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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…

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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!

Red Dust and Curry – Welcome to Myanmar!

Myanmar felt like properly unknown territory for me, having only begun to open up to the world in recent years.  I’m not even sure whether I’m still in south-east Asia, as even that seems to be a matter of some dispute.

But what I wasn’t really expecting is that Myanmar is also a bit nuts (in a generally good way, so far).

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It begins before you even get through passport control.  Bang in the middle of the border bridge from Thailand, traffic is expected to switch from the left to the right-hand-side.  There’s some paint on the road, but not much else to show you how it’s done.

I made sure I crossed when it was quiet…

The vast majority of cars and trucks in Myanmar, of course, are not designed to drive on the right.  The government just changed the system a few years ago.  Nobody seems to know why.

Then there are the roads.  The road from the Thai border at Myawaddy used to be so poor that it only worked in one direction each day.  Now there’s a new road (below).  A beautiful, Thai-built, butter smooth highway, with a stunning, swooping descent off the top of the hills.

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This delightful introduction to the country opened last summer (2015), and follows a different route to the old road.  But it’s not on any online map yet.  You can see where it is only by looking at Google Maps’ satellite imagery, which shows where the trees were cut to make space for the new road.

And so, you enter the country along a beautiful highway which the maps say doesn’t exist.

About 45km out of Myawaddy, you then rejoin the old road.  It’s a designated Asian Highway, so it can’t be too bad, can it?  Well, just after a police checkpoint (with very friendly plain-clothes police who buy cyclists drinks), the main international route from Thailand turns into this:

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60-odd kilometres of fine, red dust, and a narrow, incredibly rough tarmac strip.  Tarmac so narrow that, when two trucks or buses meet, at least one of them ends up on the dirt.  Which puts the fine, red dust up in the air to decorate any unsuspecting bikers who happen to be in range.

It has improved since, thankfully.

Then, there’s the odd, half-hour time difference between here and Thailand.  Why not go the whole hog, and make it an hour?  Nobody knows.  Again.

And what exactly was the ‘pizza’ I found this evening?  It looked like a pizza.  It was described by the lady selling it as a pizza.  It was, as far as I could tell, a cold, sweet bread bun with some sort of topping involving crabsticks and peppers.  And some sort of tofu-like substance.  And possibly mayonnaise.

But definitely no cheese or tomato sauce.  And very definitely unheated.  I’m not sure what the dictionary definition of a pizza is, but I’m pretty confident that cheese, sauce and heat are fairly important to the recipe.  Not in Myanmar, apparently.

And how does a country where many of the villages still don’t appear to have reliable electricity (cool-boxes with ice, rather than fridges) have the fastest 3G speeds I’ve found anywhere?

So, Myanmar is a bit confusing.  Or, arguably, Myanmar is a seething mass of contradictions.  I ran into two other touring cyclists yesterday (Wednesday), who blamed it mostly on the change that’s happening politically here.  There are a lot of laws which still exist, but are no longer enforced.  Or are sometimes enforced, and sometimes not, depending on the individual with responsibility.  Or laws that no longer exist, but some people still think they do.

Like I said, it’s a bit confusing.

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It’s also a very beautiful place (above is the town of Hpa An, where I spent last night).  The people seem lovely (not just the policemen, though, given the amount of checkpoints, it’s much better for me if they stay nice, too).  And, although the roads are a bit ropey, the road manners so far are generally very good, so you don’t feel too likely to end up in a bus sandwich.

And I had a Indian-style chicken curry last night.  With Chinese-style fried rice, obviously.  Which is also a little bit odd, but illustrates the mix of cultures here.  I’m a big fan of proper curry, and this is the first time I’ve found the Indian type done properly in the region, which is great news.  It was delicious, and also massive, which is important for a touring cyclist.

So where from here?  Well, in addition to being slightly nuts and very beautiful and friendly, Myanmar’s a big country.  I’m still a few days from the old capital, Yangon (used to be Rangoon), and it’s a long road to Mandalay from there.  I passed 1000 miles for Part 2 of the round-the-world ride yesterday (i.e. 1000 miles from Hanoi), and there will be hundreds more on the clock before I get to India.

Which I’m not unhappy about at all.  Myanmar’s been fascinating so far, and I’ve every reason to believe it will stay that way.  And maybe I’ll work out some of those crazy contradictions before I’m done…

Meetings on the Road

Rest day today; relaxing in Royan, on the Atlantic Coast. I’m a bit more than halfway down France, and it’s pretty flat from here (I think). Problems revolve around heat and headwinds in this part of the world – it’s been close to 40 degrees at times.

Everything I read before setting off suggested I’d be meeting other cyclists all the time. By Thursday afternoon, flogging against the wind through the marshes to the north of La Rochelle, I was pretty sure this was nonsense. I sat by the side of the road, wondering how long I would have to wait before I saw another tourer. Fifteen minutes later, I came out of a pharmacy with a bottle of sun cream just in time to see three shoot past. There’s some old saying about buses, which obviously applies to cyclists too…

I caught up, to discover that all three were Brits; two 18-year old lads from Scotland heading for the Côte d’Azur, and a dreadlocked guy called Darryl, who was powered entirely by hemp protein (or something similar) and heading for a festival in Portugal. I was really happy to be running into other bikers, and we made quick ground, sharing slipstreams to a campsite near La Rochelle.

And then we were six. Two more bikers (and two more Brits) had just set up in the same campsite. Just three hours after wondering when I’d see anyone, I’m sat around sharing tips and routes and plans with a whole bunch of others.

On Friday we went our different ways; the Scottish lads headed off with a tight schedule and a master plan (we passed them a little later with their nth puncture of the trip), Darryl remained recharging in his hammock, and I headed south for Royan with a doctor called George.

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It was really easy riding in company; chatting and swearing at French drivers really makes the time fly. We covered 90km (including a top-notch transporter bridge near Rochefort – hopefully pictured) before pulling up in Royan for a rest day, which has included the constructive (washing clothes) and the slightly less so (multiple beers while gibbering endlessly about life, the universe and everything).

Tomorrow, George is swerving east, en route for Italy, while I’ll be back on my own and ploughing south towards Spain. We saw two German tourers this morning who are heading my way; the way things seem to work out on the road, I may well see them again.

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Hopefully above (still don’t trust the software) is a little corner of England in Royan.

568km / 355 miles so far, by the way. A bientôt, all.

First Three Days – London to Portsmouth and through Brittany

This is a slightly experimental first post from phone app. Hope it all works…

Well, off to a decent start; 309km or 193miles in three days, and out of the UK and into France. Slept on the ferry, in a wood, and now in a campsite. No discernible differences other than the herd of deer stripping bark from the trees all night. Not on the ferry, obviously.

Nearly starved when France closed down entirely yesterday (Bastille Day), but that’s as close to disaster as I’ve yet come. Met lots of friendly French people, some of whom were strangely concerned with my mental state.

And enjoyed beautiful Brittany; now aiming to cross the Loire tomorrow.

Please accept apols for the blog, btw. Think you can only follow if you’re on a computer at the minute… Will have to wait for a rest day to try and sort it. There were going to be some pics, but taking forever to upload; will put some up when I’ve a better connection.

Thanks, all, for the nice comments here and on Facebook. Will hopefully add a proper update soon.

UPDATE – looks like one of the pics made it after all. This is my nephew Tom making sure I left from Greenwich on Sunday.

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