Across Continents

Ken's Blog

Night to remember

December 7th, 2011

Within the hour the wind had strengthened considerably. The noise clearly audible above the sound of the television. Chilling. Yet the air wasn’t noticeably cold. Cool perhaps. But hardly penetrating. Its greatest menace its unrelenting buffeting. Compounded by darkness.

I’d reached the small dusty town of Ocotillo a short time earlier. Found a small motel. Just four rooms and a collection of tired trailers. Mine was simply furnished. Painted breeze block walls. An electric heater. Small armchair, a split in the cushion. Stained carpet. Curtains drawn to help keep the penetrating wind out.

But none of this really mattered. I was indoors. Finally. Bringing to a close a night truly to remember. At sunset I’d decided to ride for Ocotillo. Twelve miles on the shoulder of the Interstate highway east from San Diego but downhill all the way. Reckoned I could make the descent before it was properly dark. Not an attractive prospect but the least worst choice. The alternative wild camping in the bush close to the heavily patrolled Mexican border.

A few miles onto the Interstate hit by gusting gale force winds. Brought to an abrupt stop. Unable to ride, struggling to keep the bike upright whilst gingerly rolling her down the grade. Trucks and cars charging past down the slope. Uncomfortably close. By now quite dark, the wind lending an unsettling, eerie dimension. The only glimmer of compensation my bright rear red light, reflective jacket, pannier panels and a generous shoulder.

I’d have accepted any offer of a lift to get me out of there. But nobody stopped. Ten miles or so Ocotillo, maybe a little less. Nasmith’s Rule. Two and a half miles per hour. Four hours. Gone six so feasible I’d reach the town by ten pushing the trusty steed. Worse case scenario, hopeful the wind would ease as I descended. For now grateful the wind was buffeting rather than chilling. And it wasn’t raining. Below the lights of traffic weaving down the steep slope. Others struggling with the climb on the largely parallel uphill carriageway.

Sometimes the gusts would ease. Only to return a few hundred yards later, their ferocity undiminished. I knew to be cautious. Similar experience in China’s Gobi desert. But conditions did eventually improve, albeit slowly. Freewheeling short sections perched on a single pedal, poised to dismount if hit by sudden strong winds.

Eventually back in the saddle, the lights of what I presumed to be Ocotillo almost touchable, finding I couldn’t pedal. Stopping once more on the shoulder to discover my chain had slipped off the chainring. Five minutes to fix. Head torch on. Release rear wheel quick release to free the chain and refit to the sprockets. Steady and stoic for I knew the night would soon be over. And it’d taken my mind right off hemorrhoids. Never fun on a leather saddle.

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Epic days towards Hami

September 24th, 2010

Epic days towards Hami from Ken Roberts on Vimeo.

Ken describes an epic crossing through the mountains – up to 4,500 feet – that separate the Turpan and Hami Basins. And then decides to head off for a shower and a shave…

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Little respite…

September 23rd, 2010

Truck stop - external - web

Fresh snow falls on distant peaks. I’d left the shelter of my room in the truck stop, pondering the plan for the day. The storm had passed, the last of the lightening shortly before sunrise. Thunder replaced by the frequent rumble of lorries on the highway. The wind had subsided a little, no longer gale force, but still strong, gusting. Marginal for riding. I’d still quite a bit of climb yet to come, but there was a chance they’d be more shelter higher up. Decided it’d be worth a shot.

Progress was derisory at first. Battered by the wind, unpredictable in both strength and direction. Constantly changing. A landscape devoid of clues, not even a single tree. I’d at least been able to find a stretch of old road, parallel with the highway, allowing me to stay well clear of the many unfenced culverts or steep drops. A single truck stop late morning.

Map - extra annotations - web

By five civilisation. Toll station, beyond it a few buildings, a small shop. Respite. And a chance to glean something of the road ahead, my map already heavily annotated. Drawing a small crowd, albeit well-intentioned, it was soon time to move on. Downhill at last. A small village. Another truck stop and a bed for the night.

Truck stop - pan - web

[For those curious about my map annotations, TS = Truck stop – basic but usually have simple, cheap accommodation. PS = Petrol station – modern, more expensive version of a truck stop, normally stocks tinned coffee drinks but nowhere to stay. TB = Toll booth – TS or PS close by. Located using Google Earth. And the spot heights are metres, not feet!]

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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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Making a run for it

September 9th, 2010

Making a run for it from Ken Roberts on Vimeo.

Ken describes his plan, despite continuing gale force winds, to run for the Turpan

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