Wednesday, April 07, 2010

India map

Here's a map showing all my cycling trips in India: Chennai to Goa in 2000; Mumbai to Khumbalgarh in 2005; Kathmandu to New Delhi in 2008 & Puri to Darjeeling in 2010.

Friday, March 19, 2010


A slideshow of selected photos from this trip can be viewed here.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Melbourne - 9.3.10

Arrived back in Melbourne last night (thanks Di & Al for the pick-up!) about 10pm after a fairly uneventful flight back from Kolkata - watched heaps of movies, ate a lot of aeroplane food & occasionally lapsed into sleep. Again, plenty of room - the two adjacent seat were also free, leaving space to lie down & stretch out. I'm feeling a little out of whack, time-wise, with the 5.5 hour time difference, so it'll be interesting to see how I am tomorrow when I return to work.

The Broadway Hotel - a budget level place - in Kolkata was a good choice (although the enormous resident cockroach in my bathroom & the swarm of marauding ants that attacked a biscuit I'd left on the bed did take the edge off it a little). It was a kilometre & a half north of the Sudder St/ western tourist area but very near the Chandni Chowk metro station, making it pretty easy to get around. The hotel was built in 1937, and the rooms are mostly quite large with high ceilings. According to a Canadian who's been staying there for the past 40 years, on & off, the only changes he's seen in that time have been some rewiring & TV sets added to the rooms. The downstairs bar & restaurant area is very ... atmospheric; it's dark, with shuttered windows & dozens of ceiling fans - probably even "art deco", as the hotel's own website describes it. At night, it's filled with scores of men sitting around drinking; a few are also eating - the food there is surprisingly good - clean, fresh & tasty. There were quite a few single blokes sitting at tables, staring into space & looking morose (I did wonder for a second whether this was a projection of mine, but I don't think so as I was feeling quite chipper. Good food & accommodation will do this for me).

Broadway Hotel

Broadway Hotel - bar & restaurant

Down the road was Anand, an excellent vegetarian restaurant, mainly frequented by Indian families, that makes pretty good masala dosa. I also indulged in a strawberry milkshake, butterscotch ice-cream & paneer pizza on my visit(s) there.
Just across the road from the hotel, on the corner of the busy intersection, two families, comprising of at least five young children & baby, were living. At different times of the day you could see them bathing, cooking food, sleeping, kids playing ...

The flight out was at 1:55am so I arranged a car to the airport at 9pm, leaving me with plenty of time to check in & deal with any unforeseen problems that having a bicycle might present. I organised a lad to wash the bike for Rs30, then put some cardboard around the dérailleurs, removed the pedals & it was ready to go. Temporarily removing the front wheel made it a little easier to cram it into the back seat of the Ambassador that was taking me to the airport. At the airport I did the customary but purposeless exercise of letting the air out of the tyres & turned the handlebars around, attaching them to the top tube of the bike. Luckily, airport staff (other than the policeman who told me I couldn't take my bicycle into the airport terminal!) were quite bemused by the fact that I was travelling with a bicycle & were exceedingly helpful. The fellow whose job it was to wheel the bike away after check-in made some joke about what a great bike it was & how he'd like to take it home ... I feigned alarm at this & so he went to great lengths to reassure me by accompanying me at a distance as I went through customs, pointing at the bike periodically to indicate that he was taking it to the appropriate place & not pinching it.
I had the sense that I'd finally, after 5 weeks, become acclimatised to & at ease with being in India - shame that I was at the end of the trip! No doubt about it, India's a tough place to travel through, and some of the cycling has been hard work. At times it's exasperating, infuriating, and of course highly dangerous on the roads. It taps into all sorts of emotions, some of which you might be surprised to see arise - disgust, rage, irritability, fear, sadness, powerlessness, hatred, aggression, apprehension, alarm ... Thankfully, at other times you might experience delight, awe, amusement, surprise, enjoyment, astonishment, relief ...  In a sense you're on the line - it tests your view of the world & how things should be, and your view of yourself - things you take for granted, or your expectations or 'rules' e.g. about courtesy, hygiene, service, fairness, reasonableness, common-sense,  personal space, care of the environment, etc. are out the window, and you are left to deal with your own reactions about these things. And some of these reactions can be a surprise - "... oh, I thought I was a little more well-adjusted than that!" The variety, challenge, eccentricity, rawness, unpredictability, non-PCness of the place are what draw me there (in addition to the various & wondrous tourist attractions of India & the pleasures of cycling). As I've said before, I both love & hate India.

Friday, March 05, 2010

Kolkata - Sat 6.3.10

Day 17 cycling: Darjeeling - Siliguri
DST = 76km; RTM = 4hrs 21m; ODO = 1180km; AVS = 17.4km/hr; cadence = 78; MAX = 42.7 km/hr

Day 18: train from Siliguri (NJP train station) - Kolkata

Back in Calcutta, this time staying at the Broadway Hotel, a big old hotel on Ganesh Chandra Avenue in the BBD Bagh area which contains much of the colonial architecture in Calcutta. The room is enormous & has no hot water but buckets of it can be supplied on request. The downstairs restaurant also doubles as a bar apparently, but the breakfast they turned out this morning after my arrival was surprisingly excellent. I wandered down to this nearby internet cafe to discover that I needed to have brought my passport with me to register. Upon my return, I was subjected to a complicated procedure, presumably to deter or detect terrorism. After giving my name, address & other details, I had to have my thumb scanned several times, my photo taken & a copy of my passport made ...
It was a beautifully sunny morning when I left Darjeeling yesterday morning after a satisfying  breakfast at a place called Glenary's, and the views of the nearby mountains were the best I'd seen since arriving there (but still not terrific - the heavy background haze still persisted). The first 7km to Ghum was all uphill - at which point I encountered a massive, kilometres long traffic jam in both directions due to a broken down truck. The roads are so narrow that it was with great difficulty that I managed to squeeze through. A 70km downhill ride all the way to Siliguri followed! My wrists were sore from using the brakes so much. What detracted from the delight of such a fantastic downhill run was the extremely poor condition of the roads, the number of reasonably tight curves, many spots where the train tracks crossed the road, and of course the traffic, although this wasn't very heavy - just sporadic bursts of small convoys of vehicles. The narrowness of the road often precluded both my bike & trucks occupying it at the same time. The dodgy pannier was also providing some concern given the bumpiness of the road, and towards the end one of the supporting hooks came apart again. I hadn't quite noticed on the way up how bad the road was, as I'd been travelling relatively slowly. You can see from the average speed of 17.4km/hr that it wasn't all that quick a ride overall, but the max speed of 42.7km/hr indicates I could go fast at times.
There was another massive traffic jam at Kurseong, and this time it was quite some a while before I could squeeze through. I heard the toot of the Toy train ahead & it was quite amusing to be able to catch up & overtake it. Overall, a pretty good ride, and the road picked up a little after the first 40km.
I planned to have a brief interlude at the Hotel Swastik Regency in Siliguri so I could freshen up, change clothes, check my bike in & have something to eat prior to the train's departure that evening. This was a bit of a miscalculation as I'd thought that NJP station was much closer to Siliguri than it turned out to be. It took me forever to cycle there, check the bike onto the train (not a straightforward task: I had to find the right office, fill in a large & complicated form & get the bike seat wrapped in hessian! Luckily there was man on hand to do this for Rs50. Phew!), get back to the hotel by rickshaw to do what I'd planned, then return to NJP an hour or so later to get the train. The train trip itself was relatively straightforward and so was collecting the bike at the end, once I'd found the correct office. The sight of the bicycle being wheeled into the shed I was waiting in was very pleasing, I can tell you. There were a few minor problems eg chain tangled up, back brake pad scraping) but otherwise AOK. I saved myself the hassle of cycling & got a taxi (later, I figured out that it probably wasn't actually a taxi) to the hotel. At first, there were no rooms available - I rarely book anything in advance - but the manager then proposed putting me in the family room until something did, which happened about an hour later.
So, I guess I'll hang out here for the next 36 hours before heading back home. The bike & I made it!

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Darjeeling - Thursday 4.3.20

I returned to Windamere Hotel for their 'high tea' (Rs375) yesterday; this comprised one scone with jam & cream (the ubiquitous red coloured jam - possibly strawberry - you get everywhere in India... although once I was given green coloured jam), then a glass pot of tea with milk & sugar accompanied by a small basket containing: 3 triangular peanut butter (!?) sandwiches, 3 circular cucumber sandwiches, 4 shortbread biscuits & a chunk of marbled chocolate/vanilla cake. The slightly tragic aspect to all this was that I was the only guest there that day. Today however I went with two folk I've met here to the Elgin Hotel, another 'top end' heritage hotel - but without the reputation that Windamere has. This was much classier - the room seemed a lot fresher & classier, and the 'high tea' was overall, of better quality & quantity for the same price (although no cream with their scone ... and the same red jam). In addition to the cakes & sandwiches we were given a plate of pakora, and found it hard to finish it all. Also visited the Bengal Natural History Museum, a  terribly old-fashioned place with cabinets of bugs pinned to the walls, jars of snakes & fish, and a moth-eaten collection of stuffed birds, tigers, leopards & other creatures possibly found in this part of the world. Sometimes these sorts of museums have a perverse charm but this was pretty ordinary. I spent a few hours wandering around town today with Fran while Adam, who conducts his business via the net while travelling, spent a few hours working online. We checked out a couple of temples, Observatory Hill & the Tibetan Refugee Self Help Centre. Unfortunately the zoo was closed today - according to the guide book it's one of the best in India. It's been good to take it easy & wind down before my final ride tomorrow - back to Siliguri & the nearby New Jalpaiguri (NJP) train station for the overnight trip back to Calcutta.

The road to Darjeeling

Make way for the Darjeeling express!

High tea at the Elgin Hotel

Darjeeling - Wednesday 3.3.10

The Dekeling Hotel is cosy enough, if you don't mind sleeping on a bed that feels little softer than if you were sleeping on the floor. A nice touch was finding that a hot water bottle had been put in the bed in the evening. The hotel has a common area with a wood-burning heater in the middle where you can hang out, read, & order pots of tea. The hotel is up several flights of stairs - I counted 70 steps to get to reception - and as there's really nowhere to store the bike safely outside during the night, I had to lug the bike upstairs (with a hotel employee helping out) to store in my room. It was such an effort that I think it'll have to stay there until I leave i.e. I'll walk rather than cycle around town. I should note also that the usual renovations are going on here - plenty of hammering & grinding started bright & early this morning. I had contemplated staying one night at the renowned Windamere Hotel but a visit there this morning left me feeling I mightn't enjoy it all that much - it's very much decked out in a British colonial style. It's relatively expensive - Rs6650 for a Standard room, single, and Rs7750 for a Superior room (plus sales tax, service charge etc.). The price does include all meals. However, I might try out their 'high tea' later.
One of the books that I had on my eBook reader was J.M Coetzee's book 'Slow Man' which I elected to start reading yesterday. It unfortunately & somewhat uncomfortably begins with an older fellow on a bicycle being hit by a car & having his leg amputated above the knee ...

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Darjeeling - Tuesday 2.3.10

Day 15 cycling: Siliguri - Kurseong [bike computer malfunction!]
DST = approx. 46km; RTM = approx. 4hrs; ODO = 1071km; AVS = 11km/hr; cadence = 73

Day 16 cycling: Kurseong - Darjeeling
DST = approx. 33km;  ODO = 1104km

Made it to Darjeeling early this afternoon & have taken a room at Dekeling Hotel - a deluxe room (Rs1360). I decided to take a chance with the Holi celebrations & headed off bright & early (well, for me, 8am is an early start). There were a few very powder-spattered, very pissed looking blokes around but otherwise everything was very quiet. I passed the nearby Hotel Conclave where the night before they'd refused to accept my Rs500 note, claiming it was a fake. I'd then gone to the ATM to use my credit card for the first time to withdraw money. It took three goes before money came out; I'll be interested to see how my account looks & whether the first two unsuccessful attempts actually did result in money leaving my account. Curiously, one of the Rs500 notes that came out was identical to the rejected note. So, I'm not persuaded it was dodgy.
No mountains were evident ahead as I pedalled towards Darjeeling - the smog or haze obscured much of what lay ahead. It was a lovely ride - the road was flat at first but then began to rise to a slope that was fairly constant all the way to Kurseong, my planned overnight stop about 45km away. The roads were quiet, & alongside & sometimes crossing the road, were the tracks of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway.  Annoyingly, my bike computer failed - battery I think - at the 29km mark. As I ascended, it became colder, the clouds darker and the roads rougher. The people became friendlier it seemed, especially the occasional truck or van driver, but for some reason the dogs became less friendly. Carrying a big stone & then showing it to barking dogs usually scares them away. Everywhere were flags & signs saying "We Want Ghorkaland" and everywhere road safety barriers, buildings & even huge boulders carried words & showed maps of what was wanted & were painted in the Ghorkaland colours of green, white & yellow. Basically, local Nepali speaking Ghorkas (also spelled Ghurka)  want a separate state for themselves. At one point, the small diesel train withs everal carriages went tootling by. Very cute. It was an excellent ride, although hard work, and at times I wondered if my own battery might fail ... Siliguri is at an elevation of 119m; Kurseong is at 1458m, so I ascended some 1339 metres over the 45km. I checked into Cochrane Place at Kurseong, into a deluxe room (Rs2250). I figured some (relative) luxury was earned after 4 hours of steadily riding uphill. It was a slightly quirky place, full of oddities, antiques & general bric-√†-brac & a good range of various teas. For afternoon tea, along with some vegetable pakora, I had a cup of Kanchanjunga tea (Rs45) "darjeeling blend spices, cocoa & mint". Rather tasty. It was a cosy place, with a sitting room & a few eating areas, and 360' views - unfortunately it was very foggy outside. At 9:30pm the rain started to beat down, leaving the roads - and train tracks - quite wet & slippery for the next day.
As I left Kurseong this morning, it was very foggy & cool, but it started to warm up a little & cycling in shorts was still quite OK. The weather was quite labile however - from cloudy to sunny to dark. The road was fairly bumpy & the traffic quite a lot heavier than yesterday, suggesting that people were observing Holi & not doing much driving, but it didn't seem quite as steep as yesterday. Cycling ever on up did begin to lose a little of the charm of the previous day. A burst boil on the left buttock didn't help much either. I reached Ghoom (Ghum) and found to my surprise it was downhill to Darjeeling from there. Ghoom, the highest point of the ride, is at an altitude of 2226m, and Darjeeling is at about 2050m. I've checked in to a cosy 'deluxe' room the Dekeling Hotel (Rs1360), a "pick" in the guide book, with "possibly the best views in town". The view out my window is indeed pretty stunning. Darjeeling was quite confusing at first but I eventually found my way to the hotel after buying a train ticket at the railway station for my return journey from Siliguri to Calcutta on Friday night. The ride back down the hill to Siliguri on Friday should be fun (although the bumpy bits will take the edge off it).

Ghoom (Ghum) railway station

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Siliguri - Sunday 28.2.10

Day 10 cycling: Bolpur/ Shantiniketan - Berhampore
DST = 112km; RTM = 6hrs 29m; ODO = 837km; AVS = 17.1km/hr; cadence = 76; MAX =27 km/hr

Day 11 cycling: Berhampore - Lalbag/Hazarduari
DST = 15.6km; RTM = 1hrs 1m; ODO = 853km; AVS = 15.1km/hr; cadence = 70; MAX =27 km/hr 

Day 12 cycling: Lalbag/Hazarduari - Farakka
DST = 98km; RTM = 5hrs 52m; ODO = 951km; AVS = 16.6km/hr; cadence = 69; MAX =81.2 km/hr (hmm... maybe an error)
Day 13 cycling: (a) Farakka - Malda
DST = 34.5km; RTM = 2hrs 3m; ODO = 986km; AVS = 16.5km/hr; cadence = 66; MAX =24 km/hr 

(b) Malda - GAUR - Malda
DST = 39km; RTM = 2hrs 54m; ODO = 1025km; AVS = 13.5km/hr; cadence = 61; MAX =23.2 km/hr

Day 14: BUS from Malda to Siliguri ...

I'm now in Siliguri, having done some arithmetic & figuring out that  I'd never make it to Darjeeling with the time I had left. I did consider hanging around Hazarduari & Malda a bit longer as there were interesting sights that I didn't get to see at both places, but then I thought I'd go for it, catch a bus & hopefully get back to Calcutta in time. It's building up to Holi, where people throw coloured water & coloured powder over each other & presumably over stray tourists. I don't relish the prospect given my limited repertoire of clothing. The six hour bus trip (cost for me & bike: Rs240) here was fine - I prefer it to the train as I know where the bike is (on the roof), although it's a lot less comfortable. I was lucky, as I got to the bus depot at 5am & got the front single seat, not that it mattered all that much as, surprisingly, it wasn't overly crowded. I felt like a bit of a turncoat, quisling, heretic ... whatever, travelling on a bus, given that they're such mongrels when you're on your bicycle & in their way.(Uh oh! .. there's powder flying around outside this cafe - no water thankfully)

I've been out of internet contact for several days; in Malda, the story was "no connectivity" when I enquired at the local internet place.

So, I left Shantiniketan for Berhampore on Wednesday morning. Finding the road out of town to Kirnahar was surprisingly easy, given the total lack of roadsigns (I didn't see one until the 74km mark) & my lack of a decent road map [memo to me: get a state road map next time]. The help of locals, as well as some of Bill Weir's notes, were pretty good though. The road was quite good for the first 50km or so, having been resurfaced in many places, and was nicely shaded at times by judiciously planted trees. There seemed to be kids hanging about everywhere, as has been the case through most of the trip. It's possible they're on holidays but I think it more likely that they just don't go to school. If you should happen to cycle this way, bring plenty of water as it's not easy to procure on the way - no Coke or Pepsi stops unfortunately. I took a wrong turning at the end (I went north instead of south) but eventually ended up at the Hotel Samrat after doing about 10km more than was necessary. The attached restaurant was quite good, although extremely dim as you sometimes find in India - to stop too close an examination of the food perhaps? The hotel itself however seemed a long way from the guide book's glowing comments of "excellent value ... fresh brightly painted rooms ... helpful staff ...". It was OK.
From Berhampore I headed toward Lalbag & Harzaduari - a short 16km ride. Unfortunately, Hotel Manjusha, where I'd hoped to stay, was full-up with several busloads of Indian tourists. I cycled back a little & found the Sri Durga Lodge. It wasn't very promising at first - no-one else was staying there, and it didn't seem anyone had for a while - they seemed surprised to have a guest. There was no ceiling fan but the supplied electric mossie repeller did the trick. The owner spoke with a very loud & clear voice, as though I was a bit of a simpleton; I later discovered he was a primary school teacher. He was a nice guy, and introduced his 22 year-old son to me, explaining, when I told him I was a psychologist (he asked), that his son was "crazy", making the universal symbol of this - circular movements of his figure next to his head - and telling me that he slept poorly & ate little. Later, while taking a farewell cup of tea with the family, his mother looked askance at her son & made the same circular motion to indicate she also thought he was crazy.  Poor kid.
I ate my meals a kilometer or so away at the Hotel Indrajit, near the railway station. I really liked Hazarduari - one of the most pleasant towns I've stopped in to date. It was low key, relaxed, not very crowded at all. And the sights - including the impressive Hazarduari palace/museum, the Great Imambara, the new palace, and a number of other interesting buildings dotted around the countryside - were worth seeing. No westerners were to be seen but there were quite a few Indian tourists in town.

On Friday, after a good breakfast at Hotel Indrajit I headed off into the unknown, through the town of Jianganj, Lalgola & eventually highway 11 to Jangipur. I've noticed that my patience starts to wear thin after about 80km; what was charming in the morning (eg motorcyclists slowing down to my pace to peer & then have a chat) often feels very annoying by the afternoon. As always, India tests one's equanimity - the challenge is to maintain it [memo to self: keep cool Dave].
I've become quite interested in how different areas process their cow shit. They're often shaped into discs,  which can vary from being the size of dinner plates to the size (and appearance) of Anzac biscuits. Around here, I've noticed that they're attached to sticks - like huge shish kebabs (or shit kebabs I suppose).
And so to the collision with a motorcyclist at Lalgola: he sped out from the left hand side of the road to cross it & head in the direction opposite to me. There was some hesitation on both our parts as to which side he should pass on. In the event, his bike swiped the side of mine, ripping the pannier off & hurling it into the middle of the road. It also swiped my little toe - for a second I actually thought it had been ripped off (and, oddly, I had the fleeting thought that ... well, I could get by, missing a toe...). Two very helpful fellows rushed to my aid, picked up the damaged pannier, found some rope & bound the pannier to the rack. Needless to say, a rather large crowd also gathered. The two Samaritans asked me to come with them, into a nearby paddock, under some trees  - it was on my way - so their friends could see me. I was happy to oblige, give their help. Again a crowd developed - at least 30 or more young men (and 4 women) - and they began plying me with questions. The crowd clapped & cheered when I said that Sachin Tendulkar was my favourite cricketer. One fellow even asked me for my autograph (uncharitably, I wondered if perhaps I'd dropped one of my traveller cheques). Later, I discovered, amazingly, that my laptop/netbook which had been inside the airborne pannier was undamaged & my toe was swollen & red but intact.
The NH34 was a 2-laned highway only - one in each direction - meaning that much of the journey involved ducking onto the gravel shoulder to let trucks & buses - coming in both directions - pass. The most dangerous sight is that of a convoy of trucks heading toward you - one or more will always break formation and swing out in front of you. The message is: you have no right to the road, and it's your responsibility to get out of the way.
I arrived in Farakka feeling ... well, pretty farakked, having just zig-zagged my way through a MASSIVE traffic jam, several kilometres long. No idea what the problem was, and I noticed that even the nearby train was stopped, with passengers sitting on the tracks, waiting. I checked into a small place on the highway - Hote Asha (Rs 300 for a room). It wasn't too bad, although no hot water, and during the night (at 1:45 am) there was a loud, insistent, prolonged - & hence slightly alarming - knocking on my door. It was the man from the next room, clearly pissed, wanting me to come & have a drink with him & his mates! I told him to shove off.
From Farakka I cycled to Malda, checking in to Hotel Kalinga, a 2 star hotel on NH34. Happily, the makeshift repairs to my pannier (involving cloth tape & super glue) were successful. Once there, I decided to see the sights of Gaur - 2 stone pillars, Chamkati, Tantipara & Lottan mosques (1400's), Qadam Rasul mosque (with a footprint of Mohammad in it), tomb of Fath Khan (1707) and a few other places. Again, no other western tourists & just a handful of Indian ones. Again, crowds gathered when I stopped. The road was so crappy - probably the bumpiest, stoniest I've ever encountered - that I became quite irritable & snarled at a fellow at Chamkati mosque for following me wherever I went. Dave: equanimity! The road was shocking & there were hints along the way of roadworks to come. The Men at Work sign was perhaps a little too optimistic.

So now I'm at Siliguri, staying at the very basic Conclave Lodge (Rs300, with shared bathroom), sitting in the internet cafe where I can hear someone outside, very pissed, throwing up & making lots of noise - getting into the Holi spirit I guess. I've been advised to stay indoors tomorrow - but I had planned on cycling in the direction of Darjeeling ...

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Bolpur/ Shantiniketan - Tuesday 23.2.10

Hotel Rangamati's a pretty cosy place. done out in a sort of jungle theme, with 'faux' tree branches on the wall & several tanks full of fish out the front. I slept well, as I have been doing for most of the trip (exhaustion from cycling perhaps). Breakfast was another matter - I selected the 'standard' one for Rs65, comprising tea (which I managed to get changd to coffee), a banana, 3 pieces of toast & jam & eggs (poached, fried or omelette). Ordering an omelette seemed to create a problem, but this was eventually okayed. It all sounded good, but when it arrived - well, the coffee & banana were fine. The toast, accompanied by one serve of butter was cold, but the eggs ...! The eggs comprised two fried eggs, melded together by a thick overcooked base while the top of both was largely uncooked. I thought I'd have a go anyhow - it was stone cold! My complaint eventuated in a properly cooked omelette. God knows what the story was behind the first one.
Last night I had a meal at Green Chilli, the one Lonely Planet recommended place in town (and just across the laneway from Hotel Rangamati) - nothing much to write home about.
This morning I visited the Shantiniketan museum & then this afternoon I walked around parts of the university here. There were some fairly funky sculptures & buildings on view; everything seemed pretty much closed otherwise. I think Tuesday is a half-day here.

I thought I'd cash a travellers cheque at the State Bank of India. Entering the bank at midday I was confronted with a crowd of customers & staff & a bewildering array of desks & signs but nothing indicating Foreign Exchange or TC's. An enquiry led me to a woman at a corner desk, who was embroiled in some task with a male employee who appeared to be her senior. "Just wait" he requested when I presented the TC & passport & gestured me to sit in a chair at the next desk. After he left, she continued processing a pile of forms, looking somewhat harried. I pressed the issue, & was again told "just wait" which I did until about 12:20 when she & the woman at the next desk told me I needed to go upstairs to the Foreign Exchange section. I didn't have a clue where that was, so another member of staff kindly showed me the way. Upstairs, the man who had been at the desk when I first presented received me, took my passport & TC, looked up today's dollar rate on a computer, wrote something on a piece of paper & directed me back to the woman downstairs at the corner desk. "Just wait" she said before finishing a small pile of forms; she then filled out a form in triplicate, giving me 2 copies & then taking her copy to be countersigned by another colleague. She then directed me to the Cash Room where several workers & a few customers were waiting around. A pile of money was sitting on the desk, and there seemed to be bags of it in an open metal cabinet. I was offered a cup of tea as I sat & waited. Eventually it was my turn - an assistant counted out my money twice (Rs4520 for $100 USD), wrapped an elastic band around it & then put it on the desk to wait for the "Senior Assistant" (according to the blue plastic sign on the desk) to return. When he did, he recounted the money & handed it to me. Hallelujah! I left the bank a little after 1pm, the entire transaction having taken a little over an hour to complete. Normally this exercise takes about 7 minutes with a money changer. (I did manage to swap my stained Rs100 at the bank - they laughed, gave me a new one & stuck the dodgey one in the middle of a bundle of Rs100 notes, presumably to continue its unredeemable journey in circulation). 

Monday, February 22, 2010

Bolpur/ Shantiniketan - Monday 22 Feb 2010

Day 9 cycling: Bishnupur - Bolpur/ Shantiniketan
DST = 133km; RTM = 7hrs 41m; ODO = 725km; AVS = 17.2km/hr; cadence = 72; MAX =31 km/hr
As usual when I don't leave my bike in my room, the gears had been fiddled with. My plan was to do a massive amount of cycling today to get to Bolpur/ Shantiniketan - I ended up cycling 133km: the last 5km circling around town trying to find where the hotels were. It was also a slightly complicated route, a little off the beaten track. My Nelles map was not up to the job, and it seemed to deviate from reality quite a bit. I continuously checked with locals to make sure I was headed in the right way, and was continuously reminded how hopleess my pronunciation is. Typically, one person in a crowd of 10 knew what I was asking. I even had a prepared sentence from my Bengali phrasebook ("Is this the road to ....?") but when I tried it out people stared blankly at me. Such a lovely feeling when I encountered a road sign at an intersection indicating "Sonamakhi 30km" which was the first goal for the day. The road surface was excellent, pretty much the whole way, through forests (including eucalytpus plantations), rural areas & towns, but the traffic for much of it was taxing. My route took me through Sonamukhi, Pakhanna, Barjora, along the SH-9 to Durgapur & across the Damodar River - where I nearly came to grief. I overtook a stationary bus which then started to move as I got half way past it, and the sped up. I was on its right, near the centre of the road, and hurtling toward me at top speed was a blue truck. I planted the foot - I don't think I've ever pedalled with as much fervour & just managed by the merest margin to weave between them, in front of the bus & then to the side. Durgapur was undergoing some serious roadworks, and so I got a little lost for a bit until a helpful fellow was able to direct me in the right direction. He continued alongside for a little while & then asked if I would stay the night with him ..."You are so handsome!" he said. Sort of flattering, sort of "get me out of here...". I continued on. At the 86km mark was the turnoff to Suri, on SH-14, also called Darjeeling Rd. From here it was 22km to Illam Bazar & a further 19km to Bolpur. Th eroad surface became a little potholed just before Illam Bazar - the trouble with potholes is not just that they need to be avoided but, of greater concern, is that cars, trucks & buses weave with total abandon across the width of the tarmac trying to avoid them - and they're not concerned about cyclists that might be in the way.
I'm at Hotel Rangamati, at Rs 660 for an Ordinary/Non-AC room. It's quite comfortable, with a large bathroom & what is the strongest pressured hot shower I've yet encountered. It was bliss. Curiously, I looked about 20 years younger after the ride - my beard had become brown again (due to dust & other detritus) .

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Bishnupur - Sunday 21 Feb 2010

I'm happy to note that the signwriter made the necessary adjustment to The Institute of Advanced Studies sign. I feel pleased that my intervention has helped improve the visual landscape here ever so slightly.
I forgot to mention in yesterday's entry that the other reason I didn't stay at the Heritage Hotel was that while I was musing over whether I could tolerate the sound of grinding until 7pm, a van arrived, disgorging some Indian tourists. One man, carrying a small suitcase, rushed down the corridor & into the room in question, claiming it as his.
This morning I did a temple tour of Bishnupur for Rs150 by cycle rickshaw for a couple of hours. The temples, built in the 16- & 1700's and made of laterite, are quite unusual & nearly 30 are dotted around the township (we visited about 10 of them). Many are lavishly decorated with ornamental carvings on terracotta tiles or stone, and they often have a quite unusual shape - two parallel sides while the other two sides slope outwards, giving them a skew-whiff look at certain angles. Some of the rooves (?roofs) are curved, like the underside of a small boat. There's a 'sound & light' show at night which I briefly looked at but I couldn't quite see the point of looking at the temples as they changed colour from red to yellow to blue etc. Bishnupur is a pretty relaxed place, and early in the afternoon today (Sunday) most of the shops were shut & hardly anyone was to be seen.


Shyamrai  Temple

My plan for tomorrow is to head toward Shantiniketan, a town made famous by its connection with Rabindranath Tagore. The route there seems a little complicated as apparently there is no bridge where most maps show there to be one. So I'll need to rely on local directions - not always an easy task as local folk, to make a generalisation, just don't seem to have a good ability to give directions or to draw maps. I've been given maps in the past that are quite 'creative' in that directions such as left or right as drawn on the map rarely correlate with left & right in reality. i.e. the manager at Hotel Hindusthan drew me a map showing how to get out of town & back onto the highway - "go to the left at the roundabout" as he drew an arrow pointing to the right ...

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Bishnupur - Sat. Feb 20 2010

Day 8 cycling: Midnapore - Bishnupur
Distance (DST) = 77 km; Total Ride Time (TRT) = 4hr 54min; Average Speed (AVS) =  15.6 km/hr; MAX = 26.4 km/hr; cadence = 68rpm. Total Distance (ODO) = 593km
A slight hiccup this morning at Hotel Hindusthan when I went to pay the bill. No wonder it was so luxurious - apparently I stayed in the 'special' room which cost Rs1500! My error for not actually confirming the price before I took the room I guess; I'd assumed I'd taken the Rs800 one. After some discussion, it was reduced to Rs1350. 
The delightful Highway 60 of the previous day had disappeared - the road to Bishnupur was mostly bumpy, potholed bitumen, and occasionally just stone & dirt, and I often had to move onto the gravel shoulder to let trucks & buses pass (the last 15 or so kilometres into Bishnupur was quite good) . A strong breeze & a few low hills at times conspired to make it slightly harder riding but it was compensated for by better scenery - the road passed through forested & farming areas, as well as the occasional village. There were quite a few stands of eucalypts on the way - they seem to be insinuating themselves all over India. Enough to sometimes feel like I was cycling through parts of Victoria. Two of the larger towns I passed through - Chandrakona Road & Garbheta - were quite a contrast. The first struck me as a dusty, grimy, traffic-fumed place whereas the second seemed quite pleasant & relaxed. Both towns had lodges - I know which I'd prefer to stay in.
Bishnupur Tourist Lodge was apparently full & the adjacent Heritage Hotel, with its extremely bright & colourful new paint job, was incredibly noisy as they were grinding the marble staircase. I wasn't persuaded by their assurance that the work would only continue until 7pm, and so found a spot at ... well, I'm not sure if it's Udayan Lodge or Hotel Bishnupur as both names are painted outside. At Rs200 it could be described as plain, or basic - no power point even. It's a strange old building, reminiscent of an orphanage or religious institution or even correctional centre.
After a wash & a bit of a rest I found this internet place - unconvincing from the outside. but it obviously is. The mossies here are full-on; I had to apply some Rid Sunblock Plus (containing insect repellent) to be able to continue sitting here. 
While walking here, I passed a signwriter painting a fairly large sign on a fence advertising "The Institue of Advanced ..." in English. Needless to say, I couldn't help pointing out that he'd left out the third 't' in Institute. The piece of paper he was copying from had the same error - lucky for him I guess. A man crossed the road, and of course a crowd developed - I think this fellow had some responsibility for the sign so it will be interesting to see if it's been corrected on my way back (Luckily it wasn't for the Institute of Advanced English).
I've arranged for a man & his pedal rickshaw to show me the sights of Bishnupur tomorrow.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Midnapore (aka Medinipur), West Bengal - Friday Feb 19th 2010

Day 6 cycling: Bhadrak - Jaleswar
Distance (DST) = 120km; Total Ride Time (TRT) = 6hr 52min; Average Speed (AVS) = 17.4 km/hr; MAX = 29km/hr; cadence = 74rpm. Total Distance (ODO) = 427km

Day 7 cycling: Jaleswar - Midnapore (a.k.a Medinipur)
Distance (DST) = 88 km; Total Ride Time (TRT) = 5hr 30min; Average Speed (AVS) =  16 km/hr; MAX = 27.5 km/hr; cadence = 73rpm. Total Distance (ODO) = 516km

The Blue Vine Hotel turned out to be a good place to stay - in the attached restaurant the food was good & the staff attentive if not solicitous, doling out rice & pieces of bread from their baskets when it looked like I was ready for more. It was amusing to watch some electricians at work while I ate the evening meal. It seemed they were checking out the wiring - after using various meters with presumably no clear results, one of them stuck his screwdriver in the socket... still nothing. One of the wall fans near me wasn't working, so the waiter got it going by giving the blades a flick with a fork. The mossies are savage here - covered in bites after breakfast, including huge ones on each thumb. I left the Blue Vine just as the ubitiquous hammering & general reconstruction work on the hotel began. Is there a hotel in India that isn't being refurbished?

The road from Bhadrak was quite poor in parts, and apparently road works were being done, but only some half-hearted work appeared to be actually happening in a couple of places. Meanwhile, there were continual road diversions - traffic was directed onto one side of the dual carriageway & then the other for much of the way. Which was probably why I missed the turnoff to Baleswar! For some inexplicable reason I just didn't see it, but realising I'd missed it I figured I'd forge on to Jaleswar. I was now off Highway 5 & on Highway 60, and it was excellent. No more traffic diversions, it was a double-laned divided carriageway, & the road surface was a delightfully smooth concrete. At one point during the journey I thought I was a goner for a split second: while passing a truck in the opposite direction on a tight sandy corner (at a diversion point) - I was about a metre, maybe less, away from it - it leaned so far over that I, with a start, thought "omigod ..!" convinced it was going to topple right over me ... Not so far fetched - I passed two 'toppled over' trucks today, one blocking the carriageway entirely, with grain & huge sacks of grain strewn across the road.

It was a long haul of 120km to Jaleswar. There's a railway station there & as far as I could figure it, two accommodation places. The Mid Town Hotel was full, and so the only other option was Shri Krishna Lodge, which most certainly wasn't. It was down an alleyway, across from the railway station. The owner wanted Rs400 for a room that anywhere else would cost maybe Rs150, if that, and wouldn't budge on the price knowing he had me over a barrel. At least I managed to procure a towel from him. It was a big room, with 2 tables, 2 chairs, 2 beds, 2 fluorescent lights, 2 ceiling fans & a mirror. A 2 person room perhaps? When he threw one of the pillows to the right end of the bed, a big puff of dust rose into the air. The 2 cigarette butts in the bathroom drainage grille & an empty whisky bottle behind the bed gave the room a 'lived in' feeling. The room was near the railway station, which'd be handy if I was catching a train as I could hear the platform announcements very clearly from the bathroom. Still, it's not the worst place I've stayed in, and it did have its own bathroom - although it'd be one of the grubbiest sinks I've ever encountered. The owner looked at me without apparent comprehension when I pointed it out to him.  The day finished with dinner & a movie - dinner was a bottle of Fanta, some grapes & bananas, and I watched an old episode of Spenser for Hire on the netbook.

 Room at Hotel Hindusthan

The road into Jaleswar after leaving the highway was about 8km, and the road out was a further 8km. Back on the highway, the road continued to be a lovely smooth concrete, and there wasn't much traffic, but unfortunately the accompanying breeze wasn't headed in my direction. If you happen to be cycling to Midnapore (aka Medinipur) from Jaleswar, then you need to continue past the Kharagpur turnoff & remain on Highway 60 until you come to the flyover with signs pointing to Mumbai in one direction & Kolkata the other. Take the left on-ramp (in the direction of Mumbai), then, 4 km later, turn right. A sign says 4km to Midnapore, but it really means 4km to the turnoff. It seemed to take forever to find the centre of town, if indeed I actually did. Indian towns can be very confusing when you arrive by bicycle. And finding a hotel can be hard work. It's often a good idea to head toward the railway station, but I had a devil of  a job finding out where it was, and slowly experienced a sort of sinking feeling when asking what quickly developed into a crowd of people where the station was. Especially dispiriting given that the Hindi & Bengali word for station is pretty much ... station. Miming trains is not something I like doing, as I'm not very good at it. Still, there's always someone in the crowd who eventually & triumphantly figures out what's being asked, and points the way. In the end I came across the OK-looking Hotel Samrat; they asked me to wait for 40 minutes as the previous guests of my potential room still had to check out. I had a Coke & read an English-language Indian newspaper in the lobby until, after 20 minutes, the apologetic desk clerk advised me that the manager had declined to have me as they couldn't safely accommodate my bike. I was then given directions to Hotel Hindusthan (Station Road, Keranitole, Midnapore West). They were only too happy to let me have the bike in my room & got one of the lads to take it upstairs in the lift. Yes, it's flash enough to have a lift. And what a room! Heavy drapes over the windows & between the bed area & a sitting room space with 3 couches, bedspreads, yellow & blue walls - it looks like a waiting room in a brothel. Luxurious, Rs 800 a night, but then I reckon I could manage a bit of luxury after all the cycling I've done over the past 5 or so days. Good water pressure, plenty of hot water, white (clean) fluffy towel, and a decent restaurant on the ground floor, where I had a late lunch of Sechuan Fried Rice (the Indian version of this is pretty good), mango juice & coffee - add your own instant coffee & sugar to a mix of hot water & milk; it tasted great. I actually don't really have a clue where I am or how to get back onto the highway from here but I'll figure that out tomorrow. For now, it's back to the hotel for an evening meal of... maybe aloo mutter, maybe chicken tikka masala, maybe both. Tomorrow, Bishnupur, where I'll take a rest & have a look around. I may have been too slow getting started to actually make it all the way to Darjeeling by bike. I'll figure something out in the next few days.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Bhadrak - Wed 17th Feb 2010

Day 5 cycling: Chandikhol - Bhadrak
Distance (DST) = 67km; Total Ride Time (TRT) = 3hr 22min; Average Speed (AVS) = 19.8 km/hr; MAX = 32km/hr; cadence = 72rpm. Total Distance (ODO) = 308km

An unremarkable day's riding to Bhadrak where I got directions from a helpful group of policemen to the Blue Vine Hotel. The non-A/C room is Rs350, and has hot water, fan & towel. There are scores of staff - 3 of them took me, my panniers, soap, towel & TV remote control to my room - more staff than guests it appears. Others took care of my bicycle. The road (Highway 5) is pretty good, and subdivided although you still get vehicles coming toward you on both sides of the roadway as there are few gaps from one side of the divided road to the other, so local traffic has little other option. People seem friendly & often passing motorcycles slow right down to keep pace with you & sometimes try & have a chat. Generally OK but it sometimes wears a bit thin if they hang alongside peering blankly at you for ages.
The town here seems OK & this internet cafe, once I found it, is pretty good, charging Rs15 per hour (about 36 cents). There seems to be a shortage of USB inputs in most of the computers I've encountered to date, hence the lack of uploaded photos.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Chandikhol - Tuesday 16 Feb

Day 4 cycling: Chandikhol - Ratnagiri - Udayagiri - Lalitgiri - Chandikhol
Distance (DST) = 82km; Total Ride Time (TRT) = 4hr 20min; Average Speed (AVS) = 18.9 km/hr; MAX = 37.5km/hr; cadence = 75rpm. Total Distance (ODO) =241km
Breakfast this morning  was a cup of chai at a street stall, a bunch of grapes & a couple of Rich Cashew cookies. I briefly noticed on the TV (- none of the channels are in English, but one had ticker tape news headlines in English) that there's been a bomb blast in Pune, 24 police killed by Maoists in Midnapore (I'll be cycling through there in a few days) & something else about foreigners. Hmm... I assume there will be no problems ...
I decided that today I would do a round trip tour of 3 Buddhist ruins - at Ratnagiri, Udayagiri & Lalitgiri. It was a foggy morning but the road - Highway 5A - was pretty good (aside from all the trucks) - a divided highway. Contrary to expectations, the 3 sites were well signposted with large blue "Incredible India" signs every kilometer or so. It was a largely rural area, with the usual rice & other crops, goats & cattle. Everywhere you looked animal shit was being transformed into large round discs & left out to dry & then stacked in great cyclindrical piles. In a number of places, villagers would section off part of the road with boulders to leave their various grains out to dry. Overall, and especially after leaving the main highway at the 12km mark, it was a delightful area to cycle through (although you have to watch out for the local speed humps - usually at both ends of  a village but sometimes randomly allocated also it seemed - they're quite high & narrow with no accommodation for cycles . People were very friendly, and later in the afternoon I was 'buttonholed' by a bunch of blokes into having a meal at the local school. After removing shoes I entered a room full of maybe 15 blokes sitting against the four walls. I was shown to a spot, a large square piece of banana leaf put in front of me & then a couple of blokes with buckets of food scooped out copious amounts of rice and various veg curries onto the leaf. No cutlery - a hand only job, which I did with about 5 blokes standing & observing. Then, a glass of sweetened rice & a trace of fruit. Very tasty & most hospitable of them; they wanted nothing in return. 

The ruins themselves were actually quite impressive, and there were small museums at both Ratnagiri & Lalitgiri containing some impressive sculptures. The state government here seems to be working hard to promote the 'Buddhist Circuit' & work on Tourist Info Centres, Accommodation, Toilet Blocks, Parking, Conference centres, etc etc is proceeding apace. Road reconstruction was also happening in many spots. The ruins at Ratnagiri were the most extensive, and the only blight on the whole thing was the earsplitting Hindi music from the nearby village. Perhaps they were ensuring that they weren't being forgotten. Curiously, there was a Hindu temple smack dab in the middle of the Udayagiri ruins, perhaps to ensure that noone got the wrong idea with all th Buddhist stuff on show. Other than a handful at Ratnagiri, there were no other tourists to be seen, which made for a relaxing time. Cycling back, a young Indian girl with not much English cycled along with me, making an effort at conversation. She was quite chuffed when I gave her a 20 cent Australian coin, and then when discovering where I'd cycled from said "you're my hero!" ... unfortunately following up with "..and so old now!".

Indians are very funny about soiled money. I have a Rs100 note with red stains on 2 corners. Nowhere will accept it, even the big hotels, and when I throw my hands up & say "what the hell will I do with it then?!" I'm told that the bank might give me Rs90 for it. I can't help wishing that hotels & lodges would show the same diligence with their towels & sheets. 

Stained money - not accepted anywhere

Monday, February 15, 2010

Chandikhol - Monday 15 Feb

Day 3 cycling: Bhubaneswar to Chandikhol
Distance (DST) = 61km; Total Ride Time (TRT) = 3hr 7min; Average Speed (AVS) = 19.4 km/hr; MAX = 30km/hr; cadence = 73rpm. Total Distance (ODO) =159km
Even after a number of trips to India, I still find it hard to stomach the the ghastly sounds of people performing their morning ablutions. My room here at Hotel Upasana was on the ground floor, and on the wall outside my room there's a tap at which several people seem to get stuck into their morning routines with great gusto - so, at 7am, I arise to the sounds of vigorous hawking, growling, gobbing, as nasal & throat and probably other passageways are cleared out. Hmm, now for my breakfast! After performing my own somewhat less dynamic morning rituals, I had this at an LP recommended place (Truptee Restaurant) - two sambar vada (like doughnuts, floating in a sambar sauce) and a 'Nescoffee' which cost less than a dollar (AUD) all up. Good start to the day. My new chum from the past 2 days, Andrea, had already headed off - she found Bhubaneswar to be a most unwelcoming place - so I figured I'd do the same. I wheeled the bike into the lobby to settle my bill; the annoying security guy, appropriately mustachioed & wearing a military-looking security uniform, decided that he would wheel my bike outside, to which I responded "leave it!" ... he glared at me & took a few more steps with it ..."leave it!" ... yet more steps ..."LEAVE IT!!" I had to bellow before he got the message. 

The ride here was along a flat, easy road, crossing several mighty bridges, but overall the scenery wasn't very attractive - lots of truck stops, and stopped trucks, and some agricultural areas. As I arrived at Chandikhol (in some places spelt Chandikhole), the Hotel Mid East could be seen towering over the intersection ahead (it's at the crossroad of Highways 5 & 5A). On the right I could see a sign to the Buddhist ruins of Ratnagiri, Udayagiri & Lalitgiri that I figured I might visit tomorrow. The hotel's reception is on the 3rd floor, so after removing panniers & locking the bike to a metal pole in front of an interested crowd, I proceeded to reception where I selected a non-A/C room for Rs250 (the A/C room cost about Rs700) - on the 4th floor. Following in the footsteps of the redoubtable Bill Weir I lugged the bike up to the 4th floor, much to the amusement of reception staff. It's a decent enough room - large, with ceiling fan & squat toilet, relatively clean & looking like it's been repainted in the the last few years. Towel & soap also provided. If I don't look directly down, there's a decent view out the window of the highway ahead; looking down, there's a herd of pigs in a dumping ground - wouldn't reckon they'd find much nourishment in amongst all the plastic bags, bottles etc that have been dumped there. (Tragically, these dump sites of non-biodegradable plastic are everywhere in India, often outside restaurants & hotels or at the edge of villages.)  Overall, this feels like a reasonable place.

I've mentioned Bill Weir above: I probably should mention his excellent web journals at See Asia Again. My route is largely based on the one he took between Puri & Siliguri in 2008.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Bhubaneswar - Sun 14 Feb 2010

(..this will be interesting -the letters have worn off half the keys on the keyboard & the space key keeps jamming - this, in one of the main internet cafes in Bhubaneswar, the capital of Orissa state...)

Day 2 cycling: Konark to Bhubaneswar
Distance (DST) = 62.7km; Total Ride Time (TRT) = 5hr 20min; Average Speed (AVS) = 18.3 km/hr; cadence = 70rpm Total Distance (ODO) = 98

I spent a few hours in the morning on Friday with Mr Dhruba Nayak, Sun Temple guide from yesterday, who drove us around on his extremely old motor scooter to a number of Shiva temples where various procedures were taking place. The big deal about this was that it was "Shivaratri"- a day of celebrating Shiva. At one of these temples Mr Nayak presented me with a bhang (= marijuana) lassi, which, spoil-sport that I am, I declined after a brief sip. All around me the locals were puffing away on their ganga. A visit to the Archeological museum & a meal at the Sun Temple hotel completed the day. 
Saturday's cycling started at 9:30am; the roads were OK, mostly through agricultural areas (rice, sheep, goats, cattle etc), villages and a few towns (eg Gop, Pipili) & up until Pipili was quite pleasant. Between Pipili & Bhubaneswar the road degenerated into a fairly typical Indian road - honking, disorder, lack of any courtesy ... the alarming sight of oncoming vehicles swarming out to fill the entire roadway, sweeping toward you in one unruly mass when a gap in the traffic permits...

I arrived at Hotel Upasana in Bhubaneswar at1:45pm. Not cheap at Rs1000 (reduced from Rs1200) & not very spick & span but a very spacious room. It was probably a classy place 20 years ago, but like so many places in India, little or no maintenance or cleaning gets done & so a general air of neglect & tiredness sets in. The paperwork is excessive - more than is required to get into the country: the hotel ledger with visa & passport details, another form requiring exactly the same details, & then a special book thrust at me by the overly punctilious security guy - who, chastened after I told him to get off my bike that he'd commandeered while I was checking in, gave me a hard time when I wanted to keep the bike in my room (I prevailed) - that he wanted me to sign.

A saving grace here has been meeting a young Columbian woman Andrea here while changing money - nice to have her company - last night had a meal at Venus Inn, a decent local Veg restaurant & then today did a massive 8 (eight!) hour organised tour of the sights of Bhubaneswar- numerous temples, Udayagiri & Khandagiri caves, the State Museum, the Shanti Stupa at Dhauli, Nandankanan Zoo (where we did the lion & tiger safari: saw some of the famous blue-eyed white tigers). So, I've now 'done' Bhubaneswar but I think tomorrow I'll rest as I feel quite fatigued from today's touring & will start pedalling again on Tuesday morning (after I've figured out exactly where I'm going ...). On the whole, Bhubaneswar is not an especially engaging or pleasant city - you don't feel you can easily hangout anywhere or comfortably just wander about & there are very few other western tourists about. In some places that's a blessing, but not here.

Rhino at Nandankanan Zoo

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Konark - 11.2.10

Day 1 cycling: Puri to Konark
Distance (DST) = 35km; Total Ride Time (TRT) = 1hr 52min; Average Speed (AVS) = 18.3km/hr;  cadence = 70rpm

After a hearty breakfast, I hit the road at about 9am. It was an easy, leisurely ride to Konark: a slight cool breeze, temperature about 30'C, smooth, flat roads, little traffic - and surprisingly benign when there was some - and very friendly people along the way. The highway - NH203E - passed through two animal sanctuaries, over several rivers, along the sea shore, and by a place where blokes were carving statues out of sandstone. A fine road, albeit short at 35km, to cycle ... as the tired old phrase goes "it doesn't get much better ...." A great feeling to have finally started a bit of cycling.

As in the past, it's interesting watching the mind tick over as you sit in the seat pedalling away: wishing you were there already; thinking how great this is; will there be accommodaton available?; maybe I'll wash some clothes; I haven't been very hungry of late & feel tired ...hope I haven't got some disorder; what the hell was Felix ... well, you get the picture. All rather redundant, pointless, as it will all work itself out one way or the other anyhow, whether I spent time thinking about it or not, and in the meantime it involves quite a separation from what's actually going on.

The road to Konark

Eventually arrived at Labanya Lodge where I've taken a pretty good room for Rs750 (about $18 AUD) - I tried to argue the price down but the owner, a friendly but business-like bloke, wasn't budging. Relative luxury, with several windows facing in different directions, hot water & a ceiling fan, and the only place in town with the internet. For some unkown reason I booked & paid for 2 nights, whereas 1 might have been enough. The Sun Temple, about 300m away, is an very impressive temple complex, built in the 13th century in the fashion of a gigantic chariot for the Sun God, comprising twelve pairs of huge wheels pulled by seven horses. I took a guide & he explained it all fairly well over about 3 hours. He asked my profession at one point & when I replied went on to tell me about his poor sleep & excessive worry about his 2 daughters who were of marriageable age but how the family needed to pay a dowry for them in the range of about $7000 - a huge sum here (I cracked some joke about whether he was hoping I'd marry them but it went right past him - perhaps just as well). So he worries big time. They also have a small house - there are 5 of them (they also have a son) so they can't even all get to sleep at the same time. I gave him the "why worry" tip but I don't think it hit the mark. He seemed a little crestfallen when I gave him Rs320 for the 3 hours work (pretty reasonable according to my homework); later I thought maybe I should've deducted a bit for the free psychological advice. These are difficult matters here - whether to tip people e.g. a worker cleans your room at his request then puts out a hand & asks for a tip - like, isn't that his damn job? - or whether to give money to beggars (one neatly-dressed fellow in Kolkata presented me with a bad luck story & said he just wanted some food, no money, as he wasn't a beggar. We passed a stall & I was going to buy him something but they hadn't quite opened so I gave him some small change (Rs20) which he looked at rather ungraciously, took, & then walked off.) There are some extremely tragic looking cases everywhere but how to judge who's 'worthy' because you certainly couldn't afford to give to everyone who asked.

The Sun Temple is mostly made out of sandstone, with a few granite sections; there are heaps of human & other figures in various "amorous" poses around the temple - men & women, with one, sometimes two partners, having 'regular' sex in various poses, oral sex, anal sex, 'self-sex', lesbian sex... a dog was involved in at least one scene ... two elephants having sex... the one thing I didn't notice was male homosexual sex... what's the story there? I had to return to my room to lie down for a while after 3 hours of stickbeaking at all that ...

The mossies are pretty bad around here ...

Sun Temple

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Puri - Wed 10.2.10

(ah, a good computer & reasonably fast internet for once - such a pleasure!) After a good night's sleep, unfortunately punctuated several times by some fairly hardcore mosquitoes, the day started with a juice, masala omelette, toast & coffee at the Peace Restaurant. Then, a walk on the beach, nimbly dodging shit that was quickly figured wasn't that of dogs. Still, people have to shit & if there's no where else to go ... Later, a cycle ride to Marine Parade, primarily where the Indian tourists hang out, although there were a few obvious pockets of Europeans on the beach also. It looked as you could imagine parts of the Gold Coast might look after the apocalypse ... there's little or no culture here of keeping the place clean, or of recycling or maintenance, although some attempts to try & propagate these ideas are evident in the Times of India. I've been reading White Tiger, a brutally comic critique of what the author reckons is rotten in India. Hard to know of course, but it seems to echo with my experience of the place, minus much sense of charm. Also went & chatted with Ramu, the head honcho of a local martial arts club (Panchavidya Five Knowledge Centre) that has posters plastered all over town (I think he was OK with me pointing out several gross spelling errors on the poster). I don't think business was booming for him, as he seemed a little embarrassed when I asked if I could watch a class, but he gave me a CD he's made of some of his training sessions. Areas he covers include: Meditation; Stretching; Self- massage; Self-Defence; Vayu Sadhana (something to do with breath control I think); Sword technique; Nan Chaku & Swimming. He seemed like a nice fellow.

Tomorrow, if inspired, I'll do my first bit of A to B cycling & head off to Konark, home of the Sun Temple - a short jaunt of only about 37 km. Puri is a nice place but I'm experiencing an odd combination of listlessness & restlessness, which probably suggests it's time to hit the road ... For now, it's off to eat - I don't think, for a couple of obvious reasons, that it will be at the Mickey Mouse Restaurant that I passed on my way here ...

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

PURI - Tuesday 9.2.10

(.. I think this computer I'm using must have been made in the 1940's ...) Travelling to Puri by bus was seeming too complicated & so I ended up getting a train ticket from a place I was changing money at - on the Howrah-Puri Express. I always feel wary of using the train partly because of damage incurred to a bike on an earlier trip & also because it means losing contact with the bike & entrusting it to the Indian railway system. Given that the train left at 8:55pm I thought it wise to get a taxi to Howrah rather than cycle either in peak hour traffic or in the dark. Jamming the bike into the back seat again was a hell of an exercise, requiring the combined brain & physical prowess of me, the driver & 4 hotel staff. We eventually succeeded when I finally computed that I needed to remove the front wheel & lower the seat. Then of course, booking the bike onto the train is a rigmarole - just finding the Parcel office is a bit like being on a car rally: small cryptic clues eventually lead to your destination (e.g. discovering that it's the Parcel office I want, not the Baggage office). Then, after dropping the bike off & filling in a form, I had to retrace my steps quite a distance back to ask a functionary to stamp the form before returning it to where I'd dropped the bike off. The train trip (I went in a sleeping car, 2-tier) went quite quickly & I slept like a log until shortly before arrival at 6am. But ... where is the bike? The bloke in the Parcel office said come back in an hour, which wasn't very encouraging. I figured that I could use the time to find a room which I eventually did at the Hotel Lotus (my first 2 choices were booked out) at Rs400 a night (about $10 AUD). This time, a spacious room, just a little lacking in the window department (one window looks out at a brick wall, 1ft away, and the other is 1ft wide by maybe 4 ft high) , but otherwise clean & comfortable & the owners & staff seem friendly & helpful (and extremely interested in the bike, my age, ... and am I insane...). On returning to the station my bike had arrived & was waiting for me in the Parcel office!

Puri is a pretty relaxed beachside place & also a major Hindu pilgrimage centre - home of the Jagannath Mandir (temple), which I cycled out to this afternoon. The town was apparently big on the 'hippie' trail in the '70's & there are vague remnants of this now (eg in names such as Peace Restaurant, Xanadu Pavilion, Love & Life hotel, and in the numerous ayurvedic & healing centres around town). It's lovely to see the sea, although apparently it's a bad idea to try & swim in it (sections of it double as public toilet & I think there are rips, etc). The one unpleasant feature about the place is that apparently it's also a bit of paedophile hang-out. I'll probably stay here for 2 days & then head on to Konark ... by bike...

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Calcutta - Sunday 7.2.10 (Cyber Valley Internet cafe)

Some of what you see here is so crushingly tragic, so awfully ... unfair. There are beggars everywhere, of all ages and genders, often with twisted bodies or missing body parts. Yesterday on one of my walks I encountered a fellow, wearing a loincloth only, with just one small flipper of an arm that he was flapping furiously while lying face down on a large rectangle of blue tarpaulin that was peppered with coins. Someone, either a helper or a sort of beggar's pimp, probably the latter, had obviously set him up there. Later on in the evening as I ventured out to a restaurant (Teej, allegedly one of the better ones around town) I walked past some pavement dwellers, one of whom was slapping his partner's face and howling ... she remained immobile. On my way back, after a hearty meal (somewhat coloured by what I suspected had happened) he was lying there, silently this time with what seemed like a body wrapped in hessian next to him.

It wouldn't be India if there weren't major reconstruction work happening inside the hotel at some point during the stay. At about 6am, audible scrabbling and then sawing sounds could be heard, followed by the occasional tremendous clatter of falling rubble. There was clearly some dire necessity to do this work at this hour because by about 7:30 am all work had ceased. In the past I probably would've exploded out into the corridor but these days finding some form of acceptance seems the wiser course.

I cycled to Babu Ghat, the bus station, this morning to see about a bus ticket to Puri. Besides getting badly lost on the way there (and this, with a map & even compass) I had terrible trouble trying to sort something out. One company said the bike was a problem & another couldn't seem to grasp what I was requesting. It appears that the best course of action might be to just arrive there tomorrow evening a few hours before departure & try & sort something out. Failing this, I might just have to start pedalling!

There was a major demonstration in town today; masses & masses of people arriving in countless buses, protesting about price hikes in sugar (and possibly other things). While waiting for a small gap in the march so I could cross the road, I got chatting with a Mr V. Agarwal, a paper napkin manufacturer (or "Stockist of Disposable Catering Item" according to his business card). He was most interested to hear that my profession was psychologist & asked what my opinion was of him (after asking the obligatory questions: was I married? What was my religion? Did I believe in god?). He appeared a little crestfallen when I said he seemed a pleasant, relaxed fellow, and proceeded to tell me about his life and how unhappy and stressed he was and wanted my advice. (This was all a difficult conversation due to his broken English & my non-existent Hindi). My suggestion to "worry less" surprisingly seemed to hit the mark & he cheered considerably, while thanking me.The funny thing was: I found it very helpful also, having been worrying just a little about how to handle the bus dilemma & associated options.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Calcutta - Sat 6.2.10

Well thankfully I had a good sleep last night & almost feel my normal self & no further claustrophobic experiences ... I've done bugger all cycling for what is ostensibly a cycling holiday. I spent a good part of the morning (almost) finishing the final chapters of the very popular The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (a free copy I stumbled across on the web) on my BeBook. It seemed to start slowly, have a very flat spot in the middle, but began to pick up pace at the halfway mark ... and I was hooked. Parts of it were quite daft but on the whole it was a captivating read. Luckily I have copies of his next 2 books on the eBook reader. Afterwards, I walked down to the South Park Street Cemetery (on the way, encountering & sidestepping a rather large flock of goats swarming (flocking?) across the roadway) and after looking around at the Raj-era tombs I headed off to the offices of India Tourism to collect a 'permission note' to visit the Marble Palace, a rather extraordinary nineteenth century (?1835) palatial mansion, with marble walls & floors & packed with all manner of statues, glassware, paintings, furniture, mirrors, clocks, caged birds, etc. etc., more or less tucked away in a side street in North Calcutta. I got there by using the Metro. Despite looking rather run down, the trains thundered along at a tremendous pace. The journey cost 4Rp - about 10 cents (in AUD) - and was, oddly, rather good fun & an effective way to get around parts of Calcutta. After the Marble Palace, I walked a few more blocks to visit Tagore's House - the family mansion of Rabindranath Tagore, the famous Bengali poet and all-round artist. They were also holding an Astrology Convention on the grounds but I steered well away from this. Inspired by the trip on the Metro, I decided to catch a tram that seemed headed in the right direction. Apparently electric trams have been running in Calcutta since 1902 (and I reckon the one I got on had been running since then: extremely decrepit). It trundled along at little more than walking pace, and its passage was continually being impeded by rickshaws, pedestrians, men with pushcarts, etc. Needless to say, it ended up leaving me miles from anywhere & I found myself walking a few more km & then catching the Metro for one stop, back to base & late lunch at 'Fresh & Juicy', a travellers' cafe in Sudder Street. I reckon I'll be here for 2 more days before heading to Puri by bus ... so, if you were hoping to read about the cycling, it might be a little while yet. I'll still have plenty to see around Calcutta when I return in a few weeks time, and will probably wait until then before visiting some of the more curious places quietly recommended to me by my chum Mr Felix (aka Pak Peelips).

Calcutta tram

Friday, February 05, 2010

Calcutta - Friday 5.2.10

Here again at the Cyber Valley internet cafe, after having presented my official internet cafe number (02-2943, if you're interested).. I seem to be suffering intense fatigue at present - either I've contracted some ghastly disorder or it's to do with acclimatising to India. Last night at about midnight, utterly fatigued though I was, I had what seemed like an attack of claustrophobia in my very small room. I felt I couldn't breathe, and became unreasonably anxious ... rather unsettling - oh dear, I think I need to see a psychologist ... ! At a slightly more detached viewpoint (i.e 18 hours later), it was quite an interesting & informative experience ... Despite my lack of energy, I & the bike hit the streets of Calcutta this morning, resulting in an entirely different experience of intermittent anxiety. For instance, cars seem to overtake trams on both sides, and even trams heading in the other direction, on the other side of the road!! So, imagine my surprise, while cycling alongside a tram heading in the same direction, to find a car hurtling toward me ... (and this happened a number of times). I got a little caught up in the traffic flow & so indavertently found myself riding across the Hooghly River, on the Howrah Bridge - a cantilever bridge (for all my engineering mates!) & allegedly "one of the world's busiest bridges."  It was rather jam-packed with traffic & pedestrians. Later on, after depositing the bike back at my hotel, I paid a visit to the Indian Museum, an anachronistic collection of stuffed animals, dead insects, rocks, art & so on. If you should ever visit, bring a torch to look at the artworks - for some reason these rooms are so dark you can barely see the picture frames. OH&S practices are sadly absent - one worker was casually standing on the edge of a third story parapet doing some reconstructive work, and another was elsewhere perched on a freestanding, unsecured bamboo scaffolding repairing a ceiling. His colleague on the ground was hauling bags of plaster up to him via some rope looped over the bamboo crossbeam. I elected to have lunch at the Blue Sky Cafe in Sudder Street, and then, deciding to beat my fatigue into submission, I visited the Victoria Memorial and then St Paul's Cathedral. I suspect it may be a few more days until I decide to hit the road (possibly via bus to Puri).

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Calcutta - Thursday 4.2.2010

I'm at the Cyber Valley internet cafe in Calcutta, having just received my official card & number to use the internet. To obtain this, I had to have my passport scanned & photograph taken. (Who knows - this may be being monitored...) So I can now report that I've arrived in India safely but utterly exhausted. Finally got to the Hotel VIP Inter Continental at 2:15am this morning (according to the details as recorded on the hotel's computer ... in fact I think it's some new national monitoring scheme. At first I thought the man behind the counter said it was for 'tourism' ... later clarified as 'terrorism'. I felt a little uneasy when "Melbourne Australia" appeared on screen, but he & the assembled audience - a typical feature of any public activity you conduct in India - seemed unfussed about this. Perhaps they haven't heard ... )

Departure from Melbourne was complexified, as usual, by arriving with a bicycle at check-in. The woman at the desk told me I needed to have the bike in a box. I explained that Thai airlines didn't insist on this; she then called a fellow over to adjudicate. He smilingly told me through his braces (!) that I would need to remove the chain from my bicycle. Now this is a particularly difficult exercise on the Surly, and so he went off to check the regulations when I gently expostulated. Luckily, and as I had thought, the regulations did not require this, but he did discover that in addition to letting the tyres down (a pointless exercise, but never mind this, my railings will never change it), turning the handlebars around & removing the pedals, I also had to sign a disclaimer indicating that I wasn't going to remove the chain! At Calcutta airport, as the bike eventually appeared on the conveyor belt - well, almost appeared ... it jammed & so I had to wrench it out, I began to wonder if a box mightn't have been such a bad idea. The handlebars had come adrift and, ironically, the chain had half come off.

Passing through customs & immigration was prolonged by having to complete a form regarding the H1N1 virus & then lining up before a table of doctors wearing face masks to have it signed off. Thankfully there was a man with a sign with my name on it at the exit, and a yellow Abassador taxi waiting for me. On the way to the taxi I was hit by the old 'cup of chai at the airport scam' .. in my debilitated state after 14 or so hours in the air I unthinkingly accepted a cup of chai given to me by a fellow holding a small tray of them & had a sip before realising I didn't want a cup of chai & that now I would have to pay. So at 1:00am in the airport carpark I was being pursued by this fellow & his chums wanting money for the damn tea ... And then a short while later, another group of young men wanted a tip for helping cram the bike into the rear seat of the taxi. Message to me: I have now arrived - time to rearrange the brain into India mode!

My room, on the 3rd floor, is OK but small - and pretty cramped with the bike in it. I had to move it into the bathroom when I had breakfast, and then out again when I had a shower. The bike looks as though it has reassembled into much the same shape as when I left but tomorrow will hopefully tell when I take it for a spin. The roads don't look as bad as Delhi's.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

ready to go ..

... all my bags are packed, I'm ready to go ... the bike & accompanying bag weigh 21.3kg (It'd be too heavy, with the 20kg limit, were I also taking a bike box ... but damned if I know what items I could've left behind)...

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

India again

Just on 2 weeks to departure & I'm aware, as the time gets nearer, of a slight edginess, an apprehension, a frisson of fear ... not about anything in particular, although when I do stop & focus on the impending trip the occasional image of Indian roads, towns & accommodation passes through my mind, leading to a tiny shudder of anxiety. I suppose I could recast this as 'anticipatory excitement.' I haven't yet started to fret about how many undies or T-shirts to take or about the problems that always arise upon arrival at the airport check-in with a bicycle - their unfailing agitation over not taking the bike in a box, and the senseless insistence on deflating the tyres.