Well it’s been a while since my last update so here we go. Last update had me in Bangkok about to fly out to Kolkata. I had boxed the bike up and chosen luggage to fly with me. I arrived in Kolkata on the night of 11 April and was picked up at the airport by my girlfriend, Donna. It is certainly true what the say about Kolkata and despite coming from the madness that is Bangkok, the city of 11 million on the Houghly River certainly is confronting. One leaves the relative calmness of a small airport and is thrust into a sea of people, cars, bikes, powered rickshaws, human rickshaws, cows and goats milling around open sewerage and insanely potholed roads. The scene is set to the tune of an endless honking of car horns and for most of the day it all simmers in sweltering head and somewhat morbid humidity. The smell is overpowering and that it is easy to spot people defecating in the streets makes Kolkata not everyone’s cup of tea. This of course is available on every street in the form of chai, more often than not served out of small handmade pottery cups.
Kolkata does seem to close down relatively early around 9 or 10pm so by the time Donna and I got to Sudder Street, downtown (if there is such a thing) we weren’t able to get our hands on anything substantial to eat so we called it a day. The next morning I woke up to that constant honking that typifies Kolkata and to which I would inevitably start my day for the next two weeks. Yes Centerpoint Guesthouse Mirza Galhib Street, Kolatta would be my home for the next 14 days. Donna and I spent the first couple of days doing the invariably touristy things, India Museum (like stepping back in time), Victoria Memorial (striking monument to an imposter on Indian soil), Motherhouse/Mother Teresa’s tomb and taking a human rickshaw ride (had to be done). A highlight of the time Donna and I shared together was going to a 20/20 India Premier League match at Eden Gardens between Kolkata Knight Riders (sometimes with Brett Lee) and Punjab Kings IV (featuring Adam Gilchrist who we had seen at Motherhouse the day before). Kolkata has much less tourists that what I had anticipated and Donna and I didn’t go unnoticed buying tickets in the arvo before the night match and we were interviewed on the channel that was covering the game. This started for me what has become a normal scene, having 150 Indians, almost always men simply standing around and staring, on this occasion both Donna and I. In her person, Donna (likely on account of her blond hair and not her good looks) gets a lot of attention in India, and not a day would go by when I wasn’t asked if it was ok for a group of people to take her photo or have photos with her. A funny moment at Victoria Memorial occurred when we were asked for a photo and I was given the camera to take it.
It was saving grace that Donna was in Kolkata at the same time, as a visit to Briyani House after the cricket on the first Sunday (15 April) would be followed by nearly 4 full days out of action with the inevitable sickness that accompanies most westerner visits to the sub continent. I won’t go into any further detail other than to say it was not nice. I was very fortunate that Donna was there at the time to nurse me, herself also not feeling the best. Thanks Don! Donna left on the Wednesday and I was left to my own devices which basically meant not a whole lot until my bike arrived (due that Sunday). I spent the time catching up on business, getting photos done and talking to other travellers in Raj’s Café. Owner of certainly one of the most popular tourist spots in Kolkata, Raj and I were to become good friends, one reason at least being that in May he himself sets out from Howrah Bridge in Kolkata on a Royal Enfield to become the first Indian to ride solo from there to London. Raj was in Delhi that first week arranging his various affairs but I became a fixture at his shop as I read, interwebbed and nursed myself back to full strength. Arriving home on Sunday, Raj was to become integral to my trip, as he took me to the airport on the Monday to help get Snow cleared through the mayhem that is India Customs. I cannot thank Raj enough for his assistance that day, a day which started out at 9am from his café and ended at 9pm. I won’t say too much more at this stage but that day will forever be engrained in my memory as an eye opener. The bottom line is by some miracle and other influences I cannot divulge (as my India experience is not yet over), I rode Snow out of the airport just after 7.30pm with a big smile of on face, the adventure was back on! As it turned out I needed to stay in Kolkata one more day, as my original Bangladesh Visa had expired and I wanted to provide some small assistance to Raj in planning for his upcoming endeavours.
I left the next morning Wednesday 25 April. Raj and his mate, Mark drove out of the city centre with me to the airport with a news crew taking footage the whole way. After a quick interview I was once again all alone in the world, just me, my bike and 1.2 billion other people. And it’s not hard to find those people, they are everywhere. The next 50km took me six hours in the sweltering heat as I pushed the small distance to the Bangladesh border. The road is simply crazy, the only rule being there are no rules. To say that driving in India is life threatening is a dire understatement and although I would smarten up to the task in the following days, that first day was a mission. A huge part of it is the attention that my one person travelling party receives on the road. I don’t think I could accurately describe just how much attention a BMW F800GS gets along the roads of India. Since leaving Kolkata (and even while there) I simply cannot be stopped for more than 5 minutes with no less than 100 to 200 people crowding around the bike to just look, it is simply astounding. The difficult first day out from Kolkata was also no less due to a fairly major road block in my plans, for which we may call the “Bangladesh Fiasco”. After relatively easily escaping India, I spent 3 hours at a senior ranking officer’s desk on the Bangladesh side, the end result being that they would not accept my carnet de passage as export guarantee and instead would require a bank guarantee of an overwhelming amount (more than the bike is worth), which simply wasn’t going to happen. This wasn’t entirely unexpected but was no less a surprise as the rules had only changed a matter of months previous. As explained to me it was likely to change again in a matter of months (and the carnet would once again be accepted like it is in 30 other countries that I am visiting). As it turned out the Bangladesh authorities were very apologetic and the senior officer took down my details and promised to write when the rules were changed. I didn’t mull on the fact, and quickly scamped back to India where the customs officials weren’t entirely surprised to see me back. Although I got going as soon as I could I didn’t get very far. Far being around 30km up the narrow road where just as it got dark it also started belting down with rain. I just managed to get myself under some shelter I had passed, albeit in a tiny village with no hotel, nor power for that matter. One villager offered his wheat storeroom/garage/bedroom to store Snow overnight while I was whisked off by a family of five to a nearby dwelling where I was promptly provided bedding for the night. This of course may not sound like what it actually was. Basic is the word, but for people with almost nothing to provide to me (without anything in return) certainly makes up for what was lacking. In fact it was heart-warming and I felt honoured to be there. As it seems so also did the villagers, when the whole place turned up to see me off at 6am the next morning.
That day was pretty straight forward, just a lot of driving on very poor roads, in stifling heat with trucks and buses being flung at me like some real life tetris game. A very long day for not much gain (265km) wound up with me in my basic hotel room, with the managers friend sitting on my bed refusing to leave until “you sit with me in my shop next door for five minutes so that people can see me talking to you”, I relented, at least he was honest. The next day, Friday 27 April would see me ride 365km through to Jogbani on the India/Nepal border where I arrived just after 3.30pm. The day was made easier by much improved roads and less traffic (less not little). However, the Nepal Border experience, I won’t be forgetting in a hurry. The border itself can best be described as a dusty sandpit simply chock full of people, animals and vehicles. For Indian’s and Nepalese it is an open border, there is no immigration requirement nigh significant customs interference, though as I quickly found out, they don’t see foreigners very often (“I think we had a tourist here 6 months ago”, said the offical). Although time consuming (lots of Chai with the Senior Rank etc) I managed to get out of India OK but it was getting dark. Once in Nepal, and after about an hour it seemed I wasn’t going to be allowed in. Although Snow’s passage would be granted, they didn’t seem to have an immigration facility (or any facilities for that matter), more likely it seemed to me that they didn’t physically actually have an immigration stamp present. Bottom line is that they needed me to return to India and drive (back east) around to another border to gain entry. For me this wasn’t a major issue, despite the unfortunate fact that was more stamps in my (quickly filling) passport and more slips out of my carnet (not a good thing). What I wasn’t expecting was getting chased by Nepalese Military Police as I drove back out. They motioned to me and yelled in broken English to return to Nepal as I wasn’t allowed to leave, well this was news. The scene (now watched by about 300 people shuffling with me back and forth over the border line) then descended into a verbal stoush between Indian Customs Officials (who it seemed were trying to protect me) and Nepalese Military Police. The upshot was that I ended up return to Nepal whereby an outranking uniformed officer was going to allow me to stay over the border (with no immigration procedure or stamp into the country) that night and proceed internally to the other border (again a backtrack) the next morning to be processed. This I did. The next morning came and I left Biratnagar early for Kakahavita 120km away on a surprisingly good highway. Once in Kakahvita I was processed by immigration but customs then refused to process the bike, I would have to go back to Biratnagar to have that done. This wasn’t too much of a hassle as it was on the way I needed to go but would add 60km to all of the stuffing around I had done anyway. Just after lunch on Saturday 28 April I was cleared for travel in Nepal and I proceeded on Highway H01 west to the East-West Highway which would take me on to Kathmandu. I would only make it 101km along the highway before bad light forced stumps for the day and I found a surprising nice hotel in Lahan.
The driving along the Nepal plain was mostly through farmlands that seemed incredibly dry and although I passed over maybe 50 rivers during the day, maybe 2 or 3 had water in them (and one was the mighty Ganges). All rivers ran a direct route due South from the might Himalayas just 50 or so kilometres on the horizon (although out of sight in the haze). At one point I was in a beach like area totally windswept almost to the horizon in every direction.
The next day Sunday 29 April was one of those unforgettable day’s in one’s life. Starting out at 4.30am I rode off the Gangenic Plain (elev. 150m) and rose over 2500m through the Himalayas to Kathmandu arriving at 6pm. The ride was simply heart stopping, firstly because of the 1000 foot drop on one side of the road, barely centremeters from my tread, but secondly for the incredible scenery. Looking down was not an option as I drove up 40 degree inclines for much of the day trying to stay as much I could, away from the edge without becoming pushed off by the buses and trucks coming the other way. A big surprise was Kathmandu itself and although I had done a significant amount of research on locations for this trip, Kathmandu, much like Nepal had remained off my radar. Visions of a romantic hillside hamlet quickly gave way to, as I am told, one of the most polluted cities in the world. Kathmandu can best be described like Kolkata but worse. What should be, and probably were pristine rivers running through the city lie as I rubbish pit for the millions of impoverished people that call the cesspit home. The smog is simply bizarre and everything is covered in a layer of grit and dust from who knows where. Frequent power cuts are a normal part of life, in fact in most dwellings including my hotel receive power for less of the day the day than it is off. A city, with power rationing, in 2012!? Fuel is also rationed and I witnessed long snaking lines of vehicles queuing for petrol, apparently as a result of the countries largest creditor, Indian Oil Corporation having not been paid. I was told from a reliable source that Nepal’s highest earner (for GDP) was foreign aid followed by remittances from foreign nationals working overseas.
As it turned out I met at my hotel (Kathmandu Guesthouse, $10 a night, where the Beatles stayed in the 70’s) a trio from Perth that were running a small NGO that contributed to a school in the city. The first full day I was in Kathmandu I went and visited the place, spoke to the kids and let them play with the bike. It was a fairly depressing experience and I was told of the constant battle with various groups/management etc just to get separate sewerage and drinking water. Most of the 110+ kinds (from pre-school to young adults) were full time borders some, who as a result of the geography and cost hadn’t seen their parents since they were toddlers. Never the less it was a good experience. True to form, one of the Perthites was best friends with a good family friend of mine, small world.
The rest of the Kathmandu experience featured catching up on washing and maintenance. I swapped out the rear brake pads, on account of their wear and the fact that they would probably be needed in the following days going downhill! Apart from a light globe replacement in Mae Sot this has been the only maintenance Snow has required in already 7,000+ km of travel, touch wood. I also cleared out the air filter on account of the constant dust that Kathmandu seems to be enveloped in. From Kathmandu I plan to travel firstly North West out of town to view the Latang ranges at sunset/sunrise and then West to Pokhara and hopefully some views of the Annapurna Ranges, stay tuned!!