Across Continents

Ken's Blog

End of the road

November 14th, 2010

Camel - web

The exact start and finish of the Silk Roads is a subject of scholarly debate. And a very academic one at that. For one thing, they were trading routes. The flow of goods rather than people, different merchants for different stages. At best you might identify hubs, marketplaces. Perhaps Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar. Staging posts rather than repositories, many wares continuing on their journey much further west.

And route is probably a more apt descriptor than road, not just because they were trading routes. For I suspect that, even at their busiest, huge swathes had little by way of discernable track. Instead reliant on local merchants to ensure the smooth flow of goods. Local knowledge.

So, not an exact science. I’d settled on the eastern Turkish city of Trabzon as my starting point. And the finish? Xi’an. Whatever its intellectual rigour, its historical merits, my route had at least felt right. The path through the mountains of central Georgia, the crossing from Kazakhstan into China, through desert and into Xi’an. Intuitively at least, it seemed plausible.


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


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.


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…


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.


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


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.


Strictly business

September 25th, 2010

I’d an hour or so of daylight left. And an article to write for a Magistrates newsletter. Promised I’d put something together in Hong Kong. But first some research. By chance I’d ended up where another traveller had, quite inadvertently, spent the night in what appeared to be a house of ill-repute. Not my own truck stop lodgings, but in the same settlement. Question was, where?

I’d no idea what the Chinese characters might be for such an establishment, and in any case, I doubted it advertised. Probably didn’t need to. Word of mouth. Truth is, I’d a suspicion I’d spent one or two nights in a brothel over the last year. Quite innocently. Easily done, especially when it’s the only show in town for shelter, hidden behind the facade of a respectable, if cheap, hotel. Which I suppose it is if you’re a foreigner.

I drifted around the village for a while. A few candidates, but nothing overly convincing. Instead, I was left contemplating how Magistrates might look upon a defendant’s assertion that his presence on such premises was wholly accidental. Nothing more than a simple misunderstanding. Not favourably. I’d at least had the naivety of a substantial language barrier.


Little respite…

September 23rd, 2010

Truck stop - external - web

Fresh snow falls on distant peaks. I’d left the shelter of my room in the truck stop, pondering the plan for the day. The storm had passed, the last of the lightening shortly before sunrise. Thunder replaced by the frequent rumble of lorries on the highway. The wind had subsided a little, no longer gale force, but still strong, gusting. Marginal for riding. I’d still quite a bit of climb yet to come, but there was a chance they’d be more shelter higher up. Decided it’d be worth a shot.

Progress was derisory at first. Battered by the wind, unpredictable in both strength and direction. Constantly changing. A landscape devoid of clues, not even a single tree. I’d at least been able to find a stretch of old road, parallel with the highway, allowing me to stay well clear of the many unfenced culverts or steep drops. A single truck stop late morning.

Map - extra annotations - web

By five civilisation. Toll station, beyond it a few buildings, a small shop. Respite. And a chance to glean something of the road ahead, my map already heavily annotated. Drawing a small crowd, albeit well-intentioned, it was soon time to move on. Downhill at last. A small village. Another truck stop and a bed for the night.

Truck stop - pan - web

[For those curious about my map annotations, TS = Truck stop – basic but usually have simple, cheap accommodation. PS = Petrol station – modern, more expensive version of a truck stop, normally stocks tinned coffee drinks but nowhere to stay. TB = Toll booth – TS or PS close by. Located using Google Earth. And the spot heights are metres, not feet!]

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