Travel

 

The weekend before I left, every moment I was thinking about the trip, imagining the long haul on the bike, neck pain, sweating, muscles operating at full capacity hour after hour, adventures, getting lost and found, a challenge with many rewards. Southern Georgian Bay is (or at least was) idyllic. Good farmland but not on the way anywhere, so still relaxed. Worth three days of biking, and accessible by bus for cyclists.


It wasn’t the same worry as 2 yrs ago from Kingston to Cornwall or the Orillia Gravenhurst jaunt, more just a delicious anticipation of the (reasonable) challenge. My search at couchsurfing: 5 requests, within an hour, an invite from Josh from Collingwood, my supposed destination. ‘I am teaching in Russia, but home for the summer.’ yes!

 

Everything went like clockwork till the usual ‘getting lost’ clicked in north of Barrie. But looking back, I realized I’d actually found a good route, avoiding the dreaded highway #26, stumbling on Horseshoe Valley road and eventually Flos rd 4 through the Minesing wetlands, the only road through, (wonderfully) forgotten, with a narrow one-lane rusty old bridge. The perfect bike route.

Toronto cyclists know how hard it is to get beyond the roller coaster nightmare of Toronto traffic to Elysium fields. Ok, dreary fields of GMO corn and soybeans, but it’s a step up from strip malls. Relying on The Canadian Cycling Association’s Complete Guide to Bicycle Touring in Canada (1994), I fashioned a trip to meet the litmus test:
1/ no car headache to take you to some distant starting point,
2/ some sites worthy of the name,
3/ no mass of tourists, either biped or bipedal.


Lake Simcoe is tantalizingly close, more friendly than big Lake Ontario, but featuring a tightly packed string of cottages possessing every bit of lake front available.

Undaunted, I thought it was worth a try. The rapidly expanding Go bus/train system reaches as far as Barrie,

My life journey as a peacenik took me to Moscow in 1989 to see Gorbachev's 'socialism with a human face', his attempt to combine materialist communism with ... it wasn't clear exactly what Gorbachev had in mind, but it certainly wasn't a wholesale sell out of what had been built over the previous 70 years. However, the rickety structure that the Soviet Union had become, a tired society always under pressure from the capitalist West, final collapsed. Or rather was pushed over by a well-planned conspiracy―begun in 1979 under Carter but greatly expanded under Reagan―to destroy the last socialist revolution, in Afghanistan, next door to Uzbekistan. The tragedy of Afghanistan put Uzbekistan on my radar. A remote part of the world shrouded in mystery and now convulsed in war. Sounded interesting to the young adventurer devoted to world peace.

I had come to Moscow at the invitation of Moscow News. From my editor's office on Pushkin Square, I watched on TV the last Soviet troops leave Afghanistan and arrive in Uzbekistan, retreating across the Amudarya River on the Friendship Bridge (built in 1982 to ferry Soviet troops into Afghanistan). Even as the troops retreated, mujahideen snipers continued to target them, with US arms still being poured into what was already a powder keg. I was intrigued by this little-known part of the world, and remembered a dream-like trip as a Russian language student in 1980 to Tashkent, with its elegant opera house and its bountiful fruits, soaring mountains and hospitable people.

After five years in Moscow, working as an editor at Moscow News and then as a Greenpeace activist-administrator, I had had enough of a Moscow in upheaval, where food was scarce and expensive, and people were losing their laid-back Soviet ways and embracing the worst features of the West. I was robbed more than once (once by the train police waiting in a suburban station on the way to Uzbekistan), and remember gun shots in the Vikhino apartment building entrance one night, told the next day someone had been found murdered just a few feet away from me.

Moscow had lost its charm. I yearned to try living in a Muslim society. Uzbekistan seemed to be the most developed, cultured of the Soviet 'stans' and a short hop away from
Mazari-i-Sharif.

1/ Manial
2/ My Arab godson
3/ Al-Ahram
4/ Bringing down the Brotherhood
5/ Sisi – Muhammad Ali redux

1/ Manial 

I stumbled into Cairo after Tashkent, where I had stumbled across Islam, courtesy of dictator Islam Karimov, who – despite his name – persecuted brave Muslims mercilessly, and impelled me to recite the shuhada, at first, more as a sign of solidarity. I was now determined to learn Arabic, read the Quran, experience Muslim culture first-hand and test my enthusiasm for Islam.

I found the Fajr Centre for the Arabic Language, founded in Cairo in 1995, online. The new session was beginning in January 2007. Fajr (dawn) is for new enthusiasts and prospective imams, affiliated to the Egyptian Ministry of Education and al-Azhar, and located in Medina Nasser (Nasser City), which I was to discover is a sprawling suburban near the airport. Transportation in Cairo is a nightmare, be it by taxi or public transit. Virtually all Fajr students share digs near the 'institute', which is modest to say the least, but I immediately liked it, despite the anonymous suburban clutter. The administrators and my teacher were clearly devout Muslims, and warm, friendly people. This was not for rich secular westerners, who studied at the AUC or one of many private institutes down town, at three times the cost.

I heard of a Canadian-Egyptian artist who lived in Manial, the southern-most large island of Cairo, perched just upstream from more upscale Zamalek. Anna responded to my query,

The Gaspé  is considered one of the top hiking spots in the world, after the Grand Canyon, the Himalayas, the Andes, and the Swiss Alps. There are 6,000 km of trails, and a range of vistas from mountains to cliffs facing the mouth of the St Lawrence and the Atlantic Ocean. And best of all, it is hardly known outside Quebec—a spectacular, untouched place right in our own backyard.

For the past decade, hundreds of cross-country skiers—nearly all of them Quebeckers—have come for a six-day, 100-mile-plus ski odyssey through the winter wonderland at the eastern edge of Canada’s largest province. After an article in the New York Times in 2013, 100 Yanks showed up, but as yet, very few Anglo-Canadians. Two years ago, hardy hikers started coming at the end of September to see the fall colours and the caribou, and I opted to join them this year.

Saturday – The 8-hour 'trek' from Toronto to Montreal brought me to the bus to Gaspé at 5am, just in time. Our guide to Gaspé, Gilbert, was one of the many volunteers, a physiotherapist by profession, our residential doctor for sore feet. He is a joker, and over the microphone acted the voice of an airline pilot explaining to brace ourselves for the 2-hour climb that evening on arrival in Gaspé "to reach the hotel". Ìn line for coffee I met Robert, who is a Montreal-based fundraiser for nonprofit organizations and hospitals, a charmer, well in tune with his profession. We settled in for the 10-hour trip to Carleton-sur-Mer, on the south coast, before moving northeast to Gaspé and then east to Percé.

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Canadian Eric Walberg is known worldwide as a journalist specializing in the Middle East, Central Asia and Russia. A graduate of University of Toronto and Cambridge in economics, he has been writing on East-West relations since the 1980s.

He has lived in both the Soviet Union and Russia, and then Uzbekistan, as a UN adviser, writer, translator and lecturer. Presently a writer for the foremost Cairo newspaper, Al Ahram, he is also a regular contributor to Counterpunch, Dissident Voice, Global Research, Al-Jazeerah and Turkish Weekly, and is a commentator on Voice of the Cape radio.

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Eric's latest book The Canada Israel Nexus is available here http://www.claritypress.com/WalbergIV.html