It had been seven weeks since I was last united with my touring bike, Victouria. These seven incredible and unforgettable weeks were spent rather unexpectedly exploring, adventuring and trekking in Nepal. If you are interested and haven’t already, you can read about these adventures here. I met some great people along the way, many I hope to meet again but inevitably, as with most travelling experiences, one by one I was waving goodbye until, as if I had completed a full cycle, it was just myself and my bike in Kathmandu.
February 10th marked day one of my short solo cycle tour into India before my scheduled flight to Sri Lanka for an Anglo-Chinese collaboration, reunion and island circumnavigation extravaganza. Yes, it is safe to say that I am excited and that’s right, I will be meeting up with the legend, the man himself, the Italian Stallion loving Mario. I was so thrilled to ride again as a duo through the jungle, through tea plantations, along the coast, camp on the beach and swim in the sea. But before these dreams materialised I needed to vacate Nepal and cycle back into India.
I woke on day one with a mix of emotions; I was excited and anxious, a sense of pioneering loneliness. My bike was the heaviest it had ever been as my best friend had so kindly flew out with some cycle touring and trekking essentials. I even had to strap 1.4 kilograms of hiking boot to my rear panniers. The additional weight was something I resented once the inevitable climb began as I once and for all, but hopefully not forever, left the Himalayas behind.
Cycling out of the Nepali capital was, as one would expected, a nightmare. Dusty roads, morning traffic and lungs full of black diesel fumes but I was soon out of the riff raff, above the low lying mist and cruising down, away from the Kathmandu Valley. I turned left off the main highway to start an eight hour climb that straddled two days. A seemingly never ending series of twists, turns and switchbacks as I gradually climbed to the snow lined roads of Simbhanjyang at 2,488 metres where an evil dog chased me and attempted to mount the back of my bike, I know Victouria is undoubtedly a sexy beast but come on, she doesn’t have paws and a tail. To add to the trauma, a middle aged Nepali woman threw a massive basketball sized my lump of snow at my head, fortunately my cat-like reflexes ignited, I hammered the pedals, she missed. I was speechless. Welcome back to the world of cycle touring.
Day one of this solo leg felt like my first day at school, lonely and empty. My thoughts often drifted to the friends I have just waved goodbye to, my close friends back home and most of all, my family. Having just watched an Alastair Humphreys talk about living adventurously and being out of your comfort zone, I had to verbally tell myself to get a grip. I laughed it off as I grudgingly hauled my over-encumbered bike up the side of the mountain and enjoyed my final view of the snow capped Himalayan peaks. But what goes up, must come down, so an eight hour climb means a long cruise down, through the clouds to the scarily flat and, what felt like, an alien landscape and eventually to the Indo-Nepali border. I was sad to leave, my time in Nepal was exceptional and exemplary and the final days cycling out of the country were joyous; great views, forests, rivers and the odd elephant. Though I, for one, will certainly miss the mountains. They served me well and had quenched my perennial thirst for adventure.
A swift border crossing and there was no mistaking the fact that I was back in India. Crazy traffic, obscenely loud horns, clouds of dust and cows sleeping in the middle of the road. During my first time in the country, I loved India, its people, the food, the landscape. It is rare for me to have a stark distaste for something, except pineapple on pizza, but I grew to detest Indian cities. Though, in spite of my annoyance of the Indian riff-raff, they cook a bloody good curry.
After checking into a hotel and washing the grimy mixture of dust and sweat from my face I headed out to buy supplies. Immediately I felt isolated. Shop owners were unfriendly, my mere presence seemed to antagonise them. The only welcoming people appeared to be the taxi drivers though they obviously waved for my attention in a hope that I needed a lift. Dismally, after buying 0.5 kilos of rice I retreated back to the hotel room and locked myself away. It has been some time since I was a complete outsider, yet back then I had Jacob to hide behind or at least to make a joke out of it. My solo solution was to smile and wave at everyone who looks at you or alternatively, don’t look at anyone. I settled with a balance between the two. I told myself that this isn’t what cycle touring is about and promised to step outside my bubble and immerse myself during the week ahead on my ride to Varanasi.
The following morning I decided to take a minor road through rural India and it proved to be a good decision, the perfect antidote for a dismal evening the night before. I meandered at a gentle pace through small villages of mud huts with grass roofs separated by banana trees and fields of sugar cane. The odd buffalo wandered nonchalantly into the road and as I stopped to let one pass, a native woman was sat nursing a new born kid into the world. Rural India was beautiful, I felt a long way from home. This was real India. The coexistence of the wealthy and the desperate was, at times, uncomfortable to witness. Such social and economical disparity, but the poor were never shy to hide their smile and wave to the outrageous and unexpected sighting of a white man riding through their home village on an odd looking bicycle.
The blissful countryside was short lived and I soon found myself pushing my bike through hellish traffic to a guest house. Unfortunately, they had no vacancies but allowed me to pitch my tent on the roof. I had a distinct fear of camping in India as it is literally impossible to find solace, anywhere. Even if you try to hide amongst the trees, someone will inevitably find you and once the small talk, if any, is over they would simply stand and gorp. This aspect of cycle touring in India got to me at times but I learned that it was important to take their view point on the situation and understand that this extraordinary chance encounter with a foreign cyclist, perhaps the first foreigner they had seen in the area was something they didn’t want to miss. I was grateful for the offer of the guest house and gladly hauled my kit up five flights of stairs. It was fantastic, I had my own space, I cooked curry and rice on the roof and watched the sunset. Whilst eating I had a nice conversation with a young boy, who was fluent in English, from the roof of the building opposite. Unfortunately, as it happened, I was cycling through India during a week long religious festival, where teenagers and young adults would play obscenely loud rave music until midnight, every night of the week. The tranquility of my rooftop campsite didn’t last long. Perhaps I should have donned my Sunday best and joined them.
I was keen to make some headway and decided to sacrifice a day of cycling to the highway and pedal down the hard shoulder alongside the buses and lorries. I stopped a few times for snacks and to my surprise I wasn’t hassled with the usual string of questions that was usually followed by fits of giggles, awkward silence and staring. One man stopped and simply asked if I was okay and needed any help, I told him that I was fine but was worried that I would struggle to find a camping spot if the next town didn’t have a hotel and just before he rode off, with a comforting smile he said “Everybody in this world are brothers and people respect foreigners.” It touched my heart and made me feel much better about cycling solo through India, maybe I could camp wild?
In spite of my growing antipathy I held, not towards individuals, but towards the crowds and the unavoidable, yet understandable, inquisitive hassle experienced in India, I always tried to stay positive. If people appeared to be genuinely warm hearted, compassionate and weren’t simply after a selfie then I was usually more than happy to reciprocate and enjoy a cultural exchange.
After the brief encounter with the kind Indian man I continued cycling with a smile, I felt as though I had been baptised and cleansed of my negativity. Whilst in this exultant state, as if it was a predetermined eventuality or part of a fable, it just so happened that within 30 minutes another chance encounter with two amiable, indigenous men lead to an unexpected and spontaneous venture. One that left me with an overwhelmingly warm and comforting sense of benevolence and goodwill from the local community.