“Sons living abroad rush back home but you have chosen the slowest way possible to return!” exclaimed his mother when he told her of his plans to cycle all the way from Germany to Pakistan. It’s 2011 and Kamran Ali has just finished his doctorate degree in computer sciences and landed a cushy job in the largest engineering company in Europe. He had been in Germany since 2002.
Helen Keller once said, “Security is mostly an illusion. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.” Rather than be nothing, Kamran chose the road less cycled and embarked on his journey from Rostock, Germany in June 2011.
He managed to reach Turkey where he got the devastating news that his mother had fallen gravely ill. Kamran abandoned his plans and flew to Pakistan where he spent two months in the hospital with her before she passed away. “Not only was my dream left incomplete,” he said, “But most importantly, I had lost my mother to whom I had dedicated my journey.”
Born, raised and schooled in the small town of Layyah, between the Indus and Chenab rivers in Punjab, Kamran did his masters from Multan before moving to Germany in 2002. “I belong to a very middle class family and I have seven siblings,” he related, “My father owned a small tyre repair shop and worked hard all his life to pay for our education.” His father had a dream, and that dream enabled his son, Kamran, to go beyond his humble beginnings and reach far beyond what most not even attempt to do.
After about four years in March 2015 he restarted his journey from exactly where he left it: Sivas, Turkey. The trip might have taken four years to realise, but the actual journey on the bicycle only took about six months through 28 countries and a whopping 10,000kms.
Kamran Ali chose the road less cycled and went on an epic journey from Germany to Pakistan. He cycled through 28 countries, covering a distance of 10,000km. This is the story of his travels
The gear that survived 10,000kms
Isn’t it expensive travelling like that? And what kind of a bicycle even survives that journey? “Most of my savings went into buying travel gear and photography equipment,” related Kamran, “The expenditure on the road was comparatively much less.”
“In 2011, I rode on a recumbent bicycle. She was called Maya. But now I have a Stevens X-8 Lite made in Hamburg, Germany. It is a trekking bicycle but I have upgraded it into a touring bicycle. I have named her Rüya. I carry about 25kg of luggage on a tour.” It might not ‘sound’ like a lot, but lugging forward 25kg of weight plus that of your bicycle and the weight of your own body, is a very difficult thing to do indeed.
|Wearing the Pakistani flag at an altitude of 4,344m while going through the Khargush Pass in Tajikistan|
How much would he travel in a day? “In 2011, my daily average was 110km,” he responded, “In 2015, I cycled without keeping a daily aim, as I had more time. So my average was about 70-80km. My personal best on this tour was covering about 285km travelling from Vienna to Budapest along the Danube cycle path in one day.”
It must be exhausting! “Cycling eight to 10 hours a day is exhausting,” he admitted, but said that, “Regardless of how tired and broken you are at the end of the day, a plentiful dinner and a sound sleep at night can do wonders to your body by the next morning. You feel reborn.”
Following his posts on his page Facebook.com/KamranOnBike you can see how travelling has changed him. As a result of being constantly exposed to the elements you can see him become tanned and weathered and leaner at the same time. He’s clean-shaven at the beginning of his journey and sports a mighty moustache towards the end of it.
Sights and sounds that stayed with him
Out of all the places he’s been to, Central Asia and northern Pakistan stole his heart. “Tajikistan, the Northern Areas of Pakistan and the Naran valley have impressed me the most in terms of scenery,” he said, “Cycling on the Pamir Highway in Tajikistan was an unforgettable experience. The road passed through remote isolated places on the Pamir plateau with a moon-like landscape.
“From Iran to Pakistan, I rode on the Silk Road via several Central Asian countries and had the privilege to see historic places like Tabriz, Bukhara, Samarkand and Kashgar.
|Cycling through the Pamir mountains on one of the many 4,000m passes in Tajikistan|
“The hospitality shown to me in Iran and other Central Asian countries has left a permanent impression on me. My favourite cities on the tour were Isfahan and Istanbul.”
Wasn’t cycling on this terrain difficult? “I climbed an average of 700-800m per day,” he related, “During the tour, I summited eight passes that were above 4,000m in altitude. There was only half the oxygen at sea level to work with. So, yes, the terrain was tough, but at the end of the day, overcoming such challenges gives you a feeling of accomplishment.
“Remember: after every uphill, there is a free downhill!”
Has he ever gotten lost? “Sadly, no!” he responded, “I always carry a GPS device and maps with me and closely monitor my location along the route. I did get on the wrong track once by 3-4km but it wasn’t much.”
Does embarking on such a long journey by yourself ever get lonely? “You’re alone, yes, but not lonely,” said Kamran, “When riding a bicycle there is always something which keeps you occupied; it can be beautiful scenery, an uphill ride requiring body exertion, or a downhill ride needing full attention. Besides, I enjoy being alone on the lonely roads as it gives me an opportunity to engage in self-reflection. Cycling then becomes a sort of meditation.”
Do you think you’d have the same experiences if you were a ‘normal’ tourist? “No!” he said, “Where a ‘normal’ tourist only gets to see particular sights, a cyclist also explores what lies in between, and learns how the transitions — geographical, cultural, linguistic and in the cuisine — take place from one location to another.
|Cycling through the Wakhan Valley; across the Panj River is Afghanistan|
“On a bicycle you get to know the terrain better, feel the wind, and stop where you want in order to absorb the scenery. Hence, cycling gives you freedom to explore in your own way.
“Unlike normal tourists, solo cyclists receive a lot of attention from the locals who would shout friendly salutations and invite them for tea.”
Birds of a feather
But there is no place like your own country. So glad he was to finally be home that the moment Kamran crossed the Pak-China border at Khunjerab Pass, he fell into grateful prostration.
Soon after arriving he met a few other ‘famous’ Pakistani travellers. In Karimabad, Hunza, after checking into his hotel he bumped into Moin Khan, who made a similar but much longer journey from San Francisco, USA, to Lahore in 2011 on a motorcycle. He rode through 22 countries in six months and covered a distance of 40,000km.
According to Khan, “In Karimabad (Hunza) I was staying at the hotel where I usually stay. I saw a bicycle parked downstairs and while I stood admiring it, I heard someone call out ‘Moin Khan!’ I turned and it was Kamran!”
“Moin gave me a warm welcome to Pakistan with a big hug,” Kamran related.
The two travellers explored the Northern Areas together for the next four days. Moin Khan later posted photos on his page Facebook.com/A Different Agenda of Kamran on his bicycle riding down the Karakoram Highway. “We went through Hunza, Gilgit, Chilas and Naran,” he said, “Kamran would be on his bicycle — I took a few of his bags to ease his load — and we’d meet at the destination. We stayed at the same hotel and every night we’d exchange our travel stories.”
Out of sheer coincidence Khan was hosting a documentary filmmaker, Isabelle, who is making a documentary based on a book by Dervla Murphy called IFull Tilt: Ireland to India with a bicycleI (first published in 1965). They were filming all of those places that were featured in Murphy’s book.
Three flats in three days
Out of curiosity, how many tyre punctures have you had to fix? “None in the other 27 countries but I got three flats in first three days in Pakistan!” laughed Kamran.
|Bumping into German cyclists and a Swiss motorcyclist on the way to Murghan, Tajikistan|
Pakistan might have been the final destination for this tour, but for Kamran, “It’s the beginning of my travelling, not an end.
This tour was one dream which will InshaAllah complete when I reach my hometown Layyah. After visiting many countries, I would now like to explore Pakistan.
What do you have to say to other aspiring travellers who wish to see the world?
“Get out of your comfort zone and travel with an open heart and curious eyes,” said Kamran, “If you cannot travel abroad at the moment, first travel within Pakistan as there is so much to see and explore within this country.
“Lastly, it is never too late. On the road I met a walker and a couple of solo cyclists in their late 60s exploring the world on their own. One day you can too.
“Remember, there are no chains that can fetter a dreamer’s mind!” Words to live by indeed.
Kamran Ali cycled his way up and through eight passes above 4,000m.
Tajikistan: Khargush Pass (4,344m)
Neizatash pass (4,137m Ak-Baital Pass (4,655m) Uy Buloq Pass (4,232m) Kyzylart Pass (4,280m)
China: Ulug Robat Pass (4,076 m)
Pakistan: Khunjerab Pass (4,693m) Babusar Pass (4,173m)
According to Kamran, the toughest pass of the ride was the Babusar Pass. He pedaled his way up a whopping 3,000m elevation gain over 44kms!
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, August 9th, 2015