Sunday, November 22, 2015

India - Unbelievable India

We tried to make photos but the weather was simply too bad...
My eye caught a promotional poster to boost tourism in India today. It's headline read 'Unbelievable India' and I happened to see it when we were having a breather from the madness which India calls traffic. Unbelievable was the word which sort of encompassed all, yet at the same time didn't even half describe how mad it is. What can I say about riding in India? So much has been written about the subject, from people from virtually all over the globe, that it’s hard to add anything to it. This country of 1.2 billion people is a madhouse like no other. Driving conditions are insane, as are the Indians behind a wheel or handlebars. And yet some people love it here… while others hate it and never come back again. The stories on the net about travelling through India all seem to agree about one thing though, driving here is insane, suicidal even and not for the faint hearted.. To be honest I wasn’t too alarmed about what I read… and decided to take it as it comes... and boy it did come!

Mike being overtaken... while he was overtaking
We had travelled through India for a few days before I started putting anything about what we found on paper. This is a country which seems to function so differently to any other we have visited, that I wanted to give myself time to adapt before I started writing. I’m glad I did as the experiences varied so wildly from one end of the scale to the other that it was hard to make sense of it all. Driving alone was difficult to come to terms with. After a to me positive start, things went downhill quickly. For days I absolutely hated riding here and wanted nothing more than leave India the quickest possible way. Looking back, I had every reason to. Imagine you are riding a steep, narrow, broken road into the mountains on a motorcycle towards a 3,500 m pass. You’ve traveled a couple of thousand km through India by now and have had to deal with quite a few insane traffic conditions. Yet today it’s also raining heavily and you can’t see 5 meters ahead through the fog. The roads are flooded, riddled with potholes and partly covered in small landslides. We rode through sections of 15 to 20 metres totally submerged in muddy silty sludge. We couldn’t see where the holes were, or look for submerged rocks. In places we went in half a metre deep of this muddy stuff. There are no crash barriers, so when it does go wrong you simple bounce down the cliff and quite possibly won’t live to tell the tale. I think I may describe that as being in a tricky situation. 

What happened next was hard to describe, hard as I don't understand any of it myself. Riding through one of the many muddy lakes, sliding and bouncing off course I stopped for a second to assess the best way through it. A 4x4 carrying tourists saw it all happening, as he was behind me. Instead of giving me a couple of seconds he drove on until he almost hit the bike from behind and then started blasting the horn… Something snapped in me. I’d had enough. He wasn’t the first to show this kind of anti-social behaviour, nor the second nor the 20th that day. To make it worse, the guy makes his living driving tourists around and yet shows no consideration to tourists. The next muddy lake I found myself in, again sliding, a truck decided to pass me within half a metre. Had I fallen down, which was a quite likely possibility, I would now have been dead. In between moments like this we were confronted with cars without lights, while we were riding in thick fog, no brake lights, speeding idiots in 4x4s and truck convoys cutting blind corners. Yes it was scary and yes it was potential deadly. It was however not what made me hate riding here and wanting to leave. It was the realisation that there is a total lack of respect and consideration towards others. Indians behind a wheel or handlebar don't even think for a split second about anyone else... Cars without mirrors, gas bottles strapped to bikes by bungee cords, trucks with blinded windows, vehicles coming round corners on the wrong side of the road, overtaking in places where it's totally impossible... all just examples of 'we don't care about your safety'.

Exchanging road conditions with a rider who had decided
to turn back, shortly after we did the same
Both Mike and myself were cut off and run off the road so many times that we needed all our defensive riding skills just to make it to the next day. At the same time, having been through Kyrgyzstan, China and northern Pakistan, the landscape was slightly disappointing too. Even in the north up to Manali and the Rohtang pass, we were not that impressed. There are a couple of nice view points, but most views are obscured by houses and... rubbish. I know Leh is hailed as spectacular but from what I’ve seen northern Pakistan is just as impressive (later we heard from friend of ours who has seen both that Pakistan is more impressive) and doesn't come with the insane driving we found in India. In short we were openly wondering why we were doing this. What was the point? It's not like we found ourselves in spectacular scenery or beautiful villages which would make up for it. A sure tell-tale that we weren't happy to be here was that we had hardly made any photos for days, while we are both keen photographers.

At times like this you can only hope the bag doesn't rupture...
But then things changed again... when we realised that the people doing all these insane things, were doing it while their own family was sitting in the car as well... They were flying through traffic on motorbikes, overtaking dangerously, while their wife was riding pillion and their kids were sitting on the tank! Slowly it started to dawn on me that they just have no idea what they are doing and don't see the danger in what they do either. Overtaking in blind hairpin corners is what they do, simply because they see others doing it too. While realising this doesn't make it right, far from it in fact, it did change my view on it. Although it didn't make riding here any easier, and certainly not safer, it did give us our enjoyment back in the trip. We still had to contend with suicidal idiots and seriously bad roads, but at least we could also enjoy where we were.

Enjoyment brings me back to the second thing India is known for: food. Again, people seem to love it or hate it. Our first impressions were: wow! Great food! Then the salmonella struck and we started to see things in a different light, mostly a green one :-) India is also well known for its questionable hygiene. I know salmonella can happen anywhere, but when the local pharmacy’s by far largest stock happens to be antibiotics for stomach problems… like literally several thousands of pills in stock, I think we can safely say it happens a lot. At the same time we bought vegetarian burgers from quite possibly the smallest burger shop on the planet, ie a bicycle with a gas bottle, and had no problem with that at all. One thing to remember is that cows are sacred here, so no beef. Cows are believed to be gentle and providing more than they take. To me they simply provide too much shit on the roads, but maybe that's just me... Pork is not eaten in India as pigs are generally associated with unclean environments, which to a 'westerner' is slightly hilarious as every travel book on the subject rates Indian hygiene standards poorly anyway. All this has resulted in a surprisingly extensive vegetarian choice and lots of chicken on the menu. For vegetarians who love spicy food, this must be heaven. Generally speaking, I like Indian food. The curries, the Tikka Masala, the various Paneers, the Rajma... all good (again assuming you like spicy food as virtually everything here is spicy :-) The various Roti and other variations on bread however are like eating carpet to me. Talking of spicy, don't be surprised to find even a simple omelet to contain a full Jalapeño pepper, seeds and all, and set half your face on fire... 

Unbelievable India for us is also the complexity and incomprehensible paperwork required for everything. I mean, all we wanted to do is ride up to Leh, for which we needed a permit. You have to find that out yourself by the way, and also where to get it. For that permit we needed photocopies of all sorts of things and... wait for it... a pollution form...! A what? I said. 'Proof that your motorcycle isn't polluting too much, sir'. 'You must be joking' I said. Trucks and buses which leave a trail of thick black smoke go up there and you are worried about a small bike engine polluting too much? The reply to that one was mind boggling. 'Trucks and buses don't need it sir, only tourist vehicles sir... (!) You have to be kidding me, the convoys of badly smoking trucks are acceptable but tourist vehicles aren't? Smoking Indian registered buses full of tourist are exempt too I suppose? He nodded, I shook my head, he gave me the permit. Having been here for a while I've become to appreciate the various emission standards in places like Europe. When your face is black and the end of each day from diesel soot, it sort of throws it all in your, well, face! Doesn't it?