Kolkata, India. 10th February 2020.
I’d like to tell you that the road from Jessore to the border at Petrapol was good, but I can’t. It will be one day, because the biggest hold-ups were related to resurfacing. Regardless, I got there in the end, as I always do. Once I’d been through immigration, and found where customs was, the fun began. I was given to a scruffy looking guy, with no uniform, who messed around with the Carnet, disappeared, came back, gave me some tea and then took me to the big chief’s office. He handed me back to the same guy who then took me through to the customs hall and started talking about wanting a ‘writing fee’ of 500 Tika. (110 Tika to the GBP.) I asked to look at the carnet, checked it had been completed properly, then I just walked off. It was obvious he was trying it on, but more in hope than expectation. Back out at the bike the border guard wanted to search my luggage. He even asked me if I had a gun! All very odd, considering I was leaving.
On the Indian side, the first thing they did was to send me to a hut where a guy took my temperature as part of their Corona Virus checking. The rest of the procedures were very smooth. I asked customs how long I was allowed to keep my bike in India. He said twelve months because I had a Carnet valid for twelve months. This was interesting, and here’s why. It had been pointed out to me, on one of the Facebook forums, that foreign vehicles weren’t allowed to remain in India for more than six months. Then, they’re not allowed to come back in for a further six months. I had plans to be in India for a couple of years, so this was a real problem. Needless to say, there were people saying how they’d got away with it by doing this or that, but the problem is that if, when you leave India, customs realise that you’ve overstayed, they’re perfectly entitled to keep your vehicle until you pay the import duty. Which is very high in India. I knew this was true because I’d checked it on the Indian customs website. It was also why I wasn’t going to accept what customs had told me at the border. My game plan was to ship my bike back to the UK and buy another bike in India.
There was nowhere open where I could top up my SIM until I reached Kolkata, then I was able to find a hotel. I have an old school friend named Larry, who’d originally lived in the city and was curious what the area looked like now. So I managed to find a hotel not too far from that area. They had nowhere to park the bike so I put it in the yard of another hotel across the street. A nearby café supplied me with a pizza and I noted that they do breakfast too. I also found a beer shop, so the day ended well.
A visit to the same café for breakfast, then I walked round to where Larry used to live. It looked to me not to have changed much in the sixty years since he left. Most of the buildings were at least that old. Going by its appearance, the tram that ran down the street looked as if it was from the same era too. I took plenty of photos and sent them to Larry later on. He’ll show them to his mother and let me know what she thinks.
I’d been put in touch with a guy named Rony, who seems to be the man in the know when it comes to bikes, and the biking groups, in the city. I wanted to get the valve clearances adjusted on my bike as they’d never been done in over 60,000kms. He knew a mechanic who was used to working on KTMs and all the big Japanese bikes, so Rony was confident he’d be able to do it for me. He’d found me a hotel in a different part of the city, but close to the mechanic, so I rode over there and booked in. Rony came over later and took me to the mechanic. He seemed confident about the job so I let him get on with it. It wasn’t finished by close of play so they got me a bike taxi back to the hotel. Rony came over later on. We sent out for some beer and had a good chat about life, travelling, bikes and everything else. He lives with his four year old deaf, mute son and works as an Uber driver. He’s a very nice guy and says that he knows people all over India and will always be happy to put me in touch with local people.
My bike was ready by lunchtime the next day so I got another bike taxi to the shop, although I had to guide him there in the end. I needed to put the fuel tanks back on the bike as it needed a bit of a knack to do, and then I had to repair the wiring to one of the rear indicators. As well as the valve clearances, he’d done a couple of other small jobs so I was very happy with the Rs5,300 he charged me (Rs90 per GBP). It definitely sounded quieter on the ride back to the hotel.
Once there the promised ‘secure parking’ turned out to be the pavement outside the front door, with a security camera pointing at it. There was a security guard, but he looked older than me, so I didn’t expect much from him. I had to remove all my panniers and hump them up to my room, for security. Later on I had some chats with people who were keen to meet me. One guy, Akosh, runs an accessory shop and heads up a small group of riders. Another guy, Neel, lives a couple of hundred kilometres from the city and wanted me to come up for the weekend. I decided I’d visit Neel, then come back to Kolkata, then meet Akosh. There was a fair bit to see in the city so I needed time to see it all.
Next day I went for a walk. A very long one. Over twenty kilometres in the end, although that hadn’t been my plan. I’d read about an area which had a pottery market. I went there but couldn’t find anything like that. But what I did come across was a number of workshops where they made clay models, usually life size and often of a group of people and animals. The process involved weaving the figures out of straw, which was tied into place rather than being on a wire frame. Then they were plastered with mud. I didn’t see any sign of a kiln so it seems they were left to dry naturally before finally being decorated. They wouldn’t have been very strong and I’m assuming they were used just once, for festivals and so on.
Just nearby was the Hooghly River, with a railway running parallel to it. I was highly amused to see the levers for the points placed in the middle of the road next to it. I mean, why? I walked along the river bank, observing life as it was lived by the poorer residents. The river was their bathing and clothes washing facility. There were buildings alongside the ghats, designed to give people some privacy, and other facilities too. Ghats ar access points to the river, usually a set of wide steps going down the bank and into the water. They were all sponsored by the city corporation and community organisations. Further along was a crematorium, also run by the city. It had electric burners, I presumed to prevent the need for riverside biers, burning wood. I saw dozens of trucks parked along the road, with every type of vehicle bringing goods to them to be loaded on. Light trucks, hand carts, cycle carts, men with bundles on their heads. I wondered how they knew which truck to go to and what confirmation there was that they’d made the delivery. It looked like chaos to me, but I’m sure it was organised. There were many street dwellers too. I saw a group of women and their children who seemed to be living on the back of an old cycle cart, which just had a plastic shelter over it. Poverty, almost too unbelievable.
Just above me was the Howrah Bridge, one of Kolkata’s famous landmarks. It is a massive steel structure, built to replace the pontoon bridge that used to be there. The only supports are the caissons on each side of the river, and its cantilever construction. It’s almost three quarters of a kilometre long, carries about 100,000 vehicles and 150,000 pedestrians per day, and is the sixth longest cantilever bridge in the world. Impressive! Unusually for such a construction, it has no nuts and bolts. Instead it is entirely riveted. Twenty six and a half million tons of high tensile steel were used in its construction, most of it supplied by Tata Steel. It was completed in 1943. I love this kind of engineering. To me it’s a mega work of art in metal. It needed some extensive repairs when a ship went under the bridge in 2005, and got it’s funnel stuck, but other than that, all it’s needed is routine maintenance. Follow this link for more information. It’s worth a read, if you like this kind of thing.
From the bridge I turned back into the narrow streets. I was fascinated by all the activities taking place. Lots of market stalls and shops, of course, but it was the tiny little workshops that caught my attention. They were tucked under buildings at the semi basement level. ‘Holes in the wall’, sums them up. About a metre square, and maybe one and half metres high, there would be one man, sitting inside, carrying out some kind of money making task. I watched one guy beating tin cans, the type that hold cooking oil, back into shape with a hammer. Shoe repairs, sewing repairs, and almost anything else of a similar nature, was taking place. I can’t begin to imagine how hot they must get in the summer. A type of transport I hadn’t seen before was a vehicle similar to a rickshaw, but with two poles coming from it, with a bar across the front. It would be hauled by a man through the narrow streets. I couldn’t help but visualise two fat ladies, sat majestically in the seat, being pulled along by a skinny old man, sweating and swearing in the midday heat.
I visited Tagore’s House, the former home of Nobel Prize winning poet, Rabindranath Tagore. One of Bengal’s famous sons. He also wrote short stories and painted pictures. He developed links with other writers around the world, especially China, believing in Pan-Asian connectivity. He toured extensively in the USA before and after the first world war, gaining sponsorship for his work. His large house is full of photos, artwork, examples of his writing and information on his life, his activities and his death in 1941, aged eighty. He was from a famous Bengali family and spent some time being educated in England. A real polymath. Both the Indian and Bangladesh national anthems were written by him. More info here.
I wasn’t far from the area where many of the colonial buildings were, so I walked around for a look. Classical architecture from its time, including the Town Hall, General Post Office and the High Court, which I particularly liked. After that was the very long walk back to my hotel. My phone battery died on the way back and I was a bit worried about getting lost. Fortunately it was all main roads and I could remember the way easily.
Sometimes mornings start well, sometimes not so well. When I left the hotel the bike wouldn’t start, which puts it firmly in the latter category. I carried all my panniers downstairs and put them on the bike. I hit the start button – nothing! The battery was flat. It’s beneath the seat. And the panniers have to come off to remove it. So off it all came and I used my starter pack to get the bike running. It ticked over nicely while I replaced the panniers and just as I was ready to go, the engine stopped. I cursed, loudly. I did it all again but this time I kept the bike revving. I got help to put the panniers back on, then gave the crowd around the bike, now about thirty strong, a bow and a wave, then disappeared down the road in a cloud of exhaust smoke and high revs.
I was heading for a small town called Khayrasole, out in the countryside of West Bengal, where Neel lives. I had a nice ride, once I’d left the city. That, in itself, was very easy because they have a good system of overpasses. More than half the route was on a well maintained expressway, the rest on nice, straight roads across the rice paddies. I met Neel at the agreed place, then I followed him to his house. He lives on the first floor with his wife and parents, with other families on the lower and upper floors. It’s inside a compound which has plenty of room for parking, and also another house. This is all typically Indian, who always tend to share accommodation with extended family. I was made to feel very welcome by all concerned and quickly settled in.
Neel and I chatted about about bikes and travelling, particularly his bike, which is a Royal Enfield Himalayan. This is the bike I’m thinking of buying and I had a good look around it. I was impressed. It’s not a highly technical machine, nor does it have much power or sophistication. But it has decent specifications and is designed to cope with India’s roads. I was considering a second hand one, but a new one won’t be much more expensive than a low mileage example, so that’s the current consideration. The difficulty will be getting it registered in my name, but I have friends who can help me with that. Having had more discussions with other travellers about India’s six month limit for foreign vehicles, and the risks of overstaying it, buying a bike in India seems the best solution. Lots more research to be done, but I can now see a way forward with this problem.
The next two days were very busy as Neel took me out to explore the area. We pretty quickly headed out into the backwoods, riding through tiny villages, where the road was shared with cattle, goats and pigs. Many of the houses looked to have been refurbished, but Neel said not. It was just that they’d been freshly mud washed and painted. But there were a few old style, mud walled houses too. I was very amused by the way the cow dung was squashed into patties and stuck to the walls to dry out, ready for burning. Most of the people looked to be tribal, based on their appearance. The most common form of transport was cycling and walking, although some of the bigger villages had electric tuk tuks, and a few people had motorbikes. The main work was farming. At one point we came to a series of fields, surrounded by scrubland. The locals grew potatoes, mustard, pumpkin and tomatoes. They shared the work out, although each field was owned by one family. Produce was sold at local village markets. The land was irrigated, to make it workable. It was strange to see this little oasis out in the middle of the badlands.
One of the strangest things I saw was men pushing bicycles along the roads and tracks, heavily laden with sacks of coal. Out on the main road we’d seen people in a field, sorting through lumps of coal. Neel explained that there were illegal surface mines in the area, called Dukis. They go down to about fifteen metres and are controlled by the local mafia, with the government turning a (probably well paid) blind eye. The coal is used for cooking, especially in the very common clay ovens. On the road we saw heavily laden motorbikes, maybe with as many as eight large sacks on the back. It was on the tracks that we saw the bicycles. These poor guys had a monumental and back breaking task, to push them along the rough and sandy trails from village to village. They were cheerful enough though. It’s true to say that rural people will do whatever it takes to survive.
Then I went back to school! Only as a visitor though. Neel’s downstairs neighbour, Rahul, is the headmaster of a secondary school and was there to welcome us. He showed us around and took us to every classroom, where I said hello to all the children and met their teachers. Some of the ten year olds were working on computers, which I liked to see. The older ones were studying hard for their national exams. It’s a mixed school. Boys and girls were taught together, but sat in separate rows. The teaching language is Bengali, the native language of West Bengal. The next language taught was English, and then Hindi. This is a common theme in states where Hindi is not the main language, as I’d discovered elsewhere. English seems to be more important than Hindi. It strikes me as a little weird. The school has boarders too. They come from the tribal villages and their education is sponsored by the state government, as part of its programme to improve the education of these people. If I’m honest, the school and classrooms looked to be very scruffy, but it’s in a poor rural area and the building is quite old, so maybe that’s not a surprise. Most importantly, the kids were well behaved and attentive, and there seemed to be an atmosphere of care. We rounded off the visit with some tea and snacks from a stall outside. It was a very interesting and, ahem, educating visit.
After more sandy trails we came to some hot springs, whose water was trapped in a concrete tank. There were some women there washing clothes but the interesting feature was a couple of tanks which used to store helium gas, released when the water bubbled up. In 2001 they built a system to trap it but it clearly wasn’t very successful as they’d abandoned it by 2004.
We rode out to Massanjore Dam, a hydro electric plant, just across the border in the state of Jharkhand. It was a nice place to stop for some lunch and we met a nice family there, who’d been to a wedding at which the father, a lawyer, had officiated. We chatted, of course, but I have to confess that I struggled to understand his English. That was mainly because I now suffer from age related hearing loss, which makes accented English harder to understand. I often have to listen to people very carefully. We took a walk out along the dam and I was pleased to see a very nice garden and picnic area next to the spillway. It was nice to see industrial infrastructure made into a good place for people too.
We ended up riding back mostly in the dark, With me following Neel carefully. It’s common in India for riders to use four way flashers when riding at night. It seems odd, but it makes sense from a safety point of view. The system is an after market addition and the rider can change the rate of flash, according to their perceived need. Neel tended to ride quite slowly, at about sixty KPH. That was OK in it self, but the problem was that it was just too fast for third gear on my bike, and just too slow for fourth. When we got back to the village we met Neel’s Dad and had some chai, before heading back home.
Neel’s wife Threesa was fussing over me, making sure I had everything I needed. I think I was her special project. She’s very kind, is in her early twenties and is studying for a degree in English at a nearby university. In fact she had an exam coming up very soon, so was working hard at it. That morning Neel had taken her to the university on his bike, some twenty kilometres away.
Reviewing the day, I felt I’d really learned a lot about rural India, and how life is lived. Around eighty percent of India’s population relies on rural industries for a living, mostly farming. Neel’s father runs a construction business but the family also owns some fields where food is grown. A local farmer works the land for them in return for a portion of the harvested crop, the remainder is for them or for sale. The barter system lives on in these parts. It’s clear that villagers work together towards a successful outcome. The roads that led to, and through, the small villages were all surfaced and there was electricity everywhere. This indicated to me that the government did its best to maintain a good quality of life as much as it could, including educating the children. It looks to be very poor, to a city boy like me. But that situation is relative and I knew that many city dwellers endured a far worse standard of living than the people I’d seen today.
A far different kind of day followed our rural rambling. Neel works as a sales manager for one of the big steel companies, and we were going to visit one of their plants. We were up and out relatively early, even forgoing breakfast. Rahul the headmaster, was on the back of Neel’s bike and once we reached the expressway, we met another couple of guys on a bike. After a while we stopped for breakfast. It was interesting to watch the guys eat. Their meal included roti, which is a very flat bread, made with wholemeal flour. It’s quite tough but because the left hand is never used to eat people learn the art of tearing pieces off it with just the right hand. It’s a tricky operation, and then the roti is used to scoop up the rice and its accompaniment. Most eating is done with the fingers, a common method in both India and Bangladesh. I was eating chow mein and had the benefit of a fork. The restaurant is also a bar but was nowhere near any town, meaning that driving was the only way to get there. I didn’t want to make any assumptions, but I felt it would be a good place to avoid at closing time.
At the steel plant we were shown around by a supervisor. The plant produces mild steel, used for construction work of all kinds. There are huge stores of coal and iron ore outside and it was fascinating to watch the molten metal get poured into moulds, mostly in the shape of long steel bars, about 100 or 150mm square and about 15 metres long. These went through rollers, several times, while still molten. Then they were formed into different sizes of round reinforcing bar, to be used with concrete on building sites. I watched a team of about ten men, who were picking up three or four lengths of bar, then using a series of posts as a former to bend the bars in half. The final act was to jump up and down on the bars, right by the bend, to make it sharper. They would then be loaded onto trucks for delivery.
The biggest takeaway for me was the complete absence of any kind of personal protective equipment or concern for health and safety. The shed was very gloomy; there were large machines with no guards on them at all; trip hazards all over the place; no barriers around the molten steel moulds; nobody was wearing a hard hat, hi-vis or even boots. The guys I was watching had been issued with gloves, that’s all. An absolute nightmare. When I asked if there had been any accidents, Neel told me he knew of a guy who’d lost an arm in one of the machines. Why am I not surprised? Any Western health and safety inspector would have shut the place down. But Hey-Ho, we were in India.
We then rode out to Ajodhiya Hill Station. The British developed many such places as a way to escape the summer heat on the plains. So I was expecting to see some old colonial buildings. But I was disappointed. Whatever had been there was long gone, just plenty of nice hotels instead. We were now up at 550 metres. Not very high, but I could feel the difference in temperature. We rode down a bit, to where some waterfalls were located. I didn’t bother scrambling down to see them. A cold drink seemed a better option. My choice was the right one because when the others came back, they said they weren’t up to much anyway. Our last port of call was another dam, which looked new but was over ninety years old. It was very mundane, as dams go. Nothing like as nice as yesterday’s.
Then began the five hour ride home, four hours of which was in the dark. We stopped a couple of times for chai and snacks before the others left us and it was only Neel, Rahul and me. A lot of it was on nice roads, but some of it was a dusty, truck filled, speed bumping hell. Every railway crossing had at least two speed bumps each side, and every town had them on the approaches too. It was also starting to get a bit chilly. I couldn’t see through my visor for dust so rode with it up most of the time. Not every ride can be fun, I suppose. This one was torture and I was extremely glad when we finally got home at about 10pm.
A rest day was very welcome. We washed the bikes and did a few maintenance jobs. In one of the towns a car had smashed my off side mirror, something I had no immediate solution to, except to put the broken one on the nearside. I had another look around Neel’s Himalayan and pretty much decided it’s the bike for me. We went out on it later and it rode very well. I sat on it and it feels right for me. There’s some thinking to be done and a decision to be made.
It was very pleasant to sit on the balcony, in the afternoon sun, drinking coffee, chatting to the family, while watching the monkeys annoy the neighbours. I’d had a very good time indeed there. Superb hospitality and a very interesting couple of days looking around. Neel’s Dad said I must come and visit again. I certainly hope to be able to do that on my journey around India.
Next morning I headed back to Kolkata. This time I was meeting another internet contact, named Saikat. He had a place where I could stay for a few days in the city, which sounded great. The first part of the journey took me through plenty of towns, with their attendant speed bumps, traffic and idiots, who just pull out without looking. At one point I was getting really angry. It’s completely pointless to do so and I told myself I needed to calm down. National Highway 19 came to my rescue, as did the rest stop, the same one as I’d used on the way up. After some food and coffee I felt much calmer and carried on to meet my next new friend.