Lessons from travelling around the world on a cycle

For starters, shed the baggage

By Namal Siddiqui

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Grand Canyon
Grand Canyon

Published: Thu 23 Feb 2023, 6:54 PM

"What weighs me down, also gives me freedom” — Kamran Ali.

At the first instance, this sentence may not make sense, but there is time-served wisdom in it, and those who spend time pondering over life’s unending contradictory condition are able to experience its provisions. The beauty of this pondering is that it can be implemented in any situation.

In the mind of a mother of two, a city-dweller accustomed to the city’s nugatory urgencies and mundanities, a 9-5 working woman wanting to live another life or a small-town young man travelling on a plane and looking out its windows at snow-peaked mountains. Just like Kamran Ali did, peering over the jagged silhouettes of Turkish mountains, he vowed to himself that he’d traverse this place doing what he enjoyed well… cycling.

I first met Kamran Ali in Pakistan. I suppose I had started following him on Instagram some time ago, but little did I know that when I had to meet a mountaineer to discuss a potential expedition together, Kamran Ali would be accompanying him.

Bolivia
Bolivia

We decided to meet at an Afghani restaurant somewhere in Islamabad’s sector G6, a place the Careem captain took ages to get to, after multiple telephonic exchanges where several lefts and rights between the concrete and verdant vegetation of Islamabad lead me to that rather delightful Kabuli pulao.

I recognised Kamran but kept calm. In Pakistan, I was soon beginning to understand that the size of one’s social media account or a blue tick on it did not mean that people were inaccessible. I speak for the ones closer to wilderness and mountains, ironically. In many ways, this was different from the cities I have lived in.

People in cities were becoming inaccessible, too busy, or simply uninvolved. There was a sense of superficial cooperation, but I was beginning to miss community; that invisible lattice of connection that holds society together.

Kamran was observant and quiet yet engaged, which is an endearing and enduring quality about him. Often, social media presence deceives us into thinking people are social, outgoing, and uninhibited by what is around them — defined as ‘extroverts’ in today’s lingo. But he is, in truth, a person of measure and care. And he must be, for he spends long solitary hours cycling in vast expanses of bustling cities, borders, and places empty of people yet full of life.

Those liminal spaces that conjure up thoughts and beliefs that our minds are only susceptible to when we’re traveling — moving from one place to another. The wheel of motion is an effective one, whatever pace it chooses for us.

I never met Kamran again in Pakistan. However, we stayed in touch working on some mountaineering pitches for common friends. I had been out of a full-time job for a few months then, but there was still so much to do. Work, I was learning, was not only a 9-5 job. Life is work and if one must enjoy it, one must constantly work hard to live it well. I quit one thing but opened my heart to other opportunities and while they took time, they arrived gently like the smooth heedful waters of a stream.

Good wholesome doses. I intersperse my story here because this is about how human lives are connected. How when we walk out of those comfort boxes, while being afraid at first, we create our own new worlds, taking the best from our old ones and making something unique and exceptional to ourselves. When we do that, we connect with human beings in a long-lasting way even if we cross paths with them for a few moments. We learn to gather the essentials.

Hunza
Hunza

So, I return to the words at the beginning of this essay. I heard Kamran answer a question with these words in an interview that I accompanied him on — this time, he is passing through Dubai on his Middle East and Africa cycle tour for a few months. I have now relocated once more to Dubai.

As a cycle traveller, Kamran must ride with all his belongings. As a photographer, he captures breathtaking pictures of the earth while perpetually carrying along his clothes and food for the journey. He was asked how he manages riding a cycle across countries with so much weight on him to which he responded, “What weighs me down, also gives me freedom.” I instantly wrote the words down on my phone .

When I was moving to Pakistan, I had packed my life in two bags. One bag for mountaineering and the other with some books, everyday clothes and other necessities. I had been living in one country for thirty-three years, so cutting down life to two bags took a toll. Realising how much we carry with ourselves all our lives, how much possession our possessions have on us was daunting.

I had learned from my previous mountain trips that one doesn’t need much to survive when living in the wild — knowledge and skills really. But here I was deciding how much I could take with me to move on. Turn one chapter of life to explore the next. How do I choose? What do I take? What if there’s no good coffee? What if there’s a party? What if? We hold on to so much in life with the fear of losing that we forget that it is our minds and stories that truly decorate us.

Peru
Peru

No accessory, no souvenir can over-score the stories we tell and create with each other. Whether it is in passing, or a constant mode of life, it is us, the person, who makes the impression. And yes, the world of consumerism, of fixation, of settling, of permanence, of forever has simply hardened this thinking. While I do understand life cannot be lived only one way, there is much for us to take from our migratory ancestors; this migration that Kamran Ali remodels in the modern world.

But that’s not the only takeaway for me here. What weighs me down, also gives me freedom further meant that I only took with me what was necessary. I chose the weight of my burden. And that burden was my hell and heaven in the literal sense.

Kamran needs his camera, other gadgets, food, water, tent and some clothing to be able to survive through the struggles of the land. To be as independent as he can. To be able to share. His weight allows him the capacity to do more.

It allows him the freedom to move in this world at his own chosen pace. Not the fast-paced life that most of us know now. Not a pace that need be compared to anything at all. It’s his own pace. And there’s no better freedom than the one in which we move on at the behest of our own will.

Alaska
Alaska

So as it is with a traveller ensuring their logistics are managed, they must also ensure their emotions are intact and well-chosen. What does emotion have to do with pace? Everything maybe. We must choose our memories, our thoughts, our ideas. Indeed, there is a lot that is not preferred but there is a way in, a meditation into control, a way of holding our thoughts together even if they are unwanted or unpleasant.

I learn to live with the dark spaces in peace as I spend time in the beauty of mountains, feeling small in a harsh-yet-beautiful land. One night there are extreme winds and the next morning a pristine sun rises above the mountains, revealing peaks that were hidden in mist. All thanks to the gusts of wind that earlier took my breath away. I learn to carry the weight of pain and sorrow with skill and patience to build arms of perseverance and strength. I try.

The cycling map of Kamran Ali
The cycling map of Kamran Ali

I suppose the heaviest weight Kamran carries must be hope. The hope to move, to learn, to encounter, to have courage, to be and to share. Then, hope must be the prerequisite to every belief system in this world that humans have known or created. For it allows them to move forward, no matter what weight their hearts and hands carry. Kamran’s passing through the UAE brought so many people together.

These were people who gathered to welcome and meet him at the Pakistan Association Dubai, people who were interested in his story and simply wanted to spend a few minutes in his presence. Also, people living in the same country were meeting for the first time and becoming friends, finding opportunities to do things together, recovering the courage to pursue their own adventures and some simply taking up cycling.

In so many ways, the world shifted as Kamran Ali decided to pass through the UAE and this is the truth wherever he chooses to go. The stories he narrates of his travels are of kindness more than anything. Whether it is meeting Clementine in the Grand Canyon or Thierry in Marand, each person in their own way imparted kindness to Kamran and this is what he returns to the world. Unaided kindness.

Shimshal-Pakistan
Shimshal-Pakistan

At Kite Beach, a group of admirers met with Kamran on a breezy January night. In the grand scheme of things, as the wheel of motion continued to shift, and of all the life lessons and hacks mastered, our parting words were nothing else but, ‘Be kind.’

More details on Kamran Ali’s cycle tours can be read on https://kamranonbike.com.

Siddiqui is a spoken word artist and has performed at the Dubai Expo 2020 and Emirates Airline Festival of Literature 2019. After a successful advertising and tech career, she decided to devote her time to mountaineering and writing

wknd@khaleejtimes.com

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