Sunday, 29 January 2012
A Sea of Stress: Delhi to Rishikesh
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I may be becoming defensive and building a wall against India. The last seventy miles to Rishikesh have been on a national highway, where it became a single lane road and the game changed from the dual carriageway which we'd ridden along for the first seventy miles from Delhi. The drivers don't seem massively impatient and they usually give plenty of room, but they constantly use their horns to let you know they're coming. Constantly. It's a wall of sound. Coming to India probably gave Phil Spector the idea in the first place.
The noise isn't as intrusive or as loud as Iranian drivers' horns, but there the traffic is much lighter on the open road and the drivers wait until they're right next to you so they can deafen you with one hoot. The Indian approach is an all-out assault on the senses.
The first part of the ride out of Delhi was remarkably simple. Jonathan met me at my hotel and I guided us out of the city through Old Delhi to the Old Iron Bridge with only a couple of wrong turnings. I'd read reports of other cyclists hiring auto rickshaws to guide them out and to act as blockers against the traffic, but we didn't need either. It being Republic Day did mean that we had to navigate to the north of the official parade route, and it may have kept people off the roads. Either way, the rich open-sewer smell told us that we were approaching the holy river Yamuna and our escape.
Or so we thought. We struck lucky in our route, as we found ourselves on the road we wanted, a wide boulevard which led to Meerut, but we'd both expected a lull in traffic inbetween Delhi and Meerut. I still didn't have a sense of the scale of the map or the population. I thought Meerut would be a place about the size of Darlington and there'd be some open countryside. Instead it was curb to curb traffic filling the dual carriageway and the roadside was lined with shops and food stands and petrol pumps. We weaved in and out of the hand carts, water buffalos, rickshaws, sit-up-and-beg cyclists, some of which was coming in the other direction, while motorcyclists and cars weaved around us, and everyone got out of the way for the huge wagons and impatient buses. For forty miles. Then we got to Meerut, where things became even more crowded. I had no idea where one place ended and another began.
We'd decided to look for somewhere to stop at Meerut, and the first place we saw was the horribly expensive - and just plain horrible - Big Bite. It seemed interesting at first, a sort of Indian Butlins, and there was a massive party being held for probably India's richest two-year old. As we walked through it on our way to our rooms, I was offered a bit of food, and I suggested to Jonathan that we should hang around the edge and try to get invited in, as there was food to spare. He vetoed this suggestion, so I hold him responsible for the subsequent meal, where we were bullied into placing our orders nano-seconds after being shown the menu, then the waiter told Jonathan his choice was unsuitable so he had to make a different choice (against the clock) and finally the waiter tried to take my plate away before I'd finished eating. The room was cold and the only heating a health hazard, there was wi fi but it wouldn't work, the toilet stank, the staff held on to our passports until we chased them, and it was six times more expensive than this rather pleasant place in Rishikesh. I knew we should have camped.
I was at first glad to leave in the morning, but after a night's sleep the roads seemed impossibly busy. My stress reaction to the roads followed a bell curve pattern as we rode: in the mornings I'd be extremely sensitive, I'd relax into it as we rode, then in the evenings I'd start to lose my cool again. Nobody seemed to notice as it all gets lost in the blur of noise and colour and events that makes up a day in India.
I was pleased that we were going to Rishikesh, which had been described as a very peaceful place where people go to seek spirituality, and which is sited in a beautiful gorge by the Ganges. When Jonathan read out a line in the guide book describing it as "a cross between Blackpool and Lourdes," I started to have doubts about the extent of the tranquility to be found there.
I felt I could have done with some inner peace after a few days on the road. Even though it was a flat ride, it was rarely dull. We met a pair of professional Indian cyclists, saw a tractor wheelying as it tried to transport two houses' worth of bricks, and manoeuvered around a man transporting ten-metre lengths of pipe on a rickshaw. The landscape did change once we reached Haridwar and the milky waters of the Ganges, when mountains started to appear through the haze. There was still no let-up in the noise and sensory input; Haridwar is a place of pilgrimage for Indians and it was busy. Hotel after hotel along the road, and the canal banks were lined with market stalls and tents and music stages where the pilgrims came to... seek peace? It seemed the opposite of peaceful to me.
Rishikesh is the place Westerners tend to go seeking enlightenment and inner peace. There are billboards everywhere showing the local holy men in attitudes of peace. I doubt they get around Rishikesh by bicycle.
Rishikesh may be marginally more peaceful than the main highway, and it is certainly in a beautiful location and has a superb bridge, but it's incredibly loud and tacky. I wouldn't be surprised to see a sign advertising "Enlightenment now 10% off," and if your taste runs to beads and shell jewellery, you'd be in heaven here. However, our hostel is above most of the noise, and while looking at the views, the monkeys and birds chittering in the trees, or just sitting outside listening to the distant car horns, I can see why people are drawn here, and I'm enjoying the contrasts of the place. Tonight I think we'll have a go at some yoga.
While trying to find this hostel, we accidentally found our way down to the Ganges and probably the most peaceful place yet, where no one bothered us and the only person with whom we shared the beach was a local lad practising his kite flying. That was the first wrong turning we took, but not the best, as when we overshot the hostel an English voice shouted "oh, well done!" at us. We turned back and had a lovely conversation with Lorna, who was in a gang of people litter-picking, which may be the most Quixotic enterprise I've ever seen. As well as being an experienced cycle tourist and exuberant personality, she is an experienced Indian traveller, and I think Jonathan and I came away feeling reassured for having met her. She advised us, when in India, to relax into our stress.
So I am. I swim in a sea of stress, and peace is where you find it. I still wish they'd ease off with those horns, though.