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.
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.