When does a mere trip, simply making your way from place A to place B, turn into a journey, something altogether grander and more impressive? It is probably a combination of factors, a blend of distance and time and, hardest to define, intent. We can set out on a trip anytime, but a journey is a bigger operation. Fortunately, the world provides plenty of opportunities for journeys, and I have been lucky enough to have made a few journeys over the years, and have crossed paths or joined in for a spell with others.
A couple of years ago I jumped on my bicycle and pedalled off for two weeks on an African journey. My two weeks, the 1100 km stage from Iringa (Tanzania) to Lilongwe (Malawi), was only a small taste of a two-wheel journey that, in total, takes four months and stretches for 12,000 km from Cairo to Cape Town. The time, the distance, the mode of transport and the route all qualified this as a true journey, but to my mind the spirit of this adventure doubly qualified it for the journey tag. Ride a bicycle through 10 different African countries and, even with a support truck tagging along to carry equipment and, most important, a bike mechanic or two, there is no way this could be anything less than a journey.
My stage featured good roads, none of the jarring potholes or long sandy stretches that test riders as they traverse Kenya or Sudan. Nor did I have to cope with the endless descent down to the Nile River in Ethiopia and then the long, long climb up the other side. Nevertheless there did seem to be an awful lot of ups and downs, although the longest altitude change was, fortunately, a downhill one, as the route plunged through a seemingly endless series of hairpins from the Tanzanian-Malawi border down to the shores of Lake Malawi.
Of course, the terrain and the natural features are, as any Himalayan trekker can confirm, only a small part of the story. Most often, it is the people you encounter along the trail that makes the experience. Along my stage of the Tour d’Afrique, it seemed that almost every child in every village we passed through would turn out on the roadside to wave at us as we passed by. Our contingent of cyclists was clearly the most exciting thing to have happened in months, and it was generally a stretched out, repeat performance. And again like trekkers in the mountains, we were soon spread out for kilometres along the route, each going at his or her own pace.
My first big journey, and the one I still remember most vividly, even 40 years later, took my wife Maureen and me from London to Sydney via an atlas index of locales, including Kathmandu. That first trip into the Himalaya, even though we never got much further than the Kathmandu Valley, sparked an interest in the region that has kept its grip on me ever since. I am always ready for a return journey.
Sadly it was not long afterwards that the ‘overland trip’, as the route out from London across Asia became known, began to hit the problems from which it has never really recovered. The Ayatollah’s revolution shut the door on Iran; and although visitors today find the Persian welcome is generally as warm as ever, there is enough trouble, politics and unpleasantly surprising events to deter most visitors. The tourist flow to Iran today is only a tiny proportion of the numbers who made their way through during the 1970s.
The door slammed shut even more emphatically in Afghanistan. There, internal revolution was followed by an external invasion from the former Soviet Union and then, when the Russians departed, a long-running and horrifically violent internal struggle culminating with the Taliban’s takeover. Then there was the US-led invasion and the story turned back to internal struggle once again. Nobody would pretend that Afghanistan today is a welcoming place, although I made a return trip a few years ago and, perhaps luckily, managed to avoid all the trouble – and, in the process, rediscovered what a fascinating country it is.
Take another step eastward and again the story is an unhappy one. Pakistan was fine when I passed through in 1972, even if the border crossing between Lahore and Amritsar was only open for a few hours once a week. Today, however, large swathes of Pakistan are no-go zones, while others should be approached only with caution. Unfortunately, the country’s violent reputation has pretty much scared potential visitors away. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, a company called Top Deck Travel used to shuttle across Europe and Asia from London to Kathmandu in a fleet of British double-decker buses, many of them retired from a hard lifetime’s travel on the crowded streets of London. In late 2012, a band of intrepid young travellers is planning to set out to follow that original trip in an original Top Deck bus from the 1970s. Sadly, the politics and dangers of crossing Afghanistan and Pakistan will truncate their trip, forcing them to ship the bus from Iran to India, picking up the trip again from there.
It is a shame this classic road journey is not happening anymore, at least in its original form. Of course, there are alternatives: various Silk Road routes across Asia, the Gringo Trail down through South America, or all the way from north of the Arctic Circle in Alaska to Tierra del Fuego in Argentina, if you wanted. Plus the Cape Town-to-Cairo trip, which I sampled on my bicycle, is now back in full swing after years of interruption, when Ethiopia was a closed shop.
A circuit of Australia or the coast-to-coast trip across the USA, which I have done in both directions, both of these probably qualify as journeys. And then there are lots of other journeys that I have thought about at one time or another, but not yet gotten around to doing. A circuit of the Mediterranean coast for example, a trip that would incorporate Europe, West Asia and North Africa. I have done quite a few bits of this, but not the whole thing. Or the Karakoram Highway up from northern Pakistan to Kashgar in western China. Well, that has been on my must-do list for many years.
The trail remains the same
Of course, Kathmandu is a starting or finishing point or a way station for many other journeys apart from the old Asia overland route from Europe. When I first made that journey, during the early 1970s, Kathmandu was the end point if your gaze wandered to the northeast. Tibet and China were very definitely cut off at that time, so you could travel up to the border and look across at the road that carried on to Lhasa, but no way could you carry on in that direction.
That border can still be closed off at the merest Chinese whim, but often travel to or from Lhasa has been possible, from where all sorts of journey possibilities open up. Carrying on from Kathmandu via Lhasa, intrepid travellers could continue all the way back to Europe on one of the train routes across Russia. Or head down through Southeast Asia to Singapore and beyond, a route that is still not possible from Kathmandu heading southeast through India, due to the closed door that Burma still presents. A few years ago, I travelled the Shanghai-Singapore portion of that journey, a route that presented no particular problems or challenges and proved hugely interesting for the opportunities to observe so many places – southeast China, Vietnam, Cambodia – that have gone through so many changes in recent years.
Forget Kathmandu – and most of Nepal – as a place on the road, however. Instead, think about it as a place on the walking trail. Any of the great Nepali trekking routes qualify as a journey, and although I have done a few there are plenty more I would like to do one day. Even following the length of the Himalayan range would be on my list if I could only contemplate how to set aside enough time to do it. Meanwhile I am currently packing my bags to head off on the Lo Manthang trek, into Mustang in north-central Nepal, just after I finish writing this. It will be interesting to see how this compares to the Himalayan walk that still tops my personal walking list: from Simikot to the Tibetan border followed, a few days later, by the circuit of Mt Kailash. My diary that year also featured the stroll along France’s GR20 trail on the Mediterranean island of Corsica, often rated as the best walk in Europe – that was definitely a good year for walking. But aren’t they all?
~ Tony Wheeler cofounded the Lonely Planet Publications in the early 1970s. He still travels a lot.