Amritsar, Jagraon, Sangrur, Rohtak, Narnaul, Jaipur. Total Kms 9680.
As I knew that I would I arrived too late to cross the border into India, and ended up staying in what had been a British Military hostel and although the bed that I slept on had been the same ones left by the British back in 1947 I was happy to have had the first decent night’s sleep in three days. That morning I was the only person crossing the border on foot, most of the traffic was coming the other way and although I had hoped for a quick crossing it took about two hours of paperwork, passport and bag checks plus the first form I had seen dealing with swine flu. Amritsar the home of the Golden Temple was a 30Kms ride from the border; it felt good to be back on the bike after four days of public transport. it’s the conventional way to travel around a country but I find it very stressful working out train and bus timetables, not knowing when you might stop for a rest or leg stretch and of course it’s expensive, my travel costs in a country are nil, it’s all leg power.
Amritsar was my first taste of an Indian city, busy and noisy as all Indian cities are, the streets were filthy and packed with cars, rickshaws and of course Holy cows who always had the right of way. Two nights here would give me enough time to visit the Golden Temple, the Holiest Shrine of the Sikh religion, buy a good road map and get some new clothes, the temperatures were slowly rising and I would need light cotton clothes to ride in. The noise was constant, it never stopped no matter what time of day or night, they drive on their horns here and the first thing the driver will do as they pull away is sound the horn. On a stretch of road in the middle of nowhere I could hear cars ahead and behind me with their horns blowing like crazy, painted on the back of every truck was a sign saying, horn please or ok to honk horn, I’m not sure if it was a safety feature or the law but it meant this constant noise all day and night. European cities are relativity quiet; there isn’t this noise which very soon became one of the most stressful aspects of India. There are over a billion people living in India and it never stops to catch its breath or sleep.
The Punjab is the country’s richest State and before the 1947 partition it extended across both sides of what is now India and Pakistan. It’s mainly agricultural and most of the rice for the rest of the Nation is grown here. It’s also the home of Hero bicycles, India and the world’s biggest bicycle manufacturer, they look like old bikes that were designed in the 1930s and every Indian who owns a bike is the proud owner of a Hero, they are very basic machines but do the job perfectly, every time I passed one on The Grand Trunk Road or on any other road I always had the impression I was riding a Ferrari passing an old Ford. The Grand Trunk, one of the busiest roads in India cuts its way through Pakistan and the Punjab as it heads south towards Rajasthan I realised after two days that it was far too busy and dangerous and that I would have to find a route with a lot less traffic and that proved to be almost impossible.
The Punjab is not a State that has a tourist infrastructure, very few towns have hotels or guest houses but just as in Iran I soon found out that it was possible to stay in Religious houses or Temples for a small donation. Many people sleep outside every night, shop keepers outside their places of business, truck drivers under their vehicles to stop anyone stealing the diesel and countless homeless people sleep at the side of the roads, in fields or anywhere else that they can find a spot to put up a makeshift bed, so it would be no problem for me to pitch the tent if I had to. Within the first couple of days of riding I knew that I had arrived in India at the wrong time of year, my train ride through Pakistan had put me ahead of myself time wise by about two months. I expected to be here in late August or early September the perfect months for riding, the temperatures would be lower and the monsoon season would be almost at an end but in June with the average temperature at midday as high as 43 degrees it was impossible to ride after about 11.00am the heat was unbearable and probably dangerous. I decided that it would be best to leave the hotels at about 5am, this would give me five or six hours riding in comfortable weather and then as the temperature began to rise I could be settled in an air conditioned hotel with a beer. This system didn’t always work, I often found myself stuck between towns with the distance too great to ride and the heat rising, I had to find shelter under a tree or any shade that I could until about 4pm when it was cooler and safer to ride.
Villages are very close together but are always fairly basic when it comes to hotels or guest houses; rooms were usually small with hardly any facilities and not as clean as we might be used to in Europe or America. I had become used to the squat toilets through Turkey and Iran but I would never get used to the filth, the rooms were never clean, no matter how many stars the hotel had, I began to think more stars means more dirt and on more occasions than I care to remember I found it easier to pitch the inner tent in the room and put my own mattress and sleeping bag inside, I then had a comfortable clean personal room to sleep in. I don’t want to give the impression that every hotel I stayed in was dirty, of course they weren’t but more often than not I had to get the staff to come and change the sheets or clean the toilet before I could use the room.
With villages being closer together it meant that I didn’t need to carry food or water on the bike. No matter what time of day I arrived in a village or town there was always the exotic smell of food being cooked, everything from the hottest vegetable curry I’ve ever tasted to a fried egg sandwich or curried fish can be bought for just a few rupees on the streets, its simple food but the best in the world. Stopping in any of these villages whether it was for food, water or just a rest was very different from stopping in Iran where people would ask me all sorts of personal questions, here no one was interested in me, just the bike, within minutes of stopping a crowd of guys would gather round the bike and just stare at it like it was some sort of god, I know it’s much more sophisticated than the Hero bikes they were used to but it is just a bike. No one was interested in asking me questions about what I was up to or where I was going, they gathered round the bike talked in Hindi, took photos and watched me as I rode away. Sometimes it was almost impossible to get back on as so many guys had gathered around and I soon started picking quieter places to stop although a small group usually found me. This strange situation with the bike came to a head outside Mumbai one Saturday morning, I was riding along a fairly busy road and slowed down to go round an old man who was lying in my path, as I got closer I could see that the guy was close to death, I got off the bike walked back to him and saw the thinnest man I had ever seen in my life, he hadn’t eaten for months, I tried to give him water, his head had no weight at all it was like holding a deflated football, he was beyond taking water and I guessed had only hours to live, coming towards me were two young guys, I thought they would have an idea what to do, maybe we could move him to a quieter spot where he could die in peace, they completely ignored me and the old guy, looked at the bike, talked in Hindi, I heard the words disc brakes and bike computer in English and they then walked off. Over a billion people live here, what’s one life when there’s an expensive bike parked at the side of the road to look at.
With the constant noise I found it easier to stay in hotels outside of the major towns. Usually colonial buildings that had been turned into hotels stood just off the main road, these were always pleasant places to stay when I could find one, set in large grounds many of them were former palaces from the days of the raj and a room for the night could cost as little as 500 Rupees about six pounds. I got a much better sleep and would often stay in a place like this for a couple of days just to get a bit of rest and prepare myself for the next part of the ride. I wasn’t enjoying India as much as I hoped, the towns and cities were too hot and busy, there was never a quiet spot in a garden or park to sit in and enjoy a little peace and quiet, beggars and touts would hassle for money on a daily basis, they saw me and other tourists as walking cash machines and no matter how rude I was to them they wouldn’t leave me alone, I told one tout after he followed me into a restaurant that if he didn’t leave me alone I would happily punch him, of course I wouldn’t but he didn’t know this, it just made him worse, I became a challenge to him that he had to break and I only got away from him by jumping into a taxi. I was constantly asked to come into a shop, just have a look you don’t need to buy anything, so what’s the point of me coming in then. I’ve been in the country just over two weeks and I’ve had enough, I’m sure that as I go on things will start to improve, India is huge country and very different from any other place that I have experienced so far, it’s bound to take me a little more time to settle in. I’m about a thousand Kms north of Mumbai and before that I have the cities of Jaipur and Jodhpur in Rajasthan to visit. Things can only get better.