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what is wasteland, what is wilderness

Written by Kate on June 20th, 2011

There are places you can get to by road, and there are places you can only get to by being on the road, a state of mind you can carry, with concerted effort, to almost any context. Even a train swaying drunkenly on its tracks across Kazakhstan as men sway drunkenly through it, past aisles of people stacked in sleeper bunks like produce on shelves – some fresh, some overripe, some way past expiration.

After nearly a month of chasing down elusive visas, a month of spinning wheels that weren’t our bikes, we definitely belonged in the latter category. Getting sanction to cycle the Silk Road through Central Asia is the modern equivalent of the Great Game, a kind of diplomatic chess where enigmatic rules change on a dictator’s whim, where checkmate is risked with every move to a new country, especially a new ‘Stan. With Cycling Silk we couldn’t apply for visas ahead of time, since at our pace, on a trip this long, they’d expire before we arrived. So we’ve had to snag them along the way, which at times has meant intense frustration and desperate tactics to get where we’ve wanted to go. And there’s nothing like banging your head on borders to learn how inpenetrable these arbitrary barriers can be.

The biggest hassle was Uzbekistan, a notoriously closed-off country with a special disdain for independent travellers who might well ride their bikes off the beaten track and write about it afterwards. When our Uzbek ‘Letter of Invitation’ (a prerequisite for applying for a tourist visa) didn’t arrive in Azerbaijan on time, we were forced to fly across the Caspian Sea to Kazakhstan; take a 72-hour train ride across the ninth largest country in the world; spend a week waiting in embassy lines and filling out forms in Almaty; and then board that same 72-hour train back to the Caspian Sea coast.

But once back on track, with visas securely in passports, spring securely in the air, and all of Central Asia’s borders wide open ahead of us, we could relish the charming absurdity that was the trans-Kazakh train. Whole families filled the train’s bunks and then some, including the cutest, chubbiest kids we’d ever seen. The origin of their colossal cheeks became clear when we saw how families packed entire kitchens to last the journey’s fast, including a pantry’s worth of food, silver cutlery, and porcelain plates, from which we were served generous portions of deep-fried dough and goat brain soup (we graciously declined the latter).

The kindness of the Kazakh people didn’t end with food. One night my blanket slipped off my bunk while I was sleeping and an elderly woman across the aisle thoughtfully placed it back on me. At which point I screamed, because in my dream it was not a blanket tossed on my legs but an evil, writhing snake. Then I apologized for screaming, thanked her profusely, and tried to explain my startledness in all the wrong languages, with all sorts of mad snakey hand gestures, to grins all around.

Out one side of the train, the breath-fogged windows revealed plains so level the idea of inclination lost all substance; out the opposite side were mountains so steep they folded the notion of flat forever out of sight and sense. Two irreconcilable views of the same world, neatly parsed by the train’s passage. But everywhere the sun was busy pulling green out of the ground, the land newly alive and kicking with life. We felt the same way. As we trundled back toward the Caspian Sea, back to the biking life, to the expedition as we’d originally dreamed it, the return train journey felt like the pause before the conception of a poem, or the silence that anticipates song. We were suspended between tracks, between seasons, all thoughts and worries vagabond, transported in the truest sense. On the road again.

We got off the train in Beyneu, Kazakhstan, and hit the ground rolling toward the westernmost border of Uzbekistan, determined to enter the country the very day our hardwon tourist visa began expiring. It granted us only 30 days to bike nearly two thousand kilometers on rough roads the long way across the country; interview conservationists in the capital city of Tashkent; boot it to the Tajikistan border; and along the way, explore the complexities and challenges of conservation on the Ustyurt Plateau, a transboundary desert straddling westernmost Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, tucked between the Caspian and Aral Seas, and our second case study of the expedition. So began our evasive maneuvers against the clock – and the heat.

Uzbekistan boasts various blades and poisons, from thorns to scorpions to nightmare-spawning serpents. But for us the heat itself was a kind of venom, effecting paralysis throughout the nerveless high noon of day. And here, high noon lasted all day long, with high winds chiming in. Our strategy was to wake to the stars at 4am, ride through dawn, rest out the heat of the day in whatever scrap of shade we could find or make, then bike again until we hit our mileage mark or total dark, whichever came first. Other than days off in the Silk Road outposts of Khiva, Bukhara, and Samarkand, those fabled cities of turquoise and tiles, we kept up this delirious nocturnal rhythm across the entire country.

But if daylight in the desert was a torture to endure, duskier hours made existence not just tolerable, but enchanted. Biking beneath the stars every morning on the Ustyurt plateau was an extraterrestrial experience, our wheels purring on a road paved in night, the moon a chip of ice in the sky. I tucked it beneath my tongue to keep me cool as long as possible, which was never long enough. Then after melting all day, we reconsolidated in the relief of sunset, the sand still glowing hot as stars, the dunes drawing new constellations in the night. The horizon seemed to precisely mark the boundary where inner meets outer world – no wonder the urge to chase that line. In these rarefied hours, no speed seemed impossible, no destination too far-fetched. It was like being on the moon or Mars only better, because we could breathe, sing, laugh out loud. Outer space makes you swallow all that.

Outer space is also lamentably bereft of antelopes, at least as far as we know. The Ustyurt, by contrast, is home to the saiga, a critically endangered species of antelope that claims the dubious distinction of being one of the fastest declining mammals on the planet. Poaching is mainly to blame, since the horns of male antelopes are a hot sell on the black market for Chinese traditional medicine. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, communities living on the fringes of the plateau were stranded with scant options for income, so understandably, they hunted saiga both for meat and medicinal sale. Today the saiga are protected by law throughout their transboundary migratory range, but there is paltry enforcement in the remote Ustyurt borderland, especially in impoverished Uzbekistan. The decline of this species, coupled with the drainage of the nearby Aral Sea – caused by intensive Soviet-era and ongoing cotton irrigation – makes this part of the world, for all its wonders, an extreme example of human-wreaked environmental havoc.

We didn’t see any saiga while we were on the Ustyurt, for those shy and hunted herds are saavy enough to avoid our species. And we didn’t see the Aral Sea either, for its dried shores were still a few hundred kilometres off our route. But in both cases, for better and for worse, these were deeply felt presences. The Ustyurt Plateau that the saiga call home and the Aral Sea are both huge stretches of territory unpopulated by people, ‘barren lands’ marginal to human desire, obtuse to economic exploitation. Local people deem both places wastelands, according to our interviews with conservationists. But deserts like the Ustyurt are beautiful and dynamic ecosystems, with the saiga as their flagship species, while the desertified Aral Sea is a disaster – the consequence of our thirst for cotton, and proof that the only genuinely barren lands are born of us.

The distinction between desert land as wilderness, versus desertified land as devastation, is a subtle but crucial one. Language carries an enormous burden of consciousness, especially when it comes to arguing for the protection of the natural world. Call a wilderness like the Ustyurt a wasteland, and who cares what happens to it? Call saiga horns medicine, and who cares about the rare antelopes that grow them, except as a poachable source of profit? In this way language is a prologue to the possible: it shapes perceptions, and perceptions shape actions, and actions shape our world.

So the way we talk about wild things matters, even though wilderness itself is a concept as evasive as a saiga antelope, or a Central Asian tourist visa, as easily lost in translation as hand signals about snake nightmares. Like life itself, like love above all, wilderness is difficult to define; “it resists the intelligence,” to paraphrase Wallace Stevens, “almost successfully.” But we know it when we see it, when we feel it. And perhaps especially when we don’t.

What a haunting fate that would be, though, for us to only grasp what wilderness is and means by its lack. To perceive the wonder of the Ustyurt Plateau only after recognizing the horror of the Aral Sea-turned-Sands. This is what Cycling Silk is fundamentally about: Mel and I are biking our legs and hearts out to do what we can, however puny our individual pedal strokes, to prevent the possibility of a totally tamed  planet. To explore how definitions make up the world, and discover what happens – to deserts, to mountains, to minds – when they break down. To bang our heads on borders, at times painfully, to test their fallibility. And to ride into the soul of wildness, our own and the world’s. Even if it takes a train journey or two to finally get there.

An old chronicle. To seek out the upright. No fall but preceded by a declination. He took great marching steps into the nothingness, counting them against his return. Eyes closed, arms oaring. Upright to what? Something nameless in the night, lode or matrix. To which he and the stars were common satellite. Like the great pendulum in its rotunda scribing through the long day movements of the universe of which you may say it knows nothing and yet know it must.
-Cormac McCarthy

NEXT: Time to get all tangled up in the Pamir knot, the glorious mess of rock and ice comprising the borderlands of Tajikistan, Afghanistan, China, and Pakistan. We’ll be exploring Marco Polo sheep conservation across borders as our next case study. Bring on the big mountains!

THANKS: A partial and incomplete list of the many people we want to thank for making this last stretch of the journey possible: Julio Espinoza and Idris Hassanov, our wonderful hosts and adopted housemates in Baku, Azerbaijan; the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy, for letting us pose as students and use their library and computer facilities; Murat Aukesh, our incredibly helpful host in Almaty, Kazakhstan; Yuri Peshkov, UNESCO, Kazakhstan; Dr. Sergey Slyarenko, Assocation for the Conservation of Biodiversity of Kazakhstan (ACBK); Roman Jashenko, Institute of Zoology, Kazakhstan; Alisher Sakhabutdinov, Fauna and Flora International (FFI), Uzbekistan; Sergey Zagrebin and Akmal Ismatov, United Nations Development Program (UNDP), Uzbekistan; Natalya Shivaldova, Ecological Herald of Uzbekistan; and everyone journeying with us vicariously via this blog and the Facebook page, for your comments and enthusiasm that keep us inspired on this wild road.


17 Comments so far ↓

  1. Don MacKay says:

    This is an amazing story of 2 lassies on an incredible journey – worth the follow….


  2. mimi says:

    such poetry! lovely photos and I am so glad to read this blog. Did you get through Uzbekestan? Did you see any animals at all (besides domestic?)

  3. Lauren M.F. says:

    Thank you for this beautiful post, both in style and content. I had never considered the ‘Stans as a future travel destination and your journey makes me want to.

    The distinction between wasteland and wilderness is an interesting one. I’ve committed to living in the city for at least the next few years, but nonetheless find myself coming up against interesting edges where various types of land intersect and meld, sometimes jarringly and sometimes seamlessly.

  4. Todd Walters says:

    phenomenal prose kate.
    you capture not only the adventure of a lifetime, but also the frustrations of borders, and both the hope and hopelessness with how we interact with our environment. keep on pedaling, each “puny stroke” allows you to convey a momentous story that has the power to change minds and impact lives. Your photos and stories, like Ansel Adams before you, will have the power to influence decisionmakers and support the work of the organizations who are hosting you. Transboundary conservation needs hero’s and you two are living that role! keep on keeping on! Rrug te Mbarr (May the Road treat you well – Albanian aphorism) Peace – Todd

  5. Incredible – well done ladies – I am very much enjoying following your journey. The fact you’re managing to update on the road – especially in Central Asia – deserves a beer, before we even get onto the little matter of all that cycling.
    Safe travels.

  6. anja says:

    This makes me feel like I am back on a train in Kazakhstan.. thanks for sharing those wonderful thoughts and impressions!

  7. I am riding the peaks and valleys with you but mine is an emotional ride as your Mom Melissa. You two have inspired so many who are following you. Your writing Kate is simply beautiful and the photos let all of us see what your eyes are experiencing. Keep pedalling your way back to us. Loving you from afar. XO Mom

  8. larry jeffery says:

    You guys are redefining what it means to be human beings. An inspiration to all. Be safe!

  9. matteo adorisio says:

    This is amazing. Not only pedals and a journal of the trip. With these words I can feel what the Globe can offer us. Thanks. Keep on going and have a safe trip.

  10. Surender Sharma says:

    Please share your toughest time, visa hurdles, confrontations with local reason if any ( like religion, culture and customs)

    I will be glad to meet you when you are in Delhi, India.

    Good luck.

  11. Larry Hamilton says:

    Through updates in our Mountain Protected Areas Newsletter, your Mountain Network fan club cheers you on. Congratulations on achieving entry into Uzbekistan and on reaching the transboundary site between it and Kazakhstan. Looking forward especially to a report on the Pamir “knot”,-long a place of interest to the WCPA mountain conservation folk. Best wishes to the “wonder women”.

  12. Larry Hamilton says:

    See above

  13. Jeff Stout says:

    You are an inspiration. The big mountains sound really big! I am taking a deep breath for you. And making a prayer on the exhale.

  14. Such beautiful prose fit to sway the hearts and minds of many.

    It now appears that my partner and I follow the new silk road- at least the “Cycling Silk” trail. Do you remember Celi the eccentric cycling policeman in Turkey?

  15. John Brutza says:

    Thanks for the videos and your experinces, as a National Outdoor Leadership grad and a biker myself, I can relate to what you have felt. I couldn’t have said it any better.
    Thank-you, and Sincerely,
    John Brutza

  16. srikoundinya says:

    i love ur idea its awesome n adventurous tooo keep it up u r inspiration for new ones i am very glad

  17. Keralahome says:

    What a wonderful way to explore the the region less visited! Congratulations!

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  1. Cycling Silk: What is Wasteland, What is Wilderness - The WILD Foundation
  2. Cycling Silk Update | NRG BLOG
  3. On traveling and writing @ Learning Conservation
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