The Penny Drops

Looking back now, I realise what was missing from our route across the ‘States and come to think of it, since Southeast Asia – it was the ancient history.
From our outset we traveled across Europe progressing through, for us, more alien countries reaching a climax in India or perhaps Sumatra. Once in Australia much of the awe and wonder was lost. Having spent nearly 8 months in New World countries it has been quite an awakening to return to ancient history again. Even though we both spent part of the trip reading Guns, Germs & Steel , and other interesting works, the impact is greatest when the past is physically present.
Cycling down through Australia we weren’t wowed by Victoriana. Frequently there was just a plaque notifying us that some Victorian house had once been there. It’s simply far too plentiful in our own home town. There was a rare nod to the Aborigines ancient cultural history – an occasional sign informed the reader of the importance of a site or even once or twice a museum, but there was little evidence left by these societies. Neither of us can even recall any rock or cave paintings in Oz, although we’d seen them in India and the USA.
The celebrated – by some – Captain James Cook made several appearances on plaques and information boards. The town Seventeen Seventy is even named to commemorate his historic landing date, but that brings us into New World history. It’s interesting for sure, but not as awesome as Romans, Mughals or King Midas.
Equally in the USA, the Wild West was thrillingly different with, vast space, saguaro cacti, cowboy hats, boots, belts, team roping and the occasional fort or Spanish Mission. The 19th C forts in the west defended settlers from Indians while as we reached the southern coast it was the 18th C French and Brits who were the problem for the Spaniards.  But as we cycled further east, in Gid’s words, ‘It’s the same dish with a few different spices.’ The fabric and cultural background was similar to our normal home lives. A few cliff dwellings in the desert hills hinted at more ancient cultures, but weren’t actually, so old.
Lots of places were delightful, NASA in Houston, New Orleans with its hip culture and wrought ironwork balconies a la Francais, the Keys with the island hopping despite large areas of hurricane damage around the Marathon area , the Everglades with its wonderful wildlife, Miami Beach with its 1920-30s Art Deco and bronzed beauties, to name a few.
But now in Lisbon we are back to ancient history in every direction you look – starting with bronze age,  stone walls and mosaics from the Roman times, 400 year old tiles still adorning some houses, ancient narrow cobbled lanes winding up and down hills, a city center rebuilt after the great earthquake in 1755 . A Moorish castle, with breath taking views in every direction, built over ancient remains which were then rediscovered in 1938, providing yet another turn in history.  Our cameras are drawn, cocked and firing every which way.
To be fair we did visit one monastery and chapel in Goliad, Southern Texas, dating from around 1700, and in the deep south there are wooden shacks which housed the cotton pickers and workers for other local industries but wooden shacks aren’t going to last centuries. It had never really dawned on me how rich Europe’s history, and Asia’s is, in comparison with the New World.
Yet for all the fascination and wonder of these ancient cities and palaces, I – this time Gid – think back also to the wide open plains and wide open country towns of Australia and the USA – and find these Iberian cities claustrophobic. It’s wonderful everything is close together and walkable via tiny lanes and steps. But one can’t take two steps without swerving around an old buffer or a fashionista or wandering tourists, there’s people everywhere, never mind the tiny, uneven sidewalks. Where do they build anything new? Why are all the rooms so small? I think home is going to feel exactly the same. Oh dear. Should I emigrate, or at least, move to Northumberland, the least densely populated county in England, with only 62 people per square kilometre, and Roman remains?

Bye-bye, ta-ta; Farewell to India

It is with very mixed feelings that our time in India draws to a close. Different it certainly is! One minute we’re loving the chaotic bustle and vibrancy together with the curious, smiling, friendly people who crowd around us when we stop.  At the next we can’t stand the incessant head drumming noise, crushing crowds and appalling drivers. Not to mention the persistent touts, swindlers and beggars at many tourist attractions and sacred sites we’ve visited as we’ve laced our way across a strip of India.
Of course, more than any other country we’ve visited, there’s a feeling of “well we haven’t seen X”, but that’s why it’s called a subcontinent. Probably two years would be needed to explore the whole country, whereas we’ve trundled across it in three months, riding only half the time.
We’ve almost enjoy seeing the cattle, goats, dogs, less frequently pigs, ever present in the streets, or the pesky monkeys swinging overhead. All up for a vegetable stall raid if a merchant has dropped their guard. The cattle nonchalantly block the road or a passageway. Gid had a narrow escape meeting a bull who was ‘hoofing the turf’. A moment or two after he squeezed past, it hoofed again before tossing a 20kg cement bag up into the air where it got caught on overhead wires, trickling its contents in a shower back down to earth. Thus we learnt to recognise a bull in this mood, and avoid it! Most, however, are very tolerant of being moved along with a quick ‘ha!’ or simply squeezed past.
The mess and muck we’ve grown used to as well as the frequently present stench of ‘street’ toilets where well-dressed Indian men will only approach the general area before adding to the problem. No idea where the ladies go when they’re out in town!  Amusingly, in Bodhgaya there’s a street sign – Please use toilet. It was truly incongruous to see jewelled bare feet squelching through slime and muck after an unseasonal down pour. But we got used to it, although you won’t see us in flipflops!
It’s hard not to be disturbed by the visible poverty. It’s far more evident than in, say, Kyrgyzstan, despite the countries having similar per capita incomes. It probably testifies to India’s immense inequalities. However, Indians generally seem in very good spirits. It seems in England, everyone’s miserable because they are feel short of money and time. Can’t see why India should follow that model, and it doesn’t.
We encountered begging in tourist areas, with a peak at the Buddhist pilgrimage sites. The Hindu holy men are supposed to be a cultural fixture, and sustained only by those around them, but they seem to make a beeline for tourists. Having seen one old guy score basically a day’s wages in one hit, from four Thai pilgrims, it’s not hard to see why. Urchins often put their hands out, and in Bodhgaya and Varanasi there was real medieval stump-waving, but it’s impossible to work out what’s real – locals usually advise not to give. I passed a lady walking by the roadside in the country, and she lifted a hand to me: “Rupee, rupee”; yet she had about $400 worth of silver bangles on that arm.
In many ways India has seemed to be in a time warp. It’s been quite stunning to see so many ancient machines and techniques still in use where ox carts and man power still dominate. In the country, there are lots of new tractors, but apart from that everything looks pretty archaic. We passed the sugar cane harvest in Madhya Pradesh, a prosperous state. The factories filled the skyline, chimneys billowing out thick black smoke, but it was scythes and ox carts out in the fields that fed the mills. In towns, half the market’s spread out on the floor, and cobblers, tailors and puncture repairers have plenty of work, while roadside corn grinders and milk boilers are busy too. Aside from the animal hauled transport, some of the stuff on the roads seems crazily archaic. The tuk tuk is a fine piece of 1940s minimal engineering (sez Gid), but there are still motor tricycles running, that appear barely any advance on Carl Benz’s original 1886 tricycle, with the machinery (belts, chains) taking up nearly a cubic metre. But it’s juxtaposed with sleek new Suzukis, mobile phones and satellite dishes together with, adverts for ECGs and medical labs, and in the papers, India’s just tested a new, longer range, nuclear missile.
‘We’re not like your country, we’re relaxed.‘Without it it wouldn’t be India’, are a couple the claims I’ve overheard. And no one follows any of the laws that are passed for the safety of your citizens, I could add. ‘No, we don’t follow any rules,’ one lad chuckled as he agreed. Road traffic regulations are blatantly ignored resulting in the worst driving we’ve experienced and leading to one of the highest death tolls on roads in the world, as well as being a topic of frequent debate in the newspapers. We’ll make a separate posting for Indian drivers!
India is widely known as the world’s biggest democracy. But curiously, it feels more like a police state than anywhere else we’ve been. Not only are there heavily armed police all over the place, but there are rules, rules, rules prohibiting all sorts of things. No wonder Indians generally don’t attend to them. Passports are needed more than anywhere else, and numerous forms to be filled. Unlike everywhere else though, we can read the newspapers, and see the very public, and venal, politics (oddly, it reminds Gid of Irish newspapers and politics, dominated by the crookedness of the politicians). There are hugely snarled up checkpoints and taxation at the borders between states. We only realised while here, how separate the states are, and of course, with their own politics, perhaps like the USA. Maybe that’s one reason there’s an impression that the Delhi government says “jump”, and …it doesn’t work out the way the “Centre” intended (planned would be too strong a word, perhaps). It does feel as if the country is tied in a bureaucratic Gordian knot of its own devising, although some might comment that the British helped devise some of it!
The British often claim to be an exceptionally tolerant nation. But Indians seem much more so. They put up with – smile through – what seem to us the most appalling behaviour and difficulties.
Cricket, India’s unofficial national game, has filled the tiniest of crevices in passage ways and the busiest of road sides – fielders posed on the other side of the streaming traffic – to spare fields, parks and the ‘promenade’ of the Ganges, where yet again fielding was an issue. With the high levels of enthusiasm and skill displayed, it’s no wonder they’ve just thrashed England here, in the latest Test series… And One Day… And T20. Probably a good job we never managed to get to any of the matches.
Just before we flew in, the Indian government abruptly invalidated the two larger main banknotes, and prohibited cash withdrawals larger than roughly £23: “demonetisation”. Result, utter chaos in this cash economy. Enormous queues at the few ATMs that got stocked with new notes. Like other tourists we spent days hunting hotels that take (foreign) cards, working ATMs, and queueing for endless 2000 Rupee  withdrawals. And the banks simply lapped up the flat rate charges they levy when people make small transactions abroad, like a 10% tax. So it caused a lot of hassle and wasted time, we saw others in real distress, and a lot of Indians really fell foul of it as it killed the casual labour economy dead in some places. That plus the impact of the Brexit vote on the pound’s value, made a real difference to our budget here. Unfortunately we only worked that out after we’d stripped Rajasthan of souvenirs and posted them home on Concorde.
The other money issue is the swindling. Led by the India government, which charges foreigners typically ten times what Indians pay to see sites, there’s a culture of gouging in some sectors. It’s also common to quote one price at the start of a transaction, then try to charge a lot more with unexpected add-ons. There seems to be complete tolerance of swindlers who claim to be collecting for charitable purposes, but are not. There are different amounts of swindling in different sectors: 100% of boatmen, 50% of auto rickshaw drivers, whereas most shopkeepers seem pretty honest.
There’s generosity too. Free tea stops, the odd free meal…. Nice people about, especially away from the tourist trail.
We’ve seen spectacular sights in India, and found the present and past both fascinating. Much of the culture, to us has seemed, unique and other worldly. There were frustrations and dropouts with all the electrics, but most days we had WiFi or phone data, and rather wobbly electricity was available every night. The winter weather is nice, guesthouses plentiful and cheap, our tums have managed ok so far, and the roads are mostly flat and smooth. And yet….. It’s felt a struggle being here. Has India beaten us, or does surviving count as a win?

Madhya Pradesh Travelogue

At the start of 2017, we left the desert and dry hills of Rajasthan for the state of Madhya Pradesh. The country gradually became a lot lusher. Not so flat, either, although mostly it’s gently rolling terrain interspersed with occasional ranges of small hills. Of course, the wildlife changed as well, so the Beastie and Bird Log has a set of new pictures.


Not such a famous place outside India, considering its merits. Huge abandoned city, of which semi-ruined palaces, temples, mosques, tombs, and city walls (37km around!) remain. Extensive waterworks add to the fascination.


Like Mandu, not so many western tourists, and many more visiting Indians. A famous pilgrimage site on a holy river. Temples, walls, a (small) palace, and river boats (with middlemen gouging the tourists and giving the boatmen as little as possible). While ambling around town, we saw a yoga school, and while discussing it, up popped the head of the yoga teacher – from Brighton! She invited us in for a chat, which was lovely, ranging over ‘how-to-spend-our-lives’ philosophy to (sigh), the hassles of property in England. Unfortunately we couldn’t make any of the yoga sessions before we left, so we got ripped off by a boat tout instead. We reckon he ripped off the boatman, too.


Hoshangabad and Bhimbetka

Following the Narmada from Maheshwar, we stopped a few days in the unfamous town of Hoshangabad. Hoshangabad was on our route as an overnight stop between Maheshwar and Bandhavgarh, a seven or eight day run, with a rest day in Jabalpur. But it didn’t pan out like that. We got to Hoshangabad relatively early in the afternoon and, as usual, stopped on the outskirts to look on our phones for places to stay. Also as usual, we became the centre of a small crowd. One guy, astride his Honda, acted as translator.


An old chap came up and very straight faced was jabbering away. It transpired he was a sculpturer, and wanted us to come and look. We did, and very interesting too. There were remarkably lifelike, life size, lions, in various states of preparation, including one finished, complete with realistic, but vegetable, fur. And gods, who might ride them. All made in clay on a straw frame.

The young biker suggested popping round to his place for a chai. His family were builders, so they had their own, grandfather-built, temple. In the cool and quiet front room of their house, we met all three generations living there. And he told us about some of the town’s sights. Then he led us, on his bike, to the area of the hotels, where we were unusually fussy and chose the third one that offered us a room. Balaji-Inn turned out to be a good choice, we had long chats & good information from owner Deepesh about places to see, and our later route. And it had both hot water and WiFi. We started to think about staying an extra night.

So, we got up and going really late, that being ideal for a rest day, taking a tuk tuk to see the ancient rock shelters and paintings at the Adamgadh Hills. And bought some more souvenirs in this very untouristy town. That evening we met a lovely local couple, the Bhagats, in the restaurant, dining together. Ajay especially was a super-keen traveller, and gave us lots of good tips for along our remaining Indian route. We realised with a jolt that we were halfway across India already. And they insisted on buying us dinner, too. Come to think of it, our elevenses stop at a roadside diner had been complementary, too. Still, we’d attracted a huge crowd into the diner 🙂


Can’t remember if Ajay Bhagat or Deepesh at the hotel told us about Bhimbetka, 35km north. Cue more replanning. It was certainly Deepesh who told us of the Silk factory, and reminded us the town had extensive ghats down to the sacred Narmada.  We’d originally thought to divert our cycle via Bhimbetka, but 35km is an annoying sort of distance, and it’s likely not cheap to stay there, so we booked another night at Balaji-Inn and did a morning trip using the frequent buses to Bhopal. 1 hour bus trip – 40 r each. It was about 2km from bus route to the rocks, but transport was available on the back of a motorbike,  three up.
Bhimbetka was indeed impressive and intriguing. And we learnt some new words, mostly containing the syllable “lith”. Then back again on the bus from Bhopal. It was, err, interesting to see the maniac bus driving from the other side. To be fair, only one of the two drivers adopted the horn blaring maniac stereotype, the other was a peaceable, careful fellow. Both stopped to make an offering to the gods.
After this palaeolithic experience (the buses as much as the paintings, one had its roof held up by a metal post, the other’s windscreen parted company with the frame over every bump) we rushed back to Hoshangabad for a tuk tuk to the Silk factory,  which showed some aspects of silk we’d not seen before, indeed different types of silkworm chrysalis. There was no weaving, but it turned out some of their yarn went to the silk hand weaving works of Maheshwar, which we’d seen there. And of course there’s a shop… Oh dear, more souvenirs, making up for buying nothing in Maheshwar. Then the early evening wandering the ghats. And our third night in Hoshangabad. Very restful. To be fair to ourselves, we also did a lot of blog work, booked our days in Bandhavgarh National Park, and mostly sorted ourselves out for the increasing risk of malaria over coming weeks: The many labours of the long distance tourist. Sometimes we overlook the time we need to find for planning, preparation and blogging.
With all these people keen to chat extensively with us, Hoshangabad rates as the very friendliest town we’ve been to in India, where everywhere has been friendly. And on our last evening, one of the hotel lads knocked on the door, and waved the local paper at us: Our moment of fame, in Hindu. We’d been flagged down a couple of times by local press on motorbikes – this was the outcome. The headline most ungallantly highlighted Clare’s age.

Bheda Ghat

Still on the Narmada, more famous religious sites to see. And a waterfall. Not sure if it was Grade IV or Grade V.

Bandhavgahr – Tigers – No, no Tigers today.

Indian National Parks seem not to be accessible unless one forks out for a jeep (or elephant) and a guide. Pretty pricey, so we limited ourselves to two jeep safaris. Here’s what we saw. Mostly birdies, plus deer and boar.

And on to Uttar Pradesh… A few roadside snaps from along the way…

And more wildlife too, see the Beastie and Bird Log.

Another gem from the Garmin

Despite being on National Highways we spent two days on bone shaking, bike wrecking roads, since arriving in Uttar Pradesh, on a par with the worst we’ve experienced so far.
Lorries weaved across the roads at pitifully slow speeds to avoid being the next victim at the already over crowded tyre and suspension repair shops that line these villages. On the good stretches, that were far outweighed by the bucking bronco sections,  my optimism about our ETA rose, only to plummet as the next morass of potholes emerged out of the dust cloud. On arriving at Mirzapur we asked the hotel manager what the road to Varanasi was like. With dismay we listened to, ‘Another 15 km of broken tarmac and pot holes but after that it’s alright.’
Varanasi, our next destination, was only 52km the Garmin displayed. We could manage that even on lousy roads but as we came to set off the locals stepped in to direct us. With a few arm waves, head wobbles and the words ’65km’, it was job done, our route was sorted, except it was in the opposite direction to the Garmin’s.
Keen to please our hosts, we set off as directed; I tried to combine electronic and ‘verbal’ instructions. Gid, a few road turns later, pointed out that we were heading south despite our efforts to travel north. At that point I gave up trying to merge the two and stated, ‘OK, are you up for a Garmin route?  I can’t see where it meets up with the main road.’ Truth be known, it didn’t!
Our route trundled along some single lane dirt roads, cobbled roads, tarmac roads but nothing as bad as the National Highway. We were right ‘in the middle’ of rural India passing through tiny villages with lots of people excited or curious to see us. Many communities were engaged in activities long since mechanised in England turning the clock back as we watched man power at work.
We were both excited by the route and appreciated that we could never have navigated it from our maps but Gid was most concerned. ‘Can we cross the river? Are you sure we can cross the river?’ he kept probing. Both Google and Garmin showed a route across the river. But was it true? On this road? A bridge, or a ford maybe? Thankfully, as we got nearer to the river we turned onto a bigger road allaying Gid’s fears. At least this looked big enough to have a bridge and, suddenly, sweeping round one last bend, there it was.
From our high vantage point we looked down across the half mile, pontoon and beams, covered with sheets of metal, bridge. On approaching the toll ticket barrier we were beckoned on with beaming smiles; cars and tuctucs have to pay and struggle across as best they can but we were free to go.
The approach from both sides was through sand with two lanes of 10 x 3 metal sheets providing a firm surface. This was fine until cars needed to pass or …. oh no – a three wheeled tuctuc where lots of people were frequently out pushing or digging out the front wheel.
We made our way across, stopping to take photos as we went, absorbing another terrific  sight and spectacular event in India.

May your God be with you

‘Safe journey, may your God be with you’ were the parting words of one Indian gentleman we have spoken to.

We got used to the high profile of religion in Turkey. Our first experience was in Kirklareli, where an Imam very kindly welcomed us into the mosque, explaining the symbolism on the walls and the practise of Muslims. The frequent calls to prayer and tidal rush of men accompanied us across the country.
In Indian, the birth place of four now global religions (Sikhism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism) where, by law, Indians have a freedom of choice,  religious practice is all around us. Red ribbons mark a sacred tree and shrines, erected in the smallest of stone hearths, are placed at seemingly random places along the road, desert and countryside. On a bigger scale there are frequently larger shrines and full sized temples in and around villages and towns. These are usually brightly decorated with incense and flowers around the deity being worshipped with plenty of places to buy these things nearby.
On the way to Ranakpur, to see the famous Jain temple, a man passing us on his motorbike guessed where we were heading but was very insistent that we should see his village’s temple. 5 km down the road he was waiting for us to arrive, eager to point out ‘his’ temple which turned out to be a couple of flags placed on a hill sized rock.
Later, another proud villager sped after us on a motorbike imploring us to rethink our hasty transit as ‘his’ temple was not to be missed. It had been quite impressive to have such a grand building in such a small village but it appeared to be of a similar structure to many we have already seen on our route across India and time was running short. We very guiltily continued on our way.
It’s not uncommon to start the waking process at 6 am with an hour of chanting which can give way to a lengthy session of ‘random’ bell ringing or drum thumping which can be followed by the call to prayer enabling many Indians to start their day with worship.
At numerous other times along our way we have been accompanied by banging and crashing as a religious service takes place. Occasionally a procession escorts a highly decorated truck that emits, from its loud speakers, volumes of thumping music. It all seems to add to the general melee of high noise level the Indians don’t appear to notice.
At the other end of the scale there are many silent almost fleeting gestures. Another moment to be noted was when our bus, on the way to Bimbetka, stopped for the conductor to leap out and purchase a garland of flowers. On passing the sacred river Narmada the bus stopped while the man placed the garland on a roadside shrine. On our return trip the bus slowed while a coconut and garland of flowers were thrown into the river demonstrating a religious side to the maniac bus drivers who invariably scream along the roads with horns blaring.
At Maheshwar, on the sacred river, we stayed for a couple of days to again visit temples. Late one afternoon we took a boat trip out towards Baneshwar temple.  The oarsman wasn’t fussed about us actually landing on the tiny island but set off up river to a religious ceremony taking place at the water’s edge. Singing and playing, accompanied by setting afloat candles in tiny dishes to create a light trail as they drifted off down river, made a magical moment in the fading light.
Washing in sacred water, to cleanse both body and soul, are very much are part of the Hindu tradition. Many Hindus make at least one pilgrimage to a sacred water site in their life time. On foot, with a knap sack, often wearing something orange and sometimes with no shoes, they are a frequent and unmistakable sight, especially as we approached the sacred places. One, we came across in the middle of nowhere, having just explained that he was on foot, to our amusement, jumped on the back of a passing motorbike and sped off ahead of us.
We’ve followed the course of the Narmada crossing it several times observing shrines, religious practice and places of pilgrimage. The marble rocks on the Narmada at Bheraghat, and Pushkar’s sacred lake, that originated from a lotus petal, are two such places but none are more important than Varanasi. Situated on the Ganges Varanasi is one of India’s seven sacred cities and of major importance in the passage of life and death in Hinduism. It is here, in a ceremony on the river bank, that the cycle of rebirth can be broken releasing the person from the caste system and setting their soul free. The ‘burning ghat’, as it is known, is ablaze 24 hrs. as the public cremations take place.

Varanasi is one of three sacred cities in India where aarti takes place. Aarti is a ceremony performed by priests, where fire is sacrificed to the Goddess Ganga, and a number of other deities.


On the Road – Jaisalmer to Madhya Pradesh

After the camel trek at Jaisalmer, we finally turned east to resume Australia-wards progress.

The Land

The People

On The Road, By The Road


In this corner of Rajasthan, there be hills. Before we really got into them, we stopped a day at Ranakpur, where there’s a very large, very beautiful, but seemingly rather under-used, Jain temple.


Last stop in Rajasthan. Christmas in a gorgeously photogenic city, set around a lake. Maybe a special mention for Lal Ghat Guesthouse which was reasonably economical, with a great view, comfy room, and served peppermint tea and porridge.

A nice German tourist on her 18th visit, told us about the town’s Shilpgram festival, in progress, of performance and handicrafts. It’s not publicised to tourists out of deference to (fear of?) the town’s shopkeepers. It was great, the stalls were good value, and the Bangaladeshi guest band that we saw, Joler Gaan, turned out to be staying in our hotel; and tempted us to alter our route to take in Bangaladesh.

Finally, after around a month in Rajasthan, we entered the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh.

Thoughts on leaving Rajasthan

In amongst our kilometre crunching days, crossing Rajasthan, first retracing our steps east, then veering south, we’ve taken some delightful back roads. It’s always been the case that the minor roads reap the most rewards in terms of seeing rural life and countryside. Rajasthan has been no exception.

Our first detour was to Ranakpur to see the great Jain temple. Garmin was well up for a cross country jaunt and had three attempts at turning left off the highway. At the first two locals were urging us further along the dual carriageway before turning left, flapping their hands to make it clear. At the first we didn’t take much convincing as it was a dirt track; another gem from Garmin. The second looked more promising but no, we must go further on. Fortunately we did as the main road, according to the colouring on our map, started well enough but soon deteriorated into a pot holed narrow lane. Along it there were many elderly men in Indian dress with deep red turbans, herding cattle or sheep together with the odd camel. The views of ploughed fields, the odd village here or there and just the general lush greenery were beautiful. We had now truly left the desert behind us.
Around Ranakpur we, or rather our legs, realised we were cycling in hilly terrain – the first since, err, um, Azerbaijan in August. But the roads were smooth, well graded and the hills minor, so we had a gentle reintroduction to our lower gears.
It was on this route that we discovered, in Rani, that Indian towns don’t have to be squalid dumps in terms of rubbish and muck around the streets. Rani was spotless. It is a reasonable sized town but there was no litter or rubbish to be seen, just a road sweeping lady, that Gid nearly collided with, as she thrust her barrow directly into the stream of traffic, just as if she was riding a motorbike.
Women are frequently employed as road sweeps working away with their stick brooms, dust pans and wheel barrows but it’s the men who drive the dust carts. Very often the men are standing or sitting around while the sweeping goes on. This pattern seems to be establish at an early age with girls and boys in the household, unless perhaps we’ve not spotted that these girls are not family members but servants.
As well as the more traditional role of domestic chores – collecting water in their clay or metal pots which are carried on their heads, child rearing etc, women are frequently working alongside men in building projects. We’ve seen them digging channels with over sized rakes in road building projects, clearing rubble from the newly built central reserve, and chipping away at the edge of the road surface (not quite sure what this one was about). Equally, they quite frequently help out with building projects: mixing cement, delivering the mixed cement on their heads to the men who are laying the bricks, and generally bustling about. And at the blacksmith’s, it’s Mrs who wields the hammer, while Mr holds the workpiece. All this is done in their wildly colourful filmy saris; presumably not their best ones. It’s worth adding that India has elected two women as prime minister, too.
But the gender divide still seems to be firmly ingrained. A few women drive scooters or cars. They take other women as passengers but never a man. We’ve hardly ever been served by a woman in a shop or restaurant, except at checkouts in the few western style supermarkets. In Udaipur I was surprised to see one lady in total control of the traffic, dressed in uniform and wheeling an arm about as she blew her whistle.
As we dashed through one village a mother and daughter were on the steps of their house. The girl was doing school work in an exercise book on the top step, while mum was a step or two down beating up a shirt; with the stone step as a washboard she vigorously attacked it with soap. I wondered about the school child and what opportunities her education would bring her. In India, the female literacy rate significantly lags behind that of the males, so there may be extra barriers for her.
An hotelier, whose chalets are looking shabby and didn’t provide breakfast because there is no chef, explained that the previous owner had got too old to keep it all going. He’d only had daughters, who would take over his business? It had gone rather to ruin (since Lonely Planet’s 2011 glowing review), so now this new guy had just taken on the lease. He had sons.


Various other things are clearly slow to modernise such as road rules, manufacturing materials and methods, and digging holes. In some ways it seems stuck in a time warp with manual labour replacing the machinery we’d expect to see back home.  This is exaggerated for us as Indian English has diverged from English (and American) somewhat, and, Sir, some constructs archaic to us are still normal here. Lorries mostly look like 1960s leftovers: But the cars look modern. Almost everyone has a mobile, a smartphone unless they’re elderly. There’s construction going on almost everywhere, satellite dishes poke out of straw roofed shacks, and modern things keep cropping up. What an interesting place!

Camel trek – Thar desert

It was with great excitement that I climbed into the jeep to set off on our camel trek. That lasted until I saw the camels and started to wonder what were we doing now. The camels were loaded up, all we had to do was hop on. That was where the trouble started. With no stirrups to help, how was I going to get my leg over that hump. And this camel is as tall as a pony – when it’s still sitting down.
The first couple of hours felt rather traumatic. I was so thrilled to be going on a camel trek, I wanted to snap away as we went but was too scared to take my hands off the saddle.  This was compounded by the terrible itch that, it was clear, my camel had.  He regularly half stumbled / lurched into a step, first his front leg kicked back then the back kicked forward but neither could reached this itch.
As time progressed I did get used to it and my camel husbandry improved; we were able to productively assist with managing and loading/ unloading the camels during our lunch break and at the end of the day. The camels wandered off if unhobbled and would have to be rounded up. Gid’s camel, even when hobbled, still made a break for it. The camel was tied into a sitting position, using his rein running down his chest to the hobble rope, only to shuffle along on his haunches. We started using the foot loops, which helped a lot, although locals don’t use them. By day three Gid, who was altogether more confident with the camels, was going solo and I could take photos at a trot.
The trip itself was awesome. We rode the camels, for an hour or two at a time, along tracks through desert scrub, across sandy sections and over dunes, visiting the odd village as we went.
The villagers are used to tourists so we caused some excitement but weren’t mobbed. Rather fabulously we were invited into homes and regularly offered chai which was made on an open hearth in the corner of their courtyard – homes here are designed primarily to keep the sun off and the goats out – any breeze is most welcome.  Most people were happy to pose for photos; some performed a mini concert. Even very old people came out to see us. It was delightful to get a glimpse into village life. A small donation was always exchanged: 50 rupees for chai or photos, or 200 for a mini concert. To put this in context, a  labourer might earn 250 rupees a day, that’s about €4, so a couple of tourist visits in a day is a big bonus, especially at present in Mr Modi’s cash crisis.
Children repeatedly asked for ‘school pen, school pen’. One 15 year old lad, able to speak some English, told us there was a village school. The teacher might come on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, he said, but then miss Thursday. He also told us he couldn’t read or write. That, it would appear, is not uncommon. Our guide, Harish, who had picked up English from tourists, proclaimed that he could not read or write but his younger brother could because school had opened, in his village, in 2011. Our second guide, Saleem, couldn’t spell his own name for us when he asked us to mention him in our reviews.
The desert camp experience was fantastic.  We learnt several desert life ‘tricks of the trade’ such as hollowing out a bed in the sand and, in winter, lining it with covered stones from the fire for extra warmth and how to catch a goat to milk it for fresh milk in the chai (someone else’s goat, that is, so it may be, ahem, not entirely welcome). ‘Washing up’ with sand we’re already familiar with from our background in canoeing and kayaking trips but it was a first for sleeping on dunes under the stars with gerbils scurrying around in the shrubs behind us.
The Thar desert is the most populated desert in the world. The Indira Gandhi canal must have done much to improve the water supply but, when the rains fail, as had been the case this year, the crops don’t grow and we passed a few ploughed fields where nothing was growing. Harish had to reach deep to get water from the storage tank. But it seems to be being managed – people and animals get enough to drink, and some fields are irrigated.
There’s quite a bit of wildlife, too, although apart from birds, we only saw gerbils, chipmunks and beetles, during the actual camel trek. There were several different large birds of prey, and also Egyptian Vultures. The high point was a lunch spot near to an eagle’s nest in a tree, we saw them visiting their chicks from a distance, but when Gid tried hiding behind a tree about 70m away, the parents spotted him, and waited on some rocks a km away before returning. So not much in the way of photos from that encounter.

Riding in Rajasthan

Rajasthan, and India generally, seems a land of contrast. Leftwards leaning polititians in the UK sometimes complain about the UK’s “private wealth and public squalor”, compared with European societies: India takes this to spectacular extremes.
But, in India’s use and abuse society where rubbish piles high and waste is abandoned everywhere, not everyone is at one with this policy. Standing with a local man, beside a central shopping area in the bazaar at Jaipur, he mournfully stated that this was swept and clean this morning implying ‘and now look at it’. He shrugged his shoulders in despair. True enough, in the mornings we’ve seen ladies with twig brooms sweeping mess into dust pans, then emptying it into wheel barrows. Where next it goes I’m not sure but there are frequently rubbish mounds along the approach roads to towns and scorch marks where previous rubbish has been burnt, or earth and rubble piled on top; the reverse of our land fill sites I guess. But, the norm here is to drop rubbish in public areas, even by what would be very “respectable” people, businessmen, shopkeepers and the like. Of course, if the rubbish is edible, one if the many cows, dogs, or sometimes goats, will swiftly devour it, so all the discarded packaging is clean, and poorer people sift through the trash looking for stuff to reuse, including cow & camel dung, which are fuel – but there’s still a lot of rubbish left around. It’s different in private areas, which are often pristine, and certainly a fellow who dropped a wrapper in the grounds of Jodhpur’s palace, was very quickly directed to the bin. But public areas certainly are usually littered, shitty, and dusty.
This, together with the honking and hooting, are key things we’ve had to adjust to. Just as we’ve had to adapt to the local style of driving;  pulling out or sweeping across traffic seemingly without looking at all & he who honks the loudest is surely coming through. This latter is never more evident than when traffic is trying to manoeuvre through road works or some other obstruction. One bully boy, horn blaring, will determinedly insist on forcing a way through, other traffic forced aside, including oncoming traffic with, apparently, right of way. There are frequently speed bumps at the boundaries of villages, or in towns, but again, plenty of drivers simply use these as an opportunity to overtake. Although India’s roads are generally very good, the drivers & riders are so bad it feels by far the most hazardous place we’ve found to cycle. However, it probably isn’t quite as bad as it feels, as speeds are generally low, and everyone assumes everyone else is a maniac and not looking where they’re going.
Away from all this madness, Rajasthan  has been delightful. We’re back to the familiar waves, calls of ‘hello’ or ‘welcome’, and friendly hoots from people as our paths cross. This, together with, frequent requests for selfies to splash onto Facebook with a, ‘Look who I met’ comment.  Once stopped it goes one of two ways: crowds appear from every corner, eager to look, poke, pull, gradually trying to engaged in conversation: Which country? Where are you going? Do you like India? A script we’re very familiar with.  Alternatively, and rather less engaging, we are fair game for the hordes of children and sometimes adult village folk who often approach, fingers rubbing, with constant demands for money or gifts; seen elsewhere but more prevalent here.  Or fingers out to you and back to their mouth or that of an infant/ child.
Rajasthan is one of the poorest regions in India. Back in the 70s literacy was estimated to be as low as 18%. It’s catching up but is still in the lowest three states of India and still claims the biggest gender gap in the country with women in villages at the thin end of the wedge. Projects like Roopraj Dhurry Udyog, where 42 families have formed a cooperative, help to raise the independence of women by developing cottage industries. Items are sold locally with all profits going to the artisans but there is a long way to go; the poverty is stark. Actually, although in theory “all profits” go to the artisans, we rarely get to meet any, and they’re very quiet. One suspects the lion’s share of profits are absorbed by the sleek looking men running the shops.
It’s been interesting to see the cast iron hand sewing machines frequently in action. We’ve previously  donated 2 or 3 of these, 1930s Singers, to charitable organisations at home where they were serviced and sent to third world countries. Here they are still in action, still being serviced and still available to purchase brand new. Gid had a repair done. A quick job; less than 5 minutes, less than 15 pence. Every town or village can offer such a service.
Embarrassingly, while we waited at a level crossing in a small village, a local pointed out Clare’s back tyre was flat. We already knew it had a slow puncture but now it was indeed flat. We happened to be right outside a tyre repair place.  In we went! They quickly fixed both slow and fast holes for 10 rupees.
In amongst a great deal of curious chat as they compared our bikes with theirs. Most Indian bikes are (to us) old fashioned roadsters from the 1950s, with one speed, rod brakes, and the old fashioned British Standard metal tab lamp bracket (which is never actually used, and we remember from our childhood is a completely crap design). A newer kids bike, mountain bike looking, but still one speed, was apparently 3,500 rupees – about 50 euros. I guess Tesco, at home, get pretty close to matching both the quality and price of that. Indians often ask how much our bikes cost: We’ve got into the habit of saying it’s about the same as one of their Honda Hero motorbikes, which are about 900 euros, same as the starting price for a decent tourer (before all the upgrades).
Rajesthan has been truly fascinating but I look forward to seeing a more balanced view of the county as we sweep back in an easterly direction towards Kolkata.
Top sights along the way:

On The Road

Villages, cows, decorated lorries, tuk tuks, the army on the move, wildlife. Surprisingly good roads and amazingly bad drivers.


We already wrote a bit about Jaipur, here’s Gid’s photos.


The lake, cows, monkeys, dodgy holy men with their ribbons and paint, new age travellers and view from the hilltop temple.


Castle, palace, blue city.

Jodhpurs at Jodhpur

We saw a notice advertising a polo tournament – Jodhpur is a big army town, as well as the Maharajah’s traditions, although actually polo isn’t terribly old. We watched a British Army visiting team narrowly beat the President’s Bodyguard team by 3 1/2 to 3.


The roads to and from Jaisalmer, and our camel trek from there, were both rich in sightings of interesting Thar Desert wildlife.
Jaisalmer is twinned with West Sussex at least in the sense they both have a Hawker Hunter plane on a big pole. Ford’s, in Sussex, has more moss than Jaisalmer’s.
They both have military museums.  Jaisalmer’s has more old tanks, Tangmere’s, in Sussex, has more old planes. Jaisalmer’s castle is more impressive, more open, and mostly older than Arundel’s.
See separate posting for our camel trek, and our way out of Rajasthan, via Ranakpur and Xmas in Udaipur, also has its own posting.

After 5 weeks, it’s great to be back on our bikes!

Having learnt that at about 9.30 Delhi’s traffic exponentially increases, we’d planned an early start.  Bill paid, bike checked, tyres pumped, luggage packed, well mine anyway, we tried to get an early night.
Lit up like beacons, with strong beams & flashing lights all round, we actually got away by 6 and, to be fair, the traffic wasn’t too bad. I went for the local approach weaving through the traffic and sod the lights, while Gid wasn’t quite so bold. But we made it, safe and sound, through to Faribadad by 7:30 only to have our way on to the shiny new flyover blocked by two guards. Once off the slip road, Garmin did the job of re-routeing us through the back streets and back onto the main road at the first possible point. That was entertaining!
As always, in the latter countries we have visited, the back streets are very poorly maintained, past ramshackle buildings, with people who are very bemused to see us. Two superbly turned out school children in their uniforms, standing in the mud and squalor, proclaimed they were please to meet us, after being promoted by a proud parent through a round of English practising questions. They were so truly astonishing in their attire, politeness and pride that I was stuck for words as to how to convey my pleasure and surprise at meeting them in these surroundings.
Back on task we continued through the dust, dirt and rubble until we arrived at a railway crossing. On this occasion, Gid was well up for going local and was the first to wiggle his bike under the bent barrier, amongst the motorbikes, only to proclaim,  ‘Oh look, there’s the train’ as he glanced down the track at it approaching some 50 m away.
The Delhi-Agra route was very straight forward, one road, albeit with three designations: NH 2, 19, 44, thanks to an idealistic, but under implemented, renumbering of all India’s highways. It’s flat and well maintained so we made speedy progress. Even the towns we passed through weren’t too onerous; our background across the ‘Stans’ with, in town centres, traffic weaving around all over the place, stood in good stead. The Indians use a lot more horn though! There’s also a lot of vehicles going the wrong way, plus a few other road behaviours which we’ve not seen before, so the road’s never actually relaxing to be on.
We didn’t do a huge distance.  Starting early, it still took maybe 4-6 hours to be clear of Delhi’s satellite towns. We finally reached agricultural areas interwoven with smaller towns. We stopped in roadside cafes for a drink once or twice, but for a late lunchtime managed to pull a little way off the road for an uninterrupted picnic. (Especially after the rat had scurried away.) Looking at maps and mileages, we decided that Hodal, our current location, was already halfway to Agra.  It was time to stop. In fact, from our tree trunk, we could see a potential resting place for the day..
The Rajasthan Motel.
It was a peaceful oasis not only from our days cycling but from Delhi itself, which had been vibrant, noisy, chaotic and cramped. Partly down to Gid choosing a cheap hotel in the main bazaar. Sprawling in extensive gardens, Hodal’s motel was a total contrast. It was a bit over budget but lovely after Delhi and was almost empty of customers because the old highway, although under going an upgrade, is no longer the main road.  That, together with the extremely welcoming and friendly staff, sealed the deal.
It is part of a chain owned by the ex royal family of Rajasthan, and these very nice people looked after us again later.
India cycling day two was a 119km run into Agra, city of the Taj Mahal. The ride was more of the same: pleasant weather, tailwind, flat, good road. Hooting and horn blasting. Friendly conversations with motorcyclists alongside. In towns, mad traffic and even more hooting. Physically in-taxing but mentally exhausting. Our Agra hotel was picked from Clare’s Lonely Planet guide, but not pre-booked. As in Delhi, cost was a dominant factor, so our room, unsurprisingly, was little bigger than the bed. Again, just like Delhi, there was a rooftop restaurant, but this time it had a really nice view – the Taj Mahal. It ought to have been rather pleasant, but continuous problems with the electricity in  our room meant no light and no fan.
We’d read that the best time to photograph the Taj is dawn. Naturally, Clare was all fired up, so we had our third dawn start in four days, groan. Actually the ticketing and entry process didn’t start until 6:30 am, so it wasn’t really dawn, but still quite early.


Agra itself was similar to Delhi insofar as the Taj Mahal and its surrounding area was very clean and modern; pristine, like the shopping malls we saw in Delhi, but a stones throw away it was back to squalor.  Some areas delightfully quaint but others out of the Tudor era with squalid water channels running between houses and the road.
Keen to move on and find a quieter side to India, we had only a quick stop in Agra. Our next refuge was Bharatpur.  Another short day’s cycle but this was paradise! We spent the afternoon with a guide, Prakash,  leisurely cycling around the spacious Keoladeo bird / wildlife sanctuary. I can understand why British birders holiday here. Apart from the wealth of fabulous bird life, in this UNISCO listed site, the environment is wonderful. Antelope wandering around, cows, deer and at dusk we saw jackals. One area is currently closed because a leopard has moved in.
Our next main town to visit was Jaipur. It’s the first main tourist destination travelling west into Rajasthan; not so big and bustling, the traffic was less hectic here. We bought a two day tourist ticket and spent three days doing it whilst continuing the great 2016 Indian cash hunt, not very successfully at times.

Jaipur sights:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAJust a kilometre away from the old city, in Jaipur, is Karuna Niwas. This time a homestay, but still a part of the chain owned by Ajeet and Ninja Singh, first encountered in Hodal.   Again, we were looked after very well with the added attention of  (I guess the term is) the family retainers, Roma and Bhanwer. Ajeet posing in his regalia, prior to going to a wedding: