23 Nov Trip Diary – Delhi to Agra
I ended up staying in Delhi a few days longer than I’d originally planned because an old back injury resurfaced shortly after I arrived. When I did leave, I must admit I was rather glad. If you’ve read some of my previous diary blogs, you know I’m not a massive city fan. But, Delhi takes the chaos to another level completely and although I left doubting if I could find any sort of peace or quiet during my next three weeks cycling across India, nothing could be as bad as Delhi, could it?
Leaving the city
Making my way out of Delhi proved to be a little easier than I anticipated, only having to spend around forty minutes fighting with the traffic before I hit the backroads that lead south-east out of the city. Although narrow and in need of much repair, I felt safer on these quieter roads and despite the traffic passing rather close and fast, it felt good to be cycling once again.
With 100km under my belt by the end of day 1, I began to search for somewhere to pitch the tent for the night. Camping was by far my biggest concern in this country. In my online research before my arrival in India, I found numerous stories from cyclists recounting problem after problem with wild camping in India. It seemed possible in the far north and the deserts of central India, but here, in the densely populated northern half of India, it seemed very challenging. With a population of 1.3 billion, finding secluded spots where I wouldn’t be found was going to be tricky, if not impossible.
No place for a tent
I was still searching in the fading light. Every time I thought I’d found somewhere and went off to check it out, someone would spot me and come over with half the local village. Everyone would then inevitably produce a mobile phone and I spent precious minutes with half an eye on the setting sun smiling for multi selfie style photos. There was no chance I’d be left alone if I stayed. Just as I was beginning to panic and about to give up on any chance of sleep that night, something wonderful happened.
Out of the gloom, a motorbike approached, sped past, and then doubled back, skidding to a stop in a cloud of dust at my feet just as I left the small town of Dudhola. The rider Kabir spoke near perfect English and after learning I was looking for somewhere to camp, he immediately insisted I stayed with him and his family back in Dudhola. I readily accepted.
Kabir shared his modest home with a number of relatives, including his brother and his wife and children, his mother and father, and his own wife and child. From the moment I stepped through the creepy iron gates and into the dirt floor courtyard, I was welcomed as if I was an old friend. Not only did Kabir and his family allow me to stay for the night, but his wife cooked the most amazing vegetable curry for us while his elderly mother rushed around preparing me a bed and heating water on an open fire so I could wash.
I tried many times to offer my help but each time it was declined; for them, having a guest in their home was an honour, as Kabir explained to me over dinner. He surprised me as we sat talking into the night by declaring our meeting wasn’t just by chance, as I had presumed, but rather an act of God. God had put me on that road at the exact moment he was driving along, I was a ‘messenger of God’, as he put it. Not wishing to offend, I nodded in a way I hoped expressed I agreed without actually having to say as much. Whether it was chance or fate, I was just glad to once again get the privilege of meeting such wonderful, kind-hearted people.
A prayer for the road
Over breakfast the next morning, Kabir’s mother occasionally passed by me as I ate and placed a hand on my head whilst muttering words in Hindi I didn’t understand. Each time I smiled, unsure what it meant until Kabir informed me each of these acts was a blessing or prayer to guide me safely in my journey and ensure I was being watched over. I left an hour later after a prolonged goodbye with a smile on my face and a life-long memory of Kabir and his beautiful family.
Two hours later, I encountered another, possibly darker, side to the country but in the nicest possible way. I was stopped by a fairly well to do Indian man who had pulled his car off the road in front me on the winding back roads I was riding down. With a smile on his face and in perfect English we spoke for some time about my journey but he was particularly interested in my planned route ahead. When I told him, the smile disappeared and a look of concern overcame his face. “Those towns you are about to go through are Muslim towns. It will not be safe for you there, many bad people.” I was slightly taken aback by this. Not to long ago I had spent two months cycling solo through Turkey, a mainly Muslim country, and never once did I experience any hostility or was made to feel unwelcome. In fact, I visited the city Konya, regarded as one of the most conservative Muslim cities in all of Turkey and again, faced no problems.
Every Muslim I’d met throughout my journey had shown me nothing but kindness and love despite never having met me before or knowing anything about me. Were these Muslims different? I had no reason to think so and attempted to explain that I was sure I would be fine but his insistence was genuine. Was this an example of an underlying problem between Hindus and Muslims shared by many or was his opinion in the minority? Whatever the case, he was defiant in his warning and became so concerned that I would ignore his warning (to be honest, I was going to) that he insisted in escorting me to the highway were, in his words, I’d be safe. I had little option, but as I followed, with every kilometre that passed staring at the rear lights of his car, I began to resent the fact I’d given in. Maybe he was right. Maybe it would have been dangerous? But I couldn’t help thinking he was wrong.
Joining the highway did produce another treat after just a few kilometres of cycling. As I was having a breather from the chaos of the highway traffic, I met the first cycle tourer I’d seen so far in India: Yürgen, a German man in his early fifties who had come up from Mumbai. Knowing as I did that India isn’t exactly popular for touring, I had resigned myself to the fact I was unlikely to come across anyone to cycle with so you can imagine my excitement when Yürgen showed up.
It turned out he was heading the same way as me and planned, like me, to stop in Agra. After a brief chat above the noise of the highway, we agreed to ride on together. As we set off, I couldn’t help but think back to Kabir and his mother. One of her concerns for me was that I was traveling solo and Kabir had told me she had prayed that I’d find a companion. Was my meeting with Yürgen a coincidence or something more? Had Kabir’s mother’s prayers been answered? Being unreligious in every sense, I settled on coincidence but was surprised to find the question would nag me for many days and I found myself wondering… maybe, just maybe.
Who tore up the rule book?
After a night in an overpriced and run-down hotel, we were both back on the road by 8am and back to the madness of the highway. If the rules are largely ignored in the cities then they are all but torn up on the highways. For the whole day, not only did we have deal with the fast and highly unpredictable traffic coming from behind us, now it came towards us as well. Driving on the correct side of the road is obviously only advisory here in Indian and by no means compulsory. Cars, bikes, bicycles, trucks, and coaches sped towards us along the hard shoulder forcing us out into the traffic. It was like nothing I’d ever experienced.
Time after time, we would narrowly avoid a collision, but it soon became clear that others weren’t so lucky. On this day alone, I witnessed the recent aftermath of two accidents, both involving trucks and motorbikes and as you’d expect, the latter came off considerably worse. In fact, very few riders choose to wear helmets so the sight of a lifeless body at one scene could have been prevented. It is no wonder, given these driving standards, that India has one of the worst road fatality records in the world. Worse yet to my western perspective was the sight of whole families, including young children and infants, sometimes as many as five people, crammed atop a single motorbike, all without helmets. The thought of what could happen made me shudder and I quickly pushed it out of my head, reassuring myself accidents like that never happen but, unfortunately, knowing full well they were all too common.
By 4pm, we’d arrived in Agra and had fought our way through the standstill traffic of the downtown area to find a hostel. I was more than ready to get out of the mayhem. Gorging myself on the array of street food available along the highway over the last two days had become a guilty pleasure of mine; it’s cheap, delicious, and filling if not a tad spiced at times. That night I walked with Yürgen around the city to indulge some more with a dinner of dhal, rice, and chapati from a street vendor near our hostel, along with cup after cup of Masala tea – another new passion of mine.
The 22nd of November is a special day for me: it’s my birthday and I timed my arrival in Agra to coincide with it as I wanted to treat myself to something special. My treat was to visit one of the most instantly recognisable and, arguably, one of the most beautiful buildings in the world that I wanted to see for some time: the Taj Mahal. I was up before sunrise to meet Yürgen to take the ten minute walk to the east gate of the Taj Mahal and was inside the grounds just as the sun was rising.
Being some of the first people in that day, I spent a magical half hour roaming around the grounds and admiring the ivory-white marble mausoleum from every angle. The Taj Mahal was commissioned in 1632 by the Mughal emperor, Shah Jahan, to house the tomb of his favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, and what a tomb it is. Despite the whole place soon becoming overrun with thousands of tourists, I stayed many hours more, simply enjoying the views and appreciating the silence within the walls – a far cry from what lay outside.
Tomorrow, I’ll leave Agra and start my ride towards Varanasi, one of India’s holiest cities, some 700km to the east. Yürgen is also heading the same way but will take a detour to another town farther south first but there’s a chance I’ll meet him again somewhere on the road to Varanasi. Tonight I’ll celebrate my birthday with my first restaurant meal since Turkey. I think I deserve it after the last few days.
This post covers trip dates from 19th Nov – 23rd Nov
For more pictures of my ride through India, take a look at the gallery page here.,