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From the first push of the pedals out of Istanbul in January, life will resolve down to a few intense simplicities: biking all day, every day, burdened and exhilarated; exploring borderlands and wildernesses in mountains and deserts; and calling the crooked, winding Silk Road our “home” for a year.
But until that moment of real departure, things are totally manic panic. Mel and I are working flat-out to get ready for this journey: checking off the million and two items on our To Do list, testing gear, puzzling out all the buttons and knobs on our cameras, praying to the Silk Road gods and goddesses that we have enough money to last the trip (beg your help?), and counting down the dwindling days until launch with a mixture of terror and excitement.
Despite the busy-ness, we spend time in the saddle every day to steel our butts and legs against the abuse they’re bound for. Riding an unloaded bike in freezing cold Ontario for just a few hours, then retreating to a warm house for hot cocoa, might not be the most specific training possible for winter cycling and camping along the Silk Road…but it sure is fun! Through the madness of preparations, these sojourns provide a daily reminder that this, ultimately, is what it’s all about: the sheer, reeling joy of riding bikes, of getting outside and exploring the neighborhood.
The Silk Road between Istanbul and India promises to be one hell (and heaven) of a bumpy ride, but thanks to Seven Cycles, we’ll have custom-built titanium touring bikes to buffer the potholes we’re bound to encounter along the way.
We are so giddy and grateful for this chance to ride the Expat S from Europe to Asia, taking the roads less gravelled. As a bike with a split personality – “one part mountain bike for loaded pannier exploring; the other part a touring bike that is off-road worthy” – we can’t imagine a better set of wheels for this adventure. Epic thanks to Seven Cycles for believing in the wonder and worth of this expedition – we will strive to do you all proud. Check out the press release here.
May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view.
The countdown has officially begun: Mel and I booked tickets to Istanbul, Turkey for January 7th, 2011, and from there we’ll start pedaling toward India, aiming to reach Ladakh about a year later, and exploring transboundary conservation case studies along the way. Nothing like a firm launch date to stir your belly into a frenzy of butterflies. We now have 70 days to sort out visas, finalize sponsorship deals, set up contacts along the route, and compress our lives into panniers for a year of vagabonding along the open road. Oh yeah, and acquire bikes! Our beloved touring bikes from previous trips – steel-frame hybrids we affectionately dubbed The Beast (Mel’s) and Crazy ‘Ol Maurice (mine) – are rusted relics of their former glory, so we’re seeking new wheels. More updates on gear and other matters to come. Meanwhile check out our expedition brochure.
In other news, the Cycling Silk website is mentioned in a new edition of Silk Roads, the Trailblazer guidebook depicted on the left (check out page 186!) They sent us a free copy which has already proven invaluable for planning purposes. So if you’re keen to explore this part of the world, be sure to check it out.
“One wanted, she thought, dipping her brush deliberately, to be on a level with ordinary experience, to feel simply that’s a chair, that’s a table, and yet at the same time, It’s a miracle, it’s an ecstasy.”
Grab some popcorn, drown it in molten yak butter, and enjoy a vicarious ride on the Silk Road – saddle sores not included. In May of 2006, Kate, Ben and Mel pedaled off on a four month bike trip in China with the goal of loosely retracing Marco Polo’s travels in Xinjiang and Tibet. The Dazzle and the Dirt marks the first of three episodes documenting this journey.
In this video, we fly to Urumqi in western China, give encouraging pep talks to our quaking legs, ride into the daunting Tian Shan mountains, and breathe deep of dust while biking across the Taklamakan desert. Watch us struggle to decipher inscrutable maps, cultivate questionable hairdos, sweat dirt from every pore, and acquire a taste for deep fried fat swigged down with home brewed rice wine.
This episode covers only the first three weeks of the four month trip, so stay tuned for episodes two and three over the next few months.
In January, Kate and I traveled to NYC to talk with wildlife biologist George Schaller about transboundary conservation in Asia in preparation for our upcoming journey. Schaller became a household name of sorts thanks to Peter Matthiessen’s TheSnow Leopard, a stunning, poetic, National Book Award-winning account of Schaller’s field work in the Nepal Himalaya, where he and Matthiesson trekked in search of bharal (blue sheep) and snow leopard.
The snow leopard represented not just a rare and beautiful cat whose habits I wanted to study, but also the symbol of a search for something intangible that seemed forever elusive. -George Schaller, Stones of Silence
We just recently found out that Cycling Silk won one of Polartec’s 2010 expedition grants, and we’re over the Himalaya at the news. For years now I’ve religiously checked up on the winners of these grants, tracked their expeditions from afar, longed to follow in their footsteps or, better yet, pick up where they left off and push on further. Past winners have included Conrad Anker, Jimmy Chin, Steve House, and many more – heroes and pioneers, forces of awe and inspiration. And now we get to join their epic ranks. Or at least wear the same sweet Polartec gear.
While the great generalists of the Age of Exploration had patrons and kings to fund their expeditions, us modern-day wannabe explorers rely on the generosity and vision of folks like those at Polartec. I can’t thank them enough for supporting us through the Polartec Challenge Grant, and I can’t wait to take Polartec on this long and winding bike ride down the Silk Road.
Yeehaw, Kate’s feature article on Cycling Silk ’06 made the cover of WEND magazine!
As young wannabe explorers who wish we inhabited a world where maps still bore blank spaces, the three of us have come to China to deliberately lose ourselves along the infamous yet geographically intangible Silk Road. We want to experience a hint of how Marco must have felt confronting the unknown Silk Road, with its meanders and dead ends, its high passes and harsh deserts, its ancient villages and booming cities.
We came to China to explore the rhythm and pulse of life on the fringe, at least to the extent that our ignorance and inability to communicate would allow. Though a bike lets you wander off beaten roads, a hike lets you avoid roads entirely. So for the final few weeks of our China adventure, with boys gone and bikes packed in boxes, Mel and I chose to destroy a different subset of leg muscles on a 150-mile Buddhist pilgrimage kora around the Kawagebo mountains, where Tibet, Yunnan, Sichuan and Burma converge. Saddle sores healed on butts, blistered burned through heels, legs forgot how to pedal and remembered, painfully, how to walk. Pilgrims we were not, in any formal sense, but nirvana it was.
I feel great gratitude for being here, for being, rather, for there is no need to tie oneself to the snow mountains in order to feel free. I am not here to seek the ‘crazy wisdom’; if I am, I shall never find it. I am here to be here, like these rocks and sky and snow, like this hail that is falling down out of the sun.
–Peter Matthiessen, The Snow Leopard
The following is a folk ballad based on a true story, composed by Kate and Mel over a campfire one starry night in China. Best sung to the accompaniment of a harmonica, spoons, and Tibetan chanting, preferably after you haven’t showered for 20 days, washed your clothes for 30, and are beginning to look and smell like a yak (see above: Kate on left, Mel on right.) Our pal Mark Bethune later put these words to a tune, check out his version of this cult classic.
Oh the road is long and the road is tough,
Been ridin’ fo days and I’m feelin’ so rough.
I ain’t got no food, I ain’t got no money,
20 yuan a day just ain’t enough, honey.
Four months in the saddle, a million miles from home,
The backroads of China are the trails I roam.
From the mountains to the desert and all the spaces in between,
These lands are purty, but these lands are mean.
And though I’m feelin’ down on luck,
It would all be better if I could get unstuck
that hundred dollar bill in my handlebar.
Tibet is dirt in equal measure to dazzle. And Mount Kailas, the most divine mountain in Asia, is the epitome of both. This hulk of rock and ice is so holy the sight of it is meant to inspire metaphysical musings on impermanence and eternity, soulfulness and compassion in all who behold it. All mountains spark such wonder and wondering in me, but Kailas in particular is sacred for Buddhists, Hindus, and followers of the Jain and Bon faiths. Out of devotion to one deity or many, hundreds of pilgrims a year shuffle around Kailas to compensate for the sins of a lifetime. Or many lifetimes, as the case may be.
The road to Tibet is paved in pain: in the butt, in the legs, in the brain that can’t conceive an intelligent thought because all it knows is the jolting of body and bike to which it is connected. As I bounced along this abominable excuse for a road on my jackhammer bike, I often had to remind myself that, like vagabond Everett Ruess:
I prefer the saddle to the streetcar, the star-sprinkled sky to a roof, and the obscure and difficult trail, leading into the unknown, to any paved highway…
Occasional pining for paved highways aside, this bumpy pilgrimage to the Land of Snows was the most sublime, surreal, and soaring experience of my life so far. And like all great adventures, it began at a crossroad. To the right was the unknown allure of Tibet, to the left the safe familiarity of Xinjiang. Standing there with our bikes, hesitating, never had a route looked so daunting for so many reasons: the lung-gasping altitude, the scarcity of reliable food and water sources, the atrocious condition of the road itself. The fact that Tibet was closed to independent travelers meant that our fate was entirely out of our hands. If we got caught, we were finished.
Our reliably indecipherable Chinese road map showed this backroad as a twisty, squiggly line. For once the map reflected the reality, with the road itself a thin scrawl in the dirt, a scar in a mountainside, stitched here and there by streams. After the desert, where we covered 120km a day propelled by tailwinds along pristine asphalt roads, this was a major change of pace. But well worth it to bike on exactly the sort of Abbey-approved trail we had come to China seeking.
May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. – Ed Abbey