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.


  1. No Siberia or Canada in spring for you then - the clouds of mosquitoes and midges will eat you alive!


  2. What!? Those places sound the most mosquito free! Is nowhere safe?