Across Continents

Ken's Blog

Bear practicalities

October 8th, 2011

Whether we’d got it right or not, it did seem to be working. The bear precautions Mike and I had taken been a great success. Too much so. Never saw a single one in all of Alaska, Canada’s Yukon Province and northern British Columbia. Not one. Other than in captivity.


Not that we’d gone to extremes to deter bears. Sought to balance risk against simple practicalities. Keeping our food away from the tents. Each securing our stash in waterproof dry bags, the contents packed in special odour proof plastic bags. We’d avoided using deodorant, adhering to the principle it’s best to smell err.. human.

BurwashLandingwildcamp (4)

Some had suggested you should have only the absolute minimum in the tent – sleeping bag, mat – and bear spray of course. Premise being toothbrushes, plastics and a plethora of other manmade items emit odours that could attract unwelcome visitors. We’d both balked at this, fearful that placing most of our kit away from our camp would simply get it stolen. By two legged miscreants. Besides, we were hopeful the food stash would draw the bears away from us.


There’d been conflicting advice as whether it was best to wild camp or use an established site. The former meant you were on your own, admittedly amongst bears who’d usually no interest in people, whereas the latter appeared to offer safety in numbers. That said, if food had been habitually left out, there was a real risk you might encounter a garbage bear – one conditioned to forage amongst humans.

ThreeGuardsmancamp (3)

Much of the time we’d had to stow our food bags on the ground, or just off it to avoid pilfering by the smaller critters, rather than suspend it from a high tree branch far out from the trunk. Wrong sort of trees. We’d generally cooked away from the tents. But as for showering and changing one’s clothes before retiring for the night. Often impractical.

DeadmansLakecamp (8)

So, what had I settled on? Keep my food a hundred metres or so from the tent. Remainder of my kit stowed in the panniers under the fly sheet. Bear spray always to hand, together with a knife should I have a violent encounter with a black bear, and satellite telephone in case I need to call the cavalry. Preference for wild camping, or clean, organised site amongst, or close, to towns or villages. And always cook away from the tent. Sensible precautions rather than simple paranoia.

[Canada’s Yukon Government produce an excellent pocket sized guide entitled "How you can stay safe in bear country" – by far the best read I’ve found on the subject – visit them at]



Queuing theory

December 5th, 2010

I don’t do queues. Just because I’m English doesn’t mean I should relish such things. Problem is, neither do the Chinese. Where we differ is I do like order. Which is very British. And this disparity was becoming a source of increasing frustration at Check-In in Shenzhen airport. The couple ahead of me had morphed into an entire extended family. They’d oversized luggage, a few had forgotten their identity cards. And they were late.

Best laid plans do go awry. That can happen to anyone. But this was just plain incompetence. I don’t mind that. Provided it doesn’t impact on me. Which it was. Unable to express my irritation verbally. Probably not a bad thing. If you have to explain to someone why they should have got out of bed earlier, you’re usually wasting your time. Obliged instead to use more subtle techniques to make them feel uncomfortable. And that I could do. Well enough.

It got worse. Or at least I perceived it did. Security check. Not the reassuring professionalism, the thoroughness of Wuhan. Just blind procedural obedience. Uninspiring. Had to remove my netbook to be scanned separately. At a loss to understand why. The requirement probably as baseless as the notion than using a mobile phone in a petrol station could induce a spark. You’d be better off banning people in nylon track suits. One of the reasons I’ve never re-fuelled my car in Newcastle.

Pseudo-science or patently contrived arguments have never done much for me. But give them a safety or security moniker and you dare not challenge them. Old favourites like the insistence of some airlines that you have to let down your bicycle tyres before they’ll carry them. If they were to explosively deflate, even in the reduced pressure of the hold, cycling will be the least of your worries.

But best of all is the insistence that packages that smell of almonds should be treated as suspicious. Trust me. Reckon you’re most likely to encounter such things around Christmas. Usually before. Unless you’ve got stingy relatives. That’s because, chances are, someone’s sent you a Christmas cake. Plastic explosives that ressemble marzipan haven’t been manufactured since World War Two. Quite realistic it was too apparently. A few people actually ate some by mistake. Doubt constipation was a problem.

Unable, wisely, to verbalise my little rant, I headed off for a coffee. Or I would have done had it not been for the price. Anything between six and thirteen pounds. I was sure it’d been cheaper in Azerbaijan. This was not a good day.


Staying out of trouble

August 19th, 2010

Hmmm. Reckon about four hundred miles. I’d been consulting the map, curious as to how close I was to the Western Chinese city of Aksu. Reports on the BBC website of a bomb attack there, seven dead and fourteen injured, four seriously. But no mention on Chinese Central Television’s nightly news bulletin.

You’d be forgiven for thinking I might be leaving in fear. It’s not clear who’s behind the bombing, but, given long-standing tensions between the local Uighur people and the Han Chinese from the east of the country, it’s not difficult to see where suspicions will fall. In any case, I don’t feel like a target, not that innocence is ever a guarantee of safety. The history of human conflict shows it is the hapless by-stander who inevitably suffers the most.

But the reality is that, however tragic the events in Aksu, the situation at my present location seems very calm. In fact, if I’d not been checking my feed from the BBC website, I doubt if I’d have known about the incident. And I’ve little doubt that the Chinese authorities will deal very robustly with the situation.

If I’ve any concerns, then they’re of a strictly practical nature. Internet access, e-mail and text messaging have only recently been restored in the region, and I’d be very disappointed if today’s incident led to a fresh clamp down. But, given the lack of local news coverage, what appears to be a playing down of the bombing, I’d like to think that’s unlikely.

Still, bit of a pattern emerging here. First there was Bishkek, a few months after bloody rioting there, but that turned out to be one of the most pleasant, relaxing cities I’d visited in a while. And now western China, the city of Urumqi, also the scene of unrest last year. Today, a smart, sophisticated provincial capital, no hint of earlier events. Luck seems to be on my side. But, not wishing to tempt fate, no plans to visit North Korea any time soon.


Imaginary friends

May 8th, 2010

Soviet era hotel. At least that’s what the guidebook said. And that’d be the euphemism that explained the brackish water out of the taps. I’d reached the rural Azerbaijani town of Zaqatala, thirty or so miles over the border from Georgia. Staff were friendly enough and the room clean. Price was reasonable, although for a country that appeared noticeable poorer than the one I’d just left, value for money was a bit questionable. Sighnakhi and eastern Georgia were already beginning to seem a world away.


Earlier, once over the border, I’d made for the town of Balakan. The scenery along the way had been much greener than I’d expected. Heading into the centre, the signs, the billboards, the shop fronts, all had a strong Turkish feel. Hardly surprising, as Azeri and Turkish are both Turkic languages, originating centuries earlier from Mongolia.

I’d stopped briefly in Balakan for some lucky-dip – first trip to the cash point in a new country – hesitant to see if my bank’s automated anti-fraud measures would block the withdrawal. But no, success! In just a few moments I’d drawn a small crowd. One man spoke good English. Where had I come from? What did I think of his country? I’d just arrived, I explained. Was I travelling alone? Not exactly, I’d often meet up with some fellow touring cyclists – had they come past yet I asked? New country, new cultural norms to pick up. Until then, safety in numbers. Even if they are imaginary.

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