Flying time again. Exactly one month after starting my trip in HCMC, I was at the airport again. Unfortunately, the land border crossing between India and Burma is closed. With only two changes on the route Mandalay-Bangkok-Kolkata-Guwahati, I had to fly ca 4000km to move myself by 800km in straight line. Did I mention I just love flying? 😊 Well packed and with a very generous AirAsia 45kg weight limit, I showed up at Mandalay airport. The port is of a size of Kiev Żuliany (which everyone knows for sure…) with maybe one operation per hour. They also have a very cool foot massage where I spent my last Burmese Kyats.
In Kolkata I changed to IndiGo and managed to pay only for 2kg of excess baggage (a fare is very reasonable). My e-visa was stamped after an immigration officer asked why I was going to Assam. The answer “tourism” rather surprised him. Indeed, I was the only non-Indian person on the plane.
After 18 hours, I landed in Guwahati, the biggest city of Assam state. It is a big city, populated by over 1 million people, so I decided to cycle into and find a cycling shop to exchange my stem for an adjustable one. With a current setup, I had never used the lower position on my road bar and the upper one was still too low to be comfortable on 10+ hours cycling days.
Few minutes after cycling into the city, I was approached by a first beggar:
– Hello. Who are you? Where are you from? I am an English teacher. Give me donation!
-I am a student in a travel. How come do you think I have money for donations?
-Who are your parents?
-I am self-sponsored
-Tell me what is your parents’ job. I ask you for a small donation.
-Don’t you think that you should rather help me if I have just entered your country, not opposite?
I did not listen to her stupid answers. I was very surprised to be asked for a donation from an educated person…
3 minutes later, another beggar came. This time a classic one begging for money for food.
The big problem in Asia: People assume that a foreign traveller is a rich person and treat you like an ATM. I have already wrote something about smart help. Support should always act as an impulse for change and there is no way to ensure that while traveling.
Finally, after one hour, I found a shop where the owner claimed he had an adjustable stem in his second shop, 15kms further into the city. I checked three times if he is sure this stem would fit my bicycle. Finally I cycled there in a dense rain. When I arrived, they told me they made a mistake and a stem does not fit my bike. Checking three times is not enough. Everyone makes mistakes but that was just not the right moment – I was late, tired and, as a result, was very irritated.
While cycling back through the city, I was super mad. I was going 35-40kmh in a rain in a huge traffic jam, using any empty space among cars I spotted. I was cycling like they drive in India. When the traffic diluted slightly, I was overtaken by one richshaw and the very mad driver started arguing why I was not going faster than him now. I told him:
-Man, this is not a competition. When there is a traffic jam, I am faster, when there is no, you are.
Do people in India drive to win or to move? Is it a shame to be overtaken by a cyclist? I have no idea… Shortly after I overtook him again (and plenty other…)
My quite negative first impression in India was saved by two very nice girls. One in a pizza place, who spoke fluent English and was very interested in my trip (and btw – good looking 😊). I approached another one to ask for Google Maps access. (No, you cannot buy a SIM card in Assam if you do not live there). She helped me and at the end she asked for a photo with me. In a gentle, subtle way. (and btw – she also was very good looking 😉).
Guwahati is one of many locations of IIT, the best university in India. Young, educated people behave in a much more tourist-friendly way than the older generation. This is a good change.
Cycling on Trunk Road – Asian Highway 1
Roads in India are dangerous, but not as much as you may think. For sure they need an adaptation. Stop thinking about lanes and any rules, acknowledge that all asphalt surface is yours and it only depends on you which driving line you would pick. Cycling on the right? No problem, you do not have to worry about switching to the left-side traffic if you come from Europe. Driving a huge truck in the wrong direction on the fastest lane without working lights in the complete darkness? No problem, the cars from the opposite direction have lights, that is enough. Walking wherever you want because you happen to be a cow so, for God’s sake, you can. Of course, because why not? Riding in a group of 5 on one motorbike, without helmets, all looking back to wave hands to the foreign guy on a bike? This is what we call low carbon emission society!
The only problem is that you have to adapt. It can take anything between 5 days to 175 years…
After leaving the city, I got on Asian Highway 1, on that section also called Trunk Road. I had already seen signs AH1 in Thailand and Burma. It crosses India east to west. The first big thing was…a big river. Brahmaputra has ca. billion kilometres in each dimension there
Still pretty mad, I started following rikshaw. This is great about cycling in India that there are plenty of slow moving vehicles going 25-35kmh which can give you a bit of relief from air resistance. The rikshaw was occupied by 6 muslim womem (again, looking good – that is positive site of India 😉). At the beginning, they were surprised and did not know what was going on. A foreign guy on a bike in Assam, going as fast as their riskaw? After 20 minutes, when I lost rishkaw for a moment and catched it back, they started smiling, waving and encouraging to go faster. I got my own cheerleaders’ team. That’s a kind of achievement…
I attracted a lot of attention. A LOT. I was stopped for a photo at least 10 times the first day. People even did not speak English. They jumped out of their vehicles (I do not use the word ‘car’ on purpose…), stopped me, made a photo and got back. At the beginning it was funny, after some time it made me tired and I had a hard time keeping my speed constant. When I stopped in a small village to buy water, at least 10 people came to look at me, not saying anything. People in Assam are both Hindu and Muslim and this is what probably determines whether they are over friendly or very reserved. But all of them are very curious of a foreign cyclist. If I have to be honest – I prefer those reserved guys. At least they do not slow me down. Attention is nothing bad – this is part of Indian experience and you have to remember that these people have good intentions.
After 90km cycled the first day, around 5pm, the sun went down. I was really surprised. I could not adapt to the new time zome so each of 3 cycling days between Guwahati and Siliguri, I finished riding 2-3hours after sunset.
I spent the first night in Barpeta in the only hostel in the city paying 300 ruppes ($5). They woke me up 3 times to read them what I wrote on the check-in form. (my typing style is the worst in the world). Why couldn’t they wait until morning? They were not nasty. People in India can be very annoying and it is not their fault. Usually they have good intentions (or good deal to make on you). Earlier, when I went out to eat, I could not find a place serving meet. Religious staff. Some castes in Hindu can eat meat, some other not, and most of the people (actually all of those I asked for that) cannot explain how they are divided. One guy approached me, showed a good place to eat, described what I can visit in Assam and gave me his phone number to call if I would face any problems. Indians can be very annoying, but are also very kind.
The whole second day I took part in numerous races with local cyclists. You are suddenly overtaken by a guy who even do not look or smile to you. He makes a great effort to go as fast as you. He losses energy very quickly so he slows down. When you are again just behind him, he suddenly turns left and stops to maintain victory. I have already wrote sth about driving to move or to win. I have no idea what is their goal- winning in a race which they start and stop whenever they want? This is childish but every man on earth likes to prove he is the best/fastest – me also 😉 So sometimes I played with them – when they tried to overtake me, I accelerated. Then I slowed down, so they tried again. And again, and again. I was laughing, they were dying 😀 (from effort and/or embarrassment)
I also took a shortcut which taught me to never take a shortcut in India. There are two types of roads in India: highways and not-good ones. All the other vehicles took the same shortcut what ended in a big traffic jam.
The next night I spent in the hostel next to the road in Gossaigaon. I planned to stop 40km earlier but there was no questhouse and I was afraid of wild camping taking into account how much attention I attracted in Assam. These last 40kms were terrifying. Cycling in the night on the Indian highway under construction with traffic as dense as during the day and many truck going on the opposite lane is not fun. Finally, I saw a hostel. The owner wanted 1200 rupees for a room plus 300 for dinner. After a long negotiation, I went down to 1000 for everything. Still $16 is a lot given the average salary in India, but at least it was clean and food was good. In the morning, I again brought an audience.
I was low on cash so tried to cash out but the closest bank was in Dżalpaiguri. 30kms from the city, I run out of water and had only 5 rupees. I tried to convince the owner of a small shop to drop the price of a bottle of water from 10 to 5 but he did not want. They rip you off whenever they have an occasion, but helping a guy in need is so hard? Luckily, I found another 5 rupees and could buy this water. When I reached the bank, a young Indian guy shared an Internet connection with me to add money to Revolut and cash-out. Again, people in India are kind (even if most of the time you think that they are annoying).
Finally I reached Siliguri. I paid 800 rupees for a hostel after applying “a special discount for you , my friend” (aha for sure…). Why do I have to negotiate EVERYWHERE in this country? Cannot they give fair prices for their products and services? I went out to the restaurant where the servant tried to order more dishes and drinks for me than I wanted, and when I finished he again came with menu. Because a tourist comes to India only to be ripped off. I felt kind of relief exiting to Nepal the next day.
Just before leaving the country I saw a scene from a cover photo. A row of women carrying some heavy harvest. Only women. So weird…
I am writing all of that 5 months later and from current perspective I regret I did not spend more time in Assam. This is really magical place. I could visit Manas National Park (recommended by a man who approached me in Barpeta). I was passing 40kms from it and even stopped on the road to consider going there, but I resigned. I could also do a small loop in famous Meghalaya. However, dishonest business owners who give unfair prices for everything discourage me to go there again. I will wait for a generation change and until tourism will get more popular and the competition on the HORECA market will become more fierce. Maybe I will not be forced to negotiate the price for everything. India has its climate and its worth seeing. However, do not expect to chill out, this is not a holiday destnation, rather “discover the world” destination. And going by bike you ask for a bit of hassle – given local people curiosity and lack of boundaries (for some benefit, for most drawback) plus a natural tendency to overprice all local products and services for foreigners.