Posts Tagged ‘India’

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 cliché 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’


‘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. 

Bullet in my kneecap

A Nepali market
It was love at first sight. There were mushrooms, beans, asparagus. There were eggs, sitting now in a small lake of my own drool. There was something vaguely sexual in the lay of the bacon, the way it was sprawled, invitingly, in melted cheese.

It was a breakfast that would have prostrated Homer Simpson, and it came courtesy of my friends and masterchefs Annelie and Rahul. I pedalled a full 100 km before I needed to eat again, to Gawahati where another friend, Sumanta, had organised a place for me to sleep. When I left the day  after though, I had forgotten to pack my towel. 40 km later Sumanta appeared in his car to hand it back to me. To fully explain how generous this was, let me for a minute describe my towel. 

There is a thing that lurks in the fetid, nethermost crevasses of my rear pannier. Perhaps it was once white, but it’s impossible to tell. It is the Gollum of bathroom accessories. Claire once held it aloft with a finger, asking, with a more than a faint sense of alarm, ‘what is this?’ It was a genuine question. ‘My towel’. She cocked her head, working her imagination where the most credulous would falter. It’s the kind of thing you might use to wrap your dog in, if your dog was bleeding and needed to be taken urgently to a vet. But only if you really hated your dog. And Sumatra, the kind Sir, drove an 80 km round trip to give it to me. There is no better demonstration of how generous the Indians are than that.

I cut west from Gawahati, enjoying sunny days at last, past vivid green paddies, until I hit the flood plain of the vast Brahmaputra River. The waterway is one of Asia’s greatest: it drifts down from the Ansi glacier through Tibet before fattening up through India and spilling into the Bay of Bengal. It is one of the few rivers in India that are known as male and not female. The annual floods are expansive, and I cycled through a surreal water-world where just forested islands and the odd village were spared. An immense bridge spanned the river, on the other side an elevated railway had become the thoroughfare between villages and hundreds of people marched its course. I slept on the edges of the forest, the air thick with fire flies at dusk.

The next morning a soldier in the road asked me to stop for tea.

‘I’m really sorry I have to push on’ I told him, thinking of my flagging VISA .

He thought about this for second and then said ‘No. You’ll have tea. Please sit down.’

‘I’m really sorry but…’ he turned then to bark some orders at another soldier, as he did so the barrel of his rifle, which was dangling from a shoulder, brushed against my thigh. It then hovered just over my leg as he continued his conversation, the bullet’s trajectory: my kneecap.

He turned to me again. ‘So you’ll have tea?’


It tasted amazing, like a prisoner’s last meal might.

(This post title might be a little misleading, but I ran with it because I’ve just finished Tim Cahill’s ‘Jaguars Ripped My Flesh’. And it got you reading, didn’t it?) (sorry Mum)

My first sight of the Himalayan foothills, a low blue-grey saw beyond a spread of tea plantations, became quickly blurred through weeping eyes. I was surprised by this burst of sentimentality, but then getting here did feel meaningful, like when I arrived to the Arctic Ocean or at that first snatched glimpse of Table Mountain. Crossing the biggest mountain range on earth, along with the coming winter I’ll spend in central Asia, I count as my last big barriers between my wheels and England.

Each day the mountains remained a low silhouette, striped by cloud or masked entirely, but they loomed nonetheless, swelling in my mind, sneaking into my dreams. It was impossible to view the peaks and not wonder what these flats looked like from the opposite perspective: in the thin air where self-doubt reigns, on the steep and jarring trails that wend among the peaks, the ones that set your heart pounding and chest shaking and soul searching.

I pedalled through the Buxa forest next, a place of ivy-dressed trees and scrambling monkeys. I noticed the road I was on swung close to Bhutan and then a small road branched off and penetrated the country, which was now just 17 km away. I didn’t have the coveted Bhutan VISA but perhaps I could sneak in, nose around a little, export some of their fabled national happiness, import some of my own.

Two Christian missionaries on motorbikes didn’t like my chances – there were, apparently, roadblocks and officials ahead. I decided my tactic would be one of speed over stealth. The Bhutanese officials would most likely be Buddhists, I reasoned. They probably wouldn’t shoot me.

The Indian post was easy, it may have been manned but any chance of being discovered sneaking out of the country by officials was dimmed by the very Indian-ness of the tableau: goats shambled, vendors streamed, rickshaws swerved. Then I saw big arch etched with dragons. Bhutan! A truck went past as I did, the timing was perfect and I slipped by unnoticed. Another roadblock loomed though, and I was sure I’d get stopped until I saw a solider talking through a car window and oblivious to anything on the road. Suddenly I was in the unlikely position of cycling through Bhutan, and without a stamp, VISA, permission or care.

I decided on a smaller road to a place on a signpost called Kanyo Thang because the road stayed low and because I wondered if the town might have been named after a Bhutanese rapper. I saw the wall that designated the border stretched out across the fields. Prayer flags flapped beside a river bringing cool water, I imagined, from distant ice caps. The local people I came on looked surprised to see me, wondering perhaps how someone as dishevelled as I could afford the 250 dollar a day VISA Bhutan insists on.

I made it a school, the children dressed in the traditional robes of Bhutan, were perhaps the politest children in the world. As they filed past me I enjoyed a chorus of ‘Happy journey sir!’. A sign on the outskirts of the village warned about the perils of drug trafficking and the hefty penalties for those caught. There was no mention of the penalties for those pedalling religion like the missionaries I’d met before. I wondered whether it was drugs or religion that would cause the most harm.

I’d sketched a route from googlemaps into my journal – it was an improvised ride to Darjeeling, via the back door. I’d bounce about on spindly roads but for forest and mountains I hoped it would be worth it. In Matelli, the local consensus was that there was no way through to the next place on my route, Gorubathan. But a few said yes, it was possible, only 15 km, others assured me it was 30km.Some people smiled in silence. One man dinged my bicycle bell. Eventually someone opted to show me the way, I walked behind him for five minutes and when he stopped outside a Hindu temple on the edge of town he said ‘wait a while with us brother. Share your love.’ And directed me inside.

‘I can’t share my love today brother, I have a long way to go’

He seemed satisfied with that and pointed the way. The track was decades old and in a bad state: ragged islands of tarmac in a sea of dirt. It was a jarring journey past tea plantations and only used by the workers within. A few women glanced at me sideways through sari-shaded eyes and never stopped picking the tea. The track ended in a footpath – this couldn’t be the way, could it? A local man working for a hydroelectric plant offered to be my guide. I wheeled by bike behind him on the path and we arrived soon at a small cliff face, the path ran across its face, sometimes a few inches in width and flanked by a ten metre drop. I have dragged by bike over all kinds of obstacles, but this looked impossible to cross. A farmer arrived though and without conference he grabbed my rear rack and the three of us hefted, rolled and swung it over the gaps in the path. Several times I almost lost purchase in an effort to stop my bike crashing into the river below.

We made it, and when minutes later a road appeared I narrowly avoided hugging my guide. He was going the other way and so left me with a description of my route, adding ‘the forest people will look after you.’ And then, outlandishly, ‘Watch out for tiger and elephant’.

I crossed a bridge and climbed steeply, the temperature brushing 40 degrees, the air a breezeless weight wrenching all my energy away. I dared myself to reach a palm shadow, and then the next, sweat pooling in every crease of skin.

Older tea pickers with lordosis

At Gorubathan I wasn’t sure if I should continue with my plan, which would involve not one big climb to Darjeeling but two, as the route swung down to the Teesta River before climbing again. There was an easier option to Darjeeling. I was exhausted having hardly hit the foothills, but I decided to defer the decision until I was plumped with a good meal. I ate roughly three, leaving the server agog at my effort, and then ploughed on past village girls who scowled at me but couldn’t keep it up for long and burst into giggles further down the road. I ended the day at a village which had a large effigy of Buddha, and local men found me a shelter: I would share a hut with an old man. When I opened the door two rats scarpered up opposing walls, mosquitoes danced in the gloom. I would have been happier in my tent, but it would have been rude to shun their hospitality – the price for such good intentions was a fresh slew of mosi bites and hours of fractured sleep, cut through by tense wakeful moments reverberating with an old man snores and the scuttle of rats.

The valley was steep and pine-sided, the road a fund of switchbacks. At length I hit Lava, a town of colourful several-story buildings and an ornate burgundy Buddhist monastery, 2000 metres above sea level. Prayer flags fluttered and young monks waved at me from the balconies as I mulishly climbed the final metres.

The climb ended 200 metres higher up and then I careered downhill through a run of fetching Buddhist villages in which the houses were poised over a deep valley. From Kalimpong I descended to the Teesta river, spotting three wild peacocks on the way. There are various ways into Darjeeling, all steep, this one though was the steepest. In fact, after 67,000 km of touring I can think of only one other climb this steep and prolonged. I climbed an agonising 1500 vertical metres over just 13.5km which is an average gradient of over 11%, average being the all-important word. Virtually every corner was nudging 25%, and the corners came in droves. It helps to be angry at the mountain, a kind of teeth-grinding murderous rage propels me up it. People passing me in cars looked startled, and I realised that it might have something to do with what was happening on my face.

I topped 2000 metres again and camped on a cloud-rushed ridge next to a Buddhist shrine, a vaguely forbidding kind of place. The next morning I heard chanting so I scrambled out of my tent and strolled towards the voices, through the mist. You have to see it from the women’s perspective to understand their reaction, which was one of eye-bulging terror. You are deep in prayer, on an isolated forested ridge, near a shrine. You are enclosed in a dense mist. The dawn is still and silent. Then something groans. You look in the direction of the noise and there, blundering out of the mist, is a pale hairy thing, releasing a low, unintelligible moan.

The women did bid me good morning in the end  – when they returned that is (they had run away quite fast) and could see I wasn’t supernatural.

Then I whistled into Darjeeling where I had three days to rest before I had to leave India – the time allowed on my VISA was up. The town of course is a famous hill-station, in the foot-hills of the Himalayas. I wasn’t convinced about all this talk of hills. I get it, it’s relative. But in the UK I would be on a certified mountain if I were just half the altitude of Darjeeling.

When the swirls of cloud are thin enough, it is, Darjeeling, one of the most dramatic big towns in the world. On my second day a breeze threw the clouds away revealing a deep valley with roads that looked drizzled on, like icing on a cake. More strikingly though was the vista looming over the town: a row of some of the tallest peaks on earth, including Kangchenjunga, India’s highest mountain and the world’s third, making even the prodigious peaks of Sikkim to the north look cutesy. It’s a sight branded by the travel writer Jan Morris as ‘one of the noblest experiences of travel, one that has moved generations of pilgrims to mysticism and even more to over-writing’. So I’ll leave it at that.

In Darjeeling I met Mike and Chris, a pair of American bikers who had been part of the six strong posse of riders that passed through Myanmar together about two months ahead of me. With their coveted six month Indian VISAs they could afford to loiter and had toured much more of the northeast than I had time to. They were the first cyclists I had seen for months, and it was occasion for beer and stories. In between I visited the zoo and museum at the Himalayan Mountain Institute where there was a 3D plastic mould of the range. I strolled down to the western end, to the Karakorum, where I hoped to cross, but no highway was marked. I stared at it for a while though, dreaming of snowy vistas, hoping for Pakistani VISAs.

I said goodbye to Mike and Chris – Mike waved me off from a bike bedecked in Buddhist prayer flags – and I cycled back down to the lowlands, past tea plantations where the women hip-deep in the shrubs picked away, automatically. I crossed into Nepal via a bridge full of cycle rickshaws, where men in topis and a woman soldier welcomed me to the country. She had henna motifs on her hands and striking green eyes, like the photo of the famous Afghan girl. 

Nepali man, and a Nepali smile, wearing a Nepali Topi

Nepal grew more rural as I pedalled the flat road across the east, travelling over bridges, themselves ranging over sandy river beds. One morning, after pedalling for a few minutes, a snake wiggled past my front wheel. My heart was still pounding five minutes later when I spotted a tiny backpacked child to my left and saw that his school bus was on the far side of the road. Even though he was on the left of the road, his head was fixed to the left as well. When he bolted there was no time to sound the bell, or even to shout. A tailwind was helping me to 30 km/hr. I turned hard to the right and he skimmed off my left pannier and continued to run to his bus as if nothing had happened. He wouldn’t have reached the height of my handlebars and if I’d hit him full on, I don’t want to think about the result.

As I pedalled west, homeward bound and with the sun on my back in the mornings, I passed dazzling huddles of women, eyes bright in the shadows of their saris. There were Sadus too, pacing the road, happy to have their picture taken for an apple or two. There were bristle-faced gaunt-chested men, sitting up straight and dignified on bicycles.

I came to a forested area where I saw some deer and then monkeys that watched me carefully, and moved with tension, like burglars in the night. One morning I came to a big group of Nepalis huddled around something long and thin, stretched out on the road. It was a rock python, killed minutes before by a truck. ‘Ahhh. Just a baby’ said a man, dolefully. The snake was eight feet long. It must be tough crossing roads when you’re that long. The odds can’t be in your favour.

The 13th of September: my birthday. I realised at some dusky point in the evening. I’d forgotten for the second year running. Time unspools like mountain roads, I lose track of where I am. I’ll be home, perhaps, before the next one. I was in a town called Hetauda which was announced via a signpost that read ‘Shivan cement welcomes you to the Green city of Hetauda’ and I had to marvel at a town so apparently eco-friendly it is sponsored by a cement company. I spent the evening perusing emails from friends wishing me happy birthday, and bearing news of new babies. And an email from Claire reminding me of my birthday and telling me not to forget like last year.

The tourist season is short and hectic and Kathmandu’s streets were messy with taxis and motorbikes and people wearing masks to prevent inhaling the pollution and dust. I didn’t bother, its one of the small perks of being an ex-smoker: city air will never match the damage you’ve done to yourself. No need to stress about city air.

In Kathmandu I hung out with Anna, a PhD student from my hometown, and I worked on getting VISAs – another for India, one for China and one for the nightmare of the trio: Pakistan.

The Chinese embassy was the usual confusion of applicants, all jostling and looking defeated from the moment they passed the metal detector. Nobody had a clear idea of what documents were needed, because embassies like to keep important things like that secret until, hours after getting there, you find yourself at the front of the queue and then some self-satisfied paper pusher can tell you what you’ve forgotten. This was my second visit. Three Nepali men in suits strode past the entire line and entered at the front, grinning to each other. They seemed uninjured by the muttering that was, in the end, their only comeuppance. (note to self – do not write blog posts immediately after spending hours in line for VISAs. Wait until stable mental state has returned).

A lady three ahead of me in the line, British, was carrying an extremely cute three year old girl whom she deposited on the counter. The girl pressed herself up against the glass turning the embassy official gooy-eyed and silly-faced. It was the best tactic I have ever seen used to score a VISA. I didn’t hear what the lady said to the official, but I reckon it might have been something like ‘I’d like a five year multiple entry VISA to Tibet please. Oh, and hurry the fuck up’.

So no need for the obsequious noises, the myriad thank yous, the flaunting what you know of the officials native tongue. Just borrow a baby, that’s my advice. Steal one if you have to. Pass it down the queue so everyone can benefit.

As I walked back to my hostel I past the Nepali passport office. The mass of humanity awaiting documents brought to mind a refugee camp. With a UK passport, things really aren’t all that bad, are they?

My brain hurts thinking of all the hoops I have to jump through for the next stage of my trip. I can’t say for sure what will happen next but plan A is a Himalayan adventure in Nepal, then back into India, into Pakistan and over the Karakorum into a very cold China. If I can’t do that, then there will be flights involved, which will be spirit-crushing but unavoidable.

Thank yous – Anna, Sumanta, Lizzie and Sanju.

Finally I’m glad to announce that this blog made it to number 10 in the list of the world’s most popular bike touring blogs (based on Alexa, domain and page authority) so thank you to everybody for reading and sharing.

Life in the wrong lane

Mmm. maybe I’ll get the train.
‘Can ask what is your good name Sir?’ asked the immigration official in the border town of Moreh.
I told him my good name.
‘And can I ask what is your religion?’
My answer arrived in a stream of vowel sounds, a mumble ‘none’.
‘No Sir’ I said, bowing my head in deep, illogical shame.

My cap was pulled down low, and as he led me out into the street I didn’t see the top of the gate. My head smashed into it so hard I was knocked to the floor. Dazed, the guard helped me to my feet.

‘See Sir.’ He said. ‘Everyone needs a religion’.

It took a while to get this photo, after each snap one of the three students would appraise the image in my viewfinder and decide they weren’t looking sultry enough. ‘Another!’ I was ordered.
I had travelled straight from the Burmese monsoon into the more illustrious Indian one. Rain gushed through the streets and pummelled my panniers as it has for months now. In Moreh I took a break, I needed one after the rush across Burma, and spent most of the next day gorging in the same eating house. In the morning I had spotted a man come out of it, jiggling airily to Bollywood tunes blaring from within, and holding out a wodge of chapattis for a passing cow. Was there a more clichéd an image of India than this? Deciding not I ventured inside where I found an amply constructed matriarch, whose belly on occasion loomed at me from between shivers of her sari, and her moustached husband who wiggled his head in that most convivial of Indianisms. The Bollywood medley came and went, victim to the region’s many, many power outages. I stopped often at the shop next door too because the purple-saried Indian girl working there was a smoldering beauty and kept called me ‘my brudder’. I am in love with the Indian accent. What’s more satisfying to the ear? It has music, zeal, insouciant charm. It’s an accent suited to the voice from the Intercom in the event of an imminent aeroplane disaster: things could be worse, I would muse, as my burning co-passengers thrashed and wailed around me.

To Indians, on discovering the extent of my journey, I am a ‘roamer’, and I am not ‘single’ with its rather dreary connotations, but a ‘bachelor’: yesteryear’s player. There are scores of appealing inventions: hotels advertise ‘lodging and fooding’, and the idea that food can be a warped into a present participle is a nice one I think because it implies that food might also become a verb. ‘I’m so famished I’m gonna food the hell out of this place’. Or ‘He fooded excessively for most of his natural life, before his stomach exploded.’ Metaphorical language too has an Indian tang: A young student once told me that he’d love to travel, but that in reality he was to remain ‘like a frog in a well’. Brilliant. And on a poster in the street I found an advertisement for a self-styled sexologist offering all kinds of cures for sexual related problems, from STDs and impotence, but it was the thought-provoking ailment of ‘sexual devility’ which tickled me most, conjuring the image of a pot-bellied man in a red devil outfit with a lusty glint in his eye. ‘Doctor you must help me, I keep scaring girls with this damn sexual devility!’

India felt to arrive on me, more than I did to it, perhaps because of where I’d come in from. On occasion I pass a border where the two countries couldn’t be more at odds: Egypt and Sudan, Albania and Greece, Ethiopia and everywhere. Add Myanmar and India to the list. The roads are the first clue: the drivers more bullish, the streets more hectic. Even the animals move differently: nothing whimpers on the side-lines like in Myanmar, here the cows and goats meander unbidden, assuredly loping up and down the street with the calm of pacing school examiners, and moving through the traffic like the tuk tuks – edging slowly and forcibly across the road despite the blare of horns. Nowhere on earth has the intrigue, the explosion of colour and the air (happily in the figurative sense, unfortunately in the literal) of India.

Tea pickers
The road to Imphal was beset by police and army roadblocks – far more than I had encountered in Burma – the officials were hunting for smugglers of opium or currency. I was usually introduced to the commander – there was never any confusion about who that might be: dark aviator sunglasses, a galaxy of obsequious subordinates spilling about him and the mien of leader: someone who simultaneously exuded a warm and don’t-mess-with-me confidence. The soldier’s questions ranged from the eye-brow raising ‘what weapons do you carry?’ to the apparently pointless ‘father’s profession?’ to the unanswerable ‘vehicle registration?’ after which I’d leave them to grapple with that nightmare scenario shared by officials the world over: a form with an empty box. Occasionally we’d chat about the differences between India and the UK which would often culminate in some optimistic ruminations: ‘You have exciting life in England, no? This is simple life for us in India. In England you go out to casinos all the time, and you run about doing exciting things’.

I didn’t reach Imphal in one day because the road climbed to 1600 metres to an army encampment which straddled a cloud-rushed ridge. On the other side of the mountains my chain snapped: I was oil-stained and dejected when a young guy swung by on his motorbike and offered me a place to stay.

Lightson and his family were the very essence of hospitality. They prepared a bed for me and a meal of fish curry and rice. In India there is a grave responsibility to finish everything on your plate – no problem: the food was delicious. His aunt prowled behind our backs, ladle in one hand and huge pan of rice in the other. Frequently she would snap forward and dump another glut of rice on to our plates. I watched how the others would handle this as the meal progressed – as she went for the swoop they whipped their hands in front of their plates, barring the path of the barreling heap of rice, whilst emitting repellent grunting sounds. But she was persistent. When I tried she just batted my hand away and delivered more rice. It was amazing hospitality, and I had a great trouble moving after the meal.

Then into Imphal, the state capital of Manipur, where I met up with Pedal Attack – a vast tribe of tattooed mountain bikers who adopted me soon after I visited a local bike shop. I spent the next dew days being taken out to scenic sites and restaurants and to a local school where I gave a presentation. Amongst the din and chaos of Indians cities it was great to meet people so enthusiastic and passionate about biking. Thank you guys.

Lightson and fmaily
Leemax from Pedal Attack took me to Loktak lake on his Royal Enfield motorbike
These guys carry car batteries on their backs and electrocute the fish in order to catch them.
The North East of India is a collection of eight states, herniating off the rest of the country and at the slimmest point (the ‘chicken neck’) only a 14 mile wide tract of land connects it to the rest. Many people here would recognize their tribal allegiance, or even just their state, as surmounting their Indian citizenship.

Religion might factor in to this sense of detachment: the majority here are Christian rather than Hindu (and devotedly so). Whilst I sensed a real optimism about the North East (tourism is growing fast in the wake of lifted restrictions and successful PR) the region still has its problems. Imphal was gripped by protests over the reticence of the government to bring in the ‘Inner Line Permit’ – a system aimed at protecting local interests. In the streets I saw a great rush of students in protest, on the walls posters declared ‘Save Manipuri People – Endangered Human Species’ and on the local news hospitalized students were shown in the aftermath of the rounds of tear gas fired by police. The issue is a complicated one, well beyond the ken of a passing tourist like me, but there was a bit of me that was glad to see some evidence of mass dissent, however staged (how political are most 15 year olds?), after a month in Myanmar where to stymie that sort of rebellion, tear gas would be the hors d’oeuvre.

Imphal is pinned in by nine hulking mountains and the rising road out was decorated by government signs that read ‘Drive, don’t fly’, ‘Drive horsepower, not rum-power’ and ‘drunk drivers are bloody idiots’. Soon I battled up the road into the state of Meghalaya which was layered in thick mud, sometimes half a metre deep, halting the passage of traffic entirely. I had to get the help of a team of local men to haul my bike through. To my left a vast sheet of flat land was sprawled, spangled with sun-kissed lakes and rivers, spotted with vegetation. As I admired it a voice from behind me answered my question. ‘Bangladesh!’ it said. Of course it was, but with a single entry VISA for India, it would remain the stuff of remote glimpses.

That night the police at a roadblock found a small tin-roofed shack for me to stay in (‘we salute you and your amazing adventure!’), but first they had to evict seven chickens, one policeman walked out of it with one chicken neck in his grip, mid-execution. It was candle-lit and cobwebbed and dank inside, but it was mine, and from the window the lakes of Bangladesh shimmered like fish scales. The night was jagged with the creak of cicadas, the whirr of the wind and the prickle of rain on metal.

The next day no vehicles were granted permission to use the roads throughout the state of Meghalaya – it was Indian Independence day and local ‘outfits’ (‘militants’ according to the police) had instigated a ban on all traveling vehicles – a protest against a government decision to outlaw a form of coal mining called ‘rat hole mining’ on the grounds that it can lead to landslides, unsafe working conditions and pollution. For me, this meant no traffic and no horns, bliss then, if it weren’t for the torrential, unceasing rain. There was a big depression in the Bay of Bengal – big, I was told, even by monsoon standards. Days were slate-grey and bleary with cloud and soon every bit of clothing I owned was wet through which meant grim-faced shuddering when it was time to get dressed.

India – where even the insects are colourful.
The coolest thing about landslides is the mimicry of elements: for an instant land becomes water. Earth looks to flow and boil, a splash of rock here, a foam of shattering shale there. Running in the dun-coloured gash in the forest beside the road through the Jaintia hills was an actual waterfall, inseparable though from the powerful rockfalls beside it. The road had been closed for two days and as the mountain frayed, spitting out man sized boulders, all I could do was stand about with the truck drivers, who were wrapped in checkered shawls and hypnotized by the tumble. Finally there was something more stare-worthy than I was.

‘Last year we were stuck for a week’ a man told me resignedly. Eventually a JCB got to work but a massive pool of mud remained on the road. A panic of drivers ploughed into it, knowing this might be their only chance for who knows how long. As they drove madly they spread giant wings of mud from their tyres, covering me head to toe. My turn arrived: I whizzed into the soup, eyes ahead, up at the falling rock, ahead, up. Few cars came after me, there must have been another great collapse of the mountain soon after I got through.

Indian streets are knotted with bands of men, chewing paan (betel nut), each crowd absorbing wandering pairs and trios. Everything requires an audience: card games, conversations, arguments, me. India is just a place where people group, compulsively (they have to in a nation of 1.2 billion and growing fast) and here the observation most startling about me, more than the fact I pedal everywhere, is that I do it alone.

I don’t want to indulge in too many gratuitous generalisations but privacy is to be a touch suspicious of in India, famously so. Ostensibly this means people having a good poke and peer at my bike and the contents of my panniers, and there is always interest in the affairs of strangers. Sometimes I hear conversations along the lines of:

‘I’m off to visit Ana’
‘Who’s that?’
‘You don’t know her. She’s in hospital’
‘What’s wrong with her?’
‘Something with her ears I think’
‘What is wrong with her ears?’

Yes, people stared, yes they grouped about me, yes, it wasn’t always easy, but the Indian hospitality was unyielding. ‘There are good people everywhere’ one of Indian silver-haired professorly type told me in Silchar. ‘I was in England in 1988. I asked an Englishman where was this building, and he showed me right to it! He walked with me for 50 yards!’

He remained there frozen, truly impressed. I thought about how much his example paled in comparison to the generosity I received in the first two measly weeks in the country. Six different people have hosted me so far, strangers all, generally inviting me after spotting me on the street, and more have offered. I wondered if I would recount these stories to visiting Indians back in the UK one day. The man of course then paid for my breakfast, insisting as he did so that he was representing India.

My bicycle often acts as an ice-breaker and opens the door to conversation. At length, it’s established: I’m British, I can’t speak Hindi, I’m going to Darjeeling, Yes I’m a bachelor, yes I’m alone, yes really, yes completely alone. Lately I’ve been getting fed up with the surface nature of travel through countries in which I don’t know the language, so in India its great to learn what people feel about all kinds of issues: the legal system,dowries, population control, religion, the environment, Imperialism and the Commonwealth Games. Oh and cricket, of course.

The rain continued when I reached Jowai on Independence Day, an event which the town celebrates through a display of profound glumness. There was the incessant rain of course, but more depressing to locals was the decimation of their industry: this was the heart of the mining country.

I arrived into Shillong ready for time off, and wet through, though the rain had eased a touch. That’s not to say it was anything less than torrential, it was just marginally less sopping, like stepping out from under Victoria Falls and directly under Niagara. Shillong was much nicer than the other Indian cities I’d visited – with a very blue cathedral, the odd cafe and even pedestrianized areas (though cars do drive down it) and a no-beep zone (though everyone still beeps).

There is nothing as shameful as finding yourself in KFC when you are in a country of food of sublime flavour and renown. Nothing. Not even if I had stolen lunch from a blind street child would I feel this guilty. The Colonel’s crispy chicken only just quelled my self-loathing. But it was in KFC that I met Ankan.

Ankan: an immensely affable and intelligent guy working on an environmental project who had spent time studying in the States. Within minutes of our meeting he had invited me to stay and I took him up on the offer. A presentation was arranged, media interviews, delicious dinners, and drinks and meetings and tea and then we teamed up with his friends: Rahul, Annelie and Max to visit the world famous living root bridges near Cherapunji.

We also did a lot of eating – of good food, not KFC. I’m getting used to people referring to me in the third person when I’m eating. As I gorged in Shillong, among my new awestruck friends, I heard things like:

‘wow, look at him eat. How much do you think he’ll manage?’
‘Dunno. Doesn’t look like he’ll stop any time soon’
‘Give him more rice, lets see what happens’

The Root Bridges, Near Cherripunji, Meghalaya

I am in the about the wettest place on earth, in the wettest time of year, during a particularly wet spell and I am wet. Soaking, in fact. I stare out at a high rim of land, the Sohra plateau, striped by immense waterfalls, a view so vast it’s addictive. I notice Max by my side. ‘Might clear up’ I venture. He stares out, grimly. Silence. Lightning silvers the murk.

Why weather researchers still quote the annual rainfall of Cherripunji in milimetres is not clear considering it comes by the metre, usually around twelve of them each year. It has been raining hard and unendingly for three weeks, a local family tell me. Uncountable waterfalls streamed down every rock face on the way here. We were all out late last night and the twisting road flaired our hangovers.

Outside the car water immediately hijacks my senses: it is all I can see, hear and feel. ‘The clouds come from Bangladesh’ explains Rahul,’and when they hit the mountain, BOOM! They burst. Its incredible man’. Twelve metres, I recall. Incredible indeed.

Resigned to the fact I’m about to get wet, I stomp in the puddles which soon turn into streams. We descend steps, the first of a couple of thousand to the river below, and in its state of swollen fury, I can already hear it’s rumble.

‘If you need to pee, do it now.’ says Rahul. ‘I’m serious. Forest is sacred. No peeing.’

Locals have stories. Of a woman dressed only in white who dissolves out of the mist and wanders through villages: the spirit of the forest. You would do well not to offend her. Another tale recounts the plight of a local man who had forsaken the spirit of the forest in some way. Slowly, tell locals, he went mad – cooking meals for a family he didn’t have.

Eventually we make it down and cross iron bridges, where the violence of the water beneath our feet is mesmerizing, to reach our destination. The living root bridges were built by the War-Khasis native tribe who guided the growth of secondary roots of the Indian Rubber trees using wooden planks so that the roots eventually traversed entire rivers. It takes time to grow a bridge – decades in fact – and some here are over 500 years old.

The one we have hiked to see is known as the Double Decker. As I shuffle across, peering below and then into the mist-dressed jungle, a butterfly as fat and black as a bat flutters past me. The bridge is solid, no sway or give, sturdier in fact than the metal ones in our wake. Miraculously the rain has eased for our hike back, but not for long. As we reach our ride it rains anew. Pelts it down. I say a silent goodbye to the massive waterfalls still in sight, their majesty a good trade for the rain in my hair, in my boots, seeping into my clothes, foisting shudders. I realise at once that my hangover has vanished. In fact, I feel great.

I left Shillong a touch sentimental to be leaving behind new friends and there are a heap of thank yous this month:

Ankan – thank you so much dude, Aiban, Rahul, Annelie and Max, everyone at Asian Confluence, Sumanta (you will feature in the next blog post my friend), all of the boys at Pedal Attack, Lightson and family, the school in Imphal, Vikash and a big thank you to India for being generally fantastic.

Next – I’m heading to Darjeeling and then I cross into Nepal because my Indian VISA expires and I’m optimistically aiming to cross the Himalayas before the pass closes for the winter. Kathmandu will be home whilst I score VISAs for onward travel, collate kit and rest. Oh and write: I have a bunch of articles appearing in various magazines and websites soon – look out for pieces in Adventure Travel, CNN, and Wild among others. I’ll post links to these on my facebook page – and if you haven’t liked it yet: here’s your chance…
(function(d, s, id) { var js, fjs = d.getElementsByTagName(s)[0]; if (d.getElementById(id)) return; js = d.createElement(s); = id; js.src = “//”; fjs.parentNode.insertBefore(js, fjs); }(document, ‘script’, ‘facebook-jssdk’));

A land of hope and stories

Yangon retreated, streets bled slowly of traffic and people, as I pedaled north with my friend Al, a TV camera crew and a thundering headache from a cheap and pesticide-scented red wine I’d knocked back the night before, or so I thought. When Al and the camera crew peeled off a fever kicked in, chased by diarrhoea of a Hiroshima quality and my hangover theory faded with the urban clutter. The murdered chicken made into Yangon street food was wreaking revenge, and its target was my intestines and Burma’s roadside foliage.

By dusk I was a tremulous train wreck of a man, but I found the owner of a guesthouse, all would be OK if my imminent coma was near a toilet.

‘I have a room but I’m afraid you cannot stay. No foreigners.’

‘Please!’ I beseeched him ‘I’m sick and there’s nowhere else to sleep’ adding some operatics: a belly clutch, a wobble, a loose-mouthed nod that foretold some medical disaster on his doorstep.

‘I’m sorry. The soldiers will punish me’

Great, I thought, and cursed the military junta, adding my woes to their various sins. Forced land confiscations, torturing advocates of democracy, recruiting child soldiers, and now this.

That night, as my fever clambered to ever greater altitudes, I sneaked off the road into a fruit tree plantation to rough camp (which is flouting the law in Burma). I scrambled urgently out of my tent every few minutes, in the style of an army recruit, to squat in the ant-filled dankness, and besieged by mosquitoes, I hoped vaguely that the sonorities of bowel gas didn’t alert the Burmese army to my whereabouts.

The next day I rode until I found a hotel in a town in which the entire street became a stadium: pop-eyed people stalled, slack jawed, as I pedaled by. Travellers, and their dramatic pantaloons, are coming to Burma but few reach these backwaters and I swaggered about in search of dinner, enjoying my new-fangled VIP status. Tourism is not the only change, technology too has proliferated: two years ago Internet was virtually non-existent outside Yangon and mobile phone sim cards cost 200 dollars. Now Yangon has a beguiling clothing store called Facebook Fashion, complete with the logo, a ‘Epson’ sign has been laid over one of the giant Buddha effigies inside the Shwedagon pagoda (which is either product placement or people are now praying to Epson) and there is even an ‘Apple Store’, though it is an un-ironic rundown shack with a jumble of fractured circuit boards and dusty radios that, charmingly, has borrowed the name.

Drivers in Burma are afflicted with that particular Asian compulsion to use car horns so loud they must have been borrowed from oil tankers. Outside Asia, and New York, if anyone sounded their horn for that much time you would expect them to have sustained a gunshot wound to the head and be slumped lifelessly over the steering wheel. Here cars barrel past in a frenzy of clamor and dust and then a flapping hand flies from a window, the right hand window of a right hand drive car which drives on the right hand side of the road, and three letters, tall and robust, pitch up in behind your eye lids – W T F. The explanation: Cars come from Japan, Thailand or India (all of which drive on the left) but in Burma they changed the driving side of the road to the right, to snub old colonial associations probably, (though it is also rumoured one of the General’s wives was told by her astrologer that it would be better this way) and now overtaking means placing the least flappable of the posse in the passenger seat and is as perilous as donning an Aung San Suu Kyi t-shirt and striding into a military base with pamphlets and a megaphone.

North of Pyay the country turned a vivid green scattered with oxon and carts, devoid of modern farm machinery. Women in rice hats set about their crooked work in the paddies, all for the accomplishments of subsistence and lordosis. Its women who build the roads too, and women who work the shops, and women who care for the children. Many men in Burma have the more sweatless tasks of loafing in shadow, whiskey bottle in hand, or approaching me by way of a self-important march and announcing their position in the army or police so I can acknowledge their status and pay due respect. It’s unsurprising though in the context of an authoritarian military regime or government (insert whopping inverted commas) – it’s the minority groups, the women and the poor who always pay the biggest price.

Cycling through Burma I get the impression, however self-aggrandising this may sound, that my being here will find its way into stories: my stories, of a Burma then unsmeared by mass tourism, and those of children I meet who may one day recount stories of the old Burma to the next generation: the military state before Aung San Suu Kyi’s release, and their memories of the flagship tourist they saw as a child – a hirsute, odorous man on a bicycle, tired enough to wear an air of disaster.

Various rules for tourists are enforced in Burma: I am not allowed to be hosted by locals, to camp or to stay in guesthouses. My only option then is the more expensive hotels, of which there are few. So, petulantly, I got into the habit of pitching up to the local police station at dusk, bouncing my shoulders and declaring that I had nowhere to sleep thereby saying, in roundabout fashion, I am your problem. There were myriad phone calls, notes scrawled and debates made until eventually I would be delivered to a monastery or police station where I could spend the night. If I surreptitiously wild camped and had to explain where I’d slept at roadblocks the following day, I would tell them the town with the nearest hotel, and when that town was 80 km away and it was 10 am, I was relying on them thinking me some sort of super-human which I played up to by broad arm stretches and furious moppage of sweat and ‘yep, tough morning’.

In villages I saw young men and boys, their lungis rolled up into Sumo-esque pants, launching their bodies into martial art style flying kicks, aiming to connect with a rattan ball : a sport called Sepak takraw. I often sat to watch these games of incredible dexterity and skill: imagine volley ball but you use your feet and the aim is to go for the smash. Even these photos don’t do it justice.

In eating houses it often felt like a pit stop: a whole team of people, unasked, would busy themselves around me: a lady would fan me to keep me cool, a guy would apply oil to my bike chain, another might put a waterproof sheet over my bike if it was raining, someone would draw me a map and bring me water. Paying was denied me even after pained guilt-wracked pleas. Everyone would smile copiously and it would make me ponder the enamel dissolving betel nut and another of life’s ironies: the Burmese are a people with the easiest smiles, and the worst teeth.

In one village a girl shot to my side, armed with a phrase book entitled ‘English for Ladies and Gentlemen of Business’ a pamphlet from antiquity compiled by the Burmese regime. ‘Do you have any rubies or gems to trade?’ she asked. I shook my head and borrowed her book to find the appropriate response ‘I’m afraid Madam the matter is quite one-sided’. I also noticed the delightful advice if the esteemed business visitor wants to travel the country: ‘These days the hill tribe people are far-seeing, they come down to the plains to visit the spreading markets, like us’.

The girl, who was in her early 20s, struck me as unusually forthright for a Burmese lady, but her intentions soon became clear.

‘Are you married?’
‘Do you have fiancé or lover?’
‘Um, no’
‘I don’t believe you! Give me your passport’

I handed it over

‘Beautiful’ she cooed as she appraised my photo, which was odd since I had always considered my passport photo to smack of someone with a long history of freeganism and paedophilia.

‘I want to travel so much’ she continued. ‘But I have no sponsor for my passport’ Then she looked me dead in the eye, her stare more suffused with determination than desire.

‘My name is Maiah, you will remember me. This is where I work. You can come back here any time’

By the state of me, I surmised that she must really, really want out of Myanmar.

In the tropical wet season there’s futility in scoping the sky for signs of rain, you make slit-eyes at the horizon instead, where a mist sweeps in with the fervor and bite of a Saharan sandstorm. After some torrential bursts in the south though the rains eased and then ended, the fields bieged and were split by rocky gullies. The rivers dried to nothing, vast bridges ranged over sand and succulents. The change of landscape brought with it a powerful feeling of progress: I was moving fast. In this scrubby semi-desert I wild camped, a nameless wild herb perfumed the air and for the first time, possibly since somewhere in Mexico, I left the fly open: there were no mosquitoes in the gloom. In the still dusk I watched hummingbirds zip in and dunk their long beaks into flowers overhanging my tent, and in the bliss of the alfresco and star-lit night, I flopped into sleep.

Bagan: A vast array of ancient temples spots the land for miles. In town the ubiquitous rubble and ladders attest to the explosion of construction for the coming tourists. It’s one of the bigger attractions in Burma and I watched tribes of travelers take to scooters and motorbikes, sitting rigid, upright and uneasy, to explore the surrounds.

For my planned detour to Burma’s mountainous Chin state I didn’t have much to go on. No tour reports, altitude maps or the like, just a patch of orange on my map, as blank as a desert, with the dim names of a few diminutive settlements joined by roads that, with their million sharp wiggles, bore the semblance of electrocuted cartoon worms. My main worry, among a shed load, was that it wouldn’t be possible to ride 900 km over 11 days, usually this would be a cinch, but I had to factor in all the unsealed dirt roads, the 20% grades, the climbs to 3000 metres above sea level, the monsoon turning earth to mud: July was the worst month of the year to be there. I wasn’t even confident I’d be allowed into the state by officials. As far as I knew, no foreign cycle tourer had cycled any of the roads I planned to ride for years or decades. On the road towards the mountains I was offered an alternative: a rod straight temptress of a throughfare, flat probably, soothing my passage to India. I deliberated. It was wet and cold already, it would be worse up in the mountains. But regrets, I remembered, never chase adventures such as this. So I gulped hard, and launching into a game of one-up-man-ship with myself, I paid a wistful glance at the easy road, but instead turned my handlebars hard to the left and set off towards Chin State.

I decided not to worry about miles or kilometres or speeds; instead I’d concentrate on hours. If I got up early, and was on the road for 6 am and ended at sunset with just a few short breaks for food, then maybe I’d make it before my VISA expired. Early one morning I came across two beshawled women, crooked and witch-like, shuffling down the misty road, grinning at me, and I knew I must have arrived: one of the women bore the facial tattoos that mark some of the older women of Chin State, and have garnered them so much renown. The history of the practice is a little cloudy, perhaps the practice arose to make the women less attractive so they wouldn’t be kidnapped by neighbouring tribes. Which to me unnervingly resonated with the practice of cattle branding.

The road twisted into the clouds: on one side of me was a cliff face, lost at times to landslides which I edged around, on the other side a white oblivion, sometimes bright white and heavenly with sun, other times leaden and threatening, but always thick and masking. Near Bagan I had invoked the scarlet smiles and waves from Burma’s betel nut addicts, further out I was met by stone-faced astonishment and I left behind me an array of people statuesque and blank in awe. But as I went up and up, on dirt roads, I found muffled mountain people, an almost Andean evocation, who exploded into half-mocking laughter as I hammered down on my pedals and was chased out of town by snakes of voluble children. In the shabbiest indigent mountain communities leery women would quicken their shuffles, children would scatter, men would shrink into doorways. But always when I approached they would shed their edge and invite me in for tea.

There were only two towns on my route in Chin State, and the villages had no fresh produce, just stale biscuits and noodles and the suggestion of future scurvy, but even in the most desolate of settings I would see the wooden boards declaring ‘National League for Democracy’. Children and chickens would dissolve out of puffs of cloud that drifted through the streets along with men shouldering ancient rifles with enormous barrels, and women puffing pipes, cloth wrapped around their heads. These women led me inside where we all sat around a sputtering fire, the steam rising off my damp clothes blending with the wood smoke, and as the wind rattled the tin roof, and we crouched on our hams, sipping tea in silence, we all wondered what I was doing here.

The cloud obscured the vista from the roads cut into mountainsides but as the wind plowed into me, and drizzle steeped my beard and made glistening morning cobwebs of my arm hair, I felt hardy and alive. It was cold at 2700 metres high though, I warmed my hands on my brake-heated rims after the downhills. When the wind gusted enough to clear the cloud a vast scene launched from the murk: forested peaks dressed in cloud and menace, proving me minuscule. Up here the lowland tropics were a faded photo in my memory, now it was mossy, windy and wet: Wales on steroids. Up two vertical kilometres, down one, up two, down two, up one.

The villages were draped over ridges instead of cut into mountainsides, perhaps because of a particular peril of the season: Landslides. I saw their aftermath every five or ten kilometres, sometimes huge ones blocking the road and only motorbikes could get past so that now no cars or trucks could follow me and if there was a mechanical problem with my bike, I’d be walking out, and that could take a week or more. On cue my right pedal began to click ominously and I realised the bearings were shot. There was nothing for it but denial.

On one precipice-edged mountain road I paused as fist-sized rocks cascaded down the mountain ahead of me. I chose my moment, switched on my Go Pro and pedaled madly past the raining earth and slate. I turned to watch the ongoing tumble when a huge section of soil flowed off the rock face like water. I didn’t feel in danger though until the entire slope suddenly subsided, three trees came crashing down the mountain submerging the entire road, and then the landslide moved horizontally in my direction: I jumped on my bike and pedaled hard shouting, as was later revealed in the video footage, a very bad curse word and the name of a certain deity.

I came out of the clouds and cycled through rolling primary forest, the road was furnished with mud and dozing buffalos, and I had to stop and haul my bike. By night I rough camped, and one morning I woke to find a bloody patch on the wall of my tent – a leach had attached itself to me and feasted, and then I’d turned and squished it. Sometimes I slept in villages, often the local pastor or teacher could speak some English, and sometimes the village prodigal son was home from the States, a refugee on leave. In their stilted wooden homes the walls owned a picture of a blue eyed, lightly bearded Jesus as well as Avril Lavine (her image in remote villages around the world is one of life’s conundrums) and then in the households of the more prosperous, photos of their kids, their faces pasted eerily onto the bodies of other children in suits, on boats or at the seaside. Many times I was told that I was the only foreigner to have stayed in the village, people assumed I worked for an NGO. ‘Where is your interpreter?’ they asked. Once, I was told, a Frenchman had come. ‘On a bicycle?’ I asked ‘No no! A motorbike. Nobody comes here on a bicycle. Except you, Englishman.’

Flat. F-L-A-T. That is what the pastor had said about the road out of Chin State. He’d even demonstrated, with a horizontal swish of his flat hand, and so there has been no semantic mistake, ‘flat’ is not Burmese for ‘vertical’. At every bend I glanced up from the jagged rocks that ‘paved’ the road to find my eyes settling in dismay on something that looked more suitable for base jumping than mountain biking. Deity-decrying terrain. Eventually I made it up and significantly closer to deep space, through my habit of piecemeal optimism: I trick myself time and again into believing that the next uphill bend (or mile, or day) will be the last. If I were more intelligent or cynical doubt would rob me of the mental ability to ride up big mountains. A week or so afterwards, in India, another man described the road as flat. Are you sure? I asked. ‘Yes yes’ he replied. ‘Flat. But it does get a little cold. Especially when you get up into the clouds’.

I made it to Kale, closing in on the border and found a bike shop to get new brake pads. The zesty and sweaty mechanic in charge was wearing a singlet that depicted a swastika (you may think this to be a symbol of Hinduism, but I have my doubts). He motioned frantically for me to sit and then tried to remove my brakes with a cone spanner, before I could tell him he needed an allen key he began bashing my new shimano xt brakes with it! ‘Stop Stop!’ I yelled, ‘what are you doing?’ He pointed to a little mud on the rim which he had decided to remove with ultimate force. Then he gabbled something incomprehensible, jumped onto my bike and cycled off. ‘what the fuck!’ I think I yelled and another mechanic explained he had gone to the workshop ‘but I can replace brake pads!’ I said exasperated. Now a smack-happy nazi was joy-riding my bicycle around a strange Burmese city and I was haunted by the vision of bike verses truck, a scenario I had avoided for 65,000 km. He returned in 20 minutes, both wheels were paralysed through rubbing pads. I adjusted them as he grinned on, and I regretted my funk – he was only trying to help.

Eventually I got to Tamu and checked out of Burma – a country that has worked its way into the answer of that much posed question: ‘And where is your favourite place?’ Not all Burmese people share my sentiment, and why would they? Many are locked up for political reasons and various groups are still persecuted, especially Muslims in Rakhine. Land is still being confiscated. The army consumes around 40% of the country’s money, about 2% is spent on healthcare – a fact I was reminded of as I looked out over rice paddies, at the bent women toiling, as two cutting edge Burmese fighter jets split the blue Burmese sky.

I leave you with the words of a wooden plaque in the immigration station in Tamu which I had to commit to memory, reasoning a photo may not go down too well.

The Myanmar Spirit

The simple-minded Myanmar has no envy for persons of a fair complexion. Nor hatred for the brownishs. Nor differentiates with the blackishs. Nor judges those of different faith. Myanmars have a brethren respect and affection for all.

But if the affairs of our nation, country, land, history, religion or culture are interfered with by foxy-trick, the persons will be dealt with severely, with all our might, whether big or small, black or white, until the last word at the very end, even if we have many injuries and are lying in a pool of blood.

Thank you this month to Al and Jess and Horizons school for having me do a presentation for the students. 

Next up: India.