Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh. 20th March, 2020.
With the sound of hotel doors closing and locking behind me, I headed out of Varanasi and picked up the road to Lucknow. On the way the bike started acting up, with fuel starvation problems. The symptoms were the same as those I’d had in Thailand two years previously, which had led to replacement of the fuel pump. I filled it up but it was still cutting out. I took the cap off the tank and also blew down the vent pipe, thinking it might be a venting problem. Then it ran fine for the next two hundred kilometres. So frustrating. Fortunately the rest of the ride was uneventful, with a mostly pleasant journey through farmland.
Arriving in Lucknow I was impressed by the wide roads that ran through the city, and the sense of space they gave. There were plenty of parks and colonial buildings within them. It looked like a nice city. Unusually, I’d booked a hotel room. My experience in Varanasi made that seem sensible. When I found the hotel I checked in with no problems. I was relaxing in my room, waiting for the water to heat up for a shower, when there was a knock at the door. “You’ve got to leave, the hotel has to close,” said the desk jockey. “Where do I go then?” An Indian shrug was the answer. Sitting at the desk was the owner. I asked him the same question. Another Indian shrug. I was no longer their problem. The desk jockey suggested a nearby hotel I could try, so I was happy to thank him for that, at least.
This was at about 7pm, and was followed by two and a half hours of calling in at every hotel I could find in that part of the city. Some people tried to be helpful in suggesting places but they were all either genuinely closing or were merely closed to me, the unwelcome foreigner. Asian people are invariably very welcoming to visitors, and will treat white, European travellers with a degree of undeserved deference that sometimes made me feel a little uncomfortable. Not this time. I was as unwelcome as the disease they assumed I’d be carrying. My pleas that I’d not been in Europe since last July cut no ice. I was like rain on a bank holiday and I needed shelter from it. It’s a very uncomfortable feeling when the xenophobic boot is on the other foot and the milk of human kindness turns sour.
The bike started acting up again so I stopped to give it a rest. Because of my interest in buying a Royal Enfield Himalayan I’d joined the Facebook page dedicated to the bike and decided to drop a message on there, asking for help. Two of my Kolkata friends immediately started contacting people they knew in the city. One of them was about to offer help until he realised I was English. I’d headed for a street with four hotels in it, all of them turning me away. Fed up up with pointless riding, I sat down outside one of them and made friends with some stray dogs, thinking they’d be my bedfellows that night. It was turning into a real Covidean day.
Then rescue arrived, in the form of Jay, a local member of the REH group. He had a place I could stay that night, and the prospect of accommodation at a hostel near to where he lived. He gave me his address, where I met him, then I followed him to the filling station he owns, about fifteen kilometres out of town. There was a comfortable rest room there, with a settee on which I’d be able to sleep. My faith in humanity was restored and I was delighted, but not surprised, that the great biker family had ridden to the rescue once more. Jay took me to a restaurant just along the dual carriageway from his filling station and treated me to a very nice chicken curry. Then we went back to sit and chat. I finally got to bed at 1a.m. It had, indeed, been a Covidean day.
I slept surprising well considering I was in a 24 hour filling station. Jay wasn’t around when I woke up but one of the staff went back to the restaurant and got me some breakfast. The same guy then led me back into the city where I met Jay. He led me to the hostel where, it transpired, I was to spend the next three months in lock down. I didn’t latch on to this initially, so just booked for three nights. At Rs600 (£6.60), including breakfast, the price was right. I was in a six bed dorm but as there was only me I had it all to myself. The building was very nice, with a large seating area, which I also had to myself. The two guys who worked there, Prince as the manager, and Ajay for everything else, stayed mostly downstairs. Physical distancing was easy to achieve. I was comfortable and, once I’d realised that I wasn’t able to go anywhere, even if I wanted to, I settled in for the long haul.
During these first few days I have to confess that I felt a little under the weather, but only in ways that had affected me in the past anyway. I have mild asthma, which causes a dry cough at times, along with a bit of a sore throat. I have a mild, but chronic sinus condition, which sometimes leads to a runny nose, usually relieved by an anti histamine tablet. But I also had a slight feeling of light headedness, quickly relieved by a couple of paracetamol. That was unusual, and all three symptoms together, and under the slightly fraught circumstances, caused me to wonder whether I’d caught anything. I had no fever, to the touch at least, and it all cleared up within a day or so. It wasn’t constant either. How much of it was my mind playing tricks on me? I don’t know, but it caused me to wonder what might happen if I had caught Covid-19. At that time Indian hospitals weren’t very well geared up for treatment so I was very pleased that all was well very quickly. Any suspicion of infection would have found me in a quarantine centre, which were not fun places to be.
I’d arrived at the hostel on the 21st March. Within three days a nationwide lock down had been announced by Prime Minister Nahrendra Modi, with the agreement of all the states. It meant that all businesses were closed, except for essential suppliers, such as food shops, petrol pumps, ATMs and various other essentials. All travel by any means, was suspended. That included international air travel, so I was stuck in India, like it or not. In actual fact I was happy to be here rather than back in the UK, which was quickly becoming a disorganised and dangerous mess.
Jay was able to visit me because he was allowed to move around due to his business. He took me to get fruit and other essentials. He got into the habit of coming round every five or six days to take me shopping. I felt like an old age pensioner going out for a weekly treat. The day after I’d arrived at the hostel I’d been out myself, to get some shopping and some beer. Jay and I were able to sit and have a good, long talk that night, discovering many similar interests between us. But once the lock down was announced all beer shops closed and it was forty days before I saw another bottle of alcohol. I wasn’t especially worried anyway. I know I mention the enjoyment of a beer sometimes in my writing, but it’s not a big deal these days.
Prince told me I shouldn’t go out in case I got arrested, especially being foreign. I definitely didn’t want that. I’d spoken to another English guy online who was trying to get to Kolkata on his bike. He’d been stopped by the police and taken to a not very cheap hotel, where he was forced to isolate for two weeks, at his own expense of course. That was definitely a fate I didn’t want to share, so I stopped going for walks altogether. Fortunately I was being well looked after at the hostel. I had a comfortable bed, a hot shower and was getting two meals a day. They weren’t very exciting, but good enough, especially under the circumstances.
An English language version of the Times of India, Lucknow edition, was delivered to the hostel every day so I was able to keep on top of developments as to how India was being affected by the Covid crisis. Its Global News section kept me up to date with the rest of the world. “Spreading like wildfire,” probably best sums up what was happening. In India the infection rate was very low at this time, an advantage gained by the very effective lock down, initially set for three weeks, but extended by a further three weeks, twice over. But what was I doing in the meantime? Hatching plans, was what.
Before I became stuck in Lucknow I had originally planned a slow ride down to Mumbai, where I would put my CCM on a ship. I would then buy a Himalayan in Mumbai, and rely on a local biker to provide me with an “official” address in India, so I could register it in my name. People in Kolkata had offered me this service so I knew it was possible. A summer visit back to the UK was on the cards, planning to arrive there at the same time as the CCM. Meanwhile my new Himalayan would be stored in India, ready for when I returned. That continued to be my plan, to the extent that I contacted a shipping agent in Mumbai, who was reckoned by other travellers to be reliable. He was happy to do business and we agreed I’d talk to him again when I was able to travel once more. The problem was that travel became impossible. Cases in India inevitably grew and Mumbai became the worst place in the whole country for infections. Not only was I unable to get there but it would have been foolish to try. And with no flights, my summer plans had to be abandoned.
Unable to go out for walks, I had nothing to do other than to dream and scheme. The internet is like the catalogue of a massive toy store, where goodies can be sought, ideas gleaned and lists made. Having decided to definitely buy a Himalayan here in Lucknow I was able to fill my days with research. You Tube was my best friend, Google my assistant. I did more surfing than an Aussie at Bondi Beach and eventually came up with an action plan. The first thing to do was to make a list. What accessories to transfer from the CCM; what accessories to buy; where to get them from. All this was taking place without me knowing when I’d get a bike. I didn’t even know when the showrooms might re-open. But I planned to order one as soon as they did.
But what was happening in the world outside my Himalayan bubble? Not very much, is the reply to that question. At least, not for a few weeks. Lockdown 1 began on 24th March and was extended through to 31st May in several stages. On 17th May there was some easing of restrictions, based on the severity of the infection rate at this point. Red, orange and green zones were introduced, with different restrictions in each. Along with a general relaxing of the most severe restrictions, one key change came after forty days, when beer shops were allowed to open again. This was nothing to do with sympathy for India’s drinkers. It was simply that the state finances were suffering from the lack of tax revenue, gained from every bottle sold. They needed the money. We didn’t mind what the reason was. Jay and I were happy to be able to enjoy a beer again.
I was now free to walk the streets once more, so was able to manage without Jay to run me around. There were more people out and about, but still very few shops open, beyond essential supplies. A couple came to stay at the hostel one night. I took that as a positive sign that things were opening up a bit more. A young guy came to stay and tried to buy some chicken to cook for dinner. This got me all excited because every meal at the hostel had been vegetarian. Meat was almost impossible to get. He couldn’t get any but his mother came round with some the next night, I was happy to share it. But the fact that his mother was close enough to bring him the chicken did make me wonder why he was staying there in the first place. Familial claustrophobia maybe?
But I had plans much bigger than a chicken drumstick. Royal Enfield dealers were opening again too so Operation Sleet was able to be launched. Jay is a very useful guy, who knows many other useful guys, who also know yet more useful guys. All bike and car factories had stopped production during lockdown, but dealers still had some stock. The challenge was to find the Himalayan that I wanted. Once some phone calls had been made we drove out to visit the Royal Enfield Company Store, not too far across the city. Sitting in their showroom was my bike to be, a Himalyan in the colour scheme they call Sleet. I sat on it, looked at it, stroked it, admired it and then bought it. Initially I paid the booking deposit but within half an hour I paid the balance too. Why mess about when you’ve found what you want? In the UK these bikes cost about £4,400. In India it was over £2,000 cheaper. Neither I nor my credit card were particularly stressed about this. When I’d been investigating the the specifications of the bike I’d quickly realised how much of a bargain it was. I had, at one time, been quite critical of this bike’s relatively low power and rather porky weight. But it had become clear that having been almost forced into buying a bike in India, this was the one to get.
With the bike due to be collected in a few days time, it was full steam ahead with ordering accessories, as laid out in my Himalayan Research Document. A fanciful name for my list of goodies. Jay took me to a bike shop he knows, called Race Dynamics, and they started the ball rolling. I pounded the keyboard on the Amazon website too, where I discovered the useful facility of being able to use my UK account to order items in India. This was extremely useful because it’s not possible to use a foreign credit/debit card on an Indian website. Crazy! What happened to international banking? I could use my cards in person but not on the internet. I ordered many items off other websites and fortunately Jay, and his bank account, were able to help me here. I just gave him money to put in his account and ordered using his card. He really has been my saviour.
Collection day arrived, 27th May. Delayed by a few days because of a paperwork mistake. Jay took me to the shop, where they made a big fuss of handing over they keys. They laid out a rather tatty red carpet, took photos and interviewed me for their website. This is the normal treatment for any customer. Zubin, the manager, did seem to be genuinely pleased that a foreigner had taken the trouble to buy one of their bikes.
Eventually I was allowed to ride the bike away and do battle with Lucknow traffic. I followed Jay over to Race Dynamics where I finalised my spares order list with them before heading back to the hostel, using a mixture of road types. My first impressions were very good. The bike was comfortable and had a solid feeling on the road. I really liked the instruments and all the controls were just where they needed to be for me. When a bike comes to you at such a cheap price you’re happy to forgive minor inconveniences. But with this bike I didn’t need to. Everything felt good and worked well.
As part of the deal I was given Rs10,000 (about £105) to spend in the shop. Rs3,000 of that was taken up by the cost of an extended warranty, for five years. The rest I gave to Jay’s sixteen year old son, Ansh, who bought himself a smart riding jacket, ready for when he takes to the road himself. I also got a voucher for Rs500 worth of petrol. All in all, this was a pretty good deal.
Meanwhile, what was happening with Covid 19? In a general sense India was slowly unlocking. In Uttar Pradesh (including Lucknow, the state’s main city) more and more businesses were opening up, but in a controlled fashion. Business hours were restricted, people had to wear masks too of course, and restricted entry and sanitisation were the norm. Most markets remained closed, apart from for essentials. One odd thing that happened to me was when I visited a branch of Decathlon, the outdoors shop. As I went in, and stopped to be sanitised and temperature checked, I was asked how old I was. When I said sixty eight I was refused entry. I protested so they called someone over who spoke English. He explained they were refusing entry to the over sixties for our own safety. I asked him to remind me what age I’d given and when he said sixty eight I said I was sorry, I meant fifty eight. At which point he welcomed me to his store and allowed me in. Daft!
There was still an evening and weekend curfew though, just to try to restrict numbers of people on the streets. Other states were doing similar things, according to local needs. But interstate travel by road was banned, although the railways were slowly opening up. No flights of any kind, even internal, apart from repatriation flights for Indians stranded abroad. India’s infection rate had been kept extremely low, thanks to the strict nationwide lockdown. I was keen to move on of course, but it was obvious that wouldn’t be happening for quite a while. I’d already been stuck for two months, and would be here for quite some time, it seemed to me. I’d planned to go back to the UK for a family visit in June or July, but that idea was going nowhere, just like the aircraft.
But I had plenty to keep me busy. As I’ve indicated, a new bike meant lots of new accessories, plus the need to move some across from the old bike. Heated handlebar grips, panniers, mirrors, chain oiler and various other things were swapped over. Crash bars, saddlebag frames, different handlebars and hand guards, protection guards for vulnerable fittings, spotlights, an LED headlight, switches, fuses and so on, were all ordered via the internet. Jay put me in touch with various suppliers that he knew, making the whole job much easier.
One useful job was to get the petrol tank wrapped in plastic. I’d never come across this idea before, but it’s a great way of preserving the paintwork, especially on the tank. The Sleet models had plastic patches stuck over the base layer of paint, to give the camouflage effect you can see in the photos. I saw these as being vulnerable to the vagaries of time and distance so was pleased to have them protected. The tank had to be drained and removed, then the guys set to work with a sheet of transparent plastic sheeting and a heat gun. Quite a skilful job and it looked good when finished.
Over the next few weeks these parts turned up and I enjoyed the deep pleasure of fixing and fettling, getting them installed and working. Not everything worked out perfectly, and some revision was required. But that’s the way of these things and it’s all part of the challenge. A new thing for me during the search for parts was to work my way through all the relevant videos on You Tube. Enthusiastic Indian bikers love to talk to a camera so there were plenty to look at. I was not used to this fairly recent (to my mind) method of research and it was very enjoyable, as well as informative.
I had to order new front panniers because the protective frames that sit next to the petrol tank prevented me using my own. A company called Invictus supplied a set specifically for the Himalayan so I ordered them. After a couple of weeks without them arriving I emailed Invictus. They’d got stuck in a warehouse in Mumbai, in a locked down industrial estate. I was in no rush but after another ten days or so, and another email, the company cancelled that delivery and put another set on a plane to Delhi, which then arrived very quickly. That, to me, is excellent customer service. And the panniers are very good too.
On the subject of panniers, I wasn’t sure whether to use the rear ones from the CCM or not. They didn’t fit too well on the Himalayan. I’d researched several different makes and models, but remained undecided. Items like this were remarkably cheap in India, compared to Europe, causing me to wonder about their quality. But the tank panniers looked pretty good and had a very well thought out design too. But the ultimate challenge for luggage is always the ‘slide test’. I’ll leave you to work out how such a test is conducted.
Pretty much all the accessories were good quality and enhanced the riding experience to one degree or another. The saddle bag stays work very well, providing a safe platform for the rear panniers. I particularly liked the GPS bar, which sits above the headlight, in front of the instrument panel. It places my GPS in a perfect place. One where it’s right in my sight line but without blocking the view. I had to laugh at myself in one respect. I’d criticised the bike’s heavy weight and yet here I was bolting on more metal and increasing it. Not by too many kilograms though, I hoped. Ironic ironwork I suppose.
May turned into June, and that month drifted by into July. Parts arrived in dribs and drabs but I stored them up until I could have a couple of big installation days. One for the ironwork, then another, a couple weeks later, for all the electrical parts. In the meantime the wheels of Indian bureaucracy inched forward towards supplying me with a registration number, plates and documents to match. This process was initiated by the dealer, but was intervened with by Jay who, thrilled by the idea of me getting a Himalayan, wanted a number plate to match the one on his Himalayan. Add to this that lockdown had caused a huge backlog at the registration office, and it took about six weeks for it all to come through. I was eventually told what the number would be and was directed to an Indian government app called mParivahan which, being linked to the traffic office records, gives instant access to vehicle details. It includes insurance policy information. I’d paid for a five year policy, at the very cheap price of less than £200. This app was a one stop shop for the authorities to check vehicle ownership and it removed the need for carrying documents around. Meanwhile I was able to ride around with a blank number plate while I waited, a very odd feeling. Eventually the plates arrived at the dealer’s and the paper version of the registration document became available for collection.
So here I was, pretty much ready to hit the road. But the road wasn’t ready for me yet. Interstate travel was still restricted and, in fact, I still had some jobs yet to be done.
A few words about my good friend Jay. Originally from Varanasi, he lived in Delhi for a long time before coming to Lucknow. He is a business man, who sports an MBA, and uses his knowledge and experience to great effect. He works alongside his brother. They have two filling stations, a tyre fitting shop and are about to refurbish and open a roadside restaurant. Kings of the Road, maybe? But there’s far more to Jay than this. He is also involved in an Ayurvedic medicine centre. This an ancient Indian medical art, which treats the whole person rather than just specific symptoms. It was treating and healing Indian people thousands of years before modern medicine came along. Like most Indians, Jay is a very spiritual person. We’ve had many interesting conversations about the nature and meaning of life. He is a great friend to me, who seeks no reward other than to know that he’s helped me along the path of my journey. And he kept bringing me food too. A truly lovely man. And we both enjoy a beer as well!
Time for a break. The tale will continue soon.