October 21: Underway at 9:30 am, well breakfasted. Felt like Sunday traffic on NH60 – a few more private vehicles and fewer aggressive trucks. Two lanes and untwinned, so I still had to keep my eyes open for behemoths overtaking directly at me, but it was relatively stress-free. And the road surface was most un-NH-like: generally smooth, some patches and few potholes.
About three-quarters of an hour out of Suri, I saw (or thought I saw) a mountain bike and a couple of panniers on top of a bus speeding the other way. It may have been so because I hadn’t been in the sun long enough to be hallucinating.
At Dubrajpur, the road split. Left was somewhere I’d never heard off and right was Dubrajpur, with the NH60 sign immediately below it. So I went right, right into town, through narrow streets barely wide enough for a single vehicle let alone the buses and trucks that ply the national highways. And I was heading west when I should have been heading south – something was definitely wrong. Requests for directions to Raniganj sent me back the way I’d come, looking for a right turn (a left turn that I’d missed going the other way). I stopped and picked up a cool Maaza and a mango popsicle so all was not in vain. I did find the turn I’d missed and was soon back on NH60, heading to the same place I’d never heard of before I detoured into Dubrajpur. Clearly, the sign had indicated a Dubrajpur bypass, but only to those who knew what the next little place was called.
The countryside became less cultivated and looked more like open grazing land. And not so flat; there were gentle uphills followed by always too short downhill coasting sections. At Raniganj I contrived to take a wrong turn again (not a good day for navigation) but was back on route without losing much time. The Grand Trunk Road goes through Raniganj (left to Kolkata, right to Varanasi) and I followed it for a few hundred yards before branching left again back onto NH60.
This being my day for missed turns, I rode straight past the turn-off to Susunia Hill and didn’t notice for about ten kilometres. With the sun getting lower in the sky, I didn’t have time to go back (or the inclination for extra distance!) so I decided to forego Susunia Hill and carry on along NH60 to Bankura for the night. But, at the top of an incline in the middle of forest, there was a road to right signposted Saltora. I could take this, turn left somewhere, and still make it to Susunia Hill. Now the problem was time; I pedaled as hard as I could through forest, then rice paddy. The light was beginning to fade when my front tyre went flat. I pumped it up, and got another four kilometres out of it. Then three. It was dark by then but I could see the outline of a hill against the sky. A couple of re-inflations later, there was a building with lights on and a sign, a name I recognised as the name of the lodge I was searching for. But there was no-one home. I wheeled the bike into the front hallway and sat down to wait. I changed the leaking front tube and waited. I repaired the leak in the tube and waited. I showered in the common bathroom and waited. I called the phone number for the lodge and could hear it ringing in an adjacent, also deserted, building. Eventually the manager arrived; he was fully booked, but I could share a bed with a guest in an air-conditioned room upstairs for 900 rupees. Or I could have a room (it looked like a storeroom, with shutters instead of windows) on the ground floor for 600 rupees; it didn’t have a bed but the manager laid out some blankets on a table and put a sheet over it. He arranged for a meal to be delivered; it wasn’t great but enough to take the edge off my appetite. Once I shut my eyes, everything was fine.
Located at 23°23’45″N 86°59’9″E, Susunia Hill is just south of the Tropic of Cancer (currently at 23°26’16″N). From now on, I’ll be in the tropics.
Day 10 Today: 111.9 km, Avs: 14.5 kph, Time: 7.42 h, To Date: 778.2 km
October 22: Despite a reasonable night’s sleep, I felt no compelling reason to stay in Susunia Hill for another day and was on the road around 7:30. Looking back at the hill, I didn’t see anywhere where climbing was likely – maybe on the other side? The road was quiet and there was even gentle downhill to start but, perhaps because I hadn’t eaten or because of the longish day yesterday, I didn’t have much energy and proceeded slowly.
At the end of the small country road through forest, open grazing land and paddy fields, I turned left towards Bankura, stopping at a candy stall to pick up some Cadbury’s chocolate eclairs for breakfast. I hadn’t seen anywhere to eat so chocolate and toffee had to provide the energy for a while. I got around Bankura without having to go into it which was a pleasant change, considering my navigation of late. I supplemented the chocolate eclairs with bananas and plodded on, the kilometres passing increasingly slowly.
I’ve noticed a lot of construction going on for the last week or two; frameworks are being constructed out of bamboo or small-dimension lumber and false fronts added to provide a temporary shrine. There seemed to be a bit of a holiday atmosphere about for the last couple of days, with many people dressed in their best clothes and visiting the newly constructed shrines. I learned today that it is Dusshera festival from October 21st to October 24. Correction: It’s actually the Durga Puja and is (probably) eight days long.
Ten kilometres before Bishnapur, the road reverted to the worst I’ve had to deal with yet. It might, seriously, have been faster to walk. But I did arrive, eventually, and found the Bishnapur Tourist Lodge. It looked really nice but was fully booked. I’m in an equivalently priced but grotty place around the corner. Looks like I’ll be moving on again tomorrow :(
I hired the guide who had helped me find the hotel and a rickshaw driver to take me around the sights for a couple of hours, until it was getting late and my legs didn’t even want to walk around the terracotta temples that Bishnapur is famous for. Done the tourist thing, supported the local economy, and now it’s time to check out the restaurant at the fully booked Bishnapur Tourist Lodge.
Day 11 Distance: 65.0 km, Avs: 13.5 kph, Time: 4:48 h, To Date: 843 km.
October 23: I went round the corner for breakfast at the Tourist Lodge and then had a quick wander down the street to make sure I took the correct way from my lodge. In the morning, after a good sleep considering the venue and a good breakfast, Bishnupur was more appealing. If I had had a better hotel, I would have happily spent another day there. As it was, I was on the way about 9:30, after re-inflating a surprisingly flat rear tyre. I turned right down more a lane than a road outside the hotel, in a southerly direction, passing one of the temples I had visited yesterday. My route quickly deteriorated into a sandy track, crossed the railway lines, and continued through fields. This was not the route I had planned with the help of Google Maps but I was heading more or less in the right direction, would hit the highway sooner or later, and it was a very pleasant start to the day’s riding.
I rode up onto the highway and it was smooth! A joy to ride on. Parts of it even had asphalt shoulders, delineated by a white line even, that kept me out of the way of the light traffic. I was cruising and, despite my slow start, had an average speed of 17.9 kph after about 30 km, nothing really spectacular but by far the best I’d managed so far.
Then a flat tyre, the front this time, so I pulled out the tube and repaired the hole. I must have crushed the tube on one of the bumpy sections. Back on the road, having fun, when my rear tyre went flat. I pulled off into a little building, a bit like a bus shelter, that are dotted around the countryside. I looked and looked but couldn’t find a leak in the tube. I pumped it up very large but couldn’t hear anything, although with the occasional traffic and constant insect noise, I could have missed it. I replaced the tube as was, nothing to fix that I could find, and waited for a while (lubricating the chain) to see if the tyre softened. Nope, it stayed hard, so I was on my way again. Suddenly, again, the rear tyre was flat. Maybe the valve is gone? Anyway, I changed the tube and continued, having already lost quite some time to repairs.
After a more typical bumpy middle third of the day’s ride, the surface improved again. I travelled through forest on the slightly hilly sections and paddy fields where it was flat. There was a sign informing me that I was passing through an elephant corridor. Although it wasn’t a long day in terms of distance, a combination of a relaxed start and repair time, it was dark by the time I arrived in Midnapore (Medinapur). I had directions to a hotel but Google maps falls down in the cities and I got lost a few times but, more by luck than judgement, found my way to the Debloke Hotel. The room is small but clean and my bike is consigned to what looks like the coal shed.
Day 12 Distance: 77.0 km, Avs: 15.0 kph, Time: 5.08 hours, To Date: 920 km.
Midnapore October 24 – 25: It is the Durga Puja and most stores and businesses are closed today (Wednesday 24th Oct) and I could do with cashing some travellers’ cheques; I haven’t changed any since a few days before I started cycling and suddenly my wad of paper notes is looking pretty slim. So I’ll have two days here. But I have good Internet access so I can catch up on some course work. And my legs could use a rest. My last razor blade is getting dull so, on a walkabout town, I slipped into Hero’s Saloon for a shave and a haircut. Not bad for 90 cents.
October 26: Left Debloke Hotel around 8:00 am, before they were open for breakfast. It should have been earlier to get to Belashwar but I didn’t sleep that well and couldn’t roust myself from bed much before 7:00 am. My front tyre was a bit soft after a couple of days in the coal shed but the rear seems to be doing fine. Exit from Midnapore was fairly easy but I did ride right past NH60, believing for some reason that I would join it in the countryside outside the city; once I realised that I had gone too far and had back-tracked to a cross-roads and turned left (south), all was fine.
I stopped for some breakfast at a roadside hotel (which just means restaurant in India; for somewhere to sleep, you need a lodge) bedecked with signs requesting that patrons “Please do not ask for wine.” I chatted with a local orthopaedic surgeon who kindly paid for my chapatti, eggs and tea. The road was of average quality (patched but with few potholes) until Kharagpur when it became twinned with a smooth and consistent concrete surface. There was little traffic on the highway, with private cars outnumbering trucks and, with little need to concentrate on potholes, oncoming vehicles and evasive actions, my mind wandered – to work, of all things, and to the creation of course materials for a course in engineering statics! At around 45 km, my front tyre softened again. I re-inflated it but it was flat in another kilometre or so, so I removed the tube, found the offending hole, and patched it. At 80 km, I passed 1000 km of riding and a few kilometres further on, I rode out of West Bengal into the state of Orissa. I didn’t have time to make it to Baleshwar before dark so I finished early, pulling off the highway and going into Jaleswar. I’m in an ‘average’ lodge, a little overpriced at 500 rupees ($9). But I’ve had worse.
Then, a knock at the door and the man who appears to be running the place came in to spray some mosquito repellent. He mentioned something about ‘cycle’ and 50 rupees. I thought he was asking the price so I said 10,000 rupees (it’s about double that) but he repeated 50 rupees. I went down to the foyer with him, where my bike had a flat front tyre. I presumed someone had left the air out of it, and carried the bike up to the room with no protests. I reinflated it and waited. It deflated. I repaired what looked like a pin-hole leak, clearly a malicious act by person or persons unknown. This time it stayed up. Maybe the 50 rupees was an offer for repair?
Day 13 Today: 98.0 km, Avs: 16.6 kph, Time: 5.54 h, To Date: 1018 km.