Stop press!

 

 

It was just an ordinary day. We left Calicut at 645am ( even that’s normal!), called in for chai and tiffin and started riding. We were heading for the beach – destination Kunnar. On arrival at 230 we stopped for juice to be met by a nice guy telling us of the hotel he worked in just up the road, near the beech and with wifi. We were determined however to be right on the sand and so set off for another beech 8km up the coast. Up and down a few hills we arrived at the peninsula. We passed through small local villages, good bakery’s but sadly no hotels. It was 430 when we finally checked into the hotel we were told about 2 hours earlier. We showered, made ourselves at home and then headed to the lobby to make use of the Internet.

 

 

It was here we got taking with another hotel guest, Hisham Hassan. He was just checking out having been there for the past two weeks while Maradona visited the area. A well connected business man it was interested to chat and, while to the English Maradona is perhaps not such a hero, it was a good conversation, and then came the question that would change the next 24 hours….. Would we like to be in the media?

 

 

John and I had read of another couple cycling through India while in Mysore and had joked that it would be fun to also have a story in the local paper…. Our reply to Hisham then was of course …yes.

 

 

Within a hour two media interviews had taken place, two sets of photographers had arrived and a camera crew were arriving the next morning. 7 am we were told. We wanted to be back in the bikes by 830 am latest, already later than our usual departure time. Hisham had also taken a call with Bobi Chammanaur, a very successful entrepreneur and owner of Chemmanaur jewellery chain. He also wanted to meet us. We were reluctant, given he was based back in Calicut, the place we had left the previous day but eventually agreed…. Swayed perhaps having tried on two very expensive and stunning diamond necklaces ( only joking!!!….)

 

 

While the jewellery looked amazing it was the conversation I had taken with him that had persuaded me. He was a keen runner, interested to meet two people with the willpower to cycle the globe but also someone who through his business success has set out with the rather ambitious goal to get rid of homelessness in India. Given both my work in social enterprise and corporate social responsibility and of course the fact that I am raising money for The Homeless World Cup I was interested to meet him. We were going back to Calicut the following day.

 

 

Time did not permit for us to cycle this and to stick to the schedule we had to now get to Mumbai, a car was sent to transport our bikes and we got a lift with hisham, following another media interview. We were being taken to the Taj hotel to meet Bobi. Most of our experience so far was that the expensive hotels ( of which we have stayed in none!) were mostly rude to two smelly cyclists but we were bobi’s guests now! On route Hisham was keen to introduce to others he knew, family, police chiefs, friends and it’s fair to stay we found some of this frustrating. While  good to meet others we felt out of control and perhaps wished to be back on the bikes. Two visits would however be real highlights of our day.

 

 

Hisham told us of his father, unfortunately no longer with us, but a man who sounded remarkable and inspiring in his achievements – an UN attendee, involved in key government work and also helped to establish good hospitals and schools in Calicut. One initiative he wanted to see, though had to leave its accomplishment to his family, was a school in Mahe, his home town, between Kannur and Calicut.

 

 

We agreed to visit the school and the welcome was overwhelming. Dressed smartly in their beige uniforms the children formed a corridor of loud applause as we arrived before going on to sing their school song. They were so pleased to have visitors and we were given flowers and asked to sign both the school guest book and many exercise books of the children. It was so warming and a real honour.

 

 

Finally arriving at the Taj we sat down for lunch. Unfortunately Bobi couldn’t join us as we ate but said hello and noted we would then see him at one of the “poor homes” he had established later that afternoon. With an ambition of a poor home in every town Chammanaur has an outlet, there are three currently established. I was not sure what to expect but the home which housed 7 men, some elderly and some with mental health issues, was exceptionally run. Cleaner than many hotels we have stayed in the men looked well cared for by the family who lived there to help them. It seemed in contrast to what we can sometimes hear regarding care facilities back home and I felt a sense of humility and a “part of the family” rather than just a “nice” social add on. While it’s not core business it is fantastic to see time and money being committed for this work not just for business growth. I look forward to following this progress.

 

 

We had further opportunity for conversation that evening as we stayed at Bobi’s beach house and enjoyed some great Keralan food as well as a wee reminder of home with a glass of Scottish single malt! We did however end up going to bed much later than our usual 10pm ish slot. It had been an interesting day, a chance to see another side to India but we were itching to get back on the road.

 

 

We’d had photographers follow us all that day …. Very odd…. Though we were not sure if any press stories followed. It would be good to find out but we are chuffed with the three articles achieved and I hope I may be able to make a connection with the poor homes initiative and The Homeless World Cup work here in India. That really would be a good result.

 

 

 

The Indian blog!

 

As John noted in one of his previous blogs (country or continent) India is of corse a place of significant proportions. With a population of around 1.21 billion and an area of 3,287,263 sq km India is full of contrast, variety and extremes. Broken down into 19 key areas we have cycled a small fraction of what India has to offer but even then it is easy to spot differences between the independently run states.

The first part of our trip covered Rajasthan, in the North, to the west of Delhi. A key tourist destination and as the words desert and camel conjure up, a very hot, dry heat for cycling. This state is one of the poorer areas of India and while much new road building was taking place there were certainly many bumps to contend with.

Following a short detour via Delhi and a long train journey to Bangalore we then started the second part of our India adventure in Tamil Nadu, heading from there to Kerala. Much of the riding in the early part of this journey went around the hill stations of Ooty, Kotagiri, Coonoor and Munnar. It was chilly at night and as ever as we hit the colder areas the warm/hot showers disappeared once again, only to return in the sticky and humid backwaters of Kerala. The air cleared only by the evening thunderstorms. However, it has not just been the contrast in weather that has been noticeable between the states.

I noted Rajasthan was poorer and this became all the more noticeable with Kerala. Known for its high literacy rate, some of the houses here looked grander than most of the hotels we have ever stayed in and as we continued up  the coast through Karnataka towards Goa, despite the roads once again in desperate need of repair, the coastline was been developed with extravagant homes and holiday resorts way beyond on budget – the area becoming popular with gulf millionaires.

Also apparent are the changing religious areas. As soon as we entered Kerala there was an overwhelmingly Christian influence – around 35% of people here are Christian and there are churches everywhere. Almost immediately on leaving Kerala this influence seemed to reduce again dramatically – Hindu temples again now much more apparent as well as a significant Muslim area.

We’re in Goa now, a return to the Christian influence and as a key western holiday spot this certainly feels less like India than many of the other places we have travelled through. A welcome return to wifi (hence the double blogging… There’s another to come!) and the chance to enjoy a cocktail and pizza on the beach.

I was last in India in January 2000 and in that time, despite still seeing significant poverty it is clear that India has been growing in economic terms. New buildings, schools and hospitals, investment in road infrastructure ( still ongoing but much better!) and a sense of confidence. There is a real pride in India and from individual state dwellers. When asked we didn’t dare say if our favourite place was a different state though to be fair all areas we have visited have given us something different.

However, regardless of state there are some extremes which India exhibits more than anywhere else I have visited.

It can be a pleasure on the nose or  make one feel instantly sick. We’ve cycled past curry powder factories, many fragrant incense sticks at shrines and there is also the smell of cooking to waken up the senses though in contrast dead camels, dogs etc do not smell good, dumped rubbish can whiff a little and the public walls used as urinals, especially busy ones outside stations can be overwhelming.

The women look stunning (teeth aside), with saris that bring amazing colour to the landscape. The men often look dirty, in scruffy shirts, trousers or sarongs and while one may think this is due to their involvement in dirty work in contrast to the women it seems it seems the men drink more tea than repair roads! Women here also still seem timid and shy to say hello compared to their often too eager male counterparts.

It will always be the distinction between the rich and poor that can be most overwhelming though. While some live in grandiose style others live under ripped tarpaulin on the side of the road. Our final destination will be Mumbai and this is perhaps the place where this extreme is ‘best’ played out. Bollywood glamour, the plush quarters of Malabar hill yet 60% of people here live in shanti towns.

While it would be great to return to India and see more clean public toilets, less dumped waste and a stronger female persona it is the difference in prosperity that would perhaps be the greatest thing to notice a change in.  Sadly it’s hard to imagine this though the next blog tells of some good work we encountered in addressing this divide.

Bike of the raj

After a tough ride through Nepal it was time to live like royalty and where better a place to do this than Rajasthan – Land of the Kings. According to the Adventure Cycling Handbook – other than tough but glorious rides in the mountains – Rajasthan, Kerala and Goa are the best three areas for cycle touring in India. While this is my third trip here, I was new to Rajasthan, have only passed through Kerala and saw only a limited part of Goa mostly while scoring cricket games as part of a pub team tour many years ago. So, with a basic plan in mind we spent October following the royal line, aka highway 76, on a tour of forts and palaces.

Having caught the train from Gorakpur, our destination after the Nepal border, we actually started our tour in Rajasthan’s neighbouring state, Uttar Pradesh. While not in the land of Raj the Taj Mahal in Agra, the start of our cycle trip, is surely the finest example of the life of the Kings. Despite Agra itself being a bit of a waste dump, somewhere I had been before and worthy of its alternative name of Agro (hawkers etc everywhere!) the Taj will always be one of the worlds most glorious buildings. Also worthy of a second visit, on route and just 35km away was Fatehpur Sikri – an city abandoned after a shortage of water for the many who flocked there once it was built and a fantastic example of Moghul architecture. All in all a great start to our riding.

While hot and with roads as described in the previous blog it was flat, straight and a welcome change from the Himalayas. We entered Rajasthan on our third ride day with a planned route would take us through Jaipur, Bundi, Bijaipur, Chittorgarh, Udaipur, Kumbalgarh, Puskar and finally to Jodhpur. While disappointed Jaisalmer was just that bit too far out for this bike trip we really were doing our best to see why this is a much visited part of India. While all places shared a common denominator – they all had a fort – there were still startling differences between them and with the inevitable compromises one has to make when trying to see a country at 12mph we were “forted out” only once!

Time constraints in Jaipur meant we missed the City Palace and Hawa Mahal ( two key attractions!) though we were able to send five additional panniers to Mumbai and book all remaining train tickets for our India journey. Travelling in sleeper class with so much luggage from Gorakpur made us determined to ditch the excess and ensure better seating on upcoming trains. Of the sightseeing we managed to visit Amber Fort – our first major introduction to the magnificence and sense of grandeur that continued from place to place; Nahargarh, on a sadder note, gave a first insight to neglect and disrespect shown to some of India’s historical buildings and heritage.

That said, our next key stop in Bundi, a charming town with a bustling market, blue Bramin houses and run down palace, was one of our favourite visits. With much fewer visitors and restraints we were able to ramble through this old building, view fabulous murals and wake up a few bats. It was only the feisty monkeys for which you hired a stick that meant you needed to be on your guard. While incredibly hot we spent a wonderful afternoon exploring. Unfortunately for John the town that was not a shoppers paradise – with broken flips flops and only cycle shoes trying to find size 12′s was a challenge too far. Fortunately,India being India, we did find a man to fix broke stitching on his old pair… Still holding out to this day! While I suggested for a laugh we could try underwear shopping for me next we decided it was time to rest before our 160km journey the following day.

To date, much of this new living like kings was either through visits to historical monuments or simply through comparison with the cold showers and tough conditions previously encountered so we felt it was time to do it for real and were heading for a nights stay in Castle Bijiapur. 160km was a little further than we wanted to pedal in a day if we also wanted to make the most of our night of luxury so the journey was a mix of bike and bus. Again, fortunately India being India this is pretty straightforward. I don’t think I’d ever get a bike on a bus back home!

Still home to the Raj, also a keen cyclist we had a great stay and left the next day with directions over the hills and off the highway to Chittorgarh. Despite being noted as one of the greatest forts in India, perched on 150m cliffs and 6 km long we were forted out. We took pictures from a distance and in trying to conserve cash after the previous evening spent the night in a windowless and somewhat shabby hotel. We weren’t in the King’s quarters anymore!

Eighty one miles the following day got us to Udaipur. What a delight. The book highlighted it as a romantic city and it was easy to see why. It hosts one of the finest hotels in the world, has palaces set on and around the lake, many roof top restaurants etc etc. I loved the general ambiance of the city but will also always remember it for the museum housing a fabulous turban collection ( did you know all different jobs, classes etc have different fabrics and knots), the largest turban in the world, a fantastic puppet display and replicas of buildings from around the world made from polystyrene. Amazing.

However, this is not what Rajasthan is known for and our next destination of Kumbalgarh reminded us of the bloodythirstyness and fighting of the Raj kingdom. We were up in the hills now and following a beautiful ride found ourselves at this fort only once conquered with its thick walls stretching out for 36km. In addition to the fort being a worthwhile visit for a long climb we were also rewarded the following day with a magnificent descent. Pure joy.

The next two days were to be long slogs on the bike, with little to see and so the downhill ride was more than welcome. We were aiming to get to Pushkar. Pushkar offered a break from the typical Rajasthan attractions and is known as the town of pilgrims and hippies. It was easy to see why with its many temples, hippy stores and preference for bang lassies over a nice cold beer. While eating hash there ( not something that either of us go for ) seems relatively available we found a cold beer only served in tin foiled covered cans and served in coffee mugs. Weird man!

While we enjoyed the views from one of the hill temples, took a short camel ride and enjoyed a rest and wifi we were ready to leave and excited to get to Jodhpur – another of the great Rajasthan cities. We had a number of days there ( too many really) though given the Indian lurgy left me hotel bound for a day this was perhaps as well. The fort there was a magnificent end to the sightseeing and provided a zip line for our entertainment – I said every fort provided something different!

Unfortunately I was not so taken with Jodhpur as a town. It was incredibly busy and noisy even by Indian standards and without the time on the bike which provides much needed space and some air I was disappointed that it would be some time again before we would hit the road. We took a day out to Osian, some 60km away but while in the country I think both John and I were yearning to be pedalling rather than sat in a jeep.

Since then with 10.5 hrs on train to Dehli, 34 hrs from there to Bangalore and a bus journey to Mysore we are really really looking forward to being back in the saddle and as I write this that will be tomorrow! This cycling is addictive! Let’s see what Kerala has to offer next……..

 After a tough ride through Nepal it was time to live like royalty and where better a place to do this than Rajasthan -Land of the Kings. According to the Adventure Cycling

Bike of the Raj

 After a tough ride through Nepal it was time to live like royalty and where better a place to do this than Rajasthan -Land of the Kings. According to the Adventure Cycling Handbook – other than tough but glorious rides in the mountains – Rajasthan, Kerala and Goa are the best three areas for cycle touring in India. While this is my third trip here, I was new to Rajasthan, have only passed through Kerala and saw only a limited part of Goa mostly while scoring cricket games as part of a pub team tour many years ago.

So, with a basic plan in mind we spent October following the royal line, aka highway 76, on a tour of forts and palaces. Having caught the train from Gorakpur, our destination after the Nepal border, we actually started our tour in Rajasthan’s neighbouring state, Uttar Pradesh. While not in the land of Raj the Taj Mahal in Agra, the start of our cycle trip, is surely the finest example of the life of the Kings. Despite Agra itself being a bit of a waste dump, somewhere I had been before and worthy of its alternative name of Agro (hawkers etc everywhere!) the Taj will always be one of the worlds most glorious buildings. Also worthy of a second visit, on route and just 35km away was Fatehpur Sikri – an city abandoned after a shortage of water for the many who flocked there once it was built and a fantastic example of Moghul architecture. All in all a great start to our riding.

While hot and with roads as described in the previous blog it was flat, straight and a welcome change from the Himalayas. We entered Rajasthan on our third ride day with a planned route would take us through Jaipur, Bundi, Bijaipur, Chittorgarh, Udaipur, Kumbalgarh, Puskar and finally to Jodhpur. While disappointed Jaisalmer was just that bit too far out for this bike trip we really were doing our best to see why this is a much visited part of India. While all places shared a common denominator – they all had a fort – there were still startling differences between them and with the inevitable compromises one has to make when trying to see a country at 12mph we were “forted out” only once!

Time constraints in Jaipur meant we missed the City Palace and Hawa Mahal ( two key attractions!) though we were able to send five additional panniers to Mumbai and book all remaining train tickets for our India journey. Travelling in sleeper class with so much luggage from Gorakpur made us determined to ditch the excess and ensure better seating on upcoming trains.

Of the sightseeing we managed to visit Amber Fort – our first major introduction to the magnificence and sense of grandeur that continued from place to place; Nahargarh, on a sadder note, gave a first insight to neglect and disrespect shown to some of India’s historical buildings and heritage. That said, our next key stop in Bundi, a charming town with a bustling market, blue Bramin houses and run down palace, was one of our favourite visits. With much fewer visitors and restraints we were able to ramble through this old building, view fabulous murals and wake up a few bats. It was only the feisty monkeys for which you hired a stick that meant you needed to be on your guard.

While incredibly hot we spent a wonderful afternoon exploring. Unfortunately for John the town that was not a shoppers paradise – with broken flips flops and only cycle shoes trying to find size 12′s was a challenge too far. Fortunately,India being India, we did find a man to fix broke stitching on his old pair… Still holding out to this day! While I suggested for a laugh we could try underwear shopping for me next we decided it was time to rest before our 160km journey the following day.

To date, much of this new living like kings was either through visits to historical monuments or simply through comparison with the cold showers and tough conditions previously encountered so we felt it was time to do it for real and were heading for a nights stay in Castle Bijiapur. 160km was a little further than we wanted to pedal in a day if we also wanted to make the most of our night of luxury so the journey was a mix of bike and bus. Again, fortunately India being India this is pretty straightforward. I don’t think I’d ever get a bike on a bus back home!

Still home to the Raj, also a keen cyclist we had a great stay and left the next day with directions over the hills and off the highway to Chittorgarh. Despite being noted as one of the greatest forts in India, perched on 150m cliffs and 6 km long we were forted out. We took pictures from a distance and in trying to conserve cash after the previous evening spent the night in a windowless and somewhat shabby hotel. We weren’t in the King’s quarters anymore!

Eighty one miles the following day got us to Udaipur. What a delight. The book highlighted it as a romantic city and it was easy to see why. It hosts one of the finest hotels in the world, has palaces set on and around the lake, many roof top restaurants etc etc. I loved the general ambiance of the city but will also always remember it for the museum housing a fabulous turban collection ( did you know all different jobs, classes etc have different fabrics and knots), the largest turban in the world, a fantastic puppet display and replicas of buildings from around the world made from polystyrene. Amazing.

However, this is not what Rajasthan is known for and our next destination of Kumbalgarh reminded us of the bloodythirstyness and fighting of the Raj kingdom. We were up in the hills now and following a beautiful ride found ourselves at this fort only once conquered with its thick walls stretching out for 36km. In addition to the fort being a worthwhile visit for a long climb we were also rewarded the following day with a magnificent descent. Pure joy.

The next two days were to be long slogs on the bike, with little to see and so the downhill ride was more than welcome. We were aiming to get to Pushkar. Pushkar offered a break from the typical Rajasthan attractions and is known as the town of pilgrims and hippies. It was easy to see why with its many temples, hippy stores and preference for bang lassies over a nice cold beer. While eating hash there ( not something that either of us go for ) seems relatively available we found a cold beer only served in tin foiled covered cans and served in coffee mugs. Weird man!

While we enjoyed the views from one of the hill temples, took a short camel ride and enjoyed a rest and wifi we were ready to leave and excited to get to Jodhpur – another of the great Rajasthan cities. We had a number of days there ( too many really) though given the Indian lurgy left me hotel bound for a day this was perhaps as well. The fort there was a magnificent end to the sightseeing and provided a zip line for our entertainment – I said every fort provided something different!

Unfortunately I was not so taken with Jodhpur as a town. It was incredibly busy and noisy even by Indian standards and without the time on the bike which provides much needed space and some air I was disappointed that it would be some time again before we would hit the road. We took a day out to Osian, some 60km away but while in the country I think both John and I were yearning to be pedalling rather than sat in a jeep.

Since then with 10.5 hrs on train to Dehli, 34 hrs from there to Bangalore and a bus journey to Mysore we are really really looking forward to being back in the saddle and as I write this that will be tomorrow! This cycling is addictive! Let’s see what Kerala has to offer next……..