09 Dec Trip Diary – India – Agra to Nepal
My only experience cycling on Indian roads so far was just two days on a ride from Delhi to Agra, but this was long enough to realise that the roads here are unlike any I’ve ever cycled on before. The lack of rules, sheer volume of traffic, heavy smog, and the unrelenting noise of old diesel engines and musical horns come together, creating the most challenging riding conditions of the trip to date. Agra had been a welcome break from the madness, even if it’s just as hazardous being a pedestrian, and with my birthday over, it was time to get back out there.
Biking the bicycle highway
With Varanasi, my next destination, around 700km away to the east, I rode out of the city early in the morning of the 24th under the shadow of the Taj Mahal, feverishly rubbing the St. Christopher pendant that hangs on my handlebars, silently praying the ride ahead wouldn’t be too bad. I decided to take a back road out of the city to Highway 19 and was pleased, and somewhat taken aback, to see a large sign hanging above the road declaring the way ahead was a bicycle highway. Was India more bike friendly that I’d been led to believe? Well, no, as it turns out.
To be fair, the narrow little road started great, the smooth new asphalt curved its way through two little towns until the mud and brick houses gave way to fields full of corn, interrupted only by the outlines of wandering cattle silhouetted against the morning mist. But, it didn’t take long for things to go wrong. The asphalt turned to a hard patchwork of broken clay before the road became no more than a two-foot wide track of deep, unrideable sand. Pushing the bike under the rapidly warming sun, I began to curse India once again. Riding here really isn’t easy.
Eventually, I emerged from the fields to find the highway high above me atop an earthen ramp. With no obvious entry point, my ‘bicycle highway’ just stopped dead here, I debated my options. Quickly ruling out going back, I unloaded the panniers from the bike frame and carried the bike up the steep bank, over the metal railings, and repeated the process with the bags, I’d not even been on the road an hour and already I’d had enough. Sweating and covered in a thin layer of red dust, I joined the chaos that is India’s highways, put my earphones in (more to drown out the noise than for the want of listening to anything) and rode off towards Varanasi.
The chaos continues…
I spent the rest of that first day, and indeed the vast majority of my ride to Varanasi, on Highway 19. The highways have the advantage of being pretty well maintained, with the exception of the parts that run through towns and cities, but just as I’d found out on the ride to Agra, they are phenomenally dangerous places to cycle. Traffic outside the cities continued to barrel towards me on the wrong side of the road – cars, trucks, motorbikes, and bicycles regularly forced me farther out into the road and into the path of erratically driven trucks coming from behind. Inside the cities, things became even worse and at times it was all but impossible to move due to the sheer volume of traffic coming from every direction. I was finding this more mentally than physically exhausting because the concentration needed to avoid collisions and predict what everyone else around me was about to do, drained me much more than the exertion of cycling.
Jürgen, the German cyclist I’d met on the way to Agra, was also on his way to Varanasi somewhere ahead of me on Highway 19. We talked prior to him leaving the day before about meeting up along the way and knowing his love for Masala tea paralleled mine, I glanced at every roadside street vendor I passed to see if I could spot him. With darkness closing in and with no sign of Jürgen, I turned my attention to finding somewhere to sleep. With camping all but impossible for reasons I explained in my previous blog, I went on the hunt for a cheap hotel.
When that failed and with the light all but gone, I committed myself to the next hotel I found, regardless of price. Within a few minutes, I’d stumbled upon a glass-fronted behemoth of a place looking out of place, surrounded as it was by lean-to shacks and mud huts. As I rode through its gates, I was greeted by the smartly dressed owner and the sight of manicured lawns, I knew right then this was not going to be cheap. I was about to turn around and continue my hunt for a bed in the dark when I spotted Jürgen, busy swatting away mosquitoes as he drank tea. Of all the hotels we could have stayed at, I still find it rather miraculous we ended up at the same one. Funny how things turn out sometimes. However, at 2000 rupees (£23) a night, my decision to stay here blew my daily budget of 700 rupees completely out the water. If India wasn’t to financially break me, I was going to have to find an alternative to either camping or hotels. Luckily, I found just the thing the next day.
Dhabas are roadside restaurants. For the most part, they are little more than street food vendors with the added addition of plastic chairs and wooden tables, all normally nestled under a three-sided shack. Jürgen, although on a much bigger budget than me, was just as keen to avoid paying huge sums of rupees for a rundown hotel each night. With a little over 120km cycled and the sun rapidly dipping below the horizon, we approached once such Dhaba to inquire if they knew of anywhere we could stay. With a smile and a gesture for us to take a seat, the owner disappeared to a dark corner of the hut, returning a few minutes later dragging two wooden cots. We watched as he rattled each one against the dirt floor of his small restaurant in an attempt to remove the dust that covered the woven strips of fabric forming the mattress and positioned them against one of the crumbling mud walls that held up the bamboo roof.
Returning with two cups of hot Masala chai, he explained in broken English that our beds were ready for us if we would like to sleep here. With less than ten minutes of grey light left and no desire to ride at night, we readily agreed. For me, this was perfect. It was as close to camping as I was going to get here in India and as I rolled out my sleeping bag, I felt a wave of relief at discovering this new form of accommodation. Jürgen’s smile suggested he was just as pleased. For just 300 rupees, the Dhaba provided not just a safe night’s sleep but also dinner and breakfast and as much chai as I could drink. As we rode away next morning, I knew these little roadside havens provided the answer to staying on budget. From now on, it would be a dhaba life for me.
And that’s pretty much how the next four days went until our arrival in Varanasi. We’d ride anywhere from 100-130km a day on Highway 19 doing our best to avoid ending up in a hospital and sleep at night amongst the locals at a dhaba, only spending one more night at a ridiculously priced hotel when we arrived too late in the city of Kanpur to make it out the other side. At 3000 rupees a night, it was a costly mistake. The only downside we found to staying at a dhaba was that they were open 24/7 and positioned just meters from the highway, so they are noisy places to kip. Trucks, coaches, and cars stopped regularly and an almost continuous flow of people sat amongst our beds to eat. On one memorable occasion, I awoke around 1am to find six men looking down at me. The attention we received as tourists apparently wasn’t confined to just the daytime. Still, I guess they’re not used to seeing many tourists sleeping at dhabas round here.
Late the next day, we arrived in Varanasi, a city on the banks of the Ganges in the state of Uttar Pradesh. The city is a major religious hub in India; it is the holiest of the seven sacred cities in Hinduism and Jainism, and played an important role in the development of Buddhism. Indeed, it is here that Buddha is believed to have founded Buddhism around 528 BCE when he gave his first sermon at nearby Sanarth. Varanasi has been a cultural centre of North India for several thousand years and is closely associated with the Ganges. Hindus believe that death in the city will bring salvation, making it a major centre for pilgrimage. The city is known around the world for its many ghats, all of which have various different purposes, from bathing to laundry to cremation. In all, I spent three days in Varanasi, exploring the maze of tiny alleyways that lead down to the Ganges and walked many an hour from one ghat to another.
The ghats of Varanasi
Arguably one of the most famous of the ghats is that of Manikarnika, especially amongst the thousands of tourists that visit the city. Manikarnkia is the bigger of the two ghats that are used by Hindus to cremate their dead. You can spend more than an hour wandering the city and you are sure to see the brightly covered bodies of the recently deceased being stretchered through the streets on their way to Manikarnika for cremation.
The bodies are first dipped in the Ganges for a final ceremonial wash and then left to dry for an hour on the river banks before being placed atop a large stack of seasoned wood. Offerings of food and money are laid atop the bright orange cloth that wraps the body and then the fire is lit from an eternal flame that has remained alight for hundreds of years. It takes around three hours for the body to be reduced mostly to ashes, which are then taken and released into the Ganges where young boys sift through the remains on the river bed for jewellery or coins that weren’t destroyed.
I sat a distance away and watched for more than two hours as a stream of bodies were brought to the river. What struck me more than the process itself was the lack of any mourning. There are no tears here; it appears much more like a celebration of life and had none of the usual signs of grief often associated with western funerals. Manikarnika ghat cremates year round, twenty-four hours a day, and provides a fascinating glimpse into Hindu culture. A must see too is the evening Hindu ceremonies held at a few of the ghats at dusk, but go early to get a good spot on the steps.
Off to the border
Feeling rested and ready to face the mayhem that is India’s roads, I rode out of Varanasi early in the morning and started the 300km ride north to the Nepalese border. Getting out the city itself provided the usual problems; the narrow streets were backed up with traffic or blocked by wandering cows and weaving my way around it all took the best part of ninety minutes. Eventually though, I was free of Varanasi and onto the main road that leads to the city of Azamgarh. Although not classed as a highway, it’s a busy road but unlike the road I came on into Varanasi, this one was in pretty bad condition. The broken and potholed asphalt regularly disappeared altogether, and in its place, a rocky gravel road stretched for tens of kilometres at a time, making the riding hard, slow work. For the next three days, until pretty much the border town of Sunauli, the road remained the same. Trucks kicked up clouds of dust as they rumbled past that would linger over the road, reducing visibility to only a few meters at times, making the appearance of oncoming vehicles all that more exciting.
Once past the large city of Gorakhpur, just 100km from the border, the scenery changes. The towns become fewer and more spaced out and, for the first time in India, farmland stretched to the horizon, broken only by the odd hut, farmyard, or power line. Small wooden and mud houses group together in tiny communities along the road, making a living from the land or selling cooked food straight from their homes to passing motorists. On the three evenings I spent up to the Nepalese border, the camping looked a good deal better than anywhere else I’d seen in India. I tried each evening to sneak off the road and down one of the many narrow paths that zigzag across the open land but on each occasion, it took less than five minutes after arriving at a potential camp spot for half the village to turn up. I’d often ride in the dark, ending up sleeping on the side of the road amongst dormant roadworks just meters from the road. Even here, putting up a tent was impossible, so I’d wrap up in most of my clothes and curl up on piles of construction sand and pass the night cold but rather comfortable. At least it was free.
The immigration struggle
You know you’re getting close to the border when the lines of brightly-coloured trucks start, overloaded with everything from tractors to cabling to fruits, all on their way to some distant town in Nepal. At least it appears you’re getting close. In fact, here at the Sunauli Crossing, the line stretched back for more than 20km, blocking the two-lane road down to one lane and ensuring a memorial and rather daunting finish to India, as I regularly got pinned between the stationary trucks and the traffic coming in from Nepal. It took more than two hours to weave my way along the trucks but eventually, the border was almost in sight, as the huge tourism signs promoting Nepalese sightseeing trips meant I was close.
Crossing the border was actually pretty straightforward, at least once I found the immigration office. Those same trucks that had hindered me over the last 20km continued to form a formidable barrier along the left side of the road blocking my view of the buildings and making any chance of spotting the small Indian immigration office all but impossible. I decided to walk the bike, squeezing around the queues but even then, the trucks were so tightly packed together that I’d end up walking for hundreds of meters at a time before getting the slightest glimpse of the buildings behind. At one point I’d convinced myself I’d crossed the boarder, missing the immigration office altogether. After back tracking It turned out I hadn’t and on my second foray along the road I finally found the immigration office, nestled in a small building that, from all appearances, looked to be someone’s house, about 1km from the actually boarder. I consoled myself with the thought it was easy to miss and I couldn’t of been the first to struggle.
I was stamped out the country within half an hour and, dodging the hundreds of money touts and ticket sellers, left to find my own way to the boarder proper. Thankfully, the Nepalese immigration is much easier to find, its small white building with quaint little veranda and flower filled garden, a vast contrast to India’s equivalent. It took less than twenty minutes to fill in the paperwork, provide passport photos and pay the $100 to get my three month visa. I was through and about to embark on my ride through one of the countries I’ve been very much looking forward to visiting.
India had been many things. By far it was the hardest country I’ve cycled through on this trip but that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy it. The people, as in most countries I’ve been too, were amazingly friendly and helpful, the culture fascinating, and the sights, such as the Taj Mahal and the city of Varanasi, unforgettable. But it’s not just the riding conditions, pollution, traffic and noise that I found hard. The countries attitude to rubbish and recycling is heartbreaking. Piles of litter, from old tyres to nappies to household rubbish and food containers line every street and highway, litter every field and spoil every river. I honestly can’t think of a single moment along my trip, with maybe an exception given to some areas along the ghats in Varanasi, where my surroundings were free of litter.
Watching small children tossing used sweet wrappers into the street or food venders discarding the finished paper plates and plastic forks into fields behind their stalls made my heart sink. It’s impossible to paint the whole country with the same brush, I’ve heard the far northern regions like Kashmir are beautiful, but I found this attitude to waste one of the more challenging aspects of Indian life to adjust to. The poverty that exsists both in the cities and in smaller villages is hard to take too. On a daily basis, children, instead of going to school, sit crossed legged sifting through the rubbish for anything they can sell on or walk the city streets with huge woven bags slung over their tiny shoulders, searching for scrap metal or recyclable items. Many people, children and adults, have a hard life out here.
One day I’ll return, but I think without the bike. There is plenty more of India’s I’d like to visit but for now though, it’s on to some much needed peace as I leave in the morning to make my way towards those Nepalese giants that are the Himalayas.
This diary entry covers dates between 24th Nov – 9th Dec.