By Aney Mathew
To most, the relevance of the Silk Road might be relegated to some pages in their history book. But for Qatar’s Khalid al-Jaber, this ancient route beckoned him to ride his way right into the pages of modern history, as the first Arab to cover the historical Silk Route on his motorbike.
Riding his BMW R1200 GS Adventure (his favourite bike, by the way), Khalid rode across continents, covering 21,000km and 19 countries, on a tour that took him 3 months to complete.
“I dedicate this achievement to His Highness the Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani”, says Khalid jubilantly, as he celebrates his accomplishment.
The 39-year-old biker who has been riding since 2010 has his eyes now set on the Trans-American trail and riding through Morocco.
Lest you think biking is all he does, there’s a lot more to what Khalid has achieved beyond adventure riding. Besides being a computer engineer with a master’s in innovative technology – cybercrimes, Khalid owns his own film production company, one that has produced some award-winning films.
But it’s biking that has captured his heart. Khalid shares with Community some momentous memories of his revving adventure.
Why the Silk Route?
This ancient route dates back 3000 years and is considered challenging, and difficult. It demands considerable skill and the ability to adjust to difficult environment and weather changes, while testing your fitness. Very few adventure motorcyclists have crossed the entire length of the route especially through Tibet.
So I decided to take on this challenge, riding from Europe to Beijing, while enjoying and experiencing the various cultures enroute. I could see the shift in landscape, ethnicity, traditions and cuisine. Quite an experience in itself!
It was a rather long trip…
My ride began from Ace Café in London where the Silk Route ends and finished at Ace Café in Beijing, China. The idea was to cross Europe and entered Asia from Istanbul.
Although I embarked on the journey from London on 22nd April, the preparations for the trip had begun by the 1st. So the tour actually took me three months to complete, and I wasn’t in a hurry.
I didn’t do it for the sake of a motorcycle ride. It was an adventure and an amazing opportunity to explore the main cities along the Silk Road. Through my entire trip, I avoided the expressways and took the age-old traders’ routes instead.
I made it a point to visit every ancient city along the way, and I got to see places like Khiva, Bukhara, Samarkhand, Istanbul, Safranbolu, Mount Nemrut and Erzurum, just to name a few.
What was the inspiration behind the adventure?
Jupiter’s Travels, a book by Ted Simon is about an epic journey the author embarked upon, that took him 64,000 miles around the world on a Triumph Tiger motorcycle. He returned to London, four years later a changed man, with many a colourful tale. In his book, Ted focuses on his experiences off the bike, than on the bike. So I too wanted to achieve something different on this trip. I rode for a cause; it was to support the needs of children requiring artificial limbs.
Was this a group adventure?
We were basically a group of 16, hailing from different countries, but we never rode in groups. I personally prefer riding solo, that’s what I did this time, too — I used my own maps and GPS co-ordinates while referring to the notes provided by our leader, Kevin Sanders. Although we rode alone, it was important that all of us reached a designated location by 6pm every day. So, yes I rode alone most of the time.
What was the most challenging part of this adventure?
The trip itself was the challenge and the adventure. We experienced some tough riding conditions and had to go through pretty formidable terrain. For instance, riding across the Pamir Mountains (one of the highest mountains in the world) and Tibet, reaching 5,380 metres on Everest with a bike weren’t easy tasks. To cap it all, we had to deal with snow, rain and black ice.
In Tibet, I wasn’t able to shower for six days; I wore the same clothes for six days straight! I don’t know how I survived that. The fact is we had no choice.
There were several incredible experiences along the way, like riding a zigzag dirt road in Wakhan Valley — Tajikistan, and going through a heavy snowstorm in Tibet, while reaching a 5,100 metres pass. These were completely new experiences for me, but thankfully I rode through such times without accidents.
Besides challenges, there were also some memorable experiences. Some of them make me tear up even now, as I recall those instances. I remember the unforgettable moment when I reached the Everest base camp; I hugged my buddies and began crying in sheer happiness as I gazed at the pure white roof of the world’s tallest mountain. It was an incredible sight! An unforgettable moment indeed!
Another phenomenal moment was reaching the Ace Café in Beijing, as we ended our adventure. We were welcomed like heroes and superstars. There were huge crowds and cameras all around us. I personally believe this was the best day of my life, where I had challenged myself and won. There I was, weeping in sheer joy — a first time experience.
Any candid camera moments?
Oh, yes. I recall an occasion in China, when I was caught riding on a superhighway, where bikers are not allowed. The police duly caught me and escorted me out. I found myself having to take a route that no bike can do.
I ended up riding though a tricky, narrow sidewalk, and then a grassy, hill in pouring rain, till I got stuck between some trees and began rolling downhill only to finally hit a tree! The Chinese police are generally helpful and I received help to pull my bike out. That day was stressful and funny the same time.
How did you find the experience of interacting with people whose language and culture are foreign to you?
Through this trip, I realised you don’t need a language to communicate with people! There are always ways and means to understand each other even without words. It was interesting how we would both wave our hands till we understood each other.
In the worst-case scenario, I would pull out my Google Translator. But, of course that depended on the availability of a network.
How was it, embarking on such an adventure during the Ramadan period?
Since I was travelling, I did not fast. But I missed the Ramadan spirit I normally get to share, with family and friends. Ramadan is all about family and friends gathering together; I missed that this year.
How do you view returning home to Qatar after such a long trip?
This has been my longest trip so far. Normally, my trips take no longer than three to four weeks. This time it took about three months.
Kevin, our leader had prepared us mentally for what was to come. He spoke to us about the depression we could feel on reaching home and how we could develop a tendency to look down on other people and see their achievements as ‘silly’, in comparison with ours. He also warned us that in turn, others could perceive us as being silly, when we share our amazing experiences with them.
He advised that we either cope with the situation or continue going on more trips. Well, I’m planning my next trip — a 5-month ride!
So what next?
I’m currently planning two rides; the Trans-America Trail, which is mostly off-pavement riding and a ride through Morocco. I’m also working on the idea of initiating an ‘adventure-tours’ community, to bring together like-minded people in Qatar and encourage them to take up adventure travels. Rather than buying BMW bikes and just riding them around the city, why not use them for what they are designed to do?
What does your family make of your trips?
When I first mentioned it, my mother wasn’t convinced at all. In fact, she was crying when I left Doha. But today, she is proud that I embarked on this journey. My father is very supportive of my passion for riding and always encourages me.
Anything else you would like to add?
I feel quite proud of my accomplishment! Being the first Arab to have ever crossed the age-old Silk Road on a motorcycle is momentous. I could go on talking about this trip, but remember a picture is worth a thousand words. I invite all the readers to visit my Instagram page #my_road_to_silk, to view the photos, videos and see for themselves the challenges I was faced with.
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