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India (2/3), Day 195 – 210: Varanasi, Diwali & Bodhgaya



Day 195 – 196

I wanted to make the ride out of Delhi painless, so I teed up a hotel on the city’s outskirts. At the hotel, I was informed they didn’t accept foreigners. A new hotel was arranged, but of course, it was a foreigner establishment so the price had skyscrapered – a trend that continued throughout India.


The following day, I cycled the highway headed east. As I pedalled away from anarchy, I worried about the coming weeks. Not only had I heard a number of camping horror stories, I’d also been warned against cycling through Uttar Pradesh – and above all, not to cycle at night: “There are bad people in UP, you must be careful!”. I was no rookie, yet I took the advice as gospel. I made sure all my days finished just before sunset – which had an impact on distance covered – and stayed in hotels or hostels.


As soon as I reached the countryside, I swapped the traffic suffocated tarmac for beautifully quiet villages. I followed rice paddies and wheat fields, hopping from one village to another. In the land where cows, monkeys and buffalos rule, people retreated to pulling their day’s work in a wooden cart. I enjoyed the slower pace of life and silent scenery, an impossible scenario on busier roads. However, my dream-like state was shattered when I met a small intersection at a large village. I stopped at a stall to buy water – within seconds I was surrounded by people. A crowd that grew ever larger. Motorcyclists stopped, held their phones in the air, and filmed the white man refilling his water bottles. Others took photos, whilst most just ‘subcontinent stared’.


I appreciate that I was a novelty, an anomaly, a first for many. As a pair, or in a group, the intensity would have been shared, but as a solo, it was too much. As I struggled through the crowd to return to the bicycle, I changed tact and beelined for the main road. I hated the attention and sought safety in the camouflage of the highway.


Days 197 – 198

The next two days I meandered through traffic along busy, dry roads from Etah to Kannauj. A lunch stop at a hotel restaurant was paired with a meeting with a group of teenagers. The majority were part of a wedding ceremony, the others lived in the area. I happily answered their inquisitive questions as I ordered lunch. One guy, still in his school uniform, translated the menu for me. After a few questions back and forth he said he’d never left his village and had always dreamt about meeting a Westerner. He wanted to stay in touch, but didn’t have his phone on him. I watched as he repeated, over and over, the spelling of my name, so he could add me on Instagram.



I was keen for a rest day, so I took advantage of the Express Highway – headed for Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh. The highway greatly reduced the number of kilometres I needed to cycle. With optimism, I mounted the beautifully carved tarmac and traffic-less road.


However, I soon realised that the Express Highway was just that Express. The reality being, there were no service stations; no food options, no water refill points. It was 33 degrees, I had one litre of water to last 55 miles. Initially, I was concerned. However, I rationed the water – one sip every five to eight miles. I was focused entirely on the drink stops – which, surprisingly, made the dull ride pass incredibly quick. Exiting the Express, my mouth was sandpaper. I was dreary and tired, unable to concentrate on anything, but where I’d get water. I stopped at the first stall I found, downed 1.5 litres of water and one litre of Fanta. Within minutes, my energy level returned to normal.



A city of three million inhabitants, Lucknow was grand. British Imperial architecture paired with run-down enclaves and modern housing estates. I cycled to the only hostel in town, where I was greeted with like-minded travellers, mostly ‘around the world’ motorcyclists.



Day 199 – 201

I wandered the streets without much purpose. I waited an hour for the palace to open, but it didn't. So, I walked around the old British Empire’s living quarters and headquarters for the Uttar Pradesh province – a complex ruin rich in colonial history.



Reluctantly, I returned the bicycle the following day. I had three days until the start of Diwali. Plenty of time to reach Varanasi, the city-cum-shrine. Although, I found India more enjoyable off the bike, so I pushed hard to arrive a day early.


The kilometres were full of small interactions – motorcyclists asked for selfies, locals at stalls shared their surprise that I had ridden from Amritsar – cycling from London was a small detail lost on most. I was told countless times that Rishi Sunak was Indian, that he was like family, and that they oozed with pride that a Hindu sat at the head of the table in British politics.



I arrived on the outskirts of Varanasi at dusk, so I rested in an empty, family-run guesthouse. The streets were alive with fireworks and fairy lights; colourful decorations draped every plot of land as far as the horizon.


Day 202 205

With two thousands temples and a history that dates back to the 11th century, Varanasi is regarded as the spiritual capital of India. Old town was similar to that of Amritsar – small, charismatic streets suffocating under the pressures of over-population, pollution and motorcycles.


The hotel was hidden down a dark alley – a woman ran a laundry business at the end of the road and spent her days washing clothes in a bucket and ironing outside. Children played together in the street whilst men smoked cigarettes observing from afar. The hotel itself was a budget, poorly run establishment, with more rules than the local government. I was surprised that the mere act of breathing wasn’t forbidden.



I tried to visit the main temple, but it was overcrowded so they closed early. I was told to return the following day. I returned the following day, but the temple was closed, so I was told to return the next day. I did as I was told, but the result was the same. Wrong information is a scenario often played out in India – logical-efficiency-first isn't a natural thought process. When asked originally, they could have said the temple was closed for two days, which would have saved everyone involved a lot of time and stress.


The following days, I spent my time jumping from one hippie restaurant to another; the eateries where baggy trousered, dreadlock types sit crossed-legged on cushions and talk at lengths about enlightenment. I didn’t have baggy trousers, but I looked like I hadn’t washed in a few weeks (I had), so I felt at home in an odd sort of way.


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The streets heaved with moving bodies, migrating to and from the Ganges. It was day one of Diwali and worshippers flocked to the sacred river.


“What are you trying to sell?”, I asked the man who had been following me along the steps of the Ganges for five minutes. A cynic I might be, but no one in India sparks up conversation with foreigners without an agenda; an agenda where cash parts the foreigners’ pocket.


“What do you mean? I don’t want anything. I just want to practise English.”, he replied with a tone of shock.


I was cautious, but continued to talk with the man. After some time I relaxed and warmed up to him. We spoke about Diwali and its relationship with the Ganges and Varanasi, how Indians are heavily religious and spiritual, and his problems living in a country where the views and culture are so deeply opposing of his own. He’s in a loveless marriage, which was arranged during his early twenties, but for fear of family persecution and societal pressure, he stays wedded. Alone sitting by the Ganges was his escapism from his family’s Diwali celebrations at home.



As we sat next to India’s holiest river, in its holiest city during its holiest festival, the conversation led to atheism. Incredibly ironic. We walked back to the main Ghat where the light ceremony took place. We watched hundreds of Hindus bathe in the Ganges whilst thousands of temporary flames floated along the river. Candles were lit, placed in small containers and offered to the river; the lighting of candles signifies purity and the removal of darkness and evil forces.




Sceptical at first, I really appreciated the conversation by its end. It was the first non-surface level talk I had with a local – the first chat which wasn't a mere transaction, money exchange or small talk scenario. The man had to return to his family, so we said goodbye as I boarded a stationary boat to watch the official Diwali ceremony from a distance. The ceremony was a therapeutic dance of candles, musical instruments and theatrical steam and fire, which took place on the roof of a building.




The next evening, I met a French couple for dinner. I had briefly met them on the Karakoram Highway, but they were headed in the opposite direction. It was nice to speak to fellow cyclists again, but I was so drained of energy (and had been solitude for too long) that they could have been talking to their Paneer Tikka Masala and would have had a more interesting conversation.


They seemed surprised when I told them I had cycled the distance across India. They had given up after one day, temporarily swapping the bikes for India’s railways. They tried to camp one night, but in the morning were greeted by a group of men, standing in a semi-circle around their tent; a scenario retold by most who camp in India. Again, they gave up on camping after that one night. I have to admit, I was glad to hear this. The horror stories I’d been told, which resulted in my decision not to camp, were legitimate.


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On the last day in Varanasi, I stood in a tower block overlooking a Ghat. A handful of dead bodies burnt on firewood, their ashes being thrown into the Ganges afterwards. In procession, men carried their deceased family member on their shoulders. They walked through the cobbled streets, until they reached the banks of the Ganges. Grievers sang, held incense and rang bells as they followed from behind.



I had fallen victim to a “tour guide”. I only went along with the facade because what he said was interesting. He could have told me anything and I would have lapped it up. He spoke about the variations in firewood, the differing prices and what each type of wood would mean for the deceased in the afterlife. As a spectator, I felt invasive, so after a short period, I left and walked to an empty part of town to digest.




Day 206 – 207

Through heavy haze, I crossed a bridge over the Ganges. It was difficult to see the river yet the crossing felt significant. It was a personal milestone and one of India’s goals realised. Varanasi acted as an incredible backdrop to celebrate a beautifully impressive Diwali, but it was time to move on.



With a rotten cold, I rested in a hotel in Sasaram for two nights – the halfway point to Bodhgaya. The hotel employees were intrigued by my presence. They gathered every time I appeared from the room. I got to know them in the short time I was there, they were a nice group of guys. We spoke in broken English, but seemed to understand each other. One guy said that village girls were the best to marry. I asked him why and he explained that they make “nice cow poo cake” – that was the literal translation on Google. What he meant was that they work in the fields, collect cow dung and turn them into pattes for fuel. With or without translation, I thought it was very funny.


Whilst at the hotel, I watched an English speaking Indian news channel. The news stated that an Indian politician had said he “would not stop until Kashmir was under Indian control”. I couldn’t help but wonder if the politician had ever been to Kashmir, spoken to the locals and asked what they wanted.


Day 208

Seven kilometres from Bodhgaya, I got a puncture. The red glow of the sun had almost touched the horizon as I stood in the middle of a village. It couldn’t have happened at a worse time. I offloaded the bike and got to work – within a split second I had an audience. With the oppressive ‘subcontinent stare’ ever-present, I fixed the flat tyre in world record time.



The guesthouse was extremely cheap, but by far the best place I had stayed in India. It was basic, but homely. The cold I had from Varanasi wouldn’t shift, so I went to bed early.


Day 209


Bodhgaya is the birthplace of Buddhism in India. Buddhist communities the world over flock to the sacred place for worship. I strolled to the infamous temple where Bhudda sat under a Bodhi tree and found enlightenment. I took my time to walk around the temple. Beneath Bhudda’s Bodhi tree, I closed my eyes and listened to the silence. Echoes of distant car horns rang through the grounds, but it was the quietest place I’d been since Karakoram. It was bliss. That afternoon, I hopped from one temple to another, enjoying the town’s tranquillity.


Again, I was greeted by a young man who wanted to speak English. A University student who wished to brush up on his English language. After the Ganges, I gave him the benefit of the doubt. We walked through Bodhgaya and down to the river to watch the Chhath Punja Festival – a celebration where food offerings are made to the river. As fireworks shot into the sky and onlookers gazed and cheered, we spoke on the side of the riverbank; we discussed our cultural differences, his enthusiasm for higher education, and life on the road.



After two hours, the student asked for £20. He wanted to buy a bag of rice to feed his village. I was annoyed. Yet again, it hadn’t been a genuine conversation where both parties shared culture and language. It was a one-sided money making scheme. My faith in India was shattered. Maybe an overreaction, but after weeks of constant harassment for money and selfies, it was hard to have faith in the genuinity of anyone.


To the rest of the world, Westerners are often assumed to be rich. To their credit, we are. If you earn over £30,000 per year, you are in the top one percent of earners in the world. But, the assumption doesn’t sit well… I’ve always thought: ‘don’t feed into the western stereotype by handing out cash’, but that means ignoring the obvious despair and desperation. A contradicting monologue I’d come to face time and time again – here was a prime example.


‘You have to be joking’ was my initial thought… I spent two hours building a friendship and the whole time he wanted money. Yes, his need for the money could have rung true, but he should present his true agenda upfront. Show me the village, let me buy the bag of rice and give it to those in need. Who in their right mind would hand over £20 to a guy they just met? It’s a huge sum of money in India.


The next day, we bumped into each other on the street. He asked again, I said no. I came away from the brief encounter feeling incredibly guilty. And then anger for being made to feel guilty. I was under no obligation to give him money, so why did I feel guilt?


Day 210


I worked on the bike all morning. I shared a few conversations with the guesthouse owner and his brother-in-law, both intrigued by the trip. That afternoon, I sat in a coffee shop surrounded by monks. It’s surprising the normality of a monk’s life. They drink coffee, have smartphones, and smoke cigarettes. I’d imagined a monk to have a solitude existence. One that requires no need for modern technology or caffeine or nicotine addiction. But I stand corrected. I sometimes enjoy all their pastimes, so maybe I could be a monk, I thought. In the coffee shop I eavesdropped on an American student interviewing a German tourist about Buddhism. The student was on erasmus in Bodhgaya studying Buddhism. His head was shaved and speech was slow. I thought he might have just taken a long drag on a spliff, but a journey to enlightenment was more likely.


The guesthouse was unique because it was situated in the residential end of town. The street that led to the guesthouse was doused in fairy lights, speakers played religious music all hours of the day, and it had a charming community atmosphere. I felt immersed in the local culture. That evening, I walked down the street when four children, no older than five, followed behind. “Give me 10 rupees!” they yelled, with their hands outstretched in front. I turned around and smiled, but said no. They weren’t homeless beggars, but kids messing around. They repeated their question multiple times. Eventually, I stopped in my tracks, turned to face them and mirrored their actions. I outstretched my hand and said: “No, you give me ten rupees”.


Their mouths dropped.


They didn’t know what to say. I laughed and continued to walk. Their mothers, who had been watching from the sidelines, also laughed. The kids then laughed. “But, please, Sir ten rupees”, they pleaded through broken laughter. I’m not sure why the situation was so comical, but it was enjoyed by everyone involved.


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