Tan lines: crisp
Location: Bangalore, KA
Four weeks in, my first milestone: Not Chennai as planned, rather Bangalore. Nothing to do with a poor sense of direction (although on a couple of occasions I have tried every road out of a tiny, tin roof, water pump and satellite dish village before finding the right one). Rather, travelling further and faster but more circuitously than expected this is where I find myself.
Still Bangalore is a valid waypoint. I was surprised to learn it is India’s third largest city, roughly the same size as London. Dramatically, in the 10 years to 2011 it doubled its population and still managed to be voted India’s most liveable city. Large enough to have both a bike shop (the ‘fixees’ and cycling glove kind) and an airport (to fly me back for a brief European interlude to the trip), Bangalore promised everything I needed. However, the final 50km stretch was I think, the hardest yet.
It was probably harder than the 2400m climb to Ooty that started the week and definitely harder than the freewheel downhill! Weaving down 36 numbered hairpin bends – great on the way down though I am sure no one wants to see ‘1/36’ on the way up – hands rather than feet controlling my speed, plains ahead, tea plantations behind, the thermometer counterbalancing my descent, from coat-cool to lowland-highs all in under an hour – it’s quite something.
Better still you roll seamlessly on into the Mudumalai Reserve, the first, best, natural environment I have seen in India: atmospheric, uninhabited rolling woodland with deer herds sheltering beneath, hoopoes in the trees and peacocks strutting below. Part way through I noticed the signs now had a longer name ‘Mudumalai Tiger Reserve – Core Area’. No wonder it is so pristine. The second half of the reserve continued, although with a new name, on in to Karnataka state and here, in the very middle of the park, I am told that I can’t cycle through a tiger reserve.
Now, to be fair that makes sense. Though also to be fair, telling me this in the middle of the park seems slightly flawed. You can tell I don’t know India yet: while I was thinking, ‘well mate how exactly do you suggest we solve this one?’ the ranger had already flagged down the next truck, asked them to take me on to Mysore and was telling me to get into the back. All I will say is hitchbiking is much easier than cycling!
While the hill stations, and buildings mark the past presence of the British in India, Mysore is the first place I’ve seen where that history seems to have ‘happened’. The Anglo-Mysore wars against the muslim Tipu (the tiger) Sultan, his eventual, well-respected, fatal defeat, and the reinstating of the former Hindu dynasty under British patronage, far from feeling parochial, awoke me to how the late 18th century world was already so connected; both Cornwallis (post US independence surrender) and Wellesley (pre-Waterloo) led the fight here at different times. It also reminded me what a patchy study of world history I covered at school. Forget 5000 years of Indian, Chinese or Middle Eastern History, we don’t even learn about our own impact on the world. Only if you invaded the British Isles, nearly did, or had a lot of wives, will we study you!
Next, tiger parks and tiger sultans behind me, my flight home freshly booked, with banana plants giving way to sugar cane, I pedalled on towards Bangalore, a simple 50km ahead, as it then seemed. Yet struggling up the final mountain out of a molehill inclines, searching for a place to stay, my hazy head wondered why cycling was suddenly so hard? The bad sleep in that night’s better-laugh-than-cry lodge? Missing sustenance from the lack of the usual idly and sambar breakfast?
A short while later, finally in a hotel, cocooned by aircon and curtains from any feeling of being in India, I found my answer: that famous Indian intestinal experience, like The Last Post, saluted my imminent departure, leaving me bed and bathroom ridden for my final day.
Luckily, the Indian Premier League and its incessant advertising were there to distract. These slots must cost a fortune; it is telling to see who is paying up: Vodafone and Jio competing for 4g data subscribers, Amazon pushing into India, aircon companies, and an annoying one about a drink called ‘frooty fizz’. Last but very much not least, there are the phone companies selling the quality of their selfie cameras (’20 megapixel moonlight selfie’) to 1.2 billion Indians trying to capture how they are all individuals. Even in the tiger park there was a specific ’no selfie’ sign every few kms (a girl with her back to the wildlife). That is not the best sign i have so far seen, though; as I head back for this pause in the UK, I will leave you with my very favourite – a road safety one (I hope!):
‘Hug your kids at home, belt them in the car’