Tuesday 20th November (Rajamundry to Eluru) A great breakfast of masala dosai, chai and lassi and I was on the road. Leaving town, I saw my first bike with gears! Didn’t stay long enough to see if it was an Indian or an import.
There are three routes I could take: the NH5, which takes a big loop below Rajahmundry adding considerable distance, a route to the north (actually the shortest) and one that just cuts off the NH5 loop. I decided on the latter since it joined NH5 after about 40 km on small roads. (The other, northern, route didn’t join NH5 until about 80 km from Rajahmundry, which is a long way if the road is bad.)
I went south, out of Rajamundry, and turned west over a very wide river – about 7 km wide, with three islands breaking up the span of the barrage/bridge. Google maps guided me pretty well (to start with, at any rate) and I was soon in the countryside.
But somewhere, I seemed to miss a turn; Google says follow the road but it’s not always that obvious which is the main road. In some doubt (it seemed like I was riding northwards), I asked and was assured that the Eluru road was ahead in about the right sort of distance.
Instead of the usual questions (country, name, destination,…), I was stopped by a man on a motorcycle who asked different questions (where did I start, what did I think of Indian culture, which places had I visited on the way, which temples had I seen, where did I eat, …). Yes, I was having my first press interview. After a few photos, I was on my way again, assured of a spot in tomorrow’s Telugu newspaper, Sakshi. My fifteen minutes of fame? I won’t know; I won’t be able to read it!
The Eluru road, when I reached it, was the northern route I had earlier eschewed. So I had gone wrong somewhere. It was bigger than the country lanes I had been riding on, but the traffic was light and the surface was good although the road was not twinned. I passed a dairy parlour and could not resist stopping for a half litre of chilled milk, drunk with a straw out of a plastic package. It was delicious.
Cycling went well, despite the rougher earlier roads, and I rolled into Eluru around 4:30. I was chatting to someone on a scooter, so I asked the way to the Manya Guest Line (a hotel I’d checked on the Internet before leaving in the morning) and he guided me right there. Easy as pi! Didn’t venture forth into the town/city; the hotel has a reasonable restaurant. Ginger chicken, roti, and another lassi – my third dairy product of the day.
Day 24 Today: 98.1 km, Avs: 16.6 kph, Time: 5hr 55min, To date: 2076 km
Wednesday 21st November (Rajahmundry to Guntur) A slow start, due to rain and the short distance to Vijayawada. My request for the Telugu paper, Sakshi, came through. And there was a totally unintelligible article in an incomprehensible script with my picture beside it.
It was eleven when I got underway and had a pleasant ten or so kilometres back out to NH5. My speed picked up on the highway but there wasn’t anything memorable about the ride or the scenery. I was approaching Vijayawada around 2:30 and decided to push on to Guntur, another couple of hours, in order to make the next day’s push to Ongole more reasonable. The road from before Vijayawada until Guntur suffered from the usual urban sprawl that the highway tends to generate, there were a lot of diversions and roadworks as the highway was being improved but, all in all, it was fine if unexciting.
A lodge that looked promising from the outside proved less so upon closer inspection. As is so often the case. I am in a room with tiled floor and walls – maybe an old mortuary ;) No phone signal penetrates these walls so I went out to the small dingy lobby and searched for the Airtel Relationship Centres where, hopefully, I can get 3g access once more now that I’m out of 2g-only Orissa. And also for a better hotel. I will need to spend tomorrow night in Guntur because the next day of riding is a full one and I expect locating the Airtel offices to be time-consuming. I can use a rest anyway.
It’s a shame; I was, for some reason, expecting to be in nice digs for a couple of days. And this ain’t it. Well, I have my Kindle and the TV so all is not lost.
Day 25 Today: 96.8 km, Avs: 17.6 kph, Time: 5hr 30min, To date: 2173 km.
Thursday 22nd November (Guntur) I took a rickshaw to the Airtel Office, arriving at ten to nine. I sat in the shade on the other side of the road and waited for it to open – which it did shortly after 10:00 am. At first the answer was ‘No’ that they couldn’t recharge a West Bengal phone; I was supposed to call the West Bengal customer service people myself. How this would help eluded me since I still had to deposit some cash somewhere. I asked Mr Naresh, whom I presume was a manager, if he could make the call for me (I do have the devil of a time understanding Indians speaking English when they’re standing in front of me, let alone on the phone) and, lo and behold, the package I wanted was suddenly available. In theory. In practice, my modem was not recharged. Come back in an hour and a half, Mr Naresh said. So I went around to corner for brunch at quite a nice restaurant in a plaza. I was the only customer but it was 12:30 which is earlier than most Indians eat lunch. Mr Naresh wasn’t there when I returned to the Airtel office but I had his number and phoned him. He said he’d be there in ten minutes, or that is what I thought he said. Then one of the red-Tshirt-clad girls behind the counter called me over and the recharge went through. I got a large 30 day package (10 GB) because I didn’t want to spend more time repeating five-hour procedure.
I then got a rickshaw to a new hotel, Hotel Swagruhu. It’s a good thing that I didn’t try to walk since it was nowhere near where Google maps had it located. In fact, it was less than 100 m from the less than satisfactory Isdrasil Lodge so moving was easy. The hotel is much nicer, has cell coverage in the room, has wonderful hot showers in a CLEAN bathroom!
Friday 23rd November (Guntur to Ongole) I woke at six, not feeling particularly rested after a shortish night. I chatted with Bev in Calgary, still uncertain whether to proceed today or to cool my heels for a second day in Guntur. Guntur itself held no especial charms but the hotel was nice and I was a bit dozy. A longish hot shower fixed that, though, and I eventually got back on the road at around 9:30, a bit late for a 110 km day.
I retraced my steps out to the highway, probably not the quickest way to get back on my route but at least I knew the way and wasn’t likely to get lost. Again, the highway suffered from development along its edges and I missed the open countryside that was a large part of riding in India’s appeal to me.
It was cotton country, with women in some of the fields picking cotton. Large warehouse-style buildings, all cooled presumably to reduce to risk of the cotton spontaneously combusting, were frequent sights along the roadside.
Shortly after noon, and starting to feel hungry after only a light breakfast with a couple of idli, I stopped at a roadside restaurant set behind a petrol station that looked newly built but not yet operational. I had a thali/coke combo and managed to stop more food being piled onto my plate as I worked my way through the meal, having learned that a large midday meal is not that conducive to afternoon pedalling. A sign above the counter exhorted me to “enhance your feast with a chilled Coca Cola”.
At around 1:30, I saw something not quite right out of the corner of my eye across the median on the far traffic lane. Strange looking bikes. Panniers on one. Cycle tourists! ‘Hey’ I screamed.
We joined up on the median. Naveen and Robin had cycled down the coast from Goa to Kanyakumari and are now working their way north to Assam for Christmas. We swapped information about routes and places to stay, quite happy to see each other and exhange information. Robin had started out on a longboard (supersized skateboard) but the road was so bad riding out of Goa that he had to walk much of the way. The small wheels aren’t designed for heavily patched and potholed roads. This wasn’t very helpful to Naveen who was more conventionally equipped with a nice looking cycle, rear panniers and low riders on the front. So Robin now also has a bike, but has to carry his gear in a backpack since he hasn’t managed to find panniers. He probably told me where he got the bike but I don’t remember (Bangalore?).
After half an hour or so, we went off in our different directions (they plan to stay at Hotel Swagruhu in Guntur, so I would have probably met them even if I’d taken a further rest day today). Now I had quite a distance to cover with a little less than four hours of daylight left. To make matters worse, road signs indicated that the daily distance would be 120, not 110, km. There was a significant headwind and I had to push hard to get to Ongole just before dark. I’m settled in the Ramya Residency, a little up-market for me, but it has wi-fi and is quite pleasant. The downstairs restaurant has the coldest air conditioning I’ve yet come across in India – it was a chilly meal.
Day 26 Today: 120.6 km, Avs: 18.2 kph, Time: 6hr 39min, To date: 2294 km.