Liao Fan Hawker Chan, awardee of ‘The World’s First Hawker Michelin-starred Meal’, spill the beans
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Forty countries. 70,000 kilometres. Six towering peaks. And one army man.
This isn’t a segue into the next Mission Impossible, but it does seem the kind of feat to point a camera towards. We’re talking about the journey one Major Sushant Singh (not Rajput!) is on. After leading counter-terrorist operations as a Special Forces officer, running a business in Sudan and training in martial arts at the Shaolin temple, this member of the Indian Army Mountaineering team began an expedition to cycle across the world and climb the highest peak in six continents.
The December 2019 edition of our magazine discussed the idea of travelling to the ends of the earth in detail—Svalbard, Mongolia, Uzbekistan, Oman—but who knew we’d come across someone who fit the bill of dauntless adventurer this quick?
It’s the first attempt of its kind by an Indian. As the man sets off to bike across the length of Africa and scale Kilimanjaro, we get a glimpse into his motivations and process...
How'd you decide on this specific feat to achieve?
After leaving the Army, I could not see myself fitting into the routine of a regular job. Hence, I began exploring possibilities to open a business in the Himalaya. I bought an SUV, converted it into a camper van and travelled from Kashmir and Ladakh to Arunachal. I led a frugal nomadic life, cooked my own food and slept in my van. Spending those nights alone amidst the vastness of the windswept mountains and their inescapable lure made me realise that this is where we all belong. And in that vast wilderness, I envisioned a grand plan to cycle across all the continents, and, since I love mountaineering, climbing the highest peak on every one of them.
My romantic nomadic notions soon crashed on cold, rocky reality, as my business was not a success (no surprises there!). I ran out of money, and had to sell my apartment. I was like a fish out of water; despite taking on a job, I spent most of my time sitting outside a chai tapri and plotting my escape. The plan which I had made a few years ago resurfaced with gusto.
Besides this feat, I am also cycling to the southernmost tips of these landmasses, namely Invercargill in New Zealand, Cape Agulhas in South Africa and Ushuaia in Argentina. By the time I finish, I would have cycled more than 70,000 kilometres, climbed the highest mountain in every continent, including Mt Everest and would have cycled to the ends of the earth. Till now I have cycled to the south island of New Zealand, across Australia from Sydney to Perth, covered Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and pedalled from Chennai to Mumbai in India. I have also climbed the highest peak in Australia, Mt Kosciusko.
There is a perception that Indians do not have a pedigree to take on such enterprises. I was motivated by a desire to show to the world that we are no less in undertaking the most brutally challenging expeditions.
Have you applied for certification to enter the record books?
Yes, I wrote to the Guinness Book of World Records. But as per their regulations, they cannot monitor two activities, i.e. mountaineering and cycling, simultaneously. In a way, it has been good for me as it has freed me from a lot of hassles, and given me the freedom to travel and accomplish my goals at my leisure.
Is the preparation phase different for Africa, compared to Asia and Oceania?
My inventory remains more or less the same. But this time I had to read up a lot more. To make some sense of the present state of a country, it is imperative to know its history. The evolution of life also interests me, and Africa is a goldmine to visit places where the human race traces its origins. The Great Rift Valley in Ethiopia and Kenya, Broken Hill in Zambia, the Taung Skull site in South Africa, to name a few.
Communication is also a problem as English is not understood in most of the countries. So I am preparing a list of essential questions like where to find water/food, and phrases like ‘I want to meet the village elder’, ‘can I sleep here?’ etc.
What’s the fitness and nutrition plan?
Every day, I have to go out cycling or running early in the morning. But more than fitness, it is my need to be alone in the mornings that drives me out of the house an hour before sunrise. Cycling is my usual mode of commute, very rarely do I use a car or a bike. I have never followed any diet plan. Whatever my wife cooks is good enough for me!
Other than your climbing and camping supplies, what are your essentials on every trip? If money were no object, anything you'd love to own?
My cycle is my home on wheels. I carry everything important to me, though it may sound frivolous. Books are essential, and Kindle has made things easier. My laptop, camera and power-banks are a must. One also needs to carry quite a few spares for repairs. I always carry a radio, a relic of my army days. It always brightens up my evening when camping.
If money was not a consideration, I would have bought a pop-up two man tent. They can be easily pitched over sandy, rocky or slushy surfaces. This is something I cannot do with my present tent, and it can be quite frustrating.
What are some skills and life lessons you have picked up after starting this expedition?
>Don’t take the maxim ‘never trust a stranger’ too seriously. This journey reaffirmed my faith in humanity and made me realise that the world is not just inhabited by evil and indifference. Many a time, strangers invited me over to their homes, helped me even without asking, and those are some of the most beautiful memories of this trip. Rather than being suspicious, I would suggest you be cautious.
>The most crucial aspect in any venture is to take the first step. Earlier, cycling for me was about going to the grocery shop. It seemed quite daunting to cycle across six countries and about 10,000 kilometres alone. But I decided to go ahead anyway. Resilience and the determination to succeed brings forward hitherto unknown qualities in one’s self, and we develop the strength necessary to survive, sustain and excel.
>Minimalism can be more rewarding than consumerism. When we cut down to the bare essentials, we have space to appreciate and indulge in new experiences and to critically examine life. Solo cycling can be quite meditative!
>Don’t hesitate to take up challenges beyond your comfort zone. Your ingenuity, inner strength and reserve of energy may surprise you.
Listening to others is all right, but trust your own intensity, drive, commitment and passion. We know ourselves the best, everyone else only has a vague idea.
Do you have a deadline in mind to achieve this feat?
Before starting off, it was three years. This requires a considerable amount of money, a lot of coordination terms of visas, air tickets and getting equipment unavailable in India. However, since I could not attract sponsorship, I have revised my deadline to read ‘some time in the near future’! Now, I cycle one continent at a time, and check my financial situation. If there is scope, I hop on to another continent. I plan to try for sponsorship once I get back from Africa, as after having cycled more than 20,000 kilometres, I will definitely be tanked out. Hopefully, prospective sponsors would be a little more impressed by then, and I will be able to put a time frame to the expedition.
Is there too much of a trade-off, in terms of achieving this feat, versus the growth of one's personal and professional life?
A little challenging to answer…I have a different take on this issue. The idea of getting a job just to earn money, and not actually enjoying it has never fascinated me. The job has to be part of personal growth. I had a great life in the Special Forces, but when my days of active service were over, I saw no point in continuing with the sole aim to earn money.
The necessity to earn sustenance ties us to the mechanisation of the world. Whenever I got a chance, I broke free, whenever I had enough money to last even for a couple of years, I left my work. This attitude may sound extreme and irrational, but it has worked for me.
What are some memorable experiences from your travels that you'll always look back upon?
It was always the elderly who were more attracted towards my journey. They very often would stop over for a chat. Maybe seeing me rekindled memories of their youth, of foolishness, rashness and spontaneity? In New Zealand, a car once overtook me and screeched to a halt by the roadside. An old man came out and had a hearty laugh of disbelief when I told him what I was doing. He said that he was quite an idiot when he was young, but thank god, not to the degree that I was. He then sent me off with a box of chocolates!
The West Coast of New Zealand is one of the wettest places on earth. One day the rain started early and continued throughout the day. By evening, I was a little worried about finding a place to sleep. It was not possible to camp in the jungle, and open patches of land had turned to slush. There was a campsite marked on my map, and reaching there was my only hope.
Campsites in New Zealand generally have a shed, and I was hoping to find some dry patch to sleep on. But when I reached, it turned out to be an open ground next to a lake. No shed. There was no place where I could have pitched my tent, no place even to change my wet clothes, and it was getting quite cold. But I found something comic in my helplessness. When all my friends back home were busy looking after their jobs, kids and enjoying the comfort of their homes, here I was standing in the middle of nowhere, soaked to the skin, and wondering where to pitch my tent!
With nothing else to do, I went for a walk along the lake, and started reading information boards. There, I came across an aerial image of the place. While in the Army, we studied a lot of aerial photography for terrain analysis and intelligence gathering. I could make out that there was nothing unusual in the photograph, but for want of doing anything better, I went in for a closer look. A big lake in between, jungle all around...but then, in the right bottom corner of the map, an arrow: ‘Motel 1 Kilometre’! I could not believe my eyes. I immediately picked up my bike, and within a few minutes, reached the smiling old lady at the motel reception, who gave me a room at half the price.
What's something you wish people asked you more?
Whenever I have given a talk or been on the cycling community’s social media platforms, most queries revolve around the technical aspect: nutrition, hydration, average distance covered, camping tips and so on. But I always wished that people would ask me more about the philosophy and rationale behind this undertaking.
In today’s consumerist frenzy, my journey is a continual experiment that we can lead a minimalist life and still be happy. Living with bare necessities gives an immense sense of freedom, it is a triumph of thought over the tyranny of the majority. It is also the need of the hour. Arresting climate change and global warming is not just the government’s responsibility.
You can reach Major Sushant Singh at +91-9910494850 or at firstname.lastname@example.org
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