Two Intrepid Cyclists Embark on a Silk Road Adventure With an Environmental Twist

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Off into the unknown. Photo: Cycling Silk.

Traders, soldiers, and pilgrims alike plied the Silk Road for almost 3,000 years, traversing empires as they rose and fell, and creating a literary and historical legacy that has inspired countless explorers since. Today, the lands these ancient trading routes passed through are split into many countries that are often in conflict with each other. How these divisions affect the area's stark and stunning landscapes is what two young adventurers hope to find out -- and share with the world -- on a year-long bike trip covering nearly 10,000 miles.Kate Harris and Melissa Yule, the team behind Cycling Silk, are setting out this week from Istanbul and will bike the length of Turkey's Black Sea coastline before entering Georgia and the heart of their trip. In the Caucasus region spanning Russia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan, they'll find the first of the six actual or proposed transboundary protection areas (TBPAs) they plan to investigate along the way.

Peace Parks And International Cooperation
"The terms TBPA or 'peace park' aren't really on people's radars, but these areas can't be managed as separate puzzle pieces," Kate says. Such areas, as their name implies, protect ecosystems that span national borders and require cooperation from different, and sometimes antagonistic, countries. The proposed K2-Siachen Peace Park, which the bikers will visit near the end of their trip, includes parts of India, Pakistan, and China. The Siachen Glacier, whose melting waters are crucial to both India and Pakistan, has also long been a point of conflict between the two rivals: TIME Asia described it as "the world's highest battlefield."

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Cyclists and best buds Melissa Yule (left) and Kate Harris. Photo: Cycling Silk.

The pair of cyclists are focusing their route on mountain regions ("We love pain!" Kate jokes) in part because of these areas' importance to downstream communities' water supplies. "Mountains are also a typical way to break up countries, and there can be so many different ecosystems within one slope. They're also very susceptible to climate change," Mel says.

Another proposed TBPA on their route, in the Pamir Mountains spanning Tajikistan, Afghanistan, China, and Pakistan, is a project of famed wildlife biologist George Schaller, who hopes to convince governments to regulate the trophy hunting of Marco Polo sheep across their full migration range.

Building Awareness About Central Asia's Mountain Habitats
By documenting each of the six focus areas in pictures, videos, and words, and interviewing local residents, conservationists, scientists, and other people involved in or affected by the sites' protection, Kate and Mel hope to investigate whether TBPAs can be a way of building peace between countries -- and to raise awareness about the biological richness of a little-known area.

"Funding for TBPAs often comes from international sources so raising awareness is especially important," Mel says.

"If ecotourism can be set up in some of these areas, a demand needs to be created to go there," Kate adds. "We want to try and make people care about these places that are so remote and beautiful and off the map in so many ways."

Follow along (or support!) with their journey on the Cycling Silk blog.

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