Two Aussie blokes riding their BMW R1150GSs from Australia to Europe

Category: India

India – the second time around

This is the second time I’ve visited the Indian sub-continent. Eight years ago when I was last here, I rented a 500cc Royal Enfield ‘Bullet’ and rode from Delhi through the deserts of Rajasthan to the high mountain passes of the Himalayas in Himachal Pradesh. I recall it being one of the best times in my life. And I seriously wonder what has changed in these last years…

James, selfie style, during a solo jaunt in the Indian Himalayas

James, selfie style, during a solo jaunt in the Indian Himalayas

India is a country that polarises opinions; you either love it or you hate it. I loved it back then and expected no different the second time around. Our very first impressions after entering from Myanmar were wonderful – fantastic scenery and riding through gorgeous mountain ranges in Manipur. It was a rude awakening once we came off the mountain however. Naively, I put down to cultural differences in the country’s far east and happily crossed the border into Nepal expecting all to be well once we re-entered further west.

What a welcome though upon returning (as far west as we possibly could) when the road quite literally disappeared beneath us at the border. The immigration building smelt like it doubled as the border town’s sewage treatment plant. I shit you not. Passport stamped and welcome back James!

During the ensuing days, I couldn’t help but think how stupid people here were. People ride motorbikes without helmets (let alone any other sort of safety gear). They drive cars the wrong way down the motorway at speed without wearing seatbelts, whilst talking on their mobile phones. They drive the wrong way around a roundabout because the distance travelled is shorter. You are passed by wealthy people in their European sports cars on the motorway; sunroof open with 5 year old child with his head out the top. Trucks are loaded with more bricks than we’d spread across five trucks. And I’d strongly advise electricians against journeying to the sub continent – you’re likely to have a heart attack and not make it back. I felt like I was seeing Darwinism take place before my very eyes, and everybody seemed pretty cool about it.

Our passage through Western India centred around getting our Iranian visa’s from the embassy in Delhi, and we scheduled everything accordingly. You’ve not seen two grown men’s heart sink faster when told first thing on Monday morning that due to Persian New Year and Holi Festival, the embassy would be closed until Friday. But we were told we could come back then and have them processed within the day. All was not lost, as we decided to take a car to Agra and the Taj Mahal, and it also meant we could celebrate Holi with the family of a good friend from back home.

You can probably guess where this is

You can probably guess where this is

Drew, inspecting the craftsmanship at the Taj

Drew, inspecting the craftsmanship at the Taj

Moni, shopping for colours in readiness for the Holi celebrations

Moni, shopping for colours in readiness for the Holi celebrations

Holi - the festival of colour. It doesn't matter which colours you start with, they all end up turning purple!

Holi – the festival of colour. It doesn’t matter which colours you start with, they all end up turning purple!

First thing Friday morning, still glowing purple from Thursday’s Holi festivities and keen to continue west, we arrived back at the Iranian Consulate to be told that all was in order with our application but that due to banks being closed for Easter we couldn’t deposit the fees into the embassy’s account. And no, cash would not be accepted. “No problems sir, come back on Monday with the completed bank receipts and we will give you your visas”.

Delhi is the most intense place we’ve visited yet, and the thought of spending the weekend there twiddling our thumbs didn’t appeal to any of us. But nor did getting back on the bikes to try our luck with Charles Darwin, so we rented another car and headed to the “Pink City” of Jaipur. Along with Agra and Delhi, Jaipur completes the ‘tourist triangle; it’s very popular and for good reason. City palaces, water palaces, centuries old astronomical observatories and not one but two forts make it a great place to immerse yourself in Indian history and culture.

Nahargarh Fort, above Jaipur

Nahargarh Fort, above Jaipur

Nahargarh Fort, above Jaipur

Nahargarh Fort, above Jaipur

Turns out the rest of Delhi thought it would make for a good weekend too (with it being a long one and all) so it was far from being the relaxed getaway that we’d been hoping for. Added to all this was our driver, who had an insistent knack for only taking us to places where he could get a commission from the proprietor. And he drove us to each with a will that made me think he wanted to be on the top of Darwin’s list.

Nahargarh Fort, above Jaipur

Nahargarh Fort, above Jaipur

Making shadows at 'Jantar Mantar', Jaipur.

Making shadows at ‘Jantar Mantar’, Jaipur.

Not entirely sure what's going on here?

Not entirely sure what’s going on here?

Some wildlife at Jaipur's Water Palace

Some wildlife at Jaipur’s Water Palace

Jaipur's Water Palace. Clearly being well looked after

Jaipur’s Water Palace. Clearly being well looked after

Needless to say that my patience with India was wearing thin. I was surprised and disappointed at the way I was reacting to it – I was fed up, uninspired; I’d become one of the haters. A friend sent me a message on Facebook and asked if I was having the “time of my life”. This hit me like a tonne of bricks, because it suddenly occurred to me that I was in the middle of the journey that I’d been dreaming of for nearly a decade and I didn’t want to be here. I was disappointed with myself for letting India get me down, and I decided that tomorrow I’d turn a new leaf.

Tomorrow became Monday, and we rose early to pack the bikes figuring that we could just keep riding once we picked up our passports from the embassy. It was really hard for me to not rip the newly turned leaf to pieces though when, upon presenting our bank receipts at the embassy, we were told that we could come back at 5pm on Tuesday to collect the passports. Apparently our applications had not been approved, and calls would need to be made to the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. To his credit, Drew dealt with this much better than I, and managed to talk them into letting us come back at 5pm that day to try our luck. And lucky we were. There was less than two hours light left in the day, but with passports in hand we were so keen to get moving that we got on the bikes and started riding towards Amritsar regardless.

Like a golden light at the end of a filthy long tunnel, thankfully Amritsar helped me restore some of my former enthusiasm for India. It’s home to Harmandir Sahib, the Golden Temple, which is the centerpiece of Sikhism. Despite it being crowded in a way that only an Indian attraction can be, there’s something truly peaceful about this place. Any person of any race or religion is welcome to visit the temple. There are no metal detectors, no body pat downs, no entry fees, and no ‘government approved’ guides wanting to show you around.

A Sikh man, bathing at the Golden Temple

A Sikh man, bathing at the Golden Temple

The Golden Temple

The Golden Temple

Whilst there we also took part in Langar. Langar is a community kitchen – a free feed for anybody who wants it, at any time of the day. And let me tell you that a lot of people want it. Apparently 100,000 people per day are feed at Harmandir Sahib’s Langar. 1.5 tonnes of dahl, 200,000 rotis and 100 LPG gas bottles are churned through every day. You can’t help but feel good about humanity after visiting this place and eating the food on offer. How timely that we were to leave India the following day.

Waiting for Langar, at the Golden Temple

Waiting for Langar, at the Golden Temple

Serving rice at Langar

Serving rice at Langar

After stuffing ourselves at Langar we headed out to the Indian/Pakistan border to watch the border ceremony. This really has to be seen to be believed. It’s like going to a stadium sports match, except the sport is patriotism and the players are the punters. The referees are army personnel with swords, rifles and machine guns. It really is something to sit and watch 5,000 people screaming for their country as armed guards ceremoniously lower their respective flags. On the one hand it’s fantastic to see people celebrate their identity despite their circumstances. On the other it’s scary to witness just how easily national pride could turn into unrest.

Hordes waiting for the border ceremony at Wagah. Note the decorative uniforms of the army officers in the background

Hordes waiting for the border ceremony at Wagah. Note the decorative uniforms of the army officers in the background

After the border ceremony is completed the crowds are allowed to rush towards the gates

After the border ceremony is completed the crowds are allowed to rush towards the gates

Our last day in India was also the day that I had to farewell Moni – properly bittersweet. Without a Pakistani visa it was out of the question for her to continue, whether she liked it or not. We lingered as long we could but after Moni’s taxi took her to the airport Drew and I climbed back on the bikes and headed for Pakistan.

The airport taxi

The airport taxi

Not more than a week before a terrorist attack had taken place in Lahore (30kms from the border we were to cross), killing 70 people. It was fair to say we were apprehensive. What a surprise when the security officer out the front of the immigration building shook our hands in turn, followed by a hug saying “Welcome to Pakistan”.

The journey continues….

A sheila joins the party – guest post by Monica

When I’m sitting on the back of James’ bike I think of all sorts of things. I think about that corner in front of us and how it would feel if we were to slide off and scrape across the concrete. I see that car pulling out of a garage and imagine how it would have been if we had put the brakes on too late and flew over its boot. I observe the trucks rushing past and picture how it would be to fall under its chunky wheels.

This is what crosses my mind on a casual motorbike trip in Australia. Where roads are beautifully smooth, trucks stick to the street markings, traffic splits away to let ambulances pass and hospitals adhering to the best hygienic and medical standards.

What the hell was I thinking to join the Blokes on Spokes on their trip through Nepal and India? Who knows. But here I am and ‘namaste’ to you all.

Reunion with the Blokes in Kathmandu

Reunion with the Blokes in Kathmandu

I'm also a rock star!

I’m also a rock star!

I arrived in Kathmandu, Nepal; the home of the Himalayas, well, at least one of its homes. Given its enormous stretch over 2400kms the Himalayas are spread across Nepal, India , Tibet (or politically correct/incorrect China), Pakistan and Bhutan. The Himalayas are also home to 9 of the highest peaks in the world. One of them is my new obsession after reading Into Thin Air and travelling to the birth country of sir Edmund Hillary; Mt Everest. Before you get too excited let me tell you though that I haven’t seen its majestic peak, but I bought a T-shirt which says “Mt Everest” instead. It was almost as good as seeing it with your own eyes. Almost. Anyway, that doesn’t matter because I got to see my husband instead and that was as good as Christmas, my birthday and seeing Mt Everest together.

The Annapurna range - don't trust the t-shirt

The Annapurna range – don’t trust the t-shirt

Both James and Drew seemed to be well, very hairy but in good spirits. You’d think after 2 months on the road they would have got sick of the road or each other but let me tell you, these blokes are living their life long dream and nothing can tear them apart. And for 2 weeks I feel very excited and privileged to be part of the adventure and look behind the scenes of Blokes on Spokes, so bring it on!

After a couple of rest days in Kathmandu it was finally time to jump on the bike. I quickly ripped off the tags of my new Dainese gear (clearly I’m the outsider here with not a single piece made by BMW) and off we went to Pokhara, 200kms away. Sounds like a short trip? Not in Nepal where streets are bumpy, roads are windy, Tata trucks are using the wrong lanes and of course there is the occasional goat popping against the pannier. But we made it, 6 hours later and most importantly in one piece.

A happy pillion

A happy pillion

Now you must be thinking I quickly soiled my new gear given my introduction to this post, but guess what, I wasn’t even scared! Don’t ask me what happened, I’m still trying to figure it out myself, but I was sitting on the back of that bike as relaxed as a sack of potatoes. James said that there is so much going on here but there seems to be logic in the madness. And somehow it is true. There is only one rule it seems; just make sure to toot your horn (preferably all the time) and you’ll be fine

So, without the anticipated panic attack we spent some relaxed days in the Himalayas. Drew went off on his own and tortured his beloved BMW whilst ascending to 4000 meters ASL (looking forward to that blog post guys!) while James and I left the beamer behind and went trekking to Poon Hill mountain, 3200 meters ASL (just 5650 meters below Everest).

On top of Poon Hill, very cold and very early

On top of Poon Hill, very cold and very early

Trekking to Poon Hill

Trekking to Poon Hill

Mega flower whilst mega trekking

Mega flower whilst mega trekking

But what goes up must come down, and we had to descend to Delhi: 1000kms in 4 days and I was still a happy pillion. Watching the landscape rushing past, smiling at the goats and Brahmans munching happily at the road side and waving at excited school children. And after a day on the bike we enjoy a cold Everest beer, some Dal bhat, momos and the most delicious chicken tikka. Life is good.

Watch out for the panniers goats!

Watch out for the panniers goats!

Dal Bhat, a Nepalese staple. Literally dal and rice

Dal Bhat, a Nepalese staple. Literally dal and rice

 

I made Momos!

I made Momos!

But then came India!

As soon as we crossed the Nepali immigration office the road literally ended. We continued onto the gravel with 1000 other people, cows, scooters, bikes and what not. Did I say Nepali roads were bumpy? I take it all back after being confronted with holes that sent me flying into the air. Did I say anything about the Tata trucks in Nepal? What Tatas? Oh they are all here in India in abundance, all painted like the Mexican day of the dead festival.

The ominous Tata truck. Best to know your place on the road

The ominous Tata truck. Best to know your place on the road

How ironic given that we almost got sandwiched between them. Is there logic in the madness? Yes, but the madness prevails. And just wait until you get into Delhi and you drive at 10km/h on average, in 32C, in your new waterproof and not so breathable Dainese gear. The food is good but!

Let’s go back to my first question; why am I here despite the obvious concerns I have when traveling on the motorbike? Well, mainly to see my husband again who I missed dearly, but I was also very curious and wanted to be part of this adventure. Maybe there was a bit of FOMO too. I wanted to challenge myself and face my fear, instead of running away from it. And I have been rewarded; I could cuddle James for hours, I met wonderful people, saw breathtaking vistas and baby goats, indulged on delicious food and learnt that life is much more fun outside of your comfort zone.

Come here dinner

Come here dinner

India, where anything goes – 9236kms


The last day of Myanmar was amazing, twisting backroads through gorgeous countryside overlooked by mountain ranges. We were also allowed to motor ahead of the van for most of the day giving us the freedom we all needed and are used to. The Myanmar/India border road takes us by surprise as no longer are there countless Buddha images but Christian Churches. Passing through on a Sunday morning, we are taken back by well dressed folk on their way to church with bibles in hand. As we work our way to the border we all become anxious about another dreaded border crossing taking hours with many people, pushing and spitting their way to the front of the line. We couldn’t believe we’d arrived at the border as there was literally no one else there – passports were stamped and I was even asked where I would like the stamp to be in my passport. I was offered some local fruit by the immigration official and most of the delay was our government official making chit chat with the border control.

We were waved good-bye as we crossed a metal bridge, moved back to the left side of the road and entered India with smiles across our faces; until the smell hit us!

I don’t know what came first, the smell, the dust or both?

“Welcome to India”  the border control guards offered with AK47 riffles in hand, “passports please”

We were then sent in search of the Immigration office for official forms and stamps; we actually almost drove right through the town before locating it. A nice man with good english dressed in a Ralph Lauren t-shirt and jeans took our documents and we all had a lovely time in a gazebo whilst he happily stamped. Then it was off to Customs to have the bikes inspected and approved. We all crossed the border together so this process took some time. Having never been to India the first thing that hits you is the amount of people! I knew there were a lot but was taken back at the figure of 1.5 BILLION. There were simply people everywhere and the contrast from Myanmar was indescribable.

We finally stopped for lunch and were astounded by the attention!

“Excuse me sir, where do you come from? How much your bike worth?”

Every time we stop we're instantly surrounded by hordes of men

Every time we stop we’re instantly surrounded by hordes of men

Smiling faces crowding around our bikes

Smiling faces crowding around our bikes

These 2 questions always come first, then how much fuel they consume, could they take a selfie with us or better still be their friend. At first I quite liked it, the Burmese are so shy they often retreated with conversation but the Indians are far from shy; Jimmy left his bike for 5 minutes to enquire about our first hotel room and came out to find a guy sitting on his bike!

We just can't but help heading for the mountain roads in India

We just can’t but help heading for the mountain roads in India

Look really closely at that road in the distance. Freakin' awesome

Look really closely at that road in the distance. Freakin’ awesome

The countryside however is absolutely stunning and we can feel how close we are to the the Himalaya’s – the road into Imphal was magnificent with little traffic and tight corners. We did however leave too late and ended up off the mountain range as the sun fell which left us with 2 options; stop in nowhere land or push on in the dark for Imphal. Now apart from Jimmy no one else had ridden in India before and the tales soon became reality as we were facing oncoming traffic on the wrong side of the road, push bike riders carrying loads, cows and worse pedestrians that could only be seen at the last second.

The ominous Tata truck. Best to know your place on the road

The ominous Tata truck. Best to know your place on the road

In India you don’t need indicators, stop lamps or low beam head lamps. All you need is a fucking loud horn and high beam headlamps! The theory seems to be if you want to get around someone you hold your horn on and pull out into oncoming traffic, if there are vehicles coming towards you keep going but turn your high beams on – that way you blind the person coming towards you at speed, move on and let them jam the anchors on without being able to see and it’s all sorted! Thankfully we all made it to Imphal in one piece and all acknowledged that we won’t be travelling at night again.

We finally found a hotel most of us were ok with, checked in and went for a beer – until we realised that Manipur is a dry state! We laid our heads for the night.

High on the hill was a lonely goat herder

High on the hill was a lonely goat herder

We awoke late without a plan the following morning and between cursing the annoyingly slow wifi and trying to decide what to do for the day we decided at noon to part from our group of travellers and move on from Imphal; the town was more like a city and any appeal we had hoped for had worn off. We headed towards the Northern mountain ranges based upon distances and thought that Kohima would be a nice town in the mountains to stay. We were quickly realising that towns in India were actually more like cities.

Riding through the streets of Guwahati

Riding through the streets of Guwahati

We located a hotel that had a lock-up for our bikes and met a nice Australian- Matt from Sydney working in Nagaland as a researcher for Sydney University. Over a dinner at a fantastic traditional Nagaland restaurant we were educated by Matt about the conflict in the area since 1946 and made sense of the military presence we had come across.

Traditional Naga dish #smokedpork #India #atewithourhands #adventuremotorcycling #bmwgs

A photo posted by Blokes On Spokes (@blokesonspokes) on

India is going to be epic, we have 10 days to get to Nepal (Kathmandu) to meet James’ wife – let’s hope we get him there in one piece!

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