Friday, 25 October 2013

Early Days in India

Our arrival into India was smooth and painless. Our Indian budget airline (Indigo) got us into Delhi earlier than expected, and we had finished the journey and picked up our baggage in what seemed like no time. Delhi airport is pretty much like any other major international airport in the world, so it was easy to underestimate the chaos that we heard lurks just outside on the busy streets.

After the deceptive calm and manicured lawns of the airport approach road, our taxi suddenly swung onto the main street. It felt like here that the real Delhi began. Even though it was late at night, the traffic was still heavy – a tousle of tuk-tuks, cars and small trucks all jostling for position. Oli and I observed that at first glance, it was like the southern Iranian style of driving, but made scarier by the faster speed of the participants.

We were staying in the Pahar Ganj area of the city, not the fanciest, but popular with backpackers due to its many budget options. We had been despairing on Tripadvisor the previous evening, as it appeared that many of these places were budget for a reason, with reviewers complaining of rat house guests and crusty bedsheets. We were just about to up our price bracket, when we remembered that another motorbiking couple had mentioned a place that was decent for a good price. We checked their blog for the details, which sealed the deal, and our resting place for the evening was to be the brilliantly named Cottage Yes Please.

In the event our room was very decent for £10 in a capital city, our only complaint being the definitely not changed bedsheets. We are quite used to this issue from some of our lower priced Iranian hotels, so sucked it up and slept in our sleeping bag liners. The only part that really bothered us about this was that one of the pillows was covered in yellow stains and somebody else's hair. I gave that one to Oli.

Due to extra time spent in Turkey and taking our time through Georgia and Iran, we only had twelve days left on our Indian visas from the day of arrival. Obviously that is not enough to see everything this country has to offer, but we decided to get a taste of it by hiring a Royal Enfield and pootling around the Himalayas. We were picking the bike up from Chandigarh, about four hours north of Delhi, as we thought this would be a better use of time and days. The added bonus was that we wouldn't have to tackle the city traffic.

Any designs to get the earliest train quickly evaporated when the alarm went off. We got up and packed as quickly as our tired brains would allow, before popping to the restaurant over the road for delicious (and cheap) banana and chocolate crepes. Quickly establishing that we were not going to make the train, as well as being unsure of ticket availability, we decided instead to catch one of the frequent buses making the journey from Delhi ISBT.

Our taxi wound its way through the city streets, and for the first time on the trip we saw truly shocking poverty. Whole families slept under bridges, and many others were living in small lean-to buildings covered with tarpaulin. Rubbish was everywhere, and it was crazy to see the juxtaposition of manicured parks and nice cars against people who sadly have almost literally nothing. It is like two different India's exist simultaneously, each world completely separate from the other.

We had paid for our taxi at the hotel, so had a slight awkward moment when the driver asked Oli outright for a tip at the end of the journey. We didn't yet have many small bills, so Oli gave him some coins. The driver looked at it in disgust and asked if we had more, saying to give him one of the larger bills and he would give us some change. We know this is India, and people are just trying to make a living, but this attitude is hard to get used to. It jarred especially having spent so much time in Iran, where such an awkward or grabby situation is rare indeed.

The bus terminal was everything we imagined it would be – busy, confusing and chaotic. The ticket office obviously didn't sell the tickets, and instead pointed us outside and told us to queue at a nondescript kiosk. The company running the 'luxury' bus service between Delhi and Chandigarh have a bus going each way every half an hour, twenty-four hours a day. We know India is densely populated, but even so we found the fact that there was a demand for this many services mind-boggling.

We were too late to get seats on the first bus, but duly joined the queue for the next one. They don't actually start selling the tickets until the latest bus has physically left the station, so everyone has to get in line and just stay there. Thankfully we got our tickets without issue, so Oli popped to the shop to buy us some snacks for the journey. I lazily volunteered to stay with our belongings, and witnessed a well dressed lady arrive. She looked at the extensive queue, and evidently realised she would not be able to get a seat for this bus. Her response to this was to approach somebody near the front of the queue, and give him the money for her and her son's tickets. Seeing this, another guy who had also turned his nose up at joining the queue did the same. This did not go down well with an observer, which was when the situation exploded.

This particular observer went and told the ticket seller what had happened, and accused the people involved of not caring about other Indians. To be fair he had a point, their actions would mean that people who had been waiting for a long time would now not get seats. Rather than conceding this and apologising, they started yelling back at their accuser. By the time Oli returned, it had become a full scale screaming match, which I had managed to get caught in the middle of, stuck between a railing and the conflict. The debate was conducted in a mixture of English and Hindi, but it seemed to us an apt illustration of bubbling tensions between over privileged upper-middle classes and ordinary people.

The bus journey itself was actually very comfortable. We saw more heart-breaking poverty on the route out of Delhi, and were really shocked by the mountains of rubbish dumped along the roadside. The area around the highway remained fairly densely populated all the way to Chandigarh. We were also surprised to note a huge sign listing all the people who were exempt from paying for the toll roads. Numbers one and two were the President and Vice President, followed by various dignitaries and diplomats. In other words, the exemptions apply precisely to the groups that can afford to pay. Our journey was accompanied by a three and a half hour Bollywood film extravaganza. Despite most of the dialogue being in English it was utterly impossible to follow, but sort of enjoyable nonetheless.

We had texted Rajiv of Royal India Bikes prior to jumping in a three-wheeler, and were very glad we hadn't just showed up, as he replied that he had locked the guard dogs away accordingly. It turned out he was a great guy, and had thankfully also arranged a hotel for us. We had a quick look at the bikes, and Oli test rode a couple before agreeing to collect our selected steed the next morning. Rajiv drove us to our hotel, where Oli and I enjoyed an excellent thali plate from the restaurant downstairs before a much needed sleep.


We were up bright and early, hoping to avoid the morning traffic. We picked up the bike, fending off the friendly advances of Rajiv's golden Labrador (obviously one of the non-guard dogs). I was glad to note that it's not just Susie who has incredibly selective hearing, as he ignored Rajiv's calls to leave us alone, but sprinted off as soon as he heard some movement in the far away kitchen.

The roads in India are notorious amongst travellers, and we had heard seemingly infinite horror stories. We were pleased to note at first experience however, that although it was indeed crazy, it was manageable. We bizarrely enjoyed getting stuck in, and merrily trundled our way towards the Himalayan foothills.

The road eventually transformed from a highway to a narrow twisty mountain road. The main hazard here is slow moving large buses / trucks labouring up hills at impossibly low speeds, and the requirement to overtake them. The other issue is people overtaking the ones coming the other way. It was not at all uncommon to round a corner and see a car or (hey, if we were lucky) a large truck bearing down us. The problem usually seems to be solved with a good few blasts of the horn. We were feeling pretty pleased with ourselves at the end of the day, as we had only been bullied into leaving the asphalt once.

Aside from the traffic hazards, the road to Shimla was incredible. Although it passes through some ramshackle settlements, the route also takes in lush mountain views. It was the first time since Georgia that we had seen so much green, and we couldn't take our eyes off it. Adding to the excitement of the journey were numerous troops of monkeys, mainly raiding bins or just chilling on the crash barriers and taking in the view. It was the first time for both of us seeing these creatures in the wild, and it was beautifully surreal whizzing past them as they went about their daily business.


We made it to Shimla in good time despite our many photo stops, but struggled to find our guest-house. After riding around the streets for a while, we stopped to give them a call and were grateful when they said they would come and collect us. It turned out we were very close. Whilst we waited, we watched this cheeky fellow chilling out on the hospital rooftop:


The guest-house itself was incredible for the money. We had agreed between ourselves that it wasn't worth going super budget when there were plenty of options about, as for £12 - £20 the standard seems a lot better. Our room was actually more of a suite, and really did have the most incredible views from the terrace outside. All this with dinner and breakfast cost just over £20 for the two of us, which felt like a bargain indeed.


As we had a bit of spare time before dinner, I thought we should try our SPOT tracker again, as it seems to have been on the fritz since Iran. It takes around twenty minutes to update, so I left it on the terrace and went to relax in the room. However, the guest-house owner noticed it and advised us to take it inside, informing us that there was a monkey problem in the area. He was not wrong, and I was quickly reminded of what we had read on Tripadvisor about the Jakhu temple just down the road in Shimla. The monkeys at this place are considered sacred, but are actually full on menaces. They are apparently violent to the extent that vendors rent sticks to visitors, used to fend their would-be attackers off. Most of the reviewers had described said stick as 'a must', which surely I am not alone in finding somewhat alarming...

Happily the SPOT tracker survived unmolested (although it is still not working), and it was quickly time for dinner. The food was delicious and plentiful - constantly replenished until we could eat no more. Joining us for dinner were another English couple, on holiday in the North of India for two weeks. Good chats accompanied the brilliant food, and we had a great evening.

The next morning, we awoke eager to get on the road to Manali. Oli is already slightly in love with the Enfield. It is painted in military police colours, which is a plus as so far we have had no hassle. In honour of this and also the fact that it will trundle along pretty much anywhere, Oli has christened it Sgt. Bash. We can already appreciate why this bike has such a cult following. Originally made by the British, India is now in possession of the company rights, so is still churning them out. The body is essentially the same as it was in the 1950s. People say the good thing about them is that they can be fixed anywhere, but the flip-side is that they need to be fixed everywhere. Luckily though, ours is less than a month old, and seems to be doing just fine so far.

Google maps had helpfully advised the journey would take around four and a half hours, which we knew was optimistic so had rounded up in our heads to seven. Whilst paying up and checking out however, our host casually mentioned that he thought the drive would take us around ten hours. This caused a slight panic as if it was true, there was no way we would make it to Manali in the light. With this in mind, we took one last look at the view, waved goodbye to the monkeys, grabbed the Sergeant, hopped on and got on the road. It was going to be a long, long day...


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