The Jewel in the Crown
After a week here it's difficult not to put India right at the top of my list of favourite places to cycle. My warm clothes are consigned to the bottom of my panniers and have traded places with my sun cream and flip flops. I am no longer lunching on the ubiquitous kebab of Iran and instead have the glorious diversity of Indian food fuel my way up the hills of the Konkan coast. I can count on being able to have a conversation in English and I can always eat, find a room, and a basin of hot water to wash, for less than the price of a round of drinks back in London. Shovelling Indian food into my mouth with my hands (no cutlery here) has taken a little getting used to, but I think I've managed to master the technique such that most food ends up in my mouth rather than down my front - well perhaps no worse than my usual performance with a fork. India also gets massive bonus points for being cricket mad – If Lords is the home of cricket then the streets of Bombay are where it works, eats and plays – and it's nice to be able to discuss the temperament of Alastair Cook as a batsman and England's chances in the world cup (starts in India next month) than resort to the same conversation about football which I had throughout Turkey and Iran ("From England? David Beckham! Manchester United! Chelsea! Roman Abramovitch – very rich man!). If I've felt that the hills are a little too hard work I've been able jump off the bike and join in the casual cricket games taking place at the roadside, on the beach, or just about anywhere with a strip of flat ground. I fear my bowling figures over the last week would not make for enjoyable reading – being repeatedly crashed through the covers by a seven year old armed with a piece of two by four is a humbling experience.
I am now in the touristy town of Ganpatipule after a week pedalling down the Konkan coast, described in my guidebook as...
"A narrow strip of little explored coastline bordered by the Western Ghats to the east and the Arabian Sea to the west, it's a remote and rural area. Accommodation is scant, the cuisine unsophisticated and monotonous and the locals unaccustomed to tour groups. Limited transport makes things more difficult."
...which must out quite a lot of tourists off because, outside the places in the guidebook, I haven't seen a single western tourist over the last week. It has felt faintly ridiculous to be cycling between Mumbai and Goa, and yet be pedalling along deserted beaches like something out of a brochure for the Maldives. On the bike it's quite striking to notice how a paragraph in a guidebook can mean a steady stream of moneyed western travellers passing through a town or village, whereas a settlement with no such mention or recommendation remains entirely devoid of any tourism impact (both beneficial and detrimental).
It's been since the Marmara coast in Greece and Turkey that i've been able to swim in the sea, but it's been worth waiting for; I can't imagine finer beaches than those which i've been pedalling next to over the last few days. The best of all were in the village of Velneshwar where the only place to stay was with a family who had a single room to rent out to the occasional traveller who passed through, and at Anjali where there was nothing more than a tiny settlement of perhaps one or two hundred people to share the almost comically beautiful strip of sand stretching for several kilometers.
The roads have been steep, of variable quality, and the few road signs are in Hindi or Maharathi. The map I have has served as nothing more than I very broad guideline as to whether there might be a road. Bridges are marked which do no exist, villages are in the wrong place and roads which are marked as straight are far from it. The river estuaries largely do not have bridges over them which means that, rather romantically, i've had to jump on the local ferry or persuade locals to take my bike across to the other side in exchange for a few rupees. Because of all this i've only covered 50k or less per day, but I haven't minded; it would feel wrong to power through this part of India at 100k per day.
So, after enjoying myself terrifically for the last week, yesterday disaster struck twice. First I got horribly lost and managed to turn what should have been a gentle 30k roll into Ganpatipule into a gruelling 70k marathon on steep, poor roads. Then, as I was finally drawing close my rear hub failed, rendering my bicycle unridable. Fortunately I was able to persuade a local with a 4x4 to give me a ride for the last few kilos, but the bike needs a new rear wheel before I can get back on the road. I fear that tracking down a 26 inch MTB wheel with a seven speed cassette here in India is going to be quite a challenge, so I may have to get a new one shipped from the UK to Goa. Ah well, there are worse places in the world to be stuck for a few days...
Some youngsters enjoy a game of cricket at Velneshwar. Shortly after this my bowling was subject to the most horrific assault.
Bicycle touring sub-continent style
Some Indian ladies enjoy a backie.
The deserted beach at Anjali.
Sunset at the Jamjera fort – Murud.
Indian roads – less than silken asphalt
Half a dozen samosas please.