dust

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…

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…

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…

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…