India part two

The metaphorical door of India had been slammed shut, six months to the day since obtaining my visa. Tired, sweating, and purely beat, I pushed my bicycle through a myriad of military soldiers, utterly absorbed in my own little bubble. The mid-morning Punjabi heat filled the air with the promise of opportunity; a seismic shift in culture and comforts. As the call to prayer fittingly played over the loud speaker, with the crescent moon shining on the Pakistani flag, a wry smile came over me as I approached the immigration guard.

“A salaam alaikum! Welcome to Pakistan”, he said whilst offering tea and biscuits.

“Wa alaikum salamm”, I replied whilst wiggling my head foolishly in an Indian manner.

No more head wiggles, Andrew.

A surreal feeling occurred. As I talked to the immigration official about all things cricket, it honestly felt like I had returned to where I wanted to be. Contrary to reports on the 6pm news, Islamic countries offer a brand of hospitality that is unmatched anywhere else in the world. Zakāt, being one of the five main pillars of Islam, is the practise of giving based on accumulated wealth to the benefit of the poor or those more needy, like pilgrims. I’m not sure if I’d call myself a pilgrim, but that made no difference for the Pakistani’s. Between the 25kms from the border to my hostel in Lahore, I was offered; six offers to sit down and have chai, four donations of free food ranging from chips to bananas, two offers for accommodation in Lahore and a partridge in a pear tree.

Throwback to over a month ago in Leh, things weren’t quite so rosy. Having no firm plans, whilst mostly being liberating, often leads to mad planning sessions, needing to organise a great deal in a short amount of time. A little like studying at university. My extended time in Leh was supposed to be spent researching the intricacies and practicalities for easily my most dangerous country yet. But the sporadic, torturously slow internet, a room that resembled a dungeon, and a daily existence that resembled Groundhog Day, had my mind lost in the grounds of nervous anticipation.

Ladakh, Northern India

​I’m not sure if the overriding emotion was nervousness, fear, frustration or excitement, but the sobering thought of finally being terra firma in Pakistan was really starting to weigh on my conscience. For so long, Pakistan had been a distant, utopic dream. Many hypotheticals, such as actually securing the visa and figuring out a safe route had masked the actual fact that I would soon be there.

With a lack of tourists, amazing culture, and unparalleled mountains, in my mind Pakistan really was shaping up to be my heaven on Earth. But, without solid internet and being confined to Leh, my lack of preparation unfairly transformed the thought of being in Pakistan to a temporary hell.

What about the Lonely Planet guidebook? Well, the latest edition on Pakistan was released when I had a full set of hair, Kevin Rudd was Prime Minister of Australia (for the first time), the world economy was coming to terms with a global financial crisis, and Flo Rider’s lyrical masterpiece ‘Get Low’ was the number one song around the world. Those were the days.

Alas, growing up an Adelaide Crows supporter – the forever optimist – I rode out of Leh 10 days later with a blind reassurance that everything will work out – eventually. My rim was fixed. My clothes were washed. And a Himalayan plateau waited.

The Manali-Leh Highway steadily climbed out of the valley and by the second day I was back in altitude, setting a new PB altitude gain in a day (3,550m to 5,328m). With rhythm and normality now settling my drifting mind, I sat back and enjoyed the next five days to Keylong.

Climbing road, Northern India

The highway enjoys an economy that would be the continual envy of the Spiti Valley. Everyone from nomads, entrepreneurs, hitchhikers, bikers, cyclists and truck drivers make the most of this (mostly) paved road. I was making the most of the fresh air, undulating mountains sitting at the feet of soaring peaks, and enjoying not hearing any supersonic horns. Whilst physically in India, mentally in Pakistan, and having a landscape reminding me of Kyrgyzstan (my favourite country), life was good and I clung to every fleeting minute.

I often traded in the comforts of sleeping in my tent to observe the inner workings of parachute camps. The camps are owned by higher caste Indians, who often outsource the operational formalities to nomads and Tibetans. Camps consist of a cluster of felt parachutes formed into circles with the main dining hall naturally being the epicentre of activity; where nomadic families live, work and play. Adjoining the main tent is a separate tent, which runs as a dormitory.

​I’d often have the tent all to myself until 8-9pm when an influx of travellers will drink, smoke and talk late into the evening. Often I would be the source of entertainment or curiosity. Indian's would be left aghast once I’d told them that I’m heading to Pakistan.

“Please be safe, sir…Pakistan is very dangerous”.

The curiosity of a foreigner even extended to the once peaceful act of eating dinner. To my left, a grandmother span her prayer wheel, mumbling Tibetan hymns whilst staring at me. To my right, the mother openly breastfed her baby whilst staring at me. I was trapped in this Monty Python type skit for a good ten minutes after I had finished my meal, looking forward, hoping not to offend or be considered a creep.

Yurt Stay, Northern India
Taglang La (5,328m), Northern India

The road wound its way down from Barachala La and I found myself again in Keylong, the place where my rim originally cracked. It felt good to be back where I started, essentially filling in the gaps. I had a few days off and prepared to head into the Pattan Valley. Frequently missed in favour of the Manali-Leh Highway, the Pattan Valley contains fertile land, cautious locals, horrible roads, and my final mountain pass in the Indian Himalayas. I’d even seen more military helicopters flying above than cars on the road. Arriving in Kilar, I was immediately summoned to the police headquarters. With broken English I was sternly told that I was not able to continue to Kishtwar, the road that leads to Jammu. The Indian army had killed Burhan Wani, a Kashmiri rebel fighter who was seen as a figurehead for independence from India. More than fifty people had been killed with many more being injured. Internet and phone signal had been disabled and roads had been blocked with giant boulders. Fate shows itself in many different forms, as I would have been in the middle of it if it were not for my broken rim. With my initial route blocked, Saach Pass was now confirmed.

​I’ve cycled some horrendous roads in my time, but Saach Pass sits aloft, throwing scorn to anyone who attempts it. The grades continually hovered in the 10-13% range, whilst the road straddled a shear cliff and was peppered with boulders. In total, the pass was 35km and it took me one and half days to climb. Walls of ice lined the pass and I crested into an even more dangerous situation. Rain lashed the area and it’s the first time I’ve really been scared of the possibility of a landslide. Fittingly, my last Himalayan pass would be the most difficult and frightening.

Saach Pass, Northern India
A local hotel/restaurant called a "Dhaba" (I slept in there), Northern India
A local "Baba"/ spiritual man, Northern India

All that lay between Pakistan and me was now Amritsar, the holy city of the Sikhs. Being so close to the beginning of the monsoon season, cycling was only just bearable. But I managed to make it to Amritsar in one piece, essentially finishing my time cycling in India. I checked into a dormitory hostel – the first since Yangon, Myanmar – and got reacquainted with all the things that make hostel life fun. After being in relative solitude for so long, sharing company with other travellers was refreshing to say the least.

“I’ve been in India for a long time now, nearly 3 weeks” - Swedish backpacker

Punjab is the breadbasket of India, producing nearly a fifth of India’s wheat (2% of the world’s wheat) and over ten percent of India’s rice. But most visitors are here for two things; the border ceremony between India and Pakistan, and the Golden Temple. Each being as enigmatic as the other. The Golden Temple possessed a humble aura, promoting equality, inclusivity and peace. Langar, which refers to a common kitchen or canteen area is the perfect example of this. Each Sikh temple provides a simple meal for anyone, signifying pure hospitality. With the Golden Temple being a pilgrimage site, the kitchen area serves over 80,000 people daily. Everything is conducted on an industrial scale, and there is even an automatic chapatti machine.

A local Sikh man, India
Construction is everywhere in India
A Chapatti maker, India

Reflections of India

Nearly six months ago, when I first crossed into India, I wrote about the country’s oddities leaving many hardened travellers with a melody of jaded contradictions. I am now officially one of those, accepting the bitter truth that I will never understand India; and will never try to. How and why does India function when every aspect defies logic? How can absolute wealth coexist with absolute poverty and be so symbiotic? How can a peaceful, predominantly Hindu nation passively accept the caste system; one of the most inhumane practises I have ever witnessed? I admit defeat. And in truth…I never really stood a chance.

Cycling through a country of 1.2 billion people was never going to end well, and I’m sure my experiences would have differed if I were a regular tourist. I didn’t see the majestic Taj Mahal, or the burning Ghats of Varanasi. Not once did I practise yoga or partake in trekking. The most touristy cities I visited were Leh and Amritsar – both out of necessity. And thankfully I never got Delhi belly, despite eating out of the most horrendous, cockroach infested, hole-in-the-wall eateries that I’m sure were an affliction to human rights. 24 years of Mum’s cooking served as the perfect entrée for an iron-clad stomach.

This country is simply too diverse, too large, and too random to gauge any general impression. I only visited eight states, but that being said, I could live in Nagaland, go on honeymoon in Himachal Pradesh, and not even send my future mother-in-law to Assam. Rather than write a generic ‘assault on the scenes’, type travel blog, I thought I’d share an Indian oddity, which pushed me like pins into a voodoo doll. I turned into a rude, apathetic island that purposely tried to cut short any human interaction. My usually calm demeanour was replaced with that of an abrasive wanker, and at times I honestly couldn’t care.

I found the sheer audacity of Indians interacting with me to be immature, annoying, tiresome and sometimes even frightening. I’ve been deliberately run off the road for the purpose of a selfie. I’ve been woken at 2am from hotel staff wanting a selfie. I’ve had cars slow down on a main highway just to film me cycling for five minutes and nearly cause major accidents. The novelty of seeing a first real life foreigner seemed to forgo any shred of decency, respect and compassion.

Momentarily stopping would cause ensuing pandemonium, creating crowds of 100+ people who would watch my every move. My bike would be touched and gear leavers would be shifted. I once ran out of a restaurant as someone was trying to cycle off with by bike. “Don’t worry sir, I just wanted to try”. I would try to be polite and smile, say “Namaste”, and interact with the locals, but the cold, hard, expressionless stares I got in return froze any chance of temporary friendship. My transformation into Frankenstein had begun in earnest when I blatantly started ignoring everyone. What’s the point? There were genuine people, but most encounters led to a sales pitch, want of a selfie, or a deathly stare. This was perhaps the biggest dampener with India; and it really got to me.

Couple that with the never-ending car horns, my enjoyment of cycling around the world almost ceased to exist. Being away from the tourist cities usually gives me an escape, which I usually relish. But here, in the “real” India, the only escape I got was when I closed my eyes each night drifting off to another shit sleep surrounded by bugs. I guess my own tiredness and ignorance overshadowed the truly endearing nature of India people.

I think this is why I’m glad to leave. India was so fucking draining. I was always completely devoid of energy and left highly strung, with the severity of an addict coming off heroin. I turned into something I’m not, and it wasn’t for the better. I know this is ghastly unfair, and I know deep down it’s only cultural difference. But at the moment I’m too worn out for rational.

Will I ever come back to India? Absolutely. This country deserves so much more than an emotional rant contrived from cycling the plains of India. I’ve always thought that travelling in the 21st century has become all too easy, with any problem being solved by Trip Advisor, Google and Lonely Planet rather than pragmatism. But there is no such thing as pragmatism whilst cycling in India. Contrary to above, India has everything I look for in travelling. Incredible food. Incredible culture and history. And incredible people.

Incredible India?

I’d love to come back and see.

Just not by bicycle

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