When I first discovered cycle touring, I instantly knew I had found the mode of transport that best matched my travel personality. After my four-month tour of Japan in 2009, I was simply hooked by the sense of freedom, independence and efficiency that travelling long distances on a bicycle offered — I felt the whole world under my wheels. Three-and-a-half years have passed since I set out on my quiet adventure to cycle overland from Japan to Spain. I am still firmly convinced there is no better way for me to see the world than from the saddle, where the only luxury is my slow pace.
Unlike the fast traveller who jumps from one point to another, always trying to decide where to go next, the choices for the slow traveller are reduced by the demands of the mode of transport. Places automatically follow each other and, with every pedal stroke, you connect all the places between your point of departure and your point of arrival — places you would never stop at if you were travelling faster. You are exposed to absolutely everything and find a quiet joy in immersing yourself in the most ordinary ways of life. Travel becomes an authentic sensual experience: not only do you move through places but places move through you.
When I close my eyes, my mind rescues memories of people and landscapes. But it is my body that has retained the piercing fragments of life in constant movement, with its rewards but also challenges: the unpaved and treacherous roads, the arduous climbs and the congested cities. My body bears the marks of the freezing cold and gusty winds of the Himalayas, heavy rains and floods of Myanmar, steep gradients of north Laos, volcanic ash of Indonesia, dusty roads of Cambodia and fumes and deafening noises of trucks in India and Nepal. Most importantly, it bears the overwhelming goodness of the human company I have had in all these places.
Travelling slow is to persevere kilometres on kilometres of ascent and find a powerful feeling of resilience and gratitude in the strenuous effort to the top. It means stopping to catch your breath and being exalted by the power of your own self. It means staying with a local family in an unknown village, sleeping in a foreign bed and yet feeling at home. It means being in the present moment and existing out of time, free from schedules and itineraries. It means surrendering to the whims of the unexpected, believing that everything will be just fine.
Even slow travellers long for those moments when they can stand still — not only to maintain their sanity but also to revise and refine the first impressions of a place they have been through. At times, my slow travel too, takes the form of non-travel — that is, when I spend longer periods of time in one place. The country I am moving through becomes a temporary home. Days become less exciting than life always on the move yet they bring intricate nuances and new insights.
I recently spent three months with the Balti people — as one of them living in the mountains surrounded by breathtaking peaks. I rode from Astore through the Deosai plains towards Skardu, and then on to Hushe Valley in Khaplu district. I have experienced the culture of sufficiency in abundant doses, and the richness of those days contrasts sharply with the frugality of life in rural and neglected communities in the far reaches of the mountains.
While I reflect on the challenges of living amid extreme conditions, the same unsettling question arises in my mind again and again: how to explain that what I deem as luxuries during my travel (food, water and shelter), indeed showcase their poverty? What I do for a challenge, they do for survival.
A Balti friend was astonished: “Why is someone coming from Switzerland, a beautiful and prosperous land, willing to spend a cold winter in an isolated house perched at 3,000 metres [in Machulu village], accessible only on foot (after almost a three-hour hike) and without any comforts? We are stuck here, wanting to leave.”
The harsh conditions of life in Baltistan sound like fiction when I tell my friends in Karachi about all the skills it takes to survive there. The days of squatting in open dry toilets with majestic views. The time-consuming task of cooking on a portable kerosene stove, the occasional scoop shower taken from a washbasin or directly from the nullah in the middle of frozen November. Going without changing clothes for days, even weeks.
Hiking to the river to fetch water, not wasting a single drop. Maintaining the bukhari (a wood-and-cow-dung-fired room heater) during the evening hours. The confined space of the two-room mudhouse where even standing upright is barely possible. All that seems so far away, in space and time, after spending three months in Karachi.
Every day Karachi reminds me how easy it is to indulge in this other life of material comforts. I now waste cold water, waiting for hot water to run. I find myself spending entire days in franchise coffee shops and paying 400 rupees for a coffee, almost equivalent to my entire day’s budget on the road, while ignoring crowds of beggars on the streets.
My small assortment of used clothes does not suit a fashionable urban lifestyle, but I still resist spending money on new clothes that I will not be able to fit in my bags. On the road, my minimalist spending is dictated by what I need or by whatever little is available. Here in the big city, wants seem to hit me hard, especially after having experienced the joy of life with much less — less but enough.
These contradictions are also a reflection of what Pakistan really is: a country of entrenched, and often absurd, disparities. The north and the south, the mountains and the sea, the numbing cold of the hills and the suffocating heat of the plains, the scarce resources and abundance of opportunities, the inefficiency of public education and ludicrous business of private schools, the poor serving the rich.
The extremes meet each other in the seasonal flow of people between north and south — though for different reasons. While the Karachiite going north is a tourist, looking to enjoy the mountains and a cool summer in Baltistan, the Balti travelling south is a migrant in winter, in search of better employment and/or education. I feel I have somehow experienced both worlds in Pakistan, with the privilege of being the flexible wanderer not caged by either of them.
The power of slow travel lies in this simple, and yet difficult, task — of being able to listen to what the world has to say to us.
This article was originally published in the Herald's March 2017 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.
The writer, who was born in Spain but grew up in Switzerland, has traveled by cycle from Japan to Spain in 2013