Tuesday, December 14, 2010

A Close Look at India

The sun never sets on New Delhi. At about fifteen degrees above the horizon it just fades away into the haze.

This malaise relates to my emotional state during the two weeks' recovery I took from Steve's and my astonishingly epic Spiti Valley cycle tour. I was largely locked up in my hotel room finally finishing Vikram Seth's obscenely obese novel A Suitable Boy (reviewed in my Book Blog) and emerged only to tour the town's old forts and mosques, to vote in the Victorian state election, to launch the local graticule into history as November's most successful (along with Germany's Frankfurt) and to finally have my bike fixed.

It was on this latter outing that I gleaned one of my many insights into Indian culture I was soon to accumulate. As Vikram Seth had recently wryly warned me, Indians want employment, not work. The staff at the Firefox foreign bicycle repair shop rolled their languid eyes in their sockets at the expectation of an interruption to their sloth. The job they did was so pathetic it left my decaying pannier rack to occasionally wobble into the back tyre, my gears reduced from 27 to three and, most excitingly of all, my left pedal crank to come off onto the freeway as I attempted one of my four geohashes.

Returning home to my hotel room, powered by a single leg, I further soured my mood by cutting off the tip of my left, little finger while making apple/yoghurt salad. Weirdly I felt no pain as the knife sliced through my skin, but annoyingly I couldn't find the chunk of flesh to have it sown back on - it was lost in my meal (which became damned tough to stomach, I can tell you). Apart from a small dimple it's grown back now, including the fingerprint, so it can't have been as bad as I'd remembered it.

These signs indicated it was time to leave. However, almost at the moment of departure I suddenly found myself with a social life. My new companions included an English backpacker whose passport had been stolen in Dharamsala (those slimy Buddhist monks...) and a German team who knew my friends the Blundys from working at their Melbourne bushwalking gear shop.

And so, gingerly maneuvering my bike through the sticky haze and hectic traffic I left New Delhi to cycle 1,650 kilometres to Mumbai over the next three weeks. Leaving the city's protective perimeter of cargo elephants and wild dogs I emerged from the irritation-inducing cacophony of car-horns to the calm of the countryside.

I can only account for how annoyed I get at the horny sound of Indian traffic by having grown up in a land where horns are used mainly in anger. In India they're used as reverse sonar: not to acquire information of the vehicle's surroundings but to inform the surroundings of the vehicle's arrival.

The easy ride to Jaipur should have been a metaphorical walk, but two days into the trip I found myself punching through a wall of water on a major highway, waving my hands in front of my face to ward off the rain. The traffic was so bad one crash had trucks backed up for several kilometres and I had to snake may way between them to make any progress at all. A knowledgeable Jaipur local told me it was the heaviest rain this desert-state had experienced in 129 years. The mechanical fallout from this rain-ride was quite severe: the muddy water undid all the good work done by a decent bike shop in Delhi and ultimately inflicted eight punctures on my brand new tyres.

Arriving in Jaipur, the capital of colourful Rajastan - a state delineated from its neighbours at the bullock-cart/camel-train boundary - I set out to find a suitable hotel. One potential candidate refused to store my bike anywhere other than on the street out the front, explaining that all their 25,000 rupee motor-scooters are kept there and my bike "must only be worth 2,000 rupees at the most". Never having my bike so insulted in its life, I bitterly explained its actual cost as I turned away: rupees a half-lakh.

I ended up spending a rest day in Jaipur while waiting for the rain to be relinquished, checking out the palaces and forts and hanging out with an English/Dutch couple who'd hit the 'India Wall' and were willing to whinge (and good on 'em too, I'm always up for a good whinge).

Back on the road, I stopped off at a cute town named Tonk a few days later where I met a young gentleman calling himself Prince who was all too keen to show me around his beloved environs. I was amazed when he instructed me to lie about my Melbournian origins - instead introducing me to his friends as a Londoner - due to the anti-Australian sentiment wrought by the Melbourne Bashings Saga. Were the atrocities of the British Raj so forgettable?

It was during this time that I suffered the most from my failing bike. Luckily, although running out of spare tubes and tyre levers for my flats, I discovered the joys of the puncture-professionals: every two kilometres or so along even the smallest roads (which I preferentially traversed) a waiting shack effected fast and cheap repairs.

Later on, when I could no longer endure the rattliness of my crank shaft, I surrendered my bike to a more formidable bike shop. The repairmen immediately began dismembering my bike with a hammer and chisel - I tried to stop them but they held me back like bouncers at a bar-fight, yelling at me in Hindi "Five minutes! Five minutes!" Not only did they completely fix the problem, but they refused any payment, communicating with one graceful gesture, "What mongrels would we be if we charged you, a guest of our great nation?"

Sadly, most of the gestures I encounter are quite infuriating. Like the way they always try to get me to stop by patting their hand at the road and hissing as though they're taming a goat. Another great Indian gesture is the 'Why?': up-curled fingers of the right hand poking the air as though passing a cricket ball to itself. I try to answer their incredulity by explaining that only through cycle touring can one truly appreciate the scale of the landscape, that an India emerges that's hidden from monument-hopping train travellers, and that the freedom, pace and openness of a push-bike allows an integration with one's immediate surroundings impossible in a fast, enclosed vehicle. They walk away muttering to themselves, "Money troubles".

Also causing confusion is my solitude. Indians never do anything alone and are only ever seen in large groups.

"How many people are you?" They often ask.

"How many people do I look like??" I retort, feigning offense.

These questions I can cope with - I'm always amazed at the destructiveness of Indians' curiosity. They play with my gears and cables when I stop for chai, they try to bend the brake's discs even when I'm standing right next to them (one guy actually fetched an enormous spanner for the job, no doubt interested to test the yield strength of Western alloys), and, if I fail to satisfy their questions, they will occasionally drive their motorbikes just in front of me and slam on the brakes, forcing me to engage them in extended, if animated, post-collision conversation.

They are also obsessed with money and status. Since I have no caste (other than 'untouchable' for having travelled over water) they can only befriend me if they can place me in their hierarchy. I try to explain that I really don't feel comfortable detailing my annual salary, bank balance and wealth of relatives, yet they persist. One insecure member of the 'scheduled castes', who had nevertheless hit the big-time, interrogated me for over an hour to determine if he was 'higher' than me.

Physical money is also a frequent obsession: I try in vain to explain that after fourteen months on the road and constant requests for 'Australian money' I am completely out. In fact, as you may remember from my Airport Dramas, I began my trip with less than one dollar on me - the only souvenir I have from Australia is the key to my parents' house, a reminder that I can always go home (unless they've changed the locks on me). In frustration at their disbelief I'm often forced to wave my ATM card in their face, saying, "See this? THIS is my Australian money!".

Occasionally, in the smallest towns, this currency sentiment extends to extremes. The following is a common conversion I have in broken Hindi (expressive hand-waving also translated):

"Hi, do you have a room?"

"No, go to the next town"

"What about that room over there? That looks nice"

"You can't stay there, it costs money".

"That's fine, I intend to pay with money".

"Oh! You have Indian rupees!? Come on in!"

It's amazing how many un-touristed locals seem to think we can only spend money in our home-nation's currency.

Continuing the journey, I worked my way along tiny roads through the Rajastani partial-desert that looked like they'd last been sealed at independence, the remnants of ancient bitumen protruding on pedestals like meteorites in Antarctica. It was during this time that I experienced one of only two thefts of my whole trip. Having locked my bike in the supposedly safe garage area of one hotel I emerged in the morning to discover that person or persons unknown had broken into the compound at night and stolen... my handlebar grips!

Apart from the feeling of violation that besets victims of burglary I felt triumphant that my grips were the only items these vagabonds could run off with without employing any tools (or understanding the concept of quick-release). Of course, my mood changed when I realised I had to hold the bare handle-bar for the next thousand kilometres until I found fitting replacements.

However, soon I arrived in Udaipur: one of the most beautiful places in India - a blue city on the banks of an ancient artificial lake surrounding Moghul palaces and gardens. For James Bond fans out there, this is where Octopussy was filmed, and it is this, the silliest of all Bond flicks, that is shown nightly at over half-a-dozen restaurants - no doubt boring the pants off the staff. Udaipur is also plagued with Australians. One Melbournian pair accompanied me around a luxurious island in the central lake, and I was invited by my extremely obliging hotel manager to his nephew's wedding party along with four Sydneysian girls, another year-long traveller named Ally as their ring-leader (thanks for winging that one, Ally!).

This was quite an experience, with supposedly 1,400 guests arriving from all over Rajastan but providing absolutely no alcohol - it being a strict Muslim affair. The food, however, was incredibly delicious and never-ending. I somehow got roped into chanting a prayer to Allah at the marriage signing and cheesy Indian dancing with the young male set at the night's end. The guys kept on asking in hushed and impressed tones how it was I'd managed to acquire an entourage of four beautiful girls - it all comes down to class, I explained.

One interesting conversation I had with an otherwise charming young woman was about the differences in marriage culture between India and the west. "In India, our parents choose only the best husband for us - that's why our divorce rate is so much lower than in western countries", she told me. I bit my tongue.

Another way in which I think Indian culture is in the wrong is on the roads. Yes, being a former Arts student I should say it's all relative and that no culture is better than any other and whatever. Well tough, on the roads India has got it wrong. In many respects I've found that while India is a nation of hard-nosed pragmatists, I'm a romantic idealist. I was so infuriated by people driving on the wrong side of the road in the impressive port city of Surat I stopped each one and explained to them in unintelligible Hindi how their dangerous actions diminish traffic-flow. Long lectures are also unleashed upon rubbish lobbing locals of city streets. The most insane example of their hawkish road culture is at railway crossings: while waiting for the train to pass, not only do they queue up on the left side, opportunists also jam up the right. This means that when the gates open the traffic is completely stuck - often until after the NEXT train has passed (although, as a cyclist, I'm largely immune from the gridlock).

Having said all that, the locals are always eager to help me out and are never interested in charging for it. I'm over-run by offers for village tours and chai chats, most of which I must refuse. They're always tolerant of my poor Hindi skills and obliging when it comes to directions (although I always have to ask at least three people and take the average). India as a culture, though, can be a real selfish prick, even if the individuals themselves could not be more well-meaning.

Leaving Rajastan behind I had entered the coastal state of Gujarat, just as my left shoe finally rejected its cleat. Because of this the next three days forced me into a state of exhaustion as all the muscles I'd built up in my calves slowly migrated to my thighs where they were now needed.

My major destination during this time was Ahmadabad (lodged on the intriguingly spelled Rann of Kachchh) where I'd arranged to meet a friend-of-a-friend who was new to India and needed some tips. For this I lost a couple of days to detour several hundred gut-busting kilometres to meet her at our arranged time and place. Unfortunately, not only was she a no-show, but I never heard from her again. My annoyance is tempered slightly by my concern her flight may have been consumed by an expanding black hole, but no doubt she decided to terminate our nascent friendship due to the embarrassment of her epic stand-up.

In the end the detour was worth-while anyway, Ahmadabad being a very different and intriguing Muslim city of tranquil mosques and intricate wooden facades. Leaving the city a day later I embarked upon my next quest: finding the ocean. For this purpose I as usual bought a state road atlas for navigation which allowed me to explore roads invisible to my national map. In fact, the state atlases were so detailed they described roads that weren't even rendered in the real world.

One such sojourn into the nether-world of non-existent roads took me to the coastal micro-state of Daman & Diu. When the winding roads ran out I was directed to haul my bike through thick scrub along an animal track for several kilometres, cross a precarious railway truss bridge over a wide river and was then forced to push my bike along several kilometres of railway track. It was with some concern that I realised that the concentration required to keep my bike on its rail severely limited my ability to detect on-coming trains.

The low-point of this desperate lunge towards the old Portugese colony of Daman was when I fell flat on my side trying to ride over a slippery ford, soaking the left-half of my luggage. The local villagers stood around giving me the "Why?" gesture, an image burnt into my brain.

When I finally got to Daman I almost immediately executed my emergency zombie invasion procedures (precisely honed after hundreds of hours of careful planning while riding through Rajastan). The entire state seemed to be comprised of stumbling brain-hungry corpses, some even collapsed in ditches - this told me a lot about the enclave's liquor licensing laws.

My rest day in Daman was amazingly refreshing (despite the beach's suffocating reek of rotting fish). Watching the sun set over the sea finally ended an ocean drought since Hong Kong and a beach-drought since Vietnam. This also marked the beginning of my long cyclo-beach-tour of the Konkani coastline.

Sadly, on my last day before Mumbai, staying in the atomic town of Boisar, I was forced by the cops to rejoin the highway on suspicion of being intent on Maharashtra's nuclear destruction, or perhaps on having a desire to steel some uranium-235 for my own atomic ambitions. Anyway, I was happy to leave: the town seemed to harbour the largest density of mosquitoes on the planet. They must be breeding in the cooling ponds.

On my final approach to Mumbai, topping off 22 days from Delhi, I was pretty worried about getting creamed by the traffic of Rushdie's 'failed metropolis'. With fifty kilometres to go I was just wishing I could get it over and done with... until I saw the vast ominous wall of flats emerging from the gloom like an oncoming sandstorm.

But I'm afraid you'll have to wait for the next blog post to find out if I survived the onslaught...

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Spiti Valley

When organising this cycle tour in Himachel Pradesh's Spiti Valley – a remote Himalayan area of northern India on the border with Tibet – Steve asked me if he should bring bike lights.

"Well, I try never to ride at night," I explained. "In fact, I've only ever had to use my lights once in the last 4,900 kilometres."

It was a good thing Steve decided to take his lights anyway: on just as many nights as not we found ourselves struggling along poorly maintained and totally deserted dirt roads, often covered in ice and snow, fighting away the cold wrapped up in almost all our clothing and desperately searching for somewhere - anywhere - that could provide us with a bed.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

I'd just got back from my crazy dry run of Himachel Pradesh and had a day and a half to prepare for Steve's arrival. My triumphal return to the dusty Indian capital marked the one year anniversary of my travels so far (in honour of which I changed the title of my blog) and I celebrated this great feat of overland locomotion with a last desperate bid for a Pakistani tourist visa.

Unfortunately, I ruined my chances by greeting the high commission official with "Namaste".

"I'm not a Hindu, I'm a Muslim! You must say 'Salaam'!" I was told angrily before being turned away.

Giving up on this I rode out on my bike to meet Steve at the airport. The traffic was quite light in the night-plunged city, but the road heading out to the terminal turned out to be a violently busy elevated tollway (which is free for me: big signs declare that those exempt from payment include the President of India and cyclists).

So it was with some disguised relief that I discovered that Steve, having arrived as one of the few passengers to have his luggage not lost by the airline, had forgotten to bring his front wheel's skewer, forcing us to take a taxi back into town.

Steve's troubles continued when he realised he'd left his GoreTex jacket (and only weatherproof item of clothing) on the plane, and then dropped half his D-lock onto the street below our hotel balcony. Although it was lucky he didn't kill anyone, Steve got an early lesson in Indian sociology when the useless U-bend of metal comprising his lock was stolen in the 20 seconds it took him to run downstairs.

Although I certainly can't complain about Steve's bike woes, having just discovered my pannier rack's bolt had sheered off inside my bike frame. The rack would continue to disintegrate over the course of our journey.

Sleeping away the train ride in a state of fear that all our stuff would get nicked, we missed the dead-boring scenery on the way to Kalka. I spent some of the time watching Starship Troopers on my ipod (through my new shaped earphones that give me the sense of being aurally penetrated), part of the 12 GB of new data Steve brought along with his good self from various well-wishers at home, and I had to fend off curious railway workers eager to witness the reputed rampant sex scenes of Hollywood films.

After missing our original narrow-gauge toy-train to Shimla and getting our tickets transferred to the next one (I'm used to it - just getting to this stage involved canceling ten-person-journeys worth of tickets before hitting upon the right permutation) we were on our way up the mountains to my old stomping ground.

The afternoon spent in this idyllic mountain city was far from ideal. Stress levels remained high even after we'd discovered our bikes hadn't been ‘disappeared’ but were amazingly delivered to the platform on the later train specified. Finding a bus that would take us as far up towards the Spiti Valley as possible was our first priority, as was fixing Steve's front brakes, the current state of which precluded him from being even remotely mobile.

The rest of the afternoon was spent in the primal search for foods and phones and fighting against the mosh-pit like crush of thousands of Indian pilgrims of tourism on Shimla's curving main bazaar, an experience akin to swimming up a waterfall or mining gold with a fork.

This third leg of our frantic transportation to the beginning of our now almost mythical cycle tour was by far the worst. We could sense it coming while standing in the urine-soaked bus depot while hastily cramming down take-away chowmein before our bus could depart without our bikes firmly ocky-strapped to the roof. The journey itself I found fine, learning afterwards I'd slept most of the way through it, but Steve bore the traumatic scares of its wild ride upon our alightment in Rekong Peo at 3:30am.

These were scares of sleep deprivation - after letting him expunge himself of them amongst wandering cows, random rubbish and an insouciant dero I found him a hotel in which he could complete his rest in warmth before the midday checkout time.

The rest of the day was spent absorbed in the horror of Indian bureaucracy as we failed to book a return train ticket to Delhi but eventually succeeded in gaining permits to enter the Spiti Valley. Sadly, this ordeal took several hours, being walked into and out of offices, having documents stamped, signed and ignored and clinging to the skirts of nonchalantly powerful town officials, until we found ourselves with miss-matched permits at 4pm with 60 kilometres still to ride. On the other hand, we had cutely managed to procure matching woolen jumpers for this experience, enveloping ourselves in the illusory layer of invincibility these garments bestowed.

The fun began immediately. We were in a deep valley, negotiating a road scalloped from a vertical cliff-face, surrounded by towering Himalayan protuberances, the sun setting behind a few whispy clouds clinging lugubriously to their peaks. As it got dark we were plunged into that type of despair reserved for riding along a dangerous road at night in the Himalayas without a definite bed at the end of it, but, as usually happens, when it stopped getting dark and was just dark we felt much better. Finding a truck-stop hot meal and later a guesthouse and beer helped too.

The morning produced excellent weather and more incredible scenery, all the better to spend fighting with my pannier rack to prevent the opposite bolt from sheering through. But soon we were on our way, passing through the town of Puh and either ricocheting off Tibet or entering its disputed border region, depending on which map you look at (hence the permits). It didn’t escape my notice that if we’d been positioned properly within our respective countries I could have met my mum here as she’s now living in China.

Possibly the coolest part of the day was climbing up from the bottom of the Spiti Valley into a narrow, precipitous gorge. The road was barely a lane wide and its shape, gouged out from the cliff, produced an eerie wind-tunnel effect. Steve chose that moment to finally divest himself of his now useless D-lock half, hurling it ceremoniously into the river far below us.

The arduous switch-backed climb to the hillside town of Nako, amid panoramic views of vast mountain ranges beyond our reach, marked not only the point at which Steve expressed his wussy desire to hitch a jeep ride, for which I'm still unable to forgive him, but also my epic kilometre-stone of having cycle-toured 5,000 Ks through Asia. To put this in human terms, this is a respectable one 60 trillionth of the distance to the super-massive black hole at the centre of our galaxy. You certainly can't say I'm not making progress.

The final seven kilometres of this ascent, again at night, produced one of the most amazing northern star fields I've ever seen, unhindered by intervening atmosphere (although the north looks away from the galactic core, missing all the action).

A lazy morning produced some serene scenes of the Tibetan town, with which we were so delighted I accidentally left my non-folding spare tyre in our room (Steve had brought it for me from Melbourne but I'd been so lazy I never installed it for the trip at all). Before I rushed back for it Steve asked me if I wanted him to push on ahead up the road, being slower than me. "No," I said, "It's best if we don't get too separated."

Flying back down the hill, my panniers left in Steve's care, I encountered a rare fellow cycle tourist (and the only other westerner for the whole valley) whom I didn't stop to greet, choosing to catch up with him on my way back.

Returning, tyre in hand, to the small shrine where I last saw Steve an unpleasant chill passed across my skin. He was nowhere to be found... and nor were my panniers. Searching the roadside temple, the steep cliffs and a small hut nearby, no trace would present itself. I scoured the opposing cliffs for signs of either Steve or my panniers up ahead, but to no avail. Realisation hit me: Steve had left them on the roadside to push on, and they'd been stolen by a passing vehicle. Hastily re-planning my trip to be compatible with the loss of my wallet, passport, books and other luggage I opened out my lungs to the cold Himalayan air and screamed an invitation for the mountains themselves to sexually violate my friend.

Resigned to my fate I pushed on until, rounding a bend, what did I find but Steve, carrying all four panniers and chatting to our new cycle touring buddy. He'd elected (rather uselessly in my opinion) to carry all our gear 50 metres up the road instead of sitting idle, for which I cannot thank him.

Our new friend turned out to be a Canadian cycle tourist by the name of Nathan, a mechanic by trade, who'd managed to cycle all the way here continuously and circuitously from Nairobi. Having toured on his own for the last year and a half (30,000 kilometres he estimates) he was very happy to join our small group for the day, sharing some incredible touring stories with which my own experiences cannot compete.

Further down the road we were stopped at a checkpoint and asked to show our papers. Like the previous time this happened we were forced to assume each other's identities so the photos printed on our messed-up permits matched our names and details. When interrogated on this point, Steve floundered around guessing my birth date while I unsubtly gave him hand-signals under the table. When it came for my turn to guess Steve's birth date it slowly emerged from desperate mutterings and cryptic finger configurations that it was the 28th of October, 1980.

"Hey, what a coincidence - that's exactly thirty years ago from today," I noted once we were safely away from the checkpoint. "Wait a minute! That means that today is your 30th birthday! Happy Birthday Steve!"

Okay, I dramatise: I did have some idea Steve's birthday would fall sometime during our trip. But that didn't prevent the three of us from partying it up at the next town of Tabo. We found ourselves staying in a beautiful monastic guest house, although this didn't seem to excite the qualms of the Tibetan Buddhist monks in serving us a few celebratory beers.

We split up with our friend Nathan for the following day's ride (and were not to see him again until discovered on our last day in a pitiable state), but not before enlisting him in the fight against mechanical breakdowns. Sadly, his expertise did not extend to hydraulic disc brakes and I spent the day without trustworthy stopping power. Some of the unprotected sheer ledges by the side of the slippery, gravelly road caused concern bordering on terror.

It wasn't long before we had ascended well into the snow-line. We marked this occasion with a picnic to consume the half kilo of oil-soaked tuna we'd bought in the regional capital of Kaza. This was almost not enough to get us through the rest of the day: a painful slog into the cold wind while climbing up snow-scoured glaciated valleys and through desolate Tibetan villages. When at last we reached rest, at the gompa town of Losar, we were warmly welcomed into the hearthy home of a local family and fell into a languid heat-embalmed repose in front of the kids' cartoons. I, sadly, was committed to my mandatory two hours bike maintenance per day that this tour inflicted on me in order to ensure the road-worthiness of my escape vehicle.

Setting off in the morning for the dreaded 4,551 metre elevation Kunzum Pass we asked a local whether the town of Batal on the other side had accommodation. His answer, that there wasn't and we'd have to continue on for another 30 kilometres to the even smaller town of Chattru, was immediately dismissed. If we believed that we'd be totally screwed. So we put him and his helpful comments out of our minds until sunset when they came smashing violently back down upon us like an icy sledge-hammer.

It was actually a great relief when we began the climb through the snow up to this feared pass: the sun was shining, my brakes were working again and the thin air was causing oxygen to pool in the back of our brains causing a mild delirium. As our wheels crunched the ice encrusted puddles and sank into road’s deepening dusting of snow we admired peripherally the curly frozen rivers beneath us and the soft white mountains above us. And at last the pinnacle of our efforts: Kunzum La! With impeccable timing this achievement coincided with the compete destruction of one side of my pannier rack. The side containing Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy.

For the excessively exciting downhill ride to the town of Batal Steve was kind enough to suggest a swap of panniers – his were half the weight of mine and would impart less pressure on my rack. However, as we descended from the pass, past waterfalls frozen mid-air and into the deepening desolation of the cirrus-enshrouded glaciated valley, a new concern consumed us: Batal had been abandoned for the winter, its walls buried beneath a metre of snow. And the sun would soon set.

Picking up our pace alongside the crazed glacier following us downhill, we spent the next six hours struggling through darkness with only Jupiter’s unimpressed glare to keep us company, hoping to encounter some sort of vehicle. I don’t have much memory of this time, except for a few snapshots of Steve smashing at the ice encrusted on his frame with his pedal spanner and fixing a few flats while I kludged up my rack with packing straps.

We awoke in the tiny town of Chattru, finding ourselves curled up in beds at a general store: the only inhabited structure for over 30 kilometres. What miraculous luck had brought us here late last night? It was all a blur now.

We began that morning, after many hours’ bike maintenance, thinking we’d just have an easy day to the village down the road, but when we reached the turnoff for the next pass – Rohtang La at 3,978 metres, a 600 metre climb – we just couldn’t resist, even if it meant another night descent. The trudge to the top took three cold, windy hours, passing trucks on the way to Leh and periodically peeking over the peaks to Kashmir. Having loose snow blown off the slope into our faces competed with deep muddy bogs to bring down our enjoyment of the spectacular scenery, but at last, as the sun set, we rounded the summit. Stopping briefly to warm our fingers at a fire somehow connected with a nearby vehicular collision we began our controlled fall to truck-stop town Marhi. Luckily, this sunset descent was much easier to cope with than the previous night’s, with our destination invitingly shining out to us the whole way like a comfy-looking globular cluster.

The final day down to Manali was one of the most satisfying. The road was the best sealed bitumen we’d come across so far, allowing a consistent downhill glide, and the mountain-enclosed landscape had a real European Alps feel to it (not that I’d know) – so different from the harsh Himalayan hostility on the other side of the pass. It was during this decadent descent that we coalesced once more with Nathan. Just after we’d separated at Tabo he’d suffered extreme hypoxia from the altitude, and as a result contracted pneumonia. Luckily hitching a ride on a jeep to Marhi he’d had just enough strength to endure the glide to Manali before we checked him into the local hospital. It’s been over three weeks and the last I heard he was still there.

Finally it was getting time to return to New Delhi. I'm pretty sure this was the most amazingly awesome and crazy cycle tour I've ever done - these eight days and 430 kilometres were really quite emotionally challenging in a way no other tour has even approximated. I was pretty glad I didn't have to do it alone. Due to the awesomeness Steve and I had spent over two full days recovering in Manali: drinking bad wine, eating icecream, fussing over Nathan's invalidity and watching an awesome trans-American mountain biking cycle touring DVD Steve had brought with him. Unfortunately the next night’s movie, Starship Troopers 3 on HBO, was so terrible it took me a week to get over the sense of betrayal.

Skipping the view on the way back by taking the night bus, we struggled to hold our bikes together for the final leg back to our hotel. To wish Steve farewell, India put on a spectacular Diwali festival that night: as we returned from a nocturnal urban geohash we were greeted by a post-apocalyptic war zone as random fireworks were giddily activated through the gunpowder haze. We felt like we should be taking down a government or something.

But in the sadness of Steve’s departure for a work conference on the Gold Coast, a Queensland cycle tour and then home, some good news: his GoreTex jacket had been recovered at the airport, keeping him warm for his flight back.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Wild Road

In my last post I left my readers dangling precariously on the fate of my bike as it and I took the train to the Sikh holy city of Amritsar. I'd decided to head to this Punjabi city and ride back to New Delhi through Himachel Pradesh as a dry run for my later cycle tour up in those parts with my friend Steve, flying in from Australia ten days later.

But on this uncertain journey I did not know if I’d be collapsed into a universe in which I was privy to the whereabouts of my bike or one in which it had been nicked by the New Delhi railway staff. Only observation at Amritsar would determine this.

It was during this time that my pants started falling apart, possibly out of sheer terror. Like the king pin in Ford's Model T car before them these pants seem to have been designed to fail catastrophically after a specific period of time: the material wore out in several places at once, the pockets all developed holes together and, crucially, both of the pocket’s zips broke within a few days of each other. These tough cycling shorts I'd been wearing for my entire trip were on their deathbed, pathetically kept on life support out of a perverse sense of poignancy.

I hadn't realised how much I'd relied on the zippability of these pants until my train ride to Amritsar, where, during the packed bustle and confusion of getting on and off different carriages in my attempt to find the one on which I was booked I sensed a hand casually inserted deep within my right pocket which contained my wallet... and the hand's fingers had wrapped themselves around that wallet... and those fingers, together with the hand to which they were attached, at that moment carefully maneuvering this wallet out my open pocket to its illusionary freedom. Ironically I only noticed this activity because I'd just been to an ATM to fatten my wallet up with cash, thus creating some geometrical difficulties in extracting it from my disintegrating pants. As soon as I became aware of this enterprise I used the only weapon I had at hand to prevent it: my right pannier overloaded with Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy, to crush the thief onto the floor of the train, leaving him to scuttle away through the fluxious forest of feet. Who says violence never solved anything?

Wallet secured I attended to my other major possession before departing the Amritsar station just before midnight. Thankfully I did end up being the lucky parallel Felix: after a brief panic I observed my bike being taken for a joy-ride along the platform by a member of the station staff (whose disappointment at being deprived of this exciting item was palpable). I was then presented with a new problem: finding somewhere to sleep in a city closed down for the night.

The obvious solution was to stay at Amritsar’s Golden Temple – headquarters of the martial Sikh religion. I’d heard they never close and allow pilgrims to eat and sleep there for free so I rode up to the gates, parked my bike in a cavernous bike-parking dungeon, deposited my panniers and shoes in enormous and efficient cloak-rooms designed for such things and donned the mandatory headscarf for entry. Inside the temple I was led to a patch of floor with a blanket over it upon which I quickly fell to sleep.

The morning afforded me an appreciation of my templous surroundings: the Golden Temple itself, sitting in the centre of a koi-filled lake surrounded by marble colonnades was aesthetic but not terribly exciting. What interested me was the food hall. Here, thousands of pilgrims were fed simultaneously while squatting on the marble floor in rows as indefatigable and exuberant volunteers dressed in outrageous purple turbans globbed food onto their plates.

Not quite ready to depart on my tour, whose route was still to be decided, I stayed for the rest of the day, exploring the town, getting into the local soft-serve ice-creams and even ignoring a perfectly accessible geohash right on the Pakistani border.

That night I found myself sleeping next to a guy who was not only a Melbournian, but also on a year-long trip having left on exactly the same day as me (and thus, weirdly, the same day as Nick and Trina from the previous post - what was it about the 21st of October 2009 that made people want to flee the sunburnt country?). However, the only coincidence that seemed to excite this amiable ex-high-flying-lawyer-now-professional-backpacker was the fact that we both barracked for the North Melbourne footy team (of whose fortunes the shame of my ignorance was matched only by my ineptness at hiding it).

Tearing myself away from my new friend from home the next morning I was away, off through the Punjab to the border town of Pathankot from where I would launch either a sober meander through the Himachel Pradesh foothills, a mad dash into Kashmir to prove how cool I am, or a suicidal puncturing of the Pakistani border in frustration at being barred legitimate means of entry. After first being politely yet firmly interrogated by the border police (whose information gathering techniques involved asking me questions while under the duress of disgustingly bitter vegetables), and then spending a terrifying night beneath the sonic booms from wave after wave of fighter jets screaming over the border a few kilomtres away into Kashmir, I decided to opt for the former choice and just ride into the peaceful Himalayan foothills.

Crossing the border into the Himalayan state the first thing I noticed (other than the sudden dearth of the Punjab's spectacularly delicious lassis) was that things instantly got a lot hillier. Since none of my maps were topographical I hoped this wasn't going to be a trend here. Exhaustingly, the rest of the day's undulating hills' eventual break into a solid climb two vertical kilomtres high to the Dalai Lama's home of McLeod Ganj near Dharamsala proved this trend to be almost asymptotic.

And no, before you ask, I did not get to meet Mr. Dalai Lama himself, meeting instead an A4 sheet of paper sticky-taped to his gate telling me he was too busy and that I should go away (my helpful plans for the Tibetan conquest of humanity left unheard).

On the glorious ride back down onto the plains I got quite lost, with one woman (a shaved British convert to Tibetan Buddhism) offering me directions to the low road and informatively pointing out I'd save petrol on the way down.

The next few days clarified an important aspect of my personality for me. Whenever I attempt something difficult it looks like I'm going to achieve I massively increase the difficulty until I'm pretty sure it can't be achieved. I had to be back in Delhi to meet Steve in six days' time, and my route would get me there in just over five days, assuming I rode 100 horizontal kilometres and climbed a vertical kilometre every day. I therefore lengthened my trip to include an additional climb to HP's capital Shimla, fully aware that this would turn a relaxed cycle through this scenic state into a panicky and exhausting dash.

However, this trip ended up being one of the most satisfying cycle tours I'd done, exclusive of events described later. The days were long and strenuous, riding up and down hills continuously, but the views were amazing, the people friendly and the roads smooth and largely empty. Along the way I met sadhus and school groups painted orange or dressed in Hanuman monkey suits roaming the streets in celebration of something, shared chai with local villagers inured to their spectacular views over the Gangetic plains and hobnobbed with English-speaking process engineers at a hilltop cement factory town.

But the following day disaster struck: my right pannier (yes, the one containing A Suitable Boy, which I was yet to even begin reading) fell off onto the road. I searched in vain for the lost bolt holding its clip together but was eventually forced to resort to an octopus strap. It took many days and several attempts at finding a bolt that would fit the counter-screwed socket before I was able to dispense with my bouncy kludgemanship. Little did I realise that this would be a foretaste for much worse pannier trouble to come.

I arrived at Shimla with a sense of elation. In fact, almost euphoria - I've found that whatever happiness turns out really to be, the two sure-fire ways of enhancing it are good music and physical exercise - having lost the former to a cable break in my ipod earphones I was getting my endorphin fix from the latter, and a solid ride up to the 2200 metre elevation Himachel Pradesh capital definitely gave me an overdose. The city's setting certainly increased this: poised precariously over a curving ridgeline mimicking a devastating landslide from a distance it looked as though the town planners had dropped it there from the sky without consulting Google Maps' terrain view.

Annoyingly, all these extra happiness units were wasted on battling with banks and railways: I think there should be a new triathlon for the Commonwealth Games involving riding 100 kilometres, climbing up a 2000 metre high mountain and then wrestling with Indian bureaucracy for three hours. Amazingly, there is a railway station up there in the clouds and it was my job to ensure Steve and I would get there with our bikes in a few days' time.

After several hours of standing in queues and filling in forms I was ready to hit the hay, reserving my dramatic tumble back down to the plains for the following day. It would be hard to top the descent I'd imagined for my himself, but three hours and 100 kilometres of virtually continuous downhill gliding later I knew I'd managed it. In fact I'd got so into the ride down I skipped both breakfast and lunch (apart from a bag of milk and a few apples), started racing cars and trucks, and failed to even slow down for my negotiations with the potholes and pointy protrusions crossing the border into Haryana. It would be two days before I discovered the resulting sheered-off bolt from my pannier rack in my bike's frame, also on the side of Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy – having explained the cause my next post will describe the consequences.

Passing through Kalka caused more queuing pain, having to cancel and re-reserve several sets of train tickets (all on the waiting list) after I discovered that my preferred Shimla train lacked a luggage van for bike transportation - but I was sure glad I'd checked the conditions on the ground!

That afternoon I raced along Highway 1 to Ambala - the Haryana dust, newly constructed freeway flyovers and vast yet slow-moving trucks gave the journey a post-apocalyptic Mad Max feel. When I finally found a hotel with a vacancy that night I negotiated with the manager unkowingly sporting Australia’s favourite racial comedy, blackface, accreted from the dusty road - I can only imagine how it went down with the Indian staff.

But the joke was on me: while showering I got a knock on the door that wouldn't be put off. Indians only ever knock if the door's actually locked - usually they'll just open it without warning regardless of your state of dress on the other side. Annoyed at the management for interrupting my ablutions I turned off the tap and exited the bathroom dripping and half-dressed... only to be confronted by three heavily-armed police officers. They'd come to check my passport for visa invalidity. They wouldn't leave until they'd traced my entire trip through Asia from my randomly stamped entry and exit dates - not a mean feat.

The following day's long and seemingly boring 120 kilometre journey from Ambala to Samalkha turned out to be one of the most emotionally involving days on my whole trip. Working my blood up early in a fight over five rupees with an omelette-wallah I settled into the left lane of India's premier highway as the traffic streamed along beside me. Lost in thoughts of train schedules, Punjabi milk products and the engrossing novel Crime and Punishment I noticed a motorbike overtake me from behind and scoot around a slow-moving truck I myself was planning to supersede. At that instant a speeding car travelling at twice the traffic's average velocity rammed into the back of the motorbike.

I can recall the next few seconds in vivid slow motion: the motorbike was launched vertically into the air in front of me, shedding shards of plastic and metal, with the elderly couple riding it flung off like heavy dolls. The centripetal force of his ejection was enough to spin the man's arms outwards and he hit the bitumen shoulder-first, the abrasion ripping his shirt and flesh apart as he slid to a halt. His wife was also thrown clear of the motorbike which bounced and tumbled down the road in front of her. Horribly, she landed head-first on the asphalt, with only her skull protecting her brain from the impact. The rear-ending car not only did not stop, it accelerated away as fast as its gears would allow.

Since I was the first on the scene I dropped my bike onto the roadside and ran over to the woman whose head was now at the centre of an expanding puddle of thick, black blood soaking into her sari, passing cars smearing it into tracks on the asphalt. At first I was sure she was dead, but eventually her eyes stopped staring and looked at me. As I stopped the traffic another man ran up and we both pulled her off the road, my arms dripping with blood as I tried to keep her head from scraping the ground. Her husband had by now got up and was standing next to us in shock. I tried to call an ambulance but the number in my phone wouldn't connect.

But by now several people had turned up with some dragging the motorbike off the road and others tying a torn piece of the woman's sari around her head as a bandage. Soon a small sedan pulled up and the couple were bundled into it and driven off, their mangled motorbike left on the side of the road. I picked up my own bike and rode on, my handlebar grips still sticky from the blood - a reminder that I hadn't just woken up from a sudden nightmare. It took me a long time to shake off the image of the woman hitting the road - she was amazingly lucky to live, but I'll never know the true extent of her injuries, or her husband's. After this I became cautious to the point of paranoia.

Recovering from this shock I stopped an hour later to look for another bag of milk and a better place to wash my arms than an oily roadside puddle where I was ushered, somewhat against my will, into a nearby Hindu ashram with cries of "English! English!" (despite all my attempts to tell them I was NOT English). Interestingly, I was introduced to a real Englishman in the form of the ashram's guru: he'd moved to India in the 60s and converted to Hinduism a few years later. Since this was the first westerner I'd met since the Buddhist woman at Dharamsala I was glad for some conversation. However, this was nothing compared to the Englishman's astonishing good fortune: since his own, now deceased, guru had banned him from speaking English I was about the first person he'd conversed with in that language for over a decade.

He was an interesting man - his ornate robes and headgear were not enough to hide his pasty white skin and wild orange hair. Our topics ranged over American politics, life in an isolated ashram and, naturally, the murderous idiocy of India's road culture. But soon I had to go: I'd only ridden 85 of my scheduled 100 kilometres that day and when I make up my mind to do something I cannot be dissuaded. It was only when I was well on my way did I realise that the Englishman's invitation for me to spend the night at the ashram, with all meals provided, was more than just politeness - I was depriving him of an extremely rare chance to catch up on world events and to speak in his native tongue. However, I would soon be punished for my obstinacy.

Passing one hotel-saturated town near dusk because it was at 99 kilometres for the day rather than 100 I found myself at sunset in Samalkha, a fairly major town with a train station and bus terminal, searching in vain for somewhere to stay. I wasted over an hour being directed back and forth by kids with no real idea where any hotels existed before I was told by a group attracted by my growing irritation that I would have to backtrack twenty kilometres to the last town. This was the closest I've ever come to actually losing it on my trip so far. I practically yelled at the crowd that there was no way I would be riding twenty kilometres on a dangerous highway at night and that I was going to stay here even if it meant sleeping on the street.

The only suggestion I got was to try the train station. Pleading with the railway staff I asked to be shown a bench upon which I could wait out the night. Kindly, the station chief offered me his office and made a bed from a few blankets on a desk. Exceeding all expectations of hospitality he then invited me to have dinner with his family. The food was cornucopic and delicious, surpassing some of the best food I've had in India yet, and his educated and extensive family were so incredibly charming and charitable it made me wonder how I could have been satisfied with a hotel. This was a day in which I'd experienced both the best and the worst of India.

Finally, heading off in the morning, I made the relatively uneventful trip back into New Delhi, stopping at a recommended restaurant on the way, riding through the northern torus of construction and traffic mayhem and into the familiar tranquil streets of Connaught Circus. Checking back into my old hotel, the New King, just as a wild thunderstorm ripped through the city, engulfing Delhi's washing lines and scared sacred cows (even uprooting power poles), I decided that I had just completed the most intense and emotionally exhausting cycle tour I'd ever been on - little realising that Steve's arrival the next day would initiate a tour even more extreme.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

The Dodgy Games

I've found that cycle touring in India is all about extremes: days are either good or bad. A good day is when the weather's cool but not wet, the roads small but maintained, people are friendly but not insistently obsequious, and there's more visible bitumen to look at than squashed dog intestines.

One of the best of these was an easy 60 km day from Khajuraho to the bus stop town of Chhatapur which began with a super-accessible geohash, continued with a narrow, leafy, naturesque laneway and concluded with a plethora of cheap ice-cream smoothies that were so delicious I began to doubt my perception of reality.

The day after that was also pretty awesome, but much longer. This one took me over rivers, through forests, along roads blocked off to all non-cycling traffic (Mwah-ha-ha!) and even past a thousand year old temple I was too lazy and templed-out to vist, the gate-guard watching me tangent away from his vicinity with an expression of total disbelief.

This day took me to the crazy Mughal palace town of Orchha where I spent a day checking out palaces I'd seen on my previous trip and deciding that since they were only built in the 18th century they really weren't quite old enough for me. On the other hand, the town was far more chilled out and relaxed than Khajuraho, where my blog would open if written chronologically.

I've no idea what did it but in this temple-smothered town many of the locals are rude, whiny and generally unpleasant to be around. One grabbed me by the arm and blathered ceaselessly at me until he accused me of not wanting to talk to him and stormed off in a huff. Another followed me around demanding to be taught English and, when I refused, expected an explanation. "Because I do not want to" was not good enough for him, he wanted a reason for THAT. Beggars shove their hands into your face, angry about being turned down before you even get the chance, touts shout inflated prices across the street and spit into the dirt when waved off and small boys explain how they'll shred your bike tyres if you try to park within their reach. Not a pleasant atmosphere.

Luckily, the actual reason these besieged tourists visit Khajuraho makes it (just) worth-while: thousand-year-old intricately sculptured temples. I took an audio tour for some of them and enjoyed hearing about the construction and artistry involved in carving out the gratuitous depictions of erotica in a voice that got slower and deeper like HAL being switched off in 2001 as the cassette player (remember them?) ran out of batteries.

Which brings me to some of the 'Bad Days' on my recent tour. Topping the list was my ride out of Orchha, through Jhansi to the fort city of Gwalior. The day started well when I was asking directions – every time it’s to somewhere more than 100 kms away I'm always pointed towards the bus station.

"Gwalior is a long way, you must take the bus", a learned pedestrian extolled.

"Look, I've cycled here from Kathmandu - I think I know my capabilities".

"Kathmandu!? It would be an honour, sir, to shake your hand. Please take the next right." Indians always become very British when they're being polite.

However, no doubt due to my hubristic tendencies, things went downhill from there: because of my Malaysian SIM card slipping out of place and causing my tube to swell up out of the hole in my front tyre (read the last entry to unscramble your brain on this one) I achieved a whopping record of three punctures in only 140 kilometres. At the final one of these I threw in the towel and got my front tyre replaced with a nobbly local one (getting punctures is a good problem to have really - unlike gears, suspension and disc brakes, tyres are actually understood locally). This tube luck might have been related to spending the entire sweltering day negotiating a 100 kilometre half-completed freeway segment that seemed to be having trouble constructing itself. Topping it off, some reprobate lobbed an M24 bolt at me as I arrived in Gwalior (engineers can tell by their pitch as they ricochet off the ground) - only one step above beer bottles at Ballarat.

To my relief I found an awesome pentagonal hotel room at the end of the day with windows overlooking the twin attractions of the Gwalior Fort and Ring Road Interchange where I recovered from the day by having multiple icecreams room serviced up to me and watching the teen angst movie Twilight on HBO (but doesn't anyone else think it's a little creepy that 17 year old Bella Swan is seeing a 120 year old man!?).

The ride to Agra was pretty exciting for about 10 kilometres (it having the Taj Mahal at the end of it), but this was ruined by being collided with head-on by another bike enterprisingly traveling down the divided highway in the wrong direction. He didn't even slow down as our eyes met for the unavoidable impact. Colliding with other vehicles always puts me in a bad mood for the rest of the day, and the locals are so blaze about it ("What? You want ME to get out of YOUR way?" they express with a sneer). I try to avoid main highways because of both boredom and danger, but they're just so direct I have trouble resisting.

Highways are also frustrating for the enormous amount of attention I get. Quite often a motorcyclist will ride up next to me and just stare obscenely. If they looked up at my face it wouldn’t be so bad – an acknowledging nod would even be somewhat flattering – but no, they just ogle my (admittedly impressive) geared drive-train, hydraulic disc brakes and remote lock-out suspension as though the human being operating these assets is a mere trick of the light. To all the shy hot girls out there, I sympathise!

Another bad-mood inducing phenomenon is the rip-off. This can get pretty infuriating in tourist areas: in Orchha I was sitting outside at a cafe when the management started trying to coax an American walking by to get an overpriced fruit juice. "See", I thought, "He said no, why don't they leave it at that?" Suddenly, at about the fifth try, the American caved in and bought the juice. This man is the culprit for the misery of the rest of us.

Outside tourist areas the rip-offs are rare and half-hearted. A withering, “Listen mate, I’ve been in India for over a month now and everything costs the same. It even has the price written on the packet” is usually enough to elicit shoe-staring and meek acceptance of the correct payment.

At last I was in Agra, popping into a MacDonalds as a nod to my cultural heritage on the way in (a disappointing experience). Finding another awesome hotel room, this one with levels (like in Egypt), I excitedly awaited a morning visit to the Taj Mahal – I'd been to Agra before but was so incensed at the 'foreigner price' I skipped the Taj set-piece. Now that I'm richer and somewhat more chilled out I thought it was time.

Amazingly enough, the night before my planned Taj sortie, I was invited by my hotel manager to appear as an extra in a Bollywood movie to be filmed there, for which I would receive a free ticket, food and dancing lessons. With breathless enthusiasm I emerged at the agreed 5am for the filming but found everything closed up – they'd cancelled the day's shooting without telling me. I was so disappointed I couldn't even face a visit to the Mughal edifice of love until the next day.

Instead I ate. Cycle touring is supposedly a pretty cheap way of getting around, but hunger is one aspect that brings the costs up. Often on a rest day I can get up in the morning and eat solidly, hardly pausing for breath, until it's time for bed. Even if I stuff myself to the point of nausea, within twenty minutes I'm ready to consume the Virgo Supercluster again (that would confuse astronomers). In fact, the only thing that seems to slow me down is riding: exercise is an appetite suppressant. As you can probably guess, this only exacerbates the problem.

My other favourite activity for rest days is battling with bureaucracy. After I'd managed to resurrect my memory card's lost photos from the clutches of a computer virus I did my usual burning of them to a DVD as a homeward package - but when I got to the post office I was told it was illegal to post DVDs because they could contain, wait for it, 'Terrorism'. And I'd thought governments had already reached the bottom of the stop-everyone-doing-anything-in-the-name-of-terrorism barrel. At least they let me post my room key back to my hotel in Gwalior - I have to do that a lot.

India is like China-light. You have to provide a photocopy of your passport and visa every time you check in to a hotel, ID must be presented for every item posted, and if you want to use the internet, not only do you have to record every detail of your identity, including often having your photo taken, but you also have to self-report the sites you visit. For a democracy, these guys sure are paranoid about something.

After Taj-ing it up the next day until my eyes became incapable of resolving any colour beyond a shade of marble I was off to New Delhi. I'd toyed with the idea of skirting around it until finally I decided to give up and just see the friggin’ Commonwealth Games since they'd be starting just as I got there, supposed chaos and bombings notwithstanding.

But I was quite surprised to discover that New Delhi was actually an exemplar of counter-chaos: a paradigm of what Indian cities are not. Emerging from the toroidal shell of the furious construction of bypasses and hastily extending elevated metro sections I entered the eye of New Delhi’s cyclone to discover an immaculately clean city of broad tree-lined boulevards inscribing lazy roundabouts around the Indian capital’s monuments to government. It’s like Canberra but with people in it.

Eager to watch some hyper-charged professional badminton I jumped straight into Delhi’s new metro system (I’d been pretty excited by this since my old boss at EastLink told me he’d been one of the project engineers building it) and found myself instantly embroiled in the terrorism paranoia gripping New Delhi. Long lists of banned items, metal detection equipment to rival airport terminals and pat-downs by machine gun wielding military personnel accompanied every station’s entrance. This was duplicated by each of the games’ venues’ ‘vomitorium’ (a cute but somewhat clueless reference to Rome’s Coliseum).

Here the banned list was so large only an extremely long queue would provide the time to read it (which, of course, there was not). Forbidden items included ‘coins’, ‘bottles’, ‘any transmitting electronic devices’ and ‘food and drink’.

This latter item was especially a problem: at some events, despite the captured and thirsty audience, nothing was being sold. A vast entourage of smiling and helpful ‘volunteers’ (who have to spend most of their time desperately crowding and clutching at the one or two spectators who grace the games) were employed specifically to tell me that nothing was available and that they hoped my death from dehydration would be a pleasant one.

The cavernous yet spanking new venues were a sad sight to behold. The echoing chambers of awkward coughs and rustling. The cringe-worthy embarrassment instigated by 'crowd-exciting' pumping music amplified throughout the amphitheatres undampened by human sound absorbers. The ‘Hi mum!’ waves from the competitors to my only companion spectator. At the lawn bowls I watched Australia thrash Brunei with the elderly WAGs who took pity on my solitary spectation. At the hockey a New Zealander asked me to which of the participants I was related.

But I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the events themselves: despite my claims that I’m more of a political animal my inner sports fan emerged with shouts of “Aussie Aussie Aussie! Oi Oi Oi!” and similarly encouraging shibboleths that could actually be acknowledged by those with the power to affect the outcome (not that it was needed: Australia kicked the arse out of anyone foolish enough to contest them). I saw at least one event per day and got quite familiar with Delhi’s roads and railways as a result.

And it’s bureaucratic annoyances: after a heated argument with an army officer over his creative inclusion of my ipod on the Banned List I was told to leave it with my ‘driver’ – I’m white, therefore my claim that I’d come by public transport must be false. At long last I was allowed to put it in an envelope and hand it to an organiser who, as I eventually discovered, left it unguarded on the street. Amazingly it was still there when I got out.

On my way to the table tennis, one of the most exciting games I’ve ever witnessed: an impossibly tight match between England and Malaysia, I miscalculated my metro fare and found myself with change in the form of a few proscribed coins. In a desperate act of needless preservation I secreted them in my shoe so that when I went through the metal detector for the event I could point to my cycling cleats as the culprit for its alarm. In retrospect, the stress and panic resulting from lying to a machine gun shoved in my face about the existence of these coins as they actually searched (although luckily not too thoroughly) the very shoe in which they resided was probably not worth the 5 cents or so I saved from the clutches of some street beggar. This regret was exacerbated by the horrifying clinking sounds that emanated from my footwear whenever I passed by a military battalion inside the event.

For the cycling marathon I followed the perimeter of the track through central Delhi on my bike, hoping to get within the 300m exclusion zone for the event to see some of the action. The only way I eventually managed this was by being mistaken for a competitor by the hapless military upon eyeing my fancy, yet bulky and muddy, bicycle and I was waved through all the road-blocks. Eventually, right at the climax, one of them came up and asked why I wasn’t in the peloton and threw me out when he realised his mistake.

But for all this supposed security, they certainly couldn’t have stopped an actual terrorist attack. Aside from the fact you’d need a MIRV cluster-nuke to get more than two people at most of these events, when the going got tough they gave up. For instance, at the athletics metro station – the only time I saw a number of real Indians inside a venue – they let the solid block of humanity through unimpeded, the metal detectors screaming in alarm at the kilos of inducting material passing within them (there was a greater danger from a crowd stampede than an actual bomb). The athletics itself was a further embarrassment for security: a stray dog gave them a comically long run-around on the hurdles track before taking a dump on the javelin field, the crowd embroiled in hilarity all the while.

It all sounds very frustrating and difficult (and I was just a spectator, imagine the officials trying to justify to themselves why they chose to host these games in the first place), but there was something that kept my spirit strong through all this: the Delhi Milk Scheme. Since the conclusion of the Great Thai 7/11 Milk Special in January I’d been suffering from a diary withdrawal that would rival going cold-turkey on oxygen. Not getting my mandatory two litres of milk per day was bringing me to the edge of either insanity or a desperate flee from Asia. So imagine my ecstatic euphoria when I discovered a state scheme to bring milk to the masses! Despite the heavy subsidies reducing the price of milk to about 60c a litre a sizable proportion of my daily budget was diverted to the white gold.

But throughout this lactic Elysium I had serious work to do: convincing the Pakistani High Commission to grant me a visa. After weeks of attempts it looks like I’ve failed, being told to fly back to Australia and apply there. However, it hasn’t been all bad – standing in front of me in one of the queues was a friendly Sydney couple, Nick and Trina (who did manage to get visas – yet more discrimination against us bachelors). Coincidentally I re-met them on my only tourism excursion, to the Ba’ha’i Lotus Temple, and we quickly discovered how similar our trips are: both a year old, visiting and appreciating exactly the same places (sometimes within a day), and both with an irrational aversion to flying anywhere – these guys actually drove to Perth and took a cruise to Singapore, besting my efforts. Even their blogging format is the same as mine and incredibly, out of all New Delhi, it turned out we were also staying in the same hotel.

Apart from the beers and meals we shared we also went to see a Hindi movie together: Crook. To my amazement, it turned out to have been filmed in my home town of Melbourne, inducing wistful homesickness within me. The storyline involved the madness of the Indian bashings saga, cutely expanded to involve riots, massacres and exploding strip clubs. Our Indian heroes somehow induced the local Melbournians (for some reason adopting horrible American accents) to hip-roll their way through some Bollywood dance moves though, so all is forgiven.

Finally, the games almost over, I was off on another cycle tour, this time beginning in the Sikh heartland of Amritsar in the Punjab, heading north through the mountains of Himachel Pradesh and finishing back in New Delhi. I leave you with the scene of me depositing my bike with a few languid blokes at the back of a warehouse next to the railway station and telling them to put it on my train’s luggage van. Not knowing the fate of my bike elicited one of the scariest train-rides I’ve ever experienced - stay tuned to find out if I've been hiding its loss all this time!

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Journey to the West

After a good night's sleep I was ready to face the world. And what a world! Emerging from my stupor in Varanasi I acquired a new pack of backpacking buddies from the hotel's communal balcony - Germans, Israelis, Spaniards and Frenchmen - and together we explored the city by walk and water.

Ah Varanasi! Sacred city on the Ganges! The last time I was here, six years ago, I was so sick I was transported into a state of euphoria, so I have some good memories of the place. I spent a couple of days this time simply leaning on my balcony railing admiring the Gangetic pilgrims, the baleful morning singing, the buoyant drifting candles, and... is that a cow floating down the river? Yes, and the bloated dead cows floating down the river. After this I was ready to accompany my new friends investigating their surrounds.

One such sojourn took us to the famed Burning Ghats at night where I was accosted by a group of local heavies discovering me taking photos of the crematory ceremonies. Their leader took me aside and demanded I hand over US$3000 to compensate his affronted religious sensibilities or he'd send his goons over to beat up my family. My first thought was how inconvenient it would be to transfer thousands of dollars into an accessible bank account, extract it into the real-world continuously maxing out my daily withdrawal limit over about a week, and then find someone to convert it all into US dollars. But of course that would be nothing compared to the inconvenience for this gentleman in front of me, having to fly his goons across to the other side of the planet to identify and locate my disparate family relations at moments of vulnerability. It was then that my German buddy, Christof, suggested that the most convenient proposition for both parties would probably be to just leg it, which we did with conspicuous abandon.

We celebrated our scrape on our shared balcony by ordering nine longnecks from one of the hotel staff. When it arrived the hotel management refused to allow beer on the premises, so, after a lot of heated discussion, we ended up having to drink it on the banks of the Ganges, hiding in the shadows to avoid the Beer Police (either secular or religious, in this city who knows?).

For the rest of my ten days in Varanasi I visited Sarnath, the alleged exact location of Buddha's first sermon (yes, quite a Buddhist pilgrimage I'm making here, a pity I missed the Bodhi Tree in Bihar) and took a cruise up the Ganges to a monkey temple.

After a few days fighting off touts and beggars whose numbers match that of locust plagues I embroiled myself in a conversation with my South African/Israeli friend Adam about our differing policies towards these parasites. I told him he was naive for getting involved with them, knowing their only object in communicating with us white guys (money on legs) is to extricate cash from our leaky wallets. He in turn accused me of being too cynical and negative about these sweet street urchins and honest businessmen.

And if it didn't happen that when I met him again a couple of days later that we'd reversed roles! Adam had finally become impatient with the sycophantic money-suckers after one too many unpleasant experiences, while I had decided that I had in fact become cynical and negative after 11 months submerged in third-world countries. Plus spending up to eight hours a day on my bike with nothing but my wandering thoughts for entertainment can sometimes mutate my reverie into internal rants. So I was determined to look at the world in a positive light, involving myself more in the people around me.

However, this resolution was dealt an early blow: one evening I found my own backpacker group adjacent to a new group - two Americans and two Spaniards. Being of a newly augmented sociable bent I suggested to the Americans (the Spaniards were off somewhere, stratagising probably) that we combine our efforts into one big group. The next morning the two male Spaniards were infuriated at me for thwarting (cockblocking is the technical term) their intentions towards the two American girls. I felt awful for being blind to their social dynamic and realised that I can still be quite out of it sometimes. I should take a leaf from my surroundings and get into Buddhist meditation, but I'm too scared of losing my internal monologue. After all, without that - what am I?

Still reeling from my social failure with the Spaniards, the Israelis invited me to take a boat ride with them to a deserted sandbar in the middle of the Ganges for a Frisbee game. Unfortunately, after exerting myself furiously throwing Frisbees before a fierce thunderstorm put a stop to the game I was dealt an additional blow to my nascent positivism.

Throughout the week I'd been dodging and weaving to avoid a plague of eye-swelling conjunctivitis sweeping through the city's permanent inhabitants and ephemeral visitors. Having dodged that bullet I came down with a massive head-cold and fever caught from one of the Germans (that's right, you, Fro, if you're out there!) that confined me to my bed through an accessible geohash and my intended departure date.

But soon I was ready to head. Packing up in the rain I hauled my bike through the unnavigable narrow streets and out to my liberty, pausing only to buy a litre of chain-cleansing kerosene. Ah, kero! Freedom in a bottle! Suddenly I felt I could go anywhere, get my bike as muddy as anything and still have the world at my wheels!

However, one of the unintended consequences of having possibly the quietest drive-train in all India is that I can occasionally freak out pedestrians when I pass them. I've thought of getting a bell, but my experiences with bells in places like the Main Yarra Trail in Melbourne is that they tend to transform predictable pedestrians into random pedestrians: "Shit, bike - freeze! No, run away! On second thoughts I want to die with my dog! Screw the dog, save myself - back to the right!" Splat. Much better to just glide past them before they notice you're there. On the other hand, in India there are so many people that awareness of my approach can often spread as a shock-wave through the crowd, traveling faster than I can ride. I suspect, though, that this is more due to my novelty as a white guy than a fear of getting squished by my 500 kgm/s momentum.

Already on my way, I still needed to figure out where I actually wanted to go. In Mirzapur I got out my printed Google Maps and drew up imaginary routes. Originally I'd planned to go all the way down to Bhopal because Dad said the stationmaster there once let him see the rail-yard scheduling timetable, but I soon realised that if anyone back at home knew I'd taken a week-long, 500 kilometre detour just to see some shunting schematics they'd probably de-friend me.

In lieu of that route I decided instead to make a lazy smiley-face down through Khajuraho and Orchha, and then up through Gwalior and Agra to New Delhi. The main problem with this plan was that I'd been to all those places on a previous trip to India - but cycle touring is about the journey rather than the destination, so it shouldn't make too much difference.

The next day was psycho. The nearest hotel was supposedly 160 kms along my route and I was still suffering from my vestigial illness. Heaping it on was a 500m ascent out of the Gangetic Plains to hinder my progress and, adding insult to injury, the road surface collapsing into a rocky mud pool a couple of Ks outside Mirzapur. And then I found the rain. I actually reached a line diagonally across the road where it was dry on one side and totally bucketing down on the other: I stopped my bike and stuck my arm through the interface. A very surreal experience.

But this was as nothing compared to my consternation at achieving the second flat tyre on my cycle tour. Rushing to the shelter of a chai shop and waving off the ten million small children suddenly materialising around me (where do all these guys come from?) I dealt with this hindrance in fairly short order.

But then it happened again only a few kms further on. For the next twenty kms I went through that agonising exercise all cyclists hate: pumping my tyre, riding a solid kilometre, then a squishy kilometre, then pumping my tyre again. Couple this with my residual illness causing my stomach contents to threaten regurgitation at every bump in the road and you get a good picture of the day, which poured water from the sky on me almost constantly (water from the sky!). Could things possibly get any worse? Well, I then thought, what if an undiscovered phenomenon in quantum physics caused the universe to suddenly have never existed in the first place? That would certainly be pretty un-fun for everyone involved, so stop complaining!

At the 100 km mark for the day I finally found salvation: a fairly crappy hotel. I went in and asked for the price of a room.

"1000 rupees" was the response after the manager saw the state of my tyre. Since I couldn't go anywhere this guy clearly had the upper hand and the satisfaction was written all over his face. My counter-offer of 200 rupees was met with a brick wall. So the only way to improve my bargaining position was to fix my flat. Which meant repairing the gaping hole in my tyre.

I don't know what happened to my brain at this point but I suddenly hit upon an inspired fix. My first move was to swap my tyres around - the back one has all the load but the front one just has my (now broken) suspension and (thankfully not broken) arms to worry about (an inspection of the front tube revealed it hadn't had a puncture in over three years - that's about 8000 kms of riding). The second move was to glue a SIM card to the inside of my back (now front) tyre, plugging the hole (which looked like it had been caused by riding over either a large pointy rock or a church steeple). Yes, my old Malaysian SIM did the job (don't call it) and gave me a good 500 kms of pumped-up, but thumpy, riding.

Throughout this experience I was honoured with a small crowd of scrutineers. One wealthy, educated Indian pulled up in his 4WD and demanded to know why I was debasing myself with manual labour. "See this man here?", he indicated a serious-looking arm-crossed fellow next to him. "He is The Master. The head of the Puncture Repair caste in the village. He and his family worship the Hindu god of punctures, Bisikishnu, at the temple across the street [I made that bit up]. He will even fix your flat for free since you are clearly a cheapskate." My response was that I too wanted to be a Master puncture repairer and needed practice, but I just couldn't cross this cultural chasm.

Now, ready to go with my tyres swapped and inflated, my prospective hotelier, watching on the whole time, immediately agreed to my very reasonable 200 rupee ultimatum (dreading to see this money rolling off down the road). All I had to do now was eat.

This proved to be no mean feat. Not knowing Hindi is a bit of a problem for me. On this occasion I sat down at a nearby restaurant and ordered some chapatis and veg and waited for an hour while staring at a wall for the food to arrive (the power was out - it didn't really matter in which direction I looked). When I tried to ask about it I just got offended looks. "Okay, it must just take a while" I thought. After a further 45 minutes I got up and asked an intelligent-looking customer what he thought was going on. My food arrived about two minutes later and this guy basically said, "Yeah, they were wondering why you were staring at that wall for two hours". Looking for patterns in the curry stains.

The next day presents a smooth road, shady trees and a hot southerly wind (for my friends back home this is like a hot northerly but coming from the south - yep, things are pretty weird over here). I open my eyes and lungs and take in the sensory experience central India has to offer. Leaves and dust swirl restlessly on the asphalt. A small boy squats by the side of the road, a steaming scroll of turd curls beneath his bum. A squashed dog's internal organs lie extruded from its many gaping orifices, acquired from both birth and death. A sacred cow, tied to a post, thrashes in agony and panic as a child repeatedly strikes it with a rod - his family watching on in hilarity. Cycle touring shows you the world at a comprehensible pace, but sometimes the fleeting frames from motorised transport can be a lot less confronting.

Navigation is another issue. Luckily, India uses the same Devanagari script I learned in Nepal or I'd be totally screwed trying to read the directional signage. But I've found that one of the annoying things about living on planets is that the horizon is always way too close. Why have we confined ourselves to the exterior surfaces of spheroidal objects? If we lived in a decent orbital, O'Neill Colony or even full-blown Ringworld we could at least see where we were going by looking up. "Excuse me sir, which way to Agra? Actually, never mind: I can see the Taj Mahal up there in the sky". On the other hand, when I got to my next destination of Rewa, I watched the evolution of a mind-blowing sunset and rainbow from my hotel roof that would be pretty tricky to emulate in an enclosed torus.

Then another short day, 45 kms, getting to the city of Satna - transport hub of north-eastern Madhya Pradesh. But despite this easiness I felt so lethargic I had to indulge in another rest day... which ended up being another geohash day. For those who have been reading these blogs for the last 11 months and still don't know what I'm talking about here, geohashing is the act of reaching a coordinate within a graticule (a degree of latitude by a degree of longitude) which has been randomly generated for each day using the Dow Jones Stock Index opening price.

Why? Well I've never understood people who say they just want to make life easy. Life already is easy! Financially unstressed educated white guys like me have nothing on the real people of the world. So, rather than devote my life to selfless acts of charity (which would be the sensible thing to do) I make my life more difficult and interesting by attempting to reach meaningless locations randomly scattered on the Earth's surface. This particular geohash involved a lot of mud, but ended in butterscotch icecream.

Leaving Satna I experienced the payoff from the 'rest day' - riding twice as far as intended and finally putting me beyond the reach of the horrifyingly bad tasting water of northern MP, so disgusting it seems to violate our current understanding of the universe. It's almost as bad as Adelaide water. I could now escape my diabolical choice between dehydration and regurgitation.

The 150 km ride to Khajuraho was one of the most spectacular of my trip so far. The gentle undulations beneath overhanging tree branches punctuated by small villages clustered around intersections and river crossings gave way to brief barren badlands and then, suddenly, a wet rainforest replete with rushing waterfalls and deadly tigers. Enjoying a drenched glide downhill I emerged into the surrounds of tenth century erotic carvings and another confrontation with tourist culture.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Milliard Nation

Okay, so it wasn't quite that simple. After I'd hobbled my way back to Kathmandu from the trek up near the Tibetan border (I thought it'd be cool to get all the way from right up near Tibet through to India under only my own locomotive power) there was still some serious partying and bike fixing to do.

When you walk through a city you often see things that are invisible if you take the bus. On my way back into town I stopped to get a fruit juice from a street-side stand and a bunch of army dudes came out and started beating the crap out of one of the fruiterers. I used the little Nepali I had to the best of my abilities but was unable to figure out from the fleeing fruiterers what was going on.

But I soon forgot the incident with the mountain of preparations I had to engage upon. This smashed into a brick wall as, again, my impeccable timing landed me in Kathmandu on a Saturday - Nepal's day off. I had only four days left on my visa, so this meant I had to stay an extra day in Kathmandu and skip Buddha's birthplace at Lumbini while instead heading straight for the nearest border.

So during the day I spent some time to chill out, and during the evening I met my trekking buddies Antonio, Adam, Tashi and the Frenchpersons and hit the town. Even Nigel, the Welshman cycle-touring Gosaikund, turned up - and turned out to be a Melbourne bike courier in his spare time. Also, amazingly, just before heading out, I discovered a girl I knew from school called Sue staying at my hotel, so I invited her along too. This is only the second time I've accidentally bumped into someone familiar from home on my trip so far.

As nights go, this one was pretty awesome, nicely symmetrising my birthday on my second night in Nepal, this being my penultimate. We dined out on vastly expensive pizza, hit the bar scene for beer and gin, then wandered the streets until the early morning looking for somewhere to drink and chill, avoiding the curfew cops.

The next day I had assigned to doing things. One of which was buying a pair of sunglasses for the first time in my life. Up to now I've preferred to squint into the sun, deeming myself not quite cool enough to sport the ocular shading devices. But now, I reckon, I've finally made it. I AM cool enough for shades, so bring 'em on! Of course, within the next couple of days I both scratched them to translucence and then actually destroyed them, so I figure the time is still not right.

Next I posted my pack, hiking boots and ridiculous glass dioramas home by 'sea mail' (yes, I am aware that Nepal is landlocked). I was given a 90% success rate for the package arriving. Since it contains nothing of actual monetary value I told them I would send it even if it had a 1% chance, as long as I could say I tried.

Finally, my bike. After having my hub cleaned out again (a washer had broken), a brand new drive-train was deemed necessary due to the ravages of muddy northern Vietnam. I downgraded to Deore (if that means anything to anyone) since, carrying FIVE KILOS of novels, I had already decided weight was not an issue. A night consuming Coke and chocolate while watching Avatar and Anger Management on DVD with Antonio presaged the next morning's departure.

Well, getting stuck in traffic, heading up and out of the Kathmandu Valley, and then embarking upon the wild descent to the valley below on the only road out of Kathmandu that does not lead to China (and one I'd traversed on six previous occasions), I discovered that the route I was planning to take straight to the nearest border was a no-go. The locals were unanimous: no bike can cross that pass (and they didn't even know about all the books I was lugging!). The next pass was a whopping 150 kms further on, necessitating a trip to Lumbini after all - but with one fewer day. Faced with having to ride 350 kms in two and a half days before my visa expired I friggin' got the hell on with it, stopping only at the half-way restaurant from my 27th birthday party trip to Annapurna for nostalgia's sake before practically wheely-ing it all the way to Mugling (wheelies are easy without front panniers).

The next day was a killer. Getting up early I navigated the beautiful winding road juxtaposing several rivers amongst towering bulbous mountains to the main Terai highway. As it started to rain at Bharatpur I instantly acquired a flat tyre - my first in over 2000 kilometres of cycle touring in Asia. Having patched the puncture my valve then broke, forcing me to free up much needed pannier space by installing a spare tube, all the while with locals hovering around me demanding rupees for getting in my way.

Making up for lost time, and now with a new sense of paranoia about my tyres (I eventually had to ration pressure checks), I sped on towards the distant Butwal, Nepal's most nicely named town. At the 100 km mark, with 50 to go, things got dire. The sun was now out in full force, baking and boiling me simultaneously, and I started to get nausea and a massive headache. Uh oh - dehydration, I've been there before. I quickly pumped myself full of water until that made me feel sick. All the while a large rash was developing on my right arse-cheek from not shifting positions enough on my seat.

Once the extreme exhaustion set in after a particularly massive and rather pointless hill I started to think that, well, at least things couldn't get any worse. Hey, I suddenly thought, that's just hubris - of course things can get worse! The sun could unexpectedly crash into a black hole killing all life on Earth (except those lifeforms living on sub-oceanic vents, the rotters). That would be shit, so be thankful!

Finally I got to Butwal. What a day! Here I spent what would later become my regular compulsory hour searching for a hotel, and, once found, bought myself two litres of Fanta to inject both sugar and fluid into my system. Usually my principle here is: Why buy one when you can buy ten for ten times the price? Dainty sub-litre servings of sweet substances are more tantalising than satisfying. This time two litres of Fanta was just way too much - I couldn't even stomach dinner afterwards, causing me to become weak and slow the next day.

During which time it rained. This was the last day of my visa and the day I had to visit Lumbini - an extra 50 km side trip. Doing some quick maths I reckoned I could just make it and headed off into the rain and mud. Here I came down with that unusual disease: hub mud. My bike's hub was filling up with mud. The bike shop guys in Kathmandu had only pointed out my problem of a broken washer and not, as I had assumed, replaced it. My bike was gradually destined to become a trendy fixy - like a moon tidally locking to its planet.

But that was for the future, now I had to concentrate on standing over the alleged exact birthplace of The Buddha. That done, and having not mystically attained some sort of enlightenment as a result, I headed back to my bike (I'm always nervous when I leave my bike anywhere - unlike most of my stuff it provides its own getaway vehicle), and over the border to India.

Yes, India. Land of a billion people. This is my third visit to the great nation in the last decade and my first cyclo-border-crossing. Nepal is really hung up about India. I noticed that while Tibet is hung up (for good reason) about China's influence and look to India as their cultural saviour, Nepal is hung up about India's influence and look to China as THEIR cultural saviour. Well, at least a stabilising force.

On the Indian side I quickly ensconced myself in a nice large government hotel (India being that sort of country where they have those sorts of things). A lot of the hotels in India are vast cavernous buildings, often with no guests and bored staff. They look like the abandoned gymnasium in Chernobyl, complete with hurriedly strewn debris and enterprising tree saplings. The government ones are even more so (although usually cleaner and more ominous), like something out of a Milton Friedman textbook.

But the main thing I noticed upon reaching India was the mosquitoes. For those of you who don't know me, I'm a mosquito magnet. A mosquito nirvana. A mosquito supermassive blackhole. If mosquitoes see infrared as colour my feet, fingers and right ear would light up as a violent blue. Lathering myself in an absurd quantity of repellent might bring it down to an aggressive cyan, but that would be it. From anywhere within about five parsecs of me I can see them doing little double-takes, screeching to halts, and exclaiming in the tiny nervous systems, "Holy. Friggin'. Shit. This is it. The motherlode." You may have wondered why there are no photos of me at dusk. I'm unphotographable - just an opaque blur. This is the reason for my low blood pressure. If I wasn't taking antimalarial tablets I'd be dead in seconds.

I used to think exterminating mosquitoes was an acceptable justification for my otherwise meaningless existence, but now I've come to realise that I'm just removing the slow, stupid ones from the gene pool and thereby creating an undefeatable race of super-mosquitoes. So I've stopped doing that. Although it doesn't matter where in the galaxy I hide (they will find me), India is about the worst place I could be.

So, newly punctured with fresh mosquito bites, I mounted my now clean bike in preparation for the ravages of Indian cycle touring. All I can say is that every one of my expectations were proved gloriously wrong! I was warned of a 50 degree heat across the Gangetic Plains, epic monsoonal downpours, excruciating road surfaces and a constant stream of unwavering Tata Nanos (the world's cheapest car) determined to diminish my discernible dimensions.

But no! It's a dream! Well-compacted layers of CT road-base underlying brand new hot-rolled asphalt surfacing, perfect cool and cloudy weather with little rain on most days, and traffic comprised chiefly of occasional bicycles and motorbikes. And the street-side stalls! Little chai shops selling their wares in cute disposable terracotta cups, samosa stalls and sweet vendors filling in the gaps (they LOVE sweet in India - it's too much even for me). The riding is almost as good as Vietnam.

One complaint I do have though is the status of bikes. I'll never complain about the snobby sense of entitlement of Australian drivers again - these guys take Road Caste to a whole new level. On the (admittedly rare) occasions in which one truck or bus wants to overtake another in front of me the fact that I, riding in the opposite direction, also want to use a small part of the road is neither here nor there to them. That I might stand my ground rather than be forced into what is often a deep muddy ditch is never even a thought bubble - it is my responsibility to submerge myself in roadside mud rather than for them to choose a different 100m stretch of otherwise empty road to execute their sequence machinations. Mwaghhh!!!

I took a well-deserved rest day In the mighty city of Ghorukpur, which was somewhat blemished by my having to find a new hotel after it turned out that a festival next door was blasting terrifying Hindipop through my window all night ("To celebrate my God" the receptionist explained to me accusingly) - they like loud in this country, even when everyone has already. Left. The. Festival. However, my mood was tempered by an amusing anecdote I will here relate:

After checking in and washing my clothes I decided to head out on my bike to search for a camera repair shop (yeah, I'm still hauling that mangled contraption about, complete with cables and charger) when I discovered I had lost my bike key. Involving the entire hotel staff in the search and being on the point of bringing my bike inside my room in case the key was stolen I finally found it... wait for it... in the toilet! It had been washed with my pants, came out of my pocket, and then thrown with the dirty water down the toilet. Imagine my intense trepidation as I plunged my hand into the bowl's putrid waters to retrieve it! Courageously, the hotel manager gave me a high-five upon hearing of the key's recovery.

Sporting a new rear mudguard I then left the lakey city and headed towards the intriguing twisty streets of Azamgarh 100 kms to the south. On this journey I became unaccountably exhausted... until I realised I'd accidentally taken an anti-nausea tablet that morning which, you may remember from previous episodes, is actually a drowsiness pill in disguise, thinking it was an anti-diarrhoea tablet (hey, this is India, what can you expect?).

Recovering from this the next day I embarked upon my final leg to Varanasi, my intended town of rest, 640 kms and seven days from Kathmandu. Here I enjoyed one of the many charms of riding in India: the attitude of the locals. In Vietnam people seemed shocked and confused by my cycling existence, but here they're more curious and affable. They cycle or motorbike up to me, match my speed, ask me some fairly banal questions about my identity, origin and bike value ($100 I tell them, wary of revealing that my bike actually cost almost as much as a new Tata Nano) and then ride away.

Of course, as usual, there are exceptions. One motorcyclist I encountered went through the usual motions and then wanted to know if he could ask me a question. Thinking he was going to extol my immense cricketing prowess, me being Australian, I permitted him to speak. Wrong! When anyone asks if they can ask you something, or if they can give you advice, the answer must always be 'No!' - they invariably want to insult you and then blame you, the victim, for allowing them to speak in the first place. In this case my friend wanted to know why I hate Indians. "What the hell are you talking about?" I demanded. Well, he reasoned, If I don't hate Indians, then why do I go out at night in my homeland and bash up unprovoked ones at train stations? This has been the only time I've ever considered passing myself off as a New Zealander.

Another annoyance often occurs when I stop for one of my many breaks. Like a disparaging simile I won't use it only takes a few seconds for me to accrete an expanding swarm (I'm allowing metaphors) of curious onlookers. Although they thankfully grant my person a metre of breathing space, not so my bike whose personal space shrinks to negative one metre. They particularly enjoy discreetly (and discretely) shifting my gears into chain-stretching configurations. Often their insistent snippets of personal data become galling and I admit I have to adopt the attitude that if I was at all interested in any of the billion inhabitants of this country I'd look up demographic statistics on the web.

But soon I was on the Ganges in the sacred city of Varanasi. I celebrated this fact by first ordering a beer at my hotel and then popping off for 40 kms to do a geohash. Upon my return I left to their own devices the narrow laneways packed with pilgrims, the tilting temples submerged by the swollen Ganges and the crowds of devotees hurling themselves into the putrid waters as I sunk into a deep torpor from which I would not rise for several snoozetastic days.