Friday, 31 December 2010

Mumbai Madness

When we arrived at the airport in Dubai, we were told that Emirates had recently tightened their baggage restrictions and were now extremely strict, charging for each additional kg. It is frustrating that most airlines allow people to carry golf clubs free of charge, whereas there are no allowances made for bicycles. With a weight allowance of 30kg and our boxed bikes already weighing 21kg each, it was clear we would be over our weight allowance. We had 10kg too much, and were advised by the friendly check-in staff to buy an additional hand bag at a duty free shop to cram more weight into our hand luggage, which was unlikely to be checked. In the end, we got away with paying excess baggage charges for only 4kg, and we were glad that our bikes were accepted with no further fuss.||

Arriving in Mumbai a few hours later, we anxiously waited for our bikes to show up on the carousel, as there was no counter for oversized luggage. Eventually the luggage handlers proudly brought the bike boxes out, holding them upside down, despite the fact that we had marked the boxes with arrows and “this side up” signs. Clearly we were expected to pay a tip for their “help”.

We did, however, get special treatment at customs: whilst waiting in a long queue with everyone else for our bags to be x-rayed, a customs official questioned the contents of our bike boxes. “Are you on an expedition or something?”, he asked. “Kind of”, we said, upon which he waved us through, past everyone else, directly to the exit. There, we met a young guy from Pune who was a cyclist himself and very interested in our trip. A lovely welcome to India.

We had arranged an airport pickup through our hotel, as we were a little concerned about how to get the bikes into the city. This proved to be unnecessary, as many of the local taxis have roof racks that we could have put the bike boxes on.

Driving through Mumbai, a city with a population density of 29,000 per square km, there were too many impressions to take in at once: scores of 1950’s black and yellow taxis sharing the road with modern cars, the occasional cow, and cyclists carrying large tin containers that dangled from their racks. Groups of men drinking milky tea from road side stalls, with half naked children playing in the dusty street. A little stand selling fresh juice made from sugar canes, the smell of burning sandalwood keeping flies away. Shacks made of corrugated iron stacked three levels high, leaning precariously against a railway bridge. Behind the railway line, the edge of Asia’s largest slum, the Dharavi slum, housing over 1 million people. A shoeless boy panning the muddy drain water to anything of value. Mobile phone advertisements and cinemas showing Bollywood’s latest blockbusters. Finally, the relative calm of our hotel.

Mumbai taxi driver Street near hotel 

We spent most of the day catching up on sleep and enjoying the food at the nearby restaurants, as well as exploring the local market area. The food was amazing and although we had indulged in many Indian dishes back in London, it took our taste buds to places we had never imagined. At a Thali place, we were served 7 different types of vegetarian curries, dhals and pickles, with rice, different types of bread and sauces. There was an art to combining the various foods that were on offer, as the staff explained to us: the firmer curries were eaten with bread, the watery dhal with rice, the thick dhal with a yoghurt based sauce, the crispy bread with a mango dip, etc. Their eyes widened in horror when Guy ended up experimenting by wildly combining the various dishes, following no rules whatsoever.

The food is very cheap, and for around $4 we can get a huge meal for the two of us. We had been worried about the food in India being too spicy for us, but so far we have been fine. As some Indians told us, there are only certain regions where the food is very spicy (even too spicy for them!).

Despite being very busy, the area we were staying in was not that touristy, and therefore there were no touts to deal with. We must admit, we had been a little apprehensive about coming to India. Guy had travelled in northern India 8 years ago and had been entertaining Freddie with horror stories of pushy touts and grumpy people. Much to our delight, we have found the people quite friendly and helpful so far. When some curious men making flower garlands for a local temple presented Freddie with a flower, and a man selling pressure gauges invited us into his shop for a chat about philosophy, Freddie shot Guy an incredulous look. “I swear it wasn’t like this,” he said, “this never happened to me last time!” We conclude that either India has changed, Guy has changed, or the people in Mumbai are simply a friendlier lot than their cousins up north. 

The colonial heritage is still very present in Mumbai, and many buildings look as if they could be located in London or Oxford, except for the palm and banana trees lining them. The climate at the moment is near perfect – dry and sunny, but not too hot. We enjoyed wandering around the city, visiting the Gateway of India and its surrounding area, which teemed with tourists and accompanying touts, as well as plenty of police men due to a recent terror warning. We payed our respects to the place Mahatma Gandhi had lived and worked in, an airy house in a quiet leafy street hosting an impressive collection of photographs, exhibits and letters.

Gandhi on bike Gandhis house

As expected, Indians are mad about cricket, and we have seen many impromptu cricket games, be it in the back streets of the slums, an alley behind our hotel, or the lovely cricket ground near the university. The players are as diverse as the locations and range from street kids to bank managers.

Office man playing cricket Mumbai cricket pitch

After being unceremoniously kicked out of a garden which was apparently reserved for senior citizens only, we enjoyed strolling around Chowpatty beach in the center of Mumbai with other families who were eating ice cream and watching the sunset. One family was holding a wedding and had hired a whole sports stadium for the occasion – apparently it is not uncommon for weddings to cost upwards of $150,000. Entertaining hundreds of guests over several days does not come cheap!

Chowpatty beach Chowpatty beach 2

India at the moment is a place of great promise: the world is coming to India to begin the fight over its huge market of over 1 billion people. With a strong economy and good education, there is now a burgeoning middle class who shops, dines and travels like their counterparts in the West. We got a glimpse of this world when we met up with Abhishek and his wife Priya. Freddie had been friends with Abhishek at university 10 years ago, and Abhishek then moved to the US to do his MBA before getting married and working in Dubai. He has now moved back to Mumbai to work in his father’s textile business. They picked us up for dinner one night, and whisked us away to a shopping mall. We felt like we had been transported back to Dubai; all the designer brands were there, along with the usual coffee shops and trendy restaurants. We even spotted our first Bollywood star! (Don’t ask us what his name was!).

A few days later, we also met up with Amol, a colleague of Freddie’s dad who lives in Pune and had made the 4 hour journey to Mumbai to see us, as he is very interested in travelling and enjoys trekking and cycling. He and his extremely cute four year old son were decked out in matching red T-shirts and baseball caps and took us out for a lovely long lunch. Amol works as an IT project manager and travels a lot for work. He shared some great insights about the Indian culture with us and gave us some useful tips regarding places to visit in the south of India. We really enjoyed their company.

Amol and son  David Sassoon Library

We have found Mumbai to be a place of extremes, and have needed a strong stomach at times. While the middle and upper classes enjoy affluence and a modern lifestyle, 55% of the Mumbai population live in slums or other improvised accommodation. At night, many people sleep on the footpath in front of our hotel. During the day, they sell things on the streets or transport goods with their rickety wooden two-wheelers. Sometimes we see women with small children sleeping on pieces of cardboard on the street, and once we could not help staring when we spotted a young woman washing a newborn baby (umbilical cord still present) in the gutter outside a train station. Quite often, we see people missing limbs or being handicapped in some other way, living on the street.

On our last day, we joined an eye opening walking tour of the Dharavi slum. We think the experience deserves its own blog post, so more on this later!

Our plan was to take a train down to Goa, from where we will start cycling again. We went down to the historical railway station, another relic of colonial times, which was teeming with travellers, beggars, and chihuahua sized rats. To organise our train ticket, we joined an orderly queue at a special counter for foreigners. We are lucky that the Indian railway system usually holds a quota of tickets for foreigners; Indians have to plan ahead as the trains are often booked out for months in advance. Ticket in hand, we enquired about the process of getting the bikes on the train. We received several different answers from different employees, ranging from “just get there an hour before the train leaves, and you can take them for free”, to “you need to hand them over a day in advance and pay a fee”.

As our train left early in the morning, we decided to take the bikes to the luggage office the previous afternoon. We had strapped them on the roof rack of a taxi, and as soon as we arrived at the station, some guys approached us offering help. Apparently the luggage office was closed on Sundays, so they were calling someone to take the bikes for us. This seemed very iffy to us, and when Freddie started walking in the direction of the luggage office to investigate, the story suddenly changed to “your luggage will sit there for hours, better give them to us”. Of course the luggage office was open, and the touts left disappointed.

Our boxes were weighed and we were told they were inappropriately packed for railway travel, and we had to get them professionally packed. However, the packaging wallah disagreed and said they were fine. We added to the confusion by asking the luggage clerk if it was possible to get insurance for the bikes, and were eventually told we should wait for his boss to arrive.

When we came back half an hour later, we were told we had to pay 700 rupees each. “Is that for the insurance?”, Freddie enquired, and the luggage clerk proceeded to perform the legendary Indian head waggle. It means neither yes nor no, is entirely non-committal and utterly frustrating for the traveller. After waggling his head for a minute or so he disappeared. For a while, the boss ignored us, but then our forms were filled in and we were asked for a fee of 400 rupees. We were still in the dark about the insurance but finally read their behaviour as “well, there is maybe some kind of insurance, but we don’t really know how to deal with it.”

The following morning, when the train arrived at the station, there was no sign of our boxes. Guy went back to the luggage office and found them there, still untouched. It was promising we had located our bikes, but unfortunately the luggage handlers were refusing to put them on the train. A bribe was obviously expected, and after we paid our 150 rupees, the bikes were finally loaded. We were on our way!

Sunday, 26 December 2010

Abu Dhabi and the Western Region

Hanging out in Dubai for 3 weeks is an expensive undertaking, particularly on a tight cycle tourer’s budget. We hadn’t had much luck with finding free accommodation through Couchsurfing or Warmshowers, so we were staying in a hotel. That’s why we were quite excited when Chris contacted us from South Africa via Twitter and suggested we could stay with his daughter Melanie, who lives in Abu Dhabi. ||

A few days later we gathered our belongings, leaving the boxed bicycles in our hotel in Dubai. There is a regular bus service between Dubai and Abu Dhabi, and we arrived at Abu Dhabi bus station in the late afternoon. Somehow we hadn’t arranged an exact time with Melanie beforehand, so when we called her, we found out that she was actually in Dubai for the day. We had a few hours to kill before she came back, but with 25kg of luggage each, wrapped up in two plastic beach bags, we were not very mobile. There was a mall nearby, and we eventually solved our dilemma by loading all of our belongings into a shopping trolley. Tramp look complete, we shuffled to the flashy shopping mall, trudging past the designer stores and fancy cafes to kill some time.

Eventually Melanie came to our rescue and picked us up in her 4WD Pajero. Her flat was a bit out of town as she wanted the space for her two little doggies to run around, Daisy and Jackie. We felt instantly at ease with bubbly Melanie who works for the national health service implementing an IT system. She has been living in Saudi Arabia and the UAE for 9 years, so she was able to give us some fantastic insights into Emirati life and culture.

Melanie had to work during the week, and we spent a few days taking Daisy and Jackie out for walks, hanging out at the coffee shops in the local mall, and trudging back and forth between Abu Dhabi and Dubai to sort out our Indian visas.

Though working all day Melanie was kind enough to drive us around Abu Dhabi. One of the highlights is the stunning Emirates Palace. This is a luxurious grand hotel which was recently built and is apparently a replica of the Sheikh’s palace. In the hotel foyer they have erected a 13m high Christmas tree decorated with glistening jewels. The Christmas tree actually broke the Guiness World Record for the most expensively decorated tree, as it is embellished with jewels worth over US $11 million! We also amused ourselves with a gold vending machine, which looks like a drinks machine and spits out gold necklaces and trinkets, some worth as much as US $3,000. Unfortunately we ran out of change around the $2 mark. The most interesting part of the hotel is an exhibition about the future of Abu Dhabi, as they are planning to build some amazing new art galleries. The architecture for the planned Guggenheim museum, a branch of the Louvre and the Maritime museum is breathtakingly futuristic.

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On the weekend, Melanie took us for a drive to Liwa oasis in the Western Region of the UAE, near the Saudi border. On the way we visited the Emirates National Auto Museum, which was officially closed, though we managed to convince the attendant to open it for us in exchange for a tip. The museum is the private collection of the “Rainbow Sheikh”, so named because he once bought a selection of 7 Mercedes 500 SEL painted in different colours – one for each day of the week. These are exhibited in the museum, along with about 250 other antique and modern cars. The most impressive display is a monster Dodge Power Wagon, build to a scale of 64:1. Other cars fit comfortably underneath, and the wheels are about 3m high. This is used to pull a giant motor home containing 8 bedrooms, complete with balconies, in which the Sheikh used to go “camping”. Quite a contrast to our little Boris.

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We did see some other rich Emiratis on a camping trip in the desert later that day. We were having lunch on some sand dunes enjoying the desert silence when a bright red Hummer roared past. The driver and passengers were dressed in the traditional Emirati dress, with a white floor length gown, Arab scarf covering their head, and the obligatory designer sunglasses. They were all cheerfully waving to us, and were followed by two pickup trucks carrying all their camping equipment – carpet, tables, chairs etc! Melanie said that this was quite common, and she was once invited to a camping trip where everyone laughed at her when she brought her little tent along, as the camp had already been luxuriously set up for all guests by a number of servants.

Even though they may live in the cities and hold high-powered corporate or government jobs, many rich Emiratis also have a camel or date farm in the desert where they like to spend their weekends. This includes the royal families of Abu Dhabi and Dubai who originally hail from the Liwa area. At heart, they are still nomadic desert people and feel at home in these vast expanses of sand dunes.

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We spent the day admiring the undulating golden dune landscape, venturing off the tarmac here and there, and in the evening happened upon the Dhafra Festival, which is one of the highlights in the UAE’s cultural calendar and promotes desert life and heritage. People come from all over the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Oman to attend the festival. First, we visited the camel race track, where we watched camels being trained for the race. Races usually take place in the morning, and there was big prize money of half a million US$ on offer for the winner! We then visited the traditional Souk with its numerous market stalls selling Emirati food, camping equipment, camel saddles and, above all, many sparkly camel accessories which are used to decorate the camels for a Camel Beauty Pageant! Rather than walking around to browse the stalls, many locals never got out of their flashy white Landcruisers, driving past the stalls and lowering the window to place an order when something took their fancy.

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Melanie speaks some Arabic and was able to communicate with most of the ladies at the market stalls. At one stall, we ordered some milky tea and were promptly invited to sit down inside by a bubbly 10 year old girl. Her mum, clad in a black floor length Abbeya and a head scarf covering her face, refused our money and gave us a box of dates from her farm. The family owned a date and camel farm and they were very keen for us to visit them if we were ever in the area.

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The colourful festival offered a fantastic insight into traditional Emirati life and culture. There really is a lot more to the UAE than just the modern skyscrapers and shopping malls of Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

We had another great experience the following morning. Melanie had offered to drive us back to Dubai, via the oasis city of Al Ain. On our way, we came past a camel race course where a race was just about to begin. The race was broadcast live on TV, and the proud camel owners were more than happy for us to have a stroll around the compound where camels were being prepared.

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The track is 10km long, and the camel owners drive alongside the camels in their 4WDs to shout encouragement. The outside of the track is reserved for spectators. Entry is free, and we simply drove onto the dirt track and followed the racing camels along the track. The camels race at 35-40 kph. There are no jockeys, but each camel has an electronic, voice activated whip attached to their rears. The more the owner shouts into his microphone, the faster the whip hits his camel. It sounds horrible, but in reality the whips look quite weak and most of them don’t work very well.

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Al Ain was a lovely green desert oasis city. Melanie had to drop off a key with one of her colleagues there, a young Palestinian guy. He showed us a restaurant where we could buy some lunch to take for a picnic, and in a true display of Middle Eastern hospitality, insisted on paying for it. Outside of Al Ain, we found a lovely picnic spot near some hot springs, and drove up to the highest mountain of the UAE afterwards, from where we had a view all the way to Oman.

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After a fantastic week with Melanie, it was time for us to return to Dubai for some last minute shopping to prepare ourselves for India. We are glad that we had the opportunity to see a different side of the UAE, rather than just limiting ourselves to Dubai’s glittery malls and skyscrapers.

Friday, 24 December 2010

Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas from sunny Mumbai! May peace, health and happiness be with you.

Today, we were invited by a local woman to attend Christmas carols in a cathedral in the south of Mumbai, but as most people in Mumbai are Hindus or Muslims, we don’t see too much Christmas activity in the streets. ||

As usual we will celebrate twice: first comes the German Christmas, which is celebrated on the 24th, and then the Australian Christmas on the 25th. Freddie’s family in Hamburg is enjoying a white Christmas with plenty of snow for the first time in many years, while Guy’s family is planning a hopefully warm and sunny Christmas lunch in Melbourne. Meanwhile, we will celebrate Indian style at our favourite local restaurant in Mumbai!

Next time you are umming and aahing about the cost of your Christmas decoration, think about the Sheikh of Abu Dhabi who dished out US $11 million to decorate the world’s most expensive tree (see photo)…

Merry Christmas

Thursday, 23 December 2010

Dubai: Air Conditioned Perfection

Walking into our glitzy hotel foyer it felt as if we had entered another world. Polished floors, a glistening chandelier, a serene ambience. Everyone looked so well fed, so well groomed. Catching our reflection in the lift mirrors as we went up to our room we couldn’t help but laugh: we were grubby, our clothes faded and grease stained, hair ruffled, it was clear we were in need of a good wash if we were ever going to cut it in this town. ||

Scrubbed and trimmed we ventured outside in search of a grocery store to buy a few provisions. Looking around it became clear that Dubai is not a place for street shopping. Everything was encased in big malls, not a small shop in sight. 8 and 10 lane highways twisted around the towering skyscrapers, and as pedestrians we felt vulnerable and insignificant. The roads are built like Formula One tracks and the flashy cars zipping around treat them like it.

For those of you that don’t know us we are more tree huggers than urbanites so we tend to avoid malls, but walking into the entrance of the Deira City Center, feeling the blast of air conditioning strip away the searing heat we could have sworn we were walking through the pearly gates of heaven. We had forgotten about all the delightful little luxuries we had missed out on in the last few months. Posters in shop front windows screamed at us to BUY, BUY, BUY. Everything we wanted and needed was there, all under one glorious roof. We headed for the nearest cafe, sat down, looked at the prices, stood up, then skipped off to the supermarket. It was clear we would be doing a lot of window shopping for the next few weeks (we ended up spending 3 weeks in Dubai waiting for our Indian visa). Our favourite shopping mall became the Dubai Mall, not only due to its free Wifi service, but also its gigantic aquarium. In the middle of the shopping mall, a huge vinyl window allows for hours of free entertainment, watching several types of sharks, stingrays and dozens of other types of fish floating through the aquarium with up to six divers joining them at any time.

The following morning Freddie’s father arrived, after flying all the way from Hamburg to visit us. After over indulging in the breakfast buffet we met Jörg, a colleague of Freddie’s father who had been living and working in Dubai for several years. We jumped in his air conditioned 4WD and scooted downtown through the urban forest of Dubai to check out some of the highlights. So many of the buildings are a showcase in modern day architecture and supreme engineering but the grand daddy of them all, the enormous Burj Khalifa, is the real spectacle. The Burj Khalifa was previously known as the Burj Dubai before Abu Dhabi’s president and ruler of UAE Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan propped up Dubai’s flailing economy after the economic bust in 2008 and asked for the building to be renamed. Towering at some 828 meters it is currently the world’s tallest building and an awesome sight with it’s jaggered edges and glistening metallic skin. At sunset there is a fantastic musical fountain that swirls and shoot jets of water up to 150 meters into the air, all perfectly synchronised to thumping Arabic music with the glistening Burj Khalifa towering in the background.

Burj Khalifa, 828m    Burj al Arab hotel

As we drove through the city we soon got an understanding of the rather rigid class system within the UAE. Emiratis lucky enough to be born into one of the royal families are the ones driving the absolute top of the range luxury cars complete with traditional white robes (“dishdashas”) and Ray Bans. They have an air of confidence as they motor at high speed tooting anyone that gets in their way. Next are the nationals that are not of royal blood, though still well off as they are also supported by the Sheikh and encouraged to be active business men through a variety of lucrative grants. No foreign ownership is allowed without partnering with a national so many have found riches through this avenue – their favourite vehicle is the white Landcruiser. Emiratis only make up 20% of the population of Dubai, but they are clearly in control of the country. (Interestingly we later learned that the Emiratis were really quite poor before they discovered oil and used to commonly work in Mumbai carrying loads at the ports and railway stations). Coming in third are the western expats with their lower end 4WDs, followed close behind by skilled professionals from India, the Middle East and Asia.

Indian, Pakistani, Chinese, African and South East Asian workers bring up the rear and have a very different lifestyle than the rest. Most are unskilled labourers on low pay working largely in construction and often in substandard conditions. They’ve come to support their families back home or escape persecution. Their vehicles of choice are pickup trucks, buses and creaky old bicycles.

Jörg took us down to his favourite little beach spot, with gin clear waters and the Dubai skyline shimmering in the background. In true Dubai style the spot had now been converted to a building site as another luxurious hotel was rising from the sands.

Driving through Dubai   Guy with Freddie's dad and Jörg

With minimal drinking in Turkey and Iran the general consensus was to head to the nearest watering hole. Though Dubai is dry, it’s fine to have the odd sherbet at specific venues. Luckily Jörg knew of just the place so we ended up at an Irish pub and soon consumed a Guinness and hearty Chicken pie. We have found the diversity and quality of food in Dubai fantastic, perhaps in part it is related to our 3 month long Kebab diet.

The following day we visited the very compact “historical area” of Dubai which largely surrounds The Creek  - a river which served as a trading hub for pearls divers and spice merchants for centuries. It is still a bustling hub of activity where Dhows are loaded with goods for their long voyage to India or East Africa. The Dubai Museum (squashed in between skyscrapers) is really the one and only place to get an impression of Dubai’s past. It was very informative and mind blowing to think that a sleepy desert city has sprung up to what it is today in such a short time. Interestingly the exhibits of the traditional traders had a very strong resemblance to what we saw in parts of Iran today.

Dhow on The Creek   "Heritage" hotel

Though both are oil rich gulf countries, the difference in standard of living between Iran and the UAE is extreme. In Iran the majority of people seem to be low middle class, where UAE nationals are very well provided for. Where the UAE are starting reforestation projects in an effort to reclaim some of the desert, Iran managed to destroy a large part of their wilderness in just over a decade. In Iran funding for the arts is severely drying up whilst the UAE invest heavily as they plan to build a branch of the Louvre, an opera house and Guggenheim museum.

Heavily focussed on moving away from their oil dependency which accounted for 75% of the economy in the early 80’s they have now reduced this to 25%. Though oil rich with still massive reserves the UAE are moving ahead with a US $22 billion project to develop the world’s first carbon neutral zero waste city. It’s hard not to be impressed with their vision and determination to progress and take on ambitious projects, it’s an exciting can-do attitude, where dreams really are turned into reality.

The next morning we said a sad farewell to Freddie’s father and loaded him up with kit not required for India and South East Asia, largely our tent and old companion Boris. We were able to convince Boris that a European winter will be more enjoyable than camping it up in India where it is likely he will be taken apart by monkeys. It was a difficult choice as we lose our independence but we also know from other travellers that the chances of camping in India without being disturbed are pretty much nil.

Our stay at the IBIS hotel was a lovely gift from Freddie’s father but now we needed to downgrade to something cheaper and ideally with kitchen facilities and space to work on the bikes. So we packed up our bikes and a little hesitantly cycled across town to our new abode, where the lively and cheeky Philippino manager took delight in calling us Mr and Mrs Bike.

The following day was dedicated to cleaning and boxing the bikes in preparation for India. It tooke us a whole day as it was the first time we had boxed our bicycles. We also managed to finally catch up with Jet and Jen, a British cycling couple who had been closely behind us since Istanbul. In Esfahan, we had missed them by only half a day, so we were glad to finally meet up with them in person. We may see them again in India.

Freddie working on bikes   Guy boxing bikes

Our objective for the next few days was to book our flight to Goa, from where we plan to cycle around the tip of the Indian peninsula to Chennai, a journey of around 2100 km. We ran around to various airlines agencies to ask about their bike policy and found that Emirates and Jet Air seemed to be the best choices. Prices were rising every day as it was getting closer to the busy holiday season, and all direct flights to Goa were either booked out or did not accept bikes. This meant we had to fly via Mumbai or Bengaluru and change to a domestic flight there. Many of the domestic flights are operated with small ATR planes and don’t accept bicycles, plus our weight allowance would drop to 20kg for the domestic segment compared to 30kg for the international flight. In any case we found a cheap flight to Goa via Bengaluru and tried to book it online, but the payment process kept falling over, and when we phoned the airline they were unable to even see the flight on their system.

It was now close to midnight, and in a last minute huff we gave up trying to fly to Goa. It was simply too complicated. We quickly looked for a cheap flight to Mumbai, booked it and went to sleep, deciding to worry about getting to Goa later. Perhaps it was a regrettable decision as we will now have to find a way of transporting our kit to Goa, and we know the Indian train system is chaotic at the best of times. However, one big benefit of going to Mumbai is that we will be able to catch up with some friends there – Abhishek, Freddie’s friend from her university days, and Amol, who we have been in email contact with and who is planning to travel to Mumbai all the way from Pune to meet up with us.

But first, we had some time to kill in the UAE whilst waiting for our visa to come through.

Monday, 20 December 2010

Obtaining an Indian Visa in Dubai

This post is for the benefit of other travellers who are considering their options about obtaining a visa for India. We have met several people in this situation, and as there doesn’t seem to be much information about this on the internet, we decided to post our experiences. This information is current as of December 2010 and obviously only reflects our own experiences. ||

When we planned our bike trip from London to Melbourne, we had hoped to get our Indian visa in Turkey, but this turned out not to be feasible. As of summer 2010, new regulations meant that India was only issuing 3 month visas to people applying outside of their home country. The time starts ticking as soon as you receive the visa, so this was not an option for us as we had to cycle through Turkey and Iran first, before we even reached India.

For us, the best option was to apply in Dubai, as it was on our route and there was an Indian consulate. We were planning to fly from Dubai to India, so we could really make the most of our 3 month visa. We submitted our application at the Central Post Office in the Karama district of Dubai. The office is open Saturday – Thursday from 8am to 8pm. We had to submit the following:

- Visa application form, downloadable from the consulate website

- Two recent passport sized photos

- Original passport and photocopy of the photo page of the passport

- Photocopy of the UAE visa or entry stamp

- Reference form with a clear address in your home country, downloadable from the consulate website. This is used for faxing the Indian representation in your home country to ask if there are any objections to you travelling to India – if they don’t hear anything back within 3 days, they consider this to mean “no objections”

- Copy of a hotel booking confirmation in India (we just booked a hotel for one night and cancelled the booking later)

We had to pay a fee of 140 AED on application. Our passports were checked and handed back to us. We were told that the processing time was 6-7 working days to approve the application, plus 2 more days to place the visa in your passport. The catch is that all non-working days either in the UAE or in your home country don’t count. For us it meant that Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays, and any public holidays did not count as working days (our nationalities are Australian and German), so the process took around 2 weeks in total.

We were given a barcode and an internet address where we could check the progress of our application. After 5 working days, the application had been approved. This meant that we had to go back to the visa office to submit our passports and pay an additional fee of 150 AED. The passports were then sent to the consulate to place our visa stickers in.

Normally the passports would then be sent back to us by courier, but as we did not have a consistent address or reliable mobile phone number in Dubai, we were told we could go and pick them up ourselves 2 days later. We much preferred this anyway as we did not like the idea of entrusting our passports to the mail system. To pick up our passports, we had to go to a different Empost office near the airport.

When we got there at the appointed time, we were in for a shock: Guy’s passport was not on the system, and we were told it might arrive the next evening. Freddie’s passport had been delivered to some guy called Rudy, address unknown! Eventually the courier was called and explained that he had delivered the passport to a hotel we had previously stayed at, so we went and picked it up there.

The following evening, we called and were told Guy’s passport was still not ready. After kicking up a bit of a fuss, we were told to get in touch with the consulate directly to find out what the reason for the delay was. When we finally got in touch with them, we were told that they “were unable to locate the visa application” – i.e. they had lost it! Luckily they still had the passport, and we were asked to visit the consulate immediately to sort this out.

Arriving at the consulate, the officer asked Guy for a passport photo, an application form, and … his passport! A moment of panic ensued, with Guy almost losing it when he said to the officer: “YOU have my passport!” While we filled in the application form, the officer managed to locate the passport, and finally the visa sticker was put in. We both had received a 3 month visa for India, after 15 days of waiting.

Lessons: Try to provide a reliable address when you first apply, as address changes seem to cause confusion. It also helps to have a reliable mobile phone number. The rest is a question of luck!

Of course this information is subject to change. You can check for up to date information on the website of the Indian Consulate. Click on Services – Visa and scroll down to the section for tourist visas for non-UAE residents.

Sunday, 19 December 2010

10 Tips for Cycling Iran

We spent almost two months in Iran and covered 2,300km by bicycle in the country. We entered Iran from Turkey at Maku and passed through Tabriz, Esfahan and Shiraz before we left by ferry from Bandar Abbas. Here are our top 10 tips for cycling in Iran.

1. Organise your visa in advance. It is currently not possible to get a visa on arrival. Arrange your visa in advance, e.g. through www.iranianvisa.com or www.stantours.com, then pick it up from an Iranian embassy. If you are passing through Turkey, Istanbul is an easy place to pick up your visa if you have arranged a preapproval through one of the above agencies. The end date on the visa is the final date you can enter the country, not the date you need to exit. Generally you get 30 days, but you can extend it while in the country. Esfahan (same day for us) and Shiraz are currently known to be fairly easy places to extend, while Tabriz, Yazd and Tehran get less helpful reports.

2. Cash up before entering the country. Make sure you take enough cash for your entire stay, as there are no ATMs in Iran. US Dollars, Euros and British Pounds are probably the best currencies to take. It can be nerve racking to take large amounts of cash with you, but bear in mind that Iran is a very safe country to travel.

3. Take your high viz gear, helmet and rear view mirror. The main roads in Iran can be very busy and dangerous, with heavy truck traffic especially in the Northwest between the Turkish border and Tehran / Esfahan, and there is not always a shoulder to ride on. The South and East of the country are quieter. Try to stick to smaller more remote roads if possible.

4. Be prepared to carry more food and water. Unlike in Turkey, there are not many water points to fill up in and towns can be few and far between. Summers can get extremely hot, increasing your need for water, and you’ll also need some extra for camping, so make sure you have enough capacity. Grocery shops in Iran are quite basic and may not stock what you need, so make sure you always have enough emergency food with you.

5. Make the most of desert wild camps. The Iranian desert can be a fantastic place to camp, and we’ve had some of our favourite wild camps there, gazing at falling stars and enjoying the tranquillity. Sometimes you might end up on flat plains with nowhere to hide your tent, but if you wait until dusk and then walk out into the desert for a few hundred metres, you will be pretty much invisible from the road. Shepherds roam far and wide so it is possible they will discover you, though we found they had nothing more than a mild curiosity.

6. Camp for free in city parks. You can also camp in most city parks for free, and there might even be a night watchman. Iranians love camping and often picnic and sleep in the city parks during the stifling summer months. Be prepared to be the star attraction.

7. Cover up to follow the local dress code. Iran has strict laws regarding the dress code, particularly for women, and yes – you’ll have to follow it even whilst cycling. This can be challenging, particularly during summer. A head scarf must be worn at all times. Instead of a regular head scarf, Freddie used a Buff (worn balaclava style) under her helmet while cycling, which was much more practical as it doesn’t slip. As a woman, you’ll also need to wear long trousers or leggings, and a long sleeved shirt or coat that goes down to mid-thigh to cover your behind. For guys, shorts is fine, except in more sensitive areas like Mosques.

8. Carry some small gifts and be prepared to entertain. Iranian hospitality is famous, and you’re likely to be invited to stay with some local families during your journey. Come prepared with a small gift, some dates or halva are a good start, or small mementoes from your home country. For invitations with families who don’t speak your language, come prepared with some entertainment materials as Iranians love to interact and are really curious. We passed the time with a Point-It book, a world map, language guide and family photos. Be prepared to be quizzed and even to sing for your supper!

9. Keep your cool if you get questioned by officials. You may be stopped and questioned at some point during your trip. Stay calm and polite, answer the questions and they will probably leave you alone. Also be careful what you say in blogs and when taking photos, especially near military areas and power plants. We posted some of our blog posts once we were out of the country, and our blog was subsequently banned in Iran.

10. Leave your preconceptions at home. Don’t worry too much about what you read in the press. Whilst it’s wise to stay away from protests and large gatherings and not to take photos of sensitive areas, day to day the people are extremely welcoming and very open about their opinion regarding the government. Check foreign office advice for an update on the situation.

Cycling route Iran

Here’s a link to all our Iran blog posts.

Saturday, 18 December 2010

Bandar Abbas to Dubai by Ferry

From Bandar Abbas, we were planning to take a ferry to Dubai. As well as the story of our crossing, this post also contains some practical information for other travellers wishing to do the same.||

We visited a travel agency in Bandar Abbas to buy our ferry tickets. There are a couple of agencies on the main street that sell these tickets – we used Bala Parvaz Travel Agency, which is opposite Ghods Hotel.

At time of writing, the tickets cost US $100 each. We had to show our passports and make our payment in Iranian Rials.

As of December 2010, the ferries run every Monday and Wednesday evening at 8pm. However, the ferry schedules are notoriously changeable. We had emailed the guys from www.irantravelingcenter.com in advance to find out the latest schedule and found them quite helpful.

On the day of our ferry crossing, we cycled to the ferry terminal in the afternoon. It is the Bahona Port, which is about 7km west of the city center, near the big roundabout where the main road turns north. Do not take any photos of the terminal! It is considered a government area and the officials can get touchy about it.

We had been told to arrive by 5pm but got there a bit earlier. We were told to lean our bicycles on a counter, and then waited in the sitting area. Around 5pm, everyone queued up to get their boarding cards from a little desk. Make sure you have a spare photocopy of your passport to hand. If you don’t have one, you will have to take a taxi back into town, as there are no photocopying facilities at the terminal.

Once we had our boarding cards, we waited around for a few more hours. People started checking in their luggage, but we were told to wait until everyone else was done. Meanwhile, we were befriended by a “fellow traveller” who spoke good English. Shortly afterwards, he turned up again with some immigration officials who started firing aggressive questions at us, while he translated. He seemed to be quite chummy with them, and we did notice a few other “fellow travellers” loitering around who actually never went on the ferry in the end… The questions we were asked were designed to provoke, but we kept our cool and eventually they disappeared with our passports for a while, before they left to pick on another foreign traveller.

The French father of a family travelling on our ferry was taken away for questioning, which lasted about an hour. The officials asked him about his itinerary, his views on politics and religion, the people he had met while in Iran and what they had talked about etc. They also checked his laptop and went through his photos to verify his story.

Finally we were allowed to go through. The baggage handlers did not seem to be used to people with bicycles. After considering for a while what to do with us, they waved us on, so that we could wheel the bikes on to the ferry ourselves. This suited us fine. Several other cyclists we know had told us that the baggage handlers had asked them for a special fee (read “bribe”) to load their bicycles on to the ferry. One group was asked to pay $50 per bike, and another one to pay $25 per bike. If you are asked, keep refusing, make a fuss and you will probably get away without paying. We had been well prepared: When we bought our tickets, we got the travel agent to call the manager of the terminal to make sure bikes were included in our ticket price. The travel agent also gave us the name and mobile phone number of the manager in case of any trouble. Of course, when you are this well prepared, nothing ever happens!

After the passport check, we had to separate and go into little rooms for our baggage to be checked. As Freddie entered the women’s room, there were two ladies who seemed to be quite surprised to see a bicycle and didn’t really know what to do with it. One lady poked Freddie’s handlebar bag with her finger and then just waved her through.

Guy had no such luck. Ín the men’s room, all of his panniers were thoroughly searched. The purpose of every item was questioned, and they even went through his bag with dirty laundry, much to Guy’s delight! While everyone else was boarding the ferry, Guy’s bike was still being searched until he was finally cleared for travel. We wheeled our bikes on the ferry and made ourselves at home. The ferry was quite empty, so most people had a whole bench to themselves, which was great for sleeping.

We were lucky as the ferry left with only 2 hours delay, whereas we had heard from others that 4-5 hours delay are not uncommon. We got a free dinner, and breakfast the next morning. The whole journey took about 11 hours. The ferry is still considered Iranian territory, so Freddie had to keep her head scarf on until we entered the UAE.

On arrival at the port, some of our bags were checked for undesirables, and we were eventually given a free 30 day visa. The port is actually located in Sharjah, not in Dubai. There is a highway from Sharjah into Dubai, but it is very dangerous to cycle. The traffic moves super fast, hard shoulder is infrequent, they don’t expect cyclists and you sometimes have to cross up to 4 lanes of merging traffic. Therefore we decided not to cycle into Dubai. As the taxis were too small to take our bikes, we went out of the port building to a roundabout and flagged down some pickups to ask if they would take us into Dubai. It took a while, but eventually we found someone who was willing to take us for a fair price, around AED 120.

Arriving in Dubai after the ordeal of clearing Iranian immigration and customs, we felt relief, and Freddie was finally head scarf free after 7 weeks in Iran, hoooraaaay!

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Iran: Filling in the Gaps

While we published some blog posts during our time in Iran, we also wrote quite a few posts that included material which the authorities may have taken offence to. After a couple of encounters with the secret police early in our trip, we decided not to post these blogs whilst in the country.

Over the last week or so we have backdated and published all the “missing” posts, listed below in chronological order.||

We hope you enjoy reading about our adventures, from exploring desert cities and the ancient ruins of Persepolis, to sleeping in highway underpasses, encountering camels and surviving the extreme Iranian hospitality.

Iranian Blues
Maku – Marand

Suleyman The Terrible
Marand - Tabriz

Tabriz: an insight into Iranian lives
Tabriz

High on fumes
Tabriz - Zanjan

From Persian carpets to highway underpasses
Zanjan - Saveh

Express to Esfahan
Saveh - Esfahan

Yazd: A Silk Road City
Yazd

Extreme Hospitality, Desert Camps and Ancient Cities
Esfahan - Shiraz

Downhill to the Persian Gulf
Shiraz – Bandar Abbas

Meanwhile, our photo galleries from Iran are also live. Iran North covers the section from the Turkish border to Esfahan, which has its own separate Esfahan gallery, and the Iran South gallery covers everything south of Esfahan, including Yazd. All photo galleries can be viewed here. A