Across Continents

Ken's Blog

Planning ahead

November 23rd, 2010

A couple of questions from my neighbour Jon had got me thinking. Something he’d posed ahead of a forthcoming interview we’d be doing together for a local radio station. How much time was spent planning ahead? What sort of things did I do?

Some long-haul touring cyclists do favour wicker baskets on their handlebars. But I’d be surprised if they’d extend the Enid Blyton “Famous Five” analogy to suggest a world of lush meadows, lashings of ginger beer and thick cut sandwiches. It’s not that there aren’t idyllic, care-free moments. It’s just that there’s quite a bit of other stuff to do.

Take my recent stop in the walled city of Xi’an. Admittedly a bit longer off the road than is the norm. A forced wait for a fresh visa. But reasonably representative nevertheless. Catching up on the blogs. Elaborating on those little gems of ideas that emerge in the saddle. Photos to upload. Bicycle to clean, kit to wash. Keeping an eye on the funds. As much the mundane as the more motivating.

When it comes to the next country or two, there’s only one starting point. Visas. Without which everything else is academic. Just day dreaming. Then it’s maps, logistics, timelines. Slowly assembling a mental picture of the road ahead. Exactly how much you do, the depth, very much dependant on the individual. What you’re comfortable with. Some content to ride on the fly. Others, myself included, preferring a bit more certainty. But not unduly constraining. A balance.

But there’s one thing I’m fortunate I need not concern myself too much with. Airlines. Admittedly I need to drum up some dates, but, other than that, I just leave it to my parents to advise on the best deals. Forty one and never to old to listen to Mum and Dad.


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 – 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]


Little black book

May 31st, 2010

I’d had an e-mail from an old friend in Scotland. How did I find all these people I’d met or stayed with? Surely my little black book wasn’t that extensive? No, I explained. Some arose from chance meetings on the road. Like Knut, a German now living in Tbilisi, Georgia. Our paths had crossed back in Serbia, we’d kept in touch. He’d helped with many of the introductions in the western Caucasus. Others are fellow travellers, offering their couch to those on the road. A chance visit to a petrol station in Belgrade led to dinner in the suburbs. Many other examples.

An element of luck? Possibly. But a good deal of planning. What’s the road ahead like, my probable rate of progress? When will I arrive? The art of the possible. Back in the Royal Geographical Society in London I’d sat down with Shane Winser to discuss my expedition. Over the years she’s seen what’s worked. And what hasn’t. Outlining my plans, I expected questions on routes, equipment or training. But no, how was I to manage all the information I’d need to assemble to succeed? Weather predictions, visa regulations, funds, logistics and a good deal more. Good point.

Quite a bit was done before I’d set off, but never as much as I’d liked. Problem is that if you wait until you’re ready, you’ll never leave. Especially when travelling for four years. And vital local knowledge is difficult to come by until you’re there on the ground. So, like arranging to meet or stay with people, much is done on the road. A never ending game, one that won’t finish until I make it back to my humble cottage. The World Wide Web is a huge help, my small netbook an indispensable tool. Almost. Over-reliance on technology can be risky. For example, no internet in a large swathe of western China. Problem? Not if you know about it. Just need to plan around it.

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