On the Silk Road by Motorbike

A young Hungarian professor – who loved motorcycling – decided in 2015 to cross Europe and Asia along the Silk Road. In the Middle Ages, the journey from Istanbul to Beijing took even several years; by motorbike, however, Ádám and his fellow traveller, Li covered the distance of 31,000 km between Budapest and Beijing in 76 days.

Author: Ádám Gbúr

I found the video of two German motor-cyclists who started to drive along the Silk Road but turned back when they reached the Chinese border. Seeing them, I took a liking for travelling the same route except that I wanted to continue the journey in China, too.

My decision was also supported by the fact I graduated from Eötvös Loránd University with a degree in history and then lived in China for six years, and during this period I did not just learn the language but also the customs, culture and history of the country. I did my Ph. D. at the University of Changchun in the comparison of the history of European and Chinese philosophy.

The more thought I gave to the journey, the more crystallized the details of the ride became, and the more seriously I was considering what should be done to be able to set off on such an enormous journey of several thousands of kilometres. The idea was born, and in the meantime fate also ordained that my dream should come true.

ACROSS 17 COUNTRIES BY MOTORBIKE

I told my plans to a Chinese friend of mine, who was also enthusiastic about the idea. He immediately told me he knew a Chinese businessman living in Hungary, whose range of interest was similar, so he would surely be interested in the journey.

That is how I met Li Yude. Things happened very fast, and the substance of organizing the journey began. One of our mutual friends took the financial part upon himself, and since both Hungary and China supported the joint journey, the financial background was ensured.  The Hungarian government was encouraged by the Opening Towards East Policy to provide financial and moral support to this grandiose enterprise; the support of the Chinese state was enabled by the political, economic and cultural will behind the “One Belt, One Road” slogan, which regarded developing the settlements along the one-time Silk Road and emphasizing the significance of the link still persisting between the continents particularly important.

During our journey we wanted to explore the one-time Silk Road, first, to make obvious where and what kind of developments are necessary in the different regions, and second, to help motorcyclists who want to embark upon this adventurous enterprise in the future.

The most difficult part of the organization was to obtain the necessary visas to all the seventeen countries we were to cross on the journey. It proved to be difficult owing two things: since Li is Chinese and I am Hungarian, that is, a citizen of the European Union, in some countries we needed different visas. It was even more difficult to synchronize the visas with the itinerary, because we could enter most of the countries if the date of our arrival and leave was communicated in advance, which required accurate planning – such accurate planning, as it turned out later, which was impossible to be done months in advance, in front of a computer, without knowing the terrains and the particular countries in detail, despite all our goodwill.

Time and money became increasingly significant factors in planning, since we had to visit all embassies to support our journey in the different countries. And such offices cannot be informed that we were arriving in a time window of several days so they should wait for us patently. Therefor we needed a schedule broken down to days. Later, however, it turned out that we could not keep to such a stepped-up plan on a journey of several months, taken in mostly unknown terrains.

The term “Silk Road” originates from the 19th century, and it was a German geographer, Ferdinand von Richthofen who first used this name for the trade routes encompassing East, South and West Asia in ancient and medieval times, connecting the region with Europe.

The classical Silk Road connected China’s former capital, Xi’an and Byzantium, later Constantinople, or Istanbul as it is called today. Given the massive changes, it was impossible to designate specific routes in the area of over ten thousand kilometers  stretching between the two cities. The Silk Road did not mean a designated route. The travels of caravans carrying mostly dates, saffron, pistachios, frankincense, aloe, myrrh, sandalwood, glassware, silk and chinaware, were mainly determined by avoiding hostile peoples and famine, that is safe transit. But two more or less regularly used routes, a northern and southern one, evolved. The northern route stated from Xi’an and run towards the west, toward Xinjiang, Fergana (today Uzbekistan), Persia (today Iran) and Iraq, along the Yellow River, and then reached the eastern frontiers of the Roman Empire. The southern route was also called the Tea Route and crossed the northern regions of India.

The trade pursued in this area enhanced communication between peoples and cultures, therefore it was not only an economic and cultural but also a significant social drive. We chose the northern route, and its most popular segment in particular, thus after six months of making arrangements, could set off on the journey.

Organisation required very complex work, but finally we could leave with Li Yude from Heroes’ Square on 7th May. We did not have all our visas, though, but we hoped things would work out. On the other hand, we were promised diplomatic assistance, which we fully received, our enterprise was supported from home, taking off a lot of burden off our shoulders.

 

We set off on the journey on BMW R1200 GS Adventure motorcycles. They were completely prepared technically, and we had to test whether they were perfectly reliable on a ride of several thousands of kilometres. First we went to Belgrade, from where we sent back the stuff we thought to be superfluous, because at the beginning of the journey we felt we had planned too much luggage. We could already see at this point that we would not be able to stick to the schedule we planned so carefully at home, since we had a delay of three hours at our second stop, the Hungarian embassy in Sofia. But the real troubles started the next day, at the Bulgarian-Turkish border, when the problems with the visas first occurred. Although we managed to resolve the situation, we could have a foretaste of what kind of situations we would have to resolve on the journey.

THE REAL BEGINNING OF THE SILK ROAD

Our arrival in Istanbul was symbolic, since once the Silk Route started from here towards the east, and, as a link with the Roman Empire, it used to be the western collection point of caravans. Our motorbikes were inspected here first whether they were technically fine and we had a day of rest, which we spent with sightseeing. From here, a section of 800km followed to Samsun, and the next day, after having ridden even more, we arrived in the capital of Georgia, Tbilisi. In Tbilisi, we faced one of the greatest problems of our journey: we had not been given the Turkmen visa, which meant we could not go along the originally planned route.

Since we had received loads of help both from Hungary and China, we continued our journey toward Teheran optimistically and we hoped the situation will work out in the next few days. Eventually, we were stranded in Teheran for five days, which could have meant the end of the trip. But we were determined and found an alternative solution.

A BYPASS OF 4,000 KILOMETRES

In these five days, we had the chance to get better acquainted with the Iranian people, about whom we had very little prior information. Soon we learnt they were very direct and open-minded, curious about the world and very helpful.

The problems with the visas, however, caused a lot of headaches, and since we were not given the permission to enter Turkmenistan, we had to seriously consider how to go on. On a trip taking several months, however, one gets used to resolving such problems continually, and since we were several thousand kilometres away from our home, and we had a lot of people backing us, we could not consider to abandon the enterprise. Eventually, I proposed to go round the Caspian Sea from the north, to cross Kazakhstan, finally reaching Uzbekistan. This meant a bypass of four thousand kilometres, but there was no other solution if we wanted to fulfil our commitment.

We got to Kazakhstan via Russia, which we had originally planned to visit on our journey back, and from here we reached Uzbekistan, where we visited such historic cities such as Bukhara and Samarkand, which used to be distinguished posts on the one-time Silk Route. In the meantime, I was preparing my spirit for the most difficult section of our

 ride, the Pamir Highway, designated as route M-41, along the Tajik-Afghan border. But I would not even have dreamt that I would meet the greatest fear of travellers…

PAMIR HIGHWAY

On the terrace of a restaurant in Samarkand, I received a text message from Li that he could not go on this section with me due to some problems with his visa. He had to go across Kirgizstan to China to get there on time. It bit right into my marrow: the Pamir Highway was not only the second highest altitude international highway in the world – going up to as high as 4,617 meters – but also very dangerous.   Almost all over its length, for about 1,800 km, it passes along a swift-flowing  river, which must be crossed several times; the road goes along steep cliffs and ravines, amidst  strange and often unfriendly peoples, far from civilisation.

In addition, it seemed fate did not want me to cross this stretch, either. First, my way was blocked by a landslide, and I had to wait for hours until the road was cleared enough to get through with difficulties. It happened several times that despite the clear GPS signal the road simply disappeared in front of me and I reached difficult terrains, where I could do nothing but trust my map; fortunately, after a while I was on the designated route again.

But the real barriers were vulnerability and solitude. I had never felt so little in the world before. I had to cross the river several times without any bridge over it, but with some local people waving enthusiastically on the opposite shore, signalling I could cross safely. Fortunately, I got to the shore without trouble and later I was so happy about the police’s roadside checks than never, because at least I could see some people.

Then I bumped into another unexpected adventure when I noticed road signs in which, next to the silhouette of an adult and a kid walking, a big death’s head was painted. They were not very promising. When I reached the next settlement, I found out I had done well not to sit down to rest. A British and two Bosnian men explained they were there, so far away from their homelands, because they were minesweepers, clearing the mines in the area marked with signs.

The journey took six days and this section was the most tiring mentally because I could not afford lowering my guard here even for a minute. When I got through the Pamir Mountains, and looked back at the high peaks, my stomach still tightened but it also energised me: if I could do it – and to top it all, alone – I would be capable of anything.

I met Li in Kirgizstan again, where we continued our trip to China. We got to Xi’an, the end of the one-time Silk Road, without trouble. From here we went to Beijing to perform our protocol tasks.

HOMEWARDS

We rode back home across Mongolia. In Ulaanbaatar Li and I parted again, because he had to return to China. I headed to Moscow, to cover almost ten thousand kilometres to Budapest on my own. In the Russian capital I had my motorbike, with which I had no problems on the trip, fully serviced.

By the end of the trip I had changed, too: I had become much more patient with others, and begun to pay more attention to people, even with whom I had had superficial relationships. By the end of the thirty thousand-kilometre journey I had become even a bit indifferent. The route, the landscape itself could not offer new experiences, since in seventy days I got used to the fact that there was always a nicer ravine, valley, forest or mountain. Exploring historical city centres was not so exciting any more, either. I felt that I had seen a lot of them and, in some sense, they were all similar. A good example is my journey home, when I was heading toward the Baltic states, which I had wanted to see for a long time.

I walked around the capital of Estonia, but only superficially, because the only thing I can remember is the restaurant. I just visited the service station in Riga, but I had some pangs of conscience, so I pledged myself, by hook or crook, to see Vilnius. Homesickness, however, won because on the motorway I took the first exit toward Warsaw on, thus I must go back to the Estonian-Latvian-Lithuanian triangle one day. Despite not having seen everything I had originally planned, I do not miss anything because I got more than I had hoped. If I had to define this huge enterprise somehow I would say it was a pilgrimage grafted onto a motorcycle tour.

Author: Ádám Gbúr

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