Across Continents

Ken's Blog

Pride and Prejudice

October 28th, 2010

Jane Austin had never appealed. Preferred Enid Blyton. "Famous Five" rather than "Secret Seven". The former did lighthouses, espionage and lashings of ginger beer. The latter never ventured far from the garden shed. However, I’d chanced on "Pride and Prejudice", in English, on Chinese national television. For once, subtitled rather than dubbed. Drawn in by the feisty appeal of the lead characters, and a few unsavoury supporting ones. And, like "Titanic", I’d quickly got a rough idea how it might end.

I’d arrived in Huining much earlier in the day. Rode around for a while in the pleasant mid-afternoon autumn sun. Couple of smart hotels. Security for Emma and the kit, a hot shower, fluffy towels. And a chance to wander amongst the street vendors, browse around. But no. Both man – full. Too late to reach the next town before dark. Besides, I was confident that in a place of this size, I would be able to find somewhere to stay. Eventually.

My starting point had been the bus station. Taken a while to find, but I was pretty certain there’d be a few options close by. Difficult to locate, perhaps just a doorway, and sometimes reluctant to admit foreigners. I wasn’t particularly concerned about the latter. The bike, and my "magic card" describing my venture in Simplified Chinese, usually overcoming any reservations. Been turned away just once.

Took an hour or so to find a suitable room. Not so much the doss house I’d half expected, but rather a dilapidated hotel. Tired. A television probably the only addition since the early eighties. But, whatever it lacked in decor was amply made up by the friendliness of the staff. Insistent they help carry Emma and all the kit up to the room. I’d forgo fluffy towels any day for such a warm welcome.

[Author’s note: Smart hotels – decadence? In a provincial town expect to pay between ten and twelve pounds for an en-suite twin room, internet connection and breakfast – astounding value for money. And, when interspaced with truck stops and doss houses, affordable]

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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.

Room

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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Gourmet evening

June 6th, 2010

Menu

Chicken’s off” she explained. Hopes dashed. I’m quite fond of mutton, a staple in much of Central Asia, but there’s nothing like a change. I’d been encouraged by a menu in English, an extensive choice of dishes. But it wasn’t to be. Just mutton, done in fifteen extremely different and interesting ways. In wine, piquant, Italian, stewed, Georgian, in orange juice, in soya sauce, Arabic, Turkish. And then I’d lost the will to read on.

At least I could wash it down with a cool beer. I’d noticed the small party of Japanese tourists on the other tables had one each. And there was a bar in the corner of the hotel restaurant. But, I was told, it didn’t actually stock alcoholic beverages of any description. Like my fellow guests, I’d have to go to the shop down the road.

Undeterred by the main course and refreshments, I made another foray into the menu in hope of desert. Found fruit salad amongst the salads, and rice pudding. Alas, you guessed, no fruit, and the rice pudding? Afraid that was in the breakfast menu. No chance.

Still, I’d found there was pancakes with honey to look forward to next morning, even tea with milk. Another fifteen choices for breakfast. On paper. In fact there were three. Fried eggs with sausage, two different styles. Or omelette. But no milk for tea, which did make me wonder what’d pitch up if I plumped for the last option.

[Author’s note: Described in a well-known guide book as the best place to stay in Turkistan – for less than fifteen pounds per night, add about six for breakfast and dinner combined, such as it is – I was beginning to wonder if the Hotel Yassy had a twin. Staff are friendly enough, but there’s a lack lustre feel to the whole place. Tepid water only in the mornings, and you hope they’re rust stains on the towels. Toilet paper soft enough. Recommended only for its comedy value. And the air-conditioning in Room 307. But don’t try and reach it by the lift – that regularly stops between floors]

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Stalin’s birthplace

May 1st, 2010

Stalin

I’d made good time to Gori, birthplace of Joseph Stalin, keen to secure Emma and the kit and visit the museum dedicated to the town’s most well-known son. Decided to opt for the best hotel in town, sixty euros online or considerably less if you turn up and pay in Georgian Lari. Took a while to find, and I’d balked at paying extra for breakfast so that got thrown in for free. Worn carpets, but friendly staff and a hot shower. I’d noticed the old Intourist hotel in the centre, but I didn’t feel up to the authentic Soviet era experience.

Reaching the Stalin Museum mid-afternoon, quite a few people were wandering around the grounds, mostly Georgians, the odd German or American tourist. But, it seemed, I was the only one to venture in. The exhibition rooms had to be unlocked so I could enter. Dark and austere, the many photographs of a smiling ’Uncle Joe’ failed to raise the sobre mood within. I was tempted to take a few photos but I’d a minder close by.

Stalin house

Emerging back into the warm afternoon sun, a brief look at the house where Stalin was supposedly born, now transported into the museum’s grounds. More a shrine than a monument.

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“Who’s afraid of the big, bad wolf?”

May 1st, 2010

An apt end to the day. Sat in the dining room of a small hotel, the tables far outnumbering the rooms, listening to “Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf?” playing on a radio in the kitchen. Still in my damp cycling clothing, they’d quickly prepared khachpuri – cheese bread – sensing food a more pressing need than a shower. I’d spotted the small establishment – it had just two rooms – a few kilometres south of the top of the pass through the Surami mountains that divide east and west Georgia. Pretty basic, but, after such a cold, wet and tough day, my needs were pretty simple.

Surami hotel

It’d been raining pretty much continuously since I’d left the small hotel above the casino, some hundred and ten kilometres back near the town of Kutaisi. Not as heavy as the previous day, but it wasn’t the sunshine I’d expected. I’d stopped briefly in the town to draw some cash out, the bank’s security guard watching over Emma. He’d spotted my nervousness, came over, tapping his holster to reassure me all would be safe.

A brief stop in the small town of Zestaponi, forty or so kilometres beyond Kutaisi, then up into the mountains, heading for the Rikoti Pass. Over four thousand feet, mostly a steady climb along a steep sided wooded valley. Just the traffic for distraction. A good many Ladas and Mercedes, darkened glass, and plenty of Turkish lorries. Roadside shacks selling oil, something the older vehicles seemed to use in copious amounts.

The final pull to the top of the pass, and the two kilometre tunnel, had been hard going. I’d reached the apex about six thirty, just an hour or so of light left, with another ten or so kilometres to be covered on the other side. All the advice I’d received had been clear. Do not cycle through the tunnel – potholes, poor lighting and dangerous driving to contend with – instead follow the detour that winds over the top. But I was tired, the traffic light and it didn’t look too bad. So I’d gone for it.

The next day was bright, sunny, the temperature quickly rising to the mid twenties, the road to Gori, Stalin’s birthplace, flat and fast. Just a stiff headache to contend with, probably the result of the small woodstove in my room the previous night. Would need to be more careful in the future.

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Night at the casino

April 24th, 2010

Night at the Casino from Ken Roberts on Vimeo.

Ken describes his night staying above a casino, close to the town of Kutaisi in western Georgia. Watch out for the cameo appearance by the very helpful Russian housekeeper

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