Across Continents

Ken's Blog

Night to remember

December 7th, 2011

Within the hour the wind had strengthened considerably. The noise clearly audible above the sound of the television. Chilling. Yet the air wasn’t noticeably cold. Cool perhaps. But hardly penetrating. Its greatest menace its unrelenting buffeting. Compounded by darkness.

I’d reached the small dusty town of Ocotillo a short time earlier. Found a small motel. Just four rooms and a collection of tired trailers. Mine was simply furnished. Painted breeze block walls. An electric heater. Small armchair, a split in the cushion. Stained carpet. Curtains drawn to help keep the penetrating wind out.

But none of this really mattered. I was indoors. Finally. Bringing to a close a night truly to remember. At sunset I’d decided to ride for Ocotillo. Twelve miles on the shoulder of the Interstate highway east from San Diego but downhill all the way. Reckoned I could make the descent before it was properly dark. Not an attractive prospect but the least worst choice. The alternative wild camping in the bush close to the heavily patrolled Mexican border.

A few miles onto the Interstate hit by gusting gale force winds. Brought to an abrupt stop. Unable to ride, struggling to keep the bike upright whilst gingerly rolling her down the grade. Trucks and cars charging past down the slope. Uncomfortably close. By now quite dark, the wind lending an unsettling, eerie dimension. The only glimmer of compensation my bright rear red light, reflective jacket, pannier panels and a generous shoulder.

I’d have accepted any offer of a lift to get me out of there. But nobody stopped. Ten miles or so Ocotillo, maybe a little less. Nasmith’s Rule. Two and a half miles per hour. Four hours. Gone six so feasible I’d reach the town by ten pushing the trusty steed. Worse case scenario, hopeful the wind would ease as I descended. For now grateful the wind was buffeting rather than chilling. And it wasn’t raining. Below the lights of traffic weaving down the steep slope. Others struggling with the climb on the largely parallel uphill carriageway.

Sometimes the gusts would ease. Only to return a few hundred yards later, their ferocity undiminished. I knew to be cautious. Similar experience in China’s Gobi desert. But conditions did eventually improve, albeit slowly. Freewheeling short sections perched on a single pedal, poised to dismount if hit by sudden strong winds.

Eventually back in the saddle, the lights of what I presumed to be Ocotillo almost touchable, finding I couldn’t pedal. Stopping once more on the shoulder to discover my chain had slipped off the chainring. Five minutes to fix. Head torch on. Release rear wheel quick release to free the chain and refit to the sprockets. Steady and stoic for I knew the night would soon be over. And it’d taken my mind right off hemorrhoids. Never fun on a leather saddle.

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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.

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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

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Shifting sands

September 20th, 2010

Stubborn? I’d half regretted asking whether or not the Caucasus lay in Europe or Asia. Resigned myself to accepting it to be a geo-political question, rather than the straightforward "yes no" one I’d hoped for. This time it was deserts, and I’d already unearthed a wide diversity of opinion. I’d also thought the geography of the Central Asian states a bit tricky, their sometimes arbitrary borders, ethnic groups spread across nations. But simple sand seemed much more difficult to grasp.

Question was, which desert was I in? That I was in one was irrefutable. Arid, sparse vegetation, little rainfall. What was less clear was its name, if indeed it had one. I’d sought to simplify the problem by starting with Basins. There were a few. Imagined them to be large sand pits, so, in all probability, it seemed likely they’d be closely allied to the various deserts. It was a theory. Of sorts.

Unnamed desert - web

There was the Turpan Basin. I’d crossed it a little while ago, spent a day in its only decent sized town. Mostly below sea level so also termed a Depression. To the west the Tarim Basin, home of the Taklamakan desert. Little dispute about that.

To the east of Turpan lies the city of Hami – Kumul in the local Uyghur dialect. It too sits in a Depression. Beyond the Hami Basin are what most seem to regard as the western fringes of the Gobi desert. Fifth largest in the world, and Asia’s biggest. Much of it is in Mongolia, encroaching on the north western and north central Chinese provinces of Gansu and Inner Mongolia respectively. My route east of Hami as far as the city of Lanzhou. Over a thousand miles.

Some cite the Gobi as extending as far as the Pamir mountains in the west, encompassing the Turpan and Hami Basins, and the Taklamakan desert. I’m not convinced. Reckon there are two distinct deserts – the Gobi and Taklamakan – separated by the Turpan and Hami Basins. The dividing region may not have a convenient label, but, by any recognised definition, it’s still desert. No doubt about that.

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Sleeping under the stars

September 19th, 2010

Sleeping under the stars - web

Sleeping under the stars. A common place sight in the western Gobi desert. But no sign of the table lamp…

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Quarter complete

September 17th, 2010

I doubted if few coming this way even knew, let alone appreciated, that, across an unremarkable strip of tarmac, lay an imaginary line. Longitude. Ninety degrees east. One quarter of the way around the world. Taken almost a year. Actually, I’d gone a bit further than that, starting a little to the west of the Greenwich Meridian.

Desert - web

I’d left Turpan earlier in the day, descending for a while. Further into the Depression. Brief respite from the harsh sun at a truck stop. Already in the thirties. Check of the altimeter. One hundred and fifty four feet below sea level. Further east the road climbs steadily, either side sandstone cliffs replacing the rough, rocky scrub of the Turpan Basin.

Oasis - web

The occasional strip of green, sometimes close, sometimes distant. Small settlements. Mud brick buildings. Inaccessible from the carriageway, a stout barbed wire fence either side. Not even the smallest of gaps.

Stall - web

And then, eventually, a break in the fence. Across dusty, rough ground, a stall. Beneath the straw roof, tables stacked with melons, grapes drying on racks, a freezer filled with bottled water, a TV flickering in the background. Lunch. Then a return to the road. The earlier cliffs, imaginatively shaped by the wind, replaced by loose rocks, devoid of vegetation.

Later, beyond the ninetieth line of longitude, swirling dust clouds, whipping up debris as they crossed the carriageway. Further towards Shanshan, the night’s stop, thunder. Then huge globules of rain. Cold. But not the expected deluge. And not unpleasant.

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Neither backwards or forwards

September 10th, 2010

The situation wasn’t quite desperate, but it was looking dire. Despite no obvious abatement in the weather, I’d decided to make a run for the town of Turpan. I’d reckoned on thirty miles or so, and knew I could walk that in a day if it came down to it. What I’d overlooked was the sheer strength of the crosswinds, and the propensity for a fully loaded touring cycle to act like a sail. And a large one at that.

Started well enough, the wind directly on my back. But, as the road gradually curved further east, it became increasingly difficult to control the bike. I pressed on. Towards the wind farms, their huge rotors stationary rather than risk damage in the gale. Soon forced to walk, riding now quite impossible. Hoping conditions would improve ahead. Impossible to judge. The flat, bleak, rocky landscape devoid of any feature to indicate wind strength. Not even a culvert to provide shelter.

The wind strengthened, stiff gusts becoming steady, unrelenting. My pace rapidly falling away, struggling just to keep the bike upright. Almost an hour to cover less than a mile. Retreat a no more appealing prospect than going forwards. Or feasible, conditions worsening.

Brief respite as a passing lorry driver stopped a short distance ahead of me. No hard shoulder, instead coming to a halt on the inside lane of the dual carriageway. Apologetic that strapping the bike safely onboard would be an impossibility. I nodded in reluctant agreement. A few minutes shelter, enough to consume some chocolate, replenish my energy levels.

As he pulled away I spotted another lorry, parked up on rough ground a few hundred metres away. Must have stopped whilst I was having my break. Glimmer of an idea. Spurred on by the prospect I might be able to hitch a lift, it appearing possible there might be room to secure the bike, I pushed on. Hoping the driver didn’t head off before I reached him.

Took about twenty minutes to stow the panniers in the cab and lash the bike down onto boxes of bottled water in the open-topped trailer. Buffeted by the wind, the driver then obliged to manoeuvre the lorry so I could safely open the passenger door. Then off to Turpan.

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Making a run for it

September 9th, 2010

Making a run for it from Ken Roberts on Vimeo.

Ken describes his plan, despite continuing gale force winds, to run for the Turpan

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Road ahead

August 24th, 2010

“The difference between ordeal and adventure is… attitude”

Planning tools - web

I’d slept in a petrol station, on the floor of a roadside cafe, and had a suspicion I’d shortly be adding a brothel to the list. Sometimes one has to suffer for one’s art. And I don’t mean in the house of ill-repute. No. I was thinking more about what my mother would make of it. Or me. Perhaps I’d better take the long way home.

Annotated map - web

I’d been looking at the road ahead, roughly three weeks to the city of Lanzhou, much of it across the Gobi desert. A great deal of it barren, sparsely populated. My map had its limitations, much of it down to its small scale. I’d learnt to augment it with a blog I’d found, a very useful account by a fellow English cyclist who’d come the same way. Lots of annotations.

Google Earth had good imagery of the region, useful for seeing what’s there. Or in the desert, what’s not. Like a couple of settlements shown on my map that simply don’t exist on the ground. Useful to know if you’re planning on using them as watering stops. And one helpful individual had populated much of the route with an abundance of photographs showing exactly what the terrain, and the road, looked like.

Google Earth - web

I’d also found a website where I could look up place names in Simplified Chinese. After a while I’d noticed that all the towns seemed to have remarkably similar names – actually the same. Re-reading the website, I realised I’d be meticulously copying out the expression for ’populated place’ – about ten times..

Beyond the city of Urumqi, the Turpan Basin. Described as the hottest place in China. Across the ninetieth line of longitude. One quarter of the way around the world. Next Hami, large town or small city perhaps, but then little before reaching the Silk Road watering hole of Dunhuang. Brief respite, then on towards the city of Lanzhou. Gritty road ahead.

[The author is hugely indebted to Steve Tallon for sharing his own account of cycling across the Gobi desert – see www.turnrightforjapan.com – ironically, a website that seems to be blocked in China. And who, judging from his photographs, found exactly the same branch of a well-known fast food chain in Urumqi as I did. Opposite the Sheraton.

Place names translations courtesy of www.dbr.nu/data/geo/placenames/geo_china_placenames.php]

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