India. India. India. The spiritual home of spiritualism. A desired destination of many searching individuals. For me, I’ve dreamt about this search for many years after hearing tales, reading about its deep history and watching this video one to many times. To enter India by bicycle over the Pakistan-India land border is something I never dreamt I would be doing, but there I was, happy to be full of anticipation for our cycle trip to the Nepalese border.
Our first destination was Amritsar, the home of the Golden Temple, the Mecca/Vatican/Tython/Wembley (whatever your religion is) for Sikhs. This was a great place to start mystical India. To enter is for free, to feel welcomed is customary and to be provided with free food and drink a must. This pairs in comparison with the steep prices and stuffy atmosphere of Westminster Cathedral where I see hordes of tourists on my commute to work. In the several days we stayed in Amritsar, the atmosphere at the Golden Temple drew us back four times: men holding their babies for their first dunk in the sacred water, people dutifully following the chants that filled the air, the repetitive ramble round the square sacred pool that is home to the actual, quite small, Golden Temple, the offering of cash, the reading of texts and people partaking in personal reflections. I found a ritualistic resting place, well needed after some hectic last days in Pakistan.
The gurdwara, the name of a Sikh temple, literally became our resting place as we decided to spend a night at the accommodation provided at all Gurdwaras for whoever turns up. Sikhism is a relatively new religion but its popularity creates a patchwork of pilgrims all over the floor for a night’s sleep. We became acutely aware of its popularity as a family of bed bugs had also turned up. I didn’t spot a turban but, like us in the food hall, they got a free meal nonetheless. Their bites totaled the 280 mark, all on Luke. I escaped with zero.
A Gurdwara became our home for the night on two other occasions in India, both after we couldn’t find a hotel. One, provided a simple lattice bed with hot milk and mix vegetable curry and the other provided a deluxe room with a food hall that never shut. On all occasions we were welcomed and that one can’t help but feel warmed by. These experiences encapsulate what India is for the searching, dreaming traveler. To experience this beyond the Golden Temple in towns I could never name or dream of visiting except by chance by bicycle made them feel even more special.
From Amritsar we headed into the foothills of the Himalayas and back to climbing. Our first stop being McLeodganj, the home of the exiled Tibetan government and the Dalai Lama. Here there are Buddhist monks in their robes, tourists and a Pizza Hut. I was pretty nonplussed by the place. We visited the main temple and home of the Dalai Lama. There was some crazy artwork depicting moralistic stories about good and evil and some chanting. My main memory is of the roof they had built over courtyard area where talks are given. The roof’s form reminded me of the roof at Butlins, Skegness.
The highlight here for me was a 23km hike we did up to a temple in the clouds. A couple of dogs followed us for a bit and we stumbled upon a British charity walk. They apologized for some other dogs that were also following them but were barking – ‘sorry about the dogs, they are not ours’ they commanded out into the ether. To feel the need to say sorry for the noise of wild dogs is quite something, quite British. I can only assume their British sorry sensitivity dial must have been ratcheted up to the max by the seemingly rude behaviour of people in India. Behaviour that is at odds with ‘i’ll hold the door for you regardless of the distance’ culture at home.
The walk was the highlight of McLeodganj, but then our cycle tour walked into wet weather that postponed us leaving McLeodganj for two extra days (good job they built that roof). Once the sky had cleared we headed to Shimla, the summer capital of the British Raj, built to escape the intensity of the lowlands.
This has a more English town vibe about it with pedestrianised streets, churches, country homes, Domino’s pizza and monkeys (you get those in Northern English towns). A perfect place for a rest, except it was Diwali, and with a crack, bang, wallop fireworks where everywhere. To see a toddler lighting a banger then throwing it in small streets full of people is something to marvel at. Fortunately, we weren’t required to watch exploding toddlers for the rest of our stay as the history and culture mix at Shimla provides plenty to marvel at.
From Shimla, we had one more hill station in our sights: Mussoorie. On the ride to Mussoorie we passed through Dehradun, the capital of the state Uttarakhand. A city demonstrating the problems of a growing, developing India: slums, litter everywhere, streets too small and narrow for the traffic and everywhere being a public urinal.
With the pains of development so evident in Dehradun, Mussoorie offered the pleasure of seeing the Indian version of a seaside holiday resort in the mountains: dodgy looking horror houses, fairground stalls and rickety rides, providing fun for Indians of all ages.
With our bodies rested we headed across the mountains to Rishikesh. This is home to the searching travelers’ spiritual Butlins: it has live music, dodgy singers, a selection of eateries selling home comforts, day time entertainment and activities, salacious dancing and is full of like-minded people enjoying themselves. The site of spiritual Butlins, just north of Rishikesh proper, has capitalised on the search people have in their Indian dream: long retreats in Ashrams, yoga training, meditation and any of the other siblings of these two: numerology, astrology, cosmic centering etc. This is all blended with a genuine crowd who create an atmosphere of chanting, rituals and ‘alternative’ practices. In Rishikesh proper, the harem pants and organic food have yet to wash away the smell of piss, clear up the litter and build homes for the slum dwellers, as we found during a bit of a meander through the town. What’s on offer here is emancipation from every day life with the trappings of affordable luxury in an environment that is open and relaxed, just like West London for Russian oligarchs. I would say without the fear of being poisoned but the pollution is deadly. I think this is the Indian trap I would have easily fallen into if I had travelled here when my first Indian dreams were formed. We stayed for five days, but without the focus of yoga training or any other practice, I was itching to get back on the bike.
The destination that would scratch this itch was not yet decided. The Christmas deadline, just over a month away, for Kathmandu was our time constraint. The Dehradun experience polluted our desire to travel straight to Nepal through more big cities and the only route through the mountains to Nepal was too long for us to reach Kathmandu in time. We decided to headed south, across the lowlands the British Raj wanted to escape, to visit the Taj Mahal before heading to Nepal. A total distance close to 900km across the flat plains of India to do in 12 days, with a site seeing tour in the middle, was a challenge that wetted my cyclist’s appetite.
These 12 days provided a whole new India experience. The humdrum India was evident through the pulse of the roads, towns, villages and cities on display on our long cycle days. The flow of traffic revealing the opening and closing time of local schools, the mini races we would enter as school kids (sometimes grown adults) desperately try to keep up on their single speed bikes, the breadth of people’s circumstances from straw huts to mansions, from Ox drawn carts to large trucks transporting sugar cane, the sheer volume of people and subsequent large number interactions we had, continuously, throughout the day, I adopted an enthusiastically intonated ‘Good morning’ and wave approach to all the gawping faces, the harresssment at the Taj Mahal, the noise of their horniness, that is the arms race in horn volume and style that are beeped continuously by all vehicles in every situation.
Everyday things, everyday, all day, for 12 days, inescapable Indian intensity that initially stimulated ultimately initiated its downfall. There are only so many times you can be forced off the road by a bus coming at you head on, you can listen to horns being blasted in your ear, you can be told to stop for a selfie before the exciting pulse flat lines.
The diversity of my experience befits the tales of India that have filled my mind for all these years. The experience you can search for here feels limitless, the good, the bad, all on display but I’m happy to have reached Nepal after 6 weeks searching. I will return to India in a few weeks to see what the south has to offer.