(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!