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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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After 8 stationary days off the bikes we're finally back on the road again; with Iranian visas in our passports! Turns out we couldn't have picked a worse time to apply: with Holi, Persian New Year and Easter all falling within the same week. #blokesonspokes #backontheroad #iran
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.
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.
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.
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.
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….