02. India

Some impressions of motorcycling across India

Another mass examination of the big yellow bike.

Any stop by the side of the road turns into an opportunity for locals to examine the big yellow bike. The most common questions are:

  1. How much does it cost? I say $4000, because I gave up trying to explain the bike is 20 years old.
  2. Wod is de capasody? (you have to imagine this one with an Indian accent and that funny little wobble of the head). I say 1000cc. This causes great discussion because the biggest bikes in India are usually locally-made 350cc Enfields.
  3. Where are you from?  I say Australia. Sydney? No, the pointy bit up north.
  4. How old are you! I say 56. Really, you look much older! Thanks for that.

The vast majority of bikes here are 200cc or less – usually Japanese brands assembled locally and rebadged as Heros (Hondas), Pulsars (Suzukis) or Yamahas. There is one brand called Bajaj which, because the “j” is pronounced a bit like a “z”, the name sounds a bit like “Bazza’s”.  Also, the fact my bike has no chain is a cause of great concern to some.

Rear view mirrors are rarely used here. Most old bikes have either lost them in the street battles over the years or, more bizarrely on newer bikes, have them folded in to protect them from the street battles!

I have travelled approximately 1500km since coming to India and have only seen one other foreign motorcycle. It was heading south towards Delhi just north of Karnal. Just got a glimpse of it going the other way in the heavy traffic. Didn’t even have time to wave.


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The Golden Temple – and some other ones!

Bawa and his mighty autorickshaw – powered by a staggeringly asthmatic 350cc single-cylinder diesel. The engine was a quiet as a handful of marbles in a jam tin.
Any power it made was converted into noise not motion!

The new day brings not packing and riding but the pleasure of not knowing what do. Breakfast? Perhaps the chance of the first real coffee since the suprisingly good coffee (long black with extra shot) I had in the KGH? Sadly, it was not to be.  I’m pretty sure I ordered a coffee. But what I got bore no resemblance to any caffeine beverage I have ever had in the past – and that includes the infamous third-attempt coffee at the McCafe at the Lakes back home! It was, however, quite a pleasant drink after the removal of the skin/scum off the top and the addition of copious amounts of sugar. I still not sure what it was though.

No matter! Suitably energised and eager to seize the day, I venture onto the streets of Amritsar and am immediately seized upon by Bawa – the autorickshaw driver who, for a small fee, will take me to the Golden Temple and anywhere else he feels like taking me. Bawa is young and desperate to succeed so I willingly give myself over to him for about 3 hours and enjoy not having to make any decisions about where I am going or what I am doing.

Part of the the wide marbled pathway or parikrama around the outside of the Golden Temple.

Architecturally, the Golden Temple is really just one part of  a truly remarkable complex of structures. At the centre is the Golden Temple itself which is surrounded by a shallow moat/artificial lake called the Sarovar. This is filled with holy water or “immortal nectar” (and giant goldfish half a metre long!). Around the outside of the Sarovar is the wide marbled pathway which the Sikh pilgrims circumambulate in a clockwise direction. Surrounding the entire complex is a collection of impressive verandahed and balustraded buildings in variety of colonial styles dedicated to various aspects of the Sikh religion.

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Onward to Amritsar – the Quest for the Golden Temple!

Leaving behind the dubious delights of Karnal, the goal for today was to reduce the 340km gap up the GT Rd to Amritsar. 340km in Australia could easily be done in 4 hours. However, this is India, I keep having to remind myself.  I had to split it into two stages – bypassing Chandigarh altogether.  Ludhiana was 220km away close to the banks of the famous Sutlej River – one of the main rivers of India after the Ganges and a major tributary of the Indus. North Queenslanders would feel at home with the rivers here. Massive bridges hundreds of metres long and tens of metres above a small trickle – just like the Burdekin in the dry seaon! But they sure must be a pretty impressive sight when running a banker in the wet season.

The overnight stop at Ludhiana came and went without a second thought.

Grand Trunk Rd at its grandest.

Only about 120km to Amritsar and the GT Rd lives up to its name – in parts.  Part 6-lane freeway, part single-lane goat-track weaving through small congested market towns every 10-15km. The kilometres fairly zoom under the bike’s wheels as I manage to get the bike into fourth gear for short bursts for the first time since leaving Australia. Before I know it I am on the outskirts of Amritsar and the elevated road affords glimpses of the Golden Temple – the most sacred site for all Sikhs.  With not too much trouble I find my hotel and set up camp for two nights – the first time since Gorkha in Nepal where I have made more than an overnight pitstop.

Tomorrow will be a day to relax and explore the Golden Temple

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5-star Delhi – a poisoned chalice!

The ceremonial guard on leaving the Hotel Samrat in Delhi.

After 3-4 consecutive nights of staying in grimy roadside hotels in nondescript towns, I decided to use one of my “Fast Forward to 5-star Hotel”.  (I have budgetted for a small number of nights in 5-star hotels along the way whenever I feel I really need it). However, I hadn’t anticipated using one so early into the trip. I had initially decided to skip Delhi completely and even with the forced route change I was keen to bypass it if at all possible. But I’m afraid I got sucked in by the half-decent road and the lure of a hot shower and a comfortable and clean bed. Deeper and deeper into the morass of urban squalor that houses the 10-15million people of Delhi. With  some help from friendly locals I managed to find my way to the diplomatic precinct on the far side of the city close to where most of the big hotels are. The Hotel Samrat wasn’t really 5-star. It would probably just scrape in as a 4-star hotel in Australia. But I didn’t care. It had A/C, two clean sheets and a towel. In the morning, I even discovered they had a complimentary buffet breakfast – bonus!

However, I knew that I would pay a heavy toll for my night of comfort. After catching up on some much needed sleep and dawdling over a lazy breakfast, it was nearly 10am before I pulled out of the carpark.

I had a feeling it was not going to be a good day when the two gentlemen behind the desk couldn’t agree on what was the best way out of the city north to Chandigarh. So, after fuelling up, I set off in search of the Ring Road. With only a few minor “recalcula-tings” I found the Ring Road and headed for the major turn-off that would take me to the Grand Trunk Road (GT Rd). Arriving at the T-intersection, the bulk of the heavy highway traffic turned left. A bit perplexed, I pulled over to check the mudmap that the hotel man had given me and it definitely said to turn right at the major T-intersection.  So, right I turned, ploughing me straight back into the worst of Delhi’s traffic coming up to the hottest part of the day.

After persevering for about 20 min I stopped for a water break and to ask for directions. As I had originally suspected, I was going away from the GT Rd not towards it. This little “recalcula-ting” had just wasted almost an hour and, combined with my late start, meant that I had no realistic chance of making it to Chandigarh for the night.

So tonight would be yet another night in a budget hotel in the charming truckstop town of Karnal.

Lesson learnt.

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…… into the fire!

Just a photo opportunity for somebody. In the middle of another massive traffic jam!

Before leaving Nepal I changed all my Nepalese rupees for Indian rupees. The Nepalese rupee is a restricted currency and is completely worthless outside the country except at border crossings, like Sonauli on the Indian side of the border, where there is a thriving black market for anyone who has forgotten to change their money.

Crossing out of Nepal turned out to be a somewhat comical affair.

Immigration in Nepal was no problem – 15min. Would have been even less if it weren’t for the stupid American tourist playing dress-ups as a Buddhist monk arguing about his expired visa. The main stumbling block was the carnet for the bike. Nobody in the Customs office seemed quite sure what to do with it. It got passed around several times – each time being checked that the 24 identical, unused pages were still identical and unused. Then somebody decided that I needed to get a copy of my passport and visa from a shop 100m across the road. After waiting in a squabbling queue for 20min I returned to the Customs office with the vital (?) photocopy in my hand only to find that I needed to get one more signature.  And guess what? He was on lunch. However, a very helpful and diligent (and, I suspect, about to be demoted) official took me 100m away over to the house where the grand poobah of Customs officials was having more than ‘lunch’. But who am I to criticise? After getting partially redressed he autographed my carnet and I was free to leave Nepal.

Surely things could only improve in India!

By comparison, border formalities in India were straightforward. Customs – no problems with the carnet. Just had to find the right book – 30min. Immigration – 15 minutes.  Back out onto the streets, straight into the clutches of the “helpers” who were particularly keen to relieve me of any US or Australian dollars. After no doubt making a sizable donation to their Christmas party I just wanted to get on the bike and get moving again.

By now, it had been just over three hours since I had first arrived at the border. The suffocating heat, biting dust, choking diesel fumes, blaring horns and seething crowds were just getting too much and I had to get away.

But where to? Continue reading

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