Heaven or Hell

My initial days in India continued as I had left off – badly. I took a taxi across the city with my bike to find that, despite the website still selling bus tickets to Manali, a massive storm had triggered some huge landslides, cutting off the town and making travel impossible. My taxi driver worked for the fancy hotel we had been staying in and consequently didn’t know any traveller’s hostels off the top of his head. It was messy trying to negotiate Delhi traffic (which unsurprisingly is absolute carnage) whilst sorting this out, but I found a place just before it got dark – tucking myself into bed ‘happy as Larry’. ‘Larry’ was feeling adventurous, deciding to get the 6am train the next morning to Agra to see the Taj Mahal.

As the sun rose over the putrid city back-alleys, I found myself tip-toeing over bodies sleeping on the wet concrete streets, nestled on top of or immersed in piles of rubbish. The alleys were still dark, making the whole experience slightly terrifying. There were bodies everywhere, no space was wasted – it was like giant game of human Tetris and unlike anything I’d ever witnessed. Huge piles of rubbish at the end of the street emitted the rancid odour of decaying waste, the source of which, was being happily consumed by the odd stray dog accompanied by a few cows.

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To add more merriment to this heart-warming scene, I was about to learn my next lesson, people in India always want something from you. Constant lies formed the backbone of my conversations with them, lies designed to steer money from your pockets. I’ll be honest, I was slightly naïve to this. Months spent traversing remote Muslim countries, whereby the people would go out of their way to help you out had lowered my defences. Now the not so proud owner of a train ticket that was probably four times as expensive as it should have been, I was on my way to Agra.

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This ripping off of tourist’s malarkey isn’t anything new, but the unceasing brashness of the way the Indians do it is on another level. A worker in Dominoes tried charging me double the price for a pizza despite the price being shown in massive figures on the wall next to him. Sorry pal! I pointed it out, he conceded that the sign on the wall was indeed the right price, before changing the bill without any kind of embarrassment. If you’re serving a foreigner, it’s all fair game. I was to find this time and again, whether you’re in a touristy city or a decrepit truckers caf, it’s all the same. The whole thing just became tiring, I badly wanted to find that the people were genuine and friendly like those of Pakistan or central Asia, but no matter where I was, this never changed.

My day seeing the Taj and Agra fort however, despite turning out to be very expensive, was incrdible. Walking around the corner to see the building which it feels like I’ve known my whole life ‘in the flesh’ was something incredibly special. I no longer cared about the price of the train, this was a once in a lifetime thing and I just wanted to enjoy it. Unfortunately, it also seemed the train no longer cared about me, turning up 6 hours late getting me back into Delhi just before midnight. Judging by how transport has treated me the past three weeks it shouldn’t have been a surprise!

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It wasn’t all doom and gloom however, my friends Molly and Haydn had just flown into town. We had spent three weeks cycling together from northern Turkey into Georgia, where they had decided to take a break from touring, only to pick up the pedals again here in India. The last time I saw them was on top of a Georgian mountain after having ridden through a huge storm the previous day. Molly had come down with a sickness and me and Pol needed to crack on to reach the ferry from Baku to Kazakhstan. It may have only been a few months ago but it already felt like a lifetime. We spent the evening drinking in their hostel, catching up on each other’s summers and laughing about the escapades of our three-weeks exploring the Caucuses. I was having such a good time that I ended up missing the last metro home and had to sleep on the hostel sofas that night.

At a time when everything felt so turbulent and up in the air, spending time with old friends was the grounding I needed. The following day I joined their hostel tour to Delhi’s biggest Sikh temple, where I got to show my skills rolling out chapattis with some old women who supply the fresh flat dough for those receiving their free meal there. These temples are called Gurdwaras and supply free food and accommodation for anyone who needs it. Some of them feed up to 60 000 people per day, so, it turns out only a small unfortunate fraction would receive my gloriously mediocre chapattis that day.

I was ready to up sticks and get out of Delhi, for foreigners the city can be a bit intense, shopkeepers shouting at you, beggars pulling your clothes, and all items ‘mysteriously’ doubling in price. My hostel had sorted me a bus up to Manali, where I would try and ride the highest road in the world before the looming winter season arrived. After the usual attempted daylight robbery of charging me a fortune to carry my bike in the hold, I was finally free from Delhi. The traffic still remained frenzied as we got on the motorway, but it didn’t stop Schumacher behind the wheel firing between cars like a reckless pinball. I decided I would rather not watch my impending death, choosing sleep instead. I was glad to be heading for the mountains. Glad for a few hours at least, until I received a message from my friend Katya (I met Katya and her partner Mirko in Pakistan, they have been cycling the world for 16 years) who added me to a messenger chat with her friend who was in Manali. He informed me that the road had been shut for the last week and the Manali – Leh highway, which I had hoped to cycle, was under five feet of snow and closed for the winter.

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A freak storm had shut everything off extremely early this year, there was no way of me anticipating it, yet I was still gutted. Cycling the Himalayas had been a dream, a dream that will have to wait for another year. What was even more frustrating, was that I was the only person on the bus who knew we would never reach our destination. All I could do was sit here for the next 10 hours, trying to work out what to do after we would literally just run out of road. I had already decided against getting a return bus to Delhi before boarding another to the Pakistan border (where I got sent back from India), my public transport record from the last weeks was enough to put me off that. Instead, I opted to cycle back on myself for what would probably be four days cycling to the border. It sounds stupid but I really wanted to carry on from where I had left off, whilst finally regaining control of my trip again. This was the only way.

The bus would stop in places for a break, but I couldn’t ever work out how long it would be stopped for so I just sat tight like a lemon. I could see the locals looking at me, ‘that stupid European, why doesn’t he come off the bus and have some food like the rest of us..’, I imagined them to say. Everyone I asked couldn’t speak English so, as was my lack of transport trust, I took no risk. I had images of me ordering some dinner, only to see the bus, containing my bike, bags and everything important pulling away as Schumacher speed off. Nothing was out of bounds anymore, so if looking like a lemon on the bus prevented that, then that was what I’d do!

As expected, we were told to sort ourselves out 30 miles from Manali. I chucked the panniers on my bike, pointed it back down the way we’d come, setting off for a town called Mandi. I’d just booked myself a guesthouse there, from which I could work out my plans for the following weeks. Despite knowing I was now cycling back towards the UK, it felt great to be back in the saddle again. The scenery was incredible; the road followed a twisting river that guided me between forested mountains under a bright blue sky – it was hard to imagine this place had been caught up in such a huge storm just a few days before. Then I would round corners only to be stopped by a digger removing huge rocks and mud from the road. After just a couple of hours riding I found myself in Mandi. Just as I rode into the centre I received a message, ‘Hi Ped, you have booked to stay in our family guesthouse, our place is located 15 miles from Mandi (booking.com puts the location in the wrong place so I just wanted to let you know)’. You are having a laugh!! I checked the location, 15 miles, up a bloody mountain! I had just spent 15 hours on a coach, then ridden 40 miles on no sleep and this guy had just set the gauntlet finish up at 1500m elevation 15 miles away – you bastard!

Although it was no one’s fault, I was fuming. I began pedalling towards the climb, knowing that I would really have to give it the beans to reach this place before nightfall. So give it the beans I did. Two hours of hard, hard riding. I saw the sun set over the stunning mountains and actually started feeling the last three weeks of stress fading away. The harder I rode the better I felt; as I switched on my lights as darkness fell I could’ve sworn I was even enjoying this masochistic escapade. I rolled into the guesthouse, which really was just a large family house, to find my hosts dismayed that I’d made it up to them in that time. They’d thought I had meant I was riding a motorbike. Immediately they set about feeding and introducing me to the family. It wasn’t long before my plan of setting off early the following morning was discarded and I was looking forward to a good lie in.

The following morning I knew I had made the right decision, this place was stunning. I had stumbled across the second most holy place in all of Buddhism – Rewalsar. Consequently it is home of some stunning Buddhist temples, shrines and caves. The whole town surrounds the banks of a small lake, which itself is nestled between peaks that overlooks a valley floor blanketed in fluffy cloud each morning. I spent the next three days reading books by the lake, with some morning excursions on the bike to explore the higher peaks and Buddhist caves. Monkeys run wild on the streets, climbing the sacred temple walls with mischievous finesse. I learnt quickly that like dogs, monkeys hate bikes. They would scowl at me whilst hissing away like mad.

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I spent my evenings with the family, eating their homecooked food before watching them get stuck into ‘who wants to be a millionaire?’, apparently that’s massive over here. Finding I now had some free time I found myself getting stuck into following the Ryder cup. I never follow golf, yet I’ve found myself getting stuck into any and every sporting event these days. I dialled in radio 5 live, listening to Europe beat the US on the roof of the family house as the sun set over the Himalayan foothills. India wasn’t all bad eh…?!

The next two days I spent cycling small country lanes that led out of the Himalayan foothills to the forested plains. After enjoying the Rewalsar excursion so much, I made an effort to stick to the small roads in pursuit of an adventure. This worked a treat on the first day but I paid the price on the second. The road became a loose track of dirt and large rocks that wound over a hellish sequence of small hills. Two switchbacks up, two switchbacks down, repeat 20 times. The main problem with this is that there is no glory in finishing it. You don’t go down the pub boasting about you conquered a 50m climb. No one cares that you did it again and again, instead they (and at this point you) think you’re an idiot for choosing this route when there is a perfectly flat, tarmac road going to the same place! As mid-afternoon rolled around a chap approached me on a scooter, proposing a chat over a cup of tea. He was called Diwan, and he invited me to stay with his family for the night – they lived only 10 miles away… I dropped my bike with his cousin before hopping on his scooter to his countryside villa which boasted incredible views of a lake.

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This Himachal area is incredibly beautiful, I would really like to come back one day on a lighter bike to explore it properly. I spent a lot of time that evening just taking in the view. Meanwhile, the conversation took a strange turn when Diwan decided we should set up an import export business between India and the UK. Did I mention that Indians want something from you…? I, being a recent Chemistry graduate currently cycling around the world, probably don’t exactly fit the mould of business tycoon at this stage in my life at least. I knew why he was asking though, he wanted his son (obviously not his daughters) to be educated in the UK and a business venture would make that possible. I can’t blame him for trying. Vowing to ‘think about business prospects’, we set off on the scooter the following morning, heading towards his cousin’s place where Tina had spent the night. I packed my bags up, setting off shortly after before realising I had left my headphones at his place…

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Now I had a few hours to kill until Diwan returned with the cargo. I was quickly invited off the street for a chat which evolved into me getting a free haircut and a shave with the local barber. He also threw in some violent ‘neck massage’ movements which left me mildly crippled and in little doubt to why it was free. Bang on midday I received the headphones, leaving me just the afternoon to ride 85 miles to the city of Amritsar. I cycled on the large motorways all afternoon, watching an epic Punjab sunset from the saddle.

Darkness descended over Punjab as I broke my only rule and cycled into the dark. Indian roads are mental at the best of times, at night they are an entirely different beast. Buses ploughed down the central lane of the wrong side of the motorway, forcing all cars to swerve round them. Manic cyclists ride with no lights in the wrong direction of the hard shoulder and big lorries don’t think twice about pulling out a ‘three pointer’ that will bring the whole motorway to a standstill. You must weave to stay alive, expect the unexpected, ride fast whilst shouting a lot. Riding into Amritsar was absolute carnage; I was so happy to arrive at that hostel alive, vowing never to break the rule again.

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I spent the next two days in great hostel in the city when not exploring the crazy world of a vegetarian McDonalds. Evenings were spent talking to travellers over beers on the roof, whilst my days were spent gawping at the Golden Temple. I didn’t waste much time before showing off my newly practised chapatti rolling skills in there with mates from the hostel – they didn’t seem very impressed. One morning I got up early, riding out of the city in the direction of the Pakistan border, where I had been sent out of India just three weeks ago. It was strange seeing the other side of the gate I remember so well for all the wrong reasons. Riding back I felt a twinge of sadness, Dad should have been here riding with me. We officially cycled in India together but we never completed our cycle into an Indian city as we planned. Instead we wrote a far crazier, more memorable chapter but I know he would have liked to do this ride to where we left off. Having reached the border, I re-entered the madness as the city began to wake up, only to find myself back at the border in the afternoon…

I couldn’t leave without witnessing the Wagah border ceremony. A strange provocative dance of ‘who can get their leg the highest’ between Indian and Pakistani border guards to the soundtrack of booming Punjabi music. You sit in a huge stadium full of mad Indian tourists losing their nut shouting ‘Hindustan’ at the Pakistani’s. It’s brilliant. In all honesty nothing much happens but just witnessing how mental the Indians go makes the whole thing worthwhile. In short, I had a lot of fun in Amritsar, lots of sarcastic jokes combined with obscure British references made me realise how much I had missed the company of other Brits. I knew I would see many more during my time here but that would be in a few days. First I would have to ride those motorways again.

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I left Amritsar just as the sun rose over the city, riding until sunset to Ludhiana where my couchsurfing host Ricky was waiting for me. Funnily enough he’d just been in west London four days before, flying into Heathrow which is absurdly close to my house. Seeing his photos made me pine for the city. We chatted about his cycling trips and he convinced me to stay the next day where he promised to show me around. Show me around he did, the day was a whirlwind tour of nearby cities, a custom jeep garage, street food diner, local fair and we even played badminton. I finished up feeling more tired than when I arrived and not excited about another day of motorway cycling.

After a few hours of riding I bizarrely lost the ability to turn my head. Maybe it was that dodgy haircut? No matter, turning my head become so painful I ended up no longer doing it (a pretty bad thing when cycling on Indian roads). I slowly made my way into the next city where Mani (another couchsurf host) was expecting me. Although he wasn’t there, instead I was let into the house by a small boy who I guessed must be around 14 years-old. He knew the odd English word – enough to tell me that he wasn’t Mani’s son. He got me some water before making me a cup of tea whilst I waited for Mani to arrive. In the meantime, another set of couchsurfers came down from upstairs, telling me that the boy was a servant. A servant?! What is this? 1800? They explained that this was actually the best situation they had seen, the boy was being properly looked after and educated, unlike a lot of servants in India. I could see that he seemed happy but was unable to shake the strange feeling as he cooked me dinner.

I opted to stay another day at Mani’s place to wait for my neck to recover. During the day I went out and bought some chocolate for the boy and we watched a bit of a movie together. I still couldn’t properly process the situation, I guess his living conditions and future prospects are far better than what he would have had with his family, but maybe a foster situation would be appropriate (if they even exist in India). Even if he did help with a lot of jobs around the house, just a change in label would maybe put me more at ease (they may well not call them servants in India, I’m just going on what I heard).

Finally neck was back to its usual self – controlling my head like a normal human being. I escaped the wrath of Mani’s ‘bitey’ guard dog, cycling around the city of Chandigargh as the sun rose. My body felt great. I listened to some newly downloaded albums (Joywave if anyone is interested) whilst enjoying putting some miles in. It wasn’t long before the motorways became small country lanes – cycling was back to being fun again. Monkeys watched me negotiate switchbacks from the comforts of their branches, their animated faces curiously sizing me up (and possibly plotting to bite my face off…). I rode into Paonta Sahib, a riverside town that boasted a beautiful Gurdwara. I had been told to try stay here tonight; having rolled out my fair share of chapattis, I felt I had earned the right to at least ask. I needn’t have worried, with my face covered in dirt from the road, the man in charge quickly said food and accommodation would be free (they sometimes ask foreigners to pay). Before I could be shown to a room, I was mobbed by people wanting to quiz me about my trip. It appeared word had got out that I had cycled from London, bringing forth hordes of people eager to take photos of this strange, grubby Brit.

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My room was great, I had a choice of four beds! A bathroom all to myself was a bonus; feeling a strong desire to get clean before dinner, I basked in the luxury of a warm shower. Dinner was an experience. I grabbed a tray and sat in a line on the floor of the main hall. One man spooned a pile of brown gloop onto my tray before another followed up with two spoons of rice. Sweet, we were in business. The brown gloop turned out to be a spicy curry which I struggle to polish off. Just as I was making headway, bam! Another spoon of brown gloop! The guy next to me saw my disgruntled look, letting out a little laugh. He signalled if I didn’t want more gloop I had to put my hand over my tray and if I wanted a chapatti I was to put two hands out and someone would bring one. Now tuned into the Sikh food signals, I fended off the gloop whilst harvesting my fair share of chapattis to mop up the remainder.

As the sun rose the next morning, I found my free room had an unbelievable view of the river snaking through the jungle. I followed that river for a few miles before breaking off into farmland. Today I was hoping to arrive in Rishikesh, a spiritual village famous for its beauty and relaxed vibe. I was excited to spend a few days there, not doing too much and hanging out with some travellers. I picked up a road by the river Ganges, climbed up the first ridge of the foothills, finding myself in town. It really did look as good as the pictures. The sunset over the river, the small cafes pulsated with improvised live music, I was excited. That night I explored some riverside cafes with friends met in the hostel. The little venue rocked with a number locals playing the guitar backed by bongos. People were dancing about, smiling, just enjoying the vibe. It was heaven. Although I would have preferred it if they served beer!

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The next day I explored some waterfalls with a group of Indian guys I met the previous evening. We drove some scooters up the mountains to scout them out. This ended up with having a dip in the rock pools and eventually plunging back down in the freezing cold Ganges river. Then came the strange bit. All of these guys worked for a jewellery company and started talking about tax. They suggested that I could work for them, earning four grand in just three days. Oh really…? In ‘purchasing’ some of their expensive jewellery tax free (because I’m a tourist), I could then send it to Australia where I would pick it up before returning it to them, relinquishing them from the tax. Right, guys… Was I born yesterday? I told them I would ‘think about it’, essentially leaving for my hostel where I messaged them, saying I wanted nothing to do with it.

I spent a few days just mulling over this whole scenario, the more I think about it the scarier it is. At the time my gut told me there was something seriously wrong with it all, I would like to say it was simple to follow it but that would be a lie. These guys were very smart, they were all university educated, speaking perfect English and conducted themselves in a very western fashion. Everything about their interactions with me was planned to a minute detail. On the first two days hanging out they explained to me their jobs in detail and why their job permitted them to work remotely – hence their alibi for being in Rishikesh in the first place. They never told me any details about their personal lives apart from them coming from Goa (aka the furthest place from here in India). They also told me about jewellery exhibitions they’d worked on in Paris and Singapore which made them seem more respectable than most Indian workers in an attempt to seem more similar to me. In short, the whole three days was to build up trust and to provide a believable back story to the whole operation.

When it came down to talking about sending the package they mentioned it very, very casually, nothing in the conversation seemed forced and they brought along a new person, their ‘boss’ to ask. This way it seemed more natural, after all, the other two had been trying to win my friendship. Even when I said I would think about it they said ‘don’t worry if it’s not for you, we’re still friends’ which is a proper kick in the teeth last ditch attempt to make me trust them.

When they asked me over lunch, I quickly excused myself to go to the toilet. I just sat in there thinking where the loophole in this ‘deal’ was. Immediately I knew there were a few things that were funny about it all. The first was that I would be liable about whatever was in that package, which probably meant they were going to fill it with drugs of some kind so they faced no risk of being caught. Then the scary part, I was due to arrive in Australia in about 4 months time, and if you are sending a sensitive package to a place you want to pick it up as quickly as possible – you don’t have an ‘airy-fairy’ date miles in the future. This meant they weren’t bothered about this package getting to Australia, therefore it would never leave India. It meant they were going to fill it with narcotics, get me to walk into the post office whilst giving the police a tip-off and I would get busted spewing some story about how I hadn’t known what was in the package.

After waiting for 5 minutes I opened the door to find they were all nervously looking over, that was the confirmation I needed that my hunch had been right. It took me to leave that table to properly understand what was going on. They had been so good playing their parts that I had been interested in how the tourist tax system worked (the bad part was I knew what they were saying about no tax for tourists to be true which made it all seem more legitimate).

When they first saw me cycling into town, they could see right away that I was on my own which is vital for this scheme. It’s much harder to manipulate two people who can talk to each other than one who can’t. They saw me whilst riding on a scooter, said hi and asked where I was from before riding the other way. What they must’ve then done was to turn around and follow me to where my hostel was or the third person did (there were four of them in total). The next day they would’ve waited for me to leave and then taken the short cut to the main street where I was certain to be going, to bump into me ‘by chance’. “Oh hi there, we saw you cycling yesterday, let’s go for lunch.” It seemed like a happy coincidence which I’m now certain it wasn’t.

It’s frustrating, after wanting to get to know Indian people better, I found myself being constantly suspicious of their lies (I’ve been told this time and again by westerners who’ve settled here).

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I opted to spend the rest of my time with travellers from the hostel, we went swimming in the freezing Ganges, jammed on the bongos into the night and followed up with a few games of pool. This was the life. If I didn’t have a deadline to get to Kathmandu I would happily stay here all week. Some filmmakers from the UK wanted to shoot an interview with me this morning and now here I am, in a café reading and writing, enjoying the relaxed atmosphere of the town. I will be sad to leave Rishikesh tomorrow but excited about the Nepalese people. I’m looking forward to more smiles and less people. Kathmandu, I’m coming for ya!

One thought on “Heaven or Hell

  1. Great to keep up with the latest stories and adventures. Sad to hear of intelligent groups of people who go out of their way to abuse people’s trust for their own benefit but great you rumbled them.

    Like

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