One lucky son of a gun
I don’t class myself religious...but after crossing India to Thailand I do sort of like to think there’s an angel of some sort on the look out for me, here’s why:
Moving from Kolkata we (my extremely fast partner and I that is) headed straight for the Benapole border, Bangladesh. An early start (5 am) now didn’t seem like anything special but I wanted to make good time.
Arriving just after 9am the queue was already huge but I’d prepared myself for a long wait, bike in hand. On speaking to a security guard he questioned where I was from, stating England he then asked me to wait...suddenly he said to follow him so I awkwardly skipped past the mile-long queue! I should have explained that as a Brit we are the masters of queuing- yet if anyone had pushed in I’d have a meltdown.
The process of obtaining the visa was a little arduous, leaving the Indian side wasn’t a problem but once into the Bangladesh customs office, despite filling the form in advance I was asked to fill in the same information just in a different format. Then they wanted dollars of course for payment, which I had, but they weren’t keen on the notes I had i.e. no 50 dollar bills (thinking perhaps they were fake) so I paid the majority in rupees instead. After the process was over the customs officer in charge asked me to sit tight as he was organising an armed escort! I laughed and asked, ‘You wah?’ He repeated it, ‘Thought that’s what you said’, I replied and tried my best to dismiss the idea. However, on the other hand I thought it would be pretty cool!
Guys came armed, one carrying a rifle of some type and the others with handguns, on leading me out the door there were loads of people waiting for their kin/friends all staring at me. The police led me to the truck and gave me a run through the process - first asking me if I’d put the bike in the back, which I said no to of course. The process was for me to tail them. Instead of leading me through the busy streets, I think it was market day, they diverted me around the town which was an excellent call. Oh yeah, important note: it’s 40 degrees, the middle of the day and my plan was to get over the border and grab some food and take some money out (very important for later).
So I’m absolutely beaming at this point following the escort down the road which was all churned up as expected. After 10km we stopped and just like clockwork the next team of police took charge. I shook hands with the first team and said, ‘Au revoir’. At this point we were surrounded by locals but the police were stern with anyone who tried to communicate with me or got too close and as you'd probably guess I was thinking…what time you on tomorrow for another escort session?
The next team was a slower truck and had about 5 members, all lock and loaded. At this point I was a little tired and very hungry, but it didn’t seem like the right time to ask if we can have a lunch break, thinking I was wasting their time anyhow. Another 10km passed and we stopped, again like clockwork the next squad was there to take over - this time a motorbike with 2 guys and a couple of pistols (that's it!!). They wiggled and weaved their way through and since they were nippier they were pulling over trucks and holding traffic back to let little old me through so, waving like Mr Bean on his first holiday I ploughed through.
The last changeover was back to another 3 man pickup, they wanted me at the front and they’d sit back. As we approached the town (where on my visa form I’d listed a hotel for the night) a lady was walking by the side of the road with her back to the traffic, carrying a bucket in her hands. Oblivious as to what she was doing, I came level with her and into her line of vision at which point I realised she was about to hurl a bucket of mucky water all over me! In mid throw she dropped it! Looking back at the police I brushed my brow and they had a good laugh at my expense (so much for protection).
Entering the town, they then took the lead to the hotel- the 5 star hotel that is! Oops, on sticking the hotel down on my form I hadn’t checked the details. I parked my bike up supported by the hotel security team who were making a fuss and all the while I was thinking how to escape this one. I stood at the entrance waving the police off and then entered the hotel. From there I sat down in the cafe/bar area and saw a huge pastry formed crocodile and thought, where the hell am I! After grabbing a drink I explained to staff that I was feeling like I could punch out some more miles and therefore was going to continue. However, at this point I was shattered, I hadn’t eaten or drank enough so I went on the hunt for a guest house or a million miles cheaper hotel.
There was no way that I was comfortable camping in India or Bangladesh and with my setup being more lightweight I was increasingly thankful as this enabled me to go further and therefore, I avoided getting stuck out in the middle of nowhere. I really valued quality sleep especially when considering the miles I was aiming to achieve over these sections, the constant battle with the heat and management of people. I had no problem in feeling I deserved the right to switch off during the night and have a shower since I was covered head to toe in muck every day. I thought to myself that I can put up with anything during the day but during the night - I need to rest properly. If I roughed it, I’d be weak and therefore vulnerable the following day. Also, I must mention I wasn’t paying over £15 for accommodation and was also entering Malaria infested areas (which I was prepared for by taking anti-malaria tablets) but still needed to be careful. Further, with not getting the calories during the day, due to the strength of the heat, this is the way it had to be.
The next day I set off to leave the hotel; something I’ve not yet explained is that throughout India, and these sections, everywhere you stay security guards are hired for the nightshift and hotels have shutters or similar defences. This means on being ready to ride off at 5am the ‘24 hour guards’, who were always fast asleep, needed to be woken up! So once you kick the guards up you can then depart into the early morning darkness. The hotel also warned me that if I was ever on the roads before 5 am there wouldn’t be a police presence and the roads would be therefore high risk - whatever that means!
I also thought to myself - imagine if the police were waiting for me at the 5 star hotel that morning and what would have happened if I’d planned to go even further that day, how long would they have supported me?
Continuing from the town of Jessore I had a big day ahead - hoping to make it all the way to Dhaka, crossing the Ganges, about 130 miles in total. For those who don’t know Bangladesh it is extremely flat, the roads aren’t perfect though and the traffic is...bone chillingly mental! (We’ll get on to that later.) Bangladesh is one of the highest flood risk areas in the world and with the monsoon season on the approach my timing was perfect for the crossing, before things could drastically change.
Remember that I didn’t get any cash out the day before, and well, there weren’t any cash points open the following morning. My plan was to get some out at the next town, 20 miles down the road. I arrived and found one however, they wouldn’t accept visa, brilliant! At this point the next town was 40 miles away, a larger town which may or not have a bank which would support my card...I rode on, settling myself into a dark bubble for 40 miles thinking this might be a very rough day indeed. In terms of food I had a jar of peanut butter, which I’d carried since Mumbai, however every time I thought about scooping it out I felt physically sick! (I later got rid of the tub in Thailand - well travelled nuts!) I also had a very small jar of manuka honey my mum gave me in France, even more well travelled - still wasn’t time to break that open. It was amazing though, mentally my mind just wanted to give in; if I can’t get food and water this isn’t going to end well! By mid-day it would be too late…so I pressed on in a pretty grumpy mood, hungry.
60 miles on I arrived and tried the first cash point, no luck, moving onto another - it worked!!!! I went straight to a small restaurant and bought a coffee and some breakfast, not sure what I was eating but it made me human again. Surrounded by villagers I was back in a good mood, chatting to everyone as best I could. Also, having had a coffee which was 10% coffee, 90% sugar almost had me dancing before jumping on the bike, I was that happy!
Now back on the road I was heading for the boat - joining a much better road, straight but incredibly dangerous! Huge coaches would put their foot to the floor on these roads and not stop for anyone. This was worse than India, they had no give - they would just blare the horn and squeeze through the gap both ways! I was having to jump off the road all day.
I arrived at the river crossing, just under 90 miles at this point, at around 3pm. We all squeezed on the boat; it was absolutely packed and everyone grabbed the shade! I was left roasting in the sun and keeping watch over the bike which attracted quite a lot of attention. Strangely they didn’t charge me for the boat ride or at least no one approached me and being a tourist, I thought they might take advantage of this. So, I had a free ride over the Padma River. I found out later from a local that they were probably treating me as a guest, which I liked the idea of.
Arriving on land I went in search of food and found some samosas to fuel me to Dhaka, see picture below. I have no idea how I made it through these sections without getting ill. However, I would trick my mind - if it’s a popular place, I would tell myself, it must be alright...tricking the mind in endurance cycling is no.1. Play dumb and keep lying to yourself - around the corner there’s always water, lol. However, if you keep lying to your cycling partner about this, they won’t last long...‘Aye, this is definitely the last hill of the day!’ 🤥
This next section was again crazy with coaches. At one point I had a coach passing me so I pulled over only to find another pulling out leaving me sandwiched between them, being right hand drive I slapped my hand on the side of the coach as loudly as possible to get the ‘fantastic’ coach driver’s attention. They simply don’t use their mirrors or signal, so I found myself shouting most of the time. Again, no one looks behind here - they join a road without looking, it’s absolutely insane! All through these sections you have to push and be bold, leave the gentleman of the road back in Europe and be as aggressive as you can or you’ll get nowhere in these places. If you flinch, when crossing the road, the driver will read that and just continue.
On coming into the city, about 30 km off Dhaka, a couple of lads on a motorcycle came alongside me and asked if I would like to stop for a drink. They spoke good English, so I pulled off with the lads and had a good chat.
Continuing my journey to Dhaka the traffic became denser and the drivers even more useless. In the flow of traffic I was sitting in the left shoulder. Bikes joining the road entered (without looking) pushing me more central, with a bus to the right of me they shifted forward leaving a gap...suddenly, out of nowhere a truck accelerated to hit the gap, crossing our path and heading directly into me. My front wheel hit the bonnet, twisting and sending me flying into the windscreen which I hit pretty hard; it was a flat bonnet, so it was like hitting a wall. I smashed the windscreen, the impact being taken by my right shoulder, and as I slid down the back of my hand was cut open with the broken glass! Landing on my feet I went mental - worried about the bike.
My first reaction, after shouting, was whether the drivers were okay but then I thought, of course they’re okay am I? Now, it wasn’t the normal switching of insurance details etc, the drivers didn’t even get out! People gathered round to help me get off the road and the driver gave me his scarf to wrap up my bloody hand. With some support we straightened the handlebars out and people told me there was a hospital 5km in the direction I was heading. They said they’d take me but I was pumped up and angry so I hopped on the bike, gave my thanks for the support given and rode off down the congested road with everyone pointing out that I was bleeding, yes thanks I know.
Between bunny hopping and a bit of a walk I limped into the small hospital centre; it seemed the whole hospital jumped to their feet and swarmed around me! I parked my bike outside and said to a member of staff, ‘Bike okay there???’ I needed absolute confirmation first before leaving it out of my sight. The doctor took me into a small room where the door was flooded with nurses, other doctors and a load of random others all trying to say hello or have a look at the hand, so whilst the doctor is talking to me there’s 10 others peering through the door.
They decided to X-ray it to make sure there weren’t any fractures which meant my metal bracelet had to be cut off and for about 40 mins I went through the process of moving my hand in different angles for different shots. Anyway, to cut a long story short -no breaks but it needed stitches. I was taken to the operating theatre where the doctor proceeded and even here, there were 3-4 lads helping out in Adidas tops and watching the stitches taking place.
All sorted, I was handed a long list of meds to collect and needed to look for somewhere nearby to stay. However, by now it was getting dark and the closest place was going to be Dhaka itself, 20km away. They weren’t keen about me cycling off but I got saddled up and ready to go anyway. I was a little shaken from the collision and bit apprehensive about continuing but I thought this would be the best thing for me mentally rather than putting it off.
Just as I was leaving a boy asked if he could help. I explained what had happened and what I’m doing. He said he could help, explaining he was part of a cycling club and could perhaps get the bike checked over at a place nearby. I was all for it. On route he also shared that he had just graduated that day with a law degree. The bike was easily sorted - in the light it was clear the disc brakes were catching and the handlebars needed tightening. Once done he asked me if I wanted to stay with his family for the night? Absolutely I said! That night I went back to his family’s place and was well looked after, but being a guest and maybe being too polite I didn’t like to take the amount of calories or water I needed…
Consequently later, when we went out to meet up with the cycling club at the local park where they get together to talk and play the guitar, I suddenly fainted which broke up the evening. This was followed by serious stomach cramps - my body’s reaction to the injection given at the hospital and since I hadn’t eaten enough, I’d held off taking the tablets prescribed. So, lesson learnt: don’t be too polite all of the time Steven - especially when you’re injured.
The following day I wanted to get to Dhaka where I could settle for a while, so I got kitted up in my fresh smelling garments and completed those final kms. I rode timidly into the city and found myself a cheap hotel. The hand and rest of my body were fine, I had to change the dressing every other day (which I had supplies for) and get the stitches taken out in 10 days. I decided to take 3 days off in Dhaka, making sure the bike was okay and to check there was no damage to spokes etc. All was okay thankfully.
I’d made a contact at the end of last year with a couple who both work for the British Embassy in Dhaka. I had been in contact with them prior to the route and Phil, my contact, funnily enough told me that India’s traffic was hectic, but Bangladesh would be another level of craziness! He was absolutely correct - looking down at my wrist I nodded. I contacted Phil again and we arranged a day to meet-up. This connection turned out to be awesome and exactly what I needed! It was lovely to have a slice of English life back in my life. They allowed me to tuck into as much food as I wanted and I had a great time chatting with staff members who worked there. It made me feel quite homesick actually; it was like being teleported back to the UK for an afternoon.
Time was up and I was back onto the streets of Dhaka however, I had organised my Uber motorbike driver to pick me up and take me on a little city tour! The light was perfect for whizzing round city and exploring (my phone was on 1% battery so I only took one video which you’ll find on my Instagram) definitely a city I would return to. Mumbai and Dhaka have to be my favourites at this point.
Once back on the bike I wanted to make up for time lost, not having planned to take those unexpected days off, I headed North East. Again, there were quite a few hold ups with collisions and with only two lanes the road was at a standstill - not for a cyclist though! Low point - with the buses being stationary spit was flying out of the windows, I was constantly dodging this disgusting habit and since the locals chew tobacco this meant mouthfuls of red spit! Lovely aye! Anyway, on weaving through the traffic I parked myself in front of a car, which obviously hadn't seen me. He kept rolling forward and I kept thinking he would notice me but he didn’t...rolling faster the car pushed into my rear derailleur bending it in and jamming it into the spoke! S***!! This time I lost my temper cursing the driver for not paying attention! With the bike unable to roll I picked it up and smashed it against a footbridge! (In doing this I pulled my lower back.) If it was bent too far it was a goner, luckily I pulled it from the spoke and back into alignment! Get me out of here I thought and cycled 155 miles, just before the border.
Leaving Bangladesh to go back into India wasn’t easy... firstly I had to wait till 10 am when the customs officer got out of bed, this held everyone up though, many trucks were ready to cross. Then the customs officers made my life a little awkward. Firstly, and fair enough, because this is Muslim territory showing too much skin isn’t really savvy, so basically I walked into the customs office and the gentleman told me to get out and put some more clothes on! On returning to the bike there were about 20 men all watching however, I felt comfortable leaving the bike as there was army muscle watching also. So, standing there I pulled from my bag my only dress shorts, pulling them over the cycling bibs and put a long sleeve top over the jersey. Can’t say I didn’t try! Anyway, on walking back in he accepted how I was. From this point things became a little strange - they wrote a letter which I had to sign and then pay them for road tax or something, I knew this was complete b******* but accepted it as they were a little straight and strict. Then another immigration officer spent a good hour reading the details of my visa and which border I could depart by... they had nothing to work on, it was just a matter of being patient. They asked me if I’d received the visa online (which I had) or in London? London sounded more official and was the answer they definitely wanted - but I’m a bad liar, so I talked about London for about 10 mins and my love for Manchester football team and David Beckham whom they loved!Anyway, I eventually got the green light to go and as you can see in the pictures below by this time, I had gathered quite a crowd around me!
Back into India (the section which runs along the North and North East of Bangladesh) I would be entering a very hilly area in a state called Manipur. Some absolutely beautiful hill climbs on this section, climbing crazy elevations within those two days to Imphal, the city before entering Myanmar. Throughout these hills there were many army control points which were like borders...I had to hand over my passport and trip details however, this made me feel safer since officials now knew of my whereabouts. I can’t tell you why the soldiers in camouflage gear were dotted around the hills (no doubt only a google search away) but I’m okay not knowing. I can tell you they were searching for land mines and that each small village had a team for protection.
I’d heard great things about Myanmar and was ready for a new country and some new challenges. On route I was speaking online to another cyclist who had been through this section and he was warned off a section of road because he had set a time limit and had experienced some serious bike troubles earlier, so he avoided it by taking a river boat down. I decided I would go for it, how bad can it truly be, I’ve seen it all!
The next day, I caught up with another cyclist and I knew the guy! Well not exactly, I’d followed his journey on YouTube/ social media - Ben Bowler, check him out. He was going the same way so I warned him about the section of road up ahead. I then decided to change my route, feeling I deserved a rest from the bumpy roads, and thought I had a better section of road...however I regret everything, this was probably the last hurdle for the bike! On arriving in Mandalay, she - the bike -wasn’t riding smoothly even on the flats! It felt so uncomfortable and I knew the back wheel wasn’t right as it wobbled. I managed to tighten the rear spokes up at the back which had come loose and it looked better but I also noticed the tyres were on their last legs but felt they had it in them to carry me safely into Thailand. However, to put my mind at rest I got a mechanic in the city to check it over as well – if he was happy with it then so was I. Still it was uncomfortable riding, my hands felt it a lot more and my legs felt fatigued, something was different about the ride and it was affecting me or was I just tired? Since arriving in Myanmar, the atmosphere was less intense, maybe I was just coming down from all the drama.
From Mandalay I really knew I was in the rainy season! Monsoon season was in full flow, I spent most of the day pulling in to shelter from the downpours. I made it to the city of Naypyitaw - known as the fake capital –4.5 times the size of London with only 100,000 people living there! Huge highways without any traffic on it - very strange place and since it was pouring down with rain I didn’t explore it much. On leaving I was heading through a set of lights - green means go, yes? So, I’m cycling through, I can see the lights have perhaps changed as cars rev their engines - I confirm in my head they’ll see me - the cars did but one motor scooter didn’t, pulling straight into the side of me, knocking us both over! Again, a very angry Steven stands up shouting yet getting no reaction. My first reaction was to help him pick his bike up, which I did and say, ‘Well done!’ With my English head on and faith in my right of way it’s hard to reprogram, I was adamant he would look! I ended up with a deep gash down the back of my right calf and a scuffed left elbow, with rain now pouring down on me I took shelter to patch myself up. There was a lovely chunk out of the front cassette and my left hood had turned in on hitting the ground but otherwise it looked okay. I sat there in the rain thinking Asia hasn’t given me one easy day! Not one. I laughed at how perfect Europe had been, thinking everyday was one of the best! Since landing in Mumbai everyday has been tough.
Cycling on with a boost of adrenaline I cycled through the rain, the heavens having calmed for a while. Later that day the second strap on the rear saddle bag snapped! Luckily, I looked over the road and like a gift there were bungees for sale, hanging from a small hut…see, I am lucky! Next, I was on the hunt for a local guest house and as I was cycling a guy on a motorcycle came alongside trying to get me to stop. Being very persistent I decided to shut him off and continue. Again, he came next to me but this time made an inappropriate gesture, by now I had seen it all and after the day I had I wasn’t having any of it. Losing my temper, I told him firmly to leave me alone. However, just as it was getting dark and the rain began he turned up, again with his strange gestures! I eventually managed to lose him in the dark and found a place to settle for the night.
The following day things didn’t feel right with the bike and just as I was leaving my rear tyre blew up! Perfect! They had a very basic store in the village but not a spare tyre to fit my wheels - so I took some duct tape to a lady to stitch the rubber firmly (I’d seen this done before in bikepacking races) it won’t last long but it would get me back on the road for a while. It worked and I managed just under 90 miles. I located a city on the map just off route, so I stopped my tracker on the roadside and hitchhiked to the city. Found a cheap hotel and later that night got a motorcycle to take me around the whole city until I found a new tyre and perhaps an inner tube. This wasn’t easy, but I found a broken inner tube which they chucked in with the second-hand tyre. The following day I needed to get back to my route, I flagged another truck down within seconds (easy hitching) and was back on my way in no time.
The bike felt better with the fresh tyre and after a couple of days of cycling I finally reached the border; arriving in Thailand on the 16th of June, the day before my birthday. I’d wanted to be in either Chang Mai or Bangkok for it, off the bike, but with being held back it wasn’t possible. I decided to head south to Bangkok, originally planning to head to Chang Mai then into Northern Laos, which would have been beautiful, however knowing the quality of roads now and with the amount of rainfall the tracks would be impossible (I’d get stuck in the mud)!
17th of June, I woke up in Thailand ready to head up some big hills. I love to climb but with my rear saddle bag being so loose it was wagging like a weighted dog’s tail; I was constantly having to counterbalance it if I stood up off the saddle. The next couple of days should have been really enjoyable down to Bangkok, however my next find, after taking all the mud off the bike, was 13 small fracture cracks on the back wheel! Happy Birthday!!! So pretty much all the way to Bangkok it was as if I was riding with glass wheels and I was constantly having mechanical issues, punctures, you name it all the way there. Slow progress was better than nee progress! I knew I could get the bike there with the few spares I had, and I did!
What‘s the next test Asia?