Frequently Asked Questions
Who is Stephen McCutcheon?
Well what can I say I'm from Bolton , UK originally but I've been travelling for a long time now. So who knows where I'm from anymore! I completed my degree in Quantity Surveying but didn't really enjoy it so I went to do something I had always wanted, which was to teach English in the Himalayas . Since then I've been travelling through China , Philippines , Australia and most of SE Asia , India , Bangladesh and now Pakistan.
I love tennis, mountain biking, hiking and especially horse riding. I had a few riding lessons when I was thirteen, but that was it until I saddled up for a journey to China . I first decided to ride a horse in arch last year. I wanted to raise money and awareness of education in South Asia and couldn't think of a bigger dream than riding the Silk Road via the Karakorum route. It was the first time I'd ever properly ridden a horse.
What is Riding for Education?
Riding for Education (R4E) is a 10,000 km journey by horseback and camel from Delhi in India to Beijing in China to raise money for and promote the need for education in the region.
The ride aims to raise £100,000 from overseas donors for the international aid organisation ActionAid International. ActionAid have well developed education programmes in India, Pakistan and China, and all donations raised by R4E go to supporting these projects.
Beginning in November 2004, R4E began from the old Mughal Red Fort in New Delhi, India and follows an ancient leg of the Silk Road through Pakistan to Beijing. Visiting schools along the route is an integral part of the project to outline the need for education in the region.
Why this journey and why on horseback?
Why this journey? Because if I didn't do it today, I'd have never done it tomorrow. I'd always have wondered what it was like. There are two deep seated reasons for this ride. First was a personal desire to explore myself and wake in the morning living a dream. To share this incredible adventure with everyone to show that anything is possible, you just have to take the first step.
Secondly, I want to directly show the world the drastic state of education in India, Pakistan and China and what difference even a little investment would make. Moreover to back this up, I planned the ride so that I could directly visit schools across the region and prove this point. I want to be evangelistic on this; there is nothing more important than giving a poor child an education because it at least shows him/her how to solve their own problems and break out of the poverty cycle.
Why on horseback? This was my excuse to explore a deep desire to do something on horseback and find out why I had that desire in the first place. In a world rushing to get everywhere, I also wanted to experience travel as ancient traders once did along the Silk Road and make a difference doing it. There is a big sense of personal achievement in completing a journey like this!
There's something special about the wild nature of horses and the special relationship they have with man. They inspire thoughts of freedom and independence, endurance and defiance and the only way to really experience all this was to ride across Asia . To follow in the footsteps of the world's original explorers and do something profound in my life at least one time.
What gave you the idea to ride a horse?
During an indescribably bad bus journey through central Burma , a British architect told me about a friend of his who'd ridden a trishaw up the West Coast of India. This inspired me, but the idea wasn't original. Then I suddenly realized "why not a horse." and the rest is history!
Who are ActionAid International? How did you hear about them?
In 2004, whilst trekking looking for reason in NE India, I encountered ActionAid’s work in the oft ignored state of Assam. The organisation was one of only a handful helping the state’s Government tackle the problem of rampant illiteracy through innovate schemes to get kids in school and improve their education.
ActionAid has been working in India since 1972 and today has 14 offices spread around the country. On the sub-continent, the need for education has never been greater and with a network of over 300 grass roots partners, ActionAid is helping thousands of adults and children gain an education and thus blaze a path out of poverty.
Whilst originally entitled 'Riding for India,' ActionAid's entrenched programmes in Pakistan and China, persuaded Stephen to fundraise for education in all three countries where, man to man, the need was just as great. Helping the common man achieve the dreams of himself and his family, remains the core push of R4E and ActionAid International is the perfect partner to make this goal a reality.
Why are you fundraising for education?
As we move through the gateway of the 21st Century, Education for All remains an elusive reality. As cornerstone to the worldwide Millennium Goal movement, better education is the undisputed champion of poverty alleviation, yet almost 1 billion people sit illiterate across the globe.
Bring India, Pakistan and China into the equation and we have over 600 million illiterates or almost three quarters of the world total to account for. The levels of poverty in countries like India alone top 250 million. An education can help change that and R4E aims to do just that.
How is my donation used to benefit education? Where does the money go?
All donations towards Riding for Education go squarely towards aiding schools in poor areas of India, Pakistan and China through ActionAid International programmes in each country. Donors can contribute to the R4E fund online or via post - all details are given on the R4E website.
R4E Donations go directly to ActionAid UK where a separate R4E fund has been established. Donations are then split three ways between India, Pakistan and China.
Riding for Education has already visited several schools across Pakistan, where ActionAid or its partner organisations work. Read the online reports here.
How are you going to fundraise for your ride?
By continuing to keep this ride alive in the media and asking you the reader to help. This is one heck of a ride and one hell of a mission. It makes a very interesting story. The world is now global and it is the aim of R4E and to ask for donations towards the R4E goal from as many sources as possible. Read more.
What happened to Rosie, your trusty steed in India?
This is one mare with a story to tell the grand-foals. Rosie is now the proud mother of a young wobbly foal and she's currently happily settled in Fatehabad, just North of Delhi in India with a local Babu. For the full story click here.
How about your horses in Pakistan?
Whilst Rohan and Griffin were unfortunately never used, they did end up in the reliable friend of a trusted friend for use as riding ponies in lower Kashmir in 2005. Sparks and Kabul, had a tougher time. Initially, I sold both to the of Gulmit, for use in tourist trekking. The tourists, however, never materialised and in 2006, both mares made their way via locals across Northern Pakistan into the province of Badakhshan in NE Afghanistan, where female horses are valued as brood mares.
What makes China different?
In China, the ride now has a full caravan contingent of three camels, to make the desert crossing and a black Stallion called ‘Boran’ - meaning ‘storm’ in the local Uyghur language of Xinjiang (NW China).
Whilst the ride was able to rely on local hospitality and roadside inns in much of India and Pakistan, tackling the remote deserts of Northern China is quite different and travellers of old had every reason to be worried.
Across the Taklamakan and Gobi deserts, the ride is completely self-sufficient, carrying up to 100 litres of water and several weeks of food. Up to a maximum of 100kgs can be carried on a Bactrian camel over long distances, making our total baggage weight over 300kgs plus.
Thanks to fantastic support of sponsors outlined below, the ride has its own power source, Sat phone and medical capabilities. Nights are now spent in camp with food cooked on a re-fillable petrol stove. All food for the animals is carried with us, though mainly the camels are able to survive on local vegetation. Boran is generally fussier.
Are you following the Silk Road to Beijing?
From the Pakistan border, at Taxkorgan, our trail follows several by-roads that run parallel to the main branch of the old Silk Road across the Taklimakan and Lop deserts in NW China's Xinjiang province. Lines on tourist map paint the Silk Road as following the current National Highway, and this indeed is quite likely. However, to really get a taste of local life and experience local education, R4E follows a route that sticks more to local villages than the main thoroughfare.
After an interruptions of several months due to permit issues and a heavier than forcast winter, R4E picks up in March 2008 in the heart of the Kunlun Shan Mountains on the border of Tibet before ultimately descending into the oasis of Hotan and onto the Southern Silk Road to China. From there, the road skirts the Taklamakan desert before ascending rapidly into the Kunlun Shan and across the Lop desert into Gansu and the historic gateway to the Silk Road at Dunhuang - entrance to China proper.
Historically the Silk Route has always descended towards the ancient Chinese capital of Chang’an (Xi’an), but later a good proportion of trade was diverted towards Beijing during the reign of the Mongol Empire and the time of traveller extraordinaire Marco Polo.
Whilst Marco Polo may well provide inspiration to reach Beijing, he doesn’t provide a route and though the Great Wall is one guide, it is in the footsteps of another great luminary that R4E will reach the Beijing capital across the open Gobi.
In 1923, Owen Lattimore documented one of the last great camel trade routes of its time from Mingshui in NW China to Hohhot, capital of Inner Mongolia, approx. 500km NW of Beijing. His journey captured a one-time record of a once popular trade route known simply as the ‘Winding road,’ through the heart of the dreaded black Gobi and the abandoned Tangut ghost city of Khara-Khoto.
The provinces of Xinjiang, Gansu and Inner Mongolia, are amongst the poorest in China with rampant poverty and high illiteracy rates. Average wages in Gansu are only US$270 per year.
Other famous travellers to have completed journeys similar in scale include Messrs Peter Fleming of 'News from Tartary' (1936) fame and Major Clarence Bruce Dalyrmple (1905).
When will you reach Beijing? How long will it take you, daily distance etc...?
The journey should take up to eight months and reach Beijing shortly after the conclusion of the 2008 Olympics in China. Average distances should be cover around 30-40 kms per day with slow moving camels.
Can students get involved?
Sure. A section of the R4E website has recently been dedicated to schools and students who wish to use the ride in their lessons to help learn more about the Silk Road and the educational plight of the communities living along it today. Using the ride as a reference, R4E may provide a starting point or reference for classes aimed at studying the ancient Silk Road and its state in the 21st Century. The section is intended to complement classroom curriculums and provide a means to encourage the subjects of geography and history.
The new Schools Area of the R4E website includes links to a R4E Wiki to allow students to edit and comment upon a series of articles detailing the Silk road, its greatest explorers and the civilisations that once made it famous. Students can also post a message (or question) to Stephen anywhere along the Silkroad (by satellite phone), as well as follow the ride live on a connected Google Map and through the expansive terrain of Google Earth. As with any visitor to the R4E website, students may also like to place a new R4E News Widget and animated banners on their MySPACE page, Facebook profile or blog to show support for the ride and provide a continual source of fresh content for their page.
How are you funding this journey?
Riding for Education is funded through the generosity of fantastic sponsors (see next question) and support from family. Absolutely no donations that are made to R4E finance the ride itself.
My aim is to recoup much of the investment through the successful distribution of the journey's documentary. See below.
Who are the sponsors of Riding for Education?
Riding for Education is currently supported by 18 sponsors both in kind and financial. These presently include:
Costa Del Mar - Sunglasses
Global Solar - 25W CIGS Solar Panel
Ichi Translation and Productions - Promotions
Lyon Equipment Ltd. - Storage equipment
Loco Engineering Ltd. - Solar Universal Power Supply (SUPS)
MailaSail - Satellite Email Compression
McNett Corporation - Outdoor Product Repair
Nexus Corporation - Website hosting solutions
Nomad Travel Stores - Medical Kit Support
Nurtural Horse - Bitless Bridle
Premier Kufpec Pakistan B.V. - Financial Support
Pakistan Tourism and Development Corporation (PTDC) - Accommodation Support
Ranvet - Veterinary Supplies
Sea to Summit Ltd. - Waterproof Storage bags
Tekkeon Inc. - Mobile Power Storage
Thorlos Inc. - Specialised hiking socks
Transworld Trading - Indian Saddlebags
Vettec Inc. - 21st Century horse shoes
Additionally, R4E has received outstanding support from:
25th Frame Productions - Documentary Producers
Kashgar Mountaineering Adventures - China Logistics Support
British High Commission Pakistan - Sponsored Equine blankets and support
ActionAid India - Promotions and Press Conference Aid
UNESCO Pakistan - General Support and classification of R4E as an Education for All Initiative
Pakistan Television and Broadcasting Corporation - Documentary Partner
Strengthening Participatory Organisation (SPO) - Pakistan Logistics Support - Education
Did you say that you're making a film of the journey?
I always intended to make a documentary but never one that would meet the strict requirements of the professional TV industry. That was until I met 25th Frame Productions who proposed a joint collaboration to capture the spirit of the adventure.
Together, myself and 25th Frame are forging a broadcast standard documentary (preview) that will seize the essence of this ride and of all the countries I am riding through. Many people today are making expedition videos, and yet I believe few have the professionalism and quality invested in what is already a very unique journey. One that will change my life forever
What are the biggest challenges you've faced so far?
Perhaps the biggest challenge everytime is mounting up on day one and then having to say goodbye to it all at the end of each country. Across India, every day was initially a new challenge as I had to deal with intense paranoia with everything little that went wrong with Rosie, from bleeding noses due to dehydration (learnt later of course) to lame legs due to the long distances covered each day. Fortunately I had some great friends and support and Rosie was as fit and healthy on the last day, as the first day we took our first tentative steps out the gates of Old Delhi's Red Fort.
In Pakistan, the worst earthquake in Pakistan's short history proved a telling reminder of the fragility of man and ease of which carefully laid plans can be quickly tossed aside. Compared to the suffering of local survivors, the daily challenges of crossing the Himalayas in winter paled to insignificance and the biggest challenge was in not being able to help enough given my commitments and time constraints on a Pakistani visa.
Moving onto China, it's no coincidence that the ride took a brake of over 18 months between ride sections. The severe geography and deserts of Northern China mean that R4E has to be completely self-sufficient between the Taxkorgan and Beijing and the distances to cover are staggering. Between the latter two points the distance to cover is around 6000kms. The ancient trade routes of the past still pass through largely unpopulated areas and it's virtually guaranteed few people can speak English. Local bureaucracy has already proven a headache from police officers unable to fit the concept of this journey into their own lives.
Had you ridden before you began this journey?
No, actually I began learning about horses at Delhi Race Course and first learnt to ride at Captain Kundun Singh's Riding club just next door. Many many lessons later and it was out onto the open road to Pakistan. Read more.
How are you going to update your website (and supporters) from the road?
Using a web-enabled Iridium Satellite phone, kindly donated by Xantic (Hong Kong), R4E continues to update this website every Monday from the road. Photos, videos and podcasts are uploaded every few weeks on the better connections of internet cafes, (location permitting).