After 5 days enjoyable days in the backpacker scene in Dharamsala (McLeod Ganj & Bhagsu), I was rather itching to get back to the paragliding training before I’d forget everything I’d learnt, and before I’d lose my fitness. So I headed back to Bir on the Enfield. Before setting off I tried to buy insurance for the bike so I wouldn’t have to bribe the cops again, but I couldn’t because it was a Saturday. Fortunately the cops weren’t at the checkpoint though.
Back in Bir and paragliding was still banned for another 3 days, so we headed north again to Manali in the hope that the weather would soon clear there so that I could have my first high flight.
Back to Manali
This time we borrowed a car and this time I drove most of the journey. Now although it’s only 235km from Bir to Manali, I haven’t really explained how much of a bitch of a drive it is. The entire journey is windy and the first half very potholed. Most of it is spent in 3rd gear. If a bus is coming the other way, you will have to go onto the dirt verge so that it can get past. At any point you could come around a corner and find anything in your lane, from a herd of goats, a cow, or a bus overtaking a truck and coming towards you. For this reason, Indians drive very shanti (slowly). If you drove at Indian villager pace the trip would probably take 7 or 8 hours. I drove faster than that (no one ever passed me), but it’s tiring because you have to be alert for all of the above, as well as the numerous potholes and rough patches. It’s a very active drive, constantly accelerating and decelerating and weaving between potholes. So the whole trip takes like 6 hours with a lunch break.
So back in Manali and unfortunately for the next 2 days the weather didn’t clear. On the 2nd day I got a couple of short practice flights at Solang but it was more of the same, we were still keen for me to have a high flight.
So back to Bir again
Bruce had some business to take care of in Manali and once that was done and with the weather not looking promising we yet again drove the 6 hours back to Bir, knowing that the paragliding ban in Bir would be lifted the next day.
I was running out of time on my trip too – I was due to fly out from Delhi in 3 more days, but I wanted to squeeze in a visit to the Taj Mahal too. Everything depended on the weather. If the weather cleared, I could have my first high paragliding flight, change my airline ticket to a couple of days later and get maybe 3 days of high paragliding in and then go back to NZ with a good 10 hours of flying time in my logbook (yes, I have to keep a paragliding logbook just like a pilot). Or even if the weather was shit, I could change my flight anyway and hope that it cleared and still maybe get one or two days paragliding in.
I decided fuck it – we’d given it our best possible shot, and if it’s not meant to be it’s not meant to be. I wouldn’t change my ticket unless the weather was clear the very next day, which was my last scheduled day in Bir. If God or the universe or whatever doesn’t want me to have my first high flight in India then so be it, it’s for a reason.
Unfortunately the weather didn’t clear the next day. At one point at about 1pm it looked promising, and Petie thought it would be worth a shot. But Bruce the local was like, well yeah, maybe if you’re on the takeoff right now ready to go, you’d get a short flight in. But it’ll take an hour for us to get up to the takeoff spot and by that time the weather could be doing anything. And he was right – within the hour a monsoon-like storm rolled in and raindrops the size of grapes were pouring down, along with pea-sized hailstones!
Back to Delhi
We’d tried booking me an air-conditioned bus back to Delhi for that night, but Bruce’s travel agent friend said don’t bother – it would cost us an extra 50 rupees (NZ$2) to book ahead, the only thing we needed to do was turn up at the bus station at 5:20pm to buy a ticket for the 5:30pm bus. And if we missed that one then there was another an hour later.
Well guess what. We arrived late at 5:32pm and the bus had already left. So then we had a hair raising drive to the next town to try and catch up with the bus there. When we arrived there we found out that the A/C bus had left at 5pm and that it was booked out well in advance. Awesome.
Crazy local bus rides
I’ve taken many many shit bus rides over the years. I’ve been squished into all sorts of seats, been surrounded by ducks or goats, had my hairy Western leg hairs tugged on by curious locals, ridden on top of trucks, over all sorts of twisty bumping roads, all throughout SE Asia and South America. Crazy local bus rides are part of what makes travelling fun, exciting and rewarding.
My main rule of thumb though is to take my crazy local bus rides during the day. You get to see and smell the countryside and the local people en route. If it’s at night you miss all that, and it’s so uncomfortable that sleeping is difficult if not impossible.
Now since I’d just missed the only air-conditioned bus of the day, all of a sudden I was faced with taking a non-A/C bus 12 hours to Delhi overnight. Did I mention that the Delhi area has had the hottest April in 50 years, with temperatures over 40°C? A packed bus ride from the mountains into that sort of heat was not appealing. Especially since I’d dressed reasonably warmly as I’d been expecting A/C.
As it turned out though the heat wasn’t the main problem on the bus ride – with the windows down and at night it was reasonably cool. Far worse was the bumpy road and the local bus’ crap suspension. See, the big Volvo A/C buses have sweet suspension and you barely feel the bumps. The non-A/C buses have shit suspension and rattle and shake along every bump. And since I was getting on the bus at a later stop, the only available seats were at the rear of the bus where you feel the bumps even worse. In my seat I was literally bounced out of it with air time more than once. Sleep was of course impossible.
When we finally stopped for a dinner at 11pm, once I was out of the bus and on stable ground I literally had sea-legs and was wobbling around because I was so used to the constant shaking. Honestly, in all my years of travelling this was
the most uncomfortable the worst bus ride I’d ever taken.
In Delhi again
Oh boy. You know you’re getting close to Delhi because the sickly sweet smell of sewer hits you about half an hour before arrival. I arrived at the Delhi bus station at 5:30am. The easy option would have been to catch another bus from the bus station to Agra (home of the Taj Mahal), about 4 hours southward. But I hadn’t yet taken a train in India, and a train ride in India is an essential experience.
With all the paragliding I’d gotten used to lugging a backpack (with a paraglider and harness inside) up and down hills. But on arrival in Delhi with its heat and the smog, my backpack felt like it weighed about 40kg and I was having major trouble breathing. My chest was heaving but it felt like the air I was breathing contained no oxygen. I sucked on an old expired rarely used asthma inhaler that I have but it had little effect. Maybe cos it was nearly empty. In this state I had to haul myself to a nearby subway station, queue up to by a subway ticket, get patted down and my pockets emptied by security, get my bag X rayed, catch the subway from Kashmere Gate to New Delhi subway, walk over the overpass to the New Delhi Train Station, and head to the foreigners ticket booth. I got there at about 6:30am, a sweaty heaving mess. Oh, the foreigners ticket office doesn’t open until 8am. Sigh.
The only other foreigners around were a Russian couple who had arrived in India the previous day. They’d told me that a local had told them that the foreigner’s ticket office is closed today because it’s a holiday. I believed them for a minute and then thought better of it, the local would have told them that to try to sell them a fake or overpriced ticket.
It’s quite a scene. As you can imagine, the New Delhi train station is constantly crawling with people – mostly other Indians who are buying tickets or sitting/sleeping on the floor with their luggage waiting for their train. But a lot of the people are loiterers who will spin you any line of bullshit to get you to try and buy a ticket from a travel agency so that they get commission. And buying a ticket from the station is quite daunting because there are so many queues depending on your destination. There’s also many classes (first, 2nd, etc) and arcane rules around ticket availability and prices for foreigners. One guy told me to buy a ticket for Agra from ticket booth number 62. While I was queuing there another local guy approached me and told me that only Indians can buy tickets from that queue, and that foreigners have to buy them from the foreigner’s ticket office upstairs, but since it’s closed I had to go get an emergency ticket from the counter outside. I was dubious, but to lend credence to his story just as I got to the front of the line and it was my turn to buy my ticket the cashier put up his closed sign and walked away. So this guy leads me all the way across the road to what turns out to be a travel agent. I sit down inside for a second because I’m fucked. Hot, sweaty, short of breath. And not happy about being led all the way here.
What a fucking mission.
I catch my breath and decide to camp outside the foreigner’s ticket office until it opens because that’s the only place where I can get a straight answer.
I wait the hour and a half until the foreigner’s ticket office opens, and when it finally does it’s amazingly nice inside. Probably the only place in the station which has A/C, and there’s actual couches to sit on while we queue, and the staff are very helpful. An amazing contrast to the mayhem in the rest of the station. But the clerk tells me that due to some
nonsensical typical Indian rule, he can only sell me a ticket for trains that are going to depart no sooner than 4 hours from now. In other words, since it’s now 8am he can sell me a ticket for the 1pm train to Agra but he can’t sell me a ticket for the 10:30am train. I wasn’t in too big of a hurry to get to Agra, I just wanted to see the sun set over the Taj Mahal today, and I would do a tour of it the next day. But he said I could buy a ticket by going back down to booth 62, to not listen to anybody, and to buy my ticket for train 1068 from there. “Don’t listen to anybody!” I queue up and once it’s my turn I have to fill out and sign a form, and finally I have my ticket for the 10:30am train.
When the train pulls into the station I have no idea where my carriage is. The train is fucking long too, and I walk all the way to the end of it, before finding a conductor who tells me my carriage is at the front of the train. So I weave my way back along the platform between the people disembarking and embarking, the food vendors, the machine-gun toting Army soldiers, the people blocking the platform with their bags, the woman screaming and chasing a bag snatcher which draws everyone’s attention, the people crossing the tracks in front of another approaching train, in the heat, sweating and heaving, getting asthmatic now, fuck I just want to get to my A/C sleeper and catch my breath.
Finally, finally, I squeeze my way through my carriage with my giant backpack and find my seat/bed and I want to cry. Some of the beds are reasonably sized but my one is up against the curve of the roof and is narrow and much too short for me, plus where am I going to put my bag, I just can’t catch my breath and the A/C’s not strong enough it’s still so hot and I’m panting like a dog and fuck I need some fresh air so I step back outside but outside there’s no breeze and it’s hot as an oven Christ so I throw my bag up onto one end of my tiny bunk and lie at the other end and try to chill the fuck out.
After about ten minutes I’ve finally caught my breath and can better assess the situation. This lack of oxygen thing is affecting my coping ability. I put my bag on the floor under another one of the beds, and one of my carriage mates offers to switch beds with me since my bed is too short for me, which was nice of him. Eventually the A/C feels effective and I’m able to breathe again and I actually get an hour or so of sleep, which was well overdue. A meal arrives which everyone eats cross-legged on their beds. At one point I go between carriages to see what it’s like without the A/C, and man, when you put your head out the window it’s like a massive hair-dryer is blowing you in the face, such is the heat.
We arrive in Agra and I get a rickshaw to a hotel, and get my first glimpse of the Taj Mahal from the rooftop restaurant of my hotel.
Aaaah. That feels better.