Beyond the Bike on the New Silk Road

Stuart and Claire share their journey whilst they traverse one of the ancient silk roads to China via Central Asia on a nomadic tandem.

When Stuart asked me on our second date if I fancied cycling to China, of course I said yes. Stuart cycled his tandem from South Africa to London in 2011/2012 and was itching to do a second trip to Asia. Little did I know that three years later I would find myself in China having cycled 10,000km, mostly on a bamboo bike!

In 2011/12 Stuart kept the tandem’s back seat free, enabling him to tell the story of the countries along his journey through serendipitous encounters with locals, summarized in a closely followed blog – ‘The Economic Cycle’. Both being teachers, we saw Beyond the Bike 2015/16 as a chance to connect with schools across the world as well as continue with the Economic Cycle blog. We planned to traverse one of the ancient Silk Roads to China via Central Asia. But Silk Roads is simply a term coined to describe East-West trade routes and arguably Africa will become a more important 21st century trade partner for Asia than Europe. We thus decided to cycle to China via Africa.

With great trepidation (on my part) we set off in September 2015 from London, with the tandem and a Ugandan bamboo bike. Stuart helped set up and supports a social enterprise in Kampala making these beautiful bikes. After a quick warm- up ride (550km in 4 days to Amsterdam) we flew to Kampala to meet Kasoma and his apprentice Khalid who made my beautiful bike. 16-year-old Khalid, who dreams of being a professional cyclist, cycled with us to his family home near the Rwandan border. From Kampala we headed south. One highlight was hiking up to the biggest live lava lake in the world – in the DRC-where we camped on the crater rim.

In Zimbabwe we went down a small artisanal gold mine with 19th century technology – men working 8-hour shifts in the dark digging with spades. From South Africa we flew to Singapore then headed north towards China. The hardest thing in Asia has been the heat, often topping well over 40° with 90% humidity. We were cycling from 5am – 11am and then having to stop, especially with all the mountains. As well as through African and Asian mountains we have cycled beside several oceans, several major rivers, notably following the Zambezi from source to Victoria Falls and the Mekong from Phnom Penh to China.

The last 9 months have been physically and mentally challenging but the hardest thing was getting the courage to do it! As a cycling novice until two years ago I firmly believe anyone can do something like this. We are working with two brilliant educational charities, Beyond Ourselves in Zambia and United World Schools in SE Asia. We spent a wonderful week with both charities seeing first hand the work they do. On our return we are inviting others to join us for two rides near London on 25th June and 2nd July.