19 January, 2008

In-dia, In-sane!

Wow, what a difference. Nepal to India must be the most marked difference in everything that I've ever experienced between two countries. In Nepal, the roads were empty, if pot-holed. In India there are people and animals everywhere including all over the road.

Here if you have a wheel and you can find something to make it turn then you are in business. You can transport people, and there will always be room for a little cargo, or you can transport cargo and there'll always be some room for a few people on top. The number of wheels can be anything from one (a wheelbarrow) to six or more. The thing that makes the wheels turn could be your leg, arm, an ox, water buffalo, donkey, camel, elephant, horse or an engine. The engine could be powered by gas, diesel, petrol or electricity. But it's a fairly safe bet that the exhaust won't work is some way or another, and that the horn will be in perfect working order and loud enough to alert the Starship Enterprise that it may come close to a galaxy some time in the next light year. You should be able to hear these horns in Europe, if they would only switch off the muzak for a wee while.

And the "driving" . . . it isn't so much driving, really, as just moving vehicles from one place to another while hitting as few other vehicles as possible along the way. Then all sorts of huge pollution-belching trucks squeeze around lumbering ox-carts to head directly at you. In an effort to get to someplace where I thought there might be places to stay I made the stupid mistake of driving into the darkness. Vehicles of every possible description and some you can't imagine which appear to defy the laws of physics pour all over the place. Some lit, others not. Many with full-beam on, blinding the on-coming driver (me!) to the unlit vehicle overtaking them! My horn got plenty of exercise but it was mainly ineffective. Three times I just had to stop as massive trucks came looming towards me out of the dark. The odd thing is that, if only they would stick a little closer to whatever they were overtaking, I might have a strip of road to squeeze by on. But for whatever reason they like to get as far as possible away from that vehicle and use up all of my side of the road. I say "my" but any space on any road here belongs to the largest vehicle in the vicinity that wants to occupy it. I've performed manoeuvres on a daily basis here that any self-respecting member of a motorcycle display team would be proud of. But I've done this with complete strangers who immediately ride away, never to be seen again while the next dare-devils appear behind them!

I bumped, squeezed and barged myself into Delhi and began looking for Paraganj, where the Dutchesses were staying and arranging to buy their Bullets. I found them lazing around at Balu's (http://www.bulletwallas.com/) waiting for their bikes to be ready. Margot's pal Rjimke had flown in from the Netherlands to join in her adventure and was happy about everything but especially to be pillion and share costs with Margot. Margot herself was unwell and not often able to leave the comforts of her hostel room.

Balu had arranged for them to get fully-reconditioned 350cc Bullets in whatever configuration they desired. They both wanted the Army Green one and some painting and reorganising had to be done before both Margot and Mirjam were happy.

Meanwhile sight-seeing was on the cards and some illnesses were to be recovered from. Margot and I both got the famous "Delhi Belly" which laid us low for a couple of days. A large amount of rattly drugs from Dr Gupta soon had us up and about again. Meanwhile a chain-store 'Coffee Day' had comfortable shops full of delicious coffee, and less delicious cakes, everywhere in the city centre. While we were there both Gordon Brown and Nicolas Sarkosy visited but we barely noticed them. Neither did we ever find the Toilet Museum although we did try. Rumours said they had ancient examples of toilets from 3000 years ago! But surely this would have been one side of an prehistoric bush!?

I was waiting for my visa to travel through Iran to arrive and decided it might be useful for me to impose myself upon these ladies while they ran-in their bikes. We had got along well in Nepal. They would have to ride their Bullets at less than 50kph (32mph) for 500km. I have a much bigger toolkit and some limited mechanical experience. I also used to teach motorcyclists how to ride their bikes and pass their tests. My bike is one of the more powerful on Indian roads (would you believe?) and so I could 'shadow' these two bikes, hopefully keeping the worst of the merciless and murderous traffic off them while they trundled slowly along waiting for their bikes to feel like going slightly faster.

The bikes needed "running-in" because the reconditioned engines were like new. The new bits of metal inside may be too tight and so you have to go more slowly for a while as they rub themselves together and wear themselves in, a bit like getting new shoes. Also Bullets are notoriously full of 'character' - which is a euphemism meaning that they break down. A lot. An awful lot!

The day eventually came when we were to make an early exit from the city to avoid the worst of the mad traffic. We had planned to meet at 5.30am and made this. Sadly, Mirjam's bike wasn't in any mood to go anywhere and it turned out (after we had waited for an earthly hour in which to call Balu) that the batteries are completely necessary for these bikes to go, even though they are kick-started. Mirjam's had somehow become flattened overnight. We wobbled out of Delhi at lunchtime, tired and drained after so little sleep. The "Motorway" was nightmarish with the running-in procedure meaning that the Bullets had to go no faster than their 32mph. This distressed other drivers as I did my best to 'cover' the Bullets by sitting behind them and sticking myself a little further out into the road than other road users would ordinarily have liked. Exciting and often fun - but not recommended for much long-distance travel.

It was late when we stopped for lunch and then some minor illness laid Mirjam low but meant she was too weak to ride her bike. A quick look around for accommodation showed that everything around was massively expensive in comparison to what the girls would normally consider within their budget. So we treated ourselves to the posh place where we'd stopped for food. TV, hot showers, all the bits and bobs. There are chipmunks everywhere.

Fully refreshed in the morning it was decided to take the bikes onto the slower, quieter back roads. This was a wise decision overall, since our slow pace meant we were less likely to cause any accidents. Also we could concentrate less on the traffic and more on the scenery and on the wee villages we were passing through.

Still it was interesting to watch other motorcyclists as they came up behind me and immediately took an interest in what this strange motorbike might be that I was riding. They pointed and discussed for a little while but soon enough you could tell the moment when they realised; - "never mind that, that one in front's a girl!! And there are TWO girls on that one!!!" Then they wobbled around, stared and gave themselves something of a challenge just staying on at such a low speed. Those who wobbled closest looked a bit alarming to me as they might have distracted the ladies, so I sometimes felt it necessary to intervene and get myself between the two bikes, effectively chasing them off. This served also to break the relative monotony of dawdling along so slowly.

Later in the day a very, very loud bang announced the departure of Margot's decompression valve from its hole in her cylinder's head. We got it back in but it blew out again almost immediately after. It had clearly stripped its thread. We abandoned her bike in a hospital car-park and moved Margot and Rjimke into town on the other two bikes. The town itself was full of wedding parties so the only place we could find for us to stay was in a hotel where they had no rooms left. Yes, but they would let us sleep in their restaurant, as long as we were up and out in time for breakfast in the morning. They made us up a huge bed-for-four on the floor of the restaurant and after dinner and a funny game of "Uno" (like Black 5, but more Dutch, vicious and formalised with special cards) we all crawled sleepily into our sleeping bags.

Next morning Margot and I found the Bullet Wallah in the town (just ask the first Bullet rider you meet) and he soon had her bike in many pieces. The cylinder head had to be re-threaded but this only took a couple of hours. Meanwhile Mirjam and Rjimke had found us another hotel.

Mirjam had also been having problems with her gearbox, among other things, and no amount of fiddling adjustment of her clutch would let her use 1st or 4th gears. A quick phonecall to Balu back in Delhi and he suggested sending another bike down, complete with mechanic, to change over all the paintwork! In looking more closely at some of the fittings, nuts, bolts etc, it was found that many of these had been over-tightened or not tightened nearly enough. Balu confessed to having had a poor mechanic, who he had since sacked, and this mechanic had worked on Mirjam's bike.

There are some interesting signposts in India. This was my very favourite.

In Jaipur we had some serious tourist time. We saw many of the famous local landmarks and enjoyed just wandering aimlessly around. At one point a very kind man invited us into his house and gave us tea and biscuits. His house was huge and very cool. Another man took our photo on an ancient camera he said his father had used. We tried to look stern as we posed, like our grandparents. As we visited the only temple in India dedicated to the expected-god-that-hasn't-arrived-yet (a Messiah!?), its keeper became confused about our relationship. I got further surprised by a big hug from him! Margot was less keen on being hugged and said her religion wouldn't allow such a thing. After further questioning, it appeared I now had three Dutch wives but we had no children between us. The man had three sons but only one wife and he and I almost agreed to swap one son for one wife. Sadly we had to leave, and I still have no offspring! Outside, some cycle rickshaws waited to take us wherever we wanted to go. Mirjam and I managed to convince two of the drivers to let us pedal and while Mirjam pedalled Margot and Rjimke back home, I peched up the hill with the two smug and smiling drivers in the back, much to everyone's amusement - two red-haired Westerners pedalling cycle rickshaws isn't something normally seen on the streets of Jaipur it seems.

Later that evening we went to the pictures to see a Bollywood film. It was all in Hindi but that didn't really matter as the film was easy to follow. The picture house itself was the most famous in India- an interesting attempt at Art-Deco, İ think.

More small roads took us eventually to Pushkar. The only breakdown on that trip had been when Margot's steering-head bearings came loose. Quickly tightened by the local Bullet Wallah, we were not delayed long.

Pushkar has a huge holy lake in its middle. We relaxed in the tourist-orientated atmosphere and found some tasty food outlets. At Jodhpur we visited the fort and had some interesting culinary encounters. Margot and Rjimke decided they wanted to go west into the desert usıng the main roads while Mirjam and İ were more attracted by the back roads and going south to visit a BulletWalla affiliated ranch outside Udaipur. Just as the girls were about to leave Margot noticed that her throttle wasn't warking. This led to a couple of hours of running about on my bike finding the parts. They cost virtually nothing but took some time to materialise. During the time we waited, we had some good coffee, relaxed and giggled a lot.

The girls decided it was too late for them to make any progress towards their intended destination so Mirjam and İ waved goodbye to them and headed off onto the back roads, uncertain of where we might end up but looking forward to finding out. Crossing some fords and riding through some interesting scenery brought us tired but satisfied to a superb hotel in the middle of nowhere. This was beyond our usual budget but after Mirjam had negotiated a massive discount, we decided to treat ourselves and checked in. Later that evening there was a show for all the rich tourists who had come in on a big air-conditioned bus. This show managed to interrupt our normal evening activity of reading books, so we decided to go and have a look. Among other things there was this fire-eating man who was very entertaining but alarmed many of our fellow guests. Quite funny.

Next day we went to see a massive Indian fort. Outside the fort were 11 black 500cc Bullets and Mirjam became quite excited. Inside we found a tour group who had paid a lot of money to be shown round India on these. They had a back up vehicle with mechanics inside in case of breakdown. Their tour guide was a Dutch lady and she and Mirjam were soon happily chattering away in Dutch. We decided to follow them for a while and I became very nervous as I followed 12 Bullets through the Indian countryside. What if my bike broke down now? Could I ever live down the embarrassment? Luckily all the bikes behaved themselves and we all reached Udaipur together. We were invited to join the group for a drink after dinner and enjoyed a very convivial evening with them.

After a couple of days' R&R in Udaipur, we set off to look for the ranch. Some wrong turnings and a difficult-to-follow map took us on a 120mile magical mystery detour through some of the best scenery and along some of the quietest roads I've seen in India. Eventually we found the ranch - it was only 10 miles from Udaipur!Here we relaxed totally and even rode around on some Merwari horses. These are rare and the Maharaja who owns them and lives here treats them with incredible care. The ranch was a little bit run down but very welcoming and comfortable.

By now my Iranian Visa was supposed to be ready and awaiting my arrival in Quetta, some few thousand miles away in Pakistan. I bade a fond farewell to a happy Mirjam and her Bullet. She had a flat tyre and some bent forks that day, but nothing too serious that she couldn't easily cope with! It had been great fun and very relaxing riding around with these nutty Dutch ladies. The distances we had covered had been tiny in comparison with what I was used to. Now, with some sadness, I headed north, determined to get some 'proper' mileages done and be back en route towards home.

I sped up to Amritsar in just two days, missing Mirjam's fantastic ability to get good rooms at the cheapest prices. At the end of long days, I was too tired to negotiate and paid far too much for poor accomodation. But it was good to be back on the move again. The bike also seemed cheerful to be moving along at a more reasonable speed towards home.

Amritsar was very impressive. Each policeman I asked for directions offered me tea and quite soon I was being ushered into the inner sanctum of the Golden Temple itself, surprised at how close I was encouraged to come on the bike. A friendly Sikh gentleman showed me where to park and took my boots into a safe place so that I could walk around happily in my bare feet. What a fantastic place. Everything seemed to be centred around the giving of food. A huge kitchen prepared meals for thousands each day. The Temple itself was in the middle of a tranquil lake. While not as big as I had imagined, it was impressive nonetheless. What was more impressive was the genuinely warm welcome given by the Sikh people maintaining the place.Tues-Jan, a Dutch friend of Mirjam's I had been briefly introduced to in Delhi, was waiting in Lahore, just a few miles over the nearby border. He was also waiting for his Iranian visa and had gone to Lahore to try to hurry it along. After an enjoyable walk around the Golden Temple, I collected the bike and made my way west.