In Kyrgyzstan I had the opportunity of a rest break and spent some time relaxing before I had to fly. I started the process for my Indian visa after lengthy negotiations at the embassy. To get the longest visa possible (India is big...) the consul agreed to issue my visa the day before I flew, which made me a little nervous but I decided to trust him. 21 hours before I flew I collected the visa and it was all as promised and I could breath a sigh of relief. I decided to take a flight to India for a few reasons, partly for ease of co-ordinating my arrival with that of a close friend of mine from home who has flown out to meet me. Also, because travelling south through Tibet or the Kashmir region of Pakistan/India would be challenging and expensive. As this would have been north-south travel it would, technically, not contribute towards my west-east based goal of circumnavigation and would stretch my tight budget with no overall gain. Although I would have seen some amazing scenery!
Arriving in Delhi was quite a big shock to the system. The heat was slightly lower than it had been in Kyrgyzstan but humidity here is stifling, like breathing through a damp sponge. Also, as you may have heard, it's noisy and busy and dirty. A world away from the relaxation of Kyrgyzstan. As I arrived by plane there was no gradual transition for me either, I was thrown right into the middle of it all. I reassembled my bike and broke my chain-breaker in the process, luckily I found a “bike shop” just down the road from our hostel who could no doubt help. He placed my chain on an old nut, positioned a ball-bearing on top of the pin and hit it with a hammer a few times before charging me 20p for his services. I could have done that myself and saved the 20p, but it was probably foolish of me to expect a more professional approach so far from home.
After a day of rest came the usual fun of securing the visa for the next country, in this case, Myanmar. The country formally known as Burma has only recently opened up to tourism and the political situation there (especially around the borders) is sketchy at best. I was aware I needed a permit to cross the border by land as well as my standard tourist visa, but my visa application was refused because I didn't have the permit. My permit application was then refused because I didn't have the visa. Catch 22. A lot of emails back and forth, some swearing, three return bike rides through the city, some help from the consul and a frantic dash to the bank and the visa was mine. I was then finally able to begin the process of applying for my border permit, hoping it would be ready (or at least confirmed as refused) before I went too far towards the border. Not having the permit would mean a long ride back to Calcutta to catch a flight to Myanmar instead.
With all the office work in order I was able to leave India's capital city and carry on with my route, this time, with Nancy for company. We headed south for two days to Agra, home of the Taj Mahal, although I didn't actually go inside, because I'm grumpy, a skinflint and the hotel had wifi which I could have used to update this website, if I wasn't also lazy.
The traffic, as expected, is extremely chaotic. But, I have to say, despite it's challenges it's a lot of fun. Rules of the road are completely disregarded (priority on and off of roundabouts is reversed for some reason that I simply cannot fathom) and everybody seems to think they have right of way at all times, but there's a certain element of respect and focus among road users that is lacking back in Europe. The best thing about Indian roads is that bicycles are everywhere, carrying everything! This means motorists are well conditioned to driving in their presence and as a result, the roads are, ironically, somewhat less intimidating than Europe. In roughly 300km of riding on Indian roads, I was yet to see even a minor collision OR a single angry exchange between road users.
It was good to have a riding partner who, from the outset, understood me. It meant the conversations were much faster, with less time needed to explain myself. We did now however have a new problem, finding places to sleep. I knew the truck stops would happily allow us to stay the night for free, but for Nancy, a female, sharing grimy “accommodation” of this sort with even grimier truck drivers was not really an option. So we had to find hotels each night and try to negotiate reasonable prices, this often meant riding a lot further than intended or stopping much shorter. Generally though her attitude was to push on and try to save the extra time for more rest days. And somehow it worked out, as it usually does.
We stuck to mainly highways which meant smooth riding with a decent amount of space amongst the plethora of overloaded vehicles of all shapes and sizes that frequent Indian roads. We took an extra day off in Lucknow, visiting the Residency where the occupying Brits got shot up real good by an Indian rebellion in 1857. It wasn't the most enthralling historic monument, but the peace and quiet in the gardens was a Godsend after being amongst such heavy traffic constantly, seemingly even in our hotel rooms. We took some smaller roads on our way to Allahabad and realised the highways were actually more peaceful, as well as better surfaced. Staying in a hotel in Allahabad, I locked my bike in their garage and rats gnawed through my brand new pannier. This brought me very little pleasure.
Entering Varanasi was almost a disappointment for me. Having been painted mental images by people I'd met and books I'd read of corpses littering the streets and the old and infirm wandering aimlessly through human excrement awaiting death. It was really quite serene and for the first time I saw a glimmer of the spiritual side of India. Both of us exhausted, we had made it to the hostel with a few spare days to enjoy this interesting city on the Ganges. And eat pizza in the Brown Bread Bakery, which was quite nice. Nancy even made the effort to take a 4:30am boat tour of the Ghats. I did not.
For a first-time cycle tourist, facing a baptism of fire on India's traffic-choked highways and city streets, Nancy did a good job and only fell over once. Whilst pushing the bike. As for me, I was beginning to feel the cracks emerging in my resolve. Don't get me wrong, I don't dislike India. And I certainly don't dislike the people. Travelling here seems like a great amount of fun for the people I met in the hostels and my own friends back home. When I've been off the bike and roaming on foot I too have had a fantastic time. But for cycle-touring this country is THE WORST. And after less than 1000km it felt like India had beaten my resolution to a pulp.
Nancy ended her tour of India as she had begun it, with a stay in a Stops Hostel. This one however forbade alcohol, so we bought a bottle of vodka on our way into the city and decanted it into a Pepsi bottle for incognito consumption, like teenagers on a park bench.