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planetFear - Articles - Shakti and Dust: Adventure Motorcycling in India

Shakti and Dust: Adventure Motorcycling in India

Article by Dave Pickford
Saturday 27th December 2008



No parking wardens on National Highway 1: the author on the road in Kashmir, December 2005

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"Namaste…? Hello, Mr. Singh?"

I peer through the darkness of Lalli Singh's basement workshop in a sidestreet of Karol Bagh, breaking into a gentle sweat induced by the inhalation of stagnant petrol fumes, my hopes diminishing of finding our Enfield Bullet 500 motorcycle serviced and ready to hit the road.
 
"Hello Mr. David" one of Mr. Singh's affable young mechanics pipes up.
"I am most very sorry good sir, but we have problem. Bike not finished." The boss, it transpires, is away, and the Bullet won't be ready until the day after tomorrow.

Delhi is a city in which a great deal of time and energy can be expended simply in order to get out of it. This is an experience familiar to many climbers heading up into the Himalayas. After what seemed like a four-day alpine-style epic of multiple high-speed rickshaw journeys between Connaught Place and Karol Bagh, the Bullet was finally ready and the prospect of escape from the metropolis was imminent.

Chai: the ubiquitous daily refreshment of more than a billion Indians, and one of the secrets of successful adventure motorcycling in India.


The phrase 'baptism of fire' took on a slightly whiffy irony on the first day of our three month mega road-trip around India. Just a few hours outside Delhi, between the bustling towns of Ghaziabad and Haridwar, Sarah and I found ourselves squatting with an alarming urgency in a large field of sugar cane -  attempting to camouflage ourselves from curious local agriculturalists - as the notorious bacteria of the capital began to take serious effect. After numerous impromptu stops and accompanied bowel movements later, the day gained a flavour of nauseating comedy as I manoeuvred our fully loaded Bullet at walking pace through a swarm of cyclists and vegetable-sellers, amid the catatonic traffic of Muzzafaragnar, whilst Sarah proceeded to make an impressive arc of projectile vomit over my left shoulder. Nonetheless, she took commendable measures to avoid spattering the town's numerous cows, which are sacred to Hindus, and we just escaped the disdain of the local brahmin by a combination of her good aim and a few desperate swerves on my part.   

"Try not to do that when we're turning, it makes it tricky to steer" was about all the consolation I could offer at the time.

Rishikesh: Hindu pilgrims perform ritual ablutions in the Ganges


After a few days in Rishikesh recovering from this unusually febrile  introduction to motorcycle travel in the subcontinent, and after giving our potent bout of 'delhi-belli' an even stronger dose of Metronizodole, the magnetic pull of the mountain roads of Himachal Pradesh proved too strong for the Bullet to resist.

 

Winter in the Himalaya: a local woman crossing a wooden bridge over the Suru river, Ladakh


The air grew steadily colder as we weaved through the foothills of the Himalaya, heading westwards toward that troubled frontier country of Kashmir. We emerged from the Jawahar Tunnel into the sharp December sunlight of the Kashmir Valley, after surviving over three kilometres of terrifying icy darkness suffused with diesel smoke. Passing various avalanche warning signs, I became suddenly aware that we were in the precarious position of travelling on a motorcycle in the approaching clasp of the Himalayan winter.  

Kashmir: fishing on Nigeen Lake, Srinagar, on a cold December evening 

The weather was fair but the ever-present thought of a cold front coming down from the Karakorum was enough to make our sojourn in the valley of lost paradise (or as the writer Salman Rushdie puts it "a paradise not so much lost as ruined") an all-too short one. In good weather, the renowned Highway 1 from Jammu to Srinagar is one of India's more vigorously sphincter-stimulating roads. In snow, the bellow of pressure horns erupt from Indian Army trucks as they slide around blind corners above thousand-metre scree slopes (all whilst triple-abreast overtaking a bullock cart and a clapped-out bus, naturally). In such conditions, Indian roads transcend western notions of the justifiable, and indeed of risk itself.

Perfect tarmac and not a truck in sight on the backroads of Himachal Pradesh: moments of travelling tranquility like this should be savoured in India

At around 3 a.m. on the morning of December 12th, 2005, the fall-out of an earthquake originating in the Hindu Kush measuring 6.7 on the Richter scale hit Srinagar, and generated a series of minor tsunamis on the city's famous lakes. Awakened by this unusual nocturnal intrusion aboard 'Shalimar', as the seismic shockwave subsided and the rickety wooden house-boat pitched for the last time, I meditated on the local wives' tale claiming that earthquakes are caused by the angry writhing of a subterranean serpent. Not being a naturally superstitious person, I am however a keen advocate of respecting local custom, and did not wish to wait and see if the apocryphal snake's powers extended from plate tectonics to the spontaneous generation of blizzards.

Heading south: the dusty backroads of Rajastan's Thar desert


We left Srinagar the following morning - which was later reported as the coldest December morning in Kashmir for five years - wearing every item of clothing we had. Back on the other side of Jawahar Tunnel, and despite almost being forced back through the gargantuan fume-filled pipe by a clamorous posse of Indian soldiers demanding our passport details, visions of imminent frostbite subsided with the first few gusts that came in from the south.

And with that warm air blowing up from the Punjab, over the southern ridges of the Pir Panjal, came hallucinations of a distant country; of the granite landscape of Karnataka a few thousand miles to the south, and of giant boulders watching over the ruins of the Vijayanagar Empire among the lush green of the paddy fields. The Bullet and its two shivering riders made haste out of the enclosing icy claws of the Himalayan winter, and south towards the sands of Rajastan's Thar desert.  

 

Big dunes deep in the western Thar Desert, Rajastan

A couple of weeks later, having covered 4000 kilometres since leaving Delhi, Sarah and I rode the Bullet into the ivory sand at Mandrem on the Malabar coast on December 30th. The Arabian Sea glinted with preternatural zeal that evening: this must be what Roman centurions knew, I thought, on seeing the Mediterranean again after long years of battle.

A Goan fisherman casts his drift-nets: New Year's Day 2006 

We spent a blissful new year in Goa, celebrating our survival of the world's most dangerous roads with an appropriately poisonous-looking bottle of Maharastran rum. At last, it was time to escape India’s potholed highways and homicidal driving - for a while.

Fisherman with his boat, Maharastra


After a break from the road to explore the brilliant climbing and bouldering at Hampi and Badami (click here to read about Hampi bouldering on planetFear and click here to read about the climbing in Badami), we covered a lot more ground. The Bullet took us south from Goa through the jungle mountains of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala, all the way to Kayakumari, the most southerly point of the subcontinent.

 

 

Navigating in the Western Ghats, Maharastra: European maps are a major asset to an Indian road-trip!

After finding time for a quick journey around Sri Lanka in a hastily-procured and dilapidated rickshaw, we headed north again. It was mid-February, and the pre-monsoon heat was already beginning to build, thickening the morning air like smoke. Sarah had to fly back to England in a week, whilst I still held a loose plan to ride back to Delhi over the following month, completing a huge loop around the country.

On the road in the Indira Ghandi National Park, deep in the Cardamon Hills on the border of Kerala and Tamil Nadu

One afternoon the following week, in the middle of a hot afternoon in the heart of India, I turned the Bullet around. I’d made good time from the small village in rural Karnataka I’d left at dawn, all the way to the border of Andra Pradesh. By now I understood how hard the road back up through India’s poorest east coast states to the Himalaya would be. As I manoeuvred the Bullet through the chaotic traffic of another anonymous, dirty town somewhere on the eastern Deccan, I suddenly understood that I’d been on the road for long enough: my journey was over.

 

A local man washing his cows in a river, high Deccan, Karnataka


Soon afterwards, I hit the main National Highway that links Bangalore with Hyderabad, where I’d have to fork south and then east again back to Karnataka. Here, I stopped at a little roadside dhobi-stall for chai, and paused for fifteen minutes before riding on. In the next hour, just after turning around, I saw the biggest cobra I have ever seen. The great snake quickly disappeared into an immense, overgrown well. In India, the hooded cobra, or naja naja, is replete with surrounding mythologies; the Hindu god Shiva is often painted with a protective cobra around his neck. Soon after seeing the snake, I passed a Hindu funeral procession on the outskirts of a dusty village on the plains. The mourners' song meandered away into a hot, empty sky. India, it seemed, could not let me go without another conjuring trick.

I rode west carefully into the evening as thick clouds of insects descended on the cooling rice fields. After a while, the sun went down over the high Deccan, and I rode on into the night. Frogs croaked through the growing darkness from the Tungabahdra river as a huge full moon rose over the plains, breaking the drone of cicadas. Above me, the granite towers of Karnataka were shadowlit against a night sky pinned with stars. I stopped by a lone coconut tree and cut the engine. Only then, at the end of my last long day on the road, I finally understood why India is not just another country, but a different way of seeing.

On the road in India with an Enfield Bullet 500: the author with co-pilot Sarah Garnett, deep in the Rajastan desert -----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

 

Notes:

Shakti: meaning sacred force or power, Shakti is the Hindu concept of the female principle of divine energy

 

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Dave and Sarah would like to thank Karrimor (www.karrimor.com) for supporting the expedition. 

- All photographs copyright David Pickford and Sarah Garnett, 2005 -

 

Useful links on adventure motorcycling in India:

http://www.royalenfield.com/app/IN/
www.iloveindia.com/bikes/royal-enfield/index.html
- for info on Enfield motorcycles

www.horizonsunlimited.com (worldwide adventure motorcycling information)
www.adventuremotorcycle.org
http://www.gonomad.com/transports/0010/deka_motorcycle.html

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