Return to India

With Ross and Pax leaving Nepal via a different border, this was the point where we split up. I cycled out of Kathmandu alone, retracing my previous route for the first hour or so.

The main highway I started on was busy with lots of irritatingly honking trucks and buses. I was relieved when I turned off onto another road, heading south. On the map the two roads are marked as being of the same size. In reality this new road was narrower, with just enough space for one vehicle. Traffic was almost gone, though.

This new road began to climb immediately, starting at an elevation of about 900m. As I climbed, the sky cleared and I had excellent views of the Himalayas to the north.The first section of the climb topped out at around 2000m. I then dropped down slightly into a valley, before resuming the climb up the other side.Shortly before reaching the pass, the cable housing for my rear shifter cable broke. This meant I could no longer use the shifter, and had to change gear by manually adjusting cable tension. This added on quite a bit of hassle! At last I reached the pass, at an elevation of about 2500m. The weather on the far side of the pass was quite different, with thick clouds around me.

It was quite chilly to begin with but I warmed up as I lost altitude. The road was reasonably smooth tarmac but there were frequent potholes and lots of sharp turns meaning I couldn’t build up too much speed. I was enjoying the view, though.There were a few hotels on the descent. In Nepal though, hotel doesn’t mean hotel. Often, restaurants call themselves hotels but don’t offer accommodation. This is quite common in many countries and is rather annoying when one is looking for a place to stay!

After descending about 2000m I reached the town of Hotauda. I checked into a (real) hotel for 700 rupees (about £4.30). As luck would have it, there was a bike shop nearby. I bought a new section of cable housing for just 20 rupees (£0.13). I’m not too confident in the quality but hopefully it’ll last a while!

I wasn’t feeling too well that night. By morning I felt well enough to cycle, though I didn’t have the appetite for breakfast. The day began with a short climb, now on a busy road full of trucks heading to the Indian border.

After ten kilometres I reached the end of the climb and began a fun descent. The road was smooth and straight enough that I was able to build up some speed, except when I got stuck behind a truck. As the road levelled out, practically at sea level, the weather changed to fog (and probably some smog in there too).There was a dual carriageway for part of the last stretch to the border but it was often in poor condition. The border town seemed a poor, very run down place. Again the immigration office could easily have been missed if I wasn’t looking for it.The border created a bottleneck and traffic was moving very slowly – I walked the bike through. I almost missed Indian immigration, but a guy came running after me. The whole process took quite a while – apparently they had some problem confirming that I’d departed India a month ago. Eventually I was allowed to go.

This state, Bihar, is extremely poor. It’s GDP per capita is the lowest of any Indian state, less than one tenth that of Goa, India’s richest state. If Bihar was a country, it would be about the tenth poorest. It’s GDP per capita of $630 puts it roughly on a par with Afghanistan. To compare, the IMF reckons the UK has a GDP per capita of $42,258.

Pretty soon there was a railway crossing which provided a demonstration of the chaotic insanity that is India. On each side of the track, traffic spread out to take up the entire width of the road. Traffic included pedestrians, bicycles, motorcycles, rickshaws, trucks and carts pulled by oxen and various equines. When the train passed and the road opened, everyone just tried to force their way through each other, blaring their horns as they went. It took a long time to clear the blockage.The road was quite busy for a while, with lots of honking trucks. There were a fair few potholes, which by themselves wouldn’t be a problem. The issue was that oncoming traffic would swerve to avoid potholes, driving straight at me, forcing me to dive off the road. I also got quite tired of the motorcycles which pulled alongside me so that the riders (2-3 per bike) could stare and laugh at the foreigner.

It was a relief to get on to a smaller road, where traffic was somewhat reduced. There were still people everywhere though, working in the fields or just sitting at the side of the road, sometimes around a fire. At one point a particularly slow tractor passed through a village, heavily loaded with sugar cane. Several villagers ran behind it to steal as much of the sugar cane as they could.

This was not a tourist area – not in the slightest. There were no hotels, let alone any registered to take foreigners. Finding somewhere to camp would be difficult due to the constant presence of people staring at me. In the late afternoon, I saw an overgrown area next to the road. There were few people around so I decided to head over to set up camp, though it was somewhat earlier than I would have liked. No one followed, so I spent the night there.This region of India has a significant Muslim, as evidenced by my waking up to the sound of”Allahu Akhbar” coming from a nearby loudspeaker an hour before dawn. From then on it blared out irritating music.

I stayed cycling when it got light. I wore my baselayer for much of the day – it was quite a bit cooler than when I left India. I read an article saying Delhi had the coldest weather for twenty years – nearly down to 9°C. Many people were huddled around smoky fires on the side of the road, so it stank worse than usual.

I was feeling pretty slow and stopped to pump up my tyres, which seemed to help. I found that there was some play in my cranks, which means my bottom bracket is worn out and will need replacing soon.

The traffic continued to irritate me today with reckless driving and irritating honking. The horns here are very loud and ear-piercingly shrill. I find it really difficult to be upbeat with these deafening noises.

One of the more unusual vehicles in India is the hand-cycle. These are pedalled by hand rather than foot, as one would guess. I’ve not seen them elsewhere but they’re not uncommon here, usually used by disabled people.

I saw one man walking down the road who seemed to have feet but no legs. His arms reached to the ground and he walked with his hands, rather than his feet, swinging himself forward with both arms at once.

In this region of India there seemed to be very few signs written in the Latin alphabet. I therefore made a fair few wrong turns! One of the only types of sign consistently written in English were the directions to tourist attractions, evidently some government initiative.In the evening I reached Hajipur, a large town or small city. I went in search of a hotel. I asked at one, which would not allow me to bring my bike instead. A nearby man asked what I needed, and offered me directions. “Go straight,” he said while pointing at a T-junction. “Then turn left,” he said while pointing right. Luckily he decided to hop on his bike and very kindly led me to the hotel. He was very friendly and this provided a nice positive note to a day which had been rather lacking in those!

I headed out in the evening to try and get a sim card. This wasn’t a touristy place though and I couldn’t get a sim without a local ID. While walking, I spent a few minutes trying to count the time between hearing car horns. There were two longish periods, one of six seconds and one of three. Apart from that two seconds was the longest gap. It really does my head in!

The road out of Hajipur was a dual carriageway. One side of it was completely blocked by trucks, though, so all the traffic used the other side. It turned out the reason for the blockage was some protest by a bridge. I managed to squeeze past, get over the bridge, and clamber down some steps to the road beneath.This road went through what seemed to be a never ending settlement. For the next few hours there was absolutely no break in the people. The road itself was very narrow, barely wide enough for a car.The narrow road meant that every overtake was a close one, and there was a ridiculous amount of honking which really had me on edge. Since there was so little space I was repeatedly forced off the road by cars and motorcycles, as the drivers wanted to be next to me so they could stare and take pictures. There was one particular car who kept on pulling alongside and slowing down, with the passenger holding his phone out the window to record/photograph me. There really wasn’t space for this so I told the guy I was going to take his phone if he didn’t move on. They left.

I wanted to rest but there was nowhere I would be able to stop without drawing a crowd. Finally there was a short unoccupied stretch of road, near a bridge, and I pushed the bike away to take a rest. Unfortunately I was seen by kids, who stopped to stare. Soon a crowd gathered. To begin with they just stayed on the bridge and talked/laughed about me. After a few minutes some came down to stare close up and to try and grab some of my things. I resumed cycling.Not long after that I had a puncture in my front tyre. I stopped, removed a sharp object from the inside of the tyre, and put in a new inner tube. I found a spot partly hidden by a parked car, and was pretty quick, so there were only about fifteen people surrounding me by the time I was done.

There were a few protesters blocking streets today. They tended to park a line of vehicles across the road, though I was always able to find a way to get the bike past. I don’t know what they were protesting.There was a brief quiet period where the road had markedly less traffic. There was a corresponding reduction in honking, which was extremely welcome. I immediately felt my mood improve.This stretch also had quite a few dogs – most alive, a few dead in the street, and lots more blood spatter which I assume came from dogs. The dogs here tend not to chase cyclists – presumably because there are so many local cyclists that they are used to them.

In the early afternoon I emerged onto a dual carriageway. This was quite nice too. The road was wide enough that there was lots of space to overtake so people didn’t seem to feel the need to use the horn as much. There were still idiots who permanently lean on the horn, but those are a minority. The endless flat road was still somewhat uninteresting but that was several steps above maddening.I stopped at a shop, planning to buy a few things. A man stumbled out of a parked bus, behaving as though drunk. He had a bandage on his head, which looked as though it came from a recent fight. He was pushing people as he walked, and I changed my mind about the shop and decided to leave. The drunk man tried to grab my bike but the men who’d gathered to stare at me prised his hands away. I thanked them and left.

Late in the day I crossed over the Ganges, for the second time.I continued to feel happier that afternoon, a relief after not much enjoying the last couple of days. The wider road was a big improvement, making for less dangerous driving and far less honking.In the evening I reached the town of Lakhisarai. This place was large enough to have several hotels and I set about finding somewhere to stay. The first place I tried insisted I leave my bike outside. The next place I tried let me bring the bike in and was cheaper, too, at 400 rupees (£4.40). I doubt they were registered for foreigners but if they didn’t care neither do I!

The next day was a lot calmer overall. The one bit of excitement came when around midday. I was riding along, and past a man sitting on a parked motorbike. As I went past, he suddenly started up and turned, driving right into me. I unclipped in time and was fine, with just a bruised knee where the motorbike hit it. I told the guy to look where he was going but obviously the rider, passenger and bystanders just stared at me.

Apart from that it was quite a nice day. There were more sections of farmland, without the constant presence of people. Roads were reasonably wide and traffic less moronic and loud. In the afternoon there were even a few hills and several kilometres of green wilderness, a pleasant change.I ended the day in the town of Deoghar, and checked into a hotel. I decided I’d take a rest day too. I spent a lot of time writing the blog post for the Annapurna circuit; I’d fallen quite behind. It may sound strange but lying in bed writing feels like more work than cycling for eight hours!

As I was well rested I was able to leave early, as soon as it got light. This made cycling out of the town much more pleasant as traffic was minimal. I cycled past lots of people brushing their teeth. Some of them had toothbrushes but many just use sticks.My bottom bracket was making a slight noise, added to the play in the bearings. I decided to change my route slightly so as to go through Calcutta, which has a chance of having a decent bike shop. I’d been hoping to avoid cycling through such a large city, but after Calcutta the next likely good bike shop is in Thailand, 3000km away.

There were a few hills today. Well, perhaps that’s an exaggeration, but it wasn’t quite as flat as a pancake. As I climbed the largest hill of the day (30 metres or so), a passing motorcyclist said (in seeming seriousness), “You are very brave. So much up!”Traffic remained generally minimal, which meant less honking and a much less unpleasant riding experience. I was mostly riding through farmlands – rice, predominantly.I crossed the state border to West Bengal and immediately my surroundings changed to woodland.The traffic seemed to be behaving better here too. There was one particular incident where a truck approached behind me in circumstances that made overtaking unsafe. The standard procedure here is for the driver to lean on the horn and make a reckless, dangerous overtake anyway. Instead the driver did something very strange. Without honking, he slowed down, waited until it was safe, and then overtook me, leaving a sensible distance between me and the truck. It was bizarre.

That was an exception but still the average idiocy of drivers did seem to be reducing. In the evening I reached the town of Burpal and set about finding a hotel, ideally with WiFi. The first couple of places had no internet. The next few just shooed me away – the charitable interpretation of which would be that they’re not registered to host foreigners. In the end I didn’t have much choice and stayed at a very basic (but cheap) hotel. I went for a walk and managed to find an unsecured network, which I used to find the location of some bike shops in Calcutta.

I made an early start the next morning, setting off on some rather small roads. At one point traffic was completely stopped, as a truck was completely blocking a narrow tunnel under a railway. I was able to climb up and over the tracks and continue on.I ended up riding on a motorway for much of the day. It wasn’t particularly interesting but it was a lot more pleasant as the shoulder keeps me away from Indian driving.When I stopped for a break, after a little while a man spotted me. He came over and stood about two feet away, just staring at me – as is usually the case here. For a few minutes, I ignored him. It was when he then started masturbating that I decided to move on.

Riding into Calcutta was, for the most part, not too hectic. I did get driven into by one motorcycle but for the most part traffic wasn’t as terrible as it could be for an Indian city. To get to the bike shops I had to get through the market, though, which was absolutely full of people.

I walked along the main bike shop street, which has some 20 or so bike shops. Only one of them seemed the sort to sell decent parts, and they had no bottom brackets. I asked about any other shops that might stock them and he was pretty pessimistic, but agreed there might be a chance at Decathlon. I decided I’d try that in the morning, and checked into a hotel.

I had a long lie in as I waited for Decathlon to open. Finally I set off and rode across the city. I went upstairs and checked the bikes and, though most of them had Indian-style bottom brackets, I did see one that had a Shimano Hollowtech bottom bracket – which is what I needed.

I asked a shop assistant if I could buy one, but he said they had none in stock. That bicycle had been ordered specially for someone. He was pretty confident nowhere in Calcutta would have one in stock.

The only other option nearby is Dhaka, in Bangladesh. It’s supposed to be a very congested city that would be a nightmare to cycle into, and I think it’s unlikely they’d have what I need. After that the next option would be Myanmar, or possibly even Thailand – thousands of kilometres away.

As I went to leave, the shop assistant called me back. He phoned their bike mechanic, just to confirm, and found that they did have a crankset & bottom bracket, ordered in for another customer. They phoned that customer, who was fine waiting for another one to arrive. I would have to buy the crankset too, but that was fine – mine is most of the way through its life.I used their tools to replace the bottom bracket – a job I’ve not done before. It was relatively easy but took quite a while. Some time later, I set off cycling out of Calcutta.

Traffic was busy for the rest of the day. For the first couple of hours I was in Calcutta and it’s suburbs, which were quite congested. Then it was on to the road toward the Bangladeshi border. The road was too narrow for the amount of traffic on it, and there were lots of traffic jams whenever two buses or trucks had to go past each other.In the evening I stopped in the town of Habra. I asked around for a hotel and was told there was one about a couple of kilometres back the way I’d come, but otherwise nothing for 35km. I don’t like backtracking, but I dislike the idea of riding in the dark with Indian traffic more, so I turned around. When I asked again, a friendly guy called Kaustav led me to the Rajnandini hotel.December 16: 127km

December 17: 106km

December 18: 141km

December 19: 143km

December 20: 121km

December 22: 181km

December 23: 163km

December 24: 61km

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