Across Continents

Ken's Blog

Ominous signs..

January 15th, 2011

Bit of a pattern emerging. Bishkek. Central Asian city. Bloody riots a few months before I rode into town. Then there was Urumqi in western China. Civil unrest not so long ago. Now Queensland. Huge swathes devastated by flooding. Trouble, it appears, seems to travel ahead of me. Which is good news for me. But not necessarily so great if you’re in New Zealand or North America this year. I’m coming… You have been warned.


Towards Turpan

August 29th, 2010

Towards Turpan from Ken Roberts on Vimeo.

Ken outlines the next stage of his journey, east through the mountains and into the Turpan basin


“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.


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.


Consumer society, cafe culture

August 25th, 2010

"Joy is not in things; it is in us" – Richard Wagner

Cafe culture - web version

Urumqi. Provincial capital. Modern, air conditioned shopping malls. Expensive boutiques, international names, Louis Vuitton, Cartier. Even a few Western fast food chains. A consumer society. There’s a refinement, a sophistication, a nation teetering on the edge of First World, First Division. The cafe culture has arrived.

Boutiques - web version

In the streets, flyers being handed out, artists impressions of towering new housing developments, great monoliths amongst landscaped gardens. A great leap forward, or a step too quick? China’s economy has just over taken Japan’s, now the second largest in the world. But, in the background, rumblings of that familiar Western affliction, escalating property prices. And food prices are on the increase.


Consumer society

August 23rd, 2010

Consumer society from Ken Roberts on Vimeo.

Ken discusses the rise of the Chinese consumer society


Around Urumqi

August 22nd, 2010

Around Urumqi from Ken Roberts on Vimeo.

Ken explores the city of Urumqi


At the heart of Asia

August 21st, 2010

Ken describes reaching the city of Urumqi, at the very heart of Asia

At the heart of Asia from Ken Roberts on Vimeo.


All in a name

August 19th, 2010

Led up to the third floor by the hotel receptionist, I’d assumed I was being taken to inspect a room. But no, to the manager’s office. Exactly why was unclear at first, my phrase book, and rudimentary grasp of the language, normally sufficient – just – to secure somewhere to stay. And then I noticed the computer. They’d found a website that could translate, and one of the domestic staff spoke a little English. Able to negotiate a very favourable rate, a generously sized room to myself for roughly the cost of a Youth Hostel bed in the UK.

I’d reached the city of Urumqi, at the centre of Asia, the place furthest from any ocean on the planet. It should have been straightforward enough. I’d a map of the city centre, and, using Google Earth, had found a route through the suburbs. But then I’d discovered that my road map had confused the provincial dual carriageway with the new motorway. Forced to find a different way into the city, I’d eventually got my bearings by locating the airport, sitting on the hard shoulder watching for planes taking off.


My bicycle secured in the room, the staff had decided I needed a Chinese name. The reverse is common practice, back in Shihezi, Mao calling herself Jennifer, her son Andy, Zheng at the language school introducing himself as Mr Johnson. I was to be named Wang Jia 王佳 in Simplified Chinese. Means family reunion, harmony, or something like that. Apparently. And extends my vocabulary to about four words. The other two are Nihow 你好– hello – and Sheshe nee 谢谢– thank you. Add lots of smiling and they go a long way.

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