Tuesday 1st September 2020.
Expressways, Motorways, Autobahns. Call them what you will, they all serve a single purpose, which is to get a vehicle from A to B as quickly as possible. The Himalayan was as happy in this environment as it had been in any other, cruising along at a fuel sipping 90kph. Roads like this don’t tend to bring surprises but this one did, in the shape of tolls. Bikes normally go free on expressways but this one had been built with private investment and they wanted their reward. Rs300 for the Lucknow to Agra section and Rs200 from Agra to Delhi. Not very much money in the grand scheme of things. The only other excitement came in the form of a refuel for the bike, and for me too. Indian motorway rest areas are just as soulless as those found anywhere else.
In my usual way I hadn’t bothered to book a place to stay and when I arrived in Delhi my phone wouldn’t connect to the internet. I managed to find a Dominos pizza house, hoping they’d have wi-fi. They didn’t, but they did have pizza, so I enjoyed one of those. Pizza is my go to food when I really fancy something English – even though it’s Italian. I got data back on my phone in the end and contacted one of the people Jay had given me details of. Jay had set up a WhatsApp group for me and had invited people he knew, who were on my route, to join it. Abhi was one of them and he invited me round to his home for some tea while we sorted out somewhere for me to stay. He found me a hostel, one of those that has capsules. A small cubicle, the width of the bed and with a metre or so at the end of it for luggage etc. Comfortable and private.
Abhi wanted to show me around Delhi, to which I was happy to agree. But my first task was to fix my Garmin GPS unit. It had died and I assumed it was a faulty battery. I’d spent several hours looking around Lucknow for a new one, with no luck. I knew there were Garmin agents in Delhi and the next day I went looking for the one I’d earmarked. They couldn’t help but directed me to another place across the city.
Delhi is split between old and new and it’s a fair distance between them. But the roads are very good, with dual carriageways, flyovers and so on. Except at rush hour, it’s possible to get around surprisingly quickly. The ride into New Delhi, where most of the government administration centres are, was very pleasant. The roads pass through a forested area and those that are anywhere near the parliament or presidential estate are very nicely laid out, with trees, plants and shrubs everywhere. There were signs along the main roads exhorting the traffic to keep in lane, something that is anathema to Indian drivers. But it did seem to have an effect, much to my surprise. I also noticed that people tended to obey the speed limits when driving through the government areas, so I followed suit. I had to keep in mind that my bike now had an Indian registration and I didn’t want any challans (traffic violation notifications) dropping onto Jay’s doormat.
Once at A&S Creations, the Garmin centre, we quickly established that the battery was OK, meaning the unit itself was faulty. Yes, they could repair it but it wasn’t definite and would take several days. So I bit the bullet and bought the new version of the same type. It would fit into the cradle on the bike and they gave me a Rs2,000 discount, bringing the price down to Rs52,000. It’s a Montana 680, in case you’re interested. Back at the hostel I spent a happy hour or two setting it up to how I like it. The software gives lots of options but I do find it very counter intuitive to use. But the new one is the same as the old one, with the addition of a camera – rather pointless in these days of smart phones.
Next morning, after some shipping related admin, I rode over to Abhi’s. We jumped in his car and went for a drive around. We went to a big market area, where we had to go down into an underground car park. This place is BIG! We went down three levels before we found a place. You have to leave the steering unlocked and the handbrake off in case the attendants need to move your car so as to let another one out of a space. They’re all crammed in together, with an attendant at every corner directing operations. It was madness to my eyes, but seemed to work.
We jumped in an electric tuk tuk to go deeper into the market area. Abhi was pointing out some of the older buildings and eventually we stopped for some food. Paratha, deep fried and with raisins in one and curd in another. Delicious! He was telling me how he wants to visit Vietnam and was on his way there when he had an accident on his RE Bullet in Myanmar. It was too badly damaged to ride so its currently stuck in the border town of Moreh, over in Manipur state.
We went to visit Jama Mosque, probably the largest in Delhi. I realised I’d been here before, when I was in the city ten years ago. It’s a spectacular place, especially in terms of its size. The only problem was that having to remove my shoes meant I was walking across the sun baked flagstones of the courtyard. Definitely a time to walk in the shadows. I very much enjoyed the incongruity of the mosque being surrounded by second hand car parts shops, with old gearboxes and suspension units strewn across the pavement. Not exactly the bucolic landscape surrounding your local village church.
Back at base I took a walk around the local streets. I was in an area called Hauz Khas village, which looks to be very arty. There’s some nice restaurants, bars and bistros, mostly closed for Covid. Some antique shops too, and a big market area. Nearby is a large park, which contains a famous tomb and some deer. It was a pleasant area to be in and included some cheap places to eat. The hostel had a rooftop café too, ideal for breakfast. All in all, Abhi had found me a good place. The only downside was having to park in the street, but that’s where my invisibility cloak, AKA a bike cover, comes into play. Indians are pretty honest people so I’ve never had any real fear of theft. But the bike cover does reduce temptation anyway.
Among the people Jay had lined me up to meet while in Delhi were Deepak and Yatin. I’d already dealt with Yatin in his guise as Bullet Yatin. I’d bought some spares from him. But first I had meeting with a guy named David, who’d tried to help me with shipping. I walked a kilometre or so, past a very big, bright white temple, and met him in a café. He has a business running tours around Ladakh and into Nepal. He concentrates on doing this for foreign visitors and showed some of his pamphlets. We enjoyed some food and had a discussion about where I could go and when I might be able to go there. His business has been very much affected by Covid, as I’m sure you can imagine.
Then I rode across the city to meet Yatin. He has a shop in a typical Indian ‘auto street’, where his shop is one of many selling spares and accessories. He used to just sell car parts but after he bought a Bullet about five years ago, he expanded into that market too. He was very pleased to see me. Tea was immediately procured and we chatted (did you know that the word ‘chat’ is from India?). A friend of his, a young guy named Anol, was there as well. He’s keen to go travelling too. He said that travelling at my age is almost impossible for Indians. Once they reach their thirties the pressure is on to marry and once that happens, their perception is that family involvement would prevent such a thing. So their twenties is the decade for getting out and doing things. It’s the same for the women too.
I spotted a pair of gloves in the shop. Mine were getting a bit frayed and needed replacing. I chose a pair and, to my annoyance and delight, Yatin refused to accept the money I offered him. I always feel a bit embarrassed when this kind of thing happens. All I can do is to accept with good grace. Arguments are not accepted. Anol helped me out too. India has a phone payment system called PayTM. It uses the QR system to take money from your account. Because I don’t have an Indian ID, Anol set it up in his name and put Rs2,000 on it for me. I gave him the cash. You might imagine that he could, if he chose, spend my money but he can’t. It’s based on my phone number and uses the One Time Password (OTP) system for all transactions. When I want to top it up I just ask any PayTM user or outlet to top it up for me. It’s very handy and some government facilities, such as museums, insist on using it because of the Covid risk related to handling cash. The biggest advantage to me is being able to top up my SIM card.
Jay had told me I needed to meet a guy named Deepak, a well know Indian bike explorer. He’d contacted Yatin so we headed over to the city centre to meet him. McDonalds was the plan, although I rather fancied eating at a nearby place called Burger Singh, just for the novelty. Unfortunately they were only doing take-away. Deepak met us at McDonalds and I immediately thought that he looked a real cool dude, with his pony tail and handsome moustache It turned out that he actually is a cool dude, having travelled all round India on his bike. He’s a representative for several brands too. He’s just launched a campaign called “I Ride Responsibly”, aimed at improving the image of bikers in India. He’s got a tough job on his hands, I think. I accepted one of his stickers to put on my bike. We had a nice chat about travelling around India’s northern states, and also in Nepal. That was my last night in Delhi, and it was a nice way to have met people. The burger was mutton, not beef, and was exactly what I’d come to expect from McD’s.
My plan now was to head up to Kashmir. I wanted to go to the Ladakh area but there were still travel restrictions up that way. I hoped for them to be eased eventually, so I put that plan in my back pocket for now.
Next destination was Chandigarh, the capital of The Punjb. I’d been linked with a guy in Karnal, a town on the way north, just to make a social visit. When I got there they couldn’t be contacted so I found somewhere for a late breakfast. Eventually we linked up and Sandeep led me to the tyre shop he owns where I was fed tea and biscuits. Although he owns a Harley, he’s just bought a Himalayan and was very interested in seeing the accessories I’d fitted to mine. That was a nice break and he linked me up with another guy named Rishi, who runs the Riders’ Café in Ambala, the next town up the line. I was beginning to feel like a human baton.
Rishi’s café was a funky kind of place, with all kinds of bike memorabilia decorating the walls. It was bright and airy and, being in a kind of a retail park, would be a popular weekend meeting place. My rather conventional imagination saw guys bringing their girls down there to shop while they talked bikes with their mates. Rishi’s mother came down too and she was telling me that her brother lived in east London. Next thing I knew I was involved in a video call with him! Talk about bizarre. I later learned that there are Riders’ Junction cafés in other parts of India. It’s a family business I think.
When I got to Chandigarh I was impressed to find that rather than having different named areas, it was divided into numbered sectors. The signs at the roundabouts looked very odd, with directions to turn left for sector 47, turn for sector 58 and so on. The roads were dual carriageways with grass and tree lined areas each side. Then there’d be retail sections on the other side of those. It very much had the air of a new town, having been deliberately laid out rather than having grown organically. But I was headed for the older part of the city, which was where I met Munish, at Thumpers’ Café. More of a clubhouse than a café really, being situated at the rear of a workshop. Munish ran his spare parts business from there. A couple of his friends were there and tea duly arrived. After some chat, they showed me to the hotel they’d booked for me, just around the corner. There was nowhere to leave the bike in the narrow streets, so it was put in the workshop. This was on a Saturday and the bike would be locked up until Monday. I didn’t mind as I wouldn’t be needing it anyway.
I must have been tired because I didn’t surface until midday. Now unused to the travelling I suppose. I talked to the hotel owner about breakfast. I was too late for that so he showed me the lunch menu, then told me I’d have to go and get it myself. Hmm. Time for a walk then. Munish had suggested I have a look at the the rose park and the lake, so that’s where I headed to. En route I came across a retail area with lots of food shops. I chose a place that sold decent coffee and enjoyed some brunch.
The city of Chandigarh is unusual in that it is newly built, unlike most of India’s cities, which date back many centuries. It’s a product of the post independence partition of India. The Punjab became divided between India and Pakistan. The old capital, Lahore, now lay inside Pakistan so a new one was needed. An area was chosen which lies on the border of the Punjab and the neighbouring state of Haryana. For this reason the city is a Union Territory as it’s the capital of both states. This means that it’s administered directly by central government. India has quite a few such areas.
The area on which it was built used to contain fifty different villages, some of which were combined into the new city, but still exist as separate areas. I think Thumpers was in one such area. The other villages still surround it the city. The city has retained many areas of the original forest, as well as having its own parks and an artificial lake. Most of the city centre was designed by Le Corbusier, the famous Swiss-French architect. For that reason it has international renown and has become a UNESCO World Heritage site. It has the highest per capita income of any city in India and is also the cleanest and the happiest. It was interesting to discover, on Wikipedia of course , that there are over one hundred new towns and cities throughout India, all built post independence.
Onwards, to the rose park. I passed a rather strange looking place, which seemed to be a recycling centre. I could see piles of newspaper, with people appearing to be bundling them up. I took a closer look and realised it was some kind of wholesale fruit market and the people were wrapping up melons in the paper. I presumed they’d be transported on the trucks parked nearby. Next to it was a bus station, with no buses to be seen, just people sleeping on the ground and on benches. This struck me as a typical Indian scene.
The rose park was a very pleasant place to walk through. There are over seven hundred varieties contained within it, although it looked a bit under occupied to me. Time of year, I’m guessing. But it was certainly very good, and a good place to sit and rest for a while. There was another park next to that, containing a variety of sculptures, all of a modern design. Eventually I reached the lake. On the way I’d passed an army barracks and was going to photograph the decorative gates, until the guard told me, very firmly, not to. At the lake the track around it was closed off, just to traffic I assumed. That was until I stepped across the barrier and got shouted at, very fiercely, by another soldier. I retreated!
On the way back to the hotel I found a Subway and decided that a taste of home was in order. A large one was enough for an evening meal and next day’s breakfast. Near to the hotel was a beer shop, just what I needed to help me recover from my fifteen kilometre walk. It had been a tiring but enjoyable day.
In the morning I want back to the Thumper Café. I sat around and talked to Munish and friends for a while. We were discussing my options for getting up to Leh. The main town in the Ladakh area. This was the place I’d visited ten years previously and was keen to revisit. The discussion centred on the need to get a Covid test before going there, with the possibility of that taking up to 36 hours. In the end I decided to head to Kashmir instead, then go to Leh from there. It would also remove the need for a Covid test, or so I thought. Decision made, we went to lunch.
Munish treated me to some great local food. He explained that he took groups of riders up to Ladakh a couple of times a year. The spares and accessories side of his business appeared to be brisk. He supplies parts for all Enfield models, as well as riding gear. He had arranged for me to meet a guy named Sumeet, in the city of Jammu. Sumeet would arrange a new SIM for me. Because of the security situation up in Jammu & Kashmir state, normal pre-paid SIMs didn’t work up there. I needed a special one. The authorities only allow 2G access. Good enough for Google maps, but not much else.
I had enjoyed Chandigarh. It’s an interesting and pleasant place to be. One thing I noted was how many women, of all ages, were wearing western style clothes. I was puzzled at first, but then I remembered I was in the Punjab, with many Sikhs around, and I presumed the more common saree wasn’t so necessary for them.
I went back to Thumpers in the morning, planning to collect my bike and leave town. Outside I bumped into guy also with a Himalayan, a bit older than mine. He’d been travelling everywhere on it and had racked up many kilometres. I asked how he’d found the reliability and he said the clutch is a weakness. Tough terrain tends to wear them out and it’s a good idea to carry a spare. Good advice, but not necessary just yet. He said all the roads to Leh are in good condition apart from a couple of the high passes. But he also said that the locals had been blocking roads to keep strangers out because of the Covid risk. He also said the hotels have been told to stay shut until the end of October. I’d heard about that elsewhere. But I wasn’t going to Ladakh just yet and I knew that these situations are very fluid, so I wasn’t all that bothered for now. After more chat with Munish and friends, I finally hit the road about midday. Kashmir beckoned.
The road north was a nice dual carriageway and I made good time. By the time I’d stopped for lunch a few hours later I’d lost the phone signal. Sumeet had given me his phone number, with instructions to call him if I had any problems. When I got to the state border that’s exactly what I had. Jammu and Kashmir is in a state of high alert, especially Kashmir. There are ongoing issues with Pakistan, relating to the border. There was a a vehicle and people checkpoint there. I had to get papers. The booth was very crowded, as these places always are. Indians love to push and shove. But a helpful guy spotted me and took me under his wing. He said I needed a Covid test or I’d need to quarantine in Jammu for fourteen days. Then he took pity on this helpless foreigner and told me I could get a test there. Much better. He led me across the large parking area to a building where they took down my particulars. He told me to come back when it was done.
After a wait of about 45 minutes I got the test, the first one I’d ever had. A man in a spacesuit shoved a very thin stick up each nostril and twirled it about. Then he dropped it in a solution. I was told to wait and ten minutes later he gave me the written results. Negative, I was pleased to see. Back with my friend at the booth. He gave me lots of bits of paper, which I handed to various people at the barriers as I passed through. It was now well after 7pm, and dark, so I rode up the dual carriageway and stopped at the first hotel I found.
Jammu wasn’t too far away so I was there by lunchtime. I headed to a place called Motorcyclists Paradise, which was similar to Thumpers’ Café. I gave them a package that Munish had asked me to deliver and they called Sumeet, who came to meet me. We went looking for a cheap hotel but none of them were certified for foreigners. Sumeet found me a place, upmarket and comparatively expensive. Next we went looking for a SIM, but I’d forgotten to bring my passport, so that was deferred until next day. I was intrigued by his bike and his appearance. A big bushy beard, long hair and tattoos. His bike was an old style Royal Enfield Bullet 500cc, with the right hand gear change. Same as the bike I’d used in Ladakh ten years ago. These models look very similar to the original, UK produced bikes, from the 1960s. So I was very surprised to learn that they were only modernised in the year 2,000. But I think Sumeet and his bike suited each other.
Sumeet’s friend Ankush met us at Sumeet’s workshop and he took me out for a ride – on my own bike. I was happy to ride pillion in the Indian traffic. Doing that on your own bike is an educational experience. You get a whole different feel for it. We rode up one of the steep hills to visit Amar Mahal, a former Maharajah’s palace, now a library and museum. But it was closed, so that was also deferred. He took me to a place that is also a kind of clubhouse. It was a room above a shop where, as the evening drew on, various guys arrived. There was about a dozen in the end. Food, beer and whiskey arrived and it was clearly a place where they gathered at the end of the day to unwind before going home. We had plenty of laughs and I was given a cowboy hat as a gift. I tried to say no because it seemed to be a trophy of some kind. But my refusals were brushed aside.
Later on at the hotel Sumeet and Ankush arrived with whiskey and we ordered food too. Another couple of guys arrived with a hookah pipe. I gave it a try. It only had flavoured stuff in it, no tobacco or weed. It was OK but not really for me. We talked bikes and travel and had a great evening.
In the morning Sumeet came round and we went off to get a SIM. It took almost 45 minutes, and the guy kept taking photos of me, insisting that I blink while he was doing it. Very strange. I got a 28 day deal, which should be enough for my planned trip in this area.
Sumeet rode us out to a big lake, up through the hills and some very pretty scenery. He said it’s their regular Sunday ride out. In the lake were plenty of constantly hungry fish and turtles, who had long ago learned that when people were leaning over the rail and looking at them, food would soon follow. They seemed to enjoy the bread Sumeet had bought. Then we enjoyed some Maggie noodles and tea.
Back up at Amar Mahal, I was very taken with the whole set up. It sits in beautiful grounds and the palace is very striking. It was designed by a French architect, along the lines of a French château, and is unlike anything else I’ve seen. I think it was the detailing on the outside that struck me. Inside was a museum dedicated to the family of Maharaja Hari Singh, their history and how they ruled the area. It was donated to the state by the family for its current purpose and includes some interesting exhibits. Its greatest function is as a library, containing over 25,000 rare books. These were locked away on the upper floors but are made available for readings and study. But during these Covid days, all tours were suspended. Looking back at the photos I took, the light was just right to display the house at its best.
On the way back to the hotel we called in at the family business, down in one of the market areas, where I met his father and brother. They sell material, for sarees etc. It was a small shop packed ceiling to floor with bolts of cloth. Sumeet sticks to motorbikes and isn’t involved in it. I’m not surprised. He really didn’t strike me as the tailoring type.
That evening involved more food, with beer for me, whiskey for them. One thing I noticed was how many Indians seem to prefer drinking first, and eating later. The whiskey isn’t particularly sophisticated but serves its purpose. Many Indians are also fond of rum. But it helps the conversation to flow and my room was a comfortable place for social meetings, with a table and chairs. Room service is very efficient and the food was good. So it was another enjoyable evening before heading north again.
I was on the road by 8am for what turned to be a very tough ride. The dual carriageway eventually ended and soon the roadworks began. This meant slow moving trucks, stony, broken up roads and a diet of dust and diesel fumes. It was not fun. The road went through a 10km long tunnel, where I was stuck behind trucks. At east the diet improved to only diesel fumes. One feature of this ride was the number of hold ups caused by the long queues of trucks stopped at the roadside. They were forced to wait their turn to get past obstructions. The problem was that smaller vehicles would go past them only to be forced to a halt by trucks coming the other way. Then those vehicles had to guided into the small spaces available, usually by the truck drivers, so the trucks coming the other way could get past. Ten to fifteen minute delays were common. I wondered if the car drivers gained anything from it, and also whether I’d do the same. I think the answer to both those is “yes”.
A stop for chai and, later on, a stop for lunch, got me through it all. The road improved hugely and just after a second, shorter tunnel I got stopped for a Covid check. I waved my piece of paper at them and was allowed to proceed. But not long after that I was stopped for a security and Covid check. They asked me which hotel I was staying at but I didn’t know. Sumeet had connected me with a guy in Srinagar named Imran. He’d booked me into one and the checkpoint rang him to get the hotel name. That Covid test certificate was coming in very handy.
I soon came to a very good road, taking me down into a very pretty valley. It became a dual carriageway so I had a very relaxing ride across the cultivated and pleasant landscape into Srinagar. I met Imran and he took me to the hotel. The room was nice and the shower was hot. I went for a walk and found a pizza place. A perfect end to a tough, but still enjoyable day. There were no beer shops in this strictly Muslim city, but after the excesses of Jammu, that didn’t bother me at all.
With regard to the journey, two things impressed me. The first was how well the bike handled the terrain. Despite, or possibly because of, its weight it dealt with the rough terrain with aplomb. The power delivery is smooth and gentle, perfect for rough ground. That augers well for future rides in far flung places. The second thing is how many of the people I dealt with spoke good English or, at least, enough for successful communication. Travelling made easy.
More soon folks.