My last blog post, now nearly three months ago, made the shock announcement that after my Chinese visa had been denied cutting me off from progressing further east, I would be flying to India to resume my journey from there. The extended silence on my blog testifies to what a miraculous, intense and incredible experience India has been – I would even go as far as saying I am glad my Chinese visa was denied, my journey needed an experience like India. I am looking forward to sharing the story with you through the next few blog posts.
Boarding the plane in Kyrgyzstan felt unnatural. Flying and breaking my chain of cycling had never been part of the plan. I wanted to cycle through China. I resigned myself to having failed but was also secretly looking forward to India.
I was met at Delhi airport by Vikas who had offered to host me through the Couchsurfing website. The short journey back to his flat seemed to show me everything I had ever expected from India; a woman carried a large water jug on her head, a man was peeing against a wall just metres from the road, a funeral procession wandered down the road, traffic was lawless. By the time we arrived at Vikas' apartment I felt I had already spent a lifetime in India. Too much change. Too fast. And yet I was confused, struggling to believe I was really here. As a bike tourer I am used to slow and subtle changes, the landscape and culture changing only about 100 kilometres per day. Being picked up and dropped somewhere completely different is a total assault on the senses. I stood on the terrace wondering if I would ever feel comfortable in this foreign and unusual country. I looked beyond the countless other rooftops that comprised Delhi, the sun burned a hazy orange hole in the polluted skyline, a classical Indian sunset. I had survived my first day in India.
After the initial disappointment of my Chinese visa, I had wanted the perfect place to resume my trip. The moment I looked at the map of India and saw that it is effectively a giant 'v' I knew that the only the only suitable place to begin was from the very bottom. Secondly, rather than take a plane which would have been cheaper, easier and quicker, there was something about travelling on a 46 hour, 3,000 kilometre train that thrilled me.
I got on the train at 10am on a Tuesday and I would eventually get off at 8am on Thursday. I was squeezed into a tight compartment with 8 other people. To make matters worse, our compartment was especially cramped because some guy was taking up all the room with his baggage. But I won't complain about him any longer, because that guy was me. I should have paid extra to check my bike into the luggage compartment, but my Indian friends had told me not to, and that if required I should just pay the train conductor a small bribe to turn a blind eye.
Trains, like much of the India I was discovering, appears to take a very relaxed view to health and safety. I spent much of the train journey leaning from the open doorway, the wind blasting my face, the country roaring past. I watched intently as people washed cows in rivers, as children played on the edge of fields while their parents were bent double tending their crops. Like the blurb of a book, the train journey offered a tantalising taster of what to expect, and got me excited to cycle across. I fell asleep that first night on the train, at last content and comfortable, lulled by the unending rhythms and motions of the train. I was one man in a country of 1.25 billion, a small dot gliding silently, invisibly, across a huge country.
As the black of night shifted to the grey of dawn inside my compartment, I leapt from my bed and rushed to my open doorway. Whilst I had slept we had travelled 600 kilometres (sometimes I wish bike touring was this easy!) and I now looked out on a new world; coconut trees were bountiful, vast rivers gushed below which the train crossed on viaducts, waterfalls cascaded down the rockface so close we were splashed inside the train. This was the famous Konkan Railway from Mumbai to Goa, a dramatic stretch of railway sandwiched between the Western Ghats mountain range and the sea.
Eventually the train sidled into the exotically-named Kanyakumari, the southern-most point of mainland India. The damp salty smell of the coast lingered heavily in the air which always reminds me of home. Kanyakumari is a sacred place for Indians, partly related to Hindu mythology, but also as the meeting place of three seas, the Bay of Bengal, the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean. Waiting here for me was my friend, Prashant, who I had met last year while cycling through Germany. He had hosted me through Couchsurfing, we had shared a fantastic two days together, added each other on Facebook, and not spoken since. When I posted on Facebook my change of plans to visit India he had sent a message promising to meet and host me wherever I was on my first weekend in India. He had booked a hotel for us and taken an overnight bus to come and meet me. When we met it was like we had never been apart, and we laughed and joked exactly like we had in Germany a year and a half ago. It was a positive reminder that these friendships I am making are stronger than time or distance apart.
But finally it was time to begin. I hugged Prashant, knowing that someday somewhere we would meet again. I climbed on my bike for the first time in 6 weeks, the entirety of India stretched before my front wheel. I visualised Delhi in the distance, more than 2,000km away. Every day sitting on the train equalled a day cycling. This thought no longer scared me. It was exciting. I began to pedal. I was on the road again.