Kamran Ali, also known as Kamran-on-bike, has cycled around the world, covering 56,000 kilometres through 47 countries. He’s a photographer and a storyteller who has changed the definition of travelling for a generation and brought a fresh lustre to the adventure called cycling. His passion, his determination, the resonance of his voice and the depth of his vision make him one of the truly great travellers of our time. He is a single-minded loner who has explored the limits of extreme solitude. Melancholic and obsessive, intense and uproariously humorous, he loves most of all to tell stories – about himself.
In the interview below, he recounts a lifetime of dedication to cycling.
The News on Sunday: What is your earliest recollection of cycling?
Kamran Ali: I was born in Layyah. My father, Zafar Ali, would add ‘Pakistani’ to his name as an appellation, being a proud patriot. He had an old tyres shop in the town where flat wheels would be fixed, punctures repaired, air pumped into rickshaws, camel carts, etc. My father had to struggle very hard to send us to school. The financial situation was such that all his savings would go into my education. He had blisters on his hands from the work that he did.
Ever since I was a child, my family had had very high expectations of me. My mother named me Kamran after the jingle, “Har ghari tayyar Kamran hain hum.” There used to be a play called Ta’beer telecast by the PTV those days. My mother would say: “Kamran, you’re the ta’beer (realisation) of my dreams.” I was also under pressure vis-à-vis education: “Pay attention; do not miss school.” I would get beaten up if I ever scored below their target. When I hit the target, they would insist upon knowing if I was the only one who had scored that high. They instilled in me the spirit of competition.
Layyah was an underdeveloped city. As a child, I would take a cycle tyre from our shop and run barefoot with it. I was interested in cycling right from the word go. When I grew up, I learnt bicycle riding, which gradually turned into a passion for professional cycling. I must have been 12 years old when a friend suggested that we should cycle down to Chowk Azam – 26 kilometres away – to a congregation in celebration of 12th of Rabi-ul Awwal. We borrowed a friend’s cycle; he sat at the back. Upon reaching there, we met another friend on a bicycle. Together, all three of us rode back home bathing, eating, stealing fruit and resting in open shade along the way. That was the beginning of my cycle journeys.
TNS: What were your early adventures like?
KA: Cycling was addictive. This addiction led to cycling first from Layyah to Multan across 160 kilometres and then from Layyah to Lahore in two days. Upon my return, my elder brother struck me with a cricket stump to make me realise that while the family was focusing on my education, I was whiling away my time cycling. This was in 1996, when I 18 years old. I didn’t give up cycling; however. I only stopped telling my family about it, making sure nobody got the wind of it. Thereafter, I left for Multan to pursue graduate studies. I completed a master’s programme in computer sciences. There was no money to pay fees, so my mother ended up selling her jewellery and my brother his motorbike. The fee for the last semester was collected by my batch-mates, whom I used to tutor free of cost. Once I was through with my studies, I started teaching at a computer science college in Multan for Rs 8,000 a month. This was 2001.
By 2002, I felt burnt out, having taught obsessively. I quit my job with savings of only Rs 3,500. I borrowed an ordinary Sohrab (bicycle) from a student and bicycled back from Multan to Lahore. When I was in Grade 7, my father had bought me a new bicycle worth 800 rupees, but it got destroyed in a terrible road accident. My initial cycling trips within the country were all carried out on borrowed bicycles. The first manual skill that I acquired in life was to repair punctures at the shop that came in handy later).
TNS: How did you decide to leave Pakistan for Germany, carrying a dream in your heart?
KA: I had started applying to universities abroad and got admission at a university near Berlin in Germany. In order to qualify for the visa, one had to have a certain bank balance. On top of that, there was no money for the air ticket. I borrowed cash and landed in Germany in 2002. While flying above Turkey, looking down the window at the snow-capped mountains and the network of streams and roads appearing as lines on a blanche-board, I wondered what it would be like to experience the culture of the people who inhabit these lands, to taste their food and to cherish their hospitality... Believe it or not, before I had even landed in Frankfurt, I had made a secret promise that one day, I was going to peddle my way home from Germany via Turkey. While in Germany, I finished my degree, paid off the loan, did several odd jobs, enrolled in a PhD programme and changed cities. The dream stayed with me. It took me 13 years to realise it: in 2015, I reached Pakistan on a bicycle.
There is no engine noise; you are open to a 360-degree view; even the slightest slope and bend can be felt on the legs.
TNS: What made you terminate your first cross-country road trip on bicycle back?
KA: While in Europe, I bought a bicycle for 80 euros in 2003. It got stolen. Until 2010, I didn’t have another bicycle. When I eventually bought one in 2011, it was a specialised bicycle that cost several thousand euros. I did a few tours within Germany, the longest lasting only two days. When I left Germany for Pakistan, I cycled through Poland, the Czech Republic, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria. When I reached Turkey, I heard a call from my family that my mother had been very unwell. I abandoned my trip, flew back to Pakistan, and spent a few weeks with my mother until she passed away. It took me four years to return to Germany.
In order to pay off the hospital dues, I took a loan and – with a broken heart - sold my bicycle. By then, even though I had been permitted to go on cycling trips, my family never quite approved of my travels. There were regrets, but the dream never left me – it would keep me awake at night. It so happens that when people who you have loved so dearly leave you, even the most precious things in life lose their importance and become meaningless. When a dream gets stuck with you, it bothers you like a pebble in the shoe.
I applied for leave from the job I held in Pakistan; it was refused. I couldn’t decide between quitting my job and my dream. What happens if I quit my job? What am I afraid of? Once you have lost those closest to you – your parents – you have nothing left to lose. I must admit that losing my parents, especially my mother, made me fearless. Realising that not all your wishes ever come true, I made promises to my mother that I could never fulfil: I would invite her to Germany, take her around Europe; take her to Makkah to perform umrah. Despite all the sacrifices that my father had made for my education, he did not see me graduate. Life is but momentary.
Sometimes, I look at my life from a spiritual/ cosmological perspective: the universe came into being 13 billion years ago; the earth 5-6 billion years ago; life sprouted on the planet a billion years ago. A few hundred thousand years ago, human beings came into existence in Africa, going in all directions. Then we land up in today’s world, where we get 60-80 years to live, out of which 30-40 are our prime years. Then everything vanishes and there’s no trace of it. When you think about it, it makes you feel humble and insignificant on the cosmological scale. Once you accept that truth, it liberates you to think that you must live your life fearlessly and pursue your dreams, no matter what.
TNS: How did you resume cycling in order to fulfil the secret promise you’d made to yourself?
KA: Back in Germany, I went through an existential crisis after my mother had passed away. There was a strong feeling of guilt but the dream persisted. I would often look at the world map hanging by the kitchen table upon which I had mapped out all the places I had cycled through - that invisible dot would stop somewhere in Turkey and then continue. In 2015, I asked my boss for leave but he refused. This made me terminate my job at Siemens, against my family and friends’ wishes. I packed my bags, flew down to Turkey, bought another bicycle and resumed my travel from the hotel where I had spent my last night last time. I still have a picture and a video of cycling around Mt Ararat. I took a ferry from Istanbul to Bursa, went to Konya via Denizli and Pamukkale and finally to Cappadocia and Sivas, where I had heard the news. I started my journey at Sivas, went to Iran via Erzurum. From Mashhad, I went to Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Khunjerab Pass, followed by Hunza, Islamabad, concluding my journey at Layyah. After five months, I went on another cycling tour to Argentina – to the southernmost city in the world, Ushuaia. Ships leave for Antarctica from there.
TNS: What makes cycling so special when compared to the other modes of travel?
KA: For me, cycling is the best way to travel: you cannot go very fast and you cannot go very slow. Walking is a bit too slow; cars and motorbikes are way too fast. The speed that you follow while cycling allows you to smell the vegetation around you; you can listen to people talking to one another; when they greet you, you have time to respond. The slower you travel, the easier it is to brake. If you are on a motorway, you do not want to slow down; the airplane cannot stop while flying, anyway. I call cycling eight-dimensional travel. There is no engine noise; you are open to a 360-degree view; even the slightest slope and bend can be felt on the legs. Go down a one-degree slope and feel the increase in speed. Every single bump on the road is palpable. You are practically exposed to all elements of nature, touched by the wind. You have to earn your travel.
You are more exposed to the road. That makes the journey so memorable that I’ve coined a term for it: the cyclist’s memory. For instance, if you show me a map and ask me what the roads were like in that part of Turkey, what the landscape was like, how you were feeling that day or what approximate distance you travelled, I will recall that. Each and every place gets etched on your mind. While cycling, all your senses are awake – physical, emotional, psychological – because you are alone, vulnerable and suffering on the road but it also gives you a much deeper satisfaction because you are not seeing just Lahore and Islamabad but also everything in between while travelling. For me, cycling is the best way to travel to experience cultures, landscapes and peoples. Being alone allows you to reflect on every single experience that you encounter on the road, to look deeper inside you to find your inner voice.
TNS: What inspires you to write about your travels?
KA: The first trip in 2011 went away like a blur. It felt like I had been encaged for life, and then one day, the cage opened and I was free again. I wanted to fly as high and as fast as I could. When I started travelling in 2011, I had only three months to reach Pakistan – 100 days, 100 kilometres. I spent every day exploring Istanbul, so I was 100 days behind my schedule. I closely observed the diversity in cultures, landscapes and attitudes. Despite the language barrier, I had close encounters with the Roma or gypsies. I was cycling but not quite the way I should have.
During this time, I created my own blog to post stories and essays and short travel pieces. Sometimes, I talk about history, while at other times, I take a sudden shift and something from my childhood comes up like something that my father had told me. I was invited to the biggest astronomical project in the world in Atacama Desert at the ALMA Observatory in Chile. I happened to visit it and write about it. My piece starts with a couplet from Iqbal and travels back to my childhood when I used to count stars. I must admit that not all my writings are objective, especially when I write about the Cholita Wrestlers of Bolivia where the historical reference becomes essential. Why are they facing injustice and discrimination? The way they throw one another off, dressed in elaborate costumes, producing a particular sound. Those elements also contribute to the way they could be connected to the world I have lived in. How is this culture different from my own? The narrative moves back and forth like a Christopher Nolan movie.
TNS: What was so fascinating about Central America that you made the second-longest journey there?
KA: I started looking at the map to decide on the potential rides that I could make. I came to discover that I could make a Pan-American journey from the southernmost point – the Antarctica to the Arctic Circle. The route fascinated me, and I covered 33,000 kilometres in almost four years. At some places, I sojourned for days. Like, for instance, in Antigua – an old colonial town in Guatemala overlooked by three volcanoes, I spent three weeks learning Spanish extensively to improve my communication skills.
Guatemala has an amazingly beautiful landscape. I went hiking up a volcano called Acatenango. It’s a one-day hike. When you reach the summit, it affords you a wonderful view of another volcano called Fuego – Spanish for Fire Volcano. It’s an active volcano spewing lava every night. Watching a volcano spit lava at night was one of the most amazing sights. In addition, the indigenous culture in Guatemala is splendid – the hospitality and simplicity. I bathed in some of the cascade pools there.
Being a vegetarian since 2016, my diet was limited to eggs and rice and to what they call ‘plata’. It’s kind of a banana which is hard, that you fry to make it edible with rice. There’s a huge indigenous culture of shamanism there. I visited, documented and wrote about the shaman sacrifice ceremony.
The interviewer is an art critic based in Islamabad