In 2007 I made a 6-mile trek across downtown Calcutta; not the most typical of trekking holidays. I could have been killed many times and in several different ways: by speeding juggernauts, motorbikes or taxis, by various forms of pollution, by mangey and irate dogs, or by falling into a distressingly un-signposted 30-foot trench bristling with masonry spikes.
Urban trekker in India. Image: Flickr/ artist in doing nothing
Obviously I didn’t get killed or I wouldn’t be writing this now. But far from being traumatised by my experience, the feeling of satisfaction after reaching my destination – Alipore Zoo – was equal to that I have felt after conquering any hill or jungle.
But mention the rather newfangled term ‘urban trekking’ to most people of sane mind and they tend to give you an odd look. Why ambulate around somewhere busy, man-made and ugly when you can explore nature in peace and solitude?
So what is it?
There are varying definitions of the term. For the Potomac Area Council in Washington, DC, urban trekking is an educational programme intended to help disaffected young people navigate their way between American cities.
A swift Google shows the term to have been hijacked by various tour operators that are headquartered in cities but offer trekking holidays in the Great Outdoors – which makes the term a bit of a misnomer, if you ask me.
One blogger describes a pleasant mooch around the elegant cities of Florence and Pisa as ‘urban trekking’. While we can agree with him that this form of travel is perhaps the most sustainable there is (another good argument for using your legs), I’m not sure that checking out the posher parts of Italy offers quite the adrenalin-pumping challenges the hardcore hiker requires.
The flower market in Calcutta. Image: Flickr/ abogada samoana
So instead let me offer this definition of a textbook urban trek: ‘a journey on foot through an urban environment that should involve some element of physical exertion or even risk, and that yields a new and surprising insight into a city.’
Whereas most trekkers are Romantics i.e. they hold up nature as the most life-affirming and spiritually/physically-renewing place to explore, others believe that it is the city that offers the greatest challenges, lessons and rewards to the hiker.
According to Mike Davis, author of Planet of Slums, for the first time in history there are now more people around the world living in cities than in the countryside. Like it or not, the city is now the place to be, the place to explore. It is where the most interesting things happen, it has the most interesting things to see. It is where the agendas are set and where the future is decided.
Trek against the machine
There is a political dimension to urban trekking too. The French philosopher and ‘psychogeographer’ Guy Debord saw drunkenly ‘drifting’ around the streets of Paris in the 1960s as a way of frustrating the oppressive and controlling boundaries of the modern city.
Author and ambler Will Self updates the creed like this: ‘The contemporary flâneur is by nature and inclination a democratising force who seeks equality of access, freedom of movement and the dissolution of corporate and state control.’
Which sounds like the urban trekker’s version of ‘the rambler’s right to roam.’
But what about the weirdos?
It is true that pests and nutters are occupational hazards for the urban trekker. I recall an initially delightful mosey through Muscat amid the palm trees, the lively souqs and the rosewater scent of ladies’ perfume – which climaxed (almost certainly the least appropriate word) with a sexual advance from an Indian migrant worker.
You may see a fight while walking along the streets of India. Image: Flickr/ Proxy Indian
But disaster was averted: as soon as he squeezed my thigh I bade him farewell and exercised my flaneur’s freedom of movement as quickly as I possibly could!
I appreciate that not every urban trekker gets off (again, not the choicest phrase) as lightly as I did in Muscat. There is of course a risk – especially to women, according to the stats – of walking in certain streets at certain times in almost any city in the world.
While assaults on female tourists abroad often make the national headlines, the two most recent incidents occurred as a result of break-ins at hotels in Tobago and Goa. This is not to say that urban trekking is less risky than staying in a hotel, just that everyone should take sensible precautions in any travel context.
Give it a go!
Calcutta didn’t kill me it made me stronger – and wiser. It was worth getting up close and personal with the city to understand something about Indian culture and society, something I wouldn’t have learned from a ramble in the sticks.
Originally published on Exploco.