After a week of meetings and meals in Istanbul – where we’ve been bulking up on baklava and other delicious Turkish fare thanks to the generosity of our amazing hosts, Diarmuid and Berna – tomorrow Mel and I hop on our bikes and begin living the Silk Road dream, starting with biking bootcamp along the Black Sea coast through Turkey and Georgia. We’ll update this blog as often as internet access permits, but to kick things off, I wanted to give you an overview of the expedition: why the Silk Road? why bikes? why conservation across borders?
For thousands of years and today still, the Silk Road has been a dynamic flux of people, products, and ideas from East to West and back again. The “Silk Road” is not one but many roads linking Europe to Asia, and together comprising a trade route that meanders through deserts, palaces, revolutions, mountains, temples, ruins, and legend. But the Silk Road that most enchants me exists on the outskirts of itself, the spaces in between the fabled cities, where the road frays into trails leading to borderlands: mountains on the fringe of the humanly habitable; alpine desert ecosystems oblivious to the arbitrary lines that sever them on maps; the territory of nomads, snow leopards, dust storms and dreams.
In this increasingly fragmented, bordered, and tamed world, the Silk Road serves as a case study for the importance of wilderness conservation and connectivity across divides. Some of the planet’s most valuable and vulnerable ecosystems are found in Silk Road deserts and mountains, many of which straddle political borders. But the greatest challenges our planet faces today transcend political borders, whether climate change, poverty, peace and security, water issues, and habitat and biodiversity loss. These are tightly interlinked issues, and to tackle them with any success and sustainability, we absolutely need to think beyond borders.
So building on our educational backgrounds in the natural and social sciences, as well as our chronic passion for wild places, Mel and I have launched on this year-long field research project to study these issues as they relate to transboundary conservation across Silk Road borders, from Turkey to Kashmir. Experienced cross-continental cyclists both, having ridden coast-to-coast across the USA and through Xinjiang and Tibet in western China, we are once again opting to travel on two wheels in order to explore isolated deserts and mountains otherwise difficult to access, and to reveal the Silk Road as a landscape of continuity, despite the borders that seemingly dissect it.
On the way, we spending extended time exploring the remote, diverse, and rugged landscapes that are or are proposed to be transboundary protected areas. At each, we are interviewing people involved, from locals to conservationists to government officials, in order to learn how borders make and break their world. Through this website during the expedition, and through video, photography, and writing projects after the expedition, our goal is to throw the contours of the Silk Road’s wild and complicated borderlands into sharp relief, and in the process, encourage people to think beyond boundaries.
At this point we’ve earned the appropriate degrees, studied the available maps, and made contacts in wilderness conservation along the entire route. We’ve saved some cash (though we could still use your help!), acquired sturdy bikes thanks to the generosity of Seven Cycles, and shucked our lives of superfluities, from house keys to more than one set of clothes. And tomorrow morning, the two of us catch a ferry out of Istanbul and pedal into the land of lost borders.
So begins our new life as students to austerity and exultation, pilgrims to rock, ice, and sky. Ahead is a year of roaming the Silk Road’s beckoning swerve, wherever it leads, from winter to summer to winter again: past fattening cities and shrinking villages, through deserts and over mountains, along trails edged with dunes and glaciers, across borders real as a fence and false as any human certainty. After living and learning the Silk Road and its seasons, slowly, and deeply, over the course of a year from the back of a bike, we plan to make a documentary film – and I plan to write a book – about the Silk Road’s wild borderlands in a way that gives them intense life in hearts and minds. For we believe this is wilderness conservation’s most crucial project: making people fall in love with wild places, making deserts and mountains more than merely backdrop.
Huge thanks to everyone who has made this journey possible. Through this blog and through Facebook, we hope you enjoy the ride.
For me it is simply instinct, and perhaps this is all that a person can try to put into each of her days: attention to the radiance, a rise to the full chase of beauty.-Ellen Meloy, The Anthropology of Turquoise