Tuesday, 31 August 2010

A Breath of Fresh Air - Hanoi

Big fat cheat Flight number 2 completed smoothly. Smoothly that is apart from the £200 excess baggage charge and the near run-in with immigration when it emerged my visa was scheduled to begin the day after I arrived. Thanks are due to the super-friendly Thai Airways check-in ladies, the lenient (i.e. couldn't care less) Vietnamese immigration staff, and the Kingfisher check-in guy for pretending I was only 10kg overweight, not 30. Another case of Iran being better than the rest - the lovely folks at Imam Khomeini International saw fit to charge not a penny for the same amount of stuff...

This is my first time in South East Asia, and my first impressions are good. From the airport in Bangkok and the streets of Hanoi there seems to be a pleasing overabundance of females, and a strikingly high percentage of stunningly beautiful ones. Elegantly riding bikes as well as the Danish, menacingly riding scooters with Burberry helmets, sitting on the street arranging flowers, cooking meat or noodles, or just smiling sweetly. They won't challenge the Persian beauty, but they'll come a close second.

Hanoi is a pretty crazy city (3.7 million people, 2 million motorbikes and scooters) but in spite of this it's sweet relief after the even crazier streets of Delhi. Here there is uniformity, which allows prediction and anticipation. And there are pavements without holes down into sewers. And no cows. Crossing the road is still a challenge though. The Hanoian technique is to assume a slow and deliberate stroll, allowing the shoal to navigate around you. The only Indian technique I ever mastered (aside from simply staying indoors) was to put my hand out confidently and run. The Iranian roads had lanes so could be crossed 7 feet at a time, usually with a panicked, sprinting finale.

So now I wait. Eight more days to pass before I get to hug the person I last hugged over 7 months ago. Then we ride, and I have my first day back on the bike for about 7 weeks, and Georgie the first of 4 months to come. I can't wait!

Thursday, 26 August 2010

Six and a Half Months On The Road

  • 193 days since home.
  • 16 countries.
  • 5,794 miles ridden.
  • 74,198 metres climbed.
  • 483 hours and 28 minutes of riding.
  • 2 continents.
  • 22 border crossings.
  • 3 visas, 3 weeks of waiting.
  • 29 nights of wild camping.
  • 16 nights in people's houses.
  • 84 nights in backpacker hostels.
  • 61 nights in hotels.
  • 3 nights on transport.
  • 1 broken frame.
  • 4 broken spokes.
  • 1 broken freehub.
  • 3 punctures.
  • 4 mountain ranges.
  • 10 jars of Nutella.
  • 100s of cups of tea.
  • 25 dog chases.
  • 1 horse chase.
  • Innumerable acts of kindness.
  • 100s of people met, 10s of friends made.
  • 6 kilos lost, 4 put back on.
  • 13 other long-distance cyclists met.
  • A handful of scary moments, a whole load more joyful ones.
  • A 100% increase in faith in humankind.
  • 10 cms of beard growth.

Friday, 6 August 2010

Fifty Days in India, 3 Weeks in Delhi

Riding through Delhi at night. Not recommended.

Riding through Delhi during the day. Not recommended.

Persistent questioners in monsoon rains.

Very wet and muddy.

Many miles passed under someone else's steam. It's not really cheating...

North India's version of the stinging nettle

The first sign of trouble up ahead, on the road to Manali

The ever-present watching men, no matter what you're doing, they're watching

Another nice spot for lunch

So far only 1 very narrowly missed cow - I think our weights are about equal

This is one of the cleaner eating establishments


Everyone's Equal: Eating at the Golden Temple

Hey, how are you? I'm Kris. Where did you arrive from? Oh wow, how are you finding it? This must all be quite a shock for you! I remember leaving the airport last time I was in Delhi 4 years ago after flying in from Heathrow in 7 hours and being so overwhelmed. I've been here for 3 weeks now. I actually got here from Iran - no, well actually I've cycled here from London. Ha! No it's been great fun! Oh no, actually I mean bicycle, not motorbike!!! That's why it took 5 and a half months! Well I left my house in the UK on February the 15th and caught a ferry over to the Netherlands, then rode the whole way through Belgium, Luxembourg, France, Switzerland, Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Montenegro, Albania, Macedonia, Greece, Turkey and Iran. Unfortunately I couldn't get a visa for Pakistan as they changed their rules after I left so I had to fly from Tehran to Amritsar. I spent a month riding up into the Himalayas as far as Manali and then down to here. Yeah, actually I left on my own but met another guy in Istanbul who was doing the same thing. Yeah! There are quite a few people doing what I'm doing, I've met at least 20 along the way. We split up from Delhi after 3 months together so now I'm back on my own. Up to now I've cycled 5794 miles - usually around 60 per day but as many as 106 and as few as 2. I'm pretty much doing nothing here in Delhi, just relaxing and enjoying the chance to socialise. I have a flight booked from here on the 27th August to Hanoi where I will meet up with my best friend from back home and then cycle with her down through Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and then Australia and New Zealand. I'd initially planned to continue on from there to South America and make my way up and across to New York and then over to Africa, but having been away for nearly half a year now I can't envisage spending another 2 years on the road and riding 15,000 more miles - also I will have no money left by that point!

So what are you doing today? Ah yes, the Red Fort is nice...

So go most days in the Nirvana Hostel, South Delhi. The story exists more as a story than as reality for me now, I've told it so many times.

To those who have pestered me over the past month to write something on here, thank you for caring, and to those who have been checking in (or waiting for the RSS feed to update), I apologise for my lackadaisical approach. I suppose it's a combination a few things; after 178 days of doing this many things now seem unremarkable which would in the beginning have had me excitedly typing away in the nearest internet cafe. I think it's also India and the nature of travel here, in my case especially when contrasted against the time in Iran. I don't really feel like anything has happened that is worth recording, despite having done and seen what for most would be more than on a long holiday.

The biggest differences from day-to-day; you can't camp in Northern India. Between leaving town A and arriving in town B there is always a nether-town made up of tarpaulin shelters and charpoys, paddy fields and water buffaloes, dhaba food stalls, domestic tourist 'resorts', identikit crisp and fizzy drink shops, bizarrely named and iron-barred 'English Wine & Beer' shops, universities overlooking slums, or simply big piles of rubbish. Luckily India has its fair share of cheap hotels so a new routine was developed that removed the need to find food and water and a safe camp spot and instead involved shopping around for the perfect hotel room, for which exists a rather complicated equation involving the number of beds multiplied by the size of the TV and number of channels, divided by 2 for air conditioning or 4 for a fan, adding 100 for electricity to make these things work and subtracting 100 for no hot water, more than 2 flights of stairs, and anything that looked like it might lead to electrocution, illness or plague, whilst factoring in the lateness in the day and the tiredness and hunger levels, along with the level of tourist extortion attempted by the owner. Most of the time it was £2 and on all but 1 occasion, crap. Having gotten used to cycling off of the road and rolling down in to a field, transporting all my bags no more than 2 feet from the bike, setting up my tent, cooking as the sun sets and sleeping with the night, this added a headache while getting rid of a pleasure. And waking up in a double bed with another man night after night isn't as fun as it sounds (love you Adam).

Then there's the people. Iran received enough gushing positivity which I don't need to reiterate - I imagine any country would be a step down for the cycle tourist, but India is quite a stark change. It is fascinating for its diversity, and a thoroughly mesmerising, enchanting and just generally bizarre country, but for the specific needs of me on my bike it's not in the same league.
The initial welcome by the Sikhs of Punjab at the Golden Temple was remarkable, and the culture shock from seeing women riding motorbikes, working in the fields in multicoloured saris and showing off their long ponytails was intense - there is no easing in to India.
The cultural analysis between a Middle Eastern Islamic theocracy and a toddler Asian democracy is the stuff of text books, but basically I've experienced so little genuine kindness and so much blatant money grabbing as to sour the experience. I do believe that Hinduism has a part to play in this but that book is a long one. If you can break down the tourist/Indian barrier I'm sure there is a lot of kindness to be discovered.

After looking forward to cycling in India, I now have no desire to cycle here again. Once the crazy sights and sounds and smells of India lose their ability to amaze - a crew of cows chilling in the middle of the road, a gang of monkeys rampaging through a town, the goat/pig/car/elephant/cow/child/horse/camel/holy man that need to be avoided in every town, the sheer noisy chaos of every person beeping their horn - the enjoyment fails to sustain. I'm over it.

So for the past 3 or 4 weeks, since the 22nd July when Adam and I rolled through the gate of the Nirvana Hostel after 4 hours spent battling through Delhi's congested streets, I have chillaxed to the maximum. I've been to the mall. I've been to the movies. I've seen no tourist sights, no mosques, no markets (in my defence I saw them all 4 years ago). I've eaten almost exclusively western food but still managed to maintain an illness-to-wellness ratio of 1:1. I've stayed up till 6am more nights than ever before and drunk more rum then I ever will again. I've met some friends for life, and been offered some very glamorously located floors to sleep on. I've felt almost as at home here as at home. But step back out that gate and it's chaos, death and destruction in each direction. If you can walk down the street without falling in a steaming pile of trash, or a sewer, or walking into a cow, or getting hit by a rickshaw or bicycle, then you're doing well. I have realised at this point that I am Western, and European, and will always need some semblance of that around me.

So since last time...
I went to the Dalai Lama's 75th birthday party in his temple at Mcleod Ganj. That was fun. I've eaten numerous unidentified fried foods which have infected me with numerous bacteria and resulted in varying levels of diarrhoea. I've spent 2 nights vomiting. I've ridden up to 2000m and witnessed Adam make it to 4000m while I was, surprisingly, ill in bed. I've cycled in the monsoon, I've been handed beer from a moving motorbike and drunk it whilst riding, I've overtaken an elephant, I've enjoyed hours of long, swooping Himalayan mountain descents and pushed the tyres' grip to the limit. I've sweated more than I care to ever again. I watched the World Cup final in Manali where marijuana grows in hedges by the roadside. I've drunk Cognac and hung out with Delhiites, and met a handful of very lovely women. And of course I said goodbye to my riding buddy of 3 months, my wingman and copilot, the guy who made me feel lazy to just be riding my bike to get to places - you should ride it on your days off too! : P Adam valiantly battled on to Kolkata and is currently having some kind of empathy illness in Bangkok - good luck with the rest of the journey making it back to Oz.

So from now - the 30,000,000 Hindu Gods have conspired against me and so far foiled my 2 attempts to leave Delhi, this city I would actually say I hate, to see the more beachier parts of the country, one event involving me jumping very un-James Bond-like backwards from a moving train (top tip - always jump with the direction of travel); a train I'd waited for 5 hours to get on. Stick to bikes I told myself. I've decided to wait out my time in the safe confines of the hostel, being as lazy as I want to because hey, I've cycled here from London, even though all my friends have now moved on or home. On the 27th August I have a flight to Hanoi in Vietnam where I will wait for 10 days until my best friend from home Georgie lands with her bike to begin a 5 month trip through south-east Asia to Australia, with me. I think I'm a pretty lucky guy. Not to be promoting rival blogs but if you'd like to get a female perspective over the next few months (or just hear all the bad stuff about me) take a look at http://georgie-isabel-cycles.blogspot.com/

And the reason for flight number 2? The original route took in Nepal, Tibet and China. 1. Once out of India I'd be stuck for 2 months under their new rules, so any failure in Nepal would be an issue. 2. Independent travel in Tibet seems to be a near impossibility, especially after recent crackdowns. 3. I probably should have got my Chinese visa in the UK.

I'll definitely keep on top of this a lot better from now on, though between now and the flight my only tasks are to find a box for my bike, post home all my now-redundant winter clothing, and work my way through the 30 movies sitting on my laptop, whilst fighting off illness at every turn.