Two young men are about to cycle 10,000km from Beijing to Tehran along the Silk Road route to raise money for a school in Ghana, to learn about a little understood area of the world (by Europeans, at least) and to learn about themselves. Charles Stevens and William Hsu, who have known each other for many years at Radleigh School in Oxfordshire, are doing the trip during their Gap Year between school and university. Read our bloggers exclusive interview with them to find out the motivation behind the trip and what they have being doing to prepare for the trip.
The Silk Road
Contrary to the popular imagination, the Silk Road is not a single paved route between cities between China and Europe. It is more of a corridor, with multiple routes between ancient trading centres heading west from China. As such the two teenagers are avoiding Afghanistan and Pakistan while still following the trading routes. They will be crossing nine different countries that are very little understood in the West including Mongolia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Russia to get to their destination.
Even so, Stevens says, “One of the points of the trip is to challenge our misconceptions about the world. One of the countries that worried our parents most is Iran because of its religious extremism and nuclear weapons programme. However Shia law apparently treats strangers as ‘sons of God’ and as such Iranians are some of the friendliest people in the world!”
There are still some security issues they will have to consider. Stevens added, “We will be going next to the Afghan border in Turkmenistan, and we had to route around western China because of some political issues there too. You have to be vigilant and culturally aware – in Uzbekistan for example you can be arrested for having any pornographic content on your computer. This includes a Rated 12 topless image from a Hollywood film!”
A strong preparation
The two have put in hundreds of hours of preparation into the expedition. Merely getting super fit for the ride is not enough given all the complexities of the trip. For example, Hsu said, “We have gone with custom fitted steel touring bikes that are easier to repair – though slower than carbon bikes you have a far better chance of repairing them.” They estimate that 70% of the route will be paved, but 30% will be unpaved so have made preparations such as carrying extra tyres in case of getting a puncture hundreds of miles from the nearest cycle shop.
One of the biggest worries that they have about the route is the altitude of some of the mountain passes. Stevens pointed out “We will be crossing several mountain ranges including the Pamir Mountains and will reach 4600 metres at the highest point – a similar height to Mont Blanc. Though we will be taking the altitude sickness medication Diamox, it doesn’t matter how fit you are – you could be an Olympic athlete and still get altitude sickness!” Though Stevens has climbed to Machu Picchu in South America they have done no altitude training ahead of the trip. They have been advised to rest for four hours at the top of the highest passes to recuperate and get back to the bottom safely.
The positives of the trip in their eyes are almost endless! Hsu said, “We’ve been reading about the route and found just how influential these places were from the First Century BC to the 15th Century. China had cities ten times the size of London in the 12th Century! It will be fascinating to see these places and learn more about them. People in Britain are not taught about this region of this world and are pretty ignorant of them despite them being some of the most civilised places in history.”
Stevens and Hsu are at the beginning of their adult lives and know that this trip will be an eye opener for them. Learning about themselves is core to the expedition for the two 18 year olds. Stevens said, “We’re motivated to see what our key priorities are in life. By throwing yourself into the unknown it really does reveal what the necessities are. We will be going through a lot of suffering and will see a lot of suffering, and we will learn what the important things in life really are!”
Fundraising for a school in Ghana
The pair are aiming to raise £25,000 to support a school in Ghana that both have supported while at school. Hsu said, “We visited it in 2013 and again in 2015, but when we returned the school had run out of funding. It was in a very poor condition and they were sharing three textbooks in a classroom.” The charity supporting the school, A Child Unheard has track record in turning the fortunes of schools around, including efforts in Uganda that have really benefitted the community at large. If you want to support their fundraising then visit https://www.justgiving.com/BeijingtoTehran
As to the future? Both have places at good universities, though whether they will have the same motivations on their return as during the pressurised and hectic first months of their A levels is anyone’s guess!
Hsu and Stevens are heading out to China on Friday 13th May, and will begin their adventure a week later. Follow them on http://beijingtotehran.com/#intro