18 Nov Trip Diary – Bishkek to Delhi
After a week of sorting visas and flights, route planning, and exploring the city of Bishkek, it was time to say goodbye to the guys at the hostel and catch my plane out of Kyrgyzstan. The bike and I were off to India.
Packing the bike the evening before my flight hadn’t been easy. The box I’d got from a bike shop in the city was designed for a smaller bike and fitting the dismantled parts of my bike into it was like trying to do a giant 3D puzzle. It took three hours of effort and I’d finally found the solution by securely closing it with a complete roll of tape. I had my fingers crossed that the airline would except it.
I arrived at the airport on the outskirts of the city just before dawn and was immediately greeted by half a dozen men with trolleys all vying for my bags in a bid to charge me large amounts of cash to transport them 30 or so meters into the airport. I was still half asleep and not in the mood. I politely refused, and then when that failed, I firmly ushered them away and insisted I was capable of the task myself and joined the small crowd that had already gathered inside.
Getting into trouble
Check in went smoothly as the airline took the bike box without question until I arrived at customs. With a glance at my passport and without a single word, I was whisked away by the airport security and was taken by a cargo lift down to the bowels of the airport. I did try and ask what the problem might be but the language barrier prevented me from gaining any idea of what was going on. The female security guard seemed to have little intention of making conversation with me and her eyes were fixed on me in the lift. She directed me with a sharp tug of my jacket. By the time we exited the lift, I had grown rather concerned as to what I’d done wrong.
As it turned out, demeanour was far worse than the reason for my detour of the dimly-lit basement. There were unidentifiable items in my check-in baggage that caused concern as it passed through the X-ray machine. I also struggled to work out what the dark shapes were and after ten minutes of deliberation, a few apologetic and innocent expressions, I was taken back out under the watchful gaze of two armed soldiers. I was then asked to open my bag. After a lot of poking and prodding and the opening of many dry bags to explain the contents, they seemed content I was free of any malicious intent and I was allowed to leave.
The view from the top
My escorts’ manner improved little on our way back to customs, though the female officer continuously tapped her foot and her eyes remained glued to me with a look that suggested if I should try anything, I’d very much regret it. I couldn’t help but chuckle to myself a little at her seriousness. With her gone, off no doubt to intimidate someone else, I passed through passport control and boarded the half-empty aircraft to find I had three seats to myself. The views from the window over the mountains of central and southern Kyrgyzstan along with those in Tajikistan were breathtaking and kept me from my plan of trying to get a little extra sleep. Peak after peak, all topped with snow, pierced the clouds below the aircraft and I was transfixed, though very glad I wasn’t down there cycling. I’d soon have my fair share of that kind of terrain in Nepal.
New start in New Delhi
Within three hours, we had touched down in New Delhi. After lengthy checks at passport control, including a first for me of having to provide fingers prints, I collected the bike which surprisingly appeared undamaged, and made my way outside. I’d been warned before my arrival that the city was experiencing its worst pollution levels, with many residents experiencing breathing difficulties after just a few minutes outside.
It had gotten so bad in the last few days that all major construction had been stopped and trucks were banned from the city centre in an attempt to reduce the smog that hung thick through its streets. Schools were closed as walking to class was deemed too dangerous for the children’s health and many residents were choosing to stay inside whenever possible. As I stepped outside into the bright sunshine, I immediately realised why Delhi is so often rated as one of the most polluted cities on the planet.
Smog, smog, and more constant smog
Within minutes of leaving the air-conditioned airport lobby, my eyes began to sting and my throat became sore, visibility was so poor at times that I saw multi car crashes, as their drivers were simply unable to see the obstacles ahead through the smog. Roads in Delhi are crazy enough without the extra hazard of not being able to see anything. It was like a whacky race blindfolded.
Cars, rickshaws, motorbikes, bicycles, cattle, and pedestrians all battle it out in an attempt to make forward progress – crisscrossing the road and mounting the pavement in search of the smallest gaps, all the time paying no regard to conventional road laws. The only law apparently adhered to was the self-belief that one must reach his or her destination in the fastest, most death-defying way possible. The noise is deafening, as drivers permanently honk their horns with an unwavering devotion. It took me almost an hour to make the 10km journey to the hostel door and by the time I arrived, it felt as though all of my senses had been assaulted. As I dragged the bicycle box across the street under the intense stares of the locals, I knew India was going to be unlike any country I’ve cycled through yet.
I explored Delhi for the next few days. I was staying roughly 15km from the city centre, strategically positioned close to my planned exit from the city so as to avoid the worst of the roads in the district of Chattarpur. I caught the metro in, an experience in itself, and spent the day walking around the bazaars and visiting some of Delhi’s famous landmarks: the Red Fort, India Gate, and Raj Ghat to name a few.
It takes a certain amount of patience to walk anywhere in downtown Old Delhi. Never before have I been to a place with so many people. Roads are jammed full of rickshaws, bikes, cars, and trucks, with the ever-present cacophony of horns. On the pavements, human traffic jams are normal in the small alleyways and at times I’d find myself completely at a standstill, unable to move in any direction. Around every corner is a new encounter, sometimes a good one, like finding new and delicious street food, and sometimes a bad one, like coming face to face with a huge bull intent on squeezing past me; even pressed as close to the stone walls as I could, it sauntered past close enough for its horns to brush my abdomen.
Asia’s largest spice market
Maybe my favourite place to walk around was the spice market, Asia’s biggest, and, I’ve no doubt, most chaotic. The smell from the hundreds of vendors’ products is as intense as it is beautiful; the aroma from the huge canvas sacks stuffed with anything from chilli to cinnamon to garlic and ginger fill the still air. I doubt there’s a spice in the world that you can’t find here. Steam rises from blackened urns in shop corners and dark alleyways, the result of any number of different teas or soups being prepared and I often stopped to sample whatever was thrust into my hand. My favourite was the ridiculously sweet Masala tea. Despite the crowds and stifling heat, I could walk here for hours and often did.
In two days, I’m due to leave the city and head east to my first destination, the city of Agra, home to the Taj Mahal. If what I’ve seen so far is anything to go by, India will be quite the journey.
This post covers trip dates from 10th Nov – 18th Nov 2017
For more images from my time in Delhi, take at look at the gallery page of the website here.