Across Continents

Ken's Blog

The long mile

November 2nd, 2010

Jingning. My next stop. No more than five miles away. So, so close. But, separating us, a tunnel. And no alternative. No goat track around. Nothing. Just an extensive list of prohibitions above the entrance. And a reasonable amount of traffic in both directions.

Tunnel - web

I’d a long-standing love hate relationship with Chinese lorry drivers. True, they’d come to my rescue on more than one occasion. But their overtaking, head on, often bordered on reckless. The thought of being enclosed in a tunnel with them, just one lane in either direction, wasn’t in the least bit appealing. Especially as I’d no idea how long it was. A mile perhaps. Assuming the officials at the entrance tolls would let me sneak through.

Lights on. Front and back. And my head torch. Bold, confident approach. Wave to the officials. They smile back. Into the tunnel. It’s lit, but the absence of ventilation fans means visibility is poor. The air heavy with fumes. But inhaling the noxious mixture is just a transient, an irritation. And a gentle downhill gradient helps. No, the real risk to health is overtaking lorries. Whether unaware of your presence, or just plain ambivalent, matters not. Forcing you to pull up sharply, lean against the tunnel wall. And hope.

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Friend and foe

September 22nd, 2010

"A strong foe is better than a weak friend" – Edward Dahlberg, American novelist

I thought the usual quotation – "Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer" – hackneyed, even if it’s attributed to a Chinese military strategist. But, two and a half thousand years later, it does have an irritating aptness. Lorry drivers. The worst come perilously close, sucking you in towards their trailers, then spitting you out as they rumble past. Riding slowly uphill into a headwind, the wall of air those plunging downhill create can be sufficient to bring you to an abrupt halt.

But, for all that, faced with genuine difficulty on remote stretches of road, it’d be lorry drivers I’d seek help from. No hesitation. Not all would oblige, but when assistance came, you just knew it’d be from a trucker. They’re the ones that often wave as they pass, give the thumbs up, offer water, keep an eye on you. Dare say there are car drivers who’d step in. Of course there are, but more likely they’d stop to take a photo and then head off. Busy people.

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Descent to Turpan

September 3rd, 2010

Garage window - web

I was tired. Very tired. Hadn’t slept well the previous night. Few hours dozing, only to be woken once more by lorries rumbling into what was clearly more a truck stop than a petrol station. And the odd goods train trundling past on the main line across the road. Maybe not as over-staffed as I’d thought when I’d arrived. Just a lull.

But it did mean I’d got an early start. My notes said mountain day, the small scale map suggesting the road followed a pass through a range with quite a few peaks over the four thousand metre mark. Thus prepared for a tough ride to Turpan. Only to discover early on that, whilst my expectations were strictly correct, it was downhill. I shouldn’t have been surprised, for the town sits in a depression, over five hundred feet below sea level. Third lowest in the world. Just hadn’t expected to descend so soon.

Descent scenery - web

Through the mountains a few sandstone outcrops, but otherwise now a dark, volcanic rock, fine grit, the odd tree, dusty building but otherwise barren, empty. The wind had begun to come up, thankfully largely on my back, but soon too strong to be able to safely control the bike. Quickly found myself struggling to keep it upright as I pushed it along the hard shoulder.

Eventually reaching a petrol station and some respite from the wind, by now gale force, perhaps Force 7 or 8, I found myself contemplating how to reach Turpan safely some thirty or so miles away. If the wind remained directly on my back it’d be possible, albeit very slowly and cautiously, but that seemed unlikely for such a distance.

But then the traffic police arrived, to help rather than hinder. They’d spotted me passing through one of the toll points along the dual carriageway. Vehicles had been blown over ahead, they explained, the wind strength was expected to increase further, but would diminish overnight. I should not continue, they advised. Conditions had become unrideable. They had a point. And, they indicated, there was a hotel across on the other side of the carriageway where I could stop for the night.

Thanking them for their advice, I huddled behind the petrol station, considering my next move. Perhaps the police were just being cautious. Understandable. Maybe things were not quite as bad as they had portrayed. But I doubted they’d invented the story about vehicles getting blown over. If I continued on and things worsened, it’d be difficult, if not well nigh impossible, to retrace my steps. And little chance of shelter to pitch the tent if benighted short of Turpan.

Hotel it was to be. Frustrating but probably wise. I could quickly make up the ground in the morning. Took a while to reach it across the carriageway, crossing the wind beam on. And a similar struggle to secure a room. At first flat denials they even had accommodation. Showed them my card, explaining my venture in Simplified Chinese, gestured to indicate my dilemma, that I’d be delighted to continue on to Turpan, but it simply wasn’t possible. Nor could I retrace my steps back towards Urumqi. I was stuck.

Flea pit - web

They relented. Hard concrete floor, dubious bedding and if you wanted en suite, there was the petrol station a few hundred metres along. But it was shelter. And just two pounds for the night. I assured them I simply wanted to sleep, keep out of sight, then be on my way. Suspected they just didn’t want the hassle of having to register my presence with the Police. Ironic given who’d advised me to stop there. And I had sought to explain that to my reluctant hosts.

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Up through the mountains

August 10th, 2010

Up through the mountains from Ken Roberts on Vimeo.

Pristine dual carriageway, vast construction projects, and smoking brakes…

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