Location: Kathmandu, Nepal
Miles on the Clock: 9,385
Delhi is a shock to the system. Rich smells; poor people; beggars and vendors; hawkers and shouters; astonishing vibrancy of colour in clothes, food, buildings and markets.
Feeling refreshed and full of expectation, we packed up and launched into the several standstill lanes of traffic filtering onto the two-lane highway south to Agra. This road is the paved(ish) descendant of the Grand Trunk Road - North India's trade artery. Amongst this madness stoically plodded an ancient bull elephant with its sleeping mahout lolling on top. The creature seemed somehow removed from the noisy surroundings and I could easily picture him elsewhere with the same slow, determined gate but no impatient cars and auto rickshaws nudging his flanks.
The unwritten rules of the road in India are comical:
-One must never look to either side, only forward. This also applies to those entering a roundabout at speed. Once you have overtaken someone they cease to exist as I discovered with a buckled wheel when a moped overtook me and braked sharply while cutting across me a second later.
-Never give way. A Spanish motorcyclist I met witnessed a brutal and apparently fatal head-on collision on a single lane road which he predicted several seconds earlier as he knew the stubborn nature of Indian drivers.
-Lastly, traffic lights and actual rules of the road are for the weak. I saw a traffic policeman almost run down by a car that rolled on and on towards him as he helplessly whistled and waved his white-gloved hands.
The annual road death toll on the roads is 100,000.
After two days southward bound we entered another scrum and needled our way through to the relative calm of a cluster of hostels near the Taj Mahal. We checked-in to a noisy groundfloor room for a nightly pittance and wandered around amongst the pairs of couply tourists, most of whom looked harassed, down-trodden and disgruntled. The following afternoon we grudgingly coughed up the exorbitant ticket price for the Taj Mahal (40 times the resident fare) and were swept inside amid an excited, chattering crowd. I almost enjoyed watching the struggle for the dead-centre photograph spot more than the building itself. The hordes of humanity swilling around the magnificent mausoleum somewhat robbed it of its spendour. I regretted ignoring the advice of several people and not going at sunrise. However, as the sun drooped lower and the white facade began to glow and ever-shifting array of soft sunset shades, the voices slightly faded and I saw why this landmark has earned its fame.
There were people everywhere so we pitched camp in a cucumber field watched by a small crowd of uninteractive boys. This was to be only an early taste of the vast crowds that gathered around us anywhere we stopped. Scores of men and boys closed silently in and ringed us with a wall of indifferent gormlessness. They had understandably never seen anything like us and our bikes before but no onlookers ever appeared remotely interested. No one spoke, asked questions or offered to help but just stood; a mass of stick-thin men carelessly clogging the road with their hands slung loosely behind their backs. These gatherings were often 100 strong within a minute.
During the final ride into Lucknow I practiced the Indian head tilt/wobble. An utterly ambiguous gesture that can mean "yes", "no", "what?", "I don't know", and much more besides. A man at an endearingly rustic barbershop (a chair in front of a larger tree with small shelf and mirror attached) wobbled his lathered face enthusiastically as we passed and small groups of lethargic, elderly men gave a more somber equivalent.
Heading north we took another rutted road with several railway crossings which were always busy. These provided comical scenes and a perfect example of Indian drivers being not so much reckless as witless. The train would pass, the barriers would lift and the cars on each side would suddenly realise that spreading across both lanes causes havoc when everyone lurches forward only to reach a bumper to bumper standstill in the middle of the rails.
We arrived at the Nepalese border which appeared to be unmonitored. People flooded across in both directions unhindered. Eventually we found the Nepalese immigration building which we had passed by accident completely unchallenged. Beyond the border the world transformed. Uttar Pradesh (the Indian province we had crossed) is perfectly flat but now the road tilted upwards and the Himalayan foothills soon loomed ahead; a daunting green barrier that appears vertical from a distance. The people changed too. Friendly oriental faces smiled on all sides. Waves, cheers, "welcomes", girls on bikes, cheap Chinese-made western clothes and an end to the indifference of India.
The sweat and toil of hills came as a welcome change. We rolled through small villages on thickly-treed hillsides where beautiful girls giggled and children waved, shouting "bye bye". At lunchtimes we ducked (literally - James' 6ft 4in height was once proclaimed "most excellent") into thatch huts and ordered dhal bhat, the nation's staple dish of rice with lentil soup. The best thing about this meal is that it is all you can eat... a cyclist's dream. Your plate is repeatedly re-heaped until you vehemently refuse more. A sweet but spicy masala tea perfectly rounds off the feast.
In the busy junction town of Butwal we turned north again and were soon making great, echoing shouts of joy while slaloming slowly up a narrow ravine with sheer green walls shooting skywards. The hills became mountains with sweaty switchbacks and windless December warmth. When the valleys opened, the slopes were beautifully contoured by immaculate terracing. Not a single square yard of space is wasted. The pace of life generally looks relaxed but hoeing the soil while a buffalo hauls a harrow lookes exhausting.
However, about thirty miles from the tourist hive of Pokhara, attitudes altered. Children chased us giving frantically imperative cries of "give me money!" "Namaste" was replaced by "tourist!" and I had a child tryi to haul my moving bike backwards downhill and another preparing to throw a stone.