Riding The Silk Road With Tour d’Afrique


Adventure travel company Tour d’Afrique offers several of my dream trips. The company specializes in cycling adventures and in addition to their signature ride across Africa they also have a fantastic 129-day cycling excursion along the famed Silk Road. Earlier this year I was invited to ride some or all of that tour, but unfortunately time commitments and scheduling issued caused me to not be able to take part in the event, much to my dismay.

But earlier this week I received a report from the Silk Road that shares some great insights into what it’s like to ride this epic route. It was written by Nate Cavalieri, who is a writer for Lonely Planet and his first hand account of the the early stages of the tour are definitely inspiring. While I certainly appreciate the contribution to my blog, it still stings a bit that I’m not enjoying the ride with the rest of the crew. I hope you enjoy Nate’s thoughts from the road as much as I did.

The Silk Route In Slow Motion

Anyone who loves remote places knows the peculiar feeling of being in the middle of nowhere, and here it is: to the left, the folds of the Gaochang – the ‘flaming mountains’ – suddenly rise 6000 meters above the gravel. They’re crossed by no roads, dotted by no buildings, shaded no trees; it’s a horizon defined by folds of bare rock, that look like a crumpled piece of coal-streaked canvas. To the right, under the blinding afternoon sun, it’s just startlingly flat and blank land: sand, rocks and endless miles of dirt. Over the shimmer of heat on the horizon are the white spindles of high-tension power lines, connecting something (likely a massive wind or solar power farm) to somewhere (likely one a massive second-tier cities of ten million-odd Chinese) but this is a place that’s neither here nor there. It’s nowhere.
If most of the joy of traveling comes from the journey itself, arriving at this particular patch of nothingness has been something of a masochistic pleasure cruise. The trip started a month ago, when we left the frenetic southern capital of Shanghai by bicycle with the Tour d’Afrique’s 2012 Silk Route Tour. The plan: to pedal the epic overland route that connects the Orient and Occident, crossing the seldom traveled Pamir Highway through a slew of Central Asian ’Stans, Iran and eventually climb off the bike in Istanbul, Turkey. All that remains is about 100 days, 9000 kilometers and a somewhat nauseating number of sugary Chinese chocolate-covered wafers (apparently the concept of the energy bar has yet to travel this far east on the famous trading route). For cyclists, the challenge is epic.
And though the sights along this path thus far are spectacular – the glittering, hyper-modern, traffic-snarled mess of China’s eastern cities, the ancient kung fu training yards of the Shoalin Temple, the jaw-dropping rows of Terra Cotta Warriors, mountains and valleys in every shapes and size – it’s cruising through the empty spots on the map like this where you gain a reverence for those who cut this path. Not only the marquee names like Marco Polo and Gangus Kahn, but also the innumerable, anonymous traders, merchants and crooks that walked just under the asphalt surface of the ones we cycle on today.

Although the connections between the historic travelers of this path are loose – a good day with camel progressed 25 kilometers in a day, on the bike we’re averaging that much in an hour – there’s something inherently different about watching the landscape change on two wheels at such a slow pace, powered only by legs and a few hundred wafer candy bars. The route connecting East to West unfolds with changes that are so gradual they are almost unperceivable – something that would be impossible to see from the view of the package tour buses which blow by on the road every day, zipping along between China’s sanctioned tourist sites.

At the market on Tuesday, you’ll spot a few melons among the fruit; at the market on Friday, the melons are the onlyfruit. The first kilometers into the rural spaces Gansu Corridor, we paused to take photos of every mosque and flock of sheep; several days further west all the women wear headscarves and the lazy flocks that block the road have become a bit of a nuisance. At the beginning, we rode under the low-hanging, relentless haze of smog and coal smoke and marveled a patch of blue; now we pray for a bit of cloud cover to mute the furiously bright sun.

And in the accumulation of these small changes – pedal by pedal, kilometer by kilometer, one little piece of nowhere to the next – there lies a country, a continent and a historic path.

Nate Cavalieri is a Lonely Planet author and on staff for the Tour de Afrique Silk Route 2012.

Thanks Nate! Keep up the great work and I look forward to hearing more about the ride as it progresses.
Kraig Becker

2 thoughts on “Riding The Silk Road With Tour d’Afrique”

  1. What's worse Jane is that I could have gotten to be one of those people. *Sigh* There is always another year. 😉

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