Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh. 3rd July, 2020.
The months of July and August mostly seemed to just drift by. Monsoon rains had arrived in the shape of short, sharp, cloudburst episodes. Sometimes I’d plan to go for a ride but being a habitual late riser, by the time I was ready the heavens had opened. But there was still plenty going on in my Indian life, including some video fun.
Jay brought some people round to see me who wanted an interview. I’m always happy to talk. One of Jay’s friends, from Varanasi, was also staying at the hostel, so he joined in. He’d ridden down on his BMW GS1250, which was also parked outside. We began just with some general chat, then moved outside to talk about the various bikes. We had a nice, relaxed talk and the video is here.
Jay also knew a guy from Delhi who has a very popular You Tube channel about cars and bikes called Power On Wheels. He was in Lucknow and Jay lined him up to meet me. The idea was that I’d talk about Himalayan. He came round one morning with his crew and I followed them, on the bike, out to a quiet location for filming. They got some footage of me riding the bike en route. We stood by the bike and chatted for about fifteen minutes until he was happy. Good fun and I enjoyed the experience. This is the link, if you want to watch it.
One nice thing that came out of the second video was that I was given a new set of rear panniers. Because I’d praised the Invictus front bags on such a popular video channel, the owner of Invictus got in touch and offered me the rear panniers for free. I was amazed but obviously said “Yes please”. But I had seriously considered the Invictus panniers so was delighted by the offer. When they arrived I found them to be very good and well designed. They held all of my gear, with room to spare. On closer examination it transpired that they were slight seconds, but the fault was nothing significant so I was still very happy. Although I’d researched various other panniers, looking for alternatives to the CCM panniers, I’d decided to stick with them even though they didn’t fit on this bike too well. Sometimes a guy just gets lucky.
The hostel got busier as things opened up. A guy named Saurabh had moved in to the dorm. He’s connected with the hostel in some way. His girlfriend, Kiritika (Tika for short) also stayed sometimes. They were nice people, especially Tika. She’s a medical student who speaks good English, and we had lots of delightful conversations and jokes.
Another guy came to stay who I ended up not liking very much. Vicky was a bit of a con man, in my opinion. He offers himself as being very spiritual and was trying to get me to attend a session connected with the Ayurvedic “whole body” approach to medicine, that’s very popular in India. Not only does that kind of thing not really interest me, but I sensed that it was one of those events that was designed to draw you in. Very much like the Timeshare craze that swept Europe some years ago. So I didn’t go. Saurabh and Tika went though.
He managed to upset Tika as well, and she came to me for advice. He’d allowed her to use his credit card to buy something on-line, relating to Ayurvedic practice, for Rs400. The website charged Rs2,400 to the card and Vicky was telling Tika she had to pay him the difference. I smelt a rat and suggested she contact the website and explain what had happened. They agreed to refund the difference back to his card. So why couldn’t he have done the same? Suspicious. He also persuaded Saurabh to let him stay at the hostel for two nights, free of charge. He ended up being there for two weeks. He made it very difficult for Saurabh to get rid of him by playing on his ‘spirituality’. He typified one of the downsides of some people who claim to be religious.
But I can be spiritual too, when the mood takes me. I needed a name for my bike and an Indian one seemed an obvious choice. After some research I chose the name Shakti. She is an important Hindu goddess who represents energy, ability, strength, effort, power and capability. Just like the Himalayan – at least, I like to think so. The bike was also affectionately known as Lump. The registration number had finally come through. The photo shows why that name was chosen.
I was keen to get some distance under the wheels of the bike so one day I set off for the towns of Faizabad and Ayodhya, about 150kms away. Sauraph had told me about it, and about the many temples there. Hindu temples are often nice buildings so I rode out there, along a nice expressway, passing through pleasant rural countryside and a warm shower of rain. But the visit was a bit of a failure in many ways. The town was full of police and security barriers and I really struggled to find the temples. One of the main ones was clearly closed but I did find a really nice looking building, in red and cream, which was the Shri Sita Ram Mandir. Temples aren’t always good looking, but this one definitely was.
But what about the others? I couldn’t find them. The security restrictions prevented me from exploring the town very much. I had assumed the security was because there was a history of conflict between Islam and Hinduism here. It’s reckoned to be the birthplace of Ramaa, a very important Hindu god, and the place where the epic tale Ramayana is set. Several centuries ago, during the Moghul empire, legend has it that a temple sited at Rama’s birthplace was demolished and a mosque built on the site. In 1992 a Hindu mob destroyed this mosque. A dispute arose over the ownership of the land but it took until late 2019 before the high court decided that the land belonged to the government and that a new Hindu temple could be built there. Another parcel of land was given to the Muslim community on which to build a new mosque. I had come to Ayadyha on the same day that the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh was laying the foundation stone.
Unable to explore the temples, instead I had a food fight with some monkeys. Temples often have monkeys around them as they represent certain gods, including Ram. The problem is that they expect you to feed them and will try to steal any food they can find. I bought a couple of samosas and was standing on the pavement eating one of them. A monkey came up to me and tried to snatch the bag out of my hand. But I was too quick for it and it scuttled away. But a short while later, as I was eating the second one, another monkey sneaked up on my blind side and snatched it out of my hand. The guy in the shop near me couldn’t help laughing, and I don’t really blame him. That incident rather summed up the day so I gave up on temples and headed back to Lucknow.
A couple of weeks later I went back to Ayodhya and this time I managed to see the temples I’d missed before. They were a fairly motley collection of buildings, clustered in the narrow streets of the town. Some were quite inspiring, others looked quite downbeat. By that time my travels had taught me that Hindus are far more interested in which god the temple represents, and the shrine inside it, rather than the building itself. That’s much more of a Buddhist trait. The ghats and other buildings down by the river were nice to see as well.
Closer to home, Jay took me out one afternoon to look around the city. I had a list of places I wanted to visit but most of them, such as the museum, were shut. But we drove down to the Rumi Darwaza (gate), a very impressive structure. Built in 1784, it’s modelled on a similar gate in Istanbul. The decoration across the top of the arch is quite striking, although I couldn’t discover its significance – if any. The ruler at that time had a Keynesian approach to his economy. Whenever there was a severe dip in economic activity he would begin another building as a way of providing employment to the poor. The Rumi Gate is one example. It’s on a main through route so tends to be very busy with traffic most of the time.
There were some other buildings nearby, including a very tall clock tower – Ghanta Ghar – next to a water tank, and a museum and picture gallery. Across the nearby road was another large gate structure connected with Husainabad, an area of Lucknow. It’s near Bara Imambara, a massive building from the same era as Rumi Darwaza. The legend about this building is that the Nawab kept people employed during the famine by the simple matter of letting them work on it during the day, then sending out the elite to destroy their work during the night, on the grounds that it wasn’t up to standard.
On the way back to the hostel Jay stopped at a shop and bought some mutton kebab and tandoori chicken. It made a nice change to have some meat after my mostly rice and dal diet. It was delicious.
Lucknow as a city has been around since the 14th century. It was originally ruled by the Sultanate of Delhi, then the Moghuls, and was capital of the Awadh region. The British East India company took over its rule in 1856 and then it became part of the British Raj in 1857. It was heavily involved in the Indian Mutiny of the same year. The garrison there was under siege for several months by the rebels, before being relieved by British forces.
As mentioned previously, the rulers constructed many fine buildings, both religious and cultural, as did the British rulers. It’s one of the most important cities in the North of India, both for industry and culture. Lots more info here.
Near to where I was staying was an area called Ambedkar Memorial Park. I’d ridden and walked past it and was keen to visit, but it was Covidated. I could see some amazing sculptures inside, with rows of elephants lined up outside a large building. The park is dedicated to an Indian scholar, BR Ambedkar, described as the “Father of the Indian Constitution”. It also honours similar people, who devoted their lives to humanity, social justice and equality. It looks really special and I’m very keen to visit when it reopens.
During these slow days and pleasant times something of a shock came along. Because I’d originally planned to return to the UK in July, my travel insurance policy was due to run out. I contacted STA Travel, the company I’d bought it from, to ask for an extension. They quoted me a figure then decided to check with Allianz, the insurance company. They refused the extension and then declared that as far as they were concerned the policy was void as of 23rd March. Emails flew back and forth between me and STA travel while I tried to find out what game they were playing. Allianz said that because the foreign office had banned all foreign travel, including to India, I should have gone back to the UK. Because I hadn’t done so the policy was void. The thing is that I had contacted STA when lockdown began to ask them whether cover would continue while I remained in India and whether they’d be happy to extend cover if necessary. They didn’t directly answer the first question but said yes to the second. Not unnaturally
I assumed all was OK. Long story short, I pointed out that flights had been cancelled and demanded a refund for the four months cover they now said I hadn’t had. No dice. Allianz wouldn’t budge on any of it. What might have happened if I’d become ill, I don’t know. It all made me very angry. I still needed insurance and I found a good policy, including Covid cover, from Europ Assist. Take my advice and don’t buy any insurance from Allianz.
Not a shock, but more of a surprise, was when I had to change accommodation with only two hours notice. The hostel owner had decided to rent out the whole building to a company whose workers were coming to Lucknow at short notice. Sauraph had found me another place to stay, a hotel that was just being refurbished. I had a private room, and all meals, for not much more money that I was paying at the hostel, and it was quite close too. I was well looked after here, although the facilities weren’t quite as good. A hard bed and no hot water in the bathroom. But it was OK.
My trip out to Ayodhya got me past 500 kilometres, so it was time for the bike’s first service. Jay booked me into a place and I took the bike down there. It didn’t take too long to do, or cost too much. Labour is free but I had to pay for oil etc. When they gave me back the bike they also gave me a bunch of flowers and a box, which I thought contained sweets. When I looked inside later it was actually a set of spare parts. A clutch cable, spark plug, bulbs and fuses. Very useful indeed, and a real surprise. The flowers were even more of a surprise to this hardened biker. But that’s India for you.
With the bike now serviced I decided to go for another ride out, and made plans to visit a couple of other towns. Going to Allahabad and returning via Chitrakoot, made a nice circular ride. The weather was good, despite an early shower, and the route took me along smaller roads and through more rural areas. It’s surprising how quickly you come into the countryside once you’re out of the city. Rice paddies and water buffalo carts were common, along with bikes and motorbikes carrying almost anything you could imagine.
Allahabad was a bit of a disappointment if I’m honest. There’s a big fort I wanted to see but it was inaccessible inside an army base. Other places were closed due to Covid. I ended up walking around the area near the river, photographing anything that looked interesting and getting hot in the sunshine. But at least it was somewhere different.
Chitrakoot was far more interesting. Jay had arranged for me to meet a guy he knew who worked at the tourist centre. That this place was open was the first surprise. I was put into the care of another couple of guys who proceeded to show me around the town. They took me to my hotel first then I followed them out to a temple up on a low hill called Lakshaman Pahari. We took the cable car up to the top and had a look around. This is a place where Lord Ram, the Monkey God,was supposed to have lived in exile for eleven years. There were monkeys around the place but this time they were kept in check by the temple dogs. Good dog!
We rode out of town a bit and they showed me Hanuman Dhara temple, up on the side of a steep hill. They asked me if I fancied walking up the 650 steps to see it. That incline was declined so they led me back to the hotel. I walked down to the riverside ghats in the evening and admired the pretty boats. The river divides the town in two, each half being in a different state,meaning it’s two different towns. It was another “Temple Town”, with plenty of places for the faithful to visit. It’s hard to imagine how much such places must have suffered during lockdown.
My Royal Enfield Himalayan was pretty much ready to head for the hills. But I still had some bike related issues to work my way through. I needed to get my CCM on a ship back to the UK, preferably before the six month anniversary of its arrival in India. Back in March I’d contacted a shipping agent in Mumbai, my original plan being to ride down there slowly and get the CCM into a container. I had planned for a summer visit back to the UK, then to buy a new bike on which I would carry on travelling. But Covid scuppered Plan A. Plan B, having now bought a new Himalayan, was to ride down to Mumbai, get the CCM into a container and come back by public transport. This plan was scuppered by the CCM itself, which had started playing up (as mentioned in the last post). But the main negation was that of Covid, which was rampaging through the state of Maharashtra, in which Mumbai is located.
I had contact with a couple of people in Delhi, who said they could arrange shipping. This was much better than Mumbai, being about one third of the distance away. But the CCM wasn’t likely to get anywhere much given the way it was running. I knew what I had to do, which was to remove the fuel tank and try to sort out the pump. It’s not an easy job but having done it twice before, I knew what to do. I won’t bore you with the details. I got it done but then discovered that one of the rear wheel bearing had fallen apart. I went out and found a bearing for it and Jay got it fitted for me. The bike was ready to ride but by that time events had overtaken me.
I’d joined a What’s App group of other travellers whose vehicles were stuck in India. Some of members were still in India, others had flown home. But there was plenty of information within the group about which agent to ship with and from where. One guy had shipped from Kolkata but had his bike collected from his location, over 1,000kms away. This looked to be the answer to getting my unreliable bike from Lucknow to the port. I got contact details of various people who might be able to help with shipping and spent many hours of internet time getting and giving information. Sometimes getting answers was like getting blood out of a stone. Some weren’t really suitable for the job, including those in Delhi, so I ended up with a choice of two: one in Kolkata and the original agent from Mumbai. Both were prepared to arrange collection of the bike at Lucknow. After many emails back and forth, seeking information and quotes, I decided to use Mustafa, of SECO shipping, down in Mumbai, whom I’d originally spoken to back in March.
So far, so simple. But Mustafa, although aware of Indian custom’s Covid related suspension of the six month restriction on a vehicle’s presence in the country, was concerned that this edict was too general to be able to rely on. He therefore insisted that I get an official extension specific to the Carnet de Passage for my bike. He knows how things work in his industry and he was very concerned that customs department in Mumbai may not be as flexible as we would like. So here was another challenge.
In the end, and totally contrary to India’s reputation for opaque bureaucracy, it was a straightforward task. Obviously, I enlisted Jay’s help. Being a businessman, he’s very used to dealing with officialdom. I’d located the customs office in the city so we went over there, clutching all necessary documents. It was the wrong office. The guy we saw explained to us where we needed to go, and who to see.
When we got there the senior officer we saw was very helpful. I’d written a letter explaining what the situation was. He got me to add on an apology for leaving things so late. It was the 5th August and the six month deadline was on the 9th. He photocopied everything, especially the Carnet de Passage, bundled it all up and sent it round to the boss. He was happy to sign off my request. It seemed I had my extension.
But not so fast tiger! Things just don’t happen that quickly around these parts. Jay kept in touch with the customs officer. They’d decided they needed confirmation of the bike’s entry into India so had written to the land port at Petrapole to get it. That took a while to come through but eventually Jay had a call to say the letter was ready. It was now the 24th August. We had to go over there to collect it and they wanted to see the bike too. I rode it nervously over there, hoping it would be OK following its repair. I had to go up and sign for the letter, then the officer came down to check the bike. I say “check it”, all he actually did was to look at it and say what a nice bike it was. I think he just wanted to be sure it existed. I now had my letter of extension and was very happy. Grateful thanks to Jay once more. Without him the process would have been much more trying.
I sent all the paperwork to Mustafa by courier. Over the next few days I also emailed lots more documents to him. It seems he needed all sorts of additional paperwork to keep customs happy because I won’t be at the port in person. He made arrangements for the bike to be collected and on the last Saturday of August, a van arrived to collect it. I’d already sorted through all of the gear I was carrying, especially that which related to the CCM, and had packed it in the panniers that I no longer needed. The bike and panniers were carefully wrapped up in cardboard and cling film before being put in the van and taken away. Goodbye CCM, see you back at home some day. And the irony here was that all that repair work on the bike had been completely unnecessary.
Three days later I loaded up the Himalayan and headed out of town. I had a send off from some local bikers, even though it was at 7am, and they led me through the city and onto the Agra Expressway, en route to Delhi. After five months and two weeks in Lucknow, it felt like I was leaving home once again.
India through the lens of lock down.
Deserted streets. Closed shops and markets. A sense of stunned shock in the air.
The state government of Uttar Pradesh was giving food to impoverished people, whose conditions were made worse by the shut down of most industries, and their consequent inability to earn any money. Tens of millions of Indians rely on day work as labourers, or poorly paid work in factories. All now shut down. The initial period of lock down was three weeks, but this was quickly extended, then extended again. Those who owned or worked in shops and markets were also badly affected.
But perhaps the biggest crisis was the plight of migrant labour. It’s known that many Indians go to work in other countries, particularly in the Middle East. But far more common is internal migration, where around fifty million people move from their state of origin to another state, looking for work. This World Bank report suggests that almost half a billion Indians leave their homes to work elsewhere, usually within their own state. But it also suggests that inter-state migration isn’t high enough in economic terms. That may be so, but it certainly seemed to be plenty when their means of support was suddenly taken from them by the Covid lock down. Very quickly the roads were full of people making the desperate journey back to their home state. They weren’t entitled to support from their host state, so it was a choice between travel or starve.
But the shutting down of trains and buses meant that thousands of them took to the roads, with no choice other than to walk home. Some had bicycles to assist with moving their possessions, most simply carried them. If they had money they could get a place on one of the trucks, whose drivers had found a new income stream now that goods were no longer being transported. But I read far too many reports of accidents involving these trucks, sometimes with dozens injured. People died of exhaustion and starvation. One tragedy involved people who were sleeping on a railway track, believing that the suspension of rail travel meant it was a safe place to rest. Unfortunately goods trains were still moving and in one incident many people were killed and injured. The World Bank article may suggest there isn’t enough inter-state migration, but from where I was sitting it was a tragedy in motion.
The national and state governments slowly got to grips with the problems. Firstly by providing rations without need for proper documents, but also by providing buses and trains to get people home. Many individuals and charities helped these poor migrants too, as much as they could. Once back in their towns and villages the support network was better organised and these people had more stability. But they still faced problems from other people, who resented their return, especially members of the lowest castes. With regard to work, all they could do was to wait for better times. Here’s another article on the reasons for migration.
Lock down began on the 24th March, originally for 21 days, but was extended three times, ending on the 31st May. By this time containment zones had been introduced, with a green, orange or red designation based on the number of cases. This system allowed a series of “unlocks” to take place, gradually easing restrictions according to case load.
A couple of days after lock down began the government introduced cash support and the ration scheme. This included rice, wheat and gas. Infection rates slowed dramatically during this period, proving the benefits of a harsh regime at this time. But inevitably infections rose, especially when unlocking allowed more public mixing. Mask wearing in public was compulsory but inevitable has faded away somewhat. India’s infection numbers have risen but still hold up as being good, especially in comparison to other countries when measured by infections per 100,000. Numbers have peaked and are now in decline. Freedom of movement between states is now allowed, trains are running again and internal flights have resumed. But unrestricted international flights have not, and may not do so until early next year.
The newspaper articles show some of the things that were going on during this period. India can seem to be a violent place, but it’s mostly a result of poverty and lack of education. But to put that in context, in terms of murder rate India sits halfway along the scale of 167 countries. And the causes of sexual assault are often the same as those of murder. But there were, of course, plenty of positive stories too.
Enough for now. More soon.