Two wheels to adventure

Why backpack to foreign land as a tourist in search of excitement when you can experience so much more on two wheels? That’s certainly the view of RSM alumnus Michiel Schonk who spent five months in the saddle pedalling his way along the legendary Silk Road. 

Story by Imogen Moore

The Study Road is a 12,500km bicycle journey to unpronounceable cities in unimaginably unique countries. Part personal growth, part ambassadorial exercise, the five-and-a-half month experience sends a group of explorers off with a loose itinerary to visit eight universities; to share knowledge, experience culture, and create memories. Michiel shares some of these memories.

Michiel Schonk (BSc IBA 2013) was one of a small handful of cyclists who had signed up to be part of the second annual Study Road. One of seven routes, all of them long, and spread across all continents except Antarctica, this one roughly followed the Silk Road, the key trade route across Asia and the Middle East established more than 2,000 years ago. 

The Study Road is reviving this ancient trade route but, rather than carrying silks and spices, the programme aims at exchanging knowledge, friendship and culture.  

‘It’s fascinating, the difference between how the Western world views Iran and how it actually is. For example, after my cycling trip I went to the United States for a month. When I told people In the US that I was in Iran, they asked me if I was crazy and if I wanted to die. But in fact it’s amazing. 

The old Persian culture, the beautiful countryside and people’s incredible hospitality… We were invited to the family home of this guy we’d just met in Iran. It’s only 30 minutes’ drive, he said. After more than an hour in the car, I started to wonder, “Where is this guy taking us? This might be our last trip ever...”’ 

'When we got to the end of that car ride with a stranger, we got out to a huge campfire where everyone was dancing and making music. We danced with his family, took pictures, ate, drank, and had a great time. This kind of experience wasn’t unusual in Iran.’

Highs and lows

‘The really good thing about travelling this way is that every emotion is felt more intensely. You might spend hours climbing a mountain, cursing your bicycle and the mountain itself while wondering why you chose this over backpacking in Thailand. Then suddenly you’re at the top, looking at the most amazing piece of nature you’ve ever seen and the positivity is overwhelming. It’s just not possible to have these same extremes at home or on a package holiday.’

Surely being Dutch, and therefore practically born on a bicycle, would make the journey much easier? ‘I thought it would become easy but it never did. When we began, from the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, we were pretty slow. We rode an average of 135km each day and at the beginning we would get up at 6.30 in the morning and ride until 7 or 8 at night. Later we could cover that distance in less time so it was easier, but never truly easy. There could be 10 or 15 times a day when you think you are too exhausted to go any further. It’s funny though, it’s not like when you’re running and become tired and that’s it, you’re finished. With cycling, after five minutes you somehow find more energy. There’s a faster recovery time.’ 

So why not just use a car? ‘On a bicycle you’re completely part of your surroundings. You can feel the wind, the temperature, you can hear everything and really see what’s going on instead of having everything behind glass at high speed. 

‘People were definitely more likely to approach us as cyclists than they would have if we drove. They were interested in what we were doing (most of them thought we were insane!) but also because we were in the open, we would come through villages where there were celebrations going on and it felt like the Tour de France. Big crowds of people would cheer for us and kids would run alongside our bikes as far as they could. You can’t get that in a car.’ 

‘I don’t think that a trip like this can make you into a person who likes to travel this way or take on unusual challenges. I think it’s more like you must already have a bit of curiosity or adventure in your character. But a trip like this really amplifies those qualities. It pushes and expands the limits of all your comfort zones. Since the Study Road, my future travel plans focus more on places that are unusual, less well-known. I’ve learned that the outside impression of a place might very well be completely wrong. Now I want to go to places that people usually warn you about! Take the Study Road. I’d recommend it to anyone.’

This article first appeared in the Summer 2015 issue of RSM Outlook.

More information

For more information on the Study Road, visit:

RSM Outlook , 2015 Summer RSM Outlook