I imagine a good proportion of my bike-obsessed readers will be wondering why the hell I’m questioning why anyone would travel the world by any means other than the bicycle.
Because cycle touring is quite clearly the ‘best’ way to travel… isn’t it?
I’m not going to argue with this statement. After
9 13 years of making bike trips I still find a greater sense of peace and fulfilment in pedalling my bike through new landscapes than I do from almost anything else – reading a good book being the only other thing that comes to mind.
But on two recent adventures in Iran and Patagonia, I branched out. I got my first ever ‘proper’ backpack fitted. I took a river safety training course and learned to run whitewater rapids and not go swimming on the way. I was taught how ride a horse and experienced more pain over the first three days of the trek than I thought possible to endure.
I’m aware that stories about non-cycling journeys are not necessarily very interesting to those of you who’ve come to this blog because you share my love of cycling touring.
But what if cycling itself isn’t actually the point of cycle touring at all?
What if it’s really just a means to an end, a way of accessing a certain type of travel experience – and what if that end was also possible to be reached by other means too?
This question was the starting point that led to the Karun expedition in Iran.
Originally I’d dreamed of a kind of crazy cultural-geographical circumnavigation of the nation, using means of transport appropriate to the 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.
Then, of course, it was time to whittle the dream down to something more realistic, preserving the point of seeing as wide a variety of Iranian culture and geography as possible. The ‘Karun by packraft’ bit stood out as the most achievable, exciting and challenging, and with the most potential for things going wrong – for, as Yvon Chouinard said, “that’s when adventure starts”.
Packrafting is, by definition, as much about the pack as the raft. So it should have been no surprise that 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 flippin’ 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 old 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 encouraged 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 simply 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 superficial 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 amount that you’re able to take in, and the difference in actual experience when in motion in rural areas seemed fairly negligible.
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 to the tune of cycling putting you physically in touch with the 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 with them doesn’t take your fancy.
On foot, you will always be on the same level as every pedestrian you meet, and so 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 it increasingly felt was 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 the body’s existing basic 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 hands, 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 still think bicycle touring is the best way to see the world?
There’s really no simple answer to that question.
If I had no choice but to answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’, I suspect I would still tend towards the affirmative.
But I think that there are more important questions than that when it comes to travel.
What kind of experience is it you seek? Are you looking to engage directly with the world, or float above it? Is it about you, your skill and tenacity, your physical abilities; or it about your social experiences, the relations you forge? Do you want absolute presence, or clarity of thought, or space for intellectual work, or the ability to observe and absorb, or to shed the baggage of self-reflection?
These are probably not questions for a novice traveller, for whom pure novelty and the sense of freedom is by far the biggest draw. But as your relationship with the world through travel grows more nuanced, these little variations do begin to carry more weight.
The full-length film of our journey along the River Karun is out now. Watch the trailer for free and download the complete movie at karunfilm.com.