A British woman has set off on a four-year equestrian adventure retracing an ancient trading route.
London-born Becky Sampson, 25, is taking her 10-year-old piebald pony, Bertie, on a journey following the centuries-old Silk Road trading route, ending her journey in Japan.
The trip will span two continents, 15 countries and cover more than 15,000km. She set off from east London on April 1.
Her horseback ride will take in Western and Eastern Europe, Central Asia, China and Japan. Challenges ahead include the Tien Shan Mountains and the Taklamakan Desert (which translates as "he who goes in does not come out").
Temperature extremes will range as high as 50 degrees Celsisus to as low as -20.
Both Sampson and Bertie have been in training for the journey. Sampson has completed first aid and survival courses, as well as obtaining a teaching qualification that will enable her to earn money as a teacher while travelling.
Sampson says she has known from the age of 10 that she wanted to travel by horse.
"An article I read about a man who was halfway through a ride around the world further fuelled my dream, and I knew at that moment that that was what I wanted to do," she says.
Her first taste of adventure came when she was 17, after begging her father for years to allow her to travel.
"My persuasive powers paid off; I swapped school books for suncream and travelled solo throughout Europe."
On her return, she studied agriculture, which gave her the opportunity to own her first horse.
"Seastorm and I didn't bother with horse boxes. When it came to the holidays, we would ride home. The sense of freedom was exhilarating.
"It also served as an introduction to the problems faced by long riders - finding suitable places to ride; the wear on horse shoes; finding places to stay for the night. That was my first introduction to long-distance riding, and gave me a thorough grounding in travelling by horse."
A couple of years later, while riding on the border with China and Tibet, she met a girl who was on her way to Kashgar - a major trading port on the Silk Road.
"I'd never heard of it before, and as she described it to me, I began to imagine myself riding along the Silk Road, following the routes of traders that would have travelled to the markets of Kashgar centuries ago.
"It wasn't until I returned to England that my dreams started coming together. One of my ambitions had been to have a horse in London and ride from home to 'somewhere'."
During her research she dicovered that the most Eastern point of the Silk Road was actually at Nara, in Japan.
The trip was extended to join up two major cities, London in the West and Tokyo in the East.
Sampson says she has the "basics" in several languages which should help her on her travels.
"I still have the article of the man who rode round the world; in fact, I have since spoken to him for advice. I hope that by the end of this adventure, I can be an inspiration to others who want to journey by horse."
Sampson intends to cross Europe during the northern summer and spend winter working in Turkey as a teacher, before pressing on.
In 2010, she intends crossing into Iran and through the Central Asian states, wintering in Kyrgyzstan.
The following year she will enter China and head for Xian, then Shanghai. If everything goes to plan, she will journey by boat in 2012 to Osaka and then head on to Tokyo, then Nara.
She aims to raise £15,000 for a charity, SOS Children, during the ride.
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