Saturday, 13 July 2013

Cycle Travellers See So Much More

Slower But Deeper

I remember back in the 70's people used to say that the best way to travel and really experience a country was overland. Overland meant taking buses and trains, buying a VW van and putting a mattress in the back, sometimes even hitch-hiking. I did a great deal of this in the 70's and 80's and certainly found it to be true. You got to meet real people and to get some idea of what it was like to be a local, living there. You also got to travel at a relaxed pace; giving yourself time to absorb your experiences, meet people and also to adjust to changes as you moved on. But by the turn of the century (hah, I sound like old father time!), I had taken up long-distance cycling as a means of travel.

Hippy Travellers - Courtesy of Flickr

Once you travel through a country by bicycle, you realise how much you miss when you travel by the usual 'overland' means. Buses and trains allow you to meet local people, but more often than not, backpackers use them to get between two major towns – either that or to a beach resort, temple or other place that draws travellers (and tourists). There are plenty of places out in the sticks that buses and trains don't go to. You could take a taxi, but how many do? And this is the reason for what I have come to call 'Lonely Planet Syndrome'.

Sam as we pass through rural North Vietnam (one of the better roads)

Lonely Planet Guides are fantastic. They have been around since the early 70's. I think they started out as something produced by amateurs on a hand operated bandalith copier (or similar). I actually had one. It was called 'Overland to India and Beyond' or something like that. It had a tatty pink cover and was available from BIT information office in London. It was bought by hippies like me (then) wanting to doss their way across the world in flipflops, shorts and t-shirts with very little cash, smoking dope, living in caves and meeting other beautiful people. It was a great time. The book was hard to obtain and got out of date quickly but it told you stuff that Fodor and Letts guides (All the important tourist locations along with useful phrases to use in your hotel etc) didn't. It told you about places young people wanted to go and things they wanted to know.

My copy was more pink than red. It eventually disintegrated.

Of course over time, Lonely Planet Guides have become more like the old fogeys guides they replaced. No longer do they tell you where you can score great dope! Like modern day music festivals, they have become sanitised and are aimed at a more establishment crowd (wipes away a tear). Now they say of places 'Nothing to see here,' just because a town has no 'attractions' for tourists. They ignore the possibility that interest can be found just in the local people and their simple way of life. Hence, young gap-year back-packers along with many others, follow the guides travelling to the same towns, the same back-packer attractions and the same 'home-food' cafes. I have long stopped caring. It keeps the hoards from spoiling the real life of the country by staying on that well beaten track.

But how to get to those out of the way places if you want to? Bus routes are often there to supply the demands of these happy bands Lonely Planet naives. This is where the bicycle comes into its own. It will take you anywhere (almost). My son Sam and I even climbed a mountain in Tamil Nadu (Mount Adai Mudi), carrying our bikes, passing through tiny mountain hamlets with little wooden houses on stilts. People at both ends of that trek told us that few people in the villages below had ever climbed over that mountain let alone foreigners. It is a tough, two day experience burned into our memories.

 A tiny hamlet at the foot of Mt Adai Mudi. Adimali Reserve, Kerala, India.

Nearing the summit of Mt Adai Mudi, carrying our bikes.

That 10,000mile cycle trip from Ireland to Japan took us through numerous countries. It was of course incredible getting out into the backwoods of countries like India, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. But one needn't go so far to experience the surprises of a different world beyond the well beaten paths. We had similar experiences in Romania, Bulgaria and even Germany. It taught me to keep an open mind about what may lie just beyond the routes most people take. Indeed, since returning from that trip, this has become even more clear to me. Over the four years since our return to England, I have made many shorter cycle trips and many of those on my own doorstep. I am regularly surprised by what I find cycling through the backwoods of Yorkshire, Lancashire and Devon. Even my local county of Kent holds many hidden treats. A bicycle takes you everywhere, and at a pace that puts you in touch with everything and everyone. It immerses you. You can hardly avoid it. And let's not forget, that you can do all of this very cheaply, avoiding jams and without causing harm to the environment. No wonder bicycle use is increasing so rapidly!

My cycling friend Martin Ashton struggles against wind somewhere in wilds of Yorkshire

If you would like to read the bestselling travel book 'Long Road, Hard Lessons' by Mark Swain, you can find this, his two collections of short stories and other books on Amazon, Smashwords etc.

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