Across Continents

Ken's Blog

Finding my feet

February 5th, 2012

Frustrating. No, explained the clerk mostly hidden behind the counter, they couldn’t actually access my cycle reservation and print off the ticket. The one I’d been told was absolutely essential to board with a bike. He shrugged his shoulders. I did likewise and then wandered off. Pointless.

The woman on the ticket barrier was much more helpful. I’d explained my predicament. She understood. Yes, she assured me, I’d be allowed to board when I returned in a few days time with my brother’s bike. I’d be my only form of independent transport for a while. Of course, I’d my trusty steed. But nobody takes a Lamborghini to the supermaket.

I was off to the Norfolk coast to spend a couple of days helping my brother and his family move house. Sold to me as a fine tonic for jet-lag. And chance to start the long process of catching up with family and friends.

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All aboard in Dagun

May 26th, 2011

All aboard in Dagun from Ken Roberts on Vimeo.

Ken stumbles on a restored railway station in the Mary Valley, southern Queensland

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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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Game of two halves

October 18th, 2010

Impasse. As if to emphasise it, a police officer had been summoned. He was adamant. The bike would not be allowed to even enter Dunhuang’s station. Let alone board a train. I’d shown my ticket. Thought at first the problem was that my trusty steed needed to go through their security scanner. It was my attempts at doing just that which had probably led to the officer being beckoned over to intervene.

It was quickly becoming apparent my usual bluffing – lots of "Wo bu mingbai" – "I don’t understand" – wasn’t going to work. Not least because I really didn’t understand what the issue was. No idea what I needed to placate the station staff about. Until, from amidst the growing crowd, someone stepped forward who spoke a little English. The bike was too big.

Glimmer of hope. Explained I could split the bike into two. Some concealed connectors enabling the frame to be separated into halves. It’d need to dig my tools out, but it was possible. Question was, would it be enough? Yes, it seemed. Twenty minutes later I’d bicycle in two sections and a collection of panniers. And admittance. Onto the concourse.

But I’d go no further without reassembling the bike, refitting the panniers. No other way to move all the kit. Unfortunately this just caused consternation amongst the station staff. The practicalities not appreciated, my efforts to explain failing entirely. The glimmer was fading. Rapidly.

[The mysterious connectors joining the frame – normally concealed by sections of inner tube – are US manufactured S&S Machine Bicycle Torque Couplings]

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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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Over the footbridge

June 22nd, 2010

He’d ridden horses at the 1994 Edinburgh Military Tattoo. That much I could establish. But not his name. One in the morning. His young son asleep in the next room whilst we drank tea with a little jam stirred in. Emma, my trusty steed, locked in his garage, two large, aggressive dogs chained up in the yard outside to guard her. A large stack of mattresses for me to sleep on.

Sayozek

An hour or so earlier I’d got off the train in the village of Sayozek. Cool night air. A few harsh electric floodlights cast bright pools of light intermittently along the platform. Elsewhere seemed quite dark, difficult to discern what lay beyond. I’d planned to spend the night in the station waiting room, moving off at first light at around five am. But the local policeman had come to meet the train and was having none of this.

A few people came over, watching me fit all the bags back on to Emma. Talk of a hotel, not sure where, and a masheyna – a car – to take me there. I politely declined, sensing a few hours sleep might quickly prove to be quite expensive. Thought I might wander off into the night, wait a while for the policeman to go, and then double back to the waiting room.

The train had by now left, the local merchants, mostly women, who’d been busy earlier offering drinks and snacks stacked up in old prams, preparing to head off into the darkness. They gathered around. Much discussion, mostly led by a matronly older lady. It was decided I should go off with the only man present, spending what remained of the night in his house. Over the footbridge.

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Other side of the tracks

June 21st, 2010

Gleaming carriages, soft blue livery. Hostesses in pristine uniforms standing smartly at ease. But my supposed rail car looked like a restaurant, and an expensive one at that. “No” explained one of the attendants, examining my ticket, “This is the Express to Astana, your train is on the next platform” she said, pointing to the footbridge. I must have looked disappointed. She gave a faint smile. Apologetic.

Steps were out of the question. Instead, a brisk walk to the far end of the platform. Across the tracks, gingerly picking a path amongst numerous shards of glass, mostly concealed amongst the sprawling vegetation. Small thorns ensnaring themselves in my socks, scratching against my ankles.

Another four berth cabin, a young woman called Naday. Four hours to Sayozek, arriving just after midnight, with little prospect of sleep before then. A few children rushing about, shouting excitedly, their parents too weary in the heat and humidity to intervene. Others lay about limply, the occasional futile effort at fanning themselves with whatever lay to hand.

After a while the guard appeared, insistent that all the windows be closed so the air conditioning might work. Chances seemed slim, judging by the state of the rolling stock and the grumblings from the other passengers. Conditions soon became oppressive, the guard by now flaked out on his own bunk, the windows were quickly re-opened. I’d be gone in a few hours.

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Rough sleeping

June 15th, 2010

He’d smiled. Understood what I’d muttered quietly in English when yet another person had tried to push in. Lost on the culprit. We’d picked the wrong ticket queue, but in the heat were resigned to a long wait rather than start afresh at another window.

Earlier I’d decided I’d take a train to get clear of Almaty, heading north as far as the town of Saryozek and the start of the run through the mountains east to the Chinese border. An unavoidable necessity to help ensure I made the crossing before my entry visa became invalid. I’d be arriving after midnight and was reckoning on sleeping in the station until first light. Around five am.

I’d then push east through the mountain passes, up to about five thousand feet, aiming to cover the one hundred and forty miles to the border in about thirty hours. I’d wild camp along the way so I could make the most of the cool mornings and late evenings. Plan was to cross into China the next morning, leaving myself a day spare. But first I needed to get the rail ticket…..

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Night train to Lugovoy

June 8th, 2010

Carriage five. Berth thirteen. The night train to Lugovoy. Close to midnight, the doors of most of the cramped four berth compartments remained open. Groups of young men, families, older couples, all ethnic Kazakhs. Sat on their bunks chatting quietly, a few sprawled out, attempting to rest under the harsh electric light. Small window tables piled up with mugs of tea, flat breads, salamis and boiled eggs. Pungent aromas on such a warm night.

The attendant had at first seemed suspicious of me, carefully checking my ticket as I’d sought to board the train at Turkistan. Once satisfied I’d found the right carriage, he’d helpfully indicated that if I could turn my handlebars out of the way, I could secure my bicycle in the narrow passageway right outside my own shared compartment.

My companions were two men who appeared to be travelling together. Quiet murmurings as I carefully stowed my panniers in the little space available. But then, with the appearance of my phrase book, the offer of tea and eggs. I declined politely, explaining I’d already eaten, instead showing them a small card explaining, in Russian, my venture. Was I going to Afghanistan? No, I said, I preferred to take my chances in Bishkek. They didn’t seem to think that was a good idea either.

By the morning they were gone, a young woman now occupying the bunk next to mine. Sound asleep, her face obscured by a clean white sheet. Ethnic Russian I thought. Outside, mostly gently rolling grasslands, patches of cultivated fields. Overcast, rain drops streaming diagonally down the windows. The occasional glimpse of mountains to the south, the border with the Kyrgyz Republic.

[With thanks to Alistair Maclean, a favourite childhood author, for providing inspiration for the title]

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Made in China

May 30th, 2010

Alexander

I’d joined Alexander for breakfast in the restaurant car. Borsh – Russian cabbage soup – and tea. We were sharing a sleeper cabin – a coupee – for the twenty four hour train journey from Atyrau to Kyzylorda. Very smart I suggested, air conditioned carriages, towels and bedding in pristine plastic wrappers, much better than the ageing sleepers back in England. Made in China he explained.

With each of us having just a smattering of our respective languages – Russian in his case – Alexander and I found some common ground discussing old eighties computers. He’d recently been to a convention in St Petersburg, and I explained I’d a fair sized collection of hardware at home. And even an emulator for one in my netbook.

Steppe

The view out of the window had remained largely unchanged from the previous evening. Largely flat as far as one could see, the hardiest of vegetation, grasses mostly, the odd scraggy bush, an occasional tree. Arid Steppe. Inhospitable. Just an unceasing line of telegraph poles alongside the track, each seeming to pass in time with the rhythmic motion of the train. Mesmorising.

Then occasional patches of green. Wispy grasses, like strands of fine hair, flowing in the gentle breeze. A few small houses dotted around. Cultivated plots surrounded by trees. The odd camel wandering around. First sighting along the Silk Roads.

A few stops offered the chance to step off the train and wander along the platform. Colourful stalls. Later on, closer to our destination Kyzylorda, women selling dried Aral Sea fish in the afternoon sun, a light breeze making it quite pleasant. Even the routine Police check onboard was, it turned out, uneventful. The officer appeared to have a look of consternation when inspecting our papers. But no, explained Alexander when he’d gone, it was just that all of us, the Policeman included, shared exactly the same day and month of birth.

Most of our fellow passengers seemed to be families, except for three carriages at the rear, between the coupées and the baggage car where I’d secured Emma. Young conscripts off to join the Army. Their families and girlfriends packed on to the platform the previous evening to wave them off. Much cheering and bravado. But now quiet, calm, as we meandered across the Steppe. Just the odd old lady wandering past, offering newspapers or a few other sundries.

Such serenity was in marked contrast to the previous day. By mid-morning I was beset by my first bout of traveller’s diarrhoea, dreading the thought of twenty four hours couped up in a train, camped in what I feared would be a very dubious toilet. I toyed with delaying my departure but quickly discovered there wouldn’t be another space for almost a week. And that would throw my plans for crossing Kazakhstan into turmoil. So, tonight’s train it would have to be.

In a series of brief forays from my lodgings, waiting for the medication to begin to, well… err stem the flow I suppose, I stocked up on a few essentials. Some more tablets to help make the journey bearable, plenty of water and lots of extra re-hydration salts. My phrase book didn’t really extend to dealing with such situations, so I’d had to rely on a bit of acting. Pleased I was the only customer in the pharmacy.

I’d allowed plenty of time to ride from my lodgings to the railway station, just in case of a puncture, or under the circumstances, the odd rapid detour down a side road. In the end, the journey passed without event, and I was able to board the sleeper quite early. But not as early as I thought. Quite convinced I’d been in the correct time zone in Atyrau, the train nevertheless departed an hour earlier than I’d expected. Bemused, I could only imagine that as Kazakhstan has two zones, perhaps, to avoid confusion, the timetables stuck with one. But not the one I was in.

[With thanks to the Oxford Handbook of Expedition and Wilderness Medicine and James at Travel Health Consultancy – www.travelhealthconsultancy.co.uk – for guidance on diagnosis and treatment, and my brother Steve for practical, reassuring advice]

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