Tag Archives: India

Cycling in northern India: on daily struggles, finding a quiet oasis and the Golden Temple

April 2017

TRIGGER WARNING: This article mentions a case of rape and goes into the correlation of rape and racism.

After exciting Nepal on the westernmost  border near Bhimdatta we had about 10 days left on our Indian visa. And close to 800k to cycle. Not that much especially given that the territory is mostly flat. We actually wanted to cycle into the mountains – I dreamed of 5000m passes in between Manali and Leh but winter had these roads still firmly in its grips and so it was not to be.

To be honest after cycling in Bengal a month ago our expectations were pretty low and we kind of just wanted to get to Pakistan already. In between the ever busy traffic we did manage to find some quiet roads though.

I loved this big outdoor market which popped out in the middle of nowhere. We stopped to have a drink and soak up the atmosphere and for once it was rather relaxed.

While still in Kolkata our host Pankaj had told us: ” You know, all these stories you heard about Indian men? It’s all true.” So basically he told us to be really careful, as rape is unfortunately not that uncommon, also towards foreigners. This is a difficult topic in my opinion. You might have heard of the gang rape of a 23year old woman in a bus in Delhi who later died from the injuries. The case got a lot of international attention and shocked me to my core as well. On the other hand in her article On Rape and Racism Emily Chappell describes extremely well how racist it is to assume that white women are more likely to be raped in places like India instead of their own home country. She says that most rapes happen with someone the victim knows and about 40% of all cases occur at home (UK numbers).

The thing is I did notice a big difference in how I got treated by a lot of men in the areas of India we cycled through, especially when Torsten was not around. A lot of them seemed to get very excited and thus came way to close to me, wanting to shake my hand (which is not common amongst locals with different sexes who don’t know each other) and tried hugging me whilst taking selfies (also not common between locals who don’t know each other).

So for the first time during these travels I really felt that I had to adjust my behavior a lot. It’s not that I have a problem with shaking someone’s hand or hugging someone I just met but I became aware quickly that these actions were received in a different way than intended by me. So I started ignoring most men around me, stopped shaking hands and if someone stood to close to me I would go away. These modifications became second nature rather quickly and I noticed that it became easier after that.

The thing is of course that everyone is different and as much as these modifications helped me cycling in Northern India, there were also a lot of interactions that went a different way. We had people follow us on motorcycles out of curiosity, got asked questions in many different languages, got asked for oh so many selfies and especially Torsten could get quite overwhelmed with 50 people gathering around us in the matter of seconds once we stopped in a small village. But then we had people follow us on a motorcycle to first get me a bottle of water, then one for Torsten and then a bag of bananas for both of us. We had people stop their car to ask if they could help us and more people offering to translate at food stands or helping us to find accommodation.

So traveling’s a fickle thing you know. There are no exact Dos and Don’ts, you might follow some guidelines but then you need to listen to your gut and common sense.

That all being said, I did not feel comfortable camping in Northern India (in the plains) if alone for the reason that it is so intensely populated and hiding seems to be impossible. So when we found ourselves looking for a place to sleep one evening with no accommodation around, Bachi’s family took us in for the night. We had an amazing stay with them. Our common language was a bit of English which was exhausted soon enough. That’s when I got the most perfect early birthday present: Bachi painted my hand with Henna! Usually cycle touring doesn’t go well with a lot of beauty routines and I’m really fine with that. Maybe this is why this shared experience without words was even more special and incredibly relaxing. Afterwards her grandma showed me how to apply oil so that the painting would keep longer.

On the next day we crossed the Ganges and had breakfast on its shores.

Afterwards we found some quiet roads again but cobble stones make for slow going I tell you. So it was dark when we arrived in Jagadhri.

No matter though, because this is when we met Amardeep and Kamal. And these two absolutely fantastic people would continuously spoil us for two days – my birthday included.

Apart from sharing their wonderful quiet oasis of a house and garden and their food, they also shared a lot of knowledge about their religion: sikhism. We both knew next  to nothing about that before so it was really interesting talking to them and learning that sikhism is based on Christianity, Islam and Judaism but kind of tries working with the best traits from each of the big religions.

Torsten had fun trying on a turban…

…and I got presented this wonderful shawl which is worn in the temple.

As my birthday coincided with the Sikh’s most important holiday we visited a temple and got to know ‘Langar’: The Sikhs think that it is rather hard to focus on praying on an empty stomach and this is why there are big free communal meals in every temple. These are run by volunteers and as a sign that everyone is equal, all the people sit together on the floor.

On the morning of our departure Kamal tought me to make stuffed prata which is a doughy pastry filled with potatoes and herbs. Crazy delicious! These two days with Kamal and Amardeep were just what we needed: lots of fantastic and interesting conversation, a quiet garden oasis, lots of milky tea and a fabulous birthday celebration. Thanks heaps you two!!!

After Jagadhri we kind of had enough of cycling in this region. We considered taking the train to Amritsar but were baffled by their rather laborious requirements of taking bicycles on board. So we cycled to Chandigarh, marveled at the very chic town and took a bus to Amritsar the following day. We rather wanted to spend some time at the Golden Temple instead of enduring more honking, congested roads and inconsiderate drivers.

And we didn’t regret that decision one bit. The Golden Temple is absolutely fantastic. The Langar here serves over 100000 meals every day and between 200000 and 300000 on weekends. Even more on special occasions. There are a few cooks who work there permanently but again most of the kitchen is run by volunteers. Never in my live have I seen such huge pots, so many onions being cut, so many people being fed every ten minutes. And the food was damn tasty on top of that!

As foreigners we were invited to sleep in a separate compartment. Food and accommodation is all free but you are invited to leave a donation and/or volunteer.

We arrived at the accommodation at about 11pm after our bus journey. Unwashed, tired, and a bit overwhelmed by the thousands of people outside. And this is when we hit a streak of luck once more: The only free beds were next to Jen and Lluis, two amazing people who were currently on a walk from Bangkok to Barcelona. A walk! We kind of woke them up when we entered the room and then – as tired as we were – just couldn’t stop talking about everything.

The next day we spent exploring the temple and its surroundings and as a parting gift from India we even got to enjoy some fireworks.

So long, India, so long. We will be back one day fur sure. Probably not on bicycles, but we sure will have to have a look at all those mountains we missed this time…

Into India: On friends, crazy traffic and discoveries by the roadside

February / March 2017

Leaving Myanmar we found ourselves entering Thailand again, for the 4th time on this trip. Not that we were complaining – we both love the ubiquitous and tasty food, the small roads which make cycling so enjoyable and the friendly people.

This time we even managed to see some friends again. Shoot and Pasan had hosted us the last time when we cycled through and we were very happy to have a small break at their oasis like café again.

After that we stayed with our friend Toom in Bangkok for a few days, mostly to get organized and rest for a bit.

And soon we stuffed us and our two giant bike boxes into an oversized taxi on the way to the airport. Arriving in Kolkata two hours later we assembled our bikes and got our first taste of cycling in India. Luckily it was early morning so the traffic wasn’t too bad yet. Still we got the feeling that bicycles are way down on the metaphoric food chain here.

Nevertheless we managed to find a small room to stay in, rested for a bit and ventured out to find some food. Between wandering around, talking to some people on the streets and cycling to a couchsurfing meeting, we both enjoyed being here a lot.

When Pankaj, a fellow couchsurfer, invited us to stay a few days at his place we accepted almost right away and this is when it got really interesting. Having long conversations on his quiet balcony, enjoying one too many drinks, walking around in this colorful neighborhood and cooking together made for a perfect welcome to a new country.

Once more I am convinced that we are able to find friends everywhere. Instead of focusing on our differences we should find the things we do have in common. And we should talk about the things that move us and get inspired. In Pankaj’s case that is movies. His inspiration for them truly impressed us and over six months later we are still in touch, talking about travels and films and such.

This is what matters to us: making connections, finding friends and thus feeling over and over again that the world is a beautiful place indeed.

We also visited the Indian Coffee House in Kolkata, a place long known to be a  meeting point for intellectual discussion. I loved the atmosphere and also the surroundings. Walking around in the neighborhood you can find a million bookstores specializing in everything you could wish for. I was very happy to be back in a culture where books are important.

Tea plays a much bigger role in northern India than coffee though. Everywhere you go you can find a small stall selling sweet milky tea usually in small one time use clay pots.

This would become one of our favorite cycling snacks, especially in combination with a biscuit or two.

Our biggest love affair would soon become the food though. Not only was it especially easy to find vegetarian food, it was also without exception crazy delicious! As we both appreciate spicy food, we were in heaven!

Thank you Pankaj for showing us a slice of your life, for all the long talks, for the tea and food and for the 10 best – erm I mean 80 best – movies! 🙂

After staying in Kolkata for almost a week we cycled out of the huge city towards the border to Nepal. And this was where it got a bit more complicated. You see, Indian traffic was really overwhelming in our experience. In the beginning we stayed on the highway which wasn’t that bad as it usually had two lanes and a shoulder. Apart from that we rode on normal one lane roads and small village roads trying to find something more quiet. Alas, it was not to be.

Apart from very few exceptions the riding was extremely challenging all the time. We navigated broken asphalt, big potholes and bumps on the same time with traffic participants that didn’t give a crap about cyclists. And I really mean that. We were pushed off the road by oncoming overtaking trucks / buses so many times that we lost count. After one and a half year of cycling in many different traffic cultures we are both not easily scared but this was something else. The total disregard for life was new to both of us and kept annoying us more and more.

I could go on and tell more stories about how a driver hit me and made me fall of my bicycle while the traffic was actually at a standstill and I was directly in his field of vision. Or how people on motorcycles rode next to us and made us cycle into potholes all the while trying to talk to us. But to sum it up, it was just not an enjoyable experience. There was just too much traffic, too many inconsiderate drivers and too many things happening all at once.

While many people say that India is an attack on the senses, I did not feel the same in general. I loved getting glimpses of village life, drinking tea in small stalls and wandering around in the busy cities. But I really came to hate the cycling part. I could not deal with having to concentrate 150% for 6 hours daily, it was just too much.

Torsten felt similarly to the point that when we saw these stages of the silk making process lined up next to the road, he didn’t even want to stop. The continuous stream of impressions left us just wanting to continue and get it over with as fast as possible.

But then we did stop and I’m glad about it. This is why we cycle after all. To get insights into peoples lives and what they do from day to day.

These guys were happy to let us watch their work.

We did find some small roads with smooth asphalt, too.

But when we reached Siliguri, just before the border to Nepal, we couldn’t be happier. Especially because Mayank, our couchsurfing host, and his parents lived in a beautiful house with an oasis like garden which gave us some respite after the stressful cycling.

We enjoyed the peace and quiet for a few days, got spoiled with lots of yummy food from Mayank’s mum and marvelled at the family’s gas producing unit! Handy!

Mayank also told us a lot about his business: Together with his French partner they are exporting quality cotton fabrics dyed with natural colors from India to France. You can find them here: FibreBio

On this note we left India for now and cycled to Nepal… More on that next time!

The Myanmar – India border crossing permit debacle

February 2016

After exciting Myanmar because of our group permit to cross into India we spent an enjoyable week of rest in Mae Sot, Thailand. The small border town and especially the Green Guest House was a perfect place to be to relax, do some errands and write and work. We met with Susan and Nat, two photographers living in Mae Sot for 6 months a year.

And slowly slowly the guest house filled up with more cyclists as more and more members of our group showed up. We had fun getting to know everyone and exchanging plans and future routes.

That was it for our group though. Early next morning we cycled to the border, ever optimistic if not quite sure what would happen next. Our agency Burma Senses had left us with more than vague instructions what to do at the border. So we were not really sure if we should be upfront about our plans to cross into India as an individual  unaccompanied group or just be vague about it. We were processed quickly and got our entry stamps. As the agency had stated before that our entering as a group with the permit was very important we thought we should at least get the border staff to acknowledge the permit and showed it to them. Long story short – it all went downhill from there. We then spent the whole day at the border, discussing with various officials, talking to our contact at Burma Senses over the phone and later trying to reach said contact who would not pick up the phone any longer.

The border staff was not impressed with our permit and got increasingly angry at the agency for having us set up with the document. In the end they would not even let us enter Myanmar on our still valid tourist visas. After more discussions we could agree on returning to Thailand that evening and coming back to Myanmar the following day as six individuals. We would then be allowed to enter but not to cross into India. I guess this was a case of ‘saving face’ – we were somehow punished for trying to enter with the invalid permit but on the next day we could just be treated as normal tourists and everything would be forgotten.

Burma Senses eventually reacted to our emails complaining about their lack of support, saying that it wasn’t their fault and they did everything they could. They agreed to pay us back our money immediately and did just that. We still weren’t happy with them just stopping to respond to our calls when it got difficult and were left wondering if this happened due to differences in communication. Torsten and I grew up with solving problems directly and talking about them and maybe our contact did not. Talking to many people all over SE Asia we learned that it is not very common to talk openly about problems. Of course this is nothing more than an assumption based on what happened.

(For a longer version of the events see below.)

The upsides to that day was the group of people we shared it with: Our group of 6 was – except for one person – very relaxed and we managed to make that day full of surprises kind of fun.

In any way, some decisions had to be made. We had spent so much time trying to organize the Myanmar – India border crossing and after all of that it still didn’t work out. We talked, decided that we had really enjoyed Myanmar and still wanted to see more of it. Flights out of there to India were really expensive though and that’s why we planned on flying from Bangkok. In regards to that it didn’t really make sense to cycle up north to see all the sights like Bagan and Inle Lake and then take buses back south to make it for our visa deadline. After all the buses to get to Myanmar we really just wanted to  cycle. So we opted to go south straight away and then to exit Myanmar through the Htee Kee border crossing to Thailand. From there we would cycle to Bangkok, see our fantastic friend Toom again and then fly to India. More on that next week!

A change of plans but that just comes with the territory of overland travel, doesn’t it?



And for those interested – here is the slightly longer version of our permit troubles, first published on the Thorntree Forum:

So, we were going to cross from Thailand (Myawady) to Tamu/Moreh with bicycles. Found one agency (Burma Senses / Asia Senses) who offered to organize the permits without need for a guide. All others we contacted said this was not possible at all. Managed to get a group of 6 cyclists together as was cheaper with more people.

They changed rules/options a few times, apparently both in Tamu and Myawady staff has changed recently and the current ones are extremely diligent/bureaucratic. We were told that Tamu would only let you leave after checking with Myawady that we entered already in a group, with correct permit, on the prescribed date.

So we got the permits from the agency, however when entering in Myawady staff insisted despite what the permit said we could only go with pilot car, guide and officer of Ministry of Hotel and Tourism with us all the time(!!) (ruling out any “cheating”, too). Apparently they called lots of senior Ministry staff and decided that the permit could not be honored any more. Everybody was friendly and we had the impression they really just wanted/had to to follow the rules from high up/not make any mistakes, bribes were never suggested! Ministry of Hotels and Tourism and Immigration are quite separate and we gathered that Ministry staff were the “problem” in our case. Eventually our agency told us they saw no way to make it work and literally abandoned us at the border – not OK! A few more hours of discussion got us to at least keep our visas – we had to return to Thailand for the night, but were allowed in as “regular” tourists only the following day.

The agency did refund all our money right away, so lost quite a bit on this, too. Not sure if they were just too optimistic or naive, had overestimated their contacts, …

I spent a lot of time trying to organize this and am pretty sure for the time being crossing Myanmar to India overland is currently impossible. Have not heard of anyone just showing up at the border and getting through, but did hear of people showing up and not getting through.

Options you have now seem to be Exotic Myanmar – but only if you want to go India to Thailand. They can do individual permits to enter from and leave to India for 2x$80, people can usually leave to Thailand even though they are not supposed to. Must be applied for before entering Myanmar. Thai to India this does not work, they said clients who tried where not allowed to leave at Tamu.

We heard rumors the situation may go back to normal maybe in April ($80 permits, no same border rule), if you have time maybe you get lucky.

Last, you can go on an organized tour. This has always been possible and will set you back about $500/person for 4 days if you are several people. It is not possible to join another group once in the country and say, just go for a day from Mandalay. Four days rushing through the country makes only sense for overlanders by motorbike or car, where flying isn’t really an alternative, in my opinion …

We really enjoyed our almost six weeks in Myanmar nevertheless, don’t let this keep you from going! We have now cycled back to Bangkok via Dawei and are flying to Kolkata on Thursday 🙁

It was still great to meet so many interesting people due thanks this – staying so cool and calm all 10 hours stuck at Myawady it was almost fun!

Currently (August 2017) the border seems to be closed for individual travelers in both directions. Permits cannot be obtained. But as the situation changes rapidly and frequently, check here for updates.