Nepali cyclist reaches halfway point in world tour promoting social justice

He has fought a tribe of monkeys, survived several accidents and is nine years into an epic adventure. Tom Lawson catches up with explorer Furtemba Sherpa

For most cyclists, reaching the halfway point in a journey causes the mind to wander to thoughts of the comforts of a warm bath or perhaps a relaxing pint at the pub, but for Furtemba Sherpa halfway means eight more years of hard pedaling.

Beginning in 2003, the 35-year-old has already visited 81 countries, cycling around 52,000 miles in the process as he tries to promote peace and environmental protection across the globe. He plans to reach a total of 150 nations by 2020. It’s a challenging task, but he shows no sign of losing focus.

So far Furtemba has braved blizzards in China, cycled the Rocky Mountains at dizzying altitudes of 7430 feet, weaved through the streets of some of the world’s most congested cities and is currently making his way down through Africa, his fifth continent. He plans to cover another 19 countries in 2012 before eventually concluding the African leg of his tour by the end of 2014.

An integral part of the tour is engagement with local politicians and officials, creating a dialogue to discuss common problems of environmental destruction and social injustices faced throughout the world. “My aim is to challenge our leaders to do as much as they can to create sustainable, environmentally friendly alternatives to many of our current practices,” says Furtemba.

“Leaders are beginning to listen to their citizens and are implementing policies to better protect the environment”

To date he has met several important figures including Lobsang Sangay, the new Tibetan prime minister, the Mexican environment minister Martha Delgado and most recently mayor Kuma Demeksa Tokon of Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, to discuss plans to encourage cycling in the city. “My overall impression is that local, national and world leaders are beginning to listen to their citizens and implementing policies to better protect the environment,” Furtemba says.

By cycling, Furtemba hopes he will encourage more people to follow suit and opt for low-carbon forms of transport.

Another focus of the tour has been to generate funds and raise awareness of social projects encountered along the journey. The Furtemba Foundation was recently established for this purpose and as part of its Gift of Mobility programme, it has just provided ten wheelchairs to Asha Bal Bikash Sewa, a childcare centre for disabled and handicapped children in Nepal.

The inspiration for the trip came partly from Furtemba’s somewhat turbulent past. Born in rural Nepal, he left home aged just ten to seek work in the nation’s capital Kathmandu. There, he was forced to overcome many personal challenges including homelessness and substance abuse. Coupled with this he noticed that with every visit home there was an ever declining natural beauty of the surrounding countryside; forests were becoming severely depleted, rivers were drying up and glaciers receding at an alarming rate.

In his twenties, the backdrop of what was to be a ten-year civil war in Nepal between government forces and Maoist fighters also deeply affected Furtemba. He was devastated to see what was a once peaceful country turning to violence and destruction.

“I have come to the realisation that a healthy environment and a peaceful world are deeply linked,” says Furtemba, “we cannot have one without the other.” With this in mind he felt compelled to act, spurred on by his Sherpa history.

The explorer’s relatives were Sherpas – an ethnic group from the most mountainous region of Nepal, in the Himalayas. As well being known as great mountain climbers, they often helped their local communities by building schools and providing clean drinking water systems.

He wanted to do something that captured the Everest-conquering spirit of his ancestors, he says: “I longed to emulate the contribution made by our great Sherpas… Many of them also had to overcome the same challenges I had.” But at the same time he wanted to do something unique and different and so came up with the ambitious task of cycling around the world to promote his ideals.

Maintaining pedal power and getting his message across have not been the only challenges, however. On his travels he has had several traffic accidents, suffered bouts of food poisoning, heat exhaustion and, with the aid of a bicycle pump, even fought off a group of forty wild monkeys.

But despite these setbacks, Furtemba continues to remain positive and truly embodies the spirit of his journey: “As dangerous as it may sound, I always enter a country with a bright, optimistic self,” he says.

Although saddened by the social and environmental problems he has witnessed first-hand along the way, he also remarks on the inspiration he feels at the many communities and organisations striving for positive change that he visits. “I am glad to see the resilience in people and communities and I hope my story will inspire people to act in their own way to make a greener Earth,” he says. “I believe we can find solutions through mutual respect, dialogue and understanding rather than through violence.”

Futemba Sherpa writes a blog documenting his journey, where he also takes donations to support his journey.