I went around my usual morning routine of packing the same bags in the same order as I have done for the past 9 months. This time was different, everything was being filmed. This bag packing was now a performance, and I, a well-practised subject. No need for acting, this is pretty much all I ever do. Mario had woken up early to get some clips of me cycling for interview we shot the previous day. He and his girlfriend Jenny are travelling around Asia, offering a ‘services for services’ deal where they get free accommodation in return for a video of the hostel/hotel they are staying at. It just so happened they’d reached this arrangement with the particular place I was staying in Rishikesh. The hostel requested a film of an ‘interesting’ guest, which turned out to be me, for their website. I had been reduced to a freak in a social media circus, but in return I essentially had a professional quality 5-minute film all about me. Oh the vanity.
Mario whipped around the streets on a dodgy scooter, racing off ahead to scout the best vantage points to film me from. It was a good laugh and became a game for me to try spot him hiding out in the crowds. To top it off he sent up his drone, getting some quality shots of me riding through the forest. Quality until I nearly cycled into it… After an hour I gave him some petrol money for his return journey to Rishikesh. I had really enjoyed my time over there, it was nice to be amongst travellers again – something I had really missed in Pakistan. A crowd of really interesting people. But now it was just little old me again, cycling towards the Nepalese border lost in a stew of my own thoughts. Unfortunately, that meant continually mulling over the ‘jewellery incident’, again and again. Many times on this trip I’ve wondered when I’ve been in the most danger on this trip – I need wonder no more. The more I think about how sinister and premeditated the whole thing was, the more scary it all becomes. These miles I was knocking out now felt like an escape from those people, both physically and mentally. I rode hard for good measure.
I was ready to leave India, ready to be rid of the terrifying roads, the constant hassle and dust that cakes your body and skin day in day out. I had developed a hacking cough from this stuff, making me sound more like a seasoned smoker than young cyclist. I’m sure I could’ve easily out croaked Clarkson on his 60-a day.
In an attempt to keep in good spirits, I’d decided to lodge in hotels until reaching Nepal. These regions were just too busy to comfortably camp without being seen. A guaranteed bed plus a ropey shower adequately provided the questionable carrot I needed to see me through those days. What I perhaps hadn’t bargained for however, is waking up in a bed full of cockroaches… The shabby hotel I’d chosen employed a peeling wallpaper aesthetic, completed with fag-burnt sheets and a leaking toilet. Opting to sleep in my sleeping bag that night meant I hadn’t felt the roaches walking over me and actually managed to get a decent night’s sleep. Turning on the lights, I came ‘face to face’ with a huge critter on the bed who ran for cover, under my covers! Oh India.
I was happy to be spending the following night with Vikram, a couchsurfing host. I realised I hadn’t used couchsurfing since hanging out with Parvana in Baku, and that I should definitely give it a whirl again. I was glad I did. Vikram is a big fan of the outdoors; a new-found photographer who shoots the big mountains Ladakh. He invited me for some beers with his mates who talked openly about the problems faced in India. The corruption, the rubbish, everything was ‘on the table’ and finally I could prize a peak behind the veneer I’d acquired from the road. It was really interesting to hear, yet not at all surprising. The country essentially runs on backhanders, most people avoid paying tax – hence there being no waste disposal system – but what is sad is that no one considers the rubbish to be a problem.
If they had the money to fix these issues, they’d most likely spend it on something else. When you look at how fragile the environment is and the scale of India’s problem – these monumental piles of rubbish – you wonder if it will all be fixed too late to be of any use.
I waved goodbye to Vikram early the following morning, vowing to keep in touch (which we have) as I cycled off to that Nepalese border. Having had issues with the Indian border previously, I was all prepped for an afternoon of hassle. Upon arriving though, I struggled to actually find the border. It turned out I had already crossed and needed to go back to get stamped out! A woman in a little house did the honours, before another man in another house wrote the most unofficial looking visa I have ever seen. That was it, I was in Nepal! It was noticeably cleaner, there were less people – I was immediately happy.
I grabbed a quick roadside dinner surrounded by Nepalese children. Eating something dark green and resembling a large intestine, it was hardly a culinary delight, but it sorted my complaining stomach right out. A gut digesting a gut, it was some strange organ cannibalism.
That night I pitched up camp in the jungle, listening to some music by a river as the sunset behind the trees. It was a serene scene until someone started blaring out some drum and bass from deep in the trees for a few hours of intense raving. It was a Friday after all, I guess why not?
The next day I continued riding along the main ‘highway’, which was just a small two-way road. I cycled through the quiet jungle to homestay I had been recommended on the fringes of a national park. Prems Bardiya homestay cost £1.50 a night, for that you get your own mud hut with a functioning ensuite bathroom (devoid of cockroaches) and WiFi. Santosh, the owner of the place, lives in an adjacent hut with his family who cook up a mean cyclists breakfast. It was dreamy!
What’s great about the place is that it’s properly nestled into the jungle, the whole village has a wild feeling about it. One morning a huge snake just slithered through the homestay, just past where I was sitting and down into a river. I wasn’t in the New Forest anymore. After Santosh found out that I had been camping in the jungle, he took me to one side, telling me seriously never to do that again. Wild tigers, rhinos and elephants apparently roam these parts on top of an array of exotic looking snakes and spiders. He took me over to a tree where there were some fresh tiger marks up six feet off the ground. The paws on the beast must’ve been huge! It would certainly make light work of me and my plastic spork…
After being scared from future camping escapades, he took me around a section of the safari park itself in search of some tigers and rhinos. We glimpsed a big croc and plenty of paw prints, but unfortunately no tigers came out to say hello. Obviously, we would have been completely safe had one emerged, since Santosh had given me a large stick for protection – showing me how to jab an imaginary animal if the occasion was called upon. What I loved about the place was just how genuine it was. We were just walking around a jungle with oversized sticks, searching for tigers like it was any other normal morning. Other tourists were being ferried around in pickup trucks with spotters trying to locate animals for them. With Santosh by my side I just felt like a big kid again.
Unfortunately, this kid was bound by more visa issues. I had worked out that my Indian visa would expire before I would be able to cross into Myanmar. 3 days more would have been enough to squeak through, but as it stood I wouldn’t make it. Knowing my friend Katy would be joining me in 10 days time, flying out from India two weeks afterwards, I had no spare time to wait about for my visa to process in Kathmandu. The solution was an ugly one, I would leave my bike here in the jungle, get a 20 hour coach to the city where I’d hand in my forms before immediately getting another coach back. Hopefully by the time I had cycled there I could pick up my visa, cycling with Katy back into India without any waiting about. Sound fun?
Of course, the coach was packed to the rafters and road resembled one giant washboard. We would frequently hit our heads on the ceiling whilst the coach driver decided the whole bus wanted to watch a Nepalese rom com with the volume on full blast for good measure. The man next to me decided he needed to spit out of the window at regular 5-minute intervals, which I felt really added to the ambience of this strange situation.
I arrived in Kathmandu the next morning absolutely knackered but managed to fill in and print my forms off before dashing to the embassy. The place closed at 12:30 with me managing to get to the window by 12:15. Only to be told that I had missed out the town name of my Indian contacts address! My heart sank, I would have to come back tomorrow. ‘You can hand it in if you want to, I will accept it but there is a chance that they won’t…’ said the woman. I decided in that moment that she was just covering her back, I wrote the name on the sheet in pen, cursing myself for being so stupid and praying it would go through. I paid the extortionate visa fee for British nationals (this is the third Indian visa I’ve paid for and hopefully the last!) before buying the requested green fleece for Santosh and his friend and getting back on another coach.
By the time I arrived back at the jungle I really was tired. Santosh was over the moon with his fleece – just the colour he had wanted. He was excited to find me a tiger but all I could think about was sleeping for the rest of the day. Tomorrow I would have to hit the road hard to reach the city in time for Katy’s flight. This was to be the start of ‘the schedule’ that essentially now ruled over my whereabouts until the new year.
Day 1. My longest ride of the trip so far, I knocked out 115 miles through the jungle. The miles however are meaningless because it was one of the most magical days of the trip. In the early morning hours, I rode through the dense jungle, all was quiet, and I had the ‘highway’ to myself. Up ahead I could just make out a huge elephant eating something off the branches of a tree. As I drew closer I turned to see a line of 7 wild elephants to my left, just plodding in a line through the jungle together. I was surrounded by a group of wild elephants now, just doing their thing. It was incredible. Go into the safari park and see nothing, cycle along the highway and come across this. In my excitement to snap a photo I got too close to one of them, spooking it into facing me off whilst the other elephants scattered between the trees screeching. Not wanting to pit my spork against a tusk, I swiftly cycled off.
Over the next days I got into a routine of cycling for longer periods of time to make up the distance to Kathmandu. Thankfully Nepal was just stunning, making these hours some of the best I’d had on a bike. Swapping the flat planes for the Himalayan foothills made for great riding amongst spectacular scenery. This was capped off when dropping down to my first stop – Pokhara. Nepal’s second city backs onto the snow-capped 8000m Annapurna peaks, whilst the front faces a pristine lake. The city is buzzing with trekkers and travellers alike. I was in love. From the hostel we hit the bars for an evening of beers and night life completely unlike anything I had expected from Nepal. The next day I met up with Molly and Hayden of CycleForLoveto swap stories by the lake which ended up with us going to an open-air cinema complete with pizza and beer. This place was heaven, I couldn’t just leave.
Riding the busy road to Kathmandu I decided I would get a bus back to Pokhara with Katy for a few days. Places like that are so rare to find whilst travelling – that perfect blend of western comforts yet not over touristy and spoilt. Maybe it will all change soon, but I wasn’t going to wait for that.
I climbed up 1000m with decrepit Tata trucks crawling past me whilst belching out thick black smoke all the way to Kathmandu. I had arrived. Quickly I negotiated the permanent dust cloud that envelopes that city, finding my way to the hostel, and more importantly, the rooftop bar. I had been recommended this place by some friends from the jungle. It lived up. Views of the whole city and surrounding mountains, this was to be my sanctuary. Tomorrow I would pick up my visa and following day Katy would arrive – so far, so good.
My visa went through without a hitch, then I waited at arrivals for Katy. She came out of the terminal two hours after landing sporting an ashen look and a yellow form in hand. The bike hadn’t made it…