This post covers a well-earned month off the bikes in November, exploring northern India on foot. Our route around Rajasthan included Jaipur for Diwali, Bundi, Pushkar for the annual Camel Fair, Udaipur, Jodhpur and Jaisalmer, ending with a day trip to Agra to visit the Taj Mahal. Maybe get yourself a cuppa, its a long one…
Incredible India. Where do I even begin? Admittedly, India was the place we were most apprehensive about exploring by bike. We had been warned by many cyclists ahead of us of the downsides - the traffic and pollution, overpopulation and hygiene - and even a few horror stories about the treatment of female cyclists. We even contemplated missing it out and returning without the bikes in the future. For years though I had dreamed of visiting India, intrigued by stories of friends about a county that on the one hand could guarantee illness, but on the other would seduce you with its rich history and unique culture.
Our skepticism about cycling in India, coupled with the fact we’d had no more than five days consecutive rest since leaving the UK in June, led to our decision to take a couple of weeks off to explore Rajasthan on foot. After completing the Pamir Highway, and having not organised visas for China and Pakistan, we decided the best use of our limited time would be to catch a flight from cold Kazakstan to a warmer India. So this is what we did.
We arrived in New Delhi airport on the first day of November. It was the only country we hadn’t crossed into by land, which was apparent in my child-like giddiness as we stepped off the plane. Arriving into a country on a plane is totally different to arriving by bike (obviously). The primary feeling arriving by plane is excitement. The feeling when crossing the border into a city by bike is usually intrigue, with any feeling of excitement dampened by stress, hunger and impatience at having to dodge traffic whilst finding a place to stay. Flying with the bikes turned out to be far less stressful than we had envisaged though. We flew with Air Astana and paid an additional 15,000 GEL (around €40) for each bike, which we had dismantled and packed into three boxes.
New Delhi: capital city of India and home to the infamous ‘Delhi belly’. With the bikes in pieces, we made the decision to get a prepaid taxi to our hostel. We chose to stay in the cool residential district of Hauz Khas, following recommendation from other cyclists. The taxi was more expensive than usual, however it meant everything fitted in and less chance of being scammed. We checked into Madpackers, a hostel popular with solo travellers and a really great place to meet people. These guys really know how to run a successful hostel. By the end of our time in India, it felt like our second home.
Our first few days were spent relaxing, planning our route around Rajasthan and exploring Hauz Khas. This slow bedding in worked well to prevent being overwhelmed, particularly in a place like Delhi. Despite the smog and horns, I felt an instant attraction to India. Walking around Hauz Khas, the overriding scent was cardamom -my favourite spice - which only added to the appeal of the place. I’m not sure if it was just India itself charming me or the fact we’d spent the last few weeks in Central Asian cities that offered little in the way of ‘seduction’, lacking in architectural interest and basic food.
Old Delhi was an experience like no other. A place bustling with so much activity, my brain had never been so stimulated. There is so much for the eyes to feast upon, both shocking and delightful. We were well prepared for chaos and surprisingly didn’t even argue. Despite the touts, the traffic, the beeping and the shear amount of bodies, the feeling of excitement ensued. The buzz of the bazaars, the smell of the street food, the tranquility of the Red Fort and Jama Masjid mosque: I was like a child in a sweet shop. Admittedly the stares got a little annoying at times, the selfie requests puzzling, and the incessant snorting and spitting often stomach-turning but once you learn to avert your eyes to the unpleasantries, it’s a fascinating place. By the end of our time in India, we came to realise the universal habit here of spitting. You’re never more than 60 seconds away from someone hacking up phlegm…
After gawping our way around Chadni Chowk, we took respite in Moti Mahal, famous for its butter chicken and recommended to us by an Indian cyclist (@pritamps). Coincidentally, a crew from the U.K. were filming inside the restaurant for an ITV documentary about Indian cuisine. For dessert we ticked off another of Pritam’s recommendations by visiting a kheer shop close to Chawri Bazaar. This was a favourite of mine; the owner only sells kheer (smooth rice pudding) and at only 30 rupees a plate, you’ll want to come back for more.
Day four saw us exploring New Delhi, an area originally developed under the British rule. We started the day on a high at the Safdarjung Temple - a beautifully quiet place with stunning gardens. This was probably an ‘architectural highlight’ for us in India.
We ate at Cafe Lota for lunch within the Craft Museum, yet another place recommended to us by Pritam. I ordered the Palak Patta Chaat as recommended, with a saffron-infused Lassi drink on the side. Matt enjoyed a fancy curry with deliciously spiced potatoes. This turned out to be one of the best meals we had during our six weeks in India.
We ended the day at Connaught Place - designed by Edward Lutyens in the 1920s - bargaining for a traditional tunic for me at Janpath bazar and devouring our first mango kulfi. Kulfi is Indian ice-cream, which in this case is stuffed inside a whole mango, spiced with pistachio, saffron and cardamom. Oh boy.
The first stop on our Rajasthan tour was Jaipur: the Pink City. We shared the train journey with Dries, a solo traveller from Belgium that we’d met at the hostel. It was the 5th November which marked the first day of the five day Diwali festival - the Hindu Festival of Lights. We went for a third class train seat and the journey exceeded our expectations, not overcrowded like we had been warned. The arrival into Jaipur centre in a tuktuk made quite an impression. There was a different kind of buzz about the place and the excitement of the impending festival was palpable.
Understanding quickly that the key to surviving Indian cities is spending a relaxing first day, we had a lazy morning away from the centre at the Central Park. Curious Life Coffee Roasters had been recommended to us by @WorldSpokesPeople so we stopped by for some lunch, with the food turning out to be as delicious as the coffee. The savory Lebenese waffle recipe will be coming back home with me; a pile of quinoa, chickpeas, red onion, olives, rucola, humous atop a waffle with a delicious dip on the side.
The 7th November: the main day of the Diwali celebrations. We spent the day walking around the city, visiting the Hawa Mahal and the Jantar Mantar. The Hawa Mahal was a highlight; a palace built for the city’s royal ladies. The unique facade was designed with hundreds of small casement windows to enable the women to see out onto the city and enjoy parades without being seen from the street.
Within the Pink City, the streets are bustling with Diwali activity, with sellers flogging marigold garlands, sugar cane, Indian sweets and fireworks all for the main celebrations. We met Jasmin in the evening, our new German dorm buddy who joined us and Dries for the Diwali festival. The selfie requests started up pretty soon upon entering the city walls. By the end of the night I was mimicking an impatient celebrity shouting “No photos, no photos!”. The ‘darker’ side of the city momentarily presented itself when I had my bum grabbed by a man whilst stuck in a crowd. I refused to let it ruin the night.
The best part of Diwali festival were the amazing lights, strung across streets and lighting up monuments. We enjoyed an Indian meal at Ganesh Restaurant above the crowds and later to watch the fireworks across the city with a beer.
Towards the end of our time in Jaipur, my patience was starting to wear thin. Indian cities tend to be so crowded that locals are used to being around a lot of people and ‘personal space’ isn’t a thing. Finding a quiet corner to sit without being pestered therefore isn’t possible. Diwali meant the tourists spots were even busier than normal, so after being hassled at the Chand Baori step well and being scared off by the crowds at Amber Fort, we opted for a quiet afternoon hiking up The Wall of Amer to watch the sunset. The views were stunning.
The rest of our time in Jaipur was spent eating delicious dosas at the Indian Coffee House, a chain popular with locals, an amazing dinner at Peacock Rooftop Restaurant and being invited for lunch at Mohitraj’s house. Mohitraj had contacted us on Instagram a few days back - also a cyclist who had just arrived home after a two month tour around the Himalayas. We enjoyed a delicious meal cooked by Mohitraj’s smiling mother. Traditional Diwali sweets we brought out (‘mathai’ being my favourite - almond and cardamom dipped in sugar syrup) and for dessert ‘bhori’ (crumbled chapati, sugar and ghee), along with a rice pudding flavoured with dried fruits and cardamom. We shared stories about our bike tours and Mohit also gave us some valuable tips for cycling in India and South East Asia.
No issues with the bus to Bundi aside from the drunk, Gutka-chewing (red tobacco) bus conductor, who seemed to be having difficulty performing basic tasks, namely finding our bus for us. We met two English girls onboard - Lydia and Ellen - and after the 5-hour journey, we all shared a rickety tuktuk ride to our accommodation. We stayed at the pretty Hotel Bundi House, complete with rooftop restaurant and cute Labrador called Silgram.
Bundi is a historic town in northwest India with a population of less than 100,000 (so, small for India). It’s therefore a relaxed town in comparison to the larger cities and a welcome ‘respite’. The town is also said to be where Kipling wrote the novel Kim. We spent the morning at the Garh palace and Taragarh fort before the sun became too hot. Despite it being winter here, the weather so far hasn’t fallen below 22 degrees. The palace contained some really beautiful wall paintings. The fort itself was more of a ruin, occupied by some fierce monkeys. We met up with the English girls in the evening and had a lovely time sharing travel stories over Indian veg Thali and beer.
Our final hours in Bundi the following day were spent visiting the two main stepwells in the city: Raniji Ali Baori and Nagar Sagar Kund, and drinking masala chai (supposedly the best in town). Krishna explained the process of how to make his chai, preparing each cup fresh. He later pulled out a new handwritten banner for his shop, with the words ‘Krishna Chai’, which he wanted painting. We spent the next hour in the back of his shop painting the first few letters for him.
We waited in the evening for yet another Indian bus journey which would take us to Pushkar. The hotel had called the bus company to confirm the pick up point, but an hour after the bus should have arrived we were still waiting. We flagged down the next bus and they notified us that our bus had already passed. Clearly distressed, they agreed to drop us off to the travel agency who then explained we had waited at the wrong stop... Neither the hotel or the agency wanted to take responsibility for the mistake. They didn’t offer us a refund or a solution to how we’d get to our nest destination without having to forfeit our reserved hotel. After a lot of shouting (from me), they eventually arranged for us to go on the next bus. The only downside was there were no seats left. An hour later we were sat cramped behind the driver with five other people, but at least we were on our way.
We arrived into a very quiet Pushkar at 3:30am and had to wake a tuktuk driver to take us to the hostel - again Madpackers. Pushkar is again a relaxed town, situated around the beautiful Pushkar Lake - a ‘sacred’ Hindu site said to have been formed by a lotus flower. The lake was our favourite place to hang out, to just sit and observe the activity along the ghats, where Hindus bathe and receive blessings. Bathing in the water is said to cleanse sins and cure diseases. The colours of the saris reflecting on the lake is a spectacular sight, particularly in the late afternoon sun.
Pushkar is also a shoppers paradise for anyone wanting to buy handicrafts, clothes or silver jewellery (providing you don’t have a partner who refuses to let you into the shops...). Shopkeepers seem less inclined to harass you to buy their goods too, which is a bonus.
The following morning I headed into town on my own - a rare thing on this trip but necessary if I want to shop. As expected, I get more local attention by myself. I was handed a marigold flower on my way into town and told to take it to the lake as it was a Hindu festival. I took the flower but refused the offer for a lift to the lake on the back of the man’s motorbike… Arriving at the lake, I had to dodge a few men gesturing to me and my flower to join them by the water for a ‘blessing’. I had read about this before and tourists are advised to kindly decline unless you’re happy to meet their demands for a ridiculous donation. One man got me though and I ended up having a ‘blessing’ just to save face (firstly making it clear I wasn’t going to be paying him). He blessed every family member of mine, placed a bindi and rice on my forehead, tied some material around my wrist and claimed this to be my ‘Pushkar Passport’ into all the temples. He then escorted me to the donation box making me carry a coconut... Luckily Matt had the wallet, so I could only put in a couple of small notes much to his disappointment.
Having been in India for a few weeks now, we were feeling braver about eating street food (also a great way to save money). We found some delicious kachori and samosa with a mango sauce at Shri Pushkar Raj Shahi, followed by dosa, with ‘malpua’ for dessert (a sort of pancake soaked in honey) at Radhey Ji Restaurant.
Our Belgian friend Dries had arrived into Pushkar that day with his two friends, so that evening we met up for one too many gin and tonics - the first we’d had in a while. We had to follow this with a healthy lunch the next day to fend off the hangover. Nature’s Blessing do the meanest salads. I had papaya salad with gouda cheese and pomegranates. Anyone who has travelled in India know how much a good salad (with ACTUAL cheese) is appreciated. How I miss cheese!
The Pushkar Camel Fair had commenced. We joined the hostel in decorating a camel which then escorted us to the main fairground to watch the opening ceremony. A band was playing, a fancy dressed man wa showing off on his extravagantly decorated camel and there were lots of traditionally dressed girls who later performed a dance to the crowd. It was fascinating to see the event, but walking around the ground it’s clear lots of the camels are mistreated for our entertainment, and lots of children dressed in rags pulling at your sleeves for money - family of the camel traders who come every year hoping to make a sale. Later in the evening, we joined the Deepadan, Rangoli and Maha Aarti celebrations on the lake, lit up with lots of candles, light shows, and with many Hindu rituals being performed.
That evening we left Pushkar for Udaipur. Our sleeper bus arrived almost two hours late but you come to expect these things in India and anyway, things were on the up: the bus actually showed. We chose horizontal beds for the novelty but these proved to provide even less sleep than a normal bus seat. After a rough ride we arrived 6 hours later, arriving to our hostel in the early morning.
Udaipur, the City of Lakes, turned out to be our favourite stop on our tour of Rajasthan. As India’s equivalent to Venice in Italy, it is very different to all the other cities we had visited. There are many beautiful buildings with great rooftops taking advantage of the spectacular view of the water. We chose to avoid most of the typical tourist spots, already a little tired of the palaces and temples. We instead spent our time walking around the lake, eating good food of course and catching the Dharohar at the Bagore-ki-haveli - a traditional Rajasthani show with different performances such as dance, live music and puppets. The evening was only tainted by the an Indian man sat in front who kept standing up not to clap but to relieve himself of wind.
Whilst there have been many beautiful sunsets in India, so far the most beautiful have been in Udaipur. Our favourite spots were at the Ambrai Ghat and sat having dinner at Sun N Moon Restaurant.
Prior to our next bus which would take us to Jodhpur, we ate at the amazing Natraj Dining Hall. The concept, service, flavour, quantity and price meant it’s up there with one of the best meals we’ve had. “It’s an experience” said the older American lady sat on the table next to us. We each paid 240 rupee for an all-you-can-eat style vegetable Thali which comes with a salt lassi and two desserts. The waiters continue to top up your plate until you say no more = happy Matt.
Once on the bus, we met two more travellers, Emy and Dan from New Zealand backpacking around India on their way back home from living in London. After we arrived into the city, a tuktuk drove us to our hotel down extremely narrow streets bustling with local life. We even passed by two wedding processions which unapologetically halted all traffic. The guesthouse we stayed at was one of the best - Jaswant Bhawan Home Stay. Rooms are located around a central courtyard with steep steps up to each door - worth it for the view of the Mehrangarh Fort from the rooftop.
Jodhpur, known as the Blue city due to its blue-painted houses, said to keep houses cool during warmer months, as well as acting as an insect repellent. Almost instantly did we feel more at ease here, with locals beaming at you with big smiles and no attempts at hassling you. We headed for the Mehrangarh Fort, the most enjoyable out of all the forts we visited, partly due to being less crowded. The brilliant audio guide also meant less selfie requests. We then visited the Jaswant Thada mausoleum on the way back down into the city, before searching for the famous Omelette Man for a cheap lunch. The masala cheese omelette was heaven: an omlette inside two slices of white toasted bread. Matt did a double order it was that good.
We met up with Emy and Dan in the evening and got to know one another over one too many Gin Side Cars and not enough food. Another nice evening spent with new friends. I like how easy and uncomplicated it is to meet good people whilst travelling.
Attempting to get out of the city the next day was difficult, hangover aside. We had to catch another bus to Jaisalmer but the Muslim festival in town meant lots of the roads were blocked. We almost missed the bus due to the classic tuktuk scenario:
Driver goes in wrong direction.
Tell driver he is going in the wrong direction.
Driver pulls over and hands my phone showing Google Maps to a random person.
Random person tells him where to go. Driver challenges this. (Unusual: Person then asks us if our bus booking has been confirmed. ‘Yes, and what has that got to do with taking us to the bus stop, please go now to the bus stop. We have 15 minutes before it leaves.’)
Driver eventually senses the urgency and drives in the right direction. Driver takes weird detours that lengthens the journey not shortens, eventually depositing us at correction destination.
Driver is handed the agreed money (which is always at least 4x local rate) but still try’s to ask for more.
Despite the above, we made it to Jaislamer just before 8pm that evening. It’s a much smaller town, with many unsurfaced roads and a lot of half-built buildings. The most common reason tourists visit to Jaisalmer is for the desert safaris. The following day we booked onto a ‘non-touristy’ safari with the well-reputed company ‘Adventure Travel Agency’. It cost us 2,150 rupees per person for an overnight camel safari including 4x4 ride and meals. The owner Indar is a sweet man who has been running the place for 35 years. We squeezed in a visit to the barbers for Matt to have an Indian shave (plus an awkward face massage) before heading on our safari along with Matild and Miguel, a couple from Portugal.
Once in the desert, we each were given our own camel to ride and set off towards the dunes. Riding a camel is much more difficult than we had anticipated and Matt proclaimed his boredom after 20 minutes. Once we arrived at the dune, we dismounted and enjoyed a mug of chai whilst watching the sunset, waiting for our evening meal to be prepared on an open fire.
We spent a memorable night around the campfire eating and chatting before sleeping out in the open on our camp beds under the stars. Waking early to catch the beautiful sunrise, we were each again handed a cup of chai in bed before enjoying breakfast together and then spent the rest of the morning riding the camels back towards Jaisalmer.
A side bonus to choosing Adventures Travels is the offer for a shower back at the owners house before we headed back to Delhi that night (obviously not necessary if you have a hotel waiting for you). We were driven to Indar’s house which he shares with his German partner Martina, and were greeted with fresh lemonade and a room for each couple to freshen up. Martina lives half the year on the Isle of Man and before we left she invited us with our bikes to visit the island on our way home.
As a final gesture, Indar kindly booked us onto the next train to Delhi - the 21hr sleeper train leaving at 1am. Sobar from our previous hotel invited us back to wait out the train, eat some food and chat over a beer. Despite his religious beliefs, he eventually caved and took up our offer for some of our beer, turning off the light so that no one could ‘judge him’ as a Muslim. He talked in depth about Indian education, the caste system, arranged marriage and sadly how he barely knows his wife. He admitted they never speak unless it’s to discuss what they need bringing from the city to their village in the desert. They have never in fact spoken on the phone. It is more common in rural India for arranged marriages as opposed to the so-called ‘love marriages’ most common in our society. Quote: ‘It’s just different in the village, life is very different. India is crazy place’.
The sleeper train proved to be a painless experience. We each received a bed and sheets and had a decent nights sleep without troublesome snorers or ignorant music players (Kazakstan).
It felt good arriving back into Delhi. We both really enjoyed our time around Rajasthan but we had missed the bikes (not least because we’d spent far more money than we had budgeted for). Back at Madpackers hostel we bumped into Damien (@dublintodelhi) who had just completed his tour from Ireland and spent a few days together sharing bike stories over beers.
Finally the day had arrived for our visit to the ‘eighth wonder of the world’’: the Taj Mahal. Not wanting to lose time, we chose to visit on an organised day tour with others from the hostel. It was an early start, leaving at 5:30am and arriving at around 9am. Agra wasn’t as we’d expected. The city appeared chaotic, dirty and overcrowded despite being the home to the architectural masterpiece. We followed the crowd into the grounds after paying the hefty entrance fee and were admittedly struck by the framed view of the Taj through the archway. The experience was somewhat dampened though by the throngs of people stood trying to get the famous shot, but none the less it was spectacular.
Choosing not to visit the Agra Fort, we instead ate at a restaurant before heading back to Delhi. The driver encouraged us to ask him questions, so trying to be deep and meaningful, I asked about the…excessive damned use of the car horn. When explaining why, he said: “It’s our communication language”.
Before we jumped back on the bikes, we squeezed in a ‘Delhi Belly’ food tour led by Anas and Shrey of our hostel. The tour around Old Delhi was a great way of sampling the famous street food with little risk of getting ill. One of the highlights was the Khari Baoli spice market, with everyone coughing and sneezing on the way up through the building because of the strong spices in the air.
Whilst on the food tour, a fellow traveller reminded me of An Idiot Abroad, the ‘travel’ programme starring the ignorant Brit Karl Pilkington. When in India (namely Old Delhi), he perfectly sums up the place by saying:”‘The eyes have never been so busy” and that’s exactly how India is. It’s quite literally busy of course - the traffic, the people and the trade - but its the things you have never seen before that constantly amaze, both good and bad, and hold your interest. As quite a stressful person, I usually prefer quieter places that allow me to relax. Although Delhi is the antithesis of this, there is a brilliance to it that everyone needs to experience at least once in their lifetime... B
Current Stats (as of 28.11.18):
Total days cycled: 120/178
Total rest days: 58
Total distance completed: 7,382 Km
Best food: Kachori and mango sauce