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What is it really like cycling in India?

“You must be mad” was the usual response when we told people that we were planning to spend 2 months cycling in India.  “What about the traffic, the heat, the dust, the hassle, the begging, malaria, ‘Delhi belly’…….and what about your age?”.  It is true that we are at the  north end of our 50s and we didn’t really have a plan other than to set off from Kanyakumari, the most southern tip of India, on New Year’s Day and head north. It would also be true to  say that we had some of those same underlying anxieties, but that did not deter us from flying off on a wintry December day and landing some time zones later in the soft enveloping  subtropical warmth of South India.

Although we had landed at Trivandrum airport, Bernie’s bicycle had not and was still lurking in the depths of Dubai airport where our delayed flight had left us sprinting across the vast concourse for our connection. Happily she was reunited with her bike the next day and after experiencing the first of many magical sunsets, joining  the colourful, swirling masses of Indian tourists and pilgrims on New Year’s Eve, we were ready to set off on a cycling trip that was like no other we had done.

Our key anxiety about traffic quickly diminished as we were lulled into a steady rhythm on the quiet, palm lined back roads of Kerala.  Entering any town or village though was like flicking a ‘chaos’ switch.  The peace of the country road was replaced by hysterical hooting from any and all vehicles. We quickly learnt that there is some order in the madcap Indian traffic. It all depends on your size, regardless of whether, in the European mind-set, you may think you have right of way. Bicycles give way to tuk tuks, tuk tuks to motorbikes, motorbikes to cars, cars to lorries and buses and everyone gives way to cows – of which there were many ambling along the roads be they the smallest of back roads or the middle of large cities.

The wonders of modern technology meant that with the combination of a GPS Garmin and ‘googlemaps’ we could almost always find small quiet back roads wherever we went. What this couldn’t tell us was the state of the road and so it was always a bit of a leap into the unknown. Often a smooth road would deteriorate to a state where there was more ‘pot hole’ than tarmac but in spite of the battering that gave to our bikes and our bones it was always preferable to the busy roads. It meant we were often cycling through small villages and towns where, judging from the response of cheering and waving locals, they had rarely, if ever, seen European tourists pass through, and certainly not  two aged cyclists clothed in Lycra and laden with panniers.

Wherever we went we were invariably greeted with smiles and kindness and people appeared proud that we had chosen to cycle through their village.  Inevitably people approached us when we stopped but were polite and respectful and we rarely felt crowded out or intimidated.  The most usual request was for a ‘selfie’, an obsession of the Indians who never seem to take a photo without their own visage in the frame.

We got into the swing of our cycling in verdant, fruit laden, coastal Kerala, peddling between one beautiful beach and the next, interspersed with being punted round the supremely relaxing web of backwaters.  It was time to leave this bliss and turn inland into the Western Ghats.  This mountain range runs 1600km just inland from the coast from Mumbai to the tip of Tamil Nadu. Although the old Raj towns in the Ghats are referred to as ‘Hill’ stations these were proper mountains, the size of many in the Alps. The Ghats are older than the Himalayas and one the worlds 10 ‘hottest biodiversity hot spots’. We puffed and panted our way zigzagging through this amazing and diverse landscape taking in wonderful scenery, fantastic wildlife sanctuaries and tea and coffee plantations. We reached the highest Hill Station at Ooty by taking the irresistible ‘Toy’ steam train  – but only after queuing from 4.30 in the morning for ‘unreserved’ tickets and filling out forms in triplicate to stow the bikes in a mini luggage van.

From Ooty we whooshed down the 36 hairpin bends on what is alleged to be the steepest road in southern India and into Mudumalai Tiger Reserve.  When we arrived at our hotel they were somewhat surprised to see us on bikes as cycling and walking through the reserve is not allowed.  The chances of being pounced upon by a tiger in the middle of the day while peddling along the road were pretty remote but we did learn that there is a real risk from rogue elephants and fatal attacks in the local villages were not uncommon.  Luckily we did not meet a rampaging elephant and arrived safely but we did pile our bikes and kit into a jeep the following day to leave the reserve for our onward journey into the state of Karnataka.

Our route took us further inland to the grand city of Mysore with its magnificent palace then north again to the 12th century Hoysala temples covered in incredible intricate carvings.  Then turning west again to the coast for some laid back rest at the lovely beaches at Gokharna.

We were then on a northern trajectory up the coast to Goa. This tiny state, which was only wrested from the Portuguese to become part of India in 1961, has been a tourist magnet for decades.  This came as a bit of a shock after the remote, rural areas we had been cycling through but also delivered us treats.  Food generally had been magnificent with roadside samosas and pakoras, freshly fried in front of our eyes being particularly good for hungry cyclists.  But we took guilty pleasure in pizza and beer in the backpacker hangouts.

Goa was over in a flash and before we knew it we were crossing the bridge into the state of Maharashtra.  Instantly it felt like another planet. Gone was the smooth tarmac, the near continuous beach resorts, the signs in English and Russian and the multinational assortment of tourists.    The back roads in this southern part of Maharashtra were very remote. Villages were few and far between and much poorer. Here the fingers of the Ghats meet the sea, cleaved by deep river valleys.  This was cycling at its hardest – steep up and down, up and down, up and down.  Road surfaces were often appalling where the monsoon rains had washed the tarmac away.  Shops and accommodation were sparse and the days were long. The lack of infrastructure meant lack of development and we came across long beautiful beaches that were totally empty.  The days were interspersed with river crossings – some by bridges but more often by ferries. On the bigger rivers these were large and small vehicle ferries but with the smaller river crossings we were often not quite sure what we would find or if a crossing really existed.  They always did, often on a small passenger boat and even on a couple of occasions by a small canoe.  One of the great things about India is that the people are totally undaunted by a challenge – and yes you can fit 2 bikes, 6 panniers and 8 people into one canoe!

As the Maharastran coast got nearer to Mumbai it eventually became more developed and the Ghats finally ran out of ripples. A final ferry took us from unspoilt coast into the heart of Mumbai within an hour where we were welcomed by the magnificent Gate of India.

With our flight home fixed from Delhi, we elected to take the overnight sleeper from Mumbai to Udaipur in Rajasthan.  That, we smugly thought, would also avoid having to cycle out of Mumbai – until we found that the rail terminus was 16km away.  Probably our most unpleasant 16km of cycling in choking fumes, we survived the city traffic, only to find googlemaps had brought us to the wrong side of the station.  We had to push our bikes and clamber over railway tracks to find our way in to the ‘parcel office’ where we were required to book our bikes on to the train. After numerous forms were filled in we left the bikes in their hands with some trepidation but with the typical mix of Indian bureaucracy and technology we soon received a text to say the bikes were loaded on the train.

This second part of our trip was a zigzag course through the state of Rajasthan, an area of vast desert that oozes with temples, palaces and forts of astounding magnificence.  After our weeks in and out of the Ghats this cycling was flat, flat, flat and one could even say  a little tedious at times, but the architectural delights more than made up for this.  Updaipur, Jodhpur, Osian, Pushkar, Ajmer,  Bundi and Jaipur– all with  their own character, history and  cultural wonders.  Again we were cycling through back roads and through rural Rajasthani villages where we were as likely to see camels as cows and saw how they eked out a living from the inhospitable terrain wherever water could be found for irrigation. At Ranthambhor Tiger reserve our Rajasthan experience was crowned by seeing a magnificent Bengal tiger in the wild.

Thinking of cycling in India? Then do it! Why? Because you will experience India from the ground up, at a pace that fills you with its vibrancy, colour, clamour, and richness.  Every sense will be left tingling. You will live the diversity of cultures, each state as different as each European country is from each other and absorb the centuries of history. You will cycle through tiny rural villages and through cities of mindboggling enormity. You will see incredible scenery and a wonder of wildlife. Most of all you will be immersed with the people and experience their kindness, their smiles, their warmth and humour.

We like to feel that arriving by bicycle we come as ourselves, with little impact on the communities we cycle through. We are still tourists but don’t come with a label of  ‘rich’ or ‘western’ or ‘outsider’ (although of course we are all 3) but are seen more as a curiosity and, I hope, as people who embrace India with all its idiosyncrasies. We were told repeatedly by both Indian people and other visitors, that we were an “inspiration”. Being coyly British this was always faintly embarrassing but if it means that we were inspiring people to be brave and travel independently, to take the side road without quite knowing what it will bring, inspiring people to start cycling and build up fitness whatever your age and bring a smile to the faces of those we pass by, however fleeting that interaction, then we are pleased that we have been able to give something back to this amazing country.

Day 47: Jaipur and signing off.

After 24 hours after we arrived in Jaipur it was clear that my muscles needed a few days to recover from the bruising of the fall, and so we decided to end the cycling here. We only planned a further 3 days on the bikes to reach Agra, but that can wait until the next trip. So we are holed up, reading and recovering at the wonderful Ashok Club and will head off by car to our friends in Delhi tomorrow.


This morning we visited the amazingly beautiful Amber Palace, just under 30 years after we visited together in 1988 (when we also stayed at the Ashok Club). It was still stunning and impressive, but also reminded us just how much opulence one person (or perhaps more accurately a series of individual rulers) can create with limitless wealth and no social conscience about making the poor pay for the follies of the rich. The place was a honey pot, full of tourists from every developed country in the world and has been described in numerous guides, blogs and advertorials. So there seems little point in adding our superficial views to those of others who are far more informed. It seems better to use this last blog to reflect on what we have experienced, learned and endured over the last 2 months.

First, we have had a really enjoyable time. My injury over the last few days do not, in any way, affect our overwhelmingly positive view of India and Indians. But we have realised that the idea of “India” is comparatively modern. It is arguable that the idea that there was a country called India was a creation of the British Raj because before the domination of the British, there was no “India” as such. There were a series of local fiefdoms, ruled over by maharajahs and their families, exercising power over areas that shifted depending on the outcome of a battle with a neighbouring fiefdom or, more occasionally, an external intruder like the Mohguls. When the Europeans came in the 18th Century, various local war lords saw their chance to get one up on their rivals by aligning themselves with the Dutch, the French or the British, often coming to rue the day they ever got into bed with the Europeans. For a long time, it was unclear which European nation was best placed to exploit the opportunity of these vast lands. However the East India Company gradually came out on top and then, in the mid-C19th, the British government effectively took over from a private company which had maintained its own private army to keep the local rulers under control and hence protect its commercial interests.

The maharajahs continued to hold and exercise real administrative power (jointly with the British) until 1947 when there was the botched “Freedom at Midnight”, which led to the creation of Pakistan and ultimately to the terrible loss of life in sectarian conflicts as Muslims moved to Pakistan and Hindus and Sikhs went the other way.

A single India only came into being after 1947 when skilled and ruthless Indian government ministers strong-armed the local rulers to give up their power and surrender to the single India. Goa remained a Portuguese colony until 1961 and the status of Kashmir remains fluid.

So perhaps we have come to realise that, despite different religions, wide-ranging communal histories and multiple languages, India functioning as a single, democratic country is a significant achievement for Indians. There were few amongst the British who left India in 1947 that would have predicted that this vast country would build itself as a successful state and remain as a single country. The credit for that goes to countless Indian politicians, government officials and those who hold or have held office in this amazing country.

Secondly, we should celebrate that one half of everyone on the planet who lives in a democracy lives in India, where democracy seems to be woven into the way people think and live. No democracy is perfect of course and India is no different in that respect, but that does not stop this being a country where the will of the people can and does change the government.

Thirdly, India is fantastically diverse. Cornwall is different from London, which is, in turn, different from the Highlands of Scotland. But the UK is (mostly) bound together by a common language. India has 26 official languages and thousands of dialects. The shape of people’s faces, the colour of their skin and the outlook on life moulded by a religion tradition differs markedly from one part of the country to another. The jungles of the south differ from the deserts of Rajasthan or the mountains of the Himalaya, with different climates, food and outlooks.

Although there is some commonality, in that about 80% of India is Hindu, that is like saying that all Europe is Christian without considering the different strands within each religion. There are different practices within different forms of Hinduism, and the demise of the divisions caused by the caste system is proving far more intractable to eradicate than Nehru hoped. And the 15% “minority” Muslim population is still more than 3 times the size of the whole UK population.

We have greatly enjoyed the diversity as it means nowhere is the same as the previous place. Temples vary greatly, art is different in different regions and the landscape influences everything.

Thirdly, the common thread we have experienced is kindness. India is a place overflowing with kind and generous people. We have had nothing stolen and never been the subject of a scam. Only 1 small hotel tried to overcharge us, and quickly backed down. The odd incident of hostility towards us from passing youths (usually trying to impress their mates, as they are wont to do the world over) stands out as so different from the invariable reaction of welcoming strangers. People here are proud of their country and want visitors to think well of India and the Indians – and we do.

Fourthly, this is still a young country with many, many children. In 1988, when we last visited, it had a population of 800M. The population is now over 50% higher at 1,345M. It continues to grow at about 1.17% per year with a 2.41 fertility rate. Millions of children could mean a great future, but it also heralds serious climatic and environmental challenges.


Lastly, it is a country with vast economic and environmental challenges, with the latter perhaps worrying us most during our stay. There is far less obvious and abject poverty, even along railway tracks, than when we were last here, but it is a country of vast inequality – but then that is the same the world over. But economic progress has come at a heavy cost to the environment. To give just one example, air pollution is a very serious challenge ,as well as eliminating waste, especially plastics. There are signs that the government is focused on these issues but there is a huge environmental mountain to climb.

Air pollution in Mumbai

Bernie: David has really summed up some of our thoughts about India. My lasting impressions of India will be the kindness, vibrancy, colour, noise and richness of wildlife and culture. So we end the first part of our cycling trip in India with great memories. We hope you have enjoyed this blog.   Many thanks to those who have donated to our chosen charity Walk for Life. If you have note yet donated but have enjoyed reading the blog then please consider doing so -there is a “Donate” button on the task bar.

Signing off now for the 2018 tour – hope to resume next year (or possibly earlier).

Day 46: Sawai Madopur to Jaipur. 146km. 400m climbing.

Today the short version is we cycled 146km (which is about 92m). It was the longest day on our several trips, as ever loaded with panniers. As I write this there is only one word – Exhausted!

A cracked helmet sure beats a cracked head!

The longer version is not much longer as almost all we did today was cycle, cycle, cycle across the mainly flattish desert of Rajasthan. Continue reading Day 46: Sawai Madopur to Jaipur. 146km. 400m climbing.

Day 41: Ranthambhore Fort

We are still in Ranthambhore because we took 2 days off the bikes. The main event today was visiting Ranthambhore Fort. This fort, along with 5 other forts of Rajasthan, are UNESCO World Heritage Site under the group Hill Forts of Rajasthan.


That includes Kumbhalgarh which we saw last week. Inside the fort there are three Hindu temples dedicated to Ganesh, Shiva and Ramlalaji constructed in 12th and 13th centuries from red Karauli stone. There is also a Jain temple of Lord Sumatinath (5th Jain Tirthankar) and Lord Sambhavanath.

The fort was about 12km from the hotel, so we cycled and I got another rear tyre puncture. I suspect the outer tyre is decaying so we swopped it for the front one and went on our way. The front has less pressure on it – but its only a temporary fix.

The route to the fort took us up a cobbled road – so not quite Paris-Roubaix but you get the idea. The road was full of jeeps, motor bikes, cars and the occasional minibus taking people up to the Fort. The vast, vast majority were Hindus coming to visit the temples; described to us by one chap we met as a “very holy place”. This made the whole thing intensely colourful and chaotic.  There were also more monkeys in one site than we had ever seen in one place before – maybe intrinsic to the holiness of the site.

A long tailed monkey – with a friend treating it like a bell rope

I could describe the fort – but the pictures do it better. However what struck us most was that all of India was represented in the car park.   The road was steep and narrow. It flattened out at the top but was still really narrow. That was where the trouble started – because there was totally insufficient parking and so everyone was jockeying for position to try to get into the small area, to get out or to turn around. If there was a small gap between 2 cars, 15 motor bikes would try to get through. All engines were kept going all the time, so the air was heavy with diesel and horns were blown continually and at random. People got out, walked around in the road at chatting at random and so left even less space for traffic to pass.

Despite this scene, good humour prevailed, no one lost their temper, no one shouted and the traffic just about moved so that everyone got to see the fort – but goodness knows how. It looked total chaos but it was not.


However we got about 4km down, going very slowly because of the cobbles, before any four wheeled vehicle overtook us. There had been a total logjam at the top (which we wheeled our bikes around) and could not see how it could possible be solved. It felt like one of those children’s puzzles where each piece had to be moved before another could move – and who was going to move first. But obviously it was solved and eventually the traffic moved again.


Oh – and by the way – the fort was magnificent.


Day 40. Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve

David was still feeling under the weather so we had a quiet restful morning. Breakfast was good, we were upgraded to a much nicer room and the morning cloud gradually burnt away so that improved our mood.

The machinations of booking a safari in Ranthambhore Tiger reserve, about 10km from the town, were immensely complicated when we had tried to book something in advance. The safaris can be done in a ‘Gypsy’ jeep, that seats 6, or a ‘Cantor’ that seats 20. We had been told that all the jeep safaris were fully booked (only official government vehicles are allowed into the reserve and the numbers are strictly regulated) but we coughed up money to our hotel the evening before and we were assured we had a trip booked in a Gypsy and we would be picked up between 2-2.30pm. At just after 2.30 our jeep turned up with guide and driver, which we shared with 4 German people.

The Tiger reserve is divided into 10 zones. The drivers are allocated a zone randomly each day, so when you book you do not know what zone you will be in. Zones 1-6 are meant to be best for Tiger spotting. We were allocated zone 7.


We drove the 10km to the entry to our zone and were soon bumping along sandy tracks.


We were then taken on a real white knuckle roller coaster ride up and down a ridge. No Cantors here – how the jeep got up and down what seemed like near vertical tracks to me was incredible. We were hanging on for dear life!


The scenery was spectacular but little sign of any animal life. Our guide told us there were few animals in Zone 7 but it was one of only 2 zones that was not flat. We saw several large Samber deer and a few small antelope in the distance but that looked like it would be the sum total of wildlife for the day.


Male Samber deer with a bird on his back.

Earlier we had passed some tiger footprints alongside the track. We were told they had not been there that morning but we were sceptical to say the least.

Tiger paw prints

Towards the end of the safari as the sun was going down we stopped for about half an hour at a waterhole and at least saw some varied bird life coming to drink.




‘Tiger is coming’ our guide said, but we were still sceptical. Several more jeeps turned up and everyone was hanging around. After the sun dipped behind the hills some of the jeeps gave up and headed off. ‘Tiger is coming’ said our guide.

Suddenly there was a whoop from another jeep. Within a few seconds our driver had done the most incredible 180 degree turn which almost tossed us out of the jeep and careered into the bushes…and there, sitting under a tree as calm as you like, was the most beautiful, magnificent large tiger just about 10m away from us. We were staggered.


All the other jeeps piled in and he just stood up and strolled away. We saw him for perhaps just 10-20 seconds but an image that will be forever imprinted in the memory – and David had the where-with-all to take a fantastic photograph. The 3 and a half hour safari was worth it just for those few seconds (and we really enjoyed the rest of it too).


Our guide and driver were ecstatic! “So lucky, so lucky” they kept saying. The driver then put his foot down and took the track out of the park at incredible speed. We weren’t sure what the frantic hurry was, but our guide was on the phone clearly relaying the news to someone. The pace picked up even more for the 10km back to town. All the jeeps from all the zones were heading back as darkness came and they seemed determined to overtake them all, shouting out their success! We were all smiling and laughing. The chances of actually seeing a tiger seemed so small but it was definitely our lucky day.


Day 42. Deoli to Bundi. 48km. 100m climbing.

We liked the pleasant town of Deoli but were glad to leave the hotel, which had been unhelpful and the first place to overtly try and overcharge us for the room. I guess this was not a town tourists would come to and therefore the hotel does not live or die by its (or equivalent) reviews.

We only had a short hop today to Bundi and 48km of flat on a main road were done by mid morning. As we turned into a small range of hills and rounded a corner we could see the spectacular palace emerging from the rock face. We settled into our simple guest house then went to explore.



Bundi could best be described as shabby but had a charm of its own. There were some tourists but not many and no stalls of tourist tat lining the streets. The palace dated from around 1620 and had clearly been spectacular in its time but had fallen into ramshackle ruin.


Some renovation had been done and gave a flavour of what it was like, including some fabulous murals, but all the upper floors were shut to the public. The views were amazing and showed a number of dilapidated buildings in the old town.



Now that we are connoisseurs of Rajasthani palaces and forts we could recognise the steep cobbled approach with sharp twists as being a deliberate defence to elephant charges.


High above the place was a even more dilapidated fort, which presumably the royal family retreated to if the defences were breached. The place certainly had atmosphere with bats hanging in the corners!


One day someone may be able to invest a very significant sum to restore the site to glory, when it will certainly rival those we have seen in Udaipur and Jodhpur. There the deposed maharajas reinvented themselves after independence to become custodians of local culture and set up Trusts to convert their fading buildings into national monuments and museums. What happened to the Bundi royal family is not known to us.


We strolled the old town and saw the active market and did our ‘jobs’ (cleaning our stove, getting money, buying provisions, recharging our Indian SIM card). At our now very relaxed pace this took most of the rest of the day and recharged our legs a bit in preparation for a longer cycling day again tomorrow.








Day 41. Ajmer to Deoli. 115km. 100m of climbing.

Today was the ultimate A to B day – so, in the absence of exciting things to describe, its time for some stats. To date, we have done 2,824km in India. If we had left Kanyakumari and driven directly to Delhi on the shortest route, we would have arrived in Delhi today (as the distance is 2,810km, which is slightly less than we have cycled so far in India).

The distance by air from Bewdley, England to Hobart, Australia (our projected final destination) is 17,652km. Since we left home in 2014, we have covered 10,138km. That means that, in 4 years – 40% of our “decade” – we have covered about 57.4% of our goal, which is to cycle the distance (as the crow flies) between our home and my brother’s home in Hobart. Mind you, it would be one hell of a crow! But it does mean we are on target to achieve our goal and may even end up covering a few extra km along the way.

All those numbers make up for the fact that today was about 100km on a virtually straight road, slightly downhill in places, with scenery that was virtually unchanged all day.

This was an interesting bit of road as it has a bend at the end. 

Ajmer was a great city but the air pollution – as with all of India’s cities – is a major issue for cyclists (and for everyone else of course).   Factories, fires burning in the countryside, lorries, tuktuks and motorbikes give off huge quantities of noxious fumes which are slow to clear. It is a major challenge. India has a low per capita emissions of greenhouse gases but, with a large population, the country as a whole is the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases after China and the United States. A 2013 study on non-smokers has found that Indians have 30% lower lung function compared to Europeans.

We gradually cleared the city and the air improved slowly. Then it was head down and 23km an hour steadily over the plain, but with a good road surface. This was cultivated countryside, with big fields and occasional tractors. These are often fitted with 2 large speakers (on each side of the tractor driver), blasting out Indian pop music to keep the workers happy. We cannot tell the difference between the songs (yet), but bounce along to the music.

After about 80km we got to Kekri, and bought some fruit (which I then left on the stall). Clearly my brain is deteriorating with the fumes! We pressed on with the main road going off to the south. We should have stuck to the main road and done the extra 10km. Instead we followed the straight road which had a much worse surface. We bounced from one pothole to another, and in places the road had no tarmac at all.



We crossed the vast Bharatpur Reservoir, which provides irrigation water for a vast area, and eventually reached the little town of Deoli where we had booked a hotel.


A little “contra-ton” followed as we insisted the bikes should be locked inside and the hotel staff could not understand why we could not lock them up outside. The staff were astonished we stood our ground (and we would never have done so a month ago), and then they compromised and found a place for the bikes inside. It is really hard to explain that our bikes are not only worth thousands of pounds, but that all the parts are nearly irreplaceable in India and so any small theft of a saddle or wheel may bring our tour to an end. However I think they finally understood and accepted that these really strange westerners have to be accommodated with their unusual requests.

We ambled around this lovely small town, confident in the knowledge that we were the only Europeans here (and getting strange looks from those who had the courage to stare). But we also had an excellent vegetarian meal and so felt pretty good about the whole place. Only 60km to Bundi tomorrow.

Anyone for a drink or a snake?


Day 40. Pushkar to Ajmer. 15km. 100m of climbing.

We were woken at 6am to a tremendous din of bells and music. I would call it a rude awakening except that it was due to the devotions of the faithful on the Ghandi Ghat, which was virtually under our hotel window. As it was only a short hop today between Pushkar and Ajmer, we allowed ourselves to snooze again and have a leisurely start to the day with breakfast on the terrace overlooking the peaceful lake.


The road from Pushkar to Ajmer took us over Snake ‘Mountain’ (less than 100m climb) from a small Hindu town to a largely Muslim city of half a million people. As we came over the pass we could see the city before us surrounding a large lake and we were soon into the heart of it. Finding our hotel was rather tricky as ‘googlemaps’ took us straight through the main bazaar area and its mass of narrow winding alleys, battling with people, motorbikes and tuktuks. When we finally found it we found that we could have come a longer way round on a proper road! Would have been more straightforward but not as much fun!

We were settled in by noon and soon set out to explore the city. Plunging back into Diggi bazaar was far easier without the bikes. A riot of colour and people, it’s narrow alleys had a different feel to other cities with similar snaking backstreets. Difficult to put a finger on just how, but the Muslim influence seemed to make the place feel distinctly different. The part we walked through first was a mass of food and sweet stalls, and we had a quick samosa with a delicious sizzling sauce.

We were heading towards the Dargah of Khwaja – the tomb of the Sufi saint Khwaja Muin-ud din Chishti, who came to Ajmer from Persia in 1192 and died there in1236. It is a major pilgrimage centre. Just as we approached the Friday ‘call to prayer’ sounded from the mosque within the complex and hoards of people were surging in. So we decided this was not the right moment to try and visit!


As we walked away from the shrine from the main entry gate the roadway was lined with hideously deformed beggars – seeking funds from those on the way to the mosque, not tourists (there were no other tourists). We have heard the stories of beggars being deliberately maimed and ‘pitches’ being highly organised and sold. We don’t know the truth of it but it was gruesome and macabre. The deformities could not be downplayed but there was a lot of rolling around in the dust and dirt, which did seem exaggerated. None of the faithful streaming towards the mosque seemed to be giving any money to them (but maybe they got money after prayers). We hurried through and when we returned later made sure we did not go that way.

Our next stop was another totally extraordinary place. The Nasiyan Jain temple was built in 1865. The outer part was of red stone but the inner double temple hall was an amazing gold ‘diorama’ (a model representing a scene with 3 dimensional figures), depicting the Jain concept of the ancient world with continents, oceans, golden cities and flying gondolas. It was abut the size of a two or three squash courts, and was quite unlike anything we had seen before!  The wall posters explained the history of Jainism and how the mystics developed their views of the world. It was a strange, unscientific view of the world but was no more absurd than the Pope’s attacks on Leonardo da Vinci for suggesting that the earth rotated around the sun.

Taken through glass – but you get the idea.


Strolling back through the bazaar took us into different areas, for example one was a series of what looked like jewellery repairs – small alcoves with men sitting cross legged using intricate tools. One of the delights of a city like this is wandering – not knowing what is around a corner and finding a ruined palace, Anglican church (St. John the Evangelist – just around the corner from our hotel) or a series of shops that just sold motor bike parts.

It’s tough waiting for someone to take your rickshaw.


Later in the afternoon we went back to the Sufi shrine. Again it was quite extraordinary, although in a completely different way. The complex could be entered from different gates within the heart of the bazaar. Once we had removed our shoes and entered, the contrast between the noise and dust and narrow alleys of the bazaar with the marble floored area of courtyards, mosque and shrine was marked. It was full of pilgrims and we felt rather out of place and a bit voyeuristic, but no one seemed to mind and we were probably over sensitive. No photos though. There were numerous stalls selling devotional nicknacks and baskets of flowers that were being brought to offer within the shrine.


People were sitting in groups and individually, many round the walls of the shrine offering their prayers. We did not try to go into the heart of the shrine, as the lines of people with their offerings seemed strictly controlled and it seemed lacking in respect to do so. Although there was something about this place that we could understand, it felt a profoundly holy place.


Back in the mundane of our hotel we felt in need of a ‘brew’. We often use our little stove in the ensuite shower rooms. This one was rather posher so we hesitated but there was a door opening onto a ventilation shaft so we thought it would be ok – and then realised we had forgotten to fill our fuel bottle this morning (the stove- a whisperlite – burns pretty much anything flammable but we usually use petrol as it is available everywhere.)


The drive for a cuppa had us out again looking for a petrol station. Eventually we found one after a long walk down a road with hundreds of tuktuk and motorbike repair shops, and lots of oily men who plainly work wonders with engines. We found a garage and asked for our 50 rupees of petrol. They did not seem to think it too unusual that 2 white people strolled into their petrol station with a small fuel bottle and asked for it to be filled – or if they did they hid it well! Back to the hotel just as it was getting dark and had our well earned drink!


So today was a day in a fascinating Indian city, so different in many ways to anywhere we had been before but also, in many ways, so typical of the delights we have experienced over the last month or so. An England only occupied by the English may seem pretty drab after we return, but luckily that England disappeared a long time ago and, particularly in London, we will have plenty of international colour to keep reminding us of these precious days.

Day 39 Ganthiya to Pushkar. 85km. 300m climbing.

Today got off to a slightly delayed start but – so what! We agreed to have breakfast at 7.30am so we could get a reasonably early start. There was no movement at 7.35am, so I went to find our host. He seemed startled at being disturbed, looked at his watch and said “15 minutes”. Knowing that would be at least half an hour I said “But we agreed breakfast at 7.30”. “5 minutes, 5 minutes …” was the surprised response. 15 minutes later we got omelettes (rather good) and toast. We were on our way by about 8.15 or so – with a good tip for the team (despite the slightly peculiar nature of the stay).

The cycling was a repeat of yesterday with 2 changes. It was broadly the same scenery – fields and desert – and the same mixture of good and bad road surfaces. The first difference was that it was only 85km today and not 125km. Ludicrously, that felt like a “short” day now.


Secondly, there was 50km uphill. When I say “uphill”, that is a bit of an exaggeration – the road was an upward slope for more or less 50km. But it only went up 250m and thus was going up about 5m per km.   It was like cycling on a very flat plain which had been ever so slightly tilted so that it rose at a more or less constant rate.

We passed a few desert towns with nothing particular to recommend them except sand on the main street which brought our bicycles to a grinding halt and the usual range of shops, stalls and cattle. Between the towns the road surfaces were mostly reasonable, but occasionally it was more sand – but of the harder variety. We saw a few more camels, lots of young men on motorbikes and lots of women driving cattle or walking back from collecting firewood with the day’s collection on their heads.


There was also a high quotient of “selfie-seekers” today – all young men. One young man on a motorbike was quite offended when we said no, we would not loose all momentum by stopping cycling so he and his friends could have selfies with someone he did not know and would never meet again. We are such kill-joys but we can just continue peddling. If they catch us when we are stationary, the line of least resistance is to say yes, but stopping when we are underway is a different matter.

Rajasthan seems from our brief acquaintance to be a place where female emancipation has some way to go. The way that some young men leered at Bernie as they passed on their motorbikes was fairly transparent and did not reflect well on them (despite the fact Bernie is senior enough to be their mother or possibly even their grandmother).   Seeing a woman’s legs in public is pretty unusual here and I suppose the reaction is understandable even if I felt like knocking some of them off their bikes for the cheek of it.

Having said that, this was very much a minority reaction. The vast majority of people we meet are friendly, wave and say nice things.   But roles seem pretty rigid here, with 95% of people on bikes or in cars are men and not a single man collecting firewood. On the plus side, judging by the evidence of school uniforms, school attendance seems to be by both boys and girls, well into the teens. So girls are being educated. What happens next is not something we have enough information to comment on.


Pushkar has a reputation as a “holy place” for Hindus and as a magnet for backpackers – a slightly unusual combination; but the backpackers originally came in part for spiritual enlightenment so it is not that surprising. It is centred around a lake, nestling at the foot of a mountain. The setting is superb and invests the air with the feelings of mysticism. It is the place where Mahatma Ghandi’s ashes were scattered here. One of the things we have noticed is the extent to which Ghandi is still the moral father of the nation. His sayings are on posters in railway waiting rooms and restaurants, reminding modern Indians of the values that drove the creation of the nation. Hence choosing Puskhar as the final resting place for Ghandi’s ashes gives this little town a huge national significance.


We watched as Hindu pilgrims bathed in the water, much in the same way as adherents to religions all over the world are cleansed by the wonderful properties of H2O. “Holy water” is a timeless concept that stretches from Catholicism through to Hinduism and with a great number of religions between.

Today, away for the lake, it is a maze of shops selling the type of clothes that no self-respecting Indian would be seen dead in but are popular with the backpackers as “Indian” style clothes.   There are cafés here and loads of young westerners, exploring their inner selves.

After we arrived we went looking for a snack and ended up a falafel wrap stall – delicious but not something we have seen in any other part of Rajasthan. There were a group of delightful young people in their 20s – and we felt a bit “old” in their company. We chatted and eventually disclosed what we were doing, and they were stunned; totally stunned. They could not believe anyone as old as us was doing anything as crazy as we were doing (and had done). I felt a bit bashful at their response, assuring them that we were not super-fitness-freaks and that most of the roads we went on were quiet and well off the beaten track. Nonetheless, part of me was quietly satisfied at dispelling some of their assumptions about what folk can do when they reach the other side of the great 5-0. I did not dare tell them that one of my best mates – who is the other side of the great 7-0 – was on a 2 month mountain bike tour of New Zealand. There are some things that 20 year olds may simply disbelieve. Chapeau Malcolm – love the blog posts.


Then back to the quaint hotel for some R & R – reading, writing (making progress with the book chapter) and a rather indifferent “tourist grade” meal. Pushkar gets the thumbs up as a peaceful, spiritual place despite al the tourist trappings.