Across Continents

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Low point

December 9th, 2011

Brawley claimed to be the largest town below sea level. I doubted this. My money would be on Turpan – pronounced Turvan – in the deserts of Western China. I’d felt especially confident on this point. I’d stopped there the previous year. I’d arrived at dusk. Another strip town. Less fast food outlets than some. Set in Imperial Valley, a strip of artificially irrigated greenery amongst otherwise inhospitable desert. A short ride over from my previous stop at Ocotillo. Past ramshackle trailers, some I thought abandoned, others probably not. Hard to tell. A State Prison. Brief stop in Seeley, an old man rummaging in the bins for discarded cans.

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Shifting sands

September 20th, 2010

Stubborn? I’d half regretted asking whether or not the Caucasus lay in Europe or Asia. Resigned myself to accepting it to be a geo-political question, rather than the straightforward "yes no" one I’d hoped for. This time it was deserts, and I’d already unearthed a wide diversity of opinion. I’d also thought the geography of the Central Asian states a bit tricky, their sometimes arbitrary borders, ethnic groups spread across nations. But simple sand seemed much more difficult to grasp.

Question was, which desert was I in? That I was in one was irrefutable. Arid, sparse vegetation, little rainfall. What was less clear was its name, if indeed it had one. I’d sought to simplify the problem by starting with Basins. There were a few. Imagined them to be large sand pits, so, in all probability, it seemed likely they’d be closely allied to the various deserts. It was a theory. Of sorts.

Unnamed desert - web

There was the Turpan Basin. I’d crossed it a little while ago, spent a day in its only decent sized town. Mostly below sea level so also termed a Depression. To the west the Tarim Basin, home of the Taklamakan desert. Little dispute about that.

To the east of Turpan lies the city of Hami – Kumul in the local Uyghur dialect. It too sits in a Depression. Beyond the Hami Basin are what most seem to regard as the western fringes of the Gobi desert. Fifth largest in the world, and Asia’s biggest. Much of it is in Mongolia, encroaching on the north western and north central Chinese provinces of Gansu and Inner Mongolia respectively. My route east of Hami as far as the city of Lanzhou. Over a thousand miles.

Some cite the Gobi as extending as far as the Pamir mountains in the west, encompassing the Turpan and Hami Basins, and the Taklamakan desert. I’m not convinced. Reckon there are two distinct deserts – the Gobi and Taklamakan – separated by the Turpan and Hami Basins. The dividing region may not have a convenient label, but, by any recognised definition, it’s still desert. No doubt about that.

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Chance encounter…

September 16th, 2010

I promised to drop in for a cup of tea. Perhaps even a short stay at her B&B. I’d returned to Johns Information Cafe, in part inspired by my earlier conversation with Edelgard and Gerd, to get more of a measure of fellow travellers. A chance comment about the Welsh language had led to an introduction to Marge.

She’d watched a documentary about the Silk Roads over forty years ago. But only now finally able to fulfill her dream of experiencing them for herself. Heading west through China, following the trading routes to their conclusion in Turkey. Her B&B entrusted to a good friend for a few months.

Then home. A few miles from a small Welsh coastal town. New Quay. "Yes" I said, smiling. "Amusement arcade still there? Just up the hill from the Black Lion Public House?" I enquired. I’d lived there in the second half of the seventies.

Summer holidays divided between messing about in boats in the harbour, cycling along quiet country lanes, and devouring "Famous Five" books. Forty five pence each. Proper adventure. Went back there a few years ago. Brief stop, cream tea and on to Poppit Sands Youth Hostel further along the coast. By bicycle.

[To find out more about Marge’s B&B and self-catering cottage, visit her website www.llaincottage.co.uk]

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Germanic endeavours

September 15th, 2010

German travellers - web

Parked up for the night, it was their map that’d caught my eye. Annotated to show the countries they’d visited, the plan to visit them all. Few remained. A smattering in central Africa. And a few European nations, saved for the end.

We’d started with apologies. My genuinely terrible lack of German. Their unassailable belief that their English was poor. An entirely baseless assertion. Edelgard and Gerd were spending a few months exploring China, having first travelled across Russia and into Mongolia.

Invited to join them for a drink, we chatted at length. Shared curiosity as to exactly who our fellow travellers were. Similar experiences on the road. Bureaucracy. Perceptions of every day life in China. And some invaluable insight into what lay ahead across the Gobi desert. Frequent dust storms. Chaotic roads.

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Sheltering from the sun

September 14th, 2010

Sheltering from the sun from Ken Roberts on Vimeo.

Ken describes Turpan, the hottest place in China, and the lowest, some five hundred feet below sea level

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Looking for John

September 13th, 2010

Johns cafe - montage - web

I was searching for John. Or at least his Information Cafe. Had a mention in my less than reliable guide book. The same one that, earlier in the day, had steered me towards a local hotel. Excellent value for money. Must have been. Boarded up.

Beneath dusty vine trellises, I’d wandered a little off the main tourist thoroughfare. Trusting, with some trepidation, the map I’d gleaned from the guide book. Looking for a sign. There were quite a few. Around the side of a hotel, across a deserted car park, through an archway, more trellis work. Eventually the cafe.

Quiet. A few fellow Westerners. An American, two French, a couple I thought, and a young Japanese man. Seemed five would have been a crowd. Discussing the attentiveness of Chinese students studying English, their ability for critical analysis, to question rather than accept at face value.

Johns cafe - food - web

I chose to engrosse myself in the menu. Mostly European flavour, some obligatory Chinese options, pricing somewhere in between. Turpan was a tourist town. I’d stick with a coffee. And perhaps some fries. Needed to replenish my salt levels. And see if John appeared.

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Highs and lows in the Gobi

September 12th, 2010

Turpan. Claimed to be the hottest place in China, the record a little shy of fifty degrees centigrade. And also the lowest. Surrounding area about five hundred feet below sea level, the third lowest Depression in the world. My GPS receiver made it twenty eight feet, but close enough. Near enough to sea level, ironic for a place almost as far from any ocean as you can get.

Altitude - web

The heat is enveloping, yet dry and not unduly oppressive. And ideal for growing grapes, for which the region is renowned. In the town, pedestrian thoroughfares shielded from the harsh sun by trelliswork woven with vines.

Trellis work - 1

But none of this would exist were it not for some inventive irrigation, the town a literal oasis in an otherwise barren, inhospitable Gobi desert. Supplemented today to quite a degree by a growing tourist trade. With prices to reflect this.

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Neither backwards or forwards

September 10th, 2010

The situation wasn’t quite desperate, but it was looking dire. Despite no obvious abatement in the weather, I’d decided to make a run for the town of Turpan. I’d reckoned on thirty miles or so, and knew I could walk that in a day if it came down to it. What I’d overlooked was the sheer strength of the crosswinds, and the propensity for a fully loaded touring cycle to act like a sail. And a large one at that.

Started well enough, the wind directly on my back. But, as the road gradually curved further east, it became increasingly difficult to control the bike. I pressed on. Towards the wind farms, their huge rotors stationary rather than risk damage in the gale. Soon forced to walk, riding now quite impossible. Hoping conditions would improve ahead. Impossible to judge. The flat, bleak, rocky landscape devoid of any feature to indicate wind strength. Not even a culvert to provide shelter.

The wind strengthened, stiff gusts becoming steady, unrelenting. My pace rapidly falling away, struggling just to keep the bike upright. Almost an hour to cover less than a mile. Retreat a no more appealing prospect than going forwards. Or feasible, conditions worsening.

Brief respite as a passing lorry driver stopped a short distance ahead of me. No hard shoulder, instead coming to a halt on the inside lane of the dual carriageway. Apologetic that strapping the bike safely onboard would be an impossibility. I nodded in reluctant agreement. A few minutes shelter, enough to consume some chocolate, replenish my energy levels.

As he pulled away I spotted another lorry, parked up on rough ground a few hundred metres away. Must have stopped whilst I was having my break. Glimmer of an idea. Spurred on by the prospect I might be able to hitch a lift, it appearing possible there might be room to secure the bike, I pushed on. Hoping the driver didn’t head off before I reached him.

Took about twenty minutes to stow the panniers in the cab and lash the bike down onto boxes of bottled water in the open-topped trailer. Buffeted by the wind, the driver then obliged to manoeuvre the lorry so I could safely open the passenger door. Then off to Turpan.

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Towards Turpan

August 29th, 2010

Towards Turpan from Ken Roberts on Vimeo.

Ken outlines the next stage of his journey, east through the mountains and into the Turpan basin

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