After taking my morning pictures, I knocked on a few doors, hoping to find someone to unlock the door to my bike. Everyone I talked to seemed to understand what I wanted, and then disappeared without anything happening. Eventually another hotel guest talked to some of the people, and the guy who was in charge turned up, fully clothed, washed, and combed – not just recently awoken at all. He quickly left and returned with a large blue bucket, and went into my room. After some more shouting from the other guy, this confusion was cleared up too, my bike was liberated, and I could leave this charming little town called Balesar.
The landscape changed every kilometre. It’s amazing how many faces the desert has – of course there’s the dry sand dunes that I imagined, but it’s so much more alive too, sometimes making me wonder if this actually was the desert. I guess it all comes down to how stuck you are in your definitions.
A long tea break with my book and several cups of tea and a lot of water on a charpoy in the sun warmed me up after going against the strong and cold wind for a few hours. This desert air is too dry to retain any temperature – freezing until the sun is out, and then it burns.
After Bap, the landscape opened up into endless fields of rocky sand with a little vegetation. Here and there enormous waterbuffalo and skinny cows were munching on the leathery bushes.
Takes some getting used to, all these animals on and right next to the road.
Dogs are smart: they react to horns and generally take the shortest way out. Cows are too thick to react to anything until you’re very close, then they panic and trip over their own legs. Goats are too arrogant to react to anything, but too clever to get run over. Sheep get very nervous when separated from other sheep. A specific, and very tricky, kind is mainly found near road crossings in villages – men with big bellies who cross without looking. The extent to which they lean backwards is an indication of how important they are, and is inversely proportional to the likeliness of them moving out of the way for traffic. This, like so many others, is the time for pragmatism rather than principled idealism – right or wrong, running into one of these people would be a major hassle so I give in without further thought.
In these open fields, the wind is no longer cold but even stronger and more head-on. Every oncoming truck brings a shockwave – best reacted to by covering your mouth and gripping the bike with your thighs, rather than squeezing the handle bars and locking arms and shoulders. What was it that Ewan McGregor said? Loose hands? Open hands?
I found a nice room in desert town Bikaner. Headed out for some food after dark, and after kindly turning down an indecent proposal from a guy on a bike, I found good noodles and a lemon soda seller who produced the most amazingly loud squeek with the gas from the bottles he opened. Walking back with a full belly, the guy on the bike found me again, following me, sometimes stopping on the other side of the street, sometimes overtaking me and coming back. When I eventually asked him what he wanted, he declared he was gay. I told him I wasn’t interested, wished him good luck, and we parted with a handshake. Until that surprisingly friendly turnt of events, it wasn’t exactly threatening, but certainly uncomfortable. And it made me think about how often this must happen to women, who may not even always be sure they can probably take on whoever attacks them, simply in terms of physical strength.
I’ve been in this desert for a while now. Lets try and get into the Punjab tomorrow.
Had lunch on a blitzvisit to Udaipur after riding the last 250 kilometres on the fantastic NH76 cruising at about 80 kilometres an hour. Something doesn’t work out in this equation but I don’t know what it is. The fact that I started out riding more slowly, like every day? The engine seems to like 60 in the early morning, then slowly moves up to 80. Sometimes it would like to go up to 90, but I don’t usually let it – let’s find out a little more about this bike first, its likes and dislikes and its strong and weak points. Or was it my late departure, due to more poha in Bijolia before leaving, as opposed to my usual habit of covering a hundred kilometres before breakfast?
It can’t have been my two tea breaks, though one took a little longer than expected because of the lovely family that served me. The chai lady had a loud and raspy voice, which came out best when she laughed. Of course no one spoke a word of the other party’s language, but that was fine. Camera worked miracles too, they all posed and then the lady took the thing from me and took my picture as well as pictures of her wedding photographs and the icons of their deities.
Back on the road I realised I was no longer so easily shocked by the traffic, even though it was getting more intense as I came into a more populated area. Rolled in to Udaipur and easily found the Lake Palace Road – German bakeries, English speakers, white people in shorts, and screenings of the James Bond film Octopussy advertised in all the rooftop restaurants.
Lunch was in one of them. Backpackistan is fantastic – good food, friendly people who speak English, relaxed atmosphere, and of course the city is beautiful. I had been planning to be here last night and get to Anand today, let’s see what will be possible. It’s a good place for a break anyway. Decided I couldn’t possibly hide my face from all my fellow tourists and rode out city style. The border of the tourist island is very clear, and it made me think about how we often visit one such spot, load ourselves onto planes taxis buses trains and get down in the next one. Island hopping overland. I guess is what we always do anyway, to whatever extent, but it’s nice, thanks to the bike, to lose the distinction between the route and the destination.
The border with Gujarat was an Efteling gate and a police road block (fences & boulders) with no stopping again. Had a cup of tea on the other side of the gate and when I left, the bike’s fuse gave up, leaving me with no electricity hence nothing. Fixed the fuse and rode on to Modasa (which, according to my counter, was 30 km further than the signs said). I turned off the highway, onto a highway. I’m not quite sure what’s up with this tarmac fever but it was good for me. Till I once again came across the dark side of highway construction: the construction. That meant we were thrown on a side road with a broken surface, potholes, piles of sand, dogs and all the other usual suspects. During the last bit it was dark. The air felt smooth and pleasant, even though it deposited buzzing mosquitoes into my ears, where they were trapped under my helmet. The oncoming traffic of course had their high beams on, making me totally miss a man who was crossing with two cows until I was uncomfortably close.
In Modasa, I was turned away for not being Indian by a succession of hotels gradually moving into the center. My fuse kept blowing up and I was getting a little frustrated with the progress of this evening. Being eventually out of fuses I tied the wires together directly, and stopped at my last resort with smoke coming out of the headlight and the smell of burnt plastic. Spectacular but a bit worrying. Finally found a hot, expensive, and unclean room and nothing to eat anywhere, not even at the bus station across the road. I bought water and crisps from shopkeeper Usman, and optimistically asked him if he had some electrical wire. To my surprise he started rummaging around on his floor and pulled an unconnected dusty meter of cable from behind a cupboard. If this would be of any use? Most definitely, Usman, thank you very much. I walked back to my room, looked at my bike that was parked on the pavement of the main road next to the bus station. Must remember to make safe parking a priority? Sometimes it just doesn’t work…
Next morning as soon as it got light I checked the bike – nothing seemed wrong in the headlight. I fixed the fuse with Usman’s electrical wire. It worked fine, so slightly puzzled I rode the bike to a good parking spot, parked, and the fuse blew again. There was no problem with the brake light switch, so what could it be? Looking for electricity clues, I noticed the chain was very slack. Cursed myself again for not having tools. While waiting for the mechanic someone promised me, I looked for the last electrical thing that had been touched on the bike. In Kota, the mechanic had been connecting some wires in the front of the bike, when I couldn’t leave because all electricity had gone. And indeed, the connection was unisolated and caused a short circuit when turning the handlebars – to park the bike, for instance. Still waiting, I had breakfast and a shave and then got fed up, asked the wiry hotel man if he knew someone. He did, and took me there, introducing me as German. “Indian mischief”, he explained, folding up giggling and slapping my back. The chain got fixed, and the uncovered connection taped. Then the mechanic tore a strip off his rag and tied the cables togetherl dismissed my fuse solution, and sent me on my way. I loaded and left and put in my fuse solution at the edge of town and put my biking gear on.
Rode into Anand hours later, found the Vidyanagar Coffee Day easily and was completely happy with my double espresso and brownie while waiting for Sanderien.
Oohhh I like it here. Warm and welcoming and friendly. Mister Gautam showed me my room in the Government Resthouse – a small palace, slightly crumbling in a grandiose way. A bath room full of big black ants and their deceased kin, a western toilet, and hot water! High ceilings, a large supporting arch in the middle of the room, double bed, sofas, table, curtains, a little mosquito repellent thing that plugs into the electricity outlet (is there a name for these things?). Makes me feel like I’m in Upamanyu Chatterjee’s English, August. Also the lovely small-town feel. So at ease. Mister Gautum is a Civil Servant in the roadworks department, managing the resthouse is one of his duties. He treated me to a cup of tea when I walked by, on my way to find something to eat. We had a little chat, then I moved on to the hotel, as they call restaurants in India. (If you want to sleep, ask for a lodge or guesthouse.) Great food – but what’s with the chapati? Always waiting for you to finish your chapati, only then you get your rice. I gave up tonight – they kept bringing the little bread pancakes, so I just didn’t have the rice. I guess it’ll all be ok once I make it down south.
When I’d left in the morning large chunks of meat were scattered over the road, initially one or two every hundred metres or so. Too many to simply have fallen off a truck, or not? Went on for kilometres and kilometres, with towards the end a large amount just before the toll booths. After that it was a little less, until it stopped. Cars swerved to avoid it, but except that no one paid any attention to it, apart from the crows and the dogs.
Photographs that were not taken today include the lonely, bright purple flowers in the divider of the road, the herd of camels in the early morning, the very beautiful and incredibly bored-looking girl on the back of a motorcycle, the two trios on motorcycles, whom I later met at breakfast (paan stained smiles from six happy people), the piaggio full of bones – probably water buffalo though I imagined them to look rather like small elephants.
If a crashed vehicle faces the oncoming traffic in the places where I learnt driving, it’s usually a sign that something went very very wrong. Now, judging by the way the front end often looks, or by the fact that one example consisted of a burnt out truck and a twisted frame of a tractor, the assumption that some of these accidents are serious is a safe one. But the reason one of the cars is facing the other one, is usually because it already was – it was heading in the opposite direction. Why take a detour if the only price you pay for the shortcut is going against the flow for a while?
There’s more that I’m not used to on these highways – speed breakers, for instance. Usually unmarked – except in the puzzling case where a sign appeared after two rather mean, high bumps, causing me to drive extra carefully for another kilometre or so.
I rode for a long while, teabreaks providing welcome relief from the unforgiving saddle. At some point during the ride, on one of the many intersections that a village always is, a small green truck some distance away turned and blocked my path. I reacted appropriately, and only after that I realised I’d done that fully automatically, hardly registering doing it. I noticed having slowed down, then realised the truck was there and that its appearance was the reason for my actions. Good to know I’m that reliable, but clearly time for a break. More sweet strong milky tea, please.
Just before Kanpur, I crossed the river Ganga, its banks full of people. Ready for today’s festival? The city on the cliffs that rise up steeply out of the river, housing (busy, people ready for the festival?), Kanpur on the other side. The banks rose up steeply, vertically, housing lots of swallows. I rode through some suburbs and lots more country, later on crossing the Yamuna river. I came – around Orai, if I read my map correctly, by a beautiful big palace in the style I always think of as Moorish. Similar to some of the things in Hampi. Would be nice to know more about India’s history and be able to understand why that building looks like it does.
Around Jhansi, the land became hillier. Then an irrigated area started, much greener. Back to Savannah, reminds me of pictures I’ve seen of Africa. The ones with the giraffes. For a while, there were a lot more cows on the road. Then, after riding around a lake that didn’t show on the map and featured boats as well as submerged buildings and trees (a seasonal lake? overflowed river?), I rode up into the hills. On the other side, a maroon bullet and its handsome rider came down, enthousiastically honking. For a few kilometres, cutting through the hills, there were no cows. Only large, fierce-looking dogs and a few monkeys with halos of white hair. Up on the plateau, the cows were back. The land moved between savannah and cultivated plots separated with small walls.
When I ran out of petrol, a man stopped on the other side of the road. It turned out the few buildings I’d seen about a kilometer back, were a village with a man in a garage who had a large drum of petrol. He sold me one in a plasic bottle with no top, and my saviour took me back to my bike, which we’d left in the care of someone who was with him. He wouldn’t accept anything for his services, and after we said goodbye I was on my way again. Riding into the beautiful national park, just road and dark green trees and hills. Still savannah. Here and there ruins of buildings – what happened there? Evicted when the area was turned into a nature reserve, or simply abandoned? No sign of population anywhere. The air felt pleasantly cool at the end of the afternoon and with the riding wind, while the sky was becoming a slightly deeper shade of pale blue.
I soon realised buying only one liter had been a mistake – not much chance of a petrol station within thirty kilometres, not out here. But I was assured several times I was getting close to fuel, only thing is the stories varied between a chai shop where they sold the stuff from a drums like the previous guy, and a proper petrol station. I found a truck stop with tea, a barber, men on charpoys, and petrol! Got four liters, a cup of tea, and resisted the temptation for a shave as after all I was on my way to Kishanganj, wasn’t I. And when I’d turned around earlier to get to this place (not even against the flow of traffic, I found an alternative after initially not seeing many objections against the ghostriding joy), I had noticed sky in the east was getting a very dark shade of pale blue.
After filling up at the petrol station a few kilometres onwards, the signs still told me I was on or on my way to the NH 76, the road to Kota. Very quiet, lots of cows going home. And why not? There’s more traffic of cows and goats and farmers than motorised vehicles here, so it’s only logical they use the easiest road, in fact simply the there is. Two kids, against the traffic direction, very relaxed, chatting on their bicycles. No problem, just swerve around them. All so calm… water buffalo cows goats, dogs – strays or employed?
Kishanganj had seemed nice conclusion of today’s ride – on the banks of the river Parvati, the third holy river of the day (they’re all holy, aren’t they). However, when the sun touched the hills on my left, I stopped to exchange my sunglasses for clear ones. When I looked up again, the sun had disappeared. Kishanganj another 75 kilometres away, and though the road was in excellent condition, I didn’t want to risk not seeing cows, boulders, things fallen from trucks, or unlit slow moving vehicles. Skipped the turn-off to Dewri as I’d decided for Shahbad because it sounded nice. And indeed, I couldn’t have wished for a better place to finish the day. Some villagers argued about which lodge to send me to, but a tall smiling man dismissed all the other ideas and decidedly showed me the way to the Government Resthouse. Of course I don’t know what the other one(s) were like, but I’m happy here. I’ll save Parvati for breakfast.