Posts Tagged ‘Longue Marche’

On walking

August 1, 2019

Having been very critical of a book about walking in my previous post, I realised that I could write about being a walker and what it means to me. But I’m no philosopher…

I’ve always walked. When I was a toddler, once a week I had to walk from the village where we lived into the town a couple of miles away, when my mother went to the market. And back! My stamina was fed by a bag of loose broken biscuits from Woolworths under the pram cover, where my sister rode. And then when I was a little older, I had to do the walk again on a Sunday with my father, to go to church. But the treat was, we got the bus back. When I was five, just after I’d started school, we moved into the town and I could walk to school; at seven, the journey to the juniors was just over a mile each way, and I did this on my own, most of the time without batting an eyelid.

There were also frequent walks for pleasure, usually on a Sunday afternoon if the weather allowed; we went to the town meadows or to the park. Either way, we hoovered up a few miles, and I only recall occasionally being tired.

When I got to boarding school, I could have won prizes for skiving sport and games, which I truly loathed. Instead, my choice to go for a long walk in the surrounding countryside, along with a couple of like-minded friends, was acceptable to the powers that be, so this was what regularly happened, at least a couple of times a week. We explored all sorts of places, woodland, canal and riverbanks, an abandoned airfield…

What I realise is that I have always walked a great deal, finding walking anywhere within reason a normal and usually pleasurable activity, as long as the weather wasn’t truly foul. I developed a reasonable sense of direction and road sense, and an ability to estimate how long a journey would take.

As a student, I walked miles, around the streets of Liverpool, and home across the park at night – ah, those carefree days when I thought little of the city’s dangers. Then, when I moved to Lancaster, I lived in a village again, a couple of miles outside the city, and frequently found myself walking home through the night (buses were never that frequent). And there was the beauty of the Lune Valley and the Trough of Bowland, as well as the Lake District to explore. I walked miles around the streets of London when I lived there for five years.

Cities are best explored on foot, I think. I used to know Paris really well, though it must be over ten years since I was last there. And, although the Metro was quick and efficient and cheap, I walked everywhere as I explored; it was impossible to get lost as there was always a Metro station with a huge helpful map every few hundred yards. You really get the sense of a place when you walk its streets. I’ve explored some of Berlin like that, and found all sorts of wonders. Food and drink are easily available, and I’ve always found locals friendly and helpful.

Having had a number of holidays in Europe with our children when they were young, I got used to country walking there: footpaths and walking trails are so much more clearly and helpfully signposted than in Britain, we found, and often it was not necessary to use a map at all.

Now I travel to the Ardennes every year for a walking holiday. I have learned to use maps reasonably well, although I also find that maps on my phone are very helpful if I think I’m lost. And since I’m on my own, I am beginning to be rather more sensible about safety and security, rather than just blithely striding forth…

So, what, if anything, has my experience of walking taught me?

I prefer to walk alone. If I’m with someone, or with a group, I will find myself paying less attention to my surroundings, to the nature, the flora and the fauna, the views and landscapes, and these are the things I really enjoy when I’m walking for pleasure. You can’t stalk a heron for ten minutes in a group of people, or outstare a wolf or a mouflon if you’re busy chattering; you won’t get face-to-face with a deer who hasn’t noticed you because the wind was blowing the other way… And if you meet someone who’s up for a brief chat rather than the usual polite walker’s ‘Hello!’ (or Bonjour, Guten Tag or whatever) then that’s a brief additional pleasure. I shared half an hour’s walk with a couple of French folk in the Languedoc because we were trying to find a particular track: I’m sure we enjoyed each other’s company, but equally were relieved to make our farewells.

I prefer to walk in forests or woodland, rather than in open space, which is why I prefer the Ardennes to the Lake District, for example, and I’ve written here about my fascination with forests. The birdsong is astonishing – and no, I can’t identify more than a couple of birds by their call, I just like the accompaniment as I go – even though I have poor hearing. And there is always the possibility of spotting or seeing other interesting wildlife.

I like to think. Being alone, and in motion, is very conducive to being reflective, I find. I can review where I’ve got to with my life, make future plans, ponder the meaning of life and existence, feel at peace and contented with my lot; I often find that where I am stimulates what I can only call spiritual thoughts, meditation, if you like. It’s peaceful, and reassuring. And technology is helpful here, too: if I have a moment of epiphany, or just a useful flash of inspiration, I can record a message to myself briefly on my phone so I don’t forget it…

I’ve read about walking, too. When I was quite young, my father introduced me to a fascinating book by a fellow Pole who had escaped from captivity in Siberia with some of his comrades and walked to India. It’s called The Long Walk, by Slawomir Rawicz, and is an astonishing tale of hardship and endurance, a tribute to the human spirit and urge to survive. And I’ve previously mentioned the books of Bernard Ollivier, who walked the entire Silk Route from Istanbul to Beijing. There’s someone whom I can admire and envy, for I can’t really contemplate such lengthy journeys myself because of a problem with my right foot, which will allow me to clock up getting on for fifteen miles a day for a couple of weeks, but does begin to complain quite a lot if I overdo things.

In the end, I suppose I regard walking as natural. It keeps me reasonably fit and healthy, and I’m not obsessive about my 10,000 steps a day, which apparently is a myth anyway. It gets me about at minimal cost, and as long as the podiatrist and the orthotist can sort out my wonky foot, I’m looking forward to many more years and miles…

Bernard Ollivier: Longue Marche III

November 16, 2010

51KKE2v8M1L._AA160_The final volume covers the last two sections of his journey, from Samarkand to Turfan, across the Taklamakan desert, and then from Turfan to Xi’an, where he completes his walk, at the age of 64 (!) of somewhere between eleven and twelve thousand kilometres.  The achievement is astonishing – he realises at the end that he is possibly the only person ever to walk the entire length of the Silk Route.  The section in China is rather weird as he knows nothing of the language, meaning that his contact and communication with people is somewhat restricted, and yet he has many friendly contacts and encounters with people. He communicates a powerful sense of the dynamism of the Chinese as a people, reinforcing my impression that China is the nation that will mould the 21st century.

I really enjoyed these books.  If you read French, read them.  If you know someone who will translate them for English readers, tell them.

Bernard Ollivier: Longue Marche II

November 16, 2010

51c4INK4KQL._AA160_A year later, he’s back on the road, in the most interesting of the three volumes, in my opinion, as he walks through Iran, heading for Samarkand. Given that Iran seems such a closed society to us in the West, characterised mainly by its nuclear ambitions and its – as presented though our media – rather bizarre regime, it was really refreshing and eye-opening to read of an ordinary person’s travels through this country, and his encounters with ordinary Iranians, their lives, cares and friendliness.  He had problems and difficulties at times, because of the regime and its restrictions, but I found myself warming to the place and the people second-hand, as it were, through his account.  Bernard does revive one’s faith in human nature.

Bernard Ollivier: Longue Marche 1

October 18, 2010

51rBtL2fDoL._AA160_ I’ve been fascinated by the Silk Road/ Silk Route, and descriptions of travel along it, for a number of years; there are a lot of very interesting accounts out there.  But Bernard Ollivier was a sixty year-old retired journalist when he decided to walk from Istanbul to Xian, carrying only a backpack and trusting to fortune.  He didn’t do it all in one go, but planned a route carefully to allow him to complete a section one year, go back home to Normandy and then go back and begin again where he’d left off, the following year…

This volume follows him across Turkey almost to the border with Iran, when he is floored by amoebic dysentery and eventually evacuated as a medical emergency, and taken back to Istanbul.

He’s trusting (sometimes to the point of naivete) and open to all encounters and situations, and meets a wide variety of people as he walks.  The standard reactions to him are that he must be insane to walk – so many people want to offer him lifts – and that, as a European, he must be very rich, and therefore worth robbing.

The book is a straightforward account of his travels; it could have done with a better map.  I admire him for his guts and energy, and his willingness to encounter the world when so many of us seem increasingly to be afraid of ‘the other’.

I’ve begun the second volume…

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