Rajasthan had been the rightful jewel of India, stocked full of treasures such as Udaipur, Jodhpur and Jaipur with their utterly dazzling fortresses, temples and palaces. An easy day’s ride would take us into Uttar Pradesh and Agra, a fairly grotty, charmless Indian city, a slimy oyster yet one that contained a singularly beautiful pearl; the Taj Mahal. On the appointed day, we were up early and out for a 6:30am start to get to the gates for sunrise, when the Taj opens.
The Taj Mahal; the approach through the entrance gates manages to shield all views of what lies within so that the first glimpse through the huge entry portal is all the more staggering. Shimmering in the morning sun the Taj was breathtakingly beautiful with the eye being drawn to the huge pearl-like dome at the apex of a series of magnificent gardens and mirror ponds. Three of the four corner-post minarets had been covered with scaffolding for cleaning / maintenance, marring the symmetry and beauty perhaps just a little. Emperor Shah Jahan built the mausoleum in the 17th century for his third and favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died giving birth to their 14th child. He decided to build a vision on earth of what he imagined her heavenly abode might look like and the Taj Mahal was the result. Construction took around twenty years and involved over 20,000 builders and artisans, with specialists being brought in from as far away as Europe. The work must have placed a huge demand on the Empires resources and was opposed by Shah’s sons. His third son, Aurangzeb, eventually overthrew his father and had him imprisoned in Agra Fort. We visited the splendid fort in the afternoon and gazed back along the Yamuna River from the spot where Shah Jahan spent the remainder of his life gazing at his creation from his prison window. The view reminded me briefly of work; from a distance, the Taj looks just like a launch site with a clutter of gleaming radomes and four streamline ready-to-go rockets all hacked out of the tropical landscape.
From Agra the road to the East beckoned and the first leg of this was a relatively easy ride of 180 highway miles to reach the city of Lucknow, scene of the famous siege from the 1857 Indian Mutiny. What followed was one of the most harrowing days we ever experienced in all our travels. We left Agra at 8am to avoid the traffic and quickly found the main highway out of town. After only half an hour a combination of a GPS instruction, reinforced by a road sign for Kanpur, indicated we should leave the highway and thus we found ourselves deposited into a small but very busy town setting up for their Friday market.
Progress slowed to a wobbly crawl as we negotiated mental streets, mish-mash full of bicycles, rickshaws, small motorcycles and carts piled high with fresh fruit and vegetables, this plus the usual Indian detritus of dogs, chickens, cows and small children wandering all over the place. We were cursing the GPS for leading us into such a morass (we later reckoned there had been a by-pass) when everything ground to a halt. Up ahead a scrummage of small vehicles blasted up a cacophony of impatient horns trying to trumpet the path clear. The press moved forward slowly, a lava flow of vehicles and our clutch hands ached with overuse. Then the cause of the obstruction became apparent: a stalled brown and yellow Eicher truck with a rear end upraised on one side, like he had a puncture and jacked the truck up to remove the wheel. There was some sort of island, maybe a shrine or a lamppost, protruding out into the street creating a perfect choke point. He couldn’t have stopped at a worse place. I was leading, paddling along with my feet down, getting fairly cooked by the rising heat from my engine with Mags behind and as everyone funneled in to that dreadful bottleneck.
Now the cavalcade slowed and heads were drawn to stare silently at something under the truck. My turn to pass… Glancing down, a series of graphic snapshots registered quickly in my brain, motor-wound still-frames of something totally terrible. First frame, click: a bright red bracelet on a little wrist… Click: An orange bicycle, mangled into a banana shape, shining wheels bent skywards… Click: A young arm flung carelessly out into the road, hand and fingers relaxed in eternal rest… Click: Beneath the truck a glimpse of a young girl’s head, maybe twelve or thirteen years old, beautiful face turned away from the crowd, eyes closed in permanent slumber… Click: One final awful image; a tiny little body crushed flat into the road by the rear wheels of the truck. There was no blood or gore like you might have imagined, just her body pressed flat into the road like a discarded piece of badly done ironing, leaving that beautiful head and limbs intact.
I yelled over the intercom for Mags to look away but, following in my tracks, she saw that still little arm with the red bracelet and the awful realisation of what had happened fully struck us. We drifted on, carried along by the traffic stream until we found a space to halt about half a mile up the choked street. Both of us were badly shaken, in a state of shock, trying to reason out what the hell had happened… A young girl on her bicycle had clearly fallen in the early morning under the rear wheels of a truck. Indian truck drivers are notoriously reckless but given the confines of the busy market we couldn’t see how a truck of that size could have been speeding. Maybe he just wasn’t looking where he was going? The bicycle looked like a big heavy adult machine and we’ve seen loads of kids riding these, wobbling along on oversize frames. Maybe she just lost control and fell under the wheels of the truck?
Turbulent emotions ran through our minds from the distress of registering this young life ended so shockingly and graphically to sheer and utter helplessness at our inability to intercede or somehow undo this terrible act. This one action brought home the ultimate consequences of the sheer idiocy that passes for life on the roads in India. We both know that riding motorcycles has inherent dangers but have always accepted the risks involved, secure in the knowledge that our riding skills and common sense would see us through. That plus the freedom and lifestyle that traveling on a motorcycle imparts has both enriched our lives whilst at the same time the resultant travel experiences have been so rewarding. Now in India it seemed that this all counted for naught and we were shaken to our core, first by the endlessly repetitive idiocy on the roads that constitutes everyday driving in India, then my collision in Jaipur and finally by witnessing the end of this young life.
Gathering ourselves, we regained the highway for an altogether slow and sober ride on to Lucknow. We both felt vulnerable and the intercom was full of warnings to each other as we called out threats as they came in: cow on the highway; truck coming down the fast lane the wrong way; speed bumps across the highway; bus coming up fast from the rear driven by a bhanged-up crazy man zig-zagging through the traffic like he just stole it; car making a U-turn across all four lanes; old man hobbling up the middle of the fast lane on a stick with his back to us and worst of all; young schoolgirl on an oversize bicycle wobbling up the hard shoulder inches from behemoth trucks.
That evening in our hotel in Lucknow we seriously considered abandoning the whole project, recognizing that to do so would pitch our lives into another unknown vacuum. We have never in all of our previous travels contemplated such an action, even when Mags crashed during our Pan-American ride in Patagonia and was nursing a broken elbow. Then we had simply realised a personal limitation (riding on gravel roads), which was something we could act against by avoiding such roads where possible and taking our time when necessary. But riding in India is something altogether far more dangerous and we’d had plenty of signs and warnings culminating in the tragedy witnessed today. As a motorcyclist, the major dangers on India’s roads are all external, utterly irrational and totally unpredictable such as folk driving the wrong way down the highway, livestock likely to appear anywhere on the road and moronic idiots deliberately pulling out of junctions or overtaking in totally blind situations. Any of these scenarios can easily have fatal consequences and we were reminded of Dr. Gheeta’s horrifying statistics of one death every four minutes on India’s roads.
Termination and extraction meant a ride back to some crazy place, like Delhi or Mumbai and then a shipment back to Europe. Beyond that we had no idea what we would do next as we had set our heart and invested all of our dreams in completing this great ride east. Looking at the maps the road east seemed altogether emptier and we convinced ourselves that it must get easier. We also dismissed any idea of a mad dash to get to Myanmar, reasoning it would be safer to continue at our measured pace and ultimately, for all of these horrors on the roads, India remains an incredible country and she still had a few more treasures to yield before we parted our ways.
Next day we took a tuk-tuk to Lucknow Residency, scene of the famous siege from the 1857 mutiny. There were actually two sieges, the first of these lasting 87 days. With so many wounded remaining the British decided to maintain the post and shortly after a second siege was underway, which lasted a further 61 days. Walking through the entrance at Bailley’s Gate the Residency today resembles a huge park yet the buildings and loop-holed walls remain as they had been when the beleaguered garrison was finally relieved. The grounds of the complex were much larger than anticipated and had been overlooked by various buildings in the surrounding town such that the open spaces we roamed today were killing fields for snipers during the siege. Certainly the walls of the various buildings within bore violent witness to many a blast and bullet from the battle.
From Lucknow our next stop on the road east was Kushinagar, the place where Buddha preached his last ceremony and announced that he would soon reach Parinirvana, the final deathless state, and abandon his earthly body. Shortly after, he died here, supposedly from eating the pork that constituted his final meal (although, it has to be said, he was in his eighties). It was an easy highway drive with no further incident that deposited us into the Buddha Marg, the highstreet of what at first looked like a sleepy little village. Then we saw the Stupas and Pagodas representing every major Buddhist state all clustered along the street leading to the final resting place of Buddha himself: the Parinirvana Stupa, with its 6 metre long reclining statue of the dying Buddha shown lying on his right side with his face towards the west. We spent a tranquil day here, enjoying a serene and peaceful experience that we relished given recent events. Beyond, the road east would lead us out of India proper and up through the narrow corridor between Nepal and Bangladesh up into the wild Northeast states of India; Assam, Nagaland and Manipur that would take us eventually into Myanmar. But first time for a nice cup of tea at our next stop… Darjeeling.
The accompanying Photogallery for this post may be accessed by clicking here: East Across India