For the next year, starting tomorrow, I'm biking the Silk Road with my dear pal Mel Yule. The journey begins in Istanbul, Turkey and will hopefully finish in northern India, with us exploring conservation across borders along the way. The full details of the Cycling Silk expedition are available on the official expedition website, and I promise this is the last time this blog will echo that one. But I wanted to post the same overview of the Cycling Silk expedition to answer some key questions: 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, meandering 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 those borders, whether we're talking about climate change, poverty, water and food security, and habitat and biodiversity loss. These are tightly interlinked issues, and to tackle them with any success and sustainability, it is imperative that we think beyond borders.
So building on our backgrounds in the natural and social sciences, and on our chronic passion for wild places, Mel and I have launched on this year-long field research expedition to study these issues as they relate to the transboundary wildernesses of the Silk Road, from the Caucasus 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 reach 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 will spend time exploring the remote, diverse, and rugged landscapes that are or are proposed to be transboundary protected areas, interviewing the relevant people involved, from locals to conservationists to government officials. Through this website during the expedition, and through video, photography, and a book post-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 everywhere to think out of bounds.
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, acquired sturdy bikes thanks to Seven Cycles, and shucked our lives of superfluities, from house keys to more than one set of clothes. And tomorrow morning, after years of planning, the two of us will catch a ferry out of Istanbul and begin pedaling through lands of lost borders.
So begins our new lives 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, 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 I 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.
If I were Tomaž Šalamun,
I’d ride wild on an invisible bicycle,
like a metaphor sprung from a poem’s cage,
still not certain of its freedom,
but making do with movement, wind and sun.