This is a blog about bicycle travel. Given that, many of my readers may be wondering why I’m questioning whether pedal-powered transport is the best way to the world.
Because we all know bikepacking (or bike touring) is best… right?
I’m hardly qualified to convince anyone otherwise. Although I have also walked across nations, I still find a greater sense of contentment in pedalling through new landscapes than I do from almost anything else. (Fixing my bike is the only other thing that comes to mind!)
But in 2014, after nine years of almost exclusively travelling the world by bike, I branched out. I got my first ‘proper’ backpack fitted. I took a river safety course and learned to read and run whitewater without taking a swim. I learned to ride a horse, and experienced more saddle-soreness than I thought possible.
I’m aware that stories about other types of adventure may not be very interesting to those of you who’ve come to this blog because you share my love of cycle touring.
But what if experiencing other types of travel could help us see bikepacking, bike touring, or whatever you want to call it in a more nuanced light?
What if doing so could show us that the act of cycling itself isn’t actually the point of bikepacking?
What if the bicycle is really just a means to an end; a way of accessing a certain type of experience?
What if that end could be reached by other means too?
And what if other means led to other, equally valuable ends?
These questions were the starting points that led to the Karun expedition, in which I followed Iran’s longest river from source to sea, and in which – for the first time – I used multiple modes of human-powered transport to do so.
Originally I’d dreamed of a crazy cultural-geographical circumnavigation of the nation, using a vehicle appropriate to each region – sea-kayaking the Caspian coast, cycling the north-western mountains, trekking the Zagros, descending to the Persian Gulf by packraft, motorbiking the south coast, then finishing up with some kind of desert crossing back up north.
But dreams, if they are to take shape, must always be whittled into something more realistic. The key was preserving the goal of seeing as wide a variety of Iranian culture and geography as possible. The ‘Karun by packraft’ component of the original idea stood out as the most achievable, exciting and challenging – not to mention with the most potential for things going wrong, for as Yvon Chouinard said, “that’s when the adventure starts”.
Packrafting is, by definition, as much about the pack as the raft. Indeed, the first week of our journey was spent on foot. Leon was the only person I knew who owned a packraft and was therefore the obvious partner for the trip, and together we walked a couple of hundred kilometres through some of the most sparse and spectacular Alpine landscapes I’ve come across in all my travels, high above the treeline at 10,000 feet above sea level – and all of this on the same latitude as Beirut, Los Angeles and Casablanca.
In doing so, I learned a few things about walking – specifically, walking all day with the weight of a fully-loaded touring bicycle on my back. And the most immediate thing I learned was that it hurts. It hurts bad.
Pounding the ground with your heels – half your own bodyweight bearing down upon your every joint as you move – the repetitive burning of skin against tightly-strapped fabric – it’s no wonder that, after just a day of it, I was hobbled by deep aches in my shoulders, my hips, my knees, my feet… my feet! So bruised and battered did they feel when I stopped, so excruciating the act of removing my shoes and socks, so blissful my semi-conscious (and doubtless socially unacceptable) massaging of them throughout the evenings. Yes, you might be a bit sore after a hard day’s cycling, but nothing at all like this.
Of course I was out of shape, and long-haul trekking was entirely new discipline. But on Day Two, Leon, who’d walked the breadth of China, said to me that even after many months of it, travelling on foot was never a pain-free experience. He then proffered what looked like a large bag of sweets and invited me to take a few. (Turned out they were actually Ibuprofen. Apparently they’re a core part of every long-distance walker’s diet.)
But with the pain came a strange kind of mental clarity. Not just any pain (I imagine being punched in the face repeatedly would be unlikely to elicit the same feeling) – rather, the regular and rhythmic discomfort of walking seemed to be both the price paid for progress and the ever-present reminder of my existence in the world. It seemed to encourage a heightened state of awareness, simply because it was impossible to ignore the alarm signals the body was sending to the mind. These signals seemed to ignite and then fuel at some times trains of thought, at other times threads of conversation, and at yet other times a keener-than-usual receptiveness to all that was stoically trudging past me as I walked.
Another thing. With cycling, more of your mental energy is focused on the road immediately ahead, and on the act of balancing. A lapse of concentration could spell disaster. Walking is the most natural human activity of all, requiring barely any conscious thought.
So what I found was that walking created space for a deeper kind of conscious thinking alongside the actual action of putting one foot in front of the other. I found myself evaluating my behaviours, my thoughts, my values and priorities, and speculating about any number of alternate futures I might experience, both today, tomorrow and beyond, should I choose to experiment with different ways of thinking and acting.
On the bike, I found the speed and momentum seemed to encourage a more responsive state of mind, focused on the sensory aspects of the place, taking the experiences of meeting people at face value, not necessarily analysing or looking for meaning in what came to pass. Not that there’s anything wrong with this – there seems to be a resurgence of interest in being aware and ‘present’, and there’s certainly plenty of value in it – but I did find that it was mainly when taking breaks from riding that deeper thoughts could form. (And as you’ll know if you’re a regular reader, I’m a big fan of doing way too much deep thinking.)
There’s an obvious reduction in achievable distance when you’re on foot. I didn’t find this mattered at all. With any mode of transport there’s a finite quantity of sensory input that you’re able to process, and the difference in perceived experience when in motion seemed fairly unimportant.
One big difference was the extent to which I felt able to assert myself on foot as opposed to on a bicycle. Despite much rhetoric about cycling putting you in touch with people and places in a way that cars, buses, trains et al cannot, this isn’t exactly true, for you are still able to fly past a crowd of onlookers at speed if – for whatever reason – the idea of stopping and engaging doesn’t appeal.
On foot, you will always be on par with every pedestrian you meet. There is no running away from an engagement without literally running away and risking offence, which is pretty poor form as a traveller and guest.
This simple change in dynamic probably has all sorts of knock-on effects which I’m unable to articulate yet, but one of them must surely be a relinquishment of control over your experiences with people – and if you look at that prospect with truly adventurous eyes, you’ll see it as an opportunity for the journey to take you places you couldn’t possibly have planned.
In the most concrete sense, I would put down to walking the fact that – despite the relatively small and scattered population of Chaharmahal & Bakhtiari province – our first night of camping was also our last. Every other night we spent on the road during this trip, with the exception of a couple of cheap hotels in bigger towns, were spent indoors at the pleasure of local Iranians we’d met on the roadside that day.
A week of walking took us to a suitable put-in for our packrafts. As a paddling novice, I had assumed that seeing a slice of Iran from water level would simply result in a more nuanced perspective on the country. This proved true – but not at all in the way I’d imagined. We discovered that paddling a river – particularly an uncharted, ungraded river with abundant whitewater – is no simple undertaking.
While the water remained smooth, as it did for the first day or two, we drifted contentedly among the rugged, awe-inspiring peaks and ridgelines of the Zagros Mountains – away from roads and people, and with ever-changing rock formations rising and falling beside us from one hour to the next, this was as close to true communion with nature as we could have got, short of actually swimming the river – a passage through the heart of a geological process millions of years in age.
But when the conditions became tricky, when we could no longer see a clear passage for boulders and foaming water, when the muffled roar of the approaching rapids began to drown out our voices… that’s when paddling stopped being a spectator sport and became an intense problem-solving exercise; how to get two bodies and two boats down a potentially deadly obstacle course while maximising our chances survival. Our efforts were concentrated upon the physical act of paddling, scouting and portaging. The world around us shrank and disappeared; we could have been anywhere on the planet for all the attention we were able to give to our surroundings.
Under other circumstances, I imagine that packrafting (or kayaking, or canoeing) would indeed be a fantastic way to engage in a different way with a new place and the people who lived alongside the waterway. As it turned out, we spent much of our time negotiating the river itself, rather than reaping the rewards of being on it. Though the several days of whitewater paddling were enjoyable, I look back on it more as an extreme sports experience than as an adventure travel one.
And that was ultimately why we chose to take out, roll up our boats, and continue on foot – because we wanted to be immersed in the culture and society more than we wanted to be immersed (literally, as increasingly felt likely) in the river itself. If walking provided intellectual freedom to roam, and cycling allowed for seamless switching between floating and connecting, packrafting demanded concentration and co-ordination while sidestepping pretty much all else.
Having spent a few weeks on these pursuits, returning to cycling for the third stage of the journey was set in stark contrast, bringing with it a real sense of elation and a feeling of freedom unlike that of either other pursuit.
I’ve tried to articulate this freedom many times in the past, but this time the source was obvious: the joy of cycling lies in the transcending of one’s physical limitations by means of a highly efficient machine powered by nothing more than the body itself, requiring nothing beyond basic human needs in order to function.
It also stems from the dual nature of the bicycle as both a passive and an active pursuit – you may, when pedalling, feel entirely at one with your bike, but as soon as you stop and let it freewheel, you notice that you are perched upon a being with its very own momentum, requiring little more than a nudge in the right direction – not dissimilar, in fact, from horse-riding.
And the third great joy of cycling seemed to be the ease with which it was possible to transform back into a pedestrian, a truly unshielded human – just a squeeze of the brakes, a few seconds of deceleration, and you become to all intents and purposes a walker, one who happens to be straddling a bicycle.
Given all of that, do I think bikepacking or backpacking is the best way to see the world?
There’s still no simple answer to that question. (Apologies if the title of this post implied that there was.)
In fact, I’d argue that any ‘which is best?’-style question is a false dichotomy when we’re talking about travelling the world, and that there are other, more valuable questions we could be exploring.
What kind of experience is it you seek? Are you looking to engage with the world or to float above it? Is it about you, your skills and tenacity, and your physical abilities; or it about your social experiences, the friends you make, and relations you forge? Do you want a platform for absolute presence, or to achieve a flow state through intense focus, or to create space for intellectual work, or to observe and absorb like a sponge, or to shed the baggage of self-reflection, or something else altogether?
These are probably not questions for a novice traveller, for whom pure novelty and unchained freedom is likely the biggest draw.
But as your relationship with the world through travel grows more nuanced, these subtler motivations do begin to carry more weight.
If you’re keen to see more of the expedition in Iran mentioned above, a full-length film of the journey is available to rent or buy at karunfilm.com. (Watching the trailer is free.)