kolkata

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…

To Mandalay, and Beyond

Well, that’s Myanmar done, then.

Due to the whims of international flights (primarily down to the fact that there aren’t many out of Myanmar) and pricing, I find myself briefly in Bangkok this evening, en route for Kolkata (Calcutta) in India tomorrow.

I’m a bit sad to be finished with Myanmar, to be honest.  Dodgy road surfaces apart, it was a really interesting place, with truly lovely inhabitants.  And I never did work out some of the odder aspects of the country.  Especially what the point of Nay Pyi Taw is…

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Still, as I rolled out of beautiful Bagan on Thursday, beginning the last hundred miles or so of the long road to Mandalay, there were already a few thoughts running ahead to India, and what I’ll find there.  I think this was partly influenced by the landscape, which had got much dryer and more scrubby than it was in the south of Myanmar.  More like what I (probably inaccurately) imagine India will look like.

I was also slightly haunted by the nagging feeling that I should be riding to India, rather than flying.  The German guys I met in Vietnam had made it through the high mountains of India’s far east, and entered Myanmar overland.  I should really be doing the same in reverse, shouldn’t I?

I still feel that I might be missing out a little, but there are (I hope) fairly sound reasons behind the decision to fly for a little bit.  The north-eastern states of India have ongoing issues with Maoist insurgents (how old-school is that?), and the UK Foreign Office, probably over-cautiously, advises against all but essential travel there.

That wouldn’t necessarily be a problem in itself (I’m fairly sure the FCO would advise everyone just to stay at home if it could), but it tends to affect the willingness of travel insurance to cover you.  And, having required repatriation to the UK not so long ago, I’m not sure I’ve got the appetite for risk required to enter a low-level war zone uninsured.

Plus, there was a fairly major earthquake just a few weeks ago, centred on Imphal, the first big town across the border.  So after a fair bit of umm-ing and ah-ing on the way up Myanmar, the short hop to Kolkata seemed the better option.

Possibly a little cowardly, but there you go…

In any case, I had to finish Myanmar first.  The road toward Mandalay proved to be decently surfaced and full of cycle tourists.  Well, it had three other cycle tourists on it while I was there, and that’s pretty much a crowd.  On my very last day’s riding in the country, I met Alastair and Rachel (from London) in the morning, having stayed in the same hotel, and then I caught up with a French girl on her second-ever day of touring later in the day.

Whatever Kipling wrote about the ‘Road to Mandalay’ that made it so famous, it’s certainly true that (on Friday at least) the road to Mandalay is where the touring cyclists play.

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Mandalay itself has the great benefit (especially after the confusing nothingness of Nay Pyi Taw) of being a proper city.  ‘Bustling’ would probably be the appropriate adjective.

It also has the unparalleled tourist attraction of the best precariously-balancing-keepy-uppy-lady (as I believe the name of her act translates) in the world:

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Through a remarkable coincidence, I ended up watching the stool-climbing and bamboo-football-juggling display with Alastair and Rachel, who’d (entirely independently) turned up to stay at the same hotel as me again.  Even more remarkably, it turned out we were on the same flight out today.  So I got to see people over a longer-than two-day period for the first time since Vietnam.  And, even better, we got to irritate the airline staff with three bikes rather than just the one.

It’s hard to imagine more excitement, I know.

But I did manage a couple of exciting round-the-world milestones on the way to Mandalay: 11,000 miles for the overall trip so far, and my vertical climb finally reached the equivalent of 9 times up Mount Everest from sea level.  Phew!

Oh, and if you’ve ever wondered what the end of the road to Mandalay looks like, it looks like this:

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A massive, square red fortress, surrounded by a moat.  I reckon it’s over a mile on each side, so massive is definitely the right word for it.

It’s well worth getting to.  And hopefully, India will be too.  I’ll find out soon enough…