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Cycling Silk

Cycling Silk Reaches The End Of The Road

Wednesday, November 23rd, 2011

Mel Yule and her Expat S on the Silk Road

The intrepid Cycling Silk duo, Mel Yule and Kate Harris have finally finished their incredible journey.  10 months ago they set out from Istanbul, Turkey, carrying everything they’d need on a couple of Seven Expat S bikes, determined to travel the entirety of the Silk Road in the name of transboundary conservation.

Along the way, they wrote beautifully crafted prose about the ups and downs, as it were, of crossing mountains, forging rivers, and communing with nature and people, all from the vantage point of their bicycles.

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.

Mel Yule and Kate Harris

Click here to continue reading about Mel and Kate’s adventure, and to find out what they’re up to next!

Monday, June 20th, 2011

Written by Kate Harris
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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 impenetrable 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.

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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, generations upon generation, 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.

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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 as well. 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.

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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, 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 an extreme example of human-wreaked environmental havoc.

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We didn’t see any saiga while we were on the Ustyurt, for those shy and hunted herds are savvy 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.

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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 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

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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 high mountains!
visit Kate and Mel’s Cycling Silk Blog

Cycling Silk: Explaining Borders to the Birds

Sunday, April 10th, 2011

By Kate Harris

This is the third in a series of articles documenting Cycling Silk, A year-long research expedition across Asia.

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In the world of strict plans and fixed agendas, detours are just distractions. But on the Cycling Silk expedition, detours often prove the destination – and not just because we frequently get lost. So when KuzeyDoga, an award-winning Turkish NGO, invited us to explore their biodiversity conservation projects in the borderlands of eastern Turkey – wooing us with wild animals, wide open spaces, and a visit to a Turkish bath – we knew it would be worth diverting from our intended route for a visit. After all, we hadn’t showered in a week.

So we steered south, away from the Black Sea, and began climbing onto the Kars Plateau, swapping heavy rain for heavier snow along the way. The roads grew so slick with ice we had to work twice as hard to go half as fast. Sometimes we couldn’t bike at all. Climbing a pass during a blizzard, the snow not so much falling as firing, flakes sharp and aimed as arrows, the police stopped us and made us cross the pass in a truck (driven by Osman and Mustafa, of course.) At least the heated cab offered respite from the snot-crackling, lung-stiffening cold. Surviving on the bike in such conditions required cartwheel breaks to centrifugally force blood back into extremities. While I exulted in this suddenly polar world, cryophile that I am, Mel may never join me on another winter adventure again, even if she someday thaws out from this one.

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Whether because of the cold or despite it, we fell in love with Kars. The Plateau is a territory of enchantment: foxes loping across plains wide as thought, owls patient as stone on signposts, mountains giving cold shoulders to the world. A place more sky than earth, no wonder it set us soaring. We had good company up there: slow-reeling vultures, skinhead buzzards, fang-billed falcons, and many other birds populate Kars skies. Since we visited in the cold heart of winter, though, most vagrants of the air were off sunning themselves at the equator. Birds of prey migrate by skipping like stones from thermal to thermal, rising on one column of hot air and gliding down to the next forming, back and forth to Africa, Europe, and India, stopping in the South Caucasus along the way. If only bikes could be physically powered by the same principle.

While territory is an instinctive concept for birds, the political divides we map onto their habitats are meaningless to them. There’s no explaining borders to the birds; they fly far above our fences. But even so, fences define boundaries, however arbitrary, that can fragment the habitats where birds stop to breed and feed during migration. This is especially true of the borderlands where KuzeyDoga works, including the Aralik-Karasu marshes skirting the base of Mount Agri (aka Ararat), on the border of Turkey and Iran, with Armenia and Azerbaijan nearby.

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Legend has it Noah’s Ark first struck dry land on Mount Agri/Ararat’s summit, and the rich biodiversity here seemed to fit the story of a bunch of creatures spilling out of a boat. Down off the Kars Plateau, the wetlands rarely freeze, an oasis of iceless water and grass in the cold South Caucasian winter. But as fertile land, the marshes risk of being drained for agricultural use in one or more of the countries involved. What one country does with its wedge of wetland impacts the rest, so keeping this ecosystem intact requires a cross-border approach. That’s no simple task for countries in protracted conflict, as they are in the South Caucasus.

But when politics is the barrier, transboundary conservation is possible, at least in some form, through transboundary communication: individuals and NGOs talking across contested borders, sharing data and ideas directly or indirectly, and where possible, harmonizing approaches to nature protection in each place. This helps protect biodiversity as much as possible in the short-term, given politics, and builds a robust case for more formal transboundary cooperation down the road, once political situations improve. So peace, however desirable, is not a prerequisite for conservation across borders – and good thing, because in many places, we can’t afford to wait.

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If explaining borders to birds is an exercise in absurdity, imagine us trying to explain, using only hand gestures, to people who already think we’re nuts, exactly what it is we love about being cold and dirty on the back of a burdened bike for months on end. The answer, at least in part, is how transcendent a Turkish bath feels after a grimy stint on the road. Scrubbed clean down to different people, we thanked KuzeyDoga for a fantastic visit, and promised to return to the Kars Plateau someday – in summer. Then we hit the road to the Democratic Republic of Georgia.

The weather continued to be frightful, cold as bones, but we soon acquired a companion who warmed our hearts, if not the rest of us. At the top of the final pass, close to the border, a dog materialized out of cold mist, wagging her whole body and batting iced lashes at us. We patted her and offered her trail mix; it was that or raw oatmeal and pasta. She shunned our food, for good reason, but ate up our affection, and when we biked away, she galloped along behind. We named her Baklava, and welcomed her to the Cycling Silk team. Alas, just a few hours later, Baklava was dognapped by her so-claimed owners. Probably for the best, since smuggling her across the border would’ve been tricky, but such is the twinned happiness and heartbreak of this journey: making new friends, then moving on.

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A few days later, on the far side of the Turkey-Georgia border, we reached the Caspian Sea sooner than expected. At least the puddles, swallowing the entire road and then some, made us feel suddenly at sea. So did the new language. Kartuli, the Georgian tongue, had us choking on consonants while pronouncing crucial words like gvbrdghvnit, which means “you tear us into pieces.” So that’s what wilderness has been saying to borders all this time! We couldn’t quite make it out until now. Fortunately for us, some people spoke English in Tbilisi, the capital city of Georgia, where we stopped for a few weeks to interview conservationists, scientists, and politicians about transboundary conservation in the South Caucasus. The WWF-Caucasus office generously let us camp out in their conference room during our stay in the city, and after sleeping on the cold ground for months, sleeping on a carpeted floor was the apogee of luxury.

But winter was waning by the time we hopped back on the bikes, destined for the Lagodekhi Protected Areas in the extreme northeast of Georgia. As we pedaled there, our legs and lungs bounced with all the spring in the air. After months of combating the cold, we could finally relax into the weather: it wasn’t going to filch a finger or toe from us when we weren’t looking. Snow still crowned the Greater Caucasus mountains, but the lower slopes were hackled in trees, trunks raised not in alarm but acclamation, branches shaking fists of buds in joy, or something like it.

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The Lagodekhi Protected Areas, the oldest nature reserve in Georgia, is famous for its fairytale forests and ruins. We took a few days to explore Lagodekhi on foot, guided by Giorgi, a ranger at the reserves. On our hikes he wore a dapper shirt, vest, ranger jacket, hat, and rubber boots; we wore matching filthy outfits, carried far too many cameras and lenses and tripods, and staggered on legs more used to pushing pedals than supporting strides. But Giorgi was patient with us, if bemused by our compulsions to snap a photo every two steps and hug every second tree.

No wonder we looked suspicious to the Georgian border guards we met in the woods, on our way to Machi castle, ancient ruins on the Georgian-Azerbaijani border. But after checking our passports and establishing that we weren’t, contrary to appearances, completely mad – only partially and harmlessly – they relaxed and hiked along with us, happy for company on a lonely patrol. A few days later we showed our passports to some more border guards, then biked into the Republic of Azerbaijan.

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Our first mission in Azerbaijan was to track down Zakatala, a Strictly Protected nature reserve running parallel to Georgia’s Lagodekhi.’ Track down’ turned out to be an apt expression: the paved road turned to calloused dirt, then a stream, then cobblestoned mud, then nothing but a river valley with forests and mountains beyond. No welcome signs, no fences, no interpretive center for visitors, as we found just across the border at Lagodekhi; just wilderness protected by its relative inaccessibility.

But locals still access the reserve illegally, according to people we spoke to, where they hunt, collect mushrooms, and chop firewood at the risk of huge fines. With few other means of income, they don’t have much of a choice, here or many other places in the South Caucasus. Everywhere we went, again and again, we saw how local people play such a crucial role in wilderness conservation, and how much environmental protection depends on sustainable development. Given the choice between going cold in the winter or chopping down a virgin beech for firewood, anyone in their right or left mind would take ax to trunk, no matter how much they love the forest. So if we don’t take care of people, the planet will suffer; if we don’t care of the planet, people will suffer. Both have to happen at once, and we’re all in this together. Whether we’re talking about birds or trees, you or I, here or there, we all inhabit the same spinning ark.

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From migratory birds that breed in Mount Agri/Ararat’s meltwater to castle ruins growing forests in Lagodekhi, so many of the natural wonders we explored in the South Caucasus had a human, historical dimension as well. Riding the Silk Road through these places was intense schooling on the fact of flux: all the conquests and constructs of their storied pasts, all the countless people who lived and loved and grieved in their day, just as we do in ours, are nothing but legend and rubble now, nesting grounds for birds and fertilizer for forests.

Flux is the fact of wilderness conservation too, especially across the fickle and changing boundaries of politics. Conservation is not about preservation: it does not aim to keep nature static, fix forests in formaldehyde, establish isolated Protected Areas we can then walk away from, patting ourselves on the back for a job well and forever done. Instead, wilderness conservation is an act of perpetual vigilance and flexibility, a commitment to letting the natural world exist and evolve, across borders and through time, without an excess of human meddling. Because sweet air, clean water, rich soil – and by extension human health and happiness – depend on a biodiverse planet. Because every generation deserves the chance to cartwheel into cold wonder, get lost in a primeval forest, wake to birdsong raining on a tent. Because wilderness, like the Silk Road itself, is a place of instruction, with lessons to teach we can’t even begin to imagine.

Hiking around the Ani ruins in Kars, next to the Turkey-Armenia border, I swear I heard a door slam, somewhere deep underground. The noise said no road is long enough to learn everything I want to know, get everywhere I want to go. Not even the Silk Road, no matter how many detours we take. Genuine borders exist, biological and temporal, that none of us, however monied and powerful, can transcend. So maybe the best we can do, in this fleet and singular life, is follow the example of the birds, and seek out thermals: whatever makes us rise, tosses us aloft, sends us soaring.

I know a wood where each leaf is the distance between two dark towns, where each branch contains what is granted to kingdoms and I know the wind that carries all that away. -Don Domanski

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Cycling Silk Blog: Explaining Borders to the Birds

Wednesday, March 2nd, 2011

Kate and her Seven Traverse Icy Waters

In the world of strict plans and fixed agendas, detours are just distractions. But on the Cycling Silk expedition, detours often prove the destination – and not just because we frequently get lost. So when KuzeyDoga, an award-winning Turkish NGO, invited us to explore their biodiversity conservation projects in the borderlands of eastern Turkey – wooing us with wild animals, wide open spaces, and a visit to a Turkish bath – we knew it would be worth diverting from our intended route for a visit. After all, we hadn’t showered in a week. (more…)

Cycling Silk Blog: What is Wasteland, What is Wilderness

Sunday, February 6th, 2011

This is the third in a series of articles documenting Cycling Silk, A year-long research expedition across Asia.

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 impenetrable 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. (more…)