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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!

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…)

Cycling Silk:
The Borderland Between Freeze and Thaw in Turkey

Saturday, February 5th, 2011

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

Turkey, at least the thin strip of the country we’ve been biking, is made like its tea only served cold: steep, intensely dark and concentrated, with a lot of water poured on top. The Turkish adventure began with an epicurean week in Istanbul with two new and now dear friends, Diarmuid and Berna O’Donovan, who generously hosted us during our stay in the city. After bulking up on baklava and other delicious Turkish fare, we packed the bikes, boarded a ferry in Europe, then set sail for Asian shores. The ferry let us off near the outlet of the Bosphorus strait into the Black Sea, and from there the grind against gravity began.

The Black Sea region is infamous among cyclists for the kind of nose-gratingly steep hills that tie knots in your lungs, knots which slacken on the brief descents, only to cinch tighter yet on the next climb. Dense parabolas of pain define the contours of the coastline, relentlessly, though often spectacularly. On this trip we’re lugging an obscene amount of gear for documentary purposes (heavy photography and filmmaking equipment), amounting to over 100 pounds each strapped on our sturdy Seven Expat Ss. And while our bikes – who we have affectionately dubbed Marco (mine) and Polo (Mel’s) – didn’t flinch at the load or the grade, our legs sure did. We only made it 10km that first day, and I wish I could claim it was only because we got off to a late start. (more…)

The Things They Carried: What to Pack for a Year-Long Silk Road Expedition

Wednesday, February 2nd, 2011

Kate and Mel's Expat S

In the first of our series of articles on the 2011 Cycling Silk Expedition, we wanted to ask Kate Harris and Mel Yule about their preparations for a 12-month transcontinental journey by bike. Most of us can identify with the difficulties of packing for a typical weeklong vacation.  Even if we forget something, in most cases we can purchase the item at our destination or make do until we return home.  That’s not an option for these explorers.  The stakes get raised when you are spending long stretches of time in sparsely populated areas without easy access to supplies.  We thought it would be fascinating to learn how they approach the problem.  We were surprised to learn how their responses reveal so much of their personalities; they tackle the each situation with a special combination of planning, improvisation, humor and fortitude that will prepare them to face whatever unfolds during the expedition. (more…)