Month: February 2016

Is it Growing on Me? Or Have I Just Got Used to It?

A tricky question.

Can it be, despite the continued flat landscape, the homicidal driving, the noise and the dust, that I’ve quite enjoyed the last few days?  Or have I fallen victim to some Indian variant of Stockholm Syndrome?  What’s going on?

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On the face of it, not much has changed.  Since Lucknow, I’ve pushed nearly 400 km across India in four days.  The roads have remained pretty flat and featureless, and the temperature is starting to push upwards towards uncomfortable, in comparison with the lovely 23-24C which I’ve had up to now.

But there have been a couple of small but significant changes.

Firstly (and most astonishingly), my third Indian SIM activated itself.  Twenty-four hours later than it should have done, but who’s complaining?  It was the least promising of the three I’d purchased, having been sold to be by a pair of rank amateurs in a shop with wires hanging from the ceiling and protruding alarmingly from walls.  But it’s the only one that’s broken India’s bureaucratic stranglehold, and I finally have mobile internet!

That makes me happy.  As well as saving a fortune in more-expensive-than-necessary accommodation…

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Secondly (and probably more importantly for morale), I’ve had cross-tailwinds all the way from Lucknow.  I checked, and it’s been a while since I waxed lyrical about the benefits of tailwinds.  Especially on a touring bike, with the bags acting like sails.  The difference pre-and-post Lucknow is remarkable, according to both my GPS and one of the guys above, who chased me down the road on his motorbike, shouting my current speed at me for 20 minutes.  He didn’t speak any other English…

Before Lucknow, with an irritating headwind, I was struggling to average 20 kph / 12.5 mph.  And it was hurting.  After Lucknow, I’ve been cruising effortlessly at 28 kph / 17.5 mph on the main road, and averaging 24 kph / 15 mph including the standard (i.e. dreadfully slow) town riding.  And I’ve been knocking off 100 km days without even blinking.

Way quicker.  Way easier.  Way happier.

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Even a massive increase in long waits at level crossings (well, two in three days) hasn’t dented my spirits.  When everything’s running ahead of schedule,  you can treat it as an opportunity to people-watch, and to marvel at the myriad ways they slide their motorbikes under the barriers (and then look shocked when the train nearly takes them out).  It’s not intensely irritating any more; it’s kind of fun.

And then there’s what’s at the end of all those miles.  I rolled into Agra this afternoon.  There’s a fairly famous building here, which I’ve so far only seen at a (very) long distance.  It’s closed on Fridays.

But even from long range, with scaffolding on, the Taj Mahal looks quite impressive at dusk:

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I’ll have a closer look at the Taj tomorrow (and hopefully squeeze in Agra’s impressive Fort, too).  It’s the first really stunning landmark I’ve come across in India, and it’s a bit bewitching, perhaps because the scenery’s been a bit bland until now.  I was staring and taking photos for a couple of minutes before I realised I was stood on top of a massive open sewer.  Which probably sums things up quite nicely.

So, is India growing on me?  It might be.  I’m certainly less disgruntled by the dust and the traffic.  But I guess I’ll only really find out if when the wind changes…

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Big(ish) Miles in the Big Dust

So… back in India again.  How’s it working out?

Well, to be honest, it’s much the same as the first time.  But with better roads.  Long, flat miles, unchanging scenery, sweat and dust.  A few interesting temples and imperial relics (and kite flyers, below) in town centres.  A third (so far, but I suppose you never know) non-activated SIM.  Oh, and headwinds, for a ‘nice’ change.

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The main roads which I’m following have the great merit of being flat and smooth.  If you were looking to set round-the-world cycling records, heading along here (with the wind, rather than against it) would be a good way to get your 200+ kms a day.

I’m not, of course, trying to set any records.  So for me, it’s more a case of trying not to lose concentration.  Because the second the long, straight road lulls me into relaxation, a piece of Indian driving insanity is likely to cause me significant amount of grief.

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It’s a bit like that famous definition of war; long periods of boredom, punctuated by moments of sheer terror.

I think I’ve sorted out the ‘rules’ of the road here, now.  Which is helpful, if not exactly encouraging.  Essentially, it’s all about the horn.  And I haven’t got a horn on the bike.

If you hit the horn, you are in the right.  It doesn’t matter which level of motoring insanity you’ve just descended to.  It doesn’t matter if you’re doing things (like driving a car the wrong way down the fast lane of a dual carriageway) which would get you imprisoned in most countries.

If your hand is on the horn, you can do exactly what you want, and expect everyone else to get out of the way.  Or die.  And, best of all, you get to stare aggressively at people who have the temerity to remain on their own side of the road, minding their own business, while you try your best to kill them and yourself.

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For the last few days, the trick to keeping myself alert (and therefore alive) has been cows.  Uttar Pradesh, which is the region I’ve been traversing since crossing the border from Nepal on Friday, seems to have a lot more of them than the other parts of India I’ve been.

Yesterday, I had the privilege to witness a lengthy tug-of-war between cow and man at a large roadside cattle market (above).  But I’ve also seen cows in vans, small cows in rickshaws, and cows wandering across the highway (relying on bells, rather than their horns, strangely).

And, of course, there’s that classic Indian ‘cows lounging in the middle of the street in the city centre’ thing going on, too:

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I’m in Lucknow at the moment, which is the biggest city around here by a margin.  It’s a major centre in northern India, home to about a million colleges, a large Muslim population, and stacks of historic buildings, running right through from the Mughal Empire to the British Raj.  It’s actually a really interesting town to stroll around (once you’ve reminded yourself that you’re not a pedestrian in Nepal any more).

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From here, the road should remain flat and smooth all the way to Delhi.  Hopefully, the headwinds will give it a rest for a day or two.  No doubt the driving clowns will still be out in abundance, but there’s another possible cloud on the horizon.  There’s a lot of civil unrest just to the north of Delhi at the moment, which The Times of India says has spread around the country a bit.

The main road to Agra (which I’ll be taking) was blocked for a few hours yesterday.  And most of the highways to the north of Delhi – towards Amritsar, which is my final target in India – have been disrupted by protests too.  Apparently, the water supply to Delhi’s been interrupted, too; it’s clearly all kicking off.

This is one situation where being on a bike may work to my advantage.  There are still a few days before I get to Agra, and another few from there to Delhi.  So there’s a chance that things will have calmed down up there by the time I get that far north.

I’ll just have to wait and see whether this ends up affecting things or not.  With a bit of luck, a change of plan won’t be required, but I’m not going to know for a while.

In the meantime, it’s back on those crazy, dusty roads tomorrow (Tuesday).  Wish me luck!

Coming Down the Mountains

With the after-effects of that dodgy high-altitude chicken masala still haunting me as I rolled out of Kathmandu, I could have been forgiven for taking it a bit easy on the way back down to the plains.

So I did.

There’s no point in hammering yourself when you’re not 100%, and I’d lost a lot of energy.

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Nepal’s not the most difficult country if you want to slow down a bit and enjoy the scenery.  After just a few kilometres of gentle climbing on the main drag out of Kathmandu on Monday, I tipped over the pass (above), and had about 1400 metres of altitude to drop off before flattening out on the approach to the Indian border.

It’s not quite as easy as it sounds.  I was still in the Himalayas, after all.  So although there was all that height to drop, there were still quite a few climbs to deal with as the road contoured around valley sides and gorges.

And, despite being foothills, these are not exactly small.  Hopefully, you can get an idea of the scale from the size of the bike in the picture below.

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Given their proximity, and close economic ties, Nepal and India don’t seem to have a great deal in common.  Nepal loses on economic development (apparently, although it doesn’t feel any poorer than India), but wins on scenery, cleanliness, mobile internet access, traffic levels, chocolate availability, driving skills (marginally), the general level of English spoken, having bikes with gears, and having pavements to walk on in town.

But there is one area where both countries are on a par.  Unannounced, unsignposted, major roadworks.  As I headed down to Bharatpur on Tuesday, I suddenly hit a roadblock.  Loads of irate locals, trucks, buses and all, piled up at a barrier.  There’s only the one road to Bharatpur, so this was a bit of an issue.

It turns out that the highway is shut in both directions from 11 until three every day.  At three, the traffic tsunami at each end is released to smash together somewhere in the middle.  Probably right where the roadworks are.  This didn’t seem like a great idea.  Fortunately, after discussing with a few locals (and promising to carry a couple of them on the back of the bike – I think this was a joke), the fierce guardian of the gate agreed that it would be a tad dangerous to be caught up in the three o’clock stampede.

So I got to ride the valley road pretty much by myself.  This was good, because it was a rather nice valley to ride:

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After Bharatpur, it was more-or-less back to flat country.  Yesterday (Wednesday) gave me a chance to see if I’d fully recovered from the stomach bug, as I put in the first 100 km ride for a while to bring me to the border.  It went OK, although I still don’t think my energy levels are quite back to where they were.

Just one last big hill, which gave me one last Himalayan downhill to smile about as I headed onto the plain, in company with some of the many bicycle commuters of southern Nepal.

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Today is another rest, and a chance to refuel and look forward to heading back to India.  A few more decent roads and a little less dust than the eastern side of the country provided would be a good start.  And I’m going to give them one more chance to sort me out with mobile internet.

With the Taj Mahal and Delhi on the route for the next section, there should be a good chance for India Part 2 to improve significantly on Part 1.

Assuming the border presents no more problems than it did on the way into Nepal, I’ll start to find that out tomorrow…

Rocky Roads

It’s about 30 miles from Hetauda to Kathmandu.

That’s in a straight line, obviously.  Which is probably why someone invented helicopters.  Because by road, on a bike, it proved to be a bit of an ordeal.  On several levels.

A lot more than 30 miles.  A lot of climbing.  A lot of extra effort occasioned by more Google Map deficiencies.  A nice bit of food poisoning.  And a slightly scary ride in a 4×4 (I know that’s cheating, but read the circumstances before you judge me!).  All these good things were squeezed in before I finally got the chance to have a look around Kathmandu today (Saturday).

The helicopter would have done it all in a few minutes with none of the drama.  But that would be to miss all the fun, I suppose.

I’d better start at the start.  With the climbing…

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There are a few hills in Nepal, as you might be aware.  The climbing started pretty much immediately as I left Hetauda on Wednesday.  To get to Kathmandu from there, you need to clear the ‘small’ front range of the Himalayas.  Which means you just have to ride straight up the main road to the pass.

‘Up’ is the operative word here.  The pass is at nearly 2500m, and it took all day for me to crawl the 50 kms to the top.  I was taking it relatively easy, given that it’s by far the single biggest hill that I’ve tacked loaded, and also given the altitude.  I’ve not been near those heights since the Rockies.

Plus, I was heading to the most over-priced accommodation I’ve yet stayed in on the whole trip.  And it was just a mile over the top of the pass.  So getting up there at dusk was fine.  I was quite pleased with the day as a whole.

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It was dark by the time I got to my room for the night.  The temperature dropped like a stone as soon as the sun set, and there was frost all over the bike by the time I headed for dinner, wrapped up in my down jacket.

Dinner was a little disappointing (at the time I ate it – it became progressively more disappointing over the next two days), and, despite the sub-zero temperatures outside, there was no heating in the room.  I spent the rest of the evening tucked up in bed, alternating between watching TV and watching my breath condense in the air inside the room.  And wondering why I’d been stupid enough to stump up $60 for one night’s B&B in this hole.

There was a rationale to the madness, but it wouldn’t become apparent until morning.

When it did, it looked like this:

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There aren’t that many places in the world where you can get a view like that.  The high Nepalese Himalayas rolled out across the horizon.  A pretty stunning start to the day.

And, of course, starting Thursday at 2400 metres high, with my finishing point being Kathmandu at only around 1200 metres, meant that it would be pretty much all downhill from there.

It was.  Just not quite in the way I expected.

My stomach was feeling a little iffy in the morning, but that was soon forgotten in the plunge down into the valley.  There was just one decision to make on the way down the hill; which way to go over the smallish last ridge before the capital.  The eighty-odd kms and bit of climbing on the main road.  Or Google Maps’ preferred option, the sixty kms and a bit more climbing via the northern tip of Lake Markhu.

Twenty-odd extra kilometres vs 100 metres of extra climbing.  Main road or lake view?  Got to be the shorter route, hasn’t it?  Smaller road, so less traffic.  Probably nicer views.  Less distance on the highway into town at the end.  And, of course, it’s where Google advises you to drive your car, so the road must be reasonable, mustn’t it?

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One question.  What on Earth are you thinking, Google?  This is not even a road.  It’s a track.  A particularly rough track, too, I can say with the benefit of painful experience.  A rough track that reduced me to walking pace.  I should have stuck to the main road.  Google should have told me to stick to the main road; it’s clearly farcical to suggest that this goat track could be quicker than 20 extra kilometres of tarmac, whatever vehicle you’re using.

And whatever state you’re in.  My already incredibly slow progress up the goat track was shortly brought to a shuddering halt by an urgent call of nature.  My first emergency, al-fresco, number two since I was a student.  Not great given that I was already going to struggle to make Kathmandu by dark.  But at least the lake was pretty.

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I was feeling weak by three-thirty.  Roughly two-and-a-half hours of daylight left.  A three hundred metre climb on sand and rock immediately ahead.  Followed by a thousand metre decent on the same surface.  No prospect of making more than seven or eight kph either up or down.  A policeman who said that all the transport out to Kathmandu was gone for the day.  This could be a big problem.

The hill was unrideable on a loaded bike.  I began pushing, knowing it was hopeless; there was no way I was making it to town, and more importantly (I have a tent, after all), to a toilet, by nightfall.  This was going to get messy.  Literally.

Then, miraculously, I heard a diesel engine behind me.  It was a 4×4 pickup truck.  The kind that are often shared taxis hereabouts.  I waved.  He stopped.  I looked.  Two in front, three in the back seat, two in the load area already.  Was there space?  It would be touch and go.

A couple of minutes later, I was in.  I didn’t argue about the price.  It didn’t matter.  We rattled off up the hill, not a huge amount faster than I was pushing, but definitely a bit.  Me in the back seat with three others (a bit tight, to be fair), the Beastlet in the load area along with the two other guys.  I’d got the last spot.  I was happy.

I was right to be happy, but wrong to think I’d got the last spot.  By the time we reached journey’s end at the highway, we’d picked up a lad with a broken leg (he’d fallen off the road on his scooter, probably down to believing Google again), and three girl hikers who weren’t going to make it down before dark.  So as we slithered down an increasingly muddy track towards town, the pickup contained 13 people, one bike, and a couple of crates of what might have been fish.  Remarkable.

I’ll cut the rest of this (mercifully) short.  I got out of the truck, and pedalled for my life towards town.  I made it to the hotel in Kathmandu with about ten minutes to spare before intestinal armageddon.  I spent yesterday (Friday) shuttling between bedroom and bathroom so frequently that I wore a groove in the floor.

And today, I resorted to the nuclear medicine option, which seems to be holding things together for now.  So I went for a stroll around Kathmandu.  A beautiful city, which still bears a lot of the scars from the recent catastrophic earthquake.

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Sadly, while there are only a few signs of damage elsewhere, the historical centre took a proper battering.  Many of the old buildings are unsafe, and nearly all are propped up with scaffolding.  Some of the stupas have been reduced to their foundations.  It’s sad, because it’s still impressive.  And it’s hard to imagine how much more so it must have been before the quake.

Visiting the scene of an event like that certainly puts my issues into perspective.  It might have been a ‘challenging’ few days for me, but nothing genuinely awful actually happened.  Nobody died.

And, assuming that the medicine keeps working, I’ll be back on the road tomorrow.  No doubt finding something else to moan about, but actually loving riding a bike in one of the most beautiful countries on Earth.

It’s safe to say that things could be a lot worse…

Kansas to Colorado – the Sequel

To answer the question that I know has been burning in your minds since the last update: no, neither of my Indian SIM cards ever activated.  Hence the long gap between posts, again.

Needless to say, within half-an-hour of crossing the slightly shambolic, but unusually friendly border into Nepal this morning (Tuesday), I had a new, shiny, fully-functioning mobile internet connection.

A tiny, poor, landlocked country can make this work perfectly.  A country with both nuclear weapons and a space programme just messes you about for a fortnight without success.  Go figure…

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Anyway, it’s not been a bad few days to be off the air.  Almost nothing of interest has occurred, except that the unfortunate rash cleared up, and I developed a rather brutal cough from my daily doses of dust and diesel.

After crossing the Ganges (above) on the way out of Patna on Saturday, there’s been a lot of flat, flat country.  Fields, a few trees.  Then some more fields and a few more trees.  Northern Bihar is just like Kansas was.  Minus the soybeans and sweetcorn, but plus a total lack of driving standards.

Take five seconds to spot the two people in the picture below.  That’s about as exciting as things got…

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The roads were, at least, of a pretty reasonable quality.  Most of the way.  Nice, quick riding all the way from Patna to Motihari.  Motihari, for the trivia buffs amongst you, is the birthplace of George Orwell.  Who knew?

And then…

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The short, 35 mile run to the border at Raxaul yesterday was meant to be a formality.  Pan flat, and on an international highway to a reasonable-sized border crossing.  It might become a formality in a few years, once they’ve bothered to finish the road.  For now, it’s an unsurfaced nightmare, meaning that India (Part 1) finished in a cloud of dust and a rattling of racks and panniers.  An all-too familiar feeling for me and the Beastlet.

So, the verdict on India so far?  Nice food and people, but could do better in a few areas.  Like roads, driving standards, pollution, dirt, bureaucracy and (guess what?) internet connectivity for travellers.  Hopefully it will improve when I return for India (Part 2).

Nepal looked much the same for the first few kilometres.  This was fairly unsurprising, as the miles after the border are still part of the same plain as I’d been thrashing across for days.  And most of the lowland population there are ethnically Indian.

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But as soon as the road started rising into the first ripples of the Himalayas, things started to change.  The air cleared.  The road was a little bit lumpy in places, but not bad at all.  There was hardly any traffic, given that I’m piling up the main highway to Kathmandu.  And the scenery got quite pretty quite quickly, although I’m still very much in the foothills.  The high mountains should be spectacular.

And you can feel the culture change as well.  I’m only 60 kms up the road from India, but the feeling of Nepal is completely different.  There’s a significant wealth differential (India, on paper, is a lot richer than Nepal), so I was expecting the country to feel much poorer.

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But it doesn’t.  It feels much more relaxed (maybe because of the relatively low population).  And the town where I am this evening, Hetauda (picture above), has an unexpectedly European feel to it.  I had a wander along the smooth, wide pavements this evening.  Yes, that’s smooth, wide pavements!  You can walk around town without risking getting mown down or tripping over an exposed electrical cable!

Families were wandering about doing a bit of shopping or a bit of eating out.  Some drunks were playing in the traffic.  Almost British behaviour…

There’s a bar on the ground floor of the hotel, which feels like a nice cosy pub, and there seems to be more English spoken than in India, too.  And, of course, there are those big mountains looming at the end of the high street.

The Himalayas are just beginning, but I already feel like I’m going to like Nepal.  Now it just has to live up to my impression that it’s the subcontinent’s Colorado to northern India’s Kansas…

The Land of Enlightenment and Salvation

Those awful roads and outrageous levels of dust couldn’t last for ever.

They just felt like they did.

One more day north from Jamshedpur, which got me even filthier than the road there, and things started to improve.

They kind of had to, or I’d have gone completely round the twist by now.

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The roads smoothed out, and, with the odd exception, have remained decently-surfaced since Ranchi, which I reached on Sunday.  I even found a few small hills to play around on, though the views haven’t been too spectacular (the picture above is about as exciting as the scenery has got).  And I’ve piled on some fairly big miles before another rest day here in Patna today (actually, the first rest was on Thursday; I’ve ended up having two days off here due to the still-ongoing SIM card saga…).

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While the scenery hasn’t been much of a distraction, the driving standards remain hysterical, and have kept me simultaneously entertained and terrified whenever I’m not on a dual carriageway.  It’s odd that the two German cyclists I met back in Vietnam were shocked by Hanoi’s traffic once they got there.  While Hanoi was pretty ‘interesting’, every large-ish town in India makes it look fairly tame, in my opinion.

My favourite Indian move is the ‘Double-Take, Double-Overtake’.  Usually carried out by a motorcycle with passenger, but can also be committed by tuk-tuk, or car.  You overtake a foreign cyclist.  You stare a couple of times, then slam your brakes on, and dive into the side of the road to let him back past.  Then you re-overtake with the smartphone snapping pictures or video.  Or just waving and shouting.

It’s clearly fun for the locals, but it makes for a few more mobile chicanes than I really need to be dealing with, given the general driving standards here.

And I never got driven right off the road in Vietnam.  I’m at 11 times and counting so far in India.  You definitely need your wits about you here…

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Still, mainly larger roads brought me into the state of Bihar on Tuesday.  A state with the best slogan I’ve seen in ages: ‘Welcome to the Land of Enlightenment and Salvation’.  A lot to live up to.  From what I’ve seen of Bihar so far, it actually seems to be the Land of Small Brickworks (pic above), at least in the more rural parts.

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I rolled into the state capital, Patna, on Wednesday evening (or, at least, pushed and scraped my way in through the gridlock), with the prospect of a day off and another attempt to get a working SIM card on the agenda.  As I said, it’s ended up being two days off, partly because of yet more comedy registration issues at the mobile phone shop (and no, I still don’t have a working phone, eight days after I got my first SIM card!).  And partly because I’ve developed a weird heat rash which seems oddly reluctant to go away.  I don’t really want to push on too far from a major city in case it gets worse, though it seems to be improving a bit now.  Fingers crossed.

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In any case, I’ve made it to the Ganges, India’s sacred river.  The picture above is just the arm of the river which runs closest to Patna city.  The whole thing is apparently somewhat bigger.  I’ll cross it when I leave here.

Even with the extra day off, I’m still making decent time.  It should only be a couple of days from here to the border with Nepal, which I understand will provide a little more in the way of scenic views.

And just a wee bit more climbing…