Friday, 13 April 2012

India's Final Throw (and some friendly Aussies)

So I made it to Nepal! It's an open border between India and Nepal, but I was still surprised at how relaxed the border controls were. Many people stroll or cycle across the border, or take a ride on a cart, and I rode straight past the Nepali immigration control before I doubled back, a little sheepishly. I asked for and was given a three-month visa, handed over 102 US dollars, and while my man was organising the paperwork I wandered off to the Tourist Information office for a chat and to grab a free map. Even the Indian side was remarkably simple - only a single form to fill out and no searching questions about my reasons for being there.

I was relieved, to say the least, as my last few days in India compressed all the difficulties of travelling in India into a neat package.

I'd arrived in Ramnagar, planning to take a safari around Ronnie Corbett National Park (actually Jim Corbett National Park, but when Jonathan was here we'd started giving daft names to the Indian places, so Rishikesh was Little Chef or Ricky Lake, Dehra Dun was Desperate Dan, Khatima was Khatima Whitbread... you get the idea), where there be tigers, but when I saw the swell of activity and noise in Ramnagar, and thought of the administrative burden involved in getting into the park - and the expense, as I was on my own - I nearly carried on riding for the border. Luckily, I felt too knackered to do anything except stop.

the road above Rishikesh

Luckily, because the next morning I ran into a family of Australians who had a spare space in their safari, and though we didn't get into the park that day (and I had to get up at 5 am and bray on the door of the hotel to be let out), they suggested that I come out to the campsite where they were staying. It turned out to be a lovely couple of days, drinking and talking rubbish and drinking and exchanging travellers' tales. Steve and Sally (originally from Northern Ireland and York, respectively) had come out to India with their younger daughter Keira to meet their other daughter, Sorcha, who was travelling around India with a family friend, Paula. Best of all, they'd booked a safari the next afternoon, so at least I wouldn't have done all that shite cycling around the plains for nothing.

It was too easy. I should have known better.

The problems started when I approached the proprietor of the camp site and asked to stay. He didn't have a problem - I could stay in one of the tents for 400 rupees.

400 rupees! Not only had I been paying less than that at my hotel, not only was everyone else paying 250 rupees, but I had my own tent, which I said I'd pitch in the corner, and I offered him 100 rupees.

No no, government regulations. That was his answer to everything.

- Why is it 400 rupees?
- Government regulations.
- Why can't I pitch my own tent?
- Government regulations.
- But these guys are paying 250 rupees!
- Send them here.

I gave up. Paula (originally from Liverpool, which you can probably hear in her voice if you read her entertaining blog about her Indian travels) got the same answers when she went up to try, except for when she said that I'd be camping by the river instead, and the proprietor said that was too dangerous - tigers. We all laughed at that. Steve said we'd all sleep down by the river if there was a chance of seeing tigers.
I had meant to leave the campsite, but I drank far too much and ended up dossing in Steve and Sally's tent. I slept well.

The next morning, the proprietor collared me, smiling, and called me into his office. He invited me to sit down, perused my passport with excessive attention and told me quite seriously "what you have done is illegal."

I shrugged and took my punishment like a man. He made me fill out three forms. In India there are always two forms to complete - the hotel register and a form for foreign visitors. I was too hung over to register what the third form was. Probably a form for occasions when cyclists have their own tents, argue about pitching them, then stay anyway without paying or completing the forms in advance. There's a form for everything. I was reminded of the saying that the British introduced administration to India, so in revenge the Indians perfected it. It was nearly as bad as the time I had the police called out on me at the Caravan and Camping site in Keswick when I pitched my tent without booking in as it was late and the office was closed. I smiled my way through it, and nipped back into Ramnagar to post a parcel of old diaries and maps back to the UK, before our safari in the afternoon.

the Douglas Family

The safari was very good. I hadn't expected to see tigers, and sadly we didn't, but we came close. The guide pointed to fresh tiger prints in the track, and as we were leaving the park a black-faced monkey was putting out a warning call from the treetops to warn that a tiger was close. It was too dark by thencto see (despite the driver flashing his headlights through the trees), but the guide said that the tiger would have been laying low in the undergrowth, and as we drove by I commented that it was very easy to imagine a tiger stalking through the trees a hundred yards from the road.

tiger and cub pawprints in Corbett National Park river in Corbett National Park

What struck me most about the park was how well kept it was. Unlike the sad situation in much of the rest of India, there wasn't litter everywhere, and entry is closely controlled to ensure that the wildlife takes priority over tourism. We saw loads of deer, and oodles of birdlife. Paula said that it should be renamed Corbett Peacock Reserve, we saw so many peafowl, and heard so many of their evocative calls echoing between the trees. We saw an eagle perched on the rocks at the river's edge, and great hornbills cawing from branch to branch, making the trees shake as they shifted their huge weight. I should have been able to spot more - it's a shame, really, that I sent my guide to Indian birds back to the UK that morning.
I had been expecting lush, rich rainforests, but it's a dry deciduous forest, and the crackle of dead leaves announced the presence of animals creeping through the trees. I expect it's very different after the monsoon. Still, I really enjoyed the sense that I was interloping in these creature's habitat.

Back at the campsite, the proprietor and his mates were getting hammered on whisky, and invited me over. Aha, I thought, all is forgiven.

No. The next morning, after I'd said my farewells to Paula and the Douglas family, I went up to pay, and he made me fill out the forms again! Only two this time, at least, so perhaps his hangover wasn't as bad as it seemed to be.

Nor was India done with me - it was a pleasant enough ride along smooth quiet roads on the fringes of the national park, with lots of shelter from the encroaching trees, but I simply had no energy, and stopped at the next big town, Haldwani. Haldwani must rank (deliberate choice of word there) as one of the least pleasant places I have ever visited. It was just too busy, and I've had enough of random grinning loons staring at me when I pass by. The traffic was appalling - I had a slight sense of humour breakdown when I eventually summoned the will to leave the hotel at about 11.30, and shouted abuse at the drivers who left-hooked me while on their mobiles, at the tuk-tuk driver who thought that I'd welcome him riding alongside me and grinning inanely while I was trying to navigate the traffic and potholes, and at the beggar who grabbed my arm while I was stopping at a traffic light. Even when I got onto the open road, I missed the direct route I'd wanted to take and ended up going around the point of the triangle to the border. Only because I was given duff directions by the people I'd asked, who for some reason assumed that I'd prefer riding an extra 30 miles to my destination, rather than taking the direct road.

Ah well. At least the weather was playing its part - it was cool and overcast, and the blessed rain fell on me for the first time since Kayseri, in central Turkey. I've missed the rain. I did worry that it would become a storm and make the roads even more dangerous than in the dry, but it was a cooling rain which only lasted long enough to take the edge off the heat.

I am pleased to be out of India. The intensity of the attention is overwhelming at times, and even this nondescript border town instantly feels more relaxed. I have enjoyed India (mostly, for the same reasons I sometimes hate it), but the cycling on the plains was getting me down, and it's bound to be better here in Nepal, where there are fewer people, less traffic, and more mountains.

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