Thursday, March 22, 2007

Bihar.. bizarre!


To make a long story short, Bihar is a different world. I wouldn't have been so surprised if that had been my entry point in India, expecting a third-world country. But after having driven 8000 km in a dozen different states, on mostly acceptable to good roads, I'm impressed by the generally good infrastructure of India. After all it's a very rich country, developing incredibly quickly. But Bihar is taking a back seat to this process and the roads there are amazingly bad. Indeed, they're on a par with the worst roads of Siberia and Kyrgyzstan, and I'm talking about (what is described as) major highways. They should learn something from the Mongolians, who know that bad tarmac is worse than no tarmac at all. Even the Grand Trunk Road, a link between Delhi an Kolkatta is in a pretty bad state of repair. Crossing the cities were not any better, as they are easily the filthiest and most chaotic I've seen in India yet. The sign posting is inexistent or in Hindi only at best, so the GPS was at least as useful as in the middle of Mongolia.

Unlike central Asia, the road are busy with thousands of trucks, buses, jeeps and tractors. Cars are rare, and the buses are always overcrowded, including the roof which apparently is not the worst place. Shared jeeps are heavily used also, and of course the roof is put to good use. I counted once 11 people on the roof and 8 hanging outside, in addition to the indeterminate number packed inside, which is more typical than a record. And as if the roof wasn't that busy already, they still manage to strap on it a loudspeaker blasting heavily distorted music. Go figure.

To be fair I didn't feel insecure at all in the 3 days I spent there, despite the stories of bandits and Maoists rebels roaming the state. Driving conditions notwithstanding, as you feel happy every night to be still alive, after fighting with the worst drivers of all India and dodging the suicidal pedestrians (run down somebody and the next thing you have to do is run for your life, as the locals may well try to finish you off).

People are just as friendly as in the rest of India, although the conversations are quickly put to an end by the language barrier. Literally nobody in the state speaks English, and the most literate of them would only manage to go as far as "country ?", "mileage ?", "price ?", etc.. By that time I'm pretty used to people surrounding me (or, should I say, my bike) as soon as I pull over. In Bihar though, it takes a different dimension, as the crowd quickly grows to several dozens people, to the point of disrupting the nearby traffic. They mostly stare without speaking, but eventually somebody will go with the usual questions, straight in Hindi as is seems quite inconceivable to them that somebody wouldn't understand it.

It may be the least touristy state in India, but it still boasts a couple attractions. I left the Grand Trunk Road to reach Bodh Gaya, where Buddha lived and taught. The whole place is built up with fancy hotels for the millions of Buddhist pilgrims coming from as far as Thailand and Japan. The touts quickly put me off so after a quick photo in front of the huge statue of Buddha I left for Rajgir, which was supposed to be nice and quieter. That turned out to be a mistake as the site was pretty boring and the I got lost going there, misled by fuzzy directions in that big mess of a city which Gaya is, so I ended up on a secondary road. As it goes, in Bihar, take anything less than a highway and you have to ford rivers as they "forget" to mention on the maps that the bridges are in construction. And with 2 people and a run-down caterpillar, it may take them another 10 years to finish it up.

The electricity supply there is as bad as the roads, with frequent power cuts (so that means a diesel engine running the whole night below your hotel room so that the staff can watch cricket). Granted, that's the case in many other places in India, but here it's so bad that they don't even bother putting lampposts in the towns and at night the streets fall into darkness, lit only by the bulbs or candles of the various shops, which reminded me somewhat of central Asia (there they have the lampposts but little electricity, so the bulbs shine a useless dark yellow). Now the problem is that as usual in India you walk on the road, not on the sidewalks which are a total wreck, so that brings a new challenge of avoiding the velo-rickshaws. One night I even practically ran into a (black) cow in the middle of the street. I was walking, of course, driving at night in Bihar is synonym to suicide.

The state is crossed by the Ganga, the holy river, and it can become so wide at monsoon times that the bridges are massive - 2.5 km long in Patna. More in line with the Bihar experience I skipped the bridge and went for the ferry crossing instead. I wasn't disappointed, that was pretty unique. During the winter the Ganges is not that big, so to reach the river proper one has to walk (or ride) more than 1 km on the sandy river bed, which was fun and very eerie. Then you reach an improbable contraption of 2 barges tied up together, reached by a flimsy bamboo bridge. Much to the delight of the dozens of spectators I managed to ride my bike without dropping into the water (although purifying for the Hindu, I'm not sure Ganga would do any good to my engine). A few guys helped me haul it across 2 boats to its final destination, tucked between dozens of other bicycles and light motorbikes. The barge was loaded with a few more hundred people, and we crossed safely to the other side. Of course the ferry wallahs tried to get an easy 50 rps out of me, but I saw the usual price for helping a bike in and out of the boat is 5 rps so I gave them 10 for the extra weight, after a little discussion.

The entry into West Bengal on progressively better roads was very much appreciated, as the 1000 km or so of Bihar roads have taken a toll on my bike: the rear shock has lost its mojo after faithfully getting me through 30'000 km on mostly no or bad roads and badly needs to be replaced. Time again for some surgery if I want to keep going, but I hope it can last until Nepal.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Elusive tigers and playful horses

Khajuraho, 27338 km

Leaving Hyderabad, I headed straight north for Madhya Pradesh, known for its tiger parks and archaeological ruins. I chose Bandhavgarh, because supposedly the odds are pretty good to spot a tiger there (in many other "tiger" parks it is very unlikely). When I arrived around 12AM, the manager of the hotel told me I jut missed a tiger that was seen lying next to the main road a few hours earlier, that sounded like a good omen. I ganged up with David and Paul, who I met there, and hired a jeep. But after 3 half-day visits in the park, only once we could see a distant tiger walking between the trees, followed a few meters behind by an elephant. Of course the rumor spread quickly and within 10 minutes there were more than 20 jeeps on the road, with tourists extending their mighty zooms. As soon as the animal walks away, all the drivers rev up their engine and try to move to a better place, in a big chaos of jeeps reversing in all directions. If the tiger had any intention to cross the road it was of course quickly put off by this big mess.

As it turned out, when a tiger is spotted the rangers set up a business of elephant rides to get closer. The jeeps queue up according to the number they were given when they entered the park, and when your turn comes up (for us it would have been a 2 hours wait), you climb on the elephant in a group of 4, the elephant walks toward the tiger (if it's still there), you snap your pictures with your expensive gear and within 5 (!) minutes you're back and the next load boards for another shuttle, for 600 rps per head. Pretty good business, but the scared elephants seem not to appreciate it as much as the park authorities, and for me it was pretty much meaningless. If you want to learn about tigers' life switch to Discovery Channel. And if you want a close-up photo of it go to the nearest zoo.

Never mind, the rides in the park were very nice with tons of deers all around, and the little bazaar very easy-going, as most tourists are on a package and stay and eat in the big hotels around, and I quickly found my friendly local serving decent food during these 4 days. The weather also was much cooler, not only because it's up north, but also because of a cold front which brought a little rain - first time for months.

So I dug into my bag and retrieved a wooly for the ride to Khajuraho, the major tourist attraction in MP. And it was well worth it as the temples are truly beautiful, each with literally hundreds of finely carved statues, most of them well-endowed nymphs and of course the world-famous erotic carvings, which understandably have shocked the Victorian discoverers. The nightly son-et-lumiere show on the other hand was pretty boring, even annoying at time with Indian tourists speaking out loudly and taking photographs with flash of the distant monuments.

My next destination is Sikkim, separated by the (in)famous state of Bihar. I had heard a lot about it by Indians, describing it as underdeveloped and plagued by corruption and banditry, so I was a it anxious, but also very curious about discovering it. The road goes down the Deccan plateau toward the very flat Ganges basin. I came close to Varanasi, and although I liked it very much when I came there by train in December, I was not in the mood of going into the huge chaos of that big city, so I turned east on Grand Trunk Road and Bihar.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Hyderabad pit stop

Hyderabad, 26'030km

Here's another non-touristy post, as I had yet another pit stop, for doing some mechanics although this time it has nothing to do with the bike. My (still) camera was down since Rajasthan, and recently my video broke down so I was left without means to record the trip. Not a show-stopper of course, but still I enjoy a lot taking photos and videos on the trip. The conditions (sand, dust, humidity, shocks) are taxing the electronics heavily and I'm not that surprised that these gizmos finally gave up. So I stopped in the next big city, Hyderabad, where I found a facilities to fix them, but it took 2 weeks in total.

Before I got there I stopped in Hampi, which is an ensemble of dozens of temples set in a very picturesque environment. The landscape is so beautiful and the atmosphere so peaceful that I spent 4 days there, not even bothering to visit the ruins after the first couple days. Having a chai next to the river, watching the Indians washing, eating a dosa for dinner at the light of a candle due to the usual power cuts, getting an auspicious tap on the head from the temple's elephant (for 1 rupee), all this contribute to the atmosphere.

The change with Hyderabad metropolis is striking, here there's a mix of middle-class and lower class people leaving together but very differently: eat and work on the street for the poor, hang out in malls and coffee shops for the richer. You sure can find everything here: McDonald's, Barista & CCD (Starbucks rip-offs), IMAX cinemas, even a beef butcher (Muslim for sure, and he made to sure to put a sign saying:"imported beef"!).

Still there was something strange in this city that I couldn't figure out, until suddenly it popped up: there are no cows! How strange it is to walk in a city without bumping into a cow at every corner. But you get used to it, and of course it's better for the traffic, a nightmare of course with 19'000 buses running like mad (and on petrol unlike Delhi where they all switched to CNG) and innumerable rickshaws serving 6 millions people.

One thing also that's so relaxing, probably because Hyderabad sees very few tourists: you can actually walk around almost without touts, and the rickshaw mostly run by the meter, avoiding the time-confusing haggling before taking a ride. So much that I even have been asked directions in Hindu twice. That's very different from Delhi and the touristy places.

Some people avoid India's big cities like plague, but I find them always interesting, there's always something that will amaze you at one point or another. And after a few days you get to know the good places to drink your chai, eat your thalli - and write your blog. There's not a lot to see though, the landmark Charminar is pretty uninteresting, only the Golconda fort and the Qutb Shia tombs are worth the visit. It seems that the big thing to do for Indians is to visit Ramoji Film City, where most Tollywood (Indian films in Telugu) films are shot - supposedly, up to 40 at the same time, which make it the largest film studio in the world, well ahead of Universal Studios and others.

Having a room with TV (and no power cut), I've been able to follow with the news - in order: the world cup (yeah, cricket, what else?), the "Q" scandal and the 2007 budget (total: 6.8 lakh crores). But also catch up on "Desperate Housewives" and enjoy the weirdness of Crorepati: the Indian version of "Who wants to be a millionaire" (2 crores, so about 500'000$), with questions written in English but asked in Hindi, often related to cricket or Hinduism.

Last week-end was Holi, the Indian carnival, celebrating the end of the winter. Of course, there isn't much of a winter here in south India, but it is also a religious celebration. It starts by lighting huge bonfires right in the middle of the street, and then continues with people throwing each other color dyes, so that during a few days you see purple faces all over the city. See the photo album for more pictures.