Archive for the ‘India’ Category

Post script: India

Thursday, November 4th, 2010

(James) Some of the more observant amongst you may have noticed that we were, well, a tad disappointed and disillusioned with India. We have tried to be diplomatic and not moan too much in our recent entries on the country but are aware of the fact that our writing was often negative and a bit ‘ranty’.  We’re also aware that given that most of those who follow us read our blog whilst sitting at work, and for many doing so in winter, it might sound a bit galling to hear two lucky sods moaning about our problems as we ride on our dream trip.

I should say that we haven’t (thus far) had a single complaint, critical remark or comment questioning our attitude and, almost without question, everyone we’ve met in India or in Nepal (from where I write this) has been of the same opinion. However, we thought we should write a small entry if only to support what we’ve written and to ensure we don’t unduly cause offence (not that we think we can have); something that Fabian, who is of the same opinion of us, has found on his website, where his remarks have (unfairly in our minds) been criticised by a couple of his followers. Fabian, incidentally, had visited India before as part of a tour group (a common way to do it) and had enjoyed his experience – not so this time.

I should start by saying that India is an incredibly diverse country, with an amazing history and rich culture, and we did meet some incredible people, but that can’t hide the fact the India has, in our  eyes, some very real and very significant flaws (yes, I know all countries have flaws) that people seem to either excuse or ignore.

We simply found that everything in India was a constant battle. The guide books refer to it as a ‘sensory overload’ which it undoubtedly is, but that, frankly, is a bit rose tinted. The fact is India is, for the most part, filthy (there, I said it!). Almost without exception every city, town & village is festooned with rubbish piled everywhere. We often saw people walk out of pretty expensive looking houses in affluent neighbourhoods and just throw their rubbish in the street right outside their front door. For the life of us we just can’t understand this. And it’s not just rubbish that fills the streets; animals run round everywhere producing their own waste which, like everything else, seems to be just left there to rot. Cows are considered sacred but in reality a cow’s quality of life in India is something that would ordinarily have animal rights groups up in arms. Left to pretty much fend for themselves, they spend their days lying in the middle of roads, rooting through and eating piles of rubbish and receiving no veterinary care for some of the diseases this lifestyle inevitably produces. Frankly, it’s no way to ‘treat’ an animal, and certainly no way to treat something  you revere.  The result of all this, in the considerable Indian heat, is a pretty awful smell, and clouds of flies which frequently lead to outbreaks of disease. So, if the idea of sitting down to eat at a street side food stall (which we did hundreds of times) next to piles of rubbish and poo (from various animals and humans – yes we often saw people just squat down to defecate in the middle of the street!), watching dogs fighting (or humping each other), having cows, goats, pigs or any other sort of animal right next to you, seeing huge rats running through the rubbish (and over your feet), and having cars, buses & trucks belching out black smoke  as they pass with their horns permanently on, while clouds of flies buzz round you sounds like fun then you’ll love India.

We’ve already written about the driving which isn’t so much crazy as intentionally dangerous so I won’t go into that, but we found this complete lack of pride/concern for others was everywhere. After the incredible honesty and friendliness that we’d experienced in the previous 18 countries, India came as a bit of a shock. We found we really had to watch ourselves, as the locals had scams on scams all designed to rip you off – it seems to be corrupt from the bottom up, and you’re seen simply as a rich westerner there to be fleeced for everything you’re worth. If someone tried to help us they always wanted money for the effort, nothing was free and it slowly made us more and more wary of people’s offers of help  – not something we really liked.

We’re not exactly wet behind the ears when it comes to travel so these things really can’t be put down to cultural differences (an excuse, interestingly, used initially by the head delegate of the Delhi commonwealth games after teams threatened to pull out of the games in a row over conditions and hygiene – he quickly withdrew it!). The few India lovers we’ve spoken to about this tend to give the stock answer, ‘That’s India’….  Well, I’m sorry but what kind of answer is that? In fact, what does it even mean?

 These problems can’t be blamed on the fact that India’s a poor country because it’s not. It’s the richest country (China aside) that we’ve been through since leaving Europe; it has a huge economy, helped by having a cheap labour force in its own back yard. It’s about to spend several billion dollars on new state of the art military fighter jets, and is spending countless more billions developing a space program, and yet, it cannot look after its own people. According  to a recent report India has 42% of the world’s malnourished children – 42%! That’s more than the combined total for Africa (African countries, unlike India, however, don’t have the financial resources to escape the vicious cycle of poverty they find themselves in). Nor can it be blamed on its Hindu culture. Nepal has a Hindu culture, and is a far poorer country, yet its people are friendly, honest, generous, proud and (Kathmandu aside) towns, villages and houses are clean and clearly looked after.

Whenever we spoke about any of these issues with fellow travellers to try to gain some sort of insight into the problem, we simply came back to the notion that (and you’ll have to excuse my French) nobody gives a shit, it’s as simple as that. We’ve seen some pretty horrendous things in India which we’ve not written about and certainly not photographed – we wanted to keep our blog remotely pleasant and (hopefully)enjoyable so we’ve spared you some of the lowlights. Some of you may not agree with what we’ve said, and you’re welcome to your opinion just as I am. But you’ll have to accept that we have tried to walk a fine line, between keeping our entries accurate and honest, yet without making them so brutally honest that we end up put you off your dinner.

One other reason for our ‘stance’ on India is that having travelled through so many other countries, we want to ensure a level playing field, so try judge each country by the same set of rules to maintain some sort of consistency. With this mind, it would hardly be fair to make exceptions for India, who despite everything, benefits from over 5 million tourists each year. If any of the other countries we’ve been through (all of whom can only dream of such tourist numbers) were to have the same flaws on display or simply were to treat tourists in such a way, people simply wouldn’t go there. Yet India survives on the back of this generous, if misguided, attitude that defends every shortcoming with the inane, ‘Well, that’s India!’

Of course, if you don’t believe us pop down to your local travel agent, give them several hundred pounds for a ticket and go see for yourself. As for us? It’s a big world out there, I think we’ll see what else it has to offer….

So long, India: Hello, Nepal!

Wednesday, November 3rd, 2010

(Emily) We pretty much couldn’t leave Varanasi fast enough and 7am on 1st November saw Fabian and ourselves packing up the bikes with an air of giddiness. We’re heading to Nepal, baby! After the debacle of getting into the city, we followed James’ non-GPS route to exit and, to our relief, soon found ourselves on the road north to the border. We’d left in good time to do the 300km stint but, as Fabian had predicted, our progress was considerably slower than the previous few days’ riding as we were back to single lane road and the suicidal overtaking/cars coming in the opposite direction that we loved so much. Deep joy. Several stretches were badly pot-holed and neither I nor the bike enjoyed that very much; I was suffering from a pulled muscle in my shoulder which jarred painfully with every bump and my poor bike was bleeding again (fork seal leak still not fixed… ) We stopped for some roadside samosas around 11am (despite the unsanitary conditions, there’s no getting away from the fact that the samosas in India are goooood) and, somewhat optimistically, projected that we might reach Gorakhpur (two thirds of the way to the border) by noon. Hmmm. The cows and goats and kamikaze drivers continued to conspire against us and it was actually more like half past two when we entered the chaos of the city (the bypass was only available if coming from the west so we found ourselves in the thick of things). It was, to use Fabian’s favourite phrase, ‘a living hell’!! Hot, sweaty, dirty, congested and, forty-five minutes later, I had a serious case of clutch-claw going on. Still, the end was nigh and, after a little ‘detour’ through an army barracks (Fabian’s GPS again….), we found ourselves on the right road for the final 80km to the border. The traffic had thinned out a bit so we hurtled along, minds fixed on the target. Ironically, the scenery became a lot greener and there was noticeably less  garbage lying around for our final stint in India… it didn’t make us any less desperate to leave though!

Darkness was falling as we approached Sonauli, the border town; somehow it had taken us ten hours to do the 300km (185 mile) journey!!! Even as I write that, I think ‘surely, it can’t be possible…’, Then again, a 30kph average sounds about right so there we are. The ‘border’ at Sonauli was a complete joke; we rode along a busy bazaar/high-street that had basically turned into a parking lot for trucks and lorries and, seeing an archway come into view at the end, realised that this was it – the border. We’d have ridden right on and through had someone not beckoned us to pull into the side of the road next to a shack about 100m from the end, half hidden behind the parked trucks and camouflaged amongst all the stall fronts. This was customs , wasn’t it obvious?!! I stayed with the bikes, trying to protect them from knocks by the trucks that were inching through and the motorbikes and rickshaws weaving in and out of them, while James and Fabs did the relevant paperwork. We could not actually believe this was the border, it was ridiculous!! Immigration was the same deal – a non-descript shack – though it did actually have a front entrance rather than being open to the elements like customs! When finally the endless rigmarole of paperwork was over, we were told to go through and seek the customs house on the other side… this was it, we were about to cross into Nepal – yee-ha!!!

Okay, so it wasn’t quite the revelation we were anticipating to leave Indian soil. For one thing, it was dark so we weren’t exactly able to take in our surroundings. Also, it would be foolish to expect things to change straightaway; we were still on the same road after all. However, enough subtle changes were detected to verify the entry to a new land, not least the fact that people were already noticeably warmer and friendlier in country number 20. We were met with a hearty greetings of ‘Welcome to Nepal,’ and big, genuine smiles abounded from both border officials and the soldiers. We were all so tired and hungry that, after a little friendly negotiation on price, we booked into the nearest hotel and having persuaded the manager to let us park all three bikes inside the foyer, agreed to meet downstairs for something to eat half an hour later. As overjoyed as we were to be in Nepal, we were somewhat alarmed by the plague-like presence of insects; the walls of the corridor outside our room were thick with winged inhabitants and we literally had to seal our mouths shut as we descended the stairs lest we inadvertently inhale a bug or ten (pre-dinner snack, anyone?) Apparently, our arrival had coincided with an annual creepy-crawly fest, unique to the border town. Bummer if you live there! As for us, we were too tired to really care and once we’d brushed some offenders off the pillows and put a side light on to attract them away from the bed in the night, we slept like babies! (James: It seems to have slipped Em’s mind that I ended up with an insect stuck deep in my ear. It was flapping away, and not even tweezers could reach it. You’ll have to trust me when I say it was a deeply unpleasant experience which only ended when, some half an hour later, it managed to work its way out!) Okay, so then we slept like babies!

Varanasi: Holy Shit!!….

Tuesday, November 2nd, 2010

(James) There was definitely an air of excitement as we loaded the bikes on our last morning in Agra. We were heading for our last destination in India – the holy city of Varanasi. After a quick breakfast, we set off with Fabian’s GPS in the lead. All too quickly we found ourselves in one of those streets that we’d come into Agra on, with almost total gridlock. It was mayhem! For twenty minutes we battled to move maybe 15 metres. I had a run in with a bus who’d decided that he could make it out if he simply drove slowly through me (cue much banging on his door and abuse) and Fabian got knocked off his bike by somebody pushing a fruit cart! We were so jammed in a metre behind him that we couldn’t even climb off the bikes to go over and help him! Eventually, we made it through and found ourselves riding passed Agra’s fort. We had to smile at each other as we knew a really simple (and quiet) way out but of course satnavs so often just plot the most direct route. Still, we were soon heading across the river (where we were denied our last view of the Taj Mahal by the smog that shrouded the city) and out of Agra. Varanasi was over 600km to our east and certainly wasn’t going to be reached in a day but perhaps, if the roads weren’t too bad, we could be there the following evening.

The roads were actually pretty decent dual carriageways making for good progress, the only things slowing us down being the trucks driving the wrong way down the road, one of which almost took out Fabian as he pulled out to overtake,  and of course, the numerous accidents we inevitably came across.  Oh, and one hyper aggressive disabled beggar. You wouldn’t think it possible but as we rode along, I (riding at the front) could see a man up ahead sitting on the edge of the outside lane next to the central reservation. The trucks (that all seem to use this lane to drive in) were missing him by centimetres but it didn’t seem to bother him (the speeding drivers weren’t too bothered about him either) as he held his hands out. We were approaching  at about 80kph when he clocked us and quickly scurried crablike across the lane on his hands, forcing me to dive towards the inside lane and power past him. Em, riding behind me, did the same but poor Fabian, who is more cautious rider, started to brake instead and this, combined with the fact that he was third in line and 50m behind Em, was enough to allow the fearless beggar to select an intercepting course and force Fabian to take severe evasive action into the hard shoulder. The beggar just didn’t care and we watched our mirrors in horror as Fabian broke heavily into the side of the road and eventually disappeared from view. Our only thought being that he was now lying injured in a ditch, we quickly stopped and I was just turning round to ride back up the highway to help when Fabs’ headlight reappeared from the bushes. Thankfully he’d managed to save it and had had to start riding away with the beggar effectively refusing to let go of his leg! Not the best strategy to illicit our sympathy as, had Fabian gone over, the beats would have been his most likely reward!

We’d set Kanpur, which at around the 300km from Agra represented the halfway mark, as our target for the day but having reached it by early afternoon we decided to press on and take advantage of our good progress, which in doing so would make for an easier day tomorrow. Besides, it wasn’t totally out of the question that the road further east might deteriorate requiring a third day to cover the distance. Not long after 4pm, and with another 80km covered, we decided to start looking for somewhere to stop for the night as we’d only seen one hotel all day. We did manage to find one place but it was a genuine toilet (we’re pretty hardy these days but when we start talking about setting up our tent in the room to avoid touching the bed or carpet you know it’s bad!) and the guy, who’d obviously never had foreigners as potential guests, reached for a number and came up with one 3 times more than we were prepared to pay. Needless to say, his roadside hole is still awaiting its first international clientele. We decided to press on towards the town of Fatephur and utilise Fabian’s satnav to find a hotel on the eastern edge of town so we could make a quick escape in the morning. The satnav, of course, wasn’t playing ball and, with darkness rapidly falling, we had to pull over to let Fabian know that we’d just passed the exit for Fatephur (the satnav still estimated that we were some 20km short!) We turned around, rode back down to the exit and quickly found a hotel right by the road. It looked very nice but was closed; however, some locals sitting outside told us there were a couple more further down the road. It wasn’t exactly easy to see now as the street was in pitch darkness but, having pulled over a few hundred metres further down, we established that the completely  immaculate and luxurious looking building we were outside of was actually a guesthouse. There was absolutely no way in the world that we’d be able to afford it but we asked the man outside just to get an idea of prices in this tourist free area and were shocked when in broken English we heard ‘300 rupees’ (just over £4). We assumed he meant 3000 and so asked again, even getting out three 100 rupee notes to confirm. It was definitely 300 rupees. We couldn’t believe our luck and didn’t even bother haggling, just wanting to be in our rooms before he realised his mistake. We were in for one more surprise though as we entered the building. It appeared as if two different people, with entirely different visions of what they wanted (and entirely different budgets), had built the hotel. One had taken responsibility for the exterior and the other, the interior and neither of them had ever had a chance to see what the other was doing! Stepping through the grand double doors (having climbed the marble stairs outside) we were greeted with a long wide corridor/hall with a plain floor and walls that ran the length of the building. On each side were six plain doors which each led to a very simple, run down room with a skanky small bed in it. The hall and rooms reminded us exactly of a prison and it was hard to believe that we were in the same building we’d stopped outside of (our bikes, on the other hand,  were enjoying being parking on immaculate white marble and in considerably more luxury!) We had to laugh as we got our silk liners out of our bag (to be used when we don’t want to touch the sheets!) but quickly discovered that, by comparison, we’d lucked out; Fabian called us across to show us his ‘clean’ sheets which quite frankly looked like somebody had died and decomposed on them! The only thing missing was the chalk outline of the body!

We were keen to get going in the morning and were on the road before 8am. Our progress was a little slower, though, as most towns we passed through seemed to be centred on the highway and, quite honestly, it’s hard maintain a decent cruising speed when people have set up market stalls in the fast lane! However , we made it to the outskirts of Varanasi by lunch time and rewarded ourselves with the promise of a shower and a chance to relax with plenty of the day still left. Fabian took the lead as he’d programmed the co-ordinates of our hotel into the satnav (third time’s the charm, right?!) but quickly we found ourselves riding down deeply rutted and pothole-filled dirt roads. This continued for 20 minutes or so as we inched along in the heavy traffic before we came to halt at a level crossing. We turned off the engines and watched in amusement as hundreds of locals all piled up to the front on either side of the tracks, blissfully unaware (as usual) of the obvious problem they’d face when the barriers came up. Sadly the barriers didn’t come up and after 20 minutes or so waiting it became clear that they were broken. We knew we needed to cross the tracks but it was anyone’s guess where the next suitable crossing might be, but eventually a local on a small bike told us he knew of a way. We followed him and soon found ourselves riding alongside the tracks and past slum houses on appalling dirt roads that quickly became just pure off-roading. Having somehow made it back to a paved road without anyone coming off, we arrived at another level crossing and  found ourselves in a more quiet and green residential area. We rode through it until we arrived at a crossroads where Fabs informed us that our hotel was somewhere within 400m of our location. With no street signs and no obvious sign of a luxury looking hotel (did we tell you we’d lucked out and grabbed a bargain?), I volunteered to ride around and locate the hotel whilst Em and Fabian waited. I headed off… but found nothing. Even stopping to ask several rickshaw drivers failed to yield a positive response and I returned 20 minutes later, with no clearer idea than when I’d left, to find Em and Fabs hidden amongst a crowd of 50-odd onlookers.

We decided to get away from the crowd so we could find somewhere quiet to get the laptop out and recheck the hotel’s details, and having written down the full address I went and asked a few people. One word in the address, Sarnath, stood out and they all said we had to head for some sort of gate, one I had managed to find on my first attempt to find the hotel. Remembering where it was, I led the group to the gate where a policeman said we needed to head down the road where, having taken the first right, we’d see a sign for Sarnath (hopefully not in Hindi). This we did and, having ridden for 10 minutes or so constantly shouting ‘Sarnath?’ to anyone I found myself alongside, was shocked to find a sigh saying ‘Sarnath – 11km’! What? Could this be right? Maybe there were two Sarnaths? How could Fabs’ satnav be wrong by 30km?! (In fairness to Fabian, it not him but the satnav that was consistently feeding us duff information!) Regardless, we had little choice but to follow the directions down roads that were absolutely rammed in a way that only seems possible in India. Soon the tarmac disappeared too making the edging along a bit trickier as sometimes there was a huge hole where you wanted to plant your foot for balance (remember this is still in the middle of the city). After an hour of this, it was really starting to get a bit irritating and painful (Em was reporting a serious case of the dreaded ‘clutch-claw’ from the constant stop-starting). Things came to a head when, having taken a right turn at a junction, we found ourselves on a wide dirt road that was doubling as a construction site (a multilane flyover to run along our road was being built overhead but the road was still in use). We were at a standstill and hadn’t moved for about 10 minutes when I was hit hard from behind and the bike started to go over, and no doubt would have, but so closely were we packed in that I fell into Em and between us we struggled to drag the bike upright again. Having done this I turned round to have words with the idiot who’d hit me only to find it was a police 4×4 pick-up with about 6 heavily armed men in the back all watching me. I’m afraid to say that this was the final straw and I completely lost my rag and, aiming both barrels, let fly with a barrage of abuse at the driver (Em: I’ve rarely seen James so irate – “What the f*** do you think you’re doing? You’re the f***ing police – you’re supposed to look after people!! You’re a bunch of f***ing idiots!” Quite right too. He’d only just got started and continued to become quite creative in his tirade. People were staring by this point… I don’t think they’d ever seen anyone stand up for themselves against the police!) The police in India seem to spend their time either sleeping under trees or bullying locals, so this foreigner abusing them came as something of a surprise and they sat there in shock not too sure what to do as I continued, spurred on by their complete inability to stand up for themselves. Frankly, they were pathetic. When 20 minutes later they passed us at the side of the road, they glared at us only until we looked back at them, at which point they quickly looked away. As I said – pathetic!

We eventually arrived in Sarnath, which is an important focal point for Buddhists (Buddha gave his first sermon here some 2500 years ago), and found it to be pleasantly green and quiet with monks going calmly about their business. We pulled up at the impressively large gates of our hotel and rode in. It was quite clear that the owner knows someone who is an expert with ‘photoshop’ as, whilst the building was roughly the same shape as the one we’d found in photos on the internet, that was where the similarities ended. A quick inspection was followed by the sound of 3 bikes disappearing back down the road and in less than 10 minutes we’d found ourselves somewhere else to stay with safe parking (although, in all honesty, given that we were surrounded by Buddhist monks we weren’t too worried!) Having showered and changed we went to find something to eat which was surprisingly hard – apparently the monks don’t really hit the town in the evening! One thing we did notice (it was hard not to) was the amount of mosquitoes everywhere; there were swarms of them, and they were big! Em and I blitzed them in competition when we got back to our room (we don’t get out much!) The final score was James: 41, Emily: 19 – my extra reach being the difference apparently….

The following morning we took a rickshaw (a brand spanking new one, we didn’t know they even still made them!) into Varanasi and having got in as close to the Ganges as we could, started to walk down the maze of narrow dirty lanes until we reached the river itself. Varanasi, for those who don’t know, is the centre of the universe for all things Hindu, and the Ganges river is at the heart of the city (something about it coming from or giving birth to Shiva or so Em says, but she can’t be sure!) The travel guides rave and wax lyrical about the spirituality of sitting at the ghats, taking in your surroundings, and watching the world and the river in all its majesty go by. The reality isn’t quite as rosy. For starters, the Ganges is dirty, very dirty. Recent tests on the river have found that in every 100ml of water there are 1.5 million faecal coliform bacteria! Water deemed safe enough for bathing (not drinking, just bathing) should be lower than 500!! The river isn’t helped by the fact that over 400 million people live in the Ganges basin and along the ghats in Varanasi, some 30 large sewers spew their contents directly into the river. The result of this is, unsurprisingly, a river that is quite literally septic, that is so say it is totally devoid of dissolved oxygen. Hindus come to Varanasi for a few reasons. One is to die and be cremated there as they believe that in doing so they will achieve moksha, freeing them from the cycle of reincarnation. They also come to bathe in the Ganges which apparently washes away a lifetime of sins (not sure if this includes driving like complete tits, but personally I think it would take more than a quick wash in the river to satisfy me!)

Having successfully (for the most part) made our way through the piles of poo that litter the narrow lanes, we arrived at one of the main ghats by the river and were greeted with the sight of dozens of people bathing and cleansing themselves in the water (the irony of this apparently lost on them) and sadhus, both real and fake, wandering up and down. We decided to take a rowing boat out on the river which would allow us the best view of the banks (Fabian wanted to choose a ‘location’ to do some filming for his website) and so having agreed a price, we set off. There’s no question that some of the buildings along the river bank are extremely grand and, even in their slightly run down state, pretty spectacular. Sadly it wasn’t the buildings that we remember but, rather unsurprisingly, the squalor. We passed both bathing ghats and the burning ghats where Hindus bring their dead for cremation or, in the case of some who cannot be cremated (saddhus, babies, pregnant women and those bitten by cobras….), to be put in the river. The sight we saw at one of the smaller burning ghats, quite frankly, appalled us. We sat in our boat no more than 10 metres from the bank watching a couple of funeral pyres burning, not a problem in itself, but  the surrounding scene did trouble us. Just 2 metres from our boat was a swollen and putrified body stuck and wedged between two moored rowing boats (apparently the authorities just chuck those deceased without the money to afford a funeral pyre in the river!), a dead dog was floating a couple of metres nearer the shore, 20 metres upstream a large sewage pipe was releasing a huge amount of fresh effluence into the river, whilst on the ghat in the midst of it all women washed their clothes, men washed and drank the water, and children swam, whilst above them another man sat fishing! Now, it’s nothing to do with education – even barely touched tribes-people in the depths of Papua New Guinea or the Amazon know about the dangers of body disposal etc – so to see this was pretty shocking. As the boat ride continued we saw several other bodies float by, including an old man releasing a dead baby wrapped in swaddling and weighted with a stone. Once back on shore, we walked to the main burning ghat, and standing on the stair above it counted some 17 pyres burning. Again what shocked us was what was going on around the pyres. People were just sitting around smoking and having a laugh, cows were rummaging through the piles of litter that lay everywhere, lots of huge rats were scurrying about and a couple of dogs were sniffing around and eating bits from a dying pyre! Frankly we found the whole thing utterly undignified and unspiritual and after a few minutes decided that enough was enough and headed back up the narrow alleys, passing perhaps a dozen families bringing their dead down to the ghat, just some of the estimated 400 bodies cremated each day. Hindus believe that their life is incomplete unless they have made a pilgrimage to bathe in the Ganges at least once in their life. I suspect this is all they generally manage as I can’t help but feel I’d have died of some sort of infection within 12 hours of bathing, somewhat precluding a second visit.

On the way up we passed signs for hostels and guesthouses that we recognised from the guidebooks and that had come recommended as they had great locations with rooftop restaurants overlooking the ghats. Having seen it for ourselves, we remarked that we couldn’t think of anything worse than trying to have a meal in full view of it with the smell of burning corpses pervading everything. Having reached the main road we exchanged some rupees for dollars, which we would be needed to buy our Nepali visas at the border the next day, and having done it headed back to our malaria infested mosquito hotel to pack and dream of fresh Himalayan mountain air.

Agra: Taj-tastic!

Saturday, October 30th, 2010

(Emily)  The route to Agra was dual carriageway for the majority of the way – boring and uneventful but hey, that’s a bonus on India’s roads! That said, there was the small incident of James nearly riding at full speed into a large metal police barrier; a bit of a heart-stopping moment for me who was keeping up the rear!! He had momentarily allowed the irritating drivers to get the better of him and gave it full throttle to get round an annoying truck that was weaving across the two lanes… turns out the truck was actually veering left for good reason – that reason being a barricade across the right hand lane. Emergency stop-tastic! (James: having swung out into the outside lane and hit the throttle, I found myself no more than 30 metres from the barrier. I locked up the rear which, even with the bike so heavily loaded, was wildly fishtailing, and then even managed to lock up the front tyre (not ideal on a bike!) and somehow came screeching to a halt at the barrier. Em drew up alongside and, having checked, told me that the front of my tyre was just 3 or 4 cm from the blockade!! All we could do was look at each other and breathe a sigh of relief, amazed by the fact I wasn’t pancaked on the road with my bike in a thousand bits!) The rest of the journey, roughly 250km, passed quickly and without comment, though on reaching Agra it took forty-five sweaty minutes to find our guest house. At one point we found ourselves in a crazy-busy market street with bicycles, cars, rickshaws, mopeds and pedestrians all coming towards each other (and us) from about six different directions at once; it was one of those ‘this is so ridiculous I can only laugh’ moments as we fought our way through, nudging peoples’ heads with our handle bars as we passed (people are pretty diminutive in India!) I wish I’d taken photos but to have taken my hands of the handle bars would have had dire consequences!

We eventually got to our destination and parked up in the gated courtyard (at first they proposed that we just bring the bikes in off the street at night and then put them back out in the morning but we put our foot – feet – down; it had been a condition of our booking that they had secure parking). We ’d booked in advance as we needed an address to get our replacement headsets sent to and, to our delight, the package had arrived despite our misgivings (one seasoned traveller had laughed out loud when we said we were getting something mailed to India…) So thanks for sorting that out for us Jess : ) Donato (Harley dude) arrived soon after us, and we were also pleased to discover that Uli and Isabel & Joe, the Germans we’d met in Jaipur, were staying there too. We went out to find something to eat – disappointing fare once again – and finished Uli’s scotch for good this time whilst enjoying Donato’s photos of stunning Ladakh, the remote area of northern India that we had been intending to visit ourselves before reports of snow and mud deterred us. Photos of the boggy roads convinced me that we’d been right to desist in our plans, particularly given that we were three weeks behind Donato; however, if you ever get the chance, Manali and Leh and the surrounding scenery look pretty amazing and the area also boasts the highest motorable road in the world (we’d done the highest paved road crossing from China to Pakistan on the Khunjerab Pass but it would have been cool to go one better!)

Before retiring to bed, we made grand plans to get up at 5am the next morning to see the Taj Mahal in the light of the rising sun…. er, think that might have been the scotch talking as it was more like midday when we made an appearance! We resolved to try again the next day, after getting an earlier night, and instead went to the Red Fort. Out and about in the light of day, it soon became apparent that Agra is even more of a non-descript toilet than most towns but to be fair, the fort was pretty cool (how many forts have we been to now, though?!!) The grounds were well taken care of and bright green parrots flitted about between the fortifications. We also got up close to some of cute little squirrel-like creatures that we’d been seeing all over the country – there was a guy giving out seeds to encourage the little tykes to eat from your hand (for a fee of course) so that was pretty cute (Lizzie, you’d love it!) Still, there’s only so much fort action a person can take (plus the immature men snapping surreptitious photos were once again out in force) so after an hour or so we went to grab a bit of street food, picking out the cleanest of a bad bunch, and it was actually very tasty.

Donato had been to Agra before but, keen photographer that he is, he suffered for his art and made the early morning trip to the Taj Mahal with us the next day (Fabian hadn’t arrived from Jaipur yet as he was still under the weather). It just so happened to be 26th October; six months exactly since we left the UK and marking the half way point of our trip. The time has gone by so quickly! We got a rickshaw in the dark (no hardship, given the ‘scenery’) and braced ourselves for the entry fee – we’d been warned by fellow travellers about the extortion that was about to take place…. 20 rupees for an Indian, 750 for foreigners!!!! Giving concessions to locals is fine by us but charging tourists over 35 times as much? Seriously?! (To go up the steps to the Taj itself, we had to remove our shoes and an attendant had the cheek to try and charge us for looking after them. James just took out his ticket and pointed – “750 rupees!!!!!” I think he took that as a no…!) Anyway, the Taj Mahal is indeed spectacular and James and Donato were in their element snapping away – the pinkish morning light complementing the white marble beautifully. We wandered round for several hours enjoying the fact that, despite the high volume of visitors even at the early hour, it still managed to retain an air of peaceful tranquillity. We were back at the hostel by 9am so had breakfast and went back to bed for a bit of a snooze – it’s a hard life being a motoventurer, ya know!

It was our last evening with Donato – he was leaving for Mumbai the next day – and we tried once again to find somewhere decent to eat. On the way, our rickshaw driver, following a narrow escape with a wayward truck, turned to grin at us, uttering the immortal phase, ‘That’s India!’ Grrrrr!!!! The chosen restaurant did a good curry and got the vote as it was the first place we’d found to offer peshwari naan; my absolute favourite back home! It was a bit pricey but we had plenty of locals dining alongside us (albeit rather well-off locals: ‘the middle caste’ as Donato joked!) which is always a good sign. We decided to walk back (a vain attempt to counter-balance the calories we’d just consumed) and were approached by auto- and cycle-rickshaws the whole way. Our response that we were happy walking was always met with sheer incredulity (and contempt – one old guy called us ‘bastards’ and spat at us as he cycled away! Charming!)

 With Donato on his way, the next afternoon brought the arrival of Fabian, now back to his perky self. We ran out to greet his bike with eager anticipation: after we got our tanks painted in Islamabad, Fabian was inspired to do the same and had gone the whole hog with a professional sticker job. His enormous matt black petrol tank is now a glorious multi-coloured visual feast and looks awesome!! After catching up for a bit, we set about looking online for somewhere to stay in Varanasi, our next (and final!) Indian destination. We’d suddenly realised that accommodation might be a bit thin on the ground what with it being the lead up to Diwali, India’s most holy festival, and Varanasi being India’s most holy city… Indeed, the first few places we tried were full (or too expensive) but we persevered and bagged a bargain. What’s more, we’d be able to ride straight to it now we were travelling with GPS Boy! Oh, how wrong we were on both counts….

Bundi & Jaipur

Tuesday, October 26th, 2010

(James) With the morning heat already making its presence felt we quickly loaded up the bikes, trying to keep in the shade, then said our goodbyes to Estobel. We made our way across the chaos of the city of Udaipur and quickly found our intended road, one that would take us the 280km eastwards to the small town of Bundi. Once out of the city, we again found ourselves on fairly empty Rajasthani roads (we’re going to miss them soon!) which allowed for excellent, if fairly uneventful, progress other than the fact that 50% of vehicles we saw were coming the wrong way down the highway (this, by now has become the norm!) At around the half way mark, Em signalled that she needed me to look at the right side of her bike and having had a look, I could see the plastic fairing on the right side (the one we adapted after Em’s accident in Istanbul after the original was destroyed) flapping wildly in the wind. Having pulled over to the side of the road, a quick inspection revealed that the special plastic bolts that attach the front of the fairing to the radiator had sheered. We quickly fixed the problem with some trusty zip ties (is there no end to their uses?!) and were soon on our way again. When we were 50km short of our destination, we reached a side ‘track’ that, certainly as the crow flies, would act as a short cut. We had no doubt that it would be slower than the main road but it would also be more fun so we took it and soon found ourselves riding on dirt roads through small and completely untouched villages (and getting those familiar old looks that one might give if aliens were to land in your local high street) and edging past water buffaloes moving from one muddy pool to another. It should be said that we are particularly wary of water buffalo – they, like cows, won’t move an inch for you but whereas cows won’t move because they’re holy (and God how they know it!) and so can do as they please, water buffalo  don’t move for the simple reason that they’re bloody huge! Were we to hit a cow, we may or may not get away with it but know we’d try to get away as soon as possible to escape the inevitable lynch mob that would result, and then deal with our injuries/damage at a safe distance down the road. Were we to hit a water buffalo on the other hand – we’d likely have to be scraped or peeled of the side of it in a manner normally associated with Wyle E Coyote or Tom & Jerry!

By mid-afternoon we arrived on the outskirts of Bundi. It should be said that we had fairly high hopes for the place; after all it wasn’t some big marketed city but a small rural town, one that Lonely Planet raves about describing it as, and I quote, “the kind of effortlessly charming Indian town you wished you dreamed of”.  Well, first impressions weren’t exactly positive as passed  through grotty streets and old factories, but we were continued on towards the historic centre and rounding a bed were rewarded with a fantastic view of the old town, filled with Brahmin blue houses nestled around several large baories (large intricately decorated ancient water tanks), all of which were overshadowed by the spectacular Bundi Palace sitting on top of a steep hill above the town. We stopped to take photos and watch some of the thousands of monkeys charging around on the roofs of the town before heading down to find somewhere to stay for the night. We quickly settled on a place (purely because of all the ones in the street it was the only one that was clean) and, having secured the bikes and showered, went out to  get a closer look at the town. Sadly, it was another case of ‘nice from afar, yet far from nice’ and so we retreated back to our guesthouse to escape the filth and constant sound of drivers’/riders’ horns being pressed, something we found even more unnecessary as there was often nothing else in the empty streets (rubbish and baked turds aside!)  I guess for most tourists and backpackers, regardless of budget, it’s difficult to see small town India or any other country for that matter, as your plane, train or bus takes you from one tourist destination city and deposits you at the next, whereas we enjoy the luxury of seeing everything in between so whilst seeing small town India is something different for them, we found it to be (large palace aside) just another Indian town like the twenty others we pass through every day. Still, in Bundi’s defence, Rudyard Kipling did stay here and was inspired enough to write some of this most famous works – that said, I’m reading ‘Kim’ at the moment and thus far think it’s crap so maybe he wrote that in Bundi! That night we had an unexpected visit from the owner of another bike we’d seen in town (and had also come across back in Udaipur); Giacomo, from San Marino, was friend of Matteo, the Italian we’d met a few days earlier. We ended up having dinner together and, as is the custom, swapped information on roads, places to stay and the usual issues regarding visas, border crossings, shipping and anything else we could think of and generally had a very pleasant time swapping war stories.

Having ‘done’ Bundi we decided to hit the road the following morning and head for the small town of Pushkar, a place famous for its annual camel fair which takes place every November. We wouldn’t be there for the fair (not such a bad thing – we wouldn’t want to pay the extortionate accommodation prices that increase by a factor of fifteen in time for the fair) but had heard that it was worth visiting. Within minutes of leaving Bundi, we had several particularly dangerous run-ins with other vehicles and having stopped for petrol (and to have good moan), the pump attendant spilt half our petrol over the bikes (petrol drip over a hot engine in 40 degree heat isn’t exactly ideal!), our luggage and the seat, and then, not apologising or giving us anything to clean it up, tried to charge us for the spilt petrol! His timing was perfect and a little confrontation was just what we needed to vent. I offered him what I thought was the right amount (minus the litre split) but he wasn’t having it and called the manager. The conversation ended with us saying they weren’t getting a penny more and them trying to haggle over what they thought they were still owed whilst we pointed at the floor and said we wouldn’t pay for that. Needless to say they didn’t get a dime and we rode off feeling more than a little wound up. Em quickly rode up alongside me and, not for the first time, said something that echoed my thoughts precisely; namely that she was fed up with India, and that given that the fork in the road for Pushkar was coming up, why don’t we just give it a miss and ride directly to Jaipur, see it and then we would just have Agra and Varanasi left as places to visit on the road to Nepal. I was already happy to agree but Em said something that really summed it up when she added, “I just don’t like the person that India’s turning me in to”. It was particularly poignant coming from Em as anyone who knows her will acknowledge, she hasn’t got a malicious bone in her body and with that we arrived at the fork in the road and headed right, towards Jaipur.

The road to Jaipur was busier than we’d been used  to in recent weeks and reminded us somewhat of the nightmare that was the road to Pathankot. On any normal day in India it would be no exaggeration to say we pass at least 6 or 7 utterly overloaded and unroadworthy lorries that have recently, in the last couple of hours or so, crashed and are either upside-down at the side of the road or in the middle of the road with their cargo strewn across the lanes, forcing us to pick our way through the resulting debris field. Many of the trucks and buses here have clearly been welded back together following huge accidents and so bent are the chassis that when one is passing you in the oncoming lane, it is actually pointing directly at you even though you are some 30 degrees  off its line of travel. This can be deceptive and of course it means that when one is actually coming directly at you – something that happens often – it ‘looks’ like it’s actually going to pass you! Today though, in the short space of the 150km from the fork in the road to Jaipur, we passed at least a dozen big wrecks. As usual, everyone was sitting around looking surprised – no police of course, they’re more likely to be sleeping under a tree somewhere, nor the driver or anyone in the cab as they, more often than not, are dead, their cab being utterly crushed. We’re certainly not surprised anymore, and the look on our faces probably doesn’t hide our somewhat unsympathetic thoughts along the lines of, ‘What exactly do you expect when you drive like this?!’  What is India doing to us??!!

By  mid afternoon  we arrived in Jaipur and quickly realised that it was bigger than any city we’d been to India so far. As usual, at least one or two of the fifty or sixty bikes that surrounded us at every set of lights had someone who could speak English or at least understand our attempts to pronounce (in Hindi) the part of town we were heading for and point us in the right direction. For the first time on our trip, we started finding guesthouses that had no vacancies (a sure sign that for the time being, at least, we were back on the beaten path) but eventually had success at a quite flash looking place. Em went in to inspect whilst I stayed with the bikes and dealt with the half dozen rickshaw drivers that effectively try to mug you to get you to stay somewhere where they’ll get a commission. They’re an absolute pain, will not take no for an answer (unless you rephrase using a few expletives) and are the absolute  scourge for anyone unfortunate to arrive in a town by bus or train. Em came out a few minutes later to say it was lovely, very clean and, rather surprisingly was in our price range. There was, she added, a reason – the room available was a tad small. ‘Not a problem,’ I replied, ‘we don’t care about small, we’ve had small plenty of times before.’ ‘No,’ she laughed, ‘this is really small. It’s got a mini double bed, but I’m not sure we’ll be able to fit our roll bags in!’ Regardless, it was cheap, clean and quiet so having parked on the path leading to reception, we checked in and went to our room. Em really wasn’t joking, and having unlocked the door, which could only open a third of the way before hitting the bed, she edged in and climbed onto the bed and closed the door whilst she got to the other side. I then passed the bags through which we piled up and finally I followed them through. The room was very ‘snug’ and our toilet/shower was on the next floor up but it was surprisingly airy and spotless, bar some strange horizontal lines around the walls at shoulder height where, I can only presume, a previous guest  had tried, and failed, to swing a cat.

The hotel had a really nice restaurant up on the roof so we spent our first evening up there, not even venturing out of the building, catching up with the blog and chatting with a really nice Taiwanese girl called Ja who was travelling alone (it always amazes us when we meet lone female travellers as everything’s just a little harder for them in this part of the world). We’d met her whilst we were unloading the bikes; it turns out that last year she had ridden a scooter from Taiwan to Tibet – pretty impressive!! We also bumped into a lovely Catalan couple we’d met in Bundi who were off to catch the night bus to Agra. Later on, a German called Uli asked if he could join us. He was, it turned out, another biker and having flown to India was riding round for a month on an Enfield Bullet before heading back home. We all chatted about India and, as usual, everybody seemed to have the same opinion. It’s really bizarre  – who are the people who love it ‘cos we can’t find them!  

The next morning we went to visit Jaipur’s Amber Fort with Uli , Ja and Estobel (who’d arrived late the previous evening) and having found a six seater rickshaw, spent 10 hilarious minutes trying to actually fit all six of us onboard! Six Indians and six westerners are not the same thing! On the way, we ticked of another ‘must see’ animal from our list when we passed an elephant walking down the road being ridden by some sort of sadhu. The scale of the fort was really impressive, as were the fortifying walls that spidered off in all directions to dominate the surrounding hills. The engineering feat was all the more incredible as it was built atop a series of large and very steep hills up which every rock must have been carried. Sadly the rest of Jaipur’s sights were a bit of a letdown and if there’s a pink area to justify its moniker as the ‘pink city’, we didn’t see it. We found the ‘dirty beige city’ but it seems the ‘Incredible India’ marketing people for India tourism have chosen to overlook that!  That evening we all met up again on the roof, joined by a German couple, Joe and Isabel, and helped Uli empty the bottle of scotch he’d been carrying that, his holiday now over, he now had to finish.

We decided to wait on in Jaipur for an extra few days as Fabian, having finally fixed his bike and made it to India, was going to be passing the same way. Fabian had had a small accident and, whilst the bike was ok, his knee  was not and so was causing him pain. As a result he’d decided to take a few days off from it and had got the train down south to Goa and Hampi. His bike was being stored in Jaipur and, given that like us he’d had enough of India but was determined to see Agra and Varanasi on the way to Nepal, we’d agreed to do it together. When he eventually arrived late at night  it was clear that 30 hours on public transport combined with a dodgy lassi (yoghurt drink) had made its mark on him so although he managed to spend a bit of time on the roof with us, he soon had to go to bed leaving us to chat the night away with Ja and a lone Irish traveller called Brian. (Em: Brian had a rather original method of deterring the endless stream of touts that home in on their backpacker prey – sing and dance around like a mad man until they back off! Effective, fun and a somehow typically Irish solution to the problem!) The next morning, Fabian reported that he was still ill and advised us to go ahead to Agra where we would meet up once again. Ordinarily we’d have waited for him in Jaipur but Fabian had already been to Agra and there’s not really a whole lot else to do there apart from see the Taj Mahal. Furthermore, we’d arranged to meet up with Donato, from our China/KKH group, who having been stuck in Delhi awaiting spares for the last week was desperate to get on the road again. We decided to go straight to Agra, meet Donato there and get all the sightseeing out of the way before the Fabster arrived. We’d ended up spending five days in Jaipur, probably about 3 days longer than needed and were getting itchy feet. Agra, and India’s greatest attraction, awaited.


Wednesday, October 20th, 2010

(Emily) Stop the press, stop the press!! We actually LIKED Udaipur! None were more surprised than us but yes, we found the quieter streets, clean lake and colourful waterfront to be most agreeable! It helped that, on the recommendation of a German guy we’d met in Jodhpur, we were staying at a really great guesthouse with beautiful rooms and fantastic views of the palace on the other side of the river-esque lake – a snip at just over £5 per night! Whatsmore, Isabel and Esteban, the Spanish couple we’d met in Amritsar and had been keeping in touch with, turned up the day after we arrived so we had some friends to explore the city with…

I say ‘explore’, but to be honest, the chilled atmosphere and pleasant surroundings were such a relief that it was largely an agenda of relax/read/eat! Udaipur has been described as ‘the Venice of the East’  and the charming, higgledy-piggledy  buildings squeezed together amiably right at the water’s edge do give some credit to this generous comparison. As James said one night as we sat on the roof  admiring the tastefully uplit palace with its backdrop of the Aravalli Hills, black against the dusky sky, it was the first place we’d been to in India that looked as if some thought had been put into it. One remarkable feature of Udaipur, and again something that evokes the opulence of Italy, is the floating Lake Palace, a grand edifice that seems to rise up magically out of the water. Occupying the entirety of its island foundation so that the water laps against its outer walls, it appears not to be built on land at all. Formally the summer residence of the maharaja, and now an exclusive hotel, the palace was used a set location for the James Bond film ‘Octopussy’ and lest you forget this claim to fame, pretty much all the hotels and restaurants in the old town offer nightly showings of said film for your viewing pleasure!! (James: that’s Octopussy, shown at the same time every night for 27 years! Now I like Bond films as much as the next man but…)

In between our busy schedule of napping and consuming banana lassis at an alarming rate, we did make a tour of the city palace with Isabel and Esteban (impressive, but we were getting a bit ‘forted out’) so the four of decided to go on a boat ride to see the floating palace up close and get a better view of the lake ghats (areas where steps lead down to the water’s edge). Of course, India wasn’t going to go a whole day without testing us, and having made our way to the ticket office just in time to catch the last boat of the day, James found himself laughing at the man in the booth when our bill for 4 tickets (at 200 rupees each) came to 900 rupees. He questioned the maths and was told (and with a completely straight face) that it cost 25 rupees per person to walk the 200 metres past the hotel to the jetty! Now it’s not the money you understand, It’s the principle, and three weeks of this sort of petty piss-taking was starting to take its toll. Having not unreasonably questioned why there was a charge for this, and why wasn’t the charge included in the ticket price (do you ever pay to access the platform when you get on a train?) and perhaps a tad sarcastically asked whether we’d be needing a ‘return’ ticket to get off the boat and leave at the end (that was free apparently)we have our way to the jetty. The ride itself was lovely and although initially surprised at the lack of any commentary or guide, we actually enjoyed the chance to sit in India, in silence, enjoying  the changing coloured on the buildings as the sunset on the lake, without any chance of disturbance. It was, in a word, bliss.

 The ghats are an integral part of Indian life, where locals can bathe (or in the case of younger men, dive bomb off the wall!) and wash clothes or simply congregate to socialise. The water is also key to festivals and rituals; from our roof top we observed wedding parties walking down to the ghats for blessings and there were often religious offerings left down at the water’s edge. We happened to be in Udaipur while a festival was going on – at first we thought it was the lead up to Diwali but were told that this was a separate celebration, that of Navratri which is dedicated to the goddess Durga. The old town was strung with metallic streamers and other decorations and whenever we left the guesthouse for a wander round the streets, we would invariably come upon a procession of lively worshippers playing music and dancing as they followed a jeep bearing a model deity on the back. One time, Isabel narrowly avoided getting covered in brightly coloured powder paint, which is randomly flung about as part of the festivities, as she stopped to take a photo and being  a tad too close to the action was deemed fair game!

On the final evening of the festival, we gathered with hundreds of others on the main street that led up to city palace to watch the culmination of all the celebrations; an organised dance on a grand scale in which the young men and women of the town formed themselves into two looping lines, facing each other, and engaged in an endless exchange of clicks of their batons to the beat of the music. The inner line would gradually move round so that the partners changed continuously. We realised that this was a rare opportunity for members of the opposite sex to mingle and it was fascinating to watch; the façade of carefree bravado and cool confidence affected by the men, the girls all dressed up beautifully and concentrating extra hard on their batons to distract from their shyness. As we walked back to the guesthouse that evening, music emanated from every home and we caught glimpses of younger children, obviously not yet old enough to take part in the main dance, performing their own versions of the ritual with their mothers and older sisters. Very cute!

After five nights in Udaipur, we thought it was probably time to move on (while we could still move… the creamy curries and beers were starting to take effect and undo the natural dieting that only three months eating sheep testicle kebabs and other such Central Asian delicacies can achieve!) Despite an almost complete refusal to eat curries, Esteban had managed to fall victim to a bout of ‘Delhi belly’ so he and Isabel stayed on for a few days but we made plans to catch up again in Jaipur, their next destination. We too were heading to the ‘Pink City’ but intended to stop in at the small towns of Bundi and Pushkar on the way. Once more the freedom of travelling by motorcycle was not lost to us; we can pretty much go where we want, when we want without having to worry about bus or train timetables. So, onwards to Bundi…

Not much ado in Mt Abu!

Friday, October 15th, 2010

(Em) We were really looking forward to a few days in Mount Abu. The hill station town has long been a favourite of holidaying Gujaratis (Indians from the neighbouring state) and we had been recommended a visit there by several other travellers. More importantly, as the highest point in Rajasthan, it offered the promise of cooler climes away from the desert plains. After 200 or so kilometres on roads that were fairly empty, we actually had some rain as we started climbing altitude towards our destination – quite the novelty as it had been a while! We thought it prudent to pull into a petrol station and wait out the heavy shower; the driving in India is bad enough without poor visibility added to the equation, plus the state of most vehicles suggested that braking capacity would be somewhat limited. Luckily, once we ventured back out onto the road, we found that our course took us away from the still ominous cloud cover making for a very pleasant sunny ride into the hills. We took in some nice twisties which wound up through lush (rubbish-free) vegetation and stopped for a while to photograph some of the masses of monkeys which, with remarkable agility, were loping about quite casually by the side of the road.

Despite this promising introduction, it has to be said that Mt Abu itself was a bit of a disappointment – as we rolled into to centre, our hearts dropped when we espied (yes, that’s right ‘espied’ – am reading ‘Around the World in 80 Days’ and loving the olde language!) the same old garbage, stray dogs and arrogant cows. We found a hostel tucked away up a side street and had only just unloaded the bikes when a torrential downpour was unleashed (seemed we hadn’t veered away from the clouds as much as we’d thought…) Our room was a comedy little number up on the top of the building: somewhat like a conservatory, there was a two inch gap between the top of the windows and the roof so as soon as the storm started, all sorts of crap flew in onto the bed! Plus, as we unpacked our things, we had to shout at each other to be heard over the din of rain on the corrugated iron roof! Still, it was light and airy (once the weather cleared) and the multitude of windows gave us a nice panorama of the green hills and palm trees that surrounded us. We went out for something to eat and were delighted to finally utter the words, ‘Wow, that’s really tasty’ upon receipt of our order (thus far the food had been nowhere near as good as Pakistan, or in fact as Thali Thali, the local Indian restaurant back home!) The dish in question was a masala dosa – a southern Indian speciality – which comprised of a crispy pancake stuffed with a potato mix and spinach, along with some delicious sauces. Things were looking up!

There’s not a whole lot to do at Mt Abu; its appeal lies more in its elevated position, peaceful lake and the flora and fauna on offer. At least, that’s what the guide says! I suggested we go for a walk round the lake. James was dubious; lakes can take a long time to circumnavigate and we hadn’t done any exercise in a while… we cracked up when we saw it, though – more like a pond really! A small jetty offered the hire of row boats and pedalos but the water was strangely traffic free; turns out there had been recent crocodile sightings which had put people off. As for us, we were quite keen to see a bit of croc action but after the beauty and splendour of Dal Lake in Srinagar, this one was a bit of a joke so we stuck to the walking plan. It was a very pleasant stroll and a lovely temperature for such an activity; warm and sunny with plenty of shade. Once round the lake, we continued walking for a couple of kilometres to find the Dilwara temples, Mt Abu’s most celebrated attraction. The temples are of the Jain faith, an Indian religion that promotes a path of non-violence. Getting into the complex was all a bit unnecessarily officious; we had to deposit  our shoes and any belongings, including our cameras, and self-important guards made us line up in single sex queues. (There was a sign on the wall prohibiting the wearing of any leather products and also, bizarrely, entry by any woman who is menstruating… quite how they check, I don’t know!!) Once they deemed the number of people waiting to be sufficient – a good couple of hundred as several school groups and Indian tour groups had arrived – the whole system was revealed to be pointless when they suddenly let us all through in a free for all! Anyway, the temples were worth the visit – absolutely spectacular. It’s such a shame we couldn’t take photos as a description alone just won’t do it justice but basically each temple, made from solid marble, was exquisitely carved in its entirety; the work was mind-bogglingly intricate and extensive, depicting gods, elephants and lotus flowers in the most minute detail. (James: The hundreds of craftsmen were encouraged to make their carvings as intricate as possible, ingeniously, by being paid according to how much marble dust their work produced!) The oldest temple, constructed in 1031, took a staggering fourteen years to complete!

There were also a few Hindu temples dotted about the place in Mt Abu, but these generally took the form of a shoddily painted rock or a mounted cage containing a tinfoil covered blob with eyes stuck on; not quite so inspiring. After a second poor night’s sleep, having been kept awake by festival revelries until 2am, we enjoying the novelty of loading the bikes in cooler air (normally we’re sweltering by the time we get going) and took the great twisty road back down to join the main highway. For most of the way, we had a people-carrier driving in front of us from which no less than three members of the family were hanging out the windows taking photos or filming! Once down out of the mountains, the dual carriageway to Udaipur was completely empty so we pootled along comfortably and were on track for making our destination around midday – unheard of! However, we had an unscheduled stop when we spotted another overland motorcyclist travelling in the other direction and spent an hour chatting with him by the side of the road. Matteo, from Italy, was on a Honda Trans-Alp and had shipped from Iran; he was very jealous to hear that we’d made it through Pakistan which he’d heard was impossible! He recognised Donato’s sticker on our bike and it turns out he’d been following his blog. Small world! We exchanged details then James and I rode the rest of the way to Udaipur. The city itself was huge and it took us a while to ride to the old town but James, master-navigator extraordinaire, got us there without a wrong turn and we secured lodging at the lovely Panorama Hotel in the Hanuman Ghat area. Clean rooms, friendly management and a roof top restaurant; all in all a great start!

The Blue City

Tuesday, October 12th, 2010

(Em) When we left Bikaner (somewhat regretfully – did I mention how clean our room was…), our intention was to stop in at the Karni Mata Temple in Deshnok, just 30km south. The temple commemorates a Hindu story in which Karni Mata, a reincarnation of some god of other, asked Yama, the god of death, to restore life to his dead son, a story teller by trade. Yama refused (well, you can’t go bringing people back to life willy-nilly, can you) so as revenge, Karni Mata reincarnated all dead storytellers as rats to deprive Yama of their human souls. Seems logical. Anyway, the nature of the ‘legend’ means that this particular temple has some rather unique living deities scurrying about – that’s right, shed loads of rats!! We’d read about it ages ago and thought, ‘this, we have to see’. However, on arrival at the temple (down a dusty dirt road absolutely thronging with people – there was some sort of festival going on and Kani Mata is an important pilgrimage site) we both felt uncomfortable about leaving the loaded bikes, and our boots, unattended to enter the temple when there were so many opportunists about – no sooner had we pulled in to the litter-strewn ‘car park’ than several people came up all shouting for us to come and park by their stall or cart or whatever. This concern, coupled with the fact that a traveller we’d met in Bikaner described the experience as ‘disturbing’ due not so much to the rats themselves but all the diseased or dead ones lying about (ew!), led us to opt out and get back on the road. And after all, we wouldn’t go purposefully down into a sewer to have rats scuttle all over our feet, so why here (even if they are holy)?!

The road from Bikaner to Jodhpur – about 250km to the south and also in Rajasthan – was blissfully empty and we made good progress. There was still the occasional near death moment, of course, as although there wasn’t much traffic, what did come along was just as insane as usual. James was nearly taken out by a 4×4 that swung out from the oncoming lane to do an overtake; I do not know how he managed to swerve to avoid it without ending up careering off into the desert. (James:  Nor do I!) It was also incredibly hot (low- to mid-40s) but it was dry desert heat so not too bad. The worst thing was coming to level crossings (we got caught out at four in a row, the same train each time!) as, despite India’s apparent disregard for health and safety protocols, the barriers seem to come down far too long before the train approaches and there’s nothing for it but to sit sweltering in the heat. There is some entertainment on offer, though, to take your mind off the fact you’re roasting alive: watching every single cyclist, moped rider and motorcyclist completely ignore the barriers and manoeuvre themselves and their vehicles (often with considerable difficulty) under and through to the other side. And all this while the level crossing operator looks on with disinterest, naturally. Although we wouldn’t dream of it back in the UK, I think we would have done the same had our bikes been low enough to fit through but no, we had to wait for what seemed like forever and then try and force a path through once the barrier was lifted; inevitably drivers on each side had filled up both lanes in their desperation to get to the front resulting in two walls of traffic heading straight for each other as soon as the way was open. Such intelligent driving…

We reached Jodhpur mid-afternoon and James located our target accommodation without difficulty, the delightful Durag Niwas guesthouse at the end of a quiet residential road (a relief after riding through the busy main city and thinking it was, frankly, a bit of a toilet). The guesthouse was set around a peaceful courtyard and was painted in the Brahmin blue for which the old town is famous (the Brahmins are the highest caste – that of the priests – and their homes were distinguished by their blue walls. It used to be that only the Brahmins were permitted to use this colour but now anyone can.) The best thing about the guest house was that it was run by a really lovely, and refreshingly polite, family. And the fact that there was a well-stocked book shelf so I finally got my hands on a novel again. Oh, and the banana lassis (natural yoghurt drink with cardamom and saffron), so tasty! Unfortunately, we both got bitten to death by mosquitoes while getting showered and changed, not ideal as we were now in a malarial area but had opted not take medication for it. I also had a series of red bites at the top of my legs and round my waist which I suspected were from the camel saddle from the previous day – more than likely it had been bug infested. Then, the next morning I woke up with suspicious little lumps all over my shoulders so, fearing bed bugs, we asked for the sheet to be changed. All in all, not ideal!! Just writing about it makes me feel all itchy again…

The first thing we went to see in Jodhpur was the fort – a particularly impressive one (we are, by now, becoming fort connoisseurs!), perched up on a hill above the city. The admission fee included an audio guide so we wandered around trying to ignore the heat of the midday sun and concentrate on the history and anecdotes. From the fort we were able to look down on the concentration of blue houses in the old town, a pleasing sight though we were convinced that the pictures we’d seen on google were ‘photo-shopped’  – they had made the blue look much more vivid. We got lots of smiles and hellos as we walked around, and several people asked to have a photo taken with us (they seemed more forthcoming here – usually we catch people, more often than not young men, surreptitiously taking a photo of me on their mobile phone while they pretend to text or, the classic, one guy taking a photo of his friend and oh, what a coincidence, I’m just walking past as the button is pressed so it looks like we’re together!!) At the end of one of the ramparts along the fort walls was a temple which must have been dedicated to a goddess of fertility or something – all the visitors we women and children. We stood at the entrance for quite some time just people watching as the Indian women wound their way down gracefully to make offerings (much more civilised than the men; no hawking and spitting) in swathes of colourful saris. The peaceful atmosphere was at times punctuated by a prayer bell and multi-coloured Rajasthani flags fluttered up above the temple making for some great photos.

Feeling peckish, we made our way down a steep cobbled path to the clock tower and market where we’d been told we could find ‘Omelette Man’. And sure enough, there he was, operating out of a tiny stall by one of the gates in the old city wall. As the name suggests, Omelette Man is specialist in egg-based products (yes, I know Jackson, ideal for me!) and has been running his one-man outfit for over 30 years. Sitting on a dirty stool in the middle of a street full of crap and flies isn’t the ideal dining scenario it has to be said, but the masala special omelette was indeed a tasty little number! We wrote a comment to such affect in his guest book (he has piles of them, built up over the years) and went on our way. We spent a bit of time walking around the market but there’s only so much stinking rubbish and incessant beeping that you can put up with so we soon retreated back to the guesthouse for a cold beer on their rooftop; a great place to chill out and watching the setting sun. That evening we got chatting to a lovely Dutch couple and ended up having a bit of a ranting session with them; none of us could believe that tourists keep on flocking to India in their thousands when it’s so dirty and polluted (am sure James will let rip on this subject on the blog sooner or later; he’s got his driving rant out the way now!) In fact, most fellow travellers we’ve chatted to have expressed a similar sentiment but there are obviously still a lot of ‘India-lovers’ out there. Each to their own, I guess.

The next day we had a lazy morning then ventured out in the afternoon to see the old blue part of the city close up and personal… hmmn, we shouldn’t have bothered! The indigo houses that formed such a striking image when viewed from the fort were, in reality, run-down buildings set amongst a maze of narrow garbage filled streets, with malnourished cows and mangy dogs appearing at every turn. We came upon a cow in one street that promptly lowered its head and barged into James, scraping his side with its horns and only just avoiding serious damage to his ribs! This only added fuel to the fire of our vitriol against cows and doubled our determination to have a steak as soon as possible! Fed up with the stench and insufferable din of the old town, we got an auto-riskshaw up to the Chittar Palace only to be told by an officious guard at the bottom of the hill that the museum was closed. Ok, we’ll just go up and look at the palace then. No sir, the palace is for guests only (it’s been converted to a luxury hotel). Ok, we’ll go up and have a drink then (jeez). As you wish, sir. However, when we reached the elaborate gates, the cravat-sporting concierge looked at our rickshaw with ill-disguised distain and informed us that a drink at the bar would require a minimum spend of 2000 rupees (about £30, or five nights accommodation at our current place!!) Oookay then, time to turn around rickshaw man, we didn’t want to see the palace anyway… It seemed we’d reached the end of the line with Jodhpur and it was time to think about our onward journey to the mountain resort town of Mount Abu.

Rolling into Rajasthan

Sunday, October 10th, 2010

(Emily) Our accommodation in Bikaner was really lovely and, most importantly, incredibly clean. The building itself was a restored haveli (traditional ornately decorated mansion) and attention to detail – such as beautifully painted ceilings in the corridors and rooms (each one different) and coloured glass lanterns – gave it a special ‘boutique’ feel. We liked the way they offered a range of rooms, from dorms to luxury suites ( we went for a simple double with a spotless bathroom) so that you could enjoy the experience of staying in a nice hotel without the price tag. By now we’d realised that in India, where you stay greatly affects your experience of the town you’re visiting – basically it’s inevitable that the streets will be strewn with litter and that you’ll spend your day dodging nomadic cows and pushy vendors so having a clean haven to retreat to is a top priority! This place also had a chilled out roof terrace and decent enough food which was a bonus. As soon as we arrived we took advantage of the great bathroom to wash our bike trousers, using the classic wear them into the shower method,  though they were so ingrained with grime that we never quite got to the point where the water ran clean!

Bikaner itself is a small town, the sights of which could easily be seen in just one day but we ended up staying several nights to take things in at a leisurely pace and just enjoy the atmosphere at the haveli. The fort – Junagarh – was well worth a visit for its intricate red sandstone carvings and highly decorated palatial rooms inside. The mughals certainly had a handle on impressive architecture.  Another grand building was Lalgarh Palace, built by Maharaja Ganga Singh in the early 1900s. We visited the adjoining museum which houses a carriage from the royal train and lots of paintings and photos of the Maharajas and their families over the years, complete with British counterparts. (We found the innumerable  photos of tiger hunts rather unpalatable; no wonder they are hardly any of the poor creatures left in this country…) The palace is now a hotel (we agreed that M&M would definitely stay here if they came to India!) so we didn’t have access to the inside but we were able to walk around the grounds, enjoying the peace and quiet and the rare occurrence of a vista untainted by piles of garbage. There were even a couple of peacocks strutting about the place – very regal!

One evening we went down the road to an internet place and, when paying in another room, saw that the walls were covered with miniature paintings for sale that the owner had created himself. We started to have a cursory look, encouraged by the fact that the guy hadn’t been touting the work, and decided to buy a couple of cards and something for the wall back home, all at a very reasonable price. The artist was actually painting while we looked around; a small picture of a tree which had countless individual leaves, each painstakingly drawn with his minute brush. Well,  I say countless but he did in fact keep track of every single one he added, writing the total in the bottom right corner – most were around the 4000 mark! He was a really nice guy so we were happy to give him business, especially when he further showed his honesty when we realised we actually had no money left in our wallet; we asked him to hold onto the pictures and we’d pick them up the next day but he insisted we take them, without leaving any sort of deposit (we were genuinely surprised at this gesture – most of the Indians we’d met seemed to want to get whatever they could out of you as soon as possible, with no such thing as something for nothing…) Just as we were walking back up the road, he came and caught up with us to ask if we could please make sure that the staff at the hotel didn’t see that we had bought anything from him. Why ever not? Apparently, they would go down and demand commission from this guy despite the fact that they’d had no involvement in the sale whatsoever, just because he worked in the same street. We said this was outrageous but he told us it was par for the course – he was just the little guy. The bloody cheek! And sure enough, back at the hotel the guy on reception plied us with questions about where we’d been, what shops we’d visited, if we’d bought anything etc. This sort of practice was something we came to hear about often and we think it’s really crappy. (James: The commission racket is, like it or not, standard operating procedure in India and 99% of hotels and ALL rickshaws/taxis run it. Most will try to take you to your destination via certain shops where they’ll get commission and unless you’ve become a somewhat hardened traveller (an innocent question asking  whether it’s your first time in India or how long you’ve been here is a great way of identifying how ‘green’ you are – our little adventure tends to shut them up!) you’ll go there as they’re very persistent and simply ignore your pleas to just go to your destination. They’ll also tell travellers that their chosen guesthouse is full, terrible etc and try to redirect them to one that they got an arrangement with – even bad mouthing those hostels or shops that shun the commission racket.)

We were in Bikaner on the back of recommendations from a few other travellers we’d met; the general consensus was that Jaisalmer (out to the far west of Rajasthan) was over-crowded and over-touristy whereas Bikaner offered a similar ‘desert town’ experience without the hype. And, ‘desert’ being one of its main characteristics, Bikaner also offered the chance of a camel ride – it had to be done, surely!! For James, it wasn’t exactly on his life to-do list (besides, he’d already done it back in the day in Namibia) but he indulged my whim and we looked into the possibilities. Even from my position as a novice, I could predict that the five or ten day camel tours would leave us with an empty wallet, sunburn and a very sore butt so we opted for a short ride at sunset just to give us a taster.  Ah, it was comedy! We got a rickshaw out of town to where two guys (boys, really) were waiting by the side of the road with two rather large looking camels – I don’t think they were an organised outfit, we’d arranged it through one of the receptionists and they were probably just his mates, but I was relieved to see that at least they had proper saddles. Without any preamble, they ushered us towards our camels (close up we realised that James’ was considerably bigger than mine!) and we clambered up into the seats. No English was spoken but we could understand the importance of holding on while the camel rose from sitting to standing. Even then, it was quite an alarming experience as you were pitched forwards then backwards (no health and safety briefing beforehand, of course!!) We started on our way before I’d really got my bearings (again, no checking that we were ready) and I have to say, I spent the first ten minutes in a bit of a state, much to James’ amusement! Whereas James’ camel was plodding along nicely, with James happily using both hands to snap away at me and even coolly changing his camera lens, I was holding on for dear life while my camel, clearly a moody adolescent, was repeatedly kicking itself, spitting and farting (James: at least Em says it was the camel!) its way along – charming! I did eventually settle into it (as did my ‘trusty steed’ – somewhat placated once he’d been given some leaves to munch on) and was able to enjoy this novel way to traverse the desert while the setting sun cast a warm glow on our surroundings. We were right to have chosen a short ride though – by the time we made our way back to the road an hour and a half later we were more than ready to dismount!

The whole amusing experience was topped off by an auto-rickshaw ride back to the hotel in the dark with no lights: not recommended!! He did actually pull into the side of the road to try and connect his headlights but to no avail (the fact that he wanted to use his lights but couldn’t was more unsettling than had he just thrown caution to the wind – clearly even he recognised the dangers of these crazy roads at night-time.) We had to go slowly and hope that we didn’t plough into the back of a cyclist or camel cart, also out on the road with no lights, or get hit by a truck. At one point we could make out a lot of activity up ahead where people where gathered by the side of the road at the entrance to what looked like some sort of ramshackle amusement park – bright lights, popcorn stalls outside etc. Only as we came alongside it did we realise that it was in fact a temple, trussed up to the nines with gaudy fairy lights and streamers and accessed through the garishly kitsch open mouth of a huge model tiger. Bizarre! I’m afraid we were already growing a bit cynical about the Hindu tendency toward tackiness on the temple front (nice bit of alliteration there!) and this did nothing to change our opinion. We made it back to the hotel in one piece where we were looking forward to a lovely massage – they had an in-house salon with a smiley local women offering her services. I went first and after the somewhat awkward experience of sitting in just my pants while I had my hair messed up (head massage apparently) and then feeling the masseur’s hand run just a tad too low while I had my back done, I advised James to give it a miss (he wasn’t that enthusiastic anyway)! We spent our last evening up on the rood chatting to a couple of backpackers and then enjoyed one last night’s sleep in our spotless room, planning to depart for Jodhpur – the ‘Blue City’ – the next morning.

Out of the frying pan, into the fire!

Thursday, October 7th, 2010

(James)  We were up (not so) bright and early on our last morning in Srinigar thanks to our wailing wake up call, courtesy of the living dead!  Never normally ideal but it meant that we were packed, loaded, fed and ready to go while it was still relatively cool and quiet. Once on the road, the morning air was fresh to the point of nippy as we pass roads flanked by golden fields of wheat being harvested by colourfully dressed women but as mid morning arrived, it had heated up enough to make our ride over the mountain pass out of the Kashmir valley very pleasant. Even once in the mountains, the roads didn’t seem quite as busy and the military presence, whilst still huge, was not on the scale we’d witnessed on our ride north (although this didn’t mean that we weren’t continually  forced on to what little verge there was on blind corners with sheer drops as trucks and buses tried in vain to overtake each other) . The coolness was short lived and as we crested the pass and then began to descend on the southern side, we could instantly feel the air get warmer, something it continued to do with every hundred metres we dropped, until eventually we reached the bottom and inevitably hit the heavier traffic on the Jammu road. Once again far too much of our time was spent cursing in ditches at the sides of the road where we inevitably ended up having taken evasive action to avoid head on collisions but we made reasonable progress.

We had decided not to give our ‘hotel’ on the way up our business again and gave it two fingered salute as we passed on our way to Jammu where we reasoned we‘d be able to find something better. We eventually rolled into town (the city of temples, don’t you know!) at around 5pm but it quickly became apparent that there was some sort of Hindu festival taking place (with literally millions of gods in Hinduism, there is, of course, always a religious festival taking place – in fact it’s a wonder they have any time for day to day activities!) For us this meant it would be tough to find accommodation and prices would be higher so we decided to head for the tourist centre where we might be able to find help. The streets as ever were complete chaos, with no signage, and with cars, rickshaws, people, dogs and cows seemingly going in any direction but the one originally intended by those who built the actual roads. As usual we were able to recruit a curious local who took us on a twisting route down numerous tight (and very smelly) alleyways which eventually brought us to the tourist office. A quick inspection, however, found that the office responsible for tourist accommodation closed at 3pm; I mean, why wouldn’t it?! It’s not as if travellers tend to look for a places to stay for the night as the evening approaches is it?!.. With darkness now falling we had little choice but to take a room at the government hotel next door, which meant an overpriced room and a bed full of bed bugs (despite putting a cover on the bed and sleeping in our silk liners I still woke the next morning to find about 20 bites on my shoulder!)

Still, at least with us being in a larger town I could finally lay to rest a frustration that had been vexing me for  a while – namely a curry and a beer. You see, the British, for those non-Brits reading, love curries; in fact, it’s officially been the nation’s favourite food for a long time. We had both loved the food in Pakistan but I, certainly, had missed not being able to have an ice cold beer to wash my food down and that had admittedly been one of things I’d been looking forward to on our arrival in India. Unfortunately it was also something I’d not managed to find (the extra strong stuff a few days back didn’t count),  but tonight that was all going to change, so we purposely picked out a restaurant that was part of a more expensive looking hotel (as opposed to our usual street food cheapie) and sat down to take in the extensive menu. My thirst, fuelled by the anticipation, was now raging so we ordered our food quickly and ended with the long since used “and two beers please”. The sound that came out of the waiters mouth didn’t initially compute and I had to ask him to repeat. Even then I sat there with an open mouthed, a look ordinarily reserved  when I‘ve missed the last train home (or when I hear the price of said ticket). It almost sounded like he said they weren’t serving beer as it was a ‘dry’ day (this, it turns out, was no co-incidence as they were in fact having a dry day). Crest fallen I asked why, only to be told it was Gandhi’s birthday. I was dumbstruck. “But why beer?! Gandhi wasn’t a Muslim! If you’re going to ban anything in his honour surely a ‘no meat day’ would be more appropriate but you’ve let me order Lamb Rogan Josh! And I’m not even Hindu! (I didn’t even like the film!)” My pleas fell on deaf ears and I sat, slightly downcast, enjoying what was probably a nice meal (tasted a little bitter to me) before heading back to insect farm that was our room.

We hadn’t been looking forward to the next leg of the road south which would take us once more on the worst part of the ‘road of death’ from Jammu down to Pathankot and then back to Amritsar in the state of Punjab. As we feared, the road all too quickly became the nightmare we’d experienced on the way north. I try my hardest to offer Em a modicum of protection when we ride by taking a line further out into the road which gives her (on the inside line) a better line of sight so she can spot any obstacles ahead (particularly useful given that a malfunction has meant that our communication system died just as we entered the most dangerous driving country in the world). This system also has the added bonus that it puts a bigger gap between passing/oncoming cars and Em as they have to go round me. In India this system ,whilst still essential, is a lot more risky as the drivers simply don’t give a damn about giving you space and so most cars that pass (from either direction) do so within a metre of me and often just a few centimetres;  in fact on more than one occasion I’ve received a glancing blow as I’ve been riding along. The driving here is so stupendously bad (not a bit ‘crazy’ like in other countries where we’ve just had to adapt to the local style and go for it, just bad) that in between the stream of near death experiences I started thinking about why exactly India, and India alone has such a problem. The general consensus is that it’s a Hindu thing, namely that as Hindus all believe in karma/reincarnation etc and thus their moment of death is already decided so they can pretty much do what they want to do as it’s all pre-ordained; overtake that truck on a blind bend, if it’s meant to be it’s just meant to be! Now this might be all well and true, but I for one (and I’m pretty sure that barring a very recent and radical change of position I can count Emily with me) am not Hindu and the whole reincarnation thing just doesn’t wash. Anyway, in between my bouts of foul language I came to the conclusion that the driving and, more importantly , the lack of any effort to tackle the problem, could only be part of something darker. Perhaps it’s a cynical government plan to control the population explosion (India has passed the 1 billion mark and will soon overtake China as the world’s most populous country); after all almost a quarter of million Indians die on the roads each year! Or maybe it’s all part of a national defence strategy designed to defeat hostile neighbours with minimal military expenditure. I mean, if Pakistan or China, for that matter, decided to launch a pre-emptive invasion of India they would no doubt pour their military might, specifically trained and designed after years of strategic war gaming and planning, to take on India’s defences. But much like the Martians in War of the Worlds they would be decimated my an enemy they never considered. At first, they’d be surprised at how successful their blitzkrieg attack was doing as they drove unopposed into northern India, they’d be incredulous as the Indian military formed their defensive line hundreds of kilometres inside the country and then just sat there not defending any strategic roads. But already the battle would be lost, as with each kilometre more and more soldiers of the invading soldiers would be lost on Indian roads, killed by a non-military, unqualified and incompetent army of men just driving  about their business. By the time the invasion commanders realized what was happening it would be too late. They’d command their battle ready, yet totally unprepared troops to retreat, troops now traumatised by having  been routed by an enemy they couldn’t fight back against, but still the casualties numbers would increase. In desperation, they’d plea to the UN security council to mediate and call a ceasefire, but the UN would reply that the Indians had yet to even mobilise their military. The few lucky survivors, resembling something like Napoleon’s army on the retreat from Moscow, would stumble back across the border to be met by the top brass, baffled as to what could have possibly gone wrong, the only response from soldiers would be something along the lines of “you can’t understand, you weren’t there man!” (but with a Chinese or Pakistani accent), in the vain hope that they might be prepared ‘next time’ and concerned that they, themselves might be vulnerable to some secret Indian weapon of mass destruction. But it wouldn’t matter, and they’d never understand it, not unless they took a motorcycle holiday here first! Anyway, suffice to say that’s the kind of thing that occurs to me as we ride along, perhaps giving you an insight into my little world!………

We thankfully made it to Amritsar by mid afternoon and headed for a known ‘traveller’ hostel where we were able to find a cheap room and park the bikes away from prying eyes. Two sets of eyes did take an interest, however, but they belonged to a Spanish couple, Esteban and Isobel,  who were also staying there. Esteban in particular was interested as he rides the same bike as ours back in Spain (he’d also been trying to persuade Isobel to get her bike licence, but had so far failed miserably in his efforts!) They’re on a pretty long trip too and having started out in their old Renault 5 through Europe and Iran, they’d had to ditch the car in Iran when onward travel into Pakistan was denied.  They’re now backpacking and, similar to us, have a very flexible itinerary. We went out to get dinner together (with a beer, yes!), and then bizarrely that evening when we got back to the hostel, whilst trying (and failing) to be productive on the diary front, we got distracted chatting with them, and after a few minutes of inactivity our computer, as it’s programmed to do, began randomly displaying photos which we started to look at. One of them (of our parked bikes) caught Isobel’s eye and she asked if the building in the background was the Four Seasons Hotel in Istanbul. We hadn’t stayed there but had taken advantage of their security by parking outside it; we told them it was indeed, and a quick check confirmed that we had all been in Istanbul at the same time, not only that, but Estobel (as we have collectively named them) had stayed in a hostel in the same road as us, had seen the noticed the bikes,  and even had photos of them!!  While in Amritsar, we spent the afternoon once more in a fruitless search for a decent road map of northern India (we have one of the Himalayas but it doesn’t cover our planned route to the south) but eventually gave up. In the end I decided to simply print off a (faded) google map of northern India on a sheet of A4 paper. It only had major cities on, no road numbers  and covered an area of over 1 million square kms on a map just  10cm by 10cm, but we were fairly confident that between that and my compass we had more than enough to be getting on with (besides, I can’t read the Hindi signs anyway!) (Em: more like  James was confident, and I had confidence in him! If it were up to me, I could have all the maps in the world and a personalised satnav that spoke to me – like Kit car – and I’d  still go round and round in circles. Luckily, James possesses some sort of inner compass/bloodhound ability and I am constantly amazed that, despite our rudimentary navigation ‘system’, we never get lost.)

The next day we said goodbye to Estobel , agreeing to stay in touch and hopefully to meet up again soon given that our Indian itineraries were similar. They left for a train to Agra and we hit the road south towards Rajasthan and the heat of the Great Thar desert. As we headed south through busy chaotic streets we were quickly caught up in a series of police cordons, the result, we were told, of security checks being carried out in advance of the Prime Minister’s visit the following day. The police sent us down a narrow side street where we soon came to another cordon at the next junction which had us trapped. Inevitably the Indian drivers and riders couldn’t wait and so filled both ‘lanes’ so it was no surprise that when, 20 very hot minutes later, the cordon was released they all surged forward and came to a halt in the middle of the junction. They all looked surprised (do they only have a visual range of 3 metres?!) and then spent the next 10 minutes with their hands on their horns. Even when someone managed to get out of the melee, freeing up some valuable space to manoeuvre people out of the way and solve the problem, someone would just ride straight into it taking everyone back to square one! Even more bizarrely, this happens at every junction, every time! Nobody seems to have any appreciation of the fact that if you block both directions nobody will go anywhere! It took an age get through to the main road and out of the cordons and when we eventually got the southern edge of the city (at gone 1pm) we’d managed a whopping 5km in 90 minutes, and it’s fair to say, we were a tad clammy (it was 40 degrees).

Thankfully, the road south seemed a bit quieter and only got more so as we headed into the Thar desert, and with empty, straight roads and only the odd gentle hill to slow the overloaded trucks and buses down, we were able to ride at a great pace with the roads all to ourselves, passing as we did hundreds of Sikh pilgrims carrying colourful flags and making their way on foot to Amritsar. This was more like it and, in all honesty saved the India leg of our trip from a premature end as in all likelihood we’d have headed for Nepal had the driving continued to be as bad as before. Despite our good progress, it was clear that our target, Bikaner, was not possible in one day so around 4pm we started to look for somewhere to stay (wild camping in India is simply not viable in anywhere but the very far north as no matter how out of the way you find yourself, there’s always people around) as we hadn’t seen much in the way of accommodation. An hour later we rolled into a small town called Bathinda. It didn’t seem to have a lot going for it yet had a few very nice looking hotels so we started checking a few, but the prices were shockingly high. We were told that all the hotels had been built purely to service the large power station near the town and that given that they got good business from said client, they weren’t going to be very flexible on rates. We eventually found a rat hole that whilst still far too expensive, suited our budget more closely and having had a much needed shower and done our laundry – also in the shower (we can do it every evening here as the heat means it dries in an hour or so) –  decided that there was nothing worth going out for and  so fetched up our last ration pack to share between us (small but hyper-calorific!).

Having drawn the usual crowd of on lookers we were quick to hit the road the next morning before the temperature got too high and by 8am were riding through the desert where we left the state of Punjab & Haryana and finally entered the much more evocative Rajasthan. The few roads we came across seemed to have signs with completely contradictory directions, in fact one enormous and totally out of place sign post (one of those big signs that bridge motorways etc) gave information for a big junction that simply never materialised, leaving us to conclude that either the local transport authority had either put the sign in the wrong place or had been so pleased with their work that they forgot to build the road! Eventually we decided to trust the compass and headed in a south, south easterly direction reckoning that eventually our short cut would cut across the our target road to Bikaner. One advantage of these even smaller and unsigned roads was that despite still allowing decent progress they were even more empty which was just fine by us! (Em: such a relief not be to rail-roaded every five minutes!) Another plus was that whilst the temperature continued to rise as we entered the increasingly deserty landscape, the people, certainly in these more untouched rural settlements we were passing, became more friendly. Our relatively early start and shortcut paid off and we linked up with the Bikaner road by mid afternoon, arriving in the town itself at around 4pm. The town, seemed surprisingly quiet with a real desert frontier town feel about it, and the quiet streets meant that we were able to locate our guesthouse within minutes. Things were definitely looking up!