Week Thirty-Two: Welcome to India

08/11/18-14/11/18

Country: India
States: Uttar Pradesh & Gujarat

Distance cycled: 180km / 112mi
Elevation cycled: 266m / 873ft

India. The land of colour, curries and endless selfies. As you know, our first few days here were spent cooped up on some sort of transport, so this week has been the first time we’ve felt like we’ve left Nepal and arrived in India. Wow. It’s been a sensory overload – and it’s only the beginning.

Some initial observations after our first full week: 

  • The red traffic light means nothing.

  • Traffic drives on the left. But you can drive on the right if you tuck in enough. Trucks included.

  • Dan and I are a traffic hazard. On several occasions, drivers slowed right down on a dual carriage way to have a conversation with us. 

  • Sadly, there is rubbish everywhere.

  • The quality of roads is amazing. So far. 

  • It’s not as dusty as we imagined. So far.

  • Horns mean a variety of things: I’m passing, hello, move faster, I’m coming around the corner. 

  • The selfie is king. 

  • Everyone is so friendly and welcoming. But if we stopped and spoke to everyone who said hello, we would only manage 10km a day. 

  • Locals find our bike gears and drop bars fascinating. 

  • We find the array of animals we see fascinating – particularly the camels. 

  • Cows are India’s version of ‘the elephant in the room’: everyone knows they’re there, but no one acknowledges them.   

This week, besides observing life around us, we attempted some chores and actually cycled further than 7km.

While in Ahmedabad, the capital of Gujarat state, we tried and failed to get a Yellow Fever vaccine for east Africa. Then we tried and surprisingly succeeded at posting our winter kit to New Zealand. We can live with a 50% success rate. That’s good for us.

Shipping a box was relatively cheap and easy. We opted for the Surface Air Lifted service with India Post, at roughly £5 per kilo, which takes around two-months. We simply filled in a customs form – damn customs – drowned the box in parcel tape, then the postman did the rest.

While I popped to find some parcel tape, Dan made friends with Dinesh, who kindly helped with the parcel process. He’s an avid coin collector and showed Dan some incredible old notes, which he happened to have with him. As he and Dan were saying their goodbyes, Dinesh gifted him with four three-hundred-year-old gold coins from the British Raj era. What a gift!

While I popped to find some parcel tape, Dan made friends with Dinesh, who kindly helped with the parcel process. He’s an avid coin collector and showed Dan some incredible old notes, which he happened to have with him. As he and Dan were saying their goodbyes, Dinesh gifted him with four three-hundred-year-old gold coins from the British Raj era. What a gift!

11kg lighter, we decided to offload some more (we’d clearly got a taste of the lighter side of cycling when riding around Annapurna). We binned another few kilos, leaving us carrying 58kg of gear. Not bad considering that included peanut butters – plural – and oats. We just need to lose another 18kg before our flight to Dubai in January, to avoid crippling excess fees. Typical, right after Christmas…

HDFC is a con bank (aren’t they all?). We lost £8 with their exchange rate despite declining it, which we thought would then default to our Mastercard rate. Wrong. State Bank of India has been the best so far, which gives the exact exchange rate. And with no Starling bankcard or ATM fees, we’re laughing all the way… from the bank.

HDFC is a con bank (aren’t they all?). We lost £8 with their exchange rate despite declining it, which we thought would then default to our Mastercard rate. Wrong. State Bank of India has been the best so far, which gives the exact exchange rate. And with no Starling bankcard or ATM fees, we’re laughing all the way… from the bank.

Chores out of the way (kind of) we began our sightseeing loop of Gujarat. First up was Rani Ki Vav – an ornate stepwell in the north. More on that in a minute. On route there we stayed in a little town called Kalol. Now I will say that we have been absolutely blown away by the kindness and generosity we have experienced so far, but there was one gentleman in Kalol that bought a tear to our eye. 

We were loading the bikes while having a good grumble about the hotel we’d just checked out of. The receptionist had knocked on our door with a crowd of friends at 1am to check if he’d left his playing cards under our bed. He hadn’t. He clearly just wanted to show them the Westerners. Anyway, mid-grumble, the local tea shop owner came running over and thrust a note into Dan’s hand before running off. We assumed it was his Facebook details or something, but it turned out to be a lovely letter, offering a warm welcome to Kalol and a coffee. 

We wheeled ourselves over and took a seat inside his shop. An hour of chatter and six cups later, having refused to take any money, we were waved off with big smiles. It was wonderful. There were considerably more moments like this than the 1am drama this week. People refusing to let us pay for food we’d ordered, offering us accommodation further down our route, or just generally being welcoming. 

small_IMG_5510.jpg
He made our day.

He made our day.

Full of chai, on we carried to Rani Ki Vav. Having had such a good first ride, with smooth roads and speeds we hadn’t seen since Europe, we think the tarmac went straight to our heads. Rather than sticking to our 60km target on the second ride, we smashed 95km without any consideration for the sunstroke-inducing heat. And yup, Dan got it. 

We did manage to visit Rani Ki Vav before Dan realised he needed to lie down before he fell down. But sadly he spent the next twenty-four-hours shivering in bed or puking. Absolute rookies. Not wanting a dizzying repeat, we’ve made a plan to avoid the hottest hours of the day. As much as we enjoy our indulgent lazy mornings, we’re going to attempt to be riding before sunrise. Sun––what? That means we’ll have around seven hours to make a dent in our route, before calling it a day at 1pm.

Despite battling sunstroke, Dan agreed that Rani Ki Vav was worth veering so far north for. Here’s where I go full tour guide on you…

As I mentioned it’s a stepwell, which is basically a well you walk down into. They’re most common in western India and were developed to cope with seasonal fluctuations of water availability. They’re built extremely deep so that people can access the ground water even during the dry season. 

Not all of them are as beautiful as Rani Ki Vav. Measuring 64m long, 20m wide, and 27m deep, this five-storey stepwell is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was constructed between 1063 and 1069 AD, by orders of a widowed Queen in memory of her royal husband. It was flooded by the nearby Saraswati River, before being excavated in the 1980s. Only parts of the original stepwell remain, but it’s undergone a remarkable restoration, which gives you an idea of how beautiful it once was. Tour over. 

Rani Ki Vav from ground-level.

Rani Ki Vav from ground-level.

Deep down in the stepwell.

Deep down in the stepwell.

There are over five-hundred sculptures in Rani Ki Vav.

There are over five-hundred sculptures in Rani Ki Vav.

small_IMG_2766.jpg

Dan felt tons better after two days in bed watching old episodes of the BBC’s Spooks – we couldn’t get over how dated 2003 looks. We’re now making our way to the south coast of Gujarat, where we’ve pinpointed a few temples, palaces and an island to explore, in the shade, of course.

On route to the south coast, we stopped in a little town called Becharaji, which happened to be a temple town.

On route to the south coast, we stopped in a little town called Becharaji, which happened to be a temple town.

We wandered back to Becharaji Temple to watch sunset. It was definitely worth it, as not only was it stunning…

We wandered back to Becharaji Temple to watch sunset. It was definitely worth it, as not only was it stunning…

…I got to watch and laugh as a guy, without speaking, dumped his crying little girl in Dan’s arms for a photo.

…I got to watch and laugh as a guy, without speaking, dumped his crying little girl in Dan’s arms for a photo.