Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Melbourne II

I've been back for a little over a week now, and while I feel I've recovered from jet lag, I do continue to feel 'in a funk' - in the sense of a nervous depression - a sort of post-travel blues. It's not that I wish I was still in India - heaven knows, while India is a vast & fascinating place, it can also drive you barmy. I'm not sure I 'love' India, although I'd be keen to return & do some more cycling there (I'd like to cycle further into Rajasthan, and I also fancy cycling from Mumbai to Goa, return). Perhaps 'strong ambivalence' captures how I feel about the place - I both love it & hate it. And it's not that I can't make up my mind - I think it evokes strong feelings in both directions, which is perhaps what attracts me to it. No shades of grey.

I've heard people describe the place as anarchic, but I don't think this is correct. India has an extremely hidebound & conservative culture, as evidenced by, amongst other things, how large a part religion plays in the society, the poor status of women, and the ongoing strength of the caste system. To my mind, chaotic is a more apt description. And a bit of chaos is heavenly - perhaps that's what I'm missing.

I thought I might briefly review how it all went - for my own interest & perhaps for the interest of anyone who's been reading some of this blog or who may be planning a similar journey. My first entry (at provided, in somewhat obsessive detail, a list of what I intended to take with me. On the whole, it wasn't a bad list. In particular, though, I didn't take the windcheater, but bought a cheap jacket for use in Mt Abu, after nearly freezing to death on the bus from Rajkot. I also didn't take a sink plug or moisturiser; the latter might have been helpful as my feet, especially heels, became cracked & dried from wearing sandals the whole time. The Dunlop Volleys could well have stayed behind, as could the extra U-bolt lock, 1 padlock & wire cable, plastic spoon, bungy strap, sewing kit, & storage bags. Four pairs of undies was excessive - perhaps reflecting my slight nervousness as I packed; three pairs is certainly plenty. I didn't need the first aid kit or spokes but would probably take them again. I took an extra pair of long pants, and would do so again, to wear while the other pair were being washed. The laptop? It was a little daft to lug this around, especially as it enabled me to download photos onto it & preview them, with the result that I took over 3000 snaps. Still, I'd seriously consider taking it again next time, as it was good on several occasions to be able to listen to music & even to watch a few episodes of Seinfeld that I'd not seen. I also had some maps on it, my instruction booklets for the camera and bike, instructions on how to remedy various bicycle problems and various other bits & pieces. Having the day & date on it also helped keep me orientated.

Other than one self-induced sequence of flat tyres (in Mt Abu), I had no bicycle problems (well, that's if I don't count the twiddling & adjusting, by locals, of various knobs & levers on the bike whenever I was unable to keep it in my room). I think the MTB was probably a better bike for Indian conditions that the hybrid bike I took in 2000. Perhaps not quite as fast, but it seemed more robust, especially with the wider & sturdier tyres.

So, what stood out? I particularly liked cycling in Rajasthan - especially the roads to Ranakpur & Kumbhalgarh, even though they were a little steep in parts. They were interesting, with very little traffic & quite reasonable road surfaces for most of the way. I was very impressed by the fort at Kumbhalgarh, and by the baolis - step-wells - at Uperkot Fort in Junagadh, especially the Navaghan Kuva, which was just stupendous. The best restaurants were probably those at the House of MG in Ahmedabad - Agashiye upstairs & the Green House downstairs, although the buffet at Lake Palace Hotel, Udaipur, was most impressive, and very tasty. I also enjoyed the kabab at Bade Miya, an evening street stall in Mumbai.

I found Ahmedabad (Amdavad) to be one of the more deceptively interesting places I visited - by this I mean that on first impression it seemed like a noisy, dusty, boring city, but further inspection revealed a fascinating city with lots to see & do, including eating at the aforementioned restaurants. I also really liked Junagadh, and the climb up Girnar Hill, despite the fact that I could barely walk for the next few days. Udaipur was magical, even without any water in its lakes, and I'd like to return there should they ever fill up again. Diu was a delightfully laid-back island, with some pleasantly deserted beaches, and I did enjoy my brief stay at Palace Utelia in Lothal, despite it being "ridiculously overpriced", according to the Lonely Planet Guide.

One of the best managed hotels, from a tourist's point of view, was in Daman, at the Hotel Gurukripa. It was about Rp 700 a night (about $16 USD) - not cheap - but had all the small touches that were just great for a weary, grubby, dusty cyclist - shampoo, soap, toilet paper, several towels, even little sponges to clean shoes & sandals with, and a pair of bathroom scales so that I could see how much weight I'd lost.

I should note that while I often tended to stay in mid-range rather than budget accommodation, many of the budget places I saw or stayed in were perfectly adequate (and conversely, a number of the mid-range places were pretty awful). In Udaipur for example, two people I spent time with, John & Marianne, were staying at Lal Ghat Guest House, which seemed pretty good to me, and somewhat cheaper than where I'd elected to stay. My reason for staying in mid-range places was that after 5 or 6 hours on the road, I really welcomed a bit of (relative) luxury - hot water/ shower, towel, a good bed, and easy access to a meal.

People have asked me about what dangers I encountered, questioned my sanity, called me intrepid & adventurous amongst other things & wondered how I could do something like this, especially on my own. While I'd admit to feeling nervous at times (eg prior to leaving Australia, and to cycling out of Mumbai & Nasik), the fact is that it was surprisingly straightforward. There's little or no requirement to be particularly fit - this begins to happen after a few days on the road - accommodation is easy to find, and the roads & traffic conditions are not really all that much worse than those in South India, or in Melbourne for that matter (well, I guess we don't have so many goats or cows on our roads, and people here do tend to look before they pull out into traffic or cross the road). It can get quite lonely at times, but this is manageable. Writing the weblog, checking emails, planning the next day's cycling, occasional phone calls to Australia and staring with desperate, glazed eyes at the wall all helped. There were a few times when I was daunted by what lay ahead e.g. cycling back up the hill from Ranakpur - from the "remote, plunging wooded valley, reached down a twisting road..." (LP guide), but in fact it was no big deal, once I decided to put my head down, bum up (a good cycling pose) & just do it. I hate to say it, but the Nike phrase, while being a bit simplistic, makes good sense.

I may well rejig this blog at some point into a website, including a selection from my 3000+ photos, as the reverse chronological order that Blogger uses is a little cumbersome to negotiate. To this end, I have been involved in some delicate negotiations with my good friend Mr Felix & his pal Mr Pumpy (see Mr Felix's Cycling Asia Blog and Biking Southeast Asia with Mr Pumpy!) about possibly having some sort of link with the Mr Pumpy site. We'll see.

map of the trip

here's a map of where I cycled ...

Thursday, March 17, 2005


It was a pleasant enough flight from Mumbai to Melbourne, although I was still smarting over the $60 excess baggage charge that Qantas stung me with in Mumbai. My bike-in-a-box (i.e bike, locks, tools & a few clothes) weighed in at 27kg, which I was informed was 2kg over the allowable 25kg & that they had been directed by the Sydney office to charge for anything over this.

I guess it's labouring the point to note that my box weighed 2.5kg. Still, it's hard to see how a similar cycling venture is viable with airlines that insist on a box. I guess not taking the extra lock & the laptop would trim overall weight by this amount.

I'm still adjusting to the cool weather here in Melbourne (it's about 20'C here at 1pm, compared to mid-30's in Mumbai), the 5.5 hour time difference, and the lack of Indians.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Mumbai II

I can feel myself staring to wind down (or up) as my time in India comes to an end. I've spent the last few days cycling around Mumbai, taking in a few of the sights eg. Falkland St, the laundry guys near Mahalaxmi Railway station. On one of my forays out into the city, near a cricket ground across from the Chowpatty seaface, I spotted some bicycles with gears & two Westerners standing near them. "Other cyclists", I thought with excitement, as I've not met or seen any others on the trip. They turned out to be a pleasant young Australian couple who are working aboard the cruise ship Oriana as photographers. They've taken bicycles with them, and cycle around the various cities they stop in. It was good to chat with them; they are contemplating doing some cycling in a yet-to-be-decided country or countries.

Mumbai is a colossal & at times chaotic city, and cycling around it feels nearly as dangerous as cycling in Melbourne. Being a tourist, the 'hassle' factor is fairly high here. It does amuse me when some of the dodgiest-looking people you are ever likely to meet sidle up to you in the street and mutter "change money?". You would have to either have a total lack of judgement or be totally insane to even contemplate taking up their offer.

The other thing I've been doing is sorting out a fucking cardboard box for the bicycle. A telephone call to the Qantas office here revealed that, yes, they do insist on the bicycle being in a box, but no, they weren't able to supply one or suggest where to get one. Luckily the Indians are intrepid folk, and a worker in the hotel I'm staying in was able to find me a old refrigerator box. I'll be spending this afternoon cutting & remodelling it into a bicycle box. What a pain. So, words of advice to myself & other intending cyclists - DON'T TRAVEL QANTAS if you plan to take your bicycle. Most south-east asian airlines (eg Garuda, Malaysian, etc) are much more relaxed about this, and let you more or less wheel your bike aboard.

Saturday, March 12, 2005


Back in Mumbai after 2.5 months - seems less overwhelming now having been travelling around India on my bike.

Yesterday, while still in Udaipur, I cycled to the Monsoon Palace, atop a nearby hill. It was a tough ride (return trip from Lal Ghat 15.9 km; average speed 12.66, but maximum speed back down the hill was 48 km/hr. Fabulous!). The Palace is not all that spectacular, but the view from the top makes it a worthwhile cycle.

The bus trip here from Udaipur was not very pleasant. The ticket was Rp 500 for me & Rp 100 for the bike, which travelled on the roof. And frankly, I wouldn't have minded swapping places. I had a sleeping compartment which was really like a big sardine tin ... I even found myself for some of the journey imagining that I'd died (which would have been a sweet release) & was being transported to Mumbai in a coffin. What was odd was that when I first got in & lay down I seemed to fit OK lengthwise ... I certainly didn't several hours later. I began to wonder if I was in one of those rooms in the old horror movies that slowly closes in, squashing its victim. Then I began to wonder if I was expanding! Around about this time I realised that I was slowly losing my mind in this perversely-named deluxe sleeping compartment.

Still, both I & my bicycle are here largely in one piece. We're (see how attached I've become to it ... I'm not sure how it feels about me though) here for a few more days, during which I'll poke around Mumbai on foot & by bike. I also need to find or make a big cardboard box to put the bike in for the journey home, to satisfy Qantas' absurd rules.

Today I saw the caves on Elephanta island, which all relate to the god Shiva. I thought they were well worth seeing, despite the annoying demand to pay 25 times what Indian residents pay to see the caves (Rp 250 vs Rp10).

Wednesday, March 09, 2005


Day 22 cycling: Ranakpur to Kumbhalgarh
Distance: 53.34 km
Ride time: 4:38 hrs
Average Speed: 12.14 km/hr
Maximum speed: 50.4 km/hr
Total cycled: 2022 km
Total between towns: 1822 km

It took little less than 2 hours to get to the top of the hill out of Ranakpur, where a Hindu temple stands (about 19km from where I stayed). As I left my accommodation and began the day's cycling, a dog suddenly made towards me. Thankfully he didn't bite into me, as I at first feared, but merely began trotting alongside me - and did so for the next 13 km (which shows how fast I was travelling). My next reaction at him follwoing me was an echo of the irritation that I'd developed from the "one pen" kids who followed alongside, but then I figured the dog couldn't have been expecting much of me. I then began to think (cycling does strange things to your psyche) as the hill became steeper & I began to huff & puff a bit harder that "perhaps he knows I'm gonna die up here & he's tagging along for the meal" (I'd seen some dogs ripping into a bull carcase the previous day). He finally disappeared after it started to rain. Fair-weather friend.

Unbelievably, it began to rain really heavily on the way, and I sheltered for a time under a tractor trailer at the invitation of the driver & his colleague. There were even a few hailstones falling for a time. Thankfully it was fairly short lived & I finally made it to Kumbhalgarh, while singing at times "it's raining in Rajasthan ..." . It was an excellent ride, although hard in parts, and I made 2 milestones - the fastest downhill ride of the trip (50.4 km/hr) and breaking the 2000 km mark. It was predominantly a rural area, and I found it to be one of the more interesting rides this trip. There was so little traffic & so few signs of any sort that for some time I thought that I'd taken a wrong turn.

I stayed at Hotel Khumbal Castle, quite close to the fort, which was expensive at Rp 1000 (cheaper accommodation was in the town of Kelwara, down the hill a few kilometers, but I didn't fancy making my way back up the road to see the fort, which I hoped to do straight away). It was comfortable enough, and had a great view out the window. The fort itself was impressive & probably worth the cycle there.

Unfortunately during the night I awoke with "gastrointestinal problems" that I felt precluded me from cycling the final leg back to Udaipur (about 80km) and so I did the unforgiveable, for a cyclist, and hired a jeep to take me & my bicycle back here. It was interesting to muse on the difference between travelling by bicycle & by jeep (and I did enjoy seeing that even it was forced onto the shoulder several times by oncoming buses). Obviously the jeep is much faster, and so serves a purpose if you want to get from A to B quickly. On the other hand, it felt much more insulated from what was happening outside, and no-one waved or said hello (or, it must be said, cried out "one pen"). It was like being in a bubble. You still are on a bicycle, I reckon, but it's a much more slow moving bubble & it's a little easier to stop & look at things that grab your attention.

So, I've bought a bus ticket back to Mumbai, leaving tomorrow at 3pm. Less than a week & I'll be leaving India.


Day 21 cycling: Udaipur to Ranakpur
Distance: 102.88 km
Ride time: 6:27 hrs
Average Speed: 16.31 km/hr
Maximum speed: 49.1 km/hr
Total cycled: 1969 km
Between towns distance: 1769

It was good to get back on the bicycle after a week's R&R in Udaipur. It actually rained last night in Udaipur, and occasional drops fell on me as I cycled, taking the edge off the heat. I really enjoyed the ride & the scenery on the way, despite some hilly bits. The first part of the journey to Gogunda was along the same stretch of road that I cycled into Udaipur. The last 15km was largely downhill, as Ranakpur is tucked away in a wooded valley. The Jain temples were good to see, but I'm not sure that they were worth a 100km cycle, especially as I'd already seen and been impressed by those at Delwara (Mt Abu) and elsewhere. I stayed at the relatively lavish Ranakpura Hill Resort for 2 nights, after having managed to beat them down to Rp 700 for a quite nice room. They even had a swimming pool, which I sat alongside for an hour or so trying to even up my odd cyclists' suntan.

People were very friendly, waving, smiling and calling out, but the kids became exceptionally tiresome after a while, with their "one pen, one pen!" cries (and the occasional "one rupee!" and even a "shampoo!"?). The children will see you coming from the top of a hill, and start screaming like banshees as they hurtle down shrieking "one pen, one pen". At first I thought I was mishearing; that perhaps it was Hindi for "welcome, stranger on a bike, to our village", but the outstretched hand, the occasional tugging at the bicycle, and even running behind me for several minutes with hand outstretched dispelled that thought. Several times I cycled past obviously better bred children who would calmly, with one hand behind their back & the other imperiously outstretched, request "one pen". And this occurred almost the entire way from Gogunda to Ranakpur (and to Khumbalgarh). People who know me will know I'm not a cynical man, but I did begin to wonder if the delightful "bye, bye" that many people said as I cycled past was not perhaps "buy, buy".

Friday, March 04, 2005

Udaipur III

I'm still here in Udaipur after nearly a week, soaking up some relaxation & time not on the bicycle. I can become a bit driven & so it's been good to just stop for a while - not that a week is all that long. My plan is to cycle to Ranakpur tomorrow, about 90km to the north of here, and then a little further north to Kumbhalgarh to do some sightseeing (Jain temple, fort, etc.) I'll most likely return to Udaipur for a day & then get a bus from here to Mumbai where I'll hang out & explore the place by bicycle for a few days before departing.

I have enjoyed Udaipur though, enhanced by having met Marianne, a Swiss woman, and John, an Australian, who curiously lives fairly close to me in Melbourne. It's been good to eat out, walk about & generally hang out with someone who enjoys these things.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Udaipur II

Udaipur, known by some as "City of Lakes" or "Venice of the East", is struggling at present with the fact that its lakes have been dry for at least the past year. Apparently it's been many years since things have been as dry. Still, it's a pretty interesting place to spend some time in. At first I felt quite dispirited at how 'touristy' it is, in that there are more western tourists & tourist infrastructure here than anywhere else I've been in India this trip (without forgetting that I'm also one, of course). So, leaping wholeheartedly in, I had an 'Aruyvedic' massage out the back of a local barbershop (Millenium) for an hour (cost: Rp 400, which seems fairly standard around here. It was reasonable, but I'm not keen on the coconut oil residue that sticks around for the next day or so. Then, the next day I had a massage from Raju, who runs the Bharti Guest House, Restaurant & Massage Centre in Hotel Lake Pichola Road. It was a very strong massage, which I like, and he employed some unusual techniques. I was briefly alarmed when he removed his own trousers, but thankfully he put on some shorts, and was again startled when he sat astride me to commence the massage, especially as the hairs on his legs were rather prickly. His approach was thorough & professional, and I may well have another before I leave here. At Rp 1050 however, it was extraordinarily expensive by Indian standards.

Yesterday was the time for a big treat, and so I went and had lunch at the Lake Palace Hotel, a 5-star luxury hotel in the the Lake Palace, built in 1754. It's in the middle of the lake, usually surrounded by water. You're taken to the hotel by boat. Lunch is a buffet comprising soup, salads, a dozen or so veg and non-veg dishes and perhaps half-a-dozen different deserts (cost: Rp 1200). Sometimes buffets can be a bit pedestrian, but this food was delicious, and we were there for several hours. Later we managed to have a look at some of the rooms by the man in charge of housekeeping there. The rooms, at over $300 a night, were wonderful.