Straight out of National Service, Singaporean Guo Dan embarked on an expedition around Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, and China – on his own, with nothing more than a backpack. No tour groups, no comfy hotels, no luxurious transportation. For 38 days the international relations (IR) undergraduate at Peking University covered some 4,000 kilometres, at a mere cost of S$1,564.
Passport in hand, he even tried to enter Myanmar through an international border. It was unfortunately not open to foreigners, and he was turned away at the immigration checkpoint.
Finding affordable accommodation is no easy task. Guo Dan said. “One has to rough it out because some of the environments are not the most comfortable, and sleeping in a shack or at the bus station is sometimes the only option”. When food is expensive hot water dispensers and instant noodles are a godsend. Moreover getting from point to point on a shoestring is not easy. He has to match local public transportation routes, hitch rides (while avoiding trucks on potholed tracks), trek long distances, or rent a bicycle or motorcycle for certain journeys.
“By travelling like this, however”, he cautions, “chances are you may have to stay in the wilderness or out in the open”. So he simply prepares a basha, a makeshift canvass shelter.
While the sights – from the majestic temples to the raging waterfalls – were incredible the people he met completed the experience. “I just go to a city or place with an open mind, and see what is in store for me. I try to live and act like the locals, to learn their language, so as to get a gist of their cultures”. In the rural countryside he knocked on doors to get residents to house him temporarily, and in return he worked for them. Throughout the five weeks he picked tea at orchards, tilled rice on terraces, and cooked Singapore meals for his hosts.
Fundraising was part of the plan, and S$4,000 was raised for two beneficiaries. The sum probably did not make much difference to the organisations, Guo Dan concedes, but it was a small and humble contribution on his part. The Singapore Buddhist Lodge had supported his events back in school, and he has volunteered at the Singapore Autism Association. His “Read a Book, Live a Life” team designed textbooks for autistic children in Singapore, and they were crowned champions at an international community service competition.
Since that journey around the region, Guo Dan has backpacked in Kazakhstan, the outer regions of China, mainland South East Asia, as well as Mongolia. “I love travelling to new places and meeting new people, with customs totally different from ours”, he muses. “There are many more places, even in the countries I have visited, that I have not seen”.
Cycling for Charity
Now he and Lewis Won – also a Singaporean IR undergraduate at Peking University – will cycle from Chengdu, China to Kathmandu, Nepal across the mountains of Tibet. They will pass the G318, the longest national highway in China which runs on the China-Nepal border.
A small-scale charity drive in aid of the Tibetan communities in Tibet, Sichuan, and Qinghai has since been organised. Donations will be channelled to a chosen beneficiary, the OCS Students’ Fund. 75 per cent of the contributions will go to the non-profit charity organisation for their basic education programmes. 15 per cent will be used for one-off, location-based projects at the Tibetan villages along the route to Kathmandu. The final 10 per cent – with utmost discretion – will be used to finance the expedition. Collected funds will eventually be tallied in a post-expedition report, and a copy of the finances would be sent to all the donors.
There are challenges aplenty. “It was not easy to engage an organisation as a beneficiary”, Guo Dan explained. “We had to find a functional, fully-operational non-government organisation (NGO) which required funds for its projects, and given the sensitive situation in Tibet we also had to choose an NGO with ties to the local government”. While cycling would bring the pair further than hiking, and there is greater ease in the maintenance or repair of a bicycle compared to a motorcycle, the expedition team had to – together with their mountain bikes – withstand the “abuse and harsh conditions of the road and weather”.
The planned route is 3,094-kilometres long. That is more than 72 times up and down the Pan Island Expressway, Singapore’s longest expressway and road. At elevations of over 5,000-metres Guo Dan and Lewis will enjoy sights of snow-capped mountains, picturesque valleys, and vast grasslands, yet fatigue and altitude sickness could set in. In-between days of cycling they will set up camp in the valleys, not unlike the basha he is accustomed to. Not exactly ideal places for rest after hours of physical exertion, but they will make do.
He estimates that the expenses for the 60-day trip – excluding the air tickets – will be S$1,200 per person, with the mountain bicycle accounting for around half of that expenditure. The bicycles will be donated to the local community at the end of the cycling expedition.
Even with the partnership with OCS Student’s Fund, Guo Dan is still looking to work with other NGOs. Although talks are still underway, he has expressed a desire to contribute to the Habitat for Humanity Nepal home construction project. Dubbed the Everest Build III, the endeavour seeks to build at least 100 two-bedroom houses from November 16 to 22, 2014. Plans for other expeditions after this Tibetan adventure are in the pipeline. Travelling for meaningful causes, after all, is a marriage of his two loves.
“We are not looking to change the world”, he says. “We do what we can, a step at a time”.
If you would like to make a contribution to the Cycling for Charity expedition, Guo Dan and Lewis can be reached at +65 9727 9374 (Singapore mobile), or firstname.lastname@example.org.