Across Continents

Ken's Blog

The Stronger Sex?

December 7th, 2010

Pam - web

Pam Goodall. Ann Wilson. Anne Mustoe. Closer to home. Somerset. Astrid Molyneux. Ingrid Criddle. Household names? Celebrities, a brief foray into the limelight then gone, certainly not. Rather, they have shared in a far greater endeavour. Cycling across entire continents. Some the world. Englishwomen. Alone.

That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of the male species who have completed similar challenges. Faced hardship. Adversity. It’s just simply that I’m aware of more women. Not very scientific I admit. Nor is the observation it confined to those with bicycles. Louise in Dunhuang. Angela I’d met briefly in Xi’an.

I’d been intrigued by the demographics. Men mostly in their twenties. Women often quite a bit older, a good number in their second half century. Which just shows you’re never too old to chase a dream. To go out into the world. Do something bold.

[Pam Goodall’s account of her ride around the world – “Riding It Out” can be found on You can read about Astrid Molyneaux’s exploits on her blog at Ingrid Criddle can be found at And to find out more about Ann Wilson and Anne Mustoe, just pop their names into a well known search engine]


On the Road to Danfeng

November 26th, 2010

There’d been a brief foray a few years ago into the hallowed halls of academia. Evensong and a college dinner. Oxford. Spent the night in Elizabeth Taylor’s bed. Admittedly about thirty years after she’d stayed there with Richard Burton. But I felt certain we’d both admired the same decor. Not sure if the college had a Chair in Linguistics, but if it did, I doubt my recent discovery would warrant a nomination.

Largely conceptual. How do English speaking Chinese switch between their largely pictorial symbology and the rather more phonetic Roman alphabet? Pondered it for a while. Then a revelation. Whilst stopped to read my own map. They’re different representations of the same thing. Both symbolic.

Simplified Chinese characters are ostensibly pictograms, each constructed of a series of pen strokes. One Chinese character equating to one English word. In English, or any language using the Roman alphabet, individual letters replace discrete strokes. Simple really.

And just as the Chinese see a word when looking at a character, English speakers do exactly the same with a series of letters. With sufficient vocabulary, and practice, individual letters are not sounded. Rather, it is just a shape, immediately and subconsciously recognisable as a word. Just like a pictogram.

An example. Look at the image below. "Popland". Instantly recognisable because it consists of two familiar word shapes – "pop" and "land".

Popland - web

But, faced with, in all probability, a less familiar word – or shape – like valetudinanan, good chance you’re a bit slower pronouncing it. Scrutinising individual letters, or small groups of them, to work out how to say it. Not exactly Road to Damascus I admit. It was Danfeng.


Around Xi’an

November 24th, 2010

Bell - web

Xi’an. It somehow felt different. Subtle nuances. Elusive at first. Masked by familiarity. Similarities with other cities I’d passed through. Urumqi. Lanzhou. Barely discernable order on the roads. Hectic. Pavements at times as frenetic. Familiar shop fronts. Small cafes.

Western influence a little more in evidence? Or simply catering to tourists, drawn to the walled city by the Terracotta Warriors nearby? A few more smart hotels. Unappealing. Bold monoliths, devoid of the relative homeliness of the small establishments. Faceless foreigners. Wealthy Chinese busying themselves.

Mug - web

A morning amongst the side streets, the markets, vendors in the city’s Muslim Quarter. Then a coffee in Starbucks. I’d baulked a little at the cost. Quite a bit more than I was used to paying. But, I realised, suggestive of greater urban prosperity. A shift of emphasis. A few more upmarket shops, catering for disposal income rather than necessities. Ever so slight, but there nevertheless.

And there was something else. But far less subtle. Westerners. Saw more in a single day than I’d seen in the previous month. And with that, inevitably, English, both spoken and written. On street signs, in places foreigners might well frequent. The de facto international language.


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]


The English teacher

August 26th, 2010

"Simplicity is the ultimate simplification" – Leonardo da Vinci

Cafe - web

Seems there’d been a bit of a ruckus in a New York outlet of a well known coffee chain. An English professor refusing to succumb to their contrived terminology for a simple beverage. On the other side of the world, I’d been merely been seeking to help refine the cafe culture. In my never ending search for the very best cup of coffee, I’d found a delightful little establishment. But, try as I might, no matter what I ordered, the result was the same. Espresso. Single shot.

My efforts to have my cup topped up with hot water, a more palatable drink, caused great confusion. Quite possible because the Chinese for water – shui – is very similar to their word for yes. As in yes please, one shot of espresso, or one accompanying bottle of spring water. Feeling despondent, I’d returned to my seat, resigned to yet another perky little number. Pleasant enough, but, ordinarily, a bit too strong for my tastes.

Sensing my difficulties, Chenyan introduced herself. She taught English at a local junior school. Could she help? Smiling, I quickly sketched out in her notebook the ingredients for a black Americano – espresso and hot water. A few moments wait, and then success. At last. Maybe I should just have asked for a half-caf tall triple shot Americano, hold the latte in the first place. Whatever that is in Chinese.


Back to school

August 18th, 2010

"Never tire to study – And to teach others" – Confucious

Explaining the relationship between terms like UK, England and Britain probably wasn’t the simplest of topics to tackle, but I was pleased we’d avoided plunging further into ethnicity, my knowledge of Angles and Saxons hazy at best. I’d been invited to give a seminar at Zheng’s English language school.

Back at school - group - web version

Some had studied English at University, keen to polish their skills, others still grasping the rudiments of the language. But all hugely enthusiastic. And joined by a couple of Pakistani medical students, studying in the city.

Back at school - blackboard - web version

Lots of questions. Curiosity. Why had I come to China? What did I think of the country? Except for the medical students, and Zheng who’d previously worked as an interpreter, none had ever been beyond their own borders. That, I was told, was not easy to do. Red tape.

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