Lohardaga, Birmitrapur, Jharsuguda, Balangir, Bhwanipatna, Parvatipuram, Visakhapatnam, Rajahmundry, Vijayawada, Gudur, Sulurupetta, Mamallapuram, and 2,000km Worth of Other Places I Can’t Keep Straight

2015-03-01 to Parvathipuram 007 (res)

At long last, uncharted territory!  Not the mountains of Nepal, trekked by tens of thousands yearly, nor the flats of UP, griped about by every cyclist who dares to take the shortest route from Delhi to Kathmandu, but a big, giant, 2,000km question mark running most of the length of the Indian subcontinent.  I talked to friends and friends of friends who had also done India north to south (one of them even got sidetracked at Sadhana and wound up spending five years here), trying to get some information about the quality of the roads, the food, and the people on the way down; none of them had a clue about the east coast.   It seems that just about everyone flies into Delhi and follows the west coast down, scoping out the Indian ocean, making sure to hit the ancient Buddhist caves around Mumbai and the infamous month-long parties on the beaches of Goa.

I saw no such sights, for the powers that be in Kathmandu granted me only a measly 3 months worth of visa time for India.  Either the cycling, the sightseeing, or the volunteering would have to give, but the first has become a part of me that I can hardly imagine doing without and the third has been the future I’ve been imagining for myself every since I put it on hold six years ago.  Sightseeing and kicking back, as enjoyable as they are, would have to be sacrificed.  Elephant safaris and tiger-spotting opportunities?  Skipped.  The “Exotic and erotic” temples of Konark and the backpacker ghettoes of Bhubaneshwar?  Passed over.  Tribal markets any ancient Muslim capitals?  Zoomed through or just plain avoided.  Instead, I set myself a challenge for this first month of solo cycling in over a year: how far can I ride, how fast, and how much comfort can I forego along the way?

The answer is 2100km in 16 riding days – on Indian roads, under an Indian sun, with plenty of distractions mind you – and only four nights in hotels.

Stories from this leg of my trip are few in number.  I would wake early every day, between 5 and 6, scarf some bananas and peanuts wrapped in flatbreads from the night before, pack up my tent and what little gear I had bothered extracting from my panniers (blankets and underwear not necessary in this heat), and try to hit the road by first light.  Ride for a couple hours in the pleasant morning cool, then sit down to a quick breakfast, preferably from a street stall I could eat at without even dismounting.  Ride for a couple more hours, listening to podcasts and trying not to think too hard about those urban legends in which frogs placed in cool water on a hot stove fail to notice the gradual temperature increase until it’s too late and they’ve been boiled alive.  Stop by 1:00 or 1:30, when the temperatures hit the mid 90s, at any restaurant where it looked like I’d be able to find a spot to nap.  Have some lunch, do some laundry, clean the day’s accumulation of dust and exhaust from my drivechain, sleep for an hour, and hit the road again.  Ride until dusk.  Eat.  Camp behind restaurant or ride until next gas station.  Wash using water from a one liter Pepsi bottle with squirt holes drilled through the cap.  Sleep deeply despite the sound of cars rushing by.

Giving up on hotels was an easy decision to make.  During my first week, not quite familiar with my surroundings, I had timed everything so that I would be able to spend each night in big cities . Big mistake!  I tried the standard tactic of searching out cheap rooms near the train and bus stations, hoping to find rooms for two or three dollars – after all, I can get a full breakfast on the street for $0.33. None of them wanted anything to do with me.  “Full,” they would say as soon as my face peaked in through their doors.  “No televisions,” as if it were impossible for a Westerner to fall asleep without the sounds of a bollywood in the background.  “You’re from America.  Why do you want to stay here?”

After too many nights spent cycling around in the chaos and the dark for an hour or more, only to wind up paying $7 for a room that I would share with a small swarm of mosquitoes, I eventually came to my senses.   By skipping the whole search fiasco, I could save enough time to cycle an extra twenty or thirty kilometers each night, getting me to Sadhana that much quicker.  By skipping the whole paid accommodation thing, I could save enough money to eat lunch at the fanciest restaurants – that means free of flies, free of crowds, and free filtered water and AC – on each town’s main drag.  By not isolating myself in a concrete box every evening, I would force myself to be open to new interactions with locals.  And perhaps even get a chance to use all my sweet camping equipment.   Here’s how it all worked out:

2015-02-24 to Birmitrapur 003 (res)

First, two words of advice to any cyclists considering coming this way: DO IT!  I mean, there’s nothing must-see, so do whatever you want, but if this happens to be what you want, or what you might want provided that certain conditions are met, then don’t let the general lack of information about it dissuade you.  That’s a glowing endorsement in Mike-speak.  The roads are smooth, the food is good, the people curious and enthusiastic about crazy people on bicycles (or perhaps just about foreigners in general), and there’s only one little chunk near Rayagada where the roads are lined with monkey hordes ready to tear you and your bicycle into pieces.

2015-03-10 to Sullurpet 006 (res)

This side less traveled – particularly the less-developed states of Jharkand and Orissa – has some truly beautiful stretches. Wanting to be of some use to the world, I originally kept notes on the condition of each day’s roads, but it was pointless: every night I found myself debating whether to give 3.5 stars or 4, and I think my decision was mostly determined by whether or not I had managed a good meal and bath that evening.

2015-02-28 to Ambodala 004 (res)

Visakhapatnam to Chennai (not pictured, not worth it) is a pretty unremarkable 900-or-so kilometers of megahighway, six lanes wide at some points with hardly a lane and a half’s worth of traffic, passing through several hundred kilometers of uninterrupted industry and suburban sprawl.  Not especially pleasant to ride, but with smooth surfaces and not a mountain in sight, you can cover a lot of ground in next to no time.  As long as you’ve been on the road long enough that fifty hours on the saddle counts as “no time” to you.

2015-02-24 to Birmitrapur 006 (res)

I had expected the roads to look like this for most of the way down,in reality less than 50km were in shape this shoddy or worse.

2015-02-17 to Bodh Gaya 001 (res)

A nice, foggy morning on the way to Bodh Gaya.  Kind of felt like riding on the moon.

2015-02-28 to Ambodala 007 (res)

Aside from a few nice forests in Jharkand and around Rayagada, landscape-wise, there wasn’t too much of interest.  India, like much of the rest of the world, was once covered with thick, dense forests.  The government use to claim that about a third of it still was – until a few years back when Google did a satellite survey showing that in reality the number was closer to ten percent.  The British and the French colonialists harvested much of it for ships, homes, and furniture, while the rest was cleared by locals to make room for rice paddies.

2015-02-27 to Belgan 001 (res)

In the north, the growing season had already finished.  Men busied themselves collecting the rice stalks and stacking them into domes taller than the single-story adobe huts they lived in, while women were occupied by the less-than-enviable task of gathering cow dung, setting it out to dry, and setting it aside for future use, either as natural fertilizer for the paddies, or as an ingredient in the next layer of walls on their homes, or as an offering to the gods on the next festival day.  Not an ounce of the stuff goes to waste.

 2015-03-10 to Sullurpet 002 (res)

Another major industry in the area is the production of “jaggery,” a sort of palm sugar made by tapping into the fruits of young palymra fruits, collecting the juice, and boiling it down.

2015-02-22 to Balumath 015 (res)

First night out of Uttar Pradesh and, lo and behold, open space!  Somewhere to camp!

2015-02-23 to Gumla 001 (res)

2015-02-23 to Gumla 003 (res)

Plenty of foliage to alert me if someone or something is lurking around my tent in the evening.  Problem is, there’s no way to know who or what it is until you examine the scat the next morning.  I slept with one ear open, flashlight in one hand and pocket knife in another, wondering how best to protect myself should a band of monkeys come for me.  In the morning, though, the pies all around my tent let me know that all that midnight rustling had just been cows passing by.

2015-02-28 to Ambodala 018 (res)

Sounds stressful, no?  Unpacking all that gear, only to pack it up again?  Anxiety about finding that perfect spot where you won’t be discovered by people or hassled by stray dogs?  Waking up and fixing the stakes in the dark when a nasty wind rises up at 2AM?  If camping were just about saving a few bucks, it probably wouldn’t be worth it.  But it’s about much more – a chance to spend a night in silence, in the open, under the stars; to wake up with the birds; to see the changing colors of the sunrise; to be present for the rhythms of nature, and to feel at ease in them.  A chance to remind oneself that for our species this was once the norm.

2015-02-28 to Ambodala 021 (res)

2015-02-28 to Ambodala 012 (res)

2015-03-01 to Parvathipuram 002 (res)

It may look and sound nice, but let me be the first to warn you: don’t camp under mango trees.  They drop sticky little flowers and drizzle sap everywhere, which also means there’s a hearty population of ants crawling around underneath.

2015-02-25 to Sundargarh 019 (res)

Sometimes, though, it is just to save a few bucks.  Why spend $7 for a hotel that’s going to suck anyway when I could pay $0.50 for a concrete cell at the local pilgrims’ hostel?  Sure, I had to use my own bike lock to close the doors when I step out.  Sure, my showerhead was a pipe terminating six inches off the ground in the yard out back.  Sure, my (and everyone else’s) toilet was the rice paddy just over yonder.  Millions – maybe even a billion – of people live in these conditions; other rooms at this same hostel held six or seven adults, some of whom slept on the bare floor without even so much as a blanket or a mosquito net.  Surely with all the amenities I’ve got stashed away in my panniers, I can manage it for a night.

2015-03-07 to Pippara 001 (res)

When the gods – by some counts India is home to thirty million of them – smile on me, I wind up with a sweet little pad like this one on the second storey of a gas station (here they call it a “petrol pump”) staff house.  Big room with a door I can lock, several windows, a separate bathroom with flushing toilet and running water, and electricity!  Wouldn’t even need the tent if it weren’t for the mosquitoes.

2015-02-23 to Gumla 005 (res)

For every moment of night-time silence and solitude and silence , there were dozens more daytime moments of pure sensory assault.  Auditory, visual, olfactory, conversational, alcoholic, you name it.

2015-03-03 Visakhatpatnam 004 (res)

2015-03-11 to Chennai 003 (res)

2015-02-24 to Birmitrapur 008 (res)

Youngins on the Jharkand – Orissa border who attend an English medium school and, at the tender age of 12, speak the language just about fluently.  This was one of several towns that had apparently never played host to a foreigner before.  While I sat in his friend’s uncle’s cell phone shop eating deep-fried eggplant from a street stal, the middle one said to me, “Sir, you have no idea how many wonderful memories you are making for us right now.”

2015-02-24 to Birmitrapur 010 (res)

An uncle in the same town who had wanted to be my host for the night.  When he turned away for a minute, another uncle zoomed up on his moped and offered to take me to the nearby pilgrims’ hostel.  The crowd seemed to indicate that I should go with this second uncle, so I did.  An hour or so later, uncle 1 dropped by uncle 2’s shop, looking fairly insulted that I had dumped him and his family; I think both uncles wanted the honor of making their wives cook dinner for me.

2015-02-25 to Sundargarh 011 (res)

Some uncles woke me up from my standard lunchtime nap to ask me where I was from and invite me to have “a glass of beer” with them.  I should’ve known better.  As always, one glass turned into two, beer turned into whiskey and then into beer-and-whiskey cocktails, and my next three hours were spent trying to find creative ways to politely decline the next round of drinks while still accepting any and all food offers.

2015-02-26 to Bargarh 005 (res)

Street food vendors.

2015-02-26 to Bargarh 006 (res)

The groom’s village sees him off before his wedding.

2015-02-26 to Bargarh 009 (res)

He’ll drive this car 100km to his wife’s village to pick her up and bring her home.

2015-03-05 Visakhapatnam 001 (res)

The morning routine for housewives in neighborhoods without water.

2015-03-13 Chennai 010 (res)

2015-03-10 to Sullurpet 003 (res)

On the way to school.

2015-03-05 Visakhapatnam 004 (res)

Troublemaker twins who spend most of the day running around the neighborhood impersonating their favorite cartoon characters.

2015-03-08 to Pothur 015 (res)

As I moved south – particularly from Orissa on downwards – women became more visible in the public sphere.  I did pass through one village where a local politician pointed across the street to his neighbor’s house and said proudly that that woman hadn’t left the house since getting married, nearly 30 years, except once every year or two to buy some clothes.  It seems like this must have been the norm in most of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and Jharkand, because I don’t really remember seeing many women out and about there, unless they were piling cow dung out in front of the house.

2015-03-02 to Visakhapatnam 003 (res)

In Orissa, Andra Pradesh, and Tamil Nadu, though, women appeared much more liberated.  They returned – and sometimes even preempted – my smiles and waves and “namastes” when I passed them on the road.  They ran small restaurants and tea stalls.  They worked as ticket collectors on city buses.  Daddy here wasn’t at all reticent to ask his two little daughters to chat me up.

selfie

Some dudettes even stopped me for a selfie!

2015-03-02 to Visakhapatnam 001 (res)

Religion also felt a bit more prominent in the south – more temples, and bigger, and more colorful.

2015-03-07 to Pippara 002 (res)

2015-03-13 Chennai 005 (res)

2015-03-13 Chennai 006 (res)

2015-03-13 Chennai 001 (res)

2015-03-13 Chennai 007 (res)

Big temple in Chennai.

2015-03-08 to Pothur 001 (res)

2015-03-08 to Pothur 003 (res)

Baby ficus tree eating its own pot.

2015-03-12 Chennai 001 (res)

“The Great Banyan Tree” at the Theosophical Society in Chennai.  Can’t spot the trunk?  That’s because all of these trunks are part of the same tree!  It’s been expanding so long that you can’t even tell where it started anymore.

2015-03-12 Chennai 004 (res)

All one tree.

2015-03-12 Chennai 008 (res)

Spread out so far that up to 3,000 people can sit in its shade.

probikers

That’s about it for this instalment.  Last but not least, big thanks to Suresh Kumar and the staff at Probikers in Chennai.  Thanks to them my bike made it into a box and both me and the box made it to the airport on time – that is, at 3AM.  Now both of us are back in the U.S. of A., mostly undamaged, ready to see what’s in store.  See you again in a few months!

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4 Responses to Lohardaga, Birmitrapur, Jharsuguda, Balangir, Bhwanipatna, Parvatipuram, Visakhapatnam, Rajahmundry, Vijayawada, Gudur, Sulurupetta, Mamallapuram, and 2,000km Worth of Other Places I Can’t Keep Straight

  1. Kandappa says:

    Nice reading your notes Mike! And nice catching up with you at the end of your awesome trip ! Do let me know when you are back in Pindy. Enjoy a well deserved rest and time with your family and friends!

  2. myra says:

    Nice to see more and read more .

  3. Pingback: South India in 6,000 Calories per Day | Three Rule Ride