Across Continents

Ken's Blog

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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Following on Facebook

August 4th, 2010

Good news first. For those of you who follow the exploits of Emma, my trusty steed, and I on Facebook, you’ll continue to see all the posts pop up. However, for now at least, I’ll not be able to add photos or, alas, reply to any of your messages or comments. Please be patient. And you can always see my images of China on my own website – just click here.

The so-called "Great Firewall of China" preventing access to Facebook? Looks like it, but whether that extends right across the country I’m not sure. But, to be fair, my day-to-day use of the internet hasn’t exactly been frustrated. On the contrary, web access is easier, more prevalent here, than in much of Central Asia. This is a connected nation.

Enough from the editor. Better to return to trying to fathom out what exactly the requirement is to register your place of residence with the Police "within twenty four hours". Just once, or every time you move on? And how that works with a tent. Over half a million British citizens visit China every year, and countless other nationalities, so you’d think a clear answer would be easy to come by….

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Over the border

August 3rd, 2010

China. I’d emerged from the ordered confines of Customs and Immigration, through a small gate and into the waiting crowd, surrounded by money-changers, unperturbed by the guards just feet away. Pushing the hawkers forcibly aside, I headed down the wide boulevard towards what I imagined to be the centre of Khorgas.

I’d returned to the Granitsa, the fortified zone that ran along the border, a few hours earlier. Permitted to enter and ride the five or so kilometres that led to the crossing proper. Finally. Then Passport Control. Brief check that I’d a valid Chinese visa, then a stamp and the nod to proceed. Ahead the road through no-man’s land, a half open gate now the only bar towards China. A few mini-buses waiting, their drivers sat around whilst their passengers had their papers checked.

Thought I’d see if I could ride across, but was quickly turned back by a Kazakh guard, gesticulating towards the mini-buses. I’d suspected as much, but it’d been worth a try. Hardly a commotion, but enough to draw the attention of the drivers, one of whom indicated he’d take Emma and I across once his passengers re-appeared.

The otherwise short journey, a few hundred metres at most, was punctuated by several stops, sometimes the driver disappearing with a sheaf of papers, returning a short while later, other times a Chinese guard peering through the bus’s half drawn curtains, a quick head count. And then, finally, the large, imposing Customs and Immigration building.

Inside, forms to be filled in, fortuitously written in both English and Simplified Chinese. Passport Control. And then the searches. Thorough, the contents of my cameras inspected, the netbook checked for illicit material. But polite and professional. Just one pannier spared, the best my hindering helpfulness could muster. And lots of questions. Had I been to China before? Did I miss my family? Why did I want to visit?

And then the final hurdle, the exit door tantalizingly close. A metal detector, beeping as it sensed the cleats in my boots. Checked with a hand held scanner by a young woman, I apologised profusely, my shirt having not been washed for more days than I’d want to admit. "Welcome to China" she said, smiling.

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Approach to Khorgas

August 2nd, 2010

"China Customs. Nyet" explained the Kazakh border guard, making a cross with his arms. Familiar words. I’d reached the edge of the Granitsa, the strip of land a few kilometres wide bordering neighbouring China, barbed wire and frequent watchtowers along its edges. Closed to all but local residents.

I smiled. I’d half expected this. But this time I’d plenty of time remaining on my Kazakh visa, and months before my Chinese one would expire. I could afford to be patient, to wait. "Tomorrow. Seven am" the guard explained. Progress I thought, turning around to find somewhere to stop for the night.

Parting company with New Zealand long-distance cyclists Mike and Joe the previous day, I’d eventually found a cheap hotel for the night. As the afternoon had worn on I’d felt increasingly nauseous, the saddle ever more uncomfortable, the pace ebbing away. But, relieved to be off the road at last, I’d mustered the enthusiasm to negotiate the rate down to a little under ten pounds. Fair. Settling up the next morning, the owner had sought his original offer, almost double what we’d agreed. "Nyet" I said firmly. Deal’s a deal I explained. He nodded reluctantly.

The final hundred miles or so to the Granitsa had been hard work, despite an early start in the relative cool of the morning. By ten am it was in the thirties, the flat, mostly arid plain offering precious little to distract from the heat. Koktal, Zharkent, towns I’d passed through on my previous foray to the border, drifted past, inconsequential now. I was bound for China, the frontier town of Khorgas.

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New Zealand Nomads

August 1st, 2010

Thorns together - web

Their plates were empty, mine still largely untouched. I apologised for talking so much, the opportunity for conversation in a shared native tongue irresistible. But I think they understood, they’d encountered solo travellers before, had said so much when they’d been given the chance.

Mike and Jo were fellow long-haul cyclists, New Zealanders who’d ridden from Beijing with an eye towards France. We’d met by chance at a small cafe at the top of the Kokpek Canyon in eastern Kazakhstan. They were trying to fathom the menu as I arrived, their cycles, from the same bike builder as my own, immediately catching my eye.

Some striking similarities, not just the choice of equipment. Philosophy, how they approached life on the road, resolved the inevitable problems, issues that cropped up from time to time. But still lots to share. And then off on our separate ways, they to find a secluded spot to camp, myself on towards the Chinese border.

[Title inspired by Mike and Jo’s choice of bicycle – the Thorn Nomad]

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In the kitchen

July 31st, 2010

Maryam

Think she’d taken a bit of a shine to me. Ordinarily, a little less than ten pounds a night got you a bed, no more. But Maryam the cook had other ideas. Breakfast once the dining room was quiet, a film crew using the guest house as a base. Compliments of the house, Benny the manager explained. But it was dinner I enjoyed the most because I was invited into the kitchen, encouraged to tuck into generous plates of food. I doubted if many were so permitted.

Thirty or so guests to cater for. Plates of neatly chopped herbs, tomatoes, peppers. Carefully ordered fridge. Impeccably clean work surfaces. Joined by the Spa staff as service approached, there was a warm communal atmosphere, everyone pitching in. But you knew who was in charge, unspoken. I’d offered to help, but that wasn’t allowed. Not in Maryam’s kitchen.

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Unexpected stop

July 30th, 2010

Bayseit was typical of many of the small linear settlements I’d passed through in eastern Kazakhstan. A wide, tree-lined boulevard, small, single storey houses set back a little along either side. Along the roadside watermelons stacked up on rush matting, the odd one cut open to reveal its succulent, tempting red flesh. Further down, fruit and vegetable stalls, packed closely together, almost indistinguishable. Midway along, a hotch-potch of cafes, some just a few tables in the shelter of the trees. The enticing aroma of meat being grilled over hot coals.

I’d ended up here the previous day, arriving in the last remnants of the evening light. The plan had been to stop earlier in a small hostel, largely frequented by itinerant workers. I’d spent a night there during my previous return to Almaty. Typical of those run by ethnic Russian women, it was basic but always clean and welcoming. Or it would have been, had it not been closed for major refurbishment.

There’d been no choice but to press on, assured by a few locals that there was a similar establishment in the next town. In any case, I couldn’t camp where I was. So I’d hastily departed, a little unsure as to exactly how far I’d have to ride. In practice, it hadn’t been that much further, perhaps six or seven miles, but locating the guest house hadn’t been easy. Eventually, stopping at a petrol station at the far end of town to ask if they knew where it might be, a car was summoned to guide me there, a few hundred metres back along the road.

A drive way led up to a house set back quite some way from the road, nothing to indicate that it might be a guest house. In what little remained of the light I could pick out some substantial log built cabins, and a large, immaculate white house. I was greeted, in perfect English, by Benny. The place was a Spa, he explained, owned by one of the large Almaty hotels. He looked after it for them, together with a few others from India and a small local staff. Sensing I feared a night here was quite beyond my budget, he added there were rooms in the house for just two thousand Tenge – about ten pounds. I accepted at once, relieved to be off the road at last.

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Heading east… again

July 29th, 2010

"When you’re chewing on life’s gristle
Don’t grumble, give a whistle" Eric Idle

Back on the road again, pushing east once more towards the Chinese border. Ten weeks to Hong Kong. Familiar sights, innocuous things like petrol stations, evoking memories of my unexpected return to Almaty a month or so earlier. A maelstrom of emotion. De facto no from the Chinese Consulate, the subsequent return to the UK, to a seemingly perfect world, time with family, then back to the fray. Jet-lagged.

Found myself suddenly feeling very lonely. Reminiscing about time spent with my parents in their small Cambridgeshire village. The gently flowing brook, well-signed, neatly kept Public Footpaths. Nearby churches that offered walkers afternoon tea on Sundays. A few miles away a small town, its Public School at the very heart of the community. I’d taken the bus there one Saturday. Neatly laid out market stalls in the Square. Smart bookshop. A few cafes. Quieter perhaps than during term time, but even what hustle and bustle there was seemed nicely ordered.

Told myself this was just a natural part of the process of re-adjusting to being back on the road, compounded by tiredness, an unavoidable consequence of the five hour time difference with the UK. For, however disciplined I’d been about treating the UK as a "Nation of Convenience", the transition back was probably never going to be that easy. Something I’d suspected when I’d got back to Almaty. A familiar Western influence amongst its wide streets and pleasant parks. China. The unknown. Uncertain.

The wandering mind. Jolted occasionally by the need to check the map, as much for progress as for direction. Then back into deeper thought, the path ahead. Push for Yining, the first substantive town, a leafy outpost a day’s ride from the border. A few nights there, adjusting to the unfamiliar, then on through the mountains towards the city of Urumqi.

A further eight weeks and I’d reach Hong Kong. Imagined it to be, in a sense, similar to Malta I’d visited earlier in the year. Very different to the UK, and yet pleasingly intuitive. The Colonial influence, eroded little, from what I could glean, by the Chinese in the years since the lowering of the flag. Then on to Australia, New Zealand and North America. Two more continents. No language barriers to frustrate things.

Frequent stops for water. Cooler than it had been, but still around thirty degrees with little shade, especially in the afternoon as the sun moved towards its zenith.

Back in thought. South America. I’d yet to resolve how exactly I’d get there, some parts of Mexico south to Colombia fraught with danger, or just plain difficult to traverse. Then the plunge south, the crossing to South Africa. The final Continent. Had to be the most challenging, risky part of the journey, but by then I’d have a great deal of experience to draw on. And I’d be heading home.

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Reflections on Kazakhstan

July 27th, 2010

Kazakhstan was the Stan the others secretly wanted to be. Probably. Relatively prosperous, stable, none of the endemic corruption and nepotism I’d encountered elsewhere. The generosity of the people I’d met, their kindness to strangers, quite humbling.

There’d been fresh challenges. The Kazakh Steppe, fearsome heat to contend with. Alone. Learning how best to adapt to such an unforgiving environment. More than physical, part mental, part intellectual. Border crossings in and out of Kyrgyzstan a test of robustness, self-confidence. And an element of brinkmanship.

My point of entry, the large oil town of Atyrau, had been a gentle introduction. An English pub, catering for the influx of Western petroleum workers. But most memorable had been my time in the smaller places, the night spent sleeping on the floor of a roadside cafe, inside a petrol station. Or wild camping in the rolling hills north of Bishkek, pitching my tent as the sun set. Splashing icy cold water on your face in the morning.

I’d also been fortunate to be able to spend a little time with a Kazakh family in the suburbs of Almaty, the former Capital but still the country’s cultural and financial centre. Sophisticated, vibrant, but not claustrophobic. Lots of well kept parks, and a splendid mountain backdrop.

If I’d one regret, it was that I’d not had enough time to be able to cycle the whole way across, entry constraints of my first Chinese visa precluding this. Ironic really, as I’d had ample time on my Kazakhstan visa, and I’d ended up having to return to my “Nation of Convenience” for a fresh Chinese one. Filling in the gaps really wasn’t a practical proposition, for now at least. Besides, it gives me an excuse to return one day and explore some more, not that I really need a pretext to visit. I’d loved my time here.

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Handy hints – earthquakes

July 24th, 2010

"Trembling dishes", "Shaking chandeliers", "Items… falling down from the shelves" and cats "mewing miserably". All indications, said the roughly translated leaflet I’d found, to help you recognise an earthquake. Just in case you haven’t guessed why the building’s collapsing around you. It also helpfully advises you pack some unbreakable dishes, just to be on the safe side. Probably best to stick to camping.

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