New update on Kate and Mel’s journey as of June 20th:
Getting sanction to cycle the Silk Road through Central Asia is the modern equivalent of the Great Game, a kind of diplomatic chess where enigmatic rules change on a dictator’s whim, where checkmate is risked with every move to a new country, especially a new ‘Stan. With Cycling Silk we couldn’t apply for visas ahead of time, since at our pace, on a trip this long, they’d expire before we arrived. So we’ve had to snag them along the way, which at times has meant intense frustration and desperate tactics to get where we’ve wanted to go.
We got off the train in Beyneu, Kazakhstan, and hit the ground rolling toward the westernmost border of Uzbekistan, determined to enter the country the very day our hardwon tourist visa began expiring. It granted us only 30 days to bike nearly two thousand kilometers on rough roads the long way across the country; interview conservationists in the capital city of Tashkent; boot it to the Tajikistan border; and along the way, explore the complexities and challenges of conservation on the Ustyurt Plateau, a transboundary desert straddling westernmost Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, tucked between the Caspian and Aral Seas, and our second case study of the expedition. So began our evasive maneuvers against the clock – and the heat.
Uzbekistan boasts various blades and poisons, from thorns to scorpions to nightmare-spawning serpents. But for us the heat itself was a kind of venom, effecting paralysis throughout the nerveless high noon of day. And here, high noon lasted all day long, with high winds chiming in. Our strategy was to wake to the stars at 4am, ride through dawn, rest out the heat of the day in whatever scrap of shade we could find or make, then bike again until we hit our mileage mark or total dark, whichever came first. But if daylight in the desert was a torture to endure, duskier hours made existence not just tolerable, but enchanted. Biking beneath the stars every morning on the Ustyurt plateau was an extraterrestrial experience, our wheels purring on a road paved in night, the moon a chip of ice in the sky. Then after melting all day, we reconsolidated in the relief of sunset, the sand still glowing hot as stars, the dunes drawing new constellations in the night.
The Ustyurt, by contrast, is home to the saiga, a critically endangered species of antelope that claims the dubious distinction of being one of the fastest declining mammals on the planet. Poaching is mainly to blame, since the horns of male antelopes are a hot sell on the black market for Chinese traditional medicine. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, communities living on the fringes of the plateau were stranded with scant options for income, so understandably, they hunted saiga both for meat and medicinal sale. Today the saiga are protected by law throughout their transboundary migratory range, but there is paltry enforcement in the remote Ustyurt borderland, especially in impoverished Uzbekistan. The decline of this species, coupled with the drainage of the nearby Aral Sea – caused by intensive Soviet-era and ongoing cotton irrigation – makes this part of the world, for all its wonders, an extreme example of human-wreaked environmental havoc.
The Ustyurt Plateau that the saiga call home and the Aral Sea are both huge stretches of territory unpopulated by people, ‘barren lands’ marginal to human desire, obtuse to economic exploitation. Local people deem both places wastelands, according to our interviews with conservationists. But deserts like the Ustyurt are beautiful and dynamic ecosystems, with the saiga as their flagship species, while the desertified Aral Sea is a disaster – the consequence of our thirst for cotton, and proof that the only genuinely barren lands are born of us.
The distinction between desert land as wilderness, versus desertified land as devastation, is a subtle but crucial one. Language carries an enormous burden of consciousness, especially when it comes to arguing for the protection of the natural world. Call a wilderness like the Ustyurt a wasteland, and who cares what happens to it? Call saiga horns medicine, and who cares about the rare antelopes that grow them, except as a poachable source of profit? In this way language is a prologue to the possible: it shapes perceptions, and perceptions shape actions, and actions shape our world.