Bombay to Beijing by Bicycle

The Age

By Russell McGilton (2440 words)

Malaria, a stack with a yak and being caught in Pakistan during September 11th were just some of the mishaps Russell McGilton incurred on his big cycle trip.

‘Congratulations,’ grinned Dr Chawla while he handed me my blood test result. ‘You are having the malaria.’


‘Yes, yes,’ he smiled again, slouched back in his chair then scratched his crotch.

‘Is this malaria…cerebral?’

‘No, no,’ and before I could sigh a breath of relief, ‘not yet.’

This had definitely put a spanner in the works or rather, a spanner in the spokes as I was only in my second week of my grand cycling journey from Bombay to Beijing. Now I was stuck in Kandwa, a small farming town in Madhya Pradesh, rural India, miles from anywhere or the nearest major hospital, for god knows how long with a deadly cerebral malaria strain Plasmodium falciparum coursing through my veins and perhaps eventually my brain cells.

‘Tell me doctor. Do many people die from this around here?’

‘Yes, many!’ he said brightly then whacked a needle in my bum.

Catching malaria wouldn’t be the first mishap on my trip as I criss-crossed the plains of India, Pakistan and the Himalayas of Nepal and China. Some weeks later I would be chased by packs of rabid dogs in the dark of night over a mountain pass in Rajastan, be incapacitated again from reoccurring malarial fevers, everyday have inches shaved off my life from overloaded trucks with holy images of an afterlife, be charged by rhinos in a Nepali national park, have a stack with a yak, dodge atomic test sites, split with the girlfriend and have the untimely luck of getting caught in Pakistan during September 11th.

All this to write a book in the twilight of my father’s death.

I had been inspired by Dervla Murphy’s 1963 account Full Tilt of cycling from Dunkirk to Delhi. A robust Irish woman, Dervla rode a three speed bike, carried a small kit bag of clothes, a handgun and a dash of courage. By comparison, I was hauling a freight train: four panniers, a medium-sized backpack, a handlebar bag, spare tyres, a chain, sprockets, tent, pots, sleeping bag, books, tools all loaded onto a Trek II mountain bike. A total weight of 43 kilos.

The plan was to cycle up through the north of India, across to Delhi into Nepal, meet up with the girlfriend for a month in Nepal, go back into India across the Himalayas into Pakistan and over the Karakoram into China through the Taklimakan Desert and eventually a soft coaster ride into Beijing. All this huffing and puffing over some of the most beautiful yet gruelling terrain I was likely to see.

That was the plan. Oh, the reality…

I had no apparent reason to have arrived in Shergarth other than it was there and I’d have to stay the night, hence was the nature of cycle touring. It was a small town of 10,000 people, rolling in on the sandy waves of north India’s Rajastan desert. Only some 150 kilometres north of here India had proceeded with underground nuclear tests in 1998 and using, according to locals, onions to suppress the blast. Onion prices went up, people starved, radiated onions rotted.

It was a dry place. Sand swam in the streets, children played in it. It had not rained here for the past four years and sub-arterial bores had gone deeper and deeper as the drops refused to fall. Though talking to Mr Prakash, the principal of the local high school, one wouldn’t think you needed to drink water at all.

‘Drinking your own urine,’ said the principal, a squat rolling man in his early fifties, ‘is very beneficial for your health. ‘

‘Oh, come on! You’re taking the piss!’

‘Yes. I am taking the piss since 1994 and I feel much better for it. I am stronger, much vigour and I have not been sick once since the treatment. You should try it yourself. It will help you with your cycle trip. Give you much stamina.’

‘Well, I don’t know…’

‘Our prime minister was a urine drinker and lived to the age of ninety-nine!’

Though I baulked at a further suggestion of lathering ‘old urine’ on my scalp to cure my baldness, Mr Prakash was worth every drop.

After fours months of cycling India I had clocked up a formidable pace from anything between 120 to 150 kilometres a day. While I cycled these distances alone I never quite got to enjoy it that way. There were over a billion people according to the last census in India and it felt like that; everywhere and all the time.

Stop for a quick look at your map, adjust your shorts, a bite to eat, oil the chain and within seconds a crowd of gawking admirers would happily blot out the sun. In Baghia (pronounced ‘Bugger-ya’) an entire town stopped and surrounded myself and my then girlfriend, Rebecca, till they were eventually chased away by police. Even while I was trying to quietly relieve my diarrhoea behind a bush I got a rude surprise to look up to see what seemed to be the entire population of Indian children staring at my spluttering confluences, smiling and calling for pens. I think, I recall, I went insane. Profanity, I quickly found out, didn’t make them go away.

So it was cool relief that the madness of India, its foul traffic, heat, olfactory assaults of something big and rotting in drains, vanished once over the far west border of Nepal, Mahendranagar. From Delhi to Kathmandu I had teamed up with another cyclist, Uros, an engineering student from Slovenia. Unlike myself, Uros was a calm rock of Eastern European aloofness. Nothing rattled him. When something did bother him, he lit up a cigarette and blew smoke at it.

‘Nepal flat! Very flat!’ a farmer, Govinda assured us though I countered by pointing to a craggy outcrop of mountains behind him.

‘No road there. You go this way. Not Hetauda. Too much hill.’

Govinda let us stay the night in his house somewhere near Butwal, halfway through Nepal, when we had brazenly knocked on his door when the light was fading on the road and the buses seemed to be getting bigger at each near miss. Though there was a price for his hospitality. For most of the night Govinda pestered me to get him a visa for Australia and got us to stay in a room where unimaginable things crawled across our faces, both of us bolting upright in the night with ‘WHAT WAS THAT?! JUST WHAT THE HELL WAS THAT!?

We followed the highway through the Teri, a flat lip of the Himalayas through once lush tropical rainforests that had now been cleared for paddy fields and farms. By midday the country burned up into an unbearable tropical heat. We spent our mornings cycling and our afternoons lying on bench seats in mud hut restaurants, flies playing irritably on our knees.

Despite the sheer lack of traffic in Nepal there seemed an awful lot of bus crashes. We’d passed five in two days.

Perhaps it had something to do with their odd construction. The chassis of Nepali buses resembled large couches clipped on to rusty old bedsprings with over-sized wheels ripped off a dump truck. When they took a corner at Concorde flight the wheels followed the road, as the should, but the rest of the bus would keep going straight not convinced that the course of the wheels was correct and the two parties would indulge in a quick debate before they’d arrive at a conclusion inches away from another oncoming bus also caught in a similar argument with itself.

It was in Pakistan that my plans really went awry.

I was 125 kilometres from the Islamabad in the small hill station town of Nathagalia some 2,500 metres up on the Karakoram Highway when a well-dressed Pakistani man in western clothes set my panic button whirring with ‘Did you know that the US are going to start bombing in 72 hours?’

I had been hoping to make the Chinese border in three weeks, some 800 kilometres away. A week had passed since the World Trade Centre bombings and tensions in Pakistan were rising with the growing threat of Taliban reprisals. In Islamabad the campsite had emptied itself of the carefree Swiss and Germans, racing to the Indian border in their campervans and jeeps, leaving only myself and a mad Frenchman with a two humped camel to ponder our fate. Embassies were evacuating staff and NGO’s from Kabul were pouring in, moving with the flux into India.

Feeling ‘visible’ and I took to wearing the Pakistani national dress, the shewatcamiz (long shirt and baggy pants) and a topi (a Muslim cap), though this was rendered futile when I jumped on my loaded mountain bike and my ruse was met with ‘AH! AMERICAN! AMERICAN!’

With this latest news of an aerial bombardment I decided to take a bus to China but when I went to board one in Abbotabad a middle-aged German, Winfred, urged me otherwise.

‘The Chinese border is closed. They stop everything – trucks, buses, cars and cyclists. All back. Only the Indian border is open now.’

In a blink I’m on the bus with him heading back south to Lahore.

‘Ah! This is the third time this happened to me in this country! In nineteen hundred and sixty-six with the over throw of the king in Afghanistan, the Indo-Pak war and now this. Ah, such a shame. So beautiful. You know, in the sixties there were two places to go to on the hippie trail: Kabul and Kathmandu. In Kabul they would give you your hotel key and a block of hashish. Everywhere! It was amazing.’

In two days I was back in India with my toes swirling in the dark tank pool of the Sikh Golden Temple pondering my next move, trying to make sense of it all, not wanting to go on.

Like geography, the threat of war or my health, it was the bike that would have the last word.

Hurtling a glorious descent from a 4,700 metre snow-covered pass in the Sichuan Province of China I swiped round a bend in time to stack with a yak. The startled yak had pulled out from the bushes, horns like antennas to my rattling approach, and instead of staying in the cover of autumn foliage it had darted out in front giving me enough time to smack into its hairy rump. Though I didn’t completely come off, my groin cushioned the impact as the rest of my body collided with the handlebars. The yak bolted down a ravine, crashing madly through small trees and shrubs, leaving me to reassemble myself.

But my problems weren’t over. Continuing on my merry 35 kilometres descent I found myself ‘grabbing air’ again before landing hard on my back in a scarf of dust. Sitting up I saw the problem. A bolt on the rack had sheared off causing the crossbar to lock up the front wheel. A raggedy goat herder, witnessing the whole event, picked me up, dusted me off and rigorously moved my arms and head around as if road testing a puppet. I limped the bike into Xiangchen, a town inhabited with Tibetan men in leather jackets, dangling daggers and strange obelisk houses with zigzag window frames. A bus mechanic with a cigarette welded to his lip not unlike his profession managed to fix the racks with some handy bending and makeshift iron jigsaw.

I had legged it from India with a flight to Hong Kong and bussed my way to the southwest province of Yunnan, resuming my cycling from Dali, an ancient Chinese city swarming with Chinese tourists in mock Naxi tribal hats and bags. Tourism is big in China and most of it being done by the Chinese.

Though I would come off the bike again another two times (the last with a convoy of trucks missing my prone body by a few feet) China by far had been the most enjoyable part of the trip. Snaking my way through the vast Tibetan highlands I at last was able to enjoy clean air, good wide roads, and the ‘crowding factor’ was minimal if at all. For the cyclist the prospect of 70 kilometre climbs that could take two days to overcome, the bitter cold and the three-day travel distances between towns was the greatest challenge. I slept most of the time in road workers’s huts and was happily fed bowls of pork and rice or sometimes I chose to camp out of sight behind clumps of trees. The only disturbing nuance of Chinese-Anglo relations was to hear truck drivers yell ‘I LOVE YOU’ as I heaved up snow packed mountains or patrons of local hotels insinuate with lewd gestures that I should ‘get it on’ with any female that happened to serve me a plate of brisk noodles.

Running out of time on my visa and money I legged it to Beijing on the train from Chengdu. To my surprise Beijing was not as polluted as I had feared. The air was relatively clear since the government had closed down factories in preparation for the Olympics. Everybody was rattling on about China’s up coming entry into the World Trade Organisation. Banners proudly hung across streets proclaiming thus. Not that it mattered. Imperialists had made there way through the once impenetrable Forbidden City walls not with canons but with polystyrene coffee cups. Starbuck’s frothed Brazilian lattes where once the last Emperor would have watched intruders beheaded. In Tiananmen Square you could choke on a Big Mac while you captured Moa’s visage with your Nikon.

Beijing was prosperous, rich and as I dodged other cyclists in my cycle lane, crammed with traffic. Bicycles, I was happy to see, still ruled the streets in terms of getting somewhere quickly in their private and fenced cycle lanes.

According to the UPI Institute for Forecasts and the Environment, by 2030 the number of cars will have increased five fold to 2.5 billion cars, most of that in Asia. I could not imagine what India or China, both with some of the highest populations in the world would be like as they pursued car ownership. Somehow I felt I had missed something, a special time that Dervla must have only enjoyed, free of the landscape changed forever by the march of the four-wheel demon.