Uttar Pradesh is the most populous Indian state, and most of those people appear to spend their time driving big lorries along the highways with an almost total disregard for other road users. During this entry, I tackled one of the more monotonous stretches of the trip, from Agra to Lucknow. The former glories of both these cities are very clear; what took me more by surprise was the vibrancy of its present glories – an encouragement to venture beyond the time-trapped tourist routes, and to spend time soaking up what these historical capitals have to say about the modern day.
Agra was full of surprises. Kindly invited to the Christian wedding of Desmond and Veronica, both teachers at the school I was staying with, I attended with mild apprehension, memories of wild Punjabi weddings resonating in my mind. This service, conducted almost entirely in Hindi, made little sense to me but shared some obvious similarities with a Christian wedding back in the U.K, and was accordingly more muted than its Hindu and Sikh counterparts. A notable discrepancy with weddings back home was the way the congregation doubled in size during the ceremony – most people’s watches firmly set to Indian time, it appears. Perhaps it was for them that the service stretched out for nearly 2 hours. The feast afterwards was something else. For the first time in weeks, I gorged almost aggressively on literally everything, a strategy I very quickly regretted when asked to showcase my White Man Dancing in front of a highly entertained (but unimpressed) crowd. However, the joy of the occasion was palpable: as genuine a sign of love as the monstrously expensive extravaganzas currently popular among Hindus.
Peeling away just after midnight, I grabbed four hours sleep before cycling across town to catch sunrise at the Taj Mahal with a former colleague of mine and his Yale friend (the three Sams), whose holiday had incredibly coincidentally overlapped with my route. Given the opportunity to showcase my newfound (and very, very limited) expertise, I took them for a traditional street breakfast of kachori and jalebi, and was pleased to see them enjoy my suggestions and broken Hindi. They were off to Jaipur that day via Fatehpur Sikri, and whilst I clearly couldn’t go the full way with them, the idea of exploring the abandoned Mughal city of Fatehpur Sikri with some friendly faces was too good an option so we decided to reconvene in a couple of hours – I had a 40km cycle to get there and they wanted to see a few more things in Agra.
Fatehpur Sikri might be my favourite place so far. Although touts and accompanying tourist traps abound, this is the one place where you can feel utterly transported from the chaos of the surrounding hustle and bustle.
Saying my goodbyes to the Rajasthan-bound Sams, I loaded up with 2 monster roadside curries, snoozed through the hottest hour of the day then headed back to Agra, shattered not least from the dire condition of the road which left me questioning my choice of bike and tyres – perfectly suited to the pancake flat Grand Trunk Road but running the real risk of a puncture on these minefields. Legend has it that an ancient tunnel linked the Taj Mahal and the Jama Masjid of Fatehpur Sikri, effectively running under the same road I had now cycled along twice. The fact that the tunnel entrances have been closed for decades on health and safety grounds makes me suspicious that such an engineering undertaking ever existed, but legends like this proliferate as markers of the extraordinary acts of piety Mughal emperors exhibited (whilst of course finding no inconsistency with the housing of hundreds of wives and courtesans in elaborate harems nearby). The 40km, a tiny amount relative to some of the chunks I was to undertake over the next week, was one of the hardest rides so far – heat, the early start and definite onset of dehydration all contributing – and taught me a lot about looking after my body and not underestimating the small rides.
Launching myself into the final day of Agra, I discovered the local delicacy Panchi Petha after following a tip from a very friendly bunch of St Clare’s students. They have the texture of Turkish Delight, but are so much sweeter. I’ve probably given myself diabetes now, but I can’t say no to having a box of them on the go every time I hit the road. The final big things to tick off in Agra were the Fort, a mammoth demonstration of Mughal power with some fascinating pan-Indian influences that echoed the Western Ghat Jain detail that adorns some of the Fatehpur Sikri buildings, and the almost completely deserted Jama Masjid. The two sites are less than a km apart, so I opted to firmly turn down all rickshaw offers and to walk instead. Looking back at the Fort from the steps of the Mosque, it is easy for the eye and the mind to skim over the gap in between; my walk instead seared into my mind the memory of the poorest roadside shacks I’d encountered in the entire trip. Under the huge shadows of the looming Fort, children darted among dung-smeared walls and tarpaulin lean-to shelters, accompanied by an incomprehensible stench and swarm of flies. Shocking enough anywhere, the proximity to both these famous landmarks and the gentle flow of tourism was jarring, and I wondered how little the lives of inhabitants such as those children had changed since the years of the great Mughal emperors residing in the Fort – there remains a significant demographic for whom historical progress, let alone development and economic boom, are almost incomprehensible, and you don’t need to live in a remote rural village to be isolated from those changes.
As mentioned, Uttar Pradesh is pretty massive, and the cities of interest are therefore strewn across a huge ‘Heritage Arc’. This so-called arc between Agra, Lucknow and Varanasi rather oversells the heritage in between these fantastic places. The most outrageous attempt to plug these gaps is a multi-million rupee project to build a cycle path for 200km between Agra and Etawah, my next city. No one in the right mind wants to cycle 200km to Etawah (the direct route is about 120km), whose only remote claim to tourism is a new lion safari (currently with no lions because the climate is unsuitable). Furthermore, 200km is long way for even an ardent cyclist, of which there are very few in India, and in the 20km of the cycle path before I gave up and hit the highway I didn’t see a single other bicycle. Instead, this lavish political vanity project has been reclaimed by the villages it winds through, and they tether cattle to the signs, obscuring the route, and drive their tractors along it, ruining the concrete. It was in a diabolical condition considering it has been open for 4 months, looking like someone had ploughed chunks of it up in places. I was really quite angry about the whole thing, from the alleged corruption that led to the wrong concrete being used, to its utter irrelevance for the citizens of the villages it passes through. No public sanitation and very poor power infrastructure, but these villagers have a gigantic and unusable cycle path to shit on. Fantastic insight into the incredibly counterproductive policy politics of Uttar Pradesh.
It was therefore with profoundly unfunny irony that the pothole to chuck me flying off my bike came on an otherwise beautifully flat Tarmac highway soon after leaving this rutted cycleway. I’m still slightly unsure what happened, but a moment later I was skidding along on my side, feet finally unclipping from the pedals, and stopping in a heap of bike and limbs in front of a gobsmacked group of onlookers. What is more confusing is how I didn’t do myself any real damage: the handlebar took a real whack and is now angled in alarmingly, but a few wipes of antiseptic over my raw grazes and 10 minutes to get my senses back was all the attention my body needed. The hip was sore for days to come, but is loosening up now and I didn’t lose a day of cycling, which I was very relieved about.
Nonetheless, I was feeling a bit rattled, and so it was a large chunk of good fortune that I should be offered a huge meal for free at my lunchtime stop at Bateshwar, a vibrant Hindu village sacred to Shiva on the bank of the Yamuna. Sitting on the steps of the ghats watching some locals compete to spit the furthest, a couple of river turtles bobbed around in front of me, and I processed my crash and how lucky I’d been.