Ravi Shankar recommends walking as a panacea to multiple issues, health and climate change and takes us on a tour of walks around the world, including in the Everest region and the island of Aruba in the Caribbean
The Government Medical College, Thrissur, Kerala, India has a sprawling and densely wooded campus. The old TB sanatorium at Mulangunathukavu (quite a mouthful even for Malayalis) had been taken over and modified to establish a medical college. There were villages on the outskirts of the vast campus. My undergraduate medical education days at the sylvan campus introduced me to the joys of walking. There were several quiet spots, and you could easily get among nature. The campus was rocky in places and may not have been prime agricultural land. The place could reach 40 degrees Celsius during the peak of summer in April and May.
We occasionally walked to the tea stalls located in the villages and the walk along unpaved roads among blooming nature was interesting. The campus was much less crowded than it is today, and we enjoyed a relatively sheltered experience. Many of us eventually took to jogging in the early morning. Hitting the tarmac early before the activities of the day begin is a cleansing experience.
The Postgraduate Institute of Medical Education and Research (PGIMER), a premier health science institution in the city of Chandigarh, north India, hosts a number of attractive sites for walking. Chandigarh was the first planned city in the country and sector 12 where the institute is located is congested but just across the road, the vast expanses, and the green lawns of Punjab University were inviting. The city is spread out and expansive and offers good opportunities for walking. The rose garden and the rock garden are vast. The heat during summer can be a challenge but even at the peak of summer, Chandigarh is a bit cooler compared to the cities on the plains and lovely to explore on foot.
The lakeside city of Pokhara is situated in the middle of the Himalayan country of Nepal. The city and the surrounding hills offer plenty of opportunities for walking and hiking. I occasionally walked between the two campuses of the Manipal College of Medical Sciences (MCOMS). We had to walk through the Prithvi Narayan (PN) campus and cross a suspension bridge across the milky Seti River. Rivers cut spectacular gorges through the soft limestone rocks in the valley. Later PN campus blocked access to outsiders and we had to take a longer way. There are also magnificent walks to Damside and Lakeside. The walk to the village of Batulechaur from the Deep Heights campus of MCOMS is also spectacular. The city is full of magnificent walks and hikes. Winter is the best time, and the views of the snow-covered Himalayas are spectacular.
Hiking in the hills of Nepal is a unique experience. Change is coming slowly to the hills. For city-born and bred folks stepping into the hills may mean stepping out of one’s comfort zone. It can often be a journey back in time to a simpler existence. The ascents and descents are long and steep. The trail can deteriorate very quickly, and landslides are common. New trails have been created and some have eventually become rough jeep friendly roads. The trail to Manang north of Pokhara is now blasted through solid rock. The trail passes very close to Annapurna II and in bad weather, the trail can seem threatening. Walking through the magical Manang valley provides you with a view of the back side of the Annapurnas. The flat trail is mostly easy but can get very dusty. The trail climbs steadily uphill and after Manang village climbs through barren hillsides.
Weather changes quickly in the mountains and can transform from bright and sunny to cloudy and snowy within an hour. Sunny weather elevates the mood while cloudy and snowy weather seems threatening. A trail with a risk of avalanches is the one to the Machapucchare base camp (MBC). The classical pyramidal fishtail (Machapucchare) seen from Pokhara is seen as two separate peaks from MBC. I had hiked to the base camp in March and saw avalanches coming down on the other side of the river.
In the Everest region, the hike to Everest Base Camp (EBC) from Gorak Shep is a rocky one along the moraine of the Khumbu glacier. I had done this hike while I was staying at Lobuche for a high-altitude research project. The weather was cloudy and low-lying clouds soon closed in. It started snowing steadily and fresh powdery snow soon covered the rocky trails making walking slippery and difficult. The psychological effect of bad weather and the threatening silhouettes of the highest mountains on earth made me deeply uneasy.
The island nation of Aruba like most other parts of the world is becoming increasingly obese and overweight. Aruba created a network of walking paths to encourage physical activity. Aruba advertises itself as ‘One happy island’. I used to walk along the Caribbean coast from Wilhelmina Park to the airport. Rains are rare in Aruba and the paved trail is well maintained.
The Sun can be hot though the trade winds keep the temperature bearable. The plan is to extend the linear park from palm beach in the tourist area to the airport. Aruba has beautiful sandy beaches, and a lot of effort is expended on their maintenance and care. The Atlantic coast is less settled, and the waves crash against the rocky shoreline. There are excellent walks among the barren hills and along the old gold mine.
The city of Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia also has good walking paths. The Bukit Komanwel (Commonwealth hill) near my apartment has inviting walks. Due to the constant rains, the trail can be slippery in places, and caution is needed.
The city is green and the Perdana Botanical Garden in the heart of the city is well-maintained and has several walking trails. The pavements are usually maintained though due to the constant heavy rains they may be wet and covered with moss.
One of the most difficult cities for a walker in my opinion would be the city of Mumbai, India. It is crowded, the traffic is chaotic, and the pavements are blocked by hawkers, stalls, and parked vehicles, and most shop owners keep their goods on the pavements. The concept of the pavement as a protected area for pedestrians seems to be lacking. The pavements are often dug up and the perpetually ongoing metro railway projects ensure more than half of the road may be unusable. Most open areas and woodlands have long been converted into housing projects and/or slums. The situation has steadily deteriorated during the last four decades.
The modern age has several conveniences and labour-saving devices. With increasing prosperity most people now own cars. Families have multiple cars. Cars can be a double-edged sword in reference to health. I think cars are addictive and the convenience makes you take them everywhere. You end up waking less and less unless you properly plan and stick to your exercise routine. Studies now indicate that all steps taken by a person are useful and can add up over the course of a day. In Malaysia recently there have been several virtual races motivating people to accumulate steps over the course of a day and month. The university where I work has a corporate wellness program and several virtual races are held over the course of a year.
We are facing one of our biggest challenges in the form of climate change. A steady increase in carbon dioxide emissions since the start of the industrial revolution has caused global temperatures to rise. Sea level rise, super hurricanes, extremely heavy and concentrated rainfall, forest fires, and scorching summers are all being experienced. We seem set for at least a two-degree celsius rise in global temperature and we are still learning the catastrophic changes this can bring. Walking results in insignificant carbon dioxide emissions and helps us do our bit to save the planet. We are only taking care of planet Earth for future generations as, currently, humanity does not have a planet B.
Though I am a teetotaller a good quote promoting walking may be the one provided by Johnnie Walker, the whisky distillery. After the shutdown due to the pandemic, they launched a new campaign to get the world moving again. Keep walking!
*All the photographs have been provided by Ravi Shankar.
Dr. P Ravi Shankar is a faculty member at the IMU Centre for Education (ICE), International Medical University, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He enjoys traveling and is a creative writer and photographer.
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