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The Lure of the Open Road: Tom Allen’s ‘Janapar’

  • Ethan Gelber
  • 30 November 2012

The open road is like a blank page. To riders and writers, respectively, each promises as much risk as reward. So much empty space in which to find (or is it to fill with?) meaning; such vast, lawless and relentless expanses to traverse, foot by metre, letter by syllable; such satisfaction when, at a pause for breath – in both cases, a full stop – you look back and see a landscape conquered, full of experiences.

I know this feeling intimately. I have earned my bread as a writer for nearly 20 years, which is not as long as I have been an avid long-distance cyclist. Among other things, for the better part of a decade, I helped steer the course of a Paris-based bicycle tour operator, guiding avid two-wheelers along Europe’s byways. Then, in 1997-98, I led BikeAbout-the Mediterranean, a pedal-powered full circumnavigation of the Mediterranean Sea, from Morocco to Gibraltar… the long way around. Over the course of nine months, and with the collaboration of over 50 sponsors and partners and hundreds of local participating organisations and schools, a team of five riders wrote/edited over 150 educational, multimedia travel dispatches. It was blogging before blogs, and an attempt to use new (at the time) digital technology as a vital curricular tool. Through educational partners, our trip was followed by thousands of classroom children in the US.

Which brings me to this month’s video spotlight: Janapar.

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In 2007, at the happy-long-road-ahead age of 23, Englishman Tom Allen launched into the world. He headed out of his village with plans to “cycle a lap of the Earth.” Three and a half years, 12,000 mapless miles and 32 countries later – after crossing Europe and West Asia to Armenia and then Iran, traversed the Middle East to Egypt, pushed south to the Horn of Africa, east from Yemen across southern Arabia and back Iran, and then, later, from Moscow to Mongolia – he returned home. Unexpectedly, the biggest adventure of them all had been falling in love with an Iranian-Armenian girl studying in Yerevan (Armenia).

Janapar, which is the Armenian word for journey, is story of his travels, which now also include a pedal in the far north of sub-zero wintry Scandinavia. It’s an “an honest and life-affirming tale of finding what you’re looking for when you least expect it.”

As a veteran of ambitious bike experiences, I am in awe of Tom’s accomplishments, not only as a velocipedist, but as an artist. After returning home, he did what I always dreamed of doing after BikeAbout, but didn’t. He parlayed his strength in the face of the open road into discipline in the face of the blank page. And wrote a book about his travels (the production of which was successfully funded by a completed Kickstarter campaign). Even better, with incredible foresight and talent, he filmed 300 hours of his travels, which, under the guidance of producer-director James Newton, have been cut into a beautiful and highly personal feature-length film.

Tom Allen, cycling in the desert

"The open road is the place where you find out who you are." Photo courtesy of Tom Allen

Says Tom: “The open road is the place where you find out who you are. Every decision you make has an immediate and palpable effect. This is not just about finding your way – it’s about the decisions that shape the experience in its completeness. How will I overcome this obstacle? What will happen if I accept this invitation? What do these people and places have to teach me? That’s what the open road means, and that’s why no two journeys on it are ever the same.”

Words to live by, to be inspired by. Even for Tom himself, who confessed that “Bicycle
travel hasn’t lost its appeal or relevance to me. I’m still doing at least one substantial journey every year.”

Janapar the movie, complete with an original score by award-winning composer Vincent Watts, had its world premiere on September 28, 2012, at the 20th Raindance Film Festival in London.

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Ethan Gelber

In addition to his freelance travel writing (Lonely Planet author, ex-AFAR Ambassador, Huffington Post Travel blogger and more), Ethan has agitated tirelessly for responsible/sustainable travel practices, family travel, keeping things local, and quality and relevance in publishing and destination marketing. Among many other things, Ethan is editorial director of the Family Travel Association, a co-founder of OutBounding, and tackles content projects for HomeExchange.com and RW Social, which produces the NY Trav Fest. Previously, Ethan was Chief Communications Officer of the WHL Group, for which he founded and edited The Travel Word (this now-independent blog); publications manager of the French government tourist office (Atout France) in NYC; and helped manage a Paris-based bicycle tour operator.
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adventure travel, Africa, Armenia, Asia, Europe, local knowledge, opinion, outdoors, personal experience, responsible transport, sports, video spotlight,

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