Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Entering the Punjab

Having been to the flag ceremony the day before, we at least knew where the border was. Or should have... had we paid attention to where the minivan driver, who took us there, was going. No problem though as the GPS knew where it was too and the route was, on the map at least, simple... so we got lost nonetheless as Lahore is chaos, even at 7.30 am in the morning. It's easy to blame us or the GPS but to be fair to the GPS and Openstreetmap, the roads here are a mess and several roads have been blocked off. One thing is for sure, without the GPS we would have still been in Lahore... at least with it we got out of there in the end and well in time too as the border was still closed when we arrived.

Donkey power! Carrying heavy loads through the streets in india
Border procedures on the Pakistan side were simple but time consuming. Considering the function of a Carnet de Passage is to facilitate easy in- and exportation of our bikes by nothing more than a stamp, it's mildly amusing that the authorities in Pakistan needed an hour to do it... especially since importation in Sost took about 15 minutes. The procedure is vital though as the Pakistani authorities hold you liable for 450% of the value of your bike when the Carnet de Passage is not discharged properly! After the Carnet de Passage procedure had been finalised, we could continue to the actual border. Another passport check was required, maybe the Pakistani officials had come across mutants or something as 4 passport checks in an hour seemed a bit unnecessary.

Streetfood is everywhere in Amritsar, and quite good too
Then it was goodbye Pakistan... followed by hello India! which is just 2 metres further, so don't bother to start your bike up. Despite having read up on the procedure before we went, nothing could have quite prepared us for the ridiculous way India Customs operate. Yet we had it easy... We only went through 11 passport checks... (eleven!). Ten (10!) people were involved in putting one simple stamp in the Carnet de Passage and the whole procedure took 4 hours. By that time we had filled in another 4 different forms ourselves too, on top of already having a carnet, had to move the bikes 5 times to different locations for different inspections, had fallen asleep from waiting for so long and when all seemed finally set and done, we found another passport check...!

Rubbish collection...
But, like I wrote, we had it easy though as we saw an Indian family with lots of luggage which was stripped apart bit by bit... and I mean bit by bit. The customs officer was taking out each and every item he found in each and every bag, looked at it briefly and then dropped it on the floor... In the end there was a pile of 3x3 m and 1.5 m high of all their possessions just lying on the floor... and don't think the customs guy put them all back where they belonged either. His whole attitude towards these people was seriously disgusting, he should have been sacked on the spot by his superior... but the superior had the same attitude. 

Anyway... with the last passport check being done, we entered the Punjab...! Somewhat cautious of the Indian traffic chaos everyone had warned us about... except there was no chaos! It was Friday afternoon and no traffic chaos... and we were in India... Eeh? The other thing we noticed, even when we reached Amritsar, was that the traffic was nowhere near as fast as we had seen in Lahore. Speeds were generally a lot lower... surely this could not continue? Don't get me wrong, by European standards it was total chaos and near enough unrideable with cars, motorcycles, horses and trucks riding on the wrong side of the road for instance and intersections which were completely gridlocked with bikes and cars pointing in all directions. But compared to what we had been through riding towards and in Lahore, it was relatively easy.

Barely half an hour into India I heard the familiar bonk-bonk-bonk of the first Royal Enfield, India's iconic motorcycle brand which originates in England. I like them, the black and chrome, the simplicity of a 350 or 500 pushrod operated long stroke single and the low revving tractable engine. Mike found them noisy! Normally he likes bikes to be a bit louder, he is a teenager after all, so I was somewhat surprised that he found them too loud. As it turns out it he found them just as bad as the loud Harley's in the USA.

The hotel turned out to be a beauty (Golden Sunrise Inn, N31.63589° E74.86912°). They had a special on room rates: for less money than we had paid for the backpacker hostel in Lahore we now had a luxury room, while there was a 24 hr security for the bikes too. We even had wifi again, although the speed left something to be desired. The only problem turned out to be getting money from an ATM. Both our European and Australian bank cards didn't work in the first three we tried. The HDFC bank across the street however handled both fine (N31.63585° E74.86984°).

The plan had been to have a shower and then get something simple to eat from a local supermarket... but the hotel manager wasn't having any of it. That was simply not the way things were done in India. He handed Mike a takeaway brochure instead, saying they would deliver at the hotel. The prices were very modest so we agreed. We're glad we did as the food we received was amazing! We couldn't believe it, if this was takeaway in India then we were in for some amazing food!

The next morning we headed for the Golden Temple, officially known as Harmandir Sahib. Even at 10 am in the morning the temperatures were high, add to that a stifling humidity and we 'whities' had sweat pouring out of us. Keen to try the Indian kitchen we ate at a small restaurant where the food was prepared right in front of us and cooked on a wood fire. We had no idea what it was but it sure tasted good! The prices are just as amazing, our eyes were bigger than our stomachs but it still worked out at just 75 cents for the two of us!

The vibrant colours of India are everywhere!
We walked through a maze of streets towards the temple, while being asked continuously if we wanted a taxi or a ricksha. We wanted to walk, stretch the legs and so on. It's a better way to truly enjoy and experience where we are, we think anyway. The holy Sikh temple in Amritsar is not something to miss. Words fail me to describe it even though we are not Sikh. Just like at the mosque in Pakistan we were asked to remove our socks and shoes but shorts were fine. Just before we entered the complex two big Sikh with spears asked us to wear something on our head as well... for which they thoughtfully provided a sort of scarf. He even 'fitted' it for us! They also thoughtfully provide a red carpet to walk on so that we didn't burn our feet despite it being a hot day. There is no way to enjoy this place in a quiet hour though as 100,000 people visit it daily! Every day! The carpet wear alone must be horrendous and yet the entry is free! 

Walking back to the hotel, our heads full of experiences and images, we talked about what we had just seen in India. We both loved the colours, seeing women being seemingly free to dress as they like and treated equally was very welcome too. Yet at the same time Mike found the traffic here similar to Lahore... which we had both found quite chaotic... while I found Amritsar in India much easier to live with. To me, it's not as aggressive and a lot less noisy too. Yes horns blare everywhere but apart from that it is rather quiet. At least you can hear the horns here while in Lahore the screaming engines were almost as loud. The speeds are much lower in Amritsar too... well... so far anyway :-) One thing we both agree on is the explosion of colours in India which is amazing to see. At the same time the rubbish on the streets here is far worse than in Pakistan.

Trying to get engine oil to do a service on the bikes proved difficult at first. There is a KTM dealer less than 100 m from the hotel, but they don't have a workshop... Before you start saying that KTM doesn't need one, think again... They actually farm the servicing out to the... wait for it... Bajaj dealership next door! To make it worse, it's operated by a rude manager who flatly refused to help me. All I was asking for is being allowed to pour the oil I wanted to buy from him in the engine and change the filters. I didn't need any tools or even access to his workshop. The courtyard in front of the workshop is a complete mess but still he refused me access... So I went somewhere else and found Castrol(!) plus a friendly proprietor!

The place we went to is on the Railway Link Road, near the junction with Court Road. There are several bike shops there. Actually there are dozens of them, side by side. To us westerners they all look like a mess, but look through it and you'll see friendly people wiling to help (unlike the more 'upmarket' KTM and Bajaj shop we found at Court road!). Plenty of stock too. Changing the oil was an experience! With at least 10 people gathered around us at any one time, all looking at what we were doing and checking out the bikes, we were never alone! Of course we were also invited to enjoy a 'cup of Indian tea' (which is actually quite nice and sweet!). It sure was an oil change like no others. The last change we did was in Almaty in a spotlessly clean workshop, now we were outside in near 100% humidity and baking sunlight. Asking what to do with the old oil filter, they all gave me a blank look. 'Ah, you want to clean and re-use the filter, sir?' said one 'No mate, I'm replacing it with this new one but where do I put the old one? You know, rubbish bin or something?' They didn't understand what I wanted. Someone else was asked to translate, who didn't know what I wanted either but when they finally worked out what this strange westerner was after, they simply pointed at the street. 'Just drop it there, sir' they said... We didn't want to do that, upon which the translator said he would take care of it, which probably meant he would drop it around the corner... All we needed to pay was $4.28 a litre for Castrol JASO MA2 motorcycle oil... and the bikes were ready for another 5,000 km!

1 Border formalities on the Pakistan side, including the vital Carnet de Passage stamp. 2 The actual border gate between Pakistan and India and final passport check in Pakistan, right on the other side of the gate is the first India check. 3 Another passport and Carnet de Passage check. 4 More India formalities, forms to fill in etc. 5 Bike inspection for Carnet de Passage and luggage inspection. 6 Customs check and, again passport and luggage check. 7 Final passport check.