September 24, 2013 by Rob Gardiner
After a lot longer than originally intended, I finally left Delhi and set off on my bike again. And so, my battle with the infamous Indian traffic began. You might think I would take it easy on my first full day of cycling. You would be wrong. Nichola and I had agreed to see some of the sights to the southwest of Delhi. She would travel by train and I would cycle. Therefore, at 6.30am, I began the 160 kilometre ride from Delhi to Mathura.
My early start meant I escaped Delhi rush hour, but hit gridlock in the next city. Horns blared as every form of transport fought for space on the road. However, once the traffic cleared, the cycling was easy. Unfortunately, easy does not equate to enjoyable. The uninspiring landscape, unpleasant smells, incessant honking, and traffic flying inside me from the wrong direction meant that relaxing was never an option.
Furthermore, whilst the heat was more than manageable, the humidity meant I was sweating to a degree that seemed physically impossible. Even though I was downing litre after litre of fluids, cramp began to spread through my legs as the cycling wore on.
Despite this, I arrived in Mathura unscathed and was greeted by the an extraordinarily busy city; full of animals, people and traffic. Not exactly the most relaxing place to arrive following a hard day’s cycling. No matter – I long ago shed the notion that relaxation is an option in India. However, I was pleased to note that, once I got back on to my bicycle, there was definitely a change in the way Indians perceived me. Greed was replaced by curiosity and I began to feel that I might get a real glimpse into Indian culture for the first time. This turned out to be, largely, misplaced optimism, as I will explain below.
After two days exploring Mathura and nearby Vrindivan, we travelled to Fatehpur Sikri, Agra, and then Gwalior – visiting the array of temples and palaces that these cities boast. Of course, our travels were in no way stress-free and, in particular, Mathura was rife with people trying their hardest to (dishonestly) separate us from our hard-earned cash. Despite this, the sights were beautiful, the food delicious, and, Mathura aside, the people did not bother us as much as in Delhi.
On the other hand, the cycling was not getting any better and it was en route to Gwalior that my Indian cycling experience really nosedived. After three days of cycling, I had not begun to enjoy cycling in India and had not really felt that it had led to improved interactions with people, as cycling often does. However, I had begun to feel that I could cope with the cycling and that the traffic was manageable. I was proven wrong in the worst possible way: I smashed into the back of a moped. The driver had just overtaken me and, as I glanced down at my cycle computer for a split second, he stopped sharply to answer his phone. Despite the road being almost empty, having a hard shoulder and being a dual carriageway, he made no attempt to pull over and stopped only seconds after he had accelerated past me.
Luckily, I was fine, since my bike took the impact. And, initially, it seemed that even that had escaped any damage. Then, I noticed a flat tyre and loose front rack. Unsurprisingly, when I tried to tighten the rack, the bolt sheared clean off. Again. Thus, I’m now in the same situation as before, but with no Kazakh National Cycle Team mechanic to help me out.
Therefore, back to Delhi (and the land of half-decent bike shops) I have to go. I’m going to take some time out and travel the north of India in search of mountains, relaxation, and cooler climes. Whilst there I need to consider my options and decide whether it is time to give up on the idea of cycling in India and escape to Thailand. I think this is probably the wisest choice, particularly with regards to enjoyment and safety, but it saddens me because I don’t like the impression of India that I think I will leave with.
As I mentioned above, cycling often brings you closer to the local population and leads to interesting, and memorable, interactions. You only have to read previous blog posts to find proof of this. However, despite my optimism after my first day of cycling, this really does not seem to be the case in India. That is not to say that people have not spoken to me and are not interested in what I am doing. They have and they are, but these interactions are the exception, rather than the norm.
Unfortunately, the vast majority of people merely stare at me and my bike, or try to fiddle with my bike, without making any attempt to introduce themselves or start conversation. After the inescapable handshakes and respectful Islamic greetings of Central Asia, this is really disappointing.
Furthermore, I have had three different people (on mopeds) who have attempted to initiate vulgar conversations and/or made disgusting gestures in my direction. After only four days and less than 400 kilometres of cycling, this has happened with worrying regularity.
Yet again, it seems that another blog post is dedicated to my increasing disenchantment with Indian society. The question is: Should this justify me giving India a second chance or is it time to call it quits on our volatile relationship? Either way, I hope the plethora of beautiful photos* I have included will counteract the negative tone and convince people that India isn’t all bad, really.
*I’m obliged to mention that all photos of me were taken by Nichola and she retains all rights (Bragging etc.)