Cycling the road to Varanasi: India

Cycling from Sunauli, the border town

We tried our best to find an ATM as soon we arrived in India but all of the ATM’s were closed or broken. India is a closed currency country which means you can’t get rupees before you enter. However, what most people don’t know is that you can illegally get your hands on some rupees from a money changer at the border in Nepal and smuggle them in as you don’t get searched – I’ll remember this for next time! A few kilometres in and we had reached our first rural town where an Indian policeman flagged us down and invited us to have tea with him at his checkpoint.


A generous welcome tea from this policeman

After a delicious but scalding hot Indian cuppa, we pushed on for another 30km or so desperately trying to find a working ATM. For the first time in my life I was seriously concerned about how we would get by, it was another two days until we reached a city and our food and water had run dry. This did get me thinking about the many people here who experience this feeling daily, it’s not pleasant. At least I had the tourist police or Western Union to rely on.


Fuelling up en route

Once we had reached the first sign of civilisation we looked around at the accommodation on offer. We didn’t have much choice with the first room being so bad, words cannot describe. We would have rather slept in the tent. The second hotel appeared to be a lot nicer, despite us getting eaten alive again by mozzies, but as time went on things got super weird with the door having no lock and male members of staff forcing their way in to our room.


Just a sample of the delights Naman’s mum served us

We took up the offer of a young lad called Naman who passed us on his bike and invited us for dinner. His mum cooked us the most amazing feast of traditional Indian food in return for a selfie. It was a real unique experience watching her cook and learning all about life in a rural town. I asked him what people do about the continuous loud music coming from a nearby speaker and he said “it’s religion what can you do?” The family warned us of the dangers in India, especially for me being a woman, which I had already sensed as I was receiving a lot of stares and followed everywhere. He said “it’s like putting a kid in a candy shop”.


We passed this bustling holy place on the river on our way south

Naman explain that not only am I a western woman but a cyclist too. I’m new and totally different and it’s unlikely that men, especially in rural areas, would have seen something like it before. He kindly escorted us back to our hotel. Something still wasn’t right when we returned and we spent the night planning our counter-attack and slept with knifes under our pillows.

This man was far less threatening than those in our horror hotel

It was like something out of a horror movie, occupying the only room in a separate part of the hotel which was a building site. There’s no way of describing it, everything about the situation wasn’t right and for the first time in both our lives, we were seriously scared for our safety. – unfortunately I have no photos as we were too scared to get anything out of our bags!

Try and spot Hugo and the bikes in this one!

After another plate of fried stuff for breakie we headed south to Gorakhpur. Hugo’s gears were playing up and we spent a fair while trying to fix them. The only result we had was the huge crowd which formed around us, something which happens within minutes if we ever stop on the bike. Even if we go off the main road and hide ourselves when fixing a puncture, miraculously word soon gets around and we are swamped with locals queuing up to have a photo with us and tampering with our bikes. Both bikes are currently somewhat broken and my loveable rust bucket is disintegrating as each day goes by but we’ve agreed that as long as the wheels keep spinning, no matter how frustrating and slow we are, we will continue to ventureHugo’s word of the day!


A tasty regular roadside snack

Naman told us Gorakhpur was a tier three city with the likes of Delhi being tier one. It was our first Indian city and my God it was crazy. We shared the road with trucks, cars, motorbikes, rickshaws, people, tuktuks, buses, vans, people, dogs, cows, goats, buffaloes and elephants! It took us four hours to navigate our way through the city, pick up a local Vodaphone SIM card and find our way back out. Phew.


Hugo taking a break of the highway

We managed to make it another 30km to the next major town before sunset to find that there was absolutely nowhere to stay. We went to a local school as the school sign said “hostel facilities available” and was told to sit down by the principle who informed us the only guest house was 30km away in the next town. The “hostel facilities” were in fact the option for pupils to board at the school.


Very odd adverts for public schools

As we sat in his office, we were under the impression he was asking around for somewhere we could stay as it was nearly dark. He kindly served us tea and water as we sat there in silence watching him text on his phone. It was all very weird but after nearly an hour of silence he said “you can sleep in next town 30k away”. This is not what I wanted to hear after cycling since 6am in 33c heat. After our hour of silence, there was absolutely no way we would make the next town before dark, I was livid.


One amazing family

We didn’t feel safe in the town and had run out of time to reach the next one so went into the countryside to find a “quite” place to camp. Slight problem. This is India. There are people EVERYWHERE. We wandered down small paths alongside crop fields but were met by people in all directions. You can’t even take a shit in the woods without a group of people standing over you, I’m serious, it’s insane. A local farmer approached us and pointed at a large house nearby telling us we could stay there. The family spoke absolutely no English but using hand signals we ended up sleeping on their roof with their only mosquito net, which they kindly gave up so we weren’t eaten alive. We were touched by the generosity of this large family who slept on the roof beside us. I woke to the most beautiful sunrise and a crowd of faces around our net watching us sleep.


Waking up to sunrise feelings amazing

That morning I felt horrendous. It was my first sluggish day and no matter how hard I pedalled I just wasn’t moving. It was 65km to Azamgarh, the next major town, where we knew we could find accommodation. I managed to convince Hugo to stop there and rest despite reaching Azamgarh just after midday. On our way to find somewhere to stay I spotted a Vodaphone shop so went in to see if they could sort out our newly purchased SIM cards which weren’t working. Now what are the chances you walk into the head office of Vodaphone India mistaking it for a store and spend the next three hours drinking coffee with the head of Vodaphone Customer Care? Of course it happened to me! By the time the issue was “partly” resolved Hugo had found some water, done his laundry in the street and made friends with a group of security guards with rifles and the craziest moustaches.


Sunrise over the farm lands of Uttar Pradesh

Our new friend Anubhav, who we had met walking into the store, accompanied me for the whole three hours. It was dark by the time I was freed from Vodaphone and after a groggy day and little sleep the night before, I was desperate to find a guest house. Life always seems to shit on me in these situations and everywhere in the city was fully booked due to some student exams taking place that week. We had no other option than to share Anubhav’s single bed which he kindly offered. That evening his mum served us homemade potato paratha in return for a selfie after she heard us saying how we liked it. By the time we ate it was 10:30pm, Indian dinner time (!) and I could barely keep my eyes open. I powered through and managed to demolish ten parathas and pose for endless photos with the friends, family and neighbours who had popped round to get a picture with us.


Anubhav’s family

The reiterated the need to get going by 7:30am the next morning if we were to make it to Varanasi before dark, but Anubhav insisted we take a “quick” morning walk and have breakfast before we go. What I’ve noticed with many Indians is that they call the shots and we were still waiting for breakfast at 8:30am. What I’ve also noticed is that more than often, the daughter of the house does all the cooking and clearing up while the mum serves the dishes and takes credit for it.


Another day another puncture

Along the way we were hit with yet another puncture using up our last spare inner tube. Moments later, my tyre also went flat leaving us with no choice but to push the bike to the next workshop. Miraculously we made it 100km, reaching Varanasi by mid-afternoon. The traffic is crazy and takes busy to a whole new level. As if trying to move through the crowds wasn’t stressful enough, Hugo realised he’d left his passport on a brick wall 20km outside of the city. Seriously, this boy!!


The first leg of our journey complete!

It took us a couple of hours to move anywhere and reach our guesthouse. To be honest after six days of continuous cycling, little sleep and madness left right and centre, I couldn’t wait for a lie in and a day off the bike. Of course, things never go to plan and our only chance of being reunited with Hugo’s missing passport was to get up at 5am before the madness (it was still incredibly mad at this time in the morning) and cycle the 40km round trip with the hope it was still there. I wanted to cry.


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