Our first impressions of India were good except for negotiating the single lane bridge immediately after the border that all traffic going in both directions needed to cross. Being India, there were no stop ‘n’ go boards or traffic lights, it was just a free for all scrum of trucks, horse and carts, cars, motorbikes and pedestrians. Every man, woman, cow and dog for his/herself. The badly laid wooden boards on the bridge didn’t help us battle through the scrum as the bikes wobbled about all over the place. Once across, we rode through a small village with a few dodgy looking food stalls, the road then opened out into woodlands of eucalyptus and jacaranda trees. Was this some bizarre trick? Were we back in Australia again? The landscape looked so familiar with huge stands of Jacaranda and Eucalyptus trees. We took advantage of the cover and stopped for a pee. We’d read that as soon as you stop anywhere in India you’d be instantly mobbed by a crowd of onlookers who know no sense of personal space. Not here. We peed in private and rode on, feeling in some way a little disappointed.
We needed fuel, for us and the bikes. We pulled over at some shanty hut workshops where a bunch of men were squatting on the ground, pulling apart some mangled pieces of car. I pointed at my fuel tank and shrugged my shoulders in a questioning way. They all pointed down the road in the direction we were heading so we thanked then and rode on. We didn’t really know where we were going anyway so thought we may as well accept their directions. Naively we only had a map of the whole of India with us which was, right then, totally useless. After 20 minutes or so we came into a busy town and, spotting a half sensible looking (and air conditioned) café, parked up and headed in. We were hustled into the posh ‘family’ section and they put on both the chiller units for us. Two dahl bahts and a big bottle of water later, we were sorted. Delicious and cheap, the only downside being the thousand resident flies who seemed as keen on the food as we were. We gave the waiter a 50% tip, he’d looked after us well. With a big “Tank you sir madam” he waved us off but not before giving us some ridiculously complicated directions to a nearby petrol station. About 500 metres along the road we found it, clear as day at the side of the road. We pulled in quite a crowd, as about twenty men surrounded us while the attendant brimmed our tanks. Quite what was so interesting we’ll never know?
Riding in Nepal had been a good training ground but India was in a different league. It’s pretty difficult to describe it. There are sections of road that are OK – Just think of a very hot & dusty rural road anywhere else in the world. If it had all been like that it would have been fine but these sections are far too often interrupted by crappy towns that cause utter chaos. The road was also often smashed to smithereens and the combination of dust and exhaust fumes was chokingly thick. Horns were blaring constantly. Buses, trucks, cars, tuk tuks, motorbikes, bicycles, bullock carts, wandering cows, pedestrians were ALL pushing and clamouring for the same little slice of road. I learnt to ride a bike in busy London and am a pretty confident ‘go for the gap’ type (some might say aggressive) rider, but those Indian guys are Olympic gold medal holders of ‘anything goes’. It was full on and pretty damn tough at times! We covered 150km in four long, hot, knackering hours. Kate was bloody fantastic. We’d both been worried about her lack of experience but she just got on with the task at hand.
There was no information at all in the Lonely Planet guide about any of the area from the border all the way to Delhi. I guess it’s just not a place that tourists visit. There was no way we’d make it to Delhi in a day so we had to try to find somewhere to stay for the night. We searched in one town to no avail and heading on, as evening was approaching, we were getting desperate. By the time we reached Morradabad it was dark, which was very bad news on those roads. We’d promised ourselves we’d never ride in the dark in India, and on day one, we’d already broken the promise. Stress levels rose. Neither of us had a clue which way to go. As we approached a junction we’d call up on the intercom to decide whether to go left or right. On other stress free occasions we’d had fun doing the ‘who cares, left or right’ thing but at that moment we just wanted to find a hotel. We rode around the city in the choking traffic, looking for any clues. We pulled up at a taxi stand and asked around, finally managing to find someone who could speak English. Apparently he knew where a hotel (for whities) was. Off he sped on his little moped, no lights, dark shirt and well versed in traffic negotiation, India style. We followed (just). I’m sure you’re supposed to go ¾ of the way around a roundabout when turning right aren’t you? Not this guy. What about one-way streets, what does that term actually mean? We did only go one way just not the same way as the rest of the population of town! He had us driving like true locals in no time.
After a ten minute, hair raising ride, our new friend led us to a pretty decent looking hotel. He would not leave (despite the cash we gave him for his trouble) until we were fully checked in. In fact, I reckon he’d have tried to tuck us in to bed if we hadn’t been so insistent that we were now ok. The relief to be in a clean, air conditioned room was huge. We’d done over 300km’s that day which in those conditions had taken a massive eleven hours of hot, dusty, super-stressful riding. We were totally knackered. After showering (bliss) and changing into some clean(er) clothes, we wandered the streets and found a reasonable looking restaurant. While we were eating a local guy came over to us and asked what we were actually doing in Morradabad. He said he’d not seen any foreigners there for years. He explained that there was indeed little of interest to see there and it was basically an industrial, cross roads town. We were in bed super-early that night and fell into an exhausted slumber. In the morning, we packed up and skipped town before things got too oppressive. It was a little cooler at 6am, but it seemed that in India, you could never get up early enough to beat the crowds.
We’d never really even wanted to go to Delhi, but the logistics of the trip forced us to. We had to do some visa applications for getting through the Stans. As we approached the city on a real highway, the traffic built, but to be honest the run in wasn’t too bad. The traffic once in the city centre was so gridlocked it was actually quite safe and easy to manoeuvre around. It was bloody hot though, my handy pocket thermometer showed 40 degrees. Somehow, using a combination of Lonely Planet maps and a bit of luck, we stumbled pretty much on the area we wanted to be in town and checked into a reasonable guest house. The Cottage Ganga Inn was apparently the place to be. The Lonely Planet described it as “Popular with overlanders with a courtyard providing safe parking”. We had visions of rows of Land Rovers and Africa Twins parked up, animated conversations between western travellers, maps outs on bonnets whilst tales of epic journeys were shared. Instead, disappointed, we chained our bikes to a tree in an otherwise empty courtyard and lugged our gear in to the hotel across the hot, dusty concrete driveway. The hotel itself was basic but cleanish and comfortable. We checked in and then wandered up the road, finding the air conditioned Club India for a western-style lunch. Rejuvenated, we headed out into the streets to explore our surroundings.
What’s central Delhi like then? Well, take your worst, busiest, most stressful Christmas shopping experience and double it, no in fact times it by five. Then turn up the heat to 35+ degrees. Add some filth, rubbish, dust, shit (dog, cow and human). Take away the pavements and traffic rules. Then add a load of bicycles, motorbikes, cycle rickshaws, tuk-tuks, cars and trucks ALL creating a horrendous cacophony with beeping horns and shouting. You’re getting close now. Oh, we forgot the wafts of stale piss, beggars and the incessant buzzing flies. Then, just when you think the narrow street must surely be at capacity, an ancient wooden cart approaches, pushed by six men, it is laden with building materials. It clearly can’t stop, it has way too much momentum. It forces a ‘hole’ in the seething mass and for a split second there is some space and even quiet as all the traffic (vehicle and human) squeezes to the side of the road. But as quickly as the hole appears, it is immediately filled as all the traffic ‘goes for the gap’, and the mayhem continues on its merry way. We say merry because there is one big difference to what you might have in your mind. The whole scene although manically hectic, noisy and unbearable is at peace with itself. No road rage (or Raj rage!), no frustration, no aggression. This is just life in Delhi. We were the ones who struggled to handle it and began to crack under the strain, not the Indians, this was just their lives. We could only take about 10-15 minutes of the madness until we needed to duck into a western style café or shop (not always easy to find) to get some respite.
The next morning there was a new added twist. Overnight rain had left puddles of filthy water and a mush of rubbish and mud was caked everywhere. On this day, as we walked along the street, we had the added joy of negotiating all the hazards of the day before whilst also avoiding the splash from the tyres of passing vehicles as they crashed through the potholes full of filthy water. At one point, the water stretched across the entire road. The puddle must have been at least 20 foot long. So long that we actually hired a cycle rickshaw to get from one side to the other, so avoiding wading through the filthy, sewage-like mess. Yuk. India. It is relentless. The madness is everywhere and unavoidable. It is not limited to certain areas of town, or certain towns. India is India!
This is a chapter from “Wollongong to Woolwich” a 224 page account of our 15,000 mile 5 month adventure. Check out www.wollongongtowoolwich.co.uk for further details.