We just received our first update from the Cycling Silk team – Kate Harris and Melissa Yule – who set out on a year-long field research expedition exploring transboundary conservation in the mountains along the Silk Road. Traveling by bike, they will get an up-close and personal view of the conservation efforts, challenges and successes of the region. Here are a few excerpts from their journey so far…..
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.
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.
We 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.