How to write on the Silk Road?
Bernard Olivier begins with a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compo stela, then undertakes a long walk on the traditional Silk Road, from Istanbul in Turkey to Xi’an in China.
The success of his works allowed him, later, to create his association SEUIL, for the reintegration of young people in difficulty by walking. This series of travelogues received the Joseph Kessel Prize.
An astonishing traveler
Bernard Olivier was born in 1938 in a village in La Manchu. Later, he became a journalist, thanks to a teacher who believed in him, specialized in politics, then in economics, then in society. Oddly enough, he achieved some form of fame at the age of 60, through walking, How to create a biography page on Wikipedia by becoming a writer-traveler.
After his long journey on foot bringing him from the gates of Europe and Asia to the borders of China on the old Silk Road, he wrote, on his return, Longue Marche, in 3 volumes, concealing undeniable qualities of a writer.
His adventure – 12,000 kilometers on foot, alone, 4 years on the road in good weather in general – relates the story of an exploit, the amazed tale of a traveler who goes from meeting to meeting and who never stops wonder why it works. He finds that his crazy project is as mysterious and beautiful as the world.
Bernard Olivier began to travel late to get to know himself. But, walking became a real therapy, like a revelation that saved his life. Walking is the path that gave him back a taste for life.
What led Bernard Olivier to walk?
The brutal death of his wife 10 years ago devastated him; her children have left the family nest. Bernard Olivier works even harder to try to forget his pain. In vain. He is plagued by all kinds of negative thoughts, even ten years later. Depression and a suicide attempt later, he feels bitterly that he has missed his life. He has to find something to get out of this spiral.
Walking saved him from despair, taught him to overcome hard knocks. Walking, for Bernard Olivier, was a revelation, a rebirth. He says our sedentary western society makes us forget that we were designed to walk. He is convinced that physical balance brings about psychic harmony.
There is no longer any need to prove that walking is a balm of youth. This practice gives incredible energy and strength. Walking builds self-esteem and this is medically proven.
Anticipating his retirement, he sets out on the road to Compo stela.
“Taking the road, setting off on foot, feeling my body and the passing of time, experiencing my loneliness in the light of passing encounters, these are my motivations. I am an atheist, I was not a walker: a priori, going to Compo stela was not made for me. But the question that tormented me, do I want to continue living? Led me to Saint-Jacques. “
On his return, he asks himself the following question: “What can I do with my life from now on? “. A chance encounter shows him the way.
“It happens during a snowstorm in the Fore Mountains, when the walker gets lost. He ends up in a providential inn, of which he is the only customer. The boss tells him about “two Belgian prisoners who passed through a fortnight ago who were“condemned to go to Compo stela”. This expression trots in the head of Bernard Olivier. He learns about these “prisoners”, understands that a Brussels judge offered them “prison or walking”, and that they left with a guide for 4 months and 2,500.kilometers to Saint-Jacques. “I thought it was awesome; I had found the cause for which to commit myself the rest of my existence! “.
The irony of the story is that Bernard Olivier was never able to meet the “Belgian prisoners”, accelerating his pace to join them, but overtaking them without knowing it, because they were camping while he passed from lodging to inn. 1,300 kilometers further on, here he is in Compo stela, his shoes worn out, his body tired but regenerated, and an idea firmly anchored in his head. ”
After having descended the Loire on 1000 kilometers, on foot, then by canoe, after the road to Saint-Jacques de Compostable, he decides to join Istanbul for the start of his journey. He makes 3 awesome books, from Istanbul.
He writes what he discovers, what he feels, what he learns, in order to transmit to the greatest number and to share with his readers. His adventure began on May 6, 1999, at the age of 61.
The Silk Road
The cities crossed make more than one dream: Istanbul, Tehran, Sarmacande, Turfan, Xi’an, among others. The latter city was the ancient capital of China until the 11th century, before Beijing (Beijing in French) replaced it.
Bernard Olivier walks in summer, because he crosses high mountainous areas. He cuts his route into sections of 3000 kilometers each.
Before leaving, he signed a contract with Editions Phoebus for 4 books – one per year, which will relate his adventures on the Silk Road.
Bernard Olivier knows that the journey can be risky. From the first year, he escapes a regular attack from the Kanga, these formidable Turkish dogs, who guard the herds against wolves and bears.
On two occasions, he was the subject of a brutal theft attempt. He is also arrested by the political police as a “terrorist”, and ends up being struck down by illness when he does not yet have his first objective, the Iranian border.
No sooner did he see the snow-capped peak of Mount Ararat when he collapsed on the side of the road before being repatriated by ambulance to Istanbul, then evacuated to France.
In May 2000, Bernard took to the road where he had left off a few months earlier. This time he reaches Samarkand. The countries of Asia fascinate him greatly. The reception of the populations, the hospitality which he finds from village to village, the landscapes, everything fascinates and carries him.
Bernard makes amazing encounters. In the evening, he arrives in isolated villages, not speaking the language, ignoring the customs, and yet people welcome him, feed him and offer him their friendship.
But, throughout his journey, Bernard must avoid beasts, thieves, dollar-hungry policemen, and God’s madmen in Iran, eager to convert him on the spot.
In 2001, he left to join Turfan, in Chinese Xinjiang, after having crossed Kyrgyzstan with his proud riders, then the Pamirs. He will then cross the terrible Gobi Desert.
Finally, on 14 July 2002, he was welcomed by the Ambassador of France in China and the French community in Beijing. Three days earlier, he arrived in the mythical city of Xi’an, from where, 22 centuries ago, the first caravans with numerous and sumptuous rolls of silk left.
Bernard Olivier’s exploit
On his Silk Road, Bernard Olivier covers stages of 35 to 45 kilometers per day, backpack, then dragging a cart of his invention from a bicycle, to successfully cross the first desert, the Dash- Iranian caviar.
Later, it will happen to him to walk 50 kilometers during the day. He set his record for kilometers in the Gobi Desert – 68 kilometers in a single day – thanks to Ulysses, his second chariot, a companion of good and bad days.
In volume 1 of Longue Marche, Bernard Olivier crosses Anatolia in Turkey, with its high passes. In volume 2, he is on his way to Samarkand, having crossed the last passes of Kurdistan, before finding himself facing the terrible Karakul, a desert impossible to cross the summer, where he finally sees the golden domes of the Uzbekistan treasure city. In volume 3, he treads the snows of the Pamirs, he runs along the endless desert of Taklimakan, then Gobi. He eventually penetrate the China of the Han, by the way of the old pilgrims faithful to the teaching of the Buddha. In China, he struggles to find the bearings of the Chinese world, very different from what he has encountered in Central Asia.
Long March, continuation and end
Remember, Bernard Olivier left Istanbul to conquer the Silk Road. He thought that was more than enough for a retiree. It was without counting on his new companion, Benedicta Flatted, who is astonished, and rightly so, that he did not leave France to accomplish his pedestrian feat.
So here he is, at 75, back on the roads for the 3,000 kilometers that were missing between Lyon and Istanbul. Lyon was, in fact, the world capital of silk in the second half of the 19th century.
But, he’s not going on his own this time. He leaves as a couple. On this occasion, he crosses the regions of the Balkans, whose tragic history will touch him. In this volume 4, the last of the series, Bernard Olivier calls for more brotherhood, and its lines are a magnificent declaration of love.
Walk and make people walk to grow
Since his feet on the Silk Road, Bernard Olivier has combined walking for himself and walking to help others – especially young people – by creating his association SEUIL. He founded this association in May 2000.
SEUIL was born from the meeting that Bernard made in 1998 on the road to Compo stela with two young Belgian delinquents, to whom an intelligent judge had offered a deal: walking or jail. French justice, at the very beginning, prohibited this association, before seeing the possible benefit.
Bernard Olivier welcomes minors in great difficulty, from 14 and a half to 18 years old, who are referred to him by judges or the Social Assistance for Children. Many of them are threatened with imprisonment for delinquency. We all know that confinement, especially at a young age, is not a solution.
4 out of 5 young people refuse to go walking with a stranger, because it is too far from their world, their city, their values. For these adolescents, this represents a real commitment on their part. They have to break with their lifestyle, their past habits, for it to work.
Those who accept leave for three months with a guide, either in Spain, in Italy or through Germany, walking 25 kilometers per day. On arrival, at the end of their trip, they are offered educational or professional guidance. It costs a lot less than jail – 5 times less in fact.
Long-distance walking creates a feeling of freedom in oneself, a feeling of happiness to surpass oneself and allows beautiful encounters over the steps. Wikipedia writers for hire it is a possible path to resilience, this ability to recover from a trauma described by Boris Cyrillic and which I spoke about in a previous article on writing therapy.
Nearly 250 walks were organized until 2018 by the SEUIL association. The organization organizes about forty of them per year. Bernard Olivier, now 80, has ceded the management of his association.
As a conclusion
Frankly, I loved reading Bernard Olivier’s travel accounts. No photo is inserted in any of the volumes. And that’s good, because the imagination can then do its job.
When I wanted more information, I would surf the Internet and look at photos of the towns, landscapes and regions I crossed. I must admit that I admire this man, who recovered from his pains step by step, with the sole force of his will.