The Silk Road by bike: a blind person on a tandem to Beijing
Davide Valacchi’s project has fascinated us since we came to know it, pedaling the Silk Road as a blind person is a challenge to disability clichés. In our small way we try to give visibility to this interesting project by hosting Davide, Michele and Samuele in our “Interviews” section. To them the word.
The Silk Road by Bicycle
interview with Davide Valacchi, Samuele Spriano, and Michele Giuliano
Hello guys and thank you for accepting this interview, first of all tell us a bit about you, who are you? What do you do for a living?
Davide: I’m Davide, 27 years old. I always struggle when I have to start talking about myself. This time I will start like this: from an early age the things that have always fascinated and interested me the most were the human relationships and the hidden mechanisms of the mind, which guide and determine our actions. Then, after some reflections, at the age of 19 I decided to undertake my studies in psychology, which ended last September with a master’s degree in clinical psychology at the University of Urbino.
But let’s go with order: I was born in Ascoli Piceno and although I have decided not to live there I am very close to my homeland, which I love and especially appreciate for its beautiful landscapes of hills and mountains. And here we connect to my second big passion, nature and outdoor life.
Currently, after four years in Urbino, I’ve been living in Bologna since 2014. I can say I’m lucky because every place I’ve lived in Ascoli, Urbino, and Bologna has entered my heart and I consider it my home. Ah here, I forgot one thing: I’m blind!
I think it’s important to say this because then it will be fundamental to our project. I think I live my disability very well, since I do not consider it a bigger problem than what an average person can have in life.
Yes, of course, a disability has invasive and profound repercussions on life, but every problem experienced can have them, so my philosophy has always been to decide whether a problem should affect my life or not and then act accordingly … in substance, in my opinion, we are the one to decide whether to be disabled or not.
Michele: I am Michele, a chef of thirty-six, I moved to Bologna, the city where I work and that gave me birth, six years ago after an important life span held between London and Sardinia, my parent’s homeland.
I love learning something every day, I’m curious and I have various interests that I will not list so as not to bore, but the main one that brings them together is travelling; may it be a holiday in faraway places or a trek in the woods, a bike ride out of town or a stay in a new city, in all cases a personal enrichment is guaranteed. That includes many interesting aspects because of the discoveries made: a food never tasted before, a different landscape, a foreign language or a different way of life you experinece, new stimuli are born that is the essence, the final proceeds!
Samuele: Hi, I’m Samuele, a 24-year-old guy, I love sports, nature and testing myself. Since my earliest memories I have always been a very lively child, always on the move and in search of that thrill of freedom that I found in various forms: exploring new horizons, training my skills, overcoming step by step the small and big obstacles I encounter, finding a friend and love and climbing on the doors.
I have lived almost all my life in Gorla Maggiore, a small village in northern Italy, on the edge of the Olona Valley, leaving it from time to time to embark on journeys. Sport and movement are the passions that always accompanied me. In particular, I spent a lot of time studying and practicing different martial arts.
The travels, the path, the forest, the mountain, the mud, the sweat, the effort, the happiness, the adrenaline, the crying, the hugs, are my other great loves. Last year I embarked on a bicycle trip to Spain, pedaling for several months, then walking and then pedaling again. It was a really powerful journey full of emotions and teachings.
What is your daily relationship with the bike?
Davide: I’ve never been a cyclist in a conventional way, in the sense that I never went cycled in a serial or routinely manner, but the bike has played an important role since I was a child. I used to ride my bike in the countryside on the Sibillini mountains, near my grandparents’ house, along the dirt roads where the longest flat stretch was one hundred meters at most, and where at every bend you had to pray not to slip on the gravel trap.
Then at age nine my eye condition got worse and I lost most of my visual residue, but I wanted to keep cycling. The sight continued to decline slowly but inexorably until the age of fifteen… however, until I managed to distinguish the contrast of color between the white road and the surrounding green, I continued to ride, although risking my life every second (ha ha ha).
As soon as I realized that I could no longer ride alone I was very sad… my father noticed it and one day he came home with a tandem! Actually, it was a fairly poor tandem, at least comparing it to the ones I’m used to.
In short, to cut to the point: I spent a lot of afternoons in tandem throughout my teen age, moving especially with my friends in the suburbs of my city. The tandem allowed me to live to the full the particular years of adolescence in which the integration with the peers could have been complicated because of my vision problem.
Of course, I also put in a lot of personal commitment, but the fact that I could have a means of transporting myself quickly and reaching my friends simplified everything. In addition, to drive a tandem the presence of another person is obviously necessary, of course sighted, so it goes without saying that someone’s company is insured!
In the years of Urbino, the chance to ride a bike was almost completely canceled (Urbino is very hilly and steep), but returned in Bologna, the city of bicycles par excellence. With the money given by friends and relatives for my first degree I bought a tandem, an Atala (not bad), and even in this case the two wheels greatly facilitated my exploration and integration in this new and fantastic city… everyone wanted to take a ride with me on the tandem, and in this way I have tightened some of the most important relationships of the last years.
Michele: I use the bike every day to go to work that is 8 kilometers from home, to shop or any other short trip. When free time allows me, I train on longer distances and climbs with Davide to better prepare the trip. The bicycle allows me not to use the car, not to use public transport and to be more dynamic and fast in urban commuting. I love the freedom that guarantees me! Not being a sportsman helps me keep fit.
Samuele: Since I was a child, my bicycle has been my favorite means of transportation, even though over the years the relationship has changed.
In recent years, its use in the everyday life has decreased somehow, because of the long distance I had to travel to go to university and then to work.
I love to travel for days and months by bike, ride the climbs and descents, cycling surrounded by nature. I find it an excellent means of meditating, emptying the mind of heavy thoughts and finding myself daydreaming with an ever-closer horizon, until the sun goes down.
How did you this idea born?
Davide: The idea of making such a trip was born with a great friend of mine from Fano who last summer hit the streets of Europe and with whom I was in daily contact. It was through his stories that my already strong propensity for travel received the necessary momentum towards a larger, almost insane idea.
For months I organized the trip to China with Marco, but unfortunately last March he realized that he no longer felt like facing a similar undertaking, and we decided to put aside the idea, or rather he honestly told me to do not feel like being the right person to accompany me. It was then that I began a frantic search among friends, acquaintances, relatives but above all strangers belonging to the incensibly large world of cycling.
I wrote emails, posts on facebook, spread the word anyway and I made dozens of phone calls. After not even a month of research, however, I realized that perhaps the most suitable people were two of my friends, who enthusiastically agreed to undertake such a fascinating and demanding experience with me.
We immediately decided to divide the trip into two parts, one up to Theran and the other from the Iranian capital to Beijing. The two friends in question are Michele, whom I have known for four years, that is, since I live in Bologna, and Samuele, whom I met on the Gargano in the summer of 2016. Once they convinced me of the absolute veracity of their “I’ll come with you, I’m sure”, I realized that they were perhaps the most suitable people I knew.
How did you meet?
Michele: I met Davide a few years ago, I think four, in a tavern in Bologna, the Antica Stuzzicheria in Via Mascarella, a unique place where artists of various kinds come together to give birth to brilliant ideas practically every night.
There we have discovered that we are neighbors and became friends instantly, it is rare to make strong ties in such a short time, comparable to childhood friendships.
Samuele: I met Davide in Puglia in one of those situations where you’re sure it’s not a coincidence. I was traveling with 2 friends camping here and there around Italy when I arrived on the Gargano looking for a camping I saw camping Lillo. This is the name my father always called me, so we decided to stay there for a few days.
It was evening and I had that typical headache from exhaustion, so I went for a walk, when I turned around I saw a shape very familiar to me, it was Alessandra, a friend I met the previous year doing the Camino of Santiago. Davide was with her and we were immediately in tune with each other.
Why on a bike?
Davide: Let’s start from personal experience: all three of us like traveling and cycling. Traveling by bike is obviously not for everyone, but it allows you to savor the true essence of the journey: getting in direct contact with the societies and cultures that you are going through, coming out of the sad circuits of mass tourism. The message we want to convey is based on the promotion of the tandem as a means to ease the integration of visually impaired people in countries where prejudices, stereotypes, scarcity of interest and resources by the institutions, and particular social and economic conditions can make the life of blind and low vision people tougher.
We realize that we are three persons and that we cannot change the world, in fact our goal is to act on a personal, authentic, spontaneous level: we will meet many people and we hope to leave a mark on someone’s mind, a sign that will perhaps create the stimulus to get busy and change something in their lives.
To do this we will contact the associations that in every country gravitate around the world of the blind poeple, to make it possible to get in touch with them. The idea is to make some few days stops in the main cities, indicatively a couple for each country that we will cross, to tell about our trip. Obviously ours will be a mutual comparison: observing how other cultures face the problem of disability will certainly be interesting and we do not exclude to have pleasant surprises about it!
To close this discussion, I can personally summarize the benefits that the tandem can have on the life of a blind person in four fundamental points:
makes it possible to do an outdoor sport such as cycling, otherwise impossible to practice;
it favors integration, since the presence of another sighted person is indispensable;
riding a bike plunges more in the territory and appreciates its natural, cultural and social characteristics;
gives the opportunity to move in the territory and for the most passionate and daring even to make a trip in a way particularly suitable for the blind, who cannot explore a new place with the sight, through the tandem they can do it more easily with the other senses, entering into direct contact with people;
Tell us about your project: itinerary, timing, etc
Davide: The itinerary that we will follow will take us to China through the following countries: Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and China.
We still have some doubts, above all related to the difficulty in obtaining visas for China when entering by land, on the possibility of crossing parts of Kazakhstan and Mongolia. As you can easily see by scrolling through the list of countries, we will cross incredibly diverse and heterogeneous territories and cultures…. the raw material for our desire to travel, our curiosity and the possible declinations for our message will be almost infinite!
What are your expectations? What are you looking for?
Davide: The question everyone asks me when I talk about this project, after the initial moment of loss and dismay, is always the same: why do you do it?
I have already replied in the previous lines: we want to make a strong personal experience among the landscapes and cultures of Europe and Asia, an experience that will also involve a confrontation with ourselves, moments of solitude, a relevant psychophysical stress, and not least the need to live with the same person, well actually with two, for the duration of the trip, which we believe is tentatively between 8 and 10 months. At the same time, we would like to point out to those blind people who for some reason did not realize that their lives could be different with a tandem in their hands.
Michele: Good question, the answer must be diversified because in addition to the “sport” challenge (not a sport but not even a vacation), in itself complicated even for professional cyclists (which we are not), in addition to the claim (to the limit of the omnipotence) of “Wanting to give visibility to the blind people” the main intent is to make as many people as possible understand that disabilities are not limits.
Certainly, a visually impaired is not more limited of that tourist encountered in Laos recently who asked me referring to David: “but why travel if he is blind?” I laughed, laughed a lot and replied: “stay home m … .fck ..!” there is nothing to laugh about and we can do something to help even those who do not have functional disabilities with our example.
We can tell those who have problems with sight that they can work and not be a burden for family and society but that the best thing would be to travel and see different realities to avoid making slim figures like the mentioned tourist.
Samuele: I have no particular expectations, I have a great desire to explore new landscapes, meet new cultures and share my energy and desire to learn with whom we will meet.
Is there something that scares you or worries you? What do you think will be the biggest obstacles to overcome?
Davide: There are many difficulties that hide behind such a trip and that we should not underestimate: among all, those that most concern me are the difficulty in obtaining visas in some countries of Asia; the possibility that the tandem fails in very isolated places; the risk of remaining without water; cohabiting together with Michele and Samuele for many months: despite being very friendly and very compatible psychophysical stress can play bad jokes after a while.
Finally there is the biggest fear: the fact that our journey won’t bring interest in the people we’ll meet… but this is a risk that we have to take and ultimately it also depends very much on us the good success of the project! In any case, we would have made a great journey, which in the end was the first reason that made us want to leave.
Michele: I’m worried about everything I’m scared of everything. I think it’s fair and normal. It is not a game and every sailor is afraid of the sea, no shame just dutiful respect for what you have in front of you, unforeseen and pitfalls are everywhere in life. I don’t overstate saying I risk my life every day cycling the roads of my city, imagine on such a long journey!
Samuele: There will be many obstacles, fears to overcome and unforeseen but I am absolutely confident of our ability to adapt. And in the meantime, I study how to fix the bike.
Which is the country that fascinates you most among those you plan to visit? Why?
Davide: Personally there isn’t a single country that intrigues and fascinates me more than others: I am a traveler in the deep, I do it as often as I can and for me the journey is a lifestyle and a raison d’etre, so asking me which country among those that we will cross more excite my imagination means to ask me a very difficult question.
Thinking well maybe all the Central Asian countries, so to speak, among those mentioned those that end with Stan, I believe that something very different from our society is hidden there and therefore worth discovering, not to mention the nature and the totally unique environment, with the steppes, the deserts and the high mountains in which we will be immersed for a long time.
Michele: I do not have one in particular but I’m anxious to cycle in Turkey and Iran because they are relatively close to Europe but I think very different from each other and from us.
What do your friends and relatives think about your project?
Davide: Friends and relatives are enthusiastic about our project: in all of them we read admiration, interest, curiosity, sometimes even the idea that we are a bit crazy, but without doubt the positive reactions prevail!
Even my mother, who will certainly live quite anxious months (as is normal), has immediately proved to be favorable… perhaps because she knows me and expects similar things from me, perhaps because she noticed from the beginning that I believed in it and that for me it is very important to do it.
How can we follow you? (link to social pages, website, and everything else)
Davide: You can surely follow us through two main channels, which will actually be connected even if the contents that you can find there maybe will not be the same. First of all, we decided to give the project the name “I to Eye”, a play on words that calls for comparison, inclusion and discovery, and which we think describes our project well.
“I to Eye” is therefore also the name of the Facebook page and of the site (not yet ready), for the management of which we will be helped by the “Lele Marcojanni”. During our trip we will publish photos, videos, short stories and everything that can describe our experiences… but I do not want to tell you more, I prefer to find out for yourself following us…