Cycling the Silk Road

Travel Destinations — By on March 5, 2007 at 12:56 pm

There is an interesting sequence of travel articles online at Slate.com, written as a series of dispatches from a bicycle trip that three friends embarked on across Central Asia.  In the first story, Greg Grim described the goal of their journey:

Last spring, I flew from Washington, D.C., along with two college friends, to Istanbul, Turkey. Allah, our bikes, and corrupt ex-Soviet dictators willing, we would bike to China. Our proposed route loosely followed the fabled Silk Road.

After Georgia, we’d cycle across Azerbaijan, where a ferry over the Caspian Sea would land us in the most bizarre of the ex-Soviet dictatorships – Turkmenistan – and then onward through the deserts that house the ancient caravan cities of Uzbekistan. Muslim extremists permitting, we would pass safely through the Ferghana Valley and connect with Tajikistan’s remote Pamir Highway. Alongside mujahideen, we’d trace the Afghan border on one of the highest and most poorly constructed roads in the world. Kyrgyzstan’s glaciated mountains would be our last challenge en route to the deserts of far-western China. Then a flight to Thailand for some R&R.

In the last installment, the author is in the final stages of the journey, biking into Kyrgyzstan and then western China.

One morning, after a night of sleeping beside the road, I woke to find a boy standing over my tent, peering at me through the screen. My body was sore and dehydrated, and I passed out. Several hours later, I woke up with him once again standing over me, holding a bottle of yogurt. He helped me pack up my tent in the strong wind and took me to his camp.

His family’s yurt was just beside a mountain that blocked a little of the wind and gave the goats a place to forage. Outside, it was cold, rocky, and windy. The floor and walls of the yurt were covered in carpets. So, inside, it was warm, still, quiet, and comfortable. I sat with the boy’s father, and it took a few minutes for me to realize we were speaking different languages but communicating perfectly. The yurt and tea were a perfect respite from the cold, dry wind outside. My tire had a tear that kept making the tubes explode, so he sewed it together with a yak’s hide patch.

I cycled 40 miles before seeing anyone else. I have never experienced freedom, independence, and purity like this. Every mountain and valley offered a trail to adventure. Every stream offered me a drink and a bath. These mountains are so high, and there are so few people and animals to pollute them, that I drank straight from the streams. I loved the isolation and the stark beauty.

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