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?

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!

Bye bye Bishkek, Farewell Central Asia

Tomorrow morning we fly to India. Here’s a final mini-blog for Bishkek.

At the AtHouse

Where we’ve been so wonderfully put up, and put up with. And met so many other travellers.

Between the snowfalls

With today’s and yesterday’s snow

That’s 16th and 17th November, for posterity.

A Last Bit of Georgia – And a Big Day

Finally, having calculated, and re-calculated the interaction between the Azerbaijan visa period, the Kazakhstan visa validity, and travel times, we left Tbilisi (really late in a day, see previous blog post about postage), for a fairly horrible main road ride east. Can’t remember where we stayed that night, but towards the end of the day, the traffic was much less of a problem – it was all Tbilisi traffic, not long distance. The next day’s ride was pleasant enough but unmemorable (at least, I can’t remember much of it). Nino, our Tbilisi landlady had recommended a friend’s guesthouse in Sighnaghi, which apart from being up a big hill, was a fine choice. Well, the whole town was up the hill, and a very nice, if totally touristic, town it was too. In Georgia, it’s the town of love, and popular for honeymoons. The guesthouse made a bit of a thing of the family’s folk music, so in the evening, after we’d come back from a nice meal, there was Georgian wine, Georgian brandy and travellers from all over (especially Israel, including Vicky and Aaron we’d met at Nino’s). This sing-song was especially appropriate as it was CLARE’S 60TH BIRTHDAY! Happy Birthday my love!

After a 12km winding route down hill we cruised along on the next day, crossing the flat plain towards the Greater Caucasus (see picture above).  We experienced a new kind of road side stall.



We stopped in the afternoon under a random tree for a swig of water and handful of nuts. Along just a bit someone was working in a bit of field. After our “gamma joba”, somehow, they decided we were worthy of inviting in for chai. We didn’t have much language to share, muddling by with a bit of Russian phrasebook, Google Translate, and pointing and laughing. The old couple showed us a postcard – they’d previously invited in a Swiss cyclist(s?): So, lacking a postcard, we had to sketch them one to add to their collection. Chai was on offer, these were Turkic folk, Azerbaijanis – if they’d been Georgians it would probably have been wine. It’s an interesting difference to Northern Europe, this: borders have been stable for at least 95 years, and in nationality terms these were Georgians – to go to Azerbaijan they indicated they need a visa. But one of the first things they said – about the time we said we were English – was they were Azerbaijanis. For all these Caucasus countries, statistics are quoted X% Georgians Y% Azerbaijanis, Z% Russians, etc. The ethnic identities are (I think) defined from the mother tongues, which is why in the early-mid twentieth century, the big governments (Turkey, Russia), made efforts to stamp out, or at least discourage, the local languages, and teach only the “empire” lingo. They also at times forcefully moved tens of thousands of people about, to achieve particular ethnic mixes to suit their purposes. Not so nowadays AFAIK, but a lot of the border troubles in the region must be because of the mismatch between culture/ethnicity, and state borders. Some of which is our own government’s fault (up to Mr W. Churchill’s generation), as the British Empire was very much a force in the region, and had a particular habit of setting borders to divide peoples, and create weak, manipulable states. Together with our lot, the Czars, the Ottomans, and the Persians were all meddling away in their “Great Game”, it’s hardly surprising the borders, people and politics are rather unsettled. Anyway, these folk were extremely friendly and generous, and I for one felt rather guilty we had no present to leave. Perhaps we should have a stash of postcards from Worthing. The old couple (err, well, they may not have been much older than us) lived in very humble circumstances. Their house was tiny and made of bits. Shady in summer but, if they didn’t move to town in winter, rather horrible then, I expect, even in the mild, plain winter. The kitchen area was out back and roofed, but unwalled and a mud floor, running water from a piped spring . Yet, it was a nice place to be, shady, with a cooling breeze, and everything vital close to hand (yes, including a mobile). They also offered us milk – fresh, but scalded & warm: This was delicious. It seemed to be a truly subsistence farming operation; the cow chewed the cud nearby, ducks on the pond, the agriculture looked like a smallholding, little bits of everything.

Next stop was Lagodehki, chosen as a town to let us cross the Azerbaijan border early in the day. It’s also the edge of Georgia’s easternmost national park, a remote area that runs up into the Greater Caucasus mountains and the Russian border. We knew there’d be guesthouses, and arriving mid-afternoon, were cruising relaxedly up one of the main streets, looking for somewhere to stay. We passed one or two but carried on. A young man seemed to be dozing on a bench, but leapt up as we passed, to ask (in Georgian) if we needed a guesthouse. Well, we didn’t understand the words, but the context made it all plain. The house was unsigned. This seems common for Georgian guesthouses. A cynical  British view would suspect something to do with the tax system. In Tbilisi we’d been mildly scammed when a fellow enticed us into a restaurant, which afterwards presented an appalling bill (and didn’t offer change, when we certainly didn’t intend leaving a tip): Fortunately we’d only consumed one hot drink each, so the “appalling bill”, while infuriating, wasn’t actually much. So we were wary in this case, but with no reason. After a small delay while the landlady whizzed up from the village centre, we inspected, learnt the cost of (amazingly cheap, so we lazily opted for breakfast and dinner, which was still good value, especially as the breakfast was enough to doggy-bag for lunch), and were soon ensconced. Nino (most Georgian landladys seem to be called Nino) provided us with a self contained ground floor apartment. She also wielded a sheaf  of leaflets, and indicated we were only about 500m from the National Park office, and how nice the park was, etc, etc, again all in Georgian, or was it Russian.  It’s amazing how clear it can be without understanding a word. So after a shower, we wandered up to the park office for more information. Reassuringly, the stuffed & mounted bear was quite small.

… and replanned again, so we’d hike tomorrow, staying two nights not one, delaying our entry to Azerbaijan another day. The hike involved a 14km cycle to the start, blissfully unloaded. It was only a day hike, so only a picnic, camera, and swimmers were needed.

The hike had a few tiny scrambles, but the only challenge really was the log river crossings. Compared to the earlier Georgia hike, the logs were wider, and less high up, and the exercise felt less committing – so we managed to walk across them this time. At the top there was a lovely waterfall, a nice pool for a dip, and a dozen or so Georgians also enjoying the day out and a picnic. One suspects Georgians should be rather good at picnics.


Ready Bikes!

Here they are, loaded & ready to go…. For another weekend shakedown tour. Turns out we forgot the fuel pump and had a stripped gas bottle thread. That’s why we have shakedowns.


Clare’s at the front. Thanks for the retirement pressie solar panel draped over the back there. They’re probably 40-45 kilos each. Glad we squeezed slightly lower gearing on a little while ago.

(First post from a phone, too, rather hard work!)