It took me three days to go from Islamabad to Lahore. It was mainly flat - actually too flat.
Riding in the flatlands may be appealing for many cyclists but there is one problem with it. there are no descents. If you stop pedalling you stop rolling. In other words you don’t have any break from pedalling.
The same is true for cycling uphill but then you know there is a moment when you can relax again.
So it came that I spent five to six hours a day in two or three gears, on flat roads, with sometimes nerve wrecking traffic and not a lot to see. And on top of that the heat and humidity.
After three boring days I arrived in Lahore and was welcomed by a wonderful family. I had found them over WarmShowers, a website that organizes stays for cycle tourers. Since there were not a lot of such hosts in the area it had been a while since I had last profited from this network.
I spent a great time there and got a chance to experience another side of Pakistan. The family has a herbal medicine business in which almost all family members are involved. The family is originally from Dehli but had to flee during the Partition of India. I learned so much about this period from them. Since the events date from 70 years ago, BBC broadcasted a big series about them. If you are interested in it you find more here.
The two sons of the family, touring cyclists as well, were taking me around Lahore and fed me with many different sweets. I almost came to the point where I had to much to eat.
Of course this family is in a very fortunate situation. Their kids are able to study abroad and they have servants to help them with the house keeping. To return some of their fortune, they give out food to the not so well off neighbours every Sunday. I had the luck to help them distribute the food. In total we gave out some 150 to 200 meals. I really thought that this is a generous gesture.
That weekend was as well an important weekend for the political landscape of Pakistan. The prime minister Nawaz Sharif was forced to step down after a court ruled against him in a corruption case. This was after a long fight by the opposition party against the corruption in the elected parliament, based on the panama papers leaked in 2015.
After that very pleasant weekend I headed for the Wagah border. This very famous border is a symbol of the ongoing rivalry between Pakistan and India. Every evening there is a flag lowering ceremony which involves a strange form of aggressive dance. Just check youtube.com, then you will see what I mean. Many people asked me to join them to watch the ceremony. I always declined since I did not want to be part of such a pointless and nationalistic event.
Sadly there was one incident on the way to the border that was absolutely unnecessary. A group of kids next to the road threw stones at me. When I stopped, they did not run away but continued to do so. A man standing next to them just laughed. This minor incident turned me sad and left me wondering about the reasons. Do I look too rich and am therefore a target of their hate? Or do I look too western or was I just a toy of their amusement? It was a bit bitter goodbye and I hope Pakistan is the only country on the trip that features stone throwing kids.
I was a little nervous about approaching the Wagah boarder (see above) since both, the Pakistani and the Indian visa state wrong passport numbers. I just had had no time to correct it before I departed. Well, I night have had, but was too lazy and in the end things always work out…
The Pakistani side was easy. It just took me an hour because there was a power failure and thus no running IT.
I crossed the border and shook hands with the rangers that would soon after dance again like horny cocks trying to intimidate the opponent (no joke, they are really showing off and look like birds).
On the Indian side things looked different. There exists a clear and much more professional procedure. A dog sniffed at my bike and found a pair of dirty sock hanging off my bags to dry, so nothing that could get me in trouble.
On I went to immigration and whoops… Here the trouble started. The very friendly border officer found the error on my visa. After a lengthy talk with his supervisor he told me off a bit and let me through. I think I was never treated that friendly on a border.
Customs took it a bit more serious as the Pakistani had but did not find anything they did not like. I guess they mainly held me back to talk. I always suspected they intended to lurk me into letting down my guards and expose something illegal. All the past borders may have made me overly suspicious.
Before you go on, you may want to open this link and leave it open for the rest of your reading.
After that, welcome to India and, man, was this different: Roads good, the fields well organized and less trash along the road. But the thing that struck me most! Women and not just women, women on bicycles in beautiful dresses. Again I was amazed by the power of a random line in a landscape that we call border or frontier.
The same day I continued to Amritsar, just a few kilometers inland. This town has a really good flair I think. It is the spiritual and cultural centre of the Sikh religion which probably gives the city its special ambiance.
May I give you an idea about this special town. Around the Sri Harmandir Sahib, the most holy place for the Sikh, there is a zone that is a “respect” area. This means, that smoking is prohibited and all the restaurants are vegetarian, even McDonalds!
If you go inside the temple you have to leave your shoes outside, cover your head and legs. Inside this complex that is completely built in white materials there is a pool with the golden temple inside. This is an amazing view especially when the sun is reflected by it (not often during monsoon season). In the basin pilgrims are washing themselves and prayers are continuously broadcasted over the speakers.
To get into the golden temple itself you have to walk over a connection pier. This takes time since ten-thousands of pilgrims go there every day. But the wait is worthwhile. Inside there are priests chanting away non stop. This is the source of the broadcast in the rest of the area and is - as you may have meanwhile guessed - live broadcasted over radio.
I left the main temple and followed some pilgrims to the Guru-Ka-Langar. A langar is a form of community kitchen where you get a meal for free no matter what your religion or social status is. After grabbing a tin plate I sat down with hundreds of people in a room on the floor. I sat sandwiched between a pilgrim from London who showed me his Rolex when he heard I was from Switzerland and a skinny and shabby looking man. They where treated exactly the same by the man who gave out the food. This really shows how Sikh people live their values.
After the food everybody leaves the room and goes to wash up there plate. It is a hectic and loud place. Every plate is probably washed five times in the progress since you wash more than one plate. Most people stay there for some minutes to help with the washing up. On the way out you can donate something if you can afford to help them with the finance of the 60’000-80’000 portions every day.
The pilgrims can also sleep for free in the Sri Guru Ram Das Niwas. This is a huge dorm financed with donations. For foreigners there are four bed rooms available with fixed prices, probably still the cheapest overnight stay in town.
I wandered a bit more around town and found another special place, unfortunately with a sad past. The Jallianwala Bagh park became famous in 1919 when British solders killed or wounded over 1500 unarmed Indians. There are still bullet holes in the wall that serve as reminders of this massacre.
From Amritsar I had some non exiting cycling days until I reached Chandigarh. The heat really started to take a toll on me and I had to step down a day. I found the city somehow strange. The “new” part is organised in box like an “American” town. The only difference make roundabouts instead of junctions. The British influence I guess.
There is one spot that interrupts this world of right angles and straight lines - the Nek Chand Rock Garden, a 10 hectare big park. It is the surreal creation of an transport official who probably was sick of this perfect world he was building. He created over 2'000 sculptures out of stone and debris from the about 50 villages that were destroyed to create this town. The project is still ongoing and growing. If you are into this kind of surreal and fantastic art there is a way to work on it. On this webpage you will find a more detailed story of Nek Chand who had to keep his eccentric creation away from authorities until they realised how valuable it was.
Here some impressions:
To escape the heat I decided to cycle on into the direction of the Himalayan foothills to Hardiwar, a very holy place to Hindus. It is said that this is the place where Vishnu dropped some divine nectar and left behind a footprint. As a result of this, every evening hundreds of worshippers place leaf baskets with flowers and candles in the holy Ganga.
I just sat there enjoying the scene and drinking one of the best Lassi I’ve ever had before cycling on to Rishikesh the next day.
Rishikesh is a really laid back travellers hangout spot. Many long term travelers rest here during the hot months. So it happens, that I met a British cyclist I’d met in Esfahan a few months before. Rishikesh is also a holy place and a Mecca for Yoga adepts. It is also pretty touristy. But I could do with some english conversation again.
Here I took my time to really calm down. Somehow it is not my strength while travelling. I made new friends, drank cafe all day long (this is what I do when I don’t do anything), went for a massage and did not write my blog - the reason it took me so long to get this one published. I also never came around to make Yoga. I always found an excuse.
After these days of - I guess - well earned rest I headed for the Nepali border. It should have been a three day cycle. But then the news of heavy flooding in parts of Nepal and India broke. I was not entirely sure whether the roads would be passable.
With a mix of cycling and bus trips I made it to the frontier. So with the help of the bus I crossed to Nepal even a day earlier. There were still partly flooded streets and, from what I heard, some people died and many more lost their homes. But the eastern region of Nepal and the adjacent Indian counties were hit far more severely.
At the frontier I really had to look for the immigration office. I passed by and ended up at the border post where the officers sent me back to find the “nice ladies” as they called them. After acquiring the stamp I went back to the actual border where nobody cared about me. So I simply passed. On the Nepali side I had to search again for the right building until some locals helped me.
After filling in the visa form and paying 42$ I was officially in Nepal.
It hit me there and then, that I just reached the final destination. Just like this. Take a bicycle, point it east and pedal until you are in Nepal. It is actually that easy.
All the things that had happened in between, the pain, the sweat, the difficulties, but also the satisfaction, the beauty and the wonderful encounters with human beings are just life - life on the road.
At this point I don’t think I did something special. It became normal, yes almost everyday life. People tell me what a crazy thing I did. Half a year ago I was sure that it IS a crazy thing, but now? It lost the magic of being something special but it retained the power to make me happy. Would I do it again? Hell yes!
There are so many people who made this journey unforgettable. For example the shepard family in the high mountains of the Pamir that invited me for breakfast, or the woman in Xinjang that spoke with me for 10 minutes even though we had no common language and also the police man who could not give me a ticket because there is no law that explicitly forbids to hold on to a truck. My warmest thanks belong to all these people and all the others who have made this trip so fantastic.
For those amongst you who crave for statistics:
Distance travelled: 9’517.0 km
Time in the saddle: 542 h 11 min
Max. speed: 82.3 km/h
Average speed: 17.4 km/h
Climbed altitude: 64’294 m
Max. altitude: 4’655 m
Steepest climb: 22%
Officers bribed: 1
Numbers of arrests: 2
Countries visited: 19
Selfies made with strangers: ca. 250
friends made: many
cups of chai drunk: many more
Stay tuned for an update on the project in Nepal and how things have changed here since 2011.