From the horse's mouth

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By Vishnupriya Sengupta traces Stephen McCutcheon's journey along the Silk Route
  • Published 27.05.06

Stephen McCutcheon, 26, is among those who live their dreams. Since childhood he had an ardent desire to travel like an ancient trader along the Silk Route and make a difference as he plodded along. Today he is happily doing both, saddled on horseback, riding through the rugged borders of India, Pakistan and now China ? with the objective of promoting education.

“Taking the first step way back on November 5, 2004 was difficult,” recalls McCutcheon, who is from UK. Prior to that McCutcheon had no idea how to ride a horse. “I learnt to ride at Captain Kundan Singh’s Delhi Riding Club, behind Delhi Race Course. I took about 20 lessons before I saddled up,” he says.

Riding through the Himalayan range was like a dream, especially alongside the legendary Indus River. But geographically, the desert areas of north Pakistan surrounding Indus Kohistan were the most difficult areas to negotiate. “There was no food, no water and the distances between the villages were long,” recalls McCutcheon. What added to his woes was that he landed there in mid-December when ice was forming on the road. That meant heavier food loads and a slower pace. And as though that wasn’t bad enough, near the village of Shatial in the North-West Frontier Province, his mare Rosie’s horseshoes failed. “Seventy kilometres away from the nearest major town, I was stranded,” he says. The one thing that saved him, though, was a new kind of horseshoe he’d imported from America. “You need to squeeze it like toothpaste on to the bottom of a clean hoof and it sets hard in two-and-a-half minutes,” he elaborates.

In his journey for over a year-and-a-half, there were times when McCutcheon was truly scared. “Riding at night in the far north of Pakistan along sections of the Karakorum highway where rock- falls kill people every year was quite a fearful experience,” he says.

In India, on the other hand, the only point where he was in danger was near Jalandhar during Guru Nanak’s birthday on November 5, 2004 when a local lad set off a firework as he rode by. “Rosie bolted. There were only two choices as she galloped off. Either to fall and die or hold on and last it out. She didn’t respond to my attempts to rein her in to the side,” he recounts, a trifle agitated. “All the stress and tension of riding on the G.T. road for the past two weeks came pooling out as we started overtaking cars and trucks. Rosie just did the one thing she knew how to, which was run. I repeatedly tried to pull her over to the roadside and haul her in, but she felt nothing. I couldn’t focus on diverting Rosie since I was desperately trying to stay in the saddle. We clocked six kilometres in 10 minutes. Eventually, she tired on an overpass and slowed to a halt.” The sigh of relief is evident even in the retelling.

But that was hardly a deterrent. Despite such sudden jolts, he continues and not for once has he thought of beating a retreat. “The good times far outweigh the bad,” says McCutcheon who has seen nature at its best and its worst. “I remember the scenes of helplessness after the recent earthquake in Pakistan. I was talking to some girls at a middle girls school in Gujranwala, 100 kilometres north of Lahore, when it occurred. On the flip side, when I was riding under the full moon through the upper valleys of the Karakorum with the Indus flowing below, and only Rosie for company, I began to appreciate the life of a pilgrim,” he says, a whiff of romanticism lacing his words.

At the moment, McCutcheon is off again, looking for camels for the final leg of his journey in Tashkorgan, which is close to the Taklamakan desert, the second largest sand-shifting desert in the world. It’s a route that was once taken by Marco Polo and Xuan Zong, the Buddhist monk. Small wonder that dreams die hard.

mission ahead

McCutcheon’s 10,000-kilometre ride, aptly called Riding for Education, supports Education for All, a Unesco initiative that aims to ensure compulsory education for all children by 2015. It is meant to raise ?100,000 for ActionAid International which will use the money to open new schools. The Riding for Education website provides an update on the progress made, schools visited and donations raised.