In recent posts I have made quite clear my passion for mountains and emphasised that this love was the inspiration and rationale for planning to cycle the Karakoram Highway, track the Himalayan foothills across north India and cycle into Nepal, home of the most eminent mountain range on the planet. I have also outlined my desire for a challenge of climbing to a high precipice and relish in the rapture upon arriving at such a destination. Contrary to these statements and after much debate, Jacob and I agreed to jump ship, turn our backs on the hills, veer away from our southeastern bearing and point our front wheels south in search of the Taj Mahal.
Cycling to Agra meant leaving the epic mountainous landscapes behind, though it wasn’t long since setting off before we established a great appreciation of a flat road. A reliably consistent 0% gradient was a relief for our legs, this meant that we could average a considerable speed and therefore able to cover much a greater distance each day. This was all too well as we hoped to spend two days in Agra which meant we needed to cover 900 kilometres in ten days to make the border crossing into Nepal with sufficient time for our planned arrival in Kathmandu for Christmas. During the first day out of Rishikesh my zero puncture record came to an abrupt end when my rear inner tube exploded. 3,000 kilometres and even hacking the harsh road conditions of Pakistan, I was proud of Victouria.
The four day ride from Rishikesh to Agra was pleasant, the sun shining and we were in high spirits. So much so that each morning we greeted every passer by with a quintessentially English “Good morning!” And a regal, Prince William, wave. We rode through lush, green farm land, roads lined with banana plants as we cruised by vast sugar cane plantations and tall chimneys of red brick kilns.
With the exception of an Indian wedding party keeping us up until the early hours with ear piercingly loud music one night, everything was harmonious. Glorious weather, great roads and gratifying cycling, so much so that even the Indians could feel the radiating and infectious positivity. School children would ride along side us in the morning and practise their English, we would later be accompanied by the morning commute cyclists and this would be repeated again in the afternoon.
During one roadside peanut butter roti break Jacob was innocently bopping along to a tune in his head whilst lathering a roti when, just past our rest spot, a car suddenly came to a halt, hit the reverse and came to a stop. Immediately, a joyous fellow leaped out “We saw you dancing!” His driving companion cranked up the volume, all of a sudden we were all raving it up, impromptu Indian style, by the side of the highway. Our new found friend was cracking out some classic Bollywood moves. These guys made our day, absolute legends.
Click to see the video footage
Arriving in Agra we navigated our way through the city and across the Yamuna River, all of a sudden the great white marble domes of the Taj Mahal peered through the haze. Even from a fair distance away I felt its ever powerful presence, though we couldn’t dawdle as we had a highway of traffic to battle against and a hearty south Indian thali was calling to us. As we planned to spend two full days in Agra we followed the standard planned destination protocol by demolishing a mountain of food to replenish our calorie void and seek out a worthy coffee shop and of course, a slab of cake, however on this occasion it didn’t take much convincing to order a indulgently giant super chocolate sundae that was almost too much for gannets such as ourselves.
I was excited to be reunited with Eliza, a close friend and ex-flat mate who we plan to spend Christmas with in Kathmandu. She was travelling through India and coincidentally planned to be in Agra at the same time. We shared travel tales over an Indian thali, a cup of chai and a round of Cornetto style ice cream. The following day we headed to the Taj Mahal. I was slightly irritated when informed that a tourist ticket was 20 times the price of a ticket when compared to Indian tourists, however, this meant we could jump the insanely long queues, and I mean, insanely long queues. The line of tourists for the mausoleum was so ridiculously long that it made the queue for the Dumbo the Elephant ride at Disney’s Magic Kingdom seem like the blink of an eye. Queues aside, the Taj Mahal was magnificent, a true symbol of eternal love, and in the afternoon as the sun neared the horizon the colour of the white marble warmed, the captivating presence of the mausoleum accentuated.
That evening over another thali, of course, we got very excited and discussed our Nepali Christmas plans. It sounded as though Eliza had some serious plans to ensure our stay in Kathmandu, away from our families, was festive as possible. We sadly waved Eliza goodbye as her tuktuk disappeared into the flow of traffic, but it was only three weeks until we would be reunited once again. Jacob and I retreated back to our guest house for one final night before the next leg our journey and ultimate week cycling through India.
Upon leaving Agra, our final destination in India, I felt a mix of emotions. My mood was somewhat melancholy as our Indian adventure was coming to an end, however, this was blended with a dose of excitement as Nepal beckoned, a country I have had a deep desire to visit for many years. In the life of Luke Woods the lure of a mountain range is simply irresistible. Riding away from the white marble wonder welcomed the beginning of December, due to the lack of an advent calendar we would ask each other what we had in our imaginary calendars. This question was usually reciprocated with a “Robin red breast on a branch” or even “A dancing snowman.” During the cold mornings and hot days and in the absence of Christmas trees and twinkling icicle lights, it brought us a shared sense of festive cheer and brought back fond memories of the frosty run up to Christmas. It was difficult to contain our excitement to open the door on the 25th.
Our route ahead was largely determined by the availability of accommodation. Unfortunately, our reliance in Google Maps left us one day pedalling from before sunrise and into the darkness after sunset, bicycle lights mounted, when the apparent hotels were in fact a mere fantasy. We left three towns with nothing but a shrug, a head wobble and a bemused look from the locals “No hotel.” The impending realisation of putting up our tents in pitch black by the road was slowly becoming a reality. Fortunately, on this particular evening after a weary and confusing debate with Bobby of Bobby’s Lodge and the growing crowd of locals, we finally checked into a surprisingly modern establishment. It was so much of a relief to have a place to rest our heads that the freezing cold shower felt almost pleasurable and the gargantuan portion of aloo gobi, aloo muttar and aloo chana (all the aloo) at a roadside restaurant pushed the long, arduous day into an almost distant memory. On the walk back to Bobby’s Lodge, in true Mr Bean fashion I genuinely slipped on a banana skin, a humorous end to what was a stressful day.
Putting the previous day behind us we continued on in our cheerful fashion with morning greetings and a salute to the school children. Our journey had taken us through various regions of India; Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and now Uttar Pradesh. As the scenery changed, so did the habits of the locals. We were confused when passers by appears to be casting spells at us with a swift upward twist of the wrist and a clawed hand. Unsure what this symbolised as the Uttar Pradeshians seemed to be casting spells left, right and centre, whether it was a question, a response or just a gesture, we had no idea so of course, we adopted the local habits and cast our own spells in return. This often played out a Harry Potter-esque duel with all sorts of spells being thrashed about.
We continued on through the realm of sugar cane and banana plants (which, interestingly are classified as a herb, not a tree). The reappearance of water buffalo pulling carts, women carrying large stacks of hay on their backs and entire villages constructed of wood and straw felt as though we had pedalled at speeds of 88 mph and Marty McFly could jump out in his pink cowboy garb. Unfortunately, Marty never surfaced, however I did spot a goat wearing a pink fleece. Winter was certainly coming.
Cycling days were long as we needed to keep on schedule and long days meant deep hunger. So much so that Jacob, who proudly completed his cycling proficiency test at primary school and is acutely aware of road safety regulations with years of a London commute and months of navigating busy roads in countries with few, if any, road safety laws, was caught unawares. The deep hunger took hold. Whilst riding down a highway he couldn’t resist the urge to glance at his phone to determine the distance to the next Dhaba or roadside restaurant. At that precise moment three young people riding a motor bike, one of which a young baby, pulled out on to the highway and stopped suddenly with no indication. Riding ahead of Jacob the next I heard was a heart wrenching clatter. I stopped, dropped my bike, saw that the motorbike was still upright as I approached Jacob who lay in a fetal position with a slight twitch. Within the next 4 seconds my entire fire service trauma training raced through my mind. My heart suddenly fired on all cylinders, adrenaline pumping through my veins, senses heightened, I approached Jacob prepared to start a primary survey of the ‘casualty’, “Jacob man, are you okay!?” Cradling his phone he glanced up “I’m OK, how does my bike look?” His bike was fine, what a relief. Except for a bruised hip and a slight loss of dignity everyone was fine including the baby who was cradled by her father. Shaken up, we rolled onto the next suitable spot to rest. It was a stark reminder that we weren’t invincible and no matter what country you are in, whether or not mobile phone use is forbidden whilst on the road, it is certainly not a wise decision.
The final two days lead us through what felt like an almost tropical farm land and across the longest bridge I had ever seen at an incredible 3.2 kilometres. Yet astonishingly, only the tenth longest in the country. We once again joined the commute and enjoyed our final meals of Indian cuisine, which we had grew to love.
On December 6th our weary legs pedalled onward through a thick milkshake mist up to the Indo-Nepali border. India had fed us extremely well, the hill stations of McLeod Ganj, Shimla and Mussoorie left us with fond memories and fantastic views. We had met some warm hearted people but were keen to put the busy, polluted, loud horn infested roads behind us. A quieter, more relaxed and welcoming nation called to us. Nepal.