Country Archives: India

Siliguri - Charaali

Spent the morning in the city waiting for my Indian SIM card to be activated. For some reason this had to be done in the shop where I bought it yesterday.

I left Siliguri around noon and cycled straight westward, to the Nepali border.

At the Indian checkpoint I met a group of German cyclists. They were on an organized tour and were waiting for their bikes. They had tried to cross at a different crossing further north, which is closed for foreigners. I don’t know why, but instead of cycling down they’d rented a car that took their bikes down to this crossing.
One of the guys asked me about my framebag, and where to get one. Unfortunately, I had to tell him that my business is not up and running yet…

On the Nepali side, on the western bank of the Mechi river, the immigration and customs situation was a bit unclear. It doesn’t seem to be customary here (as in, on the Indian sub-continent?) to have toll road-like immigration offices. Indians and Nepalis, who make up most of the border traffic here, can cross the border unrestricted, that is, without any document checks (and maybe even without any documents at all). Immigration offices are therefore placed somewhere at the side of the road and especially in Nepal it felt like I could have cycled past without anyone taking notice.
I did stop, of course, and bought my 15-day visa-on-arrival for US$ 25.

Fun fact of the day: While Indian Rupees are legal tender in Nepal, for reasons unknown the Indian 500 and 1000 Rupee notes are not only not accepted in Nepal, it is also illegal to carry them around or to try to change them. What can I say, most of my cash is in notes of 500 Indian Rupees.

My first impression of Nepal: it is more colorful. The houses, at least, are.

I kept cycling westward for a dozen or so kilometers and found a simple place to sleep at the junction from where I will head north tomorrow, into the Himalayas.

Cycled: 52km

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Siliguri

Siliguri is quite a charming city. The residential areas I cycled through yesterday looked nice and today I spent most time wandering the market, which is a colorfull lot of stalls and shops.

Last but not least, inspired by Heather, I went to the movies. “Gunday” was on. Fun to watch, even if it was in Bengali and I didn’t understand anything. Lots of slo-mo action, (male) skin, and a cheering audience (that’s what I liked most).

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Patgram – Siliguri

I left late, around 10am. On the last 10 kilometers to the border crossing it seemed as if people were even more friendly than during the last weeks, waving and smiling.
At the Bangladeshi immigration desk I said “Hello. I’d like to leave Bangladesh.” And immediately regretted my words. I almost added “Well, not really, you know. But I kind of have to. And I’ll be back!”

Then I was in India.
India, where customs and immigration offices are housed in bamboo huts, where everything is recorded in big registers, on paper, no computers; where the roads are worse than in Bangladesh; where the driving is even more reckless; where girls wear jeans and ride bicycles and motorcycles; where the food and the chai are delicious; where it seems to be at least equally difficult to get cash with my credit card as in Bangladesh; where ‘traffic guards’ stop me to take a picture with me.

Cycled: 102km

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Lalmornihat – Patgram

I left Lalmornihat to the north, towards Patgram and the Burimari border crossing. The road follows the left bank of the Teesta river.

The northwest of Bangladesh is a wee bit less conservative than the southeast. Something I haven’t seen in Bangladesh before: girls and women on bicycles! Also, it happened once or twice that groups of school girls waved hello and smiled when I rode past. Something that seemingly would have been impossible in the south.

According to the map there were a few more Indian exclaves along the road, but when I stopped and asked people they said “there is no India here, only Bangladesh”. I wonder what happened.

I arrived in Patgram at around 2.15pm, after 82km of riding. I found a hotel, had lunch, and set out for some more nerdy sightseeing.

One of the biggest (maybe the biggest) Bangladeshi exclaves in India is the Dahagram–Angarpota exclave. At its closest point it is just a hundred meters away from Bangladeshi mainland. Its inhabitants have long struggled to be able to go to Bangladesh, had no electricity and no health care or other support. Only a couple of years ago India and Bangladesh have entered into an agreement where India leased that small stretch of land, called the Tin Bigha Corridor, to Bangladesh, to enable Bangladeshis to cross from/to Dahagram–Angarpota. An Indian public main road crosses the corridor as well. The corridor is guarded by both the Bangladeshi (on both Bangladeshi sides) and the Indian army (inside the corridor).

On arrival the Bangladeshis wouldn’t let me through at first, but when I assured them I had no intentions of defecting to India I was eventually escorted through – by bicycle as well! The Indians didn’t care at all. I cycled all around the exclave for an hour or so. At the far end of the exclave I met a group (two busses full) of students with their teachers who had come from Rangpur for some nerdy sightseeing, too, and a massive picnic.

Cycled: 122km

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Rangpur – Lalmornihat

I left Rangpur to the east, towards Lalmornihat. I avoided the highway and cycled on a minor road to the Teesta river. Instead of the river, which is wide and mighty on my maps, I just found flood plains full with fields – rice and potatos and other vegetables I can’t name. I cycled on the narrowest footpaths between fields and across desert-like stretches of sand (the sidearms of the Teesta which dried up last) until I could see the water. I stopped near an old guy, sitting on the ground and pinning leafes on wooden needle-like sticks. His wife(?) and two kids and another man appeared soon, too, and we chatted away in our languages without understanding much. I helped them pin the leafes and learned that it was stuff that was smoked. Was that tobacco??

I crossed the actual Teesta, which was narrow and shallow, on a boat that was rowed by a bunch of boys, maybe 7 years old or younger.

From there to Lalmornihat was an easy ride. I’m staying at the local RDRS guesthouse again.
After check-in I did some nerdy sightseeing: I went to India. And circumnavigated it.

There are a bunch (a lot, actually) of Indian exclaves in the area, as well as Bangladeshi exclaves in India.
But what does that mean? Is there an actual border? A fence? Is the grass really greener on the other side?

There is a tiny one of these exclaves less than 10km east from Lalmornihat, just a couple of hundred meters off a paved main road. I left this road and cycled along a dirt track until I hit another narrow but paved road. According to the GPS this was were the border was. I followed the asphalt and it seemed to follow the outline of the exclave almost exactly. I was a wee bit disappointed, though, as there was no border, no police, no fence, and everything looked just like everywhere else in the countryside.

At lunch I had met a guy who had told me that there were no Bangladeshi exclaves in India anymore, India had occupied them all, he said. Was he right? Had the same happened with the Indian exclaves this side of the border?

I asked a man standing at the track. He was happy to tell me that this was India! And he was Indian! I had just crossed the border to India! How exciting! :)
I cycled on and asked another guy – another Indian! From what I understood it is difficult for them to travel to India, though, despite being Indian. Going to Bangladesh is not a problem, obviously, even though it is technically illegal.

I’ll try to find a Bangladeshi exclave once I’m in India.

Cycled: 61km

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Departure

Took a cab to the Airport. Security is super-tight there. Non-travellers are not allowed inside the check-in hall. They have to obtain a visitor’s permit and stay in a separate waiting area. The check-in luggage got screened directly after entering.

British Airways was good for a laugh. There’s no extra fee for taking a bike on the plane. However, the bike box counts as over-sized luggage and they charge 25 British Pounds for that.

At the carry-on luggage screening, my backpack was taken apart completely and they wondered about my stove, a box of rechargeable batteries, and my stash of foreign coins. Also, they didn’t let me keep the duct tape I’d bought to possibly fix the bike box in London.

Finally, there was yet another security check by BA personnell before boarding the plane, but that was harmless.

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More sightseeing

In the morning I went to see the Mumbai laundry at Dhobi Ghats and walked through the Mahalakshmi slums along the western railway tracks to Worli. Apparently, several thousand washermen do Mumbai’s laundry at that place every day.

Daniel had gone to Surat on Saturday night and came back to Mumbai yesterday night. He went to one of the suburbs in the morning to do some filming for a movie about children working in salt pans. We met at noon and did some more sightseeing around the old colonial part of the city.

Then we took a train from Victor terminus train station, one of the places of the 26/11/2008 terrorist attacks, to Bandras, one of the posh suburbs. Had a look at the almost completely vanished remainder of an old Portuguese fort and Shahrukh Khan‘s villa. Finally, we had a long stroll along Juhu beach, which was ”crowded”.

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Packing the bike

Went to the SPARC office to get my bike and take it to the cardboard-box-shop to get a box of the right size. The boss had one of the guys working at the office, Sunam, accompany me to do the negotiations. The biggest box they had at the shop was too small and they still wanted to charge 10 Euros for it.

Sunam knew another scrap dealer and I got a fridge box for a more reasonable price there. I modified the box for the bike to fit properly and packed everything up.

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Sightseeing

Walked around the city for hours, seeing the Gateway of India, the Taj Mahal hotel, the university (beautiful building, but entry is restricted), the High Court (same same), the Colaba quarter, and much more.

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Surat - Mumbai

Brought the bike to the Parcel Office (kind of the check-in for large luggage and cargo when traveling by train) and made a porter unhappy by refusing to pay him an unreasonable sum for loading the bike onto the train.

The platform was changed last minute and I almost missed the train. The bike was no better of, it reached Mumbai with the next train.

So I sat there in Mumbai Central station waiting for the bike, when a guy said ‘hello’, asking me if I was Todd. Sure, that’s me, and the guy was Daniel, who coincidently happened to be at the station with a friend.

We waited for the bike together and then walked to the office of an organization called SPARC which is run by slum-dwellers and works for organizing the slum people and giving them a voice and fighting (politically) for proper housing. They are really nice people. I got invited for lunch and they let me stow my luggage and the bike there for the day.

Meanwhile, Daniel had arranged for me to meet the founder of and moving figure behind SPARC, a guy called Jockin. So we took the train to Dadar, one of the biggest slum areas in Mumbai, where the organization has another office.

Walked around the nightly central Mumbai and to the Ali Something mosque. It’s been built on an island in one of the bays of the Mumbai peninsula, connected to the mainland only by a walk-way that is flooded at high-tide.

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Surat city

Arrived in the early morning and spent the day wandering around the city. Also bought a ticket to Mumbai for the day after tomorrow. Again, I chose the one with the shortest waiting list. And that was first class this time.

Received an email from Daniel, telling me he was in Mumbai for family reasons.

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Bhuj – Surat

The previous days were filled with watching TV, drinking loads of water, and feeling well to varying degrees.

Exchanged a few more emails with Daniel, the guy from Surat I’d met a couple of weeks ago on the highway. I’d decided to visit him in Surat and went to the train station to get a ticket for tonight.

The best option, as far as the waiting list is concerend, was the A/C 2-tier class. It comes with curtains and only 6 beds per compartment.

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Bhuj again

Woke up at 6am to vomit. Looks like I got a little food poisoning yesterday.

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Harijan Vas - Khavda - Bhuj

Got up around 7. Unfortunately, the only breakfast there was was a cup of tea. And as I learned a little later, my stove is broken. So dates and figs were the only food for the day. That wasn’t much of a problem as the distance to Khavda was only 22km. Interestingly, even though the river beds are dry, there were some puddles along the road.

I got overtaken by a car, which suddenly stopped a few meters ahead. When I reached it, a window was wound down and two guys started talking to me in German. Turned out their driver had just told them that a ‘crazy German’ was cycling this road.

Loads of military on the roads, and the odd helicopter in the sky.

Reached Khavda before noon and stopped at the first road-side stall for some tea. Talked a bit to the guy sitting next to me. After a couple of cups I rode on to see what the village looked like. There wasn’t much to see, so I returned to the tea stall. The same guy was still there and I asked him about a place to get some food. He invited me to his place for lunch. He lived with his family in a small village outside Khavda.They had 3 bhungas and a rectangular house. All the buildings are single-room and serve two or more purposes each. While I was having luch, the Israelis I’d met at the police station in Bhuj walked around the village.

Thought about my options over a nap. With no permit beyond Khavda, strong military presence, and a broken stove, they were pretty limited. Even though I had the address of a friend of Aarif’s where I could stay for the night, I decided to take the bus back to Bhuj this evening.

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Bhuj - Harijan Vas

Checked out and left around 9am. The entire hotel staff was present when I prepared the bike for the ride. Temperatures were still pretty pleasant, but that changed soon. The terrain became pretty flat and vegetation became more and more sparse. Saw some villages with the traditional round bhungas as well as modern rectangle-shaped houses. The road has some bridges, but at this time of the year all the rivers are dry. Crossed the Tropic of Cancer at some point.

A west’ish wind got stronger and sometimes the road (and everything else) vanished in the dust. Saw a little twister that passed by a few kilometers away. Had a break and sat down in the minimal shade of a traffic sign. Two guys stopped to check if I was alright and to take a picture of me. Every now and then signs pointed left or right, but most of the time there was nothing to see, no village, no road, not even a track.

Reached Bhirtiyara in the afternoon and had a lengthy break. Right outside the village was a police check-point and my permit for the Kachchh district got checked. Harijan Vas was just 50m ahead at the roadside.

Aarif, the guy from the artisan shop in Bhuj, had given me the address of a family there where I could stay for the night. So I stopped at the first bhunga and asked for directions. Immediately was I stunned by the beauty of the girls’ and ladies’ clothing, and, to be honest, by the beauty of the people themselves, too.

I found the place. They knew I was coming by and invited me to a tea, an English-Hindi mixed chat with the elders of the family, a stroll around the village, and finally dinner with the head of the family. Later that evening there was a kind of party (for lack of a better word) at the local Hindu temple, that involved cooking for the entire village, and singing. Due to the language barrier I didn’t really find out what the occasion was, but I was told it was not a religious one.

Unfortunately, I was so tired that I had to miss out on the singing part. My bed was set up outside the bhungas. I learned that some of the people prefer to sleep inside (probably under a fan), while others sleep under the stars. With no mosquitoes hanging around, the latter is definitely a great choice.

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