Friday, December 14, 2012

My Worst Nightmare

Welcome to Nepal
Crossing from India to Nepal, the border crossing was a fairly straight forward affair although I did the usual walk around in circles to find the relevant buildings, get the necessary stamps & so on. On the plus side, the Indian customs guys fed me lunch. The queue of trucks on both sides was huge so I felt rather privileged to skip between the lanes on the bike and get through sooner than the rest.

First thing I notice about Nepal. Quiet. Yes there's still the sound of cars and people but something is missing. Horns! I did mention before Indians use horns constantly, usually for no good reason but here in Nepal its silent by comparison and I like it a lot.

Crossing borders things often change, language, cars, driving habits, cultures and so on. The faces change here too. Most people here have Mongolian features, although many of the Indian looks remain.

In in a good mood now and optimistic about how much ground I can cover in a day. I'm going to attempt to drive to Kathmandu in one go but realise that as I'm a bit late to get through the border, Pokhara, around 140km from border is more realistic or so I think.
The road is quite twisty and fairly slow. Dodging around occasional pothole slows down my progress and I decide it best to stop as its getting dark. I barely made 40km before the sun goes down but find a small cheap hotel in the hills. The bed may have been hard but the beer soothed me enough to sleep well.

Next day I reach Pokhara and like the look of the place. I think it best to crash here for the night too. It took 5 hours to travel 120kms. Another 120 to Kathmandu is out of the question. So much for optimism. despite this, the scenery is wonderful and I don't really care how long it takes.

Posh hotel by the lake
The countryside here is stunning, the places much cleaner, the traffic is no where near as aggressive as India. Guess its all easy from here perhaps?

Pokhora is lovely town with a lake nearby. This is the kind of place for treckers, adventure seekers, world travellers or hippies. Lots of backpacker accommodation with some great cheap hotels. I decide to do something different and stay in an expensive hotel. $80 for the night. Well sometimes you need to!

Next day I'm off to Kathmandu through some amazing scenery and stunning views of the snow covered peaks of the Himalayas along the way. The traffic is fairly light compared to my experiences of the past few weeks, chugging along happily I'm in a zone of contentment. Then I hit the climb to Kathmandu and the truck convoys.

Himalayas in the distance

It took around 2 hours to negotiate the lines of trucks coming and going. The rough surface and potholes tested my slow riding skills to the full. I had driven across half the world and was not going to drop my bike here on the last 100km of this stage. This thought started to take me over and I was now getting worried I'd jinxed my safety and a crash was inevitable. I had to shake this from my thoughts and focus on getting there safely. No mad overtaking, squeezing in between oncoming Tata's as if I was invincible. None of that. But yet, I was still driving in India mode and ignoring my own advice. 

Happy to Arrive safely
Thankfully, I made it to Kathmandu Guest House in one piece  I'd just ridden 19,866 kilometres through Europe and Asia. I had a feeling of achievement, all this way and to date no crash.

The next part is easy, fly to Bangkok and continue down to Australia. All I have to do is pack up the bike in a crate, pay the money and fly over myself.

Packing the bike to fly to Thailand
The bike is shipped airfreight, in a wooden crate. In the sticky dark warehouse at Kathmandu airport I disassemble some parts to make it smaller. Remove the front wheel and check to ensure all is well. My baby is wrapped up and safe to go. Next time I see it will be in Thailand.

Relaxed and ready to fly tomorrow I have a small celebration that I've completed phase one of my journey. I will catch up on some chores, upload tons of video, back up all my video files to one place and send it back to Australia just in case something breaks. Normally I keep my back up files and computer in different places but this time I've put everything in the same bag so that I can work with it on the plane.

Whilst in India last week I'd received the terrible news that my Dad had passed away. He had died after being ill with cancer. I flew back to UK a few months ago especially, as I wanted to spend time with him whilst he was mobile. Whilst on this trip, in Turkey I made the most wonderful and horrible phone call to chat with my Dad. I knew this would be the last time we would speak. I knew this before I picked up the phone. We had a short chat and said good bye. I got absolutely pissed that night.

I would change my flight plan for Bangkok and instead head back to Scotland for the funeral then return to my travels afterwards. First I had to get to Kathmandu where I could fly out. I knew my dad was going to die and tried not to dwell on it. For now I had a mission to complete. My dad would have gone nuts at me if I'd cut the trip short, so I had to just get on with it for now.

Next day, I'm up and heading for the airport. For the first time in months I'm travelling without my bike, in a small white Suzuki taxi among the congested madness of Kathmandu. The taxi driver agrees 300 Nepalese rupee. When we arrive at the airport he changes his mind and raises the price to 400. Whilst disputing this and pulling wads of crumpled worthless notes from my pockets, trying to keep an eye on my bags at the same time in the chaos of an airport where taxis and people are buzzing around me, I give him 300 and try to relax, picking up all my bags, 1,2, 3. OK all good now as I walk to the terminal building. Then in horror I realise I don't have my laptop bag! I left it on the floor of the taxi!

The taxi's driven off and in my sudden insanity I'm shouting at everyone, "My bag, the taxi's got my fuckin bag" The police at the front of the building put their hands on their guns and wacth this nutter throwing his yellow bag across the road. I'm freaked out, pacing across the road to arrivals, wandering in circles wondering what to do. I've just lost all my video from the first 2 months of my trip and people are telling me to calm down.

For the first time in years I really felt overwhelmed, so much I could cry for my mum. I was in such panic state of mind that I tried to cry to see if it would ease the pain, but it never came. I'm now turning to incredible anger. I was angry at the most incompetent idiot on this planet. How could I leave my bag, the most important one in a $500 taxi. I kept saying out loud in an attempt to overcome my rage and utter stupidity, " I'm so fuckin stupid, I'm so fuckin stupid"!

Nothing works and I have to realise my laptop and all files are gone. I have to check-in before its too late and pass the police again. They don't like me and try to make it difficult. I'm taking no shit and they know it. I drop my bags at check in and now have an hour to figure something out. I could call the taxi company! But the taxi's here don't have nice little signs stating company ethos and licence numbers. I have no idea taxi number either, did it have one at all? All I could remember was a partial website address pasted on the back doors. I called the hotel from where I'd left. I called my friends here, and in India. Everyone tried to calm me. Rajesh, a freind in Kathmandu dropped over to the airport to help me, but what could he do. My computer was gone, my files gone. I had to climb on board an aircraft. Rajesh assured me all would be good. I had to quickly accept my loss, grow up and move on.

So, sitting on the plane feeling really low and with prospect of my fathers funeral looming wasn't a great experience. This was a nightmare!

Will I ever see it again?

Monday, December 3, 2012

How to test your brakes

India is an amazing place full of wonderful people places sights and sounds. However one big thing seems to have dominated my thoughts. Traffic!

Heading down the new 3 lane toll road between Delhi and Agra is a breeze. Three lanes of smooth perfect bitumen with lane markings and everything. The road is deserted apart from occasional herd of goats led across by a young shepherd or a crowd of people crossing to go to the adjoining field or even the occasional truck chugging along at  their own merry pace at one with the world.

This is slightly different to the dual carriageway of the other day where a sleepy Tata truck driver nearly cleaned me up for good. I learned that an open road in India does not give you licence to drive as fast as you want. Just because three lanes are clear of all traffic doesn't guarantee safety. It is expected at all times for a truck to simply pull onto the road and head all the way across to the right hand lane to catch any speeding motorcycles. I don't think I've ever hit the brakes so hard at such high speed from 150 to 10 kph in about 50 metres. I'm sure the back wheel was off the ground. My arse was off the seat. I was glad I'd had been to the toilet not too long before or it could have been very messy.

With the fright, and enough adrenaline to invade a small country in my blood, I aimed to kill this careless retard but as I came around could see the truck driver was oblivious as to why this abusive nutter in a white helmet suddenly appeared in front of his cab.  I gave up as there was no point trying to convince this guy he was an idiot. Instead I realised I'm the idiot for expecting to drive normally in this place.

Since leaving Scotland some months ago I'd seen one small crash in Istanbul.
In India, (not to mention the piles of wrecks by the side of the road) in the space of one week I'd seen around 7 or 8 recent crashes, most of which spilled arguing drivers, passengers and their families onto the road causing even more traffic chaos.  I've also had around 4 near misses myself, mostly from oncoming traffic wanting to push me of the road.

An oncoming truck brushed the side of my panniers. I've had to stop dead in front of a huge bus, swerve around suicidal pedestrians whilst avoiding the potholes and other oncoming traffic to stay alive. In the dark it becomes a whole new challenge. Like a mad video game of avoiding potholes, cows and other obstacles whilst  trying to see where the road actually is. With no markings, cats eyes or signs.

You realise that the high speed trucks coming towards you really are on your side of the road. No bonus points are given for avoiding the strange religious stationary figure of a man who simply stands in the middle of the road awaiting death. No extra time for getting away from the drunk truck behind you. None of that. Simply surviving the road is enough to win the game.

I haven't mentioned the horns yet. Beep beep bloody beep. They beep horns to say they're passing, the beep to say they can't get passed, they beep to say they have just passed, they beep for no reason. Horns beeping behind me to tell me to get out of the way, even when its obvious I cant go anywhere. Beep beep bloody beep! Yes this happens in many countries, but not to the extent here. One guy to my side was beeping in a traffic jam. Through his open window I asked him what this achieves, (well it was more like "whats the fuckin point you idiot") he glanced at me, looked back to the traffic in front and held the horn button again!

Then there's the volume of traffic. When you get to a town, here's the rule - fill that space! If there's a gap, fill it. Even if its on the wrong side of the road, fill that space. As an example, I was at a rail crossing and on opposite sides of the closed gates, both opposing teams of trucks, cars, bikes, scooters, rickshaws and tuk tuks took over the whole width of the road. Like a rugby scrum ready for the off, when the gates opened, the opposing teams went at each other not realising the fact that if they'd kept to one side, they'd had all passed through easily. This was chaos and no one noticed apart from me.

Not that its always unpleasant of course, driving here can be fun but I think I'll be relieved to live long enough to see Nepal.

Enough of the rant for now.

So....ahem ... back to the trip...

I've had some great fun in Delhi with freinds and now I'm heading to Agra, one of India's most beautiful places. Not the town, its a dump. I mean the Taj Mahal. Absolutely amazing! Now I understand why people rave about this place. Despite the thousands of overweight middle aged camera clicking tourists, this really is a nice place to be. The beauty of the building and grounds, the magnificence of the construction and the wonderful atmosphere make this a must see. I join the queues of tourists and fit right in.

After Agra I head for Nepal and my last stop in this part of the world. The road will take me to Lucknow then up to the border where I cross near Butwal.

I might have mentioned before that border crossings can be exciting. There's a mix of trepidation, anxiety and enthusiasm. With the endless time wasting bureaucratic paperwork stamping procedures, anticipation of a new country to see, curiosity about the people and the culture. I often wonder, will the countryside suddenly change, will the people change?

Welcome Tonepal

In Europe, with no lines drawn, or checkpoints, crossing borders is barely noticeable.  At this border however, things do change quite rapidly. The people don't look Indian, most have Mongolian features, the countryside doesn't change too much but one thing is obvious to me. I seem to have gone deaf. No horns, beep, beep bloody beep! Apart from me, the traffic is much more sedate, calm almost by comparison.

Over the border I approach a roundabout and with my new found Indian driving skills, take the short cut across to the right hand side ignoring oncoming traffic, going around the wrong way. This may sound insane but I've often found this to be the safest way. If you try to go around the roundabout in the normal fashion, you're more likely to be run over from either side as you enter or try to leave. Cutting right across to the wrong side means all traffic is in front of you to veer around and you can clearly see the dangers. Honest! I've used this right hand turn method many times. If I was in Australia, the police helicopters and TV stations would be chasing me down the road. In Nepal, the constable at the roundabout can only complain by blowing his whistle in my mirrors. I might have to rethink this manoeuvre here!

I'm a bit sad to leave India as I've seen some beautiful sights, met some wonderful and kind people and generally had a great time.  Despite my concerns about receiving a TATA tattoo on my forehead, it really is somewhere we should all go at least once in our lifetimes. No doubt I'll be back, . I'll need to practice my new found driving skills.

Next: My Worst Nightmare comes true!

Some other images of India

Road to Manali

Tea Stop

Road to Kashmir


This little girl likes to pose for the camera




End of a good day

Typical response to a strange bike
Typical rail crossing in Utter Pradesh

Marriage Indian style
Luxury hotel in Delhi