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lands of lost borders

Written by Kate on October 23rd, 2011

Ten months ago, in January, Mel and I lurched off the European shore of Istanbul, Turkey with overburdened bikes and quaking legs. Just a few days ago, in late October, we pedaled into Leh, a small city barnacled onto the Himalayan mountains in northern India. In the months between, we consumed roughly 10,000 packs of instant noodles to fuel nearly 10,000 km of riding, polishing our souls on roads rough as pumice on this pilgrimage to the Silk Road’s wildest mountains and deserts.

We met impaling rains and snows on Turkey’s Black Sea coast; shivered through the Caucausian mountains of eastern Turkey and Georgia; thawed out painfully in Azerbaijan; biked into the beating hot heart of the Ustyurt Plateau straddling Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, then on to the fabled Silk Road cities of Khiva, Bukhara, and Samarkand; rode into the relief, in all senses, of the Pamir mountains, as we traced the fluid Tajikistan-Afghanistan border for nearly a thousand kilometers; dashed across Kyrgyzstan’s swaying green steppes to reach the blazing rock of Xinjiang in western China; climbed up and over the forbidding, forbidden Tibetan Plateau, a stealth mission that sets our hearts racing just remembering it; and plunged down into steamy Kathmandu, then across Nepal’s plains and tiger-prowled jungles.

Then finally, drawn back to mountains like moths to flame, we looped north through India to finish on the crampon edge of the Himalayan winter in Ladakh. An expedition entirely self-supported, to the chagrin of our legs and lungs, and, barring a few unavoidable train and bus rides due to illness, safety concerns, or visa constraints, a journey entirely self-propelled, with no camel caravan in sight. Take that, Marco Polo!

On the way, we explored lands of lost borders: case studies for wilderness conservation across the fickle divides of human politics. We focused on five examples of existing or proposed transboundary cooperation: the Caucasus mountains; the Ustyurt Plateau; the Pamir mountains; holy Mount Kailash; and last but definitely not least, closest of all to my heart, the Siachen glacier bordering India and Pakistan. We met and interviewed such inspiring people in every country, ranging from scientists to government officials to local communities members, all working hard to protect the natural world of which we are intrinsically a part, yet lamentably apart.

And we documented the entire adventure – all its sweat and blood, grins and tears, boundaries and freedoms – through photography, high-definition video, and countless journals bursting with notes that want to become a book. Now we’re exhausted to the bone, exhilarated to the stars, and still dear friends despite 10 months stuck together in a tent. And both of us are wilder than we ever imagined possible after realizing this long-held, hard-won dream.

Soon we’ll head for the latitudes of home – Mel back to Ottawa, for the time being, as she seeks a job somewhere in the world that blends her passion for community development and natural resource management; me to Vancouver, to bend my life around writing a book based on this journey – an adventure tale exploring how borders make and break what is wild in the world, from mountains to people’s minds.

But what is wildness anyway? And why is wilderness worth riding a hard road for a whole year, and for the rest of our lives?

Ask a scientist what wilderness is and they might define it, possibly with equations, certainly using a graph, as a number of hectares absent of human influence. Ask a politician and they might say it is a national park efficiently converting tax dollars into paved, hand-railed hiking paths, punctuated by interpretive signs every ten steps, guiding you neatly through the bonafide wild. Ask an economist, and he might reply that wild places provide monetarily valuable ecosystem services, yielding resources like clean water and fresh air on which we all depend.

But ask a poet, like Don McKay, and he will muse that wilderness is “not just a set of endangered spaces, but the capacity of all things to elude the mind’s appropriations.”

All these definitions have merit, but the poet’s take on wilderness is what fires our souls. Wilderness is the state of being uncontained, untrammelled, unmapped. Without borders. This is the state that Cycling Silk has explored, in a geographic and imaginative sense, for the past year using bikes, and will continue to explore for years yet using other vehicles (words, photos, film). Now the most crucial and grueling part of riding the Silk Road begins: translating all we’ve seen, lived, and learned, after ten months of intensity and exaltation on the open road, into ways to keep the world wild. “Listen, my friend,” says Mirabai, a 16th century Indian poet, “this road is the heart opening.”

So stay tuned, all you vicarious explorers of the borderless: the biking might be over, but the best is yet to come!

the stream with its sands    is a long broad tongue
the looming mountain    is a wide-awake body
throughout the night    song after song
how can I    speak at dawn.
~Su Tung’po

Holy cows of India and Nepal, we have so many people to thank for making Cycling Silk possible! We send our immense and heartfelt gratitude to everyone who: cheered us on from afar through our blog and Facebook page; donated time, energy, funding, and gear to the expedition; shared their passion, ideas, and experiences with us through interviews for the case studies on transboundary conservation; and opened their homes and hearts and minds to us all along the Silk Road. We honestly couldn’t have made it to Leh without you. Thanks for helping to bring the dream alive.


45 Comments so far ↓

  1. Paul Caldwell says:

    Congratulations! Your journey has been a vicarious inspiration. Good luck in yor future endeavors. You will be successful :)

  2. Congratulations to both of you for undertaking a challenge and meeting it head on and with. The world’s transboundary protected areas will benefit from your efforts. Nik

  3. Bob Taylor says:

    Many congratulations on completing your trip! I very much look forward to reading and seeing the results of your research in due course. Thanks for taking us with you and good luck in whatever you choose to do next. Bob

  4. Congrats!! I look forward to reading what’s in those journals.

  5. Bruce Elkin says:

    Congratulations Kate and Mel. You are awesome beyond words. I’m so impressed and so please for you that you completed your quest. Now, a job, a book and a wider world of adventures for you both. Tears of joy for you both!!!

  6. Lisa Canisius says:

    Not only have I been inspired by your amazing journey and courage to undertake it and complete it, but I am so very impressed by the wonderful writing style. You have a gift, one of many. Keep it up and I plan to buy your book.

  7. Joe Riis says:

    Kate and Mel – great stuff! You both are such an inspiration, thank you for doing what you do. Cheers and welcome home, Joe

  8. Frank Klotz says:

    Very well done. Looking forward to the book, As well as your future sucesses, from lake tahoe. Vancouver?

  9. Tarun says:

    Many many congratulations for conquering 10,000 km long silk route! I’m sure all of us can learn from your experiences … look forward to your book, and a possible movie! All the best for your future! Keep conquering! Brava!!!

  10. Kunal Sharma says:

    Mel and Kate congratulations for undertaking and completing this journey and great write up.

  11. Murali Murugesan says:

    Truly, truly inspiring. Love your humor and attitude. I’m sure Marco Polo would’ve had an easier time than you guys. Looking forward for the book. Both of you are a real role model for my 11 yr old daughter!

  12. Araavind says:

    congrats for ur achievement!!! is amazing to see those rough paths in which u both have cycled.There should be constant change in weather conditions right?

  13. Jane Rutherford says:

    Congrats Kate and Mel–Adventure Kate–I’ve been following your absolutely awe inspiring journey with wonder.

  14. Kailas says:

    Congrats!!.. Well done. This will be an inspiration to others also

  15. Mukul Mangalik says:

    Hi Kate and Mel, I read about the two of you and your travels on bicycles this morning in the Hindu newspaper, sitting over my morning cup of tea on my terrace at Nizamuddin in New Delhi. Goosebumps and travel adrenalin! At 54, and dying to travel again, I teach History at Ramjas College, University of Delhi. I wonder if the two of are passing through this city. If you are and have the time and inclination, I would love to invite you to the University to speak to students and teachers. This will be a treat for all of us, regards, Mukul Mangalik.

  16. Gireesh says:

    Congratulation, we are excited to see more photos and documents

  17. T Manasa, Manoja & Saketh says:

    We have been inspired by your adventure and looking forward to read your experiances vide your upcoming book.CONGRATULATIONS to both of you.

  18. Sandeep Bhushan says:

    I am overwhelmed! Inspired! Awestruck!….and even envious

  19. Ajay says:

    Truly inspirational. Congratulation to you.

  20. wows !! what an inspiration u are followed by a guts to shame even the best..truly inspiring! wish u both luck and a safe journey.bravo…

  21. shwetha says:

    hai kate and mel

    now my mind hugs the adage “nothing is impossible” still more tightly.

  22. J.Muruganandhan says:

    Your journey is heart opening.Let us leave the places absent of human influence for our future generation.
    I remember my last year trip to holy Mt.Kailash and manesarover. waiting for your book release…

  23. Lauren M F-E says:

    Congratulations! Your adventures and insights are inspiring for this young adventure-longing woman; I look forward to your future book.

  24. Eric says:

    What a ride! You’re 2 beautiful persons. Dedicated, with great conviction. I wish that your stories will make waves. And actions will be made by our political leader and the rest of us.

    Your writing is impressive. Pictures are , well, jaw dropping.

    Thanks a lot.

    From an environment inspector who kinda fell in love with you two.

  25. abhinay says:

    congrats for ur success in exploring the nature beyond the borders. Its really inspiring to think of the expedition u had made.
    al da best for the task ahead in scripting your experiences.

  26. Lina Saikia says:

    Congratulation… You girls are simply ammazing… I just want to spell– WOW

  27. Christine Anneberg says:

    Absolutely brilliant. I spent the summer cycling across the US, but all the while reading of your wheels turning on very different roads. I look forward to hearing more and seeing what’s next. I’m contemplating my own international cycling journey – thanks for your inspiration!

  28. Girish V says:

    Congratulations! Just imagining the adventure you gals had is heart throbbing. Would love to see more snaps of that wonderful journey. Few lucky and strong desired people can do such kind of expedition.

  29. Sivagnanam Parthasarathy says:

    Adventure at it’s best !
    I am looking forward to your book.

  30. Congrats Ladies. It’s hard to believe you’re going back home. You’ve had an epic ride. Maybe I’ll see you when I ride across our fantastic homeland. FYI I’m already back home. Fractured my femur in Pakistan.

    Take care,

  31. Kerrie says:

    Wow… such an incredible adventure. Cant wait to see/read the book.

  32. Ben says:

    Hey Girls!

    It’s been great reading about your adventures ever since I heard about it when I joined the Explorers Club. Being crazy about cycle touring myself, it would be great to meet one or both of you one of these days if our paths cross.

    Best of luck with the book, I look forward to reading it.

    All the best


  33. Larry Hamilton says:

    Kate and Mel,-this is an incredible epic journey. Photos are amazing, and hope that the writing of the book will be also. Apologies for not getting latest news into the Mountain Protected Areas UPDATE Newsletter. Next issue….
    Congratulations.Take a well deserved break.

  34. Seember Nyager says:

    Hi Mel and Kate,

    I am very inspired by your journey. Mel, I am so glad to read your blogs through the silk road. Bravo….Cheers to you both as you have shown that there are no boundaries. Very proud of you I am.

  35. So glad I met you two, can’t wait to read the book. Congrats on your journey.

  36. Ira Cooper says:

    Truly an inspiration for all who want to shoot for the stars. They are so in reach.

  37. Jan Peterson says:

    First time I’ve read your story! It truly is awsome and somewhat scarey! My daughter & son-in-law (leavewithoutpay Adventures in mid-life)are out to “bicycle the world” doing a daily blog. Began in April ’11 leaving Sydney, AU & left Bangkok yesterday for Nice, FRANCE. I will fly over on the 5th of January to visit them on their 2 month Rest.Turkey is next! Write that Book!

  38. Chotu says:

    Congratulations! Looking forward to reading your book!

  39. Gary Hammell says:

    Absolutely great trip. Very inspiring. I am looking forward to reading the book and following your next adventure.

  40. janice says:

    Kate and Mel: Someone forwarded me your blog this morning and to them I am truly grateful. I enjoyed the photos and Kate, I didn’t want the article to end. I look forward to the publishing of your book. You are both an inspiration and congratulations on fulfilling your dream and may all of your future dreams become more wonderful memories. Thanks again for sharing.

  41. Dane says:

    Very inspiring. I plan on doing such rides. If I will be able to go to Turkey this September. Since you toured different countries, how was your visas? Thank you.

  42. Santosh George says:

    To two very inspiring ladies that rekindled my dream of being on the road, so in touch with nature and adventure. Hats off to both of you for your daring, not to mention, highly inspirational journey. What better way could there be to show our appreciation and respect for Mother Earth . I look forward to reading your book Kate and wish you and Mel even greater success in your future endeavors. I’m sure you’ll leave the world a better place :)

  43. Rajan Bhatt says:

    There are no words to describe the feelings that I get reading this summary of your incredible feat!
    Truly inspiring and salute your grit and willpower!
    Looking forward to the book :)

  44. Very inspiring feat, how did you manage mechanical issues if any ?

  45. Kelly says:

    Awesome! We did a similar cycle trip a couple of years ago, from France to China, and really loved it! Actually, we loved it so much that we’re planning on doing another cycle tour in June. It’s great to see you were looking at the environmental issues across the borders – we’re hoping to do something similar, though we’ll be looking at ecotourism across different countries :) I’ll keep an eye out for the movie – it’ll be nice to revisit some of the places along the silk road!

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