A true story of cycling incredible distances for a purpose; not to break a record or to escape a boring job. Pradyumna Kumar (known at 'PK') cycles from India to Sweden to marry his wife because he cannot afford the plane ticket. This book is much more than a cycling story- it is a harrowing tale of the cruelties of the Indian caste system. Don't expect too much detail on the cycling part of the story as the focus is very much on the childhood and later life of PK, but it is a fascinating tale and provides the important backdrop to the cycling journey.
A word of warning: this is not purely a cycling travel book. If you are hoping for a tale of a bike ride that begins from page one then you might be disappointed. The bicycle ride does not actually begin until page 175! This perhaps makes the title of the book somewhat misleading, but the bike ride is simply the conclusion to an incredible story about a boy growing up in India.
Due to PKs position in the caste system (the Indian class system, but much more complicated than a western class system) he has a very cruel childhood. He is an 'untouchable' and that means when he goes to school he is not allowed in the classroom with the rest of the children. He has to stand outside on the veranda and observe the lesson from there. During playtime he is relegated to a corner of the school yard and not allowed to play with the other children. It is a heartbreaking beginning to PKs journey in life.
Luckily PKs talent as an artist helps to save him from poverty and this leads to some incredible circumstances, such as meeting the Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi. He has a lucrative business painting portraits at a fountain in Delhi. This is where he meets his future wife, Lotta, a Swedish backpacker on the hippie trail. Lotta must return home and PK remains in India, but this is the woman that he wants to marry so he decides he must go to Sweden to make this happen.
And so the bike ride begins, although PK also uses planes and trains for part of the way thanks to kind gestures from strangers. PK has a way with people and everyone warms to him, so is not short of help. Although the bike journey is lacking in the detail that you would get from a true cycle travel book it is clearly an incredible achievement. In fact, it is more impressive than many of the rides that have been written about by people who want to break a record or do something adventurous because PK has done no preparation and has very little money. He begins the journey on a very cheap women's Raleigh bike. He has no specialist equipment, no bicycle clothing and no fitness training. He is using a bicycle for what it was invented for- cheap and efficient transport.
The bicycle journey is interesting to read because he travels through many countries, including Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey, Austria, Germany and Denmark. PK records his impressions of these lands and the people that he meets. It feels a little bit rushed, but that is simply because PK is not doing this journey for the pleasure of travel but to reach his future wife.
PKs motivations for undertaking a long-distance cycling journey are hard to top for storytelling- escaping the caste system and marrying the woman that he loves. It is a fascinating and moving tale. Don't buy this book to read about a cycling adventure as you will be disappointed, but buy it for this extraordinary story of love that happens to involve bicycle travel.
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