Destination Delhi - first tracks; first impressions

Chai?

yes please!

A cup of Masala Chai was thrust into my hands at New Delhi airport before I'd even picked up my bags and bicycle, and it has been a rare moment where I have not been holding some vestibule full of it since then. The overriding feeling here is one of warmth - from the continuous ritual of drinking chai but also stemming from the hospitality of the most welcoming bunch of people I have ever met, and a stonkingly bright sun overhead. Thinking back to the decision I made in Serbia to try my luck in India rather than battle winter in central Asia I feel rather vindicated. Though getting here wasn't entirely stress-free...

Welcome to India

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Welome to India - proceed with an open mind

After 5 months of going in whichever direction I wanted I was feeling a slight lack of control on my flight from Istanbul to Delhi, and decided that all the people on their phones as we were taxiing down the runway were going to really ruin my day. I can’t understand people who don’t put airplane mode on until the last possible minute before take-off. Why would anyone live their life on the edge like this? I like to think I'm fairly rational and level-headed but equally I believe it is legitimate to send murderous eyes towards these people.

I admit this anger could well have been misplaced. I had been hugely frustrated with the 'Am I going to get my visa today?' game I'd been playing with the Indian consulate in Istanbul for almost two weeks and was now wishing everyone would just do things in some sort of sensible fashion, (or at least listen to what the flight attendants were telling them). As it turns out doing things in 'some sort of sensible fashion' doesn't apply here - and thankfully it is an all the more enjoyable experience for that.

Another upside to my arrival was being able to enjoy a nice long queue at passport control. I’ve missed queuing. And since stepping out of the airport and into the taxi that took me into Old Delhi I have had the most ridiculous grin on my face. Turns out sensibility is overrated.

This bodes well for me given the challenges I'm going to be taking on in 2019. I can't claim that trying to run across two countries in 4 months is the most sensible idea I've had. But it is definitely the most exciting. But until then...

An intitiation

The bus approaching on my left seems to speed up, the one on my right is holding its line. I'm heading for a lamb sandwich. Don’t hit the bus, don’t hit the bus...

My first day of cycling in India, a 20km hop out of Old Delhi to a hostel in New Delhi was just about the most thrilling 2 hours of riding in the last 6 months. I quickly realised that I wasn't going to be flattened, and it transpires that cycling here is easier than the majority of Europe, in my experience. This was a week after I had arrived in India, having spent a mad time in the heart of Old Delhi, in at the deep end, and falling quickly for India and all its quirks.

I spent the first couple of days fully immersed in the back alleys of Chandni Chowk - one of Old Delhi's highlights, a bustling, labyrinthian market in which the air is laced with spices and smoke in equal measure. Taking a rickshaw ride through streets that should not be capable of allowing traffic I delighted in a visual assault of colours and chaos, winced at the gaps we were squeezing through and developed a healthy respect for the man pedalling me around on what was essentially a fixed gear rusting chariot.

I choked on the chilli powder that hung in the air of the spice markets - admittedly a much more pleasurable experience than breathing in diesel fumes that hang over most of the city. A cacophony of coughing soundtracked a climb up narrow stairs to look over the mayhem below - it seems I wasn't the only one struggling to catch their breath here. Down below the enormous white sacks full of spices were hauled along on wooden carts fighting for space with my rickshaw and brave motorcyclists looking for a shortcut.

Spice sacks, Chandni Chowk

Spice sacks, Chandni Chowk

Sunset over Chandni Chowk

Sunset over Chandni Chowk

Away from Old Delhi I took an obligatory tuk-tuk tour of the city, courtesy of an absolute legend called Manoj (see later photo of driver on the phone!). We took in the tourist 'must-dos' of the Red Fort, Jama Masjid, Lotus Temple, Humayun's Tomb, the Lodhi gardens, Qutub Minar Temple and numerous stops at bazaars, spice markets and handicraft emporiums. These places were beautiful - full of incredible architecture and design. Much of this 'touristic' side of Delhi can be seen in a day - but away from the suggested itinerary, you could easily lose yourself for days on end.

On my last day in the capital, I was treated to an impromptu tour of Gurudwara Bangla Sahib, one of Delhi's most import Sikh houses of worship. My morning Tuktuk driver suggested I visit before the shops opened at 11 am. He parked up and proceed to show me the holy lake adjoining the Gurudwara and took me inside to view the interior, covered floor to ceiling in gold. Finally, he gave me a look into the kitchens where industrial-sized cauldrons bubbled with daal and conveyor belts flung out chapatis at a fierce rate, all to feed the thousands of worshipers who visit every day. The food was donated, all the cooks were volunteers, and no one batted an eyelid at the ginger-haired brit eating his thali, kindly thrust upon him by a surprisingly thorough tour guide.

This visit impressed on me the scale of production in India required to feed, clothe and employ such a large population. Every other vehicle on the road seemed to be delivering food and water, or transporting building materials, or wheeling great towers of cloth and garments. I used to think trying to buy a t-shirt in Primark was stressful and chaotic - now it seems pretty orderly. Unless it's Christmas, in which case Primark really is hellish.

P.S. MERRY CHRISTMAS!

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Having seen the sights, both easy to find and hidden away, I completed my Indian initiation on day four. After a triumphant facetime with my parents in which I declared I had eaten street food, visited restaurants and drunk many a chai with no ill effects, I was struck down with a case of 'Delhi Belly' - upon which I do not need to elaborate.

This delayed me by almost a week, as I hopped from one hostel to another, crawling slowly away from central Delhi, but gave me time to reflect on a crazy first few days.

First impressions

India is like nowhere I’ve ever been, but feels strangely familiar to me having been here a couple of weeks now. I had read enough books and seen enough films to know broadly what to expect. I also had at my disposal many tales of time spent in India from my dad, who would often fly out for many weeks at a time through work. His depictions turned out to be remarkably accurate - from the infuriating bureaucracy I needed to wade through to get a visa to the adventures in audio that soundtrack every street in Delhi (think horns blaring, people shouting, cows grunting and tourists speaking in an exaggerated English accent).

Despite the fact I'm here over a decade after my dad's experience it seems not a lot has evolved. The pace of change here is slow and nothing appears to be of recent production. The vendors sell items that are woefully out of date; repair shops offer parts that would be on a scrap heap in Europe; my toothbrush was made in 2010; the biscuits that line glass counters were made last year. In fact, almost all of the packaged food and drink is out of date. And does it matter? NOPE!!

Europe could learn a few lessons about wastefulness and 'best-before-date-paranoia' from India. Bottled water isn't going to kill you if it is out of date, likewise the aforementioned packaged food is perfectly edible. I met a few 'dumpster-divers' in Norway who would actually collect out-of-date products from supermarkets for free, and could go months without having to spend any money on food. (They wouldn't actually jump into the waste bins, but would simply ask management for any products that were about to be thrown out). Back home in Bristol, I also remember hearing about some shops taking produce that they couldn't put on the shelves to homeless centres and community kitchens rather than throwing it away. India then is ahead of the curve here - sort of.

It functions on a form of repair economy, where vehicles, shoes, clothes and bicycles are patched up and reused rather than thrown away. The city is full of repair workshops, welders and spare parts for just about every type of transport. This proved very useful for some necessary bike maintenance when I arrived. I had worn down the jockey wheels on my derailleur so much I couldn't hold one gear down for more than a few turns of the pedal, as the chain bounced around my cassette at will. I found the exact replacement in the first bike shop I passed, and suspect I could have replaced pretty much every other part if I had needed to.

All this would suggest that waste is not as big an issue here as in Europe, but it is hard to ignore the sea of plastic that lines the roads, ditches, water channels and communal areas. Its a shame to see streets full of livestock grazing on discarded food and plastic packaging. It can also be slightly distressing stepping in puddles on the roads - you are never quite sure what that splash on your leg was or where it came from... a case of ignorance is bliss.

Fortunately, there are so many positives to this place that in the end all the things that turn your nose don't matter at all, and I soon began to feel a bit guilty for getting annoyed by these small things. While it took an adjustment of mindset and expectations I really have been grinning from ear-to-ear for that past two weeks. To name a few fantastic things I've discovered:

  • India has one of the best mobile networks in the world, having implemented modern 3G/4G technology recently. In a country so different from the European states I rode through it is comforting to have super-reliable phone and internet access.

  • It seems to me to be a place of incredible acceptance, tolerance and grace. Delhi alone is a prime example, where the predominantly Hindu population is interspersed with Sikhs, Muslims, Buddhists, Christians and likely many more. There is a little corner of old Delhi which is the only place in the city you can buy beef cooked on the street, just outside the Jama Masjid mosque. It sits next to streets where cows are revered by the majority. No issues, just acceptance.

  • The people I have met have been the most hospitable, friendly and helpful population out of the 20+ countries I have ridden through. 9/10 people will offer you tea, and refusing it is unthinkable. Recently I counted 6 offers of chai and 3 offers of lunch at peoples' homes during a day's ride towards Jodhpur - purely from people who had seen me on the road and stopped their cars or motorbikes to say hello. I have a burgeoning collection of roadside selfies from curious motorists and feel like a minor celebrity in every town and village I pass through!

  • The food is outrageously delicious, and the staples of rice, chapatis, naan, and pulses are pure rocket fuel for a touring cyclist.

  • Masala chai, spicy sweet and creamy, is my new lifeblood.

  • Budgets stretch much further here - I once paid £35 for a burger and chips in Norway (furious about this still). I paid £1.50 for a two-course meal (with tea) in Delhi.

  • It is far enough away from Europe that Brexit feels like an after-dinner anecdote.

  • For some reason everything makes you smile. Absolutely everything! I hope by the end of my three months here I can better explain this point. For now I'll continue to enjoy the spontaneous bursts of laughter that hit me on my daily rides.

  • Much of what you see defies logic but functions effectively enough, (another one of those things that makes you smile). For example, trucks that carry gravity-defying stacks of paving slabs, or old jeeps carrying a load that is fit to burst out of its canvas containment.

On this last point, I think there is a good reason for it being the way it is. And that is that everything 'just works'. There is an overriding attitude not to change processes and systems that have been working effectively, if not neccessarily efficiently, for decades. Much like how traffic continues to flow through the Arc Du Triomphe in Paris despite it being the most ludicrous roundabout in the world, the huge machine required to support a billion people thunders on despite initially appearing to a westerner to be turning in the wrong direction.

'It just works' can be applied to pretty much everything. Traffic rules are seemingly non-existent, (and likely impossible to enforce anyway), but the roads stream with people getting to where they need to be regardless. You end up with an unshakeable faith in your drivers as they dodge traffic, their reflexes instinctive and impressive, even with a phone pressed to their ear. Riding in the back of an auto-rickshaw is like having an immersive widescreen film playing out in front of you where you really don't know what is going to happen next.

Phone call? - no problem for Manoj!

Phone call? - no problem for Manoj!

This lack of certainty also plays out at ATMs, which eventually dispense money despite rejecting your cards the first few times, asking if you want a chequebook to be issued (what?!) and claiming to be out of service if you don't enter with a positive attitude.

What I am certain of is that I will be electrocuted at some point. Every building has functioning electricity despite the overhead wire network looking like a) spaghetti and b) a death trap. On the streets of Old Delhi it can be hard to see the sky through the tangle of wires overhead.

Figure it out if you dare!

Figure it out if you dare!

Cycling through a street dodging exposed ends of wires is nevertheless a thrilling experience. As is navigating pretty much every main road or thoroughfare, where the dangers aren't posed by vehicles but by beasts great and small.

"Please use outer lane for herding livestock only"

When I finally got back on the road after my few days of discomfort I discovered that if it has four legs and can walk, it will be in my path at some point during the day. Camels, cows, dogs, monkeys, sheep, goats, a single cat, and two pigs all passed me by during my ride to Jaipur.

It was a little under 300km from Delhi to Jaipur, my next stop off for a bit of sightseeing. I split it into three days, taking 110km on the first to my first wild camp in India outside a town called Behror. The next morning I was faced with a bemused police officer who had pulled off the main road having seen me packing my tent. I pointed down the road, trusting that he would take this to mean:

"sorry I didn't mean to trespass, but I was tired and needed somewhere to sleep at short notice last night. I have not left any rubbish and will be on my way in 5 minutes once I have packed my tent away, I am cycling towards Jaipur, have a nice day"

Either he was exceptionally gifted at interpreting my pointing or honestly didn't care, he was gone a minute later. I pushed on another 60km that day to a hotel in Bahdoda, still unsure of whether I had fully recovered from the previous week of illness and deciding a bed was a good idea, away from inquisitive policemen.

Wild camp

Wild camp

The final 80km push into Jaipur was straightforward. By this point I'd become familiar with the rules of the road, or lack thereof. I mentioned it is easier cycling here than in Europe and there are a few reasons why.

Firstly the traffic rules are not really enforced. Despite forlorn looking signs requesting vehicles stay in their lane, or only overtake to the right, the flow of traffic relies on people going wherever they want, but furiously sounding their horn to let vehicles, pedestrians or livestock know that they are coming up behind them. This means at junctions, in slow-moving traffic and on city streets I can follow motorbikes and weave between everyone else, caught in the safety net of a snaking line of 10 motorbikes honking their way through.

The use of horns is very helpful for me. Instead of barreling by within inches every single car or motorbike that passes me gives me fair warning and also gives a huge amount of room when passing. I think they are so used to moving aside for cows and, from a distance, I probably look like an impressively fast bull running down the hard shoulder.

On main roads such as the highway from Delhi to Jaipur there are 10 lanes. A 6 lane motorway in the middle is flanked by 2 further lanes on either side which act as feeder roads and allow safer junctions and turnings into built-up areas. These roads are almost always empty and perfect for cycling! Even when I find myself on a 3 or 4 lane highway everyone is so busy trying to overtake each other that the majority of traffic hangs out in the middle lane, and the inside lane is again almost exclusively occupied by me and/or bovine traffic.

So while the vehicles fight among themselves I am just left to avoid the local wildlife:

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Despite the easy-going roads it is still a challenge dealing with the sand and dust thrown up by large vehicles, and the thick fumes when cycling in the city. I arrived in Jaipur with a thick cold and hacking cough after breathing in a lot of desert. If I am tipped upside down I suspect I would make quite an effective human hourglass.

So still challenging, but massively rewarding. I am regularly flanked by motorcyclists for a brief chat and often stopped for a quick photo. Nearly half the motorists driving towards me give me a wave or shout something encouraging in Hindi. All this makes me eager to get back into a rhythm on the bike. As much as I love exploring the towns and cities I pass through I still get a huge kick out of putting in a long day on the bike, seeing my route map grow ever longer and interacting with all the interesting and interested people (and wildlife) I encounter on the way.

Question time

There may be one drawback to meeting new people here. That is the bombardment of questions that I'm hit with 10 times a day. There are only so many times you can answer the same questions before they wear a bit thin...

Where from? Married? Non-married? How long in India? Travel by cycle? from Delhi? by cycle?! all of India? by cycle?! Where to? Need shop? Need rickshaw? Need taxi? Dollar? Englishman?...

It can be tiresome, but most of the time is quite fun. Its clear cycle touring is not very common here and generally, the people I meet are actually appreciative of the fact I have chosen this means to explore the country rather than a more conventional tour. The repeated questioning is more often out of disbelief than simple curiosity.

That said, the most common, most important and most satisfying thing I am asked on a day to day basis is that most simple of questions:

Chai?

Where am I now?

That brain dump above was just from my first 10 days! For my next update, I'll be writing about 600km of cycling from Jaipur to Jaisalmer where I am currently stationed for Christmas. A journey via Puskar and Jodhpur, full of incredible generosity from locals, one night of chaos and lots of camels. I've made good tracks through Rajasthan and after Christmas will begin heading south through Gujarat, towards Rann of Kutch and a marathon date in Mumbai.

Finally, as usual, you can follow me on Strava here,donate to the Bristol Heart Institute here, or subscribe for future updates below. Cheers!