Tag Archives: transportation

Urban Trekking: Eye Opening or Ugly and Dangerous?

21 Feb

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.

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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.

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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.’

Why bother?

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.

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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.

Excerpt from Fog in Channel…

22 Mar

Island Monkeys and a Hidden


As we neared Budapest, I felt like I’d been the subject of an experiment depriving human beings of sunlight, fresh air and basic comfort. Well maybe I exaggerate with retrospect. I’d got my ‘coach legs’ the previous year on an A-Level tour of Eastern Europe, when marathon crossings of entire countries were punctuated by marathon wodka sessions. As some of us hallucinated, some of us copulated and others passed out head-first into toilet bowls, I’m sure something trite like you can take the kids out of England but you can’t take the England out of the kids crossed the minds of our teachers. On the same trip I was berated by a fellow student for giving the price of a sausage (about 8p in English money) to a child-beggar. “You’ll only encourage them to be lazy,” she scoffed, as if people dress in rags and contract skin diseases because it’s easier than getting a job. It turned out that her sole purpose for travelling 650 miles across the continent was to buy a Levi’s T-shirt she could easily have bought in Portsmouth City Centre.

Whether it is an English trait to behave abroad exactly as you would at home I don’t know. My experiences are bagatelles when compared to Club 18-30, when Spanish communities were invaded by English idiots and forced to lay on English beer, English fish and chips and English music.

I hoped I took a different approach to Ms Levi. I was interested in the history of the region, especially the tumultuous Cold War period, and tried my hardest to see things from the standpoint of Eastern Europeans. I came to respect and admire the people of Prague and Krakow and the former East Berlin; they had emerged optimistic from a long dark night of authoritarianism.

When my three friends and I staggered out of that coach in Budapest we encountered the best and worst of attitudes to foreigners. We were greeted by a spivvy, slick-haired taxi driver wearing Aviators and looking like an extra from Grand Theft Auto Vice City, ready to extort shopkeepers and shoot cops. In our lethargy we foolishly got in his car and explained what hotel we needed to get to. When we found ourselves cruising through the countryside it became clear that the driver had absolutely no idea where he was going … and the meter was racing like a Telethon total. We were finally dropped off in a field and forced to part with a third of our collective budget. This was bad. Half-dead from the coach trip and the Mediterranean heat. Ripped off and stranded Christ knows where.

After some walking we spotted a woman washing a car outside a plush house. We asked her where roughly in Hungary we had ended up and how on earth we might get to our hotel.

She looked troubled and said, in pretty good English, “You see this hill? We are this side of the hill. The hotel is right over that side of the hill.”

Amazingly, and I will never forget this act of generosity, she not only gave us cold drinks but drove us all the way to the hotel. I tried to imagine an equivalent scenario in Portsmouth, us as Hungarian visitors. We probably would have been told to fuck off.

For a long while I believed the EU to be the solution to xenophobia. Just as the mounting presence of black and brown faces on British streets have made the Alf Garnett position untenable, I thought greater exposure to other Europeans would stop us hating them so much.

But people are losing faith in this artificial Union. Positive social measures such as the minimum wage have been outbalanced by corporate imperatives – ‘integration’ has simply made it easier for business to exploit and expropriate. After all, the EU evolved from a Franco-German trade agreement over coal and steel in 1950. The autocracy of the Commission and the manner in which failed politicos are booted there (Kinnock, Patten, Mandelson?) should concern anyone who believes in democracy. Eurocrats hypocritically denounce corruption in the Third World while ignoring the corruption on their own doorstep.

A European Union along cultural and social lines, designed for the good of European people rather than small sections of those people, is far more desirable.

As a teenager whenever I met French, Germans or Dutch of my own age there was a supranational understanding between us. We liked the same music, we wore the same clothes, we ate the same food, we had similar progressive outlooks on politics and society. You might call this globalisation but it runs deeper into the fabric of our respective languages and cultures. And deeper still is a common human reason which can allow you to empathise with strangers miles away from your home town or offer lifts to desperate foreigners.

First published in Fog in Channel…, 2009.