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23 July 2015

Annie Owen continues her solo bicycle journey across Rajasthan. If you missed Part One, catch up with the beginning of Annie's extraordinary story here.

Annie Owen continues her solo bicycle journey across Rajasthan. If you missed Part One, catch up with the beginning of Annie's extraordinary story here.


By Annie Owen


Dahl is almost always fresh as it will not keep, but even so I thought it unwise to start a hot day of cycling on it. Roadside options are limited so I settled for plain freshly boiled rice with a glass of hot milk and sugar. The completely white meal was not at all appetising, but it worked well as fuel. My route for the day passed through Jodhpur so I was confident of a reasonably nourishing lunch and set off happily to cycle more than 100 km. The traffic was heavier as we reached the city, with gaudy trucks hurtling by, rather closer than necessary, tinsel tassels flapping, drivers waving and sounding their horns as they passed me. At one water stop, an ancient gentleman in fine red turban and worn white dhoti, spinning string as he walked, paused to give me a long lecture on some topic he felt strongly about. I did not understand a word, but smiled and offered him almonds which he took and went on his way.

Fortified by a decent lunch of yet more rice and dahl and a sugary Limca drink, I made good progress until I was hindered by a slowly deflating front tyre. Even so, I covered 108 km, before checking in to the comparative luxury of the £3 a night Hotel Modern in Rohet. My tired thoughts strayed to the luxurious Maharaja’s Lodge in this same town where on a previous trip I had dined elegantly beside the swimming pool to the sound of sitar music before retiring to the room where Bruce Chatwin is rumoured to have written part of ‘Songlines’. But therein lies madness and I banished the thoughts. Once again, I was glad of a wash and a meal and in truth had no energy to go anywhere except bed.


DAY  3

While I tackled another monochromatic breakfast my friend walked my bike into Rohet to get the puncture repaired. He does not generally take exercise but cycled back to test the tyre and returned shaking his head, having been thoroughly unnerved by the passing trucks on his perilous 1 km ride. “From now on you cycle ahead” he said firmly. He was genuinely concerned for my safety and there was to be no argument with this. He assumed a protective role behind me for the rest of the journey warning approaching vehicles with a flapping arm and a range of exotic hand signals that a Memsahib was pedaling ahead and should be carefully and respectfully avoided. No chance.

I reached the market town of Pali. I have become dangerously fond of cycling through busy and chaotic Indian towns and cities. In the midst of an apparently lethal and impenetrable mass of moving bicycles, rickshaws, tractors, cows (awake or asleep), cars, trucks, camels (with or without carts) buses and the odd herd of bullocks, there is a kind of order and predictability which I seem to understand - or have done so far. Aided by the inevitable surge of adrenalin I cycle through in a heightened state of awareness, ringing my bell and relishing the atmosphere. For me, the busier the better. If it’s hectic, I’m happy.

I paused for a while in Pali for some fruit and the inevitable demonstration of my gears. It was even hotter now and I was tiring easily. After an hour or so on the road I was flagged down by an earnest looking lad on a scooter. Apparently the owner of a nearby hotel had read about me in the newspaper and had sent his colleague after us to offer me a room for the night and meals free of charge. He also wanted to make a donation for the young man for whom I was fundraising. I continue to be touched and humbled by the many and generous gestures that are willingly offered in this wonderful country by ordinary people who almost invariably have much less than I do - materially at least. I turned round, reluctant to retrace a single metre but very glad of this  surprising offer and a shorter day in which to stop for an hour or two. Birds flitted in and outof the cool hotel interior in a frenzy of nest building as I relaxed watching cricket on a fuzzy TV and Sachin did the hard work. What treats!

I had been interviewed in Jaipur by several newspaper and local TV journalists and now a gentle reporter from a Pali paper asked me about my trip. India seemed fascinated by the whole venture. Later, camera batteries recharged, diary up to date, countless fresh lime soda’s consumed, lycra shorts washed - a different woman went to sleep that night!




The day started overcast and muggy - and suited my mood. This was a low spot. Tiredness had set in after 250 km and yet there still seemed so far to go and this part over hillier terrain. The couple of hours relaxing yesterday seemed to have done little to help. I knew that the best thing was to get going and was cheered on my way by a warm farewell from the hotel staff.

I pedalled hard for the first 20km to clear my head and tried not to notice the fact that I was cycling into the wind. I asked my friend how far it was to the left turn I knew would take me towards Ranakpur and out of the wind. “20 km” he replied brightly. “Good”, I thought and pedalled harder. After 30 km I asked again. Again he replied “20 km”. I found this very frustrating in someone usually so precise. It was only later, long after the end of the ride, that he explained to me that it is Indian practice to tell you what you want to hear to encourage you, rather than the truth which you might find daunting. Hmm.

Finally, after another 50 km or so, I turned off the main road and the wind became more comfortable. What a pity that the road surface did not. The smooth tarmac of the main road gave way to a pot-holed surface that shook my body and addled my mind. No longer could I gaze around me at the scenery - my attention was focussed on the erratic path I must cycle over the disintegrating road to avoid falling off or fracturing my wrists. I bullied my way grumpily through a herd of oncoming bullocks, defying them to bat an eyelid, which naturally they didn’t. By the time I paused at a roadside shrine to Hanuman, the monkey god and favourite of travellers, my legs were trembling and my prayers were involuntary. By the time I reached the sandy drive up to the hotel I was incapable. My friend tried unsuccessfully to suppress an affectionate laugh and handed me the car keys. He cycled up to the hotel and I hauled the heavy steering wheel of the Ambassador, glad to be using anything other than my jelly-like legs.

I washed, then watched the sun set through a cold beer. The hills were breathtakingly beautiful. I tried to ignore the fact that tomorrow they would be breathtaking. Period.

To be continued…

Find full information on Annie's upcoming tour of Gujarat: Traditional Crafts and Tribal Communities here.