Around the world by bike
(2 658km - 72 days)
9/12/2019 - 17/02/2020
8-9 December – Kuala Lumper, Malaysia – Chennai, India
With cheap flights, it seemed, the further you fly, the less expensive the ticket. Therefore, I flew to Chennai via New Delhi, India’s capital, arriving around midday. With my flight from KL departing at 2 a.m. and a 3-hour transfer time in Delhi, I never slept a wink as the seats couldn’t recline.
An equally expensive taxi ride (due to the bicycle) took me into the city centre and dropped me at Paradise Guesthouse. Ironically, it wasn’t much of a paradise as rooms didn’t even come with towels. But, on the other hand, what can one expect for $7?
It took the remainder of the day to calm down, relax and breathe in India, which can take a while. Tuk-tuks jostled through traffic, holy cows meandered across busy main roads, and homeless people, baby on hip, smiled easily. Amidst the chaos, devotees prayed at pavement-side Hindu temples, while the sweet smell of incense mixed with the stench of sewage. It can all be somewhat overwhelming.
10 December – Chennai
India is enormous - it covers 3,287,263 square kilometres, making it the 7th largest country on earth. It extends from snow-covered Kangchenjunga (8586m), the 3rd highest mountain globally, to hot and steamy rice paddies in Kuttanad, 2.2m, below sea level, but I was far from any of these two points. Instead, the plan was to head south along the coast to Kanyakumari, the most southern point on mainland India.
Early morning, I reassembled the bicycle and then took to the streets of Chennai on foot. With India having a population of 1,372,000, one is always in the thick of things. Fortunately, Chennai is a coastal city and boasts the world’s second-longest urban beach. When things get too much, one can always head in that direction. You simply have to live with being stared at, but it’s easier said than done, and it got to me. Fortunately, Indians are friendly, and it’s easy to strike up a conversation.
Tamil Nadu’s state has some of India’s finest temples, and I started by visiting Kapalweeshwaram. It’s a typical, ornate and colourful Hindu temple dedicated to Shiva. It’s said the temple was constructed after the Portuguese destroyed the original one in 1566.
My walk to Fort St George took me past the San Thome Cathedral, built by the Portuguese, and Chennai’s lighthouse. Following the colourful Kapalweeshwaram temple, I thought the fort rather dull and headed to a restaurant instead. While enjoying my palak mutter paneer, I watched renovation work on the magnificent Chepauk Palace. It appeared that most of the hard labour was done by women.
11 December Chennai – Mamallapuram – 65 km
Sometimes only a movie would reflect the chaos and bizarreness of my situation. I left Chennai amidst the morning traffic and together with what felt like Chennai’s entire 10.4 million population, tuk-tuks, bicycle rickshaws and the ever-present holy cows. Astonishingly, these cows wander randomly across busy highways, making it alive to the opposite side. I, on the other hand, may not be that lucky. That said, drivers appeared aware of slow-moving traffic, and I was, by far, not the only bicycle on the road. I made my way along the coast past slum-like areas, fishing boats and ladies selling whatever was caught at night. Men in Longyis peddled their wares on Hero bicycles, and roadside carts sold coconuts and sugarcane juice.
After about 15 kilometres, I took a break, if only to give my mind a rest. I pulled into a McDonald’s to see what was sold in a country that considered the cow sacred. My breakfast muffin came with an egg and cheese and, fortunately, no patty. I don’t know if this is the norm or if only the breakfast muffin comes without meat. I thought it was a bit bland as I was already used to spicy Indian food.
Once on the bike, I soon reached Chennai’s outskirts and a new double-lane highway with a good shoulder. Add a slight tailwind, and cycling to the temple town of Mamallapuram became a breeze.
The town is known for its rock-cut temples dating to the 7th and 8th centuries. Mamallapuram is today a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was, therefore, no wonder it was immensely touristy with plenty of accommodation, food, and everything else that goes with it. Vendors sold Indian clothing and jewellery as well as trinkets from Tibet. Its UNESCO status is also reflected in the prices charged. The rest of my day was spent wandering around this fascinating town. Following a plate of momos and a costly beer, I returned to my typical Indian room.
12-13 December – Mamallapuram – Puducherry – 101 km
After coffee and breakfast at Joe’s, I headed out of Mamallapuram along the Bay of Bengal toward Puducherry. The road varied from fantastic to narrow without any shoulder. The route was often shaded as trucks and busses have, with time, cut a tunnel through overhanging branches. Fortunately, nothing lasts very long in India and whatever the road condition, it soon changed.
Many moons ago, in 1523, the Portuguese arrived in Chennai and the British and French nearly 100 years later. In 1746, the French attacked and took over the British-built fort. It didn’t take the British long to recapture the fort and the French sailed for Pondicherry, which remained under French rule until 1954. To this day, the old part of town is lined with French-era townhouses, coffee shops and restaurants. I opted for a spot at a popular ashram guesthouse where sparse rooms were clean and the courtyard filled with plants. A ground-floor aircon room came at 950 rupees ($13.50). I could have had a less expensive place but I was too lazy to carry the panniers upstairs.
Every morning before sunrise, streets are cleaned and kolams drawn. Kolams are thought to bring prosperity to homes and new ones are made daily.
I woke to bucketing rain, making it easy to stay one more day. Wandering the streets, I bought myself a new, small camera. I shouldn’t have spent that much money on a camera, but what’s done is done. Being a rainy day, the market made a perfect place to try out my new toy.
14 December – Pondicherry – Chidambaram - 80 km
Waking to a drizzle and damp laundry, I wasn’t sure I wanted to leave. However, the weather soon cleared, and I packed up and cycled to Auroville, a community of foreigners living in the forest. It’s a settlement of about 25000 from all over the globe, and I spotted many organic farms, restaurants and arty shops. The community is dedicated to peace, sustainability and divine consciousness.
From Auroville, the plan was to cycle past the fossil woods, but it was already late, and after a quick stop for a cup of milk tea, I was on my way. The secondary road I wanted to take petered out completely, and best to return to the hectic main street with its deafening noise.
Roadside stands squeezed orange juice and sold coconut juice, not something I complained about. My snacks vary from country to country, and in India it’s a combination of samosas, vada and pakora. So with a bag full, I continued to Chidambaram.
Overnighting at Chidambaram was to visit the temple complex of Nataraja. In a heavy rainstorm, I cycled into the hectic town centre, phew. Dripping wet, the first hotel claimed they were full. I wonder if they were. Not much further, I uncovered a local joint for only 300 rupees - the price reflected the lack of cleanliness. Following a massive dosa and more sweet tea, I popped into the temple, which had an enormous courtyard with a lovely cool breeze. Legend has it that Shiva and Kali got into a dance-off judged by Vishnu. Shiva dropped an earring and picked it up with his foot, a move Kali couldn’t manage. As a result, Shiva won the title of Nataraja, or Lord of the Dance, and to this day people come to worship him.
15 December – Chidambaram – Kumbakonam – 78 km
Instead of cycling along the coast, I veered inland and headed to Kumbakonam with its 18 colourful temples. It was a relief to be on a rural road where chanting from temples drifted across rice paddies and villagers lived in nipa huts and bathed in rivers. Junction towns were no less hectic than bigger cities. Men huddled together, drinking chai from corrugated iron sheds, and women cared for goats and bathed their treasured cows. About halfway, I stopped at the World Heritage-listed Chola temple of Gangaikondacholapuram (quite a name.). It’s a massive 49-metre-tall temple with an equally large Nandi (a bull) facing the temple. Unfortunately, I bumped my foot against a protruding metal pipe. I was convinced I had broken my second toe. Fortunately, I managed to cycle as long as there was no unexpected stopping.
I continued to Kumbakonam and, once there, tried to duct tape the toes together. Still, it brought no relief from the pain and discomfort. All it did was attract even more attention to me and my, by then, swollen foot. I was starving as I didn’t eat all day and hobbled to the nearest Meals restaurant, where food was served on a banana leaf. Finding beer in Tamil Nadu was difficult, and one had to buy it at a government wine shop. Wine shops sold liquor from behind bars, and my presence attracted much attention. I don’t think women ever frequented these places and with my beer clutched under my arm, I limped to my budget room. What a pathetic sight it must have made.
16-18 December – Kumbakonam – Trichy – 101 km
I cried with pain and frustration when I knocked my toe against the foot of the bed. The word ‘fuck’ left my mouth with alarming frequency. I rubbed on a lotion, said to numb pain and took a Cataflam. I wish I’d shoes with solid, stiff soles like cycling shoes instead of my bendy slip-ons.
There was nothing to do but pack up and cycle out of Kumbakonam, as cycling was much less painful than walking, provided I placed the pedal under the foot’s heel instead of the ball.
I intended to pop into Darasuram’s Airavatesvara Temple constructed between 1146-73. Still, I was already past the turn-off when I looked. A few kilometres further, I reached Thanjavur, from where Hinduism spread beyond India.
Thanjavur had two remarkable sights, the Royal Palace and the Brihadishwara Temple. I won’t bore you with details but will mention the Chola dynasty of southern India was one of the longest-ruling dynasties in world history. All temples visited that far date to this magical time of India. Unfortunately, maintenance work was being carried out at the Brihadishwara Temple, and the complex was thus not very photogenic. Still, the details remain mind-blowing and, at first, I thought of overnighting in Thanjavur as, at sunset, this must be a wonderful place to visit. However, I finished visiting both temples and the palace early and carried on to Trichy, a further 60 kilometres down the drag.
The going was relatively easy, as I’d become used to the frenzied junction towns, where all one could do was laugh at the sheer madness of it all. “Livin’ on a prayer”, sprang to mind. With me leaving Thanjavur long past midday, reaching Trichy was around 5 p.m. and in the craziest traffic imaginable. I pulled into the first budget option. Here is the weirdest thing, it turned out to be the exact place I stayed nearly 11 years earlier on my first cycle around India en route from Pakistan to Nepal.
The following day, I stayed put to visit the famous Rockfort temple and the Sri Ranganathaswammy Temple. Instead of cycling around Trichy, I took a tuk-tuk which made the going far more effortless, both for my stress levels and painful toe. First up was the Rockfort temple, built on top of a massive rocky outcrop. It took some climbing to get to the top with beautiful views of the city below. From there, I shared a tuk-tuk with three Indian ladies on their way to the Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple, most likely India’s most significant as it has 49 Vishnu shrines and seven gopurams (ornate entrance gates).
I wanted to do my laundry, but no one would believe me if I said I couldn’t find washing powder. I made a more serious effort and bought a small sachet at a hole-in-the-wall shop the following day. As the laundry was still dripping wet in the morning, I paid for an additional night and lazed about as I wasn’t feeling well.
19-20 December Trichy – Madurai – 130 km
I thought I was coming down with the flu, hoping it wasn’t dengue fever. I packed up and cycled to Madurai. It was a most challenging day and the going slow. I felt dreadful and had little energy, but pushed on. The only interesting thing I noticed was a Christian church mimicking the local religious buildings, clearly incorporating both Islam and Hinduism. This custom isn’t surprising, as all religions have been doing it since the very beginning. I find all religions interesting and bizarre and wholeheartedly believe all should be taught at school.
I can’t describe my relief in reaching Madurai (traffic and all) and a room where I could be horizontal.
The plan was all along to stay the next day to revisit the famous Meenakshi Temple. I felt dreadful but dragged myself to the temple. It was, once again, a massive complex, and it’s said to be the epitome of India’s temple architecture. But, unfortunately, one could only take pictures from the outside.
I thought I’d contracted a mild case of dengue fever, and I say “mild” as, if it was anything like the previous two cases, I wouldn’t have been able to leave the bed by then. The body aches, and pain behind the eyes, coupled with a fever and diarrhoea (not going into detail about the walk from the temple), made me expect the worst. I thus planned on staying a few days in Madurai. Arghhh, things were not going my way. In hindsight, I’d most likely contracted the dreaded Covid virus but was unaware of such a virus then.
Eventually, I started feeling better and could at least walk up the few stairs to my room without resting. I even took a slow walk to the Palace to get out of the room and move my legs a bit.
Doing nothing made me realise one can’t order a curry in India. That’s right; there isn’t such a thing. “Curry” is, in fact, a British word derived from the word “Kari”, meaning sauce in Tamil. Tamil is the language spoken in the state of Tamil Nadu where I found myself.
I felt much better and planned on leaving Madurai the next day. I didn’t know if it was a good idea as the 25th is a public holiday in India. It’s most likely more of a bank holiday than a religious one. Even with more than 900 million Hindus, India’s constitution doesn’t allow for an official government religion. According to the 2011 census, roughly 80% of the population is Hindu, 14% Islam, 2.3% Christian, and about 1.7% Sikh. With those figures in mind, a holiday like Christmas is more of a party day, much like I would celebrate Diwali at home - not sure what it’s all about but still having a drink or two and shooting a few fireworks. I’m sure, all slightly inappropriate for Hindus. I didn’t like being on the road on days like that, but I was more than ready to leave my hovel of a room.
I’m not a spiritual or religious person and don’t celebrate any specific day or event. Still, these celebrations are a reminder of how similar all religions are. All seemingly have a holiday full of light and joy and giving. A holiday where families get together (mostly decked out in new clothes) and a day people celebrate their good fortune and share with others by giving gifts or money. A day when people forget about work, count their blessings, eat (mostly too much) and celebrate family and friends. I may even don a red pointy hat—peace to all.
Bicycle rickshaws are still a popular form of transport in India. I always felt sorry for these guys; I’m sure it’s backbreaking work. While walking the streets of Madurai, I was once again approached and offered a temple area tour. Although I have seen most of it, the chap was immensely enthusiastic and I accepted his offer. At first, I thought of giving him the 100 rupees he wanted for an hour’s tour and leaving, but he was highly excited and I got in.
What a humbling experience it turned out to be. Not only did he pedal me around the place, but he also acted as a tour guide and pointed out interesting markets and customs. Our tour lasted over two hours, and he was incredibly proud of his job; it nearly brought me to tears. On passing his friends and acquaintances, he announced to all where I was from (or at least that was what I thought he said), all slightly embarrassing. Still, he had such a big grin that I couldn’t help liking him. I gave him what money I’d left, which wasn’t much as I didn’t take my wallet or camera on walking out. The 500 rupees (a mere $7) gave me the impression he’d never been paid that amount for two hours of work, which made me bawl my eyes out once in the room.
India has 780 languages, the world’s second-highest number (after Papua New Guinea with 839). Contrary to what I believe, Hindi isn’t the official language in India. Instead, the constitution of India doesn’t give any language the status of a national language. With 780 languages it’s best to leave that can of worms alone. English is widely understood and spoken; about 50% of the population speaks Hindi as a first language. To make things even more confusing, most states have an official language.
25 December - Madurai – Sattur – 106 km
The streets were still quiet cycling out of Madurai. The plan was to meander in the direction of Dhanushkodi, a stone’s throw from Sri Lanka (but without a ferry connection). There and then I made a U-turn and headed through farmlands toward Kanyakumari. The area has an interesting history, but 15 kilometres out, I realised I was travelling into the prevailing wind.
The settlements along the way were relatively rural, and I received a good few stares. Farmers were drying their grain crop on the tarmac while waiting for vehicles to drive over it before winnowing it. It mainly appeared jowar, or sorghum, and ragi (an extremely nutritious millet), as well as bajra, also a type of millet. I don’t know whether this is correct as I know little about these grains, or are they perhaps seeds?
It was a relatively short day, and I arrived early in Sattur, situated on the bank of the Vaippar River. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much to do in town; it was only a tiny hamlet with about a population of 30,000. Fortunately, there were more than enough food places around to keep me going until the morning.
26 December – Sattur – Tirunelveli – 90 km
I left following my usual morning chai, and no sooner were I underway when suddenly the sky darkened and took on an unusual glow. On looking up, I noticed an eclipse of the sun and pulled off to take a few shots. I wasn’t very successful in my attempt, except for a few bizarre pictures, partly due to the filter, I guess. I used the tripod, but I was on a bridge, and the vibration of the vehicles didn’t do much for the stability of the ground. All I got was a few crappy shots.
Then it was on to Vettuvan Koil, an unfinished 8th-century rock-cut temple. Legend has a rivalry between a father and son, resulting in the son finishing his sculpture on the lower hills first. Unfortunately, the father was so mad that he killed the son, and the shrine remained unfinished. However, the walk to the top was more than worth it. Not only did it have a stunning view of the tiny but colourful village below but it also came with interesting rock-cut carvings.
From there, Tirunelveli was about 45 km through a very rural part of India. Not only did I receive (understandably) a large amount of well-meaning attention, but once again, I was very impressed with India. It seemed the entire area was being transformed into a large wind farm. Well done, India.
27 December – Tirunvelveli – Kanyakumari – 89 km
The ride to Kanyakumari was uneventful, through what is known as India’s deep south. I only stopped once to have tea and to get fudge and vegetable puffs. The wind turbines increased, and I was happily going with the wind. However, I feared it could change once I’ve rounded the subcontinent’s southern tip.
Kanyakumari was a total madhouse, and it felt like India’s entire 1.3 billion population had descended on this small town for the weekend. Schools had a short 10-day break over this time, and every man and his dog appeared on holiday. All hotels were chock-a-block full and the only room available was a 2000 rupee one which came without a top sheet, hot water or a towel. I was slightly peed off as I knew they were ripping people off, but nothing one could do as it was simple demand and supply.
The interesting part about Kanyakumari is not only its most southern location on the Indian subcontinent but its location along the Bay of Bengal, the Arabian Sea, and the Indian Ocean. But, unfortunately, the crowds got the better of me. After snapping a pic or two of the Vivekananda memorial, situated 400 metres offshore and dedicated to Swami Vivekananda as well as the statue of Thiruvalluvar (an ancient Tamil poet), I returned to the calm of my room.
28–31 December 2019 – Kanyakumari – Kovalam – 94 km
It was the first morning I felt more or less healthy after my illness and a good thing too, as it turned out a rather hilly ride. Little did I know that this rollercoaster energy ride would continue for some time. The coastal road was a particularly scenic one along the Laccadive Sea. The road led past the smallest of fishing hamlets, deserted beaches and traditional boat builders. Any water stops came with a barrage of questions, mainly “What’s your good name?”, What’s your country?” and “You’re a-gee?” (their way of pronouncing “age”). Halfway, the route crossed into the state of Kerela, well known for its backwaters, something clearly visible right from the start.
Towards the end of the day, one last hill remained pretty Kovalam, a very touristy beach town and the first time seeing Western tourists on my cycle from Chennai. The beachfront was lined with hotels and restaurants. Gone were the days of inexpensive rooms and cheap eats. Instead, pricy digs overlooking the beach became home that night. Although lovely, the price was way over my budget, and I knew I would have to look for cheaper accommodation in the morning. However, the location was great and the beach looked ever so inviting; add the sound of the ocean and it was close to paradise.
The following day was the big trek to a less expensive place around the corner. Again, leg wax and pedicure made walking around without looking like a gorilla possible.
The following two days were spent lazing around as there wasn’t much to do in tiny Kovalam. New Year’s Eve started early with at least four bands walking the beachfront, which was about one kilometre. It was a cacophony of deafening music that went on all night. Domestic tourists loved it and followed them up and down the beachfront, dancing to the music. Midnight came with a few firecrackers but no fireworks, as expected.
1 January 2020 – Kovalam – Varkala – 61 km
I was happy to leave Kovalam as one can’t do anything for long. Getting out of Kovalam meant pushing the bike up a rather steep hill to the main road, which I only achieved with the help of a friendly shop owner. The year had only begun, and already I’d my first random act of kindness. I doubt I would have made it on my own, as cycling in slides has disadvantages. Moreover, the hill was so steep, I kept slipping out of my sandals. The rest of the day was a short but pleasant ride through rural areas where a foreign woman on a bicycle was clearly a novelty.
A breakfast stop was equally enjoyable as it was only a tiny roadside stall where the owner appeared somewhat surprised to have a foreigner at his humble booth. The meal consisted of two tostadas, a breakfast dish made with rice flour and coconut and served with a masala egg, all washed down with a glass of masala tea.
My route followed a narrow road with the ocean on one side and the backwaters on the other, making an interesting ride. So narrow was this strip of land between the road and the sea, there was barely enough space for a dwelling. Most of the ones built along the ocean were in ruins, and it appeared a retaining wall had been added to stem rough seas. The ruins could be leftovers from the 2004 tsunami which hit the area.
Once in Varkala, finding accommodation didn’t take long as most domestic tourists had already left. That said, the beach was still packed with primarily Indian tourists and only a few foreigners. The rooms’ prices had also nearly returned to normal and cost 700 Indian rupees for a decent room with a hot water shower and a large balcony, a mere 250 metres from the beach. This find left more than enough time for a swim, a meal of chana masala, and, of course, more tea.
2-3 January – Varkala – Alappuzha – 112 km
So often in India, the question “Why are you travelling by bicycle?” is asked. It’s difficult to answer as there is no social or moral justification for what I do. Some may even call it selfish as I only do what I enjoy. Some people even call me brave, something I find somewhat embarrassing, as I’m far from fearless. It would have been brave if I had stayed in the city and continued working in the concrete jungle until pensionable age. The reality is that my unauthoritarian personality and inability to conform make me ill-suited for a happy life in a structured social society. It’s best for all I roam freely. Hahaha, I guess it’s easier to say, “That’s what I like doing.”
I mostly followed the coastal road, making a relaxed and scenic ride, albeit slow. Unfortunately, devastating floods swept through Kerala in 2018. Although Kerala got on its feet amazingly quickly, it appeared some of the coastal roads had only been repaired by adding a layer of gravel, making a slightly bumpy and slow ride. Halfway through the day, I opted for the main road. It was far more comfortable going but somewhat uninteresting, as is usually the case with main roads.
The most interesting part was cycling slap-bang into a protest. I’m not sure what it was all about, but thousands of people (men only) gathered. Police ushered me through the crowds like a celebrity, and the mass of people opened up as Moses did with the Red Sea. I was relieved to clear the madness, and as the road was closed to vehicles, I’d it to myself into the city.
Dream Nest Stay Hostel made a cheap and relaxing place to stay. As a room with a mattress on the floor only came at 150 rupees, I paid for two nights, did laundry and updated all I had neglected.
4-5 January – Alappuzha – Fort Kochi – 60 km
It was another short ride from Alappuzha to Fort Kochi with its mix of Portuguese, Dutch and British history. Kochi’s history goes back many hundreds of years and the St Francis Church in town is the oldest in India. Vasco da Gama arrived in 1498, and built a fort. Hence the name, and Fort Kochi remained in Portuguese hands for 160 years until the Dutch destroyed the fort and held the area for 112 years. Finally, the British took control in 1795, and the area remained British until Indian independence in 1947. Long before Europeans arrived along the Malabar Coast, Arabian and Chinese traders frequented the area searching for spices, especially pepper, cinnamon, cardamom, cloves and sandalwood. I found it even more interesting that there was an area known as “Jew Town” complete with a synagogue. It’s said Jews arrived in India from Judea during King Solomon’s reign and became known as Malabari Jews. However, I believe only a handful of Jewish people remain in town today.
Nowadays, Fort Kochi is known chiefly for its Chinese fishing nets, laidback travellers’ lifestyle and arty cafes.
As always, the backstreets were far more interesting and, on my wanderings, I came upon the washing Ghats. In this fascinating place, laundry is still done by hand. Men stood knee-deep in water, washing and wringing clothes then hung out in the sun to dry.
By evening, I bought a ticket for the Kathakali show. The make-up is highly elaborate and takes more than an hour to apply and the public can watch the process. I only watched a few minutes and then ran to the waterfront to see if I could snatch a few pics of the Chinese fishing nets at sunset. I didn’t wait for sunset as I didn’t want to miss the show which started at 6 p.m. and sunset was only at 6.15. After a few shots, I hurried back to the theatre to watch the show. The performance is all about storytelling using hand signals, facial expressions and eye movement. Before the performance, the most extraordinary thing is that seeds of the Chunda flower are placed under the eyelid to turn them red. And to think they do this every night, 365 times a year.
The rest of the evening was spent at the hostel in the company of other travellers, chatting and enjoying a Kingfisher beer.
6 January – Fort Kochi – Chavakkad – 90 km
I was no ball of energy due to going to bed past 2h00. Fortunately, it was easy riding and a pleasure out on the road. The Fort Kochi ferry operated to Vypin Island, a narrow strip of land between the ocean and the backwaters. At first, the road was far too busy to my liking, but the minor coastal road turned out a bumpy, potholed one, and I returned to the madness of the main road.
One more ferry ride took me to the mainland and then it was a far quieter road leading through tiny one-lane fishing hamlets. With all my zigzagging I didn’t get very far and called it a day at Chavakkad which had loads of accommodation as well as food.
7 January – Chavakkad – Kozhikode (Calicut) – 90 km
Phew, what a slow ride it turned out. The road was rather bumpy and varied between excellent and impassable at times. Fortunately, two ferry rides across rivers made the day slightly shorter than expected. That said, it was a lovely ride (mostly) along the coast.
Cycling in India can be taxing at times, as the constant attention gets to me. From small children to older people, all are interested in your doings, all with the best intentions, and I wouldn’t want it any other way. As a woman, even an old bag like me, no ride goes without the usual whistles and hissings like a snake, something I can do without. From time to time, one gets approached with clearly other intentions. Still, they usually beat a hasty retreat on spotting the age difference. It’s the only time in my life when being old is an advantage. I never thought there could be an advantage to old age, but there you have it.
During the day, I met two other cyclists, one from Spain and one from Tunisia, on their way south. They met somewhere along the way and were cycling together for the time being.
Once in Calicut, it took weaving through the insane evening traffic to the Alakapuri Hotel. Built around a courtyard, the rooms were motel-style and perfect. The onsite restaurant where one could sit and have a beer was a bonus, but first I’d had to do laundry and fix a flat tyre before relaxing with a cold Kingfisher.
Soon after leaving, I discovered a nationwide strike in India. Let me rather say “I think” it was nationwide and not only in Kerala. The advantage was I’d the road virtually to myself and sped along to Kannur in record time. On the other hand, not a single restaurant or shop was open to getting water or something to eat. Food wasn’t all-important, but the water was. Fortunately, I located two stands where water was available. Thank goodness.
I only stopped once at the Thalassery Fort, the British’s first-ever fort along the Malabar Coast in 1705. The fort has many secret rooms and even a tunnel leading to the Arabian Sea.
Once in Kannur, I located a budget hotel; fortunately, most Indian hotels have “room service”, meaning they will buy food and bring it to your room. I was more than happy and ordered two meals, which must have been unusual as he repeated the order three times.
9 January – Kannur – Kasaragod – 100 km
The day started with an early morning ferry crossing. These boats never fail to amaze and, as mentioned before, the fee was a mere 5 or 10 Indian rupees. These boats must run as a charity as they came with a captain, a ticket seller, as well as a ticket collector who collected the ticket and promptly dropped it in the river. I usually paid the same for the bicycle and got a hand in loading the bike and panniers onto the boat. The ride is usually only long enough for the other passengers to inquire about my good name, country, and age.
Shortly beyond the river, my path came to an abrupt end at a railway line and, while wondering how to get the bike across the double tracks, a friendly guy offered to carry it across. He must have underestimated the weight as soon sweat started dripping from his face. I encouraged him by telling him how strong he was, as I was scared he’d leave the bike in the middle of the tracks.
The Malabar coast is littered with forts, but I only visited one being the Bekal Fort. Built around 1650, it’s the largest fort in India and large it indeed is. During the years, it had been occupied by various rulers as well as the British.
From Bekal, it was barely 15 kilometres to Kasaragod, where a basic room on the outskirts of town facing the traffic into the city centre became home.
My funny story for the day: Maybe you can remember I broke a toe about three weeks ago? The toe was on the mend, and I could walk without a limp. But, here is the amusing part: On curling my toes, that toe stuck straight up and looked like giving someone the middle finger…or toe? I wondered if it would ever come right? Hahaha, one never knows when you may need the ability to do such a thing.
10 January - Kasaragod – Camp 21 – 40 km
The previous night’s room, as mentioned before, was extremely basic. In fact, out of the three sliding devices on the door, two were broken out of the frame, and only the very bottom one was in place. I approached reception and enquired if the hotel was safe. Of course, they said yes and moved me to a different room. This room was equally filthy and also only had one sliding lock, but at least in the middle of the door. I’ve slept in some dodgy places, but this one was streaks ahead of even the worse of them.
Around 2 a.m. angry voices could be heard with someone kicking a door, explaining the missing laches. Right there and then I packed up and left the place. The two guys at reception were already sleeping and somewhat surprised to see me, but they let me out. I cycled to the nearest decent hotel in the pitch dark (clearly not the best part of town). The staff were also in bed but woke and booked me in. I was relieved being in a decent hotel with an elevator, towels, bedsheets and even air-conditioning.
The time was long past 3 a.m. before I finally got into bed and could have a decent, albeit short night’s sleep.
I was no ball of energy cycling out of Kasaragod shortly past 8 o’clock. Fortunately, there’s always sugarcane juice sellers for when energy runs low. On reaching Camp 21, situated right on a lonely stretch of beach and with two nipa huts, rooms as well as camping, I knew this was my spot. I parked off, and no one was going to get me away from there.
11 January – Camp 21 – Udupi – 72 km
The eclipse of the moon never materialised, or I’d my date or time wrong. I waited and waited, but nothing happened. At least I was in bed by 1 a.m. and slept like a log until woken by chanting from a nearby temple. Not a bad way to start a day. I speak under correction but think the chanting had something to do with the annual pilgrimage to Sabarimala Sree Dharma Sastha Temple, dedicated to the Hindu celibate deity, Ayyappan. It’s said one of the largest yearly pilgrimages globally, with an estimated 40 or 50 million devotees visiting every year. For days, I’d witnessed thousands of vehicles richly decorated with flowers and flags heading in the direction of the temple. The temple, which has a long history, is located in the Periyar Tiger Reserve. I understood the temple is only open once a year during this time. The pilgrimage to Sabarimala includes a penance of 41 days consisting of a strict vegetarian diet, celibacy, teetotalism and no cutting of nails or hair. It’s a complex pilgrimage with many rules, and I wasn’t even going to try to understand it.
Most of the day was spent cycling along the main road as finding minor roads were nearly impossible. Local knowledge told me there were no ferries across rivers. I tried a few times but mostly got spat out on the main road. At least, I met some super friendly people.
Once in Udupi, all hotels were chock-a-block full. I wondered if it was due to the Sabarimala festival or if it was always this popular. The town is home to a very popular 13th-century Krishna Temple and thus an important pilgrimage site for Hindus.
On unsuccessfully trying a few places close to the temple, I called in the help of Booking.com. Finally, I found accommodation closer to the centre of town. I planned to visit the temple the following morning and stay an additional day to give me time to do the usual chores.
The following day was spent catching up with duties neglected, and it left little time to explore. The day, however, begged another visit to Sri Krishna Temple, which is more like an ashram, as it houses various lodgings and restaurants and multiple plays/performances. It’s a busy area with thousands of devotees milling about, and I enjoyed the evening carnival atmosphere.
13 January - Udupi – Murdeshwar – 103 km
I woke to a racket outside my window and found the market a hive of activity. It was time to get up anyhow, and following coffee, I cycled out of Udupi. The route left the state of Kerala and Karnataka was slightly more undulating but equally scenic. Rivers were busy places, and I was surprised at the amount of fishing, as most people were vegetarian. A breakfast stop came at 20 kilometres and the rest of the day was easy cycling with only a few stops to drink sugarcane or coconut juice.
At around 3.30 p.m. I cycled into the dusty temple town of Murdeshwar, a beachside pilgrimage town. A room came at a measly 500 rupees and easy ambled to the 18-storey Shri Murdeshwar temple. Together with hundreds of pilgrims, we rode the elevator to the top floor which had lovely views of the surrounding beaches and a colossal statue of Shiva.
Beyond sunset, there wasn’t a great deal to do but retreat to the room, order room service and have a relaxing evening.
14-15 January – Murdeshwar – Gokarna – 78 km
Following smaller roads are always interesting and cycling through these tiny traditional settlements, one stuck out like a sore thumb. However, even these tiny places can be jam-packed with traffic, and it took weaving one’s way through the congestion to the centre.
Eventually, I turned off to the pilgrim town of Gokarna. The town is famous for two reasons; firstly, as a holy town where pilgrims traditionally first wash in the ocean before visiting the temples. Secondly, it’s very popular with alternative Europeans, whether for the beaches or spiritual reasons. All this made Gokarna immensely interesting, and I stayed two nights.
16 January – Gokarna – Patnam Beach, Palolem – 87 km
A relatively small and bumpy road, busy with school busses and motorbikes, led out of Gokarna. The path came to an abrupt end on reaching the Gangavali River. Fortunately, a small boat ferried people across, and they didn’t mind taking bicycles. However, the foreigner was always the primary source of interest. Some appeared somewhat suspicious of the stranger in their midst. On the opposite side, the ever-friendly Indians helped with the bike and panniers.
Then followed a hilly ride along a rural road; sadly, the path ended, leaving no option but to continue on the main road. Cycling along a Main Road is like watching paint dry. Mercifully, the road was in good condition and the going easy. But, unfortunately, the strike in Karnataka meant all businesses were closed, and nearly impossible to find water, let alone food.
Once across the Karnataka/Goa border, locating food was a priority. From there on, it was a short ride to beachy Palolem. En route, I met another cyclist heading south. It’s always nice to chat with other riders and hear where they’re from and where they’re going.
Palolem is located along two beautiful bays, jam-packed with beach huts and it didn’t take long to find a suitable one. I can’t recall when I’ve seen that many white people all in one place - these whites all look the same to me.
Micky’s was the perfect spot with a bar and restaurant right on the beach, a true paradise. In real Goan style, they had an open-mike evening, and I was astonished at the talent. Staying two nights was an easy choice.
18 January – Palolem Beach – Agonda – 10 km
I felt like moving on but didn’t get far as just over the hill was pretty Agonda Beach with rows of beach huts, a restaurant, a bar and shops selling all kinds of trinkets and clothing. I loved everything they sold, from the jewellery to the colourful hippie-style clothing and, if I could, I would have bought it all. So instead, I settled for a beach hut and parked off the rest of the day.
Before sunset, I took a 20-minute jog and was happy my toe seemed to have healed. Still, I haven’t tried running with running shoes but planned on giving it a go the next time as I didn’t think I would ever be a barefoot runner.
19 January – Agonda – Panaji – 80 km
I was slow in leaving, and it was reasonably late when I left my comfortable accommodation. The ride was a hilly one, to say the least, and the last 15 kilometres were along a road in the process of being rebuilt – what a mess! Still, I was rather impressed with this very ambitious project.
Panaji, the state capital, is a laid-back and easy-going town, known for its old Portuguese quarters with typical Portuguese-style architecture. I cycled around the narrow streets lined with brightly painted colonial-style buildings looking for accommodation, of which there were plenty. Mostly, these properties catered to the higher income tourists, and it took a while to find a suitable place.
20 January – Panaji – Arambol – 45 km
I left Panaji via a ferry across the Mandovi River, complete with a floating casino. It was easy cycling via Singuerim, and I made a quick stop at the Aguada fortress. As I was cycling along the old Portuguese trade route coast, it made me realise what I learnt at school wasn’t entirely correct. The discovery of the sea route to India from Europe, via the Cape of Good Hope, was under Vasco da Gama’s command. What was omitted was the great Mr da Gama hired an Indian navigator along the Kenyan coast to sail them to India. In typical European arrogance of the time (1498), he never bothered recording this person’s name. I guess without this person, Da Gama might never have reached India. I wonder if anyone knows the name of this unnamed Indian who made one of the most significant sea route discoveries possible.
Once in Arambol, I located the Peace Garden with a restaurant and a few nipa huts. The huts were terribly basic but had a bathroom of sorts and, as it was only 400 rupees, I offloaded the bicycle.
The plan was on staying only a day or two but, by the second day, I enrolled on a five-day yoga course and, in the end, stayed much longer than anticipated.
Goa had changed tremendously during the years but, still, I considered it the largest collection of alternative people anywhere (OK, except maybe Dahab, Bangkok and Otres). Arambol Beach became a circus in the evening with dozens of would-be artists practising their newly acquired skills or selling artistic creations. I enjoyed only a few things more than walking along the beach at sunset, witnessing all that was happening.
I was getting slightly bored and played on the internet. In the process, I ordered a few supplements online, something I shouldn’t have done. Unfortunately, by the time the yoga was finished, my order still hadn’t arrived, and I waited (not patiently) the following two days.
There wasn’t much more to do than play with the camera. My friend, Megan, asked about the forehead markings often seen in India. I know little about this custom but will explain the little I know. Someone once explained it to me, but it’s a rather complex custom.
I know these markings as Tilakas or Bindis. I’ve seen sadhus or holy men with horizontal white lines across their foreheads and others with vertical lines from the nose to their hairline. Others have big red dots between their eyes. I believe these are known as Tilakas. Women mainly wear bindis. Indian women don’t wear wedding rings, but traditionally wear a red dot on their forehead, which is also supposed to protect against negativity. I like wearing (from time to time) those sticky sparkling ones because they are beautiful. I’m not even sure if it’s considered inappropriate.
Tilakas (again, in my opinion) mainly refers to a person’s religion. The two vertical lines are worn by those worshipping Vishnu or Krishna. Followers of Shiva wear three horizontal lines symbolising Shiva’s third eye. Those with red powder markings are worshippers of Devi or the goddess Kali. As I said, don’t quote me.
My online supplement order never arrived and, after waiting an extra week, I finally packed up and left my humble hut.
3 February – Arambol – Kankavli – 85 km
I was on my planned route exactly five kilometres before veering right on a tiny rural road. It’s always exciting cycling down these small lanes, and the villagers were equally surprised to see me. I headed slightly inland as I have cycled the coastal route on two previous occasions. The inland path was rather hilly and the going somewhat slow. Towards the end of the day, I returned to the main road as there’s always more chance of food and accommodation along the bigger roads.
Across the Janavali River, I spotted not one but two hotels. I opted for the River Lodge, slightly cheaper at 800 rupees. It was a pleasure to have a decent room with a hot shower following two weeks of living in a hut. I showered for the longest time ever, but was still shocked at seeing myself in a mirror. I looked far worse than I expected.
Later, I ambled across the road and had supper at a slightly more upmarket restaurant than my usual street-side dahbas. I was their only customer and was treated like a queen.
4 February - Kankavli – Rajapur - 55 km
I returned to the hilly road, and hilly it sure was. The route followed the foothills of the Western Ghats, and there wasn’t a kilometre of level road in sight. Only once did I reach a high-point where I saw hills below me, but then the steady climb continued. Villages along the way were tiny, and not much happened except cycling past a few cashew nut farms.
Around midday, two friendly Indian lads stopped and invited me to lunch. How nice of them. After an omelette, a Seven-up and a bottle of water, my energy was replenished, and I was ready to face the hills. On leaving, the waiter came out with a hotel card a few kilometres further north, which made up my mind. Although early, I called it a day, did my laundry and lazed around.
5 February – Rajapur – Kolhapur
Some days are more surprising than others. On leaving my abode, which was opposite the bus station, I suddenly had the idea to check out the bus to Kolhapur, located on the eastern side of the Western Ghats. This wouldn’t only save me cycling up a steep mountain pass but, most of all, it would get me off the narrow mountain road. As luck would have it, there was a bus right then and in no time, the bicycle and panniers were loaded on the bus. I sat in front with the driver with the bike wedged in between us.
It was a hair-raising journey, and all I could do was hold on for dear life. I was happy not on the bike as there was no space for a bicycle on the narrow road. Vehicles passing had to do so with two sets of wheels off the paved section. I say paved section, but it was more “what was left of the paved section”. Our bus crawled up the pass, overtaking anything moving slower than us, whether it was possible to see what was coming from the front or not. We arrived in Kolhapur shortly past three and after flying down the pass at breakneck speed.
Kolhapur is located way off the tourist route, clearly visible judging by the attention my presence created. The town is well known for its fascinating temple complex dating to 10AD, and there were a few other things I wanted to explore. I, however, discovered my phone holder had come undone, making navigating the busy town centre difficult. I checked out a few places, but they didn’t provide accommodation for single persons. Most of the budget accommodation catered to pilgrims and a few blocks further my front pannier broke loose. I opted for the nearest accommodation to fix all that needed fixing.
The room was more of a storeroom than a bedroom, and they could do well by wiping a damp cloth over the walls and floors. Once all was fixed, I took a stroll to the temple, but cameras weren’t allowed and, as there was nowhere to leave it, I didn’t go inside. Instead, I opted for a restaurant and had my usual vegetable masala and roti.
It was great wandering around Kolhapur, especially around the market area. On non-cycling days, I have more time, and I’m more relaxed and can enjoy the people’s daily doings. It was midday when I got to the market, and vendors were in a jovial mood. All laughingly pointed out the ones they wanted me to capture and rewarded me with what they had on offer. I chewed on tender carrots, sweet peas and mandarins as I strolled through the market. Some came up to me, pointing at themselves, clearly indicating I had missed them. Although the pics came out all wrong and blurry, it was a fun way to spend a few hours.
7 February – Kolhapur – Umbraj – 80 km
On leaving, I popped into the New Palace on the outskirts of Kolhapur. Designed by British architect, “Mad” Charles Mant for King Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj and constructed between 1877 and 1884, I understood it’s still in the hands of the king’s descendants. The ground floor has been turned into a museum and contained a rather bizarre display of stuffed animals resulting from wildlife hunting, a royal sport in those days. The exhibition included silver elephant saddles and stuffed tigers, tiger heads, wild dogs, sloth bears, wild buffalo, lion, rhino, black panther, wild boar, buck, deer, and a Himalayan black bear. As if that wasn’t enough, photos depicted the Maharajah with his hundredth dead tiger. Too dreadful!
The road north of Kolhapur ran past sugarcane and corn plantations, and there was no shortage of sugarcane juice to fill my bottle. The main road to Pune, came with a minor road running alongside, making a relaxed cycle. However, a road sign indicated Pune a further 140 kilometres, and it made sense to call it a day and make the next two days short rides to Pune.
8 February - Roadside Hotel – Roadside hotel - 95 km
The secondary road continued and, like the day before, it ran next to the highway and came with all the conveniences of a highway but minus the traffic. Most of the day, the ride was gently uphill except a few mountain passes that slowed the pace considerably. A headwind further hampered efforts, and it took most of the day to cycle the 95 kilometres.
A few pics were snapped but I later realised the camera settings were manual instead of AV and all pics were overexposed. So I’d enough of the hills and kept an eye out for lodging, as it’s called in India. There were quite a few to choose from and I picked the best looking one of the bunch. Unfortunately, hot water was only available in the morning. Still, the staff brought me a bucket of piping hot water which made getting the dust and grime off me easier. February is mid-winter in India and the nights and early mornings can be nippy. Smelling fresh as a daisy, the downstairs restaurant provided paneer masala and garlic naan - delicious.
9 February - Roadside hotel – Pune – 56 km
On leaving the hotel, I discovered the back tyre flat which I thought surprising as it was rock hard the night before, but a slow leak can do that. I, however, had a feeling someone had fiddled with the bike. So instead of unloading the bike and replacing the tube, I only pumped the tyre and, surprisingly, it held the entire day.
Indian food is one of my favourite foods, but not substantial enough for a day of cycling. Although the previous night’s food was plentiful, I lacked the energy for the day’s slow climb. Twenty kilometres further, a roadside restaurant served a much-needed breakfast. Still, I think it was the “Thumbs Up” (a brand of soda in India) that did the trick and helped me slowly make my way over the hills. Fortunately, the map indicated a short ride to Pune albeit with a long climb. You can, therefore, understand my joy in finding a tunnel that shortened the uphill considerably. The surprising part was on the other side of the tunnel - a massive city, resembling one of Chinas “New Cities” appeared. Highrise buildings stretched as far as the eye could see. I flew downhill, reaching speeds of nearly 50 kilometres an hour, and that was into a breeze. Still, it took weaving one’s way through a confusing part of the city to get onto the road to Pune.
Cycling into sprawling Pune took a fair amount of concentration. Still, I located the hotel I’d in mind and found it situated in a surprisingly pleasant part of Pune. The rest of the afternoon was spent walking around this interesting area, and it felt I never stopped eating until it was time to go to bed.
10 February - Pune
I slept like a log, and only got going at around 11 a.m. My first stop was at the Aga Khan Palace, built by Sultan Muhammed Shah Aga Khan III. Legend has it the palace was built as an act of charity to provide labour for the poor in the neighbouring areas of Pune, who were drastically hit by famine.
The palace is also where the British kept Mahatma Gandhi, his wife Kasturba Gandhi and his secretary Mahadev Desai prisoner during the Free India Movement. Both Kasturba Gandhi and Mahadev Desai died in the Palace during their captivity. Today, the palace is a memorial to Gandhi, and his ashes are buried in the garden.
Then it was on to the Pataleshwar Cave Temple, a rock-cut cave temple carved out in the 8th century and dedicated to the Hindu god, Shiva.
It appears the cave was left incomplete for some reason, possibly because of a fault line uncovered at the rear of the sanctum or maybe due to political upheaval at the time.
My last stop was at the Shaniwar Wada fort, constructed by Peshwa Bajirao 1, as a home for the Peshwas in 1730. One of the most haunted places in Pune is said - something one can understand as it has quite an unfortunate history.
According to legend, the 13-year old prince Narayanrao Peshwa, heir of the Peshwa dynasty, was ordered killed by his aunt, Anandibai. His spine-chilling cries of “Save me, Uncle.”, is said to haunt the walls of the fort. Then, in 1880, the British captured the fort and the owners were forced into exile. Finally, in 1818, all except the foundations when up in flames. Today, the fort is situated in the heart of the old city, but residents claim the cries can still be heard on quiet nights.
12 February – Pune – Ahmednagar – 121 km
Well rested, following an extra day in Pune, made a leisurely cycle. The Ellora Caves, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was about 260 kilometres north of Pune. I understood it’s one of the largest rock-cut cave temples globally and dates to 600 – 1000 CE. This all sounded worthwhile exploring.
The route north was dusty and dry as the dry season was in full swing. I didn’t spot anything of interest and continued to Ahmednagar, situated about halfway to the caves. Ahmednagar offered plenty of accommodation but I wasn’t in the mood to search and settle for a modern-looking place that came with a slightly higher price tag than usual. However, it had a room as large as a dance hall and a popular restaurant. I ordered a thali and was served a huge and delicious meal. Hungry as I was, I couldn’t even finish half.
13 February – Amhednagar – Aurangabad – 111 km
Twenty kilometres beyond Ahmednagar, the earth fell away and I dropped 200 meters in three kilometres. I flew downhill, panniers flapping in the wind. The rest of the day led past typical Indian rural areas where the ox was still in daily use, from ploughing to pulling carts and extracting juice from sugarcane. Once in Aurangabad, I got a decent hotel. The plan was to stay two nights allowing enough time to visit the Ellora Caves.
Breakfast consisted of paneer paratha, curd and chai, and once done I hopped on the bus to Ellora Caves. “Caves” are not the right word to describe these structures as they were chiselled out of solid rock between 600 – 1000 AD. The temples were carved out by Hindu, Buddhist and Jain monks (and their helpers, I guess) over many decades. In total, there are 34 temples, some more elaborate than others. I understood the Kailasa Temple was cut out of a massive rock by 7,000 labourers over 150 years. One can’t help but be in awe of what was created. To give an idea of size, the Kailasa Temple covers an area twice the Parthenon’s size, and double its height. The planning boggles the mind. Not only are these remarkable temples engineering-wise, but it’s also the detail in the carved panels that’s impressive. It was three o’clock by the time I was done and grabbed a jeep to Aurangabad. The bus ride to the caves was far more comfortable than the jeep as they piled as many people in as possible. I counted 17, and I was more than happy to get out once at Aurangabad.
14-17 February – Aurangabad – Alibag by bus - Thailand
My sister, Amanda was planning to visit and I had to leave India at least every three months. It, therefore, made sense to fly to Thailand for a few days, meet Amanda there, and then fly to Kerela for a beachy holiday. I was very fortunate that Anil and Janhavi, who lived in Alibag at the time, didn’t mind storing my bicycle and panniers until my return.
The bus ride to Alibag was a long and tedious one but I was grateful for the opportunity to see my friends. After a huge lunch, Anil gave me a ride to the Mandwa ferry on the back of his Royal Enfield. The ferry took me to the Gateway of India, from where it was a short taxi ride to Janhavi’s aunt’s house, where I stayed the night. Again, I was spoilt rotten and ate more delicious Indian food.
My flight was at midday and Usha’s driver drove me to the airport - I felt like the Queen of Sheba. Again, I was lucky as the flight was dead on time. Once outside, I noticed a bus ready to leave at that very moment. With all my luck, I got to Jomtien much earlier than expected and collected my key from Glenn at Starlight Bar and could settle into my emergency bunker until my sister arrived.