There have been 45 of us, courageous souls all. Under an optimistic blue sky, we stood with our bicycles on the shores of the Bosporus on the Asian aspect of Istanbul, posing for the digital camera, helmets strapped on. The date, August 4th, 2007. In 15 minutes, we’d embark on what some thought to be an unimaginable, even a silly, expedition — a 10,700 km journey that adopted the legendary Silk Road. A 3 and one- half month trek throughout Asia, ending in entrance of Beijing’s Forbidden City.
Difficult? Certainly. Foolish? Perhaps. Impossible? Not an opportunity.
Indeed, it was not the first such epic bicycle journey that I had undertaken. In January 15, 2003, I and 32 different adventurous spirits launched into the inaugural run of the Tour d’Afrique — from Cairo, Egypt to Cape Town, South Africa in 120 punishing days.
That very first day, in the shadow of the Pyramids, the query I posed to myself was: ‘can this actually be carried out’? Can we cycle each meter — later acronymed and outlined as EFI or (Every F…ing Inch)? After all, after we had introduced the journey in the media eight months earlier, I used to be variously accused of being a charlatan, an insane adventurer who was risking peoples’ lives, and a naïve simpleton that clearly “had not spent a day in Africa.”
The group reached the outskirts of Cape Town one hour forward of schedule.
Two years later, I stood in entrance of the Eiffel Tower, posing with one other group. We have been about to embark on a 4,000 km, eight-country tour from Paris to Istanbul, which we sarcastically referred to as The Orient Express Bicycle Tour. Ironic as a result of it supplied something however the deluxe facilities discovered on the well-known continental prepare experience. The query I requested myself on that event was: can I make an sincere residing by operating transcontinental excursions on a bicycle? The proof appeared to counsel that I may.
Now, on this superb morning in Istanbul, posing for one more digital camera, I puzzled what query I would ponder whereas crossing the Asian continent. There have been many choices. The route is wealthy in structure, majestic mountains and infinite deserts, all appropriate for contemplation. It is deep in historical past, having witnessed the rapacious violence of Genghis Khan’s and Tamerlane’s armies, the Great Game, the precursor of the Cold War, the grand designs of the former Soviet Empire — all wealthy materials to research man’s relentless quest for energy and violence. Or I may confront tougher topics, together with private points and find out how to put that means in my life.
In the finish, it was the humble bicycle on which I sat that appeared price fascinated about. Having conquered two continents, I knew that long-distance biking most intently approximates the historic hunter-gatherer mind-set. The bicycle owner, like the hunter-gatherer, should continuously fear about his safety, his meals, a spot to sleep, and find out how to get pleasure from the satisfaction that comes with simply making it by way of an arduous day (understanding that the subsequent one might be no much less difficult).
The bicycle: low-cost, nonpolluting, small and silent. Wikepedia amongst others calls it the best machine ever constructed by people, as a result of an individual on a bicycle expends much less vitality than another creature or machine protecting the identical distance. Appropriately, I used to be aimed in the path of China, a rustic through which a billion individuals (give or take a couple of hundred million) nonetheless used the bicycle as their principal technique of transportation. And its full potential was nonetheless untapped. Somewhere, I’d learn that entrepreneurial college students have been designing a small milling machine that may very well be hooked up to a bicycle: grind your personal grain, on the go. Or perhaps it was a water filter. Certainly I’d seen generator-equipped bicycles in museums on which a customer pedaling at 50 (or much less) watts may activate incandescent lamp. The solely gasoline required for all of this: a peanut butter sandwich.
Armed with these tales and recollections, my query was readily framed: can the bicycle save the world? That it wants saving appears unarguable. We all know that we’re headed downhill on a route harmful to nature and thus to life as we all know it.
As it turned out, I did not have sufficient time to immerse myself in the depths of such earnest contemplation. I used to be too busy residing, having fun with myself, partaking with drunken Georgians (the former Soviet sort) promoting roadside watermelon at 10AM, savouring the fantastic thing about a provincial Chinese metropolis, or selecting a meal by pointing at a quantity on a menu and hoping — praying– that it could not derive from a former member of an unique species of which I had by no means heard.
Of course, it wasn’t an uninterrupted panorama of enjoyment. In Turkey, we biked by way of one among the worst warmth waves in its trendy historical past, with temperatures over 45C levels for a number of consecutive days. Hot asphalt caught to my tires. It didn’t get any higher when, in Tbilisi, Georgia, three km from the resort through which we have been because of take a a lot deserved relaxation, a mad taxi driver hit one among my biking companions. She flew like a missile, touchdown in entrance of me. The driver, shameless, promptly backed up his automotive and drove away earlier than I had time to dismount. No doubt he descended from Genghis Khan. The rider, happily, was not severely damage.
At the border with Azerbaijan, we have been met not solely by a delegation from the Ministry of Tourism, however by an eight-piece orchestra, conventional dancers and the whole Azerbaijani junior biking workforce. Azerbaijan, in fact, is a Muslim nation, however in each restaurant we obtained three glasses, for water, wine and vodka respectively. And this was for breakfast.
Turkmenistan spoke to my coronary heart. I’d grown up beneath the shadow of a totalitarian regime (Communist Czechoslovakia), so driving in the desert with a steady police escort felt like the good outdated days. It didn’t take me lengthy to readopt the conduct essential to stay and thrive in such societies, to stretch the limits of what’s forbidden and at the identical time keep away from bother.
At one level, a police officer ordered me into his automotive. I smiled and politely declined his request, and supplied to purchase him and his colleagues cokes and ice cream. That sealed our newfound friendship.
Across the Turkmeni desert into the subsequent Stan — Uzbekistan. No deserts, no mountains and, fortunately, no stifling warmth. A day’s experience from the border we reached the legendary metropolis of Bukhara (the identify means monastery in Sanskrit), an excellent sight. We toured the earthen Ark Fortress, residence to the rulers of Bukhara for greater than a millennium; the Registan, a verdant Square at its foot; and the Kalon Minaret, the tower of loss of life, so-called due to the many victims hurled from its heights. A conventional proverb says that the Samarkand is the fantastic thing about the Earth, however Bukhara is the fantastic thing about the spirit. But a few of that spirit was additionally pure evil. On the eve of 20th century, the Emir of Bukhara loved poking out the eyes of his dissident topics.
We arrived in Tajikistan to discover a nation nonetheless making an attempt to recuperate from a current civil warfare. Some 60 % of Tajiks stay in abject poverty and the minimal wage is $1 a month. Nowhere is the spirit of Stalin extra seen than the zigzag borders of Tajikistan, drawn by the younger Georgian commissar in 1924 on the well-known precept of divide and rule. The nation is 65% Tajik, an Ethno-linguistic group totally different than the Turkic those who encompass them. And there are extra Tajiks residing in exile the surrounding nations than in Tajikistan. Still, it is a gorgeous place, the place the altitude hardly ever dips beneath 3,000 meters.
In Kyrgyzstan, after day of relaxation in Osh, we launched into a severe climb to Taldyk move — to three,700 meters. Let me let you know, at that oxygen-deprived elevation, you are not fascinated about saving the world. You’re fascinated about saving your self, if you happen to’re capable of assume in any respect. But the experience downhill, by way of the mountain move into China, was exhilarating.
The former ‘kingdom of bicycles,’ in fact, is not any extra. Now, China is the El Dorado to each automotive producer in the world. Here, eventually, there was time for sober contemplation. You might ask: how will you assume with 1.Three billion individuals round you? But in reality, the overwhelming majority of Chinese stay in the east. Large parts of the West are nearly, like Canada’s north, nearly uninhabited.
Still trendy China and the frenetic tempo of change hits you in all places. New freeway building crisscrosses the Taklamakan desert — a Uiger phrase that means ‘enter however don’t come out.’ Huge condo buildings sprout like mushrooms after an excellent rain. Small Chinese cities are residence to hundreds of thousands. China is on the transfer. And so are the Chinese. Their entrepreneurial vitality, suppressed in the a long time following the Communist revolution in 1948, has now been launched, and is flowing quicker than a newly opened dam.
So can bicycle save the world? Of course it might probably. Imagine each metropolis with boulevards full of bicycles, pedestrians, streetcars and parks the place youngsters may very well be youngsters once more. Is that so arduous to think about? After all, in Copenhagen 36% of all journeys are by bikes (solely 27% by automotive). By 2015, solely 5 years from now, they goal to be at 50%. It’s in our city centres that the transformation should happen; half of the world’s inhabitants now lives in cities. That’s greater than three billion plus breathing– or ought to it’s wheezing? — souls.
What if we persuaded Bill Gates or Warren Buffett or George Soros to place up $10 Million for the finest new human-powered car? Think of the human well being advantages, the discount of demand for our quick depleting fossil fuels. Just as the X Prize created house tourism, so this prize would engender all types of latest human-powered innovations.
But we have to act. And as I biked mile after mile in at this time’s China, I remembered one thing I’d discovered to my remorse as a aid employee in Africa. We human beings have a tendency to not reply till catastrophe hits.
Henry Gold is president of Tour d’Afrique Ltd www.tourdafrique a Toronto-based journey journey agency that organizes annual bicycle expeditions and races throughout Africa, Europe, Asia and South America.