Within the To Be Determined squad, Mathew Street has always been known for his over-the-top adventures. From riding the California coastline from San Francisco to LA on a single-speed track bike, to mountain biking in Wales he has plenty of tales to tell from his time on two wheels.
Over the coming weeks and months, however, his story telling is going to new heights as he explores India by bike, starting with the multi-part tale of bikepacking from Delhi to the low Himalayas.
Sometime around a month before my arrival in India, a friend and fellow bike racer Bryan Banducci floated the idea of riding bikes in India as he was there for a wedding. I was only able to commit a couple of nights before his departure allowing little time for packing and zero time for planning. With not a plan between us and no experience of India (let alone bike packing in India) we were both going into this blind.
At the wedding Bryan heard that Rishikesh was cool and so the seed was sown. Ride to Rishikesh it was. The Ganges (Ganga in Hindi) leaves the Himalaya and enters the plains of Uttar Predesh. At this holy gateway from mountains to flat lands lies Rishikesh.
With Bryan out of internet connectivity for most of his trip the planning was left up to me. The rough plan was to ride from Delhi to Rishikesh and head into the mountains, stopping off at Jim Corbett State Park for some tiger searching and return to Delhi via train. All of this was a complete unknown to me.
To make sure the bikes were in working order after their own flight packing ordeal we took them for a spin from the hostel around the local neighborhoods of Lal Kuan Bazar, Shah Ganj and Arya Nagar near the main Delhi Railway Station. It's impossible to describe the amount of individual things - fully open shop fronts containing machine shops, butchers, tandoori oven food outlets and so much more - that were going on around us as we weaved our way through the auto rickshaws, pedal rickshaws, cow, men pulling carts, wild dog packs, another cow, people people people.
This shot below depicts well the simultaneous urban chaos and decay which is so common in India. Ironically it was only the junction box which needed a lick of paint in this instance.
With the bikes sorted and the traffic vibe sussed out (mental) we snuck out the following morning at 5.30am before Delhi woke up. We meandered our way through neighborhoods, highways, over bridges and dirt roads, tracking east to eventually pick up the Upper Ganges Canal, built by the British East India Company in the mid 1800s in order to provide irrigation to farm land.
8am breakfast spot. This is a typical rural style food outlet where there isn't a menu and all you're granted is a request for food. It's always fresh, spicy and delicious. On this occasion we dined on (using fingers only, no cutlery, ever) parantha (stuffed Indian flatbread) stuffed with paneer (cottage cheese), onions and chillies. And hot chai tea. Always chai.
Upon reaching the canal we tacked north and would continue on this route for a day and the following morning until 20 miles outside of Rishikesh. The canal road provided easy navigation and a 'quiet' enough road. Although it was straight it still yielded many features to behold, namely animals - wild and working.
Children are a big part of cycling through rural India. It's not often (if ever) that two white dudes with weird looking bicycles ride through their village. They're always curious about the bikes and for the most part super excited to see you and carry no fear - jumping up and down, smiling, screaming and waving. Although these dudes were a little more serious.
With the end of the 85 mile day approaching we pulled off the canal and rode the back roads to Muzaffarnagar (took Bryan and I several days to remember how to pronounce this correctly). Although elevation was flat it was a tough day in the saddle. The roads aren't always great and it takes a decent amount of power to push over the rough stuff, especially on bike packing rigs. Our faces looked something like a post Paris-Roubaix appocoplypse. Sadly no portraits. We were too busy sourcing beer.
The following day was to be another 85 miler containing some canal, back roads, a stop off at Haridwar to see Bryan's friend Dr Vanard and our first view of the Ganges.
The next set of images deserves a special explanation because it was one of the highlights of the trip. We were riding through some forgotten back roads and came upon a cross roads with a chai stand. Definitely in need of some sugary chai we stopped and began to inquire. Sat around shooting the shit were a bunch of old Indian dudes who seemed surprised but pleased we had stopped and welcomed us to sit down.
The leader of the pack was the old fella to the left of the image below. For the purpose of the story I'll call him Basho. Basho only had one working eye, reddish looking teeth from chewing tobacco and a cigarette hanging from his mouth. Neither of us could utter a word of each others language (his being Hindi I believe) but that didn't stop the conversation and banter. He was genuinely pleased to see us and had a grin on his face the whole time. Once the chai had been ordered he took us to see the rural bicycle shop a couple of doors down, containing spokes, tyres, chain rings and various tools that were hefty enough to require large swinging radius' and a hope for the best attitude in order to operate them.
Bryan was rocking a nose ring which isn't all that uncommon at home but in India it's only ever worn by women. We were joking around with Basho when he pointed to the nose ring and gestured 'what's all this about then' so for a laugh I said Bryan was a girl. We all erupted in laughter and so the joke was had. We sipped on our much needed chai and asked about the samosa's on the counter. Bizarrely we were denied them until a few minutes later the guy behind the counter opened the roller shutter next door and produced two fresher ones for Bryan and I. They were the best we'd ever eaten.
Continuing to smile at one another I was curious to know Basho's age. He looked like he'd been around the block a few times. I gestured 10 with my fingers, three times over and pointed to myself and said 'thirty years old'. I did the same for Bryan and pointed to him 'twenty seven years old'. I then pointed to Basho hoping he would answer me his age. He paused for a second, then with a questioning look and pointed back to Bryan and said 'girl?'. For the second time we all erupted in laughter again and we assured Basho that Bryan was definitely a boy. We all shook hands and continued on our way, fed, caffiendated and happy.
Ever get that feeling when you're 60 miles into a ride on a baking hot day that you need to visit an Archaeological Museum? Yeah me neither. But this is the great thing about bike packing in India, due to Indian hospitality things like this can happen. A little further up the road we reached Haridwar where we met up with Bryan's friend, Dr Vinod who is a lecturer at the local university. We were made to feel very welcome and supplied with chai, biscuits and Indian snacks. To further our visit he showed us round the Archaeological Museum also situated on the campus which had figurines dating pre-Christ on display. Stopping off to look around was quite surreal especially given how tired we were. I can't imagine we must have looked or smelt great at this stage. Nevertheless we were fed even more chai and biscuits and shown around.
It was now a race against the darkness to finally reach Rishikesh. Being one of several gateways to the Himalaya and a spiritual hotspot because of the Ganges, traffic had picked up some. Having raced together in New York we were aware of each others abilities. Using this to our advantage Auto Rickshaw's were drafted and sketchy skitching madison slings were attempted (sorry mum) along with as much hammering as our legs were capable of.
The Ganges River to Ganges Canal infrastructure was vast.
Statue of Indian God, Lord Shiva.
We finally arrived into Rishikesh after dark and we were welcomed by one of Dr Vinod's students, Pranav. He was kind enough to show us to our accommodation - an Ashram monastery where Indian youths go to practice sanskrit, meditation and worship. The cost of our room was a donation towards the Ashram (2000 rupees for 2 people for 2 nights or 30 bucks total). Once settled we freshened up by method of a cold jug of water over the head followed by my pathetic yelps. Needless to say were felt beyond fresh after that experience. Pranarv took us to a local Rajasthani restaurant where we ate large plates of Thali (pronouced with a silent 'h'). Thali is great because it gives you the chance to sample several small dishes at once, all different, usually served with a flatbread and rice.
Although now dark we took an evening walk along the Ganges to stretch the legs and feel the welcome cold freshness of the mountain air. We'd arrived at our first primary destination and it felt good. It was a minor win on a major trip. Rishikesh was now under the cover of darkness so weren't able to see any of the surrounding mountains and a taste of what lay ahead was beckoning behind the shadows.
Stay tuned for the next part which see's us explore Rishikesh and attempt an approx. 15,000ft day of climbing.