Exactly 200 years after Sándor (Alexander) Kőrösi Csoma, Hungarian philologist and Orientalist author of the first Tibetan–English dictionary completed his journey to Tibet, Hungarian engineer and cyclist Viktor Zichó started an expedition to follow in the traveler’s footsteps with a recumbent bike. In June, he reached Kőrösi’s tomb in the Himalayas after cycling 13,000 kilometers, and since then has worked on a book of his adventures, which included two forced stops: a month in a Pakistani prison, and eight weeks in an Indian hospital. He talked about the journey, his plans, and the motivation to continue even in the hardest of times to Hungary Today. Interview.
How did the idea come to follow Sándor Kőrösi Csoma’s route to Asia?
Back in 2014, I read Sándor Kőrösi Csoma’s travel diary by Bernard Le Calloc’h. He was the one who collected the diary entries written by Kőrösi. The book touched me very deeply, both the physical performance and the research he did as he walked this path was impressive to me. It was such a huge inspiration to me that I even started to plan to complete this journey myself one day. As the years went by, the date became quite obvious. When else would it be better to start than on the 200th anniversary of the start of Csoma’s journey? That’s how I decided to do it in 2019.
Kőrösi Csoma Sándor – or as he signed his English letters, Alexander Csoma de Kőrös, was born in Transylvania. In his twenties, he became acquainted with the various theories concerning the origins of Hungarians: the old Hun-Avarian-Hungarian theory and the idea of the Uyghur relations. Csoma developed the idea that he would find the ancient Hungarian homeland and the Hungarians “left behind” somewhere in Central Asia or among the Uyghurs, and he embarked on his search. In late 1819, he left Hungary with a temporary passport, and set off to the East to find the old Hungarian homeland. During his journey however, he received a book on Tibet and decided to stay in Leh, a city in the Himalayas and learn Tibetan. He perfected the language in the monasteries in harsh conditions during his three trips to Tibet – and by 1834, he wrote the first Tibetan–English dictionary. In 1842, he set off again, but he was stricken with a disease in Darjeeling and died. He was laid to rest in a remote cemetery on the slopes of the Himalayas.
Why did you do this trip by bike?
It was practically clear to me from the beginning that I was going to do it this way. Traveling and cycling are almost inseparable in my life. I already cycled a lot as a teenager, then joined a hiking association and there has been no stopping since. We did longer and shorter bike rides every summer, and from the time I was a college student, I always rode a bike when I traveled. I also love to travel in an environmentally conscious way, and bike rides are great for getting from one place to another with the smallest possible ecological footprint. For me, it is a very important issue.
The current ride was nearly 11 months long. What was the longest bike ride you’ve ever done before?
I think the longest was one and a half months before this one. I also traveled to Asia back then.
How did you plan the route? I guess it took several months or even years of planning to figure out in which country you could follow Kőrösi’s path and where to avoid the more dangerous parts?
The route itself was practically given by Sándor Kőrösi Csoma. This is an ideal route, and I really tried my best to follow it. I would say I managed to keep myself on route about 70 to 75 percent of the way, which is quite great. It wasn’t easy because sometimes I had to avoid certain areas. My concept was not to risk the more dangerous places. So I avoided two areas in Iraq, and in Afghanistan I didn’t go to the central areas, I kept heading further east than Kőrösi. Then, unfortunately, I also had to leave out Kashmir, the northwestern part of India, because there is still a war conflict there [between India and Pakistan – editor].
On what route did you get to your destination, the Himalayas, in 11 months?
I traveled through 11 countries on the 11-month journey, from Csoma’s birthplace to his grave, during which I rode 13,000 kilometers by bike. There was a prologue: I cycled from Komárom to Csomakőrös, which was about 600 kilometers. From there I set off for the actual expedition, and I traveled through Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and finally arrived in India.
What was the most memorable part of the trip, and which country did you find the most culturally stimulating?
I would say different countries from different points of view.
Culturally, Iran was my favorite; that country is a gem. I can’t even put people’s hospitality into words.
Wherever you go in the whole wide world, you won’t find any better. Iranians always greeted me with smiles, hugs, and gladly welcomed me, a complete stranger into their homes. There were times when someone stopped next to me with a car, got out, and as if we were old buddies, came up to me with open arms, a big smile, started talking to me, then invited me to dinner, gave me accommodation and told me to stay as long as I wanted. This has not only happened once, but several times. It was quite an incredible experience of how open, kind, and hospitable Iranians are.
And if we look at the landscape, which country impressed you the most?
In terms of the scenery, the natural treasures, I would say Afghanistan, especially the eastern part. It was fantastic.
What was the purpose of the expedition, besides paying tribute to the memory of Kőrösi Csoma? Travel itself, getting to know new countries and cultures, promoting cycling?
One of my goals was not only to read about real and pure adventure, but to live it. To solve problems on the road alone, to find my way around in difficult situations.
It was a huge challenge for me to start this journey in a way that I could only count on myself. And as you said, my goal was also to promote cycling, and of course to pay tribute to the great Hungarian, Sándor Kőrösi Csoma.
And of course, as you made your way through this huge challenge, you also saw what a major accomplishment this was two hundred years ago.
Absolutely, it could have been a thousand times harder for Csoma, I can’t even imagine… According to his descriptions, he walked behind the caravans, sucked in the dust, saw nothing of the scenery, and even slept among rats. It sounds really awful, and hard, I can’t imagine what it could have been like.
Where did you spend the nights along the way?
I had a very comfortable tent, a sleeping bag, a mattress, and was wild camping almost the whole trip. So it was pretty easy, I just had to find a flat place where noone or nothing would disturb me during the night. I could sleep anywhere.
You mentioned that one of the goals of your journey was the challenge that you had to solve everything by yourself. We also reported a couple of months ago that you got into trouble more than once. You were jailed for a month in Pakistan and had to spend weeks in a hospital in India because of the coronavirus.
Yes, I had two longer stops, or rather forced rests along the way. One was the prison. I was convicted in Pakistan because I crossed the border illegally – or so they thought. I was put in a jail before the verdict was handed down, so I had to stay a whole month in the country. I was able to leave with the help of the Hungarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The primary problem was that I did not arrive in the country from Afghanistan at the border crossing point where I should have. I had done it for security reasons anyway, as I tried to avoid areas occupied by the Taliban. I thought having a visa that I paid for and a valid passport would be enough, but it wasn’t. So, that was the first major stop.
Exactly 200 years after Sándor (Alexander) Kőrösi Csoma, Hungarian philologist and Orientalist author of the first Tibetan–English dictionary completed his journey to Tibet in 1820, Hungarian engineer and cyclist Viktor Zichó planned an expedition to follow in the traveler’s footsteps with a recumbent bike. He aims to promote cycling in the East and is writing a diary of […]Continue reading
After I successfully continued my journey and reached India, the next surprise came. Because of the coronavirus, after I had crossed the Indian border aand spent soem weeks in the country I was sent to a hospital to be tested and quarantined. It was the other, even longer stop. I was first told that they would just perform the test and if I got a negative result I could continue my journey the next day. However, I spent a total of eight weeks in the hospital. I think that was the hardest point of the expedition. I wasn’t even released from the hospital room for two weeks. After that I could at least go out into the hallway and the hospital yard. During those two weeks, I was even robbed. Someone took my laptop, my phone, my knife, and my papers as well. My laptop and phone were luckily returned, but I had to replace my passport at the embassy in Delhi, for which I also had to wait. And due to the unexpected longer stay, my visa also had to be extended.
Exactly 200 years after Sándor (Alexander) Kőrösi Csoma, Hungarian philologist and Orientalist author of the first Tibetan–English dictionary completed his journey to Tibet in 1820, Hungarian engineer and cyclist Viktor Zichó planned an expedition to follow in the traveler’s footsteps with a recumbent bike. The expedition went well all the way to Pakistan, but there he was arrested […]Continue reading
However, I couldn’t continue my journey after that either. In the end, after eight weeks, I had enough of the confinement and escaped. I ran away at dawn and rode my bike for about 130 kilometers. I already thought I got away with my escape when the authorities found me and they literally kicked me off the bike. In the end, it wasn’t that big of a problem, I didn’t go to jail again. They were still watching me for a week, but then I could move on, I was officially released. If I hadn’t escaped, I might still be in the hospital.
During these difficult periods, what motivated you to continue and give up the expedition? In such situations, it is easier to lose your enthusiasm.
I had already put so much work and effort into the expedition, and I was so close to the goal that I couldn’t possibly give up. I thought that I cannot give it up, I cannot turn back six days before reaching my destination.
The expedition turned into a mission for me. There were the tricolor ribbons and walnuts I wanted to plant in my backpack at Csoma’s tomb, I had to take them to Darjeeling, I had no other choice.
How did you finally arrive to Kőrösi Csoma’s tomb?
This is also an interesting story because due to the spread of the coronavirus, India has greatly restricted the border crossing between its states. By then, in most parts of the country, it was not that difficult to cross the borders, but they did not want to let me into West Bengal. There, for some reason, they said that Indians could go with whatever they wanted, by rickshaw, by bike, on foot at the border – but they did not want to let Western people in. I had already been thinking about going through in a disguise without my bike… somehow I had to get in. Eventually, a priest found me and invited me to his place. In an Indian dress, with a dilapidated bike borrowed from him, there was no longer a problem at the border, they didn’t even look at my papers, unlike when I was in my European clothes and on my own bike.
From the border it was still 50-60 kilometers to the foot of the Himalayas, where I put down my bike and completed the last 45 kilometers, with an altitude difference of 2000 meters, on foot. I reached the tomb of Sándor Kőrösi Csoma on June 7th. And there, after an 11-month journey, I was able to place the national-colored ribbons on the grave and plant the walnuts I took from Csomakőrös to the grave. I also took a whip with me, I got this in Hortobágy from the owner of an inn, whom I told about the expedition before I left. He appreciated my plan, fed me with bean goulash, and gave me a whip to take with me to Kőrösi Csoma’s tomb as well.
I guess the way back home was less adventurous, but the coronavirus definitely made it harder.
Yes, by then, almost every country had imposed strict restrictions. So the plane was the only way to be able to get home. I finally got home from India with a repatriation flight launched by the Hungarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, for which I had to apply at the embassy.
As far as I know, since your return you have been working on a book in which you describe your adventures. When will you publish it?
Exactly, my work is over with the book, now the editor is working on it and it seems it will be published in early March. Meanwhile, we have launched a crowdfunding for both the Hungarian and a possible English version as well.
What will be the next adventure- are you planning another expedition?
Of course, I’m already planning the next trip. It will be a full Himalayan traverse by mountain bike. I would travel from the geographically westernmost point of the Himalayas to the easternmost point. It also includes the highest trails in the Himalayas. I am working on the plans and trying to figure out how to implement it now. Not only to find the safest way to complete it, but the bureaucratic processes are also difficult: registering at border crossings, obtaining special permits, visas. If all goes well and the restrictions due to the coronavirus epidemic are eased, I will set off in August.
What was the biggest lesson you took away from the trip?
Perhaps, that the life and journey of Sándor Kőrösi Csoma can be exemplary for everyone. The willpower, perseverance with which he made this journey, must be followed by all Hungarians, even more, by everyone. As long as Hungarian-speaking people live, we must remember him. I think he absolutely deserves that.
In the featured photo: Viktor Zichó in Kanam, India, taking a look at the peak of Jorkanden. Photo by Viktor Zichó.