india

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…

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…

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…