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Chasing tales to China and back

Erwan (left) and Olivier (right) watching out for tortoises in northern Turkey (contes-a-velo)

A year ago three Swiss cyclists set out on a remarkable journey from France to China to collect ancient stories from the Orient.

Ian Jacquier, Olivier Cheneval and his brother Ewan succeeded in bringing back over 50 hours of recorded material, plus more than a few tales of their own.

On their journey to China they pedalled through France, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam, where they recorded old tales.

“With all the new technology that has arrived even in the most remote areas, people think that storytelling has become old-fashioned,” Olivier told swissinfo.

“Our message is not that new technology is bad but we want to show that it is possible to have both.”

Their project, which is officially recognised by the United Nations heritage agency, Unesco, and is supported by the International Fund for the Promotion of Culture (IFPC), required a year of planning and financial backing from six sponsors.

The three cyclists from Lausanne tried to find the storytellers before they left. However, Ian, who was responsible for most of the organising, said finding them in remote regions proved very difficult.

“In Asia it’s difficult to find a storyteller - they don’t have telephones, they don’t have an address. Before the trip we tried to have one contact in each country and once we got there we built up a whole web of contacts,” he said.

Inspiration

The idea of collecting tales by bike was actually born in the Canadian city of Montreal, where Ian, who has always dreamt about cycling the world, came across a website that inspired him.

"I saw a site about a cycling tour by some French people and it reminded me of my childhood dream. It took only two minutes to ring Ewan in France and three weeks later he said yes," Ian told swissinfo.

It took only another week to get Ewan's younger brother, Olivier, interested in the trip.

And on Valentine's Day last year the two brothers and their best friend got on their bikes in the French city of Bordeaux to embark on their extraordinary adventure.

Each bike weighed around 40 kilogrammes, packed with technological equipment such as a video camera, a mini-disc recorder and two digital cameras, as well as their personal belongings and camping gear.

Despite travelling with all this expensive equipment, Olivier said they never got into trouble.

"The people we met often saw a digital camera for the first time in their lives. So they were not really interested in stealing it. They admired our equipment and were very curious. Sometimes we had to watch out as too many people tried to have a look at our gear," said Olivier.

Friendly welcome

On their journey they came across little hardship, and one of the most surprising things, they say, was the friendliness of the local people.

"We were surprised how welcoming everybody was. The only problem we encountered was that children sometimes threw stones at us," he said.

Despite all the happy moments, Ewan - who at 28 was the oldest of the team - decided to leave the others in New Delhi, India.

"I had to leave because of the complexity of going through all these different experiences. I had to remember everything and keep the curiosity to go on, and after seven months it just became to much for me," Ewan said.

"It was the hardest and most difficult moment for me," he added.

Back home

Ian and Olivier made it all the way to China and after 407 days and more than 23,000 kilometres in the saddle they decided to take the easy route home and took a plane from Beijing back to Geneva on March 27.

But now, Olivier thinks, the easy part of their work is over and the hard part starts as they came back with more than 50 hours of recorded material.

"We have to get the tales translated and the videotape edited, write articles and do the promotional work, which is part of our trip. We have hours and hours of work in front of us," Olivier told swissinfo.

However, finishing the project could prove logistically difficult as Olivier and Ewan both live in different parts of Canada and Ian is planning to stay in Switzerland to cooperate with the production company.

But if everything goes to plan we should be able to hear, or even see, some of the tales told by original storytellers from the Orient on radio or television.

swissinfo, Billi Bierling

Key facts

The team was on the road for 407 days and pedalled more than 23,000 kilometres.
They went through France, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam.
Ewan left the other two cyclists in New Delhi, halfway through the trip.
They came back with 50 hours of recorded material from storytellers.
Unesco has officially recognised their project.

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