The year was 2015 and I had read in the newspaper that Satyen Das had just returned from conquering Ladakh’s Khardung La Pass on a cycle rickshaw. No one had ever done it before.
I wanted to meet this phenomenal man. All I knew was he plied his cycle rickshaw on a route next to the Gitanjali Metro Station in Kolkata. When I took the Metro to Gitanjali I met an old acquaintance on the way and when I told him about the purpose of my journey, he said, “Oh! You are looking for the man from Ladakh. You will find him easily. Everyone knows him in this area. He was on ex-cricketer Sourav Ganguly’s TV show Dadagiri, too. He has been pretty famous since then.”
I got off at Gitanjali Metro Station and went to the rickshaw stand to enquire about Satyen Das. I was informed that he hadn’t come to work that day. I gave my visiting card to another rickshaw puller and left. I had just passed a few stations when I got a call from Satyen saying he had just come and was handed my card. I got off the train at the next station and went back to Gitanjali Station to meet Satyen.
Satyen wasn’t in a lungi like most rickshaw pullers. He was in trousers, a white T-shirt and white sneakers, but he had a short and stout frame like most rickshaw pullers.
As I started talking to him I came to know that Ladakh was only the tip of the iceberg of his achievements.
His achievements so far:
In 1994 Satyen traveled alone on his cycle around India.
Number of days: 403 (13 months)
In 2008 Satyen traveled with his wife Minoo and three-year-old daughter Sukanya on the rickshaw around India, going as far as Kashmir.
Number of days: 186
In 2014 he went alone on his rickshaw to Ladakh.
Number of days: 114
In 2016 he traveled to Nathula Pass in Sikkim and wanted to go to the Silk Route but the weather was very bad and the authorities said it would be too risky for him to go any further.
Number of days: 30
Satyen is the only man who has ever reached the top of Khardung La Pass in a rickshaw.
Satyen has traveled 2,400km from Kolkata to Kashmir, once by cycle in 1994 and twice by rickshaw in 2008 and 2014 respectively.
The longest journey by bicycle in a single country is 14,576km (9057.1 miles), which was achieved by Prasad Erande (India), who rode throughout India from June 22, 2014 to November 9, 2014 (140 days). Satyen toured India on a cycle for 403 days in 1994, but at that time he was unfamiliar with the Guinness Book Of World Records.
Satyen toured India on a cycle for 403 days in 1994, but at that time he was unfamiliar with the Guinness Book Of World Records. He is now a Limca Book of Records record holder for his all-India cycle rickshaw trip with his wife and daughter.
What he wants to do now
Satyen Das always wanted to travel but never had the money to buy train tickets. So he started traveling around the country on his own steam, first on his cycle and then on the rickshaw.
“I also wanted to be a role model for the country’s youth, which I think I have managed to become,” says the 42-year-old.
His confidence got a boost when, in 2007, he cycled with his wife and daughter 500km to Puri in Orissa so that they could see the sea. The next year he set off for Vaishno Devi. “From the beaches of Puri to the deserts of Rajasthan to the snow of Manali to the Golden Temple in Amritsar, we have seen it all on my rickshaw,” he says proudly.
On every journey Satyen makes, he carries a message for the world. Sometimes it has been about global peace, sometimes religious integration and other times ecological awareness. This time his message is to make India greener. And he means it quite literally: he has collected 5,000 date seeds and intends to plant them along the entire route.
‘My ultimate dream is to go on a tour of Europe on my rickshaw. People think I am mad’
Members of the local Naktala Agrani Club pooled in Rs80,000 (US$124) to sponsor his Ladakh trip. This was the only time he has had enough money to see him through his entire trip. His earlier journeys were made on what you cannot even call a shoe-string budget.
In 1994, he sold his rickshaw for Rs3,000 and embarked on a six-month tour of India. Then in 2008, when Satyen took his wife and daughter all the way to Jammu and Kashmir by rickshaw, an achievement for which he earned a place in the Limca Book of Records, he had only Rs1,350 in his pocket.
Satyen said: “On this trip, I wanted to promote the rickshaw as an eco-friendly mode of transportation. So wherever I went people were extremely hospitable. They let us stay for the night in their homes, shops and even garages, gave us warm food and a bed, and often even gave us money. I remember at one place I spent the last Rs5 I had on a tire repair which was not even done properly. My wife was upset that I spent the last penny on it and there was no money to buy milk for our daughter. Just then two ladies stopped their car and gave us Rs500. I have never had to ask for money from anyone – people have always given it to me.”
He added: “I will do anything to be back in Ladakh this year, but I was hoping some organization would sponsor me and some television channel like Discovery or National Geographic would cover my trip.”
His life now
Satyen is regularly invited to events and is felicitated for his achievements. He has been invited to Calcutta University to interact with postgrad students and talk about his adventures. From being face- to-face with a snow leopard on top of Khardung La Pass to spotting a cheetah family next to Jawahar Tunnel to being caught in a sandstorm in the deserts of Rajasthan, Satyen’s adventures deserve to be recorded on the pages of a book.
A school dropout, Satyen can speak Hindi and Bengali fluently and can communicate in English as well. Thanks to his travels he can speak a smattering of almost all Indian languages.
But Satyen’s daily routine is as mundane as it gets. Early in the morning he leaves his one-room home and makes the 90-minute journey by local train to Naktala, where he works all day as a rickshaw puller. He earns Rs300-Rs400 a day and then takes the train back home late at night.
But Satyen, who is social-media savvy and has a Facebook page, has a bag full of newspaper clippings about his exploits and certificates of recognition from various government departments. He has more than 100 stamped police permits from all over India and a pen drive full of photos.
“My ultimate dream is to go on a tour of Europe on my rickshaw. People think I am mad. But when I dreamed of Ladakh, people also thought I was mad. But I conquered it.”