grinned Dr Chawla while he handed me my blood test result.
‘You are having the malaria.’
‘Yes, yes,’ he smiled again, slouched back in
his chair then scratched his crotch.
‘Is this malaria…cerebral?'
'No, no,’ and before I could sigh a breath
of relief, 'not yet.'
This had definitely put a spanner in the works or rather,
a spanner in the spokes as I was only in my second week of
my grand cycling journey from Bombay to Beijing. Now I was
stuck in Kandwa, a small farming town in Madhya Pradesh, rural
India, miles from anywhere or the nearest major hospital,
for god knows how long with a deadly cerebral malaria strain
Plasmodium falciparum coursing through my veins and perhaps
eventually my brain cells.
‘Tell me doctor. Do many people die from this around
‘Yes, many!’ he said brightly then whacked a needle
in my bum. Catching malaria wouldn’t be the first mishap
on my trip as I criss-crossed the plains of India, Pakistan
and the Himalayas of Nepal and China. Some weeks later I would
be chased by packs of rabid dogs in the dark of night over
a mountain pass in Rajasthan, be incapacitated again from
reoccurring malarial fevers, everyday have inches shaved off
my life from overloaded trucks with holy images of an afterlife,
be charged by rhinos in a Nepali national park, have a stack
with a yak, dodge atomic test sites, split with the girlfriend
and have the untimely luck of getting caught in Pakistan during
September 11th. All this to write a book in the twilight of
my father’s death.
had been inspired by Dervla Murphy’s 1963 account Full
Tilt of cycling from Dunkirk to Delhi. A robust Irish woman,
Dervla rode a three speed bike, carried a small kit bag of
clothes, a handgun and a dash of courage. By comparison, I
was hauling a freight train: four panniers, a medium-sized
backpack, a handlebar bag, spare tyres, a chain, sprockets,
tent, pots, sleeping bag, books, tools all loaded onto a Trek
II mountain bike. A total weight of 43 kilos. The plan was
to cycle up through the north of India, across to Delhi into
Nepal, meet up with the girlfriend for a month in Nepal, go
back into India across the Himalayas into Pakistan and over
the Karakoram into China through the Taklimakan Desert and
eventually a soft coaster ride into Beijing. All this huffing
and puffing over some of the most beautiful yet gruelling
terrain I was likely to see. That was the plan. Oh, the reality…
had no apparent reason to have arrived in Shergarth other
than it was there and I’d have to stay the night, hence
was the nature of cycle touring. It was a small town of 10,000
people, rolling in on the sandy waves of north India’s
Rajasthan desert. Only some 150 kilometres north of here India
had proceeded with underground nuclear tests in 1998 and using,
according to locals, onions to suppress the blast. Onion prices
went up, people starved, radiated onions rotted. It was a
dry place. Sand swam in the streets, children played in it.
It had not rained here for the past four years and sub-arterial
bores had gone deeper and deeper as the drops refused to fall.
Though talking to Mr Prakash, the principal of the local high
school, one wouldn’t think you needed to drink water
'Drinking your own urine,' said the principal, a squat rolling
man in his early fifties, 'is very beneficial for your health.
'Oh, come on! You're taking the piss!'
'Yes. I am taking the piss since 1994 and I feel much better
for it. I am stronger, much vigour and I have not been sick
once since the treatment. You should try it yourself. It will
help you with your cycle trip. Give you much stamina.'
'Well, I don't know...'
‘Our prime minister was a urine drinker and lived to
the age of ninety-nine!’ Though I baulked at a further
suggestion of lathering ‘old urine’ on my scalp
to cure my baldness, Mr Prakash was worth every drop.
fours months of cycling India I had clocked up a formidable
pace from anything between 120 to 150 kilometres a day. While
I cycled these distances alone I never quite got to enjoy
it that way. There were over a billion people according to
the last census in India and it felt like that; everywhere
and all the time. Stop for a quick look at your map, adjust
your shorts, a bite to eat, oil the chain and within seconds
a crowd of gawking admirers would happily blot out the sun.
In Bagaha (pronounced ‘Bugger-ya’) an entire town
stopped and surrounded myself and my then girlfriend, Rebecca,
till they were eventually chased away by police. Even while
I was trying to quietly relieve my diarrhoea behind a bush
I got a rude surprise to look up to see what seemed to be
the entire population of Indian children staring at my spluttering
confluences, smiling and calling for pens. I think, I recall,
I went insane. Profanity, I quickly found out, didn’t
make them go away.
So it was cool relief that the madness of India, its foul
traffic, heat, olfactory assaults of something big and rotting
in drains, vanished once over the far west border of Nepal,
Mahendranagar. From Delhi to Kathmandu I had teamed up with
another cyclist, Uros, an engineering student from Slovenia.
Unlike myself, Uros was a calm rock of Eastern European aloofness.
Nothing rattled him. When something did bother him, he lit
up a cigarette and blew smoke at it.
‘Nepal flat! Very flat!’ a farmer, Govinda assured
us though I countered by pointing to a craggy outcrop of mountains
‘No road there. You go this way. Not Hetauda. Too much
hill.’ Govinda let us stay the night in his house somewhere
near Butwal, halfway through Nepal, when we had brazenly knocked
on his door when the light was fading on the road and the
buses seemed to be getting bigger at each near miss. Though
there was a price for his hospitality. For most of the night
Govinda pestered me to get him a visa for Australia and got
us to stay in a room where unimaginable things crawled across
our faces, both of us bolting upright in the night with 'WHAT
WAS THAT?! JUST WHAT THE HELL WAS THAT!?
We followed the highway through the Teri, a flat lip of the
Himalayas through once lush tropical rainforests that had
now been cleared for paddy fields and farms. By midday the
country burned up into an unbearable tropical heat. We spent
our mornings cycling and our afternoons lying on bench seats
in mud hut restaurants, flies playing irritably on our knees.
Despite the sheer lack of traffic in Nepal there seemed an
awful lot of bus crashes. We’d passed five in two days.
Perhaps it had something to do with their odd construction.
The chassis of Nepali buses resembled large couches clipped
on to rusty old bedsprings with over-sized wheels ripped off
a dump truck. When they took a corner at Concorde flight the
wheels followed the road, as the should, but the rest of the
bus would keep going straight not convinced that the course
of the wheels was correct and the two parties would indulge
in a quick debate before they’d arrive at a conclusion
inches away from another oncoming bus also caught in a similar
argument with itself.
was in Pakistan that my plans really went awry.
was 125 kilometres from the Islamabad in the small hill station
town of Nathagalia some 2,500 metres up on the Karakoram Highway
when a well-dressed Pakistani man in western clothes set my
panic button whirring with ‘Did you know that the US
are going to start bombing in 72 hours?’ I had been
hoping to make the Chinese border in three weeks, some 800
kilometres away. A week had passed since the World Trade Centre
bombings and tensions in Pakistan were rising with the growing
threat of Taliban reprisals. In Islamabad the campsite had
emptied itself of the carefree Swiss and Germans, racing to
the Indian border in their campervans and jeeps, leaving only
myself and a mad Frenchman with a two humped camel to ponder
our fate. Embassies were evacuating staff and NGO’s
from Kabul were pouring in, moving with the flux into India.
Feeling ‘visible’ and I took to wearing the Pakistani
national dress, the shelwacameez (long shirt and baggy pants)
and a topi (a Muslim cap), though this was rendered futile
when I jumped on my loaded mountain bike and my ruse was met
with ‘AH! AMERICAN! AMERICAN!’
this latest news of an aerial bombardment I decided to take
a bus to China but when I went to board one in Abbotabad a
middle-aged German, Winfred, urged me otherwise.
‘The Chinese border is closed. They stop everything
- trucks, buses, cars and cyclists. All back. Only the Indian
border is open now.’ In a blink I’m on the bus
with him heading back south to Lahore. ‘Ah! This is
the third time this happened to me in this country! In nineteen
hundred and sixty-six with the over throw of the king in Afghanistan,
the Indo-Pak war and now this. Ah, such a shame. So beautiful.
You know, in the sixties there were two places to go to on
the hippie trail: Kabul and Kathmandu. In Kabul they would
give you your hotel key and a block of hashish. Everywhere!
It was amazing.' In two days I was back in India with my toes
swirling in the dark tank pool of the Sikh Golden Temple pondering
my next move, trying to make sense of it all, not wanting
to go on.
geography, the threat of war or my health, it was the bike
that would have the last word. Hurtling a glorious descent
from a 4,700 metre snow-covered pass in the Sichuan Province
of China I swiped round a bend in time to stack with a yak.
The startled yak had pulled out from the bushes, horns like
antennas to my rattling approach, and instead of staying in
the cover of autumn foliage it had darted out in front giving
me enough time to smack into its hairy rump. Though I didn’t
completely come off, my groin cushioned the impact as the
rest of my body collided with the handlebars. The yak bolted
down a ravine, crashing madly through small trees and shrubs,
leaving me to reassemble myself.
my problems weren’t over. Continuing on my merry 35
kilometres descent I found myself ‘grabbing air’
again before landing hard on my back in a scarf of dust. Sitting
up I saw the problem. A bolt on the rack had sheared off causing
the crossbar to lock up the front wheel. A raggedy goat herder,
witnessing the whole event, picked me up, dusted me off and
rigorously moved my arms and head around as if road testing
a puppet. I limped the bike into Xiangchen, a town inhabited
with Tibetan men in leather jackets, dangling daggers and
strange obelisk houses with zigzag window frames. A bus mechanic
with a cigarette welded to his lip not unlike his profession
managed to fix the racks with some handy bending and makeshift
had legged it from India with a flight to Hong Kong and bussed
my way to the southwest province of Yunan, resuming my cycling
from Dali, an ancient Chinese city swarming with Chinese tourists
in mock Naxi tribal hats and bags. Tourism is big in China
and most of it being done by the Chinese. Though I would come
off the bike again another two times (the last with a convoy
of trucks missing my prone body by a few feet) China by far
had been the most enjoyable part of the trip. Snaking my way
through the vast Tibetan highlands I at last was able to enjoy
clean air, good wide roads, and the ‘crowding factor’
was minimal if at all. For the cyclist the prospect of 70
kilometre climbs that could take two days to overcome, the
bitter cold and the three-day travel distances between towns
was the greatest challenge. I slept most of the time in road
worker's huts and was happily fed bowls of pork and rice or
sometimes I chose to camp out of sight behind clumps of trees.
The only disturbing nuance of Chinese-Anglo relations was
to hear truck drivers yell ‘I LOVE YOU’ as I heaved
up snow packed mountains or patrons of local hotels insinuate
with lewd gestures that I should ‘get it on’ with
any female that happened to serve me a plate of brisk noodles.
out of time on my visa and money I legged it to Beijing on
the train from Chengdu. To my surprise Beijing was not as
polluted as I had feared. The air was relatively clear since
the government had closed down factories in preparation for
the Olympics. Everybody was rattling on about China’s
up coming entry into the World Trade Organisation. Banners
proudly hung across streets proclaiming thus. Not that it
mattered. Imperialists had made there way through the once
impenetrable Forbidden City walls not with canons but with
polystyrene coffee cups. Starbuck’s frothed Brazilian
lattes where once the last Emperor would have watched intruders
beheaded. In Tiananmen Square you could choke on a Big Mac
while you captured Moa’s visage with your Nikon.
was prosperous, rich and as I dodged other cyclists in my
cycle lane, crammed with traffic. Bicycles, I was happy to
see, still ruled the streets in terms of getting somewhere
quickly in their private and fenced cycle lanes. According
to the UPI Institute for Forecasts and the Environment, by
2030 the number of cars will have increased five fold to 2.5
billion cars, most of that in Asia. I could not imagine what
India or China, both with some of the highest populations
in the world would be like as they pursued car ownership.
Somehow I felt I had missed something, a special time that
Dervla must have only enjoyed, free of the landscape changed
forever by the march of the four-wheel demon.
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