February 03, 2010 GMT
India - Delhi and the road south

I woke up in Amritsar all too eager to leave. This was too wild, too blindly religious, too crowded, too noisy, too chaotic for me. So I took the road to Delhi... (you at the back sniggering, I know who you are!)

The fog made finding the National Highway a wee difficult, but the GPS and a bit of asking around did the job. The going was tough, visibility was less than 30 meters and everyone and their dog had their hazard lights on. I was riding in a cloud and noticed my clothes getting gradually wet, even though there was no rain. It was also cold enough to force me to change back to winter gloves.

fog on the way to Delhi

With this and that I got to Delhi around 17:00. I had no guidebook of India, as Ping-Yi was bringing that with her in a few days - I had left the book behind as I didn't want to deal with its weight and volume for 4 months before I got the chance to use it for the first time.

This made finding a place to stay, well, interesting... Let's see: Chaotic huge city - check. In India - check. Dangerous traffic coming at you from all directions - check. Fog that makes reading signs nigh impossible - check. Dirt in the air that engulfs your eyes, ears, mouth, creates a dirty film on your helmet visor, reducing visibility even further - check. Total lack of a grid system or any discernible city or road structure - check. Bitter cold - check. The night coming in - check. Tiredness from being on the road for the entire day - check.

Under these lovely conditions I resorted to the solace of my GPS and the information I had pre-loaded to it - a file with campsites and hotels around the world provided by an excellent chap called Ulrich at the HorizonsUnlimited.com bulletin board.

Luckily, there was a camping icon somewhere nearby, so I spent only an hour finding it - it was outside Delhi, somewhere in the bush, and it was already dark, and there were no signs, and the people I asked didn't speak English, and the campsite itself had no lights and no guests and no signs and it was deserted and hidden behind a huge solid gate (and actually it wasn't a campsite per se - rather a plantation of sorts where the owner allowed people to camp), so finding it was a challenge.

But anyway, I got there, the minders rang their boss (who could speak English) on the phone, I had a look around, established there was no convenient parking, no shower and no hot water, was told that the price was 500 Rupees (which is pure extortion based on the assumption that the tourist, having reached that godforsaken place has no way out), tried to negotiate for a better price, got told "To camp on my land, this is what you pay. You can camp anywhere else for free", decided I was not desperate enough to take this kind of an attitude and left.

30K and a lot of dirty traffic, dangerous fog and darkness later, I returned to downtown Delhi, found the main bazaar area and located another GPS waypoint for a hotel. That was a "proper" hotel which was expensive (double of the camping cost) and would require me to park the bike on a busy road, with no protection whatsoever. The area was as dodgy as they come and there was no way I was leaving the Strom there... To cut a long story short, I negotiated with 4 different hotels around that area before I found one that was half-decent, on a side-street (i.e. not too many people fiddling with the bike), at least had a sidewalk I could park on (improving the chances the bike wouldn't be hit by another vehicle), and was willing to negotiate on the price. By now I had been in Delhi and going around in circles nonstop for five hours. I was tired. In a fluke of negotiation the hotel manager told me to piss off and he would only do a better price if I pre-paid for 4 nights, while for one night the price was 1200Rs. This was after we were discussing 800Rs per night... I couldn't take it any longer, cursed (silently), coughed up, parked the bike as best as I could and collapsed in one of the rooms of the ripoff USA Hotel.

The luxury of having a little bit of sidewalk to park on: (for the purists among us, no, it was not usable by pedestrians anyway)

outside the ripoff USA hotel, Delhi

It's disgusting how some people will take advantage of you when you're in need. Last night it was after 10 and I was visibly tired, so they managed to rip me off. In the morning the day-shift manager was all smiles and offered me "a better price" for an "extended stay" and said that he "didn't want to lose the customer". As insulted as it gets before I open my mouth and start being real unpleasant to people who probably don't deserve it, I packed up as fast as possible and left.

After a good night's kip, with daylight and no fog, I located a far better hotel for A THIRD of the price I paid last night within the hour. But the damage had been done and I already felt appalled by last night's experience. I don't want to be the tourist that is antagonistic with everyone, and takes for granted that everyone is out to take advantage of him/her as much as possible. I like to travel with optimism and a smile. But the first night in Delhi killed that and made me count the days until Ping-Yi would fly in and I would be able to get out of that city.

I spent the next couple of days exploring the central bazaar area, writing the blog posts for Pakistan and reading my book.

Central bazaar of Delhi, India

Finally the day came for Ping-Yi to fly in. Tellingly, on my way to the airport I was hit from behind by an ancient cab. Not bothering with a proper intersection, the traffic police had created a U-turn that most traffic going to the domestic airport had to take. As I was turning, I committed the sin of stopping to LOOK before entering a new highway lane, and BANG - the cab behind me hit me. After I checked there was no serious damage (the rear fender is plastic & thus flexible and the pannier that was hit was magically not damaged), I told off the idiot in the taxi who proceeded to shower me with unintelligible curses of the "move out of my way you little insect" kind.

Luckily Ping-Yi got there safely and was still willing to speak to me after waiting for an hour and a half to be picked up from the airport (even the Grand Navigator gets temporarily misplaced occasionally). We spent a couple of days in Delhi, visited the Red Fort where funnily enough people are not allowed to spit, unlike everywhere else in India.

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In case you think the artist is being a little too generous with the size of the spit depiction, allow me to inform you that this is not the case. Indians seem to enjoy chewing coloured tobacco (or something like that) and spitting it all over the place. It appears to be a very macho gesture because people do it with pride. Every day I see people open their car doors and spit, pull up their helmets and spit, walk on the road and spit, talk on the phone and spit, and it's always a disgustingly impressive quantity of stuff that comes out. There seems to be a campaign to educate people that this spitting business is not the best public health habit (especially factoring in that many people walk barefoot on the streets and most in homes and some offices). All I can say is good luck to the campaign.

We also visited a famous (for some reason) mosque close to the Red Fort, but by the time we got there it was dark and the representative of the inferior species (female) accompanying me was not welcome, so we just left.

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I came to India thinking that this is the country of religious freedom and tolerance. It bothered me that in cases like the above religious freedom translates to discrimination against women. I can't see the place for such backward customs in a modern free society.

We also used the quite young Delhi metro system, which is impressive in its cleanliness, efficiency and organisation. I mean... people queuing like that? In India?

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That, I did not expect. Of course it all breaks down when it comes to reason about how many human bodies can physically fit in the train itself, with the conductors pushing bodies like lifeless sacks in the already jampacked train. When you can feel the lung movement on every breath of your co-travelers, you know it's tight.

We pondered a bit more on the whole issue of sex/beauty symbols (Q: Why use a white man to sell underwear to Indians? A: because the target market is tourists, silly) and the next day got out of dirty, noisy Delhi.

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We hit highway 8, riding south towards Jaipur. The first 30K out of Delhi were a nightmare. Trucks everywhere, jammed, suicidal overtaking, works on the road, muddy diversions, lawless traffic, lots of anxiety, lots of tiredness, cold... I remember thinking "If this doesn't change soon, we're never getting anywhere". After an hour of that travesty we needed a rest break.

Luckily after a couple more hours the situation improved dramatically and riding on the highway became relatively sane. Because of the endless trucks and intersections (and animals crossing the road and people and and and...) our pace was as slow as 50K/hour, but at least we were not afraid for our lives all the time.

This has now been burned into my brain. On the back of every truck in India, one sees this All-Your-Base-Are-Belong-To-Us-type message:

Horn OK Please truck

By sunset we got to Pushkar. We were exhausted. We had ridden about 350K that day. Turns out it's unrealistic to aim for anything more for a single day, even when using National Highways.

Cow in Pushkar ruthlessly going shopping:

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Pushkar might have been nice once, with the lake and without the tourist sprawl, but now it's just filled with annoying touts and the lake is dry.

The next morning we spent a few hours relaxing on the lovely, deserted terrace of our hotel. The original plan was to just have breakfast and go, but somehow we started chatting, and we were alone, and the sounds of Pushkar could hardly reach us, and the monkeys were jumping all over the place from building to building...

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...occasionally posing for pictures as well...

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...so we got out of Pushkar late. Really late. So late in fact that on our way out of town we stopped for lunch in Ajmer, and had the mother of all garlic breads:

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Taking the National Highway 8 south towards Udaipur turned out to be a challenge. Roadworks cut the obvious entry to the highway and there were no signs. Within 5'' of our confusing encounter with what was effectively a dead-end, two guys on a motorcycle beckoned us to follow them. Turns out the dirt track breaking to the left was the official "diversion" - it's just that nobody had bothered putting up a sign.

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The situation got a bit low and a bit sandy, which freaks me out on such a heavy bike. Luckily the TKCs did their job and kept the rubber side down:

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With a little bit of ducking we managed to squeeze through.

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Taking the NH8, we were inundated by trucks, trucks and more trucks. With no extra room on the road to overtake, it took all of the Strom's torque to make a little bit of progress, grudgingly overtaking one truck after the other, turning the ride to a constant fight with seconds and a nerve-wrecking, way too long game of "Chicken".

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At least there was some entertainment value in all this - the types of vehicles one meets on an Indian highway are not to be found anywhere in Europe (anywhere I've been at least) - like this completely cabriolet truck:

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(click on the image & then use the "All sizes" button above the image to see a larger size version)

After fending off an attempt to rip us off at a roadside hotel, we resigned to the fact we would not find any decent hotel that night. We were lucky enough to locate a nice camping spot instead, a couple of Ks away from the NH8 on a dirt road, which worked wonders. We lied in the tent looking through the mosquito net at the stars of a crystal-clear sky and enjoyed the blissful peace & quiet. Every five minutes I was thinking "now they'll come". "OK, now". "OK, can't be long now..." - for the inevitable visitors who would have heard/spotted us riding there. But no, the only transient visit we got was by a lad next morning who appeared to be going to work. Amazing!

The only annoyance was that something we had had, had (*) began upsetting our stomachs, so we too became cases of "Delhi belly" - albeit after leaving Delhi.

(*) 3 "had"s in a row - you saw this here first!

The next day we did some serious riding, following NH8, going through many towns...

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...until, in the afternoon, we finally reached Udaipur.

Udaipur, Rajasthan

The city, lake, buildings and location are all quite pretty, but too touristy for me. I begin getting annoyed by the touts, courting us with a loud "hello my friend" everywhere we went or even as we walked down the street. This whole "tourism development" business is getting on my nerves. I don't feel we see true India, but rather that we fall from one tourist trap to another. This is not how I want to travel and I remember despairing over the possibility that all significant tourist attractions will be like that.

We spent the next day exploring Udaipur and (unsuccessfully) trying to give our stomachs a break.

Woman doing her washing in one of Udaipur's lakes.

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The lake & the palace. The main attractions of Udaipur.

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These guys can do just about anything... (and I'm sure they have hundreds of swimming pool maintenance contracts in Udaipur). All I can say is WTF...

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Leaving Udaipur, we pondered once more about the poor vehicles that are being constantly abused, safety regulations, the value of human life and the things necessity forces people to do in India.

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With that, we were out of the state of Rajasthan and into Gujarat.

Posted by Alexandros Papadopoulos at February 03, 2010 09:16 AM GMT
 



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