Bike for Help - A Humanitarian Adventure



Bike for Help - English Version (print and eBook)



Bike for Help - German Version (print and eBook)


Other Links

     Christoph’s Personal Website

     Pitch and Press Reviews

Personal SoMe Links

     My personal website:

     Facebook (for book and other followers)



CV Christoph von Toggenburg

Christoph von Toggenburg has a colourful work experience in arts, media, social entrepreneurship, and humanitarian leadership.

CEO of the global children’s Charity World Vision Switzerland and Liechtenstein, former Head of Social Engagement for Africa & MENA and Global Leadership Fellow at the World Economic Forum (WEF), he initiated and managed the Global Councils on the Humanitarian System.

For nearly a decade, Christoph worked for international humanitarian organisations in conflict zones in Africa, Asia, the Middle East and South America. He negotiated successfully with rebels and separatists worldwide, including the Maoists in Nepal, the FARC in Colombia and the rebel groups in the Central African Republic (CAR). Christoph led large-scale relief operations, achieved the release of hostages, and was nearly killed in a violent ambush in CAR. Consequently, he suffered from severe PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). 

In his early 20’s and 30’s, he launched three global fundraising and awareness campaigns: Alegría, a 3500km bicycle expedition across the Himalayas; Bike for Help, a 10’000km bicycle expedition from India to Switzerland; and Run for Help, a run of 270km across the Alps. During Bike for Help, Christoph became globally known when he negotiated with the Taliban (the only Westerner in the region) to cross Baluchistan during the war in Afghanistan.

He created and headed the Colour the World Foundation, caring for leprosy patients and women with mental illness.


Bike for Help looks like an exciting travel story.  Can you tell us a little about it?


In 2002, Christoph von Toggenburg set out to raise awareness about a disease that had been forgotten by many. It was a time when the world was in shock by the global impact of 9/11 and the rising political and military conflicts. Many people had cautioned Christoph against his upcoming expedition, knowing the risks. Still, nothing could stop him from capturing the world's attention on leprosy and helping those suffering from its devastating impact.

A unique account of his epic adventure, Bike for Help takes us along Christoph's transcontinental quest. Cycling solo from India to Switzerland to raise funds and awareness for people affected by this terrible disease, Christoph faced obstacles he never envisioned and survived incidents he was sure should have claimed his life.

Several months and 10’000 kilometres later, Christoph's mission had come to fruition, and here, his journey is retold, inspiring the human(itarian) within each of us.

The idea behind this adventure was crazy. Never in my life had I cycled for such long distances but I wanted to demonstrate how willpower and purpose can ‘change the world’. I wanted to demonstrate as a young student that I could turn my dream into reality.

Additional Information for this 2nd edition of the book

Christoph’s first book ‘Bike for Help - Ein Humanitäres Abenteuer’ was published by Herbig in Germany in 2003 and presented the same year at the Frankfurt Book Fair.

To mark the 20th Anniversary of Bike for Help, the book was translated into English, re-edited by author Britt Collins, and enriched with original photos that have never been published. It was republished in 2022 (ebook and print).

How long did it take you to write Bike for Help?

It took me initially four months to write the book.

Christoph’s first edition of ‘Bike for Help - Ein Humanitäres Abenteuer’ was published by Herbig in Germany in 2003 and presented the same year at the Frankfurt Book Fair.

To mark the 20th Anniversary of Bike for Help, the book was translated into English, re-edited by author Britt Collins, and enriched with original photos that have never been published. It was republished in 2022 (ebook and print).

What inspired the idea for your book?

During my student years in London, I started to share one day a week with homeless people. I volunteered in a large homeless shelter, ran night food runs, and taught photography and arts to get people away from the cold streets, and from drugs and alcohol.

It inspired me to do more and to combine my passion for adventure and sports. I had done already so at the age of 21 when I had run for five days from Switzerland to Italy, nearly 300km, crossing the Alps and raising funds and awareness for homeless children in Romania. At 23, I initiated “Bike for Help,” a solo bicycle expedition from India to Switzerland to raise funds for people suffering from leprosy.

It was a crazy idea, but after all, I was stubborn!

The challenge took a different shape when after 9/11, the war in Afghanistan broke out and a dangerous crisis between India and Pakistan. People advised me against it, but I just did it.

I went through war zones, survived 3500km of desert, and experienced the warmth of people along the way. Bike for Help reached global attention, and donations poured in from around the world.

It led me to create the “Colour the World Foundation,” helping people in need, and changing my life.

Thanks to the large sum of donations, the foundation was soon able to construct hospital units, shelters, run screening programs, helping the people that needed it the most.


With Bike for Help, I wanted to prove that every person, in their way, can change the lives of others for the better. All it needed was to stand up and do it.

My efforts to cycle through the war-ridden areas to India highlighted that simple actions could inspire people worldwide and that solidarity is a beautiful thing.

All it needed was determination, the naivety of a young person and a hint of craziness!

How did you come up with the title for your book?

The title is the name of the expedition.

What will readers get out of your book?

Readers will be able to join a unique adventure. They will learn more about leprosy, about the different countries, Christoph crossed and how to overcome one’s fears and insecurities. His reflections help the reader to understand how a young person decides to ‘change the world’ by giving a voice to those who have no voice.

What part of the book was the most fun to write?

I loved writing the touching stories, and the encounters along the way, the humanity I encountered, the striking landscapes I was able to cross, the tough moments and how I overcame those.

Did anything stick out as particularly challenging when writing Bike for Help?

Not really. It was sometimes challenging to describe the smells, the colours and the feelings I encountered. All of the experiences were so rich and powerful that it was hard to put them in words.

What do you like to do when not writing?

As my friend told me: “Write that book because it will inspire people and you will have a unique way to share one day with your children what you did and how you felt.”


Where can readers find out more about your work?

My personal website:

Facebook (for book and other followers)



Extracts from Book Bike for Help

Not far from the War in Afghanistan

On 28th January, one of the most extraordinary days of the whole journey, we would be riding on the wildest frontier. It was still bitingly cold when I was picked up by my police guards, a pair of dark-haired men in their 40s with beards and skullcaps. Their job was to shepherd me and keep me alive while we were moving through the rugged outback. After the unnerving experience of children throwing stones at me, I was glad to have them by my side. But the proximity to danger here was very real. It was sometimes easy to forget with the reddish, honeycombed mountains flashing past we’re in the borderlands between Pakistan and Afghanistan. The stark, brutal beauty of this wilderness was enchanting and reminded me of the Grand Canyon.


The road was good and we were making good progress. My protectors changed every 15 kilometres or so. They were all very nice and extremely concerned about my well-being.


By this point, it was slowly approaching midday and my stomach began to growl. My new companions assured me that we would get something to eat at the outpost 15 kilometres away. Well, the 15 Pakistani kilometres became 25 European ones, but this was the custom here. People here weren’t concerned with being precise, they wanted you to be satisfied. That was why they said yes to everything because saying no would’ve almost been an insult. That could be difficult when you had to rely on something or someone. In the process, I learned not to have any expectations.

Finally, after some hours, we reached the outpost of Sanjawi, which consisted of a simple barrack. Perched on a windswept, rocky outcrop, it seemed diminishingly small in front of the gigantic rock formations that rose up behind it. As always, there followed a welcoming ritual tea and a house tour. Everything here was a ritual that you had to endure. Patience was worth a lot since nothing happened quickly. My hosts shared their simple meal of dry bread, dipped in hot oil, along with raw onions. Before we started eating, everyone laid out their rugs and prayed.

While the tribal policemen bowed towards Mecca, an American B-52 bomber passed, buzzing over our heads. Afghanistan was near and the war with the Taliban was in full swing, but the war never came up. People here were afraid and felt contempt for America. This was understandable because many Taliban came from this region. The Taliban originally came from Pakistan. At the time of the Russian invasion, ironically, they were even supported by their current enemy, America, to beat back the Red Army, the enemy of the so-called ‘free world’. At that time, it was believed that the communists were the biggest threat to the free world. Now Pakistan, and especially this region, was flooded with an overspill of Afghan refugees. Still, I felt safer here than on the streets of London.

As we continued up the curving hills, the rutted road gradually deteriorated and sometimes I sank so deep into the mud with my narrow tires that I had to push. When we reached a guard post at an altitude of 2,800 metres, we took a tea break. And at this high altitude, the landscape, cloaked in conifers, had changed in a miraculous way.

The inside walls of the simple mud-brick building were plastered with posters of weapons. We all took off our shoes, the Kalashnikovs were carefully placed in a corner, and then the prayer ritual began. I, too, sat down among the praying people, reflected, gathered my thoughts and sent prayers to all the ‘gods’ I had met so far. There were quite a few of them.                                

After the prayer, they all picked up their weapons and started shooting at cans. What was I supposed to do if they suddenly chose me as a target? But my nerves eased as Safra Khan, one of the policemen, handed me his Kalashnikov and loaded it. He pointed to the trigger and, before I knew it, I had shot a stone, but not the can. The noise of the shot was deafening and the recoil considerable. Well, my opponent would certainly have got me first.                                        

In wild territories (p.162)

Out here, everyday life was defined by extremes. Most people lived to survive and the daily challenge with the elements took the central role in their lives. As a result, priorities were set quite differently, which could also have positive effects. People lived in a different consciousness. Values like hospitality and honesty were part of their daily lives. It was amazing that it was mostly the simplest and poorest who helped me. I think these people understood what I needed because they were closer to me. They knew my needs and problems because they were of a similarly existential nature for them. This made me wonder how much weight should be attached to everyday problems at home.                                      

The Last Stretch in Pakistan

The desert taught me many lessons during our many hours together. So, whether I liked it or not, I had to respect its rules and follow them. Out here I was a nobody and if I didn’t, I could easily lose my life. I could imagine that travelling in the desert used to be more difficult, but you could certainly find more accommodation. Given the current possibility of being able to cover long distances with vehicles, it may not be surprising that there were no supply facilities between the individual oases.                                              

Until the second half of the 20 th century, there were still quite a few caravanserais, but in the age of roads and accelerators, the distances between the individual supply stations had become considerable. In those days, many goods were carried across the desert by camel and on foot, with a daily distance hardly exceeding 50 kilometres. While I managed up to 170 kilometres on extreme days, I had to be prepared to be stopped unexpectedly. A breakdown or sudden storm could delay my progress.

The closer we got to the Afghan border, at some stretches less than 30 kilometres separated me, the more dangerous the situation became. For this reason, my escorts were reinforced and resembled a small army consisting of 12 sods armed to the teeth.      Along the way, we stopped at a small abandoned teahouse for a short break. When we stepped inside, we found a fresh fireplace. On the back wall, hung a surreal poster of Osama Bin Laden riding a white horse. He held a sword in a threatening gesture as if he was about to go on the attack. Below it was the American flag and fighters veiled in scarves.

As I approached the poster, shouts and commotion outside disturbed the silence. The soldiers were advising us to leave immediately because we didn’t want to lose any time in this area.

Caution was called for because it was assumed that Osama Bin Laden and the Taliban hardliners in this region had fled across the desert border to Pakistan. Fortunately, we didn’t encounter any terrorists, bandits or other adversaries, and so Qaswa, the ‘army’ and I made it to the Iranian border, unscathed, on 9 February.                         

Without a map, Without help (p.173)                                      

I left Zahedan for the Lut Desert, 400 kilometres of nothingness now lay ahead of me, one of the loneliest and driest landscapes in the world. The words of Nicolas Bouvier, a Swiss adventurer, came to mind, “As far as encounters and accommodation are concerned about the density of a handful of grains of rice blown away by the wind.”        According to my map, there were four oases until the next town. That should have been enough to cover the distance but to be on the safe side I would pack more water. In addition, a young Iranian told me yesterday that this desert was known for its fierce sandstorms. He had never heard of a cyclist who had crossed this desert.

Already 100 kilometres outside the city, my water reserve was running low, because, despite rationing, my water loss was too great. Worryingly, there was no sign of an oasis either, which I should have passed by now, according to my map.

The Lut Desert was the hottest place on earth. I was now slightly sun-struck and lost in this blazing hell. Far and wide, there was nothing to be seen but rock formations on the horizon. Am I at the end of my tether, should I try to turn back or hope that there will be an oasis after all?

I willed myself to stay calm and not give in to despair. But, as so often on this tour, my guardian angels came to my rescue. A shimmering blue mirage appeared in the distance, but didn’t fade. Moments later, a Mercedes minibus pulled up alongside me and a German ‘hello’ was shouted at me. The inscription AVE MARIA was emblazoned in large letters on the windscreen, and in a strictly Islamic country.

Irmi and Frank from Hanover were at the wheel. They, too, were on their way back to Europe, with a mission that seemed no less misguided than mine. “Inspired by the Maria, the Mother of God,” as Frank put it, they had made it their goal to bring statues of saints and other church paraphernalia to parishes in India. “As a thank-you, the Indians have now stuck the Hail Mary on it for us.” A look inside their travelling home, a technicolour-moving carnival, revealed more. I literally had the feeling of being in a kitschy souvenir shop in Lourdes—everything was covered with all kinds of statues of saints, small sculptures of Maria, and crucifixes.The picture was rounded off by a squawking parrot and a sleek tabby cat licking its fur.

Brave people, I thought to myself of the colourful foursome. Whether you considered their mission worthwhile or not, the courage to drive through two strictly Islamic countries with such a load, along with a parrot and cat, was admirable, if not a little mad.                             

Insights in the Desert (p.179)

After a day of rest, regaining my physical strength and mental lucidity, Qaswa and I were back on the road again, ready to conquer the second part of the Lut Desert. The wind blew so violently in the early hours of the morning that within a couple of hours, I was caught in a sandstorm that flung me off the road several times. I was so fed up with this wind. I’d already fought it for more than 1,000 kilometres and, every evening, crawled into my sleeping bag, hoping that the wind would die down.

In the morning, I woke up and, with my eyes still half-closed, sniffed the air and realised with frustration that the wind was still blowing. It kept blowing in the wrong direction. Once, just out of curiosity, I turned the bike and within a few moments reached 45km/h without even touching the pedals. Couldn’t someone flip the switch, just like that, 180 degrees? Then I would soon be home.

In the struggle against this invisible force, the bike became so heavy that it felt like I was moving a lead block. Every pedal stroke felt I was climbing mountains. But as much as one may curse about the wind, it, too, was a vital part of this landscape. Whether it drove me to despair or not, nothing would change the fact that it would keep blowing. I knew I couldn’t change this situation but I could change my attitude towards it. My strongest weapon was hope.

This made me think of a passage from Ruth Pfau’s book, “At the time of snowmelt, the Indus is a muddy flood. When the water level drops, lakes remain in the rocks. And because they lose their connection with the river, the mud settles. And they shine in a blue, in an improbable, an otherworldly blue. When I saw these muddy masses and then this quiet blue, heavenly purity, I thought to myself, you should be able to live like this. To withdraw from the cares of the world. But on the way back I realised, if you do that, you’ll dry up in three months. Part of life is getting your hands dirty.” Mindful of these words, I felt motivated anew, ready to cross borders again. I had summarised my thoughts and my love-hate relationship with the desert in the Ode to the Desert.                                                           

Many thoughts ran through my head as I moved through this monotonous landscape. Later I jotted down a few in my diary: Out here I am only a slave. Out here I can do nothing against the forces of nature. My progress is slow, which makes me witness every change, every green, every hill, every sound and every smell. I have no choice but to adapt to the circumstances. This fact shall be my teacher, my friend and my enemy. Out here, life finds its roots. Living here is a question of survival and nothing else. Simple values count. The usual luxuries no longer exist, other things create happiness... a drop of water, a sign of life in the sand, a tree providing shade, a warm shelter at night, a friendly smile on a rough face, the sweet flesh of a date... Life and happiness were simple after all...         

Death Waits in the Green Paradise (p.234)

A car came towards me. Its headlights were so bright that I couldn’t see anything. I slowed down. All of a sudden, my headlamp failed, and I was swallowed by the blackness. Since I was already halfway through the tunnel, there was no turning back. Suddenly I was hit by a heavy thud—a bag had come loose from its holder and fell. I rolled over it and lost control of the heavy bike, tipping over the handlebars and landing headfirst on the rough asphalt. Despite the pain in my knees and arms, I pulled myself together. Thankfully nothing seemed broken.                                                        

As I straightened up, I caught the headlights of the Land Rover coming from the front. He saw me and swerved at the last moment. But when I turned around, I had the feeling that I was looking death straight in the eye. In front of me rose this huge monster with two big glowing eyes. My hand clenched on the frame, the end before my eyes, all my strength was concentrated, my muscles exploded and I instinctively jumped to the side.                                                   

Everything happened so quickly that I didn’t realise what was happening. At that moment, the truck sped past me without braking. He must have overlooked me when I was lying on the ground, from his high horse he couldn’t see me. Several vehicles followed and, in their headlights, I could find the lost bag and my sunglasses again, miraculously all undamaged. The bicycle handlebars had twisted. I straightened them and slowly emerged out of the tunnel into daylight.                                                      

The shock settled deep in my bones, my hands trembled and my heart thumped. Only now it hit me that I escaped death by a whisker. I wasn’t afraid in there, in that dusty, dark hell. As I sat alone on the side of the road for a while, pulling myself together and thinking about death. It was always present, it could always snatch me from life, quickly, slowly, painfully or not. I asked myself if I would be ready when it comes. After all, I tried to live every day as if it were my last. I think the thought of death had taught me how important it was to live intensely and meaningfully. I wondered what it was like in the past when people lived much shorter lives. Did they live more intensely? But when the time comes to say goodbye, I can’t claim that I haven’t been richly blessed by life.                                   

Leprosarium Babaghi (p.254)                                 

Finally, leaving the city in total darkness, Qaswa and I headed out into the desert again, 15 kilometres back to the leprosarium. It was so dark that you could hardly see your hand in front of your eyes. Reaching the city limits, I turned into the narrow road that disappeared into the desert. It was quiet as I rode through the chilly night.

After a few kilometres, the road began to climb and I heard barking in the near darkness. Could it be a wild dog? Or even wolves? One bark became many and the sounds were getting closer and closer. It seemed they were coming from all sides. I pedalled furiously, but it was quite steep and so I wasn’t too fast. For a moment I turned around but couldn’t see anything in the pitch black. There must have been many pursuers and they were closing in, tailing my rear wheel. I felt something snatching at my back pocket. I breathed heavily, giving everything, I could, forgetting the pain in my lungs and legs. Desperate to escape, I pressed down on the accelerator and disappeared into the blackness. Endless seconds seemed to pass before I reached the saving crest. After a while, the pack let gave up and stayed behind. I was gasping for breath and there was the taste of blood in my mouth.                                   

The Meaning of Happiness (p.271)                                

I found it a great gift to have so much time to think about life’s issues. Up here on the saddle, head and mind were often strangely free. And especially in extreme moments, when the physical and mental challenge was at its greatest, the mind seemed capable of peak performance. And even when I was very sad, I tried to look forward optimistically. So, on 28 March, I write in my diary: Don’t let yourself fall, but keep fighting. Don’t stand still and think practically and positively. Don’t let your thoughts go round in circles without profit.             

‘Bikeosophy’ (p.311)                       

Unlike driving a car, the cyclist is at the mercy of the elements, moving through heat, cold, rain, storm, hail. So, one experiences true happiness when the first ray of sunshine comes after days of rain. Just as they celebrate the arrival of the monsoon in Kerala, India, such a moment becomes a special event. One celebrates the wonders of nature.                                          

A Night in Heaven (p.331)                              

After a short breather, I moved on because a hotel was far beyond my budget, so I had to leave the city and find something in its outer reaches. When night had already fallen, I discovered a flat field where I pitched my tent. First, I hid my bags in some dense bushes and rode to the next village to replenish my water supply.

About half an hour later, when I returned to the field, I was spellbound. The entire area was lit up by thousands of fireflies, sending their light signals to each other in this love dance. It was so dark around me that I had the feeling of floating in the middle of a sea of stars. I would spend the night in heaven, floating in free space, surrounded by glittering diamonds of the sky.                      

The Final Stretch (p.343)                                

Only a few more pedal strokes and I reached the crowd of spectators, with applause from all sides thundering in my ears. I was like in a trance and then the last metres and centimetres of a journey into another world.

I had made it! Inside, I felt deep relief yet I still couldn’t believe that I was there now.

At the end of this final stretch, Maria Walliser, a former Olympic champion and Swiss ski star, took my hand and raised it against the bright blue sky. “Today you are the champion!” she said, with a wide smile.

I had earned them for the leprosy patients, the donations that were placed on the successful completion of this expedition before and during my journey. For the last time, I got off Qaswa, this friend who had faithfully accompanied me during the past months. My loved ones breathed a big sigh of relief. They and many others had contributed decisively to the success of this action behind the scene, so to speak. Bike for Help was not a “one-man show”, as my friend Claudio once called it. Bike for Help was all of them, the smiling faces, the leprosy patients, my loved ones, and the sponsors.

“Is the Toggenburg the end of your journey?” a radio journalist asked me.

“This is where this journey ends, but a new one begins,” I answered him.

And so it was: the further I went, the more I searched, the more I wanted to know. But for now, I was happy to have realised a dream and reached my goal.                                   

Realised dreams are like an elixir of life.                                             

Small Steps Change the World (p.349)

Whatever we do in life or it brings us, we should never lose faith in our inner strength. This could help direct things in such a way that they help not only us but also others, even if only in a limited way. It was important to remember that even a project like Bike for Help was nothing more than a long bike ride. The only small difference was that I found a way to use my joy and passion for others and ‘sell’ my idea.

You just have to take the first step. Of course, a venture is always associated with uncertainty. At no time will you be able to say that you will reach your goal. But isn’t that completely unimportant? Isn’t the attempt itself the goal? Society doesn’t make it easy for us.You have to have a thick head if you consistently move outside the norm.                                                        

Small Steps Change the World (p.350)

Again and again, I see the pictures of disfigured leprosy patients in front of me, whose greatest wish would probably be to be healthy and be able to move normally among people again. With these people in mind, I am always grateful that I could do something for them with my body that they would never be able to do. In the end, was a fair exchange because they gave me insight and inner satisfaction and I gave them my mental and physical strength.                                                              

Why Suffering? (p.351)                                  

The humanitarian message of Bike for Help reached more than 45 million people around the world, received donations from 14 different countries, touched hearts and inspired people to take their own steps.

Thanks to the many donations from all over the world, Bike for Help was able to support the work of the Fischer Foundation in India and Ciomal in Cambodia by contributing significantly to the financing of hospitals, schools, training centres, workshops for prostheses, leprosy campaigns, rehabilitation and integration programmes as well as the training of new aid workers.                                            

Dreams come and go. This one came and went no more. I realised and lived my dream, which over time had taken   unexpected forms. It was certainly not my last and I will not give up on wanting to set something in motion and bring about good through action.





No comments

Post a Comment

Blog Design Created by pipdig