Two Canadian women spread message of “look beyond borders”

Two Canadian women have created history cycling from Turkey to India to explore nature and spread the message of “look beyond borders.”

Kate Harris and Melissa Yule, both 29-year-old scientist-explorers, started their arduous but passionate journey from Istanbul in January, and successfully completed the mission in Leh early this week. They completed the 10-month, 10-country, 10,000-km bicycling and research expedition named “Cycling Silk” with sweet memories.

Speaking exclusively with The Hindu, they were jubilant over the accomplishment, and said: “We have really discovered a new world.” The goal was to study and raise awareness about nature conservation and connectivity across borders.

For most of 2011, Kate and Melissa rode self-supported through the wildest mountains and deserts of the ancient Silk Road. They continued through Georgia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, China and Nepal, then cycled through the Himalayas to the final destination of Leh, Ladakh.

The most difficult part of the expedition came when they travelled through Tibet, because of its terrain, and “you know it is otherwise difficult to get into Tibet — that too for a foreigner. But we managed.” The most fascinating time was when they crossed the borders of Tajikistan and Afghanistan. “On the one side, you see rapid development and prosperity and on the other, there is despair. The disparity between the too is very much visible,” they said.

For them, “it was great to have explored how people make and break the borders.”

“It is important to see how political boundaries divide people, landscape, animals and species, that is why our slogan is to look beyond borders and allow nature to go on its own,” the two said.

Shared concerns

Along the way, they studied and documented the natural and social impacts of five existing or proposed trans-boundary protected areas — the Caucasus mountains, the Ustyurt Plateau, the Pamir mountains, Mount Kailash and the Siachen Glacier.

“The human, environmental, and economic costs of the Siachen conflict have been enormous for both India and Pakistan,” says Ms. Harris, who wrote her Master's thesis on the Siachen glacier as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford. “Shared environmental concerns on Siachen are a compelling incentive for India and Pakistan to resolve the dispute by establishing a Siachen Peace Park.”

While in India, the team is learning more about the Siachen conflict by interviewing people in the government, military, and nature conservation. They are also visiting and documenting some of India's most beautiful borderland wildernesses, including the Nubra Valley and Pangong Lake.

The Cycling Silk duo has been friends since childhood. Ms. Harris is a writer, scientist, adventurer and photographer. In addition to her Master's degree from Oxford, she holds another in Earth Sciences from MIT.

Ms. Yule is a social scientist, environmentalist and endurance athlete. In her work and research, she combines community development with environmental science to study ecological impacts on human health. She holds a Master's degree in International Development from the University of Guelph, and worked as a researcher at the International Development Research Centre in Canada.

Experienced adventure partners, Ms. Harris and Ms. Yule have biked coast-to-coast across the U.S. in 2005, and spent four months cycling in western China in 2006.

Ms. Harris and Ms. Yule will share their journey as a documentary film and a multimedia website — www.cyclingsilk.com — since raising public awareness is a key goal of the expedition. “We believe that people must first care for a place before they feel compelled to protect it, so our goal with Cycling Silk is to leverage adventure into environmental advocacy,” says Ms. Yule. “We hope to instil a deeper understanding and inspire a greater appreciation for wild spaces and species that transcend borders, both on the Silk Road and beyond.”