Across Continents

Ken's Blog

Goat tracks

October 21st, 2010

The road tunnel was bricked up, the bright blue steel door padlocked on the inside. From within the sound of workmen, too distant to hail and ask if they’d let me through. Prospects weren’t good. I’d insufficient daylight left to return to the last town, find an alternative route to my intended stop at Dingxi (pronounced "Dingshi" – possibly) and make it there before dusk. Besides, I wasn’t exactly sure there was one, other than the Expressway running roughly parallel with the old highway I was following. Or trying to. And no guarantees I’d be allowed to ride on the new road.

Some miles back I’d asked for directions at a small truck stop. A young woman had indicated I follow the road I was now on. A short while later she’d caught up with me in her car, accompanied by her husband and daughter. Whilst this was indeed the road to Dingxi, there was some sort of problem ahead. Something about a tunnel. Unlit perhaps. I showed them my lights. This didn’t seem to allay their concerns, but it appeared I could go this way, perhaps a short detour ahead. And a steep climb.

Now it all made sense. So, there must be a way around, presumably contouring around the steep hill through which the tunnel ran. Which also explained the two Chinese touring cyclists I’d seen half an hour earlier, heading in the other direction. A way through to Dingxi. If there wasn’t I was sure they’d have stopped me.

A short way back from the tunnel entrance a rough track led off to the right. I followed it simply because I couldn’t see an alternative. Steep and dusty, it wound slowly up the hillside, long vertical drops to one side for much of the way. Occasional deep patches of fine grit, attempting to wrench the bike towards the edge. Only the odd goat for company, unperturbed by my presence. The eventual descent back to the old highway almost as perilous as the climb up, traction difficult to maintain on the loose surface.

Back on tarmac of sorts, for the most part downhill towards Dingxi. Steady progress, but not enough to reach my intended destination before dusk. I’d been much slower leaving the city of Lanzhou than I’d expected, some unexpected climbs. And I’d not bargained for the tunnel detour.

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Arrive the Cavalry

October 19th, 2010

A very welcome beer. Not back in Dunhuang as I’d earlier feared. On the train. I’d jostled my way through several carriages in search of some American students who’d come to my aid back at the station. Wanted to thank them for all their help, without which I seriously doubted I’d ever have been able to board. Not with the bike at least. Eventually finding them, I’d been invited to join them for a drink.

Their arrival at the station earlier in the evening had been fortuitous, the timing impecable. They were all part of a study programme, refining their language skills and learning about Chinese culture. Joe, one of the group leaders, had stepped forward to offer help with re-assembling the bike. He’d also discreetly guided me away from the mele of station staff and the odd police officer who, I sensed, might soon thwart my plan to travel on the sleeper.

A few railway officials drifted over. The words were incomprehensible, but the tone seemed lighter, more encouraging. Then a young police man arrived. Not to impede, but to help. He’d escort us to the train, let us board early before the rush. I sought to convey my gratitude in just a few words and lots of warm handshakes.

I’d foolishly thought that’d be the end of the evening’s drama. Hadn’t allowed for the chief guard who’d been summoned by the carriage attendant. Suspected one of my fellow passengers had complained at the presence of the bike, despite what I thought was a pretty reasonable effort at stowing it so as to cause as little inconvenience as possible to others. And all rather ironic, given the generally chaotic nature of the sleeper.

Another impasse. I’d fourteen hours and the train was underway. Only place I was going was Lanzhou. The chief guard was insistent that the bike be moved to one of the vestibules. I was adamant my faithful steed should remain where she was, not least because I thought it the safest place for everyone. Protested the police were content with the arrangement. But he was persistent. And I polite. For a while I sought not to understand. Then I discovered I’d misplaced – albeit temporarily – the key to the armoured cable anchoring the bike to a bed frame. Wry smiles from a fellow passengers. Time to compromise, negotiate the most favourable solution.

[With especial thanks to Joe, Hanna and William and the rest of team studying with www.iesabroad.org in Beijing. Without whose help I seriously don’t think I’d ever have made it onto the sleeper. And in this piece the expression "warm handshake" means just that. My palms empty. Unlike in Azerbaijan]

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Shades of grey

October 17th, 2010

A phone call was made. It was possible. Hard berth only. About twenty five pounds. A train ticket. The genuine article. Grey rather than black market, trading bulk purchases, the profit a small commission. I’d decided to move ahead to Lanzhou by train. There’d been an abortive visit to the ticket office in Dunhuang, the limitations of the phrase book quickly becoming apparent. So, instead, had tracked down a man who could help.

Rail ticket

I’d mentioned the bike. Casually. Careful not to overplay it. After all, I’d been on a Chinese built train in Kazakhstan. Hadn’t been a problem. There surely wouldn’t be one now.

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Eye on the clock

October 16th, 2010

Several prolonged bouts of the dreaded traveller’s lurgy, possibly compounded by anti-diarrhoeals of dubious efficacy. Some difficult riding conditions – gale force winds and electrical storms – had also contributed to making progress slower than anticipated. Margin for error, unforeseen problems, now small. Uncomfortably so.

I’d enquired about a visa extension. Knew I was eligible. But, it seemed, I could only apply two days before expiry. Quite a way off, but the notion of being obliged to leave it to the last minute wasn’t in any way appealing. Overstay and there’s a real risk of detention and deportation. And I doubted the authorities would be very accommodating with Emma my trusty steed.

Wasn’t quite sure what to do. No immediacy. Yet. So I’d elected to do something productive whilst I’d considered the situation. Mulling over the options. A haircut. It had helped, bar the slightly worrying moment when a young woman had beckoned me to follow her into the back of the shop. A massage parlour. To wash my hair.

Perhaps I’d been overly confident with my strategy for China. Make full use of my three month visa, immerse myself in the country and its culture. With the benefit of cooler conditions in the western deserts, and less chance of encountering a typhoon or tropical storm further east. It came with risk, a reduced ability to absorb the unexpected into the plan, and less daylight for riding later on. I’d known the winds could be challenging, but their strength and persistence had been far greater than anything I’d expected.

Whatever hindsight might make of my strategy, further self-analysis wasn’t going to get me to Hong Kong. Besides, I found myself feeling fairly comfortable it’d been a good call based on what I knew at the time. Had been sufficiently diligent in my research. This project was always going to be about problem solving, and I’d now a very simple one to address. Put some time back into the programme.

First and foremost I wanted to see China. So far much of it had been desert, as enthralling as it was challenging. But, odd though this may sound, it was getting a bit repetitive. The toughest section – from Hami to Dunhuang – was complete. I’d learnt that the final section, along the Hexi Corridor east to the city of Lanzhou, was similar to much of the ground I’d already covered. But beyond it lay a very different China, greener, more mountainous, much more densely populated.

Decided I’d jump ahead to Lanzhou. That’d be sufficient to give myself a realistic, but still challenging, programme to reach Hong Kong. And wouldn’t diminish my aim of experiencing as much of China as possible. A sensible compromise. There was just the slightly tricky question of how I’d achieve it. And promptly. I’d an idea… and I was sure it’d be an adventure all of its own.

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