Friday 26 December 2008

Merry Christmas to all (especially the git who stole my wallet)

Hah, what a week! What a fortnight even. My loosing streak has been going on for a while now so I forget how long but it is ok because I am still smiling. Infact probably smiling all the more for the crap that has gone down recently.

Ok so I have been ill for about a week now (you know, icing on the cake) and I have had alot of time to think about toilets. I am also getting very used to squats now. They are everywhere so I don't have much choice and I have even gone so far as to squat on "normal" sit down toilets. There are advantages and disadvantages of course. It is more hygenic for starters and trust me, in india, a little hygene goes a long way. The disadvantage is that you get to really closely examine what you ate yesterday as it lands flat on the ceramic and goes nowhere till you pour water on it (although this can also be an advantage as you can monitor the progress of your illness and, failing that, there is always a good ancedote about orange, slimey, jelly like sh*t wobbling its way down the hole) Another disadvantage is that when you squat down to pee "things" don't always point in the right direction. Aiming is quite difficult when your squatting, trying to keep your trousers from touching the ground and trying to stop yourself falling backwards all at the same time. No disasters yet (and luckily for you, no pictures)

ok, time to get a bit serious, all in all the past two or three weeks should have been crap. I mean I crashed under a truck, I hit an old lady, I have been ill, my bikes in pieces and I had my wallet stolen (two days ago, nothing else to say about it) and honestly, right now (even though I am still smiling) I am waiting for something to break me to the point where I just quit, where I walk into an airport buy a ticket, fly home and screw everything but it wont happen! I have realised how determined I am and that when I really want something there is nothing in the world that is going to take it away from me apart from death and taxes! It's a good feeling to know if I want something bad enough I am capable of getting it and it also makes me feel more mature, like in the last 6 months I have grown up 5 years.

Many people leave on trips like this either because they are running away from something or because they are searching for something. For me it was a test, prove to myself that I can do it and you know what, 6 months in and I know I will do it and whats more I have had quite a few epiphanies some of which are too personal to write about but as a taster.... I'm going to keep in touch with my family more, especially my extended family. I only see my cousins a few times a year and that is my own fault. I have been given plenty of invites to join them surfing, biking any number of things but I always say maybe and never do it. So that's the first thing. Secondly I have an idea about my career now, previously I was following what felt like a pre-ordained path but now I know what route I want my career to take and I am already plotting away!

There are other things too, things I have realised about myself. Some of them I like and some I don't but now I see and understand myself more it means I can be myself more, be the person I want to be.

So that's it folks, 6 months on the road, the official (and now debunked) half way mark of my trip. I could quit, come home. I have achieved what I set out to achieve but there is so much more to see, to do. How could I say no to Thailand? Brazil and Columbia? :-D I can't. So I am heading up to Hampi now. Back to my bike and back to what I know best. The past two weeks of backpacking have been very chilled, get on a bus, read a book for a few hours or have a smoke, arrive at location, find hotel, sit and look at the view. Enjoyed spending time with Tino and Philip too, Good guys, friends to keep in touch with when we part ways and who knows, maybe a few years down the line we will meet up again.

Hope you all had a good Christmas and New Years. Forget about the presents and the drinking just be glad you were able to spend the time with friends and family because at the end of the day it isn't where you are it is who you are with.


Sunday 14 December 2008

I should be dead and in prison

(On the road to Goa)

So last time I wrote I had my head in the sand in Goa. Had a good week there just enjoying the postcard perfect views over the Arabian Sea, I spent the first day or two in a brick hotel up the road from the sea but Tino saw my bike, left me a note and so I moved to the beach huts he and Philip were staying in.

(parked infront of the beachhuts)

I had breakfast every morning with a view through some palm trees onto the ocean and I would wake myself up each day with a swim in the warm waters. The rest of the day was spent just chatting, playing cards, drinking and the odd game of chess. Not something you could do forever but it was a good week. Philip picked up an infection in his leg which had to be cut out so he had been in Goa for almost a month and so was pretty happy when the doc told him he could leave and we headed towards Hampi.

(View from the restaurant where I had breakfast everyday)

Phillip travelled with two girls we met from England and Australia and me and Tino hit the road on the bikes and headed for some waterfalls in Goa. We planned to take two days getting to Hampi. We left at about 2pm and rode the short distance to the waterfalls with Tino leading the way we unsurprisingly ended up riding alongside a railway track which my bike could hardly fit along and I was thankful when we finally left the track until I saw what we left it for. It went under a small bridge, there was a dried riverbed and then the track was blocked by a fallen tree. We had to negotiate our way through the forest to find the track again.

Eventually we found a more reasonable road, no tarmac but good riding for my bike. I got some two wheeled air for the first time and had a blast along the road. There was no traffic and it dipped, curved and rocked everyway you can imagine. The waterfalls were huge, falling in two sections with a railway bridge cutting it in half. We stayed for a bit enjoying the sounds of the water and wildlife, watched a train pass and headed back to the bikes. We had planned to camp but decided it was unsafe so headed towards Molem for the night. On the way back we passed through two river crossings. Tino in his usual style blasted straight through the first one... Well.... Halfway through before his engine cut out. I took a couple of photos before helping him push the bike out of the water. My boots filled up in seconds. I passed through very slowely and then we tried to get Tinos bike running again. After about 30 minutes everything was going again and so we carried on and came across a roadblock which was difficult to circumvent but we found a way. We passed through the next crossing slightly slower and reached a hotel.

(Fighting my way through the jungle)

(Trying to show off)

It is days like that day that really make this trip, when I am doing that kind of thing I think it is all I would ever need. That I could do it forever and not get bored.

It's hard to think about the next day. Certain things are a blur, actually most of the trip is. At one point I remember thinking Tino missed the exit we needed but didn't bother telling him and I remember following his taillight like it was my only lifeline. Most of the time I thought about only one thing.

In the morning, about half an hour after we left the hotel with still soaking wet boots we reached a difficult section of road. Lots of trucks, corners and potholes. Nothing unusual for India but afterwards Tino said he felt like something bad was going to happen that day. I don't really remember the crash. Well I do but not the usual way you remember things. I remember seeing the truck but not how I reacted to seeing it. I also remember it hitting my shoulder. I remember standing in the road staring at my bike leaking petrol on the road and at my entire life scattered next to it. Anything apart from that is guesswork. I know the truck ran over the front of my bike probably with its rear wheels and I know that it ripped one of the panniers clean off my bike with chunks of aluminium sheared out of it like tinfoil. I did the only thing I could do. I checked myself for injury and with the motto if it hurts it works I got my bike off the road and collected my stuff. By the time Tino got back I was already banging the box back into shape and asked him to look at the bike.

(Where the truck ran over my tyre. You can see the treadmarks on the wheel rim, the tyre, the break disk and the fork)

It is... She is rideable but hard for me to look at. 22,000 km and almost 6 months on the road. I've bonded with that bike and now... Well it's just hard. And me? Well what do you want me to say? I could have gone under the truck? Sure. If I didn't have crashbars and panniers the truck could have easily taken my leg? Well yeah but it didn't and all I have to show for it all is a bit of pain in my arm. I refuse to think about anything else. I just can't. Not yet.

The pannier took the bulk of the first hit and is showing it. It is definatly no longer waterproof. The truck ran over the front wheel of the bike bending it and one of the brake disks out of shape. The crashbars took the biggest hit and have split in two. We removed the disk and rode 200km to Gadag. As I said before I just followed Tino. It had taken everything to put my bike back together and to get back on it. Well almost. The ride went in a blur. I was completely detached from my riding and was concentrating on the pain and stopping the wobble in the handlebars which was constant. I kept on waking up that night in Gadag not having nightmares just not sleeping well.

The next day we left to do the 100km to Hampi which should have been an easy ride and it was until we reached Hospet. I was still blindly following Tino and in hindsight that was a bad idea. We were in Hospet for maybe 10 minutes before it happened. I think about my own grandparents when I think of this and it makes it hard. I hit an old lady. I can't say how or why except that, even though the broken brakes and damaged wheel added to it, I know it was my fault. Thinking even less now I rode the bike through oncoming traffic and skidded to a stop dropping the bike. I ran towards her and she was just this old lady lying in the road not moving. She had been carrying red dye powder which was scattered on the road around her, I will never forget that image. I guess I thought she was dead then people started to help her up. She was walking.

I want to say I stayed and took her to hospital but I tried to run, I reached my bike but someone took my keys. I kept hold of them but got off the bike. This was it. I was beaten. I think there I accepted that it was out of my hands now and I could only try to keep my head above water. I went to the hospital with her and the guy said it was ok to move my bike somewhere safer. I jumped on my bike and legged it. I have seen people beaten by the side of the road for causing accidents. It only takes one person to throw a stone and the mob mentality takes over, I didn't want that to be me so we ran with people yelling behind us. We got about 1km down the road before the police stopped us and took us to the police station. I guess this is where I really gave up. I believed that I was going to jail and it almost seemed a relief. I told Tino if it happened he had to go to see Phillip and let him know what is going on before coming back to see me. We sat there for an hour or two answering questions and filling in forms. Eventually the top brass came along and we spoke. He said that If I admit fault I would have to pay a fine and no more action would be taken against me. I asked how much and when he said 300Rs I almost laughed. That's about $6.

I would go back and check the lady was ok, I would also give her some money but it isn't safe and I dont want to push things. I hope she is ok, the police said she was but I wont ever know for sure. My life? That's an acceptable risk for this trip but someone elses? I didn't even consider it. I have never thought I could be responsible for someones death and I don't know how to feel about it now. It still doesn't feel quite real.

Saturday 29 November 2008

Red sand and the evil rock of destiny

Stayed in Pune (Poona) for about 3 days I think, narrowly missing the attacks in Mumbai. Stayed with Bunny and Amit from an Indian motorcycle magazine, BIKE India, who fed me, got me drunk and introduced me to a few unusual Indian delacesies (Phaan, it's kinda a chewing tabacco with a bunch of other stuff wrapped in a leaf. very strange.) I stayed there enjoying the free wifi and air conditioning at their office and making trips to the local backpackers coffee bar to do some work on my book (3 characters and a plot so far). Also got to ride one of their bikes the Honda 125. They asked me what I thought and I had to be honest. It was like riding a toy in comparison to my bike. In a way that was good, it was nice to ride without any responsibility for a while.

Headed down to Goa yesterday. It was about 500km from Pune and took about 8 hours but for some reason it was really difficult. The roads were good most of the way and the bike was fine but I just wasn't upto it. That's the second ride now where I felt that it was too much effort. The previous one was on the way to Pune. Strange. ANyway, tried to stop at the side of the road for some sleep and every time I stopped I got mobbed so gave up and pushed on to Panaji. Stayed in the only hotel I could find which cost me a small fortune but had AC so was worth it. It is hot here. Like tropical hot and sweaty. Who knew there could be so many types of hot weather? Beaches are beautiful, completely picturesque which is why I will upload some pictures rather than describing it. For now think "tropical beach" and you pretty much have the right idea.

midway, at the moment, between Panaji and Arambol. I found a beach to play on and got a bit over excited. Whizzing round up and over small hills and over the dunes making alot of noise and probably showing off a little too. Saw a small rock I thought I could climb. I couldn't. The bike grounded on it about halfway up and fell over to the left. Pride before a fall? Wont stop me though. Me and the bike both need a real off-road challenge for a bit so we'll have some fun.

Anyway, gotta go reach my hotel so I will catch up later.

Monday 24 November 2008

Ring of Fire and the Bollywood Extra

Since my last post I have traveled south through Jaipur and Udaipur down to Mumbai. Leaving Delhi was surprisingly easy. Another motorcyclist lead me to the main road leading south and sent me on my way before he turned around to carry on with his business. The road was pretty good. 3 and 2 lane highway for most of the ride to Jaipur. Not much to say about Jaipur, it was nice, had a nice fort and the hotel had a good spot for my bike. Almost forgot. Had the bike fully serviced in Delhi. Sparks, oil change, oil filter, new brake pads, new brake fluid, skimmed the rear disk, fixed all the electrics, put a switch in for my front light (FINALLY!!!), took all the body work off and replaced all the rubber mounting points so no more rattles and a new front tyre. The ride down was beautiful. The bike never felt so smooth and the brakes worked properly for probably the first time in 12k miles and as a final relief.... People stopped waving at me telling me my light was on! Happy days.

So I spent 2 nights in Jaipur before I got bored and headed to Udaipur. Again, good roads all the way. No potholes, no roadworks just traffic dodging. I'm getting a taste for undertaking and overtaking. Something primal, I think, like the thrill of the chase. Two lanes of traffic and a hard (is it soft when it is just mud?) shoulder gives plenty of opportunity to time a quick burst of power as you blast between two trucks or leave a cloud of dust behind you as you undertake a lorry and a car at the same time on the shoulder. 450Km later I was just outside Udaipur and it was dark. Why do I always arrive after dark? The streets around my hostel are a labyrinth but the Lonely Planet just shows one road. Eventually I find the hotel and ride into the courtyard. I get a room for 150Rs a night which is just a box with a bed, a fan and a mosquito net in it. Luxury!

I unpacked (threw a few things in my room) and went to the balcony which overlooks the lake. A few others were sitting down smoking and drinking so I joined them and tried too explain why I looked like I did but the explanation wasn't good enough. I was a mess and I am pretty sure I had developed a twitch in my left eye. Fortunately it was dark and my appearance was soon forgotten and we passed the night away in a haze of beer occasionally looking out over the lake and to the hotel in its center. It was beautiful, the white building lit up with yellow lights and reflecting off the black surface of the water and the sound of music playing quietly from the other side of the bridge.

In the morning I checked the view again. The hotel was still magnificent but there was a nasty smell I hadn't noticed the previous night and the water was green... Completely green! The growth was so thick it looked like you could walk on it. Over the course of the next day or two I noticed peddle boats getting completely stuck in it and that it harbored an incredible amount of plastic bottles and other rubbish. I will try to remember it by its night view but the smell wont ever go away! Crazy thing was we saw someone swimming in it and decided it had to be some suicide ritual. That water was completely stagnant.

I met with.... (aww dammit, I am crap at remembering names. Please don't be insulted if you are reading this. I'd forget my own name if it wasn't written on my bike!) Anyway, we had heard about a temple built entirely of marble and the guy who was telling us about it had plenty of good things to say (and I mean plenty) so after a breakfast of fried eggs on toast and a Banana Lassi (NOT a banana flavored dog but a rather delicious yogurt type drink which is slightly sour) we headed off in search of a taxi to take us to the Rankpur Jain temple. A bit of haggling and we were on our way, 1000Rs return trip, for a two hour trip into the country. When we arrived we headed straight for the canteen. 20Rs for all you can eat Thali. We ate. A lot. With nothing but our hands. Something really satisfying about grabbing a handful of rice in your hand, dipping it in curry and shovelling it down your throat. Giving cutlery the middle finger.

Some details on the temple. 1444 columns support the roof over 29 chambers. Each column is unique and carved entirely from milk white marble. The detail is incredible, they go so far as to carve eyes that are maybe a millimeter or two across. Everything about this place screams devotion. Built in the 1400s it is impossible to think how they erected such a building

Inside, each column is unique and it is obvious the craftsmen found it difficult to make 1444 unique columns. On some the only difference is the figures face in a different direction but the closer and longer you look you see the detail and the love that went into it. In one chamber there is a pyramid with elephants, lions and figures which tower up above you.

I wasn't allowed to take photos of the idols but they were crafted from the most perfect marble I have ever seen. One colour (does that make sense with marble?) and perfectly smooth sitting there with a content smile on his face. They were surrounded by the best carvings in the whole place.

This just shows you the detail of the work involved. It must have taken months or years just for that piece alone.

Outside the temple there was a smaller one which the local monkey population had taken over. I wanted to get real close for a photo but when I asked a guide if it was safe he said “yeah go as close as you like” I started walking “but it's your responsibility” I stopped walking.

They look and act very human. It's quite creepy. The older ones seem to sit around talking about the weather while the younger ones play in the trees and chase each other. We watched for a while and got as close as we dared before heading back to the taxi.

On the ride back we stopped for a drink and .... fell asleep. It was too bumpy for me so I watched the landscape change and took in the sites I would normally miss on the bike. I do try to prioritise looking at the road when I ride.

That night we met Claire (I remember a girls name, funny that.) who was staying in Udaipur for one month working as a volunteer at an animal sanctuary. Seems an odd way to spend time in India. She wasn't going to visit anywhere else but loved what she was doing. We also met up with Juilian who had been waiting for over a week for his laptop to arrive from France. We went to a rooftop restaurant called Ganesh and tried the local speciality “Bhang Lassi” which is supposed to be an alternative to weed but which tasted exactly like it (disgusting) and had no effect on any of us so we carried on drinking beer. I tried to remove the preservative glycerol (it gives you a crazy hangover from even 1 beer) from my beer using a trick in the LP which only went slightly wrong and I did avoid a headache so it was all good. And I met my first openly gay Indian, Dupak. He spoke the queens English and was, for India, very camp. He was also very obviously trying not to be Indian.

The next day was spent getting lost in town, reading, chatting and eating. I considered cleaning my bike and conveniently forgot about it. I was up early the following morning. Said my good-byes to everyone and hit the road for a gruelling 800km ride to Mumbai.

On rides that long different things go through my head. The first hour is wasted trying to get out of the city and the second hour is wasted trying to work out a schedule for the whole ride and it is a very complicated equation I run through to work it out but all that really matters is average speed and how often I will need to stop. Two hours in I had my first cig break. Around Ahmedabad (250km) the road turned into Indias first National Expressway. A long perfect stretch of tarmac heading south. I turned off the road I was on to the NE, reached the toll booth and got turned around by the guards. NO BIKES ALLOWED was the message. He told me to go on the road I had been on previously but that headed in the wrong direction. The toll booth had grass around the side of it and no fence so I went about 100 yards back and just blasted my way around. The worst he could do was call ahead and I doubted he would bother. The road was empty and I piled along at about 80 to make up for lost time. At this rate I would be in Mumbai an hour before darkness.

About 350km from Mumbai the road turned into a 350km long construction site and tailback. I rode until sunset and then further until it was dark and still further until it was outright dangerous so I gave up and found a hotel. I had been riding for over 12 hours and was still almost 200km from Mumbai. It was devastating and it made me realise how tight my schedule in India really is. As of today I have 3 weeks to get to Nepal and there is so much left to see. The hotel shower didn't work, the bed was hard and the mosquitoes got in. It was not a good nights sleep.

My plan to reach Mumbai in one day had been stupid. I didn't reach my hotel until 3pm the next day. This city is long. Really long and the tourist hotels are right at the bottom of the peninsula. 55% of Mumbai's population lives in the slums. One slum (the biggest in Asia) contains 1 million people in 1 square mile. I spent the day cleaning up and getting orientated in the city. The next day was spent buying a netbook (ASUS Eee PC 1000h) and playing with previously mentioned netbook. On the way back from the cafe a guy approached me and asked me if I wanted to be a Bollywood extra. I figured it was probably a con but he said there would be other Westerners so I agreed to meet him at 8am the next day.

So film making is really REALLY boring. It was a film about some guy who had killed his son in law or something like that. The scene we were filming he was standing on a podium giving a speech when he breaks down and admits it. Basically we sat in a conference room for hours on end while they filmed us. Occasionally they would pick one of us to stare at a spot next to the camera or give a reaction for a close up. My big scene was staring at a spot next to the camera and not move. The guy whispered in my ear what I had too do and then Vicky sitting behind me started kicking my chair asking what I had been told to do. All in all it was pretty boring and I had to wear a suit! It made me so happy I don't work in the film industry. They shoot one scene, move a plant pot slightly, shoot the scene again, move a chair an inch to the left and shoot it again and again and again.

They did feed us though (A spicy Thali) and I got 500Rs out of the deal. We even had our own assistant to goto the shops and buy anything we needed. After I got back to the hotel I planned to meet some of the other extras but I think I got the wrong restaurant and so ordered a Dum Aloo Punjabi (more spicy food) drank a beer and headed back to the hotel.

And this morning I am a first hand witness to the “Ring of fire” effect.

I am off to Pune tomorrow to meet the guys from BIKEindia before I head down to Goa to try and find Graham or Tino. I wont stay long. I have Lions to go see in the north of India and a plane to catch in Nepal. And as usual I have written way too much.

Tuesday 11 November 2008

Olivers Indo-English dictionary

Ok well I am in Delhi now. I arrived a few day ago and yeterday I took the train to Agra to see the Taj Mahal. Apart from being alone at the greatest monument to love ever built all I really want to say about the Taj is it is better to see it from a distance. I saw it from the fort, stunning. I saw it from the other side of the river where I sat for an hour, stunning. I saw it from the usual tourist photo perspective, stunning. I saw it up close full of all the cracks and damage that any man made item inevitably gets over time and the magic was lost a little. From a distance it is perfect!

Now for my new fangled dictionary which this post is really about:

Not being able to look into a small child's eyes when I tell him to go away, that I have no money for him. Reverting to ignoring him completely as he paws at my hand and clothes pointing at the food stand near by.

Riding a motorcycle that, if sold, would easily feed this child for life or could pay for an education. Spending enough money in one year, on a completely selfish thing, to seriously improve the lives of a small community which has nothing. There is no such thing as Karma in this world. Not one ounce of it because if there was I wouldn't be able to go on this trip and this child would know where his next meal is coming from.

Anger and self loathing:
Anger at parents who purposefully cripple their children so they will be able to beg for life. Anger at a world that would let this happen, anger that it is completely impotent and can't change a thing.
Self loathing because some of that anger was felt towards a kid who through his persistence dragged me kicking and screaming out of my blissful ignorance.

On the train ride to Agra I saw something I haven't seen before. At first the city of Delhi flashed by as all cities do. The sky scrapers followed by the odd historic monument, the inner city, the parkland, the suburbs and then it changed. Instead of fields there were slums. Miles and miles of slums lining the railway lines. House with bamboo supports and plastic roofs. When nature called children just stopped where they were and squatted in the middle of the road and when they finished they just carried on walking. They had no clothes on to worry about dirtying.

40% of India's population lives below the poverty line. Thats over 500,000,000 people. I knew about it but have never seen it before. Never thought how bad it really is.

Now to something different. I got conned the day before going to Agra. Or it feels like I did. Someone offered to help me with something, he helped and in the end it cost me about 1500Rs ($30). It was by someone who I would consider rich by Indian standards. It annoyed me because I fell for it but I don't mind because it taught me a valuable lesson. Then in Agra I met a rickshaw driver who offered to take me around the sites. I agreed and he took me on the grand tour. He kept on trying to get me to go into shops so he could earn commission and it was beginning to annoy me. When it came to paying I asked how much and he said "as you please" and he also said that previous english travelers had paid him $50 (which is a blatant lie) So I checked the LP and an AC taxi costs about 650 for 8 hours, a motor rickshaw about 400 for 8 hours so I offered, for the cycle rickshaw, 250 ($5) for about 5 hours. He looked really upset and said 1000Rs and we went back and forth like this to 400Rs which he agreed on.

It reminds me now of a quote from the Kite Runner (good book, read it) to paraphrase: There are two types of extortion. The first type is used to buy a rich man a new yacht. The second type is used to feed a poor mans family.

So what am I to do? I knew the rickshaw driver was ripping me off but I was arguing over a dollar or two and he was arguing over the money which would feed his family for a day or two. If I go round handing out rupees to every kid who begs (40 or 50 a day) and I don't argue when people overcharge me then I am going to go over budget and probably make the problem worse for the next travelers through. If I do argue with the taxi driver and I ignore the kids I am going to find it hard to sleep at night.

It's a really messed up world and it is making me emotional. I don't like emotions, being a cold hearted bastard is easier and is far less work.

Monday 3 November 2008

A view across the Ganges

Ok, they say a picture paints a thousand words but I am going to try a different angle today.

Imagine walking into a building built of bamboo. Thick struts make up the supports and thin leaves are weaved to make the walls. As you walk in two smells instantly assault your senses. The smell of freshly cooked Indian food with its sweet spices hits you first followed by the faint, fresh and slightly choking smell of marijuana. Opposite from where you stand you see the source of the second smell. The DJ sits in his corner playing a selection of ambient trance, a thin line of smoke rising from the joint in his mouth. The music is a gentle and flowing symphony of stringed instruments and highlights the muted chatter of people deep in conversation. As you look around the room you realise there are no chairs only cushions on a carpeted floor so you take off your shoes and move into the middle of the room. Paper lampshades cast reds, greens and blues through the smoke that swirls in the almost still air. It is slightly too warm from the evening sun coming through the large empty windows and there is a thin sheen of sweat on your skin. You find a seat in the corner and order a lemon mint iced drink. It's refreshing in the hot sun and wakens your senses. Looking out of the window you stare across the river Ganges passed the long thin pedestrian bridge to the bank on the opposite side. The sun is sitting just a few degrees above the hills.

You sit talking about life, remembering home and occasionally your eye is drawn back to the river. The sun is now setting, it is sitting right on the rooftops of the buildings and is turning the sky from a deep blue into oranges and yellows. The bridge is now just a silhouette with dark figures in robes crossing occasionally lit by a motorbike trying to squeeze through. A monkey sits on the suspension wires completely still. It has now cooled down, the river has turned orange and seems to have slowed down matching the pace of the music. As you sit staring into this scene something happens, you can't say what or when, but there is a moment when the sun hits a certain spot or the monkey turns slightly and you realise you are staring into a perfect moment in time every detail absorbed into your memory but as a whole, single thing that no camera could capture.

I met another welshman yesterday. We have lived within 5 minutes of each other back home and never met. It is one of those things that life kinda throws your way when you least expect it but definitely need it. He knows many people from my year in school and we have been talking about rugby, football, pubs n clubs. It seems just when I needed it someone came along and reminded me of life back home. Of friends I am missing, Sunday roast and of course the weather! The scene above is a small hut right on the river Ganges which he has visited several times in a town called Rishikesh. It is where (Rishikesh, not the hut) the Beatles wrote their album 'white album' and is an incredibly spiritual place. The self styled yoga capital of the world. Backpackers come here to meditate and rest after long journeys and it is an opportunity to throw yourself deep into a spiritual world not of gods and afterlives but individuality and personal enlightenment. There are many backpackers here. All attempting to find some kind of truth but also all returning to the backpacker havens at night. There is something about this place and I don't know if it is because the place is spiritual or if it is because the people make it so but it is there. In the way people walk and greet you, the beauty of the surrounding area. I can't pinpoint it but give me a few days and I will. I was certainly enlightened to something on my way here. Riding alone and off-road is far less fun than riding with others off-road. Especially when it is 85km!

Monday 27 October 2008

Manali to Shimla via the N22

Two posts in two weeks, you wouldn't believe it if you weren't staring at it right now. We left Manali on Friday which means I spent exactly one week doing nothing. Ok not entirely true. I did design a new tank bag and get it built. It's really quite fancy. The base is connected to my bike by 6 straps which hold it in place but the base can separate from the main bag by a zip. The main bag is a Adidas knockoff. I must have the only fake Adidas tank bag in the world. Photos soon I promise. I also had a sleeping bag liner made. Just a thin sleeping bag really which is going to keep the mozzies off my back in the south.

So we left Manali and rode to a place called Narkanda. Graham has a friend their called Kamal who helps organise motorcycle tours in northern India and Spiti valley which was far too cold for us to go up to this time round. He also volunteers in the Raid De Himalayas which is an off-road tournament which on difficulty level challenges the Dakar Rally. Again, we missed it this time but next time round I will definately enter the race.

Kamal is building himself a new guesthouse/home which when it is finished will offer amazing views of the valley behind the house and the mountaintops in front. You could honestly not get bored of the view. The light hitting the valley in the evening is a burst of pinks and oranges which are constantly changing. We stayed at Kamal's for two days and met a new type of rider. hmm, or old type I guess is more appropriate. Two girls (one from Aus and one from NZ) are riding horses around Northern India and were planning to head into Nepal. They even complemented on my beard and think that software engineering is cool. I am going to marry them both. That's possible in India right? Been given a great idea for my beard too. Don't shave it till the end of my trip and then cut it all off and keep it in a jar. Great conversation starter don't you think?

The road to Narkanda was varied. From impossible muddy uphill runs to perfect sweeping 2-lane tarmac. I know I have said this before or think I have but I don't care. The feeling of getting it "right" on a sweeping S bend is amazing. When I hit it as perfect as I can it sends a shiver down my spine. There is a moment between curves when you put the bike upright and for a fraction of a second everything feels up in the air like the laws of physics no longer apply. It's like hitting the peak on a roller coaster ride and feeling like your flying. I love it! I had a good half hour of spine tingling roads before it returned to potholes and mud but it was exhilarating.

On one of the muddy uphill sections we rode passed some vultures at the side of the road. One flew within inches of Grahams head as we scared it from its perch. It was huge. I have never seen anything like it. I didn't believe my eyes at first and it was one of those things where you blink and you miss it. I must have passed within a few meters of it as it swooped low over road and out over the cliff. I know it is a disgusting animal but watching it swoop like that was something special. Also worth mentioning is the hummingbird I saw in the gardens of the Shiva Cafe in Old Manali. At first I thought it was a wasp or something it was so small but it just hovered there with its tiny beak sucking at the nectar of the flower in front of it. I had to check with Graham to confirm it was actually a bird. It seemed too small at about half the size of my thumb. No photos of either sorry. These were moments when the camera is away and I refuse to miss seeing something to try and record it and miss it altogether.

So we are in Shimla now, it's a kind of hill town (I'm calling them hills but I am actually over 300m higher than the highest mountain in the UK at the moment but they are still hills compared to the mountains behind them) with a military training ground in the middle. I'd say it is populated mostly by middle to upper caste Indians. The first thing I noticed was the strange mix of western and Indian clothing. Baseball caps, bomber jackets, jeans and suits are all mixed in with traditional clothing. The second thing I noticed (ok more likely the first but shh) is how beautiful Indian women are. It might be because I have been deprived of talking to women and seeing anymore than their eyes and hands in Iran and Pakistan but they really are hot and they are all slim as well not just the girls but the boys too. At least while they are under the age of 35. There seems to be no overindulgence in the youth of India at least not yet. The older generation seems to lose any interest in their looks and thinks only of good food but then that happens often in the west when people get married.

Ok I am going to cut it there. I want to write more but I think I am writing too much as it is. It is Diwali tomorrow. The Festival of Light which is going to be interesting. Lots of fireworks and candles and colour. I am excited about being in the thick of it. For any of you that don't know Diwali is the celebration of the victory of light over dark in every individual. It is also the celebration of King Rama returning from a 14 year exile. (The rows of lights leading him home).

Monday 20 October 2008

Manali, a hotel in the clouds

The lonely planet describes Old Manali as "a small town which retains some of its mountain village charm" which is a lie. You can't walk more than 10 paces without passing another hotel and in between each hotel there is an adventure tourism shop and then dotted around them are small corner shops and souvenir shops. It has been turned into a holiday town meant mostly for the richer Indian travelers to spend their hot summer months in the nice cool mountains. Luckily for me I have arrived at the end of season and it is pretty dead here. a few western tourists and the odd coach full of local tourists. So far it has been a great place to recharge the batteries after Pakistan. I'm just relaxing with a cigarette and a coffee watching the world go by. Most people wont believe or even understand this but travelling is tiring. I need a holiday from my holiday and so I am going to spend about a week here doing nothing.

I have spent the last few days reconsidering parts of this trip. Been wondering if I really am the type of person who can travel by myself for another 8 months. I have had this really weird thought in my head "It's only 8 months and then you home and back to normality" and it is true, I miss many things about back home. Specifically quiz night, a good ol' english fryup, beer that is cold and where the % is set at 5% not between 5 and 8%, my friends & family and generally the steady rythem of life back home knowing what is going to happen tomorrow. But I really dont miss them quite enough to justify the thought of wishing this trip away. So why the thought? Well I have worked out that I really dont like being alone and the last few days have been the first time I have been alone in over 2 months. I spoke to another traveller the other day and she was saying she had the same thought at various times on her trip so I guess it's normal but that doesnt make it nice. So I think I have decided not to go to Aus. Partly because of this feeling I have been having but mostly because I dont really like the idea of completely disasembling my bike, cleaning it so it is completely spotless and rebuilding it just to get past customs and then paying almost $2000 for the privaledge. The main reason I wanted to go was to see the great barrier reaf but I can go diving in Thailand so I have to really think about that one for a bit.

Anyway Graham has caught up with me for a day or two and I expect to see Tino in Delhi. Decided not to go white water rafting up here. The water is too bloody cold and it will be just as good in Goa as well as being warm. So a few more days up here and then down to Rishikesh to try out the various forms of meditation.

Oh and someone pointed out my casual referencing to drugs so I thought I better address it. Firstly it isn't like I am high all the time, the truth is I have probably "smoked" less than 10 times in the whole trip. The casual references come from the casual attitude of the people in the areas I have been and I write about it because it is a major part of the cultural differences between the West and the rest of the world. A good example and a lesson in morals is Iran. In the UK we have this mentality that all drugs are morally wrong and are bad for us yet we have a huge drinking culture. In Iran drugs like opium and weed replace alcohol and it is alcohol drinkers who are the social outcasts who are throwing their lives away. Then in Pakistan the same kind of casualness and attitude exists. You don't get much more casual than the police giving away drugs. In India people walk up and down the streets smoking, old men sit in cafes around cups of tea smoking and the drugs are also used in several religious ceremonies as well as for medical reasons.

I'm not saying that drug taking in anyway is either right or wrong but it is very much worth considering more than just the local views you have been brought up on when considering the argument. The reality is that drug use is defined purely on the number of people using the drug. If the majority of people are taking the drug then it is considered an acceptable social activity. On the other side of the coin if the minority are using it then it is considered antisocial drug abuse.

Thursday 9 October 2008

Dont look down. Riding a motorcycle into the Himalayas

Another incredible two weeks has passed. Pakistan is definitely my number 1 country so far. I've just returned to the Pakistan capital after riding up to the Chinese border through the Himalayas... I didn't think I would do that even when I started my trip. The views up there were incredible, I found myself just staring dumbstruck by the size and beauty of it instead of staring at the road and I didn't care. Every single challenge and difficulty involved in getting up there were completely wiped from the slate leaving me with a feeling that matched the clean and crisp mountains topped with snow.
The views, the smells, the feeling of being so high, it's like being on top of the world! The temperature was a nice few degrees cooler and the mosquitoes cant survive at that altitude. It was magical and for once I am going to upload some pictures to prove it!
The river Indus in Pakistan
(A view over the river Indus from between Murree and Abbotobad)
a view from the Karakorum Highway
(A view from the KKH)
Lets see, Tino headed off for the KKH a day before us and so I guess we left Islamabad around the beginning of October and headed North towards the Karakorum Highway and some of the highest peaks in the world (K2, Nanga Parbet and Passu peak amongst them) The first day we planned to head up passed Muree and into Kashmire. This was to skip the majority of the traffic infested section of the KKH. The roads were perfect up to Muree. Thick, twisting, dual carriageway up to the hill town and the roads were empty. We had a blast! After Muree things changed somewhat. I was going to explain the science of grip but I bored myself so I will just say that a crash is usually the result of using more grip than you have available. say using 70% of it to turn and then trying to use another 35% to brake because of... oh I don't know, a cow. The roads after Muree had less grip than an ice rink. We were riding slow, less than 30mph, and not accelerating out of corners but still the rear and front were sliding all over the place. It was tiring throwing the bike around trying to keep it sticky side down. When we reached the Kashmire border we were promptly turned around and told that it wasn't safe so we turned back towards Muree planning to turn off and head for Abbottabad. After a while the road returned to its previous stickiness and the pace picked up again. After a while through overheating my rear brake failed and my front brake was crap anyway (and warped) so after a close call bunny hopping the front wheel towards the edge of the road I slowed down considerably and let Graham shoot off. It wasn't until half hour later that I rounded a corner and saw Graham and his bike lying in the middle of the road. It had turned to "ice" again but there were no broken bones and no real damage to the bike so a quick cig to relieve the nerves and we were off again.
Two schoolchildren in Muree
(Me and two schoolkids in Murree, their dad took the photo)
We arrived in Abbottabad at around 5pm and stayed in a good hotel with satellite TV and a warm shower glad to both be ok after a long days ride. The porter got us a nice cup of Chai and we skipped dinner and watched a movie. The next day we figured we would ride until we found a nice place to spend the night. No real plans. In total we must have ridden for 6 hours and covered less than 100 miles. The roads were atrocious with potholes coming out of nowhere, crowds of people filling the streets and all kinds of livestock being marched up and down a road barely wide enough for one car. The KKH is the only overland connection between China and Pakistan and is used by more than a few big lorries trying to scrape a living on a road that claims many lives a year. Add numerous local cars, tourist buses, horse n carts and jeeps it resembles the M4 in traffic volume if not in width. We finally arrived in Besham and after almost riding straight through town we decided it was best to rest for the night. Riding tired would only make things worse. And besides, I was shattered. You try to keep 100% concentration on the road to avoid potholes and after an hour I was thinking "Damn I'm good" and then you hit a big one. All the suspension in the world cant stop it from launching you out of the seat and I am pretty certain I sat back down on my left nut at least 3 times (I have since upgraded my underwear for some with more protection for my left nut). After 6 hours I had given up. Screw dodging potholes, it was too much effort and I was just riding straight over them up on the pegs. The views at this time were average and it just didn't seem worth the effort to ride a road so technically difficult and with a ridiculous drop off to one side.
a huge pothole in the Karakorum Highway
(Yes there is literally nothing underneath the tarmac! Scared? Me? Nah!)
I slept delicately that night avoiding any undue pressure on the sore parts of my body expecting the same kind of ride the next day and just not thinking about it. It was good I didn't think about it because seriously I could not have come up with what happened. We must have ridden about 40 miles when it dawned on me. We were heading towards Chilas and I was watching my petrol gauge and the distance to Chilas and kept running the maths around my head. My very best estimate left me at least 5 miles out of town and that was hopeful. I said a little prayer to the gods of petrol and used every technique I could think of. Coasting downhill, following behind fast moving trucks, high gears and ducking behind the windscreen all the time telling my bike she could do it. Just 5 more km, 4 more, 3, 2, 1.. I MADE IT! "What the hell do you mean you have no petrol?" "16km to the next petrol station? GAH!" So I sent Graham on, no point in two of us being stuck, and I spent about an hour trying to pursued someone to load my bike onto their flatbed and take me to the next petrol station without any success. I figured f*ck it, if I get on the bike and ride and only get 1km I am in no worse a situation than I am now. Back on the bike, back whispering sweet nothings into the petrol tank begging for just a splash of petrol to be left and then, in the distance I see it like a shining beacon lighting my way I yelled, I screamed, I did a little victory dance on the bike I... No petrol... awesome! So there I stayed for an hour trying to wave down a pickup of some kind. A big truck stopped after about an hour and reckoned we could lift my bike onto the back by hand. It was about 15 feet and the bike weighs a quarter ton or more. So while about 10 kids tried feebly to lift my bike 1 inch off the ground I sat in despair figuring I was going to spend the night by the side of the road I was contemplating this when a car pulled up into the petrol station and started filling up not at the diesel pump but at the petrol one. I ran at the attendant. I think he decided when he first saw me moving that not giving me petrol wasn't an option. He offered me 5L, just enough to get to Jalgot. Before resetting the mileometer I looked at the distance since last fill up. 220 miles, that's practically impossible, in the UK at sea level I got 200 tops out of it and that's running it dry. At altitude it I should get less MPG. I think my bike has magic powers, or that it runs on love. :-)

I finally got to Gilget, the roads the whole way had been far better than the day before and so we covered far more distance. Gilget is basically a town that exists because of being closest to some of the highest and deadliest mountains in the world. K2 expeditions launch from either here or Skardu. It's a pretty ugly town but it is in the most amazing surroundings. Crisp clean snow topped mountains and the valleys deep and green with a ribbon of blue river passing through it. Incredible. We stayed in the Park Hotel, I somehow arrived first and after seeing that Graham wasnt there went and checked every other hotel in the city looking for him. There are alot. When I finally passed the Park again there was his green and white BMW another beautiful sight after a long day. We spent two days in Gilget, I got my brakes fixed and spent the whole day with the owner of the repair shop and his son who literally tormented me for 4 hours. Holding him upside down seemed to quell the attack but when he started to turn a funny colour I figured I'd have to find another way to keep him entertained so let him use my camera..... Big mistake but no harm done. Amir spent hours working on my bike, changed the front bearings, got the disks skimmed and got it washed. He wanted 600 Rupees which is about $8. I tried to pay him 1500 but he outright refused and in the end accepted 1000. In the UK it would have been hundreds of pounds.
The son of the mechanic who fixed my bike in Gilget
(Amirs' son, the terror of Gilget)
The valley outside Gilget in Pakistan
(A view of the valley just outside Gilget)
We tried to get in touch with Tino but email was impossible and he has no phone. We figured he had gone further up or had found his ideal place to "chill" and so the day after fixing my brakes we headed to Sost. The last big town before the highest point of the KKH. The ride to Sost was pretty uneventful, the road was in pretty much the same condition as before but throw in a couple of landslides for good measure. At first when made to chose between skipping a pothole and riding with your foot hanging over the abyss and just going straight over the pothole I always chose the pothole. By this point I was choosing the abyss, It was just easier, quicker and probably not that much more dangerous. Remember what I was saying about grip earlier? Well imagine what a pothole does to that equation.

(It was the day before Eid, the end of Ramadan,
and animals were being slaughtered all along the
roadside for the feast the next day)

Sost wasn't exactly a big town, it in fact was very small, we stayed in the cheapest hotel available and cooked up a nice meal of fried eggs followed by soup and with an apple for dessert. Perfect. Here we met Bjorn and Len who had just come through from China after having more border troubles than anyone deserves. The KKH on the Chinese side is like a perfect stretch of motorway and they were hoping that the Pakistan side improved further down. We just laughed. We had breakfast with them and arranged to meet in Karimabad in the eagles nest hotel the same day if me and Graham made it up to the border and back in daylight. The road was deadly from this point on. We rode through landslides that were still sliding and around sections of road that were missing. Riding through the landslides was real hit and miss, you couldn't look up to see if anything was coming because you had to keep looking down to avoid the rocks that were already on the road. At one point a rock about the size of my fist flew in front of me and I panicked and rushed to the other side. Knowing we had to come past them again was not a happy thought. As we slowly went higher and higher the bikes started to struggle with the lack of oxygen and the cold as did we. I have no winter gear and at almost 5k meters it gets bloody cold but as we passed up as high as the snowline the feeling of being on top of the world was incredible and knowing that we had practically followed the Indus from Mouth to Source and had seen the entire country change beneath our wheels made every second worth it from the police chases to the rockfalls, the sweltering heat to the bitter cold. I was standing at the peak of the second highest motorable road in the world.

(The Khunjerab Pass, almost as high as a motorbike can get)

(This is well worth reading, the KKH really is the 8th wonder of the world!)

(Me standing on the mound of earth marking the highest point! Checkout the windswept look, it was freezing!)
I feel sorry for people who look into the mountains and think only of the mechanics and science behind how they were made, standing there staring out at impossibly high peaks towering still almost 4km above us.. Nothing could have felt better but it was bloody cold so we stayed for about 20 minutes, walked on Chinese soil, improved international relations between China and Britain and pissed off. We gave a local worker a lift to his house on the way down and had a couple of cups of tea, back through the landslides, the potholes, the ever waiting valley and down to Sost to refill before heading to Karimabad.

(hit the 10,000 mark on my way to the pass, I missed it by 3 miles because of a landslide)
Did I mention my headlight broke? I don't think I did. It's kind of significant to this part of the story so just imagine me telling you earlier my light broke and then everything will be ok again.

So we arrived at Karimabad just as it was getting dark (told you it was significant) so Graham led the parade into town looking for the eagles nest hotel. (Whats in a name?) After riding through town twice we saw the sign pointing the way and turned off onto the little side road the road initially left town before coming to a small village and then went up... and up... and up and turned into a sand track and carried on going up. I let Graham go ahead and tried to fix my light. It wasn't happening so after a while I carried on. The road was crazy, on the left a stream ran down and on the right the usual unforgiving drop to nowhere. I think I was fortunate without a light, I couldn't see how bad it was and just concentrated on two inches in front of my wheel travelling at about 15mph. It was a long road and although I didn't fall off I did end up in a drain once and in the stream another time. When I came back down in the morning and saw what I had ridden up I realised how stupid I had been. When Len and gone up he had fallen twice, hurt himself and given up. Graham made it ok as did Bjorn. The sunrise in the morning wasn't quite worth the risk but watching as the sun slowly lit up the mountains with shades of gold, black and white cutting perfect lines we sat for hours just staring and taking photos. We went to see the Baltit Fort before heading to Gilget where another accident happened. Riding up the thin cobbled roads to the fort I was in front with Bjorn behind, very close behind. I stopped at the top of one junction to work out directions and instead of stopping slipped back a few feet before I could get my foot on the rear break. I hear a crash and look behind me and see Bjorns bike lying on the cobbles with Bjorn hanging off the edge of the road. It was a close one but he wasn't hurt and so we picked him up, checked over the bike and headed on up.

The fort was nice.

We arrived in Gilget later that day and found out we had missed Tino by 30 minutes. He was going north to the border and we were heading back down via Skardu. We did however meet up with Daniel and Andy again who were also about to head north. Andy had picked up the flu and so had been resting for a few days. The Madina hotel was the perfect place to relax and so we planned to stay for a few days watching movies and chatting about nothing. Fortunately I had picked up a puncture and in taking off the front wheel to make the repair realised that the bracket holding my front axle and wheel in place had snapped in two. Not a part readily available in towns like Gilget I have had a new one made up from a tractor conrod (the extremely strong metal bar that connects the piston to the cam shaft) so I probably have the strongest axle bracket in the world now. And in turns out I didn't have a puncture but I did pick one up the next night....

(the crack is on the right hand side, the whole thing was split in two)
The ride from Gilget to Skardu was different to anything else on the KKH, the tarmac was near perfect with a thin line of sand running down the middle of it. It was great fun picking unusual lines and swapping sides of the road when there was a gap in the sand. We were all grinning like idiots when we finally reached Skardu. It was a mixture of sweeping bends, nice Esses a couple of tight ones, few hairpins for good measure and it lasted for hours. Next time I'm bringing a sports bike. We stayed only one night in Skardu and ate in the restaraunt where I accidently stole some of Bjorn and Grahams egg fried rice to go with my Jalfrazi and Chips. In the morning Bjorn had a puncture so while he got that repaired I went to buy some new underwear which would save my nuts from being crushed. and which although a little tight have proven to be incredibly comfortable and dont go anywhere they shouldn't. A good buy for less than 20 US cents each.

So with my nice new boxers and Bjorns shiny new inner tube we headed up into the Deosi Plains south of Skardu planning to take two days to ride through and hit the KKH again at Jalgot. Also planning, by the way, to pick up petrol before heading into no mans land. Bloody Graham has a 35L tank and went shooting off without a thought for petrol, I kept on asking people who kept on saying down the road and eventually down the road turned into a Jeep road and the next petrol station was on the other side of the Deosi Plains in Chilum. Some quick maths and the police check point and another prayer to the gods of petrol I decided I would make it and so we headed off up the steapest and most unroad like road so far. It climbed eventually to about 4.5k meters and it really wasnt a road. Sure the straight sections were gravel and mud and it was ok but each corner and been turned into the whos who of the worlds sharpest stones. At one point I stopped for a smoke and saw some kind of fluid pouring from the middle of my bike. It felt like hydralic fluid and I figured that was it my rear shock had finally given up. Turns out it was the Dot 4 brake fluid I hadn't sealed properly in my underseat storage so I smoked my cig (they burn slowly at that altitude) and carried on up begging for the road to level out. It finally did right next to a big ass sign saying "DANGER BROWN BEARS" so we spent half an hour trying to decide if you make yourself big when a brown bear confronts you or play dead. We voted on play dead and crossed onto the plains. The road was a mixture of gravel and mud most of the way occasionally turning into big pebbles and rocks. Sometimes I would be going at 50 and suddenly it would turn into deep gravel and things got a bit hairy (speaking of which, you should see my hair now) and sometimes the big rocks would come out of the blue, always fun. I didn't realise but Bjorn was close behind me again (when riding off road you stand up on the pegs and cant see in the mirrors) when I slowed for a gravel section he didnt and almost hit me, slammed on the brakes and went down trapping and badly hurting his leg under one of his panniers. He says he yelled to get my attention but I didnt hear and cant imagine why he didn't use his horn. The fear of being left behind in a situation like that is very real. He thought he had broken his leg and says that watching me ride off was terrifying. I was completely oblivous to all of this and rode off down the road happy as Larry enjoying the views and the freedom of the plains. Me and Graham eventually stopped at another checkpoint and spent some time getting photos of ourselves crossing an old wooden bridge which had broken planks and gaping holes in it. By the time we had finished we were starting to worry about Bjorn and were thinking of heading back when around the corner he pottered and rode sraight over the bridge that we had spent 20 minutes walking over working out the safest route. He was obviously in pain when he stopped, leg was badly bruised and bleeding so while he got himself patched up it began to dawn on me that we would never make Chilum before dark and it was starting to get cold. When we started moving it became very obvious from Bjorns pace that things were going to get bad. I was definately the least prepared of the group with almost no winter gear and the cold was really effecting my hands as well as the bike. I had to keep on stopping to warm them up on the exhaust. By the time we reached the river crossing I was freezing. The river, minus a bridge was probably 35ft across (I think it was further to be honest) but fortunately not too deep. Graham walked across to find the best route and then rode through first with me walking by the side. One near miss being enough for anyones heart and knowing that he would have to ride Bjorns bike through he let me go second. It was a pretty good crossing if I do say so myself. My first real river crossing, yes my legs got soaked and yes I almost went down but all in all I crossed the river and that was the main point. Graham then rode Bjorns bike across and offered me a pair of winter gloves. Perfect.

(My first river crossing, it is a river dammit! The big one came later when it was cold and darkish)
We did reach Chilum just before dark and with an empty tank. It had just to rain. We stayed in a "hotel" before the police CP and dried our feet by the fire, drank tea and joked with the truckers who were stopped for the night. Bjorn chose to sleep in the room with the truckers because it had the fire and was promptly woken at 6am when they all got up to goto work. Me and Graham stayed in the room next door under 2 blankets each and a sleeping bag waking at a much more pleasent 8. A quick couple of liters of petrol from the army base, a spot of breakfast and we headed towards Ashop for a full refill before heading to Jalgot for more petrol and the road back to Islamabad.

(Some last pictures of the mountains, I dont remember where these were
taken but top one was almost a perfect photo so I have to show it off)

When we reached Jalgot and found out there was no petrol in town in kinda ruined the plans. I only had a few days left on my visa and really needed to get out of the country but although I would probably make it to the next petrol station Graham wouldn't so we had to head back to Gilget. When we reached Gilget Graham had less than 2L left in the tank so filled up with 33 and we headed back to the Madina hotel for one more night where we watched Requim for a Dream and I realised the irony of watching that film stoned and also that I have had conversations in the past which are not so different to the ones which the main character had with his best friend. We left Gilget early the next morning and headed south towards Islamabad aiming to get as close as possible before it got dark and then to get to Islamabad early the next day to pick up my new rear. Everything went well with the riding and we made considerably better progress going down than we did coming up and so figured we could easily get to within an hour or two of Islamabad. Like I said the going was great as we had by now learnt to deal with constant potholes and were slicing through them without a problem. We had passed Besham and had stopped by a police checkpoint to decide how much further we would go and figured Abbotobad being less than 57km away was an easy target. Turns out it was actually 157km and it was getting dark again. Well we decided to fix my light anyway and push on. Initially Graham took the lead but the old light on his BMW wasn't upto the job so I went in front. Potholes were the least of our problems. Cows don't have lights, cars do. The car drivers either didnt bother using them or used them on full beam completely blinding us. It took us 3 hours to get to Abbotobad plus however long we stopped for dinner. Apparently Graham had been begging into his helmet for me to stop at a hotel, any hotel, but I was on a mission. It was gone 11 by the time we arrived and we had to bully the hotel owner into giving us a cheap room. We both had a hot shower and were asleep before we hit the bed.

We got into Rawlpindi at about 1pm the next day and fortunatly passed the garage where my new tyre was waiting. So I picked that up and headed to the Tourists Campsite to setup for one night before heading to Lahore then India. Graham had to pickup his passport from the Indian embassy but because of the bombings that day in Rawlpindi they wouldn't let him in without his passport... He got it the next day no problem and we haded to Lahore. The road was a nice wide lane of tarmac with pretty heavy traffic but we kept a steady 60mph most of the way and barring a few near misses made it to Lahore in one peice. The dorm in the Regal internet inn was far too hot at night so after just one night we headed to Wagha and the border spending two nights in the PTDC hotel there with air conditioning and a restaurant. Lovely

I am in India now and spending a couple of days in Amritsar before Graham heads to Shimla and I head to Jammu. Graham and me have been travelling together now for over 2 months and apart from a week when I went to Tehran have spent practically every hour around each other. It's going to be gutting leaving another person behind especially after so long but I need to head out on my own again. I have taken a back seat for most of the route decisions the last month and although I have really enjoyed it I am now really excited about India and need to plan my own route. I have two months to see so much. Tigers, elephants and crocodiles are top of the wildlife list. I also want to try some white water rafting and scuba diving. I'll head to Goa after about a month to spend some time in the party capital of the 1990s sunbathing on beautiful beaches and maybe try some surfing. There is so much to see and do in India that I have spent the last few days just reading through the lonely planet trying to plot a route. It is impossible. I want to give meditation a try and this is definately the country for it, I will be going to the town where Buddah found enlightenment oh and there is one holy site which is dedicated to finding enlightenment through sex which sounds like a worthwhile visit.

Anyway, another long one again. I should try to write shorter posts more often and I will probably remember things better that way too. I have tried to keep it as coherent as possible but I get a bit over excited thinking back on everything that has happened and it ends up coming out very mixed up.

Monday 22 September 2008

I am not that man!

I don't not run away from the police. I don't ram my way through police road blocks and I certainly don't yell at people armed with AK47s, G3s and SMGs. But apparently I do. Some of you may be nodding your heads and saying "Yup, I knew you'd do something stupid" others may be completely stupefied and my mum right now is buying a plane ticket to Pakistan to bring me home.

So where to start? I guess the beginning but that was months ago and you don't want to read it all again so I will start with leaving Quetta. We had planned to leave on the 17th at about 8am and head south for Sibi stopping during the midday sun to swim in some hot and cold springs. In the end we didnt wake up until 9 and left by 11. The road is a single lane highway through a mountain range filled with broken down and crashed trucks. Maybe 2 every KM (I am working in kilometers now, it's just easier) and you sometimes see some lying at the bottom of the cliff. There are hundreds of mini buses with maybe seats for 7 but packed with 15 on the inside, 10 on the roof and maybe a motorcycle or two. It was a constant battle to make progress and avoid potholes. We stopped at a couple of police checkpoints for the usual paperwork and then one checkpoint offered us a lunch of bread and fish soup. I ate the bread! We all chatted away for a bit and then one of the policemen placed two big sticks of something which was of an "illegal nature" in front of us. About $400 worth in the UK and says "Gift gift" which was graciously accepted. A bit further down the road and with enough drugs for a jail sentence in the UK something fell off Grahams bike and bounced down the road passed me and Tino, we both slammed on the brakes, turned around and came face to face with our first "escort" Quickly picking up the foot peg from Grahams bike we headed on our way not realising it was an escort. We caught up with Graham completely losing the police at the same time!

We were never going to reach the springs before 5 so we decided to stop by the river and go for a swim. It was warm from the heat and probably full of sewage but it was incredibly refreshing and the view was beautiful. Imagine a deep blue river running through a valley which opens up onto a huge mountain range. We sat by the river for a bit, skimming stones and baking in the sun. Tino decided to splash me by throwing a stone in the water in front of me but it splashed graham who threw a huge stone back which I put by naked foot in the way of. By the time I got my foot fixed up and dressed again the police had caught up with us. Tino was riding at the back stopping them from overtaking us and generally being a pain when he rode through a flock of birds landing one directly in the face! Apparently it doesn't hurt anywhere near like what you would expect (Tino rides with no helmet). We lost a couple more escorts that day and in the process I had a "near miss". Tino says he will always remember hearing the screech of brakes behind him, looking in his mirror and seeing coming down the road sideways at him. I will always remember looking at the view over the river, looking back at the road and seeing Tino and Graham stopped directly in front of me. I slammed on the front and rear brakes, the rear wheel skidded straight away and was overtaking the front wheel by the time the front started to skid. I was 100% sure I was down and was trying very hard not to take out the others too but somehow I kept it up, stopped, looked at Tino and burst into laughter. He just shook his head! We finally picked up one more escort who forced us to stop. Little did we know how much we would hear "Very dangerous", "It is our duty to protect you" and "You will follow us now!" over the next few days but we heard it here first and paid attention. We followed the police into Sibi where they took our passport details once, twice, three times. We then at about 10pm received a call to confirm our details again. The Pakistani Police Special Branch had us three down as Tino, Graham Holden and Holden Graham. When he asked me if this was correct, I couldn't lie. I admitted my name was Holden!

So day two arrives. The 18th and the trek form Sibi to somewhere East of Sibi. We haven't really been planning our route too much. The police gave us an early morning wake up call, confirmed our passport details again and asked us where we were going. We didn't have a clue and just said East..ish... which seemed to annoy them, later we discovered why. They planned out our entire route to have us meet different escorts along the way. It was a continuous string of different police officers. This is when things started to turn bad. When you get stopped every 40km and asked where your going, your nationality, how long your staying in Pakistan and you try to explain when no-one speaks proper english it gets very frustrating. We "ran" several times this day but they always caught us very quickly. They have a very efficient communications system and 3 white men on big motorbikes stand out quite alot in Pakistan. As it started to get dark we kept on asking to be taken to a hotel and each time the police would say "ok 20km" so we would follow them and then a new escort would take over and say "ok 20KM" We got to the Punjab province well after dark, we had been riding for probably close to 10 hours and only covered 400km and the "No Fear Punjab Elite" forces took us in a stranglehold of a convoy with one car infront and one behind and forced us into Sadiqadad. They then waited at a roundabout for half an hour, then to the police station for 5 minutes (half an hour) and then eventually to a 5* hotel which cost maybe $7 each a night including food. I had a nice long shower, a smoke on the roof and then we made plans for the next day.

Day 3, the 19th

We lost the Punjab Elite straight out of the hotel by going down a footpath chased by a man waving is AK in the air. About 20 k's down the road they caught up with us so we all stopped for a nice drink, a cigarette and a chat. Everything was very friendly and we had a good laugh. Tino left first. Jumped on his bike revved it up and sped away. When the police realised he wasn't stopping they turned to me an Graham and with a lot of hand gestures and yelling suggested very subtly that we should go too. By this point a crowd had gathered and the police were getting agitated. Graham finished his cig 2 or 3 minutes later and blasted off after Tino leaving the officer staring at me with an open mouth. By the time I lit my second cigarette he had changed his attitude, he had stopped yelling and was now begging, the crowd were laughing at him and so were some of the other police. I made a big show of putting on my jacket, taking it off, adjusting the straps, plugging in my MP3 player, putting on my helmet and shooting off down the road at about 80mph. Considerably faster than a 1980s Toyota pickup with 5 men it can possibly move. All three of us met at an arranged meeting point, slipped off the road and hid behind a house. It went perfectly. We passed 3 more checkpoints before the elites caught up with us and they were pissed! "Very dangerous" apparently.

Imagine the FBI or Mi:5 losing 3 ordinary citizens, imagine the radio call.... "You WHAT?" "We lost them sir, they.... tricked us" "Tricked YOU?"

I have to skip the rest of that day, I just don't remember it. Too much has happened. There was a bit more running away and being caught I am sure. One three star officer yelled at Tino "You go nowhere without my permission. NOWHERE YOU UNDERSTAND" Tino asked if he could go for a piss and then rode off! We stayed in Multan that night. Again arriving in the dark which is incredibly dangerous. You cant see a thing and your tired. Cars come from everywhere, cows walk out in front of you, children grab at you it is completely insane. That night a guard was posted in front of our room, Graham wanted to go to the Internet so we had to come up with another escape tactic so he went out front to have a coffee and the cop followed him. Graham befriended some English speaking students who distracted the cop and Graham sneaked off round the back. When he returned there were maybe 20 officers waiting for him and now we had three guards on the door all night!

Insane huh? Not a bit of it! It's not even begun!

The 20th!

We planned to pack the bikes discretely and sneak off figuring it would take 30 minutes for the police to mobilise but they were waiting. We headed straight for the tourism information, sorted out maps and any information we may need and headed north out of the city. Within minutes we were being chased by a motorcycle cop on a 125 who we left for dust by Tino faking a stop and then out accelerating him only to round the corner into a huge police roadblock. We had no choice but to stop. The police stood in front of us and tried to pull the keys from our bikes. We revved up the engines and forced our way through and again lost them in the traffic. Still heading north we passed through the city slums and our into open country. Again they caught up with us, each time they would make a dangerous overtake, each time we would stop and 20 seconds later blast off in front of them. Following the river we headed East then North then West and finally let the police take us to see some sights. When it came time to leave one of the officers went crazy, He was yelling and Graham and trying to pull him off his bike. Graham went nuts in return yelling at the officer starting his bike and going. We started taking smaller and smaller roads, turning at random points until we eventually found ourselves on the flood plains of the Indus and with no roads, no houses just mud, sand, rocks and the odd nomadic herdsman. Truly out in the sticks, one bottle of water between us (mine) and me with less than 50km left in the tank. We crossed some of the most incredible terrain. Constantly on the pegs and pushing as fast as our bikes and our guts would let us. This was the kind of riding I had dreamed of before leaving and it was perfect. It only added to the fun that there were armed police chasing us. There was a small gap in the road and a "bridge" had been made for motorbikes to cross. Tino went first on the lightest bike, then Graham on the heaviest. He made it but broke the bridge leaving me with a my first ever jump. My front wheel made it and the back just ended up spinning in the air before the bike see sawed and the front was in the air. Graham and Tino pulled me out and thats where we left the police. We didn't see them again for at least 3 hours.

We rode through deep mud, soft sand, up and down small dunes, through riverbeds! Launching the bikes up steep hills and acting like we were twelve again. It started to dawn on us after a while that not only were we lost but if we hit the road again then we would be found by the police. We needed an escape plan but with a huge river to the west, the police to the south and miles of open country to the North and East we didn't have a clue. We asked some locals who we think said the river ws shallow further up and we could cross. We found the point and sent Tino on the light bike first. He crossed onto the middle island no problem and after a short time circled back round to come tell us. He tried to cross back at a different point and we watched from the shore as his bike got slower and slower and eventually stopped. We just laughed and lit a cig. He got off the bike and it just stood up by itself in the mud. Eventually we walked over and almost start crying when he started waving his hands yelling "It's sinking it's sinking" and it was! By the time we arrived the mud was well above the rear axel and it was only the exhaust stopping it going any further. So we took photos and dug him out while some locals watched with what I can only imagine was complete bewilderment! It s likely they have never seen a white man before and almost certain they have not seen motorbikes like ours... stuck in mud... and sinking! So we got Tino out and started looking for another crossing. We left Tino to do the searching and sat in the shade of a tree drinking the last of our water. After maybe 30 minutes the police turned up and were laughing harder than we were. We eventually worked out that HQ was going mad, they had lookouts everywhere for us. You could hear the relief in their voices over the radio. The driver and guy in charge of the group that found us was having a great time. He had enjoyed riding that route and hunting us down.

Tino came back and said there was a boat across the river, easily fit the bikes and only costs 30 rupees. There was no way the car would get on so off we headed. Sure enough there was a boat. On the other side of the river with a police car. Oh well... We needed water, food and petrol so had to cross. I wish I had photos of us loading the bikes. The bikes caked in mud, us pouring sweat surrounded by police and locals. We put ramps on the boat and had to launch the bikes up them, stopping at the top of the ramp to avoid the drop into the belly of the boat. Tino went first and got up after a couple of attempts and then we slowly lifted his bike in. I was next, up first time and in and then Graham. Two more bikes loaded up, they just lifted them on an of we went. On the other side the strongest man I have ever met heaved the motorbikes out over the step and then onto the land by himself. These bikes way in excess of 240kg each! Grahams at least 270!! I lost the back end trying to ride up the riverbank and almost backed into the river but we all got up and headed for water and food. I must have put back two litres of water in one go. We were never in danger of dehydration, we all have water filtration devices of some sort but who wants to drink river water? So well fed, watered and with 3 full tanks of petrol we headed off once more with the police following closely behind and with an empty tank. They soon had to stop for petrol and we launched off. Carving through the traffic to catch up with Graham, me and Tino must have used up several of our nine lives. We caught him and switched down a side street and back onto the flood plains, this time on the west bank of the river, heading straight for the mud again! A couple of double backs and we had found the perfect escape route. The police wouldntt be able to follow and we could find a place to camp.

Graham got stuck first. He was riding in front of me along a farmers track. The cars before had left two deep ruts in the ground and so we went down the middle. The middle turned into a mud pool about half way along and there was no way through apart from over the ruts the cars had left. Graham backed up his bike and tried to speed over it but the weight brought him down. We lifted his front wheel out and then with wheels spinning, mud flying and Tino screaming "Faster Graham faster!" he made it through the field. Then it was my turn. As we turned around we saw the police in the next field and we all ducked. I had to run to my bike and the police saw me, lept on it and tried to do the same as Graham. In the panic and excitement I over revved the engine which caused the emergency systems to stop it running leaving me stuck in exactly the same place as Graham. With the police running over the field behind us and me stuck with my engine not starting it was like a scene from a movie except that in a movie at the last second the engine would kick in and they would ride away into a setting sun. In real life the police reached me and I gave up. There was something terribly wrong with my bike and the police were not in the mood to help.

After about 30 minutes in the mud trying to find out what was wrong the bike started up all by itself. We figured that when the engine cut out fuel would still have been pumped into the cylinders which flooded the engine.

These police turned out to be real friendly. They decided to let us camp by the river so escorted us to a good camping spot and helped us set up. Sure, they took our passport details two or three times but that's normal by now. As we were setting up camp there was a huge bang from the bridge and a lot of smoke and dust. Tino, without turning said "Who died". Please don't think this is callous or morbid, it is a fact of life here, in a crash it is not a case of did someone die but how many died. Remember I described the buses earlier? If one of those had crashed it would have been in double figures, many in the river and impossible to identify the bodies. I don't know if you would describe Pakistan as third world but many parts of it are! Due to the crash we were unable to go to the shops to eat so the Sargent in charge gave up his fish dinner for us. This was the first real unprocessed fish (I tried fish fingers about 4 months ago) I have eaten in probably 10 years and it was delicious. It wasn't the smelly crap you cooked back in the flat Mike. This was fresh caught and cooked within the hour. That night with a full stomach and incredibly tired from all the off-roading I slept very well and was up with the sun in the morning welcoming what was to be a beautiful day...

The 21st
In the evening of the 20th of September 2008 a suicide bomber targeted the Marriot hotel in Islamabad in a possible assassination attempt of several high ranking Pakistani officials. The blast was felt 2.5km away and heard over 15. It is believed that over 1000kg of explosives were used in the attack. We didn't know!

We left the campsite with our escort and headed north along the West bank of the river. Within a mile of passing the first town we were stopped by the police. They were being very insistent and aggressive. We turned to head back into town for food. Within 5 minutes they had threatened to shoot Tino if he didn't comply. Graham sped off up the road with Tino in hot pursuit. I was mobbed by the police, they keys ripped from my hands. Things were getting out of hand fast. The police were all over me yelling at me and I was yelling back, a huge crowd had formed. One officer started threatening to beat me but eventually turned his wrath on the crowd chasing people and hitting them. Alone, in a foreign country where no-one speaks English witnessing what a police state does to its people first hand. I had been yelling at one officer and had pushed him when he pushed me and now he was just staring at me. I hate to admit that I was glad it wasn't me receiving the beating. My passport being the only thing that saved me, I was scared for myself, for my bike and for my friends. All I wanted at that time was to be back together with my friends in a hotel room, even a cell. Anywhere where I wasn't on my own. I don't know how long I was there for but I know I was drenched through with sweat by the time they moved me. They had told me that Graham and Tino were at the police station. I was desperate to get there but they wouldn't let me take the bike and I was not going to leave it behind. Eventually they let me ride to the station while an officer rode a 125 next to me. I seriously considered running but I knew it was doomed. I saw a roadblock up ahead which would need a lorry to get through. We turned down a side street before the road block. Every possible fear went through my head. I knew I had embarassed at least one officer and annoyed many more. What if they couldn't beat me in public and were taking me somewhere secluded. This was real fear. I hadn't thought of the consequences before and now here they were, all of them, flashing through my mind. The sight of Tinos bike at the police station and then Tino was the biggest relief of my life. He had been through the same as me and had the same thoughts. The smile on his face when he saw me said it all. They tried to put us in a cell in the station, sure it had a tv and sofas but it was still a cell. We sat outside. There had been no sign of Graham and we were starting to worry. Eventually he turned up and had been through the mill. After leaving me he had rammed his way around the roadblock and headed up the road. Eventually the police overtook him and as he was pulling alongside them they rammed him off his bike and when they had him pinned they set the crowd on him. He was kicked, punched and beaten with sticks as his bike lay at the side of the road pouring petrol and with the ignition on. I can only imagine what went through his mind, he must of thought he was a dead man. Eventually they tied him up and threw him in the back of the van where he stopped them from closing the door because he wasnt going to leave his bike. They let him ride it back to the station with an officer riding pillion.

Back at the station we found out about the bomb. If only they had told us before we left in the morning none of this would have happened. We would have cooperated fully. You have to understand something about the way we have been acting. It is stupid, yes I know that, but it is something else too. In the UK we expect our police to protect us without infringing on our personal liberties. We have what we like to call God given rights. The right to free speech, owning a home, earning a living and the right to privacy. The reality is that these are government controlled rights. If the government decides to take them away they can and in Pakistan the government has taken them away from the local people. I did not come to Pakistan to stare at the back of a police truck for 3000 miles. I came to see the country and to meet the people. To broaden my view of the world and to maybe broaden other peoples views who are not as lucky as I am. You'll be happy to know that since the last episode we have cooperated with the police. They took us to a hotel where we unpacked, got ready for bed and then they made us pack and move on again to another hotel in another town. We rode in the dark to this next town where we got into the hotel, unpacked, had dinner and were told we had to leave again. We refused and they understood.

On the 22nd we headed to Islamabad, where I am writting this blog, we rode through a thunderstorm and are now staying in the travellers campsite. Tino and Graham are getting their Indian visas, Graham is lodging a formal complaint with the embassy and then in a day or two we are heading North up the Korakorum Highway. I intend to get a letter written in Urdu which we can show to the police explaining our situation and hopefully they will leave us alone. Or maybe just follow us instead of ordering us about.

I wouldn't change a minute of this past week. Every one has been an experience which I hope never to forget. I will always laugh at the image of Tino waving his hands screaming "Its sinking" and the relief of seeing two people again, who after just a few weeks I consider life long friends, will stay with me always. I have had my wake up call with regards to the police and I wont forget that lesson either. Sorry this post has been so long but it is as much for me as it is for you. I hope you smile when I smile and worry when I worry but maybe I am not that good a writter. I will catch up soon, it is going to be a quiet few days hopefully and I will let you know when I am heading to the KKH.