East Coast Tour Pictures

April 24th, 2015 by David

My book and slideshow tour was more or less an extension of our past 10 months of travel—every day I had to figure out how to get to the next venue, where I’d be spending the night, and pack and unpack my panniers.

I flew to DC on a Wednesday (Lindsey joined later, in New York). I assembled del Fuego at the airport (thank you S&S couplers), rolled up the soft-case bicycle bag, and started biking toward the city.

East Coast Book Tour

East Coast Book Tour

Through a combination of cycling, trains, buses, and car rides, I made it from DC to my hometown of Amherst, giving 10 presentations in under two weeks. It was a great way to share the stories from my journeys; I’m also glad now to be taking some time off!

Below are some of the best pictures from this trip. An album of the best pictures is here on flickr.

East Coast Book Tour

East Coast Book Tour

East Coast Book Tour

East Coast Book Tour

East Coast Book Tour

East Coast Book Tour


 

East Coast Book and Slideshow Tour – March 26th to April 7th

March 11th, 2015 by David

I will be doing a short tour through cities in the Northeast to share stories from this journey and also my book, The Bicycle Diaries, a Shelf Unbound Notable Book of 2014. The slideshow will include the best pictures and videos from 30,000 miles of bicycle touring across three continents and 28 countries — and it will also share the on-the-ground observations of the challenge of climate change. Copies of The Bicycle Diaries will be available for sale.

Click on the links for the location of each event.

Washington DC – Thursday, March 26th, 8:00pm – Bicycle Space (Facebook)
Baltimore – Friday, March 27th, 8:30pm – Red Emma’s Bookstore
Philadelphia – Saturday, March 28th, 6:30pm – Conshohocken REI (Facebook)
Philadelphia – Sunday, March 29th, 2pm – Marlton REI (Facebook)
New York City – Monday, March 30th, 7pm – NYC Velo at Hell’s Kitchen Location (Facebook)
Brooklyn – Tuesday, March 31st, 7pm – Red Lantern Bicycles (Facebook)
New Haven – Wednesday, April 1, 6pm – The Grove (hosted by Elm City Cycling)
Boston – Thursday, April 2, 7pm – Trident Booksellers and Cafe (Facebook)
Amherst, MA – Tuesday, April 7, 7pm – First Congregational Church of Amherst


 

Asia: Crossed

March 4th, 2015 by David

I’m writing this from a plane, somewhere over the Pacific Ocean. Two days ago we flew from Yangon to Bangkok and spent 36 hours in the capital of Thailand, where we ate sticky rice, visited temples, and enjoyed a 90-minute massage. Then we flew overnight from Bangkok to Seoul, where we used a 12-hour layover to explore the cleanest and wealthiest city we’ve seen since Hong Kong. Now we are flying to Seattle, where Lindsey’s mother will meet us at the airport.

Myanmar 5 - Yangon

Over the past 10 months we’ve cycled 8,000 miles across Asia, visiting 12 different countries. We started in Istanbul and traveled east until we reached the East China Sea. We then looped southwest before riding east again, passing through South Asia and finishing along the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea.

Myanmar 4 - Rakhine State

I’m trying to reflect on this journey and finding it difficult to do so. Asia is so big, so diverse, so much more than I anticipated. It feels impossible to summarize.

This journey was shorter in time and distance than my ride across the Americas, but it was more challenging, largely due to visa requirements, travel restrictions, and changing languages. Because of government rules, we couldn’t bike across Iran (Americans are required to have a guide) or the parts of Tibet that border Nepal and India (independent travel for foreigners is illegal), meaning that the only way to arrive in South Asia by bicycle, overland, and independently, would be to travel through Pakistan—but although that route is possible, large parts of Pakistan are not safe for American tourists on bicycles. So we gave up on trying to pedal every mile and helped connect parts of our route through trains, buses, and (my favorite) hitchhiking. Freed from feeling like we had to bike every mile, we used the extra speed of these non-cycling transit options to explore eastern China before continuing to South Asia (which is why our travel map looks a bit circuitous).

DSC03472

The journey felt more disjointed than my ride across Latin America, partially because of the non-bicycle travel, but largely because each country in Asia was so different from the previous country—and sometimes within-country differences were greater than cross-country differences in the Americas. In Latin America I was able to travel for 16 months speaking Spanish or, in Brazil, a hybrid of Spanish and Portuguese. The countries of the region share a history of colonization by the Catholic Iberian nations of Spain and Portugal, and many have similar challenges and levels of development. They are culturally more similar to each other and the United States than the nations we crossed in Asia are to each other. The Latin America journey was a ride across a landscape with a common history and relatively unified identity.

In Asia, I was mentally unprepared for the diversity of language, religion, culture, and government. We tried to learn bits of Turkish, Russian, and Chinese as we traveled. But it was extremely challenging, and I found it exhausting to have studied so much and learned so little. When we reached South Asia, I had no energy left to learn more languages. In Nepali, Hindi, Bengali, and Myanmar, I learned nothing more than the basic “hello,” “thank you,” and “goodbye” (fortunately, English is relatively common in South Asia, so we were able to get by).

India 1 - Bihar

We were constantly reminded of the ever-present influence of religion in people’s lives. In Turkey, it was the five-times daily call to prayer, the difficulty entailed in purchasing a beer, the pictures of imams on our hosts’ walls, and the very different social norms for men and women than what we experience in the U.S. In Tibet, we witnessed people in endless processions around temples. The holy region’s capital, Lhasa, was filled with Tibetan pilgrims with wrinkled faces and long braids who elbowed their way around us to prostrate themselves before shrines. In Nepal and India, we grappled with and mostly failed to understand the caste system and what it means for some people to be Brahmins and some Shudras. And we learned that we would have to swerve around cows in the street, as they are holy and treated with such reverence that all Indian and Nepalese cattle know they can walk placidly across a road and all traffic will automatically and patiently stop for them. In China, we tried to understand how Confucianism, which is more of a philosophy than a religion, shapes the society, and how “eastern thinking” creates a very different relationship between the individual and society than “western thinking” does (reading this book helped us).

Tibet Autonomous Region

We were especially struck by how women are treated in different societies. Outside the major cities, in Hindu and Muslim regions, we rarely saw women out in the streets. A number of times, Lindsey would point out to me that she was the only woman at a restaurant, or on a crowded street. Reading some recent articles makes me wonder what the men who were staring at us every time we stopped in India were thinking, and makes me glad that we took people’s advice to not be out after dark in Bihar. We loved the hospitality of Muslim culture, and we made many friends who we hope to stay in touch with. But in many places it was the man who invited us in, and then his wife or daughters-in-law (in many places the sons stay and live with their parents and their wives move in) who do the cooking and work—and then sometimes don’t join because it’s not considered appropriate for women to mingle with men outside their immediate family (interestingly, Lindsey was always included with the men, and we joked that people saw her as a third gender: “foreign lady”). It’s hard to feel good about a culture, however hospitable, that prevents women from interacting in public and hides them in the home.

Tajikistan - The Border to Dushanbe

We were also constantly reminded of how corrupt, restrictive, or ineffective governments in many parts of Asia are. It started in our first week in Turkey, when the government—probably the best-functioning democracy we visited—sprayed tear gas to disperse protesters who were complaining that the president had been acting increasingly autocratic. In the former Soviet republics, we encountered states that plastered pictures of their leaders on billboards across the countryside. In most of these countries (with the exception of Georgia), the autocratic leaders from the Soviet era had more or less continued in power. China was the most fascinating. It was both the most effective government and the one that most restricted personal freedoms. We marveled at their new highways and buildings, and how people seemed happy about the recent economic growth, but we were disappointed to see the country’s response to the protests in Hong Kong, where a student movement led a call for greater self-government. It was also sad to travel through Tibet and see colonization in progress. Nepal, India, and Bangladesh had the opposite problem of China: instead of being too strong, the governments in these countries are too weak, and they are unable to provide basic services like electricity, water, and good roads. And in Myanmar, we saw a country that was poor largely because an oppressive military government had nationalized businesses overnight, closed the country to the outside world, and mismanaged almost every aspect of the economy.

China 9 - Beijing

Government restrictions strongly affected the course of our trip. Many border crossings are off limits to ‘third country nationals,’ and we needed to get visas for almost every country well in advance of reaching them. For the ‘stans, we had to specify the time period of our travel and make sure to arrive and depart within the visa period (usually one month). This is particularly difficult when you are traveling by bicycle and aren’t sure how long it will take to get to each country, let alone bike across it. By comparison, in Latin America—a much freer region of the world—I could simply show up at the border of almost every country with my American passport and get a visa-on-arrival good for 90 days.

In Uzbekistan and China, we found that we couldn’t send a hard drive of our pictures home to the U.S. through the mail because the government didn’t allow such data to be freely sent out of the nation. In China, we were reminded daily about the government’s desire to control information because we had to use a VPN to get around the Internet censorship simply to check gmail. In addition, China prohibits independent travel in the Tibet Autonomous Region, which basically meant that we could not reach Nepal and India overland on a bicycle without paying many thousands of dollars for a tourist-approved jeep with driver and guide to literally follow us every day as we cycled across the plateau (which is why we went for a cheaper but still very expensive group tour bus ride to the border with Nepal). When we tried to enter India, we were held up for five hours because the Indian embassy that had issued my visa had printed my passport number incorrectly (they eventually let us through). Finally, in Myanmar, we were told by other travelers that it was illegal to sleep anywhere other than a hotel that was authorized to host foreigners, and because such hotels are relatively infrequent, we more or less had to break the law (we think) to cycle across the country.

Myanmar 4 - Rakhine State

With regard to climate change—the theme of our trip—I end the journey feeling both more and less hopeful than when I began. We interviewed people across the continent, asking them if they think the weather is different now than it was decades ago. We were surprised by how consistent people’s answers were. Whether it was a wheat farmer in Turkey, a yak herder in Tajikistan, or a Tibetan shop owner in Lhasa, people have noticed that the weather is warmer than it was during their childhoods. In South Asia and Myanmar, most people said they noticed changes in the monsoon as well. Climate change is real, and people are noticing.

India 1 - Bihar

That said, a number of observations made me feel more hopeful. Bangladesh, which I’ve heard is going to be largely underwater in a few decades, is preparing for rising sea levels by building their existing seawalls a meter and a half taller, and bracing for increased natural disasters by dotting coastal areas with cyclone shelters. In the long run, large sections of the country will probably in fact be underwater, but the work underway now means that the tens of millions of people will probably be able to avoid flooding from sea level rise for much of this century. More interestingly, we have seen that economic development is making people less likely to be subsistence farmers, and thus less vulnerable to the whims of climate change. In the mountains of Tajikistan, families said that in recent years there has been less snow than usual in the winter, making it harder to grow food because there isn’t enough water in the summer. But they also said that at least one person from every family was working abroad (mostly in Russia), sending money home, and that families could use these remittances to buy food and other goods instead of relying on subsistence farming.

Wakhan Valley

Of course, the climate change that people have witnessed so far is relatively mild compared to what they will likely see in the coming decades. People don’t list the changes in the weather as their biggest concern when we talk to them. But that might change in a few decades, when extreme drought in some places becomes the norm, making some parts of Turkey and Central Asia much drier than they are today, or when sea levels rise by another three feet in Bangladesh.

Bangladesh 4 - Dhaka to Agartala

I am drawn to bike touring across continents because I’m fascinated by our world. Bike touring is a way to take an on-the-ground survey, to ground-truth the satellite images on Google Maps, and to get a gut-sense, a tactile feel, of what it is like for a country to be Muslim or Buddhist, rich or poor, autocratic or democratic. I know so much more now than I did 10 months ago. But what I have learned is dwarfed by what we didn’t learn about the nations we cycled through. When you bike across a country, you don’t see the entire country—you see just a thin sliver, the roads and cities along your path. Most of the country remains unvisited. And that is now how I feel about the continent of Asia. Crossing it has made me realize how little I know.

The Pamirs, Part 1: To Zorkul Nature Reserve

When we think back over our journey, our strongest memory, though, is the same as that of my ride across Latin America: People were incredibly generous everywhere we traveled. Whether it was Bihar India, central Uzbekistan, or Azerbaijan, almost every day we found someone who wanted to help us on our journey across Asia. And what is perhaps most surprising is that I didn’t find this surprising at all. After crossing Latin America, I thought people would be helpful to cyclists everywhere I went. And they were.

Gaziantep to Diyarbakir

We spent much time in Asia thinking about what sets us apart from the people we met—different education, income, religion, views on equality of women. The life of a Tibetan yak herder in Qinghai Province, a rice farmer in southern Bangladesh, or a businessman in Tajikistan’s capital are all vastly different from our lives in the U.S. But while we were noticing the differences, it felt as if the local people were making a counter argument: we are all the same. They saw that we were on bicycles, and that we were sometimes tired, hungry, and uncomfortable. They shared a meal and a roof with us. In Muslim culture, we were told that “guests are gifts.” In Hindu Bihar, we were told by a host that “guests are gods”—which might be extreme, but I also like the idea that hosting another person is a holy act, as it is something that is understood and practiced across the globe. And we feel lucky to have partaken in this act with countless people across the continent.

The Pamirs, Part 1: To Zorkul Nature Reserve


 

Photos from Myanmar

March 3rd, 2015 by David

Below are our best pictures from 35 days of riding in Myanmar. You can also look through our Flickr albums from different parts of the state: three days in Sagaing Region, two weeks on the mountain roads of Chin State, central Myanmar and Bagan, the coast (and more mountains) in Rakhine State, and finally, the country’s largest city, Yangon.


 

Photos from Northeast India

February 1st, 2015 by David

After leaving Bangladesh, we cycled through three of Northeast India’s states. Below are the best pictures from this two weeks of travel. You can also look through more pictures in the Flickr albums of each state with these links: Tripura, Assam, and Manipur.


 

In Northeast India… and Behind on Blogging

January 25th, 2015 by David

I’m writing this from Imphal, a city in the far northeast of India. We are a bit behind updating this blog — in the past month we’ve crossed Bangladesh and five states in India, where we have had very limited Internet connections. We have many photos to upload and drafts of several blog entries, but it will be a bit longer before we can post them — check this site in a few weeks to see what we’ve been up to.

In the meantime, you can see (some) pictures on our Flickr page, or see updates on Twitter or Facebook. We are also regularly uploading our rides to Strava — you can follow us there for details about each day’s ride.

We are nearing the end of our journey, and our minds are turning towards getting home. We have tickets to fly out of Yangon, Myanmar on the 2nd of March, meaning we have only a bit more than one month of travel left!


 

Bangladesh – Photos

January 19th, 2015 by David

Below are our favorite photos from a few weeks in Bangladesh. You can also see more photos on our four flickr albums of cycling the country, The Delta, Boat Journey to Dhaka, Dhaka, and Dhaka to Agartala.


 

Kolkata – Adaptation, renewable energy, and sustainable sourcing

January 4th, 2015 by Lindsey

Kolkata (Calcutta) was not directly en route from Nepal to Bangladesh, but we went there to get visas for Bangladesh (the embassy in Kathmandu could not provide them) and also so we could visit a large Indian city. Our experience of India was far less comprehensive than our time in China, which we crossed west to east in a serpentine manner, visiting roughly a dozen provinces over two and a half months. From Nepal, we crossed the border into Bihar, biked east across the state until reaching West Bengal, and then rode to Kolkata. While we didn’t get our visas there—we learned at the embassy that Bangladesh now offers visa on arrival (at least at the Benapole border)—we did manage to meet with several people working on climate and energy issues and celebrated the New Year with some lovely new friends.

India 2 - West Bengal

Adaptation in the Sundarbans

We had the chance to discuss climate change in the Sundarbans with Asish Ghosh of Center for Environment and Development (CENDV) and Anurag Danda of WWF-India. The Sundarbans is a region of about 10,000 square kilometers that straddles the border of India and Bangladesh where the countries meet the Bay of Bengal. Lying in the enormous delta where the Ganges (Padma), Brahmaputra, and Meghna Rivers empty into the Bay after their journey across the subcontinent from the Tibetan Plateau, the Sundarbans is the largest mangrove forest in the world. A large portion of the area is protected as a national park, wildlife reserve, and UNESCO World Heritage Site—the Sundarbans is the largest reserve for the Bengal tiger. The region is a vast network of rivers, creeks, and flat, low-lying islands, and the people living there are often held up as the poster children of vulnerability to climate change, and particularly to sea level rise.

The Indian Sundarbans are experiencing sea level rise and temperature increases at a faster rate than the global average, and farmers are already noticing changes. Data shows that while overall precipitation amounts have not changed, the timing and intensity of rainfall has, with short periods of very heavy rainfall occurring sporadically throughout the rainy season. CENDV is working with other deltaic regions in the world to help develop adaptation strategies. One of the major challenges the region faces is cyclones, which are projected to grow more intense as a result of climate change. In 2009, Cyclone Aila hit the region, destroying over 1000 km of the embankments that normally keep saltwater out of people’s villages and farms. After the cyclone, farmers were unable to grow rice in fields that had been inundated with saltwater, and CENDV helped locate and disseminate salt-tolerant varieties of rice. CENDV also studies migration, which is already occurring as people leave the villages in search of work or because their homes were destroyed, and which is anticipated to increase as climate change and natural disasters make it more and more difficult to sustain livelihoods in the region.

Dr. Danda told us that WWF works with communities near conservation areas that the organization supports. The Sundarbans, as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and reserve for some of the world’s most charismatic megafauna, receive a lot of attention when it comes to wildlife conservation, but the people living nearby are not so lucky. If their villages become uninhabitable, the nearby protected area is off limits for migration, and they can’t count on the government for protection. We learned that while some of India’s islands are likely to be protected for strategic purposes (because their very presence serves to maintain / expand the country’s territory at sea), the four million people in the Sundarbans, and the area itself, are not high on the government’s list of priorities.

Projections indicate that at least a quarter of these people will have to leave their homes in the next 30 years due to sea level rise, erosion, extreme events, and increases to the already large population. To help prepare for this, WWF helps young people—who for the most part only know farming and fishing—develop skills that will serve them if agriculture is no longer viable, or if they migrate to urban areas. These skills include basic education—the organization helps promising students find scholarships to advance their studies and pursue professions such as engineering and medicine—as well as training for work in the hospitality sector, construction, and driving.

These meetings were our introduction to the Sundarbans, which we would later visit on the Bangladeshi side of the border. What we learned is that climate change is already being felt in this area, both in the dramatic way portrayed on the news—with islands disappearing as sea level rises—as well as in more subtle ways. Changing rainfall patterns can destroy crops, tidal surges erode islands, and increased salinity—which has a variety of causes, including sea level rise and flooding during cyclones—can make farming impossible in some areas. It was encouraging, though, to see that organizations such as CENDV and WWF, along with others, are working to soften the blow. Developing or discovering rice varieties that can tolerate salt, submergence, or drought improves food security, while skill development gives people options outside of farming and could make it easier to survive if migration becomes necessary.

Renewable Energy

We had the opportunity to visit the offices of SwitchOn and ONergy, a joint NGO-business organization that helps bring renewable energy to rural people in eastern India, where 50% of households are not connected to the grid. SwitchOn, the NGO, was started in 2008 to do outreach, policy advocacy, and capacity building around climate change and sustainable livelihoods. ONergy, the business side of the organization, was started in 2009 to provide solar energy to underserved communities. ONergy uses innovative approaches such as distribution centers and micro-finance to make solar electricity and technology affordable, while SwitchOn helps build capacity among communities to install, maintain, and maximize the benefits of the technology.

The vision for SwitchOn began after founders Ekta and Vinay Jaju traveled with a friend from Kolkata to New Delhi by bicycle, following India’s coal belt. Along the way, they spoke with experts, activists, and affected communities about the impacts of mining coal. What they learned—about sinking towns, burning ground, and other effects—are detailed in the video, Why New Coal.

Why New Coal from Vinay Jaju on Vimeo.

Upon returning to Kolkata, Ekta and Jaju started SwitchOn and later ONergy, which have so far affected about 200,000 lives, with a goal of affecting one million lives by 2016 and ten million lives by 2022. The major benefits of solar electricity come from simply having convenient access to light. Instead of kerosene, which is smoky and provides poor quality light, SwitchOn/ONergy’s beneficiaries and customers can flip a switch and have high quality light for studying, working, and entertainment. The organization also provides street lighting, water heating systems, and cook stoves, as well as solar-powered technology in the agricultural sector, such as cold storage and irrigation systems.

We also spoke with Subhro Sen at WWF, who works on rural electrification in the Sundarbans. The program he described uses distribution centers and financing models to make the products affordable and to ensure that they are well maintained and provide the intended services to customers. One of our questions for both organizations was whether these sorts of projects could actually result in delaying connection to the grid for the communities they served. We learned that grid power and diesel, which is often used in generators and to pump water, are highly subsidized and therefore very cheap, making it difficult for solar power to be cost-competitive. Ekta told us, though, that over time solar is cheaper than diesel, and the hope is that eventually some of ONergy’s customers can become producers of solar energy. Then, if the government expands the grid to them, they can sell power back to it.

India 1 - Bihar

While it’s inspiring to learn about the positive impacts these organizations are having on people’s lives, it frustrates me that the government isn’t able to deliver such services. I am a strong supporter of renewable energy and this type of work, and I can definitely see the case for new electrification to be sustainable and low-fossil fuel. However, I can’t help but note a disconnect—maybe even an irony—in that the people who will be most affected by climate change, and who have contributed basically nothing to causing it, are the ones using renewables while much of the developed world goes on using fossil fuels. If the market is large enough, perhaps it will contribute to bringing down the cost of renewables and mainstreaming them, but this is something that everybody should be contributing to. Nonetheless, these sorts of projects are inspiring in that they are helping to improve people’s standard of living without contributing to climate change, which David writes about extensively in The Bicycle Diaries, and which is such a contentious and important issue in the international climate negotiations.

Sustainable Sourcing

Our final meeting in Kolkata was with ITC, one of India’s largest companies. We met with Dr. Ashesh Ambasta, Vice President and Head of Social Investments; Sanjib Bezbaroa, Vice President and Head of Corporate Environment, Health and Safety; and Nazeeb Arif, Vice President Corporate Communications, who told us about the company’s ‘triple bottom line’ approach to business. ITC’s products range from paper to food to hotels, and what stuck with me is that the company is able to support millions of what they call sustainable livelihoods as part of their business practices. For instance, they are “carbon positive,” “water positive,” and “solid waste recycling positive.” This means that they use a high percentage of renewable energy sources and sequester more CO2 than they produce through afforestation projects; ‘create’ more water than they use through rainwater harvesting and other means to capture runoff for use in irrigation; and recycle more waste than is produced from their operations.

India 2 - West Bengal

They showed us a video of communities where the raw materials for their products are grown, with testimonials of how people’s lives had improved. For example, the company provided saplings for trees that could grow in degraded farmland that was no longer productive, and the farmers were then able to make a living planting and tending the trees before selling them for paper production. This is done in a seven-year cycle rather than through clear-cutting, and more trees are now grown than the company can use, so farmers sell to other companies as well. ITC began this project at a time when most pulp was imported, and they are proud of creating both demand for and supply of domestically produced pulp, as it provides livelihoods for local people and, when managed correctly, improves the environment where the trees are grown. There were many such examples of triple bottom line practices that the company has implemented, often in partnership with civil society. In communities where they source agricultural products such as wheat, for example, the company has invested in infrastructure to harvest rainwater for irrigation, at the same time training and empowering local people to build and maintain such systems.

Interestingly, the company’s motivation does not come from its customers. While organic and fair trade labels are gaining in popularity in US and European markets, the people we met with at ITC said these issues are not really on the radar of Indian consumers. Instead, the company is motivated by the idea of ‘country before company’ and by profit. ITC is proud to support producers within India and contribute to the country’s economy—as they say, businesses can’t succeed in societies that fail. By creating sustainable livelihoods and supply chains, they are creating a secure base for their own operations. ITC, a $45 billion market cap company, is one of the top three companies on the Indian stock exchange. From what we learned, this success appears to be in part because of—rather than in spite of—their investment in sustainable livelihoods around the country.

After a whirlwind two and a half days in Kolkata, we rode out of the city on a rainy morning, accompanied by a camera crew for eTV and bound for Bangladesh. Stay tuned for updates from the front lines of climate change, the Sundarbans themselves.

India 2 - West Bengal


 

Bihar and West Bengal – Photos

January 1st, 2015 by David

To see all our photos from eastern central India, visit our Flickr album of Bihar and West Bengal. Our favorite pictures from these albums are below.


 

Cycling Bihar

December 30th, 2014 by David

The warnings about Bihar started as soon as I posted our planned route. A number of people told us to avoid the state entirely. One friend wrote us and said, “we’ve gotten advice from a number of folks in the know that biking through Bihar is a really bad idea (like a 50% chance of rape and/or assault and/or kidnapping idea).”

Bihar is one of India’s poorest and most densely populated states. Over half of the population lives under the national poverty line, and the state’s population density of more than 1,100 people per square kilometer is greater than that of Bangladesh. Bihar also fares poorly with respect to education, especially for women: About a quarter of men are illiterate, while almost half of the women are. The state is also highly vulnerable to climate change—its people are at very high risk to floods, and they rely heavily on agriculture. For our project, I wanted to ride our bikes across this part of the world and witness it firsthand. But first we needed to figure out if we would survive such a ride.

India 1 - Bihar

We receive many warnings about “far away,” “unknown” places, which often seem dangerous to people who haven’t been there. But the Bihar warnings were unusually strong and warranted more research, in part because they came from some people who _had_ been there, or were well-traveled and very familiar with India. We emailed everyone we could think of who might know people in Bihar. We wanted to find someone who knew the state well enough to tell us the safety of specific towns and roads in Bihar.

We found that person in Ashutosh Ranjan, a Clinton Global Fellow who grew up in northern Bihar and now lives in Delhi. After some equivocation, he told us which parts of the state were more troublesome than others and recommended a bike route. More importantly, he was able to find local contacts in almost every city we would spend the night in. These contacts could help us find hotels (Ashutosh, as well as everyone else we spoke to, strongly recommended against camping or traveling after dark) and assist us with other challenges we might face. Such local help is invaluable, and we decided to take Ashutosh’s advice and cross the state.

After two days of riding from Kathmandu, we arrived at the border between Nepal and India (and thus Bihar, as the state borders Nepal just south of Kathmandu), which we crossed early in the morning. It was the least patrolled border I’ve ever crossed. Indians and Nepalis don’t have to show their passports—they can freely cross. As a result, there’s little security. We biked across a bridge (where we had to wedge our bikes around parked trucks waiting to cross), only to learn that we’d accidentally left Nepal. We had to turn around and bike back a few hundred meters to the Nepal customs office, which we had passed without noticing it. The office was challenging to find, but a friendly man standing by a trash fire waved us into a small building. They weren’t very busy, and the officer offered us some tea.

Nepal - Cycling and Kathamndu

We biked back to the Indian side and found the corresponding customs office in a small room with a low ceiling and a tangle of cables for two computers. The agent then told us that their Internet wasn’t working, and we’d have to wait for them to connect to approve our crossing. Then we got worse news. The Indian Embassy that issued my visa (in Dushanbe, Tajikistan), had written my passport number incorrectly—they had randomly added a “2” to the middle of the number on the visa. We hadn’t noticed this mistake until the customs officer pointed it out. Now this obvious error could prevent him from approving our entry. The officer made a number of calls to his higher-ups in Delhi, and we waited.

Four and a half hours later (during which time only one other tourist passed through the office), someone in an office in Delhi approved our passage. Now, though, we had a dilemma—it was 12:30 PM, and we had just four and a half hours to make it 50 km before dark. If the roads were good, it would be no problem. If they were dirt, we might have to start our ride in Bihar doing exactly what everyone told us not to do: ride after dark.

We started biking. The border town was gross. The street was crowded with people, almost all of them men. A few (holy) cows picked at the trash that lined the road. I looked for something to eat, but the food at all the stands appeared to have been sitting out for a few hours, and I didn’t think I could eat it without getting sick. A cool thick fog made everything even less attractive. The only part I enjoyed was watching a man parallel park his cart pulled by two Brahman bulls.

An orderless mix of trucks and rickshaws were backed up behind the train tracks, waiting for the people operating the gate to push it up. Bicycles and pedestrians were able to duck around and cross the pair of tracks, and we did the same. On the other side of the tracks, though, we had to walk far around the gate and cross a moat of black viscous water, using two narrow boards that had been laid down for this purpose. We passed a table where a dozen dead chickens, feathers plucked, sat for sale. Beneath the stand, another two dozen chickens lay, all still alive, but with their feet tied together. They seemed remarkably relaxed given their circumstances.

India 1 - Bihar

The road quality changed every few miles from smooth new pavement, to under construction (although it was unclear if anyone was actually working on the road, or if it was just a perpetual “work in progress”), to horrible dirt. We encountered numerous “spontaneous impasses”—a unique breed of traffic jam where vehicles tried to pass each other in each direction, leading to four vehicles stopped in place, facing each other in a pointless standoff. Trucks, vans, buses, and motorcycles would try to pass the stopped vehicles, ignoring lanes and filling every space on the road, making it impossible for people to back up and resolve the mess. On bicycles (or “cycles” as they are called here), we were able to maneuver our way around and pass, albeit very slowly.

India 1 - Bihar

We arrived in Motihari just before dark, and called Dushyant, the first contact that Ashutosh had arranged for us. I felt ill at ease—small three wheeled vehicles, cycles, and motorbikes moved through the streets like water flowing. To cross a street, you have no option but to walk slowly into the street, trusting that the traffic will flow around you like a rock in a stream. Dushyant found us a hotel where we could get a room for $10, and we met him there.
We didn’t leave the hotel for dinner—Dushyant said we would be surrounded by people, and it would be unpleasant (although not unsafe, he said). So he went to a restaurant, got us food, and brought it back to our hotel room. Like many people we met, Dushyant was surprised that we thought it wouldn’t be safe in his town. But he also then told us, and especially Lindsey, not to go out after dark.

For the next week, we traveled through Bihar following basically this routine: rise early, eat breakfast at our hotel, and bike hurriedly to a city where we knew we would be able to spend the night (and for some reason, we were always getting into town right before dark and feeling rushed, just like the first day). On arrival, we’d meet our local contact, usually at a hotel they’d recommended, eat dinner at the hotel, and go to bed. This was made possible because nearly all of the hotels had restaurants and room service, making it even easier to not wander into town.

It was difficult to stop along the road in Bihar, because a crowd would immediately form. The population density in Bihar is 30 times higher than in the United States. There are people everywhere, and they’re not accustomed to seeing foreigners. So, when we stopped, people would surround us within seconds. Sometimes someone would say “Which country?,” asking where we were from. But mostly they just stared, looking at us as if aliens had landed. One person even asked me, “are you human?” And of course, the crowds were entirely men—we saw very few women in the streets. We never felt unsafe with these crowds, but we always felt uncomfortable, and as a result, we almost never stopped for long on the side of the road.

India 1 - Bihar

I also spent about half my time battling some type of stomach bacteria. Two nights I felt so ill I thought we wouldn’t be able to continue the next day. Fortunately, rest and antibiotics gave me enough strength to keep riding. But it is a horrible feeling to be sick during the middle of the day and feel like you have to keep going because you have to make it to a hotel for the night.

Our longest stop was in the town of Tribeniganj, where Ashutosh had arranged for a group of volunteer social workers to meet us. The town is in a part of Bihar that suffered horrendously from floods in 2008 when an embankment in the Kosi River burst, unexpectedly flooding the homes of a few million people.

The volunteers brought us through a few villages for a tour and helped us interview people about climate change. It was amazing how many people live in these small villages—men, women (women were more present in villages), and children seem to materialize out of thin air when we stopped, emerging to stare at us. Having guides allowed us to follow small paths, sometimes paved, sometimes not, and talk to people living in the rows of small wooden houses. We asked people if the climate had changed over their lifetimes, if flooding was more or less frequent now, and whether these changes (if they noticed any) had made life harder or easier.

India 1 - Bihar

Other than the 2008 flood, people didn’t have a consistent answer on flooding. Most people said that the rains are more unpredictable than they used to be, and that the monsoon is coming later, on average, which in turn makes it challenging to plant crops at the right time. But when we asked “how have changes in the weather affected you,” they pointed out things that aren’t necessarily related to climate change. More than one person said that they needed to spend money on diesel to pump groundwater for irrigation (which could be more necessary as rains become less reliable) and use more fertilizer to grow their crops, and that the crops don’t fetch as good a price at the market as they used to.

One elderly man didn’t answer the questions at first. He said, in English, “Look how poor I am, look how simple my cottage is, how skinny I am.” At first I wanted to tell him how nice his cottage was, but I realized he was right. And this was my strongest impression from these visits—the poverty. So many people live incredibly simple lives, cooking meals over dung fires, using bulls to plow small plots of rented land, and hoping for a good harvest.

It was the poverty that got to me the most in Bihar. We saw many migrant families huddled near the roadside just outside their makeshift one-room huts, next to a small fire, trying to keep warm in the cool foggy December air.

India 1 - Bihar

And then there was the human waste. Bihar has a population of over 100 million. Ninety percent of these people do not have access to a toilet—that is, they shit outside. Almost every day—and sometimes several times a day—we’d see a man (never a woman, as it’s only considered appropriate for them to go just before sunrise or just after sunset) squatting in a field. Along some of the wider two-lane highways, we’d sometimes see rows of human feces at the edge of the shoulder near villages. It is a sight and smell I’d also like to forget. And it isn’t just gross—such lack of hygiene is a major cause of health problems in India.

We spent our last full day in Bihar in Purnea, a town of maybe one hundred thousand on the eastern edge of the state. We planned to only stay for lunch but were persuaded to spend the night by Gririndra, a friend of a friend of Ashutosh. Gririndra insisted we visit his farm and spend the night with his family. He had attended college and worked as a journalist (I think) in Delhi, but had returned home when his father became ill, and he then took over his father’s farm. He had an arranged marriage, like most other people we’ve met here, and one daughter. “My biggest dream,” he said, “is for a good education for my daughter.”

One thing that we struggled to understand is the caste system, which appears to still be in place to some degree. Gririndra, like many (though not all) of our contacts who hosted us and helped us, was well educated and a member of the Brahmin caste—the top of the ancient caste system (though there are many divisions within this and the other castes). People would freely tell us their caste if we overcame our own discomfort with the concept and asked. But many of the people crowding into huts were of lower castes. And there were clear distinctions. We visited one farm where the landlord had a nice, large house, and behind the wall that surrounded it were rows of small huts that provided shelter for a few hundred people. It’s sad to see such differences in wealth in a society, whether in India, Latin America, or the United States. And it is especially odious when there are social norms—in this case, the caste system—that help perpetuate this unequal distribution of wealth and opportunity.

India 1 - Bihar

We didn’t know it, but Gririndra was “interviewing” us. He wrote an article about us, which he published in the Hindustani Times. The article actually said very little about our trip’s mission, and made up almost all of our quotes. It was, though, very entertaining.

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We never felt totally comfortable in Bihar, but we also never felt unsafe in the way that we worried about, based on the warnings we had received (of course, we never were outside after dark, which would probably be dangerous). A few people told us that in the past decade, largely due to better government that has cleaned up corruption and improved police enforcement, safety has increased dramatically—one person told us that people’s warnings would have been completely true in 2005, but not today. Also, numerous Biharis in almost every city we visited helped us on our journey, and we feel incredibly lucky to have made these new friends.

Nonetheless, it’s hard to look back fondly on our time in Bihar. I was sick for three and a half days, and an unpleasant, gritty fog hung over the landscape much of the time. I wish I could forget the images I have of grown men shitting outside, and the sight and smell of human feces along the edge of the highway. And the poverty—so many people live with so little. How many families did we see crowding around small fires by their huts? Or people plowing small plots of rented land using oxen? I’ve traveled through many poor parts of the world where the poverty doesn’t feel oppressive—often, my strongest impressions of rural, undeveloped areas is that the people are friendlier and smile more than I’d expect for people who lack electricity or basic sanitation. In Bihar, though, we felt like there was more of a struggle to survive, and that people were living closer to the edge. Perhaps more strongly than anywhere else we’ve visited, I felt lucky that I live in a developed, relatively un-crowded nation.