Across Continents

Ken's Blog

Reflections on China

December 31st, 2010

“Reform is China’s second revolution” Deng Xiaoping

China. A country under construction. Infrastructure. Offices. Shopping centres. Housing. The sheer scale astounding. A nation in the midst of an industrial revolution. Social change. Migration to the cities. Pace of change quite remarkable. Global recession seemingly no impediment.

Much has already been achieved. A lot remains to be done. The disparity between rural and urban brutally stark. Many in the countryside yet to see tangible benefits of change.

For the city dweller, a standard of living now much higher than in much of Central Asia, and swathes of Eastern Europe. At a cost, in real terms, far below that of many other nations. For the moment at least. House prices in the cities, home to over half of the population, rising rapidly, and the cost of food increasing ahead of general inflation.

Much more a consumerist society than a Communist country. But still a de-facto one party state. There is undoubtedly far greater openness, achieved in just a few decades. Nevertheless, the leadership remains intolerant of political debate, fearful of dissent. Exactly why isn’t openly discussed, making it difficult to judge.

In part it may be the very diversity of the nation, the desire for social cohesion at almost any cost, that stifles debate. A worry not without some foundation. Much smaller countries, and some rather larger entities like the Soviet Union, fracturing along ethnic or religious lines.

Whatever the reason, it remains that the real test of any political system is its ability to tolerate criticism, to accept alternative points of view. If you truly believe your model is the right one, why do you need to suppress discussion?

And the people? Exhibiting a friendliness towards strangers I’d first encountered in the Caucasus and Central Asia. Hugely tolerant of foreigners. Especially those whose grasp of Mandarin barely reaches double digits.

And the future for China? Still a developing nation, aspiring to take its place on the world stage. Overtures to Western nations, trade agreements with states big and small, securing exclusive access to commodities in Africa. First world membership likely to be determined, in part, by its ability to close the huge disparity between the urban and rural halves of the population. Whilst ensuring its hunger for resources, fuel for its industrial revolution, does not become a de-stabilising influence.

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Glimpse back in time?

October 31st, 2010

Workers drawn from the countryside into the cities, helping power the industrial machine. Some in dormitories, others in vast housing complexes. Attracted by the prospects of better wages. Ever growing disparity between rural communities and the expanding urban sprawl. A time for entrepreneurs. And a rising middle class. Railways now the transport for the masses. Shipping the avenue to new markets overseas. And the means to import raw materials to satisfy an insatiable appetite for growth.

A glimpse back in time? England during the Industrial Revolution? Quite possibly. But no. China today. A nation undergoing significant social, economic and, to a lesser extent, political change. Some differences. Where we built canals, they’re investing in a huge, modern road network. And a pace of change beyond comprehension a few centuries ago.

But what of China’s imperial aspirations, the British Industrial Revolution being so closely wedded to the rise of its own Empire? More subtle perhaps, less of the gunboat diplomacy, but some striking similarities nevertheless. No straight lines on maps admittedly. Rather agreements reached with poorer nations, mostly African. Securing natural resources – coal and ore for example – solely for export to China. Feeding the machine.

Africans - web

In return, infrastructure projects, advisors to provide assistance to developing nations. Even the teaching of Mandarin to Government officials. As I’d discovered at one of my stops in central China. Struggling a bit with the cold. But most of all political influence. Binding these countries ever closer to Beijing.

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A year on… air

October 5th, 2010

Courtesy of friends at my local community radio station in Somerset, England – www.10radio.org – you can catch up with my regular monthly on air chats with the Saturday Morning WakeUp team.

In this latest episode Ken talks to his good friend and neighbour, Jon, about his first year on the road, and the challenges of China’s Gobi desert. Just click on the link below to hear the latest instalment.

Download.

[If you enjoyed listening to this broadcast, or any of their other programmes – you can listen online – please do consider making a donation]

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Silk Road reflections

September 29th, 2010

"The challenge of modernity is to live without illusions and without becoming disillusioned" – Antonio Gramsci, Italian politician (deceased)

Ordinarily I’d wait until I’d traversed an entire country before reflecting on what I’ve experienced. But China’s a bit different. It’s not just big. It’s also a very diverse nation. So, a few thoughts, observations, along the way seems reasonable.

There’s the relative modernity of the towns and cities. The consumer society. For quite a few a standard of living broadly comparable with that of Western Europe. That’s not to say there aren’t people forced to scrape by, struggling to make ends meet. But that’s often the case, in even the most developed of nations.

I was curious as to just how many people existed on, or below, the poverty line. But, subjective as this measure invariably is, comparisons are fraught with difficulty. Not least because I’m a little sceptical as to the veracity of some of the figures. Does the UK really have four times as many people living in poverty than China? I seriously doubt it.

What is irrefutable is stark contrast between the relatively sophisticated urban environment and the smaller settlements, the villages and homesteads. Abject poverty? A more simple existence, devoid of modern material possessions, need not be. Just ask the Amish. Rather, it is the economic disparity between the two, a gap I sense is widening, especially for those at either ends of the scale. But nothing unique about China in that respect.

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Looking back..

September 1st, 2010

obtlogo

“A man is not old until regrets take the place of dreams” – John Barrymore

Sailing past the vast wind farms south of Urumqi had put me into a reflective mood. A quarter of a century ago, an expanse of time I find difficult to conceive of, I was in the final throes of The Outward Bound Trust’s flagship three week “Standard” course at their Eskdale centre in the English Lake District.

The timing was perfect. In the intervening years life I don’t think I’ve shied away from challenges, grasping opportunities to improve myself. And yet nothing has ever come close to influencing the path I’ve taken as much as the course. Inward learning in the great outdoors. Doubt I’ve ever discovered so much about myself in such a relatively short space of time.

Sometimes wonder what I’d have made of it if, twenty five years ago, someone had said to me that one day I’d be cycling around the world to raise funds for the Trust. Not sure. But I am quite certain I’d not be spending tonight above a petrol station somewhere in Western China if it hadn’t been for those three weeks back in 1985. Course E341.

[The Outward Bound Trust relies on charitable donations to help young people, from a wide variety of backgrounds, to have the opportunity for similar life influencing experiences. Please consider making a donation to help with their work – simply click here to find out how to do so securely]

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Reflections on Kazakhstan

July 27th, 2010

Kazakhstan was the Stan the others secretly wanted to be. Probably. Relatively prosperous, stable, none of the endemic corruption and nepotism I’d encountered elsewhere. The generosity of the people I’d met, their kindness to strangers, quite humbling.

There’d been fresh challenges. The Kazakh Steppe, fearsome heat to contend with. Alone. Learning how best to adapt to such an unforgiving environment. More than physical, part mental, part intellectual. Border crossings in and out of Kyrgyzstan a test of robustness, self-confidence. And an element of brinkmanship.

My point of entry, the large oil town of Atyrau, had been a gentle introduction. An English pub, catering for the influx of Western petroleum workers. But most memorable had been my time in the smaller places, the night spent sleeping on the floor of a roadside cafe, inside a petrol station. Or wild camping in the rolling hills north of Bishkek, pitching my tent as the sun set. Splashing icy cold water on your face in the morning.

I’d also been fortunate to be able to spend a little time with a Kazakh family in the suburbs of Almaty, the former Capital but still the country’s cultural and financial centre. Sophisticated, vibrant, but not claustrophobic. Lots of well kept parks, and a splendid mountain backdrop.

If I’d one regret, it was that I’d not had enough time to be able to cycle the whole way across, entry constraints of my first Chinese visa precluding this. Ironic really, as I’d had ample time on my Kazakhstan visa, and I’d ended up having to return to my “Nation of Convenience” for a fresh Chinese one. Filling in the gaps really wasn’t a practical proposition, for now at least. Besides, it gives me an excuse to return one day and explore some more, not that I really need a pretext to visit. I’d loved my time here.

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Central Asia – a postscript

July 23rd, 2010

It’d been a brief foray into Central Asia, a region, for much of its history, closed to foreigners. Azerbaijan, endemic corruption, nepotism. Across the Caspian, relatively prosperous, stable Kazakhstan, the nation others aspired to be. Probably. Kyrgyzstan. A country still trying to find its feet. Enthralled by barren steppe, imposing mountain ranges. Intrigued by politics, the recent ousting of a President, forced to flee into exile. Fascinated as to how vast oil and gas revenues had influenced things. Humbled, always, by a warm and generous people.

I’d learnt a little along the way of nearby Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Time, and to some extent restrictive visa requirements, had precluded a visit, for now at least. Quite distinct from the other Central Asian countries I’d passed through. I’d met a few Uzbeks, garnered quite a bit about their homeland, shaped as much by the Silk Roads as arbitrary Soviet era borders. But no Turkmen.

In fact, my only insight into Turkmenistan came from their TV channels I’d picked up in Kazakhstan. North Korea meets Michael Jackson’s Neverland. Lots of young children entertaining their Leader. Something of a Presidential personality cult in evidence. Seems a journalist had actually made a documentary along these lines, but it was difficult to confirm this. She’d died in prison. And no ATMs. It’d have to be worth a visit. Assuming their Secret Police don’t get to me first.

[Author’s note: Some debate as to whether Azerbaijan is in Central Asia, geographically at least. But culturally, linguistically, and ethnically, I thought so. Besides, it ends in Stan. Sort of…]

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Outbound to Almaty

July 19th, 2010

Across the aisle a woman sat painting her nails, the solvent quite noticeable in the confines of the aircraft cabin. She was English, but expressed her frustration at the delayed departure in fluent Russian, delivered with native passion. Her two young children seemed oblivious, content with their crayons and a small jotting pad between them. Her husband sat behind, snoring loudly. Further up, a young man stared intently at his map. Pamirs. North West shading. Neatly groomed beard. Plastic mountain boots tucked under the seat in front. Clean, barely scuffed.

My own travelling companions appeared to share my stoicism. A Canadian mining engineer, bound for Bishkek, quietly spoken, unflustered, probably just resigned to the situation. He’d flown from Toronto the previous day. Had done quite a bit of cycle touring in the past, and shared a few anecdotes. And a young woman studying the fashion business. Paris. Haute Courtière. Freelance writer for Harpers Bazaar. We chatted about films for quite a while, her love of old movies, Casablanca, Alfred Hitchcock, Audrey Hepburn.

Two hours into the supposed flight back to Almaty and we were still on the apron. Technical problems. The only 757 left in the airline’s fleet, a single in-flight film that flickered between colour washed technicolour and black and white. Teased by the cabin magazine extolling the virtues of their other, rather more modern, aircraft.

I’d spent my last night in the UK for some time in one of the smaller London hostels, enjoying a final coffee in the well-kept courtyard garden. Listening to opera being performed in a large marquee in the adjacent park. Retired early, only to be woken suddenly by the fire alarm. 3.32am. Hastily dressed, standing for a while in the barely perceptible drizzle before the inevitable all clear. Dozed for a few more hours, restless, before rising just after five. Pensive.

Courtyard garden

I sat once more in the courtyard, alone, the damp air invigorating, helping stave off the inevitable weariness for a little while longer. Reflecting on my time back in the UK. A perfect, orderly world. I knew it wasn’t, it just seemed it. I’d kept myself busy, securing visas, a second passport, a stab at documentary making. And time spent with close family. My parents. And a chance to see my young niece, just a few weeks old when I’d last seen her days before departure the previous autumn. Memories for the road.

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Perspectives on Bishkek

June 12th, 2010

Flag

These were not a people possessed of a revolutionary zeal. They simply tired of injustice. Corruption, nepotism, an impotent administration. A revolt, a public uprising, a riot or a revolution? Not bloodless, for over eighty people were killed. An act of defiance, a protest in which some subsequently lost their lives. Opportunistic looting before the gradual restoration of civil order. Over within a week.

At the fountain

Two months on, soldiers once more stand guarding the national flag, fluttering in the gentle evening breeze. A young child plays amongst the fountains with her mother. Others waiting for a bus. An overwhelming sense of normality.

Bus stop

Bishkek might lack some of the sophistication, and expense, of other Capital cities I’d visited, but with its tree-lined boulevards, plentiful leafy parks and wide open spaces, it was probably the most pleasant. Even the rush hour traffic seemed relatively benign. It felt safe. Very safe.

Spray

But not perfect. The centrally provided hot water hadn’t been seen for a month or so, and neither had the heating. And a society with no concept of orderly queuing can be a bit testing. But the real risk to your well-being? Probably the breakfast menu at Fatboy’s Cafe. Hardly a war zone.

Truckers

And of the future? The interim President has just extended her term in office. Sounds ominous. Hope I’m wrong. And the Honorary Consul? Never did find him.

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Dark days, lonely nights

May 29th, 2010

 

“I cried a lot, I was scared a lot and I wanted to quit most of the time”

Back in February, beyond Istanbul, there’d been dark days, lonely nights. I’d really struggled, endless tussles with myself. Was this really for me? There were glimmers of light, my stay in Alapli with Zehra and her friends, but the clouds soon returned. But why? True, the Black Sea escarpment had some serious climbs – maybe six thousand feet each day – but that was bearable, even if I felt a bit frustrated by such slow progress. I was confused. The small villages I passed through reminded me so much of Serbia and Bulgaria, countries I’d felt so enthused by. People were welcoming, friendly, often beckoning me off the road for sweet Turkish tea. It just didn’t make sense.

There’d been tough days before, but never the insidious self-doubt that was beginning to creep in. I found myself becoming increasingly pre-occupied with self-analysis, much of it far from helpful, trying to work out what was gnawing away at me. I’d always imagined, even expected, there’d be times when I might falter a bit, question what I was doing, and why. But not yet, not here. I’d gambled everything on this project, thrown my all into it. Failure, I told myself, simply wasn’t an option. Period. There’d been tough times in my life before, but I’d always persevere, never given up hope, never quit. And I wasn’t going to start now. I couldn’t – wouldn’t – let people down – family and friends, The Outward Bound Trust, people I’d met on the road who’d been so kind and generous.

It seems so obvious now, looking back, but that’s the beauty of what mathematicians call an elegant solution to a problem, its breathtaking simplicity. I lacked focus. I needed clarity, definition, but instead felt as if I was drifting. I’d been determined, driven even, to set off on my chosen departure date, to stop talking about it and just get on with it. Across Europe, following the Danube much of the way, momentum borne out of wanting to stay ahead of the winter further east. Mission complete. Asia had a fairly well defined route – across Turkey, Georgia, the ’Stans and China, down towards Australia – but – given I had a year to complete it to achieve the optimum weather window for Alaska – I was missing the time pressure I’d found so motivating across Europe.

Back then, when things seemed far less clear, I at least knew I needed to do something. But what? So I bought a small notebook, scribbling down thoughts, ideas, issues I needed to address, searching for The Plan. Slowly, ever so slowly, the mists began to part, a glimmer of light. Then the realisation, so obvious now, that I needed to generate the same focus and momentum I’d had for Europe. But how, and where? For a brief moment – a few days – I’d contemplated a return to the UK, albeit not my own cottage, but my brother had rightly counseled against that. More scribblings, scouring the maps, and I hit on Malta. An elegant solution it seemed, and it was. Take up the slack in the programme for Asia, sort out some niggling minor injury, and a few other issues before wilder times in the ’Stans and China. I had the makings of a plan, something to drive at. I’d met up with my Dad in Trabzon, eastern Turkey, and discussed my idea. We agreed it made sense. I had The Plan.

But I was still feeling unnerved by my bouts of self-doubt. Was this really normal, to be expected? And so soon? I’d met Al Humphreys a couple of times when I’d been researching my venture. He’d spent four years cycling around the world and had written a couple of books about his experiences. Honest, frank writing, beautifully crafted, enthralling even for those who aren’t cyclists. I’d remembered he’d been very open about the tough times – “I cried a lot, I was scared a lot and I wanted to quit most of the time” – there’d been many, he’d often felt like quitting, but he’d made it. So I asked my Dad to bring the books out to Turkey. I read them quickly. Reassuring.

[To find out more about Alastair Humphreys visit www.alastairhumphreys.com]

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