Fame, Fortune, Glitz & Glamour – Part 2: …and the Holderness Gazette!

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My notoriety clearly knows no bounds, having appeared, on Thursday 24th January, in the Holderness Gazette!

I’m obviously expecting a call-up for next year’s Celebrity Big Brother, or perhaps a spell in I’m a Celebrity, Let Me Indecently Humiliate Myself.

Fame, Fortune, Glitz & Glamour: I’m in the Hull & East Riding Mail!

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Fame shined on me and my bicycle on Friday 18th January, as the Hull & East Riding Mail featured a two-page spread of toned-down quotes from this blog, the odd uninspired remark I made over the telephone, and a few stunning photographs!

Back to Blighty: Adjusting to Normality

24km to Calcutta

24km to Calcutta

After a few busy days in Calcutta in mid December, arranging my luggage and the shipment of my bike back home, I caught a flight back to merry old England. A journey of more than five months, and 6,587.4 miles, had come to an end. Following almost precisely the same route I had pedaled those many months, the Boeing 777 of my return journey took just 12 hours. I landed in a damp and chilly Heathrow airport in time to see the grey light of the December morning begin to illuminate the bleak, wintry English countryside. I was still hours away from my native Yorkshire, but already I felt at home.

For the longest time I wondered how I would feel upon returning home. There were times when I longed for it like nothing else, and others when I was terrified at the very thought of bringing this great adventure to an end, and trying to return to a normal life. I reflected on what I had wanted the trip to be, what I had wanted to get out of it, and whether I could be content that I had achieved all I had set out to achieve. I had overcome all of the challenges and temptations that threatened to bring my journey to a premature end without reaching Calcutta, or even India. But it was never about getting to India. It was about doing something out of the ordinary, about stepping outside the box and plunging myself, head-first, out of my comfort zone, and into the deep water of the unknown. No amount of research prior to setting off could prepare me for what I was likely to encounter, but an open-mind, a positive attitude and a will for adventure only made this more exciting.

Of course, countless people, from all over the world, have had longer, harder, wilder adventures than mine. People have ridden bicycles around the world, doing it in record times, or spending years. There are people who have travelled to far more countries than I have, and probably have even better stories to tell. I wasn’t the first person to cycle to India, and I certainly won’t be the last. But it was never supposed to be a competition, and I do not measure myself or my adventure against any other benchmark than my own sense of satisfaction that I have done it. I would often find myself, during the long days of long miles, grinning from ear-to-ear, hardly believing that I really was living my dream. I may no longer be on the road, my sun-tan may be fading, and my waistline may well be expanding back out to its previous size, but I still find myself grinning to myself sometimes.

Cycling to India was a dream that I’d harboured, in various forms, for years. Once I’d realised the opportunity to fulfill that dream, I felt that I would be being unjust to myself not to take that opportunity. But it also gave me the opportunity to help other people, and allow it to be greater than just myself, by supporting a charity. Cancer care is something that has been especially personal for me after it claimed the life of my cousin, Claire Jones, in 2006. Doing something on this scale allowed me to promote not only my own adventure, but also the cause of two charities, the World Cancer Research Fund, and the Teenage Cancer Trust. With the help of many donors, and the exuberant efforts of my mum (who was the main driver behind the fundraising whilst I was busy cycling), a total of £1,755.45 has been raised, which will be divided evenly between the two charities. If you haven’t donated yet, there is still time to either visit the Just Giving page, or contact me.

Smiles for miles

Smiles for miles

It really was quite strange being home at first. Things which had always seemed very normal to me, things I had once taken for granted, suddenly seemed very foreign, as I found myself looking at everything from an altered perspective. Simple things, like a trip to the local shop, were so incredibly unlike what I had been used to for a good while. The streets, peopled only by the occasional dog-walker, seemed so very quiet and calm. Cars drove down the road on the correct side (as apposed to both sides), and didn’t sound their horns without due need. I could go to the toilet without having to support myself over a squalid hole in the ground, without my legs screaming with pain as they cramped up, and without the obligatory rat, tentatively peering at me from the hole. It felt like I’d entered a different world. It was a culture shock that, ambling along at a few miles a day, I hadn’t really experienced on my way to India.

It seemed strange, too, to stay in the same place for more than a day or two. I had become so used to the incessant push onwards, and eastwards. I suddenly found myself with no real direction, no destination to reach each day. Fortunately, arriving home just a few days before Christmas, a sudden dash out to do my Christmas shopping, and the liberal availability of mince pies, sufficiently occupied my attention. It was great to see my girlfriend, my family and my friends. I enjoyed all the home comforts that I had longed for and had promised myself during my months in the saddle half-way around the world. A fry-up was certainly long overdue.

In the last week, I have returned to Leeds, where I moved into a new flat, and a successful interview with my old employers was enough to get me a job. Life is slowly returning to normal, but my changed perspective remains undiminished.

My bike, packaged up and ready to head home

My bike, packaged up and ready to head home

Having shipped my bike back home, it arrived just a couple of days after I did, like an enormous yellow Christmas present, with ‘DHL’ written all over it. I unwrapped it and pieced it back together, and was surprised how shiny it looked. It will certainly need a few replacement parts, but I have a feeling that it has many miles, and perhaps another great adventure, left in it. After months on the road, I’m quite content to return to normality for the foreseeable future. I have a job, and a new flat, and I’m willing to limit my adventures to evenings and weekends for the time being. But I wonder how long that contentedness will really last. I wonder if I, too, have another great adventure left in me.

Chasing my shadow through the desert in Iran

Chasing my shadow through the desert in Iran

The Last Underpants: India

A room with a view: the Taj Mahal from Agra Fort

A room with a view: the Taj Mahal from Agra Fort

I think back to that sunny Sunday morning in July, all those months ago, when I first set off on this mad adventure of riding a bicycle half-way around the world, to India. Everything thing that I needed (or thought I needed – much of it turned out to be superfluous) was strapped to my shiny red bicycle. As it groaned under the weight, I made those first few, decisive pedal strokes down the driveway, and out onto the road. Among my meager belongings were three pairs of underpants. Surely, I thought, the best things come in threes. They were freshly washed and smelled faintly of lemons and wildflowers (as did I, I like to think).

This pleasant state of affairs was not to last, however. I don’t want to sicken my readers with too much detail, but the freshness and the scent of wildflowers soon deteriorated, the lemons turned rather sour, and they soon became rather effective deterrents to thieves (though I did occasionally treat them to a wash). The first pair bought it in southern Germany, being washed away (somewhat ironically) by a huge and unexpected bow-wave from a boat skimming down the Danube as they were innocently drying on a rock. The second pair lasted all the way to Pakistan, when they went the way of all the great world empires, and eventually fell apart into their constituent pieces. Tears were certainly shed. Fortunately, the final pair have made it with me all the way to India, to Calcutta, my final destination. I rolled over the great iron bridge across the Hooghly River, and into the former capital of British colonial India, and the old adopted home of Mother Teresa, and my journey came to an end. My last pair of underpants are, like me, completely worn out. I’m not sure the great fashion houses of Europe have yet tried pushing fashion-conscious youngsters into ‘distressed’ underwear, as was once the fashion for jeans, but if anyone wants to know how they look, I possess a perfect prototype. Like my last pair of underpants, I’ve weathered the storm. I’ve come a long way, and have taken a lot of punishment over the last few months (though this was of course balanced by some extraordinary experiences, though I’m not sure to what extent I share this with my underpants). Like them, I’m just about hanging together, despite the frayed edges and the worn patches. To possibly coin a timeless sentiment, to go down in history with the wise words of all the great men of the greater world, when your last pair of underpants have worn through, it’s probably time to go home.

India has certainly been a test. Road safety is, if it exists at all, a rather unfunny joke; I’ve had two minor collisions in the last week, from which I was lucky to escape without any damage to either me or my bike. Wild camping, as I have done most of the time on my journey, is practically impossible here. Every time I stop, however briefly, and however quiet and remote a spot may seem, I cause quite a sensation. People crowd around me, often staring with blank, but awed expressions, sometimes laughing at the silly foreign man who apparently hasn’t heard of the internal combustion engine. Camping, then, would be a futile gesture. Peace, and sleep, can only be found in roadside hotels. I’ve shared rooms with many a mosquito, a rat on a couple of occasions, and the presence of mouse-droppings on the bedsheets one night drove me to pitch my tent on some grass outside. India is constantly moving, and there is an almost constant noise, which deafened me until I grew used to it. But despite all this, I feel incredibly privileged to be here.

A much wiser man than me once said that when you’re old and grey, and the best of your life is behind you, you’re much more likely to regret the things you didn’t do, than the things you did. I certainly do not regret cycling to India. But I’m glad it has come to it’s natural and fitting conclusion, here in Calcutta. I’ve accomplished my dream, my mission, whatever you might call it. Now I need to dream up another one – I’m just going to need a fresh pair of underpants.

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!