Panna-Khajuraho tour

I had been planning a trip into interior Bundelkhand for some time. Bundelkhand is a rural, hilly forest region that encompasses the states of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. The region is dry and there is the issue of water scarcity. However, it has mesmerizing ancient forts and temples including scenic forests and hills. The region had a dicey reputation till a few years back with dacoits and armed robbers ruling the roost, but all this has changed now.

My plan was to kick off the tour from Kanpur, on to Banda — Ajaigarh — Panna and Khajuraho, then back from the same route. The load was about 25 Kg., including winter wear and clothing, bicycle spares and water. It gets cold in Bundelkhand around this time with temperatures hovering around 5 degrees Celcius. I had already done some previous scouting on my MTB up till Bindki which is almost midway between Banda and Kanpur. However, I had to change the return plan due to a bad road stretch between Naraini and Panna. The total tour distance was about 600 km.

Route Map Kanpur-Panna-Kanpur

The tour started on 19th December 2019, around 6:30 am from Kanpur and it was only by 7:30 pm that I could manage to reach Banda. The reason was a constant play in my left pedal arm which I discovered was due to the screw fastening the pedal arm to the Bottom Bracket turning loose. I had to constantly dismount and tighten it. Due to this, I decided to stay in Banda for one more day and work on the issue, also tuning my rear derailleur in the process. Banda is quite similar to dusty, congested towns in North India with poor traffic management. I would like to point out that traffic in my own city of Kanpur is quite bad too. Gear assembly/tuning bicycle mechanics are not available in Banda so make sure that you carry your own spares and stuff.

IMG_8580                            On the way to Banda, after crossing Bindki town

IMG_8581                                The Yamuna bridge on the way to Banda

Beyond the Yamuna river lies the ‘real’ Bundelkhand and one gets that feel while cycling towards Banda as green vegetation gives way to thorny bushes and brambles. Cyclists need to be careful not to stray too close to the road edges as dry twigs with big thorns lie scattered around the edges. Another disconcerting thing that I did notice in interior Bundelkhand was dead cattle lying by the roadside, this is often due to severe cold and the lack of fodder in the dry belt.

My onward leg from Banda started on the 21st of December, 5:00 am and I rode my MTB in pitch darkness with occasional heavy truck traffic towards Naraini. I deliberately chose not to use my bike safety lights, since this was a backwater rural road segment and I did not want to stick out like a sore thumb. This is also the reason that I do not use a helmet. The entire 35 km. stretch does not have street lighting. The ride was uneventful except for a lonely stretch where I was chased on the roadside by a skulk of foxes. That event was surreal, I never knew that foxes could be so aggressive. It was sunlight by about 6:00 am and I took it easy from thereon.

IMG_8585                              Tea break at about 7:00 am., 20 km. from Naraini

Proceeding from Naraini to Ajaigarh on the way to Panna, my bike’s left pedal arm gave away entirely, and I had to spend some time fixing it back. This and the fact that the road to Ajaigarh was single lane and rough, cut down my speed considerably. I took frequent stops and was seriously contemplating ditching the entire tour by loading my bike on a bus back to Banda. The pedal arm held on but I had issues with my front derailleur while tacking the steep and strenuous climb to Panna, gaining an elevation of almost 1500 feet in 30 km., the hill road was very bad in certain segments and I had to dismount to negotiate these.

IMG_8587                                           On the way to Ajaigarh

Arriving in Panna by about 5 pm. I went straight to Ashish Lodge next to the Panna bus stand and was given a cozy room to stretch out in.

IMG_8615                                            Room in Ashish Lodge, Panna

Panna is a nice hilltop town with Panna Tiger Reserve being the main attraction. The road to Khajuraho leads through the Reserve area. Panna does have a decent bicycle repair shop where I bought a new Bottom Bracket set in case mine gave away.

Extending my stay in Panna, I worked on my front derailleur and cleaned up the clogged transmission, moving out on the 23rd morning by about 7 am towards Khajuraho, 46 km. away. The trip was mostly downhill and I was constantly braking negotiating the hairpin turns, passing Pandava falls and Mandla gate of the Tiger Reserve. The entire stretch has warning signboards about big cats and wildlife. The road is an absolute no go after 8:30 pm till 4:30 am.

IMG_8627            Through the Tiger Reserve with a Tiger Signboard about 50 feet away

IMG_8633Feeding wild monkeys is a punishable offense but the monkeys do line up roadsides implying that people have been doing otherwise.

I did stop to enquire about booking a seat on a jeep safari into Panna Tiger Reserve and was pleasantly surprised to find a fellow biker from Kanpur on a family car tour to Panna. We had a nice chat before parting ways, I reached Khajuraho about 4 pm, this being my second bike trip to the city. The next day I took off to Pandava Falls about 35 km. from Panna again in the Reserve area. The falls are scenic and have a heavy tourist footfall. But, it was more about the bike trip through the Reserve that appealed to me. The 24th morning was cold and rainy.

IMG_8643                  Cold and rainy starting off from Khajuraho to Pandava Falls

IMG_8645                                               On the way to the Falls

 

IMG_8648                                                 Pandava Falls, Panna

Extending my stay in Khajuraho, I took up lodging on the outskirts of Khajuraho just to soak in the village air. As luck would have it, I did manage to sort out all my bike front and rear derailleur issues and front disc alignment taking off on the 26th December early morning at 6:00 am. for Mahoba. Unfortunately, it was a solar eclipse and a dense fog shrouded the whole region with the mist so thick that my gear and myself were soaking in it.

IMG_8660                       On the way to Mahoba via Chhatarpur, visibility about 50 feet

Lodging up in Mahoba for the night, I took off for Bharua Sumerpur early morning and lodged up there for the night, reaching my residence in Kanpur on the 28th December 2019, by about 6 pm.

More pics and video about this tour in another post as I feel it would have unnecessarily lengthened this post. DO visit the detailed pic/video section of this tour too. Happy riding !!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Travel Plans

After a long bout of illness — more than a month, am back at the helm of my bicycle. Made a disastrous short trip to Prayagraj (a city about 200 km. from my place), just after coming back from my Jaislamer tour around 8 Feb, 2019 and fell very ill. Anyway, I have recovered sufficiently to start preparing for my next binge of bicycling tours. I did manage to punch out the remaining Jaisalmer trip blogs even through illness, but had little time for anything else.

With the advent of summers, most of my country is going to become a boiling cauldron. Temperatures at this stage exceed 35 degree Celsius in the afternoons. In about a month’s time, this will cross 40 degrees Celsius. This naturally restricts bike touring to the cooler Himalayan region, further North. Which is where I am headed to.

I have undertaken some bike upgrades in order to head to the Himalayan mountain region. This includes switching from a 7-speed freewheel to a 8-speed cassette on a new Shimano Deore hub and, changing the cotter pin crank to a lighter square taper one. I will also be carrying a lighter load. My plan is to ship the bike on a bus to a launch point that will help me start off from the base of the Himalayan region — called Terai over here. 

Currently, the higher Himalayan passes and regions are snowbound, but regions below 10000 feet are OK. The options are to either head for Nepal or a tour through the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand, in my own country. Later on, when the mountain passes become snow free I will be touring through the high altitude Manali-Leh highway, which averages over 14000 feet, reaching almost 18000 feet on it’s highest elevation.

In case I do choose to tour Nepal, a pre-tour bus trip through various regions of Nepal is on the cards in order to select the best possible bike routes over there.

The touring will start once the bike upgrades have been done and I have coasted through with some needling injuries and physical weakness resulting from the long bout of illness. So, stay connected, and keep visiting this blog!

Lawless Highway Code

Imagine huge 5-10 tonne beasts roaring loudly, racing past each other on an asphalt tarmac. The ground trembles under the combined assault of this gigantic pack, racing at speeds reaching 80-120 kmph.*; the beast overtaking the others nearly breaks out of the tarmac and leaves behind a plume of dust and debris. Thankfully, there are no collisions and the winner rushes ahead oblivious of the tremors that it created. The dinosaur pack vanishes into the distance; and out of the swirling dust and debris emerge tiny beings choking in the wake, bewildered and disoriented.

*kmph. — kilometres per hour 

Sounds like a Hollywood thriller featuring gigantic beasts battling to control the world ? Err .. No. Welcome to the real life Indian highway traffic. This is almost a daily routine here. At risk are the inconsequential cyclists, the tiny beings, like me, who have to keep a constant watch in the rear view mirror and be ready to dive out of the road. The thought of being plastered on the front view of these speeding beasts keeps gnawing in the mind of those like me. There are no rules on our national highways linking states and cities. The unwritten code here is : The bigger and noisier the beast, the more it deserves to be respected, traffic rules be damned !

If you haven’t guessed it, the dino* beasts are buses, trucks, lorries and dumpers; at the head of the traffic food chain, then the middle sized SUV’s**, mini-trucks and pickups with the cars and then the motor bikes completing the hierarchy. Our highway traffic follows it’s own rules based on the hierarchy above. Cyclists like me are the lowest vermin with no rights on the highways. Since there is almost no traffic rule enforcement, I won’t even discuss the highway patrols here, and focus on the unwritten lawless highway traffic code.

*dino – dinosaur, **SUV’s — Sports Utility Vehicles

Let’s get down to business and start with the pirate code; for starters your vehicle size matters. The bigger the beast you ride, by big I would say it’s both weight and size, the more you can flex your might on the highway. At the top of the food chain would be the beast trucks hauling several tonnes of load and often overweight. They are to be feared as they can just about do anything, including crush you like a mosquito. In the nights these beasts become true predators, with their liquor soaked drivers driving them into a speeding frenzy. Their presence can be heard from a distance, with crude music blaring from their driving cabins and the roar of their engines. To be fair most of the trucking drivers here are underpaid and overworked, and they do have an obstinate, dangerous streak about them as they drive these monsters. If you want to survive, keep your distance from this top predator.

The middle tier of the food chain is populated by swanky SUV’s, pickups and mini-trucks. The SUV’s are the things to be watched out for. The new ones have a fast acceleration and can zip up to 120-150 kmph. without breaking a sweat. The drivers of these beasts are often not concerned with the world outside, locked up in their own air-conditioned cocoon often with stereos belting out desi aka vernacular music. To add to this it’s common for the SUV drivers to talk on mobiles and have a hearty chat with the other occupants, while zipping on these things. This leads to predictable results. For a lowly cyclist like me, SUV’s are a terror. They can weigh a tonne and have a sizeable girth. One kiss from this baby and I could end up with Saint Peter. Which leads me to the other beasts in the middle tier.

The pickups, mini trucks and vans make up a dicey mix. They are often loaded up to the brim with stuff intended for local markets. Like vegetables, bread, milk and maybe sacks of flour. The main thing to remember is that they are in a tearing hurry to get that load to the market. Add that to the reckless driving culture with the load that they are carrying, and the picture is complete. The early morning ones are the worst. If that does not horrify one, let’s add more spice to the mix, most of these vehicles are not road worthy. I saw one whose chassis was inclined at such an angle that the vehicle looked like it was travelling sideways. It’s best to bail out of the bicycle if this beast heads for us and needs to brake to a halt. Braking is a no go with these vehicles, with the speed and the load that they are carrying. By the time they will halt it would be game over for the cyclist.

This brings us to the cars and the mobikes*. These are the fastest ones on the highways, zipping in and out, weaving to and fro between the dinosaurs. A Formula One driver would be put to shame at the manoeuvring undertaken by the warriors behind the steering wheels on Indian roads. Again, when the split second calculations fail, it’s a sad end. Cars treat dino trucks as slow trolls, weaving between them and zipping away. For the cyclist, this means keeping a watchful eye as there is no lane discipline when cars try to overtake a heavy. If they hug the outer lane where we travel, it’s best to drop off the road.

mobikes — motor bikes*

Mobikes are the fastest, with the latest ones running faster than most cars. They pose the least danger as they have to be careful too, being just a rung above the cyclist. Most mobike riders will often slow down for a friendly ‘on the road drive-as-we-chat’, which I have found to be a bit disconcerting as well as comical. Cyclists have to maintain a lateral as well as vertical balance without any motor power and chatting while cycling is tough. Then there is the traffic following on behind us that keeps blaring their horns to break this impromptu conference on the road. In some cases, I had to stop at the roadside if the conference continued for too long, just to let the traffic behind pass through. Fun facts apart mobike riders will get nasty if a cyclist is stuck in a traffic jam, cause the hierarchy kicks in when it’s jam time. The mobikes get priority while the cyclist has to wait for the jam to clear.

Moving on to the other rules in the lawless code; there is no such thing as a cycling lane. Cyclists travel on the outer fringes of the road, inside clearly marked side lanes on highways. But as lowly vermin we have no ‘actual’ lanes, speeding beasts will often hog the whole road while overtaking and cyclists have to take the dirt track next to the road, when that happens. Then there is the unique Indian highway traffic phenomenon of a wrong side reverse traffic flow on the ‘supposed’ cycling lanes. Mobikes, jeeps, auto rickshaws and passenger loaded tempos will often travel on the wrong side using the cycling lane with their headlights on as a sort of warning to the incoming cyclist. If we do not heed the horns and the headlights, it’s game over as they travel on the wrong side at high speeds. This mostly happens near small town settlements but is in no way restricted to such, and one has to be always on the alert.

Once all this sinks in, we are ready to tackle the highways. Helmets are very conspicuous here as most Indians think they have a head made of unbreakable titanium alloy. A cyclist with a helmet is considered as rare as a Martian, since even mobike riders on highways here don’t use one. It’s advisable to wear one though. The post is not meant to discourage prospective cyclists. Many of us out there are actually doing it despite the insurmountable odds. Drive slow, drive safe and be alert.

Will keep adding more to this post, so do check back and try to take up your cycling, you won’t regret it !!