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.

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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

Two Wheels to India!

Ever since I was a small boy, playing in the woodland labyrinths along the canal near my home with my friends, or occasionally venturing as far away as a neighbouring village, I dreamed of going on the ultimate adventure. Walking ten miles seemed comparable in my young mind to the exploits of Scott of the Antarctic, and a bike ride to the nearby beach not too dissimilar in scale from Edmund Hilary’s conquest of Everest. As I got older, I became a little bolder, and my adventures took me hiking and climbing in the Yorkshire Dales and the Peak District. In 2009 a friend and I rode our bicycles all the way from Land’s End to John O’Groats, raising well over a thousand pounds for a local charity.

After backpacking across North America for a few months in 2010, I settled down for a while, and got a ‘proper’ 9-5 job in a comfortable air conditioned office in Leeds. But my adventurous streak has been bubbling away in my stomach like an undercooked leg of lamb, and it’s finally time for another adventure. This one needed to blow everything I’d done before completely and utterly out of the water.

My plan, then, is to leave my job, my home, my girlfriend, family and friends, climb onto my heavily laden bicycle in the quiet backstreets of the sleepy Yorkshire village I grew up in, and ride half way around the world, all the way to India, alone and unsupported.

I have estimated a total distance of about 7,500 miles, and it may take me as long as six months. I plan to set off in mid July to traverse Europe, Turkey, Iran and Pakistan, before eventually finding my way to the Bay of Bengal, on India’s east coast, probably arriving some time early next year. Click here to see a map of my roughly planned route!

Adventurousness aside, it would not be in the proper spirit of such a quest if I were not able to justify my blood, sweat and tears, with some kind of charitable undertaking. There are so many well deserving charities out there that it was extremely difficult to select just one for which to raise money and awareness. So I didn’t. I picked two instead.

Cancer is a terrible and shockingly widespread disease, and it is difficult to find someone that has not been touched by it in some way. In 2008 it claimed the life of my cousin, Claire Jones.

The World Cancer Research Fund is dedicated to helping people make choices that can dramatically reduce the chances of developing cancer, predominantly through diet and physical activity, something that I feel very strongly about. I have therefore decided to raise money and awareness for the WCRF, so that they can continue their crucial work to help people avoid the life threatening consequences of the disease.

You only need to read about people like Lance Armstrong, though, to learn that in some cases no matter how good your diet, and no matter how much physical exercise you take, cancer is unavoidable. I cannot even imagine how terrible it must be for someone to be told they have cancer, but it must be particularly earth shattering for young people. I have therefore decided to also support the work of the Teenage Cancer Trust, a charity devoted to improving the lives of teenagers and young adults with cancer. Learn more about the charities I will be supporting here.

I will be recording my exploits, as often as I can, here on my blog, where you also access the JustGiving pages for donations to the charities I have chosen to support. It would be greatly appreciated if you could make a small donation, so that when I’m lost in the desert, with buckled wheels, worn out brakes, just a mouthful of water left in my water bottle, and being pursued by bloodthirsty bandits and ferocious wild dogs, I can keep a smile on my face, knowing that it’s all utterly worthwhile.