Across Continents

Ken's Blog

Lipstick and ladybirds

October 3rd, 2010

Synchronised swimming

I thought the judges a bit harsh. I’d definitely rated the Kazakhstan contingent a bit ahead of their Russian counterparts. Maybe I’d been influenced by their garish lipstick. Choices had been limited. Synchronised swimming or a stalker movie in Uighyr with Chinese subtitles. Helped to take my mind off my recent excursion to the second worst pit toilet of the expedition. First prize went to one about ten miles back. So terrible I’d wretched.

I’d ended up in a small settlement south of the city of Hami. Last outpost of habitation before the Gobi proper. Secured a room for the night behind a cafe for a few pounds. The sort of place that was often reluctant to admit foreigners lest they incur the attentions of the authorities. But not tonight. I’d enquired at the nearby toll station as to whether there was anywhere to stay. Produced the magic card. Encouraging signs. Waited patiently amidst the clouds of ladybirds. Then a Police escort. Right to the door.

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Faux pas

October 1st, 2010

School boy error. Silent ’h’. Of course. First Westerner I’d seen in a while and I couldn’t even get his name right. Henri was French. My embarrassment was compounded by having already mentioned I’d studied his native tongue at school. So absolutely no excuse for my faux pas.

He was an environmental consultant, spending a few days in the city of Hami. Visiting mines in the region. A fluent Chinese speaker, having lived in the country for a decade, he was curious as to how I got by linguistically. Did I have to resort to English? I explained not, instead relying on a few simple words, and being painstakingly polite.

Inexplicably, especially given my earlier blunder, I mentioned that it was something of a rarity to encounter the French. I’d stopped short of actually saying "..other than in France", but the implication was probably there. Henri suggested it was because they weren’t an adventurous people. Assured him that wasn’t case. Mentioned the two French cyclists I’d met back in Kazakhstan.

He’d had to head off to meet up with colleagues, leaving me to ponder a stronger cup of coffee. Not a great start to the day. Suppose I could put it down to the remnants of the cold I’d been battling with. In the desert. Mental note. If we met again, remember to remind him of those great swathes of French colonies in South East Asia, West Africa and South America. Adventurous stuff. But probably best not to mention Algeria…

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Around Hami

September 28th, 2010

Hami - centre - web

Hami was much in the same mould as other large towns and cities I’d visited in western China. A prosperous oasis, wide boulevards, equally generous tree-lined pedestrian walkways running alongside. Construction much in evidence.

Shop front - Western - web

Pavements shared with mopeds and electric bicycles, weaving amongst the throngs of shoppers. Colourful shop fronts. And the Western influence. The now familiar fast food outlet. Clothes outlets with names expressed in the Roman alphabet rather than Chinese characters. Seeking to entice customers in with equally recognisable music. Some international brands. Many not.

Hami - leafy street - web

But drift down side streets, relative tranquility. More traditional shops, small cafes. Old men playing board games in the parks, enjoying the shade beneath the trees. Seemingly oblivious to China’s march into consumerism.

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Saddle sore

September 27th, 2010

“So how can you tell me you’re lonely,
And say for you that the sun don’t shine?
Let me take you by the hand and lead you through the streets of London

I’ll show you something to make you change your mind”

– Ralph McTell, from “Streets of London”

It wasn’t London. It was Hami. Provincial city. On the edge of the Gobi desert. Breakfast in a small hotel, “Streets of London” for accompaniment. Friendly establishment. I’d arrived the previous evening, damp and dishevelled after the long haul through the mountains from the Turpan Basin. But, presumably, unmistakably English. Despite the grimy layer of sunblock and diesel fumes. “Huw” – his adopted name – quickly summoned to interpret. A little bartering, but, no matter what, a twin room meant two breakfasts.

Giant - main - web

Hami might be renown for its melons. But what I sought was a decent bike shop. And a new saddle. My existing one had been a dream across Europe, but since Turkey had shifted back and forth between tolerable and excruciating. Refusing to accept it wasn’t possible to return to former glories, I’d stuck with it, tried everything. And a bit more. Modicum of improvement at best. So, time for something different. A fresh saddle. Might not have the longevity of the one I had, but if it kept the energy sapping sores at bay, I didn’t care. What price comfort?

My Mandarin vocabulary still struggling to reach double figures, I’d fortunately been able to find someone who knew of a decent bike shop and could write the address down for me in Simplified Chinese. Sixty pence taxi ride. From the outside at least the store looked promising. “Mary” – a student working there over the summer – spoke good English whilst I apologised profusely for my poor grasp of anything but my mother tongue, and a smattering of Welsh and French. I would, she explained, be better going to their other shop a few hundred metres away. Better selection. And she’d take me there. By bicycle.

[If you are a cyclist passing through Hami in need of cycle spares, tools or assistance, I’d recommend the shop(s) – major on stocking Giant – no idea what the places are called as I can’t read Simplified Chinese, so probably best if you print out the image below of their business card and show it to the nearest taxi driver….]

Giant - card - web

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Cowering in the culvert

September 26th, 2010

Two hours. In a culvert. Waiting for yet another violent electrical storm to pass. I’d managed to get Emma, my trusty steed, down the embankment, away from the lorries thundering overhead. Safe. Yes. But not somewhere ordinarily you’d want to dwell.

I’d often seen vehicles parked up on the hard shoulder, seemingly abandoned in the vast openness of the desert. Only to realise their owners were using the relative privacy of the occasional culvert as an impromptu toilet. But the alternative was altogether less appealing. To be the only feature on the landscape for miles around. In an electrical storm.

The worst of the weather having passed, back on the road towards the city of Hami. A toll booth ahead, a small shop, and a welcome coffee. Cold. In a can. But refreshing nevertheless. The shopkeeper, struggling as much with dental pain as I was with saddle sores, seemed to be indicating I stay. He’d pointed to a spare bunk at the back. Two pm. Didn’t make sense.

Mountains beyond Hami - web

I’d been gone about twenty minutes when I realised what he’d been trying to tell me. Dust storm ahead. Catching the fringes, swirling dust, irritating rather than disabling. Gritty evidence strewn across the road of the storm’s intensity. Hami was close. Very close. No stopping now. Then, abruptly, clear skies, save for the mountains in the distance.

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Shifting sands

September 20th, 2010

Stubborn? I’d half regretted asking whether or not the Caucasus lay in Europe or Asia. Resigned myself to accepting it to be a geo-political question, rather than the straightforward "yes no" one I’d hoped for. This time it was deserts, and I’d already unearthed a wide diversity of opinion. I’d also thought the geography of the Central Asian states a bit tricky, their sometimes arbitrary borders, ethnic groups spread across nations. But simple sand seemed much more difficult to grasp.

Question was, which desert was I in? That I was in one was irrefutable. Arid, sparse vegetation, little rainfall. What was less clear was its name, if indeed it had one. I’d sought to simplify the problem by starting with Basins. There were a few. Imagined them to be large sand pits, so, in all probability, it seemed likely they’d be closely allied to the various deserts. It was a theory. Of sorts.

Unnamed desert - web

There was the Turpan Basin. I’d crossed it a little while ago, spent a day in its only decent sized town. Mostly below sea level so also termed a Depression. To the west the Tarim Basin, home of the Taklamakan desert. Little dispute about that.

To the east of Turpan lies the city of Hami – Kumul in the local Uyghur dialect. It too sits in a Depression. Beyond the Hami Basin are what most seem to regard as the western fringes of the Gobi desert. Fifth largest in the world, and Asia’s biggest. Much of it is in Mongolia, encroaching on the north western and north central Chinese provinces of Gansu and Inner Mongolia respectively. My route east of Hami as far as the city of Lanzhou. Over a thousand miles.

Some cite the Gobi as extending as far as the Pamir mountains in the west, encompassing the Turpan and Hami Basins, and the Taklamakan desert. I’m not convinced. Reckon there are two distinct deserts – the Gobi and Taklamakan – separated by the Turpan and Hami Basins. The dividing region may not have a convenient label, but, by any recognised definition, it’s still desert. No doubt about that.

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