Friday, 12 December 2014

Of calm and chaos


I spluttered out of Kathmandu, my lungs assaulted by the gritty air that lifted from fields of litter and their resident limping dogs. In the hills the smog abated and the light paled to silk. I dealt the city one last scrolling gaze. Terraced rice paddies met a dusty sprawl of corrugated roofs, white cumulus stacked on top like a novelty hat. In there somewhere were the small-street crushes of spice and soap vendors, the lean men plugging away on their cycle rickshaws loaded with zippy-eyed tourists. The goodbye though was an easy one – I’d been too long in the city, and it felt good to feel the hill breeze on my face and watch again the plodding theatre of country life from my saddle.

The road carried me out of that valley and into the next - at the beginning of the descent I met a long string of static cars, locked in place through the obstinacy of two bus drivers. They had rounded a corner, and in typical South Asian style neither had made the merest of concessions. Now the grunting faces of their machines were set millimetres apart and someone was going to have to reverse, but by the time that point was conceded, several dozen motorists had done what drivers here do with professional endeavour: closed all gaps.

I squeezed past the unfathomably chipper motorists and should have had the entire downhill to myself but cars and buses in the other lane, sensing an opportunity, were using mine. They veered out into my path and flashed their lights – the international symbol for: ‘I’m about to do something unthinkably stupid, you’re gonna have to cope with me’.

My speedo ticked past 70 km, but the anticipated edges of Pokhara were not yet in view. Not there at 72km or 75km. I asked a farm worker the whereabouts of the town and he pointed behind me. I was, apparently, heading back to Kathmandu. ‘No no. That’s impossible’ I informed him. ‘I’ve come from Kathmandu, and there’s only one road!’. He shrugged, but wasn’t put off. Pokhara, he assured me, was 42 km behind me.

If that were true, something unthinkable had occurred, 21 km ago. The only explanation was dizzying. 21 km ago I’d stopped for food. 21 km ago I’d got back on my bike and pedalled back the way I’d come and 21 km later I’d realised my mistake, but only when the expected town hadn’t appeared.

Let’s all take a minute to ponder the near impossible amount of dreaminess this requires. Let me help you: I failed to spot that the sun was now on the opposite side of the sky. I failed to notice the wind had shifted 180 degrees. I failed to notice the river had moved from my right to my left. I failed to recall any of the scenery I’d already cycled past, not a flicker of deja vu to make this any less excruciating. I failed to notice that sign posts for Pokhara had been replaced by ones for a city I was trying to leave. And finally, and this is a pearler, I failed to notice that the Himalayas, the earth’s grandest mountain range, had vanished from view. I know what you’re thinking. I am one special human being.

At the time I considered I may be developing a terrible and terminal brain disease, and began listing recent memory blanks: the evidence was stacking. But I fear the truth is a little more depressing: sometimes I'm just not very observant. I lose myself wondering why I have more freckles on my left arm than my right, or why I sneeze when the sun shines. This world ride has been wasted on me. I might as well have set off on laps of the M25, ogling again the same curiosities with fresh goldfish-like delight.

Weeks before I had taken the heart-rending decision to post my passport home in the hope of getting a Pakistani VISA. I wasn’t reassured by the name of the company to which the Pakistani embassy had outsourced the visa application process and who were to keep safe this essential document. ‘Gerry’s visa dropbox’ doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. It’s felt like dropping off a dead relative at a funeral parlour called ‘Fred’s bury-n-go!’

Due to problems too boring to recount here, my passport arrived back in Kathmandu, visa-less. Soon afterwards a bomb at Wagah, the only crossing point on the India / Pakistani border killed over 50 people, the Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility and the embassy were, to put it mildly, reticent to process visa applications.

So I’ve a hit a kind of cul-de-sac, which was always going to be a risk by coming south of the Himalayas. There is no direct passage across Asia to Europe because I have no permission to travel in Tibet or Pakistan, and I was denied a Bangladesh visa too. Flights, now essential, would cost money I hadn’t bargained on spending, so I decided to go to Hong Kong, give some lectures and do some fundraising. And then a thought: Mongolia. Why not?

There happened to a very good reason why not. Mongolia during the winter gets a bit nippy, to the tone of minus 40, on a good year. A bad one has a special epithet: dzud, or The White Death, like 2010 when the many of the country’s yaks ended the season a bit quieter and more solid than usual. By the spring thaw a fifth of all livestock had frozen to death in nights of minus 50.

The cold terrifies me. I succumb far quicker than others, the slightest chill renders my fingers and toes the hue of old bruises. So it was a perverse call to make, but ‘do one thing every day that scares you’, as the clich√© goes. I have a lifetime of central heating and Earl Grey ahead of me so as long as I end the winter with enough fingers to hold a tea cup, it will be but a memory, and a story to boot.

My ride to Butwal in the twisting vales of the Himalayas was fuelled by samosas. The juvenile yak skull I had tied to my bike wore through my gear cable housing, so now I packed it away though it didn’t quite fit. It was probably a disturbing sight, those two bones protruding from my front pannier. But maybe not any worse than the spectacle of motorcyclists who’d tied live chickens to their bikes, half a dozen each side of the front wheel, upside down, so their heads spent their last attached hours three inches from whizzing tarmac. At last I was propelled off the hills, back into Terai - the giant indo-gangetic flatlands of southern Nepal which stretch out into northern India.

In Butwal a cafe owner quizzed me about my ride and then gave a dragging sigh.

‘Stop this travelling. Go home to your palace and give money to your mother’

‘My, my palace?…’

‘In Nepal tourists are God, you understand?’

I told him I did

‘If you see one of us Nepalis in England, will you help him? Will you love him?’

‘Yes of course’.

He smiled. ‘Good luck then Sir’.

When there are no guesthouses, or spots to rough camp, I sometimes ask in police stations, temples, churches, mosques, even hospitals or schools. It’s the privilege of a western tourist - in much of the world you are forever the recipient of trust. I laugh as I imagine picking a school in the UK and asking the principal, whilst scratching my gratuitous facial hair, if I could shove my bivvy bag on the sports field for the night. I’m not sure what the law is in the States, but I’d imagine just asking would mean confiscation of your hard drive and the compulsory insertion of a tracking device in your genitals.

One night in southern Nepal I ventured into a police station with a plan to ask the officers if I could sleep there as people were well spread over the farmed land and I don’t have a penchant for 37 strangers watching me sleep, it’s happened before. In minutes I was sitting among them, mopping up curry with chapattis and with the promise of a place to crash. The captain was in town, and I was his favoured guest.

‘You will give me selfie’ he asked. ‘Of course!’ I said.

‘Great. We are honoured you chose us. When my grandchildren see you on Discovery Channel I will say to them that man stayed with us! You are a legendary man.’ I protested, but he stopped me with a raised hand. ‘Legendary’ he assured me.

At Sunauli, the Border town, I didn’t feel very legendary. In the ten minutes I’d taken to get towards immigration I had become a kind of nefarious pied piper and had accumulated vendors, pimps, drug dealers, money changers and middle men, opportunists, officials, pseudo-officials and deviants – a vast serpent of them, the front-most ones re-positioning around me, hoping to be the first or second to rip me off. They cajoled me down the road, and to any of the tourists safely cocooned in their tour buses, it must have been a ludicrous and unenviable spectacle.

Ahhh, hello again India, you troublemaker. I’d been hanging out with Nepal, and had forgotten India was such an anarchist. A car zipped past, loosely associated with twenty or so bodies. The majority of the driver’s body couldn’t fit inside the vehicle either. He journeyed whilst bent into a letter C, only his arms holding the wheel and his legs remained inside, though I couldn’t be sure it was him or one of the other dozen in the front seat who was operating the pedals. Generously, considering his predicament, he took a hand off the wheel to give me a wave as they swerved past.

The horns were driving me mad, though I was starting to understand the pattern of it. There are certain situations that seem to merit a blast of the horn here: when you’re overtaking, when you’re being overtaken, if you haven’t seen a car in a while, if you haven’t used your horn in a while, if you have just used your horn, and in place of the words ‘hello’, ‘goodbye’, ‘what are you doing?’, ‘do you like my horn?’

My days in Northern India are now just a muddle of recollections – early morning cricket games in the dusty spaces about town, a man carrying a whole bed on his head, being overfed flavoursome food everywhere, the Indian sun – a perpetually tangerine orb, it's glare blunted by the milky light of pollution, dunes of burning litter by the road and an acrid fog of melted plastic. Wanting directions, I remember once asking a man if he spoke English. He dropped his gaze. ‘I am not civilised’ he lamented, and slunk off, still staring at his feet.

I slept often in police stations guarded by smileless officers with bayonets who slept on the stone floor of their station and at intervals spiced the air with incense. I nearly died at least once per day under the wheels of ebullient rickshaw drivers and have had more near misses here than anywhere. I grew intimate again with India’s toilets – I wondered if perhaps there should be a specific visa for Indian toilets, and then I could have just got a transit visa for the country itself.

Waves of women in black niqabs swept through the streets of Azamgarth, always far from the Muslim men in their grave white thawbs and jaunty dyed-red beards. I thought about how even post-partition, India is home to 176 million Muslims. There is tension between religious groups, occasional violence and prejudice, but relative to other parts of the world, it surprises me that there isn’t more of it considering just how many devotees of different faiths live here, cheek by jowl.

India is not an assault on the senses as a lethargic guidebook writer might offer; an assault doesn’t exclude the possibility of recovery. India is more like a maiming of the senses – I have lost an entire range of hearing to the horns, I will always be able to smell Varanasi, even when I’m continents away, and after photographing Hindi women at the market and gulal powder in pots on the streets, my other photos are rendered anodyne in comparison. The rural roads in India though are a different game entirely though: easy, jovial places where roadside cricket games and the daily banter keep up my spirits. Boys on bikes hurtle past, some slow and ride aside me.

‘Please come to my school’

‘Why?’

‘For children, for looking at you’

‘But the children are always looking at me’

‘Do you like me?’

‘I like you’

‘Then give me your bicycle’

Laughter. Some muttering in Hindi.

‘You know you’re in India right?

I tell him yes

He speaks again to his friends, maybe: ‘yeah, he knows’

I like the idea I could have accidentally got here. Shit, did I turn left at Nepal? I was wondering why that guy with India written across his shirt wanted to see my passport.


My mantra for biking in the world at large has been ‘expect the unexpected’. That car door will open, that man will turn without looking etc. In India the visiting cyclist needs to expect the impossible. Like a man driving a rickshaw with an entire cow inside it, the careering rump of which almost topples two motorbikes. Like a man with a trident who jumps into middle of road and starts making threatening sounds to the closest pedestrians before several people lead him away screaming. Like three old men in white robes on a motorbike who cut across a jumble of zipping rickshaws to offer me marijuana from a tin. I declined of course. Getting high wouldn’t help me dodge the flying cow’s arses or calmly assess the intentions of a wailing man armed with a trident.

Varanasi – I’d been here before, several years ago with a girlfriend. We were woolly-minded and stupefied the entire time. It was hard to forget, and we loved it.

I’d walked the ghats before, I watched the bodies being thrown onto the fires – the city is the holiest of the seven sacred cities in Hinduism and people believe it’s a great privilege to have your body cremated here. This occurs in public, like most things in India, on the ghats by the Ganges. The devoted come to Varanasi when they sense death, some to a few of the 'hospices' that line the ghats, there were more before the balance of power shifted and tourist guesthouses took their place. It’s a city of abundant sadhus, cows who’ve never known a field, and a great press of humanity. It’s chaotic, but in a truly enchanting way and taking a cycle rickshaw through the mayhem is magic.

I decided to try the south of India next, with just a month left on my visa. I managed to find a berth on a train to Mumbai. I went to the parcel office to hand over my bicycle as freight. The men in charge were crowded around a pornographic magazine, oohing and ahhing with each turn of the page. They invited me to join in and shrugged when I asked to register my bike instead. One man gave me a form and hovered over my shoulder instructing me what to write in each box:

‘Here, write: name, and here, write: UK. And here, write: bicycle, old and used.’

I wrote bicycle

‘Write old and used’ he reprimanded

I watched a train approach the station. The platform was crowded and as the head of the train swept past the passengers, men began hurling themselves at the moving body of it, desperately hoping their hands would alight on a door handle. Some managed to cling on, but others bounced off, returning in downcast heaps to the platform. By the time the train had come to a halt each closed door had upwards of ten men dangling on, and they were immediately joined by a rush of people so violent it brought to mind a race riot. When the door opened a tsunami of pushing propelled one person inside, the rest were too crammed together to get in. One man managed it but his bag wouldn’t follow, he couldn’t pull it past the press of bodies and he wouldn’t let it go. Thus he stayed there for five minutes, yanking, everyone shouting, and not one of the hundred pushers behind him gaining entrance. It reminded me of the traffic jam in Nepal, of the inefficiency of bullishness: everything done at a charge ends as self-defeating as it is frustrating to witness.

I had to carry four panniers, a tent, and a loaded dry bag on my own to the train, and struggled until an Indian man came to my aid. I was worried he would ask for money, but I decided I could afford to offer him some for his trouble if he asked. When we got to the train he got out a 100 rupee note and tried to hand it to me! I refused and he left, grinning away at my incessant thank yous.

The indo-gangetic plains of India passed by, the country sepia and old fashioned in the tint of my window. Kids flew kites over shacks. Unpeopled shrubland stretched away.

In Mumbai I stayed in hotel Delight. Either someone had a sense of irony, or the delight refers to checking out. It was a place of sour-faced patrons watching too-loud TV, bed bugs, shoe-prints on the toilet seats and for some reason an old crust of pastry found its way into one of my sandals. But Mumbai I enjoyed. Wide roads, quirky antique markets, trysts on the promenade - a rare and welcome sign of public affection between men and women in Asia. I went to a party with a bunch of Bollywood film makers, visited Mani Bhavan, the focal point of Ghandi’s activities and read his letter to Hitler in 1939 when war was imminent. He wrote something along the lines of ‘don’t be a dick’, but I could be paraphrasing.

Strolling through the streets of Colaba in Mumbai felt like waking from a coma: people flashed in front of my field of view, peering, speaking in words I couldn’t make out, but in a manner that implied a request. Beggars followed at point blank range, skimming my arms with their fingers. The instinct was to lift a kind of social shield, blot out the cajolers and the wheedlers, but then you miss the best bits, the small invitations to sit with men and drink tea, talk about cricket, or the news.

The size and population of India is hard to fathom – this state, Maharashtra, has an area greater than the UK and almost double the population. There are 36 states or territories in India and this is not the most populous. 10 cities in this state alone have populations greater than a million compared to just four in the entire UK.

I cycled south from Mumbai, staying to the small rambling roads that ended at estuaries and where I took boats where bridges had yet to find the need to exist. Mostly it was an uneventful but enjoyable ride, much calmer than the north. I slept on empty beaches and in mango orchards. I saw gangs of langur monkeys and cruised past mangrove-edged inlets and Portuguese colonial forts, now ailing in the ocean. I met a man who asked where I was from and when I answered England he yelled ‘Boris Becker!’ and mimed some tennis serves until I told him that no, Becker was German. He did one last despondent serve anyway. After a few days my front rim developed two cracks that quickly spread and bowed, making the wild grin of a madman from the steel. Before the wheel collapsed entirely, I bought a new one. It cost four pounds.

‘It’s so Goa!’ was the advertising slogan on a billboard as I entered one of India’s smallest states. And that, I soon discovered, was the problem. Goa has become an adjective, a parody of itself. The heady hippy days were almost gone and now its commercial heart beats to the drum of Russians on package tours. The clubs all close by 10 pm because - and I love this - of an Indian law on noise pollution.

It is a beautiful state though, and there were far more attractive corners of Goa to see but I had only two days on the beach and I chose the wrong one. I arrived in Anjuna where the calm of the coastal lanes behind me was immediately fractured by a fleet of bolshy touts. I was offered cocaine, weed, LSD. Did I want ketamine? No thanks, I don’t always trust the biryani.

But I ate in the local joints, eschewing ‘The Burger Factory’. I swam, and fussed about the flea market. I met a cool gang on the beach, had a few beers and then took a bus to Mumbai where I was able to spend two days interviewing patients at MANAV - a psychiatric rehab centre – part of my project on marginalised people in Asia which I hope to combine with the story of my ride in a forthcoming book.

I am currently in Hong Kong, house-sitting for the adventurer Rob Lilwall who cycled from Siberia back to the UK five years back and more recently walked from Mongolia to Hong Kong.

I’d like to say a massive thank you to Rob and Christine, now in London. Thank you as well to Kunal my exceedingly kind host in Mumbai. Also to the MANAV foundation, Rahul and all those who have helped me arrange speaking gigs in Hong Kong (Simon, Liz, Rupert and the RGS, Rachel, Rob and more)

I’m about to embark on a series of lectures in schools in Hong Kong and at an event on the 15th December at the British Consulate, run by the Royal Geographical Society. If you live in Hong Kong, or know someone who does, please spread the word or come down.

Forgive me for the lack of photos this month - my camera, one of the few bits of kit I started with, is playing up.

Next up: A month in China before I hit the wilds of Mongolia. My ice tyres have arrived by post, gulp.