Across Continents

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Sketchy departure

January 24th, 2012

Simple plan. Of sorts. Across Alabama Bay then pick up Highway 90 back to the coast at Pensacola. And into Florida. Save for the exit from Mobile, and the final section, I’d no map. Reliant instead on a rough sketch I’d made of the route in my pocket book. Penned an outline, annotated with a few major intersections and one town – Loxley – to serve as headmarks.

Except I’d overlooked the need for a bit of a detour through north Mobile to reach the causeway across the bay. Bicycles prohibited from using the more direct tunnel route. Obliged instead to ride through Alabama State Docks. Numerous rail tracks. Scrap yards. A wrong turn. Tedious.

Beyond the bay progress had picked up. Long straight stretch of highway, rolling far into the distance. Then Loxley. Lunch stop and chance to assess progress. I’d forty or so miles to go, and just over three hours of daylight left.



Road 101

November 26th, 2010

I’d sat in the window to watch the world go by. Instead it watched me. Lantian. Provincial town to the east of the city of Xi’an. Westerners something of a rarity. Possibly because it’s quite difficult to find. Even when I’d reached it, I had my doubts. Eventually quelled by some forensic navigation. That’s where you use a blend of GPS data, Google Earth and a conventional map or two to work out exactly where here is, and where you’ve been. Not always obvious.

A deliberately short day. In distance terms. Little more than thirty miles. But it’d taken quite a bit of time, mostly escaping from Xi’an. Should have been pretty straightforward. I’d sketched out a route using a mix of satellite imagery and a local map. But overlooked the road works, the diversions. The city’s largely grid layout should have helped compensate, but still left me a bit bewildered amongst the heavy traffic.

A familiar pattern. Set off. Confident. Done my homework. A few landmarks to look for. Stick to what you imagine can only be clearly defined main routes. After a while doubt starts to creep in. Sure it looked different on Google Earth. It probably did. Such is the rate of road building. Eventually, any decent bit of tarmac heading east suffices.

Hoping for a road sign, there’d been more confusion. Finding one for Lintong, written in both English and Simplified Chinese, my spirits raised. I’d expected to see Lantian, and the characters were slightly different to those shown on my less than reliable map. A different place or a transliteration error? I wasn’t sure.

I’d asked quite a few pedestrians, bystanders. Which was the right road? Then an elderly couple on smart bicycles. They’d hailed me from across the carriageway. Rode with me for a short while, parting company once a sign for Lantian appeared. Could barely conceal my delight. But not the G312 highway I’d expected, I’d followed from Kazakhstan. No. Road 101.

I’d find out later it was the right way to go. But not without incident. Quite a bit of chaotic roadworks. Then there’d been a road accident. Cyclist. I’d have stopped to help but for what’s termed mechanism of injury. A lorry. And plenty of people milling around. Not that they could do anything. Of that I was absolutely certain.

I’d found somewhere to stay in Lantian without too much difficulty. Headed out at dusk. Prosperous. Lots of shops selling things you didn’t actually need. A few pavement market stalls. Some, curiously, openly selling bundles of what purported to be various popular currencies.

Eventually drawn into a Western style fast food outlet by the possibility of a fresh coffee. Met with "Good morning" and a smile, the usual greeting in such establishments. "Tom and Jerry" on the large screen. Dubbed. In the background "Scarborough Fair" played on a loop. Faces at the window.


“Sheraton please”

August 27th, 2010

"Sheraton please" I said in what I hoped was passable Mandarin – "Sheraton ching". I’d jumped into a taxi close to where I was staying in the suburbs of Urumqi, heading towards the centre of the city. Not decadence, just practicality. On my first day I’d trekked the five or so miles to the heart of the provincial capital. Tired by the heat, I’d decided to take a taxi, rather than walk, back to my lodgings, only to discover the fare was just a pound.

A return trip by taxi was simple enough. I’d a card with the address of my lodgings written on it in Chinese to show to the driver. But, at first, I’d been a bit flummoxed as to how to explain where I’d want to go in the centre, especially in a place about four times the size of Glasgow or Edinburgh. Then I’d hit on the idea of a landmark I might be able to easily find the address for in Chinese. Like the Sheraton Hotel I’d spotted the previous day. Bilingual website, so straightforward to track down directions, and five minutes effort to carefully transcribe the characters onto a scrap of paper.


Seemed to work, even if the driver appeared a little confused as to why I stopped the taxi a little short of the hotel. The website indicated they preferred Category 3 guests, but, whilst I’d not been able to access details, I’d a shrewd idea I probably didn’t fit the profile.


Road ahead

August 24th, 2010

“The difference between ordeal and adventure is… attitude”

Planning tools - web

I’d slept in a petrol station, on the floor of a roadside cafe, and had a suspicion I’d shortly be adding a brothel to the list. Sometimes one has to suffer for one’s art. And I don’t mean in the house of ill-repute. No. I was thinking more about what my mother would make of it. Or me. Perhaps I’d better take the long way home.

Annotated map - web

I’d been looking at the road ahead, roughly three weeks to the city of Lanzhou, much of it across the Gobi desert. A great deal of it barren, sparsely populated. My map had its limitations, much of it down to its small scale. I’d learnt to augment it with a blog I’d found, a very useful account by a fellow English cyclist who’d come the same way. Lots of annotations.

Google Earth had good imagery of the region, useful for seeing what’s there. Or in the desert, what’s not. Like a couple of settlements shown on my map that simply don’t exist on the ground. Useful to know if you’re planning on using them as watering stops. And one helpful individual had populated much of the route with an abundance of photographs showing exactly what the terrain, and the road, looked like.

Google Earth - web

I’d also found a website where I could look up place names in Simplified Chinese. After a while I’d noticed that all the towns seemed to have remarkably similar names – actually the same. Re-reading the website, I realised I’d be meticulously copying out the expression for ’populated place’ – about ten times..

Beyond the city of Urumqi, the Turpan Basin. Described as the hottest place in China. Across the ninetieth line of longitude. One quarter of the way around the world. Next Hami, large town or small city perhaps, but then little before reaching the Silk Road watering hole of Dunhuang. Brief respite, then on towards the city of Lanzhou. Gritty road ahead.

[The author is hugely indebted to Steve Tallon for sharing his own account of cycling across the Gobi desert – see – ironically, a website that seems to be blocked in China. And who, judging from his photographs, found exactly the same branch of a well-known fast food chain in Urumqi as I did. Opposite the Sheraton.

Place names translations courtesy of]


Finding your way

August 15th, 2010

“Can I help” she asked. “Actually, yes, there is one thing” I replied, explaining my map showed the Chinese characters for just the cities. Perhaps she could translate a few of my smaller proposed nightly stops. That way I’d avoid inadvertently missing a turning.

Navigating in China - web version

I’d met Mao at a petrol station. She’d majored in English at University, worked as an interpreter for some years, but was now a traffic police officer. Off duty, she was travelling with her young son. She thought the road dangerous, but sought to assure her I thought drivers very considerate, the road surface of a standard I’d rarely seen since Turkey.

What did I think of China, she enquired? Early days of course, I explained, but I was already impressed. The neat, clean streets of Khorgas, the huge investment in infrastructure, road building in the mountains, the sheer beauty of Lake Sayram Hu. And the friendliness of people. Passers-by giving me breads, fruit and water.

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