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Arjun Bhogal has trekked across cities, jungles, deserts and mountains on his five-year Borderwalk. He has also been robbed, threatened and kidnapped. But the experience has been life-changing.
Travelling through 20 countries, averaging 30 or 40 kilometres a day, wearing through 12 pairs of shoes, and experiencing threats of beheading, visits from secret police, and a stint in jail.
What began as a two-man, three-year journey, became a one-man, five-year solo mission for Arjun Bhogal – walking from Cardiff, South Wales, UK to Cardiff, New South Wales, Australia.
The idea for the Borderwalk came about in 2011, when Arjun, studying film and television production, and his friend Kieran Rae were in their final year of university.
“We were initially inspired by the millions of people around the world who walk for water on a daily basis,” Arjun tells Indian Link in Sydney.
The adventure was dreamed up by the pair after watching an online video of a man who had converted a car engine to run on something other than petrol and drive it around the world, and another video of a couple cycling around the world.
“My mind kind of put the two things together and I thought, ‘I wonder what it would be like to walk that,’” Arjun says. “What started as a passing comment kind of snowballed…”
From the outset, they wanted to raise money for WaterAid and the Marine Conservation Society, and to raise awareness of borderless issues such as water shortages and overfishing, which affect us all no matter where we live.
With the pair carrying all their own equipment, including clothes, tents, electronics, food and water, they used backpacks and carts to traverse across 10 countries.
Before the walk began, Arjun was not a keen adventure sportsman. “I was not fit at all. I had this idea that if I could lift my own body weight it’d be fine,” he laughs. “I had this dream of hanging off a cliff going, ‘I shouldn’t have left!’ I went to the gym a bit, but people who do this kind of thing normally are ex-military or endurance athletes, and we couldn’t have been anything further from that!”
Leaving from outside Cardiff Castle in April 2012, no one could foresee where the journey of Borderwalk would lead.
One of the sponsors requested a route the pair would take to Australia. “We sat down and planned a route,” Arjun recalls. “And we stuck to it all of four days!”
It became a journey stitched together by myriad people from across the world.
“There are literally hundreds of people from each country who have helped me out along the way,” Arjun says.
The most unexpected person he met on the road was a Russian man called Valentin.
“I went to Russia thinking, ‘I’m going to die’,” Arjun says, gesturing at his tan face. “There was a thing on the road were people in the previous country would always tell you that the country coming up would be terrible for you, but Russia turned out to be lovely!”
After first arriving in Russia, Arjun and Kieran stayed at a guesthouse in a small town where they met Valentin.
“This man knocked on the door, a man that we later know as Valentin, holding a kilogram of walnuts,” Arjun recalls. “He said, in a thick accent, ‘You are walking, you will need these for strength.’”
Almost a month later, over a thousand kilometres on the other side of Russia, the pair again ran into Valentin.
“In the middle of the day, he just rocks up in a car with his friend. He’d driven a thousand kilometres just to come and have lunch with us!”
As the pair moved into Kazakhstan, they stayed with a friend of Valentin’s. “While we were in Russia, one of our two carts broke, so we were down to one. When we arrived in Kazakhstan, Valentin had sent us a parcel. It was this big crate. We asked the friend, ‘What’s in there?’ And he said, ‘It’s a new cart. Valentin made it for you.’ He had hand-made a cart and then taken pictures of how to assemble it! It was crazy! The man is a legend.”
Arjun and Kieran documented their bold journey on a blog and social media channels, walking up to 40 kilometres a day between towns and villages, surviving on basic food and searching each day for fresh water.
“We definitely suffered from a lack of access to clean water and sanitation along the way,” Arjun says. “At one point we were suffering from dysentery in the Kazakh steppe.”
The longest the pair went without a shower was three months while trekking through Kazakhstan.
“There was just nothing,” Arjun says. “Every drop of water that we had, that we were able to find in wells or were given through people’s generosity, it was all just used to drink or sort out our food.”
In late 2014, about 18 months after leaving Cardiff, the pair were thrown in jail for three days after overstaying in Kyrgyzstan while awaiting Pakistani visas. Kieran returned to the UK.
“A year and a half in, we’d spent each waking moment together,” Arjun says. “When he went home, it was also the first country where we would have been hitting mountains together. It was the first time I was completely alone in a country and I definitely started feeling a bit lonely. It was in the winter, the snow had started, it was minus 30 or 40 degrees, it was cold and wet.”
But Arjun didn’t give in.
“I can see this situation in the future where I expect, at some point, I will have children,” he says. “One day, I imagine those children will come up to me, and whether they say, they’re not smart enough to do something, or they’re not fit enough to do something, I’ll have this story to tell them where two people – who were not outdoor adventurers whatsoever – were able to achieve this one thing. And I think that will be a good story to tell them, and hopefully be inspiring in terms of letting them know that you don’t have to be ‘special’ to achieve something special.”
Going it alone
After Kieran’s departure, going into the mountains, Arjun left the carts behind and carried everything in a rucksack on his back. “I had all my stuff on my back for three years. And I could only carry maybe five litres, which is about a day of water – especially in a hot country. Every day it was the issue of finding water and making sure to stay hydrated. It became my daily worry.”
With regard to being an Indian origin man travelling the world, Arjun says it was difficult and he had to remain circumspect.
“Every time at a police stop, it would be, ‘here we go again,’” he says. “Going through Europe was a bit weird. In Dover, we had immigration call on me! Somebody had called the police saying there were immigrants walking around. We were a bit bearded, pushing our clothes and our belongings and the police showed up with an officer from immigration. As soon as she heard me speak, she was like, ‘Oh, you’re English! Keep going, whatever you’re doing.”
“I felt like I was pushing my luck with every country I was going to. With Afghanistan, I just kind of got picked up, chewed up and chucked out the other end into Pakistan and then India. In my head, I thought Myanmar is where it would go too far. Immigration didn’t really want you there, it was during the elections and I was being accused of being ISIS, being interrogated by ten policemen in a monastery, having my passport photo compared to ‘wanted’ men in a folder at lunchtime. It was always a bit tense.”
In Afghanistan he had a gun pulled on him and was kidnapped by the military. “General passers-by told me I was going to get my head chopped off,” he says.
Despite, or perhaps because of, the kidnapping ordeal in Afghanistan, the mountains of the region are the number one place Arjun would like to return.
“I don’t feel like I got enough time there,” he laments. “I only made it a third of the way through and then I got kidnapped in the middle of the night.”
While camped on the side of the road in a dried up river bed, Arjun was making a phone call to his family back home with an update. He saw a 4X4 van pull up and quickly ended the call.
“As soon as I put the phone down, seven men with AK-47s came running from every direction, screaming at me,” Arjun recalls. “I just put my hands up.”
One of them checked his belongings, and then they dragged him up to the main road and threw him into the van and drove off.
“I thought, ‘Oh no, this is the end,” he says. “But then they pulled me out and we were at a military base.”
They took his passport and held him overnight. The next morning he had a sit down with eight Generals who were very angry about his presence.
“But one of them added me on Facebook, so he wasn’t that angry!” Arjun laughs.
“They told me that the Taliban knew of a British national that was walking through the region, so they came to get me before the Taliban did. They gave me two options: be deported back to the UK or be taken to Kabul and on into Pakistan. And I went with Pakistan.”
Having completed the Borderwalk, and having survived to tell the tale, Arjun’s family have become his biggest supporters – and logistics assistants – but like most parents, there were initial concerns regarding the journey.
“Indian parents around the world want to encourage their children to become engineers or doctors,” he laughs. “For some reason, my mum was set on me becoming a barrister. That was never going to work out. When they’d ask me if I was going to carry on after graduation to go and do my Masters, I had to say, ‘I think I might give the walking thing a go…’ But they got straight on board and have helped no end. There’s two things this wouldn’t have been possible without – my family and the people I met on the road.”
At the moment, Arjun is finding it challenging to get back to day to day life.
“I’m struggling to describe to people what I’ve been doing, the things I’ve seen. Now I’m in this position where there’s no common ground with a lot of people.
Their normal day-to-day stuff is going to work or going to a bar; on weekends they brunch. I can’t really relate to that. For me it’s been, sat in a ditch, had a gun held in my face. All my references are about five years old. So when people say something, I have no idea what they’re talking about.
Arjun describes the scene after arriving at a hostel in Kiev, Ukraine to see people singing and dancing to a song they kept playing on repeat. “This song was completely grating on me. It was the most terrible thing I’d heard in my life. And I asked them, ‘What are you doing? What is it called?’ It was Gangnam Style!”
Having never been to Australia before, and walking from Perth to Sydney, joined again by Kieran, Arjun says his favourite place is the Nullarbor Plain.
“Not because of anything on the ground,” he explains. “But when you look up at night, it’s just…next level! I’ve never seen anything like it. I was born in London, grew up around outer London, I’ve never seen a sky like that. I went through Kazakhstan, that was a desert, but it doesn’t exist there either. It’s crazy! It’s just mindboggling!”
When it comes to India, “I really enjoyed North-East India. I’d never really known anything about it. Nobody ever talks about it. Sometimes it’s even cut off when you see a map of India. I got there and it was lovely. Weirdly enough it was the first place somebody took me into their house, in the whole of India.”
The first thing Arjun did when he finished the walk and arrived in Cardiff, NSW, was to have a long sleep.
“I slept for three days,” he says. “I don’t think I had a proper night’s sleep for five years. It’s like when you’re going for a trip and you know you have to get to the airport early in the morning. Every night was always like that. When I stopped I just slept for days.”
On returning to the UK, Arjun wants to pursue work with homelessness and mental health charities, as well as with clean water access groups. “Camping in Asia was more akin to rough sleeping than camping, and that changes everything about you,” he says. “You don’t really sleep, you’re suffering from anxiety and depression, you’re just lonely. It changes who you are and it affects the relationships you have with family and friends you make along the way.”
Arjun has just one question that still keeps him up at night: “I wonder where my stuff that was stolen in Dubbo has ended up!”
Images: Kieran Rae/Arjun Bhogal
To learn more about Borderwalk visit: http://www.arjunbhogal.co.uk/borderwalk/
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