. They were all part of a study programme, refining their language skills and learning about Chinese culture. Joe, one of the group leaders, had stepped forward to offer help with re-assembling the bike. He’d also discreetly guided me away from the mele of station staff and the odd police officer who, I sensed, might soon thwart my plan to travel on the sleeper.

A few railway officials drifted over. The words were incomprehensible, but the tone seemed lighter, more encouraging. Then a young police man arrived. Not to impede, but to help. He’d escort us to the train, let us board early before the rush. I sought to convey my gratitude in just a few words and lots of warm handshakes.

I’d foolishly thought that’d be the end of the evening’s drama. Hadn’t allowed for the chief guard who’d been summoned by the carriage attendant. Suspected one of my fellow passengers had complained at the presence of the bike, despite what I thought was a pretty reasonable effort at stowing it so as to cause as little inconvenience as possible to others. And all rather ironic, given the generally chaotic nature of the sleeper.

Another impasse. I’d fourteen hours and the train was underway. Only place I was going was Lanzhou. The chief guard was insistent that the bike be moved to one of the vestibules. I was adamant my faithful steed should remain where she was, not least because I thought it the safest place for everyone. Protested the police were content with the arrangement. But he was persistent. And I polite. For a while I sought not to understand. Then I discovered I’d misplaced – albeit temporarily – the key to the armoured cable anchoring the bike to a bed frame. Wry smiles from a fellow passengers. Time to compromise, negotiate the most favourable solution.

[With especial thanks to Joe, Hanna and William and the rest of team studying with in Beijing. Without whose help I seriously don’t think I’d ever have made it onto the sleeper. And in this piece the expression "warm handshake" means just that. My palms empty. Unlike in Azerbaijan]


Game of two halves

October 18th, 2010

Impasse. As if to emphasise it, a police officer had been summoned. He was adamant. The bike would not be allowed to even enter Dunhuang’s station. Let alone board a train. I’d shown my ticket. Thought at first the problem was that my trusty steed needed to go through their security scanner. It was my attempts at doing just that which had probably led to the officer being beckoned over to intervene.

It was quickly becoming apparent my usual bluffing – lots of "Wo bu mingbai" – "I don’t understand" – wasn’t going to work. Not least because I really didn’t understand what the issue was. No idea what I needed to placate the station staff about. Until, from amidst the growing crowd, someone stepped forward who spoke a little English. The bike was too big.

Glimmer of hope. Explained I could split the bike into two. Some concealed connectors enabling the frame to be separated into halves. It’d need to dig my tools out, but it was possible. Question was, would it be enough? Yes, it seemed. Twenty minutes later I’d bicycle in two sections and a collection of panniers. And admittance. Onto the concourse.

But I’d go no further without reassembling the bike, refitting the panniers. No other way to move all the kit. Unfortunately this just caused consternation amongst the station staff. The practicalities not appreciated, my efforts to explain failing entirely. The glimmer was fading. Rapidly.

[The mysterious connectors joining the frame – normally concealed by sections of inner tube – are US manufactured S&S Machine Bicycle Torque Couplings]


Shades of grey

October 17th, 2010

A phone call was made. It was possible. Hard berth only. About twenty five pounds. A train ticket. The genuine article. Grey rather than black market, trading bulk purchases, the profit a small commission. I’d decided to move ahead to Lanzhou by train. There’d been an abortive visit to the ticket office in Dunhuang, the limitations of the phrase book quickly becoming apparent. So, instead, had tracked down a man who could help.

Rail ticket

I’d mentioned the bike. Casually. Careful not to overplay it. After all, I’d been on a Chinese built train in Kazakhstan. Hadn’t been a problem. There surely wouldn’t be one now.


Repressed souls

October 14th, 2010

Bookcase - web

Explicit imagery. Of a mostly sexual nature. Vivid. Enlightening to some, dark and deviant to others. Freud, I’d decided, must have had a very troubled childhood. Or a remarkable, if disturbed, imagination. I’d returned to Charley John’s cafe for breakfast, curious to see how their "Full English" compared to the efforts of "Fat Boy’s" back in Bishkek.

Found myself inexplicably drawn to the bookcase on the far wall. Alongside the tame travel guides, I’d found Freud’s "Interpretation of Dreams", a worn, if recent, edition of "Lolita", and a well thumbed copy of "Memoirs of a Geisha". The latter catching my eye because the author was a man. All presumably deposited by fellow travellers. Some repressed souls amongst them.


A very English encounter

October 13th, 2010

CJ cafe - internal - web

Charley Johng’s cafe. John’s was deserted. Inside a young English woman. Travelling west, by train mostly, her husband somewhere in the Gobi. Beijing-Paris rally. In a Bentley. Admired his courage. His style. But thought her choice of transportation probably more comfortable, even in the confines of a cramped sleeper.

Louise and her husband Peter were from Hampshire. Yes, I explained, knew their town well. Or at least I’d passed through it many times on the train. With hindsight, thought it probably came across as faint praise. Which it wasn’t. Just an observation. My conversational English a bit rusty.

[To learn more about Peter’s – accompanied by brother David – ventures in the Beijing-Paris rally, visit]


Around Dunhuang

October 12th, 2010

Dunhuang. A small city, an oasis in the Gobi. Popular with Westerners travelling the Silk Roads. But not now it seemed. The season was drawing to a close. The Friendship Cafe was undergoing refurbishment. Even John’s Information Cafe, who’s Turpan outpost I’d tracked down a while back, was quiet. Barely visible behind a tall, overgrown hedge.

Friendship cafe - web

Charley Johng’s cafe, a short walk from rival John’s, was similarly quiet. Little custom to vie for. Just one solitary Westerner tapping away on an internet terminal in the corner. And Charley, it seemed, as elusive as John. Next door, even the tat shop had wrapped up its camels for the winter.

Camel - wrapped up - web


Through the Gobi

October 10th, 2010

Through the Gobi from Ken Roberts on Vimeo.

Ken describes his crossing of the most challenging part of the Gobi desert, and eventual arrival in Dunhuang


Cottoning on

October 9th, 2010

Cotton pickers - web

The desert ended abruptly. The Dunhuang Basin. Cultivated crops. Workers dotted across the fields, small groups mostly. At first I thought they were picking tea but somehow the bushes didn’t seem quite right. None of the little buds I imagined you plucked. Eventually I stopped at the roadside, venturing over to a couple who’d waved as I’d approached. I was curious, intrigued. Cotton.

Cotton buds - web

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