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An account of the 22nd Cycle Travel Festival, Paris, 20-21 January 2007
This year’s gathering of cycle-nomads made us realise how close this form of transport brings the traveller to local people - and strengthened the urge to get pedalling along the roads of Asia.
On my way back from this year’s Cycle Travel Festival in Paris, I notice an advert for a “luxury travel company” offering “inspiring and unique” travel experiences. “Have breakfast with a Massai! Inhabit a desert island!” it beckons tired Londoners waiting for the tube.
And no doubt pay the equivalent of the Massai’s entire life earnings for the privilege, I add in my head. We are, as the luxury travel providers rightly point out, increasingly looking for different, even life-changing travel experiences that let us scratch beyond the surface of the countries and societies we visit. Where they are wrong is that you can pay for the experience.
The barrier created by the commercial relationship between the tourist and the local will always remain, even if you ignore the minor detail of paying a travel company thousands of pounds to “truly experience” an impoverished third world country where people live off 50p a day.
My reaction to the company peddling inspiring experiences was not surprising given that I’d spent the weekend at a festival where long-distance cyclists told countless stories of their own experiences, each one of them unplanned, spontaneous and provided free of charge through the natural generosity of local people.
The 22nd Cycle Travel Festival, held at the weekend in Paris, drew hundreds of people with a passion for cycling across countries and continents, carrying all their belongings in saddle bags and usually camping along the way.
Among the festival’s exhibitors was Bertrand Fischer, a Swiss journalist who left his calm and orderly homeland to cycle across Turkey, Iran, half the Arab world, Tibet, India and Singapore. Talking to him makes you realise how close bike travel takes you to local people. There is no comparison with flying into the capital and driving around in a four-by-four or even a bus, as most Western tourists tend to do.
Transporting all your belongings by the force of your own muscles across thousands of miles means you cannot carry much. As Alex, one of the festival-goers, points out, you are as poor as the people you meet. And the barriers created by expensive cars, restaurants and air-conditioned hotels fall away.
The stories Bertrand Fischer has collected along his journey, some of which he describes in his book “Pignon sur Asie,” bear witness to this. His encounter with a desperate grandfather in Oman, selling drugs to pay for a journey to India to find his long-lost grand-daughter, is one of them. I’m sure that’s not among the holiday options offered by the luxury travel providers.
Camping along the roads or staying in locals’ homes in a country like Iran or India you meet ‘normal’ people, not the city elites, Bertrand points out. People living along main roads are usually the poorest; they are also often astonishingly open and welcoming.
As another long-distance cyclist, Fabrice Pinault, tells me, the best protection against criminals and other dangers menacing the traveller at night is to camp by a village or settlement. Cycling across Africa he and his travel companion were accepted as guests of honour in village after village by bemused locals.
Because of the close interaction with the environment and the people you meet when cycling, each story told at the festival is unique. From a teacher crossing the mountain passes of the Himalayas to a couple who gave their four kids a “lesson in life” cycling around South America for five months, each one inspires the cycle-nomad to go further.
Of course inspiration is not enough to propel you across Persian deserts and Indian mountain passes. Festival-goers also shared invaluable practical information, and countless questions about bike mechanics, waterproof clothes to withstand a monsoon, places to camp and areas to avoid were answered.
But it is the inspiration of past journeys that drives new adventures for long-distance cyclists. Without people like Bertrand or Fabrice to show us it’s possible it would be much more difficult to set off, if at all possible. Their stories give us a glimpse into experiences awaiting the cycle-nomad that even the most “luxury” tourists never dreamt of.
For more information on the Cyclo-Camping International association who organised the festival go to www.cci.asso.fr.