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On the road . October 2007 . India

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Ajay Guesthouse [website] Delhi 06-10-07
Completely sikh of it all - one last chance

(Chandigarh to Delhi: 2 cycle days; 264km; 170 m)
Chandigarh to Kurukshetra (96 km; 74 m)
Kurukshetra to Delhi (168 km; 96 m)

The next couple of days almost do it for us in India and there's some serious thinking to be done when we finally make it into Delhi. The road is flat all the way. The weather is hot and dusty. The traffic is appalling and the people impatiently unfriendly. Again, we have to fight for our lives with every single vehicle that passes us, be it from the front or behind. Not one person on the way to Kurukshetra lets us in, gives us precedence, even when we have the right of way. They incessantly honk on their horns, which is infuriatingly deafening. Some guy runs me off the road with his four wheel drive on a dirt track detour and I ball him out big time, though it makes no difference what you say, how much you yell, what sort of names you call them, they just laugh at you. Even the police do sod-all. We've actually caught them spinelessly hiding behind their police car, while screaming at some inconsiderate, life threatening stunt driver. We are learning fast that Indians really only care about a few things in life and life is not really one of them. Foremost on the list, they care about themselves, how much money they can make out of you and making sure cows are comfortable and fed. A completely insensitive country and as I write this, more examples of a total lack of respect flood my memory and I can feel the temperature of my blood rising, my teeth gritting and my abhorrent hatred for this sort of behaviour absorbing me. I wonder if my insurance policy covers therapy sessions while abroad?

Kurukshetra (96km; 74m) is supposedly a Holy City, but we find nothing at all sacred about the local guy on the motorcycle that rides dangerously close to and badgers me for a couple of kilometres repeatedly yelling "Speak Hindi! Speak Hindi!", nor the filthy rat infested room at Hotel Heritage with the rip-off prices in the restaurant below. Following day, after Ali has settled down somewhat from what you could only term as a total, but well justifiable flip-out, we make a pact over breakfast to go out on the road with a refreshed attitude. No use of any of the phrases that spattered from his lips yesterday afternoon behind the closed door of our hotel room; no yelling; no screaming;, no swearing; no spitting chips! We shake on it. Miraculously, there is hardly anyone on the road and after a while it dawns on us that it's a public holiday: Mahatma Ghandi's Birthday and the recently dawned Day of Non-Violence. India soon wakes up however and the roads get busier and even though we pretty much stick to our earlier promise, a few unrepeatable words slip from our lips when unnecessarily provoked.

Our plan to stop just before Delhi is abolished when all we can find are resorts with non-budgetable prices around 2000 rupees for a room per night. At 16.30 and still 33km away we make the decision to go for it. After a quick glucose fix of soft drink and chocolate, we cycle resolutely towards the city. The flat tyre I get half an hour down the road is quite maddening but with or without this incident, we still wouldn't have made the centre before dark. We finally arrive at Ajay Guesthouse in Paharganj at 8pm after a pretty amazing 168km, if we may say so ourselves. (Delhi 168km; 96m)

An internet café in Agra 04-11-07
Smelly Delhi

There's plenty to do in Delhi if you dare step outside into the mayhem. You will need to have your wits about you, your eyes pealed in every direction, your belongings closely guarded and a few well practised side steps to save you from death by rickshaw: motorised or not. A stroll down the Main Bazaar can turn into quite an exhausting exercise. The colours, smells (not all good) and items for sale here are too numerous to mention but make an exciting array for anyone with a slight shopping disposition. Shopaholics beware: if you have the energy you can do some power purchasing here. The down side of showing the slightest bit of interest in a shop's merchandise is you'll be pounced on by the owner. Simply cast your gaze upon one of the attention-grabbing ornaments dangling like colourful bits of fish bait from the awnings and you'll be plagued with "Yes Madam...this way Madam...please Madam...nice things Madam...Madam, good price...come please Madam...look Madam...very cheap Madam..." You soon learn that you can't look anyone in the eye, including the beggars. The fatal mistake of catching their gaze will lead to several unpleasant metres of pawing and pulling at your sleeve, beseeching money. The golden rule for Delhi streets: Ignore!

Ali doesn't like any of these encounters one little bit and seems to have lost any patience he once had in plentiful supply. I can kind of handle it, but entirely understand his sentiment. Still, we put the time in this highly polluted, rubbish infested city to good use, by getting another rabies injection which will boost our coverage up to 5 years. This is a relatively simple and inexpensive operation as you can readily obtain Rabipur® over the counter in most pharmacies. It comes in a little kit, complete with sterilised needle and syringe, so no worries about that side of things. Then, all you have to do is get yourself injected: most hospitals and clinics will do this. Conveniently located down a laneway directly over the road from Apollo Pharmacy in Connaught Place, is the local hospital: SMT. Sucheta Kriplani, where they'll do it for free. For a speedier procedure, just go straight to Emergency. After a minimum of paperwork and fuss, you'll have your jab. An alternative is to visit the reputable Apollo Hospital, but here you'll not only have to pay the 370 INDR for the vaccine but a further 100 INDR for registration plus 600 INDR for doctors consultation. A taxi ride from Paharganj costs between 80 and 100 rupees.

With the vaccination out of the way, I order some new, well overdue prescription glasses, see a periodontist for one of my biannual visits and we, most importantly, debate about our future plans in this country. Ali wants out immediately, but I'd like to give India a bit more of an opportunity to show us a more amicable side. We finally come to an agreement to cycle through Rajasthan to Udaipur via Jaipur and Jodhpur before making up our minds as to whether we'll bee-line straight for Nepal or continue further in India.

But before we get back on the bikes, I have to wait for a rather nasty burn on my neck to heal. Apparently,while stopping for a toilet break along the roadside on our way into Delhi, I must have rubbed up against a wild parsnip plant. This seemingly innocent shrub has the potential of third degree burning, once the contact area has been exposed to sunlight. The technical name, for those of you who are curious enough, is phytophotodermatitis. Just Google images, but beware, they are not a pretty sight. Anyway, the consequence of my close encounter left me most uncomfortable and in sheer agony for several days.

One day Ali plans a walking trip to the Raj Ghat: parkland where all the Ghandi's have been cremated. It's guarded by armed men at all entrances and as a result, there are only "nice looking" people to be seen. It's Sunday and they all have their best saris and shirts on and it's such a contrast from the world just outside the gates, it's almost laughable. Nonetheless, it is a pleasant change not to be hassled, beckoned, peddled or pushed. We leave the safe haven after a bit of people watching and head to the main road. Crossing it, which is a major event in itself, takes close on 9 minutes of waiting including three separate sessions of vehicle dodging. Additionally at one stage of the procedure, we are entertained by a double-jointed child wanting money for her display of hereditary nimbleness. In any case, we make it to the other side, in one piece and to the sanctuary of the Ghandi Museum: a very inspirational display on the life of an exceptional man despite the exhibition's old-hat appearance. The photos on show are quite amazing and there is a wealth of information in the excellently scripted texts; some of which can bring tears to your eyes and goose bumps to your skin.

Two days later, we try and repeat the pleasantries of Ali's first expedition but are sadly disappointed. While resting in one of the not so well manicured parklands, we are accosted by a well groomed man with lots of plastic bags full of bits of paper and a beaten-up attache case. It all seems innocent enough at first until the conversation suddenly drifts on to how he once gave up a reputable and booming business in Las Vegas to pursue a career as the president of Afghanistan, write a book: The problems of the world: the cause and the solution, in umpteen dozen languages and how difficult it now is for him to make ends meet as a refugee in India. One of his woes being that he must come to this very park to wash himself and his clothes. I find the playful chipmunks next to us a lot more interesting at around half way through this little chat and when it is obvious where this guy is heading, I tell Ali that I want to leave - the beauty of travelling with a partner! At this point, Mr well-dressed gets rather verbally aggressive, accusing me of not being able to communicate etc etc etc. Boring! We leave.

Giving India a chance
(Delhi to Jaipur: 3 cycle days; 268km; 585m)

Delhi to Shahjahanpur (119 km; 213 m)
Shahjahanpur to near Shahpura (77 km; 155 m)
near Shahpura to Jaipur (71 km; 217 m)

We leave Delhi after 8 days and a little longer than we had anticipated. At 8am, we are on the bikes: a little too late for my liking, but Ali has an aversion to leaving before this time. Initially, the going is good and quite straight forward. That is, until we hit the major part of the N8. There are three lanes of tightly packed vehicles lined by a dirt shoulder that every one tries to use as an escape route out of the traffic. This is where the mayhem and road rage begins and it doesn't stop until we get way passed Gurgaon (30 kms out of Delhi). By this stage, we have both nearly been killed 4 or 5 times each; I've been sandwiched by two buses; Ali's had his face punched by an impatiently aggressive driver who tried to knock him off the road; I've been wolf whistled by a bunch of good for nothing coppers; who I try to educate by telling them that it is not really an appropriate thing to do; and I break three spokes in one "ping, ping, ping" second. And all this before 11.00am. The whole of the roadside population finds the operation of taking off the cassette and repairing the spokes extraordinarily interesting, but the bit that proves to be a sure fire, box office hit is a woman that's able to handle a tool or true a wheel.

Feeling uncomfortably numb
Back on the bike and out of the city congestion, I feel completely deadened: almost null and void. The din of the incessant horn honking is somewhere at the back of my head, my vision is out in front of me, as if I am not really part of the picture at all. Like being in a games hall, fully absorbed in the action on the screen in front of you and disconnected from all the noise of machines around you. My concentration lapses for 30 seconds and I experience a sense of peacefulness, only to be broken by an idiot on a motorbike flying the wrong way down the same shoulder I'm on. His hand actions insist I'm the one in the wrong. I ask myself "Why the hell am I still in India and subjecting myself to this uncouth sort of onslaught?" I think about getting out. But then I think that this is a looser's attitude. Persist a little more. Go on, stick to it. There's bound to be a reward at the end of it all. Surely? Whoops! Again, the thought pattern is interrupted as I nearly run over one of the intermittent glass remnants of an accident. I swerve to miss. There's a dead dog up ahead that needs to be navigated while holding your breath and the truck heading directly towards you flashing his lights deserves some attention as well. We enter Rajasthan quite unceremoniously.

Nothing much to see along the way to Shahjahanpur (119km; 213m). Flat, uninteresting, dry and dusty with ploughed red dirt fields either side. I suppose the massive herd of Brahma cows we happen upon should get a mention as a slightly enchanting event and the billboards advertising "An English way of Life" on allotments 300m to the left of slum-lined highways bring a wry smile to both our faces. The last five kilometres into town are a killer and I'm not really sure who's pushing the pedals round, but it certainly doesn't feel like me. The sun is setting as we pull into the Tokus Midway Hotel. This is the first glimpse of a different landscape as a few small hills jut above the horizon and shield the sun as it drops out of sight. Hotel is clean, airy and we opt to order room service and not move an inch. The television provides entertainment for our depleted senses. News is: a bomb has gone off in Ajmer at the Dargah tomb and has killed two people and injured quite a number of others. Just our luck to be en route.

Liar, liar, pants on fire.
We rise at 7am and well before the hotel staff. We venture downstairs to the restaurant for breakfast but after discovering that it is deserted and looks like a pigsty, we choose to eat in our room. This seems to be a grand trait of India. Anything you don't want: just throw it away. Hence, the same applies in a restaurant: just chuck it on the floor, whether it be edible, inedible, degradable, non-degradable, whatever. And at the end of the day, all this is left behind for the cockroaches, rats, mice and any other opportunistic animal or insect to feast upon until the morning cleaner comes in to dispose of it.

At exactly 310 metres into our trip today, I am forced off the road by a jeep making a right hand turn from the other side of the road. Even though I have right of way, it seems perfectly logical to this man to shove me into the rubble because, according to him, there were cars coming from the other direction. It never dawned on him to wait. All during our confrontation he has a stupid noncommittal smile on his face. I've nicknamed it the "expressionless smile" because it means absolutely nothing especially if you wear it during a crisis.

Scenery picks up a little, but nothing to get excited about. A handful of people wave hello in a genuine and pleasant manner today. Road is in good condition. Camels carrying mountains of fodder like grass or logs dominate this road trip. The squeak in my derailler annoys the heck out of me. My knee hurts and I can't quench the dry spot in the back of my throat. The water in our Sigg bottles is about a disgusting 35 degrees. Around lunchtime, I break another spoke and during the minute directly after my misfortune, Ali has the same luck. We resolve in the fact that the trip to Jaipur will take an extra day. Ten kilometres before our newly devised destination, road signs start the count off and the anticipation is quite irritating between each marked kilometre. We pass a large area full of date palms in a poor state. This condition is reflected in the road but actually works in our favour by breaking the monotony of the bike ride. Something else to think about. Milan Hotel is on the opposite side, a kilometre or so before Shahpura (77km; 155m).

Room is mediocre for 400 rupees (down from 600). At reception, Ali picks up a menu to order some cold drinks and see what food the hotel has on offer, but before he can open it, another menu is shoved in his hands. Drinks are 20 rupees each, food items all around 60-100 rupees each, which is rather pricey to say the least. Ali relays this to me and we work out that this definitely must be the "foreigners" menu. A few hours pass and I walk downstairs to get the key for the door and before anyone has a say in it, grab one of the menus from the counter. These prices are much more akin with Indian restaurant prices: drinks 15 rupees, meals from 25-60 rupees. I take it with me to the room so Ali can compare. It also comes along to our evening meal, unbeknown to the waiter, who stops in his tracks when he sees the local menu in my hands. The two overpriced versions he was about to offer us are explained away as non-vegetarian menus. Apparently we have the vegetarian variety. Putting it bluntly, this is complete twaddle and an outright lie used to get himself out of a sticky confrontational situation. Another trait prevalent in large doses in this country.

Man cannot live on food alone
Today starts off much the same as the last couple of days. Dusty fields of bajra crops fill the countryside and keep the majority of the women population busy while the men mill away the hours drinking tea and lazing about on charpoys in roadside dhabas. Though the women are pretty much ordained to a life of drudgery, their clothing is anything but. The radiantly vibrant colours and patterns dotted over the tediously arid landscape brighten up the picture tenfold.

Everything changes quite dramatically after the Jaipur bypass. Here, the majority of the trucks leave us and the path is relatively quiet. We even get the chance to ride side by side on a few occasions, which adds a bit of variance to the day and cycling seems quite pleasant. Unfortunately, our trip is plagued by punctures. Five in total and mostly due to the poor quality of the glue, valves or rubber of Chinese tubes, but Ali does manage to find a double-gee somewhere along the way as well. Roads are really good and begin to undulate ever so slightly before Amber. Being the former capital of Rajasthan, there is a magnificently impressive palace nestled high on the side of the village. We climb past it, market stalls selling the largest bhujia snacks I've ever seen, decorated elephants dinging bells round their necks and ankles, camels with elaborately tinted hair designs and pom poms on their noses, monkeys, cows, goats, beggars, locals, bus loads of tourists and the associated touts. Quite an exotic, colourful array. Well, everything except for the tourists, touts and beggars that is.

After reaching the top, we roll our way down into the infamous pink city. So called because Maharaja Ram Singh ordered his people to paint the entire city pink before a visit from the Prince of Wales in 1876. In its heyday, Jaipur (71km; 217m) would have been absolutely stunning, but like most Indian architecture, little has been done to preserve the former splendour. Nonetheless, there still exists a sort of saddened grandeur and majestic beauty about the place. Sort of like looking at a dusty, cobweb covered chandelier and trying to imagine how the crystal used to glisten in the light. We manage our way through the city traffic and stumble upon Cocoon Guesthouse down a nondescript alleyway opposite a minaret on MI road. It is 250 rupees, is clean and tidy with freshly washed sheets and pillow cases and has a small attached bathroom. The manager is genuinely concerned about me carrying my luggage up the stairs, even though I explain that I have cycled all the way from Delhi. Still, it is a sincere gesture and I appreciate it fully. That night we sit in the rooftop restaurant watching the fireworks over the city and it suddenly dawns on us both that it is the end of Ramadan. The call of prayer echoes again for the first time for us since Pakistan. We both have to admit that we had kind of missed it a little. Apart from Lahore and one tone deaf beginner in Islamabad, the vocal-exercise like song resonates a gracious fulfilment that I find quite relaxing and appealing. Also that evening, we enjoy some of the best food we have ever had. It is so good in fact, that we spend the next few days working our way through the local menu.

We stay a few days in Jaipur, which proves to be the detriment of any plans to remain in India. Though, we don't yet admit it to one and other. Ali tells me that as soon as I give the say so, he's outta here. I still cling on with my finger tips to the slimmest hope of transformation. Regrettably though, the architectural beauty easily diminishes, the excitement of great shopping prospects wane, the amazing assortment of colour fades and the delicious flavours of curry spices no longer enchant the taste buds in a place where the people have little concern for anyone else but themselves. Where they are openly rude and inconsiderate to others. That is unless they can make some money out of you, and then there is virtually nothing that a few rupees won't get you, and then they are incredibly nice. We have also noticed the way they treat their own folk as well. In restaurants for example, they yell at waiters, click, cluck hiss and make all sorts of undignified sounds towards them. The service-men of India quite often have a cowering deportment and never show confidence in dealing with these self proclaimed superiors.

A couple venture into a seemingly quiet bar in Jaipur and order a couple of drinks. Some time later, a young Indian bloke, together with a group of friends also enters. It's the day after Ramadan and he's well intoxicated. His friends don't appear to be in the same condition. He's also making an awful racket, at which the woman of the first party turns around and asks him if he wouldn't mind being a little quieter please. Reluctantly, after pulling a face, his voice drops a few decibels but soon enough it's back to its high pitched squeak and about all that anyone can hear. The male party then whistles across the room (which is maybe not such a tactful manoeuvre) but in any case, asks if he won't lower his voice. At this the offending loud-mouth tells the couple to "f$@% off" and if they don't like it, to go to another bar because he is spending money in this establishment and he can do what he likes. Furthermore, it's his celebration time after having to fast for so long and he will make as much noise as he wishes. Meanwhile, a couple of guys from the group come over to apologise for their friend's behaviour but not one waiter or management member enters into the dispute. We leave.

The straw that breaks the camel's back
(Jaipur to Pushkar: 2 cycle days; 151km; 1215m)

Jaipur to Kishangahr (105 km; 196 m)
Kishangahr to Pushkar (46 km; 165 m)

We leave Jaipur in the maze of vehicles that India has on offer and give a sigh of relief when we reach the traffic lights on the outer skirts of town. While standing there, some old sleaze bag decides to pat me on the backside to move me out the way so he can hop on the bus. Considering, I wear long trousers over my bike shorts which annoys the hell out of me and a very respectible top covering arms and neck, I find this sort of behaviour totally uncalled for but it all happens too fast for me to grab him. What makes it more infuriating though, is he's somehow gestured his actions to everyone (men only of course) standing on the sidewalk and they all think it's a hilarious joke. All I can say is this is a putrid sense of chauvinistic humour and not the first incident I've encountered in this country. Ali storms after the bus, as my gallant knight in shining armour and asks to see the weasel, but of course he's hiding from view at the back of the bus and the ticket conductor beckons that he's "not available". How convenient.

There are plenty of truck-stop cafes along the roadside to rest and eat at and the 105 km ride to Kishangarh (196m) is not so difficult until the side wind picks up in the afternoon. Hardly anything new happens today except for an impressive display of coloured saris as a township moves by foot down the highway on their way to a wedding or festive occasion. As soon as we enter Kishangarh we stop at the first guesthouse, though there are more further on in town and in hindsight, better equipped for receiving guests. The restaurant attached serves us up bland, oily food, but we are hungry so it goes down all the same.

Again an uneventful day follows except for a couple of teenagers, who play with fire and annoy the hell out of Ali by speeding past him on their bike and then pulling in front of him abruptly and slowing down: so, he in turn has to overtake them. They had already played this rather annoying game with me a few times and then to their demise, just one time too many with Ali and he eventually rides them off the road and into the median strip. They crash and I am quite upset about it, but as Ali points out, they could have used their brakes instead of trying to speed past him. He's right on that one.

There's a turn-off 22km before Pushkar that takes us into a sort of wilderness and we go up and down a number of hilly slopes. We also pass through some poverty stricken villages where goat and cattle herding is prevalent and the roads are pretty bad, but it's quiet and has a definite calmness about it. We soon hit the township of Pushkar (46km; 165m) and after riding completely out of it we have to turn around and go back again. We find the "guesthouse enclave". Pushkar consists of a couple of very "in your face" tourist streets with an abundant supply of touts spinning one liners and a sales pitch for every waking minute of the day. The streets running to the sides and parallel are poor: shamefully poor indeed!

We find Diamond Guesthouse mentioned in the Lonely Planet easily enough and although the prices are almost triple the books quote and the owner is no longer European, the room is airy, clean, a reasonable size and has a decent attached bathroom. We find out soon enough though that the atmosphere is not really our style. The owner has a salesman's air and before we are even settled he's trying to get us interested in buying something else from him. I think the hushed talk about him being able to serve us eggs for breakfast, does it for me. This area is "supposedly" strictly alcohol-, egg- and meat-free. Basically, if I'm unable to survive a few days without eggs then I wouldn't come here, would I? I find it upsetting that cultures and traditions are being entirely bent for me or my fellow countryman's food habits.

Anyway, we are introduced to all sorts of possibilities to part with some extra money while waiting for 'the boy' to put new sheets on our bed. This is the same boy that makes the tea, cooks the meals, does the washing up and the laundry, the one who also cleans the rooms and sweeps the floors, as well as fetches anything from the shop you want. And if you need something while 'the boy' is out on an errand, you'll have to wait until he gets back because all the owner is capable of is sitting on his ever-increasing fat arse and yelling at or ordering this child of no more than 15 years around. A horrid feature of this country: the caste system.

All this aside, Pushkar does have a relaxing feel about it and you can quite easily spend a while here, eating very well in one of the too many to mention restaurants and cafes, buying all sorts of goodies in the shopping avenues or just taking a stroll in and around the area.

After the incident with the teenagers and probably the few minor irritations along the way, Ali has decided to leave India, with or without me. He has the plan to travel by bus to Agra and then a pedal onslaught to the nearest Nepalese border crossing. I really don't want to catch the bus and find his decision quite unfair. This leads to a major argument, which doesn't make for a pleasant arrival in Pushkar at all. Our sulkiness towards one and other lasts until late the next day, when a compromise is met.

A word from Ali... about India and it's people (October 17, 2007)
Indians always try to provoke, insult, humiliate and ignore(!) others to show their superiority for some reason or another. This might be part of their society, embedded in their caste system, where some are better than others. And the foreigner is at the bottom of the list, next to the untouchables, unless of course, if the Indian can make money out of them! Then they'll be nice, until you hand over the money, after which they will ignore you again. Indian after sales so to speak.

And speaking is not one of their favourite subjects either: hissing, whistling, grunting, barking, howling, what is wrong with these people? Ever had somebody pass you on a motorcycle saying WHOOF?

And on that topic: we've been pushed off the road by bumpers and others parts of cars, buses and jeeps so many times now, that it would be silly to ignore. And then we are not even talking about near misses of vehicles heading towards you, people playing chicken in their cars with you ( they never try it with a vehicle that is any bigger than them...), motorcyclists cutting us off, auto rickshaws overtaking at the last minute and then making a desperate left turn, pedestrians stepping on the road to make it harder for you to manoeuvre. These people are insane!

I still have to meet the first Indian showing genuine interest in what we do; this is our sixth week... I don't have any problems saying that I hope we never have to set foot on Indian soil again. But Son has decided she wants to film and photograph Varanasi and of course buy more fabric (although she says the last bit is not a reason (sure!). So, she'll make a side trip by public transport from Pokhara, Nepal to Varanasi later on.

A passage outta India
(Pushkar to Bundi: 2 cycle days; 186km; 1164m)

Pushkar to Kekri (93 km; 284 m)
Kekri to Bundi (93 km; 169 m)

The passage outta India is agreed on: we'll ride as directly to Agra via the small roads as possible with a stop-over in Bundi. After Agra, it's four more cycling days to the first town over the Nepalese border: Mahendranagar.

The two days to Bundi are quite an easy ride with no major dramas except for the impatient car driving skills of a minivan driver in Ajmer, who sends me flying and the bull who decides to mount the cow in the middle of the street in Nasirabad and when the cow obviously doesn't want to have anything to do with him, chasing after her and directly into Ali's path. We can't seem to find the highway on the map on the second day of travel and end up on an even minor road and adding 10 kilometres to the journey and a lot more bumps than really desired. Most of the road has been rebitumised and it's therefore an effortless journey. On the other hand, the sections somehow not yet worthy of the road department's attention, are absolutely atrocious. The first night's stop is a stone's throw away from Kekri (93km; 284m) at Tirupati White Hotel, where the food is good, the room adequate though a little pricey and the young boy caught peeping at me dressing through a crack in the window quite sad really.

Bundi (93km; 169m) comes soon enough the next day and we are shocked to find ourselves riding down roads of slum housing with litter strewn in all directions. Brahmin-blue and pastel pink walls crumbling into the open water systems giving off a stench that is almost unbearable. We both cast dubious glances at one and other as we cycle into this alleged tourist attraction. Again the buildings are marvelously ornate but are in a distressing state of disrepair. We take the first place we look at: Haveli Riya, but there are so many places to choose from here. They all appear very makeshift and have a homely feel about them. The downside of this is: although the signs clearly state "rooftop restaurant", once you have made your way up the winding cement staircases the smell alone is enough to prevent any sane mind from wanting to eat here. And of course now that you are inside their home it's difficult to get out. So, you may then find yourself eating in the middle of someone's living room or throwing a sleeping person out of their room so table and chairs can be set up for your evening meal. Sometimes very uncomfortable for you, but seemingly logical for an Indian.

Bundi's main attractions are the Palace and the Star Fort (Taragarh). We visit the latter, not at sunset or sunrise as suggested, so we have the place to ourselves. That is except for the monkeys, who seem quite absorbed in their own grooming and eating and hardly notice us. It's a beautifully majestic example of fort building and we ramble contently around all the nooks and crannies. You can't help feel sad though, that no-one does a damned thing to try and retain it's grandeur. Late afternoon and we wander back down to the township admiring the views over the city itself before finding a restaurant near the artificial lake, Nawal Sagar. It's best not to sit close to it during daylight hours as the view may shock you. Again, it is another example of pure neglect: a dumping ground for rubbish, left over bits and human excrement. Everything that the township's loose-running pigs find absolutely delectable.

Gone bananas!
(Bundi to Gangapur: 2 cycle days; 198km; 464m)

Bundi Sawai Madhopur (121 km; 320 m)
Sawai Madhopur to Gangapur (77 km; 144 m)

The day begins on a reasonable note and we find ourselves in the most arid and rural of areas. It's flat, as you would expect from a desert region and as far as the eye can see jowar crops surface the land, irrigated from the numerous dams and lakes that dot the countryside. The road is tiny and not very good. People seem friendly enough, but the day becomes progressively worse and when we finally settle in our room at Hotel Pink Palace in Sawai Madhopur (121km; 320m), I break down crying, repeating the line "they are just horrible, horrible people". And they are, the men and boys that is: there are no two ways about this. Today alone I encounter hissing; clucking; playing chicken with either their vehicle or own body; poking me as I ride past; hitting me and tugging hard at my luggage; playing chicken - or did I already mention that; attempting to throw water over me; sticking their face in mine and making the most disgusting suggestive noises and that was when I flipped. I flipped like I had never done before, I actually went for this guy and I wanted to hurt him, fortunately I had to hold onto my bike as well so no harm was done and besides the little coward didn't hang around long and ran inside to hide. India had bullied me to breaking point. Yes, that's what they are: just a bunch of bullies. Of course, everyone around thought it was a great joke, but I didn't. I don't want to harbour these sorts of feelings and I especially don't want to hurt another human being. I just have to face it, I'm beaten. This country has battered my senses to a pulp. I'm frazzled, and numb and I don't like it anymore. I just wish that someone could have proven my preconceived idea of this country right. I had so longed to travel here. So expectant of a mystical, exotic country rich in friendliness, generousity and spiritualism. Maybe, it once was, but our experiences have only indicated that India is a one of the largest tourist cons we have ever pedalled into.

A pain in the back
When we leave Sawai Madhopur the next morning, I feel a small twinge in my lower back. Nothing much to worry about as a bit of a warm-up on the bikes normally does the trick, especially after what is usually just a night's rest on a bad mattress. Not this time though, and 30 kilometres and one spoke further on, we decide to head for the nearest town with a hotel. Unfortunately, there's nothing in Malarna Dungar and I believe I can still do the 35km to Gangapur.

However, the road doesn't get any better and neither does the pain in my back. There is barely enough room for one truck to pass and we take to motioning them off the road by pointing to the shoulder on the other side. In most cases, it works and they go off a bit to allow us to stay on the bitumen, but it's pretty scary stuff playing chicken with a massive lorry coming flying towards you. Still, it's either that or plunge down into the sandy shoulder which sinks your loaded bike like a lead weight and makes it agonisingly difficult to keep the thing upright. If it were only once in a while, we wouldn't mind so much, but there's a constant stream of truck traffic today. Each time we are pushed off, it gets harder and harder for me to get back on my bike. The pain in my pelvic region is excruciating by this stage.

When I get a flat tyre and can't even lift my leg over my bike to get it off, I should have read the signs better and given up there and then; got a truck or some other transport to the closest hotel. Ali seems pissed off and doesn't believe me that the pain is as bad as I say it is, which in turn infuriates me and being the stubborn idiot I am, I get on the bike and pep-talk myself all the way into Gangapur (77km; 144m). Actually, not quite all the way. If only the Indian traffic would keep moving through the roundabout up ahead, but Indian traffic doesn't work like that. Indian traffic would rather intertwine itself into a giant knot and come to a complete standstill so they can have a satisfying horn honking session before filling up any little gap available in front of them to make the jam tighter and harder to get out of and worthy of a bit more tooting.

I get caught in one of these congestion frenzies about 400m from our hotel. I can't get back into the pedals again; tears are streaming down my face and I scream at any little movement I make. A huge crowd is forming around me and I realise that it is just plain hopeless; I cry out "Help Me!" to the nearest and most sincerest face. Turns out the old man doesn't understand a thing I'm saying, so I grab his hand and put it on my handlebar and gesture that he should pull the bike towards him on an angle. I try lifting my foot over but need assistance from someone behind me. By this stage, Ali has returned and has sited the hotel. Plan is he'll go and check out the room and wait for me to walk there while the old man pushes my bike. With Ali gone, I try to walk, first alone and then with the assistance of men either side but to no avail. A young boy with his motorcycle says he'll take me there on the back and then I do something I would normally never, ever do. I leave my loaded bike with the old guy saying "bring it to the hotel, the hotel". He nods and I let my only possessions in the world go out of sight. I can only put it down to the pain that made me do something so ridiculously unintelligent. All I could think about was me and how much I hurt and how I wanted it to stop and how I simply wanted to lie down and let this all go away. Everything and everyone else around me was a complete blur.

As I pull into the hotel on the motorcycle, it suddenly dawns on me what a foolish thing I have done. My bicycle doesn't arrive...

So, for the next painstaking hour or so I squirm around in a chair in reception making all sorts of undignified faces and sounds while Ali gets on the back of the same young guy's bike that brought me here. I'm sitting in a chair and not flat on a bed because apparently, there are no rooms left in this place, though Ali later tells me he doubts the sincerity of the hotel owner. And of course, it is starting to get dark and priority number one is finding the bike. Even I agree with that.

He and Shahid tour through the city in search of an old Indian man with a fully loaded bike but come back empty handed. Ali is putting on a brave face, but I know he's really upset as well. They see no other option than to go to the police, which takes a further 40 minutes but do find a friendly, young police officer by the name of Turushatlomtam to help us out. The now group of three trundle off again for what seems like ages and I get even more time to think. Naturally, I go through the course of events over and over in my head. If only..., if only..., why didn't I..., and I chastise myself enough times to give me a permanent inferiority complex. My mind also itemises all the things inside my bags and rates them from dearest to doesn't matter a million times but when it all boils down to it, all I really want is for the pain in my leg and back to go away. Absolutely no position gives me relief and I sit there listening to some indistinguishable banter the owner dishes out at me. It is all I can do from passing out.

Must be half an hour later or so and everyone is back and, thank everyone in my immediate surroundings for small mercies, so is my bike. Ali had seen the old man standing at the roundabout looking quite lost. Goodness knows where he was during all the other search escapades, but that doesn't matter now. Ali relays that he was so relieved to see him he nearly shakes the poor man's hand out of his socket and plants a huge kiss firmly on his cheek. You can't imagine how I feel when my bike re-emerges from the streets of Gangapur. I really did think it had gone forever.

That over and done with and we have to find a hotel with a vacant room. Ali sets off with all the guys and the bikes and I have my last wait before being carted off to hospital. Shahid on his motorbike, Turus on my bike and Ali on his. After throwing everything upstairs at Hotel Devanshu they rush back to pick me up, order a rickshaw and we make the excruciatingly bumpy ride to the government hospital. They give me some painkillers and an injection though I'm still screaming the house down, which pulls even more of a crowd than normal. At one point, I lift my head to see not only the doctor about to stick a needle in my backside but the faces of fifteen or so other curious bystanders. The medication doesn't really kick in until back at the hotel where we eat a couple of toasted sandwiches and crash after an exhausting day's events.

But things don't improve at all and I'm topping myself up with painkillers constantly which I am not at all partial to doing. Still, the doctor ordered three days rest and Ali and I pass the time away, watching tv, ordering room service, reading and trying to keep ourselves occupied in between the continual power cuts. Shahid visits on two occasions to see how I am going which is really sweet. The days pass soon enough and although I'm not feeling at all better, we decide it is time to move on and find transport to Agra. It will cater more for tourists, so probably easier to cope with my recovery period. Though we are incredibly grateful to all the people who helped us in Gangapur, it's not really the type of place you want to hang around in for any length of time.

The sneakiest, sleaziest, greediest, most selfish man I've ever met
Ali asks the hotel owner to find some sort of transport for us, our bikes and 12 pieces of luggage. Seems no problem at all and will cost between 1500 and 1800 rupees - 2000 maximum. A little pricey, but we have no option. I'm not riding anywhere in this state. Shahid visits the evening before we leave and asks if he can join us as he has an appointment in Agra on the same day. Before we agree, Ali goes to check that everything has been organised for tomorrow. Just as we should have expected, nothing has been arranged and now it is too late to get a vehicle, unless of course we want to pay the inflated fee of 4000 rupees. And so this is how it goes in India: totally exasperating and in general, a total waste of time. Our original price of 5 rupees per kilometre still stands but we'll have to wait until morning for actual confirmation of a taxi.

Ali is down at reception at 8am sharp and prices seem to have jumped to 2400 rupees. Ali finally agrees on 2200, gives the driver 500 rupees to fill up with diesel and comes back to collect me and all the luggage. We are waiting for our taxi to arrive when we are unpleasantly accosted by a plump young Indian who insists that we can't take the taxi we ordered because it is not a registered tourist taxi, which is needed to transport westerners across the Rajasthan / Uttah Pradesh border. Other issues weasel their way into the debate, such as a police border tax of 450 rupees and so forth, all of which obviously bump the price up again. I have no patience whatsoever this morning; I'm in pain and want to get on the road asap, but by the same token don't want this greedy scammer taking anymore money off us. I take an immediate dislike to this chap, who to my absolute dismay ends up being our driver. Before we even get out of town, we have to wait while he puts two very well used, but better than the original tyres on his spares; one of which we need as we enter Agra that evening. Then surprise, surprise, we pick up a second driver. Excuse this time is, the amount of crime on the road and he needs this tiny, docile, old man as protection. Actually, turns out that he has the papers to drive in Uttah Pradesh. This guy is really getting on my nerves.

The road is poor and I spend most of the time bracing myself for the larger bumps using the handle above the door. The first 100 kms takes two and a half hours and it is an exceedingly tiresome journey. We do notice though that India does look a lot different from a car window and can quite imagine that our wretched experiences have a lot to do with the fact that we are on bikes. For a start, the horn honking is not as deafening, the stress of keeping yourself on the road is left up to someone else and you are travelling too fast for the country folk to come running after you with their hands held out.

We pass a group of about 30 cyclists obviously on a day trip and their faces show signs of stress big time. Ali and I both comment on the women's choice of clothing: skimpy lycra bike shorts and tight fitting tank tops in an area where most of the women have their faces completely veiled. Really, you only have to take a look around you to see that, contrary to many westerners beliefs, India is actually a very conservative country.

But I'm not so worried about these issues today. As agreed before departing, I simply want to get to Hotel Sheela, near the Taj Mahal; a booking made by phone the day before, so as not to stumble upon a full hotel again. Our driver suggests stopping for lunch, which we find no problem at all, but we do have an aversion to all the fancy restaurants he tries to pull into. We refuse them all and choose a truck-stop dhaba-style eatery to grab a quick meal of dahl and chapatti. Knowing full well that he has no intention of paying, we play the waiting game. Eventually he tells us we need to pay the complete bill of 150 rupees, which is nothing in value; but it's the principle. I almost explode and tell him there is no way I am paying for him or the extra driver he brought along with him and who does he think he is expecting us to fork out for his meal. The price suddenly drops, but still we refuse. We'll pay exactly our cut: 60 rupees and that is final. Shahid ends up paying the rest, which shows what a truly greedy man this person is. I would have walked the rest of the way to Agra, if I'd been able to.

One and a half hours later, we drive up to barriers surrounding the Taj Mahal. This is the beginning of the "no pollution area" and the diesel car can go no further. While Ali unpacks everything from the car, I wait to see how our driver is going to solve this problem. I can barely walk and our hotel is still just under a kilometre away. Besides, the deal is door to door. Well lets just say, our driver doesn't budge from his usual selfish character and demands the rest of the payment for the taxi-trip. He feels quite happy, even blazé about leaving us stranded here on the pavement. Now, I really go to town on him. My leg may hurt but my mouth can still holler and I do it in fine form. Deal is deal and whether he likes it or not, this guy is going to get me to my hotel room and I I refuse point blank to pay an extra cent. The manager of the hotel where we are unloading everything comes out to see what all the commotion is and between us and Ali we devise a plan. Ali takes his loaded bike, Shahid mine and I follow behind on a rickshaw. We pay Shahid the rest of the money we owe our driver on arrival at Hotel Sheela, who in turn will take it back to Lord Muck via the same rickshaw I used. He'll have to pay the rickshaw driver at the end. Plan works out fine and we finally make it to our hotel room after thanking Shahid once again for his help and friendship. We both crash after a shower and hot meal.

A day of emotions: from possible stress fracture to trapped nerve; x-ray to MRI scan
My night's sleep is so painful that I end up removing the mattress and lying on the wooden boards. Next morning I can hardly walk, so after breakfast it's direct to a hospital. First the District Hospital, where the doctor thinks I say I have a boil on my leg and when he goes to examine me is surprised not to find one. A fine example of how well Indians listen to you. He prescribes the same medicine as the last doctor, but no-one can tell me what is wrong, except to say it's a sprained muscle. It feels more than that. Sometimes the pain is so bad I have to cry and even more alarming, I have little motor control over my leg and I can't damned well walk. They suggest going to the SN Medical College as they have an orthopedic department. We do just that and our wonderfully patient young rickshaw driver is pleased he's got a full days work on his hands.

We wait in a white tiled room. Everything is tiled except the roof and doors. Electrical points are duck-taped in place and cob-webbed cords dangle across the fluoro lights to reach the operation area. A rusted Mex England table is covered with a tattered and stained bed sheet. Oil leaks from the hydraulic base and the padding is held fast by velcrose and sticky tape. A colony of ants has decided to move nest and are running from just behind the antiquated blood pressure machine towards the door. Probably something to do with the opened bottle of chlor standing on the stainless steel bench next to me. The fans are blowing the fumes around the room and we too have tears in our eyes. A doctor walks in and asks what is wrong and requests that I lie on the table below the huge round operation lights, like those seem in old black and white movies. The plastic wrapping around the framework is still intact, though very dusty. I wonder if the tubing underneath is in pristine condition or not. About four doctors come and examine me, one after the other. All lifting and tapping my legs, hip and spine in pretty much the same way. All in order of rank and starting from the bottom. X-rays are required. Initially two and then Ali is mysteriously asked to follow another doctor, while a third x-ray is taken. Something seems a little weird and later in the waiting room Ali tells me they suspect a stress fracture. Wouldn't that just be dandy: six weeks flat on your back with a lead weight on your foot. Things couldn't possibly get worse, could they? At this point, I'm thinking about finding a nice little shack somewhere on a south-east Asian island and giving up this crazy idea of cycling around the world.

Thank anyone and everyone, but stress fracture it is not. Now, I'm lying on a ripped caphoc matress bed in the admittance room when the head honcho himself comes to visit me along with his awestruck entourage of students and followers. He makes similar lifts and prods as his subordinates did and his diagnosis is the same: a strained muscle but is not yet ruling out having a MRI scan just to be on the safe side. Advice at this stage is 30 days strict bed rest and enough painkillers to make me rattle when I walk. I don't even want to think about it and try and fall asleep until they are ready to take me for a MRI or at least release me. Somehow, and both Ali and I are unsure of when this actually occurred, I was admitted to this hospital. Must have been one of those pieces of papers I signed, but anyway the wait was long and I arrive at the clinic for the MRI scan at 7.30pm, seven hours after first stepping foot inside the college doors.

Everything is normal, though I do think I've had my fair share of radiation for one day, and we have to return with the results to the hospital. It's well after 9.30 pm and we are both starving and just want to get back to our hotel room, but first there's the small detail of signing me out. There is someone else in charge, Dr R.L. Sharma who in all his vibrant jolliness wants to cure me and make a miracle out of it. Since the scan shows no abnormalities, he can go ahead with an exercise that will relieve me of my pain. I'll try anything once, especially if it does what he says it will. Naturally, I'm surrounded by students on night shift all eager to see the marvel of their Chief Medical Officer in action. The stretch exercise does work initially and gives me enough relief to get me walking out the door and back in my hotel room that night. End diagnosis is a trapped nerve and I'm afraid the name doesn't give enough justice to the pain and suffering this condition causes. Anyway, bed rest for at least 10-15 days along with all the usual painkilling medication. Back at the hotel, we pass over the days events, gobble down a few bananas and biscuits before flopping into bed. Well, Ali is the one who flops. I kinda bend ever so slowly at the knees until the sit position which is then tentatively executed onto the bed. I guide my legs up onto the bed with the aid of my left hand before easing my back down onto the hard board underneath me. Yep, another snug night's rest.

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