Holy and the Indian Himalayas

Trip Start Nov 28, 2004
Trip End Nov 23, 2005

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Flag of India  , Uttar Pradesh,
Wednesday, April 20, 2005

THE Himalayas are the world's highest mountain range. Stretching over 2500km's long, from the far north Indian states, through the heart of the Himalayan kingdoms of Nepal and Bhutan, this huge mountain range feeds India's major artery - the Ganges river - the holiest river in India, as well as providing a twisted maze of towering peaks for trekkers and mountaineers to traverse in order to find it's true heart - Qomolangma Sagarmatha - Mount Everest. For the Tibetans and Nepalese, the mountains are not just a majestic background; they provide a way of life, a life far different and simple than yours or mine. I was looking forward to tasting a sample of the Himalayas in India with the bike, before finally saying a sad goodbye to Pegasus and Troy and making my way into Nepal - the country I had looked most forward to traveling through since leaving the UK.

A few days of exploring Jaisalmer and Troy and I were ready to move on. As plans always changed with us, our new route would take us directly east across the desert state of Rajasthan, then into Utter Pradesh and Agra with a quick visit to the Taj Mahal...after all, what would a visit be to India without seeing the Taj?! After this we would make our way directly north into the state of Utturanchal and follow the foothills that would lead us into the Himalayas.

On the morning we left Jaisalmer, we had the bikes parked outside the fort gates. Just then a mangy dog walked by us. Troy let out a 'oh Jesus Christ' and pointed to the dogs head. At the angle I was looking at it from, the left side of the dog's head looked fine. Then it turned around and half of its head was missing, with its brain hanging out and only one eye still there but blind. Maggots had started eating the dog alive. This was the worst sight I had so far seen in India as far as dogs were concerned. I dry reached as the dog bumped its head into a wooden wagon and then staggered off feebly. I had seen death before, but death clinging so desperately to life is something that unnerves me. So many times had I seen these sights in India, but not as close up as this. Something changed for me then, a part of me had had enough of seeing so much raw suffering in this country and I think it was then that I started thinking about finishing up in India and getting the hell out. I haven't written much about these things, but thoughts build to a stage of complete realisation. That morning was enough reality for me.

On a lighter note, my bike had finished having a major heart transplant...the piston, rings and valves had been changed and he was ready for the next part of the adventure. The only thing was, I had been told by the mechanic to keep the bike under 50km's an hour for the next 500km's. How the hell was I going to keep the speed under 50 when we were on flat smooth desert roads and I had a new engine to play with? It was like telling a 5 year old not to play in the mud. I managed to keep it under 50 for about 200 km's from Jaisalmer to our next stop, Jodhpur, the blue city. Troy kept racing ahead then waiting for me at truck stops looking bored and fed up every time I finally rolled in an hour later. He stopped waiting for me after he got hit on by a weird Indian boy at a truck stop just outside Jodhpur.

We stayed in Johdpur, the blue city, for a few days and made our way up to the magnificent palace overlooking the city below. This was by far the most impressive palace I'd seen in India so far. We didn't want to pay the 250 rupees entry fee so decided to park the bikes in the rickshaw car park just below the gate entrance, which we got told off for, and climbed down along the wall avoiding piles of shit on the way down a rocky valley that ended in a broken part of the wall forming the outer defense of the palace. We could see a man made lake behind and thought about sneaking in the back entrance to the complex. Not much further though, we spotted a security guard standing inside the crumbled wall looking our way. Defeated, we gave up.

Holy, one of the biggest and most celebrated holidays of the year, was fast approaching and from what we had been told, we had better get somewhere safe and get the bikes off the streets before the big day. Holy is also that time of year when kids and adults join in the silliness and throw coloured paint and powder at each other with more ferocity than an Arsenal/Manchester United football match. So we legged it to Pushkar with two glowing and excited French girls, one on my bike and the other slung over Troy's back seat. We rode like Wayne Gardner and Mick Doohan to get there before d-day caught us unawares by some local kids armed with dye bombs and coloured powder syringes along the road somewhere. I was ready with a slingshot I had bought along the way just in case. These were used by local shop owners to keep hungry monkeys away from their street stalls.

Pushkar is a small shantytown nestled in a valley, with rocky hills hugging closely to the east and sand dunes to the west. It's an odd little town, with a big holy lake in the middle lined by bathing ghats around its rim. The sunsets from the lake are beautiful. Opportunistic priests scowl the banks each day preying on ignorant tourists. Leading unsuspecting tourists down to the lakes edge, the priests say a few prayers with them in the meditation position, throw offerings to the gods...the over sized residents under the murky water - the cat fish, and receive a blessing from the priest in the form of a piece of string tied around the wrist - the inevitable and somewhat unavoidable 'Pushkar Passport'. I got sucked in to this scam even after being warned. The priest who wooed me wanted a thousand rupees for a donation and to help him support his family. Bugger that! I told him that if he really is a holy man, he should be grateful for whatever he gets and shouldn't be demanding a certain amount. I pretended I was a poor backpacker, and tried talking my way out of donations by bashings. That didn't go down too well, so my Pushkar baptism ended on a bit of a sour note. It wasn't the first time offers of pure friendliness and goodwill by Indians had ended in me getting yelled at or me doing the yelling after I'd found out what their real motive was. Sometimes it was actually fun. If you ever need anger management, come to India.

So, Holy day finally arrived and Troy and I stuck our heads wearily out of the hotel door to the streets before us expecting the worst. There was no one about? There had been celebrations, dancing and general revelry in the streets the night before so maybe the last ones to bed hadn't risen yet. Usually that was us. We wandered down the empty street and just as we spotted a guy selling a great selection of mulitcoloured dyes and powder on a wooden cart 100 metres further on, we got sprung on by some guys with powder bags. The custom is to wish the fellow 'enemy' a happy holy while either wiping powder on that persons face and forehead, or dousing the enemy with dyed water. The aim is to get the other person as colouful, and uncomfortable, as you can possibly get them with what you have. If you were really unlucky, kids would launch a barrage of dyed water bombs at you with force. As we moved further down the street, more and more carts appeared with even more of a selection of colourful ammunition - flouro blue, aqua blue, green, yellow, red, purple and more. Multicoloured in a few places and looking like clowns you wouldn't ever let your kids near, we restocked our supplies and headed on. I was itching for a clean kid to stick his nose out from around some corner. Up ahead three super clean kids all in various shaded of white emerged from a doorway to my left. A few handfuls of flouro green and yellow and a half litre of purple dye, and no longer were they an add for Napisan. Then the smallest girl started crying. No, this wasn't supposed to happen. All three looked at me with fear in their eyes. What the hell? I offered to hand my water bottle to the eldest kid and indicated for him to squirt me, but he wouldn't have it and stood there comforting his crying sister. Go on squirt me I said, take the lid off and pour the whole bottle over my head I said in universal sign language, but the fear remained in his eyes and he cringed on the doorstep with his sister and brother. Lost for words and standing there embarrassed with people looking on, not knowing what to do, I was approached by a local selling chai on the other side of the narrow street. He told me off, saying that not everyone celebrates Holy in this fashion and many people do not wish to join in and be covered in paint.You could have told me this earlier. Now I felt like the kid standing in the corner of the classroom facing the wall. I felt soooo bad. Troy was off down the road a bit getting ganged up on by some other ferocious rug rats, so I said that I was very sorry, did my Mr Bean style bow and half ran down the street to help Troy, leaving the three kids to deal with having to go to their mum and get changed again. An hour or so later, the street was full of revelers wanting a bit of the action and by this stage Troy and I had so many colours over every inch of our bodies that we were just one dark shade of purple. We gave it our best, throwing and getting doused by kids, westerners, old men, and all the while there was something missing. At last it hit me, where was the usual menagerie of street dogs? Obviously they were wiser than they looked and had stayed well away from the main street and the frenzy. After all, all the shops were shut and bordered up so there was no food to be scrounged for. But, as usual, every few metres or so a cow stood still and relaxed, completely unperturbed by the mess being created around it. A clean white cow stood munching some cardboard a little way up the street. My next victim. I approached and wished it a Happy Holy, spreading flouro blue and pink over its head and horns. To finish off, I gave it blue lips and purple eyeliner, and a compassionate hug. She smelled good and earthy, the way a clean cow smells. She smiled up at me with a pretty drag queen look, flitting her eyelids in a shy but thankful way, now feeling comfortable about being in with the crowd. Such is the life of an Indian holy cow. 

A few days after the craziness of Holy subsided, we arrived in Agra and left the French girls in Pushkar. No luck there. Maybe I needed to learn French, the language of love? Troy had seen the Taj before, so left me to it to get up at 530am and get there before the crowds started piling in. At a whopping 750 rupees entry fee, something like 20 times what Indians pay, I was going to get the most of this visit and beat the crowds for a few good pictures without the white-sock-wearing-sandal package tourists sneaking into the foreground of every shot. I have to say, as much as this may sound cliched, but the Taj is the grandest act of love I have ever seen. Simple but beautiful. I walked the marble floor like I was at the American Presidents Inauguration. White milky marble stands proud over an immaculately kept ground, with a huge river delta spreads out at the back of the complex. Sunrise showed the marble at it's finest. I hadn't had any breakfast before going in, so the Taj started looking more and more like a huge Cadbury's white chocolate bar the more my stomach grumbled. As I left, the sandal-sock wearing Europeans started piling in through the east entrance with loaded cameras in their holsters. It was time to get the hell out of there!

Nepal and its border with India was our next destination. We would try and make it to Bambassa, an entry point into Nepal, within two days of leaving Agra. That was feasible, or so it looked on the map. The first day heading Northeast was a nightmare. The road quickly turned to shit once we left Agra and we really put the bikes through the paces, tackling one of the worst stretches of potholed road we had been on so far. The second day brought us to a newly constructed two-lane highway, part of India's national highway project, a move that would link all the major cities of India and propel the country further into its vision to join the developed countries of the world, and bask in the so called success of first world economic growth. This new highway stayed smooth for the remainder of our ride to the border. We wanted to check the current security situation at the border crossing, and whether it would be feasible to ride the bikes into Nepal. Nearing the border, we rode through Chestnut groves, past fields green with newly sown wheat and barley, and huge old oaks reaching over the road, forming a canopy where colourful birds went frantically about their morning business, singing all the while. We could have been in any English countryside, minus the animal driven carts and the occasional shoeless kid running along the side of the road with a stick chasing a tire.

Indian immigration required us to leave our passports at the Indian side of Nepal, about a kilometre before the border. We pressed on through no mans land, a peaceful area with Indian couples strolling through the grassy woods smiling and Nepalese and Tibetans walking freely between the two countries. Nepal immigration was so friendly and helpful. They said that it wouldn't be a problem taking the bikes into Nepal. I was up for it, but Troy was concerned about security on the bikes if we did this. The recent Maoist bombings concerned him, and me to a certain extent. A call to the chief security officer in Kathmandu confirmed Troy's concern. The officer advised us strongly that we should not attempt to ride into Nepal. I wasn't so sure that we were being told the truth. You know how over dramatic many government security warnings can be on other countries. I had spoken to so many travelers that had come from Nepal first hand with a real sense of traveling, and had said that it was fine, even on a bike. I guess it came down to the fact that I really wanted to see Nepal, and Troy didn't. Later in Kathmandu, I found out that so many Israeli's had ridden their bikes into Nepal without a problem. In the end, I stayed with my buddy and we headed up north on the Indian side instead. I wasn't ready to leave my friend Troy. Before we left Nepal though, we rode the bikes just a little further into Nepal and were allowed by immigration to stop by a restaurant and have a quick beer. I suppose that not many people could say that they've been into Nepal without a visa on an Enfield and enjoyed a cold beer on the other side to celebrate the occasion!

We rode further north through the state of Utturanchal, keeping the western Nepalese border always to our right. Excited about getting back into the mountains and immersing ourselves in the fresh Himalayan air, the grins returned and we eyed each other competitively as we raced each other up through the switchbacks and over mountain passes at good speeds. As much fun as it sounds being on a bike through India, there's a constant concern for the bike and often times it is completely draining both mentally and physically. By the time we reached the Himalayas, I had thought several times about giving up, just leaving the bike and carrying on without the stresses attached to motorbiking in India. When everything you do, there's a sensory overload, it becomes too much and the fun disappears. I've stood there by the side of the road quite a few times and screamed in frustration at a passing goat or a dumb looking sheep. All we wanted to do many times was just pull over by the side of the road to buy a bottle of water and a cup of tea but then so many locals would come out of the woodwork and surround us, staring intensely and asking the usual questions. I grew tired of the constant staring. We craved to be able to sit in silence and have a mental break from the bike and tune out for a few minutes. Other times, Indians have been so overwhelmingly helpful and friendly when we have lost our way or have had trouble buying supplies due to the language barrier. The frustration boiled many times when breaking down on some lonely stretch, and after going systematically through the mechanics of the bike, even then not having a clue where to start pulling the thing apart to get to the problem. It's definitely no holiday and I think I've developed a love hate relationship with India. Tom, one of my good mates, emailed and asked me if I liked India...that's a hard question to answer, but I'll try and answer that a little later. I suppose I could have left at any time, but I didn't want to give up, not yet anyway.

The heat and flatness of the plains were now well behind us as we rode ever higher into the mountains, through whispering pine stands and then suddenly back down into steep ravines, over old wooden bridges protecting us from the thundering rapids and freezing glacial waters below. It was so peaceful. I felt energy and motivation returning in me that I had lost to the heat and dust of the plains weeks ago. The road further north was inaccessible once we got too close to the first glacier, too much like a yak trail to get the bikes through. We decided to double back to Darchula, a small outpost town situated on the raging Kali River, which separates India from Nepal. Darchula had a very rough frontier feel about it.

It was the following day in Darchula where, in the morning, I gazed out over the town below to the river that separates it, that I saw a second potential opportunity to sneak into Nepal. There, across the river, stretched a suspension bridge connecting Nepal to India. Locals, Nepalese and Indians, were creating a scene of organised chaos as they used the bridge for their mornings commerce. Perhaps we could sneak across disguised as Sherpas, or dress in a sari? Me being six foot one and Troy the same height, we doubted it would work. As we approached the bridge, we passed dozens of little people, I mean, four and a half feet high, dark leather faced men and women, carrying loads five times there height on backs bent over from years of working as human yaks. It was chaos,or so it seemed to us, and as we crossed, the wide loaded little people almost bowled us over a few times. The other side presented us with half a dozen Nepalese soldiers with AK47's by their sides and twitching fingers at the trigger looking very seriously over us as we approached. Our dumb traveler faces were put on and we smiled and said a big Nameste to all of them. They eyed us up and asked us what we were doing there. I asked if we could just spend some time looking around and offered to hand my passport over as a security deposit. They told us that they had not seen a tourist here in a very long time, and looked confused. In the end we were very kindly escorted by a blue and black camouflaged soldier around the village. Troy bought a pair of fake Nike's for a great price, and some hiking socks. People waved at us and generally seemed more open and friendly than the Indian side. Duty free shopping in Nepal, it's pretty damn good!

From Darchula, we rode to the small village of Munsyari higher up in the mountains, 3000 metres above sea level. An overload of amazing sights and smells consumed us that day. The thin dirt road we had chosen led us up a narrow gorge and along a small tributary river. That's a day that I remember very well. We floated that day...sweet smelling meadows full of butterflies and thick spring air swirled all around us, shaggy cows with soft chiming bells around their thick coated necks ate contentedly in flowering fields, low stone hedges sprang up to the sides of us, and every now and then a small wooden bridge would take us over a gurgling brook filled with crystal clear mountain water. We even stumbled across a small wooden cart connected to an overhead wire suspended across the river. Obviously it was used to carry people or goods from one side of the river to the other. I had to try it out. The whole day was like a long peaceful scene out of The Lord of the Rings, and Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gange rode on Enfields instead of on foot. And every now and then, we would see der Little People.

Munsyani is an even smaller town than Darchula, more like a village clinging precariously to a mountainside separating two massive valleys, consumed by mist and wood fire haze. A crazy Scottish guy we had met a few days before over a few local scotches recommended the place. We checked into a small guesthouse in the cold and misty little village. There were a few hours of sunlight left and the clear blue sky above us showed that the weather would most likely be fine for the rest of the afternoon. We had run into rain earlier that day in the last valley, but it had now cleared up. A boy from the guesthouse said that he could take us to a lake along a ridge a few hundred metres above where the village lay, so we drove the bikes further higher into the snowline before parking them by the side of the road and walking along a ridge line and trail marked by a small stone hedge. A well educated older guy from Mumbai with a recent triple heart bypass also joined us. As we walked through stands of rhododendron trees showing off their rich red flowers and dressed in winter jackets of thick moss, I noticed then how remote and silent this place was. When I stopped walking, all that filled my ears was the beat of my own heart and my laboured breaths. The only other sound was the wind, whistling occasionally through the pine trees and tossing up flurries of snow. When I was a kid, I used to read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by CS Lewis. This is exactly what this place was for me. A couple of hours of crunching in and out of snow, we came to the lake, which sat in a tiny glen surrounded by fir trees and short winter grass. That lake gave me a sense of peace yet loneliness as we sat by its bank on the grass, perched up there away by itself. On the way back, as the last rays of day lit the snow peaks up in shades of bright pink before us and stars appeared, the mountains looked so wise and ominous. These mountains seem to keep a purity and peace between them, like an agreement kept for centuries by The Elders. Maybe I've just read too many fantasy books over the years, but it seemed like the progress of human destruction would never reach here. Maybe it never would. I hoped it wouldn't. Deserts have many tales to tell, but mountains keep many secrets.

Unfortunately, all good things must end. On the way further east a few days later, I had an accident on the bike. It was a head on with another car. I came out fine, but the bike didn't. If I had been on a smaller bike, I wouldn't have come out too well either. Pegasus took all the impact. It was my fault. Troy and I were probably going too fast through some s bends in a pine forest area when I took a sharp right bend too close. A small four door Suzuki came around the corner at the same time, not using his horn as warning, so I didn't hear him until it was too late. He apparently didn't hear my horn either which is louder than many truck horns. Who knows, it doesn't matter. We paid the driver a couple of thousand rupees after getting him down from five thousand, and I drove the messy bike into the next town to have repairs done. That day I completely lost the motivation to carry on with Troy, so decided to get the repairs done and head straight to Delhi and sell the bike. I saw a ghost that day and it scared me.

It was a sad farewell. Troy and I had been together on the road for almost three months now and had turned into great mates. But I knew I'd see him again, and such is the way of traveling, you never really get used to saying goodbye. On the way back to Delhi, I skirted around the border of Corbett Tiger Reserve. I didn't see a tiger, however after passing a few elephants walking along the road, I had to lock the brakes up, skidding to a halt a metre short of an 8 foot long cobra, poised directly in front of me and ready to strike. It watched me with it's beady eyes and bobbing head. I shat myself. Should I gun it and try and pass, should I drop the bike and run the other way, or should I just sit there dead still and see what happens? I think the snake made my mind up for me, as it was so close that any move I made off the bike, I think would have brought a certain fate to me. I decided to sit there as quiet as a mouse and wait. My lack of being able to move also helped. Good move. The snake must have finally felt less threatened by my none evasive move, and slid off into the forest below. I let out a very long breath. Fuck!!!

Delhi, a teaming metropolis of a city, was a breeze to drive through the afternoon that I arrived alone. An hour or so earlier on the highway into Delhi, there had been a police barrier and a half dozen police officers waving drivers down for various reasons. I didn't have a front numberplate on the bike, never had, and so as I approached they waved at me to stop. Doing the usual, I accelerated and sped through the barrier without hesitation. They screamed at me to stop but I was well past already. One thing I learnt in India - never stop for a cop! They'll try and get whatever bride they can out of tourists to fill their own pockets. In Delhi, the drivers were courteous, or more than many other Indian cities, the streets were wide with trees and gardens, and everything (at least in New Delhi) had an order about it. I don't know why travelers hate Delhi, I didn't mind it at all. I spent a week there staying in Para Gange, the Koh San Road of Delhi. The heat though was getting worse and worse by the day, with a thick pre monsoon stickiness about it. A few days later, I had an inquiry about Pegasus from Mark, a really nice Dutch guy who had just arrived and wanted an Enfield to drive up into the north. He immediately liked the bike, and a couple of days later I sadly looked on as Mark waved goodbye with Pegasus now in his hands. I didn't realise how much I would really miss that bloody bike. As much trouble as it was over the months, I grew very attached to it. At one stage I was thinking about importing it back to Oz, but looked into it in Delhi and the costs were way beyond my budget would allow. Maybe I would come back one day and ride again an Enfield through India, but I don't think that there's any greater bond than the bond with your first Endfield.

I am now relaxing in Pokhora before I start my trek to Annapurna Base Camp. Pokhora is a small and beautiful town sat next to an emerald green lake, with the Annapurna Range reflected to the north. I've just finished a Vipassana Meditation course - 10 full days, 10 hours a day solitary meditation in complete silence. I'll write about that shortly. But now, I reflect back on my time on India. It's easier to put things in perspective from my vantage point here and away from the chaos. India is the dirtiest, loudest, most disgusting country I have been to so far. It's people are completely frustrating to deal with, have no consideration for personal space or personal belongings, and live in a completely distinctive caste system that, to me, seems more discriminatory than the upper class system in England. Everywhere you walk in India, there is death happening or waiting to happen, and life being born from garbage piles in the form of a human being or something similar. Leper beggars reach for you from every hidden or unhidden piss smelling corner and ask for money, holding out their deformed limbs or showing you their deformed other parts. The smell of decay is overwhelming The power of bureaucracy is overwhelming. India has way too many people - you are never ever alone in India. India is not a holiday, it's an experience. I hate India for all the reasons above and many more. But these reasons are also the root of my new love for India as well. I have never been so utterly frustrated, overwhelmed, sad, happy, enlightened, challenged, mesmorised, and forced to open all of my senses and let India completely wash over and consume me...because that's what India does if you let it - don't fight it let the current take you wherever you are destined to land. India is raw, and completely contradictory in so many ways. India has created an insatiable fire in me, and the only way to quench that fire is to go back again.

I will return to India one day.

I've been in Nepal now a few weeks. It's a stunningly beautiful country and I've found the people more laid back than in India (except for Goa). I suppose in a way, India cut a deep surgical operation through me as it does for most people who travel it for the first time, and now Nepal is acting as that soothing after balm I needed.

That's it for now. I hope to update again in about two weeks after the Annapurna trek, and give you an idea of what it's like to sit in meditation 10 bloody hours a day and not be allowed to speak to anyone for 10 days. It really is a mind game of monstrous proportions!

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