Across Continents

Ken's Blog

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

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Midnight at the oasis

October 8th, 2010

It might have been a dream. Fragments of past memories. Night in a Scottish lay-by. Little sleep in the cramped confines of a Ford Cortina. Industrial scenes. "Bladerunner" perhaps. But this was very real. Gone midnight. Inside the cafe young women shepherded customers, mostly lorry drivers, to tables.

I joined a driver and his mate I’d met earlier in the day. Bowls of hot food – rice, steamed soft dough balls, vegetables, stew – quickly appeared. I was glad of the warmth indoors. Outside, cold as sharp as the harsh lights of the many small workshops on both sides of the road. Lorries parked up in ordered lines. Others trundling past, like shadows amidst all the dust.

Welcome as the food was, I’d still to secure somewhere to spend the night. My hosts sought to reassure me there wasn’t a problem. And yet I’d already established there were no spare beds left in this vast truck stop. I was confused. Our late night meal eventually finished, we returned to the rasping, bitter cold outside. The driver gestured towards his cab. But, I quickly realised, not to retrieve my panniers. Rather, to sleep. In the passenger seat.

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Road to hell

October 7th, 2010

"The reward of suffering is experience" – Aeschylus the Greek

The Gobi proper. A harsh, arid desert. Negligible vegetation, few settlements. Far more remote, hostile places exist. And yet it engenders a strong sense of loneliness. Vulnerability. Its openness, much of it featureless, stretching far out of sight. Appearing to be never-ending. Sapping the resolve of the solo traveller. Exacerbated by the constant wind. Little diminished by the frequent passing of lorries.

The carriageway soon fades. Then a traffic jam. Lorries backed up, for several kilometres at least. A few drivers choose not to wait, passing perilously close to those waiting patiently, presumably hopeful of no sudden oncoming traffic. The few cars on the road share my vulnerability in the chaos. Combined effect of roadworks ahead and the only fuel stop for miles. Beyond it, the last vestiges of tarmac disappear. Rough, unmade road, potholed, dusty. For sixty miles. The road to hell.

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Raking it in

October 6th, 2010

Some people are fortunate enough to grow up knowing exactly what they want to do in life. Others are less lucky. They know what they’ll be doing. I’d found a group of workers for whom I was fairly sure it wasn’t a vocation they’d ever wanted to aspire to. Working conditions were unenviable. Intense heat in the summer, not even a modicum of shade. Bitter cold in the winter. Sandstorms. Gale force winds. No shelter.

Their job? Raking gravel. In the Gobi desert. Plenty of scope I suppose. There’s a lot of it. And a lot of them. Strictly speaking, they confine themselves to the roadsides, the embankments. Which still leaves quite a bit. And a great job they do. Neat borders, as pristine as the carriageway they run alongside.

You might imagine they’d be an unmotivated lot. But no. Quite the reverse. Save for their punctual lunch breaks, never saw them slack, no matter how ferocious the wind or intense the heat. Perhaps just grateful for the opportunity to work. And, almost without exception, women. I’d no aspirations to follow them, but theirs was an admirable work ethic.

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Hong Kong bound

July 21st, 2010

China map

Central Asia was almost over. Next China, the aim to reach Hong Kong and complete the crossing of another continent. Roughly six thousand kilometres – about four thousand miles. Up to ninety days to complete it on my new visa, planning on arriving late September. I’d my maps, the entire country on two sheets so not big on detail, but at least they showed place names in both Latin script and Mandarin characters.

And the plan? Cross the border from Kazakhstan at Khorgas, three days ride from Almaty and a thousand kilometres or so west of the Chinese city of Urumqi. There’s some formalities to attend to on arrival, registering with the Police, which probably means a small detour to the city of Yining. And a chance to investigate the rumour that the internet may have been restored. An ATM would also be good.

Then the push east along the Silk Roads, south of the Dzungarian Basin, Turfan Depression, across the lower reaches of the Gobi Desert, skirting around the Tibetan plateau towards Hong Kong. Hoping I’ll find an all-you-can-eat buffet or two.

[A larger version of Ken’s route across China will appear on the website shortly – just click on ’Route’ and follow the link. The author is indebted to professional illustrator Claudia Myatt – www.claudiamyatt.co.uk – for turning his incoherent scribblings into something meaningful. Again. And thanks also to fellow cyclist Steve Tallon at www.turnrightforjapan.com for lots of helpful routing information and inspiring photographs]

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