There were 45 of us, all brave. Under an optimistic blue sky, we were with our bikes on the banks of the Bosphorus on the Asian side of Istanbul, posing for the camera, with our helmets fastened. The date, August 4, 2007. In 15 minutes, we would embark on what some considered an impossible, even foolish, expedition: a 10,700 km journey that followed the legendary Silk Road. A three and a half month walk through Asia, ending in front of the Forbidden City in Beijing.
Hard? Certainly. Fool? Maybe. Impossible? No way.
In fact, it wasn’t my first epic bike trip. On January 15, 2003, I and 32 other adventurous spirits embarked on the inaugural race of the Tour d’Afrique, from Cairo, Egypt to Cape Town, South Africa in 120 days of punishment.
That first day, in the shadow of the pyramids, the question I asked myself was: ‘can this really be done’? Can we pedal every meter, then acronym and defined as EFI or (Every F … ing Inch)? After all, when we announced the trip in the media eight months earlier, I was accused of being a charlatan, a crazy adventurer who risked people’s lives, and a naive simpleton who obviously “hadn’t spent a day in Africa.” “
The group reached the outskirts of Cape Town an hour ahead of schedule.
Two years later, I stood in front of the Eiffel Tower, posing with another group. We were about to embark on a 4,000km eight-country tour from Paris to Istanbul, which we ironically call The Orient Express Bicycle Tour. Ironic because it offered anything but the luxurious amenities found on the famous continental train ride. The question I asked myself on that occasion was: can I honestly earn a living doing transcontinental bike tours? The evidence seemed to suggest that it could.
Now, on this beautiful morning in Istanbul, posing for another camera, I was wondering what question I might ponder as I crossed the Asian continent. There were many options. The route is rich in architecture, majestic mountains, and endless deserts, all fit for contemplation. It is deep in history, having witnessed the rapacious violence of the armies of Genghis Khan and Tamerlane, the Great Game, the precursor of the Cold War, the great designs of the former Soviet Empire, all rich material to analyze. the tireless search for power and violence of man. . Or I could face more difficult issues, including personal problems and how to make sense of my life.
In the end, it was the humble bike I sat on that seemed worthy of consideration. Having conquered two continents, he knew that long-distance cycling is closer to the old hunter-gatherer frame of mind. The cyclist, like the hunter-gatherer, must constantly worry about his safety, his food, a place to sleep, and how to enjoy the satisfaction that comes from just getting through a hard day (knowing that the next one will be no less challenging). .
The bicycle: cheap, non-polluting, small and silent. Wikepedia, among others, calls it the most efficient machine ever built by humans, because a person on a bicycle expends less energy than any other creature or machine covering the same distance. Appropriately, it was aimed in the direction of China, a country in which a billion people (roughly a few hundred million) still used bicycles as their main mode of transportation. And its full potential was still untapped. Somewhere, I had read that enterprising students were designing a small grinding device that could be attached to a bicycle: grinds its own grain, on the go. Or maybe it was a water filter. Certainly, I had seen generator-equipped bicycles in museums where a visitor pedaling at 50 (or less) watts could light an incandescent lamp. The only fuel needed for all of this: a peanut butter sandwich.
Armed with these stories and memories, my question was easily asked: can the bicycle save the world? It seems indisputable that it needs to be saved. We all know that we are heading downhill on a destructive route for nature and therefore for life as we know it.
It turned out that I didn’t have enough time to dive into the depths of such serious contemplation. I was too busy living, having fun, hanging out with drunken Georgians (the ex-Soviet kind) selling watermelons on the roadside at 10 am, savoring the beauty of a Chinese provincial town, or choosing a meal by pointing to a number on a menu and waiting – praying – that it would not stem from an ancient member of an exotic species that he had never heard of.
Of course, it was not an uninterrupted panorama of pleasure. In Turkey, we cycle through one of the worst heat waves in its modern history, with temperatures exceeding 45 degrees Celsius for several days in a row. Hot asphalt stuck to my tires. It didn’t get any better when, in Tbilisi, Georgia, two miles from the hotel where we were going to take a well-deserved break, a crazy taxi driver ran over one of my cycling buddies. It flew like a missile, landing in front of me. The shameless driver backed away quickly and was away before I had time to dismount. Certainly descended from Genghis Khan. Fortunately, the rider was not seriously injured.
On the border with Azerbaijan, we were welcomed not only by a delegation from the Ministry of Tourism, but also by an eight-member orchestra, traditional dancers and the entire youth cycling team of Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan, of course, is a Muslim country, but in each restaurant we receive three glasses, for water, wine and vodka respectively. And this was for breakfast.
Turkmenistan spoke to my heart. I grew up in the shadow of a totalitarian regime (Communist Czechoslovakia), so riding in the desert with a continuous police escort felt like old times. It didn’t take me long to return to the behavior necessary to live and prosper in such societies, to stretch the boundaries of the forbidden while avoiding trouble.
At one point, a police officer ordered me to get into his car. I smiled and politely declined his order, offering to buy him and his colleagues coke and ice cream. That sealed our new friendship.
Across the Turkmen desert towards the next Stan – Uzbekistan. No deserts, no mountains, and thankfully no sweltering heat. A day’s drive from the border we reached the legendary city of Bukhara (the name means monastery in Sanskrit), a glorious sight. We toured the Earth Ark Fortress, home to the rulers of Bukhara for over a millennium; the Registan, a green square at its feet; and the Kalon Minaret, the tower of death, so named for the many victims thrown from its heights. A traditional proverb says that Samarkand is the beauty of the Earth, but Bukhara is the beauty of the spirit. But some of that spirit was also pure evil. On the eve of the 20th century, the Emir of Bukhara enjoyed gouging out his dissident subjects.
We came to Tajikistan to find a country still trying to recover from a recent civil war. About 60% of Tajiks live in extreme poverty and the minimum wage is $ 1 a month. Nowhere is Stalin’s spirit more visible than the zigzag borders of Tajikistan, drawn by the young Georgian commissioner in 1924 on the well-known divide and rule principle. The country is 65% Tajik, a different ethno-linguistic group than the surrounding Turkish people. And there are more Tajiks living in exile in neighboring countries than in Tajikistan. Still, it is an impressive place, where the altitude rarely drops below 3,000 meters.
In Kyrgyzstan, after a day of rest in Osh, we embarked on a serious climb to the Taldyk pass, at 3,700 meters. Let me tell you, in that oxygen-deprived elevation, you are not thinking of saving the world. You’re thinking of saving yourself, if you can think of anything. But the journey down the hill, through the mountain pass to China, was exhilarating.
The old “kingdom of bicycles”, of course, no longer exists. Now China is El Dorado for all car manufacturers in the world. Here, at last, there was time for sober contemplation. You may ask yourself: how can you think with 1.3 billion people around you? But, in fact, the vast majority of Chinese live in the East. Large portions of the west are almost, like northern Canada, practically uninhabited.
It is still modern China and the hectic pace of change hits you everywhere. The construction of a new highway runs through the Taklamakan desert, a Uiger word meaning “to enter but not exit.” Large apartment buildings sprout like mushrooms after a good rain. Small Chinese cities are home to millions. China is on the move. And also the Chinese. His entrepreneurial energy, suppressed in the decades following the communist revolution in 1948, has now been unleashed and is flowing faster than a newly opened dam.
So can the bicycle save the world? Of course he can. Imagine every city with boulevards full of bicycles, pedestrians, trams, and parks where children could be children again. Is it so hard to imagine? After all, in Copenhagen 36% of all trips are made by bicycle (only 27% by car). By 2015, just five years from now, they aim to be at 50%. It is in our urban centers where transformation must occur; half of the world’s population now lives in cities. That’s more than three billion more to breathe, or should it be wheezing? – souls.
What if we convinced Bill Gates, Warren Buffett or George Soros to put up $ 10 million for the best new human-powered vehicle? Think of the human health benefits, reducing the demand for our rapidly depleting fossil fuels. Just as the X Prize created space tourism, this prize would spawn all kinds of new human-powered inventions.
But we have to act. And as I cycled mile after mile in China today, I remembered something I had learned and regretted it as a humanitarian worker in Africa. Humans tend not to respond until disaster strikes.
Henry Gold is President of Tour d’Afrique Ltd www.tourdafrique, a Toronto-based adventure travel company that organizes annual bike expeditions and races in Africa, Europe, Asia and South America.