Running and Riding Away

  • Tony Robinson-Smith
    The Dragon Run: Two Canadians, Ten Bhutanese, One Stray Dog. University of Alberta Press (purchase at
  • Yvonne Blomer
    Sugar Ride: Cycling from Hanoi to Kuala Lumpur. Palimpsest Press (purchase at
Reviewed by Zöe Landale

Travel writing in Canada is alive, well, and robustly athletic. At the end of a two-year teaching gig in Bhutan, Tony Robinson-Smith and his wife, Nadya, accompanied by ten college students, go on a thirty-five-day ultra-marathon of 578 kilometres up and down the Himalayas. Along the way, they encounter bulls on the three-metre-wide roads, cars that glide down upon the runners with their engines shut off, intense heat in the valleys, orchids blooming in trees halfway up the mountains, and snow at the summits. At night, for their aching joints, the author prescribes “blue-legging” for all. The team submerges sore legs deep in ice-filled streams and then warms up around a campfire. The “Tara-thon,” as it was called, contributed money to the Tarayana Foundation, sponsored by the Queen, to raise money for Bhutanese village children to attend school.

The students who join Robinson-Smith are devout Buddhists motivated by the idea of helping others; one young man had broken rock as a child to earn money so he could attend school. The author includes enough quotes from the students to give an idea of how difficult it is for them to stay the course. Incredibly, despite injuries, not a single person drops out. The students help and motivate one another to keep going.

Bhutan has been called a modern Shangri-La. In 1972, the Fourth King of Bhutan declared, “Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross Domestic Product.” Robinson-Smith does a good job of juxtaposing Western perceptions, both historic and modern, with the challenges faced by the Bhutanese, such as a hundred thousand feral dogs, garbage disposal via littering, no sewage treatment, and an isolated population that may well starve if crops fail. But what happened to the dog who ran with the team? The story finishes without telling.

Yvonne Blomer is Victoria’s Poet Laureate. Her foray into narrative non-fiction stems from a three-month bicycle trip across Vietnam, Laos, Malaysia, and Thailand that she took with her husband twenty years ago. The prose is layered. Blomer writes the trip in the present tense, with commentary in italicized sections written in the past tense. This innocent/experienced narrator juxtaposition gives a nice depth to the writing. The story jumps in time and from country to country. There are dates, so it’s possible to chart that we’re now in October and then back in September. Presumably Blomer had a strategy she was following—writing achronologically is more difficult than writing sequentially—but even a second reading failed to prevent confusion.

The title, Sugar Ride, refers to Blomer’s relationship with her husband, Rupert, her type 1 diabetes, and attempts to manage fluctuating blood sugars. At one point she ends up in the hospital. Half of what she carries in her bicycle panniers, and a third of what her husband carries, is diabetes testing equipment and insulin. Blomer is a likeable narrator, spunky and unwilling to be defined by her disease. The trip is meant as a farewell to Asia; the couple is on the way home after two years of teaching in Japan. A yearning for the familiar suffuses the adventure and imparts a longing quality to their travels. Both Robinson-Smith and Blomer are aware of their privilege and worry about the state of the developed world. But having taught in Bhutan for two years and being sponsored by the Queen, Robinson-Smith is not as vulnerable on his run as Blomer is on her ride. She and her partner move resolutely through a much more urban and at times menacing environment where they know no one. Sometimes they manage to make friends; sometimes other people attempt to take advantage of them, like the student who really wanted them to pay his whole year’s tuition. Blomer’s dialogue with her body is continual and disconcerting for her; as a blonde foreigner, she is such a novelty that she is never invisible. Food plays a big part in Blomer’s story—finding it, enjoying it or, sometimes, gagging it down to sustain herself, as when they find themselves in an isolated locale with nothing but rice fried in pork lard, anathema to a vegetarian. Blomer’s prose is crisp and well paced; she worries about being part of a colonial narrative.

This review “Running and Riding Away” originally appeared in Lost and Found Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 236 (2018): 119-120.

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