India! So many impressions of this fantastical land. Over the years asked “What’s India like?” my reply, as for many, would include the “people either love it or loathe it” refrain. Usually both at one stage or another. Experience is polarised, there seem to be no half measures. For the Westerner there is so much unfamiliarity to confront – apart from the language, colour, smells and heat, there is the deprivation, the concentration of people – particularly in the north of the country – beggars often severely disfigured… Travelling through India is an assault on the senses, it can be overwhelming. While working for a UK based travel company I used to drive an overland truck throughout Asia, customised to carry paying Western travellers. One of the trips was through India and Nepal. India was ‘full on’ to drive through – all humanity was on the road, and it demanded absolute concentration the whole time. Total absorption. Then, after months driving across the madness that is ‘India’, getting the passengers through the bedlam of border control bureaucracy and crossing into the peace and calm of Nepal, I could feel the tension lift immediately. A big sigh. You could breathe again. Literally it seemed, as well, as metaphorically. The contrast was so marked. Interestingly though, after a month in easygoing Nepal you were looking forward in a way, to the animation and vibrancy that awaited you on the return. There is something intoxicating about the adrenalin rush confronting India. And driving back across that border you were hit with it instantly.
Western Nepal – certainly fifteen years previously when I had driven across it relocating a truck back to England – was pretty isolated. The further west I remembered, the condition of the roads worsened where there wasn’t much opportunity to get the truck beyond second gear. With very little in the way of infrastructure the remote region had remained very traditional and undeveloped. However – I had discovered on Google Maps the recently completed 1,000 kilometre Mahendra Highway stretches east west across the country passing through the Terai, the lower lying strip – mostly jungle – at the base of the Himalayan foothills. I knew over the north Indian plains the density of population, crazy traffic and constant scrutiny and attentiveness a European comes up against. I was choosing to forego the chance to experience again the delicate, sublime jewel that is the Taj Mahal (the first time I understood how architecture can be beautiful); the chaos of magical Varanasi and the maze of narrow alleys leading down to the burning ghats and saintlike saddhus by the banks of the Ganges; the eye popping erotic carvings on the temples in Khajuraho… My thinking was – I’ve a destination to get to. And I don’t have unlimited time for detours. Nepal is the route that called.
As I mentioned in the previous post, there are a few differences between Ireland and India’s roads I’d learned before. “First: all of life can be found on the road – everything from families, animals, push carts and horse or mule drawn carriages, to tractors, cars and long distance trucks. In between there are motor and push bikes. Second: there is a hierarchy – you get out of the way of anything bigger than you’re driving, they have right of way. (Except a cow. You never under any circumstances hit a cow.) The third: rear view mirrors don’t exist, or are ignored and unused (except for combing hair), so it is the responsibility of a driver to notify those in front of his presence – I’m coming – by parping on his horn. Constantly. The rest is learned by ‘feel’ and experience, and not being tentative or timid.
Going with the flow on the bicycle I began to understand a little how it worked. With only a very loose influence of the rules of the road, there was a sense of self organisation to the stream of traffic, including bicycles and cycle rickshaws. The analogy of flowing water came to mind, except unlike water, gravity is not propelling the flow but the internal combustion engines or pedalpower and the pull of the rider’s destination.”
It was now late October 2013. I had arrived into Delhi a few weeks previously from Pakistan in time to fly to Ireland for a week to celebrate my father’s 80th birthday. My growing sense of anticipation had become unbearable, knowing every day I was getting closer to holding my girlfriend in my arms. It was like a stolen indulgence. What a whirlwind, what jet setting! In the couple of days I had in hand before flying home, I deposited my bike and gear in the Irish embassy, got a haircut, and bought some presents (perfume options didn’t appeal – who wants to smell like a “Black Car”, “Tea Rose” or “Gypsy”?) and clothes (handmade leather shoes for €50, good white cotton shirts, a tailored linen jacket, Levis 501’s for €35). It felt very strange – not to mention disorientating – after nearly six months cycling across half the globe, less than a day in the air brought me back home.
After that little hiatus it was back to (my) real life, cycling to Burma. On my return to Delhi the priority was a visa for Burma, or Myanmar the official name, and Katie in the Irish embassy supplied a personalised letter to help my case. I found a cheap place to stay in Paherganj, near the main railway station, an area associated with low budget accommodation. It had now a run down and seedy air to it. Most of my time was spent lying low in a basic guesthouse, recovering from a bit of a bug I’d picked up at home (my body obviously wasn’t used to the unhealthy European atmosphere). I was anxious to get back on the road but my health was slow to pick up. Trying to get a diagnosis from a doctor I gave up when presented with the long queue of mothers and children outside the medical centre. I was becoming depressed in Paherganj.
Diwali provided some distraction. Celebrated like Christmas is in the West, the build up to the ancient Hindu festival – commemorating the victory of light over darkness – was getting more intense. The bustling central bazaar in Paherganj was even more hectic than usual with stalls selling flower garlands, decorations, confectioneries and other treats for the holiday. The whole city throws itself into the festivities. Outside the centre in the residential areas houses are decorated with coloured braiding and fairy lights. On the actual day of Diwali things come to a climax with constant bangs from fireworks and acrid sulphur smoke hanging in the air. All day. At night the sky is lit up with screeching rockets spraying their light showers and the air filled with the sound of firework explosions and loud booms. The quaint custom of decorating passers-by with brightly coloured powder had now turned into the risk of dyed water and paint being thrown over strangers. I knew enough to get out of Paherganj.
Despite not knowing me, a Delhi couple – friends of an Indian friend in Dublin – insisted I couldn’t spend the night of Diwali alone and invited me to their comfortable home in the suburbs where they were hosting a little get together for friends. We were about a dozen. Not unlike a social scene in Ireland, women gravitated towards one another around the couch, men around the bar. I chatted with the former colonel. He looked like one, in his sixties, tall with a pencil moustache and the confident, authoritative air of a man accustomed to the deference of others. In a very friendly and inclusive way I have to add. Mountaineering had been his interest .“Got to the top of the world’s fifth highest peak”, he told me proudly. I think maybe he divulged this so readily because he seemed impressed by my bicycle journey. He had quit the army twenty years previously and joined India’s best-known global brand, Tata. He was their New Products manager. From the little I knew, Tata had expanded from being a major producer of steel, to the manufacture of trucks, chemicals, consumer products, and into IT. When I’d visited Starbucks in central Delhi to use the free wifi the name ‘Tata Communications’ was branded as the service provider. (I subsequently learned they owned 50% of Starbucks in India. Which buys its coffee from Tata Coffee.) And in the UK, Tata owns Jaguar-Land Rover and Tetleys, the world’s second largest manufacturer and distributor of tea. “Most of the employment in the Teesside town where we have our factory is with Tetley,” the colonel said. “All women. When I visited there a couple of years ago I was so impressed with the set up. They work a six hour shift and when we wanted to change it to a more regular eight hour one, they wouldn’t. They’d work straight through, with no stop for lunch, and that would leave them time at home for their families. And we didn’t have to pay for their lunch break. Everyone is happy,” he beamed.
Standing behind his bar topping up the whiskies and gin was Adil the host. I overheard him finishing up a conversation with the colonel about an opportunity, both of them agreeing about the usefulness of meeting some third party. This, I was reminded by his wife Charu, is how business is done. A fit looking forty-something with a receding hairline and ready grin, Anil’s game was golf. His business card read ‘Editor in Chief’ of India’s largest golf magazine, as well as executive director of the all-India association of golf clubs. On barstools were two other friends. Bijal, in his late fifties, had been a commodities trader in wheat, which involved living in Moscow. Thinking of my abysmal efforts to learn the language I asked how was his Russian. “Not great, English was the language used in my business”. Next to him was Sahil, a dead ringer for Gene Hackman with his moustache and slightly detached, thoughtful manner. He was tired, “a long day”, and didn’t give in to Adil’s pressing a drink on him. He’s up every morning at three to meditate then spends a few hours writing his book on Vedic mathematics before bringing his daughter to school and going to the day job looking after his construction business. “But not for much longer. I’m trying to get out of it.” No wonder he was tired. I was drawn in by the man’s manner, and curious – purely in a layman’s fashion – about his interests. “There’s more than one way to arrive at the right answer in maths,” he smiled. Apparently all maths is based on sixteen sutras, or word formulas. These formulas follow the way the mind naturally works and are much more helpful for the student than ‘modern’ maths. I wasn’t going to pursue that much further at a Diwali drinks party.
Apart from my lesson in maths, it was an education listening to the views of this particular group of middle class Indians. I learned the Muslim-Hindu issue was a live one. Some has a problem with the government grant of $200 for any Muslim wishing to do the haj. “That’s tax payers money, but I’m not eligible for it.” The colonel, who had left at this stage, was a Muslim, unusually for the army as it happens. A debate on India’s rising prospects in international trade followed. These were linked with China’s fortunes. Anil claimed “China is losing its centre due to a growing middle class demanding more autonomy and regional identity. And there’s just one direction that will go. The eventual disintegration of the centralised Chinese state.” It would seem the US is not unaware of the potential. According to Wikileaks the ambassador was recommending steps to ‘facilitate’ this process, identifying five separate regions in China that were quite distinct and could potentially push for autonomy. The authorities in Beijing are understandably quite agitated about separatist expressions in Tibet, and Xinjiang province by the Uyghur people. Measures to counter the perceived threat to centralised authority are a priority in Chinese domestic – and foreign – policy.
All intriguing stuff. I was also given a thumbnail sketch of ancient Indian history by the three of them, who impressed me with their knowledge. I tried to imagine a group of Irish businessmen maybe around my vintage with similar broad interests. And I was sorry there appeared to be the traditional divide between husbands and wives, being curious what the women would bring to the conversation. Though I had little chance to chat, I got the idea from some comments they were interested, articulate and well informed. Did they just talk about children and domestic challenges? I doubted it.
I felt so fortunate for this exposure to – this immediate introduction into – people’s lives in the cultures I was passing through. To hear their opinions and witness their way of behaving. The same with the couchsurfing and warmshowers websites. Without these moments the experience of the journey would be less rich. I would simply be the cycle tourist forever forming half impressions from the outside, with little opportunity for the various delightful encounters I’d had.
A few days later I met up with Jack, another friend of a friend, in the very impressive Habitat India building, enclosed gardens in a modern, eco-friendly complex. Unusually for an Indian Jack was a big guy, taller than me, and carried himself with the confidence that comes with that physique. As well as, I guessed, growing up with a comfortable middle class background which distinguishes you – I was told India is still a rigidly class based society – quite obviously from those less fortunately favoured in birth. He had that naturalness and affability about him that immediately put you at ease, with the feeling you’d known each other years. He introduced me to his business partner Atarik, a quiet man with glasses and an apparent diffidence which was misleading. Atarik was a medical doctor and a sharp cookie. Their business, just getting off the ground, was training paramedic staff. India lacks an ambulance service in most parts of the country Jack explained. If there is an accident, the casualty is usually bundled into a tuk tuk and driven to the nearest medical centre. There was a need for a paramedic response at accident scenes. Surely that is the role of the state I suggested. “In Western countries that is true”, Jack responded. “But here we see multinationals, large corporations and even medical insurers who want that service available. That’s where we come in. We’re trying to hang a business around that need.” He had identified health as an area where there is an opportunity. “Internationally India has been successful in IT. It is the ‘go-to’ destination now for software development. We see a similar opportunity for health care and paramedic training!” Atarik, hearing I was under the weather, asked me a few questions then took out a pad and scrawled a prescription for three medications, including an anti-histamine, that may help. They did!
I collected my passport with visa from the Myanmar embassy and was itching to get back on the road. A few weeks in Delhi had been more than enough urban intensity for this cycle traveller. And so without much mourning I farewelled the guesthouse and pushed the loaded black Cadillac out the narrow alleys of Paherganj. New Delhi is laid out with colonial-era planning. What a task however to find my way out of Old Delhi, its main thoroughfares and higgledy-piggledy side streets evolved over millennia. It took hours picking my way through the traffic jams. That term ‘traffic jam’ conjures up in the mind slow moving, bumper to bumper vehicles at 5pm of an evening in Dublin, the traffic lights changing and barely any progress. Crawling forward, frustration barely contained. This was of a different class. First of all cars were in the minority, it was mainly three-wheeled auto and bicycle rickshaws edging into the most impossible spaces, motorbikes and scooters with sometimes three or four aboard darting forward, hand-drawn two-wheeled carts piled high with boxes and ox-drawn four-wheeled ones slowly plodding a step at a time. Some trucks and buses added their belching fumes, revving to keep the engines from giving up before lurching a few feet forward. And when the traffic wedged itself into immobility I felt helpless. If all those (mostly) nimble vehicles were stuck so most certainly was I. It was a lesson in patience.
Things always got unstuck, and the trickle continued. People did this every day, breathing in these fumes. But things are not as bad as before. It used to be suffocating (for this Westerner anyway) until in 1998 the city authorities were ordered by law to implement CNG as the fuel for all buses and auto rickshaws. Delhi still has the world’s worst air quality (even worse than Beijing) – occasionally up to 20 times the recommended safe standard. And of course cyclists are affected the most.
After two hours, spotting a McDonald’s in the vicinity of the Red Fort – a major tourist attraction – I pulled over for a burger and a shake, a last bit of Western fast food for a while. Eventually I found the main road out of the city and onto the hard shoulder of a motorway across the Yamuna river in an easterly direction. In this city of nearly 20 million, with countless more in the satellite towns, it took most of the day to get past the built up areas, to be rewarded with fields on each side.
It was well dark when the street lights of Haipur came into view. One of the rare occasions I was still cycling after sunset. It wasn’t safe. Even though I had a light front and rear I felt very vulnerable labouring along the edge of the unlit main road with no hard shoulder, cars and trucks streaming by, sometimes too close for comfort. Now where to sleep? In the city, feeling I was nearing the centre I asked a cycle rickshaw who beckoned me to follow, leading me to a main street with some hotel options. He refused point blank to accept any money.
I had decided to jettison my tent and cooking gear and brought them back to Dublin. I reckoned cheap and ubiquitous sleeping and eating options for the rest of the journey meant the benefit of carrying them was outweighed by the extra burden. But as this was a long trip my budget meant I was very conscious of how much I spent on a bed every night. After dismissing a couple of hotel options as too dear, for 250 rupees – about €3 – I found a box room with partition walls, barely large enough to contain its cot. It was fine.
Four days cycling across the province of Uttar Pradesh it took to reach the border with the extreme west of Nepal. My notes record, “not particularly inspiring countryside – flat, town after village after town, all the time people.” Working in the fields, walking the roads – generally with loads on their heads if women – animatedly in discussion at chai houses, or simply hanging out waiting for…? Anytime I stopped, instantly I became the centre of attention. And of course a crowd attracts a crowd. An educated representative would ask on behalf of curious onlookers, “From which country?” And, “where is your destination?” Followed at some stage by the more familiar, “may I know your good name?” And of course part of every exchange was the ambiguous sideways head wobble. This can mean ‘yes’. Or, ‘I don’t know/ I agree/ OK/ If you prefer’. Or the most impenetrable – ‘I don’t think so, but whatever…’
My mood had definitely picked up once I got back in the saddle. It seems that is an inevitable consequence. Something about the physical experience of cycling your bike and moving through the countryside. However it was a bit of a trudge. The sky was grey and the weather cool (and cool weather in an open air society geared for a hot climate is no fun). Rain threatened and eventually arrived. I recognised I was a little subdued in spirit, an unsurprising reaction I supposed after the emotional readjustment of the flying trip home followed by the delay and poor form in Delhi. It was now a matter of making progress eastwards.
India has a thriving bicycle culture only in recent times being usurped by the – now ubiquitous – motorcycle, and Hero Cycles is the biggest producer of bikes in the world in terms of numbers. What I wasn’t prepared for was the sense of honour cyclists seemed to display when they were overtaken by the black Cadillac. A foreigner, and one who had luggage! It became quite predictable, at times frustrating, and a feature for the next few weeks, through Nepal as well, where having cruised past a cyclist I would hear the pedal-squeak speed up, and lo and behold be overtaken by him (it was always a him). What amused me was the apparent nonchalance of the move. “Me? This is my normal speed and I’m just cycling past…”, as if I just happened to be travelling at a slower speed than them. The older the cyclist that overtook me, the more competitive it seems they were, keeping up the pace and maintaining their distance ahead of me. On very basic bicycles. The younger the cyclist the shorter the spurt ahead and they’d fall back to be overtaken again. I would goad them with, “Jello” or “come on!” and they’d grin at me as I passed. Some held the pretence and didn’t acknowledge eventually being reeled in and overtaken.
My notes remind me of the ‘dosas’ – a tasty savoury pancake generally only available in south India – three days in a row. It now seems popular in the north, though I can’t say any were as good as the one I had in a South Indian cafe in a side street off Connaught Square in central New Delhi. And the comfortable room in “a fancy hotel” in Moradabad for 500 rupees where I managed to access the internet and upload some pics to the ‘BicycletoBurma’ Facebook page. The Hotel KK on the outskirts of Rudrapur, which of course I couldn’t pass up (KK being the abbreviation for Kilkenny). That evening I had a shave in the barber nearby and hopped on a share auto rickshaw for a few beers in a hotel nightclub further down the road. It was difficult to find a beer in these towns. Later, the return was looking like a half hour walk on the quiet road until a motorcyclist stopped and offered me a lift. Once again refusing any payment. My cryptic scribble notes cycling past the low lying city of Rampur, set amongst plantation forestry and timber mills, its open drains “smelly and dirty, didn’t want to stop to eat” for fear of the health risk!
Taking a left turn at Khatima I was in Banbassa before long, the border town. Stamped out of India I was aware of an exciting sensation rising as I pedalled along a forest track towards the Nepal border. Crossing a dam levee with dusk approaching I was in another country. I found the Immigration officer in his house set off the dirt road to get stamped into Nepal. There was no electricity and the procedure was effected by yellow candle light. A two week visa to cycle 1,000 kilometres should be fine, thank you. It was cheaper. (The cheapskate thinking would cost me when leaving the country.) Into town to find a bed, and the challenge mixed with delight once again of being in a new country. And the contrast, nearly relief, of the more relaxed atmosphere in the tiny mountain nation that is Nepal. It was exciting. I’d got my mojo back!