India Bike Ride
Day 1 Saturday
Itinerary: Fly London - Delhi via Moscow
We queue at check-in for two hours. A crazed Indian gentlemen determined to push to the front of the queue keeps us all amused, and annoyed. We take off on time, leaving the dying sun behind us.
My initial experience of Aeroflot is surprisingly pleasant; the plane, airworthy; the food, tasty. Surprising because I’d heard of the airline’s nickname, Aeroflop. My only gripe is with the cabin crew. They seem perpetually annoyed at us for some reason. Perhaps they just scowl a lot in Russia. Perhaps their scowl translates as our smile. Well, they do make curtains from iron, or so I hear. Obviously tough-skinned people. A scowl as a smile seems about right.
My new confidence in Aeroflop is soon extinguished, however. After a short wait in Moscow, we board the flight to Delhi. As I enter the plane my heart sinks, plunging through the flimsy airframe as it falls. I notice the open emergency-exit door has a strange ochre colour to it, suggesting either very old plastic, or a wooden laminate build. I touch it just to check (plastic), and say a prayer. There’s a panel of text on it: instructions for opening the thing in an emergency. It’s written in English, but oddly the text is a flowery ye old English style that makes me wonder the extent of the plane’s age. Did Elizabethans fly?
I peer briefly at the open cockpit and see several pilots perusing the instruments, deep in serious discussion. Why so many, I wonder. At least four. Russian flight school? Or maybe the aircraft, being of such size and antiquity, requires separate operators for the rudder, throttle and flaps.
I enter the main part of the plane, and break into a cold sweat. The high ceiling and rough-looking fittings it looks like a converted cargo plane. It’s like no other plane I’ve ever been on before, except in an air museum. On entering, I obviously passed through a pair of jaws and am now in the belly of some monster. I want to turn around and exit while I have the chance.
Oddly, it resembles a theatre or and old cinema inside. Two big screens with faded red curtains either side. Seats with a cup holder in one arm. Even carpet on the floor. The stewards usher me to my seat. I almost ask them if it’s a wind up. Where are the cameras? Certainly the expressions of the other passengers in our group filing in are worth capturing. Mine too, no doubt.
After a minute the elderly male steward locates my seat. The trouble he has doing this makes me wonder if it’s his first time on here as well.
Faded, flowery wallpaper lines each side of the cabin, peeling in places. I’m in the belly of a decaying carcass. And I’m scared.
Space is the only luxury; nothing like the tight economical squeeze of today’s fleet of aircraft (another indicator of its age). A plane from when air travel was a burgeoning industry, for the few that could afford it?
I test the ergonomics of my seat. It reclines a disappointingly, but expectedly, short distance, but to bring it back upright I need to pull it, and doing so notice it doesn’t stop. No, it folds right forward like a deck chair, and seems just as flimsy. At least in a crash the chair might crush me before the flames get me, I think. I picture the cheese toasty machine at home I loved to use. Then my arms and legs sticking out the sides of it, and two eye balls popping out. I let the seat adjust button go when I line the chair up with the one next to mine, and sigh, hoping desperately that the engines and outer structure had seen sounder investment. I peer ominously out of the nearest window to inspect the wings for visible cracks, but firstly for wings full stop.
I search through my bag, frantically looking for my packet of sleeping pills. Bingo! I pop two into my hand and clench them like nuggets freshly plucked from a gold pan. I want to be asleep if we crash.
The Indian chap beside me begins to giggle in a crazed, maniacal way. Or like a person in shock. Perhaps he doesn’t like the wallpaper.
I open my hand and his twitching eyes lock onto the pills resting there. He shoots me a worried glance, or a jealous one. Perhaps he thinks it’s cyanide, to be taken just before impact. I find my bottle of water and quickly down them, half wishing it is.
I scour the decor again, and think how ripe it is for an episode of ‘Changing Rooms’. I then search for the safety card in the flowery seat pocket. I find a spoiled card, worn at the edges. Well inspected, then. The plane is an IL96-300, I discover (not a converted Eastern European train carriage then). I’ve never heard of one of those before. One more ‘L’ in the name and it sounds about right, though.
I put the card away, look at the mini cinema screen nearest, and wait for the horror show to commence. A minute later the screen flickers to life. A rather jaundiced, fragile animation. “There are six emergency exits,” an brassy American voice declares. Is that enough? I look for the closest one. I never usually pay attention to the safety demonstrations (who does?!), but this time my concentration is fixed. The image is fuzzy and out of focus, like a 3D movie seen without the special glasses, and with a yellow tinge around the edges as if the film is several decades old.
“The life raft is below your seat,” the voice continues. I reach down to check. Oh no it’s not. One of our group inquires about this, and is told by a rather short-tempered steward that we don’t fly over the sea. Silly us!
The video ends with, “we wish you a pleasant flight.” If it wasn’t an American speaking, I’d take it as ironic.
In the air! I didn’t think we’d actually make it off the ground. I’d shook in fear, naturally, but mostly with the intense rattle of the plane as it hurtled down the runway.
Someone in our group suggests a competition: the first one to make a stewardess smile. Why are they so miserable? It hasn’t passed my notice that all the cabin crew are a considerably older than on the previous flight, and on any flight I’ve been on. You’ve had a good life, (less tragic if they perish in an air crash?), would you mind if we assign you to IL96-300? asked their Aeroflop manager? Is that why they’re so miserable?!
A group of Russians are smoking at the rear of the plane. The fact that people can even smoke on a plane still is a shock. Seven hours of recycled toxin-filled air—great. Planes are already one big germ and fart tube. Lets throw some carcinogens in there too.
The Indian fellow from the check-in queue, sitting one row in front of me, is continually ringing his ‘service’ button. It doesn’t light up and dully ping like on modern planes. It actually buzzes. And that buzzing is getting on everyone’s nerves. Perhaps I should slip some of my sleeping pills in his drink.
To top it all off, halfway through the flight a cup of water slips off my rickety table as the pilots performed a hairpin turn at 30,000ft. Three hours being damp. In the crotch area. Nice. Should have used the arm rest cup holder.
Day 2 Sunday
Itinerary: Arrive Delhi 07.05am. Transfer to hotel for breakfast, lunch and afternoon optional tour. Dinner back at the hotel before transferring to the train station to catch the overnight sleeper to Kalka. Train leaves 23:00.
Light begins to dawn through the cabin windows at 7:30am local time (1:30GMT). By this time we’ve all become accustomed to the ancient plane, its judders, the smoke even, and are a lot more relaxed. It hasn’t disintegrated midair, at least.
After a landing as bone-rattling as takeoff has been, we all give a round of applause. Pure relief! I remember back the first leg of our journey, taxing to the terminal is Moscow, and what the captain said: “Thank you, goodnight and good luck.” Good luck?! He obviously knew about IL96-300.
In the airport I visit the loo. An Indian chap eagerly gives me some soap and a towel, and I think this jolly nice of him, especially after my long flight. I’ve forgotten about the tipping culture in India, however. As I walk away after thanking him warmly, his face turn to complete shock, disgust even. I quickly realise my error, but I have no rupees. I try in vain to explain this, but he’s having none of it.
Baggage retrieval is swift, and stepping into the main arrivals concourse, we’re greeted by a hoard of Indians shouting “taxi, taxi.” Politely declining all offers, we walk outside and Delhi’s pungent sweet and spicy aroma strikes. Wow! It’s totally new olfactory territory, and it’s wonderful.
A happy looking stray dog plods up towards me and wags its tail in welcome.
In groups, we pile into the tour bus for transfer to our hotel. From the safety of behind the bus window, I stare at Delhi wide-eyed as we roll and rattle along. Horns blare and buzz, as rickshaws weave in and out of the traffic. A line of police bubble cars speed by us like a scene from Roger Rabbit. The whole of Delhi looks like ToonTown, in fact. Locals slowly cycle through the chaos, or speed on motorbikes. Pigs and goats rummage through the littered earth and concrete beside the road, and between the shacks and stalls that flank it. Cows just stand around, tails flapping at flies.
We pass a collection of ‘chicken shops’ where I spy plenty of… chickens. One shop keeper is flinging a live one about for inspection in front of several hastily haggling customers. It reminds me of washing being shaken before hung out to dry. Another man holds a chicken dangling by its wings whilst chatting to his friends. There’s plenty of chicken parts too, neatly stacked or hung for display. I spot a goat too. Tied up, and next to the half carcass and severed hoofs of it’s brother, no doubt.
I barely slept on the plane (damn those useless sleeping pills), but there’s a tour planned for the day. I’ll sleep when I’m dead, I tell myself. Perhaps I’ll get the chance via the return flight.
First stop, the Bahá'í House of Worship. It’s the latest of seven temples erected in different parts of the world, each with its distinctive design, each inviting people of all religions and races to worship the “Creator of the Universe” and to “express the love between God and man”. So says our guide. Sounds wonderful to me. An all-encompassing religion, genuinely open to all. The design of this temple was inspired by the lotus, and it looks just like one. That exquisitely beautiful flower and symbol of purity that is so strongly associated with worship and religion in India. I like the fact it only grows in muddy pools. Beauty birthing from dirt.
At the gates marking the temple entrance, and along the path leading to it, fresh flowers hang in droves and petals lay scattered. There’s plenty of stench in Delhi, but sweet smells aplenty also. We’re given a ticket in return for our shoes, and walk barefoot to temple.
Later, in some square we head next, I take a picture of a snake charmer. Bad idea. I’ve still no change to tip him and he chases me up the road till I find refuge in our tour bus.
Next, we visit the beautiful Mughal buildings of the Jama Masjid, and then the Jamali Kamali Mosque and Tomb. The later is the tomb of two persons with the names Jamali and Kamali. A little post trip wiki research tells me the name "Jamali" is Urdu, though originates from "Jamal" which means "beauty". "Jamali" was referring to Shaikh Jamali Kamboh, a renowned Sufi saint who lived in the 1500s. Kamali was an unknown person but “associated with Jamali somehow”. They’re buried adjacent to each other. Lovers? Jamali’s solicitor?
The path leading to the tombs is lined with trees, and crows and parrots fly between them, crossing our path like phantoms. Souls of the buried. Or souls of those who knew the buried. Friends or family, reincarnated (well, this is India).
A cow grazes nonchalantly in the temple grounds, and a group of puppies sleeps in a tight huddle, a new collection to add to many strays I’d already seen.
We lunch at a restaurant called Nothing Authentic. The table mats have images of Michael Jackson on them, and the chairs are shaped like eggs (chairs you sit more inside, than on). This is authentic Delhi?, I wonder. But who cares about the decor (though that is rather fabulous), the food is lovely, though extremely hot. It turns out that the manager used to work at a restaurant in Derby of all places. The city I was born and was packing my suitcase just a day or so earlier.
Next we visit India Gate. A monument to the thousands of Indian soldiers that died in the world wars. A flame burns in its arch. I wonder how they would feel about all that gas been consumed in their name. Anyway, we’re not the only tourists flocking to see it, and there’s plenty of people there to take advantage of that. Children begging and trying to sell all manor of things, for example. One boy has two monkeys on separate chains. One is walking on its back legs in time to his drum. I discretely take a photo, but I should have learned. I get his other monkey on head as punishment! Someone else in our group has to tip him (the monkey, not the boy!) before it gets off. I just hope it doesn’t have flees.
A women in rags cradles a baby who’s already been taught to hold out its hand to beg. She points to this, to ensure we see it while she tells her other child to cartwheel barefoot along the road.
Another girl who’d asked me for money earlier, is at our bus as we board. I watch her as she holds out her hand to the others, thinking how beautiful she is; such a gorgeous smile, and a wonderful sense of humour clearly evident. I wonder how, in all her poverty, she can be so happy and lovely. I think of the lotus flower.
I wish I were older and rich and could bring her to the UK and give her a chance in life. Childish, naive, perhaps even arrogant? But I mean well. She could be a businesswomen, a scientist, an actor… who knows? What’s her future here? A life of begging and squalor, I expect. The lottery of birth.
Next, a quick stop at a craft fair. On returning to our bus we pass men sitting by the roadside making the long, colourful chains of flowers I’d seen so many of, especially in the temples. A little girl of no more than eight comes up to me offering me one tied as a necklace, a baby in her arms, and asks for Bakshish (money). Unless I mishear and it’s hashish she’s after?
A whole night lost, a whole day sight-seeing, we’re all rather exhausted.
I make a diary entry, titling it ‘My first impressions of India':
Delhi suffers from very bad air pollution, it’s horrible. It’s not only sights, both heart breaking an delightful, and baffling mixture of smells, from the richly pungent to the delicately subtle, that overload the sense, but sounds too. It’s incredibly noisy; the traffic. The whir of vehicles and their continual blare of horns. The radios and loud speakers which seem to blare in the most unlikely of places, at all hours of the day.
The number of beggars, some of whom are badly physically handicapped, is distressing.
There often seems no sense of personal privacy with everyone trying to thrust an item at you to buy.
It’s not uncommon in to see people using the streets as a public convenience.
In the evening we set off for Delhi station to catch the sleeper train to Kalka. Outside the station people sleep by the road. Inside, they lay scattered on the hard concrete platforms, blankets spread sparsely about them. Rats as big as cats scuttle along the rail tracks.
An Indian sleeper train is something one must experience… but only once.
Tour guide’s arms waving ahead, we file through the crowds to get to our train, an ancient looking thing that resembles a cattle car or, with its ominous metal bars across the windows, a train to some concentration camp. We locate our compartment but it’s already taken. Luckily the people in there move without protest after we explain we had reserved seats. There’s six blue bunks held up by rusting chains. God knows how long ago the plastic coverings on each were cleaned.
I’m forced to visit the toilet at one point on the six-hour journey. It’s hell on Earth. Hell on earth, I tell you! It consists of a black hole that appears to go on forever. An evil abyss that’s almost big enough to swallow a child, should one slip and fall it’s way—god forbid! Its foul pungency grates ones senses. Grates like a mangled, rusting, tetanus-infected cheese grater rubbed back and forth on your brain’s limbic system. Diarrhoea and urine cake the floor.
Each time the train stops the smell of the toilet and track-side sewage intrude into our cabin. With each inhale, I want to retch.
“Oh my god! Pure stench and ammonia smelling nasties,” a fellow bike-ride participant comments on returning to our cabin, high on acrid fumes, no doubt. One of the Scottish group comes into our cabin and starts saying how disgraceful it is that we’re expected to cycle the same day, and how awful the train is. I simply nod blankly, and no one else responds. We’re in India, what do you expect? Surely Glasgow isn’t much better.
It’s a shame, but we soon learn that our little Scottish contingent have a forte for moaning.
We burn josh sticks incessantly in our cabin in an attempt to quell the “nasties”. It was probably like five pence for twenty, or something.
There’s no chance of sleep on this sleeper train. Not only because of the smell, but because you have to be constantly aware of your belongings. People keep coming and going, trying to find a place to sleep or to sell tea. The guards that keep passing with their antique-looking machine guns do little to reassure. Today we all know we have to cycle 14km. On two days of no sleep, we can’t say we’re looking forward to it. I feel sick, tired, my back aches on the stained, hard god-knows-when-it-was-last-cleaned mattress and my head hurts… but its all part of the challenge! This is a charity bike ride; not a holiday, right? And I’m not moaning, honest.
Diary entry: The smell of this night I will never forget. I can’t begin imagine what such a train is like in the height of summer.
Day 3 Monday
Itinerary: Arrive in Kalka at 05.00 and connect onto the "Toy Train" at 06.20. Arrive in Shimla at 1.30 for 1 – 1½ hrs free time before transferring to Hotel Asia the Dawn. Lunch, bike fitting and dinner at the hotel. There will be a cultural talk this evening.
It’s a picturesque, meandering journey up to the British hill station of Shimla. The air is much fresher here. We slowly chug along, pulled by a mini locomotive, as we gradually climb higher and higher. I sleep for the first part of the four-hour journey—yay!—despite being in the front carriage, directly next to the clatter of the diesel engine. I awake when the train stops at a viewing point. How considerate of the driver. Everyone gets out to stretch their legs and see the view, naturally. It’s beautiful; my first real glimpse of the Himalayan foothills. Buzzards and Eagles circle gracefully, high on distant thermals. No sign of the Himalayas themselves yet, though.
The heavens open as we near Shimla. I open a window and stick my head out to catch a breath of fresh Himalaya air but choke on the loco’s diesel fumes instead. Lovely.
Today we stay at Hotel Asia The Dawn which perches just below Shimla. When we arrive a beautiful necklace of flowers is placed around each of our necks by the hotel staff. We’re promptly fitted out with bike each, adjustments made to our size and needs (pedals replaced on mine; I’d brought my own clip-in ones), and cycle the 7km up to Shimla to test them out. The guys from Essex who’d chosen to fly Virgin, not Aeroflot, had brought their own bikes. Expensive looking things. It was their tenth charity bike ride, apparently.
As we’re cycling through the town on our way to the shopping mall, the heavens open once more and soaks us through. It’s incredibly invigorating. And as we cycle through the lively, winding streets, people again cheer and shout in welcome. There’s so much to see and hear, it’s like another world completely, and it’s brilliant.
We eventually reach the Mall and from here we spend a good hour perusing the little stalls and shops, seeing how the people work and live, and keeping a keen eye out for the monkeys. Impressive old colonial buildings from the days of the Raj seem surreal in their setting of squalor. Things have obviously been allowed to slip since 'the Jewel of the Crown' slipped through British fingers.
A man with a foot the size of a football and one leg half its normal length stumbles past me, looking up at the world of giants that surrounds him. Little porters trudge past with enormous loads tied on their backs, like entire sofas! Behind one building, a mountain of rubbish. And then another just like it. And another.
The cycle back down is fantastic. We fly past lorries and cars at breakneck speed. A little risky on the first day perhaps, but hell, it’s so much fun!
One thing is clear from the cycle today: we’ll constantly be faced with terrible fumes, belched mostly from old lorries we keep passing, tainting the air no matter how beautiful the setting is. I’ll just have to hope for more downhills than uphills. Less heavy breathing that way. And what fun that would be!
Day 4 Tuesday - 78km
Itinerary: An easy 40km down to Solan then a sharp 8km climb before lunch. The scenery is mountainous and lush. This afternoon cycle down hill to overnight at the Hotel Timber Trails.
This morning we’re each to be blessed before our first day of proper cycling by a local priest type fella. We in turn each kneel before him and he marks our foreheads with something red and damp (holy ink? dyed milk?! monkey blood?!!), and gives us a golden ribbon (to tie to our bikes) and a banana (to eat).
First, a gradual 40km decent to Solan. What a lovely ride to begin with, and the scenery is magnificent! The smoke and grumble of passing trucks occasionally ruins the tranquillity, however.
Then, it’s time for our first uphill; a sharp 9km climb amidst lush mountain scenery before lunch. What a way to gain an appetite! We pass through one village of people, cows and donkeys and on its outskirts lay a small community of people living in absolute squalor with shreds of PVC for shelter. The cutest of little children scream and shout for food as we stream past. I stop momentarily to take a photo. I do leave a tip this time, however, having managed to change some pounds for rupees.
At 11:30am we’re on our second snack break and we down bottles of water like they’re elixir of youth. We still have two of the nine kilometres to go. I give some felt-tip pens to some children along the way and it seems to make their day. Hell, their week even, who knows.
First drama of the bike ride: one man in our group runs over a kamikaze monkey when it suddenly runs into his path. He falls off his bike, but seems unharmed.
We eat lunch on top of a hill we’d just climbed—to my right a baby monkey swings from a tree branch, behind me goats nibble on rubbish, to my left cows simply stand and stare, and all around the sound of crickets fills the air with a delightful chirping. The view before us is breathtaking. The perfect enzyme for digestion. It’s November in India and the weather is perfect.
We then have the most fantastic cycle ride, 30km downhill on a smooth tarmac road (a rarity in India, it seems), with barely any traffic. Unfortunately, there’s another incident—one of the Scottish ladies hits a pothole at speed. Must have been the only one of the road. Her bike stops, but she doesn’t. Luckily the tour’s ‘ambulance’ (a 4x4 with a medic in it) isn’t far behind and the flying Scotsman survives with a torn lip and a lot of grazing.
Diary entry: The ride today was great fun. One lady told me it was better than sex. She’s 52, and divorced. (I couldn’t say, I’m still a virgin). Every locals’ face we passed gleamed with a smile. The children were beautiful and loved to say, “hello”, “what is your name?”, then “bye, bye” as we rolled by.
We reach the bottom of our decent euphoric, high on adrenaline (and pleased we too didn’t meet any potholes on the way down). We’re presented with traditional Indian hats—little felt things with bright coloured patterns on them—before catching a cable car up to our hotel. Yes, a cable car! I’d be more excited if it didn’t look like the first one ever made, and the accent so far.
Timber Trails Hotel offers magnificent panoramic views. It’s soon dusk. From the grounds of the hotel we stand gazing at the sky. The sun has just set. Reds, oranges, purples and blues lay merged in perfect bands across the flat horizon, leading up to coal-black space and the hundreds of stars that pitted it’s face like diamonds. It’s truly beautiful. A bustling town lays in the plains far below, it’s light twinkles magically and mysteriously (partly due to India’s fluctuating power supply, I expect). It makes me think of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels.
more chapters coming soon...