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.


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…


Bumps, Fibs and SIM Cards – An ‘Interesting’ Intro to India

I don’t know why some people lie.

I was on a long one yesterday; over 90 miles.  All was well until I turned north towards Jamshedpur.  The road had got steadily narrower ever since Kolkata, but had been lovely and smooth throughout.  It was probably getting a little too narrow by lunchtime; diving off the road to avoid overtaking lorries was already getting a bit old.

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But I was going fine.  About 90 kms still to go.  I should have been OK to get to Jamshedpur just before the sun went down (which happens ridiculously early here; clearly yet another country of morning people).

Then it all fell apart.  The tarmac cracked a little.  A couple of holes appeared.  Then more.  The traffic slowed down and started to weave (a little iffy when it’s that narrow).  After a while, you couldn’t even call it potholed any more; there was nothing flat to define where the holes weren’t.

Clunk, rattle, stop to clip the panniers back on the rack.  Repeat endlessly.  Grrr…

20 km later, a minor miracle.  A road surfacing crew, and pristine tarmac beyond! Happy days!

10 km later, a stop for a drink.  A man coming the other way in a car.  He stops.  We chat.  He confirms that it’s about 60 km to Jamshedpur, and that there were about three hours of daylight left.  Still tight, but on the beautiful new tarmac, it should be OK.  I ask how the road is.  The man confirms that the smooth track runs all the way to the city.

He lied.  Big time.

Ten minutes down the road, I passed a decent-looking guesthouse.  I could have stopped, but I knew I could make town, because I’d been told that the road was good.  Half an hour down the road, the roadworks began.  Potholes, followed by dusty gravel, followed by more of the ploughed surface I’d been struggling with before.

I rolled into Jamshedpur about an hour after dark.  Looking like this:

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I don’t think the lies are meant to be malicious.  I think people here might just not like telling you bad news.  I hope it’s just that, in any case.  Because there’s a bit of a pattern developing.

It’s been a while since I arrived in India, after all.  Why no updates?  Well, there’s another fib involved in that.  But first things first…

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I arrived in Kolkata (Calcutta) in the very early hours of Tuesday morning.  After a hair-raising introduction to Indian driving tactics in an antique Ambassador taxi (like the ones above), and a nice long sleep, I was up and about around lunchtime.  As with everywhere else I go, I went straight out to have a look at town, and get a data SIM, so I could get some reliable internet access.

Tuesday was Republic Day, so most of the shops were shut.  This was bad news.  After a while, I found a little place plastered in advertising for a mobile phone company.  The sort of place that had sorted me out with instantly-functioning SIMs in Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar.  Great.

He sold top-ups, but not SIMs.  The place across the road sold them.  But not to foreigners.  They said I’d have to go to an official store, for registration purposes.  But the official stores were closed until Wednesday.  This was my first inkling that it’s almost impossible for a travelling foreigner to get a working SIM card in India.

So, I went to have a look around town, and watch some cricket in the park.  Which was nice.

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Cutting a very long story short, two days later I finally had a SIM card in my phone.  But, having been told when I purchased it, that it would be activated within two hours, it’s now over 50 hours, and it’s still not showing any sign of working.  Another lie.

Grrr.  Again…

So, three official shops in three cities; one was closed, one sold me a duff card, one couldn’t help because the card was bought out of town (don’t ask why, it doesn’t make sense).  Mind-boggling levels of bureaucratic nonsense.

While there’s only half a chance (at best) that I’ll get proper communications back before I get to Nepal, I’m pretty sure that there’s every chance that the roads will remain a bit interesting (at least away from the nice, smooth major highways).

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On the plus side, there’s also every chance that I can continue to gorge myself on curry.  Also, to add to the scary taxi drive, I’ve had the opportunity to get the more outdoor version of town-driving craziness on the back of a scooter and in a tuk-tuk (I know that’s the Thai word, but I can’t remember what they’re called here).  The temperature’s about 5C cooler than Myanmar, too, so the riding is a little easier.

And, once again (and even including the fibbers, who seemed nice at the time), people here are really great.  Not quite as smily as the South-East Asians, but friendly enough, and helpful with directions etc.

And they really seem to like bikes over here.  The Beastlet is getting stared at, prodded and admired every time I stop for a drink.  It’s getting a big head, which will only be truly justified if it continues not to break on the roads for another few hundred miles.  It’s doing well so far, but I do worry a bit.

Anyway, until I stay somewhere else with wifi (wifi that actually works is a bit of a rarity), or until the SIM card miraculously activates (some hope!), that’s it from India for now.  An interesting start.

It would be nice if things got just a little bit smoother, though.  And if I could get a blog post with pictures uploaded in less than two hours…