Month: March 2016

50 Shades of Beige

Plans are strange things.

I’ve often been asked why I’m riding around the world on a bike.  I find it hard to answer.  I tell people that I’ve always liked bikes, and I’ve always liked travelling.  So putting the two together was obvious.  This is all true.  But I can’t pinpoint when it became obvious, or why.  I can’t tell people when the idea was born, or when it became a plan.

But at some point, it did.  And then the vague plan became a more detailed plan (though still outstandingly vague by most people’s standards).  And then the plan started to happen.  And now, here I am, bouncing around on a bike in Uzbekistan.

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Leaving Bukhara on Saturday, another plan was mysteriously germinating.  My conscious mind was preparing for a four-day ride across the Kyzyl Kum desert to the oasis city of Khiva.  I didn’t realise that my subconscious, having noticed the weather forecast, had already decided to do 450-odd kilometres (marginally under 300 miles) in three days.

Kyzyl Kum translates as ‘Red Desert’, and it’s the fourth-biggest desert in Asia, covering a massive swathe of Uzbekistan and neighbouring Turkmenistan.  But as you can see from the picture above, the rickety road out of Bukhara took me not into redness, but into a sea of beige.

The plan worked, as far as day one was concerned.  Just over 100km to Gazli, wafted along by a gentle tailwind (as my subconscious noted).  And the road improved all the way there, even turning into super-smooth concrete about 10 km before town (my subconscious noted, again).  Shower, kebabs and bed at a truck stop.  All very much according to plan.

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I still hadn’t worked out what my subconscious was up to when I woke up early on Sunday to discover that the south-easterly breeze had strengthened.  That’s a strengthening tailwind.  How interesting.  Eventually, after two cups of coffee, I started to put things together.  If the brand new road remained the same…  If the wind stayed put…  Maybe…

The wind stayed (at least until the last hour of the day).  And the road actually got better, turning into a perfectly smooth, almost completely deserted, dual carriageway, which might, for all I know, go all the way to Kazakhstan.  It certainly runs all the way until I got off it at the end of the desert.  So I got my head down and kept going.  There was nothing to see, anyway, and everything remained beige (picture above).  I stopped for a drink, and realised I’d been zipping along at 30 kph.

Lunchtime.  It may not be red, but the desert certainly is monotonous.  Concrete, sand, scrub.  Beige.  And 100km down.  Feeling fresh.  And finally, the thought lodged in my head properly: I might actually be able to hit 200 km for the day.  Which would be almost the end of the desert, and within one more day of Khiva.  Head down, push on.  Let’s see what happens.

This is what happened:

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That’s a record.  For me at least.  I’ve not been near 200 km before in a day (and quite possibly won’t be again), so I was reasonably chuffed with myself.  213 km.  132 miles.  And a friendly little teahouse at the end of it (or, more accurately, in the middle of nowhere), which was only too happy to let me stay, for a small fee.  Kebabs, bread, bed.  What a good day.

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It couldn’t last, of course.  The weather forecast in Bukhara had said there was rain on the way, which is one of the reasons my subconscious had decided to put the pedal(s) to the metal.  My pleasure at waking up to a view over the Amu Darya river to Turkmenistan was marred by two things: it was already drizzling, and Turkmenistan appears to be just as beige as Uzbekistan.

It doesn’t seem fair when it rains in the desert.  It certainly doesn’t seem fair when that rain continues for nearly the whole day.  Yesterday (Monday) was ugly.  Already wet and cold as I reached the end of the desert, I swung off the beautiful main road, onto the shortest way to Khiva.

Big mistake.

Potholes, washed-out roads, landslips, sand, mud.  The whole gamut of road problems.  Much grinding of drivetrain, much splashing of beige dirt onto previously non-beige shoes.  Wet feet.  Oh, and the most aggressive pack of feral dogs I’ve yet had the displeasure to meet (many thanks to the three locals who positioned their cars between the beasts and me, so I could make my escape!).

Still, cycle touring’s nothing without a little rough to make you appreciate the smooth.  And eventually, after a signposting error (i.e. there wasn’t one – a standard Uzbek problem) had cost me an extra ten miles, I finally ground and scraped my way into the ancient city of Khiva.

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Which was…  Guess what?  Beige.

Not entirely surprising, as the old city is surrounded by impressive walls made of local mud.  Hence the colour.  And, having recovered from the beigeness of the place, I think it’s probably my favourite of the three old trading cities I’ve seen in Uzbekistan.

Khiva’s much smaller than Bukhara, which in turn is smaller than Samarkand.  And Khiva’s old town is pedestrianised, meaning that you can just meander through the ancient alleyways and bazaars.

And there is even the odd splash of colour (like the famous unfinished minaret, below):

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I’ve had a rainy day off here today, but the plan (assuming the weather plays ball) is to get back on the road tomorrow, through the last of the irrigated areas of Uzbekistan, towards an even larger stretch of desert, and, eventually, Kazakhstan.

At least, that’s the plan as far as I know it.

If you’re still having doubts about plans being strange and unpredictable, by the way, consider this.  After eventually deciding to go, and with a little bit of a plan, I set off on my bike around the world.  I rode for a long way.  And I’m still riding.  Stuff has happened, plans have changed (whatever happened to South America?).  But I’m still rolling.

Today is the 29th March 2016, and in terms of days spent cycling around the world, today is day number 365.  Exactly a year spent on the round-the-world ride.

Of course, it’s a lot more than a year since I started.  The plan was a little disrupted by getting hit by the truck in Thailand.  And when did that happen?  The 29th of March.  Exactly a year ago…

Pretty sure I couldn’t have planned it like that…

For Touring Cyclists:  
If you’re coming this way on a bike, be sure to check out the Pedalling Prescotts excellent guide to this section of Uzbekistan.  They rode the other way (from Khiva) in early 2015, and their info is by far the most complete I’ve seen.  
Apart from the main road having improved (it’s still being built, so should continue to), a couple of police checkpoints having moved, and a couple of new chaikhanas having opened (so more accommodation options), their guide is pinpoint accurate in terms of where stuff is, and what’s there.  Including the hotel on the edge of the desert which no locals have ever heard of.  Oh, and where they say that the small road to / from the A380 deteriorates a bit, take that to mean ‘descends into hell’.
If you want my full list of places and mileages (from March 2016), I’ve put together a PDF sheet:  Bukara to Khiva March 2016.  Or give me a shout via the Contact page to discuss.
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The Four Horsemen and the Oasis

It’s been an odd few days.

For the last two, I’ve been loafing around in Uzbekistan’s second famous Silk Road city, Bukhara.  It’s a beautiful city, and an interesting place to be:

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On the other hand, getting here was something of an ordeal.

After a nice, easy cruise away from Samarkand on Tuesday, all four of the Horsemen of the Cycling Apocalypse made an appearance on Wednesday at the same time.  This is not a usual thing.

Normally, I get to moan about either the headwind or the road surface.  This is surely infinitely boring to anyone who’s not me.  I know that, and I’m trying to keep it to a minimum.

But getting all four of my personal worst cycling problems at once (that’s a strong headwind, plus an awful road surface, plus driving rain, plus cold) is just nasty.  And it made me look like this, with half of a long, 140 km plus, day still to go:

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That’s my grumpy and self-pitying face, by the way, in case you didn’t pick it up.

I can already hear my Northern English cycling colleagues telling me not to be such a soft Southerner.  Grab a quick cup of tea, and get back on it.  You can only get wet once.  Hard day?  There aren’t even any hills!

Yep, they’re annoying, aren’t they?  Especially as they’re just voices in my head at the moment.  But they’re also right.  It wasn’t the apocalypse, just a longish, hardish day on the bike.

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In any case, as I ground my way towards Bukhara on the damp gravel shoulder (it was much smoother than the road), I had other things to ponder to take my mind off my own worries.

I was surprised that the first question I got when I found a roadside hotel on Tuesday evening was ‘Are you Belgian?’.  The manager launched straight into a quick summary of the then-developing situation in Brussels: another grim act of pointless violence by some lunatic religious fundamentalists.

Ironically enough, as well as being a major trade centre and oasis, Bukhara (along with Baghdad) was one of the great seats of Muslim learning in the middle ages.  When the Muslim world held on to humanity’s stock of knowledge while some lunatic religious fundamentalists in Europe were busy killing each other, and forgetting how to make toilets for hundreds of years.

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The sad thing is, that I could see the hotel manager looking at me while he was telling me about Brussels.  I think he wanted to see if I’d somehow blame him, as a Muslim, for the attack.  I guess, if I’d never met a Muslim before, or if I was Donald Trump, I might have done.

I suppose it comes down to perspective.  My slightly tricky ride on Wednesday wasn’t really the apocalypse.  And the horrible attack on Brussels is utterly at odds with how warm, friendly and welcoming Muslims have been to me and my bike, whether in Uzbekistan, Malaysia, India or Indonesia.

You can’t let a few cycling irritations get in the way of a round-the-world bike ride.  And you can’t let a few loons colour your view of an entire culture.

Bukhara is well worth a look, by the way, if you’re ever travelling in this direction.  It’s much more compact than Samarkand, and you can wander around the old town on foot very comfortably.

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I’m still not sure whether the Soviet approach of restoring ancient buildings (rather than just preserving the ruins, as we would at home) is the most authentic way to go, but it certainly makes it easy to imagine strolling around the bazaars, fortifications and mosques hundreds of years ago.  And as the original buildings were badly damaged by the Red Army in 1920, I guess they owed it a refurb.

In any case, my time at the oasis is nearly over.  Tomorrow, I’ll be out of the irrigated zone, and off into the desert for the first of two long stretches.  It’ll probably be a few days before I get back to an internet connection.

And, given the almost total lack of facilities en route (it really is a proper desert), I may even have something reasonable to moan about next time…

On Ancient Roads

I was pretty tired by the time I got into Samarkand last night (Sunday).

Well over 300 kilometres from Tashkent in three days, through rain, over hills, and into headwinds.  It was fairly hard on the bike.

I’m not sure I’d want to try it on a camel.  Or on foot.  I’ve been on some very long, straight roads, which left me plenty of time to imagine travelling this route seven or eight hundred years ago.

But people really did travel this route on their camels and their feet for hundreds (maybe thousands) of years, bringing silk and spices from the far-away Orient to the edge of Europe.  And they left some quite impressive monuments behind them.

This is right next-door to my guesthouse here:

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Which is undoubtedly a good landmark to finish the first section of the Silk Road.

But it didn’t start well on Friday.  After all the rain during my stay in Tashkent, the Internet said that Friday was going to be overcast and cold.  But dry.  And it was all those things as I started off.

Two hours later, I was clear of town, and well on my way to the middle of nowhere, when the rain began.  It didn’t stop all day.  And so, my first day riding in Uzbekistan degenerated into a sorry, soggy, shivering mess:

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Thankfully (and partly due to gracefully declining the first of two wedding invitations I’ve had on the road already), I made it to Gulistan just before hypothermia set in.

I knew there were a couple of hotels there, but I couldn’t find them (the signposting here is generally awful).  In the end, I asked a policeman.  Although this is generally accepted behaviour at home, the general word on cops in former Soviet countries is to leave them well alone.  But I didn’t have a choice.  I needed to get inside, and quickly.

Either because of my pathetic state, or because he was just a nice bloke, I ended up following a police car through the streets for the last two kilometres of the day.  The third hotel we went to had space, and I was absurdly grateful to get under a hot shower, knock back a steaming pot of tea, and collapse onto a sofa for a while.

I was also quite relieved that the rain drifted off towards the mountains during the night, and hasn’t been back since.

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What with the random wedding invitations and helpful policemen, Uzbekistan’s character is starting to reveal itself.  Friendliness definitely seems to be a strong trait.  Including hugs from total strangers.  It’s definitely got the former Soviet feel.  I get especially strong flashbacks from people with vodka on their breath before lunchtime, and gold teeth.  Though huge wall murals like the one above are also good reminders, albeit with no hammers or sickles any more.

But as the Registon in Samarkand (below) and the many other bits of spectacular Islamic architecture remind you, this is also a country with a strong Muslim culture.

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And I think it’s probably the Muslim tradition of hospitality that’s leading to the invitations and general helpfulness that I’ve encountered so far here.  It’s really nice, although there is the slight drawback of ending up in a twenty minute conversation every time I stop by the roadside.  Which is definitely slowing my average speed a little.

And it’s also Navro’z (Uzbek spelling, there are many variations) at the moment, which means that Samarkand today was like a ghost town as everyone (including the restaurant owners and shopkeepers) had a day off.

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Still, it’s definitely so far, so good in Uzbekistan.  The roads are reasonable (mostly).  The driving, which is often slated by those coming on bikes from Europe, is so much better than in India that it seems really, really good.  And yet again, people (as they seem to be almost everywhere) are being marvellous.

Back on the road tomorrow for another near-300 kilometres towards Bukhara, the second of the major Silk Road cities.  That should be another three days.  Assuming I can restrain myself from joining in the three-country, vodka-fuelled political debate that’s going on in the guesthouse courtyard at the moment.  I’m tempted.  But I’m just not convinced that strong alcohol is necessarily the best preparation for more long days on the Silk Road…

Back in the (Former) USSR

I’ve been off the bike for a whole week.

I’m feeling a little bit chubby, and a little bit lazy.  Especially lazy, as I watch from my warm room as yet another band of cold rain strafes Tashkent.

It’s been worth the time off, I think.  A few days to recharge, and to ready myself for a lot of long, hard miles to come.  And a little time to adjust to the cultural and meteorological differences between India and Uzbekistan makes the change less stressful.

And it really is a different world on this side of the Hindu Kush.

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I was a little nervous flying over Afghanistan on the way here (above).  Not because I was worried about flying over Afghanistan, but because of some of the stories I’d read about Uzbekistan.

It’s apparently impossible to get hold of dollars here, as the handful of cash machines in the country are always empty.  And I wasn’t sure I’d managed to collect enough in India to get across Uzbekistan.  Customs apparently take your bags apart, searching for prescription drugs, undeclared cash and pornography.  And the currency is apparently so shot that you have to take your money around in carrier bags (due to the fact that the highest note here is only 1000 Soms).

All very dramatic and a bit worrying.  And mostly not quite right (dollar cash machine working, customs polite, bags scanned but unsearched).  Although the currency is definitely shot, and my Uzbek Som are, indeed, in a carrier bag…

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As it turns out (so far, at least), I feel surprisingly at home here.  Yes, it took a few minutes to get India out of my system.  I got in the wrong side of the taxi at the airport.  I gawped at the cleanliness and quietness of the streets on the way into town.  And I thought I might have gone deaf for a moment, due to the almost total lack of honking.  We even stopped at a pedestrian crossing to allow people to cross.  It was all a bit disorientating.  Disconcerting, even.

But, fairly shortly after arriving at my magnificently old-school Soviet hotel (above), I realised that I actually knew how things worked here, and that I was probably going to enjoy myself.  Not that the relatively posh hotels will last for long, mind you…

I was lucky enough to spend many months in the former Soviet Union when I was (a lot) younger, as countries crashed, recovered and crashed again in the 1990s and the noughties.  And I speak enough Russian to get by (it’s the common language here).  By the time I’d had my second conversation about unofficial money changing (with the second person I spoke to – it’s a national sport over here), things were starting to come into focus for me.

The currency here is, indeed, something of a mess.  The government sets the official rate (currently just under 2900 Som to the dollar).  The market sets a more realistic rate (currently around 6600).  Although you’re unlikely to get quite the market rate as a foreigner, you can get close with a bit of haggling (another national sport).  You can see both rates here.

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The dual exchange rate basically halves the cost of anything which is priced in dollars.  Which means that dollar prices initially appear really expensive.  For example, my SIM card and internet package, which was outrageously priced up at $35, actually cost more like $17.  Still very pricey, compared to South East Asia and India, but not too bad.  And, unlike India, it worked as soon as I bought it.

While it’s no longer true that the biggest Uzbek note is 1000 Som (less than 20 cents), things have not changed that much.  The biggest note is now 5000 Som, which is still less than $1 at the ‘real’ rate.  The picture above is a million Som, or less than $200.  And it’s still pretty bulky.

Apart from readjusting to life in the 1990s, I’ve spent my two days in Tashkent generally staring at driving rain.  I managed a couple of little strolls, to inspect the impressive city centre buildings, but the weather has been woeful here since I arrived.

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I’ve also been enjoying the widespread availability of proper cheese, which is an immense step forward.  And I unpacked and rebuilt the bike today, alleviating the last of the major concerns that were bothering me over Afghanistan.  As always (so far!), the bike survived the flight with no obvious problems, and is ready to hit the road tomorrow (Friday).

And it’s hitting the road in a big way over here.  Most riding days will be over 100 km, as I head south-west for a long, long way, before turning to head north-west to Kazakhstan (for another long, long way).  Ancient cities, camels, and long desert days should be in the offing.

There are likely to be some tough days ahead.  But for now, I’m fed, rested, and raring to go.  The Silk Road is calling, and I’m excited to see what it brings.  As long as the rain stops, I’ll be happy…

Finishing India

Well, here it is.  The last post from India.  Assuming I get out of the airport OK tomorrow (Tuesday), of course…

Just the one day’s riding; a final 80-odd kilometres last Thursday, bringing me into Amritsar.  Still flat, although with some truly awful traffic in the city centre to keep it interesting right to the end.

And I got here just in time.  There’s been nothing but unseasonal rain and thunder since I arrived.

Well, not quite nothing.  I took advantage of a break in the weather on Sunday morning to go and have a poke around Amritsar’s (and Sikhism’s) crowning glory; the Golden Temple:

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A bit like the Taj Mahal, it’s one of those places that stops you in your tracks as you enter.  Or, at least, it would if you weren’t being propelled bodily through the entrance by a huge surge of Sikhs.  I think Sunday might be the busiest day to go, but it was really the only option, given the weather.

Anyway, once you’re in, and padding around on marble in your bare feet, you can soak up the magnificence of the place.  There’s a huge amount of real gold on the inner sanctum itself, and the combination of reflections in the water, and the square of buildings around it, really make an impression.  And best of all, it’s free!

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Apart from the Golden Temple (and stuffing my face to put a bit of lard back on before the long miles to come in Central Asia), it’s been mainly sleep and admin in Amritsar.  After all the bureaucratic nonsense involved in getting a SIM card, I should have anticipated that something as apparently simple as buying some US dollars would cause issues.

Thankfully, I first tried to get my dollars back in Delhi about ten days ago.  I’d have been in trouble if I’d waited until Amritsar.  Because, to cut a tedious and very expensive story short, it’s taken me nearly a week to withdraw enough rupees (in small, permitted, instalments) from cash machines, which can then (in small, permitted, instalments) be changed back into dollars at an exchange office.  With all the cashpoint fees and poor exchange rates you can imagine.

If you’ve remembered to keep the receipts from the cash machines, of course.  And if it’s less than a week before you leave the country.  And if you have a plane ticket to show the money changer.  Like it’s any of their business.

I’m not going to miss the bureaucracy of India, that’s for sure.  Although there’s a fair chance that the former Soviet version will at least match it over the next few weeks…

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India does have the great advantage of being bicycle country, though.  While the technology is a little dated in general (above), it does mean that finding a bike box for the flight was nice and easy.  The Beastlet is nicely tucked up and ready for flight, although I’ll still no doubt have the usual terrors about rough baggage handlers tomorrow.

As it’s my last day here, I should really have come to a conclusion about whether I’ve actually enjoyed touring northern India on a bkie or not.  I’m not entirely sure I have, but let’s see…

It certainly fair to say that the riding has been dustier, bumpier, and less interesting than many other places I’ve been so far.  The difficulties doing things that are simple elsewhere, simply because someone made a clunky rule about ‘security’ or whatever, are an absolute pain.

On the other hand…  The food’s great.  The people have been really nice, in general.  And places like the Taj Mahal and Golden Temple really do blow you away.  It’s just the length of the bits in-between.

The real decider is probably the driving.  I’ve moaned about it enough in past posts, but the standards here are just appalling.  I found out yesterday that the Punjabi traffic police offer salutes to careful drivers:

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I’m pretty sure that most of them will be well out of saluting practice.  Because the answer to ‘Do You Deserve It?’ is a resounding ‘No!’.  I only gave out three ‘thumbs up’ for good driving across the whole country.

So while it’s easy to make long distances here, I can’t pretend it’s been ideal touring cycling.  And sadly, the situation’s likely to get worse as more and more Indians get cars and motorbikes.  Unless all the millions of drivers over here get trained properly, I don’t think I’d want to ride (or drive) here at all in a few years’ time.

And getting so accustomed to near-disaster that your adrenaline no longer spikes when a truck comes charging towards you on the wrong side of the road?  That just can’t be healthy…

Well, there we are.  India very nearly finished, and the Silk Road of Central Asia about to begin.  What the roads, drivers, weather and bureaucracy of Uzbekistan have in store, I don’t yet know.  But it should be interesting finding out.

Next stop, Tashkent…

Sikhing Punjab

Apologies for the terrible pun in the title.  I can only justify it by pointing out that it’s much cleaner than anything I could come up with relating to the town of Karnal, where I stopped a few days ago.

Anyway…

Once upon a time (about a month ago, I think), I was riding across eastern India.  Complaining incessantly about the flat, tedious roads, and the dust.

Then, heading north from Agra, through Delhi, and towards my final Indian destination of Amritsar, I was pondering why I seemed to have come to terms with it all, and was quite enjoying myself.

Then it rained.

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It shouldn’t have rained.  It’s the wrong season, and things are normally pretty settled up in this part of India.  But it did rain.  On Sunday.  Quite a lot.  The bike hid for a while, trying to protect its lovely golden chain (above).

I managed to stay relatively dry by following the back edge of a slow moving thunderstorm.  But I couldn’t avoid the water it had dropped on the highway.

You might recall the picture I posted of my face covered in dust a few weeks ago.  That was a horrid day.  But, arguably, the rain makes it worse.  All the pollution is knocked out of the air, and mixes with the dust, diesel particles, rubber and cow droppings that are already sitting on the road.

The result of this is spraying, liquid filth.  I’ll spare you the face picture this time, and demonstrate the effects that just 30-odd kilometres of this foul mixture had on my leg:

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As you can imagine, the golden chain is no longer quite as spangly as it once was, either.

I washed myself, cleaned the bike as best I could, and stumbled on up the road towards Punjab.

With all the media fuss a couple of weeks ago about caste-based unrest, blocked highways, and threats to Delhi’s water supply, it was slightly surprising that there was no trace of any damage or roadblocks throughout northern Haryana province.

It does, however, seem to be the province most likely to offer wandering travellers a nice cup of tea.  Which makes me wonder how the trouble could have kicked off in the first place.  Maybe someone forgot the biscuits…

After Haryana, I only had one province left to cover in India.  Punjab is famed as the centre of Sikh culture, and even before the border (which I crossed yesterday – Tuesday), there’s a significant increase in colourful turbans and exuberant facial hair.

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Although the road remains pretty similar, there’s a noticeable difference in culture up here.  It feels quite different from the rest of India.  Sikhs don’t use the caste system, which appears to be reflected in a more egalitarian feel overall.  There are a lot more women who obviously have jobs, and who ride their own motorbikes, for example.  And the cycling experience is a bit different too; a lot more passing big grins, ‘good lucks’ and thumbs up happen here, compared to the rest of the country.

Although several of the biggest grins came from a bunch of guys on motorbikes who were waving spears and swords around.  Heading for a wedding, apparently.  Unclear what they were intending to do there…

I’ve also had three people pass me free drinks (twice out of moving cars, which is a little nerve-wracking).  And that’s never something to complain about.  It’s almost made me forget that nasty rain…

Possibly the only significant criticism of Punjab so far is the taste in interior decorating.  I’m not entirely clear whether the guest house I’m staying in tonight is intended as a shining example of boutique hotel sophistication.

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But I thing the green and blue LED detailing is interesting.  As is the wallpaper on the ceiling.

Tomorrow (Thursday), I should hit the end of my road in India, at the Sikh holy city of Amritsar, just 80 km (50 miles) down the road.  I’ll have a few days before my flight to Uzbekistan to deal with more travel bureaucracy.  I need to work out how to buy US Dollars (much harder than you’d think, this being India), and grab a bike box from somewhere.

And I should have the chance to see more of Punjabi Sikh culture.  As long as they stop waving swords at me, I’m quite looking forward to my last few days on the subcontinent…

The Capital

Most capital cities are a bit different from the rest of the country they’re in.

And New Delhi is no exception to the rule.  I rode out of town this morning along broad avenues.  Amongst grand buildings and elegant pavements, rows of columns, statues and monuments.

These are all a bit different from the rest of India.  But the biggest difference was the traffic:

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Yes, it was Saturday morning.  It’s a bit busier during the week.

But I walked around a bit on weekdays, and it’s just not that bad.  Far less of the driving mayhem.  Cars staying more-or-less in lane.  Levels of horn use so low as to be simply un-Indian.

As a result, I think New Delhi may well be the best city in India to ride a bike in.  Which might not be saying a great deal, but it’s definitely a massive improvement on every other town I’ve dealt with in the last few weeks.

There are other benefits to being in the capital, too.  I had errands to run.  The sort of errands that only Delhi could fulfil.

I got the Beastlet’s drivetrain refreshed at The Bike Shop.  I was expecting trouble getting hold of the parts I needed (conventional cycling wisdom says that it’s impossible to get 10-speed parts outside of Europe and North America).

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But they had most of it, and what they didn’t have, they managed to courier in within 36 hours.  And the mechanic (above) was top notch, despite having the street as his workshop.  I’m still not sure that the ultra-blingy golden chain is strictly necessary, but it all works really nicely.

I just have to make sure I’ve got my shades on when I look at it now – it’s really bright…

So the bike’s ready for the desert.  And after a day flapping around (three visits to the embassy, one set of emergency form reprinting, and one trip to a bank on the other side of town), I’ve got my visa for Uzbekistan.  And a flight out of Amritsar to Tashkent on the 15th.  The next stage is on.

That’ll mean moving on from India.  Into the former Soviet Union.  The sort of place you expect to see giant monuments and massive flags all over the place.

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Delhi has its share of both, mind you.  The enormous flag is in the centre of Connaught Place, which is pretty much the heart of the colonial area.  The area around the flag looks more like Regent Street in London than India.

And then there’s the huge and monumental scale of the parliament buildings, the massive mall which runs away from them, and the India Gate at the other end:

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All immensely oversized, and very impressive.  It’s a bit odd to me that this was laid out by the British while they were in charge over here.  While the style’s quite similar to home, the scale is definitely more American or Soviet than what I’d normally associate with my more modestly-sized homeland.

I guess maybe running half the world had gone to their heads a little bit…

Still, this morning, it was time to head north.  Given that it’s less than 500 km from Delhi to Amritsar, and I had ten days before the flight, I was back in gentle cruising mode.  A last look at those impressive avenues (below), and it was back to the main road.

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Still pretty flat, still pretty fast, even though the wind has finally swung against me.  It’s actually a bit of a relief, as the temperature had built up uncomfortably in the last few days.  It’s a lot cooler with the north-easterly breeze in my face.  And, as I’m in no rush, the headwind’s not really bothering me.

Should be a relatively gentle last few days in India.  Or back in India, as I should probably say, after the metropolis…

Flat and Easy to the Big, Big City

Last time, I said I’d find out for sure whether I was enjoying India when the wind changed.

Well, it hasn’t changed, so that question will have to wait for another day.  All I can really do is refer you to my last post regarding the joy of tailwinds.

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Having had a proper, close-up look at the Taj Mahal on Saturday, it was time to get moving again.  Only a couple of hundred kilometres to Delhi, which is really just a couple of long-ish days.

On the other hand, there was a city of 20 million people at the other end of it, so I decided to make it a gentle three days instead.  That would give me time to take it easy through the undoubtedly awful traffic in New Delhi.

The road held little interest, mostly.  Flat, fairly smooth in most places, with the usual crazy driving.  You know the score from the last several hundred kilometres.

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This rather elaborate mosque at Muthara was probably as interesting as it got (apart from ticking past 20,000 kilometres for the round-the-world ride).  The Islamic architecture definitely won on the way to Delhi; it’s possible that the colonial and post-colonial stuff will beat it in town.  We’ll see.

After the almost suspiciously easy riding I’ve had all the way from Kanpur, I was expecting today’s run into Delhi to be awful.  Usually, everything gets magnified in big cities, so I was anticipating enormous potholes, kamikaze motorcycles, and two-mile traffic jams at every junction.

But I wasn’t altogether expecting to see this trundling up the main road first thing this morning (or, at least, a little after ten – I can never get out of bed early for short days):

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I’ve been trying to remember quite hard, and I’m pretty sure I can’t recall ever seeing an elephant strolling up a major highway before.  It was, however, being much better driven than most vehicles I’ve seen.

So, that’s an experience ticked off the bucket list.  If it had been on the bucket list…

I took the wandering pachyderm as a good sign, and pushed on optimistically.

Soon enough, I hit Faridabad, and started seeing the enormous Delhi Metro stations which would mark the road all the way to the start of Delhi proper.  The Metro starts about 40 kilometres out from the city centre, which gives you an idea of the urban area I needed to cover.

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It all went remarkably well.  The elephant was clearly a decent talisman.  I stopped for a little rest at the end of Faridabad and the start of Delhi.  The Beastlet made friends with a local bicycle and a postbox.

And then it was into the madness of New Delhi.

Except there wasn’t really any madness.  Maybe because I’m still not fully in the city centre.  But the roads were reasonable.  The traffic was reasonable, and there were even things to look at, like these ancient fortress walls:

IMG_1119 Edit There’s something else in the picture above that I’ve not seen before in India.  A Mercedes.  As with most capital cities, there’s clearly quite a bit more money sloshing around Delhi than there is in rest of the country.

And that’s one of the things I’ll be taking advantage of in the next few days here.  I’ve found a bike shop which sells bikes and parts with more than one gear.  There are very few of those in the country.  So the Beastlet is getting a fresh chain and cassette tomorrow to prepare it for the deserts to come.  The chain is gold, which is a bit gangster, but still…

Oh, and that’s gold coloured, by the way, not solid gold.  I’m nothing like that flash.  And I’m pretty sure that real gold would wear out really quickly.

As well as the bike bling, I need to get a new supply of Factor 50, and sort out a visa for Uzbekistan while I’m here.  Both of which also feature on the list of things you can do in Delhi, but not in many other places in India.

I’ll try and squeeze in a bit of sightseeing, too.  So a fairly busy few days in the big city before the last few on the road in India.  Heading towards the end of the subcontinent, and the start of central Asia.

Just a few hundred more kilometres of India remain.  And I still don’t know if I’ll be sad to see it go or not.  Maybe I’ll work it out by the time I finish…