In May this year, a bunch of Scottish Scouts took on their own Quest 79 challenge, crossing Scotland via the Great Glen Way. The cycled and canoed 79 miles over four days through sun, rain and midges. “What was the hardest bit?” I asked.
“The big hill! It went on and on and it was so steep.”
“And the best bit?”
“Errrr. It’s weird but maybe the best bit was going uphill too” they declared. “Because we didn’t think we could do it, and then we discovered we were stronger than we thought.”
The Himalayan hills are behind us now, but whilst they were hard, we are missing them as we cycle on the plains of the Ganges. A piece of our hearts is left in the drama of the scenery we have passed through, in the unexpected terrain, with the turquoise Ganga tumbling beside us, with the resilient spirits and gentle smiles of mountain people.
Our challenges are different now. We cycle by monkeys and road signs for elephants. We are grateful for the sacred cows that bimble all over the roads, slowing the onslaught of traffic to a safer pace. We dodge between rickshaws, auto-rickshaws, tuktuks, battered old cars, trucks and buses, mules and donkeys, carts, dogs, cows, pigs, monkeys, people, puddles, potholes, bumps and lumps.
“One Selfie!” all the motorbikes call to us, anything from one to five passengers squeezed on a single seat, hands full of mobile phones pointing at us whilst shouting “What your country?!”
When we pause for a break, crowds gather within seconds, motorbikes abandoned in the middle of the road for videos and selfies with us, overladen buses veering around, sometimes with a small crowd sat on top or someone on the roof-rack playing a drum.
In this land of motorbikes and selfies, noise is relentless. After a few days we manage to zone out from the blaring horns, rumbling engines, squeals of monkeys and calls to prayer. The heat is oppressive, thirst impossible to quench. We seek sanctuary in our overnight abodes, a screen of concrete and glass between us and the chaos, a waft of cool from a fan that looks ready to propel itself from a misfitting hole in a crumbling ceiling. Kevin dreamt last night of a fan spinning from the ceiling into the giant bed and mincing us all up. Maybe he is wanting a get-out from the sticky hard work or the incessant overload on the senses.
Christine is a changed woman. “We’ll get another day out of these cycling jerseys” she suggests on day four of ten hours on the road. It is a polar opposite to her usual habit of putting every last scrap of clothing in a washing machine after a half-hour cycle that raises no sweat. I am a changed woman too, saturated with grime and years of dirty adventures, eager to rinse our jerseys in a bucket.
“I love all these bruises and scrapes on my legs. Some of them are spectacular!” Christine adds, “I’m a real adventurer now”. Meanwhile, the seasoned adventurer in me is scrubbing myself clean, cleaning my feet with tea tree and seeking the moisturiser. There has been an exchange between us somewhere along the way. Christine has downed her standards (even happy to eat some day-old pizza crawling with ants), and I have upped mine.
We are exhausted with ‘our public’ but appreciative of Christine bringing up the rear and acting as our relationship manager with the motorbikes chasing us down from behind. They have heard we are on the road and are out to investigate. “Namaste! Gangotri to Varanasi” she calls out like a broken record, and intermittently we hear “Very well thank you!” In desperation to escape a growing crowd and a gang of bikes in the town of Bijnor, we flee.
10km out of town, our newly acquired Indian SIM card not working, I briefly turn my data roaming on to check we are on the right road. We are going totally the wrong direction. Back on track and my phone full of texts from Three informing me that the 90 seconds online has cost me more than £1 a second (seriously Three?!), we decide to cut our day short and find a riverside Ashram. We are hoping for some peace and a spiritual experience on our “Sacred Way”.
We leave the tarmac and follow a dusty lane towards the Ganges, temporarily lost amongst donkey poo and inquisitive villagers. Kevin’s data roaming, at a much more reasonable rate, navigates us to the Ashram gates. A friendly crowd starts to gather and lifts us and our bikes up the flight of steps, and through a gateway that has an air of temple about it. Before entering inside, we are spoiled with hot chai, snacks and a bunch more selfies. Ready for some rest and maybe a lesson in meditation, we begin heading inside, asking where there is a room we can lie down. Instead we are guided outside again, back down the steps, up the dusty street and toward the ‘the old house’. I imagine an ancient temple, maybe a bit dilapidated, excited for our first Ashram.
We are shown to a room, Kevin reporting that an old man had been fast asleep on the bed until a few seconds before.
“This old Ashram?” I ask Kum Kum in my new Indian English. She seems to be in charge.
“Old home,” she says, “I manager”.
A few hours later, tucking into daal and chapatis with a bunch of old men in their 90’s, we realise that the Ashram is actually an old people’s home, and we are booked in for the night.
Never a dull moment in India.