To love. To be loved. To never forget your own insignificance. To never get used to the unspeakable violence and the vulgar disparity of life around you. To seek joy in the saddest places. To pursue beauty to its lair. To never simplify what is complicated or complicate what is simple. To respect strength, never power. Above all, to watch. To try and understand. To never look away. And never, never to forget. ― Arundhati Roy
India is incredible in many ways: Incredibly colorful and beautiful but at the same time so incredibly chaotic, dirty and noisy. Incredibly rich in culture and history, and yet so incredible poor, strange and different from the Western world …
Despite the many months that I have travelled through foreign countries and different cultures, it took me a couple of days to get used to the new “laws” you will find yourself confronted with when entering India. On my long journey to India, I had to face quite a few critical moments in traffic. Occasionally, I told myself that whatever it is I had to go through, its just a classroom-training and a preparation course for what’s waiting for me in India. I was not wrong.
In India it does not matter where you come from. Everyone is treated equally on the road. Although this sounds rather fair, it is actually very often ruthless and truly dangerous that I had real trouble with the local “manners”.
It was a Sunday and it was the main day of Diwali, the Hindu festival of light. I reached the border early in the morning. While I was still wondering where and when I would pass through the customs on the Nepalese side, I was already behind the border post, had my passport stamped and was free to go. It would have been too nice if the world were that simple, but I needed an exit stamp for my Carnet de Passages. So where was the customs control? As it turned out, I had passed custom clearance long ago without someone stopping me. Apparently it was up to me to ensure that everything was documented properly. The approach was kind of new … In any case, I had to go back asking the migration officer to lift the barrier once again to allow me to have a talk with my friends from the customs.
On the Indian side, I was facing the next pleasant surprise. The Indian customs officer made me aware that the guys in Nepal had mixed up the entry stamp with the placeholder for the exit. The initial mistake had already been made at the customs warehouse in Kathmandu when I was temporarily importing the bike to Nepal. Great. After some discussions with the Indian guy, he eventually started the procedure from his side, putting the stamps where they belong. Since the Carnet requires to either deposit a significant amount of money or a bank guarantee with the issuing organization at home, one should definitely avoid such kind of flawed documentation.
However, I finally entered India, a country which is perhaps better understood when viewed as a multicultural subcontinent. There were still another 350 kilometers waiting for me and it was time to hit the road. But the road conditions were bad and it took me a lot of time to cross Uttarakhand. Within the first few hours, I already had to realize, that prudence didn’t mean much on Indian roads. It’s every man for himself. Charity begins at home and everybody is driving as it is most convenient for himself. Rights of way have little meaning, a traffic light is no more than a questionable proposal, street signs can be used for guidance but often would simply hinder the own way of driving. It’s another world out here and it was my first day. Before sunset, I was close twice to end up in a collision with my Indian traffic-buddies. That wasn’t fun …
In the evening I was expected in Dehradun. I was quite happy to know in advance where I would spend my first night in India. I reached the city only in the dark and spent the last hour roaming around in some mountainous area to find the place. I couldn’t call since my Nepalese SIM card wouldn’t work anymore. But when I finally reached the place, it was Roopak who gave me a warm welcome with a big smile. On my way to the shower I had to notice how much my face got sooted in Indian traffic. It resembled the face of a chimney sweeper. But a shower and a new dress can work miracles and later that night I joined the family for dinner and was warmly invited to attend the celebrations of Diwali.
The next day was dedicated to get my equipment running in line with Indian standards. I was driving around with Roopak to buy a few things and to get a new SIM card for my phone. However, this should cause some big headache and it took more than a week until this card was finally activated. In the end it was Roopak who made numerous calls on my behalf to get things done. By the way, did you know that you have to pay roaming charges for incoming calls received in another Indian state apart from the one where you bought the card? I found this strange …
Pretty much everything in India involves far more paperwork than I had experienced in other countries. Within the next couple of months I would ask myself countless times, who ever would be capable to consolidate all the information I had entered in all the forms or books across the country.
While driving with Roopak through Dehradun, he made me aware of the many vehicles without rear view mirrors or with mirrors folded in. This underlined my first impression of driving in India. No one is really interested in what happens behind him. It is however, expected to announce an attempt of overtaking by using the horn. Almost all trucks and buses have it written in big letters at the backside: “Please Horn! “. Now, if there is anything I would change on my bike, it would be the installation of a significant larger horn. Some mopeds sounded like buses. In this regard, the standard BMW configuration was a bit too modest.
Amritsar – Sunrise at the sanctuary of the Sikh
I said my goodbyes next morning and made my way to Amritsar. The city is located in northwestern India, close to the border with Pakistan . Amritsar itself is not really worth the trip. The city is unfortunately rather dirty and has for my taste not much to offer. After a long and tiring day on the road I found myself slowly moving through the jammed and crowded streets of the city.
Since the city centre was little appealing to me, I chose to stay away from it. I rather picked a decent looking hotel with proper parking a few kilometers outside the center but the first thing I noticed when entering the room and switching the lights on, was a cockroach chasing up the wall. The bed sheets were stained and the shower grungy. Welcome to India !
This little attractive town is however, the city which holds a treasure inside it’s walls: Harmandir Sahib – the Golden Temple. The holy shrine of the Sikh. I intended to visit the place next morning before sunrise. And don’t think I was alone at 4:30 a.m. Hundreds of believers followed a procession, took a bath in the holy water or prayed inside the temple complex.
Kashmir – The political Hotspot
I left Amritsar later that morning and made my way up north. Before the onset of winter I wanted to see the Kashmir Valley. The route from Jammu to Srinagar climbs more than 200 kilometers through the mountains followed by another long stretch into the Kashmir Valley.
The valley is still a political hotspot between India and Pakistan and there is no shortage of military presence in the region. The road can be exceedingly busy and turns at times into a thundering conveyor belt of trucks and army convoys. I had the pleasure to share the road with a military convoy and must have overtaken hundreds of buses and trucks on that day.
My original plan was to go from the Kashmir Valley to Ladakh, an amazingly beautiful highlight in the Himalayas. It would have meant to travel another two days from Srinagar via Kargil to Leh. The route includes two of the highest motorable passes of the world. Both passes wind up above 5,000 meters while the temperature will drop far below zero. It was already mid-November, passes would be closed by end of the months but an increased risk of fresh snowfall in the Himalayas made the adventure less calculable. The other side of the region, the road from Manali to Leh was already closed. I would have to go in and out the same way. It meant a minimum of four days under partly extreme conditions. If it would start snowing I could get stuck … and I mean stuck until spring. Passes would open again around April / May next year. When Roopak heard of my plans, he just smiled and said: “If you try to get to Ladakh by now, you are really asking for trouble.”
The decision fell in Srinagar. With a heavy heart I decided to drop my plans. It took me eight hours from Jammu to Srinagar. The temperature dropped down to 4 degrees and my hands started to get clammy. I did know that it would be extremely hard if not impossible to manage another eight hours under zero degrees with my “summer gear”. And as much as I appreciated all the features of my 1200 GS, the bike was far away from being able to compete with a snow-mobile. I would not see Ladakh …
On my way from Jammy & Kashmir to Delhi, I spent a pleasant evening in McLeod Ganj, a small village close to Dharamsala and located in the state of Himachal Pradesh. It is the residence of the Dalai Lama if he is not traveling around the globe. Since the Tibetan head made this little place his home, the village saw a boom in tourism but offers a variety of good accommodation and little restaurants.
After another night in Shimla, I was on my way to Delhi where a friend was waiting for me. As usual, Roopak welcomed me with a great smile and gave me a hand to sort out a whole range of things: The tank bag needed a new zipper, parts of my motorcycle pants had to be stitched and my rear tire was awaiting to get patched up for the sixth time.
Soon after I was ready to explore the desert of Rajasthan, the Taj Mahal, Jaipur and Udaipur and a huge salt lake in Gujarat …
Update coming soon !