Well the next leg of our trip will start 2 weeks today, on new Year’s Eve, when we fly to Thailand. The aim is to cycle in Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos over the coming 8 weeks. I have been busy sorting out the bikes for the next trip, fitting new tyres and making sure all the spares are complete. we have been out for some training rides in the cold and damp of teh English winter but nothing will prepare us for the heat and humidity of Indochina. We have started to read up on the areas we are visiting, and this year have invested in a photography course so we might improve the quality of the photos on the site as we take you with us.
Meanwhile there is the little matter of Christmas to navigate. We have the delight of Damian and Tina coming over from Rwanda, so the house will be filled with joy as Sachia and Gracie enjoy Christmas – and we enjoy Sachia and Gacie enjoying Christmas. we have a collection of Bernie’s family on Boxing Day – 28 at last count.
So Happy Christmas and we’ll resume the blog when we touch down in Bangkok on 1 January.
“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. Continue reading What is it really like cycling in India?→
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 booking.com (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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.