Out of India

“Hey dudes! Bart Simpson here and the lines I’m chalking on the board at the start of this weeks episode are; ‘Thou shalt not mock the Hindu deities…’ ” A few posts ago I made light of the fact that some kids had vandalised our bikes, stealing the little rubber trip reset buttons and suggesting, light-heartedly, that maybe it was a visitation by one of the millions of Hindu deities, Staedtler, the god of small rubbery things. For this attempt at humour, I would receive a karmic boot up the posterior in the most unlikely way imaginable…

The ride to Darjeeling was only 40-miles but took over four hours as we climbed lofty heights for the first time in months taking us from sea level to 2500 metres in this short distance. A spectacle of panoramas unfolded, with stupendous peaks and valleys all taken in from our vantage point in the saddle up on the swooping and swerving twisty mountain road.  Tiny brightly coloured Lego blocks marked a sparrow flock of distant houses and villages splattered across the landscape. Then, crawling through some slow traffic in one of the little mountain villages, there was a pop from the left had side of my bike as my radiator overflow burp-tank exploded. I pulled over in a cloud of steam with green coolant dripping all over the side of the bike. A bemused spectator from the house across the road brought me some water and I refilled the radiator allowing us to limp on to our destination. Before this could be reached, we rode around the narrow Darjeeling one-way system a total of four frustrating times in an attempt to find our hotel and experienced another coolant blowout due to overheating in traffic. Finally we located the correct uphill climb to our eagle-nest of a hotel via a street that was clearly marked with a ‘No-Entry’ sign that we later noticed everyone ignored but hey, remember, this is India where traffic rules seem to apply only if you feel like it. We traced the problem with the radiator to a dozed seal on the rad cap itself and fixed this with some RTV sealant until we can get a replacement from the UK.

Darjeeling was a tonic town if ever we needed one with lots of little tastes of home. Surrounded by tea plantations, complete with planter cottages and views off into the distant Himalayas, it is a most glorious location. We supped afternoon tea with apple tart in Glenary’s that made it feel more like were holidaying in the English Lake District. Cold temperatures (only reaching 15°C during the day) meant we needed a quilt to snuggle up in at night for the first time in months. And all around in every direction those high mountains, the Himalayas themselves, host to the mightiest summits on the planet. For the most part the furthest peaks would remain shrouded in weather yet one fine morning we walked to a viewpoint in town and for a moment the cloud lifted to reveal the spectacular peak of Kanchenjunga, 3rd highest mountain in the world, coming up for air from the blanket of cloud. We took a seat and sat silently, drinking in this marvelous sight, a view so spectacularly beautiful it had the hairs on the back of our necks standing on end.

We signed up for a one day guided hike up on the Nepal border in Singalila National Park (the guide is mandatory) on a trail promised further views of Kanchenjunga and ‘weather permitting’ we might even see Everest. A jeep took us to the trailhead at the tiny village of Dhotrey and after a warming cup of heavily spiced chai we set off for a day in the mountains. On the day the weather was ‘not permitting’, in fact it was pretty foul; dismal low cloud and mist that obscured everything and had us donning Goretex to keep out the damp. We would not see any mountains yet it was a memorable days hiking, 14 km in the Himalayas up to a ridgeline village of Tonglu (3000m) and then down along the ridge to a pick-up point on the road where our driver would be waiting for us. Magnificent Magnolia trees and blushes of firebrand Rhododendrons flashed like beacons out of the murk and just being in high places in fresh air was a spring-clean for the mind and soul. At one point some marker posts appeared out of the gloom over to the east; they marked the India–Nepal border and we had clearly laid our footprints on the wrong side of it.

On the ride out of Darjeeling Maggie’s bike joined in the fun and also started to spew radiator fluid. Given that both bikes are fourteen years old I guess it was no surprise that both radiator seals should age identically and fail around the same time. I applied the same repair and we ordered two new caps for collection in Bangkok. We left Darjeeling pleased that we had decided to continue with our travels. The land was changing and the people were changing too, assuming a more oriental / less Indian aspect (indeed the area around Darjeeling is known as Ghorkaland and they were pushing for separate statehood in the coming elections). Traffic concentrations had eased and the driving was no longer just so manic, although we still saw accident aftermaths along the mountain roads.

From here we were but a week away from the Myanmar border but to get there we had to travel through the more lawless territories of Assam, Nagaland and Manipur. These states remain tribal lands that were lumped in with ‘India’ during independence in 1948 as Britain pulled out of her far eastern colonies. Since then they have been prone to flare up in protest, riot and general disorder and until recently permits were required for all foreigners passing through. Fortunately the only riot we saw was that of amazing colour during the Holi festival, an excuse for the whole country to go buck-mad and throw coloured powders over each other. We celebrated accordingly with the lovely folk in the little city of Tezpur. Special thanks to the guys at the KTM dealer in town who kindly guided us to the door of our hotel through a maze of little streets when we arrived late, just after dark.

These states contain some incredible country, from Kaziranga National Park where we stopped off to watch Wild Elephants and Indian Rhinos and on into jungly foothills that lead into Myanmar. It was here in 1944 that the Japanese attempted to end the war by invading India from Burma. The plan was to annihilate the British and Indian Armies blocking the way around the hill-towns of Kohima and Imphal. There was confidence that such a colossal defeat would surely initiate a general uprising amongst the population in India, resulting in the total collapse of British India. While the Japanese had an advantage in numbers they were poorly provisioned relying on tortuous supply lines through Burma / Malaysia stretching back across submarine infested oceans to Japan. Their plan therefore demanded that Kohima and Imphal be knocked out quickly to open the way to the allied supply depots on the plains beyond. Confidence in success of the plan was reinforced by the earlier poor performance of the badly led British troops in the war when we lost Singapore / Malaysia and indeed Burma itself, so a walkover was eagerly anticipated.

This was a plan based on too many assumptions and anticipations. While the Japanese managed to surround both Kohima and Imphal the allies were able to rely on total air superiority to resupply the beleaguered garrisons, troops containing a leavening of veterans who had fought through nearly three years of war including victorious campaigns in North Africa and this time would offer no easy pushover. Yet the fighting would prove bloody and gruesome. At Kohima in particular, the defenders faced odds of ten to one when troops mostly from the Royal West Kents and Assam Rifles, defended a shrinking perimeter of trenches and bunkers that at one point had both sides lobbing grenades at each other across a battlefield shrunk to the size of the District Commissioners tennis court. In 2013, the ‘National Army Museum’ in London voted the Imphal-Kohima campaign as “Britain’s Greatest Battle”. Considered as a single victory, the battle was on a shortlist of five from British history, compiled from a public poll, with each contender’s claim staked by a presentation made by a dedicated historian before the winner was finally announced (D-Day and Waterloo came 2nd and 3rd).

Now we were following the road into Kohima, a bumpy, pot-holed road that the British relief force fought their way through in 1944. The road led us through some fine mountain country that must have been terrifying if you had to consider it as a battleground. It twisted and turned with high rock-faces to one side and precipitous drop-offs to the other yet in 1944 tanks and artillery with air support, blasted their way along to finally break the Japanese stranglehold and push them back into Burma in disastrous retreat. This retreat would forever be known in Japanese history as ‘The Road of Bones’ due to the shocking condition of the troops who, having failed to resupply from the foreseen conquest of the British depots, died in their droves from malnutrition and disease.

On our own final approach to Kohima, that karmic boot upon my posterior arrived… We had just stopped on the precipitous approaches to the town to look for a hotel. Having dismounted I was horrified to see a stream of coolant spewing out the front of Maggie’s bike! It wasn’t the rad caps: I’d fixed those yet the bike was bleeding profusely, alien blood of garish green coolant running down the road.   Kohima lies within the state of Nagaland, which is one of India’s dry states so no alcohol and up until as recently as the early 1960’s these people were headhunters.  Now we were joined by several of their descendants, young men, all a bit glazed in the eye on this Sunday afternoon on drugs or hooch? Take your pick…

We started dismantling Maggie’s bike to get at the radiator to try and identify the problem and I quickly found it. It was a trip meter reset button, one of those prised off in Pushkar by that Hindu deity’s little helpers! The little bugger had obviously fumbled it such that it had fallen down into the headstock of the bike and from there worked its way between the radiator and the protective guard into such a position that the guard, on the bumpy road, had hammered it into the radiator creating the puncture that was spewing the bike’s life blood all over the road! You couldn’t make this stuff up, I tell you! And now it seemed that the only help on hand was these drug/alcohol-crazed zombies!!! Amazingly that’s just what they did! Within a few minutes, one guy turned up with some adhesive to fix the leak and another had a bottle of coolant and another a bottle of drinking water. In a period of less than fifteen-minutes the bike was fixed, we were on our way and they even told us where to find a hotel in town!

So we will forever remember Kohima for all the right reasons and once again we have been stunned at the unlikely sources from which help may arrive. We paid a visit to the Commonwealth War Graves Kohima Cemetery, which fittingly is sited around the tennis court where the high point of the battle took place. The cemetery has preserved the tennis court chalk-lines and it is frightening to contemplate how young men from Britain, India and Japan had killed each other across such a scant width.

Kohima on to Imphal and finally the little border town of Moreh, last stop before Myanmar (Burma). Time to contemplate just over four months and six thousand miles through India. ‘Incredible India’ it says on the advertising blurb from the tourist commission. It had been that for sure; incredible palaces, forts and temples, incredible history and incredibly friendly people with incredible food at any time of the day, but mixed in with that a sometimes horrific leavening of incredible filth and incredibly dangerous roads made so by incredibly moronic driving. Yet our final impression of India came from our last night stop, which said it all; the Hotel Sangai Lodge in Moreh. It cost £2 a night each for a basic room with a cold-water bathroom and a squat toilet. The town itself held few basic eateries yet we dined with a couple of Spanish cyclists we met on the road today on the finest potato Samosas topped with a delicious melt in your mouth dhal, all washed down with a chilled bottle of Kingfisher beer.

In the morning we rose early to get to the Myanmar border. There was no breakfast with the booking, yet the little man who owned the Sangai asked if we could wait for ten minutes before leaving. We loaded the bikes out front and waited his return, starting to cook with heat and impatience / eagerness to get away. He eventually turned up carefully balancing two cups of sweet chai and two omelet sandwiches and a big smile. We rode to the border carrying that smile and a taste of kindness that will linger for years to come…

The Photogallery for this post may be accessed by clicking the following link: Out of India

 

 

 

 

 

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Tragedy on the Road East…

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

Return to Rajasthan…

At the ‘Tokyo Palace Hotel’ in Jaisalmer, we received a warm welcome back from the lovely staff. It was a great little hotel, one of our favourite halts on the trip to date. They served succulent food that set the gastric juices flowing long before it arrived at the table. Aloo paratha with fried eggs for breakfast and creamy cashew nut curries in the evenings, all cooked by the talented Ranjit Singh, a fantastic Nepali chef, then served alfresco on the rooftop with a backdrop of stunning views of the walls of the mighty Jaisalmer fortress. A steady supply of cool Kingfisher beer just about staved off the desert induced thirst.

They gave us a ground floor room at the rear of the hotel with a door opening onto the street, handy for working on Mag’s bike. The actual waterpump repair itself was straightforward enough even with a constant audience of kids and young men. When they finally tired of the show, their place was taken by a smatter of scavenging pigs, chickens and cows that roam the streets of Jaisalmer. The fun came when we tried to replace the engine cover, which had been removed to access the pump. It had three alignment points; the waterpump drive, the gearshift shaft and the clutch release mechanism and each time I tried to fit the cover, the clutch release mechanism moved. Trying to force it only displaced the clutch release bearing, forcing me to take everything off and have to disassemble the clutch itself to re-seat the bearing. I spent a frustrating afternoon playing with this, each trial ending in abject failure. In the end I gave up and decided to sleep on it.

The following morning brought more of the same, with repeat failures to get the cover alignment correct. Gagan Khan was a young man who worked at the hotel. “Call me Daniel,” he said one night after dinner as he told us how he had been born in a desert village not far from Jaisalmer and worked camel safaris for tourists as a kid. With no formal education, he taught himself English, Japanese and Korean, the principle tourist languages and had grown through this into a bright and very caring young man. Daniel appeared as I was rebuilding the clutch yet again, having knocked the bearing out. I explained the problem of trying to align all these parts with each effort ending in failure. “Then I will pray to my god for you and ask him to guide you to success.” And so, with the aid of Allah now assured, I introduced a small offset on the alignment of the clutch release and gently slid the cover into place. The waterpump engaged, the gearshift engaged and there was a satisfying movement of the clutch release mechanism as it finally slid into place. We were back on the road!

From Jaisalmer, desert roads took us north and east to a one-night stop at Bikaner. We arrived in the early afternoon in time to take a lightning tuk-tuk tour of the city to see yet another impressive red fort. Bikaner was most memorable for getting caught in a cattle stampede when our driver took us on a tour of the narrow market streets. A traffic jam dissolved into a melee of tuk-tuks, mopeds and bicycles through which a huge bull and several cows had gone on the rampage creating all kinds of mayhem in an Indian version of the Pamplona Bull-Run.

From Bikaner we moved south to Pushkar, a preeminent pilgrimage town that, I’m told, all devout Hindus should visit at least once in their life. The small town is located in some beautiful hill country and is centred on a holy lake, said to have appeared when Brahma dropped a lotus flower on this very spot.   The serene holiness of the place is evident in that the lake has over fifty bathing ghats and is surrounded by over four hundred little temples. However any feeling of spiritual uplift is mired by the fact that everything is surrounded by a profusion of market stalls and shops trying to skim money off you before you get anywhere near the holy H2O. The place is full of monks but again there’s that rub, as it’s also full of annoying hustlers trying to ply you with flowers and temple offerings and again you get that feeling in India that you have a large ATM sign tattooed on your forehead.

Having made our way through the commercial morass, we finally made it to the lake itself and it really is a beautiful place (and another Fall location – see blog Into Rajasthan). On the way in large signs dictate the rules: Remove shoes within 50-feet of the lake and strictly no photography at the Ghats. But this is India, the land where rules are writ large so that they can be completely ignored thereafter. We wandered down to the Ghats in barefoot compliance and took a perch by one of the temples to watch a family of pilgrims as they waded in to bathe in the sacred waters, fulfilling this most sacred Hindu spiritual obligation. Our ‘Ah’ turned to ‘Oh!’ as they quickly produced mobiles for a Selfie session to capture the moment. Moments later we were approached by a young man sporting a battered Nikon SLR and a plastic portfolio of snapshots of folk at the holy lake. “Souvenir photo?” he enquired. “What about the no photograph rule?” we replied. “What about it?” he smiled, looking down at his shoes.

Travelling in India we have encountered a lot of religious locations; lakes, temples and other sites where famous holy happenings took place. The Hindus in particular have an extensive pantheon of 33 supreme gods and multiple manifestations of each, so you can mix and match your deities to suit your own karmic needs. It all adds up to a massive amount of idolatry, which doesn’t always sit well with their Muslim / Christian brethren who prefer worship to be a more monogamous affair. It was in Pushkar that we were perhaps visited by one of these deities who goes by the name of Staedtler, the pencil god. Apparently his jurisdiction is not confined to pencils but he is also the god of little rubbery things. He (or more likely some of his young agents) came and prised out the little rubbery trip reset buttons off the instrument cluster on each of our bikes parked outside the hotel. This is the first time that our bikes have ever been vandalised in 14-years and nearly 80,000 miles on the road. All joking aside, it was very upsetting as we are now without trip meters on the bikes (we use these for estimating range / fuel left) and on checking with BMW, the parts are not sold as separate items; you have to buy a whole instrument cluster costing an exorbitant amount of money.

With fetid curses against Staedtler and his minions on our lips, we left Pushkar and rode on on to Jaipur and some compensation in the form of another beautiful hotel; the Anuraang Villa; an oasis in a quiet backstreet in the city, complete with peacocks in the garden at dinner. Ringing ahead to book the hotel, we were delighted to find that the manager, Om, was a fellow motorcyclist and only too keen to have us stay there. It was one of those places where the sum of the resulting transaction was much more than just food and board for the stay. On learning that we had ordered some tyres from Delhi, Om advised that he had a taxi driver going to the city next day and could easily divert him to collect our tyres if they were ready. By these little actions are the stresses of travel obliterated and our tyres turned up next day, delivered to the door.

These would be the tyres to take us through to SE Asia. Our Metzler Karoos, fitted in Dubai had been probably the best tyres we ever fitted on the bikes. They were so sure footed on all kinds of road conditions and gave oodles of confidence such that you could just point the bike over any substrate in the full knowledge that the tyres would pull you through. The downside was that the back tyre had worn out in just 4000-miles. The only replacements we could get in India were unheard of Vee-Rubber tyres from Thailand. They were cheap (@£45) and have proven to be a most excellent little tyre, yet on the day we fitted them I nearly came to a sticky end…

The rear wheels were removed and we traveled by Tuk-Tuk to a tyre shop to have the new rubbers fitted. Back at the hotel I replaced the rear wheels and then took each bike out for a short ride to check out our new treads. Maggie’s bike first and a short spin around the block confirmed the tyre seemed to hold the road well and was happily partnered with the Karoo up front, which still has a lot of life left in it. Then my own bike; same spin round the block and everything was fine. I turned into the quiet backstreets near the hotel and was looking forward to a beer in the garden to celebrate a job well done. Annoyingly I found my way blocked by a big white SUV who had just braked to a stop in front of me. I nipped around him only to find two oncoming 125’s riding side by side, blocking the road ahead. I almost ran head-on into the outer bike as I tried to get round him. We collided, left side to left, snapping off my front indicator and catching my shin on his crash bars on the way by. I stayed upright and pulled over to find I had knocked him flat.

I jumped off the bike to see if he was OK. He picked his bike up and was panicking, apologizing profusely explaining that he had been chatting with his buddy and not looking where he was going. By now my left boot was filling up with blood. We shook hands (there’s no exchange of insurance details here) and I rode round the corner to the hotel, pulling in, ashen-faced to the dismay of poor Mags and Om. I wound up with a bad gash on the leg, which later bruised from knee to ankle but the incident shook the pair of us up as it demonstrated what can happen with the slightest moment of inattention riding in India, where you must always expect the unexpected like nowhere else on this planet.

In spite of the accident, Jaipur was a marvelous stop on our Indian tour. Where Udaipur was white, Jodhpur blue and Jaisalmer amber, Jaipur is known as the pink city (although it’s really more of a terracotta). The star attraction was the Amber Fort just in the hills outside town. We contemplated passing on this as we’d by now seen quite a few red forts, monster citadels and expansive palaces on our tour of Rajasthan but the Amber Fort really was a case of keeping the best ‘til last and I’ll let the photographs do the rest of the talking on that one…

We were just about finished in Rajasthan and the road beckoned to the East. Next stop, Agra and one of the top attractions in all of India: the Taj Mahal. Then long roads across the heavily populated states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar to deliver us to the northeast and the winding road on to Burma where a whole new leg of the trip beckoned.

To access the photogallery for this blog, please click on the following link: Return to Rajasthan

A Bellyfull of Delhi…

The eighteen-hour overnight train had just pulled out of Jaisalmer station when there was a girly scream from the next compartment in our sleeper car. “It’s a big mouse!!!” this from a young Yorkshire backpacker. “Oh no madam, it is quite OK,” responded one of the Indian travellers. “It is most definitely not a mouse, you see. It is a rat,” he stated in a matter of fact manner that only worsened the panic. There was a shuffling up and down the train as people lifted feet and belongings up off the floor in a collective, rodent-induced panic. The rat never re-appeared, maybe like the rest of us he had found a comfy bunk and was rocked to sleep by the swaying motion of the train as it sped on to Delhi.

We arrived just before midday and joined the throngs of people in the Old Delhi station and set off in search of the pre-paid taxi terminal. “There are no pre-paid taxis here. Come! Come! I will take you. Where do you want to go?” This from a greasy taxicab driver who had latched onto us the minute we got off the train. We set off down the platform looking for proper advice and found a railway official who was just locking his office door to go out for lunch. The taxi driver was still there. When we asked for directions to the pre-paid taxis, the driver interjected with a stream of Hindi, presumably telling the railway official to ‘just ignore these two and send them with me and I’ll take them off your hands’. Thankfully the rail-man raised his voice telling the driver to go away and gave us our directions. The taxi driver still tagged along, insistent that there was no such thing. In the end raised voices and strong language (with implications involving sex and travel) were required to get rid of this pest. His taxi ride would have cost £5 – £6. Our pre-paid tuk-tuk cost 70p.

And so into Delhi where our first taste was literally the actual taste of the city itself as we set off across one of the most air-polluted places on the planet. By the time we reached our B&B there was a smack of brick dust in our mouths: the taste of Delhi smog. The government is trying to tackle the issue by only permitting cars with odd/even number-plates to drive on consecutive days but from a quick survey it seemed, as with most rules in India, this was largely ignored by the throng of two-stroke and diesel engine vehicles on the streets.

We were faced with the prospect of a couple of weeks waiting for parts, depending on customs clearances and also obtaining those Myanmar visas. We were stunned to find the parts already here (took about 4 days by Fedex thanks to the efforts of the great team at Motobins in UK).   They were waiting with our new friend, Bunny Punia, a motoring journalist in Delhi who we had been introduced to from an Indian friend back in Stevenage. Bunny dropped off the parts next morning and kindly took us to the Myanmar Embassy where we submitted our application forms and passports through a hole in the wall along with a bankers draft that Bunny also helped us arrange in a last minute panic (be warned they don’t take cash). It was a strange transaction, as we didn’t actually see anyone the whole time just a pair of hands collecting documents and a muted instruction from within to return at 4pm next day when the same hands returned our passports with the Myanmar visas.

We had the next few days to see the Red Fort, wander in wonder around the India Gate, a huge cenotaph, commemorating over 70,000 Indians who died in service to the Commonwealth in the Great War and enjoy big city life (i.e. bars) in and around Connaught Place. The city centre has beautiful wide roads with lots of trees and parklands but our time here was marred by the fore-mentioned air pollution and the persistence of hawkers, vendors and tuk-tuk / bicycle rickshaw drivers relentlessly trying to press their goods and services upon you. Then there are the legions of beggars just asking for money. Delhi was the first place in India where this really got to us to the point where we saw ourselves as merely a pair of walking ATMs here only to supply the local demand for cash.

And what poverty… On our way to the Red Fort we were stopped at a traffic light waiting for the green to go right at a T-junction. As the tuk-tuk took off, I was aware of something scrabbling down among the wheels of the cars, trying to get out of the way. It was a young man with skin and clothing the same colour as the road. He had no legs and was moving around on his hands and backside, living life as a beggar at exhaust-pipe level. It is a miracle he hasn’t been run over and killed as he was totally invisible to everything above and, as we well know, every Indian in charge of a vehicle is on the most important mission in the world and can barely register what is directly in front of him never mind what’s down below on the road. This little vignette left us with an indelible image of a horror that just shouldn’t be allowed but it seems there is a similar mutilation at every set of lights.

It was time to leave Delhi. In Jaisalmer we had used the excellent services of Indar Ujjwal, local Travel Agent at ‘Adventure Travel Services’ to book the train. Not only did he get us decent sleeper-class accommodation, he was a fellow motorcyclist and took our bikes into his house for safe keeping while we were away. Our hotel, the excellent Tokyo Palace, took care of the rest of our baggage and riding gear keeping everything safe for our return. In Delhi we sought a similar travel agent just off Connaught Place. ‘Government Approved’ it said on the window. “There are no trains to Jaisalmer until 27th” one week from now” said the agent. He then showed us a booking screen on his PC with the trains indeed fully booked. He then checked the ‘system’ again and could get us on flights to Jodhpur and a train to Jaisalmer for just over £200. The sleeper-train cost £35 for the pair of us. We declined and set off for New Delhi station, with its dedicated ticket office for foreign tourists.

We were intercepted by a smart young man at the station gates who asked for our tickets. I explained we were looking the Foreign Tourist Ticket Office. He told us we had come to the wrong place; we needed to go to the other side of the station and gave directions to go back the way we came. This was in fact the start of a run-around scam involving several players all apparently trying to be helpful yet designed ultimately to lead us back to the travel agent.   We wasted about 45-minutes following their stupid directions by which point Mags, who had been onto their game all along, called time and we marched back to the station to find the foreign tourist office right there. We were both hopping mad at the end of it.

Saturday evening and the train ride back to Jaisalmer. We returned to Old Delhi station well ahead of the17:35 departure time. The first thing we noticed was an alarming amount of cancelled trains on the illuminated departures board. We asked for a status and were told that “at the moment the Jaisalmer train is still running but it may be cancelled”. It seemed there had been some protest in the countryside that was affecting the trains. 17:35 and no train; it was definitely cancelled. Once again running the gauntlet of pestilent taxi-drivers, we made it to the pre-paid booth for a tuk-tuk ride to New Delhi Station, where we re-booked for Monday as the Sunday train was already full.

The reason for the cancellation was a protest in the state of Haryana over that great Indian blight; the caste system. The caste system is basically a pyramidal hierarchy going back hundreds of years that assigns folk to a caste based on their profession. The Brahmins are the highest caste consisting of the priests and holy men. Below this are the warrior castes, then farmer / merchant / tradesmen castes and so on. It is a straightjacket system; once assigned, you are what you are unless you break the rules and demotion follows. At the very bottom of the pile are those without caste; the ‘Dalits’ or untouchables, those whose duty is to perform all the menial or filthy tasks like street cleaning, farm labouring, pig farming (pigs are deemed unclean), and tanning. Dalits cannot use the same water supply as everyone else and were forbidden to even enter the residential areas of the upper castes. They were denied access to temples, forbidden to read religious books and generally kept illiterate.

Since independence, successive governments have tried to recognise all folk as equals but it is obvious that the caste system is still deep-rooted in Indian society today. One method employed to address the inequality has been the introduction of ‘quotas’ in the workplace such that the each caste is fairly represented, which of course this just highlights exactly where you belong in this system. While this has opened up many opportunities to the low castes it has now disadvantaged the middle and upper castes, as there are fewer places in the quota system for those higher up the food chain. The Jats in Haryana, a state that envelops Delhi to the North, South and West, belong to a mid-level farming caste making up over a quarter of the population in that state with a majority in the state assembly. In protest these Jats blocked roads, burned vehicles, shut the rail network (hence our train was cancelled) and disrupted the water supply to the capital. Fifteen people were killed as the army moved in to quell the disturbances. Of course this was all great cover for the usual scumbags to loot with reports of Punjabi businesses targeted for electronic goods and fashion clothing.

The Sunday train to Jaisalmer was cancelled. On Monday the government conceded defeat, announced a revision of the quotas and the protests ceased. Online, it looked like our train was OK. At the station, the departures board looked good but then we were told the train might be cancelled. We sought the stationmaster and were told it was definitely cancelled but it might still go. At 17:15 the departures board finally declared it was indeed cancelled. We confirmed this with the stationmaster before heading back to New Delhi to sort out a refund and a search for a bus as we’d had it with trains. You can imagine our horror when New Delhi told us that a refund might be impossible as the train had actually left and technically we were a ‘no-show’! “You see sir,” explained the ticket clerk, “when you were there, the train was indeed cancelled but then it was decided to ‘un-cancel’ the train, so it did indeed leave for Jaisalmer!” After all the crap and hassle dished to us in Delhi this was the final straw and we both exploded in a spectacular stereophonic outburst on the inefficiencies of the Indian rail system and the dubious parentage of all who sail in her. Our rants and railings (if you’ll pardon the pun) got us into the office of the high–ranking station manager, top dog in New Delhi. “This is India,” he explained, “these things happen.” In his plush office, he listened sympathetically to our plea, made a few phone calls and arranged for us to get on a train that very evening to Jodhpur, from where we could take a 5-hour bus trip to Jaisalmer. It was a lifeline eagerly grasped as we’d had more than our fill of Delhi and just wanted to be back where we belonged; out on the road with our bikes.

The sleeper-car was half empty as we finally pulled out of Delhi at 9pm that evening. Presumably the empty bunks belonged to irate passengers who were only just learning that their train had in fact been ‘un-cancelled’…

The photogallery for this post may be accessed by clicking the following link: Delhi 

 

 

 

Into Rajasthan

One of our favourite films of all time is ‘The Fall’ (2006) by Indian director Tarsem Singh. It is a fairytale, dark at times, set in a California hospital in the early Twentieth Century where a little girl recovering from a broken arm befriends a bed-ridden, heart-broken stuntman who suffered a fall while shooting his last movie. Over a series of visits he narrates the story, as perceived by his damaged mind, of a group of heroes as they tackle a bunch of demons in an epic journey that chases across the earth. Storyline aside, what makes this movie really ring our bell is the vividly colourful cinematography with exotic shot locations from the best bits of our wonderful planet. Add to that a stunning soundtrack courtesy of Beethoven’s 7th ‘Allegretto’ and you have an all round excellent piece of movie entertainment. One location in the movie has more striking settings than any other; Rajasthan. From the moment we first watched ‘The Fall’ we set our hearts to one day go there and that day is upon us…

From Ellora a sixty-mile morning hop took us on to its sister cave complex at Ajanta. Excavated from the rock face, as at Ellora, these Buddhist caves were neither so beautifully formed nor intricate in detail. They were marvelous all the same as some had been abandoned part way through construction offering a better appreciation as to how they were formed and, where Ellora was a marvel of intricate rock carvings, the plainer walls of Ajanta supplied a canvas for some magnificent murals. The setting itself is also impressive, a deep canyon in the horseshoe bend of a river and what is really remarkable is that the entire Ajanta site was lost to history for a long time until one John Smith, a British officer, stumbled upon it all while out hunting tigers back in 1819.

Beyond Ajanta the highways both improved and gradually emptied of traffic and we began to once more to enjoy riding some great Indian roads that led us onwards and upwards to the northwest. At a halt for a few sips of water a little ‘scooty’ pulled up to check out why we had stopped. We got a massive thumbs-up from the rider, a tall, lanky guy with a big bushy beard wearing a pair of outrageous, bright red, balloon-legged pantaloons who told us he was an astrologer. His pillion, a reserved older gent in more somber dress, was content to greet us with big smiles. On learning of the magnitude of our travels to reach this very point on the road, they leapt off the scooter and, in a flurry of elbows, started rummaging around under the seat like a magician about to perform some trick. Rather than a rabbit but still with a ‘Hey Presto’ he produced a red and white chequered scarf. “Welcome to Rajasthan!” he beamed as he draped the scarf, a most precious gift, around my neck!

‘Ra-jas-than’, an evocative, exotic name; three syllables you could roll round your mouth all day and never tire of doing so. This ‘Land of the Kings’ is the largest state in all of India, its north and west dominated by the Thar Desert where India runs into Pakistan. To the east, Delhi and Agra await. The topography of the land is sprinkled with icing sugar palaces and laced with some of the most imposing fortresses and citadels on the planet. Add to this a clatter of brightly coloured cities and you have one of the most spectacular locations imaginable. Our introduction to Rajasthan was by one of her brightest pearls; the white city of Udaipur. We got off to a bad start when our pre-booked hotel turned out to be somewhat run-down. The ‘Wi-Fi all areas’ only worked in the grubby reception that doubled as a refuge for malingering overweight men and the ‘private on-site parking’ for the bikes was merely the busy street outside. A whiff of our room through the open door delivered an initial bouquet of ‘eau de pissoir’ closely followed by undertones of general damp and poor plumbing. The guy just shrugged when we declined his hostelry. Must happen a lot I guess.

Mother India, we have found likes to play with us children, jerking your chain to bring you down from time to time. But she also cuts you slack when you least expect it and heaps little uplifting jewels to brighten your spirit when most needed… I left Mags with the bikes and set off on a short, hot walk from the bad hotel to discover one of the most memorable places we have ever stayed: The Raj Palace Hotel. Monty, the young man on reception led me up a twisting flight of stairs and into a small maze of marble floored corridors that seemed to tunnel through beautiful scallop-nibbled archways. The bedroom portal led to a cool interior, the floor brilliantly lit by a rainbow of sunlight transmitted through a peacock array of coloured glass window panels. Mags fell in love with it on sight and I got extra brownie points for our deliverance.

The splendid Royal Palace in Udaipur was the first of our ‘Fall’ locations and to reach it we had to negotiate a tangle of twisting narrow lanes that led uphill to the entrance. The way was lined by a colourful commotion of tiny shop-fronts revealing dimly lit interiors stocked to the ceiling with of all kinds of wares. At the turn of a corner the sight of the Jagdish Temple burst out of the confusion and a broad flight of steps led to the entrance, flanked by a pair of marble elephants. The white of all this marble provided a perfect backdrop for outrageous colours from the legion of flower sellers at the base of the steps. Draped in vivid scarlet and saffron saris they made us feel like drab extras from a very different monochrome movie.

Our tour of the palace commenced with a visit to the museum where pride of place went to the little round glasses worn by Ben Kingsley in the movie ‘Gandhi’. The tour led on to the rooftop of the tall palace and the rewards for our ascent were views in over the city and out over the stunning Lake Pichola. There, like a couple of incongruous icebergs floating on a blue-grey ocean surrounded by scorched-desert mountains, lay the spectacular island hotels, one of which featured as another exotic movie location; this time for James Bond in ‘Octopussy.’ This all left me with the almost impossible task to compile a photo-gallery for Udaipur, a heftier task than even trying to capture it in these words.

Leaving Udaipur behind, the road continued north to exchange spectacular palaces for one of the most impressive castles we’ve ever set eyes on; the mighty Mehrangarh Fortress in Jodhpur. We took a room in an old Haveli, an exquisite merchant’s house built like a little palace from red sandstone with marble floors and a black and white chequered courtyard. But red is not the colour of Jodhpur for, as we knew from ‘The Fall’, Jophpur is indeed Rajasthan’s fabled ‘Blue City’. An early morning ascent led us through the narrow not-yet-bustling lanes that besiege the fortress, lapping its foundations on all sides. Our reward at the top of this ancient fort, which dates back to the late 1400’s, was complimented by the aerobatics of hundreds of Black Kites soaring high on the thermals off the walls that soar themselves 400-feet above the city below. Add to this, of course, the breathtaking views over the ‘Blue City’ itself and once again we are in a most magical place.

From Jodhpur we rode way out west out into the scrublands of the Thar Desert on tranquil empty roads, our only companions the odd camel or two munching on sun-scorched stilted trees along the way. Our destination was the smaller fortress of Jaisalmer, ‘The Amber City’ due to the golden sandstone used in its construction. While not so impressive as Udaipur or Jodhpur, we were to get to know Jaisalmer quite well as on arrival we found a dreaded spot of coolant dripping out the bottom of Maggie’s engine, a sure sign that the water pump seals were on their way out. This is a known problem on the F650GS and we were advised not to use the bike until it was sorted as it could lead to water ingress into the engine, turning the oil into cappuccino with potentially disastrous consequences.

The relatively inexpensive repair would take a whole day to effect but first we needed the parts shipped from the UK. We arranged a Fedex delivery to a friend of a friend in Delhi and decided to abandon the bikes in Jaisalmer, take the train to the capitol and while we were there organise our visas for Myanmar, next country on our trip. Boarding the 18-hour overnighter to Delhi, we had no idea of the fun and games ahead as the countryside around the big city would in a few days erupt into caste riots effectively barring our return to the bikes!  India was about to become Incredible again but this time for all the wrong reasons…

To access the accompanying photo-gallery for this blog, please click here: Rajasthan

Ellora

The roads north of Hyderabad took us back into the state of Maharashtra and an overnight stop at the little city of Nanded. That day started with a mega-breakfast at Geethas, moved on to a sad farewell to a fabulous host and thereafter evolved into an easy day’s ride that by mid-afternoon led us to what looked like a relatively pleasant little hotel, the Pooja Garden. Time for a peaceful couple of hours catching up with my journal while Mags did some Yoga…

The peace lasted all of five minutes when one of the staff tried to force in the door to our room. He was only delivering some bottled water by barging in unannounced.  As this has happened before in India, we always lock the door. I guess they just want a peek at the strange arrivals on the crazy motorcycles. I went to log on. There was no Internet connection. I called reception. They’d look into it. Somebody else tried to force the door, this time with a little more ‘enthusiasm’. It was still locked. It was another hotel guy, this time to see about the Internet. He came in to the room rubbing his shoulder, had a quick scan around, then said ‘”can I see your computer?” “There it is” I replied. “Ah! It is very weak signal,” he explained. “There is no Internet connection” I retorted. At this he admitted “Ah yes! No Internet. Only at reception”. “OK so why do you advertise Wifi available in all rooms and, more so, why did you need to come up here, try to barge in just to tell me that?” He turned and left. I gave up and worked offline.

An hour later the phone rang just as I was lathered up in the shower (sorry for inflicting that ‘vision’ upon you)… “Come now! Move your bikes!” were the imperatives squawked down the phone. “Pardon?” Mags replied. “Need to move your bikes! Come now!” I finished showering and sauntered downstairs where the manager explained that the bikes were parked at the side of the hotel and were drawing a lot of attention from passers-by. He suggested we move them round the front, into the garden and directly outside reception where the staff could keep an eye on them. We already suggested this on arrival but were told to park them round the side where a rotund security guard, for what he was worth, would keep an eye on them. Now they decided it might be better to move them…

As you can imagine, with these incessant interruptions, we were not best pleased with either hotel or staff as we came down for dinner. What a bunch of twats! The manager met us. “Car is here to take you on Sikh temple trip.” “We didn’t order any car for any Sikh temple trip so would you please just go away and leave us alone.” “Yes but car. He is here…he is waiting.” Clearly this day was ending with us cast as hapless victims in India’s very own ‘Fawlty Towers’ complete with waiters speaking bad ‘Indglish’ instead of Spanish. As befitted the role, I was getting all ‘Basilled’ up and ready to swing for somebody… The hotel staff had pestered us constantly since arrival and now we were being scammed for some hotel-sponsored-temple-trip, costing god knows what, when our hearts desire was no more than a simple beer and a bite to eat. “Please come sir. Here is the driver…” At this a lovely mild mannered gentleman stepped forward and presented a card. It had the name of a doctor friend of Gheetha’s on it. She had called him the previous day asking if he could recommend a hotel for us. He was working this evening but as a welcome treat for these visitors from afar, he had laid on a driver to take us the Sikh temple in town…  Now we were the twats!

The Hazur Sahib Sikh Temple was simply magnificent and one of the most memorable visits of our travels in India. The temple itself is one of five Takhats; places of primary importance to the Sikhs and is the final resting place of Guru Gobind Singh.  He arrived here with emperor Bahadur Shah towards the end of August 1708 as they journeyed south from Rajasthan into the Deccan seeking justice against the perpetrators of the murder of a group of Sikhs that included his young sons. With the emperor proving non-committal the Guru elected to leave the southern procession and remain at Nanded. Meanwhile his enemy Wazir Khan, wary of the time that Gobind Singh was spending with the emperor and to forestall any possibility of royal retribution, sent two assassins to remove the threat. The assassins managed to infiltrate the company surrounding Gobind Singh and when the moment was right they struck. The Guru fought back killing one of his assailants but was badly wounded before his supporters could dispatch the other. Although he initially recovered he re-opened his wounds a few days later while trying to string a sturdy bow, an action that proved fatal. Later the temple was erected to mark the spot where Guru Gobind Singh rose to heaven along with his unfortunately named horse, Dilbag.

A short fifteen-minute night drive through mental traffic took us into the heart of Nanded to the temple where we parked up and, at the driver’s request, removed our shoes and socks. Heads must also be covered to enter so Mags adjusted her scarf while I ducked into a nearby market with our driver to lungi up with a suitable hanky. We entered through one of the huge gateways to view the central shrine, which is sited at the heart of a large flagged pavilion. Entering, we mingled with brightly turbaned worshippers and everyone was very friendly, saying ‘hi’ or just waving a welcome as we padded around the complex. This was our first visit to a Sikh place of worship and the immediate impression was that of peaceful happiness as our eyes sated on the graceful structure of the gateways while strains of religious chanting, music and song filled the air. Nights like tonight are why we love travel; times when you are subject to such an act of kindness and suddenly exposed to new marvels that you previously had no inkling even existed.

The following morning, 26th January, was a national holiday; Republic Day. We figured on quiet roads riding to our next destination; the rock temples of Ellora, but India rarely gives you what you expect as we had experienced last night. We started the day dogfighting through maniacal traffic while trying to circumvent Nanded followed by a good fast stretch of National Highway; NH-222. GPS told us we were on this for 75-miles before the next junction so we settled in for an hour or so of easy cruising, which lasted all of about twenty minutes, when GPS announced ‘recalculating route’. The NH-222 had made a right-turn back in a grubby little village we’d just passed through. A couple of truckers who were parked up confirmed we should have made the right-turn so we rode back to return to the correct route.  Alas our nice ‘NH’ was gone, replaced by a disheveled country back-road. A few miles later and this disintegrated further into a potholed track that is now in our books as one of the worst ‘good’ roads we’ve ever ridden. It ran mostly straight across arable land and we stopped now and again to ask if this really was the route to Aurangabad, the main city near Ellora. No-one had heard of the place and the realization dawned that, with our destination over 100-miles away, we may as well be asking for directions to Timbuktu as most of these simple country folk had probably never strayed more than a few miles from home.

A drone’s eye view of that tarmac strip would probably reveal the finest piece of Scrimshaw known to man such was the tortuous intricacy of its pot-holery. Did we really have 60-odd more miles of this to go? We were crawling along at speeds rarely exceeding 20mph, trying to spare our poor suspension and running gear from the worst of the gaping holes, our minds equally tortured at the prospect of another three hours of this. Then the road really disappeared, totally ploughed up as a prelude to a big chunk of roadworks aimed at rebuilding it and we found ourselves crawling along a footpath past the rubble. Just as we contemplated turning back a trio of youngsters, all mounted on a little 125, broke the good news that there was only another 5-km of bad stuff ahead and after that we would be back on the highway.

Even so, the roads remained bad all day marred by poorly repaired potholes such that we rarely exceeded 40-mph traversing that bleak, featureless backdrop of dull-as-dishwater scenery. It all ended with a ring-road around Aurangabad and then some gravel-strewn twisty roads to the remote ‘Etranger Resort Hotel’, set in the hill country up behind Ellora. A shower and a Kingfisher beer-lube revitalized the pair of us, prelude to a tasty dinner of mouth-watering Aloo Gobi with buttery Paneer Masala, creamy dhal, roti breads, Jeera rice and a dessert of sticky little rum-baba type cakes served in syrup. We had only ordered the Paneer Masala, rice and bread; the rest was  courtesy of the owner who was having a special family meal to celebrate his little daughter’s 9th birthday. This splendid repast all finished with a piece of chocolate birthday cake, hand delivered by a smiling little angel.

In the morning we set out to explore Ellora and ‘explore’ is certainly the right word. We read in the hotel reviews that it was possible to hike to the caves cross-country from the ‘Etranger’. Armed with simple directions from the hotel, “out the back, walk to the river, cross over, turn left and follow into Ellora,” we set out across a spectacular wilderness of baked oatmeal grasslands interspersed with short scrubby trees and spiny bushes. Here we encountered something exquisitely rare in all the length and breadth of this marvelous country called India: utter peace and silence. It was one of those moments when neither of us wanted to speak, to break the silence, just to be content with our suddenly found solitude secure in the knowledge that, for a while, everything was good in the world. The magic of the occasion was heightened when a couple of beautiful Black Buck Antelope suddenly broke cover before us, sprinting away to a safe distance before stopping to turn and stare suspiciously.

The instruction ‘walk to the river’ was missing one vital piece of information, namely that ‘said river’ lay at the bottom of a vast broad valley with no apparent way down. We followed the edge the escarpment we’d been walking across and after about half an hour it started on a scree strewn scramble down into the valley. Using mobile phone GPS courtesy of ‘Maps.me’ we could see that the caves were only a mile or so away across a low saddle that proved a wonderful continuation of this wilderness hike. We saw signs of farming on the land and then a jingling carillon of little brass bells in a stand of trees announced the presence of a herd of glossy black goats. A few moments later and we stumbled upon a small homestead, a vignette revealing nothing more than a shack made of pallets and corrugated iron that lay to the side of a small ploughed field. Our approach set off a couple of farm-dogs who barked noisily at our approach.

The lady of the house was bathing a couple of grubby little children in a metal bucket and the farmer himself dropped what he was doing to silence the dogs. We waved and smiled across the field, hoping there would be no resentment of our trespass. Everyone waved back. The farmer, a short, balding man with a chin full of stubble, wandered over to chat and we asked if this was the way to Ellora. He replied with a kind smile as his eyes lit up and he said ‘come’ and beckoned us to follow as he led the way. We followed our new guide, climbing a broken fence to walk through a magical forest of barren silver trees all the while chasing goat tracks up over the saddle. After about half an hour we reached a staggering viewpoint overlooking a spread of green landscape.  Below us; the carved out rock temples of Ellora. Our guide revealed all with the sweep of his hand and then explained how we could gain access to the site. At this he turned to walk back to his farm. “Whoa!” I said, “please take this small payment for you help today…” An upraised palm expressed a simple “No thanks / not required” gesture. He was clearly a proud man and had guided us out of sheer kindness, wanting no reward for his trouble. We insisted he at least take it for the children and at this he accepted and left us to contemplate Ellora.

I’ll finish for now by directing you to the photographs in the gallery covering the rock temples of Ellora as I fear I am such an unaccomplished wordsmith to attempt to convey the wonder of that place. Suffice to say that everything you see was carved out of solid rock in the side of the mountain between the 5th and 10th centuries AD. There is no construction or fabrication, just the chasing out of each shape from the rock sub-terrain and then the fine detailing. There are thirty-four temples in dedicated groups to Hindu, Buddhist and Jain faiths in a rare example of religious harmony. Until next time, enjoy…

To access the photogallery for this page please click on the following link: Ellora

360 Dead!

‘CARRUMP!!!!’ … the distinct sound came through the bike intercom.  It was like a large cardboard box being suddenly collapsed and I recognised immediately the cadence of a violent road collision. Like every accident I have ever been exposed to, time slowed to a crawl as a series of images and inputs sank into my very being and I hoped that whatever had just happened did not involve Mags who was riding a short way behind as we negotiated hectic Pondicherry traffic. Instinctively shooting a glance in my rear view mirror, I was just in time to see a small blue and white ‘scooty’ explode in a head on smash. The little scooter had collided with the front corner of an oncoming car, spun through ninety degrees and was now flying up the road on its side in a cloud of dust and debris, casting off chunks of plastic fairing and side panel. A young man was caught up in the midst of the ejecta, desperately flailing to avoid all contact with the black stuff closely followed by Mags, the yellow beak and  headlight of her GS looming through the carnage…

I leapt off my bike and ran back towards the carnage. Praise be to every road god there ever was for ABS! The young guy on the scooter had been riding like a maniac, full-throttle through traffic and just passed Mags on the outside when he hit the car that was also overtaking, was over the central divide and on our side of the road. Mags braked instantly, her ABS kicking in and bringing the BMW to a controlled stop, her front wheel just nudging the wreckage of the scooter at the end of its slide down the road. By the time I covered the short distance back to the scene, the wrecked scooter had been dragged over to the side of the road, Mags had hurriedly ran back to see to the youngster and the traffic was moving normally again as if nothing had happened.

The car driver had vanished. The young lad was shaking badly with shock, having shredded large patches of skin off his arms and legs, his wounds a shocking, garish, gaping salmon pink against the brown of his skin. He had been riding in a T-Shirt with shorts and flip-flops and no helmet. From the violence of the accident and his lack of protective apparel he was extremely lucky to get off with the injuries sustained. A flash mob of people quickly gathered and calls for help were made on mobile phones. After a few minutes they waived us off as everything was under control.

All of this happened on one of the shortest rides on our entire trip. We had arrived the previous day in Pondicherry to find our pre-booked hotel had been closed for over two years (yet both Trip Advisor and ClearTrip.com showed the hotel as a going concern and took our booking!) We found an alternative for one night only as it was festival time in Pondicherry, or Pondy as it is affectionately known, and almost everything was booked up for the next four days. Luckily we managed to find another hotel only ten minutes away and we were just popping over to our new home when the accident happened.

It’s a hard thing to get your head round how these lovely, gentle people we meet on the streets every day can suddenly transform into psychopaths once they gain control of a vehicle. Everyone’s journey then becomes the most urgent thing in the world so it’s on with the horn, get out of my way, I’m coming through regardless. Road traffic rules are totally disregarded and, even worse, there seems to be no law enforcement so it’s all reckless flying-by-the-seat-of-your-pants stuff, which is fine until it all goes wrong and it does on an all too regular basis. Every four minutes someone dies on the roads in India. The vast majority are two wheelers who make up the bulk of road users. We are now in Tamil Nadu, the place that regularly tops the most horrendous road-traffic accident statistics in all of India. Last year alone over 16,000 people were killed on the roads here, the equivalent of the entire population of Ripon in Yorkshire. That is just in one state. The national stats are running towards half a million road deaths per annum and the trend is worryingly rising.

Family on a Bike

The World Health Organisation recognises a 5-point plan to prevent road accidents; Wearing of seat belts, mandatory crash helmets, use of child restraints, banning use of mobile devices and enforcement of substance abuse while driving. All of these things are more or less absent in India along with any form of control or enforcement. Even worse, few politicians want to take up the road safety mantle as it could cost them votes. Do you really want to be the guy to stop people riding 3+ on a motorcycle and make everyone wear helmets, when this is the way many families get around? Do you really want to be the guy who prevents holy animals, aka cows, from dandering down the fast lane on the highway when it is their divine right to be there?

One of the Gopurams at Meenakshi TempleFrom Kanyakumari, at the bottom of the subcontinent, the only way was up and we had by now adjusted our daily riding routine to leave early in the morning, thereby getting out of town before morning rush-hour and arriving at our destination in good time before the evening mayhem begins. A beautiful days ride took us to see the fabulous Meenakshi Temple complex at Madurai, where we spent the next day padding barefoot around its impressive inner recesses. The temple was incredible, a vast courtyard complex surrounded by twelve towering Gopurams, with interconnecting walls such that the complex resembled a huge holy fortress at the heart of the city. Each of the tapering Gopurams was festooned with elaborately carved miniatures of gods, folk and animals, this time coloured in most vivid sherbet-pastels. There are over 1500 of them at the site.  I’ll let the photographs do the rest here…

Pongal in Pondy

From Madurai we rode on to Pondy where, once our nerves had settled in the aftermath of the accident, we enjoyed a pleasant weekend in the ex-French colony. The Pongal festivity is a Tamil Nadu celebration of harvest time and ‘Pongal’, a creamy dish made from pulses and rice is traditionally eaten. Grey streets with Gallic names had been enlivened by elaborate patterns made with coloured gulal powder and the atmosphere was very much one of carnival. A cool sea breeze made for refreshing walks along the promenade where a big stage had been set up and entertainers performed an evening of folk dances and traditional music. This was compensation for earlier on when we suffered a mild aural assault, courtesy of the Pondicherry Tourist Police Band whose rootle-tootle rendition of ‘Colonel Bogey’ put a smile on our faces.

In the last blog I mentioned a chicken-run between a bus and a truck to get to reach a bridge near Calicut. We have now witnessed this accident take place in Vellore as we left early in the morning. Two buses rushing neck-in-neck for the main bridge north out of the city, this time neither would concede and both buses collided coming to a halt at the side of the road, still stuck together fortunately without further mayhem. The drivers were out raging at one another over who was to blame and I can only imagine the sheer terror of the poor passengers many of whom had wandered off presumably in search of Valium, clean underwear or probably both.

The ride north was a profitless haul on boring featureless roads across the flat Deccan Plateau. The tedium was interspersed by periodic life-threatening interruptions from some of the lunatics we were sharing the highway with. Take Heavy Goods Vehicle as an example. Many of the trucks are hand made. By this I mean they take a truck chassis and marry it to an oversize freight-shipping container, sometimes extending the roof skyward for the expediency of getting more cargo onboard. Unfortunately none of these modifications seem to be done with any thought to engineering or physics and the hopelessly overladen wagons that result are doomed to crawl the roads at 40kph.

This guy PARKED HIS CAR IN THE OVERTAKE LANE OF A MAJOR HIGHWAY (NH40) and left HIS WIFE AND KIDS INSIDE while he trotted over to snap our bikes!

This guy PARKED HIS CAR IN THE OVERTAKE LANE OF A MAJOR HIGHWAY (NH40) and left HIS WIFE AND KIDS INSIDE while he trotted over to snap our bikes!

Over half of HGVs in India persistently drive in the outside lane. With the remainder on the inside this means a ride up what should be a fast modern highway becomes a dangerous, stop-start slalom through these sluggish leviathans of the road. The overloading also leads to frequent breakdowns of the most catastrophic nature; collapsed leafsprings, blown-out tyres and outright busted chassis. If the truck hasn’t actually been toppled over by the unbalancing of its insane load (and this is a common sight) then it comes to a grinding halt on the carriageway and the driver will hop out and put rocks up the road so he doesn’t get rear-ended! All in all just another in the litany of horrors to be faced riding India’s roads.

Just as we were growing despondent over the likelihood of us surviving any of this, Hyderabad and a meeting with an amazing Indian woman; Dr. Geethanjali Ramachandra. We were introduced to Geetha by our UK visa sponsor Dr. Rad Kadengal and on hearing we were in the vicinity we received an invite to stay. Geetha is a former ICU doctor and knows firsthand the consequences of the poor driving standards in India from trying to piece together shattered bodies to having to tell a distraught family that a loved one didn’t make it. “One person is dying on the roads every four minutes,” she said when we discussed the topic. “That’s 360 people losing their lives or the equivalent of a major air disaster every day. Can you imagine the outcry if the headlines read ‘360 killed in a  plane crash’? Aircraft would be grounded; there would be travel chaos until the appropriate authorities concluded a full investigation and corrective actions were fully implemented. But for road traffic accidents, where this headline is happening every day, no one is prepared to make any real effort to stop it.”

Well that is not strictly true because Geetha herself with a group of like-minded people in the Hyderabad Road Safety Club (www.meetup.com\roadsafetyclub) are taking action to try and raise awareness of the scale of the problem and also to provide training and education within their community, especially targeting youngsters. We joined Geetha at a couple of events on a Saturday morning to see the club in action…

The first was a gathering of club members at a busy road intersection in Cyberabad, as the high-tech part of the city is known. Here we engaged in a placard and leaflet campaign trying to persuade drivers to belt up and riders to wear a helmet. To be honest it felt like a task ordained by Canute as it emphasised just how many people hold road safety in utter disregard. From drivers not belted up or using mobile phones in the heavy traffic to bikes with three or four people on board, young tots precariously balanced on fuel tanks or sandwiched between Mum and Dad and all without a helmet in sight. Then pedestrians determined to cross the 8-lane highway when it was in full flow by stepping out into that flow and making cars give way…

The Energy of Youth!

Yet this feeling of hopelessness amidst insanity was totally blown away by the second event that Saturday morning when we joined a bunch of school-kids from the DAV Public School, Banjara Hills, at another busy traffic light / road intersection across town. In many ways it was a similar placard and flyer exercise but this time the phalanx of kids lining the road gave youthful, energetic voice to the messages for the day, many of which they had been encouraged to write themselves. “WEAR YOUR SEAT-BELT! WEAR YOUR HEL-MET! DON’T DRINK AND DRIVE!” was one of the chants now stuck in my head forever. The effect was amazing. One car driver quickly belted up in embarrassment when a little tot knocked on the side window and made the cross-chest ‘wear your seat-belt sign’. Helmetless riders had nowhere to hide as their stupidity was pointed out to them by a ten year-old. After about an hour we joined the kids and a Harley Rider group in a procession towards their school, these little kids relentlessly haranguing road safety violators all the way.

Fantastic Kids from DAV Public School, Banjara Hills At the school I was asked to talk to the kids, now all seated in the school playground. Speaking to a group of such motivated young children, their smiling upturned faces all locked on me on that little stage, was a powerful and emotional experience and something I will never forget. I thanked them for taking time on a Saturday to come out and do this and also reminded them to carry the message home to parents and family.   I had a most heart-rending round of applause, which really belonged to them. The Road-Safety Club is rolling out educational packages to this and other schools across the city and it was a truly brilliant endeavour that will hopefully one day turn these most dreadful statistics around.  Kids, you should be extremely proud of yourselves!

And so we left Hyderabad to continue north, our travels enriched and reinvigorated by our few days with such a great bunch of people.   Ahead lay the treasures of the cave temples at Ellora and Ajanta and beyond; the road the Rajasthan surely the jewel of India.

The photogallery for this blog may be accessed by clicking the following link: 360 Dead! 

South!

Bernard hauled his huge frame up from his easy chair and summonsed a pharyngitic offering of viscid mucus by means of a hefty snort and horrid back-of-the-throat ‘grockle’ sound. The effect was that of an elephant clearing a trunkful of toads and tadpoles. He popped out the screen door to gob into one of the array of pot plants that adorn the front of this otherwise pretty homestay, a most vocal ejection too. Five guests at the homestay breakfast table collectively shuddered, swallowed our bile and looked at each other in sheer disbelief, our western sensitivities utterly shocked. Had our host really just cleared his throat in such a public and disgraceful manner? Bernard really didn’t seem to care, the big guy wandering back in to plonk himself back down in the armchair and issue more missives to his overworked wife in the kitchen to hurry up with our breakfast, before returning to his favourite topic; moaning on about how running a homestay is like modern slavery…

“Incredible India!” That’s the official tourist board motto and as you will have seen in the previous blogs we are finding that India is indeed an incredible place of unsurpassed beauty and wonder. But India is also incredible in other ways; it is incredibly filthy, easily the dirtiest place we have ever travelled and at times the people can be incredibly disgusting, with habits such as expectorating in public in a most graphic manner as described in the incident with Bernard above. It seems fine too for blokes to just have a pee at the side of the road or in any corner on the street, no ‘I’ll just wander into the bushes here, find somewhere quiet out of sight…” And ‘pooing’ in public… we witnessed this most graphically from our hotel room in a place called Ratnagiri on the way to Goa. The hotel was oceanfront to a golden beach in a bay and in the early morning we opened our curtains to witness the spectacle of a long line of men down by the waterfront, all squatting in the surf and having their early morning poo followed by a saltwater and sand bidet (don’t try this one at home folks!). They were immigrant workers come down from the poorer north, living in squat hovels at the back of the town and the beach was probably the most sanitary arrangement for their morning ablutions.

Public spitting and toilet habits are a cultural thing, something that’s always been done and still tolerated in Indian society, however this isn’t particularly making the place filthy; that is due to something else that seems endemic to Indian culture; widespread littering. Litter; that human detritus of plastic bottles, bags, food wrappings and leftovers, coconut husks, old clothing, old tyres and so on, pollutes every roadside halt, waterway and every nook and cranny you can think of. Beautiful cliff-top walks are spoiled when you look over the edge to see fly-tipped garbage courtesy of the local community. I already commented on littering when we were in Turkey but in comparison the Indians make the Turks look like the tidiest nation of OCD-green / keep-clean freaks on the planet.

And this state of being cannot be blamed on the poorer uneducated classes; everyone is at it. The underlying problem seems to be that everyone thinks it is someone else’s responsibility to clean up which is probably a residue from the caste system where folk who clean for a living are marked in society as ‘untouchables’. It is below most ‘decent’ folk to look after their own rubbish and they just discard it wherever they happen to be. Indian Society needs to recognize this and tackle it as no one deserves to live in such conditions, especially when everyone can do little things to improve were they live. Enter the FaceBook Community ‘The Ugly Indian’, which has well over a quarter of a million followers. As it states on their homepage “The Ugly Indian is an idea. It’s an attitude that says that all of us are ugly Indians & only we can save us from ourselves. Motto: Kaam Chalu Mooh Bandh!” The page then shows masses of brilliant projects where people are coordinating efforts to change where they live, clean it up and restore the area to how it should be and make their world and environment a better place in which to live.  We wish them well!

Riding south through Kerala was some of the most challenging motorcycling we’ve ever faced but for all the wrong reasons. We left the security and warmth of Rad’s family to ride short 80 – 100 mile hops to reach Kanyakumari and the bottom of India. The roads down this southern coast are small with many towns and villages such that each ride became a slow procession through congested and dangerous traffic. It was taking us most of the day to complete these tiny distances with lots of riding in lower gears at speeds averaging 20 – 30 mph. We derived a 3 ‘F’s mantra for the riding here. Each morning we’d sit in the saddle, breathe deep and repeat the following words before takeoff; “Focus, Fearless… F*** it; let’s hope we survive another day!”

‘Focus’; each ride demands 100% attention and concentration. At home our 650cc bikes are the smallest in the BMW range of Teutonic metal and reasonably low tech. In India they dwarf just about everything on two wheels on the road. It is like flying a sleek Messerschmitt through a sky full of Spads and Sopwith Camels!

‘Fearless’; The 650s are also capable of out performing everything else on the road if you are brave enough. While you need to be fearless to tackle these roads this needs to be measured as the hazards and battles are many. You can’t allow yourself any time to dwell on the hazards, just get on with it, which leads me to the third ‘F’ …

Given that it is impossible to make any sense or order out of driving in India you are left with two options; 1) Surrender and give in; pack it all away and go home safe and sound or 2) ‘F*** It’; resign yourself to fate and get stuck in. The flying analogies are here are all too true as the hazards are truly three-dimensional. At home you need only observe the traffic around you, which will generally be proceeding in the same direction so you can plan your overtakes, pull over to let faster traffic get by and pay regard to vehicles joining the traffic stream from side roads. Not so in India where anything and everything will come at you from every direction at the same time!

Lonely Planet described our next destination, Kochin as follows: ‘Serene Kochi has been drawing traders and explorers to its shores for over 600 years. Nowhere else in India could you find such an intriguing mix: giant fishing nets from China, a 400-year-old synagogue, ancient mosques, Portuguese houses and crumbling remains of the British Raj. The result is an unlikely blend of medieval Portugal, Holland and an English village grafted onto the tropical Malabar Coast.’ This was clearly written by a myopic reviewer whose corrective lenses had a most severe application of rose-tint veneer. We checked into a Homestay in Fort Cochin (hosted by the aforementioned Bernard of the phlegmatic throat who, expectorations aside, was actually a pretty good host) and walked to the nearby beach to find it strewn with waste. Near the Chinese Fishing Nets lay ponds covered in a scum of green algae each one containing its own flotilla of plastic garbage. These days the nets themselves are really just a tourist attraction; huge cantilevered contraptions that raise and lower a vast net into the sea like some underwater medieval siege equipment. We watched them at work but all they caught was a few tiddlers to feed the crows and a clatter of plastic.

We escaped into the famed Backwaters of Kerala for a day on a dusty old wooden boat propelled by a couple of equally ancient punters. They can’t have been a day under 65ish but both had leg and arm muscles like knotted blackthorn. The Backwater trip was a rare opportunity to experience a day of silence in this crazy place and we lounged listlessly under the thatched palm awning, the only sound being the gentle plop of the poles propelling us forward. Our rolling backdrop was a series of jungly riverbanks with a beautiful entertainment of impossibly fluorescent Kingfishers and Bee-Eaters darting in and around the trees.

So with all the dirty litter-strewn places, filthy habits and the crazy driving, is India starting to get to us? A short day of more mental Keralan driving took us further south again, past Tiruvananthapuram, this mouthful being the name of the Kerala State capital and then down off the coastal highway to altogether more peaceful roads that wound through densely palm forested estates, dwindling into smaller side streets, until finally we found ourselves negotiating a labyrinth of alleyways (all registering on GPS) that led us to the door of the Oceanic Residence, a little haven in the backstreets of beautiful Varkala. An hour later and we had flip-flopped a hundred metres to a perch atop spectacular red cliffs where we took refuge in the Blue Moon bar to sup a well-deserved Kingfisher (beer not bird!). We tore strips off our starter of mouth-watering cheese and garlic Paratha bread and watched as surfers on the beach below packed up for the day, the evening now illuminated by the crepuscular rays of a setting sun. Dinner of Vegetable Hyderabadi and Prawn Masala arrived, two curried dishes that even now make me salivate at the thought and at the end of our meal we thought ‘what a way to end a day!’ So while India has its downs they are more than counterbalanced by these spectacular ups. It really is ‘Incredible’ in the most positive sense of that word, proving an old motorcycle adage that the harder the road the more rewarding the destination.

With batteries recharged another short but less hectic hop took us out of Kerala and into the state of Tamil Nadu, to Kanyakumari, a beautiful name to roll off the tongue if ever there was one. Here at the southernmost tip of the inverted triangle that is the Indian subcontinent, we scanned the horizon from west to east to take in a span across three vast oceans. Each day fireball suns crested and sank beyond these ocean horizons and our little hotel had helpful signs pointing to which side of the roof top you should go to, depending on sunrise or sunset.

There is certainly something spectacular about reaching any major land extremity and Kanyakumari is no exception. We crossed the storm tossed ocean, a short but nevertheless white knuckle ride on a rust-bucket ferry to see the Swami Vivekananda Temple set on a huge rock at the end of India. The ferry considered the running seas too dangerous to go on to the Statue of Thiruvalluvar, an enormous ‘Lord of the Rings’ style guardian who overlooks the stone’s-throw-away town from his own rock (he was actually a famous Tamil Nadu poet). Then a sunny afternoon roaming the licorice-allsorts houses of the fishermen’s village scattered around a couple of snow-white catholic churches, with even more mini chapels seemingly at every street corner. Here we found peace at the end of this land.

That evening, we stood on our little rooftop and surveyed west across the Arabian Sea, thinking about the fantastic journey that has delivered us to this most amazing place on Planet Earth. Then to the south and no more land as the Indian Ocean stretches out all the way to Antarctica.   Finally we looked east, to the Bay of Bengal and contemplated just where the road will take us next… And here we feel a slight nervy tummy jitter as the first stage of this journey will take us north up through Tamil Nadu, the state that regularly tops the road-traffic accident statistics chart for all of India…

The photogallery for this blog can be a accused by clicking the following link: South!

Christmas and New Year – Mysore and Kerala

From Hampi we rode to Mysore and checked into the splendid ‘Green Hotel’ over Christmas. A tad over our usual budget the old hotel, which had formerly been a princess’s palace and then a movie studio, offered charming accommodation for the holidays with the bonus that some of the profits are shared with a number of local charities. Our room was in an annexed veranda overlooking a beautiful green garden, where we supped on cold beer in the evening and dined al-fresco on fine vegetable curries. At the end of each day we were lullabied to sleep by a somnolent chorus-line of crickets and frogs.

Mysore itself was an easy-going city, the streets a little wider, the traffic a little less crazy than other cities in India. On Christmas day we hired a Tuk-Tuk and driver to tour the sights. First stop was the Mysore Palace; official residence and seat of the Maharajas who ruled Mysore from 1350 to 1950. The palace was designed by the British Architect Henry Irwin and completed in 1912. It is a splendidly striking Victorian edifice festooned in spiky Moghul domes and scalloped archways all surrounded by a large park with more peaceful pavilions and temples that easily swallowed up the large crowd of visitors. Mysore Palace is most spectacular at night when the entire shape and form of the building and surrounding complexes are illuminated by means of 93,000 electric light bulbs. The switch-on happens only on Sundays and public holidays and the following Sunday we joined the throng, waiting in child-like anticipation for the lights to come on and then adding to the collective ‘OOOOOOH…’ when the switch was thrown.

Life in the cavernous markets of Mysore was very laid back and a great place for just hanging out and people watching as folk went about their daily business, haggling and negotiating deals and best prices. We lingered in the shade awestruck by the little women selling flowers for temple worship taking delight in watching nimble fingers endlessly thread flower after flower to make metres of beautiful garlands that could then be cut to fit. Each stall shone as a riot of colour from the beautiful yellows, whites and reds of the decorative flowers to the mini-mountains of outrageously garish gulal-powder used for religious celebration. In the fruit market cannonball stacks of apples and oranges competed with explosions of miniature bananas and finger-length green chilies all scattered amongst heaps of golden ginger root.

From Mysore we explored nearby Seringapatam, scene of one of the Duke of Wellington’s earliest battles, when in 1799 a combined British / Sepoy Army stormed the fortress here and conquered the city in a move to oust the unlucky Tipu Sultan on the grounds that he’d been getting just a tad too friendly with the French. The fortress is located on an island where three rivers meet and had to be conquered before the monsoon arrived to swell the rivers and render them impassable. A breach was made in the low thick walls and an all-out assault launched that broached the city defenses. Tipu Sultan was killed in the ensuing street fighting. We rode to the fortress but then hired a Tuk-Tuk driver to take us around the principal sites including the breach in the wall, the place were Tipu Sultan was killed and finally out to the impressive Tipu Sultan Gumbaz, the splendid mausoleum where he is buried with his parents.

From historical wonders to natural marvels, as we left Mysore and rode to Wayanad exchanging Karnataka State for the jungle highlands of Kerala. The road would take us through Muthanga National Park, a wildlife reserve where the roads are closed each evening from 6pm to 6am so that the park can return to the preserve of it’s natural large grey owners for this is wild elephant country. So far we had seen the tame and docile temple elephant at Hampi but if you want to understand why we were just a little wary on setting out today please check the following link on You-Tube to see what happens when a motorcyclist risks an encounter with a wild elephant…YOU TUBE VIDEO LINK.

Once in the park, there were warnings everywhere not to stop for picnics and not to use horns or lights. We did make a brief stop on a quiet section of forest-lined road to photograph some huge termite mounds but in the surrounding grass we saw some hefty sized elephant poo. While the huge balls of scat didn’t contain any motorcycle parts the sight nevertheless encouraged us to get quickly back on the bikes and keep moving.

Wayanad is reckoned to be the prettiest part of Kerala and we would whole-heartedly agree with that; the place is a luscious tropical wonderland. We stopped for a few nights in the little town of Meppadi in hill country draped on all sides by orderly tea and coffee plantations. From here we spent a day exploring the surrounding greenery and ancient Neolithic engravings at Edakkal Caves. From Wayanad there is an amazing descent down to the coastal plains via a series of ghats or hairpin bends – the Wayanad Churam. It’s a beautiful road with god-like views over the jungly Malabar plains all the way to the sea but it was here that ‘Kerala madness’ set in as we witnessed some of the most dangerous driving in India that by the end of the day left both of us slightly unnerved.

It started on the Churam itself when we were tailgating a couple of cars on the hairpins. There were very few places to pass on this narrow winding road so we settled in to follow the leader until the road descended and flattened out a little. All of a sudden, as we braked once more for a tight downhill hairpin, a huge pink bus came haring past us on the other side of the road at top speed to overtake us and then the two cars, who were by now mid- hairpin. It was one of the most idiotic, reckless pieces of driving we’d ever seen and if there had been anything coming the other way it would all have ended in a pile up as the bus had nowhere to go other than to plough into the oncoming vehicles or pull over to side-swipe both cars and our bikes.

An hour or so later, at the coast, we approached a bridge on the main north-south highway. Again the road was narrow, with a lot of oncoming traffic, so we tucked in behind a huge empty dump truck that was bouncing along to wait until we were over the bridge to get past. We were blown out of our saddles by an air horn as another lunatic bus announced his intention to pass everyone, including the truck, in a bid to get to the bridge first. It was a pure suicide run and we had front row seats as the truck, horn also now blaring, accelerated making his own bid for the bridge. The problem was that the road narrowed even further at the bridge and there was no way both could pass side by side. We had visions of them plugging the access to the bridge in a horrible pile up but then the truck driver ceded defeat in a flurry of brake lights and dust from locked rear wheels as the maniac bus went hurtling past. It was reckless driving of an insanity level that back home would get you a lifetime ban and probably jail time but we are now seeing examples of this on an all too frequent basis.

We had a calming New Years Eve in a town with no booze so had to settle for dinner and an early night. Kerala has moved towards becoming a dry state such that you can only get alcohol (beer and wine mostly) in some of the larger hotels. They wish to promote the state as a ‘health and well-being’ travel destination but we read in the local papers how the alcohol restrictions are really damaging the tourist industry with hotel bookings reportedly down 40% in some areas.

New Years Day saw us arrive in the delightful little town of Tirur to visit the home of one of my work colleagues, Dr. Rad Kadengal. Rad had been very supportive of our plans to travel to India and provided sponsorship for our Indian visa applications; now we would spend an evening with his delightful family. We spent the afternoon with Rad’s brother-in-law Sunil and nephews Manu and Rithwik, looking at a recent farm acquisition Sunil had made. It was a hike through paddy-fields into a patch of what looked like raw jungle that was actually a natural larder full of coconut, banana and cashew nut trees with wild peppercorn, an abundance of ginger and a crop of betel nuts. We chewed on some bright orange peppercorns straight off the vine, a totally invigorating experience as the corns exploded to release both heat but also a delicious and unexpected sweetness.

We also picked up some Karimpana, also known as ice apple or palm fruit. Karimpana has the appearance of a small browny-green coconut and the roadside vendor hacked the shell open with a curved machete and hacked out three egg-sized, rind-covered fruits from within. Later we peeled the rind off these at home to reveal a translucent succulent fruit within, a real delight as it’s not everyday you are presented with a strange never-before-seen food item; even better when it proves to be utterly delicious.

That evening there was to be a Puja at the house and we were privileged to witness the occasion with the family. First we were dressed appropriately for the occasion, Mags in a beautiful white sari and for me, a Mundu, a wraparound sarong worn by men on the Malabar Coast. The Puja is an annual blessing on the household and was performed by two highly respected Brahmins who, we were instructed, no one was to touch lest we pollute them. Once they were ready, everyone filed in along one wall of the little dining area. A space on the tiled floor had been cleared and an elaborate pattern traced out in vivid white, yellow, red, grey and purple Gulal powders upon which heaps of tender leaves and little red flowers were heaped. This centerpiece was surrounded by a number of heavy ornamental brass oil lamps and in and around the arrangement were smaller incense burners and candles all adding up to a beautiful if smoky illumination for the ceremony that began.

The taller of the two Brahmins was seated on the far side of the display, uttering a low volume chant while making signs and motions with his hands in the air, like he was turning dials and flicking banks of switches as part of some pre-flight check in the cockpit of a phantom aeroplane. He wore a priestly Mundu but was bare-chested and had three white ash streaks across his forehead and on each forearm. His sidekick, a tiny little man equally attired, moved around the floor display on spindly legs repositioning objects and fine-tuning to the arrangement. He then collected some of the powders onto a banana leaf, which was blessed by the main man before delivery to the collected family, quickly dropping the leaf on the table and then springing back, lest someone should touch him. The leaf was passed around and everyone had a finger dip into the powders to add Bindi dots to their forehead.

Finally we paid the Brahmins by each putting a banknote onto a piece of banana leaf and sliding it across the floor. When we had retreated the little guy sprang forward to collect and pass the money to the main man. The entire procedure took place after sunset and lasted around half an hour although the two gentlemen had been setting up and preparing in the kitchen all afternoon.   They would return at 5:30am to repeat the blessing before sunrise and then the house would be good for another year.

After the evening blessing we sat down to a magnificent feast of vegetarian food, a variety of really tasty curries and chutneys. We thanked Rad’s sisters and Mum for cooking up this delicious repast and were amazed to learn that it was all prepared by the two Brahmin gentlemen as part of the ceremony. Sadly we could only spend a single day with the Kadengals but it was a truly memorable day on our roadtrip and a real pleasure to get so close to an Indian family during such a time of celebration. We spent an entire day in a state of surprise and delight with some of the warmest and happiest people we have had the privilege to meet in all our travels. But we have been lingering on this southern coast for far too long and need to be moving South…

The images for this blog can be accessed by clicking the link to the following gallery: Mysore & Kerala

Karnataka – Hampi

I think it is fair to say that our 10-nights in Goa almost spelled an end to this trip. It would have been soooo easy to just abandon the bikes, break out the hammocks and slouch at Agonda Beach living on tasty vegetarian and seafood curries washed down with the odd quart of Kingfisher; just keep doing this till the money ran out… and believe me with the prices here, that would have taken an awful long time! It was clearly going to take something rather special to tear us away from our sandy haven and that ‘special’ was a place called Hampi.

Hampi today is basically a small ramshackle village of 2,777 folk (as reported in 2011) centred on a little bazaar of lean-tos and souvenir shacks with a smattering of snug homestays and restaurants serving the travellers and tourists who come here. All around are the impressive ruins of the city of Vijayanagara, former capital of a vast empire of the same name. By 1500 AD that city had a population of half a million souls making it the second largest city on the planet after Peking and almost three times larger than Paris! A few years later, in spite of possessing an army of nearly one million warriors, this great empire was utterly destroyed by invading Muslims from the north who razed the city following its conquest. Add to all that history some magnificent geography; the site, which covers an area of around 35 square kilometers, is located amidst rocky hill country whose length and breadth is scattered and strewn with colossal boulders, the whole lot interspersed with palm and banana plantations. Not surprisingly, our guidebook rates Hampi as the No.1 tourist attraction in India, knocking even the Taj Mahal into second spot.

Somehow, in our languid days at Agonda, we managed to plot our road ahead up until Christmas. The route would take us first inland and east to Hampi and then on roads south to the city of Mysore where we planned to spend Christmas itself. Day long rides of about 260 miles separated each of these places, which is a fairly huge distance to cover in India once you factor in the crazy driving, chaotic traffic and unknown state of the roads. All of this is then compounded by short winter days; it is dark by 6pm, so we needed to be off the road before then.

The ride to Hampi led us on verdant palm-shadowed roads that finally quit the coast after Karwar and took us on a gradual winding route up into some low hill country. After Yellapur this opened up into a fairly easy ride with not too much congestion such that we made it to Hampi by 4pm. Then the fun started… We pulled over for a cold drink by a gateway that led into the first set of ruins. A couple of Indian Bikers stopped to chat (and for obligatory photographs with the bikes), confirming it was only another 4-km into Hampi itself. The outlying ruins so far had been hiding behind feather-fans of palm frond and broad banana foliage giving us only sneaky-peak views to whet our appetites.   Then, round one last corner and over one last hillock and we were rolling through ancient Vijayanagara itself in a scene that looked like some giants had just finished a game of  bowls through a bunch of temples as we entered this tableau of enormous rocks and ruins. A short descent dropped us at the entrance gate to Hampi Bazaar where we were immediately beset by hawkers and touts offering everything from silver bracelets to Tuk-Tuk rides to rooms for the night.

It was a stunning location with everything overshadowed by the enormous heights of the still-working Lord Virupaksha Temple as they towered up into the evening sky, their facades adorned with the most beautiful and intricate carvings. We asked for directions to the Thikal Home-Stay whereupon three of the hawkers suddenly turned into guides, taking it upon on themselves to ‘enthusiastically’ lead us to our bed. All three legged it towards the temple and we followed them up the sandy lane, ignoring a few scruffy security guys who tried to block our way as we rode past a sign that said “Gov’t vehicles only beyond this point”. Another dirt track led off to the side and into the bazaar proper where one guy was calling us to go one way over a bunch of broken tiles and down some dark alley, while the other two pointed in an altogether different direction over some broken ground that finally led on to some flagged paving… So it was that the two bikes pootled into town following the flip-flop beat of our guide (now down to one) as he ran ahead and negotiated our way through a right little labyrinth that led us to the door of our simple home-stay.

“Start your day with a sunrise.” To be honest it’s not something either of us are particularly keen on as it entails getting out of our pit a little too early but maybe it is something we should maybe all try more often. On this occasion it was necessitated by Christmas, which is celebrated as a public holiday here in India. It impacted our travels as we could only get two nights accommodation in high-season Hampi so we had to concentrate our visit to see as much as possible in our single day at the ruins.

5:30am, the following day and were up and out for one of the greatest and most memorable occasions in all our travelling days. Apart from a few holy-cows we had the whole place to ourselves. We filtered through the temple complex to climb high up on the overlooking boulder field, gaining a beautiful perch where we watched the sun change the temples from inky monochrome through a suffusion of soft saffrons to a soft pastel buff as the brilliant illumination of the sun once again brought light to the day. The backing soundtrack was provided by a squawk of emerald green parakeets, while overhead spans of Black Kites circled high on the thermals of the dawn. Behind us atop one of the giant boulders a troop of pink-faced monkeys lined up for their early morning groom beautifully silhouetted by that rising sun or maybe like us they were just soaking in the warm, relaxing powers of its rays… Now I’m not much of a hippy but that sunrise over the temples seemed to infuse the day that followed with more than a velour of sparkle and magic as we explored the rest of the ruins.

With the sun now settled in the sky we surrendered our footwear to enter a mostly empty Virupaksha Temple under the watchful stares of a platoon of black-faced monkeys loitering up on the carvings around the temple doorway. The temple was magical and we padded around its smooth stone floors and courtyards, heads craned through 360 degrees to gawk at the staggering beauty of its elaborate carvings depicting finely toned gods and warriors cavorting with full-figured nymphs and comely hand-maidens.   The only thing that spoiled it was those monkeys. Like their pink-faced cousins, their early morning groom was well underway but for some reason this seemed to consist mainly of having their bottoms ‘thoroughly’ cleaned by a buddy. Suffice to say there were no rubber gloves involved only fingers and, ahem, fists… well, I’ll leave that there, shall I?

After a hearty Indian breakfast of Masala Omelet and Aloo Paratha washed down with Masala Chai at the Mango Tree restaurant, we set out to walk a few kilometres along a winding path with overviews of a broad river that took us to Vittala, the second major temple complex here. The terrain is somehow softened by the presence of yet more of those big round boulders and it is all very pleasing on the eye. At Vittala, another abundance of those fine Hindu carvings, this time in a soft pinky-red stone and the complex was further brightened by a vivid flash of orange drapery from a visiting mob of monks.

Afternoon and a tuk-tuk out to see the Royal Enclosure where we marveled at the Lotus Mahal, a summer palace made it seemed from Edinburgh Rock with deliciously nibbled archways leading into it’s shady interior all beautifully illumined and cross-lit by the sinking afternoon sun. A small gateway led through a stout fortress wall and into a grassy enclosure containing a terrace of cavernous accommodations that looked like a home for retired steam trains. This was in fact the elephant stables, another marvel you don’t see every day.

And so our day in Hampi ended as it began, with us perched atop a pile of rocks watching the sun, this time as it set across on the western horizon pulling its orange drape once more across the landscape of rocks and ruins. Parakeets and Kites returned to their roosts and monkeys walked across temple roofs as if in a chain-gang to find the peace of their bedrest for the night. And us; two tired sleepy heads climbed down off the rocks to meander twilit streets in search of supper and then on to bed after this most marvellous sunny day. In Hampi we had truly found a place to rival any Pyramid or Picchu; a treasure in our human world and holding that thought it was off to sleep…

To access the photogallery for this article click here: Karnataka – Hampi