Pathankot, Punjab 16th June, 2016
In retrospect, taking a taxi to Pathankot was a very good idea.
We left Delhi at around 6:30 am and made good progress, weaving between lanes in that particular Indian flow to driving where any gap sufficient (barely) for a vehicle becomes a traffic lane and the actual road lane markings are, at best, mere suggestions. This technique is to be expected in traffic jams, each driver eager to find his own route through the chaos, but, at speeds of up to 100 kmh, the continuous switching lanes, searching for gaps, playing chicken with the other drivers and the incessant horns quickly become tiring. I spent much of the nine hours pushing my right foot to the floor, wishing I had a brake control.
But, somehow, this madness works and we only saw one accident in the 500 or so kilometres.
It was a grey day, overcast with pollution until the sun managed to poke through half way to Pathankot. The landscape was featureless, the road almost always surrounded by buildings in this very densely populated part of India. The traffic was constant on the route, the Grand Trunk Road, of which I had heard so many cyclist bitterly complain. The route I had planned to cycle was a little different, picking out smaller roads, would have been less crowded and built up, perhaps. But smaller roads mean smaller shoulders, two-way traffic, a new set of challenges and a least the GT had shoulders for much of the way and sometimes a separate adjacent lane that would have been safer. But days of flat, monotonous, pedaling, continuously breathing exhaust fumes, with no scenery to enjoy would have been too high a price to pay to get some strength into my legs. And a poor use of my limited time. The hills will be harder for the first couple of weeks so I’ll just go more slowly, get off and push a little more frequently. The air will be better to breathe and there will be views to enjoy during my rests.
With the help of my driver, we searched a few hotels before finding one with wifi. After Pathankot, I’ll be out Internet for a week or two. Of course, I should have remembered that wifi doesn’t always mean Internet and when I tried to get online I had no success. “Network problems, sir. Maybe try again in the morning, sir.”
It’s morning now and there is sporadic access. I am saving often.
The plan is to spend a couple of days on the train. A narrow-gauge line runs from Pathankot to Joginder Nagar, a colourful journey through the Kangra Valley. I’ll spend tonight in Joginder Nagar and come back the same way tomorrow (or possibly by bus for a different experience), back to the Internet-challenged Venice Republic Resort.
Joginder Nagar 17th June 2016 (Hilltop Hotel, Room 108)
The sign says ‘tourist hotel’ but clearly a different level of tourist from those staying at the Venice Republic Resort. But at 500 Rs., the price is right: cash, no passport or paperwork, close to the station for my 7:20 train back to Pathankot in the morning. At first, I was told there was no room available. “Full?” I enquired and the young man said he’d ask. The older manager/owner showed me a room – I’ve stayed in worse – so I quickly agreed. I am now rinsed down, patted dry with my fleece hoody (brought in case it was cold up at 1200 m, ha ha, my little almost inaudible travel alarm clock says the temperature in the room is 31°C) and lying on the almost clean bed.
The day? I slept well enough but the AC didn’t seem up to its task. It had been running noisily all night and the temperature this morning read 33°C (this reading from the temperature sensor for my GPs which, given its price, should be reasonably accurate). I packed the bare minimum for my overnight trip to Joginder Nagar: cameras, aforementioned hoody, wind shell (!), Kindle, toilet bag. Forgotten were towel, toilet paper (when in India, …), sleeping bag inner (limited protection from scuzzy sheets). The Venice Republic hailed an ‘auto’ (auto-rickshaw, a motorized tricycle used as a cheap taxi) and I was transported to Pathankot in plenty of time for the 10:00 am departure. The fare was 35 Rs., or about 70 cents Canadian, for the 10 hour ride 170 km up the Kangra Valley.
I witnessed an example of what probably goes on a million times a day: the unequal relationship between men and women in this part of the world. A (presumably) couple who looked to have a marginal existence living on the platform were arguing loudly. The women, a skinny, threadbare lady, threw some food away in what looked like defiance. A powerful left hook send her flying. The audience of about one hundred waiting for my train looked on in interest but did nothing. (Neither did I.) Someone, however, must have informed the relevant authority and a policeman led the man gently away. The woman sat down amongst her meagre possessions, her mouth bloodied.
There was a scramble for seats when the train arrived at the platform. The train originated in Pathankot and was empty. Even so, I had to argue for a seat from a couple of youths who seemed intent on taking more than their fare share of space. I was grudgingly allowed a seat.
I first made this trip in 1990, when it made a deep impression on me. I chose it just because it was a narrow gauge railway journey close to Dharamshala where I was at the time. Quiet, undeveloped, beautiful Kangra Valley with many holy men on their way to a temple at Baijnath (a stop along the way). Uncrowded train! I remember a long ‘conversation’ (his English was limited and my Hindu is non-existent) with a sadhu who had a big ball of hash that he just lit and put on the window ledge. He really wanted my watch; he offered all his clothes in exchange. No, I needed it to catch a plane, I said. But he needed to know the time when he went into the woods to meditate. Apparently. The only unpleasant memory of that trip was the shared toilet in the hotel I stayed in – it was maybe the worst I have endured in India. Now, I’m fairly certain that I’m in that same hotel. But with an en-suite this time.
I repeated the trip three years ago and, of course, it couldn’t match my first impressions. Still fun, though. Pictures (better!) of that time: http://dmorg.org/2013/06/kangra-valley-railwa/
This time was not so much fun. It’s probably not a lot different; the difference may be in me. The journey started off hot and humid, overcrowded – with a few leaving, and many joining, at each of the frequent stops. Very uncomfortable for this ageing spoiled Westerner. By the halfway point, though, congestion had eased and there was a seat for almost everyone.
Despite climbing, it was still extremely hot in the train, outside temperature in the thirties and bodies inside pressed closely together. (I did ask myself why I was doing this and, I suspect, it was a delaying tactic: I just don’t feel prepared to start riding.) The last couple of hours, from Baijnath to Joginder Nagar, is the most scenic: terraced fields, wooded hills, but much new construction with houses almost everywhere. In the dusk, we rocked (the carriage being balanced on two rails, two feet apart) past families sitting on the grass, enjoying the evening ‘cool’. Girls were out, each tending a cow while the boys played cricket wherever they could find a level patch of ground.
Judging by the lack of need to use the toilet on the train for most of the journey, I’m not doing a good job of staying hydrated. Deliberately at first because, despite the toilet being just a few metres away, it would have been a difficult task just to get there. I’ve just bought a couple of litres of bottled water to try to rehydrate tonight. I’m sure that sleeping under a fan doesn’t help.
Pathankot 20th June 2016
Not relishing a crowded return down to Pathankot in the afternoon heat, I decided at Baijnath to splurge on a first class ticket. It was approximately ten times the cost of the regular, second class, ticket but $6 for the remaining eight hours in relative comfort felt worth it.
For some reason, there is an almost two hour wait at Baijnath Paprola. Maybe to give the day time to heat up nicely for our return to Pathankot. Why then the need to leave Joginder Nagar at 7:20 am? It’s been that way for at least 25 years. (I must be getting irritable in the heat.)
I spent yesterday putting my bike together. It shouldn’t have taken that long since it only took me 20 minutes to break it down. But there were problems and the mid-thirties heat in my room didn’t help matters. I had to install a longer axle plate to accommodate the trailer hitch (I couldn’t do that in Canada because I ordered the wrong part, and that had taken a week to get to me; when I knew what I needed, it was next-day delivery in London but the bike was in left luggage up at Heathrow airport); that was simple enough. When I put the front wheel back in the forks, though, the wheel would hardly spin at all. I called for help on Facebook (the hotel paid their bill this morning after I complained that I was staying here, at a higher rate than other hotels, because of the promised wifi, and I had assumed that Internet came with the wifi) and got almost immediate offers of assistance from friends in Thailand, Laos and Australia. Jim, from Australia, was particularly knowledgeable and helpful and offered to ship me a spare part he had. The problem was mainly because my front axle is a dynamo with sealed bearings and nothing is user-serviceable, even if I knew how. Somehow, though, the problem went away. I’m not sure what caused it or what fixed it. The rear brake was/is a more serious issue. I couldn’t adjust it to more than slow me down, not ideal for steep descents with a heavy-ish (35 kg?) trailer attached to my bicycle. Fortunately, I had purchased a spare brake just before leaving. Unfortunately, I had omitted to bring spare cables or wire cutters. By now I was doing repairs in the front of the hotel, with a crowd of helpful advisors. I was tired, hot and bothered, and dripping. I drank proffered glasses of water, untreated no doubt: OK so far. I had to pull the crimp off the end of the brake cable, one of the filament wires unraveled, and it looked like I’d really screwed things up. I was anticipating waiting in Pathankot for a week or longer while necessary parts and tools were shipped to me. But Indian ingenuity may have triumphed; when I explained the problem with the stray filaments (now two of them), the filaments were (sort of) rewound and tightened in place by the brake. I still couldn’t adjust the brake to my liking but I’d had it for the day.
This morning, in a little storeroom with a fan pointed at me full blast (thank you), I took the brake apart (carefully keeping it attached to cable so those stray filaments would remain in place) to see if there was something interfering with the movement of the pads. Nope, nothing I could see. I did manage to put it back together and adjust it somewhat, then went off for a test ride.
It was 1:30 in the afternoon when I set off, bike unloaded, to see how things felt. Pedaling seemed hard, maybe because I haven’t been on the bike in three weeks and maybe because the brakes are restricting the wheel rotation somewhat. I only used my back brake and it did stop me. Slowly. I rode 10 km in the direction I’m headed in, climbed 170 m, and turned round. Coming back downhill was slow, reminding me of a similar problem last year in Spain where I had to pedal downhill (I need to find a brake-mechanics course somewhere, obviously) so I loosened off the cable a little. I think I can live with it (literally, too) as it is.
I’ll probably just hang out tomorrow, see what doesn’t fit in the trailer, work on some photos for this post, and set off on Wednesday.
What a long post about not very much. But, loyal readers (both of you), future posts will be slimmer, and few and farther between. It’ll be a while until I have Internet again. I’m going to be taking it extremely slowly to start. I’m a few weeks shy of 64, out of shape and 40 pounds overweight (some of that is a consequence of gall-bladder surgery in February). Don’t want to blow a valve.