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"This Breathtaking World: Around the World by Bicycle" - Excerpt 2

note: the copyright for all text and images on this website belongs to Tim Doherty

 

Uttar Pradesh, India

   Bound for Nepal from Pakistan, I was trying to ride across northern India as quickly as possible. It wasn't easy though; three days of rain had flooded all the towns on the way, and often I was riding through more than a foot of water. The things in my panniers were getting completely soaked, and I couldn't see the potholes and rubbish lurking in the water.

   The route-finding was difficult too; I was cutting a huge corner off the Grand Trunk road to avoid Delhi, but this meant following little roads which didn't do what my map said. The road signs were in Hindi and nobody spoke any English! So it was that I rejoined the GT road and opted for an easy day, in the hope that I could have a restful evening...

   After fifty miles I found a rest-house for eighty rupees. I washed my clothes using the Austrian Rei-in-der-Tube stuff, which lasts forever, then went to the crossroads where there was a market. I bought four hard-boiled eggs, then went to a dhaba for two chais, two roti and a plate of dhalfry, all for fourteen rupees.

   Somewhere in the marketplace I lost my room key, amongst the mud, banana skins and plastic bags at the side of the road. I searched around until darkness fell, then went back to the rest-house to tell the owner. There was a lot of miming to do before he finally understood that I’d lost the key. He said I’d have to smash the padlock and give him two hundred rupees for a new one.

   I returned to the market in the pitch dark. I’d seen a bike repair shop opposite the dhaba. It was just a ramshackle wooden hut with a few candles inside, but they had a hammer and a small crowbar. One of the lads agreed to go to the guesthouse with me, along with a banana seller who left his banana cart behind to come along for the hell of it.

   By this time, the guesthouse was in darkness because of a power cut. The man was wandering around with a torch, muttering to himself. He approached my two companions and they exchanged a few words in Hindi. For some inexplicable reason, they disappeared for a few minutes while I sat in the dark thinking, “Why on earth hasn’t he got a spare key?”

   The banana man and the hotel man re-appeared, and the latter insisted on having his two hundred rupees in advance. I gave him the money and the two of them disappeared again, eventually coming back drunk as lords, stinking of whisky!

   We went to the door of my room and they began hammering and bashing away at the padlock in the dark, like a couple of drunken clowns, swaying about and hiccupping! They explained to me in a drunken slur that they were finding it difficult to hit the target. I suggested that it might be easier if they turned the torch on and actually shone it on the padlock, to help them see. The hotel man saluted me, almost falling over in the process, then did what I said.

   Then he opened the next room, saying that I could stay in there for another two hundred rupees, but I refused, and stood by my locked bedroom door to see what he would do next. Finally, they did what I’d suggested half an hour before; they brought a sober man with a screwdriver to take the padlock bracket off the door. Within five minutes I was back in my room.

   From the window I could see the candle lights, not just there for the power cut but also because of Diwali; a peaceful Hindu festival of light, until the noisy fireworks started!

   I left at six o’clock in the morning, saying goodbye to the hotel man. He was a lot friendlier than before, and a lot more sober. I’d slept quite well, luckily, as I wanted to cover the remaining one hundred and ten miles to Lucknow in a day. By ten a.m. I’d done the first fifty miles, and the whole day was plain sailing and dazzling tropical weather.

   Monkeys ran across my path and jumped effortlessly between the palm trees. Pretty villages of thatched mud huts lined the road, and life went on outside in the sun and shade. Water was collected from the wells and the firewood was gathered from the forests. The boys stretched their fishing nets across the streams, while the women squatted on the banks, washing clothes. Men paused from their work in the wheat-fields to wave at the English cyclist going past.  

   I had a fantastic lunch with yet another variation of dhalfry, sitting at a dhaba while the truck-drivers kipped on the charpois in the shade of a huge banyan tree. I was joined for a section of the cycling by a group of six skinny men, all clattering and chattering along. Each had two milk churns strapped to his bike, as they were on their way to fetch the milk, a twenty-mile round trip.

   I worked my way through a two-mile tailback caused by a truck crash. Elsewhere, other crashed trucks were having their re-useable bits unscrewed on the spot, for re-sale at one of the many roadside huts which display their finds, hanging up like strange mechanical sculptures.

   Broken down buses were repaired by the roadside with two or three men crouched underneath, next to piles of cogs dripping in oil. Meanwhile, the bus passengers sat around in contented family groups, eating their picnics in the shade.

   I reached Lucknow in the fading light, having covered six hundred miles since leaving Pakistan, eight days before. The old part of this former Moghul capital looked like a classic image of India; the sun setting behind the crumbling remains of an ancient empire, while down below, everyday life buzzed along with all its colours and chaos.

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