Archive for October, 2010

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.

Udaipur(fect)?…

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!

Srinagar; All change please

Saturday, October 2nd, 2010

(James) The cool night was something of a shock to us (we’ve become far too used to 30+ nights), but was obviously conducive to good sleep as we woke late on our first morning in Srinagar. Sitting down by the nursery having our breakfast we were able to enjoy the fresh, clean air (something of a novelty in India) while we decided what sights we wanted to see during our time here. But before our sightseeing, we had to locate an internet café as we were due to get a report from Donato and Stefano on the state of the Leh-Manali road further north in the Ladakh Valley. The news, however, was not good. Once again, the particularly heavy monsoon, which had travelled much further north this year than usual and which had caused so much of the devastation we had already witnessed on the KKH, had also had a similar effect up in Ladakh. The guys had made it (albeit a fortnight ahead of us) and reported horrendous roads, much of which had been washed away, and which had resulted in extensive damage to both bikes. We also read that the first snows of the winter had now fallen and this would only add to the problems we would face. Our plan had been to ride north to Leh and attempt to cross the Khardung-La pass which, at 5600m, is the highest road in the world. The road’s altitude meant that this, of course, would be the first road to become inaccessible, and with the already poor roads and Em’s leaking fork seal (which I’d noticed upon our arrival), the prospect of making it up to Leh only to have either a mechanical problem or winter set in was not an enticing one, least of all as we’d probably be stuck there until the roads reopened sometime in late July! With this in mind we knew that it might be a tad foolhardy to attempt it and so sadly decided that we should head south again and follow the retreating monsoon towards Rajasthan and the Great Thar desert. I won’t deny that I was particularly disappointed as I’d really wanted to ‘do’ Khardung-La but I knew we were making the right decision, and let’s face it, we’ve already had more than our fair share of mountain challenges!

With the decision made, we were free to enjoy our time in Srinagar. However, any hopes we had of seeing the town and visiting museums, gardens, restaurants and shops (for Em you understand!) were dashed as everything, without exception, was closed, even the schools and other government buildings. The reason, it turns out, was an enforced curfew and strikes that had been going on for almost five months as part of the age old campaign to make Kashmir an independent state. As a result there had been increasing conflict between the Kashmiris and the much hated Indian army which had seen over three hundred people killed in the last few months. What now existed was essentially an occupation by Indian troops who here, just as all along the road from Amritsar, stood on every corner in full riot gear, armed to the teeth and invariably next to some sort of armoured vehicle. It’s hard to get a sense of exactly how many soldiers are in Kashmir at the moment but to give an idea, the news that morning spoke of 200,000 soldiers (presumably just a fraction of the total presence in the region) being moved to a particular town in the area in anticipation of escalating unrest as a result of a legal decision over a land dispute between Muslims and Hindus. (Em: The decision was being made at 3pm on our first day in Srinagar and I was literally waiting for it to all kick off that afternoon… Luckily, we read in the news the next day that, for the moment at least, all remained peaceful.)

With our options severely restricted, we chose to spend our time in Srinagar relaxing and so were limited to walks along the ‘Boulevard’ besides the serene and beautiful Dal lake, but even here it felt like we were walking in a ghost town; the only people out for business (other than the military) being those who worked on the lake either selling vegetables or those offering rides on shikaras (small gondola like lake boats) at rates miles below those advertised – clearly the complete disappearance of all tourists in the region had all but destroyed tourist dependant Srinigar. We had two hopes (‘no’ and ‘bob’) of finding somewhere open to eat in the evenings so as night began to fall we, like the locals, headed ‘home’ and ate what our host family ate.

Before turning in we’d made arrangements with their neighbour to take us out in his shikara in the morning to see the vegetable market out on the lake. Unfortunately the vegetable market started at a very dark 5am and would be all finished by 6:30! Still, true to our word we were in the garden at 5am at the ready and, in the pitch black, stepped (rather gingerly it has to be said) into the waiting shikara where, despite the lack of any light, we made our way, tucked in under warm blankets, silently down the maze of identical looking narrow channels arriving at the market to find it already in full swing. The market is where producers sell to market traders and takes place in a clearing on Dal lake, a significant part of which consists of ‘floating’ islands and homes with vegetable plots on, carved up by narrow channels and linked by raised wooden walkways and small bridges. Both sellers and buyers arrive and deftly manoeuvre the long boats around each other to do business. These boats, like the shikaras, are flat bottomed and have flat pointed ends that rise out of the water. The design allows a single occupant to squat or stand at either end of the boat to row (which they do with a single oar with a heart shaped paddle) something we were convinced would lead to capsize, but which simply lowers the end to near water level. The flat bottomed design means that the boat’s progress through the water is unaffected, although with the other end rising high out of the water the traders had to have eyes in the back of their heads as groups of boats twisted together whilst doing business and there was no shortage and collisions and near misses. We, as the lone tourists, were left alone as even the most deluded trader realised we probably weren’t in the market for lotus roots, although we were tempted by the ridiculously cheap and fresh kashmiri saffron (finest in the world) which showed the dried out stuff sold in the west for what it is, but sadly it’s just not something we were going to carry with us for the rest of the journey. With the market finishing we too made our way, indirectly, back home to our guesthouse for a snooze.

With Dal Lake being the key (and only available) attraction, late afternoon found us back out on the water where we got to see everything at its finest, basked in the warm glow of the autumn sun and surrounded on all sides by mountains. It also gave us the chance to get a better look at some of Srinigar’s infamous houseboats, made famous when the Beatles and other such types came here as part of the hippy trail in the 60’s to smoke dope, follow a guru and find ‘enlightenment’ (cynical? moi?) There are some 2000 houseboats on the lake, ranging from downright grotty to absolutely palatial with incredibly ornate and intricate wooded carvings both on the front and throughout the inside. We had thought about staying on one for a couple of nights ourselves, certainly given the lack of tourists we could have negotiated a massive reduction, but in the end had decided against it as our place was nice, our host family was clearly in need of the income and of course, it’s difficult to secure two bikes on a houseboat or anywhere else during a military curfew! That evening we packed and loaded what we could on to the bikes to give us a better chance of getting away early, our hope being that the hellish road back south to Jammu (our intended night stop) might be a little quieter and thus reducing our chances of death, and with little else to do went to bed accompanied by the cacophony that can only occur when thousands of devout, yet tone deaf men work themselves into a frenzy at the dozen Sufi mosques that surrounded us and which I imagine is exactly what it would sound like if the dead were to rise again – needless to say in our now rested state it wasn’t conducive to sleep…