During the first week of lectures I sat down with fresher Charles Stevens to talk about his cycling trip from Beijing to Tehran. This was a three-month long challenge that saw Mr Stevens, and his friend Will Hsu cross nine different countries. Although Mr Stevens had only been in the UK for a mere four days when I interviewed him he was eager to chat, sporting a healthy tan and an easy smile. Having raised over £20,000 for the charity A Child Unheard (ACU) on his 10,000 kilometres cycle challenge, he had a lot to be positive about.
The adventure started in the summer of 2013, when Mr Stevens and his friend Mr Hsu volunteered at a school in Ghana, working as teachers and helping run the school. The two immediately bonded with people at the school, and the cause became dear to their hearts. Two years later, in 2015, the pair learned the school was struggling to stay open due to inadequate funding. A family friend of Mr Hsu had founded A Child Unheard, and after hearing that the school might have to close down Mr Stevens and Mr Hsu decided to partner with the charity to raise the necessary funds to keep the school running. This was when the idea to cycle the Silk Road was formulated, as it presented an opportunity for the students to challenge themselves, travel to see new parts of the world and raise money to keep the school open. “It was very clear in our minds why we were doing this, but it was also a personal challenge in a sense that I wanted to see how much I could push myself” said Mr Stevens.
While the idea to cycle was conceived approximately 18 months before the journey began, it wasn’t until eight months before they set off on the expedition that the pair began to train in earnest. The pair started exercising at the gym and Mr Stevens attended physiotherapy to strengthen his back.
Their typical weekly schedule included both physical and mental preparations: they started spinning at the gym, reached out to cyclists who had done similar things and read extensively on cycling and adventures such as theirs to try and picture what they should expect. However, while the months of preparation brought them to a higher calibre of physical and mental strength, the joys and hardships they were to endure for the next three months were a one of a kind experience for the two friends.
When asked about the details of the journey, and if there were any moments when the task of cycling to Tehran seemed unachievable, Mr Stevens sat silently for a moment, thinking it over before replying: “there’s a sort of detachment from any resemblance of what you remember, and it’s difficult.”
However, the most difficult challenge for Mr Stevens was the repetition of living life on the go and keeping up momentum amongst the natural elements and eerie silence for three months. “The toughest thing was knowing that after three weeks of cycling, you still have 90 days left and for every single one of those days, you will be doing the same,” he said.
Mr Stevens continued to say that at times, after a long hard ten hours of cycling he would think, ‘it’ll get better’, only to have it worse the next day, and the next. “[The journey] was a process of self-awareness, and realising your priorities in life, realising where you snap… the point where you break down and cry,” he said. “I didn’t come down to that point, but there were certainly moments when I came close.”
In addition to these psychological demands, the first real physical test emerged in the Gobi Desert early on in the challenge. After the first few “days of smooth cycling the pair were [The journey] was a process of self-awareness, and realising your priorities in life, realising where you snap swept up in three days of sandstorms and heavy winds. “The wind is very difficult. It’s fickle, not tangible, and it gives no satisfaction. When you ride up a hill and look down, you can say ‘this is what I’ve achieved’, but with the wind, there is none of that,” he said.
During these three days, the friends were forced to wear glasses, and the sand would constantly destroy their bikes, interfering with the chains and brackets. “You could just feel your bicycle creaking under you,” Mr Stevens laughed.
On a good day with no heavy winds, the friends cycled an average 20mph, around 30km a day. However, during these three days, they were reduced to travelling at 6mph at several instances.
Despite the struggles and harsh environments, the overall experience was a rewarding one for Mr Stevens. For the avid traveller and enthusiastic explorer in him, the experience of being surrounded by nature and wilderness was an amazing one.“It distils life,” he gushed. “You’ve got your bike, food, nature, and you’ve got people.”
As a student who is starting a history degree at the University of St Andrews this semester, Mr Stevens found the opportunity to experience the Silk Road first-hand, which was a dream come true. “It was interesting seeing the history in it, the fable silk road cities. It was also interesting seeing the progression of the people’s features, as the physical facial features from China through to Mongolia changed,” he said.
For Mr Stevens, the Silk Road is more significant than just a road. “It’s more of a metaphor for connectivity and motivation, and in that sense, I think the Silk Road transcends its historical roots,” He said. “It’s not a singular linear road” instead suggesting that “it’s more than a linear point A to B.”
Since his arrival back home, Mr Stevens has hardly had time to look back on his travels and is still readjusting to westernernised living. “It’s difficult being back,” he admitted. “I’m not used to sleeping in a bed, but I’m sure I’ll get used to it very soon!”
Taking the time to think back to the experience in our interview, Mr Stevens beamed as he recounted the events that concluded their trip in Tehran. “The day before our arrival, the ambassador had been upgraded from chargé d’affaires to ambassador. It was a very big deal in the city, and despite the political perceptions of Iran, the people were really nice to us. We were honoured to meet the ambassador when we arrived, and it was a nice conclusion to our trip,” Mr Stevens said.
However, the progress leading up to this conclusion was slow, and Mr Stevens admits that the trip has increased his appreciation of small luxuries, some things as simple as having extra time to read a book.
Referring to Maslow’s theory of a hierarchy of needs, Mr Stevens said of the trip, “You were reduced to the lowest levels, spending your whole time trying to survive. So yeah, it’s nice being back and having a drink. I’m very glad to be back to see friends and family,” he said.
He also noted that it’s nice to be able to speak the language that he is used to. Mr Stevens concluded our interview with a final comment, “[The journey was] a gradual transition, one that was very fitting with the landscape. It was amazing to wake up one morning to green, lush valleys, and end the day with semi-arid deserts.”
Mr Stevens and Mr Hsu are now two of the youngest individuals to have cycled the Silk Road. The students have successfully raised 98% of their targeted £25,000, for A Child Unheard, and most importantly, the school in Ghana is guaranteed to stay open.
When asked what was next on his agenda, Mr. Stevens noted his hopes of continuing work with ACU, and laughed as he listed a few general ideas, not wanting to divulge too much.