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.