An old man in Rishikesh told me he didn’t have children, this is almost unheard of in India a place of caste based marriage and huge families, now well into his 70’s he took the decision over 50 years ago believing the country was overpopulated. Back then it was around 400million, today 1.29billion. Leaving the peaceful tranquillity of Spiti valley behind and descending onto the plains in the search for new tyres I couldn’t help but think he was a visionary. Having been to this country twice before I had a good idea what was coming, but what I hadn’t bargained for was the effect riding a bright yellow bike would have.
With just shy of 15,000miles on the front and a slice in the rear it was time for new tyres, finding ones in India that fit wasn’t as easy as I’d anticipated but I’d heard of a place, Kaulson Racing Products, in Delhi who might be able to help. Problem was they weren’t returning my emails. Having been in Rishikesh for long enough, if you’re not doing yoga and have watched the masses bathe in the Ganges there isn’t much else to occupy the time, I decided to ride for the Taj Mahal. Not only could I get the token picture of this marble wonder back dropping the bike but moving with an almost purpose, while waiting for a reply and coming up with a backup plan, felt better than not moving at all. Moving meant leaving Frank and Petra and for the first time in over a month riding solo, the safety net that travelling with others brings was gone; no one to fall back on when motivation is low, no one to laugh with when the bizarre occurs, but it felt good. I’ll see them again for the Myanmar crossing in December if not before.
Unwilling to head further east in case I needed to enter the madness of Delhi , Agra was like some strange tyre limbo once I had the token photo. Which turned out to be much tougher than imagined, the stretch of the Yamuna River north of the Taj is under strict armed guard for reasons I’m yet to understand, like the rest of India nothing really makes sense. After 5 long days the limbo broke and the madness of Delhi a waited. KRP could get the tyres. Traffic in Delhi is like traffic in every Indian city just on a much vaster scale, every imaginable contraption since the invention of the combustion engine fighting for every last inch of space alongside cattle, rickety bicycles and people. I’m not going to go as far as to say it works, really it doesn’t, it’s chaos. From a spectators point of view it’s hard to believe it’s possible to ride in, but once immersed and with all the rules of the road carried from Europe thrown out of the window it can be and almost enjoyed. Like trying to wrestle an angry badger the madness is the excitement.
KRP could get a set of Shinkos from Singapore delivered to Delhi in a week and they assured me they knew a way of bypassing the 200% Indian import tax. At almost the same time I was looking around their collection of race bikes and half crated Vespas destined for Europe an email from the backup plan, Zen Overland in the UK, changed everything again. A choice of tyres shipped to anywhere in the world in a week. From having no tyres just a few days before, now I was the tyre king. Not only was the Zen option better and cheaper but shipping to Kathmandu meant riding while they were in transit, so with that the bike was packed and pointed towards the Nepalese capital and a set of Heidenau K60s. Gabe and Sam at Zen were spot on, with great advice and super quick service, I won’t hesitate to use them again and to anyone in a pickle on the road would definitely recommend them. In total with shipping it came in at £250, the Indian option was around £280. Unfortunately no discount for this glowing review.
An original plan of entering Nepal in the West and traversing the country had gone out of the window with news of the on-going fuel crisis, more of that in the next post. Over the next week I slowly weaved my way through the northern stretch of the Indian plains, sleeping the nights in obscure towns well off the beaten tourist trail. Slowly not because the roads are bad, but because the traffic is terrible and the driving worse. There’s a hierarchy on Indian roads, the cow is king, everything swerves to avoid the bovine beast which plods obliviously into the traffic. Below this sits the bus and the truck. The bike falls way down the scale, somewhere below the rickshaw and just above the chicken. Hurtling suicidal buses overtake overloaded trucks irrespective of oncoming traffic, making it to roadside dirt and safety in time is up to you, this happens hourly. Seemingly nobody cares about their fellow man, if you can make an inch at the expense of all around, that’s all that matters. Entwined within all this is a million other weird, wonderful and downright dangerous things; tractor trailers blasting out music at speaker breaking volumes leading a Pied Piper procession of gyrating dancers in the midst of a paint powder fight, overloaded banana bikes toppled at the roadside and bicycles carrying 40ft lengths of bamboo waiting to poleaxe all with a turn into a field.
This brings me back to the yellow bike effect and overpopulation, there are people everywhere. Even on the most rural stretches of road a constant procession of people. The bike like a flame to a moth attracts them all. It became a game, find somewhere to rest 5 minutes before the crowd gathered, I lost every time. These aren’t small crowds, sometimes 30, 40 or 50 people. Hiding behind a tree or along a dirt track, I’d still be spotted. In every other country I’ve visited looks normally come from a far, when somebody approaches a smile is greeted with a smile, an open hand met with a hand and some kind of conversation attempted. But here is the land of vacant stares, hellos greeted with stares, an open hand greeted with stares. It began to have the feel that I was in the midst of a zombie apocalypse, zombies that surround but fall short of eating flesh, staring vacantly, eyes flicking between me and the bike, the bike and me, chewing mouths reddened not with blood but betel nut. Somewhat of a harsh analogy I know, many people I’ve met have been nothing but kind, helpful and hospitable, but I was really beginning to have had enough.
In Bahraich I finally lost it, after being led in the dark from hotel to hotel by a well-meaning lad on his bike, we took a turn down a super narrow back alley, him speeding ahead me trying not to knock over bicycles or shop displays which spilled out onto the street. Coming out into a small square the Durga Puja festival was in full swing, swarms of people with effigies destined for the nearest polluted river blocking all the side streets. Without a chance to turn the bike around the thumping single cylinder gave away my presence the crowd began to gather, staring and chewing. All I could think was get me out of this fucking country.
I could go on about how even in the confines of a hotel room you’re not safe, but that’s another story for another time. India is a country of total contrast, from the un populated mountains to the overcrowded cities and the tourist beaches in between. The India I’d just experienced some would say is the real India, if such a thing exists, away from the tourist hotspots and the world renowned sights, cities that go unnoticed and the vast expanses of agriculture worked by hand. If old matey boy in Rishikesh thought it was overpopulated back in the 60’s, the place is now bursting at the seams and I can’t help but wonder what the future has in store for this infuriating, bewildering and sometimes beautiful country. One thing is for sure the population rise is unsustainable, something has to give. Without wanting to be too pessimistic and philosophical, it’s a situation to watch with interest that may give an unpleasant foresight to where we as humans are heading, because one thing I’ve noticed on the road ridden so far is as species we’re everywhere. It’s amazing what shit goes through your head when you’re dodging buses and avoiding cows day in day out.