While most septuagenarians would settle for the peace and quiet of an armchair life, an indomitable Italian is belying all of his 75 years by trotting the globe on a standard bicycle.
Muhamad Ali River, nee Janusz River, is one of a special breed who believes that the spirit of adventure far outweighs the simplicity of retirement.
Now in his 11th year on the road, this Rome resident born to a Russian father and a Polish mother – both of whom were killed during the Second World War – has pedalled nearly 133,000 kilometres through 118 countries at his last count as he rolled into Phnom Penh on Wednesday.
The sprightly bachelor says he is a man of frugality. “I do not spend more than two dollars a day,” he told The Post yesterday.
“One big meal a day, preferably local food, two litres of water, fruits for dinner. Early to bed and early to rise. A small radio as a companion. Roll out a bed for the night in any temple or a suitable place and cycle around 30 kilometres a day depending on the weather.”
River spent his first night in the capital at Wat Sras Chak pagoda, near Wat Phnom.
A visit to the Kingdom is part of his Southeast Asian leg which began in November 2009 in Singapore. It has since taken him to almost all the provinces of Malaysia and Thailand as well as southern parts of Myanmar.
“From Myanmar, I went back to Thailand to cross over to Cambodia through Poipet,” he said. “Travelling through some of the [former] Khmer Rouge strongholds in the East like Veal Veng district was an unusual experience. It was a hard ride through the often mountainous and thickly wooded regions.
“Some times I had to carry my bike and sleep in those forest areas.”
The rough rides were one thing, but spending a night among blood thirsty insects in the wilderness was quite another. The intrepid veteran recalled his second most frightening experience on the road.
One fateful night he woke up with multiple insect bites all over his legs, and they are yet to fully heal. “I sought treatment from local doctors. I have never taken medicines in my life, I always believe in natural remedies like herbal treatments,” he added.
“The first dangerous situation for me was a cobra bite on my leg in Sri Lanka. Luckily I was given treatment in time and I survived.”
River expressed his sense of security whilst travelling in the Kingdom. “I was surprised nothing happened to me,” he said. He then revealed his plans to visit Kratie, Mondulkiri, and Rattanakiri before crossing over to Laos and then on to Vietnam.
“My Southeast Asian leg will end in Vietnam during April. I will leave my bike in Hanoi and take a one month break in Europe.”
But the man who celebrated his 75th birthday in the Cambodian jungle on December 26 with a local brew he called rice vodka, says the highpoint of his adventure is a visit he intends to make to North Korea.
“From Hanoi I will go to China and hop over to North Korea.”
It was after his ground-breaking visit to Chechnya last year that River went through a comprehensive medical check-up in Moscow.
“Doctors told me that my health was sound enough to help me carry on with my cycling till at least 80,” he said. “That is when I decided the Olympics in Brazil would be my final destination. I was [previously] planning to end this in 2008 at the Beijing Olympics.
“I will [now] end my mission on the road on the opening day of the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, god willing. I would be 80 by then and probably retire into village life in South America thereafter.”
River was taken to Rome from his native Poland at a tender age of three after he lost both his parents, and has since become a master of his own destiny. At the turn of the millennium, the successful sports manager decided to set off on a voyage of discovery in an attempt to celebrate his own life and convey his worldly beliefs.
“I am not an Italian, I am not Russian, I am not Polish. I am a citizen of the world. I am not doing this for fame or fortune. I am doing this for myself,” he said.
On New Year’s Day, 2000, he picked up a cheap bicycle and ferried across to the Canary Islands to begin his rendezvous with open roads and a journey that has yet to end.
Why should a 75-year-old single man of reasonably good financial means subject himself to such extreme conditions? River has a stock one-line answer: “I did not want to be found dead in front of a TV.”