Holy Cow!: India

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“It is good to have an end to journey towards, but it is the journey that matters in the end.” – Ursula K.

India. All my energies over the last four months have been ultimately focused on getting here. Every pedal-stroke, every hill, every puncture, and every mile, meant progress towards this end. After many nights sleeping in my tent, many days alone on long and lonely roads, hundreds of chance encounters, small lessons and spontaneous acts of unconditional generosity, and thousands of miles on my beautiful red bicycle, I have cycled to India.

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My wheels rolled slowly over the Pakistan-Indian frontier on a bright and sunny morning, a light mist still hanging over the surrounding landscape, and I realised with a startling realisation that I had completed my quest. I had done what I had set out to do. But, glutton for punishment as I am, I had decided to cross India, completing my journey in Calcutta. Only another thousand miles or so to go, then.

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I’ve been cycling through the vast landscape of the Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh for almost three weeks now, and have seen many startling and striking scenes. What people say about India is only too true – it’s quite an experience. Poverty and begging is oppressively evident, cities are riddled with litter, wild dogs, and wandering holy cows. But I have continued to meet people and be offered the kind of generosity that humbles me. I’ve seen the Golden Temple at Amritsar, the Taj Mahal at Agra, and have sat by the holy river Ganges at Varanasi, and despite everything that may suggest the contrary, there is something spiritually peaceful about this country. But I have begun to realise that, as incredible as all of these things (and everything I’ve witnessed in between) are, these are not the reasons for which I climbed onto my bicycle on the bright Sunday morning all those months ago, a cooked breakfast bubbling in my stomach with the onset of nerves. I started this journey for the experience as a whole, and I think it would have been wrong to ever expect to gain anything by reaching India, beyond earning the satisfaction of completing what I set out to do.

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My experience has been one of adventure. I have done things I would never have thought myself brave or strong enough to accomplish, seen things that I never would have believed or understood otherwise, and met people that have opened my eyes to a much wider world. And I have a fantastic tan (though it expires rather quickly where my t-shirt and shorts begin)!

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And this adventure continues, as I enter the final days of my ride to Calcutta, and my dreams of bacon sandwiches, Yorkshire Tea and English ale become increasingly vivid.

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The Final Frontier: Into India

On camel watch in Iran

When you’re visiting a foreign city, you know it’s time to move on when a visit to KFC becomes the highlight of your day. Such was the case for me in Islamabad, while waiting for the Indian High Commission to issue my visa.

My application was finally approved yesterday morning, and I swiftly returned to Lahore on a bus, where I had craftily stowed away my bike, along with most of my baggage, in a hotel.

Tomorrow I climb back onto my bike for the first time in almost three weeks, and, all being well, roll slowly across my final frontier, across the border, into India! My dream will be realised, as I enter the final country of my trans-continental adventure. Only 1500 miles or so to go until my final destination, Calcutta, in India’s distant east.

Here are some overdue photographs from the last month or so, coming through Iran and Pakistan:

Alternative travel in Pakistan

View from a comfortable seat, of an uncomfortable seat, in Pakistan

Mobbed by little people in Pakistan!

In safe company, on the train to Lahore

Mosques, mist and minarettes: the Lahore skyline

Feeling manly: Lahore

Sand, Security and the Sub-Continent: Pakistan

Baluchistan desert

It has been an interesting few weeks, during which I’ve scarcely had chance to draw breath, despite spending precious little time on my bicycle.

Southern Iran proved to have one omnipresent feature which enchanted me at first, but soon began to lose its appeal: sand. As I rode through most of Anatolian Turkey, and later northern Iran, I would have described the landscape around me as desert. It was not until I saw proper desert in southern Iran, though, that I realised the mistake in my premature classification. In southern Iran I saw sand dunes and camels. My tent would collapse in the night; sand doing little to secure tent-pegs against the strong desert winds. And I discovered that dragging my fully laden bike through deep, soft sand in search of a camping spot out of sight of the road, is far more difficult than riding up even the steepest of hills, or into the strongest of headwinds. As I passed into Pakistan and into the Indian Sub-Continent, I was disappointed to see the desert continue.

I was not as disappointed by this, though, as I was by the news, upon entering Pakistan, that I would not be able to ride my bike at all in Western Pakistan, due to the instability of the security situation. As tempting as it was to tweak the nose of fear, drop an ice cube down the vest of danger and international terrorism, and high-tail it into the desert on my bike regardless of such warnings, the reality was that I simply was not allowed. Policemen roamed everywhere, lovingly clutching their Kalashnikov machine guns, waiting for an excuse to put them to use. In the hills, if the warnings were to be believed, terrorists, bandits, and all variety of ghouls, monsters and unpleasantness lay in wait for hapless western tourists such as myself, sharpening their disemboweling cutlasses with glee. So the police ordered me to take a bus.

But the bus, on the eve of the Muslim festival Eid, were fully booked for three or four days. Fortuitously enough, I was able to hitch a ride with an Australian couple, who were driving their Toyota Landcruiser from Cape Town to India, and just happened to be crossing the border at the same time as me. We lashed my bike onto the bull-bars, threw my bags in the back, and I shared the front passenger seat with a policeman with a long beard, only three teeth, and a single shot rifle. I sincerely hoped that, should we come across any hostile characters on the road, they would only attack one at a time.

For various reasons, too dull and plentiful to go into any detail here, we were stuck in the city of Quetta, the capital of the western Baluchistan region, over the Eid holidays, after which the police were still adamant that I could not ride my bike eastwards. The security situation and endless, inefficient and utterly illogical bureaucracy began to get on top of me, so I ended up loading my bike onto a train to Lahore. I wanted to get into eastern Pakistan, where I would once more be free to travel where, how and as I pleased. And 26 hours on the train proved to be an interesting experience. A small community quickly established itself on the train, and I learnt much of Pakistani culture and way of life, whilst watching the scenery slowly grow lush and green through the window, as we entered the Punjab region.

On my first night in Lahore, the owner of the hotel I was staying at told me that he was going to sacrifice a goat – would I like to join the feast? I only hoped that the poor blighter was not being sacrificed on my account. Needless to say, the goat had the last laugh; I was laid low the whole next day with chronic food poisoning; I can’t ever remember feeling as ill. Indeed, I didn’t quite feel my usual self for another two or three days.

I now find myself in Islamabad, where I’m waiting upon the Indian High Commission to process my visa application. All being well, I should be rolling across my final frontier, into India, around this time next week. India is so close I can almost smell it (though that could be my crusty, unwashed socks, festering in the corner of the room), though there is still about 1500 miles to go until Calcutta, and the end of my road.

With India now within sight, I would also like to make a point of thanking everyone who has sponsored one of my chosen charities so far. Your donations and messages of support have meant a huge amount, and have, at times, lifted my spirits as nothing else could. For those who haven’t yet done so, I’m sure you’re just waiting until I reach India, before you show your generosity and support for my extensive efforts!

Lonely Roads and a Farmer’s Shed: Iran

My beautiful bike: holding up well against the rugged Iranian roads

The border crossing from Turkey into Iran seemed excessively overcomplicated to me. I must have shown my passport to no less than ten people, be they Turk or Iranian. The only thing that told me that I’d crossed into Iran was the emergence of the looming portraits of the religious big-wigs hanging on the walls, and the huge mustaches under the noses of the Iranian immigration officers. To my surprised relief, nobody gave my bike so much as a second glance, and before I knew it I was rolling down a hill into the Middle East, into Iran!

Camping in an apple orchard, Iran

After a stop in the bustling north-west city of Tabriz, I headed generally south-east towards Esfahan. The landscape is generally arid and mountainous, and there have been a few occasions where I have started to worry about finding somewhere secluded to camp. As the sun creeps below the mountainous horizon, though, I always seem to spot a distant copse of trees, some useful mounds of discarded earth, or some dead-ground, out of sight of the road. One particularly pleasant evening was spent in an apple orchard, with the most lush, green grass I’ve seen since western Europe! Unfortunately my petrol stove ran out of fuel halfway through boiling up some water, so lukewarm smash was the order of the day, though it did little to dampen my spirits – it was still far superior to stale bread and cheese, to which I’ve become rather accustomed.

Visitors to Iran may wax-lyrical about the ancient ruins of Persepolis, the beautiful parks of Esfahan, or the humbling generosity of the people. It is true that these are highlights – to that I will not disagree – but the highlight of recent days for me was the discovery of the availability of Chocolate Digestives in a small roadside shop! Eleven o’clock biscuit stops have since become a staple of my average cycling day!

It’s the simple things that mean the most: discovering Chocolate Digestives

English is certainly more widely spoken in Iran than it had been in Turkey (which is convenient, as I’ve long since given up trying to master Farsi in my limited time here), though it is true that many people are limited to “hello! How are you?”. I do meet the odd person that I can communicate well with, though. One such character asked me a few days ago what my opinion was of the Iranian people. Are they good to you, he asked. I said that they were fantastic people, everywhere, except on the road. When behind the wheel of a car, or when sat atop a motorcycle (which seem to abound in rural areas), the kind, generous, placid nature of the Iranian people becomes twisted and reversed, leaving what I can only explain as road-madness! It is common practice here, for instance, for cars to reverse the wrong way down a dual-carriageway without warning; other cars seem to be in competition in to how closely they can pass me at speed, and it seems to be bad form to even pretend to glance into oncoming traffic when joining a busy road from a junction. Cycling, particularly in the larger cities, requires immense concentration and the patience of a saint, not to mention eyes in the back of my head!

The Farmer’s House: my accommodation for the evening

But this is not enough to tarnish my impression of the wonderfully generous and selfless people. Despite what you may read in the newspapers, everyone in Iran is not enriching uranium in their back gardens. They are a nation of picnickers and socialisers. In the short time that I’ve been here I’ve lost count of the times I’ve been invited to join breakfasts, lunches and dinners, or to stay at people’s homes rather than camp in the open, be it by rural farmers or modern, educated city-dwellers. It pains me to say that I’ve had to begin to refuse some such offers, for the simple fact that if I don’t, there’s no way I’ll make it through Iran before my visa expires!

Me and my Iranian fans. I may have inadvertently told them I was in the Olympics, and they demanded my autograph!

I arrived yesterday in the central city of Esfahan, Iran’s second city, and once capital, in time to mark my twenty-forth birthday. As a special birthday treat, I’m staying in a rather extravagant hotel (at least by my standards), with a real toilet! – my first since leaving Turkey! It’s incredible how the simple things can mean so much on a journey such as this. Toilets and hotel rooms aside, I’m spending today exploring the beautiful city of Esfahan. I continue south-eastwards towards Pakistan tomorrow.

Bridge over troubled water (conspicuous in its absence): Esfahan, Iran

The Gates of the Middle East: Eastern Turkey

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Eastern Turkey. Vast and untamed. People warn of wild dogs and roaming terrorists. My biggest problem, I’m happy to say, has been a plethora of punctures! Having made it from England to Eastern Turkey with only a single puncture, I’ve had four punctures in the last five days!

The long ribbon of asphalt that I’ve followed for most of the breadth of this enormous country has left me in the frontier town of Dogubayazit, the last town in Turkey, at the foot of Mount Ararat, the country’s highest peak at 5176 metres. The mountain, which was, according to biblical accounts, where Noah grounded his Ark as the floods receded, looms high over the arid landscape. It is capped with snow, and wispy white clouds emanate from its peak. I can see where it got its biblical connections.

The sun sets early in the mountains. I watched the sharp silhouette of the distant chain of jagged mountaintops slowly recede into the darkness. The call to prayer echoed across the arid landscape, wild dogs howling along to the sound from the dark distance, and I’m glad I find myself once more in the comfort of a hotel. This is becoming an expensive habit!

When the sun rises over the mountains tomorrow morning, I will ride the final few miles to the Iranian border. I hope to leave my westernised preconceptions at customs, and head into this culturally distant and often mistrusted land with a open mind and a friendly smile. Finally, I enter the Middle East.

Mad Dogs and an Englishman: Northern Turkey

Turkish roads – and I’m speaking specifically of the roads heading eastwards out of Istanbul here – were certainly not, I think it is safe to say, designed with the travelling cyclist in mind. So it was not long after crossing the Bosphorus aboard a small commuter ferry, that I found myself on a busy motorway, and was later told to turn around by a particularly unhelpful traffic policeman at a toll-booth. My futile efforts to take a quieter road set me onto another motorway, heading the wrong direction!

When I finally reached the Black Sea coast to the north-east of the city, I found myself too busy pushing my bike up the incredibly steep hills, the sweat trickling down my nose, to feel much relief. I followed the coast for a few days through beautiful – and surprisingly green – landscapes, the Black Sea lapping ferociously against the beaches to my left, but it was very hard work. My road soon took me in-land, and I began to follow the D100, a road which runs the width of this huge country, all the way to the Iranian border in the far east. For days now I have been following this road. The landscape became much more arid. Wide sandy valleys are bordered with increasingly tall distant mountains. Occasionally the road takes an unexpected dip through a narrow river valley, where the mountains seem to close in and tower above me and my bicycle. Trees appear and everything is much greener, but then it opens out again, returning to morose aridity.

The only interruption on the long, lonely road I ride are the petrol stations. Some are modern and clean. Others are old and crumbling into the dust. Some are busy, and at others I seem to be the only customer they’ve had all week. But they often possess interesting similarities. Petrol stations in Turkey are, it seems, the reserve of old men, and truckers. I will often roll off the road to be met by a short, stocky man, probably in his early 60s, waving his arms frantically, who wants me to come and drink çay – tea. He will sit me down at a small table and all the chairs will be different. Around the table there will usually be about four other men, of a similar age to the first man. There will be a tall, thin man with a moustache, who will stay quiet. One will be snappily dressed and smile but say little. One, usually a little older and maybe a bit fatter than the rest, will do most of the talking. Sometimes there will be a younger lad, about my age, who will sit close to me but not say anything.

The çay is served in a small glass, without milk. I will be offered a box of sugar cubes, but I refuse. The men will then ask me where I’m from, where I’m going, and, increasingly, whether I’m married. No? Why not? Being 23 doesn’t seem like a reasonable excuse to them, it would seem.

I buy water (I stopped risking tap water shortly after Istanbul, after I had a couple of incidents I’d rather not experience again), wave and say goodbye. They often speak not a word of English, and my Turkish is still too poor to be useful, but we generally manage to communicate well enough. I roll back onto the road, ride 15 miles or so, and then stop at another petrol station, and the game begins again.

Eating on the road can be cheap and of good quality, if you stop at the right places. The most valuable advice I’ve been given in Turkey is to go where the truckers go. The places don’t always look as sleek and shiny as the tour-bus stops, but the food is often cheaper and of far superior quality. The truckers know the roads well, and there’s a reason they go where they go.

Campsites are now a thing of the past. Oh, how I long for a friendly Yorkshire campsite, with short, green grass and soft ground, with warm showers and proper toilets that you can sit down on!

In lieu of such luxuries, I usually camp just off the road, usually out of sight of the passing traffic where possible. Last night I pitched my tent near a river. I’m not really afraid of it any more, having done so so regularly over the last couple of months. But last night, while I was sleeping peacefully in my tent, I was rudely awoken by barking and snarling outside my tent. I didn’t dare to poke my nose out of the tent, lest it be bitten off, but I guessed there were three dogs besieging me. I lay quiet and tried to return to sleep, hoping to bore them into submission, but this is easier said than done, what with the deafening racket, and the constant fear that they would somehow burst into my tent and eat me. So I took out my torch and waved it around frantically. It seemed to do the trick – I heard them start, the barking stopped, and they evidently moved on down the valley to eat another hapless, unsuspecting cyclist. I have since armed myself with a yard-long stick, and am planning to make a catapult tomorrow, with a small bag of crab-apples as ammunition. In the immortal words of Macauley Culkin, ‘when those [dogs] come back, I’ll be ready!’

I should probably also add that, in order to really give those dastardly dogs the slip, I’m staying in a hotel this evening. That should show them who’s boss!

The End of the Beginning: Istanbul

Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning
– Winston Churchill

The first thing I realised on this trip was that it was impossible to think about it in its entirety. To climb on to my bicycle and say “right, let’s go to India” would be verging on madness! I remember from school how my teachers used to suggest we approach coursework. “How”, they would ask, “do you eat an elephant?” In tiny chucks. And that is exactly how I have been approaching this trip. Each day belongs to a week, each week to a country, and each country to a continent. But I never really looked beyond Istanbul. Somehow this was always a huge marker; the crossing between Europe and Asia. A step into the unknown. It marks, rather approximately, the one-third distance of my trip. I just need to do the same distance again, twice, then I’ll be in India. This may not be the end, or even the beginning of the end, but it may just be the end of the beginning.

Istanbul is a terrific city. I used the word because I’m not too sure what other word I can justifiably apply. The city is a hive of activity. I’ve yet to find a quiet street. The ferries cross the Bosphorus between Europe and Asia in a non-stop back and forth. The call for prayer echoes eeriely at nightfall and daybreak, and glittering minarets pierce the cloudless blue sky. I’ve never been anywhere quite like it.

I’ve had a great week off the bike, joined by my wonderful girlfriend Maya. I now cross the Bosphorus and head into Asia alone. I can’t quite decide if it’s fear, or last night’s questionable sausages that are causing the strange sensation in the pit of my stomach.