Cycling Silk Blog: Explaining Borders to the Birds

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. Continue reading

Cycling Silk Blog: What is Wasteland, What is Wilderness

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. Continue reading

Cycling Silk: The Borderland Between Freeze and Thaw in Turkey

cycling-silk--turkey1This 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.

cycling-silk--turkey2Then there’s the winter weather. Nothing we weren’t warned about, everything we secretly prayed was exaggerated. So far the only borderland we’ve explored on this expedition is the territory between rain and hail, and all consistencies of wet and cold contained therein. Once a fluke beam of sunshine made it through a brief yawn in the clouds. I was so startled by the sudden light I thought a big truck with its high beams on must be bearing down on me, so I swerved sharply into the gutter. Then I realized it was just the sun, a pale asterisk in the sky referring to a footnote at the bottom of the world that reads, in very small print, ‘shines hotly in theory’. But thanks to Turkey’s rather harsh initiation to this bike trip, we have fast become fit and finely tuned to beauty: the merest scrap of light prompts unabashed rapture. If only we were always so exquisitely calibrated.

cycling-silk--turkey3But the unfailing light of Turkey so far has been its people. I don’t know where to begin recounting the daily kindnesses and generosities we’ve encountered along the way. If we stop at a gas station for petrol, the attendants bring us tea and snacks, once they get over their bafflement about why, with bikes, we are buying gas in the first place. We try to explain that the fuel is for our campstove, but they scrutinize our Sevens anyway, looking for the motor they are convinced must be there. Other days we’ll wash up in a village chai house, soaked and shivering to the bone, looking like flotsam from some foreign shipwreck in the Black Sea. When we ask about camping possibilities nearby, the next thing we know we’re invited to spend the night with a family, who stuff us with so much delicious food that if we weren’t biking almost every hour of every day, we’d be as round and marbled with fat as the rotating kebab meat we see everywhere. One such homestay involved a birthday party for Hande, who was turning ten. At the end of the party, she insisted on painting our nails with hot pink polish, and who can say no to a birthday girl? More to the point, who can say “no” in Turkish, period? At that point, not us. At least the nail polish conveniently hides the grit under our fingernails, a redeeming layer of glam disguising grime. Another time we were biking along when out of nowhere a Turkish cyclist appeared, decked out in a bike jersey and a helmet, and riding a mountain bike that looked both well ridden and tenderly cared for. Turns out this was the Turkish incarnation of Danny MacAskill, and he rode with us for the next 30 kilometers, pulling wheelies and bunnyhopping and landing all sorts of tricks as we panted alongside, totally amazed.

cycling-silk--turkey4Mel and have now learned some very rudimentary Turkish, including ‘no’, but we’ve also become fairly pro at faking fluency. People tend to ask the same set of questions over and over, so even if we can’t glean what a particular question is, chances are they want to know one of the following: What country are you from? Where are you going? Where did you start? Are you sisters? Are you married? So we toss out answers at random, figuring we’ll hit on the right one eventually: Canada! India! Istanbul! Not sisters, friends! Married, yes, to Osman (Kate) and Mustafa (Mel), our hefty kebap-loving Turkish truck driver husbands, they are following us on our bikes, look here they come now! <point to random truck>. We were coached into giving this last answer by Fuat, our Turkish friend from Samsun, who assures us it is an infallible insurance policy for travel in Turkey. See mom and dad, you have absolutely nothing to worry about!

cycling-silk--turkey5But to get back to the weather, the meteorology of mind is also worthy of report. After years of dreaming, saving, and longing for this adventure, here we so incontrovertibly are, finally living it. Some days this fact mugs me with astonishment; luckily I wear a helmet most of the time. The past few weeks our heads have been scrambling to catch up with our bodies. It takes a long while to leave the world behind. Departure is easy: step out of the door, into the wind of your life. Direction is simple: forward is whatever way you fancy pointing your bike, which in Turkey means up or down. The tough part is not looking back, not measuring gain or loss by lapsed time, or aching legs, or the leering mile markers of ambition. You are finally on your way when you realize that creak you hear is not your wheels, not your head, but the sound of the planet, turning.

cycling-silk--turkey6Rainy nights in the tent, I’ve been reading a lot of Rumi, a 12th-century mystic Sufi poet who was born in Afghanistan, then migrated west to avoid Genghis Khan’s approaching hordes. He finally settled in Turkey, in the city of Konya, where even today his whirling dervish disciples live out his teachings. When Rumi died, religious leaders of all faiths attended his funeral; he was a dissolver of borders. In many ways Rumi’s spirit of approach is perfect for this expedition: we want to celebrate, as we bike, the ecstatic core of existence, in all its wildness and wonder, with full awareness of its heartbreaks and its joys.

Every day, whatever the weather, we wring a bit of each out of the ride. Joy is the sound of birds pecking sweet holes in silence; or devouring baklava and gulping chai next to a woodstove when you are stupefied with cold and hunger. Heartbreak, in a few of its milder iterations, is how the road, I swear it!, the road only goes up; or waking up to the morse of freezing rain pounding its mean code on the tent. “The only rule is,” says Rumi, “suffer the pain.” And so we ride, wheels and heads whirling like dervishes, toward a closer acquaintance with the wildness at the heart of our life. And the world.

cycling-silk--turkey7We are over a thousand kilometers into this adventure now, with many thousands more to go. Although the seashore folds much charm into its mists and meanders, and the people are surpassingly wonderful, in so many ways, I’m a wilderness pilgrim to my ecstatic core. Everything in me pulls toward the less populated mountains and deserts ahead, those transboundary conservation areas we want to celebrate as much as study. Out of irrational hope, I keep mistaking clouds massed on the sea’s horizon for mountains. Light and water piled high either way, you could argue, but I can’t wait for that twist in the road that reveals the mirage as real, as solid as rock and rime. Time to go inland, starting with the Kars region, where we’ll be exploring transboundary conservation initiatives between Turkey, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Iran. So wilderness across borders here we come, one pedal stroke at a time, steady as the rain — with Osman and Mustafa closely in tow.

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.

When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.

Ideas, language, even the phrase “each other”
doesn’t make any sense.

-Rumi

Cycling Silk:
The Borderland Between Freeze and Thaw in Turkey

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. Continue reading

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

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. Continue reading