“Journey to the Centre of the Earth” is a wonderful book, firmly in the tradition of the Ripping Yarns/Monty Python/Eccentric Englishmen School of Travel. Why it is out of print is puzzling as it is well-written, colourful, and quite quite mad. The Cranes, in various family configurations, had raised a considerable amount of money for the charity Intermediate Technology (IT), now known as Practical Action, through original and ambitious athletic adventures, such as “Running the Himalayas,” and “Bicycles up Kilimanjaro.” IT works to assist the rural poor in developing countries to work themselves out of poverty using their own skills and local resources.
Of course, flying to Urumqi, a city that had 900,000 inhabitants at the time of the trip (since blossoming to 2.3 million and the scene of ethnic rioting in July) and hitching a ride to the CoE would have been too simple. The Cranes thought: “If we’re going to the most remote place in the world from the open sea, where do we start?” The answer, obviously, was at the open sea and since the distance would be far too great to walk it was decided to cycle. The most direct route was from the Bay of Bengal over the Himalayas, through Nepal and Tibet, and on to the great desserts of Central Asia. This was provided that the Chinese authorities would allow the expedition to enter Tibet from Nepal and continue onwards, which in 1986 was a pretty major leap of faith. Of course, since they had not yet plotted where the CoE actually way, the Cranes did not trouble to note on their maps how close it would be to the Russian border. The plan was to get going on May 1 and complete the trip in 50 days. Considering what it takes for me to organize a simple group cycling trip to Europe, the idea that they could arrange all this in only four months seems amazing. Two weeks before their departure, they no bikes, no special clothing, no air tickets, no visas for China and India, no Chinese vocabulary, so they did leave things pretty much to the last minute.
One hundred kilometres out of Golmud we stopped to gaze in awe at the emptiness. It seemed unreal that we had crossed such a large distance of totally featureless terrain. The road was essentially a continual straight. Though 3,000 metres above sea level, all the way we saw no hills, no mountains and it was hot, dry and flat. Nick sat on the edge of the tarmac for a rest. In deference to the enormity of the cosmos, I took a short walk out across the hard-baked salt crust beyond the telegraph wires. There was nothing between me and eternity.
Journey to the Centre of the Earth
by Richard and Nicholas Crane
Bantam Press, 1987
238 pp., ill.
amazon.com or alibris.com. My copy is hardbound but it came out in paperback as well. The entire book has been scanned (well, one chapter seems to be missing) and can be found on-line here, which is where I also found the photographs.