Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Bullets and batteries

Kashmir is on the border with Pakistan and has been undergoing continued troubles with insurgents blowing up things, usually people and the like in a protest for reasons I've forgotten. The TV in the hotel at breakfast broadcasts news across the screen under the newsreader that this morning man was shot and killed at the front of a hotel used by tourists in Srinagar. More here. Guess where I'm heading?

I've been reassured by all around me, this this is still OK  and after having survived Baluchistan without a Taliban incident a few weeks before, decide to Kashmir and the city of Srinagar in true adventurer spirit.

Srinagar traffic is as mental as the other mad cities in India. The rules of which I'm still trying to work out. I've become so used to the madness of it all, I shrug off the sight of half a cow on the road north. I did wonder where the other half was but this is India and it's best not to worry about sch things. No one else does.

Lake Dal houseboat
My room for the night is a boat, a house boat on lake Dal. The tourist people direct me to a landing where I meet the oarsman of a Shikara. Its turning dark and I'm feeling a bit stressed by the sheer numbers button pressing enthusiasts gathering around my bike. Some bloke I assume is the boat owner leads me to a parking spot nearby where my bike will be watched all night by guards. He disappears and I'm left with another guy to directs me to a Shikara with my baggage.

Floating shops
The noise and chaos of the crowd disappear into the distance as I'm rowed across a small lake, we turn up a narrow opening and I'm presented with floating street city. Here there are shops, barbers, beauty parlours, lawyers, you name it, on both sides. We slowly meander through the gentle quiet traffic of other Shikara's going about their business. After 10 minutes we land at a landing adjoining several houseboats. Beautiful surroundings, beautiful boat and peace and quiet. Its rather cold now so a wood burning heater is a most welcome sight in my room. Long gone is the stress and noise of the street and I'm happy with these new surroundings.

The next day I'm going to head out on a gentle tour of the area by boat, or more correctly a Shikara as they're called. This turns out to be one of the most relaxing journeys possible. Gently meandering through the various parts of this lake, divided by small islands, vegetation  wildlife, trees, house boats is a great way to relax whilst enjoying the beautiful scenery around. This turns out to be a great place so I decide to stay another night or two. Although the is a Muslim area and alcohol is not allowed in public, you can still purchase beer and spirits in several small shops in town. I sneak some beer into my bag for the afternoon.

Shikara's for hire
Now thoroughly relaxed and ready to continue my journey, I'm going to head south to Delhi, then Agra and the Taj Mahal before heading further East and Nepal.

On the way south, whilst stopping to take photographs, my bike refuses to start, the battery dies. In same fashion as Jeroens died in Pakistan  mine does the same. Luckily Im on a hill and manage to bump start the bike to continue but its a long way back to Chandigarh and I will need to stop the engine at some point to put in some more fuel.

sick battery
There is something about driving a sick bike that although it runs OK  you know things are not right. The thought consumes you and all energies are aimed at getting it fixed, nothing else matters and the thought of being stuck on a dirty Kashmir highway isn't attractive. Another 50 km further on, the battery does something to the charging system, the bike computer goes mad and after many weird and wonderful flashing light on the dash, the bike stutters to a stop. Fuck!
All the things I worried about are coming true. Where on earth will I find a new battery here? As it turns out, right across the road about 100 metres away! There is a small battery shop by the road, mostly to support local agriculture but they have a small battery that may help. That'll do me!

Its not the right type and size, cant start the engine either but I can get a push by several volunteers  I should be able to reach a town or hotel for the night. The over priced wet cell battery is fitted, I'm given a push and I'm back on the road.

I'm a bit more relieved now and can feel safety of a hotel is possible not too far away in Hoshurpur. This keeps me happy for a bit and gives me more confidence in the bike, On the road I see a rare sign in in India, "McDonald's". I don't really eat at this place but the thought of real coffee and maybe some food I'm more familiar with forces me to make a quick stop. I pop in and get a quick feed leaving the bike running. Meanwhile, the wet cell battery decides to piss acid all down the internals of the bike, over the rear swinging arm and leave a puddle of sizzling acid on the ground. The bike is still running, and leaving my half eaten Chilly veggie burger" I jump on and head for a hotel before something else goes wrong.

All the good hotels in Hoshurpur are full and I end up in one which is needs a good wash, or a fire. Next day I'm off to Chandigarh again, this time for a new battery that works. The guys at the Ducati shop are trying to find one for me and provide several options when I arrive. They also feed me tea, being the nice guys they are. None of the batteries available are good enough so I'm off to Delhi, a city of 21 Million people. There has to be the right part here.

I have some friends in Delhi who offer to help. Manish and Prachi book me into a good hotel, bring beers over and take me out for tea. Next day we'll go battery hunting. Sure enough we get the part we're looking for on the other side of town at a bike workshop full of surprises. It doesn't look much from outside, in fact it looks fairly crap but hidden behind the steel doors and badly painted logo's  lies a haven of Triumph motorbikes. As these are as rare as hens teeth here I'm amazed that this guy has a few for sale, all brand new, various models. He even has a 1903 single cylinder Triumph which he is restoring.

New battery getting fitted
Now with the bike back to normal Im planning to continue south to Agra and the famous Taj Mahal before turning towards Nepal and my final part of this journey before Thailand.

How to test your brakes

Friday, November 9, 2012

Incredible India. Incredible brakes, Plaster and Vodafone

Rickshaw riding
So finally managed to get to the Wagah border and into India. This time its just David and myself, heading across to Amritsar  Jeroen arrives next day and we meet at the golden temple a few rounds of drinks and we're game enough to try out the cycle rickshaws ... ah bloody tourists!

David heads south to Goa on his BMW rickshaw, Jeroen heads to the KTM garage for the beginning of a new workshop adventure including the need for rickshaws now, and I head north.

Taragoh Palace
I'm going to Dharamsala in the Himalayas and since my GPS has now totally died, have to navigate the old way. This means I get it wrong and spend two hours driving in the dark on twisty potholed roads. Not my favourite way to arrive, stressed and tired. However the stress disappears as soon as the nice turban wearing barman greets me, handing me a Kingfisher and a glass. I'm lucky enough to stay in a old palace now run as a hotel. The rooms resemble an old english style I last saw in the Lake district in England. All a bit posh really.

I have breakfast in a huge hall completely on my own, like royalty, sat at a long table whilst trying to work out how this place can possibly make a profit if there are no other guests. Turns out, it's not in season so my presence is rather unusual for this time of year.

Road to Manali
I'm heading for Manali through some beautiful valleys and incredible scenery. One thing is bothering me though. Vodafone advertisements are everywhere. On houses and garage doors mostly. I believe they have paid many people to paint their logo everywhere on any vertical surface that can be used for advertising space. I've also noticed that cement manufacturers seem important too. Don't know why I would need to know so much about availability of one type of cement or another but it seems the thing here. Cement and Vodafone.

The road to Manali is good and bad, there are occasional corners with bumps, bumps and bumps. I feel I'm hurting the bike but it seems to be OK. One thing is starting to bother me though, the chain is making some weird clicking noises. I'm trying to work out how this is happening as all seems good. I oil the chain well and it disappears for a bit.Yet the annoying click returns.  After much oil on hands, it turns out to be a weak link, it's worn and needs replaced. No problem I reckon as I have links, new chain and even spare sprockets with me. All I need is the chain split tool to do it with. A 5 minute job normally? This is a tool used to break the link and compress a new one. $30 from ebay. All bike shops would have one.

Workshop Manali
In Manali, no one has ever seen such a thing and I try to tell the mechanic, as he ignores me and reaches for his pliers "No way your going to take any links out with pliers" as he continues to look, confused that he cant find the link used on on the local Royal Enfield bikes. "These bikes can't use sprink links mate, they aren't strong enough" I explain for the third time.

So, I'm told by another Manila motorbike guy, "yes, KTM on road to Mandi has all the tools for you". Great, I'll head there, get it sorted and continue up to Kashmir as intended tomorrow.
I'm heading to Mandi but the chain link is now badly worn and making me worry that it could break at any moment. No big deal if I have a spare but I'm worrying that the chain may snap at any moment and totally destroy the engine as it spins outwards at high speed slicing through the crankcasings.

 I manage to reach the town where the small KTM dealer is. The boss tells the guys to make a start after I explain but they are tightening up the chain! "No no no. I don't need it tightened, I need a tool for this" They eventually get what I'm saying and waggle their head to indicate that "KTM workshop in Mandi has all the tools you need". I thank the guys anyway and head another 50kms towards Mandi where the sanctuary of a bike workshop with all the tools and technology awaits.
After 3 hours, going around in circles with no one knowing where KTM is, I head for a hotel on the outskirts of town and on the way pass the KTM shop, now closed for the night. Bugger!

Next day I'm in the new branded orange KTM workshop, promptly asking for the $30 chain tool. Blank faces from 4 of the guys there. They have no idea what I'm talking about so we all rummage through their nice new shiny KTM branded tool boxes. No joy. So after a few swear words and a coffee at local shop I decide its best to head the opposite way I wanted to go. South, to Chandigarh where everyone tells me, "ah yes there is BMW and Triumph workshops, they will have all the tools you need"

200kms south and I find the KTM workshop. Its huge and has hundreds of the small KTM Duke 200cc model lined up outside and in the showrooms. Guess what? Same result. They have never heard of such a tool and in my frustration I'm starting to wonder if this is a figment of my imagination so prove to them that such a thing exists on ebay using about $100 worth of roaming data on my phone to download a picture of the thing!
"Try Ducatti, they will have all the tools", they suggest. Great! Ducati do not make small bikes, they will have one surely.

I head to Ducatti shop and guess what? No chain tool!

Ducati workshop
I'm fed up with driving around and with the possible alternative of driving all the way south to Delhi just for this tool, decide to let the Ducati guys try to come up with a solution. I hear much banging of hammers and decide it's best not to look. In the meantime however, these guys get wind it's my birthday today and I'm presented with a garland of flowers and a birthday cake. They even get me lunch. How good is that! 7 hours later I have the chain, the link and sprockets replaced, not with the right tools, but the Ducati mechanics do their best with angle grinders, hammers and other ad-lib pieces of steel to finish the job. Not elegant but it works and I'm happy again.
India Times

After a couple of days in Chandigarh and even a newspaper interview which puts me on front page of the India Times, I'm off North to the place I've been keen to see for years. Kashmir.

I have to say that driving here is absolutely mad. It is the worst I've ever experienced. Trucks coming at you on the wrong side of the road on a blind corner, bikes nipping in and out, cars with young guys trying to run you down from behind. Horns beeping at all times of the day, cows wandering amongst the traffic to add to the mad random games. Incredible. In the 12 weeks on the road, I'd seen one small crash in Turkey. In India on the first week, I've seen about 6 or 7 that had just happened, ignoring the numerous wrecks left at the side of the road. I've been pushed into the gutter by a few buses and trucks and somehow managed to survive, either by luck, some off road skills, or incredible brakes. I've grown so used to it that I drive just like an Indian now. I hope I don't do this when I get to Australia. I will be chased by helicopters and will be shown on the 6 o clock news for being arrested.

Bullets and batteries

Thursday, November 1, 2012

No room at the Inn

We’re in Karachi and going to head north to Lahore and the Indian border. I have to admit, I’m a bit fed up with Pakistan and agree with David to head to India as soon as possible. This is not currently possible for Jeroen sadly, as his bike has been sick. The list of problems grows to include a slow puncture, overheating engine, faulty battery and charging system failing. I’m feeling a bit bad about heading off without him, but Jeroen is cool and insists he will sort a few things out prior to following us.

The target for the rest of us  today will be a place around 100kms south of Lahore, Okara. It looks nice on a map. The truth is slightly different. We can reach there before dark hopefully and be able to head straight for Indian border the following day. As always on this trip, that was the theory. Here’s what really happened:

last of the Murree beer
Martin & Richard on the KTM 650’s, David on the Beemer and my self head off fairly early around 6am. I’ve left Jeroen with the last of the Murree beer,since we had no idea what room he’s in it’s been left on his bike to heat up in morning sun. I do text him later so we’re not all bad.

We escape Karachi a lot lot easier than how we arrived, and for the first time in earnest we are without an escort thankfully. The road north is fairly straight forward and the usual routine of tea and fuel stops keep our bums from numbing out completely. The day drags on uneventfully and we start to think all is going to plan until late in the afternoon when we come across another mad traffic jam on one side of a dual carriageway. Following cars and bikes to diverting locals we change over to the opposite carriageway to make some progress through the usual chaos of people and cars going both ways. 

As we continue to struggle north a large crowd of men has gathered further on up the chaos and as I weave towards the road blockage I can see many of these guys have an attitude that isn't welcoming. Almost all at once, the large crowd comes towards me and the rest of the guys are behind me now, instinct says this isn’t right so I look to David who reads my mind and starts to turn also. I’m trying to look cool about it  but inside I’m not so calm. Watching my mirrors and the crowd around I’m plotting my master escape plan in case it turns really nasty for us. Luckily I never have to use my half-baked plan as we turn off the main highway relieved and calmed to be away from the madding crowd. We know we have to detour around this and manage to succeed despite the darkening sky and the familiar moans of “fucks sake, driving in the dark again” Were happy to be away from this madness for now.

Crowd gathering  Extract from video
We still have no idea what the crowd was about but David insists this is a tense situation and one he’s seen before in India when the mass hysteria takes over, the crowd looks for someone to blame for what we guess might have been a child’s road death or similar. In many cases the bystander pays for it and the blood thirsty crowd goes home refreshed and unpunished. 

Although I didn't notice at the time, David mentions these guys had some weapons.

Now relatively safely back n the road and within an hour of intended destination and hopefully a lovely hotel with nice clean sheets, cool refreshing beer, lovely food, a beautiful girl on reception to welcome our weary party to Okara. A clean bed would be nice at least.

No room at the Inn
We stop at the Pearl Inn hotel and David,volunteered by many of us to complete the room bargaining, sets  upon the reception whilst we wait for the results outside. As usual, we attract a large crowd of dirty looking pyjama wearing men, mostly young in 20’s or 30’s with dirty hands and need to poke and press all the bikes buttons. It’s difficult to stay relaxed in this situation but I’ve found its best to ignore as much as possible and answer the usual repeated questions with smile, “about $7000. Scotland.  Yes, Australia. From England. From Austria. Yes, to India” However this night is slightly different. We don’t know why but with the drama on the road just about an hour ago, the ever increasing crowd in the very dark dirty street of Okara outside this unfriendly looking hotel, we are all starting to feel anxious.

David squeezes his way through the crowd as I hand his salvaged bike key, over the top of some black heads which I removed earlier “so did we get some rooms”? I shout over the din of Pakistani noise, “No it’s full they say”!
This is a lie as the place is empty and there are several keys hanging up on the wall behind reception in the 1950’s way of doing things. I’m annoyed and poke my head in the door to say you’re all wankers but say nothing, stare at the hundreds of keys on the wall, look towards the line of moustache wearing puppets behind the counter and try to tell the one with the biggest moutache assuming hes the boss, I’m issed off. This has absolutely no effect on their dumb expressions as most people in this country look pissed off most of the time anyway.Walking to the bike, I’m secretly hoping the building burns own in the night and kills all these 1950’s pyjama wearing shitheads to death without granting them the usual 1000 virgins.

So we’re off to find another hotel, the second of only 3 places to stay in town. Once again the crowd disperses and reassembles at our new destination. Same results. No rooms for us. This is not good and the crowd still getting larger starts to bother all of us. There is one hope left so we get local tuk tuk driver to show us the way to the last hotel in Pakistan.

Another large crowd to welcome us
Once more, David takes the lead and heads inside to get our rooms sorted. Thankfully he succeeds this time at 1000 rupees per room. It’s a shithole and we know this but the ever increasing noise and size of the new crowd gathering makes us even more nervous than before.

The bikes are driven straight inside the small dirty courtyard of the dirty guest house whilst a dirty crowd of followers assist to shout directions to whoever is listening. We’re trying to get all bags off loaded and hide in our room until the din is calmed but this is not to be for now. 

Once inside our dingy disgusting dirty rooms were told the price is now 2500 rupees. The owner is chancing it and tries to increase this again, to which David finally loses his cool and explains in Glaswegian that they can fuck off, although he’s not from Glasgow so I’m impressed anyway.

It wasn’t just the horrendous noise from the hallway below from around one hundred dirty pyjama wearing locals, the dirt in the depressing rooms, the scare we had earlier at the road crash or the fact that it was dark and dirty and we were a long way from home this time with no police escort, the police don’t even know were here, but the almost tense atmosphere from the crowd, in and around the building that was bothering me.

I still have a half filled plastic bottle of Scotch whiskey from last nights hotel so offer some to David whilst we’re have a small conference to discuss how the fuck we arrived here. It’s disgusting and smells more of paint stripper but cocktail room service was not an option available. If it was, they’d probably get it wrong anyway.

Later, I can’t settle in my room as the noise from the floor below is bleeding through the small dirty windows of my room and in concern for my baby parked below I’m curious to see whats going on. Im nervous but the the young guys crowded around my bike are fairly friendly and simply pleased to see me. After usual questions for around 5 or 10 minute they ask me if i know cable TV?
Strange question but they then lead me to me a server room in this guest house with racks of electronic boxes with forty TV channels being repeated from satellite to local subscribers, all illegal of course. They also think it funny to show me internet porn showing naked blondes performing all various things whilst several of the crowd have their hands on their dicks over their pyjamas. I cant help but ask, “so would your Pakistani girl friend or  wife do this for you”?  to which the consensus is generally, “Oh no they would be killed for this” I felt like going for a shower but the room toilet is disgusting, I washed my hands and finished the rest of the shit whiskey feeling better that I was doing something illegal almost. I’ll keep the rest of my thoughts to myself.

Last guest house in Pakistan
I unpack my own mattress and sleeping bag as there is no way in hell I’m sleeping on any bed here and gain some comfort from the fact I’ll have no bed bugs crawling over me in the night. The paint stripper does its job and I’m sleeping like a cave dwelling Taliban dreaming of his promised virgins.

I’m up really early and step over some sleeping bodies to reach my bike. I don’t care if I wake them, they want to sleep in reception, that’s their problem. I’m over being polite to these people. We all rustle bags and load up all gear, start engines and we’re off much relieved after the anxiety and madness of the night before.

Last pose for pictures
At a tea stop we say our goodbyes to Martin and Richard who are heading to Lahore and the KKH further north. David and me are heading to India and the Wagah border. Meanwhile, further South, Jeroen and KTM leaves Karachi in a pick- up truck.

After and easy ride and very easy border crossing into India, we’re greeted by very smartly dressed girls, yes girls, we’d not seen any in ages and here we’re confronted with pretty young things in uniforms. We do see their hair and stare at something we’ve been denied for weeks for at least 1 or 2 seconds but unlike the pyjama wearing crowd to our West, we don’t lose control of ourselves, rape the fine young things and manage to have a civil conversation with many, one even brings us tea. Welcome to India, I hear and I nearly kissed the ground although I could have kissed the guards too, even the men but thought this is best left for prisoners fleeing the real Taliban’s clutches.

Jeroen is just behind us on a pickup truck with his bike. He can’t get the bike working for the remains of Pakistan and manages to push the ever troubled KTM Adventure the last 100m through the gates into the arms of India. “So undignified” he exclaims! I thought the bike was living up to its name but don’t mention this in case I get a smack.

Incredible India. Incredible brakes, Plaster and Vodafone