07 March 2009

CYCLING INDIA - Varkala to Bundu

8 January - Varkala

We decided to take a rest day to do laundry, internet, and perhaps spend some time on the beach.

9 January - Varkala - Kovalam - 59km

From Varkala we found another small coastal road through the villages, which meant we once again had to take a ferry across one of the many river mouths. This time the boat was a smallish wooden affair resembling a dug-out canoe, which the 2 crew propelled with long poles. Again Amanda was rather nervous about this arrangement, until I pointed out that the water was hardly more than waist-deep. She still clung on with white knuckles until we reached the other side. The last 20 k’s were along the main road, bypassing the capital city of Kerela, Trivandrum (abbreviation – nobody can pronounce the proper name). After turning off the 2 k’s to Kovalam Beach we eventually found a suitably large room with 3 beds, and then went straight down to the touristy beach for a snack and a beer. Amanda and I went for a swim while Ernest chatted to another cyclist from Italy who we’d met on the road before. Later that evening we splashed out on a meal at one of the beachfront restaurants.

10 January - Kovalam – Takkalai - 54km

A fairly hot day on the road, past villages having festivals complete with music and flags, what a colorful place India is. We followed the Western Ghats, and when we could see serious-looking mountains in the distance we nervously wondered whether we had to cross them. It made for a very scenic ride though, and in the end the mountains tapered off so least we never had to cross those.

11 - 12 January - Takkalai - Kanniyakumari - 36km

We finally arrived in Kanniyakumari, Amanda's final destination. She was quite pleased with herself for reaching her goal, the most southerly point of India. Not the 2 oceans, but the spot where 3 oceans meet, the Indian Ocean, the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea.

The next day we spent stripping Amanda’s bike for any usable parts, replacing it with our old and worn parts. That night we went out for a more fancy meal at one of the better hotels as a farewell meal.

13 - 17 January Kanniyakumari - Chennai - by train
On the afternoon of the 13th Amanda and myself took the train to Chennai, were we arrived early in the morning of the 14th . We found a really decent hotel to stay for the next two days, pack her bike and organize her stuff for the flight back to Cape Town. After Amanda was on the plane back to South Africa, I took the next available train back to Kanniyakumari.

18 January - Kanniyakumari – Tirenelveli - 83km

With Amanda back home, it was just Ernest and I again. For the first 30km we cycled into the breeze past wind farms, a clear indication that this is a notoriously windy area. Nothing to do but battle on. After 30km we stopped for brunch, a real South-Indian meal of rice and spicy veg served on a banana leaf, and all this without cutlery. Let me tell you, it is not that easy to eat rice and sauce with your fingers!! Ernest was getting real good at eating like a local, but I keep a spoon handy, normally to the delight of the spectators. The road was in good condition so we reached Tirunelveli fairly early, found a room, beer, and food, and settled in for the night.

19 January - Tirunelveli - Sattur - 83km

An uninteresting stretch of road into the wind on the highway. At least the road was in good condition, as it was a brand new double lane highway. Interesting, however, that traffic goes in both directions on each side of the highway, defeating the purpose of the highway somewhat. On top of that the local farmers use the nice new tarred road for the purpose of threshing their rice-crop, by spreading it in the road and forcing traffic over it.

We found a cheap room in Sattur, a busy little village with loads of food stalls, selling yummy Indian food. I’m picking up a lot of weight as it is just impossible to ignore all the tasty food that’s available everywhere.

20 January - Sattur – Madurai - 81km
Another day spent cycling into the wind. At least Amanda has taught us one thing and that is that there’s no reason to rush anywhere. So we took it real easy and once in Madurai we found a room and stayed for 2 nights. It must have been one of the noisiest rooms we have had in a long time, with cars hooting, motorbikes revving, music playing, and just the normal jumble of sound.

21 January Madurai
We spent the day wondering around the maze of narrow streets. Madurai, the second largest city in the state of Tamil Nadu, is also known as "Temple City". Unfortunately the main temple complex was in the process of being renovated, and although one could go inside the outside was all covered up. It was, however, still imposing due to its sheer size.

22 January - Madurai – Tiruppattur - 70km
At last we left the highway and were back on a much smaller road, what a relief. It was a good cycle past a huge bird sanctuary giving the ride a real peaceful feel. It is such a pleasure being away from the main road and traffic and one could once again enjoy the countryside.

23 January - Tiruppattur – Pudukkottai - 80km
We casually cycled along a small road past numerous temples, shrines, rice fields and small villages. Once again we experienced the road being used for the threshing of the rice crop. The rice is spread out on the road for vehicles to drive over and in the process doing the hard work for them.

24 January - Pudukkottai – Thiruchirappalli
We found a room in the Ashby Hotel which looks a bit worse for wear from the outside, but quite interesting inside. It was an old British guest house and still has some remains of old wooden furniture. The rooms open onto a shady courtyard with restaurant, so all in all quite a pleasant place to stay.

25 January - Thiruchirappalli (Trichy)
Trichy is an enjoyable city and fairly easy to get around in. We spent the day visiting the Rock Fort temple, perched high on a massive rocky outcrop. So together with the other pilgrims we climbed the main stairs cut into the rock to the top. I also went to see the superb Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple, dedicated to Vishnu. This is a large 60 hectare complex complete with beggars, pilgrims, tourists and loads of stalls selling cheap souvenirs.

26 January 2009 - Thiruchirappali – Thanjavur - 63km
Just getting out of town in the hair-raising traffic is a feat in itself. Hardly outside town we were flagged down by a life-insurance salesman in a passing vehicle. Him and his companions bought us each a coconut, and (like just about everyone else) they were rather curios about our trip. So with coconut in hand we explained where we’d come from, but it’s becoming more difficult to say where we’re going (a mystery even to us).

As they left the man told us how dangerous that section of road was, and presented each of us with one of his business cards (we must have been prime candidates). After a short and enjoyable ride we reached Thanjavur with its World Heritage Temple complex. These towns normally have loads of cheap accommodation and food stalls, all catering for the many pilgrims constantly visiting the temples.

27 January - Thanjavur – Mayiladuthurai - 80km
We awoke to an overcast morning, making it incredibly humid. We left rather late as we had no intention of going very far. A great cycling day on the road it was! The overcast day made the colours quite beautifully brilliant. We once again cycled past numerous temples, shrines and villages. The traffic signs along the back roads never fail to amaze me. They are either non-existent at the most crucial moments, or otherwise of no use at all (bold signs pointing straight, left, or right, when that is the way the road goes and there is no other option).

28 January - Mayiladuthurai – Pichavaram - 60km
Again it was a relaxing day on the road. The countryside is flat with lots of rice paddies. We soon reached Chidambaram, a chaotic town with a huge Shiva temple. We did not stay long, as one can only appreciate so many temples. We turned off the main road onto a little side road and came upon the little fishing village of Pichavaram, situated on an area of tidal canals and backwaters. The state-run restaurant also had a few dilapidated rooms for rent, so we booked in there for the night. That afternoon we rented a row-boat (with local skipper), and spent 2 hours before sunset cruising around the backwaters and through the mangrove swamps.

29 January - Pichavaram – Pondicherry - 95km
I left fairly early, before Ernest, as he decided to go his own way. It was a really good day as the weather was perfect and the road flat and scenic. I arrived in Podicherry around midday but it took hours to find a room. The rooms are very expensive and the cheaper ones were all full. What felt like hours later I eventually found a room at a reasonable rate. Ernest apparently had the same problem finding accommodation, as he arrived at the same place soon after I did.

30 January - Pondicherry
Spent the day in Pondy, as they call it here, just walking around and pigging out on cheese and biscuits. Pondy was a French colony and therefore still retains a little French vibe. The result is that one can find cheese as well as wine - Two things which I have not seen in a long time.

Although Pondy is a coastal town the beach is very rocky and not a place for a swim, but a walk a long the beachfront is quite pleasant and one can wonder past old French buildings which makes it slightly different from the rest of India.

31 January - Pondicherry – Mamallapuram - 91km
It was an absolutely brilliant day, the weather is so good this time of year it’s a real pleasure to be out. Not too hot or cold and no wind. What more can a cyclist ask for. The road was flat and ran past lots of rice fields and the ever present coconut palms. Once in Mamallapuram it was easy to find accommodation. It’s a very touristy town with lots of backpacker-type travelers and everything that goes with it, from eating places to curio sellers. It has the best beach along this side of the coast so no wonder it is jam packed with travelers.

1 February - Mamallapuram
I spent the day on the beach, something I haven’t done for a while. Then I wandered around the rock cut temples of Mamallapuram. This village is actually a world heritage site and therefore quite interesting. The most wonderful temples and sculptures are cut into the huge boulders strewn all over the place.

I'm also happy to report that my hair has stopped falling out, and hopefully will now start growing back again.

2 February - Mamallapuram
I took the bus to Chennai to see if I could find a charger for my notebook (which I’ve lost) and also to see if I could for once and all sort out the virus on the lap top. It was a good day as I found the Asus agent and I found someone who could sort out the virus. I left everything at the shop and decided to head back to the beach and pick it up again the next day.

3 February - Mamallapuram – Chennai - 61km
I left at just after 8h00 and it was a relatively easy ride into Chennai. Once again the traffic, as you got closer to the city, was hectic. I found my way into the city after only going wrong once. The lack of directions is one problem and asking directions is another amazing story. Once you ask the replay is always "Go strait!" and they clearly point either left or right. Or they will say "Go strait and then left/right" and all that happens is that the road bends either left or right.

I found the Broadlands Lodge, where I met Ernest again, who was already there for his second day.

4 February - Chennai
Decisions, decisions, decisions!!! I have come to a point where I finally have to decide where to go from India. I had a few blissful months of no decision, but now the time has arrived. The land border with Myanmar is closed so one has to fly out of India to reach the other Asian countries i.e. Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.

The other option is to go further north to Nepal and hope to obtain a permit there to enter Tibet and from there on to China. The down side is that once over the Himalayas and into China one will be back in the dessert again!! To be quite honest, I have had enough of cycling through the desert to last me a number of life times, just the idea of cycling through another desert is enough to put me off the whole thing.

On the one hand I am very reluctant to fly, its not only the cost, but the hassle of packing and getting oneself with bike and bags to the other side. Then again I’m really not ready to give up the beach life, which awaits (I hope) in Thailand. The weather in this part of the world should (I hope) still be good for a month or three before the monsoon season starts.

So what to do? That’s the main question.

5 and 6 February - Chennai
The Broadlands Lodge, where we stayed, was a very interesting ramshackle place. Although it was old and dilapidated it had a great atmosphere, with courtyards, stairs and alleyways. I was lucky enough to find a fellow traveler with an excellent range of music on his i-pod, which I copied. At last I could listen to music again on the road. I finally came to a decision regarding where to go next, and Nepal looked the better option.

7 February - Chennai – Naidupeta - 118 km
Ernest and myself left together and headed north on the highway. The highway is never a very interesting option but looked the easiest way out of Chennai. The road was in excellent condition and with a little tail wind we made good progress. Along the way we were even interviewed by a local newspaper reporter!

I’m rather excited about my decision to cycle to Nepal, as an overland trip from Cape Town to Kathmandu is something that has always appealed to me. Never, however, did I contemplate doing it on a bicycle!!

8 February - Naidupeta – Kavali - 131km
Another day spent on the highway; at least the road was in good condition and the going easy. The day before we crossed from the State of Tamil Nadu, to the state of Andhra Pradesh. Each state varies slightly from the others and appears to have its own favorite food and Hindu Gods. We definitely could see that in this state Hanuman (the monkey God) is very popular, as there are many large Hanuman statues along the road.

Along the way people pointed out to us that there was an article about us in the newspaper and wanted our autographs!

9 February - Kavali – Ongole - 72 km
Just the give a perspective of distances in India, I left the most southern point in India 22 days ago and there is still 1400 km to Kolkata!! From there to the Napal border app. another 900km!!

The other extraordinary thing is that people in India crap in full view of everyone. On the beach, next to the railway line and along the road! In Africa, people sort of go into the bushes, but here it is very normal to sit, doing your thing in full view of everyone!

10 February - Ongole – Vodarevu Beach - 71 km
I made the mistake of turning down to Vodarevu beach. We reached the beach at around midday and proceeded to spend the rest of the day in a stuffy room with a strong fishy smell close to the beach. However, later in the afternoon the beach became a hive of activity as the fishing boats returned with their catch of the day. There were many good-sized fish which were sold auction-style, in what appeared to be a chaotic manner. While this was taking place the next set of rather flimsy boats took to the open seas for yet another night of fishing.

11 February - Vodarevu Beach – Challapalle - 96 km
We left rather late, around 10 o’clock but had an interesting day on the road. We followed a minor road, past many small villages, corn fields and the ever present rice paddies. Once again we were stopped and interviewed by a local newspaper reporter - this seems now to have become a daily event.

Once we crossed the Krishna River Delta we reached the small town of Challapalle where we found a room in a traditional guest house. More basic accommodation one will not easily find, but at a 100 rupies I guess one cannot complain.

Indian men are constantly chewing paan, (a replacement for cigarettes), which makes their teeth and lips blood red. They therefore spit long jets of red paan juice everywhere. Evidently in rooms as well, as the walls in the room are covered with traces of paan spit!!

12 February - Challapalle – Narasapur - 128 km
Take perfect weather, throw in a good road and great scenery and it makes for a perfect day of cycling. We followed one of the back roads, and managed to take the wrong turning on three occasions! The people along the way are very helpful, but if they’re not sure the response is normally “Go straight”, which we did, just to find out later we should have turned off in the previous village. The last wrong turn was at a washed away bridge where an obscure old wooden ferry boat was carting the traffic across the river, a lengthy process. With the result that we had to peddle like the clappers to reach Narasapur before sunset. We’re moving further east, and it’s still “winter”, so the sun sets fairly early.

We were like celebrities, along the way. Every day there seemed to be a small article about us in the paper and the local people are quick to point it out to us and asking for autographs. (Ha, ha, imagine that, me giving autographs!)

13 February - Narasapur – Jaanam (Yanam) - 79 km
Another good day! I did not even need my ipod, it was so interesting and scenic. You will not believe this, but once again we were stopped by newspaper reporters and interviewed!

It was a fairly short day and once we arrived at Yanam we took a room. Mainly for the purpose of doing some laundry. It was however not as great as expected, and although there appeared to be quite a good riverside location, there was no accommodation along the river, but only in the main town. We took a room and no sooner had we settled in and the water in the taps dried up, so much for doing laundry. If it’s not the electricity that keeps going off then it’s the water!

14 February - Yanam – Tuni - 106 km
A longer day than expected, again due to some bad directions. As one man pointed out to us, it was still 60 km to Tuni and too far to go by bike, better we go to the next village, which was only 10 km away. He was quite adamant that we would not be able to cycle to Tuni in one day. Although everyone here cycles (I mean this is the home of the Hero bike), no one goes very far, normally just to the next village or the market. If you mention that you want to go to a town, 100 km away, they stare at you as it you are from outer space.

Once again, there were two articles about us in the local newspapers (how many newspapers can this state have?). So, people were flagging us down to show us the articles. No sooner have we arrived in Tuni and a TV crew spotted us and had a lengthy interview. My goodness, I have never been so famous in my life before, quite a novelty. At least the excitement and all the attention made up for the dreary room. (O, how I wished for a decent and clean room, just once!).

15 February - Tuni to Visakhapatnam - 110 km
We were back on the highway again, together with salesmen on bicycles, with their bicycles stacked high with everything imaginable, from plastic chairs to pots and pans. The highway made for an easy ride into Visakhapatnam. Vizag, as the locals call it, was much larger than I expected. It had loads of cheap accommodation around the train station, (as usual) and we soon found a room with, this time, wait for it, clean sheets! I was as happy as the proverbial pig.

16 February – 18 February - Visakhapatnam
We spent our time doing the usual laundry, internet and shopping for the necessary bits and pieces. The following day we took a train from Vizag to the Araku Valley, 120km North of Vizag. At 21 Rupees (one way) for a spectacular 5-hour ride into the mountains, it was worth it. Once in Araku we took the bus to Borra Caves for another Rp 10. The 1 000 000 year old lime stone caves are huge and quite spectacular. From Borra we returned to Vizag by train again, where we arrived in the evening.

Taking the train in India in the “general section” is always an experience. We sat packed in like sardines, with sari-clad women (amongst others) staring at us with foolish grins all the way.

The following day we went shopping for new sandals (ours were falling apart). That evening we went down to the beachfront for a walk and to sample some of the delicious street food found there.

19 February Visakhapatnam – Srikakulam - 109km
Our map was not as accurate as we would have liked, it showed the road following the coast; instead we landed up on the highway miles from the coast. We had a good tailwind so cycling was a real pleasure.

Apparently there was a bit about us on TV, as people stopped us and told us that they’d seen us on TV. Others stopped to take to take pictures. This was quite a novelty. Soon we reached Srikakulam, and as it was very hot we decided to call it a day. It was fairly hard finding a cheap room, as apparently there is an important temple in town, and therefore loads of pilgrims filling up the rooms.

20 February - Srikakulam – Palasa - 89km
We set off with a plan to do 140km, but along the way we came upon a smallish town which looked good enough to spend the night. As it was still too far to Gopalpur, we found some nice accommodation and stayed. In these smallish towns it is always fun to go out after dark in search of food. The streets come alive with people, carts, bicycles and rickshaws. Food stalls spring up everywhere, and the variety is immense. After settling on some veg fried noodles and other bits and pieces we headed back to our room to devour the feast.

21 February - Palasa – Gopalpur - 93km
The road deteriorated somewhat as we came to the border between the states of Andhra Pradesh and Orissa. Trucks were lined up for kilometers, and combined with roadworks it was a real dust bowl. We turned down to the seaside village of Gopulpur, a small pleasant place with lots of cheap accommodation, a small beachfront promenade and some food stalls.

We are getting really fussy with accommodation, as now we don’t only want cheap but also ground floor, and preferably around a courtyard!! Ernest had stayed here in December at old Mr. Singh’s Tourist Holiday Inn situated in one of the back streets. It was just what we were looking for; a few rooms with bathrooms all arranged around a courtyard. At 140 Rupees (R28.00) it was a bargain so we stayed for 3 days.

Ernest worked a bit on the bikes and discovered that the rear axle on his bike was broken (probably due to the incident with the truck in Calicut). So he was on the phone to my sister, Amanda, again and begged her to send more spares. Even my bike is looking a bit worse for wear and I just wonder how much longer it will last.

24 February - Gopalpur – Balagoan - 86km
With a good tailwind we had a most delightful ride. O what a pleasure!! Ernest was nursing his bike along, with broken axle and all. It still had to last until Patna where Amanda had sent to spares. Unforeseen expenditure at home has left me totally broke (say no more). Now we really have to economise! We found the cheapest place to stay in Balagoan, (on Lake Chilika) as the next day we planed to take the ferry across the lake to Satapada.

The lake is one of the largest in India and well known for its migratory birds. So instead of taking a tourist boat at Rp 600 each, to see the spectacle of a million-plus birds, coming from as far afield as Siberia, we decided to take the local ferry to Satapada at Rp 40 (on the other side of the lake). That evening Ernest went shopping at the local market for potatoes and salad and made a most delicious potato dish. As you have no doubt noticed by now, Ernest is the cook and shopper, as I’m totally useless when it comes to anything domesticated.

25 February - Balagoan – Puri - 169km
We were up at 5h00 to catch the ferry at 6h00, to our surprise there was no ferry, but just a small fishing vessel loaded with ice and other fishing paraphernalia. The price also shot up to 250 rupees. We gave up on the idea and decided to rather cycle around to Puri. It was somewhat further than expected and an incredibly hot day. The scenery was also not as exciting as what we had become accustomed to. We arrived in Puri late and tired but found a decent room (with shared bathroom but a hot shower!!)

The heat continued into the next day - by the time the heat is mentioned in the local papers, a person knows it’s unseasonably hot (even for India). We did laundry and rested indoors, going out in the evening for a walk on the beach.

27 February - Puri – Konark - 45km
Before leaving Puri we first stopped to see the famous Lord Jagannath Temple. Non Hindus are not allowed inside but we could view it from the roof of the nearby library. Konark was only 36km along the coast where we found another well-known temple, the Sun Temple (a world heritage site). As it was already mid-day we decided to stay, so we found a real cheap room - baking hot and with a very noisy fan. At least it gave us the opportunity to see the Sun Temple again at night when it was lit up.

28 February - Konark – Bhubaneshwar - 64km
I was happy as hell to get out of that stuffy room. It was a short and pleasant ride back to Bhubaneswar where I vowed not to get a windowless room again. It, however, appeared to be the least of our problems as there were just no rooms available at all (many cheap hotels don’t cater for foreigners). In the end, after a very long search we found a spacious but overpriced room (on the ground floor!).

1 March - Bhubaneswar – Chandikhol - 81km
First we turned off the highway in order to take a side road. This road was, however, in real bad condition and with Ernest nursing his bike along we turned around after 8km and went back to the highway. We reached Chandikhol fairly early, but decided to stay as the next place was still too far away. The only hotel fortunately had a TV in the room, and the Aus/SA cricket was on. The tension of the game must have gotten to Ernest, because so did the cheap local whiskey - retiring at the end of play!

2 March - Chandikhol – Balasore - 137km
Another boring day on the highway, except for Ernest getting a flat tire. This, he had to fix with the normal crowd of spectators. They’re normally most interested in the bell, gears and odometer, which they can’t resist to fiddle with (which irritates Ernest no end). There was road works for the last 50km, and it was slightly further than expected (the road signs, map, and actual distance normally differ). As we left rather late we arrived in Balasore just as it got dark.

3 March - Balasore – Baripada - 58km
We finally turned away from the coast and headed inland. The scenery immediately changed and the countryside became drier. Baripada was a maze of activity and the streets lined with security forces. The chief minister was in town and was making a speech on a podium erected in the main road close to where we stayed. Due to the political meeting room was scarce, so we had to wait 1 hour for one to become vacant. While waiting we were befriended by some local youngsters (who called us “Auntie” and “Uncle”). They treated us to a beer in the local bar, proudly pointing out that I was the first women to visit the bar.

4 March - Baripada – Ghatsila - 99km
The road became slightly hillier than along the coast, but nothing too serious. We crossed from the state of Orissa to the state of Jharkhand were few tourists go. This was immediately evident as locals stared at us in amazement without as much as a wave. In the small town of Ghatsila we found a room, again with curious onlookers in close pursuit. We had to close the bedroom door and windows to get some privacy. I guess they just want to see what two foreigners are doing in that room, and what all is in those bags. As a guy along the road pointed out, that the bags are probably for carrying rice and water!

5 March - Ghatsila – Jamshedpur - 50km
A short but slow road - very narrow and extremely busy with trucks and busses. Ernest was also not feeling well. We turned down for Jamshedpur, and what a hassle it was trying to find accommodation. Eventually we took a room in the Holidei Inn (not part of the hotel group), at quite a steep price but it was the cheapest room for foreigners in the entire place. I am convinced that they had never even had a female foreign guest, as the staff were staring and taking photos.

6 March - Jamshedpur – Bundu - 94km
Ernest was suffering from an upset stomach, and not feeling too strong. We however decided to push on towards Ranchi. The road was incredibly busy and the road surface in poor condition so the going was rather slow. We reached the little village of Bundu in the late afternoon and enquired about a room, without success. We ended up at the Catholic Mission school (St Xaviers HS), where we were given a room in the priest’s quarters as well as supper and breakfast.

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