India! Home to over one billion people, a history and culture that spans thousands of years, the birthplace of Hinduism and Buddhism, a diverse mix of ethnicities and languages – and curry. India was the country I was most looking forward to. Not only were parts of my family from there, but I’ve found its other-worldliness intriguing.
Initially, the road leading towards Amritsar was quiet. A false state of calm. The calm before the storm. Apart from the traffic-less road, it felt similar to Pakistan: cattle, farmers harvesting, motorcycles, rubbish, stalls on the roadside.
That was all about to change.
As the billowing red sun hit the tarmac’s surface, we pulled into the Punjab capital. We knew little about the town, but I suggested we take a rest day the following day to get our affairs in order. The first major difference between Pakistan and India was that men covered their hair, not women. The turban is a traditional headdress for Sikhs and a shock for me, having spent months in Islamic countries.
After going back and forth about how to spend our time in India – the only concrete plan was Joe’s flight from Delhi – we settled on cycling to the capital, swapping our bikes for trains – and exploring Rajasthan. Joe was there for two weeks, so he wanted to make the most of it.
Hugh was staying in the same hostel, so after dinner we drank beers in the communal area, talked about bikes, routes, our set ups, previous experiences, and other bike tourers (the only topics cyclists delve into).
Apart from high population density, India has car horns. On the way to the Partition Museum, it quickly became clear that Indians drive with their ears. Car horns go off like fireworks on New Year’s Eve, but New Year’s Eve is every minute of every day. It’s constant. Even when there is no traffic (a fictional ideology), drivers beep their horns. RHBD (Repetitive Horn Beeping Disorder) is a real problem in India, an epidemic. If car horns stopped working for one day, there’d be accidental genocide.
Amritsar’s streets are nothing if not antique; their miniature charm spans centuries. If motorcycles were replaced with bicycles and tuk-tuks with rickshaws, the streets would look no different from one hundred years ago. After the museum, we visited the Golden Temple. Hailed as an Indian treasure and one of the holiest places in Sikhism; 150,000 worshippers pay their respects daily. Religious chorus filled the air as we sat on the side of its central lake and watched devotees rhythmically meander around the shrine. It was a special start to the Indian leg.
That evening, I went to the hostel's roof terrace and viewed the chaos of the bustling street below. The sun had set yet the traffic had not. I watched for a short time and pondered how I’d get a rest bite from the madness. ‘Do people not grow tired of the pollution and noise?’, I questioned to myself. I knew if the chaos was repeated throughout India, I’d struggle.
Day 184 – 185
“That was a 6/10”, I stated.
What was?“ Joe replied.
I’d just returned from the toilet on the side of the motorway, a metal hut hidden down a dusty alleyway. “I’ve got into the habit of rating toilets. I’d give that one a 6/10. It’s a squat, but it has porcelain, so it automatically jumps up the scoreboard”, I confirmed.
Later, Joe returned from the toilet and erupted: “YOU HAVE SEEN THINGS IF THAT WAS A 6/10!”
“Mate, that was disgusting. There was s**t everywhere!”, he continued.
“I know, but relatively clean. It wasn’t actual s**t. Just mud.”, I reminded him.
Joe’s face broadcasted speechlessness.
“You’re going to have to talk me through it because that can not be a 6/10.”
I went on to explain the considerations when rating: environment, smell, porcelain, seated or unseated, communal or non-communal (in Central Asia men squat next to each other), cleanliness, light, closed or open-air.
He would not back down, so I rescored to 5/10. Maybe, I had seen things…
The next two days, we followed the road from Amritsar to Jalandhar and then Ludhiana. The majority of the time was spent competing for space with motorcycles on the motorway’s hard shoulder. I’d got used to zoning out on a busy road, I’d go into my own world and forget about the trucks brushing within an inch of my skeletal body. I awoke from a daydream when Joe aired his annoyance at the situation. I’d been so used to traffic, I hadn’t thought about how Joe might have coped.
We found respite at a McDonald’s – a slice of familiarity that eased stress levels. We planned to cycle the remainder of the route through the countryside. Immediately, our moods lifted. The roads were quiet, comparatively. We saw monkeys for the first time – hundreds of them scattered across the roads, picking at rubbish. That night, we found a cheap hotel, and ordered food to the room. We stayed inside for fear of getting bitten by a dengue borne mosquito – swarms flew around the hallway light outside our door. Dengue is a disease carried by mosquitoes, which can lead to death in the most severe cases – there was an epidemic in Pakistan & India whilst I was there.
The subcontinent stare was prominent, but who could blame them. I’d stare at an alien if it visited the village I’m from in England. We’d assumed that the villagers hadn’t seen foreigners in their part of the world before, let alone on bicycles.
We lightly treaded tarmac as we dodged tractors, harvesters, buffalos, cows and motorcycles. If it wasn’t for bad asphalt, the ride would have been a dream. As dusk engulfed the golden fields, a local man approached us on his motorcycle. He led the way to the town we had planned to stay in – a relief as I my head-torch was out of battery.
A two year old’s birthday party ensued in the hotel’s basement – and word had spread that two foreigners were also staying in the hotel. The Uncle of the two year old found us and extended an invite. Joe, eager as ever, bounced down the stairs and was greeted by a small gathering – mostly friends and family of the child. I, however, dragged my tiresome body to the basement. I can’t hide if I’m tired. I become unresponsive and zone out of conversation – often laughing when others laugh, having no idea why people are laughing. Joe, on the other hand, is engaged – all-the-time. Holds eye contact, conversation, and throws questions around. I let him run the show.
Before I knew it, we were on stage having professional photographs taken with our two year old friend. In Punjab, it’s traditional for a child on their birthday to receive money from family and friends. On a stage, an attendee sits with the child, presents the child with money, and then feeds the child cake. This is repeated until every party-goer has had stage time. No matter how many people are there. It was reminiscent of a food eating competition, yet money was rewarded before consumption, and there was only one participant.
As guests, we didn’t escape the tradition. I had no money to give, so sat awkwardly with my arm around our friend whilst ten cameras captured the moment.
Spontaneous local experiences are what the trip was about, no matter how tired. The family were lovely, and accepted us into the party with open arms. It was nice to get to know them and have a glimpse into their culture and tradition.
By the time we reached Delhi, we had been cycling in the rain for six hours. Our drenched clothes now sealed to our soaked skin. My fingers had gone numb, wrinkly and seething with pins and needles. Needing a break from the traffic, we found a Burger King on the side of the road. To reduce further water damage to our sodden bags, we went to rest our bikes next to the building, under an overhanging roof. A security guard quickly ran over and ushered us to park them on the road. There was no parking space, no wall to lean the bikes – they don't have stands. And, there was a monsoon. The guard refused to listen to our reasoning. “Park your bicycle there”, he repeated – pointing to the road. The rule was totally unnecessary, utterly pointless.
After wasting time arguing, we left to go somewhere else. In doing so, my bicycle slipped off the pavement and I landed on my side in a body of water. Aggressive foul language fell out of my mouth. Joe stepped in: “Mate, let’s just go to that burger place across the road.”
We parked our bikes next to a lamppost, outside (in the rain) and ordered the entire menu. Considering I'd been in 30C+ weather for the best part of five months (excluding when at elevation over 2,000m), I was freezing. I shivered relentlessly as we sat and waited for our food. I looked at the map and saw we still had 40 km to cycle before we reached the hostel. Delhi is big. The thought of another one and half to two hours in the rain was too much. We decided we’d try our luck on the metro. We both knew it wasn’t going to work, but we tried.
The military guards at the Metro gave us a categorical: “NO”.
“Why?” Joe demanded, before the guard had finished his breath.
The guard looked at him and bellowed: “NO”
“Look at the weather, it’s dangerous to ride in this”, Joe insisted as he ushered the guard to look outside.
“Please leave”, the guard replied.
“How can cows be allowed to walk in the middle of the street, vehicles allowed to go against traffic, but you can’t let us put our bikes on a train… in a monsoon!”, he yelled whilst walking his bike towards the exit.
In the world’s second largest metropolis and India’s capital city, the rules of the road are not obeyed. Traffic lights have no reason, they’re decorative; like fairy lights draped across Oxford Street during Christmas. It was infuriating to put it mildly. At an intersection, we nearly got run over. We were on a green, so we cycled. Halfway across the intersection a car came at us from the right and broke just in time. We told the driver to use his eyes. After the same situation happened for a second and third time, we were in a state of rage.
I walked around to a driver’s window, looked at him right in the eyes and yelled: “USE YOUR F******G EYES, YOU PRICK”, “WE”RE ON A GREEN LIGHT, LOOK [point to traffic light] IT’S GREEN”. (Apologies for language, need to express the anger felt at the situation.)
The man ushered us to move out of his way by flapping his hand. He completely disregarded anything we said.
At every red traffic light, drivers aggressively beeped their horns at us to move. Each time we’d turn around, inform the driver it was a red light and continue to stand stationary. In protest. In a traffic jam, motorbikes and tuk-tuks edged forward to close any gap that may be in front, to guarantee no one else swooped in.
The traffic was carnage. I have never had road rage like it.
We arrived at the hostel at 10pm. As had been the case at every sleeping house in India, there was no hot water. I wanted a hot shower to wash off the buffalo and cow dung plastered up my legs. The hostel was expensive, so I couldn’t help but be annoyed.
That night, I booked train tickets for Rajasthan. I used the app Ixigo, however, nothing in India is easy. Indian Railways will continue to sell tickets even if the train is sold out. No ticket is guaranteed. Instead, a ticket is given a percentage rating. The rating gives the customer an idea of how likely it is that their seat will be allocated. The higher the percent, the higher the chances are of getting a ticket. Once a ticket is bought, the customer will find out if they have an allocated seat two to four hours before departure. If the seat isn’t allocated, no ticket will be given and the money refunded.
There’s a reason why India is the capital of meditation.
Days 188 – 189
Sleep deprived, we boarded a train to Agra – the Taj Mahal. The train was a few hours delayed, so we didn’t reach our destination until that evening. At the train station, a swarm of taxi drivers engulfed us. We hadn’t booked a hotel, so we asked for space until we figured out where we were headed. Yet, they wouldn’t leave us alone. Annoyed, I put my hand out and authoritatively told everyone to back off. I was beginning to learn that the only way to be heard, was to either yell or talk with an authoritative tone.
The next morning, we consumed a buffet breakfast at the hotel and got a taxi to the Taj Mahal. At the halfway point, the car stopped. The driver insisted we rode a camel for the rest of the journey. We explained that we didn’t want to ride a camel and for him to drive us to the agreed location. He didn’t back down. With some aggression, Joe told him to either drive to the drop off point or we would leave without paying. It worked. The size of our bags was the next obstacle. It was “forbidden” to keep large bags in the lockers. But, after multiple backs and forth with locals, security and shopkeepers, the guards eventually let up.
I had spoken to a mate at home, who had spent six months in India. He advised: “As soon as you get over India’s flaws and irritations, it’s the best country in the world”. In summary: relax, ignore everything and it’ll become enjoyable.
The Taj Mahal was outstanding. An impressive, beautiful complex – a standalone piece of sculptural art, covered in white-ivory. We spent a couple hours walking around the grounds, admiring the UNESCO World Heritage Site. However, I’d seen many similar, and dare I say it, more impressive buildings in Central Asia, so the awe was slightly lost. The irony in India’s biggest crowd pleaser is that it’s an islamic mausoleum. The architecture has the Quran and islamic scripture written into the walls. It’s the resting place of a Mughal emperor and his wife – both were muslims.
Agra town centre was crowded. The definition of shoulder to shoulder, a Covid field day. As I walked, I looked down and saw a half-decomposed dog lying in the middle of the road. People stepped over it as if it was normal, or wasn’t there. Cars drove around it, ignoring the obvious. It was a horrific sight. One that stuck.
To fill our empty stomachs, we found a cheap restaurant and had a lentil, roti mix.
“Mate, that dog was utterly horrific,” Joe murmured.
“I know, I can’t stop thinking about it. By far the worst thing I’ve encountered on this trip.” I replied.
I’ve seen an endless number of dead animals on the road. The half-decomposed dog, however, was horrendous. The carelessness of the crowd, like it was no one's responsibility, made the experience worse.
Late afternoon, we caught a two hour train to Jaipur. So far, India hadn’t been what either of us thought it would be. We had a lot riding on our next city.
At Jaipur station, we were inundated by taxi drivers. But I had come prepared. I held my phone at arm’s length, screen faced outwards. The screen showed Ola, India’s Uber equivalent. “Already booked, sorry guys. Already booked.” I announced with an air of smugness. Now back off, I thought. Usually I’d refrain from using a taxi app, but Ola not only acted as an invisible shield from harassment, it also helped understand what the price should be. Foreigners are notoriously overcharged in India. One time, the starting price was four times that of what it was on Ola. After showing the app to the driver, we agreed a price that was only slightly more than the app.
Having said that, back in Jaipur, our driver didn’t show. A man called Ali approached us. He seemed genuine and had a tuk-tuk. So he drove us to the hotel. After inviting me to his friend’s wedding at the weekend, he offered to take us around Jaipur the following day – a small tour on the cheap. He had a good Trustpilot rating, so we agreed to meet him at 9am.
The hotel was a colonial inspired establishment. As we stepped back into the twenties, the courtyard was full of old westerners on a retirement holiday. A Marigold Hotel episode. As we joined the OAPs and dined with a Paneer Tikka Masala, car horns were only a distant echo.
The tour started off in good spirits. Ali took us to the pink city, informed us of its history, then we continued to an Observatory and the graveyard of the Rajasthan Royal Family. His information was brief, Wikipedia lite. Yet, he was a jovial fella, so we stayed with him. We then went to a textile factory – a random stop – but surprisingly enjoyable.
The Old Fort was the highlight, situated in the city’s old centre, we explored the fortress with intrigue and were rewarded with incredible views over the city. After repeatedly telling Ali we didn’t want to visit a jewellery shop, he took us anyway. We walked in and walked straight out. This was the moment our friendship with Ali took a downward trajectory. His facade had been undone. He was not a tour guide, but a tuk tuk driver, who wanted us to visit his mate’s shops – in the hope we’d part with our cash. We quickly grew tired of this, so ended the tour early. On paying the agreed price, he was obviously annoyed we hadn’t given him a tip. We were annoyed, he was annoyed. At least, we all felt the same.
That evening, we stumbled across a local cricket match, so spectated from the side of the stadium. It was nice to experience India’s main sport being played at a grassroots level. Afterwards, we boarded an overnight train to Udaipur. I was housed in a cabin with two vibrant, extroverted Indian guys. They provided a much needed mood lift. When one of them discovered that I had cycled to India, his response had me in fits of laughter.
I woke up to my cabin mate announcing: “We have arrived in Udaipur!” His Indian accent sounded strange, but made for a hilarious story when I told Joe. An impersonation that was exaggerated at every retelling.
Udaipur is known as the Switzerland of India, and for good reason. The town is surrounded by crystal clear lakes, small forested hills, floating palaces, and a peacefulness I’d not experienced in India before. Its cobbled streets were wide enough only for motorcycles – a Cornish charm, I thought.
A young guy approached us, he wanted to show us a picture of him and Judi Dench, which was in his shop. Having zero patience for another sales pitch, we continued on to the City Palace. “The City Palace is closed for lunch, it’s not open for an hour”, he yelled as we left. On reaching our destination, we found it was not closed for lunch. The guided tour around the City Palace was worth every penny – we got an insight into the lives of the Royal Family, who still live there, and stepped back in time for a short period.
Nothing beats getting lost in a bazaar, so we spent the remainder of the day walking the city’s stalls. I bought postcards to send home, a way to mark the journey’s six month point. That night, we drank beers on the roof of the hotel and relaxed for the first time.
Udaipur had been the saving grace of India. Before catching the night train back to Delhi, we arrived at a buddhist temple just in time to witness a food offering ceremony to the Gods. It involved incense, worshippers singing in chorus and instrumental ricochets.
It was our last train ride, so we booked a first class cabin for the 12 hour journey. The train had been the best part of India, so we arrived at the station early, eager to get comfortable.
Woken by an endless banging on the door, I pulled back the curtain. Two porters stood outside. “Get off the train, you’ve arrived at New Delhi”, they announced. I opened the door and told them we’d be five minutes. We had to pack and get changed. I closed the door and locked it. The banging continued. “You’ve arrived at New Delhi, you must get off the train,” they continued, disregarding what I’d just said. One porter pulled on the sliding door, even though he saw me lock it. New Delhi was the last stop. The way the porters were going at the door, you’d think we’d refused to leave the train. That we’d glued ourselves to the window pane like climate activists in an art gallery. “I know, I said we’d be five minutes”, I yelled through the window.
After dropping our bags at the hostel, we raced across New Delhi to the Red Fort. Outside, a news reporter ran up to us and asked what I thought of India. I gave an honest review. In the Fort, we paid for a tour guide to show us around – he told us stories of ancient Maharajas, Emperors, and the British. Satisfied, we parted with our cash and walked around the Fort’s museum, dedicated to India’s long struggle for independence – a history that didn’t paint the British in the best light.
A short trip through the bazaar and to one of India’s largest mosques, we ended the day at the New Delhi Arch. As we strolled to a restaurant for dinner, a homeless man with a long walking stick came over to us and asked for money. We didn’t have any, but he insisted. We started to walk quicker. I turned around. “Mate, he’s picked up the pace,” I said to Joe.
A few seconds later. “Ed, he’s running!” Joe proclaimed.
I looked back to see that he was in fact running towards us.
“RUUUNNNN”, I yelled.
At that moment, we were being chased through New Delhi by a long bearded homeless man waving a walking stick in our direction. We flew down the subway stairs, ran under the road and up the stairs onto the other-side. We stopped, made sure we’d lost him, caught our breath, and then uncontrolled laughter ensued. What had just happened.
I stood outside the hostel and saw Joe off – I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t envious. He was headed home; comforts, law and order, cleanliness, (my version of) normality.
Up until this point, I had barely ridden alone. To distract myself from the anxiety of an impending, open-ended spell of loneliness, I spent the day figuring out a route through India; my options were:
Cycle north to Nepal - cross Nepal west to east - cycle back into India and down to Kolkata,
Head south to Mumbai and cycle across to Chennai,
Ride through the most populous region of India - reach Varanasi in time for Diwali (holiest city during the holiest festival) - leave the bicycle in Kolkata for one week - take a return train trip to Darjeeling - fly out of Kolkata.
In hindsight, I should have gone with option 1. However, my initial thought was I’d already been to Nepal and didn’t have time to trek, which is what I would have done if I’d gone. Also, there would have been difficulties obtaining a second visa to re-enter India. Again, I didn’t really have time for option two – and it wasn’t close enough to Goa or Kerala to make it worth it. That left option 3. In fairness, I’d always wanted to visit Varanasi and being there for Diwali was a big draw.
Kolkata was the closest airport, in India, to Myanmar. The country was at war, and still is, so once again the journey would hit a brick wall. I had sent emails to cargo ship companies in a bid to catch a ride – all of which replied saying Covid had put an end to passengers until at least 2023. That cemented Kolkata and, regretfully, another plane ticket.
I needed a break from India, so I went to the cinema. Coincidentally, the nearest one to the hostel was an expensive, table service affair. I didn’t care what I saw, I just wanted to forget where I was for a few hours. The only film in English was a rom-com with Julia Roberts and George Clooney. Worst case, I would fall asleep.
The national anthem played before the film started. Everyone stood up and sang. I was a fly-on-a-wall in a cult.
Once the film started, spectators picked up their phones and answered calls, replied to messages and scrolled through social media... I had paid ten British pounds to watch a film I didn’t want to see, to escape. Yet the lack of consideration for others had found its way into the theatre. I found it infuriating. If that scene was repeated in Europe, they’d be removed from the cinema.
Fast forward five weeks and I was in Kolkata. I brought up the topic of phone use in cinemas with an Indian guy. He laughed it off and suggested: “You have to remember that India only received 4G in 2016, so everyone is obsessed with their phones.”
I’m almost certain, when the UK got 4G in 2012, people didn’t answer calls in the movie theatre.