95 miles, 12 mph average17 Jan 10Day 1
Gujarat


My Indian odyssey began in the Gujarat state capital of Ahmadabad, close to the west coast and the Arabian Sea. Mahatma Gandhi is arguably the most influential equal rights campaigner in history and Ahmadabad is the place where Gandhi lived whilst working on his plan for Indian independence from Britain. The city was known as the Manchester of India due to the concentration of textile mills and thus the spinning wheel became symbolic of the struggle for freedom and now takes pride of place on the Indian flag. Gandhi travelled extensively throughout India to experience the economic and social problems of the people first hand and whilst India is now the world’s largest democracy and the caste system has been outlawed, poverty is widespread and I wondered what they might make of a descendant of colonists, gadding about their country on a bike that cost more than three times the average annual income.  

Legend has it that the city was founded when a local sultan was hunting in the area when his dogs were turned on by fierce rabbits! He saw this as an auspicious sign and set-up his new capital here. So, taking care not to upset the local lapin population, I rode out of town.

Just outside the city is Adalaj Vav, one of the finest examples of the step wells built in this arid region to conserve water and provide a cool social setting in highly ornate subterranean pavilions and galleries. It’s been a place frequented by travellers and caravans for five centuries and now attracts touring travellers like me, but it remained an attraction to me only in name as it was elusive due to a complete absence of signposts and none of the locals seem to have ever heard of it.



I followed any number of blind leads but got nowhere and decided to head back to the main road. Ordinarily I’d shy away from dual carriageways but this one had a nice smooth hard shoulder and the lorries that trundled by honked before passing and always gave me a wide berth. It was at a scuzzy looking roadside eatery that I met the Singh partners. They trawled back and forth between Mumbai and Udaipur taking turns at the wheel so they are on the move almost 24/7 with a load of old plastic bags for recycling. India is filthy but there are a host of tiny industries eking out a modest living and reliant on the never ending supply of trash that liberally litters the highway. The two of them could not fathom why anyone would want to ride a bicycle when buses and taxis are two-a-penny, so when they offered me a lift to make sure I arrived in Udaipur before sunset I didn’t need asking twice. The bike was hoisted aloft and roped down on top of the rubbish whilst I rode in comfort on the bed behind the front seats.

We worked through all of the usual questions, “What is your country?”, “Where is your wife?”, “How many children?”, “You are Christian?”, and other staples that would be far too personal to be considered polite at home. I’d soon learned that trying to explain divorce and an agnostic stance on organised religion, is much the same as saying you don’t understand the rules of cricket in these parts. Certain things are a given, you marry for life, have as many children as you can afford, your faith is that of your forefathers and you have a fervent passion for bat and ball games. Contradicting any of these moral fundamentals just doesn’t compute. As a result I took to making up acceptable stories of piety and having a deceased wife. Both of my new friends had recently lost parents or to use their rather quaint days-of-the-Raj English, “They had expired”. This language was even used by the road sign writers and I nearly laughed out loud when we passed a sign declaring “Warning, Accident Prone Area”, that was made even better by “Prone” being written as “Prune”.  

They dropped me off at my insistence about 50km down the road by which time the landscape had changed from monotonous plains of wheat fields and rice paddies to rolling hills of parched, sandy earth. In stark contrast the women all wore vivid saris of red and orange, the wealthier had interwoven silver and gold thread that shimmered in the bright afternoon sun. Agricultural mechanisation still requires too much capital investment for it to have made great inroads yet, but the ploughs led by oxen and camel carts enhanced a scene that may not have changed much since the middle ages.



India & Nepal
140 miles, 14 mph average18 Jan 10Day 2
Udaipur


Ever since seeing the Lake Palace in the James Bond film Octopussy, I’d wanted to see the Jag Niwas on Lake Pichola in Udaipur for real. Its now a luxury hotel that has entertained guests such as the Queen and Jacqueline Kennedy so a little beyond the budget of a two wheel nomad, but I thought it was better to be looking at the lake from the shore than to be looked at from the shore anyway and sought out a traditional ‘Haveli’ similarly called the Jagat Niwas Palace, where £20 bought me a lovely room in a 17th century mansion house. Stretching out along the lake’s shore is Rajasthan’s largest palace, known simply as the City Palace with its stern fortress like façade topped with graceful balconies, cupolas and turrets it’s been a home to no less than 22 Maharajas over four centuries.

Checking out 5am I was soon climbing into the hills on a wonderfully quiet new dual carriageway, but the route I needed involved turning off after the first 30 miles and taking a small road into the rural India proper. India has an enduring image of the filth, noise and the all pervading stench of the open sewers so common in her cities, but this is only half the story. Once off the beaten track I found an idyllic India of empty lanes that weren’t lined with grot. The only rubbish here is biodegradable and heaped up to feed the animals; the animals eat the rubbish; the dung is patted into cakes and used as fuel. Hardly anyone owns a car or has a TV out here and everything runs on oxen power. I’m not pretending it isn’t a tough life with no running water and none of the luxuries like electricity that we take for granted, but these people have the tiniest of carbon footprints and if they knew what we in the west were doing to the planet they probably wouldn’t have greeted me with such cheery hellos.

I was enjoying my ride so much I hardly noticed the miles rack up or the fact that I was gaining height with each rolling hill but my belly was telling me it was time to eat and I hit the jackpot with a spotlessly clean restaurant overlooking the Kumbalgarh national park. They served me up the most delicious vegetarian dish of dumplings in a cashew nut gravy that I did justice to with half a dozen rotis and used the extra weight to speed me downhill through the park past stunning views and lounging languors.



Jainism is founded on a doctrine of non-violent vegetarianism and its strictest followers cover their mouths with a veil of cloth so as not to inadvertently swallow any living organism, and at Ranakpur I came upon the Adinath Temple, its white marble dazzling in the sun that illuminates each of its 1444 pillars as it moves from east to west throughout the day. It’s partly due to the influence of Jainism that the state of Gujarat is vegetarian and alcohol free. Organised religion often unjustly carries the blame for all manner of atrocities, but denying the hungry cyclist his staples of meat and beer must surely list amongst the worst of these crimes!          

The single track road of patchwork and potholes flattened out over a dry plain giving an unobstructed view of Mount Abu, the holy mountain that dominates the landscape for miles around. My fun didn’t last though as the country roads all too soon joined a busy main road with no shoulder to cry on and barely enough room for two trucks to pass, it was a case of if you cant beat ‘em join ‘em, and I waited for the slowest truck to pass me then ducked into its slipstream. That way I could move with the traffic, instead of being a mobile chicane, and keep up more than 25 mph for 10 minute intervals.

As darkness fell, I passed a chaotic local festival in the middle of nowhere and wove through the crowds blocking the road, many of whom were clearly a bit the worse for booze. About a mile down the road I was back in blackness and solitude when I felt a sharp smack on my shoulder as two lads with slicked back hair and faux leather jackets sped by on their motorbike laughing and jeering. I was tired and teasy and in no mood to be mocked by a pair of James Dean wanna-be’s so I shouted out after them and when they stopped I gave the pair of them a lesson in mediaeval Anglo-Saxon that would have made Gordon Ramsay blush. This is an international language that seems to be understood by anyone left in its wake, and by the time I was done the little one was almost in tears so I went on my way. Another few miles later and they showed up again, this time with three other likely ‘dacoits’. I’d overlooked the fact that these guys carry mobiles these days and my position wasn’t looking good. I pointed out that five against one is rank cowardice but that made no impression as the first lad wedged his foot in my front wheel and another rammed my bike from behind, I glanced over my shoulder and mercifully a car was coming that I flagged down. The occupants (a woman, an old man and two younger men) had seen what had happened and shouted something to my assailants who beat a hasty retreat as cowards always will. Three against five still didn’t look good but it worked and my saviours followed me into town to make sure the rogues didn’t lie in wait, whereupon the local police took over and escorted me all the way to a fantastic historic hotel – the 17th century palace-fort, the Rohet Garh. My story had obviously been told to the staff by the police as after dinner the hotel owner came over to chat. Siddharth Singh was a charming man and direct descendant of one of Rajasthan’s ruling families. He spoke to me in the precise, cultured tones that an Indian can only posses after a period of incarceration at one of England’s finest public schools, telling me all about the fort’s history. He was clearly concerned that my experience would taint the reputation of his homeland, but I reassured him that it hadn’t changed my opinion of a country in which so far I had been shown only the warmest hospitality. Tea with the Maharaja in a classic hotel that cost less than a motorway Travelodge in the UK - almost worth getting mugged for!



India & Nepal
146 miles, 12 mph average19 Jan 10Day 3
Jodphur to Pushkar


The arid landscape was as dry as a toasted chapatti and dotted with mud and thatch villages whose daily rhythm of life revolves around potting and weaving. These Bishnois people have always nurtured their environment and believe that they will be reincarnated as deer and as such I saw the otherwise timid blackbuck deer roaming free and safe in the knowledge it will be unharmed. As I passed through any settlement, ragged children would emerge yelping “Goria, goria!” (white man, white man) in delight. If I happened to stop anywhere but the most remote places, I’d be mobbed. Sadly these kids don’t speak any English, but have already mastered the art of begging and I’d been carrying a box of cheap biros to hand out at such times as I didn’t think that meeting their other demands of “One Rupee!”, “One chocolate!” would be particularly constructive. I guess handing out Bics made me feel like the grand philanthropist but I suspect that in reality I was only encouraging their begging.

Stopping became a real chore as I was increasingly uncomfortable with the lack of space and the incredulous stares. Out in the country my arrival was the probably the event of the week as the few foreigners that do blast through here are hidden behind blacked glass and certainly rarely stop to interact. But I was something even more curious. Everything about me was alien, not just the colour of my skin and eyes. My clothes, the fabric and texture, my bike with its skinny tyres and funky clip-in pedals, and most of all my lights. Once these were found everyone had to have a go in the style of Homer Simpson, “Lights go on, lights go off, lights go on, lights go off”. Arrgghh! They were driving me mad, when all I wanted was a quick bite to eat and some peace and quiet. I knew it was selfish to feel this way, that it was my privilege to be here and that their culture is very different to ours in terms of inquisitiveness, but I found myself being very curt at times.     

This was the edge of the Thar Desert and very much camel country. The people value their camels highly as in some places they are the only mode of transport as well as a beast of burden and provide nutty tasting milk that I found went down a treat in coffee. Once in a town bicycle rickshaws bore implausible loads, and smoky tuk-tuks wove between the cars and trucks on the choking streets. There’s still a few 1950’s Ambassadors kept running but the new kid on the block is the Tata Nano. There’s more than a billion people in India, half of those are under 21, and they all aspire to motorised transport, so a brand new car for about £2,000 is a sure fire winner.   

Jodphur was as far north east as I could safely go without wandering into the borderlands of Pakistan. Since the partition of Pakistan in 1947 there has remained tension between the two countries having been at war with each other three times since the British left and the British Foreign Office advises against all travel close to the border.



Rising straight out of a 400 foot high rock, rising above the blue-washed village houses, the 450 year old Mehrangarh is said to be the most majestic of Rajasthan’s forts, described by Rudyard Kipling as “the creation of angels, fairies and giants” and inspiring Aldous Huxley to write, " From the bastions of the Jodhpur Fort one hears as the Gods must hear from Olympus…". I’d thought that such an obvious landmark would guide my passage into town, but I soon became lost in the labyrinth of lanes, dodging suicidal tuk-tuk drivers, monkeys, mules, cows, dogs, cats, rats, camels, goats, pigs and people.

I took the tour of the fort with the help of an audio guide and attained instant stardom with the staff for riding the ramparts past the elephant proof doors. The fort is indeed a gem of carved red sandstone, having all the features of any such defensive structure with one rather macabre twist. Inside the main gates are the dainty vermillion handprints of all the Maharaja’s wives that were obliged to share his funeral under the custom of sati. The practice has been outlawed now but there have been reports of the rituals being practiced as recently as 1987.

The city gave its name to the famous riding breeches and has long been an important trade centre, with the local Marwaris people renowned for their entrepreneurial skills. Jodhpur was founded by a clan known as the Rathores, and the city grew out of the profits of opium, sandalwood, dates and copper. The Rathore kingdom was once cheerily known as Marwar (the Land of Death), but today its moustachioed men are more about smiling for the camera than chopping up their rivals.

Out of Jodhpur I rode off the beaten track; that in places was itself quite badly beaten. I stopped to catch the sunrise over the desert that changed from taupe to white and then amber before rolling out into the hills of Pushkar. In the very epicentre of nowhere I came upon a genetic oddity. A young Indian man with pale skin and red hair. It could have been that his mother was caught out by an errant Irishman, but I quizzed him more about his lineage and he confirmed that all of the males before him had been fair and ginger. He was a Child of Alexander. The great Macedonian had made it this far east and he and his men made it their mission to marry plenty of local women and subsequently sow their seed. The results can still be seen today as these genes have been passed down over the centuries.  

Pushkar is a peaceful (by Indian standards) pilgrim town of lakes and temples on the edge of the desert. Hindus believe that the lakes were born when Brahma the Creator scattered petals upon the ground and so pilgrims come here to wash away their sins. As it was the height of dry season on my arrival, there wasn’t much water left for the pilgrims to bathe in. Every autumn the town sheds its peaceful demeanour as the world’s largest camel fair descends upon it with camel trading, camel racing, carnivals and rides.In between festivals it’s very much the haunt of the hippie and backpacker brigade. Idealist young things that like to turn their noses up at people like me for drinking Diet Coke (and therefore upholding globalisation and capitalism). I always snigger smugly to myself when this happens, especially when I pass them on the road in their air-conditioned minibuses.  Being a holy place of great reverence to Hindu’s no meat is permitted, no eggs, no booze and by all accounts no sex. Quite how that is policed I’m unsure, but with the hippies comes the hashish, and I was offered a smoke three times before even ducking down the high street through the crowds to my hotel.



India & Nepal
101 miles, 15 mph average20/21 Jan 10Day 4
Ajmer & Jaipur


Despite India’s poor road safety record, the traffic wasn’t living up to its reputation. A lethal cocktail of poor driver training, poorly maintained vehicles and an unhealthy enthusiasm for reincarnation doesn’t help, but as the traffic doesn’t move too quickly I was able to get out of the way when a vehicle swerved into my path to avoid hitting a holy cow. I could tell I wasn’t ranking too highly in the pecking order. I passed plenty of recent wrecks at the roadside and one had shed its load of chillies that I could taste hanging in the air well before I came across the source. The rule of the road is that there is no rule, everyone expects the unexpected and survives due to mutual distrust.

Shadowy figures swaddled in shawls and blankets huddled around bonfires in the early morning chill. It was about eight degrees centigrade and for the locals absolutely bloody freezing! I’d been chilly in the mornings too but a quick warm up climb had me stripped down to one layer, making my appearance even more bizarre to Indian eyes. Thus I made it to Ajmer, pilgrim site of the Muslim shrine of Dargah Sharif containing the silver coffin of the mystic disciple of Mohammed, Chishty and ranking only behind Mecca in terms of importance. Word travels fast here and the news that a grey-beard loon astride a two wheeled chariot was in town was passed on to two Khadims. These are said to be direct descendants of Chishty and I was honoured for them to show me around and receive a blessing having first prostrated myself before the shrine, been touched by the gold cloth that adorns the tomb and eaten two marigold petals that had been cast upon the casket by other more devout pilgrims who had received no such special treatment.

The Mughal emperor Akbar walked here barefoot from Agra to give thanks for the birth of his son after a prolonged period of childlessness. Akbar is considered to be the greatest of the Mughal’s, ruling an empire that stretched from coast to coast across northern India in the 1500’s and I set out east to retrace his footsteps. Part of Akbar’s empire building plans involved restructuring the tax collection system of the time and whilst this may not at first paint him in an heroic light he was the first ruler ever to impose taxes on rich nobility and he abolished a religious tax, the ‘jizya’, imposed on non-Muslims. One of Akbar’s more unusual donations were giant copper urns in which a type of rice pudding was prepared to feed pilgrims. Nowadays they are used to collect donations and I was enthusiastically encouraged to make a donation of 1150 Rupees (enough for a night in a reasonable hotel). Quite how the priest reached that figure I’ll never know, I guess he thought that being a westerner I had money coming out of my ears – a common preconception in India.



My blessing did indeed come true and I was rewarded with a smooth flat road with a clean hard shoulder and a tail wind. All that was missing was the scenery. Flat lifeless plains interspersed with scruffy towns, but the miles soon ticked up and I was in Jaipur just after lunch. As well as the usual roadside menagerie, for the first time I now had to manoeuvre around elephants!        

With so much to see and fatigue setting in I decided to take a day off in ‘The Pink City’. Jaipur moves to a more modern beat, where turbaned village elders rub shoulders with youngsters in jeans. It’s called the Pink City because Maharaja Ram Singh had the entire old city painted pink, a colour associated with hospitality, to welcome King Edward VII, and the tradition has been maintained. Central to the Pink City is the City Palace with its elegant courtyards, chambers and on display the giant silver urns that Maharaja Macho Singh II had made to take holy Ganges water with him on his State visit to Europe. They are listed by the Guinness Book of Records as the largest silver objects in the world.

It was Ram Singh’s Jantar Mantar that principally drew me here. At first it appears as a child’s playground with odd flights of stairs and abstract Legoland buildings, but these structures were built as an astronomical observatory, the name Jantar Mantar literally meaning ‘calculation instrument’, measuring angles of the stars and planets from the equator, the altitude of the sun and so provide accurate measurements of time, seasons, floods and famines. There are giant sextants and a garden of structures dedicated to tracking the constellations that make up the twelve signs of the zodiac. Its also home to the world’s largest sundial – something else to add to my growing list of ‘world’s largest things’ I’d seen on my journey around the planet.Perhaps iconic of the city is the Hawa Mahal better known as the Palace of the Winds, with its whimsically ornate projecting balconies from which the ladies of the harem could observe the lively street scenes below, whilst remaining hidden in purdah themselves. The 953 tiny windows arranged in a pyramid of five are also designed to act as a form of air conditioning. Of course the reality is not as romantic as the Palace is right on the main street which is the usual chaotic cacophony, and to get an idea of the postcard image you have to try to block out the mess that prevails on its doorstep.



India & Nepal
128 miles, 12 mph average22 Jan 10Day 5
Sariska & Bharatpur


A few miles out of Jaipur I passed the Amber Fort that was once the citadel and  capital city of Kachhawaha, the seat of successive rulers and favourite watering hole of our barefooted friend, emperor Akbar. The Amber Fort still looks stunning as the sun glances off its white marble and red sandstone, whilst by night it is lit up against an inky sky. The castle is surrounded by miles of defensive walls that cling to the hilltops resembling the Great Wall of China.

Later in the day I entered a land of forgotten fortresses and lost temples, a place where village craftsmen work by hand on life size marble statues. Designated as a tiger reserve since 1979, the Sariska National Park was once a private hunting ground, its sharp cliffs of hills and narrow valleys are forested with deciduous dhok trees. I was as far north as I was going to be on my journey through India and in the chilly morning light those trees made for quite a wintry scene. There are only an estimated 25 tigers left here now so I wasn’t too worried about the threat of attack, but was more bothered by the fierce little Hanuman monkeys. Hanuman is a Sanskrit word meaning ‘having jaws’ so I gave them a wide berth. Hanuman, the monkey god, is one of the most powerful and intelligent of the Hindu deities, whose character is said to teach of the untapped power within oneself, as his own devotion to his master made him free from physical fatigue. I wondered if perhaps an offering to Hanuman might take away some of the fatigue in my aching limbs, but I’d missed my chance to visit his temple at Galta near Jaipur. It’s considered blasphemous to scare them away so the temple is famously overrun by the little critters.



I’d decided on the scenic route again, but after the first few miles the road disintegrated to little more than a bumpy track and as I was now riding through mile after mile of potato fields with yellow flowering mustard growing in between, non-stop settlements lined the road and pausing for just a moment would result in being surrounded by those inquisitive stares and repetitive questions. Then came the villages and towns. Nothing very wholesome here, just a heaving mess and as it was the coldest day of the year everyone was burning their dung cakes, choking the air with a blanket of smog. Then as I finally found something worth photographing, to my horror the camera was gone. It had hardly been out all day and I tried to think back to when I’d last seen it but that was 30 miles down the road so back-tracking would be useless and more likely it had been stolen. I racked my brains for how I could have been so stupid as to leave it on display and recalled a moment when the front pannier was left open as I held out my map to try to get some directions. I spent the rest of the day in a stupor somewhere between tears and anger. All my lovely pictures and memories gone. I could still take snaps using the basic camera on my phone but nothing could replace the loss. All the pictures of India prior to this day have been copied from other sources.

I thought that calling at the Water Palace at Deeg would cheer me up but it has sadly fallen into disrepair since the Mughal Empire declined two hundred years ago, when it was filled with grand mansions and gardens with ingenious water effects that recreated rain, thunder and even rainbows. The palace was built in the mid 1700s as a place of refuge from the battles the Bharatpur rulers were constantly engaged in. The pavilions mirror the architectural traditions of the Mughals, with drooping eaves, water channels, gardens, and carved archways, whilst inside, the walls are embellished with carved motifs of flowers and peacocks. The gardens are kept up but there is no running water and the mansions are in a terminal state of decay. To round off one of my worst ever days of riding I had to negotiate the back street slums of the industrialised city of Bharatpur. Sunset was approaching but it had long been twilight in these cramped and polluted ghettos. There are more than a billion people in India and they all seemed to be in this one place at this one time.



India & Nepal
60 miles, 16 mph average23/24 Jan 10Day 6
Agra


At last I found a sanctuary in the Keoladeo National Park listed by UNESCO and regarded as one of the world’s most important bird sanctuaries and for me at last a haven of peace and tranquillity. No cars are allowed and I rode more than 10 miles of the park’s byways with my guide, to see nilgai antelope, jackals, owls, eagles and I was so lucky to get a glimpse of the only remaining pair of black-necked storks in the world outside of Sri Lanka, and an entire squadron of Mongolian geese, the only bird capable of flying over Mount Everest. How ironic that the park was originally created as a shooting ground where local princes and visiting dignitaries (especially the British) could brag of bagging so many sitting ducks.

The wetlands attract over 375 species of migrant birds from cormorants to Siberian cranes. But there is a problem. All those fields of potatoes I'd passed are upstream need watering and the supplies that used to feed the marshes have been diverted to the crops. With no politician willing to support avians over agriculture, the park is dying reliant only on heavy monsoons to flood the plain.

Ten or so miles up the road at Fatehpur Sikri, Akbar built himself a walled city using a blend of Hindu and Islamic styles, reflecting his secular vision as well as his style of governance. Akbar had even gone to the extent of marrying wives of Hindu, Muslim and Christian faiths in order to forge a stronger empire. Dominating the city is the Jami Masjid mosque that contains the tomb of the grandson of the mystic Chishti (whom I visited in Ajmer) and this tomb is still a site of pilgrimage for childless couples. The palace itself had to be abandoned just 20 years after Akbar occupied it, due to a lack of reliable water supply, and even today anarchy seems to reign as its overrun by touts and trinket salesmen, whose prices tumble by 300% as soon as you express disinterest.



When I was planning my round the world trip, I had short-listed some of the must-see’s. Arizona’s Grand Canyon, the Petronas Towers in KL, St Peter’s in Rome, the Golden Gate Bridge, Crac de Chevalier in Syria, Ephesus and Troy in Turkey, the St Bernard Pass in the Alps and no visit to northern India would be complete without a stop at the Taj Mahal and it didn’t disappoint. Built over 12 years as a tribute to Emperor Shah Jahan’s wife Mumtaz Mahal, it has perfect symmetrical proportions of dazzling white marble inlaid with semi-precious stones and its sheer scale is breathtaking.

Each of the four towers face slightly away from the main building as a precaution against earthquakes or landslip, but nothing has moved an inch in over four hundred years. What has moved though are the golden pinnacles that adorned each tower, dome and cupola. Made of solid gold they were plundered by the British in one of the greatest bullion raids in history totalling an estimated 500 kilos, worth more than £10,000,000 at today’s prices.  

Mumtaz Mahal was Shah Jahan’s favourite wife accompanying him everywhere (even on military campaigns), but died giving birth to their fourteenth child. Jahan was so heartbroken he mourned for two years before immortalising her by building the mausoleum that is said to be the world’s greatest monument to love. Shah Jahan had planned to build a replica for himself in black marble on the opposite bank of the river, but was deposed by his son Aurangzeb after laying only the foundations. That may have been no bad thing as Jahan’s devoted excesses were rapidly emptying the coffers that his grandfather Akbar had filled, he had fallen victim to opium abuse and died not long after being imprisoned in Agra’s fort, his palatial cells overlooking his wife’s resting place. A satisfying finale to this story was that this was the very fortress commissioned by Akbar less than one hundred years before.

The fort of Agra itself is listed by UNESCO and often overlooked in deference to the Taj Mahal, but it’s a 500 year-old architectural gem, with its red sandstone walls so typical of the Mughal style, and inside courts and palaces, mints and mosques all bringing to life the times of such a great civilisation.



India & Nepal
25 Jan 10Day 7
Uttar Pradesh


Having fallen behind schedule, with no guarantee of accommodation for the next 300km and dense fog forecast to last until noon, I decided to skip riding the dull flatlands and hopped on the intercity bus to Lucknow. The train would have been a nicer experience and cheaper too but the bike would have to travel as separate freight and I wasn’t going to risk its loss or delay.

With every mile I had travelled east along the Grand Trunk Road the poverty had exacerbated and just as I was beginning to believe things couldn’t get worse a fresh hell would confront me. In Kanpur the city’s streets were lined with bodies. These are India’s hopeless, helpless, homeless, hoards, a problem that grows with ever increasing rural emigration.  Crews of turbaned Biharis, emaciated and sun-blackened, laboured digging ditches and breaking rocks, overseen by paunchy masters laughing into their cell phones while reclining in wicker chairs under umbrellas. Dalit (low caste) women with despairing eyes treaded the highway, scavenging for metal in rancid rubbish. Homes were no more than straw shacks; a putrid puddle or septic stream serving as a kitchen as Uttar Pradesh redefines destitution and urban misery. Due to the lack of sanitation I was privy to the err…privy of the village folk. No hiding in the bushes for them, they would just squat by the side of the road not at all fazed by my passing.



Yet amongst these depraved scenes a peacock would strut looking as at home on a rubbish dump as he might in the driveway of some English stately home. Parakeets flitted from bough to bough between acacia and eucalyptus, and sapphire blue kingfishers would sit patiently in wait for their next meal. Someone coined the cliché that India is a land of contrasts, how right he was.   

Fields of potatoes became paddies of rice, and camels were replaced by ponies to draw the carts as I crossed the wholly polluted Holy River Ganges. I arrived in Lucknow mid afternoon, fighting its gridlocked traffic but with time for a quick look about this city of three million people. A few paces out of the hotel I was squawked at by three tall, elegant women whose tell-tale stubble gave away their ‘secret’ that they were some of Lucknow’s infamous lady-boys. They entered a sari shop and one appeared to grab a garment and walk out without paying. The store manager tried to stop him/her and there was a fracas in the street that culminated in the three of them dropping their pants and waggling their wasted genitalia in the hapless manager’s direction.

A little further on I saw some of the few interesting colonial buildings that on closer inspection, were near to collapse. In a lovely snub to the old empire, some had been draped in lights of the orange, white and green of the Indian flag in preparation of Republic day, the anniversary of independence when the streets would throng with parades and marching bands. It’s Lucknow that has perhaps the best reason to celebrate independence over other cities as it was here in 1857 that the first attempt at overthrowing the British was quashed after a prolonged siege.



India & Nepal
85 miles, 16 mph average26 Jan 10Day 8
The Gangetic Plain


After a totally forgettable ride on a part completed motorway that was choked with dust and fumes, I turned north across the Gangetic Plain and toward Nepal. For some reason I was a bundle of nerves – what if Nepal was even worse than India, what if the roads were is such a state they were unrideable, what if the natives were hostile? All these thoughts played on my mind but were proven wrong when I reached a quiet country road with the added benefit of a plush tarmac surface.

It was Republic day so I tied a pair of plastic flags to my panniers in the hope of winning friends and influencing people.     

The dense early morning fog turned to the rural smog pervading from the dung fires, and whilst obscuring the view of rice and sugar cane plantations, it allowed me to slip along incognito. I managed a full 20 miles before the first motorcycle outriders with their inane questioned tailed me. But this time it was different, my two companions were engineers from Lucknow and spoke excellent English and for once I was happy to oblige the offer of a tea stop. Both in their early twenties neither had ever held a conversation with a European before. It put in perspective my earlier churlishness over my inquisitors as without doubt many I’d met had never seen a white person in the flesh before. They empathised with my request to stop at a secluded spot where I wouldn’t be mobbed and I happily answered their questions about life in Europe on a range of topics as diverse as motorway speed limits, topless beaches and terrorism as well as the inevitable wages and price comparisons.

Hindi is an incomprehensible language and script to me, but now at the very eastern fringe of India I was at least saying hello with ‘Namaste’, ordering tea with ‘chai’ and asking directions with something sounding like ‘conza rasta…’ (which road…) Its an ancient tongue that has remained unchanged for centuries, hence modern words such as ‘cycle’, ‘by-pass’ and ‘computer’ are simply adopted from the English, making roughly every one in twenty words recognisable. With a little sign language thrown in for good measure I’d been able to get by but only to cover the most rudimentary needs and meeting anyone that spoke more than those tedious rehearsed questions was a rarity.



I crossed into Nepal on a dirt track with no border control and entered a different time zone, not just 15 minutes ahead of Delhi time and into the year 2066 (Nepal runs on its own unique calendar), but in reality a few centuries in the past where the internal combustion engine doesn’t exist and the world turns at the pace of the bicycle wheel. Bliss.

A few miles into this new country is the Maya Devi - birthplace of Lord Buddha, a tranquil spot marked by a modest temple and streams of prayer flags flapping gently in the afternoon sun. The prayer incantations of the monks and gentle mantras of a lone guru sent me into a trance as I sat in the shade of the trees and meditated about loved ones back home.

The Buddha - Siddhartha Gautam was born into the Shakya royal family in Lumbini in south Nepal. His mother, Queen Maya Devi was on her way to her parent's home at Rangram for the birth as was the tradition at that time, but before reaching her destination, she went into labour. The Buddha was born as she leant against a sal tree and he is said to have emerged from her right side, taken seven steps and as he walked lotus flowers bloomed. There has been much dispute over the years as to the exact location of the Buddha's birthplace; even treated as an issue of national pride between India and Nepal, but the central focus is at this temple where a stone relief (probably 2nd century AD) shows her giving birth to the Buddha watched by the two Hindu gods Brahma and Indra.

Having cycled for over a thousand miles without much rest, I was suffering. I couldn’t find a part of me that didn’t hurt, I’d lost a few kilos in weight and I was even growing bored with the barrage on the senses with which India had bombarded me. The mess, the filth, the poverty. The lack of escape, the lack of space. I thought of Buddha’s Noble Truths; that suffering is an inherent part of existence; that the origin of suffering is ignorance and the main symptoms of that ignorance are attachment and craving; that attachment and craving can be ceased. The remedy to such suffering is said to follow the Noble Eightfold Path - right understanding, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. I’d like to think that I’ve always tried to do the right thing, but my legs still hurt. I don’t think Buddha had heard of Paracetamol!



India & Nepal
88 miles, 16 mph average27 Jan 10Day 9
Into Nepal


Nepal is one of the world's poorest countries, with a national average income of less than US$500 a year. Its people are struggling to overcome the legacy of a 10-year Maoist insurrection that led to the abolition of the monarchy and it has since been a democratic republic for just two years.

Breakfast at the hotel was an amusing affair. The hall with filled with Taiwanese on a coach tour of Buddhist temples. For some it was their first journey outside of the Far East and I had to chuckle as they tried to use their forks and spoons as chopsticks, struggling clumsily as we do the first time we are confronted with their wooden cutlery.



Before I could really get going I had a few tasks to complete. The first was simple enough, although finding a cash point in a fog as thick as a murug makhani wasn’t so easy. It’s illegal to bring Nepalese currency into the country and I always feel uneasy without at least a few pounds worth of the local quidage in my pocket so it was very much my first priority. Next up was a round trip to the official border to obtain a visa. I stopped on the Nepalese side and explained what had happened to an officer outside of the office. After the bureaucracy of India he was a breath of fresh air and told me that I’d need to ride straight across the border and not stop then turn round and go to the Indian office to get an exit visa. That went well enough although when they asked me where I had stayed the previous night I thought too soon and named an Indian town 50 miles away. It was only eight in the morning so this didn’t look plausible, but I got my stamp and went to the Nepalese office. Inside my ally was sat at a desk with two others and all was well until I went to pay for the visa. Of course I instinctively produced the Nepalese Rupees that I gone out of my way for earlier. The sharper of the three guards immediately asked where I’d obtained the cash and I was busted. My earlier ally explained to the other what had happened, they all smiled and I was in. I was already beginning to like Nepal.

Turning east at Butwal I was soon on a quiet road lined with a forest of tall sal trees and occasional villages. Plenty of approving nods, thumbs up and smiles but no intrusions and I was charmed by these cool, polite people. I hit my first proper hills in over a thousand kilometres but made no complaints about the beautiful changing landscape these hills brought with them.



India & Nepal
28 Jan 10Day 10
Chitwan National Park


At the base of the Himalayas, Chitwan is one of the few remaining undisturbed vestiges of the 'Terai' region, which formerly extended over the foothills of India and Nepal. It has a particularly rich flora and fauna and is home to one of the last populations of single-horned Asiatic rhinoceros, and one of the last refuges of the Bengal tiger.

I’d checked into Tiger Tops Tharu Village Resort the night before for a day of rest and as I was the only guest and had all 44 staff at my disposal, nothing was too much trouble and I dined in style on a mix of traditional Nepalese cuisine and old fashioned English cookery of the Mrs Beeton variety.

I spotted spotted-deer, saw the dog-sized barking-deer and a wild boar crashed through the undergrowth at full bore. Then there he was. The most brutally ugly beast in creation, with his armour-plated skin and the look of mother nature’s practical joke of crossing a giant grey pig with a dinosaur. The rhino has a temperament to match its looks, and this large male grunted and snorted his disapproval at our presence whilst we kept a respectful distance.



Later in the day, the boss had a call to say that a young male rhino had wandered out of the jungle and was lodged in a stream close to the village and by the time we arrived everyone else was hoping for a grandstand view and my arrival only added to the amusement. It seems that there is only one thing funnier than a rhino stuck in a river, and that’s a white man on a bicycle. Two elephants were brought in from the resort with the intention that their mahouts would drive them downstream to flush the rhino out, but as even more people had gathered, the risk of provoking a charge was too great. About half a dozen people die in the park each year as victims of charging rhinos, so discretion was chosen over valour and the elephants stood guard until nightfall when the crowd dispersed and the rhino wandered back home in peace.



India & Nepal
122 miles, 11 mph average29 Jan 10Day 11
Himalayan Foothills


The early miles rolled along easily enough and as day broke I entered the deep gorge of the Trishuli Nad that flows south from here to the Ganges, and through some of the most remarkable scenery I’ve ever encountered. The river was milky blue due to the ‘rock flour’ ground to powder under the weight of glaciers higher in the Himalaya. Soaring rusty brown peaks surrounded me forming a distinctly oriental scene. The faces of the people reflected how much further east I’d travelled too, with rounder faces and their slanted eyes still giving me those bewildered looks.

The road rose and fell along the canyon wall as I climbed steadily upstream, and the surface varied from reasonable tarmac to sandy tracks and rutted furrows. The going was slow and tough and by the time the river was no more than a stream, at about 1000m, queues of trucks were starting to back up behind the slowest common denominator, belching their fumes and black soot at me but always passing with room to spare. At the switchbacks for the pass at about 2000m the traffic was moving slower than I was, and I started to make my way along the procession of decrepit lorries to plenty of cheers of encouragement from drivers who would bang their hands on the outside of their doors in appreciation of my efforts. These were just the foothills of the world’s highest mountain range with the might of Annapurna and Everest out of sight to my north.



Riding uphill all day over so many miles means the body is in a constant state of calorie deficit but stopping for large meals is out of the question. I kept an eye on the mileage and disciplined myself to stop every fifteen miles or so to chomp down a banana or chocolate bar, whilst chewing toffee on the move. Paradoxically when burning the energy, it is quite normal to loose appetite and all too easy to reach the point at which blood sugar is depleted, body fat cannot be metabolised rapidly enough and a state of hypoglycaemia ensues. The onset is rapid and takes more than an hour to correct, so going into a ‘bonk’, as its known to cyclists, could have left me short of Kathmandu before darkness fell.

The road continued to tower above me in a demoralising serpent uncoiling itself over the side of the mountain. It seemed impossible for it to lead any higher but when I stopped for water a local motorcyclist came over to chat and reassured me that the summit was just a few more miles higher. Buoyed-up by this news I rode on over the top to see the ancient city of Kathmandu sprawling in smog in the high plateau down below me.



India & Nepal
30 Jan 10Day 12
Kathmandu


A more foreign land than Nepal would be hard to find. Just about everything is different from home, the landscape, the faces, the food, the faiths. Women still wear traditional crimson clothing and in the city facemasks keep out the dust and fumes. But today’s Kathmandu’s heart, like so many Asian metropoli, throbs to the beat of karaoke bars and talented live bands thrashing out perfect replicas of rock standards only the vocalist is wailing words the meaning of which will utterly escape him. So far removed from western and imperial influence, yet moving so rapidly into the twenty first century that the infrastructure lags behind. The traffic is at a standstill, rubbish is swept from the doorstep but remains uncollected, and there are daily power cuts. Nepal has ample sources of sun, wind and flowing water but no capital to harness their power. She has hidden mineral wealth but without outside aid, no means to extract it. The vultures of China and India are circling.

That’s not to say it’s without its charms, the gurus still pose some for their faith, some for the baksheesh, and the prayer wheels still turn, their brasswork polished by the hands of so many passing pilgrims. It’s the point of departure for many a trek and you can buy last year’s North Face jacket, duplicated in perfect detail for a quarter of the price you might pay in the west.

People watching is quite possibly the best sport in town. There are the gap year students who are dashing about collecting the names of exotic sounding places to tell their friends on Facebook. There are the macho-men who have all the gear and no idea. They’d have those young students believe they are off to attempt the summit in the morning even though no one gets past base camp at this time of year. Then there are the quiet unassuming ones who know the trails of the foothills and will disappear for weeks to live in mountain villages.



India & Nepal
39 miles, 13 mph average31 Jan 10Day 13
Kathmandu


No trip to Nepal could be complete without some kind of excursion to see the amazing and beautiful surrounding countryside. In this winter season the high peaks are off limits but the steeply terraced hills and jungles are a Mecca for mountain bikers and hikers alike. For a nominal sum I hired a decent bike and a local guide who knew all the right places. The views were breathtaking; the trails sublime. We rode for six hours bewitched by sights of towering mountains, deep valleys with tiny villages clinging to the slopes for dear life. In the valleys we crossed paddy fields and passed old women gathering food for the animals and wood for the fire. With fresh air in my lungs and a day’s rest behind me I flew up and down the slopes like a mountain goat on amphetamines. It was the perfect end to a less than perfect trip and I’ll be feeling Nepal calling me back for many years to come.



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