Tom here. Nick and I wrote out blogs a week or so ago but for various reasons haven’t got round to putting them up. So this is already a couple of weeks out of date (in fact Nick is already back in England!) but here we go:
We spent a day relaxing in Pokhara before heading off for a four day trek. A lot of people go on two or three week treks around this area but we didn’t have enough time so we went for a short route to Poon Hill, a point at around 3000m which offers good views of the 7000m+ peaks nearby.
We were both a little unsure about how much we’d enjoy trekking – the idea of spending all day walking was new and strange after so long on the bikes. As it turned out it was good fun, if a bit less adventurous than I imagined. Of course, these areas are so popular now that the main trekking routes are very well established so you rarely go more than an hour without coming across a ‘teahouse’ for refreshment or a bed. On our second day we reached Poon Hill at lunch time and had it pretty much to ourselves. We cooked up some pasta and sat sunbathing and admiring the views for most of the afternoon.
The plan was to camp up here so we could watch the sunset in the evening and then roll out of bed for the sunrise in the morning. We ran out of water and after a failed search for nearby streams I had to go back down the hill to the nearest village to fill our bottles. I got back up just in time to join the crowds for sunset.
Once darkness fell and the crowds departed the temperature dropped fast and it was suddenly very cold. We set up the tent and got the stove out to make dinner. It didn’t work. After many attempts we couldn’t get enough of a flame to cook anything, so packed up and went back down the hill to find a guesthouse.
The next day we set ourselves a longer distance to cover having found the route up the hill surprisingly quick and easy. It was a fun day and the route took us slightly more off the beaten track, often taking us directly through local people’s gardens. Frequently we would’ve have gone the wrong way if it wasn’t for the friendly interventions of the locals. I found this quite impressive as I’m sure in England many homeowners would be furious if a public footpath went through their land, particularly if it was regularly used by hordes of foreign tourists.
The next morning we found that the long steep descents had taken their toll on our legs and it was a struggle to walk from our room to the breakfast table. We still had to go downhill for the rest of the day so when we eventually reached Pokhara we were quite exhausted and celebrated by drinking beer with some Germans.
Luckily we had scheduled a day of rest but even after that our legs were still aching when we got back on the bikes, heading for Varanasi where we were going to meet Nye. From Pokhara to the border with India we must have descended nearly 1000m but somehow it felt like we were going uphill a lot and it took two hard days of around 130km. On the third day we crossed into India and the border town of Raxaul. This was a horribly dusty and congested place, constantly gridlocked with trucks and buses, as well as the usual bikes, motorbikes and cows everywhere. We’ve got quite used to difficult traffic conditions over the trip but this was one of the worst and progress was slow as we crawled through the gaps.
I found myself a little squeezed for space as I tried to slip past a lorry to my right, with a motorbike trying to do the same to my left. I was almost in front of the lorry when it started to ease forward and brushed into my rear pannier. This was just enough to make me lose my balance and as I fell to my left my focus was on trying to avoid knocking the motorbike over in the process. My bike went the other way and before I could react the wheel of the lorry was slowly but surely crunching directly over the front wheel. And so quite abruptly my cycling was over.
Nick was ahead of me so I awkwardly wheeled the bike onwards down the road, holding the front end up with the comically bent and cracked wheel, and being mobbed by curious locals. Eventually with no sign of Nick and my incredibly slow progress I gave into their suggestions and stopped at a roadside mechanic despite knowing it was a waste of time. Luckily a few minutes later Nick turned up looking rather worried having been told by a local that I had been in an accident.
We looked at the bike, told the mechanics to stop trying and agreed that I’d have to get the train the rest of the way to Varanasi. I climbed into a taxi to the train station and we went our separate ways.
After bidding goodbye to Tom and helping him put his mangled bike into the back of a jeep, the chap that had brought me the news of the accident then insisted on guiding me around this godforsaken border town. Despite having no English, he was charming and helpful and from the back of his motorbike I was taken to his favourite lunch spot, his shop and the school where his son attended. We waited for some time for the school lunch break at which point I was mobbed by overenthusiastic students, none of whom believed I had cycled from England. They were more interested in finding out about the birds and the bees.
After my brief stint as a sex education teacher I made my excuses and was on the road again but behind schedule if I was still to meet Tom and Nye in Varanasi on the 8th. The road leading out of the town was suffocating – the dust, people and heat made it hard to make any decent progress and eventually I left the main road and enjoyed some relative peace on some smaller country lanes. This part of India appeared outrageously poor and a sweaty white man on an orange bike certainly got people’s attention. Tom had taken the tent with him on our departure so I was reliant on finding a hotel to spend the night but hadn’t seen any all day – I was assured by the locals that the villagers would accept me but on my own I felt a little exposed. I bought a handful of vegetable pakoras and a bottle of coke and began to search for somewhere hidden to bed down in my sleeping bag when a chap cycled alongside me (this happens a lot – young men tear past us on their rickety old bikes looking for a race, or approval, or both) and informed me there was a motel only 2km away. I found it easily enough, paid 300 rupees for a room and promptly fell asleep.
The next day was tough and however I dress it up, not much fun. I rode over 220km into the wind and had to ride for four hours in darkness on dirt roads before I found a hotel. It meant I was back on track to make Varanasi on time but it was a stressful day. If I stopped to drink, rest, piss, buy food or check the map I was immediately swarmed by onlookers. I deliberately stopped in places out of sight but within a minute or so I would be surrounded by men who seemingly appeared from the undergrowth, gawping. I felt bad being so abrupt with some of them but when there is no common language it is difficult to hold a conversation and sometimes intimidating when you are outnumbered by twenty-to-one. With one eye on recouping the lost miles from the day before I kept interaction to a minimum. My mood on the bike is quite prone to change and when the wind is in my face and the road is barely a road I am normally quietly unimpressed. So, I kept cycling, all the while jealous that Tom had gottenout of riding this stretch because he threw himself under a truck.
The next day I was in a more reflective mood and I enjoyed the final 80km into Varanasi – the final 80km of pedalling of the trip (for me). I was exhausted from the previous day’s efforts but despite the bags under my eyes and the dust in my beard I soaked in my surroundings, enjoyed the sights and sounds of crazy India and didn’t use my middle finger half as much as usual to make my feelings known to the incessantly awful drivers.
As I entered Varanasi, a city who everyone we had met who had visited had used just one word to describe – ‘mental’, I put to practice everything I’d learnt in India about the total disregard for road safety rules to zigzag my way through the congested traffic to our hotel to meet up with the lads. Unfortunately, they weren’t at the hotel and had taken the key to our room so the owner let me nap in another room for a while – not quite the grand end of the cycling celebration and ceremony I had visualised in my head when we were pounding the miles in Europe, surviving the deserts of Central Asia or dragging the bike up the Himalaya but I was nonetheless, content.
The last five days of cycling from Pokhara to Varanasi were unquestionably hard work and with hindsight a fitting end to the trip for me. By the time I rolled up alongside the Hotel Maruti, in one of India’s most holy cities, I was just glad that I didn’t have to ride my bike the next day.