The ride from the airport to the centre of the Bombay, both literally and metaphorically, left a nasty taste in the mouth. Coming directly from Africa at the end of 1992, poverty was no great surprise, it was the extent of the poverty; the desperate plight of what look like millions of people, and the unpleasant fact that early in the morning so many of them were defecating in the gutter as I cycled along on my mudguardless bicycle, while everywhere breakfast was being cooked over small fires. My notes, written that day, say ‘It smelt of piss, shit and smoke.’
India was always a place I wanted a visit, but this wasn't planned. It had been my intention to continue cycling from Nairobi, hopefully all the way back to the UK. One year earlier it had been possible to cycle through Zaire, I had met two people from Germany that had managed to do just that. But Zaire was volatile and when I applied for a Visa I was turned down, so a change of plan had brought me unexpectedly to India.
Normally when I had seen extreme poverty in various parts of the world it was possible to see some kind of solution, providing there was sufficient political will and money. The extent of the poverty with my first glance of India was beyond my comprehension, leaving me baffled to what could be done about such extreme destitution on such a horrific scale. Some things were about to change, the simple lifestyle advocated by the followers of Gandi was about to be slowly pushed aside by global capitalism, but at the time of my ride there was no evidence of any likely improvement in the plight of one billion people.
As is often the case with my cycle rides, I had no grand plan. Rehka, my colleague and friend from Botswana, had said I must pay her a visit if ever I was in India, but her post was in the north, and first I really did want to see as much of this massive country as possible. The coast is usually an attractive option, and I decided to follow it south as far as I could before heading north.
The biggest shock after the poverty is India’s traffic. There may be rules for their roads, but if there were any they were either not known or ignored by everyone. Most people did seem to drive on the left, but this too was flexible. The biggest problem, and this was evident from the very beginning, were the busses. They demanded priority, often by pushing smaller vehicles off the road. There was what looked like races between buses with similar top speeds. One would try and overtake the other, and for kilometre after kilometre they would take up both sides of the road, scattering other road uses in all directions.
A bus crash
The road surface was sometimes quite good with a hand-laid tarmac surface, but at other times rough. Punctures were common. For the first few days, over the New Year period, my route was the 17, but to find coastal accommodation a frequent detour was required.
A decent road
One of the biggest concerns in India is the drinking water. Every evening I would filter water for my water bottles, but my most frequent drink by the roadside was chai – very sweet tea with the milk already added. This was safe because it was kept boiling. Although soda drinks such as coke were not then allowed in the country, there were many Indian brand sodas, all I felt were OK to drink, and had no trouble with. Food, particularly in the South, was vegetarian. At that time I was very fond of spicy food, but some of this was providing a challenge to my pallet, and after a couple of month in India I would be looking forward to something more bland and boring.
Much of the west coast, with its hills and vibrant colours, was very beautiful. The stunning intense green of the paddy fields all added to the splendour of this part of the country, but was a very tough life for those people who worked the fields or patched the roads – many of whom came over to beg from me as I cycled past.
As I headed further south, I often found myself travelling through an area where there was much more water. I could be cycling along with the sea on one side and a lake or a river on the other.
Chinese fishing nets
Accommodation was very mixed, ranging from very basic to quite up-market. There were always clean sheets and usually a decent shower, although sometimes the water would have to struggle to find its way out of the tap. One day I found a small live frog under my pillar, which I put it outside and it happily hopped away. On another occasion, almost by chance, I found myself at an Ashram. Having ridden close to my usual 100km I asked a man by the roadside if there was a place to stay the night nearby. He directed me to the Anandashram, just a few metres down the road. I met a German guy there. Sadly I can no longer remember his name. It seems he spent a large part of every year there, and had learnt all the local languages, so was able to show me around. The place had been there since 1931 and seemed to be based upon the teachings of Swami Ramdas, whom we were told, chanted ‘OM SRI RAM JAI RAM JAI RAM’ through day and night, avoiding sleep, while reducing food to a minimum, until he got a vision of Lord Krishna. No doubt I would have seen Lord Krishna too if I had spent enough time without food and sleep, but I decided not to. For a while I watched the faithful, but the whole thing was way beyond my comprehension, so after some food I went to bed. Sitting hard down on the bed sent a shudder up my spine as I had plonked myself on a paper-thin matrass covering a solid cast aluminium frame.
Clad in black were what to me looked like some extreme Hindu sect, charging by the busload from one river to the next, where they would make a sudden stop, all pile out and plunge in the river. Oddly for Hindus, the road kill, already horribly high, reached a peak during these few days.
Goa, while being a very pleasant place, left me with the feeling that all the western tourists that visit there would find even more attractive countryside a little further north. Near there I made what for me was thankfully a rare mistake of this kind. I stopped for a pee - and had a real shock, it was blood red. Was it really blood? Was my immediate thought, but it was pretty obvious I had become very badly dehydrated without realizing it. Lots of fluid at the next hotel along the road soon put things right.
It is astonishing what huge loads I see carried on bicycles around the world. India was no exception. It must be difficult enough to load the thing up, but to ride it?
Elephants were common over much of India, and next to them on the road it was impossible not to be impressed by the size of these wonderful animals.
A major problem on the India trip was tyres. In the early 90s I had been experimenting with a variety of touring tyres and had not then found the optimum blend of wear, puncture resistance, and comfort. This time I only managed one out of three, and perhaps the most important for India’s roads, resistance to wear, was very poor indeed. I was carrying spare tyres strapped to the front forks, but my back tyre wore out very quickly, punctured easily, and this was going to prove a problem for the whole trip. These tyres were Michelin World Tour – sounded right, but one hell of a lot of these would be required to cycle around the world!
Often students wanted me to chat to them to improve there spoken English.
A very large proportion of Indians speak English as it is seen as a unifying language between India’s several major language groups. In more remote towns this is not so, and sometimes it seemed the only place I could get directions in English was from the railway station master, a doctor, or a chemist. It was in one town where Europeans were rare that I stopped at a chemist shop to ask directions to the nearest hotel. Within a very short time, in order to get a look at this very odd cyclist, crowds gathered, traffic stopped and the main road was blocked. If I wasn’t sure before, this was the time I realized I had no desire to be famous.
With a group of students
A problem from Africa came back to haunt me. After the flange had broken away in several places from my rear hub on a very difficult ride in Zambia, I had rebuilt the wheel using the original single-butted spokes and a smaller flange hub I had bought in Gaborone (Botswana). Sitting on the veranda of my house in the centre of the Kalahari, I had rebuilt the wheel with less of a tangent. In India, once again the spokes broke away from the flange. Unlike in Africa, at that time in India all hubs were built for single speed bikes, not just most. I bought a single speed hub and transferred the cones, bearings, and QR axels from the old hub. The guys in the bike shop re-built the wheel. For about a thousand kilometres all was well, then spokes started to break. I had made the silly mistake of asking them to use my original single-butted spokes. The hub had a steel flange, not so wide as the aluminium ones I would normally use, and the spoke breakage was due to movement of the spoke in the extra space at the bend near the flange.
As Cape Comorin, the south tip of India came closer the wind became noticeably stronger, and between rows of trees I saw my first wind farm. They are common now, but in the early 90s were very rare. As well as the new, historical buildings no seemingly longer related to modern India would spring up in odd places. On minor roads animals would wander around as they had done for hundreds of years, often being cared for by children.
While some towns had modern buildings and bridges, others looked as they might have done in the middle ages, but for bicycles and the rare motor vehicle.
It’s impossible not to be impressed by the standard of workmanship demonstrated by the temple carvings I saw in southern India. The shear number and complexity of stone humanity carved on temple walls showed the highest possible standard of craftsmanship. Many Indians did seem to have a technical bent, and would fiddle with anything they didn’t understand. The gear lever would be twisted around if I left my bike unattended for a few moments, as someone would try and work out how to change gear on the stationary bike.
Several things determined my progress northward from Cape Comorin: it was getting hot so climbing away from the coast might be a good idea; it was a shorter route to head due north rather than follow the coast and this might prevent me running out of spare tyres; and perhaps most important, if I wanted to feel as if I’d seen India, this should also include some of the major towns and cities of the interior. So, I headed as due north as I possibly could and followed route 7 through Madurai, Bangalore and all points north until beyond Nagpur.
It shouldn’t have been a great shock to find the odd little problem with the bike; after all since I had left home in the UK I had ridden well over 8,000 km in Africa before the start of my India trip. First I had a difficult to get at nut that kept coming loose on my rack, and with my stamped out steel ring spanner I just couldn’t reach it. A trip to a roadside workshop enabled me to borrow a hacksaw, cut away part of the spanner and all was well. Again a visit to a small workshop when the bolt on my seat pillar snapped, a new bolt was bought and is still on that seat pillar 33 years later. A much bigger problem was one I was not used to fixing. The breaking spokes were now becoming a daily problem. I took the bike into a cycle shop at the end of a days cycling with a couple of broken spokes on the drive side. The shop owner, not having seen a derailleur gear before, started to remove the plate on the front of the block. This would have been OK on a modern cassette, but to do so on the old style block would have the bearings, pawls and springs all over the dirt floor, so I attempted to show him how the block remover I had in my hand could be used to remove the block and get at the broken spokes. I must have handled it badly because he saw my actions as creating a massive loss of face for him, so he refused to repair the wheel or let me buy spokes to do it myself. I had another rear wheel wobbling 120km to the next town and the next cycle shop. This time I first went to a small workshop, and with the block remover in place, used their vice to take off the block before taking the wheel to the cycle shop. This time everyone was happy and I bought lots of spare spokes, just in case, and soon used them all.
Crossing major rivers frequently seem to give a contrasting view of life. Sometimes the river would be the vibrant central focus of the town, at other times a view of destitution as people scraped a living along its banks.
The size of Indian towns and cities is staggering. In most countries a town or city of more than a million people is huge. In India it is commonplace. Most towns are much, much bigger, and finding my way out could be a problem as signposts were rare. More than one road could seem to be going in the right direction, but would veer off once out of town. Roadside km markers were the saviours once out of town. A few letters and a distance to the next place gave a pretty good indication, and if it was wrong the only way was to head back and try again.
The big cities like Bangalore were obvious powerhouses of industrial growth even back in the early 90s, but they were the exceptions. Everywhere, including Bangalore, the majority of people were extremely poor and looked underfed. Local, often roadside crafts and traditional industry, was the key to making a living.
Animal powered well
Both in the countryside and in the towns monkeys were chasing about and somehow managing to avoid being hit by the traffic and by me. Not so one old man and a boy, both just missed being hit by a car and ran into me side on. I picked up the old man, the boy sprang to his feet, and both seemed OK. I had a painful shoulder for a couple of days.
The afternoons were getting hot even though day by day I did seem to be climbing higher. I was starting to have trouble with my camera – everything was getting loose and was rattling around. A quick check and a screwdriver once over every evening were at this stage keeping it together. While there was a big effort to bring the road surface up to standard, there was an awful lot of very rough roads.
Getting out of the sun.
At Nagpur I met a very interesting, older than me at the time, guy. He too was cycling around India, but he was doing it the hard way. His bike was single speed, of course, but his frame was one hell of a mess, welded together in several places. He had no money but got food by performing balancing tricks on his bike to entertain the crowd. I attempted to take some pictures but my camera first started to fall to bits, and then ran out of film.
Performing for food!
Beyond Nagpur I turned left on the 26 towards Agra. Sometimes I was on wonderful shaded roads, at other times there were oxen-drawn sugar cane wagons.
In one town, which was extremely run down with smashed frontage to the houses, a group of prisoners were being marched through the streets. In another vultures perched in every tree that overhung the road, and as it was an area where the vultures were used to clear the flesh from the bones of the dead, it made me feel as if I would be covered in the guano from everyone’s dead relatives.
Agra, or at least the Taj Mahal, was well up to my expectation. Sadly, my camera, which had been a decent single-lens reflex when I had left the UK to go to Africa not much over two years before, had been hammered almost to extinction by both African and Indian roads, was not. I took lots of pictures; none of them were very good. It wasn’t just the aesthetic beauty of this place; it was also the fine detail – wonderful.
While I did spend some time wandering around the Taj, sadly I didn’t find the equal time to visit the fort. After all it is such an important part of the story, and of course is where Jami Masjid, who built the Taj, ended his days after being deposed by his son. My main concern was to find warm clothing. After being baked for day after day in the afternoon sunshine, I was now a little higher up and it was colder in the evening.
Having written to my friend Rehka at the start of my journey to say I would visit her before returning home, it was time to make a move in her direction. Her university was at a little place called Pilani, beyond Jaipur, and into very different countryside. I headed eastward towards along route 11. On one day I visited a place where at the start of this century lots of hunting took place, and a massive list of kills were recorded. However, I mostly remember the road kill. Animals killed on the roads were getting more in number and bigger in size, and now included camels and even a cow. At the edge of the road on fences, peacocks were becoming common.
Jaipur, the famed ‘Pink City’, with all its sandstone buildings was well worth all the effort I put into photographing it. Alas, I was only going through the motion. Unbeknown to me the camera was no longer working! From Jaipur my route was at first North-East before turning towards the west, over tinny roads often covered in soft windswept sand, towards Plini. Along these small roads, thinking my camera was still working, I was about to take a picture of some camels when a man rushed out waving his arms saying photographing the camels would bring bad luck. Of course I stopped, but with hindsight, it seems it was my camera not his camels that were suffering from bad luck.
At the university I got some tragic news. Rehka’s brother had attempted to help a swimmer who was in trouble, and had himself drowned. She had understandably gone home. Her father’s university was at Hisar, relatively close by, so I headed there to offer my condolences.
Booked into a hotel in Hisar I naively asked for a telephone directory so that I could telephone the university. No such thing existed and the only university telephone number I was given was the Vice Chancellor! I gave him a ring, found there was more than one Professor Pandy, but the one I wanted was based in Gurgaon, beyond Delhi and not far from the airport.
Delhi was not the sort of place where I enjoy cycling, and getting across the city without being wiped out by the traffic seemed like a major achievement. I found the Pandy household, but Rehka had already gone to a new post in the Himalayas. A lot had happened since I had written my letter a couple of months before.
It was my final evening in the Hotel in Gurgaon before heading to the airport, when I had a bit of a shock, Rehka’s sister and her husband came to see me, and a crowd gathered. This time it thankfully wasn’t to stare at me, it turned out he was the captain of the national handball team and was quite famous.
I made it to the airport, but only just: the threadbare last of my four spare tyres, on a wheel on its last legs, wobbled the last few of well over 5,000 Indian kilometres.