Abhishek Kumar Sharma is on a journey few men undertake. He is going from country to country experiencing life, sleeping on the wild and connecting with people.
It has been over three years since he left his hometown of Fatehgarh in Uttar Pradesh, northern India. So far Sharma has travelled 40 countries. Quite the global nomad now, Sharma has two more years within which he aims to cover 90 countries, 95,000 km and tell 10,000 extraordinary stories of ordinary people. But his journey, he says, is driven by his larger ambition of creating awareness on climate change and world peace.
After completing his Master of Science and research on waste and water management as part of his MPhil degree, Sharma undertook a Swatch Bharat mission, or the Clean India campaign initiated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. It was after this that he decided to undergo a world yatra and so in 2016, he left behind everything – family, home and comfort – to start his own Vishv Tiranga Yatra (world flag tour).
Sharma does about 80-100 km a day from 8 am to 6 pm and during winters he wraps up by 5 pm. But his schedule largely depends on weather conditions and he does not venture out on a rainy day but there have been situations when he had to cycle at night. When he left India in 2014, Sharma started with nothing but today his cycle weighs 45 kg and is equipped with dry food, water, sleeping bag and mat, and few gadgets. Along the way he is collecting 10,000 stories of people that he shares on his social media, which is also helping him connect with people and getting support.
For Sharma, this is a self-funded trip and he depends on the kindness and generosity of friends and strangers who follow him on social media or who he comes across in the course of his journey. His bicycle has a small donation box attached in front. As he peddles on, Sharma is collecting stories and experiences which will help him fulfil his dream – of building a model self-sustainable village in India. In conversation with Abhishek Kumar Sharma.
Over three years on the road, there must be some experiences worth sharing?
Yes, I have completed 40 months. I have plenty of experiences, so far, my experience has been good, but I must share this one incident when I met with the mafia and weapon smugglers in Russia. I was sleeping inside a tent near a small border town called Skopje when four Russian men walked up to me. One of them could speak broken English and asked me why I had Russian and Indian flags with me. I explained I was on a world tour and heading towards Europe soon. He asked, “You Indian, you Hindu?” to which I said ‘yes’ and he replied, “You good people.” Then I was told it was dangerous to sleep outside as I could fall prey to wild animals, but I had no option so they invited me to sleep in their home on the condition that I cooked for them. I had no cooking skills but took up their offer and walked along with them to a house some 20 mins away. At the house, they offered me vodka, I don’t drink but accepted it to respect their culture. There was a kidney red bean can, some tomato puree and rice which I somehow cooked. By that time, they were all pretty drunk and kept saying ‘weapons, weapons’ and took me to the basement which was bigger than the house. I was shocked at the sight of over 80 AK47 rifles and other small machines on display. I got really scared; I had no contacts and no internet. After 5-10 mins I excused myself on the pretext of sleeping, went upstairs and laid on the couch reciting the Hanuman Chalisa (devotional hymn for peace). I could not sleep a wink thinking they could kill me anytime but no one turned up till 5 am. So I crept out of the house. It was one of the scariest nights of my tour so far.
What are the main challenges you face?
The weather is one. I have faced minus 14 degree temperature in East Europe. In Portugal and Spain, it was plus 45 degree celsius sans humidity, it was like facing a hot blower. In Scotland and Denmark, it was so windy that it was tough balancing the cycle. But cycling with a 45-kg weight through jungles or mountainous terrain is one of the biggest challenges. There are dangerous geographical areas in the US and Europe. The Alps in Switzerland was a killing experience, similarly in east Europe where there is more mountains and less plain areas. In Adelaide too, I was struggling at the hills for about 15 km (you are not allowed to cycle along the highways) till I reached a town called Murray Bridge.
Food is another challenge. I need 4000 calories a day and being a vegetarian it is a bit hard. I eat a lot of pizzas, about dozen bananas, apples, juice and bread. I don’t have corporate sponsors or any funding so out of the coins I collect through my donation box I buy bread and peanut butter and learn to survive for days this way.
Finding a place to sleep is another challenge. Sometimes, you do find good people who take you to their house, feed you and let you sleep but there are not many Indians everywhere. I have to set up my tent in a jungle or near the river usually further from the city. It is a scary experience because you could be attacked by, say, an animal but I have learnt survival techniques. I have found that 96 per cent of the people in the world are good but there are some four per cent crazy people who sometimes follow, scream and dance around you. I have encountered such crazy people and that is challenging too.
Are you using a customised cycle for this world tour?
This is my fourth cycle. It is a track cycle and one of the best in the world. I have to share my cycle story. I was in Germany when I met this gentleman who was out on an evening walk. He looked at my banner ‘India-Germany Friendship Tour’ and asked me if I was really dong this world tour on the bicycle. He got really inquisitive, asked me details and where he could look me up. After I showed him my social media feeds and website, he asked me what I was looking for and I replied, ‘A place to sleep”, at which he said, “Tonight you will sleep in a hotel and I will pay for it. Tomorrow morning, you will have breakfast with me”.
Next morning, I fed the address he gave me on my GPS and I arrived at this big mansion, I re-checked the address, it was correct. The moment he opened the door, he told me, “Mr Kumar, you are doing a wonderful job, I went through your website”. Over breakfast I told him he didn’t look like an ordinary person to me and that he appeared to be a billionaire or something. Then he narrated his story of how at the age of 24 in 1974 he cycled through the whole of Europe and then Soviet Union for a whole year after finishing college living off the kindness of people as he had no money. On returning home after a year, he opened a small workshop for bicycles as people here use customised cycles. The small workshop turned into a bag factory for Baltik Vairas, one of the largest bicycle and e-bikes manufacturers.
He looked at my bicycle and said I needed a new one and took me to his factory. He asked me which one I wanted, I said he would know better. Then he gave me an expensive tour bicycle with water proof bags, new jacket etc. I used that cycle throughout Europe and when I was leaving for the US, he gave me another new cycle.
Without any funding as you said, how do you manage the tour?
I have this donation box in front of my cycle which is my source of income. I am touring the world with dignity and respect. If I meet an Indian I tell him I want to have a meal or that my shoes have worn out without hesitation. I am OK if they are not able to help but the Indian community has given me a lot of support and donations, helping me survive.
How do you prepare physically and mentally?
Physically I have become very strong, if you touch my body it feels like steel. Mentally it is a big challenge, cycling is easy but managing a cycle tour is a big psychological challenge. You meet all types of people and situations. But I am a positive person and look for the positive even in bad times, which is how I train myself. That positivity helps me meet positive people or they become positive after meeting me. For the past four years, every morning I do yoga and meditation for 10 mins which helps me prepare for the journey ahead. Seventy percent of it is a big mental challenge as I have to think about food, sleeping arrangements and how to convince people to get their support.
What are you hoping to achieve at the end of this world tour?
This is a 90-country tour to spread awareness on climate change and global peace because I am an ecologist and it is my research work area. I feel we must generate awareness on climate change keeping in mind the future consequences of climate change, which is why I am on a bicycle. On the other hand, Indians are one of the most peaceful and harmonious communities of the world. To promote that peace, harmony, heritage and culture I am meeting different communities and giving them a message of peace that we are one of the most peace loving people on earth that treat everyone with respect and dignity. So I am promoting that message through this yatra.
After completing six years of this tour in 2020, I want to develop a truly self-sustainable model village in India for the over 600,000 villages of India in the areas of waste management, waste water treatment, water harvesting and the advantages thereof. I want to develop community-based facilities to show how communities can progress. We are not adopting a village but building a platform that can educate, motivate and create awareness. We Indians do not learn until we see it ourselves and till we don’t see the advantages, we don’t take action. It is going to be my six-year learning course to develop a village in India. We will not give anything free; we will empower everyone by using the three weapons of awareness, education and motivation to change the mindset of Indians.
What has been your Australian experience like?
People are very nice everywhere but I can see that the Indian community in Australia has achieved a milestone. I thank everyone who has come out to support me because without it I wouldn’t have reached this far. I am doing my deed and people are helping me too.
(As told to The Indian Weekly)