It was 6am on 12th August 2011 when our plane touched down in Delhi. As we were assembling our bikes we attracted quite a few spectators, some of them courageously approached us and hammered our tired minds with astonishing speed and many questions:
'Whatisyourname?', 'WhichCountry?', 'Howmuchisyourcycle?', 'Yourjob?', 'Howmuchsalaryyourcountry?', 'Areyoumarried?'
It was 9am by the time we satisfied everyone’s curiosity, including a nice army officer who welcomed us and told us to enjoy Indian independance day in two days time. Armed with a few snaps of google maps, we set on the 25km journey between the airport and our hotel in Panar Ganj, Delhi's Main Baazar. Thrown into the deep end of morning rush hour, we had to learn the rules of the jungle pretty fast. In a nut shell, there are no rules, don't go off course, overtaking, undertaking and going against the traffic is all allowed. Do not stop or cycle along side of a bus – you can be sure someone will spit out of the window. Watch out for bicycles, cars, scooters, cows, people, beggars, monkeys, filthy puddles, rickshaws and police barriers. Despite all this I would say Delhi is a much safer city to cycle in than Istanbul. There are equal number of cars on the road as bikes, motorbikes and rickshaws and as a cycle tourer you are not the only one at the bottom of the food chain.
A couple of hours later, as well as many enquiries for directions and a rickshaw who skilfully navigated us to the 'tourist information/travel agency' owned by his mate, and we finally dived into the narrow streets of the Main Baazar. It was mayhem. Everyone is trying to get your attention, the street sellers, the hotel owners, the bike rickshaws and tuc tuc drivers, the beggars and the shop owners. You really need to adopt the no eye-contact strategy or you won't last a minute. There are special shops for just about anything you could want. Once we went to some general store looking for plazy bags. Apparently, you can get your plastic bags in the 'Plastic Bag' shop. No kidding!
The cows just randomly browse the streets, poor things just feeding on any old rubbish they can find – so much for being holly. People would rather feed a dog than gave food to a beggar or children – it is considered good luck to feed animals. The streets are full of people with no homes, it is really overwhelming. In fact I find it really difficult to write about Delhi, because all that is coming to my head is so negative - Poverty, filth and death.
Most of the people in Delhi are in a very poor condition, the city is like hell and seems to barely keeping them alive. Jonny almost had a heart attack when he was once walking on a busy road side and realised that he almost stepped on a 9 month old baby playing in a filthy puddle of water. On the other hand there are buisness men walking around in suits. The cleanest and most developed thing in the city is the underground (which puts London to shame), closely followed by Dominos pizza.
I recently managed to break our hard drive and we lost some photos, most of them from our time in Delhi. I actually felt quite ashamed and ignorant taking pictures of the street life and it's just as well that I did not get to keep them.
Our hotel room in the Smiley Inn was very simple – we named it a prison cell. The staff there and the manager especially did not live up to the name. It was still ramadan, I guess it would make me grumpy too if I was not eating all day.
The day we arrived we made friends with Tracy and Alex from USA. They already knew their way around and took us under their wing. Guys, thanks for everything and massive hug to Tray for giving me amazing blue jacket that kept me warm through out the Himalayas. You can spot it on some of the pictures.
We planned to stay in Delhi for maximum 3 days, doing a side trip to Agra to see the famous Taj Mahal, and use the rest of the time to plan our route through India and move on. It was only the second day in India and the infamous Delhi belly paid us a visit. We were so sick we did not leave the hotel room for 3 days. I will spare you the details,but the doctor diagnosed acute gastroenteritis.
Day 6 in Delhi – we were finally well enough to move on. Jonny was so fed up with Delhi at this point, he was itching to just go and not bother with Taj, but I put my foot down and he agreed to visit. Even such a trivial thing like buying a train tickets to Agra was a major hassle. Soon as we stepped on the ground of the train station, we were surrounded by touts pretending they work for the railways. They went all out to steer us away from the ticket office. Some of them quite aggressively. They said tourists can not buy train tickets at the station and that we must go to a travel agency instead. Conveniently they all had a tuc tuc waiting which would get us there for only 10 rupees. We gave up.
Our trip to Taj Mahal was super extra special, because we bumped into 2 scousers – Claire and John. We spent the whole day together and had loads of fun. Taj Mahal and the gardens around it are magical. Needless to say – just look at the pictures. Outside of Taj is a park full of monkeys and people offering you to take a ride on either camel, horse or a donkey. We felt really sorry for the animals standing there in a scorching hot without any food or water – some of them looked really neglected.
Another phenomena is for local tourist to take a picture with Caucasian tourists. Random people approach you and just say 'Picture, picture'. Sometimes you get unlucky and you get a group of 10 people, each of them wanting an individual picture with you. It is ridiculous! I started to call this a 'picture rape' and these days I politely ask people to leave me alone.
On our second day we made friends with an owner of a carpet store. His name was Mac and he was from Kashmir, a troubled region on the disputed border of Pakistan. At this point we were still unsure if we wanted to take on Kashmir due to several safety concerns. After speaking to Mac we had no doubts we wanted to visit this troubled region and see for ourselves. Mac spent an hour with us looking over maps, recommending the route and describing the beauty of his homeland.
That evening we took a tuc-tuc to an outdoor shop in south Delhi where we bought warm fleece jackets and extra fleece liners for our sleeping bags, we later found these invaluable. On our way home we met a very pessimistic guy who told Jonny that he was an irresponsible husband, questioned if Jonny had any idea what he was doing, and told him that he was going to get us killed. He explained he'd only go to Kashmir if he could stay in a 7 star hotel and he would not leave after dark. Jonny confirmed, to the man, that we WILL successfully traverse the Himalayas by bike and sleep in our tent as much as possible, then wished him fair-well.
The journey began with an overnight bus from Delhi to Jammu. (I've never smiled so much as when I realised we were leaving Delhi). Infact our final experience in Delhi was the bus manager, who we'd befriended, asking us for 200 ruppees (3.50 euros) for our bikes, then the guy loading them requesting a very different price of 1000rupees. We told him to stop being ridiculous and called the manager over who gave him a grilling. Jonny forgot his Ukelele when leaving the bus, it was probably sold-on the same day.
Jammu to Srinagar was accomplished by a very picturesque 12hour mini bus ride through the mountains finally arriving at 8pm at night to be greeted by many touts dragging us to their houseboats (a famous attraction at Srinagar).
Srinagar is surrounded by barbed wire, placed by the army, and the only way into the city is through armed checkpoints. The army are very present in Srinagar and at one point they even stopped us cycling over a bridge (don't know why) and forced us to take a 10km detour.
We spent the next day cycling the city getting supplies and preparing for the Himalayas.
Tomorrow would be our first ascent into high altitude.
A Tuc-Tuc trip through Agra