The Silk Walk Expedition: Traversing the Silk Road by Foot

written by local expert Chris Whittaker

Chris is the founder of and a swashbuckling nomad, who is currently gallivanting his way around the globe in search of good-times. A trained outdoor activities instructor and guide, he has been able to share his passion for adventure sports with other like-minded folk. An outdoor addict that takes fun seriously.

At the end of this year, three friends from Minnesota will be embarking on an epic adventure. They plan on traveling the entire length of the Silk Road… on foot.

Yep, you read that right. They will be walking the entire length of the Silk Road. After spending a year and a half with two of the guys on a number of smaller trips across China, building a collection of mythical anecdotes that can only be shared over a beer or two; I wanted to catch up with them: to share their story, find out what motivates people to take on such a challenge and hopefully inspire you, the reader, to head out on your own epic adventure. But first, here’s a bit of information for those who need it.

A Brief History Lesson

The Silk Road (or roads) is the name given to the ancient trading routes opened by the Han Dynasty of China in order to begin trade with the West. They stretched all across Asia and into Europe; lasting from 130BC to around the 15th century, when the Ottoman Empire closed trade with the West and maritime trading became more feasible. Silk was China’s main export during this time, thus leading to the name Silk Road. Commerce was not limited to physical items; the vast movement of people led to shared tales of distant, far away lands. New ideas of philosophy and religion could now be explored by previously unconnected populations, turning many cities along the route into hubs of culture and learning: sharing knowledge, technology, language and beliefs. silk walk map

The route that they have chosen will begin in Xi’an, the first capital of China; leading through to Rome, Italy. Along the way, they will pass through Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, The Caspian Sea, Azerbaijan, Georgia, The Black Sea, Bulgaria, Serbia, Kosovo, Albania, Montenegro, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Croatia, and Slovenia. That’s over 6,000 miles: roughly 9,656km. Which is 10,560,000 feet or 380,160,000 inches. That’s 47,520,000 bananas… for scale. xian

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The Team

Now that we have a bit more of an understanding of the sheer magnitude of this expedition, as well as the historical significance of the route – let’s delve deep into the minds of the people about to embark on the journey and try and figure out just what the hell is going on here.

Paul ‘Pow Pow’ Ronan

“Growing up in Minnesota you are surrounded by people who have an unrivaled love for everything outdoors. Throughout my teenage years – I met people, went on a few adventures, got into trouble, but always found myself walking back into the woods.” 

After High School, I studied Outdoor Leadership, which got me work from leading horseback trips in Colorado to sea kayaking in Vietnam. In 2013 I moved to China. My time abroad has continued to teach me that there is more in me than I know. I’ve been balancing life in Minnesota and China ever since.”

Patrick Exe

“I grew up in the countryside of Winona, Minnesota. I did a lot of hiking and playing outdoors and I felt scared of the idea that one day it would all end. From a young age I knew that I wanted two things: not to have to sit at a desk to make money, and to travel.”

The day I had to get a job and sit behind a desk to pay for a house and raise a family and only do fun stuff during weekends and vacations sounded like a nightmare to me. I know this is not the case for all people, but when a friend introduced me to a college that offered Outdoor Education as a major – I signed up that day. I learned that I could use the outdoor environment as a classroom to teach people about it by doing it firsthand, whatever that ‘it’ happened to be. I also learned that it was a career that offered travel opportunities to literally every place I could think of. Between then and now, I’ve been traveling around to places that I can find work to sustain my traveling. This walk is my way of flipping this paradigm and to travel for the sheer sake of traveling. I’m doing this walk for the exploration and discovery that can only happen during expeditions. I’m doing it because, at this point, I can’t think of a reason not to.”

Timb Mannuzza

“I live to travel, even if that is just aimlessly walking around.The outdoor leadership program taught by Mark Carlson put me on the path I am now, showing me how I can make a life traveling through the wilderness and teaching others how to do so.”

Growing up my dad worked for the airlines as a luggage handler and traveling was the family priority. When we traveled, we flew standby – which meant we only knew if we were going somewhere five minutes before the gate closed. I learned radical acceptance as a lifestyle at an early age – no reason to be attached, just go with the flow. I have a love of the cold, I was the kid in elementary school who would show up to school in winter wearing shorts. I still do. I got into the wilderness after my freshman year life crisis when I switched my major 5 times in a single year. I then transferred to a tiny community college in Northern Minnesota called Vermilion. That had the largest impact on my life out of anywhere I have been, teaching me that it is possible to live a life of travel.

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Support Team

Katherine Davis, Editor – currently studying at USCLA where she has figured out how to pause time in order to get more done in a day than is humanly possible.

Conner Keeffe, Film Director – living in Sweden, running an exchange program for the college she previously attended.

Delaney Adrian, Logistics Manager – An art student at Western State Colorado University; she is a photographer and activist – passionately fighting for all that is good in the world.

Ben Krumwiede, Videographer – He will be spending the most time with the walkers compared to the rest of the support team. He has traveled and lived in many different countries around the world and has been more or less broke whilst doing so. A real feat for anyone.

The vast wilderness of Tajikistan

The Preparation

When first hearing that some friends of mine were planning on walking from China to Europe, my first question (as I’m sure is the same for many of you) was, “Whose idea was this and how drunk were you?!”. Well, believe it or not, Timb assures me that they were in fact sober. Timb and Paul had been working as backcountry guides in the US and were lusting for an adventure. They realized their jobs were great, but due to always having clients with them, it was difficult to really challenge themselves and push their own limits. They wanted a real challenge. Timb suggested walking across Mongolia, although with hindsight he admits that would be a silly idea – Mongolia should be crossed by horse, not foot. Paul countered with the suggestion of walking the Silk Road. They found a map on Google, saw a lot of funny looking place names that neither of them had been to before and decided they were in. A preliminary budget was set along with a time estimate and start date: to begin in two years.

Upon returning to China, Paul approached Pat with the idea. Being fairly new to China – about 8 months in – he had acquired a thirst for culture. Travel was in his heart, a fresh perspective of the world in his eyes, and with a whiskey in hand – he was sold on it immediately.

Pat: “It wasn’t until a few months down the road that I began piecing things together in my mind about how incredibly huge of an undertaking this is going to be. It hit me when I was working on our route, figuring out the timing for a desert crossing in order to catch the window for a mountain pass. I was calculating our pace, walking days and rest days. I figured out that the mountain crossing would come almost half a year after the desert crossing! After that, I’ve thought about this in a whole different light.”

A quest for adventure, now there’s a good enough reason if any. The group had originally planned to be off and on their way within two year’s time. However, they soon realized how mammoth of a task this really was.

Paul: “From where we started to where we are now are two drastically different pictures. To begin with, we had no foundation: it was just an idea. Now we have a team of people helping and supporting us to make this happen. We have lost two walking members during our 3 years of planning but gained heaps of support from people all over the world.”

Planning and preparing for expeditions is something the three all knew plenty about, but the trip would soon turn into a project of logistics due to visas, food and water supplies, and the ever-changing political situations across many of the nations they would be crossing.

silkwalk Kyrgyzstan

Timb: “The first year was almost entirely devoted to route planning. The Silk Road is like a spider web of twisting, diverging and intersecting routes; ever-changing due to where goods were coming and going from or because of political situations. We needed to determine what our route would be. We had to consider historical significance, current regional stability, and the environment. Although in the end much of the route was determined by border crossings. We designed the route with the intention of spending our winters in the desert and summers in the mountains, enabling us to continue moving throughout the year rather than waiting for seasons to pass. Due to instability around much of the areas we are crossing, we have made backup plans B – F. The idea is to be knowledgeable and flexible – if a situation was to pop up along the route, we will be ready.”

Upon deciding a route, the next challenge they faced was how to actually cross it. Taking a marker pen and drawing a line across a map is one thing, but when that line would take them across the Gobi Desert, skirt the Taklimakan Desert (which translates to ‘those who go in don’t come out’), over the Tien Shen Mountain range, through the Pamir Mountains, across the Kyzyl Kum Desert, across the Caucasus and the Balkans; you soon realise how each region must be viewed as an entirely separate hurdle, with its own set of challenges to face.

They will be crossing areas in which many people know little about, or more than likely have never even heard of before. I was interested to find out how they could even prepare for something like that.

Gobi Desert
The Gobi Desert

Timb: “The first step was to research as much as possible from home – reading a bunch, researching the history of the Silk Road as well as staying up-to-date on local news throughout our route. By staying current with the areas, we are not simply seeing snapshots of them, but trends. No one else in Minnesota understood how significant it was to me when Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov died. We have also been reading up on other long distance walkers and their experiences.”

Paul and Pat have collectively spent a solid chunk of time in China, they speak and read the language at a high enough level to give them the confidence to cross the first leg of the walk. After that, they will be in old Soviet Union territories where Russian is still spoken. At present, Timb is in Moscow learning the language in order to help them through these sections. On top of learning the local tongue, the boys have scouted many sections of the route in person. With Timb heading from the west, and Pat and Paul from the east, they were almost able to high five on the China-Kyrgyzstan border.

Timb goofing around in Russia while learning the language

The Silk Walk Expedition Purpose

As years have passed and they have committed more and more time, money and energy into this project – the expedition has become more than just a quest for adventure. It has become more than just doing it for the sake of doing it. From speaking with Pat, Paul and Timb; I feel a sense of true desire to connect with the people of the world, the people that can only be found in the more remote and desolate corners of the Earth. To learn from them and to understand how they live in environments that would to us be seen as hostile. They could drive from China to Rome. They could take a train. But they have chosen to walk. Because this is the only way to truly experience the Silk Road in the same way that those first travelers and traders did all those years ago. They want to gain a greater understanding of the path led by the merchants of early days which arguably began the first steps towards globalization. Never in history have people been more connected than they are now. The Silk Walk team has skype meetings that cover 6 time zones; I’m writing this in the 7th, where it will be sent to the Adventure in You HQ to make the 8th, before finally being published for the entire world to see. Is the world getting smaller? Or are we just eliminating all the in-between places and forgetting they exist.

The Silk Walk team are looking to slow things down. “We feel the slower you move, the more you connect with the people and places. Our vision is to follow in the footsteps of history. We will face the trials of crossing deserts, mountains, great plains, and endless valleys, not to mention the range of climate and seasonal changes; just as countless traders, travelers, and exiled souls did.”

Following the ethos of, “ounces equal pounds, and pounds equal pain” – they will be keeping their gear to a minimum. Even still, an expedition such as this requires specialist equipment like bladders, walking trailers, rain gear, snow gear, sun gear, camping gear, camera and recording equipment, as well as a laptop and hard drive in order to document the experience. The team wanted to use this opportunity to thank all of the companies and outfitters that have graciously donated equipment so far: Granite Gear, Wintergreen, Ancient Wizdom, One Planet Adventures, Chaco and Vermilion Community College (which they all attended). As well as support from Insight Adventures, The Visa Machine and Handzy.

I hope that by reading this you have felt a better understanding not only of the minds of people who look to take on such large-scale expeditions but have gained knowledge of the process of how what could be perceived as a far-fetched dream can become a reality, only through determination.

The Silk Walk team are still looking for further donation based funding in order to get them through their 2-year journey. The majority of the expedition has been financed by the trio. However, the walk will cost them roughly $12 per mile, and they have a lot of miles to cover. A complete breakdown of where your donation goes can be found on their website and their Go Fund Me page. Check out the links below to keep tabs on their incredible journey!


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