Monday 29 July – Nepal I think is now our favourite place so far. It seems every place becomes our favourite, but it truly was spectacular. Definitely somewhere to return to but when it’s not monsoon so we can see the Himalayas.
On arrival at Kathmandu Airport we were told we were not allowed to take helmets on the SpicyJet flight to Dehli. This is a first for us, as we’ve been on at least 4 flights before where it has never been a problem. On enquiring why, we were told for security reasons. The reason for everything when there isn’t really a reason. It’s not ideal as we don’t have a bag for them firstly and secondly they are bound to be thrown around and bashed in the haul. But we have no other choice, we brought a crappy but cheap laundry style bag, wrapped them in some clothes and hoped for the best on the other end.
Just as we watched the convoy belt carry the helmets away, I spotted the bag had already split all the way down the side. Luckily they grabbed it back for us and the shop keeper graciously swapped the bag. We’re not hopeful they will arrive in Delhi undamaged but there is not a lot else we can do.
The one notable thing about the departure from Katmandu was the amount of frisking. A grand total of 5 frisking sessions we encountered to board the flight. One when you first walk in the entrance, one when you go through passport control, one before entering the gate area, one when leaving the terminal building to board and one just before the steps upto the plane. We later learned this is due to a flight that was bound for Delhi from Kathmnadu was hijacked in the 90s by Pakistani terrorists who were demanding the release of 3 terrorist under Indian capture. All passengers were released but so were the 3 terrorists who were later involved in attacks such as 9/11.
A short flight later and we were in the city with a population of 12.8 million. Delhi airport is a sparkling, modern airport the whole majestic-ness of the place takes me a little bit by surprised as I have only ever been told horror stories of India by Paul after his Rickshaw Run experience. I remarked ‘it’s not like you said’ to which Paul replied ‘wait until you get outside’
Once we had passed customs we were stopped in the arrivals haul by a food inspector. He was eyeballing the laundry bag as they are typically used to transport food. He looked bemused when we showed him the helmets and asked ‘where is your food’ satisfied we weren’t carrying any nuts or veg he let us go.
There was a little confusion on the taxi as the receipt showed we were to go to stand 38 but when the drivers read the receipt they concluded it said 24, not sure how that works but we set off. Even on the outside I was still not entirely convinced it was chaos, maybe the darkness was hiding the true Delhi. There were actual lanes, tarmac, sign posts and the traffic is relatively orderly. There are also newish and expensive cars on the roads.
A screen at the side of the motorway showed it was 99.3% humidity whilst it was warm it was nowhere near the humidity we experienced in Bandar Abbas – I now can’t even imagine what the scale of humidity was there if this was 99.3% that must have been 200%.
A few motorbikes whizzed past and the passengers, and in some cases the drivers were wearing construction site helmets. There were actually being used as protective head gear.
We were heading for Paharganj area which has lots of budget accommodation but we had our hearts set on ‘Cottage Yes Please’ purely because of the name. It probably was a little more expensive than the other places in this area at 950 rupees but at less than £10 we had a clean room, our own bathroom, AC and internet so we were pleased.After checking in all that we did was go for dinner at the restaurant opposite and went to bed.
We woke up with a whole list of things to get done. We were in Delhi only for the purpose of getting an Enfield and continue our trip by motorcycle. We briefly considered buying a second hand bike and selling at the end. Pauls preferred scenario however would be to buy one and keep it. But seen as we don’t have the money to buy one and it could be a hassle to sell at the end, we decided to rent.
Two years ago Paul travelled from Kochi in the South West of India to Shillong in Northeast India by Rickshaw with some friends, so this time wanted to visit the North West Region, and has been an area we have both been very much looking forward to from the start of the trip, after watching numerous footage on Vimeo. One video in particular was of two young lads riding Enfield’s. A quick message to them revealed they rented their bike from Lalli Singh, who turns out is a bit of legend in the motorcycle community. Armed with recommendation of ‘don’t even consider going anywhere else’ we headed for Lalli’s place.
On the way we stopped off at a currency exchange to change the Nepali money we had left over. The place was no more than a makeshift second floor office, delicately balanced above a clothes store. It looked so unstable that I hovered on the stairs for fear it would collapse with another person’s body weight. The land of no building regulations.
We jumped in a rickshaw and headed for the ‘Bike Market’ in Karol Bagh. The jovial driver did rip us of a little [we only paid half on the way back] but he justified his charge by pointing out some Hindi monument and did a loop around a round-a-bout to make sure we got a good view.
This drive was a first real glimpse of Delhi I suppose. As we were stalled at traffic lights little girls ran to the side of the vehicles and perform acrobatics in the small amount of road space available and then ask for money or amputees hobble over with their deformities so visible it’s heartbreaking and impossible to ignore.
The bike market is mecca for all kinds of motorbikes and any kind of motorbike accessory you could desire. There are lots of places that buy, sell and hire Royal Enfields but we knew after the very prompt emails and endless good reviews on Horizons that the extremely knowledgeable Lalli Singh who runs Inder Motors and deals only with Royal Enfields was the place to go.
The basement workshop is located down an alley way and unassuming, single door entrance leads down a steep slope into a tiled bathroom esque workshop and office with mechanics galore. We could immediately tell this was a more professional outfit than the chap we rented from in Nepal.
We had just turned up without really making an appointment so Lalli wasn’t there but a young colleague of his explained all the details and formalities to us including the blessing which would be done to which Paul laughed but he was deadly serious. There was a hefty 30,000 rupees deposit to be put down and we needed to check we could draw that much in one day.
We left on a mission to find some cash before we could agree to take the bike. We were given no less than 5 numbers to call as just in case we couldn’t get through to one of them, another sign of the thoroughness and professional nature of Lalli Singh’s team.
We headed for the swanky area of Delhi called Connaught place as we’d figured it was the most likely place to have a trusty ATM. It’s basically a big circle with lots of shops and brands such as KFC, Nike, etc. Paul indulged in a KFC and like everywhere in India, there were lots of people. We were successful in drawing all the money we needed, so we made a quick call to Lalli and agreed a time for paperwork, test ride and blessing the following day.
Once we got back to the hotel we did some research as we’d only actually ever watched a video on the north west region and not really looked into the practicalities of it. We know of the obvious hazards like the poor road conditions, animals and the other drivers. What we hadn’t quite prepared ourselves for were the distances between places, affects of altitude and the weather conditions. We’ll be passing over some of the world’s highest roads and the altitude combined with roads surfaces are going to make it a tough and gruelling ride.
We planned to do our original planned route, a whole loop of the north in 14 days but that was looking less viable due to the average speeds that could be reached on the unpaved roads to be around 20-30mph. We’ll see how it goes but a little uncertain we’ll make it in the 14 days we have allowed.
We deliberated on which way to go about the loop as it is advised to go west first as the ascend is slower and therefore allows for acclimatisation to the altitude and you’re less likely to get sick. However the travelling in Kashmir is uncertain because of the persistent troubles and only a few days ago a curfew was put in place which meant no-one was allowed to leave the city of Srinagar. That would royally fuck up our plans if that were to happen. So against the advice we’ll be travelling northeast first to Shimla in the Himachal Pradesh province and brought some medication to try and combat the altitude sickness.
We ate again in the same restaurant ‘Festa’ last night’s meal was deemed a success as there was no Dehli belly insight. This time we ordered the Thali which is a platter of curries, so tasty that I couldn’t stop eating even though I was full to brim, everything was green so not so aesthetically pleasing for Paul. I love green foods but not brown – a little extra unneeded insight into my culinary satisfactions.
We toped the day off by watching ‘Salmon fishing in the Yeman’ – possibly the worst film we have ever seen and borderline racist. Ewan McGregor has lost all our respect.
Wednesday 31 July – Passing through Pahanganj in the early morning is a different experience than during the day. It’s a lot quieter for starters but the odd balls do stand out a little more, it does have a reputation for drugs and shady characters. Clearly caught up in that scene, a guy approached us and spoke in a perfect English accent but looked liked he’d been living on the streets for quite a while and said something like ‘you would see this in a London restaurant’ who knows what he was talking about. A little make-shift lassi stall on the corner seemed to be under attack by what I can only assume were debt collectors as they were literally ripping away equipment whilst some workers tried in vain to stop them.
Delhi doesn’t really start to stir until around 11am and many shutters are still in place when we arrive at the usually bustling bike market at around 10.30. Lalli’s team are there but are only just taking the bikes up the slope after being locked away for the evening.
We wait for just a little while and then one of the young guys took Paul for a test ride in Delhi and got to see the wide boulevards, spacious green parks and the prettier parts of the city. In the mean time Lalli arrives at the office and he’s just as pleasant as I’d been expecting. When Paul returned we for underway with the paperwork. Lalli explained he’s not technically allowed to ‘rent’ the bike without it being very costly due to each region charging their own tax for varying periods of time. Therefore if we’re stopped, we have to say the bike is borrowed.
The whole process is very formal and extremely thorough and we were left wondering nothing. Once the paperwork was complete we were taken through the very comprehensive spare part pack that Lalli was providing for us and also basic maintenance and repairs. We also took up the extra service of a guide bike to the highway as navigating our way out of Dehli was an experience we’d rather make easier. Everything complete, it was time for the Bike and our journey to be blessed in a Punjab ceremony. Which when Lalli mentioned it we thought he said something about a puncture. There is a little sticker of Ganesh on the bike which Lalli explained is the god for Journeys and new businesses. He called over all the mechanics, placed a burning incense stick on the handlebars and said some words, which I imagine is equivalent to a prayer and then offered Ganesh some glob jolum [golum jobly as I had been calling it] and all the team too.
We were in Dehli for three nights, two days. We didn’t visit any monuments/historic sites as our time was spent organising stuff. It’s big, dirty and chaotic, but has a charm that I quite like. It encapsulates two very different worlds for it’s inhabitants – one of the rich who live behind gated entrances in comfortable houses and then those who live and work on the streets. It’s not ladies of the night I’m talking about but almost everyone who earns a low wage from the rickshaw drivers to market hawkers. Even the hotel staff sleep on the floor in one shared room. We’re returning to Delhi at the end of the motorbike trip to fly out to Bangkok as crossing Burma from India is not possible from which we have known from the outset.
Thursday 1 August – The alarm was set for 05.00am. On the advice of Lalli but also to escape the mayhem an early morning departure was definitely needed.
With the motorbike loaded we were ready and waiting for our guide by 06.00am. What we saw whilst waiting was the most disturbing sight I saw in Delhi, directly in front of our hotel sat the ravished body of boy aged around 19 wrapped in dirty brown rag injecting himself with something out of silver foil. He then got up and walked off, his bones we so visible it was sickening.
Our escort arrived with a little look out kid on the back. He also brought us some spare fuel canisters as we will need to carry spare fuel as the distances between petrol pumps in the hills is more than a tanks worth. The roads out of Delhi were long and in very good condition, but the ride out wasn’t as traffic-less as we’d expected for that hour. Whilst not as chaotic as normal daylight hours there was still a fair bit of traffic on the roads and we lost a guide on a few occasions as he swerved between vehicles and we became sandwiched between trucks and rickshaws trying edge their way into any available gap. We passed numerous slums with rubbish bulging out of every crevasse onto the highway. Poverty stricken kids were awake and roaming the streets or pestering passing cars. Fruit and Veg markets were already trading and hawkers filling their carts with goods to sell at one of the various stalls around the city. We made it to the highway and our escort waved us off. It was one continuous road from there.
Once firmly on our way we stopped off for a coffee at a sort of motorway service station. Where the conversation went ‘do you have black coffee’ ‘yes black coffee’ ‘okay two black coffees please ‘milk?’ ‘no, no milk please, black coffee’ ‘ok, yes black coffee’ We got two white coffees.
Whilst I drank both white coffees, two prison guards walked past chained to a prisoner which they were transporting on a public bus. Luckily they had the pleasure of the bus stopping whilst they got on, whereas other passengers had to run and jump as the bus slowly departed.
We were passing Ambala today. I thought the place may reflect the scene depicted on the Ambala sweet tin from back home of elephants but it didn’t. We did by-pass it on the motorway but the only memorable thing was a huge railway station with passengers and luggage strewn everywhere. The tracks also passed painstakingly close to ramshackle houses.
The road to Chandigarh was complete highway. Sometimes four lanes, sometimes one lane. It rarely came to a halt except at the toll stations, which motorbikes pass for free.
By lunch time Paul’s face was already black from the soot coming from the continuous passing trucks and buses. We stopped at McDonalds on the outskirts of Chandigarh which Paul was convinced would be his last ‘safe’ meal. It was the 2nd McDonalds we’d seen that day, we then saw a 3rd a few hundred metres down the road and a 4th in a hillside town. I wasn’t spotting McDonalds, but the presence of them outside of Dehli surprised me, and definitely Paul.
After lunch it began to rain and pretty much continued all the way to Shimla. Sometimes a light shower and then other times a hard downpour. We were heading for the Himachal Pradesh region which is known as the land of eternal snow peaks. The plains of India end at Chandigarh and the climb begins into the peaks of the Himalayas from there. The road at first traces a deep valley with rushing rivers so we reach the clouds quickly. Along the road there were many monkeys perched on the wall overlooking the valley or skirting across the road with newborns clinging on.
On the way up we saw the tunnels and tracks of the famous mountain railway but we never actually saw the toy train carriage. We originally heard about Shimla as there was a BBC documentary on the Kalka-Shimla railway.
After a very long drive of constant climbing we arrived into Shimla around 17.00 with a black faces thanks to the trucks. The town is built along a ridge amongst pine clad hills and crumbling colonial buildings which were unfortunately mostly hidden by the blanket of cloud that is lingering. The buildings that we can see look pretty shanty town style and cling precariously down the side of hill.
Finding somewhere to stay was quite a mission. There are many luxury resorts which is not surprising as Shimla was the chosen holiday destination for the Raj families. We eventually found the budget end of town, which was under ‘Victory Tunnel’ but even then it required looking in three different places. It’s more expensive than Dehli here and the standard of the places a lot poorer. Two of the three places we looked at were still under heavy construction. We stayed in the third one I looked at even though it was one of the ones still being built – but it had secure parking. It was very odd as the room had been made to look like a modern European hotel complete with mood lighting but the stairway was crumbling and there were no lights.
The main town was a short walk up a very steep hill where monkeys scamper around in the trees and fight on building roofs. Vehicles, smoking and plastic are all banned in the main part of Shimla, which makes it very tranquil and clean. Founded by the British the main town has a very colonial and quintessential English feel to it. There are some mock-tudor buildings, a church and a theatre – even an amateur dramatic club. The cloud that had been lingering eventually opened up and the rain began to flow, we retreated back to the hotel with some cake and samosas. Maybe it was the English influence but there were endless bakeries with beautiful cakes for such a small town. An early night was needed as it had been a long day that had taken its toll on Paul and tomorrow would be equally as long.