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Published: January 22nd 2012
A lot has been written about India by previous motorcyclists. Most of it was negative; and probably all of it justified. While India has its good points, very few of them can be happily observed, or for that matter reached, on the back of a motorcycle.Riding in India is chaos… life threatening chaos!
Welcome to India
Our border crossing at Wagah-Amritsar went surprisingly smoothly, apart from a small disagreement when Tanja decided to take on ‘Indian bureaucracy’. I gather there was a short argument with a painful chap in a Turban about whether I could wait outside and watch the bikes while he processed our passports. I couldn’t. By the time I came inside he had decided to shuffle our passports to the bottom of his pile in punishment. The situation was only rectified when Tanja stormed off and I gave the ‘man in charge’ some resigned looks and told him ‘yes, my wife has fiery temper, I know I have to live with it!’ This appeared to placate him and with our new found rapport I was able to convince him to process our passports; albeit slowly and with some further unnecessary bureaucratic inefficiency.
Welcome to India.
So apart from one argument, and a two hour wait for ‘the chief’ to come and poke at our bags in a half-hearted attempt to carry out our customs inspection, it was all cheery at the border. So cheery in fact that we ended up having coffee and biccys. Not knowing the source of the water, Damon had a few half hearted sips before tossing the contents of his cup in the bushes. He is not made of stern stuff when it comes to food.
Onwards to Amritsar! Onwards not very far. Unfortunately by the time we’d finished the border bureaucracy most of Amritsar was now heading in the opposite direction, straight towards us, to watch the border closing ceremony. Helpfully, the Indian solution to a traffic jam on a duel carriageway is simply to drive on the wrong side of the road. No, really. It is. All the cars, buses, tuk-tuks and rickshaws had filled all four lanes, including both of ours, and had begun to spread out onto the hard shoulders. Traffic jams in India appear to expand until they meet an impassable boundary. Eventually we managed to break through, with some
At the Golden Temple. This one was orderly, not like the chaos at the Taj.
pushy riding, loud revving and liberal horn honking. Welcome to India number two.
When a road is not what it seems… on the map
After we cleared the jam it was fairly smooth riding for the 30 odd kilometres to Amritsar. However, once we got into Amritsar my GPS lead us down an ever narrowing series of passageways. At one stage we ended up almost wedged in a tiny alley with open sewers on one side and small motorbikes on the other. By ‘brushing’ a few bikes we just squeezed through, eventually emerging onto something that resembled a road again. Strangely we were following ‘driving directions’ from Google maps, and these were for a car!!. Welcome to India three.
The Golden Temple
Having located the Golden Temple district we parked up to look for a hotel. Right under a pigeon roost – splat, splot. On the upside, we’d wandered away from the bikes before the crapping started. On the downside, Tanja’s boxes and seat were now covered with pigeon crap. Hmmm… the ‘welcome to India’s were starting to lose their appeal.
But, the Golden Temple was an impressive sight… even if we had
Even the cows were having a rubbish time here.
to take our shoes off to see it. Being made of stern stuff I didn’t have a problem with this. Feeling differently my fellow travelling companions felt it necessary to liberally “wet wipe” their feet with anti-bacterial wipes before donning their shoes again; much to the amusement, uncertainty and generally disdainful looks of the locals. When in India… (do as the locals; and risk fungal foot diseases, I guess).
On another positive note, the food in Amritsar was great. After surviving weeks in Iran on little else but Kebabs, the delicious Indian food was a revelation. In fact it was so good that we were able to persuade Damon to harden the f*ck up, forget his hygiene concerns and actually eat some. This time, we didn’t even make him sick (unlike the KFC experiment in Pakistan).
Christmas is coming!!
Our plan for Christmas was to make it to Pushkar, erstwhile home of Bernhard when in ‘Hariom’ guise. Yes, our Christmas options were limited. Unfortunately it was a late start on the 23rd
, as we waited for our Indian motorcycle insurance to emerge (it didn’t) and at mid-day we had about 700km to cover in one and
I blame the beer (Birgit, on this occasion beer was not fixing anything!)
a half days. The first night we made it to a riverside dump, which from memory was called Faridkot. It is a town of no redeeming features whatsoever and my only advice is not to visit it. If you fail to heed this first piece of advice, then my only other piece of advice is: do not, under any circumstances, eat the fish. After a friendly local led us astray with Budweiser and Indian whisky Damon and I – yes the same Damon of canned food only in Pakistan fame – were lured to a late night fish fryer. While it was quite tasty, the general hygiene standards and dubious origin of river fish in India still makes this a meal I regret. Not to mention the next door toilet, which was an open cubicle draining into an open sewer; used for number 2s!! Beer, it would seem, does not always lead one to tread the safest path.
The following morning, not having suffered any noticeable ill effects from the fish, it was onwards for Christmas in Pushkar! Onwards until 4pm. At which point we had to stop. The road was deteriorating, we still had 130km to go and
End of the sand!!
A long time to go a short distance. Merry Christmas from my GPS!
sunset was looming. Christmas eve would now be spent in a town that made Faridkot look like it had redeeming features (it still doesn’t). Christmas Day would now be spent riding our bikes. The general surroundings and the thought of tomorrow’s ride was so depressing that I coined a Christmas song to cheer our spirits:
“It’s Christmas time, It’s Christmas time,
But Santa’s far away.
Oh, it’s not much fun to ride your bike
in India on Christmas day!”
Yeah, well I never said it was a good Christmas song.
Surprisingly, and somewhat inconsistently with my pithy song, it actually turned out to be quite a lot of fun to ride our bikes in India on Christmas day. Less surprisingly, my GPS took us down some tiny muddy lanes in a small village until eventually the ‘roads’ ran out (again). Being rendered temporarily ‘helpless’ I made an independent decision, took a wrong turn and got us a bit lost. Rather than go back we decided to ‘head on’ a bit and follow the road we were now on, even if it wasn’t quite going in the right direction.
When the road improved.
No, really. This was the good bit. (Christmas Day still)
Until the tarmac ran out, at which point I promised Tanja we would just ride on the dirt a bit, and turn around if we hit any sand. After we hit the sand I said I’d just ride on a bit alone to see how deep it was and how long it went on for. By the time I’d ridden a few hundred metres the sand was bloody deep, was going to be difficult to turn around in and to be honest I didn’t really fancy riding back through it. Not to worry, the others were now unwisely following along. It wasn’t too bad. It only lasted about three kilometres… three kilometres which took nearly two hours! Damon and I really enjoyed it, even if he did fall off. Tanja was a bit less enthusiastic, although coped impressively with the difficultly of wrestling an overloaded bike in deep sand.
Pushkar is apparently a spiritual place on the side of a holy lake. Curiously, the level of spirituality appeared to be fairly proportional to the number of western tourists there to absorb it. Or perhaps that’s just me being cynical. As for the holy lake, it was
Not a white Christmas in Holland, but could have been worse... we could still have been stuck in the sand!
at the bottom of the hill below Pushkar and hence captures a lot of its run off. Not such a good thing for a holy lake. Particularly when the run off includes the contents of open sewers, filthy streets and hordes of wandering, crapping cows. I gather there is a river in Pushkar that runs underground, before emerging from the desert for 400 metres, only to disappear back under ground. Bernhard told us about it. It sounded like an impressive sight. Unfortunately we didn’t see it. After surviving two weeks in India I have no doubt that for the 400 metres it was above ground it would have been pissed in, crapped in and generally polluted with rubbish – such is India. I can almost picture the surprised looks of the locals as they discover that, unlike the water, the rubbish they have just thrown into ‘the river’ does not disappear underground; instead building up as a fetid pool at the end where the river disappears. Maybe I’m wrong. If I go back (chuckle) I’ll check.
Pushkar, fortunately, was not all bad. We stayed in an old converted haveli (Indian for mansion) in a cheap (about €6) but
quite nice room. We also had a pretty delicious spread of Indian food for Christmas dinner, all served in the open roof top restaurant of the more expensive haveli across the road. It was not very Christmassy, but it was a damn good meal in a very impressive location! Although, sadly, due to its ‘spirituality’ Pushkar is a dry town where there is no alcohol. Happily, due to our lack of spirituality we washed Christmas dinner down with slugs of whisky from Damon’s hip flask. It wasn’t a white Christmas in Holland, but it could have been worse… even much worse… say for example if we’d spent it on the riverside in Varanasi!
And then the fun began
The desert roads through Rajasthan were very quiet, by Indian standards. The roads my GPS managed to find even more so. Sometimes, apart from the odd wandering cow, there was no traffic at all. After we left Pushkar that began to change.
At this point I feel I ought to say something about Indian road rules. There aren’t any. Instead the following general guidance appears to apply:
1. You should drive on the left, unless it
Teaching Damon how to ride
God knows he needed to learn: there's two motorbikes and a cage full of chickens that are regretting his visit to India! Not to mention all the near misses.
is inconvenient. ‘Inconvenient’ meaning inconvenient to you, not to anyone else.
2. Honk your horn and flash your headlights all the time, even more so when you have ignored the first part of guideline 1.
In India, buses will pull out and drive straight at you as they overtake another vehicle. They will do this when they can clearly see you and with no concern whatsoever about forcing you off the road. People will drive the wrong way down duel carriageways, apparently for no more reason than because it is inconvenient to find a turning spot. Four wheel drives will swerve straight at you to avoid mud puddles. Cows will wander aimlessly in front of you. F**kwits in big four wheel drives will pull of traffic and drive down the wrong side of the road, honking their horns and forcing everything out of their path, just because they feel they can. Throughout all of this life threatening mayhem you have to grit your teeth, plunge on and off the (often not so) hard shoulders and try to remain calm.
Between Jaipur and Agra we saw four serious truck accidents. One of them had caused a huge traffic
At one point I started looking at the Armco on the side of the road. There were huge dents every 50m or so... bad. Forget the locusts, Indian drivers crash. A lot.
jam. Trucks on our side were queued up for about a kilometre. We ventured between, and around them. When we pulled to the edge we encountered cars on the hard shoulder, on our side of the road, going the wrong way. What appeared to have happened is the traffic on our side had started driving on the wrong side to get around the smashed truck blocking the lanes. The traffic that had switched to the wrong side of the road then met the traffic going the right way. Unsurprisingly it all stopped. The traffic on the other side then started driving down our side, until it came across the truck. It stopped. By the time we arrived people were driving in whatever direction and wherever they thought they could fit; until of course they met someone coming the other way doing the same thing. And then they both stopped. The way it looked, that traffic jam could still be there. Utter chaos, made unintelligibly worse by the sheer selfish stupidity of Indian drivers.
Bernhard, the all too famous Bernhard, once said about riding a motorcycle in India “oh it’s ok, there aren’t really rules, but the people look after
the people”. Since man first hitched horse to cart, this may be the most untrue statement ever uttered about driving. Indian drivers are without a doubt the most selfish, most clueless, least caring, biggest f**kwits you can ever imagine. Riding a bike there is quite simply horrible. For brief periods it seems ok, and then you encounter a truck coming straight towards you on the wrong side of the duel carriageway, or a car doing a three point turn on the highway so it can drive back the wrong way, or a small bike ‘sneaking’ between the traffic in the wrong direction… at speed… with four people on it!
Without a doubt India, due to the poor roads and even poorer driving standards is the most dangerous country we have visited so far on this trip.
The ‘local’ in Faridkot – he of fried fish fame – told me that scientists have studied why Indian drivers are like locusts (sprinkhanenplaag) and never crash into each other in a crowd. I can say from first hand experience that Indian drivers do resemble locusts, they are greedy, swarming, uncaring, unpleasant insects. However, in fairness to locusts, I would say that
Highway obstacles in India
Just another day's riding in India... not for him, he was rolling it!
if you could teach a locust to drive a car it would probably do it better than an Indian, and probably with a less stupid expression on its face as it runs you off the road.
Enough about Indian driving.
New Year’s Eve!!
We made it to Agra, where the Taj Mahal is, for New Year’s eve. By which time: I had a bad cold due to the mouth uncovered sneezing and coughing fit I encountered on a narrow stairway in Pushkar; Damon was feeling unwell in the stomach, either due to lingering ill effects from the KFC we fed him in Pakistan, or perhaps due to the Dominos pizza he ate in Amritsar (surely it couldn’t have been the Indian food we forced on him?); and Tanja wasn’t feeling quite right either. Disappointingly, we had trouble finding a decent place to stay at a fair price, and so lashed out about €180 on a posh hotel with an included “New Year’s lavish buffet dinner”. If you ignored the flayed baby pig’s head decorations, prawns of unknown origin (we were a long way from the coast), and smoked salmon of questionable freshness, it was pretty good
food. Shame we all felt sick, in one way or another. New Year’s eve 2011-12 lived up to all expectations… if you expect New Year’s eve to be disappointing. It was disappointing in spades. I have to say, I missed the fireworks of Enschede. A lot!
This was bloody impressive. Until you got closer. At which point you’d bought a ticket and were standing in a queue. A queue where you discovered that you paid 750 rupees (about €7) while the locals paid 20 (about €0.40). Although, for our 37 times higher ticket price we did get a shorter ‘high value ticket holders’ queue. Unsurprisingly, in a nation of 1.3 billion, our queue was short. Their queue was not.
Once inside the gates the Taj was still quite impressive. Until you got closer and had to put on your silly ‘shoe shower caps’. Indians have something against shoes; probably because their country is so clean. Indians are a bit like Iranians and their indoor carpets in that respect; except Iranian carpets actually are clean. Also, it had rained overnight so our ‘shoe shower caps’ quickly got muddy. Not to mind our muddy plastic bootys
we were manhandled inside ‘The Taj’ by the (un)helpful, rather sweaty, and quite smelly security. Inside The Taj it was dark, and you weren’t allowed to use a torch, or a camera flash. All the Indians ignored this rule. To make matters worse, several thousand people had already moved through before we arrived and so it was hot, humid and in truth there was not much to see. I wished I’d stayed outside.
Outside quite a long way away. There was a park on the other side of the river. If you saw The Taj from there it probably would have remained impressive. It is not a monument that improved with close proximity.
Varanasi is an Indian holy place, it is where the holy waters of the Ganges river flow by. As we rode into town we passed a rather large garbage dump. The garbage dump was right next to the holy river. Like the ‘holy lake’ in Pushkar, it did not seem that the ‘holy folk’ of India had grasped the concept of run off.
On the way into Varanasi my GPS had its second worst day of the trip (so far);
it clearly was not getting on with India. Nor for that matter was Damon, if all of his swearing, yelling and aggressive bike riding was anything to go by. Helpfully, Tanja had decided we needed to stay near the river “for the full Varanasi experience”. Near the river is a maze of small alleys. Alleys in which we got lost. It was the Golden Temple experience all over again, except this time, deep in the maze, we encountered an immovable traffic jam to improve the experience. Eventually we found our way out again, and stayed somewhere more sensible: a long way from the river.
I was starting to suspect the others were not warming to my GPS and its idea of ‘driving directions’ in India.
Some people apparently like the riverside at Varanasi with its temples, holy men, lepers… burning bodies. I didn’t. I saw a row of balconies. They were above a pile that looked like garbage and shit. There was a cow grazing in the garbage and shit. Someone came out and emptied a bucket of awful smelling liquid onto the pile. It probably was shit. It was all draining into the holy river. A dead
New hygiene standards
The room really was this grotty... although once Damon tried this 'tent in the room caper' he wouldn't stop!
cow was floating by. Its decaying ribs were showing. People were doing their washing in the river. One girl even went for a swim. She put her head under, and came up with her mouth partly open! I kept thinking that the lepers would be better off if they stopped dipping their scabrous sores in the river. The holy river might have been slightly better off too.
Every tourist we saw had a sort of glazed look of suppressed horror on their faces. I think I probably had the same look. We bought some bread from an organic bakery near the river. When we got back to the hotel we couldn’t eat it. It reminded us of where we’d been. The riverside at Varanasi is not a particularly appetizing place. In fact, the riverside at Varanasi is the closest thing I’ve seen to a literal hell on earth. It did not seem holy to me.
Unexpectedly, the burning bodies were far from the worst bit.
I have decided that the true hallmark of ‘spirituality’ is the ability of ‘belief’ to completely suspend a person’s ability to take in clear reality.
Out of India!!
Sewage in the foreground, man having just bathed in the middle (with holy water container), rotting cow carcass in the background. Very holy?
did not go to the riverside in Varanasi; instead he declared himself to be ‘overflowing with culture’, having been on the road for 516 days a few hours, some minutes – his website has a counter, so he states when making such accurate declarations. Instead he stayed at the hotel and changed his bike tyres. Jokingly (and probably stupidly, given my GPS’s developing reputation) I promised to find him the dirtiest, shittiest most covered in sewage roads possible for our ride out of Varanasi on his new tyres. Unhelpfully my GPS delivered exactly that. We road through ever worsening, slippery, somewhat smelly, light brown mud for about 10k’s. I nearly fell off, twice, a thought that doesn’t bear thinking about. Had I fallen, I probably would have had to immerse everything, bike included, in Dettol. Fortunately none of us did fall off. An even more impressive feat on Damon’s part, given he was on still slippery brand new tyres.
After we cleared the sewage/mud the road did not improve much. My GPS also felt it was helpful to take us straight through the middle of every village/town, at market time, on roads that seemed to be closed to vehicles.
The 'empty the bucket' sewage system in Varanasi
In one mid-town traffic jam I managed to knock over a bloke’s brand new bicycle. He unexpectedly poked the bicycles front wheel straight in front of me from between two trucks. Sadly, although I didn’t see it, one of the trucks then ran over the bike a bit. I still feel bad about this, as that bicycle would have been worth a lot to him. But there wasn’t much I could do, in fact he nearly took me out as well. I would liked to have stopped and given him money, but this is not a wise idea in India. Every time you stop a massive crowd starts to accumulate, if you stop after an accident and began handing out money it would be incredibly unwise. Sorry Mr Indian bicyclist, I hope it wasn’t too badly damaged by the truck.
In fairness to my GPS, when we rejoined the main road conditions did not improve in any noticeable way. The road was still a potholed mess, only now there was more traffic. In the end we didn’t quite make the border, stopping just before sunset when we were about 40km short. The following morning we got up at
By (un)holy river
6:30am for an early start to get out of India! Except it was foggy, incredibly foggy. We couldn’t see more than 20 metres. It did not seem wise to ride in this. Interestingly, a lot of people had warned us about fog at this time of year. We had seen quite a bit before, but nothing this bad. Usually the fog was a bit smelly. I named it “smelly fog” or “smog” for short. The smelly fog cleared a bit at around 11am, and it was onwards to the border! Which we made in about an hour.
Next blog: Nepal. Which I promise I will try to complete before I leave the country this time. Nepal is nice, we’re currently lakeside at Pokhara, where Tanja used to work with a paragliding company, and I’ve just finished a beer… ah beer!! (as long as it doesn’t lead to fish for dinner).
Tot: 0.104s; Tpl: 0.022s; cc: 12; qc: 52; dbt: 0.0126s; 1; m:saturn w:www (184.108.40.206); sld: 1;
; mem: 1.5mb