Guest Post: Charlie Bilsland on Overcoming Tragedy, Cycling the Silk Road, and Founding Odysseon

Charlie Bilsland, Odysseon founder.
What happens when tragedy strikes? And when you realize the path you're on isn't the right path? In January of 2013, Charlie Bilsland's brother was killed during the siege of the In Amenas gas plant in Algeria. The loss sunk him into a deep depression, and when he found his way out six months later, he needed a change. Being a management consultant in London was no longer enough.

After a two-week sailing trip in Arctic Norway, he left his job and spent the summer preparing to cycle the Silk Road, from Venice, Italy to Xi’an, China. He left on January 1, 2015, and (spoiler alert), when he reached Xi'an about six months later, he was inspired to start a company aimed at helping others have incredible, life-changing adventures. Follow him along the Silk Road in today's guest post, and learn more about his company, Odysseon.

Starting Off on the Silk Road

New Year’s Day came faster than I ever expected, and after a Hogmanay party in Venice that left us a little worse for wear, my friend Ryan and I finally set off on our expedition. Over the course of the next ten days through Italy, we were frozen by night, sweating through the day, and riding our hearts out when we weren’t being attacked by dogs or being run off the road by mad Italian drivers. It was a great indication of what was to come.

Our next destination across the sea, Albania, was a beautiful, friendly country. After two days there, we headed into the mountains of Greece, and the sun disappeared. It took us over a week to battle through high mountains, packs of wild dogs, and snowstorms before we emerged on the coast of the Aegean Sea. By the end of the month, we’d made it to Turkey.

Just outside Ioannina, Greece in January, on our way into the mountains and the snow. (Photo courtesy of Charlie Bilsland.)
After arriving in Istanbul, we learned a change to visa regulations in Iran meant the country was no longer a stop on our journey. We’d now cross the sea from Azerbaijan to Turkmenistan instead, and the itinerary adjustment left us with a free month. We decided to remain in Istanbul for that month, and the time flew by thanks to an incredible group of friends we made. After the month was over, cycling through the interior of Turkey brought freezing temperatures along some scrapes with wolves and bears instead of the wild dogs we'd run into in Greece.

Georgian Hospitality

After cycling through the interior of Turkey, we crossed the mountains in the northeast and descended to the coast before riding to our fifth country - Georgia. At the end of our first day there, we pedaled through a small village when a gang of men in leather jackets shouted at us, yanked us off our bikes, and sat us down by the side of the road. We were understandably nervous until they pulled out food, wine and tcha-tcha (a fierce Georgian brandy), and invited us to eat and drink with them. Our hosts escorted us to their houses, offered us a place to stay for the night, and carried our bikes for us. Turns out that type of hospitality was standard in Georgia, and we were grateful for it.

30 on a cold March morning in Cappadocia, Turkey - I watched the sun set with scores of balloons over a surreal landscape. (Photo courtesy of Charlie Bilsland.)

Our time in Georgia was short, but memorable, and we were soon across the border to Azerbaijan and Baku in search of transport across the Caspian Sea. Unfortunately, the Turkmen embassy in Baku, which only opened six hours a week, closed when we were there. With the help of some new Azeri friends, we found a cargo ship bound for Kazakhstan. After some frantic running around Baku, we bought tickets, found the ship, and set off.

Passage to Kazahkstan, Uzbekistan, and the Pamir Mountains

Our arrival in Aktau brought a middle-of-the-night wake-up call from the military and instructions to disembark immediately. Thankfully, the military representative was simply confused as to what we were doing getting off a boat at 3:00am with two fully laden bikes. Soon enough, we were through visa checks and off into Kazakhstan itself, which turned out be predominantly flat and featureless. We didn’t spend too long there, and a quick trip on a train brought us into Uzbekistan where we were soon pedalling again, travelling through our first real desert - the Kyzylkum.

Taking a break after climbing 1100m to the highest point of our path through the Pamirs. (Photo Courtesy of Charlie Bilsland.)
We spent three weeks cycling through Uzbekistan, going from harsh desert to green fields, visiting the ancient silk road cities of Samarkand and Khiva, and even teaching a surprise English class in Tashkent to a class of 14-year old kids! Our last few days were spent cycling through the lush Ferghana valley.

Then it was on to Kyrgyzstan, our penultimate country on the trip. It proved to be one of the most beautiful countries I’ve ever been to, full of incredibly kind people, enormous mountains, and herds of wild horses and yak grazing the mountainsides. It was also the first country where we were able to cycle with others; we met two Dutch girls in Osh and rode with them through the Pamir Mountains, finally descending down into the ancient city of Kashgar.

The Taklamakan Desert, 'Land of Fire," and the End of the Silk Road

Looking toward the Qilian Mountains in China.
(Photo courtesy of Charlie Bilsland.)
Kashgar is an oasis city, nestled in between the Pamirs and the Taklamakan desert. The mountains of fresh fruit and vegetables we found there were a welcomed sight after so many days spent above 3500m (~11,400'). We said goodbye to our Dutch friends and headed northeast into the desert. Cycling in the desert was beautiful, but challenging, to say the least. Service stations every 200km (~125 miles) and towns every 800km (~500 miles) meant being careful with food and water stores. We also dealt with enormous storms, strong winds, and small scorpions determined to nestle into our bags.

When we arrived at Turpan (‘land of fire’ in Chinese), Ryan turned off to Urumqi and headed back to home. I stayed for a few days, but was soon back in the desert, cycling to amazing places like the Mogao Caves and the first fortress of the Great Wall in Jiyuguan. As I passed through the Hexi corridor, I turned south over the Qilian mountains to the Datong river. At that point, all I had to do was follow it until it joined the Yellow River, ultimately leading to Xi’an.

About 15km away from Xi’an, it finally hit me that the expedition was coming to an end. I started laughing uncontrollably, realizing that the massive goal I’d set myself, to cycle across most of the Eurasian continent, was almost at an end. When I reached the roundabout in central Xi’an, I allowed myself to do three laps of honour around it, much to the annoyance of some of the drivers, before I found a hostel realized I had to start thinking about what to do with the rest of my life!

Founding Odysseon

Returning to normal life after such a trip was impossible, and I decided to start my own business. (If cycling to China was possible, could running a company be much more difficult?) The company that took shape in my mind was one that would help people could have experiences like mine - adventures that had the capacity to change how you look at the world. Almost exactly one year later, I launched an online platform to help other people have adventures like mine, by making it easy to find local, independent guides from around the world. Our portfolio includes thirty excellent guides, so far, and adventures covering everything from diving in Borneo to surfing in Alaska. If my story is something that inspires you to go on a grand adventure, visit us and get in touch!

So many thanks to Charlie for sharing his story, and if you've had a similar life-changing experience outdoors, we'd love to hear from you!