Chennai. 30th November 2021
“Just a minute”, I can hear you say as you look at the date above. “At the end of the last blog post you said you’d be back after 2-3 months!” Well, things don’t always go to plan. In this case it was the Indian Government who decided to slow me down by maintaining their Covid restrictions on travel for individuals until mid-November. So frustrating. I did try to get a business visa but they were having none of it.
Family commitments meant that this visit was going to be a short one, but I needed to go back and move my bike. Jay’s friend Magesh, who’d been storing the bike at his apartment block, was getting hassled about it by the other tenants. It needed to go elsewhere. He’d messaged me about it a couple of times but had to accept there was no way for me to get back. So he was delighted when I flew into Chennai and took the bike off him. The bike cover had been destroyed by the wind and someone had dipped into one of the panniers and stolen a small bag. But there was nothing in there that wasn’t easily replaceable, so I considered my self lucky given how long it had been there. I was very grateful to Magesh for looking after it for me.
I stayed in Chennai for a few days, doing some jobs on the bike and getting back into the Indian way of things. I had to be back home for my own big birthday – seventieth, thanks for asking. I’d booked a flight from Mumbai on the 9th December. To that end Jay had spoken to his Mumbai based cousin about storing the bike until my return. All I had to do was get there, a journey that involved crossing from one side of India to the other, coast to coast.
After three days in Chennai I finally set off. It didn’t take me long to get back into the Indian way of riding and dealing with the traffic. I’d already noted on the map a temple I wanted to visit, in Kanchipuram, Tamil Nadu. The Kailasanathar Hindu Temple was built in the Pallava era, around 700CE, and is dedicated to Shiva, the main Hindu god. It contains notable carvings and artwork from that era, so is very important within the history of the region.It is very, very decorative, with hundreds of detailed carvings dedicated to Shiva.
On the inside of the compound walls are fifty eight small shrines, each with Shiva related carvings on their walls. A unique feature of this rectangular temple is a circumambulatory passage around the compound wall. Devotees have to crawl through a low gate, the Gate of Death. Going around the passage, past all the various deities, is equivalent to passing through paradise. When you crawl out of the exit, the Gate of Birth, it represents the rebirth in which all Hindus believe. Not being a devotee I avoided the crawling and found a stall selling chai. But it is a fabulous place.
My navigation systems were playing up a bit so I had to search for a road out of town. I found one heading west and by keeping the sun on my left side I enjoyed wandering across the countryside, dodging goats, cattle and people on the way. I only rode a couple of hundred kilometres but it was a very pleasant first day back on my travels.
The next day didn’t go quite so smoothly. Still heading west, I found myself in the city of Bengalaru – and wished I hadn’t! Sometimes my GPS and Google maps will work out slightly different routes. I followed Google and regretted not following the GPS as it looked to by-pass the city centre. Traffic was a nightmare on steroids. But worse of all was that I managed to ride into the back of another bike. He stopped in front of me just as I sped up after passing an obstruction, and over we both went. Passers-by helped us pick the bikes up and I was worried about the hassle of police, insurance etc. But when he saw that I was foreign he tried to take the blame, saying I was a guest in his country.I wasn’t going to stand for that and made him take some money from me as his bike had a broken indicator. I told him we all have obligations and we should meet them. I was fine, just feeling foolish.
I was fortunate in that my meanderings westward were mostly taking me through rural areas. I’d been noticing the high number of coconut palms I’d been passing and eventually realised they were plantations. Indian cooking uses them a lot so it wasn’t really a surprise to see them being cultivated. I was also seeing bullock carts, plodding their way slowly along the roads. It’s a reminder of how slow the pace of change can be away from the cities.
I stopped at the Hoysaleswara temple, in Haledidu, in Karnataka state. Another place of incredible carvings, also dedicated to Shiva. They depict not only the life of Lord Shiva but also life as lived in the 12th century, when it was built. I was very taken by the dark grey floor slabs. The central one seemed to have been cut from one huge piece of soapstone, from which the temple was built, and was very highly polished. Some Jain iconography was included in the carvings.Some of you might wonder why a non-religious person like me enjoys visiting these temples. But I find the fact that they’re all so different to each other part of the attraction. There are many different strands to Hinduism and the style of the temple will usually depend on the belief of the ruler who built it. This is one of the reasons why so many Indians like to see temples that are different to their own.
As I continued towards Mumbai I passed through Belguam. I’d already stopped at a couple of temples, which turned out to be fairly nondescript. So I was quite delighted to come across a fort. Built in the early 13th century, it was a place with high walls, a very deep moat and four temples inside, along with two mosques. Two of the temples were Jain, two were Hindu. All the bases covered. But I wasn’t allowed into those that were open.The fort had changed hands many times since being built, according to the fortunes of a variety of local rulers. Eventually it became a prison run by the British Raj, where Gandhi was once imprisoned.
Further on, while riding along a dual carriageway, I passed four bullock carts, one behind the other. They were fully laden with sugar cane and were doing a great job of holding up the traffic. But at last I was able to get some decent photos of them. That evening I struggled to find a hotel. Google maps was letting me down by sending me to places that were closed. It was getting late but I found one in the end. Nicely located up in the hills but with no wi-fi or phone signal. It seemed that Covid was still having its effect.
The next couple of days were all about riding to Mumbai. Some of the road was a pleasure to ride, most of it wasn’t, especially as I neared India’s largest city. Plans had changed in the meantime. I was no longer going to leave my bike with Jay’s cousin as he lived too far out of the city. Instead I was going to leave it with Hiren, another of Jay’s friends. He had a small apartment in a tower block. There was a safe place where I could leave the bike, around the back and behind a locked gate. I had a cover to put over it too. I was happy.
Hiren is a nice young man, who is quite a successful author of books, magazines and scripts for TV and film. I spent a night at his apartment before heading out to the airport to catch the flight back to London.
Time to roll the calendar forward by three months.
I’d arrived back in the UK in early December and left again early in March. But I only had thirty day visa. I had to be back in the UK early in May. I had vague hopes of being able to extend the thirty days, with a visit to Sri Lanka as a backup plan.
I linked up with Hiren once more and we got the bike started OK.I was staying in a hotel this time as Hiren had a lodger. I told him I was only in India for a month, unless I could extend. He said he’d look after the bike for me again, even though I couldn’t be sure exactly when I’d be back. I’d brought him a couple of presents, as a thank you. The Parker biro will be used for signing autographs, he said. The calligraphy set I’d brought would go to his daughter as a birthday present. He said she liked that sort of thing. We enjoyed some food and beer together but after a couple of days the time came to head south.
I wanted to get to Goa and enjoy being in a holiday area. Then I planned to head further south to Kerala, a very beautiful part of India, down on the southern peninsular and adjacent to Tamil Nadu. Pune was the first place to stop at, with some business to conduct. When I got the bike I bought some panniers made by a company called Invictus. But one of the panniers had come apart while I was up in Ladakh. I’d contacted the owner of the company, Saurabh, who’d promised to replace them free of charge. He offered to post them to me but I was constantly on the move so that was no good. But now I was in the home city of the company I could call round to get some new ones.
Saurabh was very welcoming and gave me a very smart looking new set. He said they’ve been strengthened and won’t fail again. Unlike the old ones, they now come with ‘made to fit’ waterproof inner bag, which was a definite improvement. He also gave me a prototype high vis waistcoat, which can have storage pockets attached to it with velcro, and has a storage compartment at the back for a water bladder. It was a very nice piece of kit but I didn’t keep it in the end. It was too warm to wear because of the lack of airflow and it was a little too small. But it’s a great idea and I’m sure he’ll sell lots of them.
I headed south and had a nice day’s riding, often up in the hills among the greenery. But after I’d stopped for lunch, disaster struck. I was riding along and my chain suddenly fell off. No warning. One moment I was riding along, the next I was wasn’t. A young guy on a bike stopped and took me back to where the chain was lying in the road. Miraculously both the chain and the bike were undamaged. The split link had broken, that was all. This event is usually accompanied by the sounds of grinding and broken metal, ending with the chain wrapped round the rear sprocket. My young friend took me back to the bike and left me to it when I assured him I could effect a repair. I had a spare link and once it was fitted I was on my way. When I got to the next town I had a new link fitted at an Enfield dealer, for the princely sum of £1. Fantastic.
I found a hotel, right next to a restaurant, which had a bar. Now here I came up against one of those crazy Indian laws, which can be very frustrating. I ordered Chicken Tikka in the restaurant and also a beer. No beer. That’s in the separate bar at the back. Do they sell food in the bar? Yes. So I want to the bar. Got a beer and asked for a menu. No food here, only in the restaurant. GAH! I was joined by a couple of young guys who were telling me all about what to see in Goa. We shared a couple of beers but eventually I got back to my Chicken Tikka. Crazy situation.
I found some very pleasant roads to ride as I headed south, through forested hills. The bike was sounding good on a warm, sunny day.I entered a national park were roadside signs suggested there might be panthers. None to be seen of course, but the thought was nice. Eventually I came to a main road where I immediately saw two white couples riding motor scooters. I instantly knew I was in Goa.
One thing holiday areas always have is somewhere that sells decent coffee. I’d found myself in Candolim and stopped at a place called Coffee Day. I bumped into a couple in there and we chatted. The woman was European and the man was Indian. They used to live in Hounslow and had just moved to Goa. Dal originated from this area, Julie had come back with him. They lived nearby and invited me round for coffee. I was happy to accept.
I found a hotel near to the beach and not far from Candolim Beach Road, where there was a good selection of restaurants. And in these places you could eat food and drink beer at the same time. Other states please take note! I chatted to a Norwegian guy in the restaurant who said that India will resume issuing twelve month visas from the 27th March. That immediately made me wonder if I could get an extension to my thirty day one. The very tender steak I ate also cheered me up.
The next couple of days In Candolim were really just about relaxing. I spent a day on the beach, getting very pink. Enjoyed the food and walking around the town. There’s a plethora of beer shops and many tattoo parlours too. Clearly a holiday place for the young and young at heart. I went to visit Dal and Julie. They have a very nice third floor apartment, with a wrap around balcony. It overlooks fields, where there’s a buffalo wallow. Julie likes to birdwatch. They don’t expect the land to be built on because it’s waterlogged. A very nice place to retire to. I called in for coffee and stayed for dinner. Excellent.
Goa was a Portuguese colony from 1510 right up until 1961. Post independence in 1947 the new Indian government asked Portugal to relinquish its territories but they refused. In the end India invaded them and took back control. This reminded me of the situation in Puducherry, where France had to be persuaded to relinquish the areas they controlled, although it was done without violence.
The Portuguese built a lot of defensive forts along the coast, being keen to prevent any other local or European traders coming along to spoil their monopoly. It was they who discovered the route to India via the Cape of Good Hope and across the Arabian sea. Prior to that Europeans had to buy spices and other Indian goods from Arab traders, who had transported it overland to the Mediterranean ports. It was no wonder that they wanted to protect such a lucrative trade.
When I left Candolim I headed south down the coast, to visit Fort Aguada. Built in 1610, it’s one of only two that remain from that period. There’s two parts to it – upper and lower. The upper is typical of the type, with a deep moat and very thick walls, built from laterite. Its main purpose seems to have been for storing provisions. In particular, it contains a massive underground water storage tank, fed by streams. The water was piped down to the lower fort, where the main sea defences were sited. The ships could then be supplied with enough water for their voyage back across the Arabian sea to Africa. In later times the lower fort became a prison where the Portuguese held Goan freedom fighters. It’s now a museum dedicated to them.
I headed south down the coast for a while then turned inland. I visited a couple of Portuguese era churches on the way. The first was the Church of the Immaculate Conception, in the state capital of Panjavi. It was a very nice looking place but it was closed. The next was the Basilica of Bom (Baby) Jesus, at Nachinola, a little way inland. A very big place and worth a look around. There was a crypt which contained a relic of an important saint, available for the faithful to view. I’m more interested in the buildings than what goes on inside them and this one was quite striking.
Back in the 19th century Goa’s population was 80% Catholic. These days it’s around 25%, which is still a high proportion in a mostly Hindu country. Only 50% of Goan population originated there, some of them being Catholics who have moved there. The state has a tropical monsoon climate and is dry in the winter, very wet in the summer. Visitors are mostly European, which is very much reflected in the nature of the coastal towns and the shops and restaurants there.
I decided to head further into the hills to visit a waterfall, Duddsagar Falls. Being higher meant being cooler. I didn’t mind that. On the way I saw signs saying ‘Give way to elephants’. “Why did the elephant cross the road?” “To give Geoff a nice photo opportunity.” Unfortunately, none did, but the forested road was a pleasure to ride along anyway.
When I got to the village nearest the falls I found that it was all very tightly controlled. There were 4x4s which took people up there. There was a charge for the journey, a charge for the compulsory life jacket and a charge to get into the national park. In the end I just thought to hell with it, I’ve seen plenty of waterfalls before now and will see many more, I’m sure. So I found a cafe for a sandwich and coffee before moving on.
Having heard that India was soon to be issuing 12 month passports once more, I decided to apply for an extension to my 30 day one. This meant going on to the dreaded Foreign Residents Registration Office (FRRO) website to make the application. Why dreaded? Because they’re utterly useless at responding to any application I’ve ever sent to them. Regardless, I completed the long, but straightforward, form and sat back to wait. And wait. And wait. Long story short, after emails and endless phone calls I still had no response. I’d sent it in two weeks before my visa ran out. By the time I was due to leave, I’d heard nothing.
But I didn’t yet know that so I carried on with the ride. I was now in the state of Karnataka, which is known for its hills, forests and wildlife. They contain a wide variety of fauna, including the White Faced Monkey. I know that because I saw a sign telling me so, although the monkeys didn’t bother to show their white faces to me.
At one point I entered a national park and had to stop at the checkpoint and give my name. They gave me a token, which had to be handed back to the checkpoint at the exit. They also warned me to be wary of elephants and tigers. There was a very slim chance of seeing any of those. I rode through on a narrow but very well surfaced road, dodging and overtaking lots of trucks. They were all well behaved and never created a threat to me. Above all I enjoyed the feel and smell of damp forest earth. A real joy after the hot and humid coastal roads.
Jay had recommended a visit to the city of Mysore, to see the palace there. It’s located inside the grounds of the old fort but was only completed in 1912. But it’s had many previous iterations over the centuries. The previous were all of wood and had burned down.
The building was designed by British architect Henry Irwin and is a collection of Hindu, Muslim and European influences within the one building. It is stunningly beautiful inside, with two vast audience halls, one on each floor, full of highly decorated marble columns. The exterior is equally beautiful, with very decorative embellishments around the windows. It was no surprise to learn that it’s India’s second most visited tourist attraction, after the Taj Mahal.
After I’d come out a rickshaw driver suggested to me I visit the Jasmine House, where they make jossticks and I’d be able to watch. I know these places are partly for extracting money from tourists but I thought I’d go anyway. When I got there a guy on a scooter came past and said it was closed and that I should come to see his shop. I started to follow him but decided no to bother. We came to a cross roads where he went straight on but I turned left. I took a couple more random turns then stopped. I was just planning the route to my next visit when he pulled up along side me again. I thought “How the hell did he find me?”
I felt that he’d earned the visit now so I followed him back to his shop where I saw a woman sitting on a mat making them. She took a splinter of bamboo, rolled it in a charcoal mix, then in some sandalwood powder, all while holding a phone to her ear. After this they’re covered in various nice smelling oils etc. He wanted me to buy some, of course, but I declined.
I made a visit to the railway museum, where I saw some nice old steam locos on display. India is a great place for railways and inherited a very extensive network from the British, which is still a vital part of the transport system.
On the way to my night time destination I went through the Bandipur Tiger Reserve. The road had speed humps along it, which may have been why I was riding slowly enough to spot some elephants near the road, among the trees. Three adults and a lovely little baby were hanging out, just to delight me and my camera. It was fantastic, especially as I really do like elephants. But no tigers to be seen, of course.
While I was in my hotel I heard music and chanting outside in the street. There was a march taking place, organised by the DYFI, the Democratic Youth Federation of India. Lots of flags and banners on display, many with the image of Che Guevara on them. It’s a national organisation and umbrella group for 15 to 40 year olds and their youth movements, and it agitates for improvements to education, job opportunities and better representation. I could relate to all of that quite easily.
I went for a walk, partly to mingle with the crowd following the demo, partly to find some food. On the way back I stopped in a supermarket to buy some shampoo and became very annoyed when a member of staff insisted on following me around. This had happened elsewhere and it really, really annoys me. Am I figure of suspicion or are the staff simply waiting to help me when asked? I don’t know the answer but I don’t like it!
In the morning I headed to another tiger reserve, but the road was lined with villages. But I kept seeing 4x4s parked up so I guess it was necessary to go into the forest to see them. At one point I rode through a eucalyptus tree plantation. It was delightfully spooky among the very tall, very straight trunks, but it also smelt delicious.
The road got really busy, with cars and bikes everywhere, and dozens of coaches parked alongside the road. I got seriously angry and a couple of drivers, and told them so. There were hundreds of pedestrians walking along the road too, Indian style. I had to talk myself down a couple of times. It was a Sunday and the whole of India seems to want to go out visiting on that day. Nevertheless, I reached my destination in one piece and found coffee.
For the next couple of days I was on a mission. My friend Liz had roots in India. Her Great Uncle used to run two different tea estates in an area near to Ooty. Some of her relatives were buried in the church in Coonor and I’d promised to look up and photograph whatever I could find. It made for an interesting couple of days and gave me an insight into how these vast tea estates used to be owned and run before the war. They’ve mostly been split up since independence but it seems her Uncle had a good reputation as an estate owner. They usually included education, health and social facilities for the workers, as well as accommodation. While riding around their size became apparent, with the plants spread across the hillsides in neat and tidy rows. I was able to get some photos for Liz, and extend her knowledge of her family’s activities in the area. Mission accomplished!
I was keen to ride the Kolli Loop, a famous road that wound its way up through the Kolli hills and is reckoned to be a real challenge. As I set off toward it I came down out of the hills and the temperature seemed to go up by about 10 degrees. I was glad when I started going up again.
Studying the map, the route seemed to be a circular ride, with no road out of the area, and so it proved. It was a great ride up the loops, with seventy hairpin bends to enjoy. I rode around the hills, through small villages, farmland and forest. It was nice and cool too. Then I had the pleasure of riding back down again. A good day of riding.
I came back down to the coast, with plans to head south into the state of Kerala, India’s other southern state, sitting next to Tamil Nadu on the peninsular. The road down there went through several towns so the ride was hot, sweaty and aggravating. I turned south and headed for Kochi, a large beach town. I ended up in Kochi Fort, a place that has history but also a modern naval base. I found a very nice hotel, helped by an auto driver, in a heritage building. It had large rooms at a reasonable price, with furniture that matched the style of the building too. The fort’s history goes back as far as the Chinese, but was colonised by the Europeans. This tale was typical of India’s south west coast.
Next day I bumped into the auto driver from yesterday, who asked me for a favour. It seems that if he takes tourists to certain shops he gets points, from whom or where I know not. And because it was 1st April if he got three points he would get a T shirt. It all sounded very bizarre but I let him take me to some shops where I looked at their goods and promised to come back later with my girlfriend. I didn’t enjoy telling this lie because it was clear they were desperate for business, having suffered hugely from covid. I did actually buy a scarf as a present for someone, but that was all.
I visited the Navy Museum, which detailed the history of the port. Portuguese traders arrived in 1498 and, after beating off local peoples, colonised the coast. The Dutch pushed them out in the 17th century, followed by the British in the 18th century. The Dutch had to battle the Portuguese to gain the area but gave in to the British without a fight as they’d pretty much lost interest in India. They were more focussed on the Spice Islands (Indonesia) by then. But the French were also keen to take over and had to be beaten off. Another exhibition detailed the history of the Indian navy, particularly its independence battle against the Portuguese in 1961. All very interesting for a history buff like me.
On my first night I’d enjoyed a nice meal and a beer, albeit at expensive tourist prices. The next night – no beer. It seems that Tamil Nadu is dry on the first day of each month. I felt like a real April fool!
From Kochi I turned north, concious of the approaching visa expiry date. Frustration was building at the lack of communication from the FRRO and I didn’t dare assume I would get an extension. My friend Jay was now working in Pune and had agreed to look after the bike for me. I crossed the river estuary on the ferry I’d seen in the town and descended into Indian main road hell as I headed up the coast. After a couple of days of solid riding I ended up back in Goa, at the same hotel I’d been in last time. Just a couple of days relaxing, which is always welcome.
I had another mission to accomplish. In the area of South East London, where I lived when I was young, is a large area of woodland situated on the southern slopes of Shooters Hill. Within the woods is an 18th century tower called Severndroog Castle. It’s a folly that was built by the family of Commodore Sir William James, who attacked and destroyed the island fortress of Suvarnadurg Fort, off the coast of Maharashtra state, south of Mumbai, in 1755. The story of this building can be seen here.
During these times the European nations were vying to gain control of these valuable coastal waters and often made treaties with local rulers to help in their fights. Commodore James was acting on behalf of one ruler against another. He gained the fort and handed it over to his sponsor.
I wanted to see this place, simply to make the link between it and my childhood memory of the local castle. It took a while to find the right bit of the coast and in fact I could see it only from within another fort that lay in ruins there. Local rulers had been great fort builders in those times. I tried to find a way to get out there. I’d been told that local boatmen would ferry me to the island but was unable to make that happen in the time I had there. A great shame. The history of the fort can be seen here.
Next stop was Pune, where I found my way to Jay’s place. He was working in there, in a new job with Force Motors in their marketing department. They are a major importer of foreign vehicles and Jay said he was fitting in very well. He was very glad to be away from his previous business with his filling station and to have a new career in the motor industry. I hadn’t seen him for eighteen months so we had a lot to catch up on.
He arranged a service for my bike at the local Enfield dealer, a handy thing to get done before I left. One of the weaknesses with this bike is that the steering head bearings wear out very quickly. Mine had lasted 20,000kms but were getting decidedly rough! A service was due as well.
Next day I rode there and met Jay’s friend Dilip. A very nice guy who rode one of the new RE Interceptors, their 650cc twin. He’d customised it a bit and it looked very nice. We sat and chatted while my bike was being worked on. He was able to suggest a lot of places I should visit when I get back to India and head up into the Himalaya again. He also told me about a new version of the Himalayan that Enfield were bringing out nest spring. Much lighter, with a 40BHP water cooled engine. It sounded very nice and it might be worth me buying one.
That evening I went to Pune airport and began my journey out of India. My visa expired next day and I’d made plans to go to Thailand to visit my friend Dave. That plan fell apart because I hadn’t arranged the necessary paperwork in time for entering Thailand. I’d wanted to go to Sri Lanka but that country was still in turmoil. So I went to Phnom Penh instead and enjoyed a week there before resuming my journey to Thailand. I arrived back in the UK in early May, with a number of family events to enjoy. I will return to India as soon as I’m able to continue my travels. At least I’ll be able to get a 12 month visa this time.