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.


  1. Fantastic read Felix! Sorry about the motorbike accident. Glad you're resilient enough to get over seeing something like that so quickly & good you were able to help. Ellen

  2. Be sure to see the accompanying flickr pics. Great post Felix.

  3. OMG Felix, fills me with horror to think it could have been your little head.
    And the promise of more to come! How can an auntie bear it??? Ditto Grandma, sitting next to me

  4. Well I always wear a helmet, so that would have mitigated the effects of the impact a little if it'd been me. Sorry for the delay with the next entry, I'll get around to it any day now.