“What’s been the scariest moment of the trip so far?”
It’s one of our most frequently asked questions. Until now it’s probably been the nut incident, or any number of traffic moments, but both were eclipsed last week at a hotel in Kanpur.
Kanpur was day three of a five-day, 595km cycle between Varanasi and Delhi. It’s a dusty, dirty and noisy town on the banks of the Ganges. Coming into the city it doesn’t feel a welcoming place, people staring or scowling at you as you ride by.
The usual cows and animals roam the streets, although here they eat a sole diet of plastic that litters the streets (as it does most of India) as there’s no grass to be found.
The first five hotels we tried were either full, or didn’t accept foreigners – highly frustrating. Eventually we were approached by a tout who offered to take us to a hotel down the road. Tired and hungry we agreed.
By Indian standards it was probably middle of the road. Running water and a fan on the plus side, on the downside it looked like a jail with all the windows barred, and the reception staff unhelpful to the point of aggressive.
Indian hotel rooms have a buzzer on outside so if you order food or water, the room service can let you know when it’s arrived. The buzzer is a harsh, shrill noise like that you’d get on game show when you know the answer.
This one also had a master electrics switch on the outside of the room that controlled all the power, presumably so staff can turn everything off in one go when guests leave.
After showering and a quick wander round the town, we crashed out around 10pm, to the noise of the fan whirring away.
Our sleep was short lived.
At around 2am we were awoken with a hammering on the door.
BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG
We sat bolt upright in bed.
“What the f***?"
BANG BANG BANG. BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG
Loud shouting in Hindi accompanied the banging, then they pressed and held the room buzzer, and started flickering the lights
BUZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ BANG BANG BANG BUZZZZZZZZZZ
That split second after waking we were so disorientated, not knowing where we were and what was going on.
“OPEN THE DOOR. OPEN THE DOOR NOW!”
“Shit they know we’re English speaking. They’re trying to rob us”
We darted out of bed, making sure the door was locked and bracing it with a table.
“Hide the electric stuff, and all our money”
We rushed around covering anything of value, stashing it in sleeping bags, pockets, clothing etc.
BANG BANG BANG BUZZZZZ BANG BANG BANG
“What do we do now?”
“Sit tight. Is the door secure? Do we have the knife?”
“No it’s downstairs”
We carry a small knife but it was in a separate bag which we’d left on the bikes downstairs.
We sat tight and didn’t respond.
After a few minutes they went away but there was still crashing and loud talking in Hindi down the hall.
“You don’t think it could be police or anything? Do you think we should open the door?”
“No, why would they try and get in like that? They must be trying to rob us”
In our minds there were two possible explanations:
The intruders had seen us around town, followed us back to the hotel, asked reception what room we were in and were now trying to rob us.
The reception was in on it, figured we must have had some money and had informed their mates – or whoever - what room we were in.
We sat there tense, listening to the shouting and banging down the corridor and on the other floors.
There were a lot of voices.
Ten minutes later the voices got louder, and
BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG – “OPEN THE DOOR”
This time, one of the men was throwing his full body weight against the door.
It was only held by a small bolt lock at the top and bottom of the door, you could see them shuddering.
It was scary.
“What do you want??? Go Away”
Chatting in Hindi, then:
“Open the door, please. We are room service”
Hollow laughs from us and them.
“We have called the manager and police. Leave us alone. We have no money. I have a knife”
Pause. Talking in Hindi.
More talking in Hindi.
Eventually the voices drifted off down the corridor.
We sat up and worked out what to do next:
Plan was to split all our cash down and distribute it around our paniers and bags, put anything of value in socks or other smelly bits of clothing, and sneak out at 5am
Morning rolled around and we sneaked downstairs, retrieved our knife, and then wandered round the dark hotel on a stealth mission to bring our bags down from the third to the ground floor. Felt a bit like James Bond.
Packed up and ready to go we passed by reception. We’d debated whether to confront them or not. Ewan couldn’t help himself and opened up a tirade.
As Ewan was ranting, the fat, sweaty man barely moved his eyes from the cricket he was watching.
He spoke little English, and despite the assistance of charades, gave no indication of any understanding. He mumbled something about a wedding party, and turned up the cricket.
We cut our losses and headed off.
Having had time to reflect, we’re still not sure exactly what happened. The security to get in and out the hotel was actually pretty good, so we think it was unlikely someone wandered in off the street.
It could have been a wedding party who had came back drunk, and thought it would be funny, or they might have seen us and genuinely been trying to rob us. Who knows.
Not understanding what they were saying made it definitely more scary, and the banging and crashing on the door was unquestionably aggressive.
We were glad to leave.
We had a funny conversation about alternative endings for the situation later. In the worst case scenario, they battered down the door, stole all our stuff, beat us and left us for dead.
In the best case, we turned the laptop on, got the speakers out, and started pumping some Bollywood beats. Then on opening the door, we take selfies with everyone, before we all break out in a choreographed dance routine, and are joined by all the other guests who spontaneously burst out of their rooms and know all the moves – like in the movies.
As it happened we just crept out and that was that.
On little sleep, wary and a bit rattled we bedded into a 156 km day to Etawah.
After about 10km a police officer on a moped pulled in front of us, and started waving a stick indicating for us to stop.
He didn’t look happy.
What could it be this time…? Maybe it was the police at our door last night.
We pulled over and he confronted Ewan, making his thumb and forefinger of his two hands into a square and saying “picture picture”.
He looked angry, it didn’t seem like he was asking for a picture.
“Give me your cell phone”
Upon handing it over, he opened up the photo gallery, and started scrolling through the pictures.
We looked at each other, confused.
He kept scrolling….
Ewan and Katie’s cycling trip to Scotland in 2016….. Ewan and Katie’s triathlon in 2015…. Lego man fancy dress outfits at Halloween…. Ewan’s nephews and nieces birthday party…
He looked through every album back to 2014, including a nice collection of the Star Wars fancy dress night, then handed back the phone:
And off we went, bemused.
Only later we were looking through pictures on the camera when we had a thought. Ewan had taken this picture of a cycle lane, notable both because it’s the only cycle lane we’ve seen anywhere in the whole of Asia, and it was funny because there were about 10 cyclists on the road, none of them using it (including us).
In the background is barbed wire, which we think might have been some sort of military base which wasn’t supposed to be photographed – and he thought the picture was taken on the phone.
Either that, or he’d seen us and just thought we looked like we led interesting lives and just wanted to stalk our pictures…
The rest of the 600 km trip to Agra was as grueling as we’ve come to expect from India. Even by Indian standards it’s been hot – this article says the last week has been a heat wave in Delhi. We’ve been against the prevailing wind so every day’s been a battle. It’s been the hardest section of the trip so far. You can check out all the pictures from the India leg here.
There is one place we’ve been able to find solace: Indian Oil.
Indian Oil petrol stations are dotted along the roads, they have shade and filtered water we can refill our bottles with. Often the managers will invite us into their office and sit us down in the chairs under the fan when they see how wiped out we are.
We pay for our stay in selfies.
One manager took 14 in total – we counted. From all different angles. We wondered if they would be put up on the wall of the petrol station as a “look who stopped here” sort of thing.
Like when you go into an Italian restaurant and they have a picture of Sven Goran Eriksson eating spaghetti with all the staff crowded around him.
Other funny things happen in Indian Oil. A lady came up to Katie:
“You have a lovely smile!”
“Here please hold my baby I want photo”
Here it is, along with a couple of other Indian Oil shots. Katie collapsed in the shade, and Ewan sharing lunch with a monkey. Hard to see in the photo, but near enough all babies and very small kids wear black eye liner. Not sure the reason for this.
When there’s no Indian Oil, we need to find other sheltering spots. Under this bridge seemed a good shady spot as Katie was feeling the heat. Ewan went to get water and returned to find the obligatory crowd of staring people, and a cow parked on the right hand side.
We’d given ourselves a day’s recovery in Agra, and slowly but surely, we ploughed on. We were under a deadline with little margin for error, as we had a flight to catch from Delhi, and a mountain of admin to do before we flew so had to leave a few days of buffer.
The closer we came to Agra, the more tired and worn out we became. Spirits stayed high and we didn’t fight, but sometimes cycling in India can be enough to push the boundaries of your patience.
Such a moment occurred on the last day to Agra. We’d left at five am to beat the heat, and make it in time to meet Ewan’s friends Nic and Nina who were there at the same time.
We’ve never denied people pictures when they ask, but we draw the line at stopping whilst on the bikes to take them, as we’d otherwise never get anywhere it’s such a common occurrence.
Worn down and tired we were making good progress to Agra. Suddenly, an excitable couple of young lads swerved in front of Ewan almost knocking him off his bike and into Katie on a major road.
“OH MY GOD. OH MY GOD. JUST ONE SELFIE, PLEASE”
Almost totally losing his rag, Ewan told them to “go away”, or something along those lines…
Unperturbed they continued:
“Please stop, please stop, just one selfie”
It was actually more dangerous to keep riding with these two badgering us than to stop, so we pulled over, Ewan still in a rage about almost being knocked off.
We took pictures, then before we could leave:
“Okay, my selfie on your phone. Please”
“Take my selfie on your phone”
The lad must have wanted us to have a permanent record of our encounter that we could take home and show our friends, so he insisted we all take a selfie together on Ewan’s phone.
It was simpler to do it, than to argue – so here it is.
Ewan still hot and bothered, and Katie characteristically smiling despite everything.
Almost at the end of our tether we made it to Agra, had a great lunch with Nic and Nina then crashed out. We rested and recuperated, and made time to visit the awesome Taj Mahal, where we got our “iconic India” picture.
The final two days to Delhi were in the same vein with wind and heat against us. But after a final 142km push we made it into town – the end of our India leg.
Spirits high, we wheeled into town, like conquering kings, delighted with ourselves. An end of leg five picture to celebrate in front of India Gate, a monument dedicated to Indian soldiers who have died in wars.
We were tired, sweaty, hungry, thirsty and mucky when we wheeled into our hotel, around 8pm, jubilant to have made it to Delhi after so many long days.
We hugged and celebrated our victory – through all the testing times, we’d made it to Delhi from Dhaka.
A total of 2,442 km in 24 days of cycling, some terrible roads and trying conditions. But we’d done it. It brings our total trip mileage up to 12,323km.
Well done us – nothing could dent our spirits!
We sauntered into the hotel and checked in, proudly explaining we’d came 142km from Vrindivan that day.
“Oh wow – well done both of you! Can I have your passports please so I can check you in?”
“Just hold on a minute …. Must be in the bottom of my bags…”
“Must be here somewhere…”
We’d left the passports in Vrindivan.
The hotel staff were brilliant, and ordered us a taxi. A 6 hour, 285km round trip followed. Finally, at 2am we signed the big book, checked in and fully completed leg five of our journey.
The Dhaka to Delhi leg has been the hardest so far, but we both agree the most memorable and probably both of our favourites.
We’ve made a short 90 second video which will give you a flavour. Keep the sound on for full effect.
No question the cycling has been difficult, and some parts of the culture here have been more challenging than other places.
You don’t sign up for something as stupid as cycling round the world without going through some hard bits, so please don’t mistake this blog for moaning, or looking for any sympathy.
We’re just trying to tell it like it is, and give an accurate account of how we’re feeling at a given time so we can read back and remember what it was like, before the rose tinted glasses take over and the whole trip was ”amazing”.
If there’s one thing that cycling in India has taught us, it’s that this really isn’t hard at all.
An Indian person reading this in pretty much any of the places we’ve been through must be thinking;
“What a couple of spoiled brats – I’d like to show them what hardship looks like.”
“They swan in here with their fancy bikes, their gadgets and their favourable exchange rate that means food and accommodation costs them pennies.”
“Then they complain about it being hard when all they have is to do a bit of cycling, when they're on the trip of a lifetime that they can only afford to do because they come from a country with a strong currency, and that enables them to get visas for pretty much any country in the world.”
All that would be fair.
The real people living hard lives are the people in Utter Pradesh, the main state we cycled through. It’s 20th poorest of 28 Indian states, over 29% of people live below the poverty line.
It’s the most populous Indian state – 200M people living there, mostly on farms and houses made of mud, straw and wood. If Utter Pradesh were a country it would be the 6th most populous in the world.
It’s no wonder they’re interested in us passing by, it probably is a welcome distraction from their lives which are a million times harder than ours.
This picture which was actually taken by mistake on our go pro (a bit of kit they’d probably never imagined) sums it up.
So yes – it’s been hard cycling – but in the context of the world we are hardly in a position to complain – few people from the Western world are.
Many people had warned us about Delhi being a big bad city, this website states Delhi is the second largest city in the world, with pollution levels 36 times worse than London.
When Theresa May visited back in November, the three day trade visit was said to have shortened her life by three hours.
Our time in Delhi was so busy, we barely had time to notice. The key jobs amongst other things, were to clean and box the bikes, get our visa for Uzbekistan, and submit our visa application for Turkmenistan.
We got off to a flying start.
As we were rolling into town, we were flagged down by Divyanshu, a keen cyclist who wanted to talk with us. He was a great guy and explained that he owned a bike shop, and had a friend who would be happy to help us pack and box the bikes ready to fly.
Divyanshu was a great help, and despite not being able to meet up with him again, he put us in touch with his friend Natwar who also owned a bike shop called “Road Biking, Track and Trail”.
We made our way across town, through the smog and mayhem to Natwar’s shop, who sat us down fed us lunch and chatted away to us.
He very kindly had his mechanic Saleem service and help pack away our bikes for us which was an enormous help. Saleem did a fantastic job, and thoroughly cleaned, polished and serviced the entire bike for us.
“I have owned this shop for one year. Some days business is good, other days slow. Northern Indian’s have a superstition where they don’t buy metal on Saturdays – I’ve no idea why… So I don’t sell many bikes on Saturday. But Sundays are busy!”
Divyanshu, Natwar and Saleem were an enormous help and got a big job ticked off.
The next big job was Visas… The Uzbekistan visa is a cryptic nightmare, and the levels of bureaucracy and jobsworthiness is next level.
Once you have the “official letter of invitation” which we acquired a few weeks ago, you need to attend the embassy with a bunch of other forms that are specified on the website between 10am and 12.
We biked down with our forms immaculately completed, and $50 each in crisp new notes, the fee specified online.
After waiting, we were told, contrary to the website:
“No, we do not accept cash here and you must pay in rupees, at this specific bank” (shows bank address on phone, it was 8km away).
No point arguing, so we hailed a tuk tuk, motored across town, paid the bank in rupees and made it back at 1135, only to be told:
“Now you need to photocopy Indian Visa”.
Again, not specified anywhere, but no point in arguing… so we raced to a nearby photocopy place, managed to get a photocopy each, raced back ready to hand in the visa at 1159. Phew.
The next curveball was the Turkmenistan the following morning.
Turkmenistan is one of the most difficult countries in the world to get a visa for. They only issue “transit visas” for 5-7 days, which can be denied on a whim.
Before you apply you need to have the visas for the country you are entering from, and the country you are exciting to.
We had collected our Uzbek visas, already had our Azerbaijan visas, and had printed off and immaculately filled out all the required forms online. Delhi was one of our last opportunities to apply for this visa as the processing time is so long, so we rushed to get there and hand in our documents.
We turned up, waited for the guard, who checked our papers, then called a member of consulate staff who came down and spoke good English.
“These papers are all fine, however you also need to have an HIV certificate”
You’ve got to be kidding me….
“Online it specifically states: If you are applying for transit visa and will be in Turkmenistan less than three months you do not need an HIV certificate?”
“Yes this has changed, you now need one. The website is out of date”
“But sir, we are flying tomorrow and don’t have time to get one, and this is our last chance to apply for this visa”
To cut a long story short, we gave up arguing, raced to a nearby clinic we found on google, and managed to somehow get an HIV test which we collected that night.
This meant we had to hand in our papers to the embassy on the morning of our flight between the hours of 9 – 11. Our flight was at 11:25.
It was cutting it very fine, but we decided to go for it, so we split up into two sub teams. Ewan to do the visa run to the embassy as he’d built rapport with the staff, Katie to sort out of other admin for the Tajikistan embassy and Kazakhstan visa on arrival which we need in the coming days.
The embassy run went (mostly) straightforward for Ewan, we reconvened back in the terminal and went to check in the bikes.
We were flying Air Astana – a Kazakh airline. We had emailed their customer service explaining we were taking bikes on the flight, and were there any additional charges as occasionally there is.
Email came back:
“Dear Miss Katie,
Your bikes are booked on the flight. There is a 50 Euro charge, please bring this in cash to the check in desk”
We rocked up at the check in desk, late already due to the visa run and checked in, to be told:
“Thank you, no problem with the bikes, the fee is 4,000 rupees.”
“We were told expressly to bring Euros?”
“No we don’t accept Euros”
Mad dash around the terminal to find a working ATM – fourth time of asking we found one, paid, checked in, and 50 minutes later we were sat on the flight by the skin of our teeth.
Our time in Delhi more resembled an Apprentice task than a relaxing few days, but we made the flight and are on to a new challenge!
India – to the final minute had been testing – and although hard at times, we’ve met some fantastic, kind people and certainly learned a lot in the process.
The next part of the journey is in Kazakhstan.
We know very little about this part of the world, although will undoubtedly learn in the coming weeks and months.
Perhaps unfortunately, Kazakhstan is best known in the UK as the home of Borat – here is Ewan’s homage to the man responsible for putting Kazakhstan on the map in recent years.