Weekend Warm-Up: Cycling the Silk Road

Charles Stevens and William Hsu spent eight months preparing to cycle from Beijing to Tehran and another 114 days covering the 10,000km. This film documents their not-so-little adventure.

Switchbacks in Kyrgyzstan, one of nine countries along the Silk Road.


Their route along the ancient Silk Road passes through nine countries, beginning with China and its “silky, tarmac roads”. Here, the pleasant temperatures and windless roads gives them, perhaps, a false sense of what is to come.

If so, the Gobi’s relentlessly unpleasant weather soon disabuses them. Often, headwinds roaring in their ears reduce their progress to a pitiable 10kph. A little further north, they continue to grit their teeth through Mongolia’s dirt tracks and monotonous vistas. Their first pleasant surprise comes in Russia, and the contrast between the brightly colored urban onion domes and the velvet green countryside.

Pedaling through the ‘Stans is particularly interesting, especially Kazakstan and Turkmenistan. Kazakhstan tests their endurance the most. As the hot sun bears down, the stiff headwinds return for 180km and again reduces their speed to a crawl. But they also manage to snag their first hamburger in more than two months.

Meanwhile, Turkmenistan feels as weird as a Dadaist poem. Its eccentric dictator commands that no photos or film be taken but keeps an impeccably clean capital city. They notice even a road sign being polished, and modern roads without a vehicle in sight. Every building and car is mandated to be painted white.

The Gates of Hell, Darvaza, Turkmenistan.

Even more bizarre is the Darvaza Gas Crater, in the middle of the Karakum Desert. The Gates of Hell, as it is known, has burned since 1971, when a Soviet drilling rig punched into a huge underground gas chamber. To avoid an environmental disaster, the Soviets set the hole alight, figuring that it would burn out shortly. More than 40 years later, the fire continues to rage through a 70m-wide hole in the ground. The flaming red crater shocks the riders more than any landscape.

Registan Square, Samarkand, Uzbekhistan.


Iran not only reveals surprisingly lush rainforests and little-known national parks, but is also one of the most hospitable of the countries they journey through. It reminds Stevens and Hsu of the importance of separating people from politics.

Altogether, there was no shortage of interesting sights between Beijing and Tehran. The Russian taiga. Mongolia’s nomadic culture. Uzbekistan’s ancient architecture, set in the withering desert. When you elect to pedal for four months glued to a bicycle seat, you must have either enjoy the activity or have a very deep motivation. The pair choose to ride the Silk Road for a charity called A Child Unheard. This, and their passion for adventure, is summed up beautifully through the lyrics of Awolnation, which haunts the film’s final frames: “This is how I show my love.”