Across Continents

Ken's Blog

Lost in space

December 10th, 2010

"Confusion now hath made his masterpiece" William Shakespeare, English playwright, been dead a while…

Seems tales of planes, trains and automobiles, first impressions of Hong Kong, and lamenting New Year’s Eve in Sydney may have caused a spot of confusion. A friendly Yorkshireman expressed it more plainly. And with a lot more brevity. Made me smile. But this is a family orientated website so forgive me if I don’t repeat it exactly. Put another way, "Where’s Ken?"

"Expert. Someone who brings confusion to simplicity" Gregory Nunn, some American chap, still breathing

South of the city of Nanchang, roughly six hundred miles north of Hong Kong. On track to reach there in time for Christmas. Planning to celebrate in style with another Yorkshireman. Then off to Australia at the end of the month. Cheap flights irresistible.

"If confusion is the first step to knowledge, I must be a genius" Larry Leissner, another American chap

To be fair, I find China confusing enough at times. Roads that no longer exist, at least in a navigable form. Large provincial towns that appear unexpectedly. Not on the map. Add in a flying visit to Hong Kong a little while ago for a fresh Chinese visa. Picture easily becomes a little murky. Like the Yellow River.

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Bah humbug…

December 9th, 2010

New Years Eve in Sydney. Australia’s cultural Capital. And I wasn’t looking forward to it. Not a bit. Truth was, I’d be arriving early in the morning on an overnight flight from Hong Kong. Then there’d be a twelve hour wait for my connection to Cairns, the starting point for my southerly run along the east coast. Reckoned on arriving at lodgings close to midnight.

Much as I might want to see in the New Year – and my third continent – in style, the grim reality is that after being deprived of all but a modicum of sleep the previous night, a vat or two of caffeine in domestic departures… I think you get the picture. Of course, there are earlier connections. And better days to travel. But a lot more expensive. Even toyed with the idea of temporary membership of an airline lounge to take some of the pain away, but the airlines have already wised up to that scam one.

Booking the flights has been enough of an experience. Shades of colonic irrigation. Some people enjoy it. I don’t. Actually, that’s the easy bit. The real fun starts with the excess baggage rules and charges. For which possession of a bicycle appears to be viewed as something of an aggravating factor. Complicated further by using, of necessity, two separate airlines with different requirements and fees. Makes the various Central Asian visa and immigration rules look like they’d merit a Plain English award.

Scales - web

So. No plans to saw the handle off my toothbrush. It folds. Or fly into tropical Cairns wearing my down jacket. Far too light. But I do know exactly how much all the kit weighs. Courtesy of a set of children’s bathroom scales. About £2.50 from a Chinese Walmart.

And I’ve also worked out how to legitimately exploit the carry-on luggage rules to their fullest extent. I’ll be the one boarding with a full seven kilograms in my bag. Maps and notebooks (’reading material’) in my pockets. Netbook and cameras carried separately. Whilst wearing my iPod. Pondered – albeit briefly – what to do with one of my spare folding tyres. Ressembles a cricketer’s protective box. Sort of.

Frustrating? Yes. Time-consuming? Yes. And I’d had help. A lot. No need to shop around the various airlines. My parents had very kindly done that for me. Simply had to follow their advice. Which I’d done. To the letter. And also pleased I’d already got my Australian visa. Saved a few more hours online. And my sanity. Just needed to get across the de-facto border from mainland China into Hong Kong. But that’s another story….

[Author’s note: You may be surprised to know that the English language version of the Kazakhstan visa and immigration rules probably does merit a Plain English award. Invaluable for fending off corrupt border guards. Sadly not available in hardback]

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Location, location, location

March 6th, 2010

Bold move or elegant solution? Whichever it might be, my temporary island home certainly seemed to have everything I’d hoped for. And, as someone had helpfully pointed out, it was all close by. Had to be. Malta’s not that big, and has a bus network even cheaper – and safer – than Turkey’s somewhat more erratic dolmus mini-buses my Dad and I had encountered back in Trabzon.

They’d been a little friendly teasing. Was I just putting off heading east from Turkey, Georgia and the ’Stans’? Tough, dangerous riding? Delaying, actually yes, incidentally of course, but why not? I’d chosen Malta because it allowed me to get things done that simply weren’t possible in Turkey, all of which would make life back on the road a bit smoother. I’d all year to cross Asia – rush and you end up out of sync for the Alaska and southern South American weather windows – so could afford a brief interlude, provided, as it should, it helps achieve the aim. Which it will.

But tough and dangerous riding ahead? Yes and no. Semi-arid deserts and insane bureaucracy certainly, but Asia lacks a few things only Africa appears to offer – large, ferocious wild animals, drug-crazed child soldiers, civil wars. Much to look forward to.

[The author would like to congratulate Tim, Pete, Iain, Danny, Jon and Anton for correctly guessing the location of Ken’s temporary island home]

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Between continents

March 4th, 2010

I’d found a small cafe just off the main square, a chance for a quiet coffee and an opportunity to study the various pamphlets and brochures I picked up from the tourist information office. They’d given me a much better map than the one I had. For one thing it wasn’t hand drawn, and showed the locations of all the consulates. Which would be very handy.

Ordinarily, I tended to avoid the tourist traps, all too often frequented by those wishing to help you part with generous sums of money, be that inflated prices or simple scams. Besides, museums, cathedrals, mosques and the like all begin to blur after a while. But this place was a bit different. A few years ago I’d devoured Jan Morris’ definitive trilogy on the rise and fall of the British Empire, so I knew a little of the history of the place and wanted to learn more. And it appeared safe. Very safe. The police didn’t seem to carry truncheons, never mind firearms.

Whilst it felt as if I was between continents in my temporary island home, politically and geographically this was firmly Europe. But it felt good nevertheless. And rather apt as an intermission from travelling across continents. I’d flown in the previous day, to be met by Simone who, together with her mother and sisters, ran a small hostel. It had been the family home, and still retained a great sense of homeliness. You felt more like a house guest than a hosteller.

The last dregs of coffee downed, it was time to make a few purchases in preparation for my time here. I’d already found a pair of trainers for about £10 – they only had to last a month or so – but feared the socks I’d need would cost me more. Decided to steer clear of Marks and Spencers, choosing instead British Home Stores in the hope of a bargain. About £8. Then some cheap towels from the market stall. £5. Job done.

[The author will reveal his location tomorrow. But, until then, please feel free to contact him with your suggestions, just for fun of course! By way of further hints, it’s not the Ukraine, Bulgaria, Georgia, the UK or Australia… or Cyprus, north or south]

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Unexpected diversion

March 3rd, 2010

We were sat on the tarmac at Sofia international airport, Bulgaria. A short stopover, but one I’d missed in my haste to book flights online. Earlier, as the pilot had announced our imminent arrival, I’d a sudden sinking feeling. Was I on the wrong plane? Surely that wasn’t possible, too many checks and balances? But if it was the case, what of my checked-in luggage, baggage handlers desperately rummaging through the hold of the right plane to find it, once I was found to be a no-show? I’d not be popular, that was certain.

I’d already exhausted the in-flight airline magazine, which I’d found to be quite a good source of information about my eventual destination. Admittedly this was, in part, due to my boarding with a pretty scant knowledge of the place. I’d a hand sketched map and little else. But I’d worked with less before, and, in any case, this time I knew I’d be fairly fluent in one of the local dialects, and that always made things much easier.

I was committed to the plan – we’d be taking off shortly, then a couple more hours in the air – but sought to reassure myself by reviewing the scribbled deductions I’d made in my notebook back in Turkey. There were a few unexpected matters I needed to attend to before heading further east, and it had come down to where best to deal with them.

I glanced down my list of considerations. Practical stuff like decent, affordable accommodation, the ability to self-cater and avoid a diet brimming with bad cholesterol, facilities to ensure I returned to the road fighting fit, and good communications. I’d also found somewhere which had a consulate for just about every country I needed a visa for in Asia, so there was a fighting chance I could machete my way through much of the oppressive bureaucracy whilst there. And in much nicer surroundings than some of the places further along my route.

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