Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Route planning.

Right. So up until now (that is, from when my last post left off, as I was writing it in past tense, because I still need to catch you up on the happenings up until the present, and that hasn't quite just happened yet), I had a hazy plan to go on a long biking trip somewhere that was "not Nebraska".

Great, plan, huh? :-/

Anyway, first, the Silk Road came to mind. You know how some people have always wanted to go on the Trans-Siberian railway? Well, the Silk Road is just as cool sounding. And by bike, mega cool. So I started websurfing, and figuring out who'd done it before, and which way they went, and how long it would take, and those kinds of things. During such websearching, I ran into the webpage of this Swiss woman named Alessandra Meniconzi, who did just that, the Silk Road by bike, and documented it all in a beautiful photo book by the same name. (You can check out her webpage here.)

Well, of course I was intrigued, so I went ahead and emailed her. And guess what, she replied! Not only did she give me some really good tips on travelling in general, but she also mailed me detailed descriptions of the route she took, including weather reports and hotel and stay recommendations, as well as the names and addresses of some of her biking friends who might possibly be interested in becoming trip companions. She's an awesome woman, Alessandra. My greatest respects and admiration for her.

O.K., back to the story. Encouraged by this prospect, I got really ambitious, and actually started thinking about time frames and logistics. The biggest worry, of course, was the realization that I would have to quit my current job as an engineer. You can't (or you could, but I can't, I figured) simply complete such a trip in a couple of months. Of course, it is indeed possible to do so if you're in good shape and have experience: Alessandra's trip took her about 2.5 months, for a total of approx. 5,500 kms! This averages to only about 73 kms a day, which is reasonable. However, from my experience in Italy I knew that I was not the type to be able to average more than about 30 kms a day at the most when travelling through mountains (climbing to Passo Cisa took us about 6 hours, since we tended to average only about 3.5 km/h on the uphill!), and besides, I figured if you're going to embark on such an adventure anyway, you might as well take as much time as you want to look around, visit museums, ruins, or other places of cultural interest, befriend the locals, hang out at the parks and cafes, and sniff the flowers, kind of thing. So, I multiplied her time by 3, and figured the Silk Road would take me around 6 months.

Great! At this point, I figured, given that I'm going to have to quit my job anyway, why not take a full year off, and do the whole trade route thing, all the way to the westernmost tip of Europe? Might as well, I figured, start in Portugal, and end up 9 months to 1 year later in Shanghai. Cool, huh?

Right. Incredibly, it took me several weeks to realize, that doing so would imply spending a good chunk of the winter biking through the harsh and unforgiving mountains of central Asia.

So, back to the drawing board. But the good thing was, that now I had a more definite plan. I had a time frame for when to start, and when to end the trip. To maximize the warm weather months, it would have to start in April, and end around September. Additionally, if by December or January preceding the targetted April I had not found a travel companion (and it is difficult to find a friend who will quit his job for a 6 month chunk), I would have to go at it alone.

Optimal decision-making becomes so much easier once your problem statement contains constraints. I now had the constraint that my biking trip would have to last at most 6 months, and it had to be safe enough for me to be able to go alone. Do you see the no-brainer here? The Silk Road project (Istambul to Shanghai), alone with no companions, is very challenging, but the Portugal to Istambul part, that's pretty forgiving, in comparison. Remember, in Europe, towns are spaced only a few kilometers apart. In Europe, I know most of the languages of the places I was to travel around, in Europe, I have friends and family.

By this time, it was already December.

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