This post covers ‘Part Two’ of our time in India, this time back on our bikes. If you haven’t already, you can first read our time in India on foot here. Our journey by bike took us north out of Delhi up to Rishikesh, to the foothills of the Himalayas to Nainital before heading for the western border of Nepal.
As mentioned in ‘Part One’ of our India blog, we were apprehensive about travelling by bike in India. Time off the bike beforehand helped the ‘bedding in’ process and after six weeks we can safely say it is incredible. India isn’t for the faint-hearted but it is a must-see country. The food is fabulous and so varied. The people are open and inquisitive. The roads are mayhem so you just have to get stuck in and go with the flow. A buff or mask is necessary when passing through towns and cities due to the pollution. We made sure to dress modestly, eat street food only from busy sellers, avoid ice and salad, and drink packaged water or UV filtered water where possible. Hotels outside tourist places do not always accept foreigners, particularly if unmarried. Oh, and remember to barter! barter! barter! If you follow these few principles, you should survive this place and maybe even leave feeling inspired.
In the weeks while travelling on foot, the fear of riding on Indian roads had steadily grown. We’d had front row seats to see how crazy the bus drivers were, seen everyone driving on the wrong side of the road and many near-misses as a result. By this point we hadn’t been on the bikes for five weeks and hadn’t cycled in India at all since landing. I had so many disaster theories spinning around my head that I contemplated getting a taxi/bus to the outskirts of the city or even further afield. Fortunately however, on our return to Madpacker’s Hostel in Delhi we met Damien who’d just completed his trip cycling from Dublin (see @dublintodelhi for his instagram). He reassured us that Indian roads are not as bad as they look and gave his tips for staying alive. We decided to brave it.
We had some loose ends to tie up before leaving. One was a visit to the Taj, the other collecting Beck’s replacement wheel as the Pamirs had cracked her rear rim. We’d entrusted The Bike Shop, supposedly best bike shop in Delhi, to make the new wheel and gave them a month to make properly as it had would have to carry us onto Singapore. Despite this, it was made an hour before we collected it and looked like it had beed made by someone visually impaired. It had to do though because we wanted to hit the road.
We rose early to leave Delhi in the hope we’d avoid the worst of the traffic. Despite the already-busy roads, nothing was moving fast, mostly stationary in fact, and everyone was very aware of cyclists. Only then did we understand the excessive use of horns now that we were part of the traffic. It builds a 3D picture in your mind of where everyone is around you without having to turn around. The only flaw in this system is that some Indian motorists choose to modify their horns; sometimes a car horn would turn out to be a moped; other times a piddly, kazoo-like horn would turn out to be a huge truck that would fly past. Other that this, the system of constant beeping does work (although I’m not suggesting this practice is brought back to the UK).
Before we knew it we were on the quiet Upper Ganga Canal Road that headed directly toward Rishikesh to the north of Delhi. The madness of the capital was soon left behind, with the roads now flat, wide and palm lined. What we’d also left behind in Delhi and Rajasthan was the locals’ familiarity with seeing and catering for tourists. Now in the ‘real’ India the towns which were less picturesque, had fewer hotels permitted for foreigners (especially when not married) and the staring was more intense. With regards to the staring, the long days across the flats plains across Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand really gave time for me to profile the average Indian starer:
The most inquisitive are lone motorcycle-riding males between 25-45 years old. Once a foreigner is sighted they begin trailing, often performing a U-turn in order to follow, and stare. The trailing starer can then be broadly broken down into three sub-categories:
Starer does not say anything and rides in front, continually turning around to look at foreigner (a highly risky strategy for the starer as they take their eyes off the road). One we saw in fact crashed into a tree but at low speed so we didn’t stop to check if he was ok.
Starer pulls alongside foreigner and makes friendly chat with varying abilities in English. “Where are you from? Where are you going? How long in India?”. Once all lines of enquiry are exhausted they ride on ahead.
Starer hovers behind, just out of peripheral vision. If foreigner stops, they stop. If foreigner rides on, they continue with foreigner. Creepiest of all starers and mostly hunt in the late afternoons.
After several weeks travelling across the pan-flat plains of northern India, I’ll never forget the sight of the Himalayan foothills emerging from the misty air as we approached Rishikesh. The tree covered ‘hills’, higher than any mountain in the UK, beckoned as a refreshing retreat from the dusty plains. We rolled into Rishikesh several hours later across the Lakshman Jhula footbridge, shared with people, motorbikes and cows. Checking into Skyard hostel we met once again with Damien (@dublintodelhi) who’d got the bus from Delhi and Jasmin (@wanderlust_nimsaj).
Rishikesh is a peaceful and deeply religious place so beer is hard to come by. Most people are stoned talking about yoga or veganism. In the spirit of things I did my first ever yoga session and ate a vegetable. Rishikesh is also famously where the Beatles ashram was, although, now closed down and set within the confines of a national park so you can’t look at the ruins unless paying the park entrance fee. After a few relaxing days we rolled back down the hill and on towards Nepal.
Leaving Rishikesh we had no idea where to stay other than we wanted to camp. We were keen to get our camping mojo back after weeks of hotels and hostels. More difficult than you think in India as it’s so populous and there are many protected national parks in this particular area. We stumbled across the fenced, quiet grounds of a guest house, set within a forest. A helpful local said we could camp there but needed to check with the park ranger. Unfortunately the ranger didn’t agree stating it was too dangerous as the grounds were in the vicinity of elephant paths. Apparently the electrified fence would not be enough protection.
Riding on we were racing against the fading light. Checking our maps we noticed a temple marked within a nearby village and hope they let us pitch for the night. Once in the village we realised temple actually means small concrete structure with no one manning it. However, our presence had attracted interest from the locals and before we knew it we were surrounded with starers once more. We gestured to the tent to overcome the language barrier but it wasn’t much use. Thankfully an English-speaking local, Suresh, emerged from nowhere and invited us to his home. He kindly let us set up camp in his second home under construction to house his expanding family. We chatted about his seasonal work as a chef in Dubai while his wife cooked up an amazing meal for us. Thanks for the village experience and saving us Suresh.
Our plan for cycling to Nepal was to stay south of the Jim Corbett National Park, a large area of jungle home to one of the largest tiger populations in India. For a short while we rode along a peaceful, traffic-free road which ran through the Park itself, listening to the sounds of the jungle. Unfortunately this came to an abrupt end and we were sent on a significant detour as park rangers said, “It’s not a good idea to go further”.
The next few days were characterised by riding through not so charming towns and villages, like medieval times only with diesel engines. The battle for a hotel at a fair price continued too. We quickly learnt that saying we were married and that we were Irish significantly reduced the cost. Indians still hate the British it seems. After this we decided to head back into the sub-Himalayas once more to Nainital - a town largely designed for homesick Brits during the Raj era and supposedly modelled on a Cumbrian Lake District village.
The 2000m climb to Nainital took us 2 days, up an incredible switch-back road. Halfway up the climb a kind restaurant owner let us camp on the flat concrete roof of the restaurant, which was one of the more unusual camp spots of the trip. Tired from completing the climb the following day, we had a rest day in Nainital. This also gave us time to hike the 2,619m Naina China Peak, rewarding us at the top with views of the Indian Himalayas beyond.
After our rest day, we started the morning leaving Nainital with a 40km descent back down to the northern Indian plains. The Nepal border was slightly too far away to reach in a day so we stayed just short of the border, which threw up one final Indian surprise. When checking into another hotel, the owner said there was a wedding on that night and that we could join. Later that evening the hotel owner and workers chaperoned us around the event. They talked us through the traditions of a typical Hindu arranged marriage whilst the baraat (groom’s procession) was taking place.
One tradition we witnessed was the ribbon cutting ceremony. The groom is greeted by the bride’s family and offers presents and cash. Only once they have agreed on the amount of cash does he get to cut the ribbon and get let in. The groom looked extremely uncomfortable faced with ten women. In total there were at least three hundred people attending which is considered a relatively small wedding by Indian standards. It was a memorable last night in India, which despite its weirdness, the invasion on privacy and challenging experiences has been the best country of the trip so far… M
Current Stats (as of 11.12.18):
Total days cycled: 130/191
Total rest days: 61
Total distance completed: 8,050 Km
Latest bike repair: New bottom bracket (Matt)