Calling all explorers! Neville Shulman Challenge Award

If you are planning an expedition that will take place in 2017, then don’t miss the new application deadline for the Neville Shulman Challenge Award. Run by the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) since 2001, the award offers up to £8,000 for a journey that furthers the understanding of our planet – its cultures, peoples and environments. Read More Calling all explorers! Neville Shulman Challenge Award

Sean Conway to attempt an Ultra Triathlon stretching the entire coast of Britain

sean conway

At the Stanfords Travel Writers Festival in February, Sean Conway, the extreme adventurer and author of Hell and High Water: One Man’s Attempt to Swim the Length of Britain mentioned that he was in training for “a really, really long Ironman” that would begin in April, but at that point the details were secret. Read More Sean Conway to attempt an Ultra Triathlon stretching the entire coast of Britain

Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) Journey of a Lifetime Award

Ever wandered what it would be like to become truly immersed in another culture; taking part in local customs and traditions? This year Peter Geoghegan undertook his ‘Journey of a Lifetime’ in Mongolia, living with wrestlers in ger tents, learning about modern life in Mongolia and taking part in the annual ‘Naadam’ competition.

Peter Geoghegan trains with Mongolian wrestlers in the countrysideArmed with a microphone, and some steady nerves, Peter recorded his journey for a BBC Radio 4 broadcast; from the sounds of the camps in the Mongolian countryside to the roar of the bustling stadium.

The Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) are offering a £5,000 grant and the chance to record your ‘Journey of a Lifetime’ for a BBC Radio 4 documentary. If you have a curiosity about the world and an enthusiasm to share your discoveries with others through the medium of radio, see Journey of a Lifetime > to apply.

Application deadline 4th of October 2014.

Image: Peter Geoghegan trains with Mongolian wrestlers in the countryside, before travelling to Ulaanbaatar to take part in the annual Naadam competition. The wrestlers compete for the ultimate accolade – the title of ‘Undefeatable Giant of the Nation’.

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A Long Walk to Freedom: One Man's 15,000km Hike Home

On Foot To FreedomTravelling the world: the preserve of freedom-seeking gap year students, rat race escapees and millionaires. And now, a 28-year-old Mancunian by the name of Michael Lee Johnson. Like many, Michael’s adventure of a lifetime will be travelled alone and involve thousands of kilometres. But unlike others, Michael will cover the kilometres – all 15,000 of them – on foot, unaided, and potentially through some of the most dangerous countries on Earth.

Fed up of being a slave to his computer, in July Michael will fly to Beijing and spend three years walking back to London (though he’s set aside another two in case it takes him a bit longer) in a journey dubbed On Foot to Freedom. But with a background in web design rather than adventure travel, why has Michael set himself a challenge many feel is impossible? And why China, an unfamiliar country whose language Michael does not speak?

“London’s the place that’s free, whereas in China such freedom isn’t enjoyed,” he explains. “My entire journey’s ‘on foot to freedom’, so it makes sense to walk from China to London because of the political reasons – you are actually walking to freedom.”

So is this mammoth walk – a term that hardly seems adequate for the epic journey Michael is planning – really a political statement, an extreme way of raising awareness of China’s questionable human rights record? Well, not really – and if it was, China wouldn’t be the most sensible place to do it. Rather, Michael will focus on exploiting the potential of social media to raise awareness of himself and On Foot to Freedom as brands.

‘Freedom’, he explains, has a double meaning. Yes, there may be well-intentioned abstract political motives, but this will be a journey primarily undertaken for personal rather than professional reasons. “I’ve been sat at a computer for the last 20 years so I think it’s time to leave the monitor and walk from one side of the world to the other,” Michael says. “I’ve been sat at a computer for so long – it’s not a life. I’m not scared of dying, I’m scared of not living. Some family members think I’m going to find myself, but I’ve already found myself – life is about creating yourself, not finding yourself.”

Michael Lee JohnsonHis determination is admirable, but does Michael understand the risks of walking alone from one continent to another, through one of the most volatile regions on Earth? After a year and a half of intense planning and training, he firmly believes so.

“I’m working between 16 and 18 hours every day, spread between training, marketing, eating and sleeping,” Michael explains. “I’ve been training on Ben Nevis and Snowdon for the last seven months in different weather conditions, but the journey is planned in such a way that I should arrive in each country at the right time, so there shouldn’t be any real extremes of temperature. The only thing I’m really concerned about is not being able to get food and water, as at times I’ll be away from civilisation for seven to 14 days. I’m doing it alone, but it would be great if I got some kind of Forrest Gump following along the way.”

It’s this isolation and the gaps between destinations causing the greatest concern – not just among family members, but those who’ve completed similar journeys using more practical means. During one stage in the Gobi Desert, for example, Michael is likely to walk for 15 days without seeing another human being. Motorists who’ve completed the same journey have warned Michael it’s impossible on foot, but he has a little trick up his sleeve – or rather, one being pulled by his shoulders. “I’ve spoken to a guy who walked from the bottom of South America to the top of North America. He used a trolley to carry all his supplies, and he’s taught me how to build one.”

Central to Michael’s preparations is the route, which will be loosely based on the old Silk Road trodden by Marco Polo. The first confirmed stage is a 4,500km hike from Beijing to Kashgar, a western Chinese town close to the Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan borders. Via Xian and the Beijing Wall, it will take approximately one year and three months to complete. “Once I’m in Kashgar I’ve got three possible routes in mind,” Michael says, “but because of the problems in Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan I won’t be able to confirm which I’ll be taking until the time.

“A lot can change in three years; one route I have in mind would be simply impossible at the moment. I know it won’t be a walk in the park whichever I choose, but the premise stays the same: I just need to put one foot in front of the other for three to five years. I’m loaded with maps and a GPS system, so I shouldn’t get lost.”

Great Wall of ChinaMichael is obviously limited in terms of how much equipment he can take, but his 22 sponsors will be providing all the gadgetry he needs en route – a lightweight laptop, phone and camping equipment: tools that will allow him to plot his route online in real time. Other necessities will be packed into boxes and wait for Michael at various city storage locations.

With the bulk of preparation work completed, Michael is looking forward to finally beginning a challenge he first mooted at the tender age of eight. Amid the frenetic media attention the clock is slowly ticking down to 21st July – the date he will board a plane at Heathrow and fly to Beijing, the Chinese capital.

“I’ll spend a week there on an intense Mandarin course,” Michael says, “and then it’s a case of getting going. I’m planning to walk over 25km each day at 4mph, though some days I’ll have to walk between 40 and 50km. Luckily China’s quite flat, so it shouldn’t be too much of a problem until I get to the mountains and the desert.”

We’ll be keeping tabs on Michael’s progress, but for regular updates you can follow the man himself on Twitter.

> Want to find out more about China? Browse our China travel information page or catch up with China-based Stanfords blogger Tim Neesham’s recent posts.

Colin Prior on the Karakoram Project

Godwin Austen GlacierThis summer, celebrated landscape photographer Colin Prior will travel to north-eastern Pakistan to kick-start his latest mission: capturing one of the world’s most spectacular yet oft-overlooked mountain ranges, the Karakoram.

Home to the world’s second-highest peak, K2, the western Himalayan range also lays claim to being the planet’s most glaciated region outside the Arctic and Antarctic – and it was this stunning landscape that provided the spark for the Scotland-based photographer’s Karakoram project.

“The Karakoram is an area I’ve been passionate about since my first visit in 1996,” Colin tells us. “Back then I was working with British Airways shooting their corporate calendars, which meant travelling to 40 countries over a four-year period. Of all the fantastic landscapes I saw, the Karakoram stands out as the place that filled me with awe, and it’s really this that’s drawing me back.”

With sponsorship from Lowepro, Rab and LEE Filters, Colin and a colleague are planning a series of expeditions to the range over the next four years; a project culminating in the publication of a new book in 2018. So with four months and counting until the first trip, how are the preparations going?

Lowepro logo“There are two big challenges about making a book like this work,” Colin explains. “The first is pace, which is why we’ll be making a number of visits from different approaches – initially from Pakistan then later from China. Secondly, we’ll need to break away from what you find in all high altitude mountain environments: two colours, blue and white, which can become monotonous.”

The photographer will take two camera systems with him to Pakistan’s Himalayas, and expects 90 per cent of his images to be digital. “May and June tend to be the best months in terms of weather,” Colin adds. “I’ll leave in the third week of May when there’s the maximum amount of snow on the glacier. In September, another excellent time to visit, I’ll travel to the Karakoram’s northern side.”

Colin isn’t alone in his desire to return to the Karakoram. A cursory glance at the early history of mountain exploration reveals that Sir Martin Conway and the Duke of the Abruzzi’s imaginations were captured in much the same way – the former climbed Baltoro Kangri in 1892, while the latter ascended K2 17 years later. So what is it about the Karakoram that has such an effect on an explorer’s psyche?

Trango Towers Baltoro Glacier“This is one of the questions I want to answer,” Colin says. “Central to the Karakoram’s appeal is how the mountains have been left undisturbed. While Pakistan isn’t the most stable of countries, the irony is that instability and a lack of investment have protected the Karakoram from development. If the mountains had been in India, there may well have been roads and lodges by now. But before any development can take place, the Kashmir situation will need to be resolved.”

Despite being home to four of the planet’s 14 8,000 metre-plus peaks and stretching for 311 miles, relatively few people are familiar with the Karakoram, and this is something Colin hopes to rectify on conclusion of his latest project. In four months’ time, he’ll enter the Baltoro Glacier from Askole, with the team of two being supported by their own sirdar, cook and porters.

“There are some key mountains I want to photograph, and initially I’ll spend some time around the Trango Towers having made my way from Urdakas. From there I’ll move across to the Mustah Tower, which is just one of the most amazing mountains,” Colin explains.

“What makes the Karakoram different is that because its peaks are so vertical they won’t hold snow – it just avalanches off. They’ve got character that’s not found in the peaks of Nepal and Bhutan – the rocks’ gradual weathering has resulted in profiles resembling towers, cathedrals and minarets. For a photographer to have these rising vertically from a landscape is just so visually exciting and stimulating.”

One of the most impressive peaks is K2, which rises to an elevation of 8,611 metres. “It’s scarcely believable to look at, just a pyramid of rock that rises vertically from the Godwin Austen Glacier,” Colin says. “Other highlights include Gasherbrums G1, 2, 3 and 4, of which 1, also known as the Hidden Peak, is the highest. While this is a well-trodden area, my second approach [through the northern slopes from China] will follow in the footsteps of Francis Younghusband – the man who laid the trail through the northern side, which the Eric Shipton expedition later mapped in 1938.”

Karakoram KhapluColin has read these early explorers’ original books to understand just what they felt and experienced in the Karakoram, and the photographer is keen to combine their mountain observations with his own, contemporary photography. “It’s this rich history of exploration that I want to seed through my book, which I hope will reveal how spiritually enlivening this region is,” he says.

You can keep up to date with Colin’s progress via his Twitter page.

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Away Fae Home: Cycling From Surrey to Scotland

Away Fae HameTomorrow (9th November), five Film Production students from the University for the Creative Arts will embark on an epic 400-mile cycle ride from their Farnham campus in Surrey to Dumfries in Scotland.

Alasdair Gordon, Charlotte Hemsley, Dominic Durham, Joe Gilbert and Sebastian Eyre are the hardy souls embarking on the challenge to raise money for their graduation film, Away Fae Hame, which will be shot on location in south-west Scotland. Read More Away Fae Home: Cycling From Surrey to Scotland