Thursday, November 27, 2008

a world away, for now

We called Hotel Broadway in Kolkata to see if we could arrive a day early. They remembered us as "the people on the motorcycles" and said that we could have our same spacious room again. Our current plan is to fly from Kolkata to Bangkok on 2 December, but after learning of the anti-government protests at the Bangkok international airport we will see what happens to our itinerary. We're also hoping that we aren't affected by the foreigner-targeted violence that recently shook Mumbai, but our primary concern for the next 2 days is safely dodging trucks, cars, SUVs, livestock, people, and potholes on our ~700 km journey back to Kolkata. All of this seems a world away in peaceful Darjeeling.

We awoke to another amazing view of Kachendzonga and surrounding peaks and spent our last full day in Darjeeling visiting the Bhutia Basti Monastery. As with the Enchey Monastery in Gangtok the main temple area of Bhutia is currently under construction. Unlike Enchey, however, the walls of Bhutia were covered with elaborate colorful murals. As far as we could tell there weren't any monks onsite other than perhaps the temple caretaker.

In the main town plaza local students from St. Robert's High School were participating in a relay hunger strike in support of a constitutional amendment to endorse the separation of "Gorkhaland" from the state of West Bengal. The movement has widespread support among the town, with shopkeepers placing signs with Gorkhaland over the "W Bengal" text in their addresses. The justification for the secession is the cultural and financial disparity between the regions, the southern region of W Bengal having a much higher percentage of ethnic Indians and being significantly more destitute. I wish them luck.

Jascha adjusted my clutch lever to help keep my tendonitis in check, cleaned our air filters, and ran our engines for a while in hopes of an easier start in the chilly morning air.

ode to the enfield

> Patching of 6 tube punctures: 150 Rps

> Adjustment of non-functioning horn: 120 Rps

> Pannier frame weld and new brake light cover: 375 Rps

> New fuse: 5 Rps

> Starting your Enfield in less than 20 kicks: priceless

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

darjeeling, so lovely, so frigid

After catching up our much needed sleep we set out on foot to explore Gangtok. I had major tendonitis in my left hand from my clutch lever so it was nice to be off of the bikes. The switchbacky town roads are connected by steep stairwells and trails for foot traffic. We made our way to the central market and picked up fruit and locally made Euro style cheese. The people are a diverse mix of Indians, Tibetans, and Nepalese (among other ethnic groups) and it was easy to see why I was waved through the border crossing.

We meandered around, eventually making our way to the Enchey Monastery, which was founded in 1840 by a monk allegedly gifted with the power of flight. Unlike the other major Hindu temples we had visited in Kolkata no one tried to harass us about carrying bags or taking photos. In fact we were free to wander the premises unescorted. The temple contained a Buddha statue as well as some lesser deities. In the courtyard the young monks entertained themselves by playing hacky sack with a bundle of rubber bands. On the return we found a series of paths that quickly brought us back to the main market.

Jascha wanted to try the local cuisine and I wanted to try the popular Indian take on chow mein, so we opted for a cafe serving Indian, Chinese and Sikkimese food. We sampled momos, pakoras, chow mein, and a soup (kawri) with meat, vegetables, and dumplings made from momo dough. The food in this region tends to lack the fire of the south, but there's usually a jar of hot sauce nearby to spice things up.

The next day we decided to get our bikes worked on. My front brake was barely engaging and Jascha's pannier frame and brake light were both broken from Kolkata taxi encounters. Jascha found a place near our hotel that specializes in Enfields. They repaired his bike for 375 Rps ($7.80) and adjusted my brakes at no cost.

Sadly, the next day we had to leave our oasis for Darjeeling. We waited until noon to let the temperatures warm up. It had rained the night before and it took quite some time to start my bike. We passed over the same mountain roads we had ridden on the way to Gangtok, but this time it was light out. The granite boulder strewn river was spectacular as it wound through the forest. Every now and then we saw signs for a random pharmaceutical company. At the border Jascha was again stopped. I was scolded when I went to turn around to join him until the officer figured out I wasn't a local. We closed out our permit and headed out.

We left the main highway for the narrow, twisty road to Darjeeling. At times the hairpin turns were so steep and tight that our bikes threatened to stall. The road wound through tiny villages, tea plantations, and forests rich with lush ferns. By the time we neared Darjeeling we were freezing, but intact save a hole melted in Jascha's riding pants from his exhaust pipe. It took us several inquiries and one encounter with the law (for going the wrong way on a one way street) to find our road. The guesthouse was poorly signed, so we called for directions and the guy waited out front for us. We lucked out in that the roof of the place had gated parking, a rarity in Darjeeling, and an amazing view of Kanchendzonga (the third tallest peak in the world) . We donned our warmest clothes and headed out to the street stalls for onion parathas and potato pakoras. The frigid temps made for an quiet night of reading under our comforters.

The next morning we headed over to the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, formerly run by Tenzing Norgay (whose remains are located on the site). The displays chronicled the history of Himalayan climbing, focusing mainly on pre-1985. Upstairs was a natural history museum with poorly mounted taxidermy specimens. The ticket included a joint pass to the Darjeeling zoo, which contained a number of (mostly pacing) exotic animals (including clouded leopards, Siberian tigers, and red pandas) in sadly outdated enclosures.

On the way back we visited the Hindu temple (covered with Buddhist prayer flags) which sits on the top of Observatory Hill. We removed our shoes as indicated by the shoe storage area and Indian visitors, but seemed to be the only non-Indian tourists to do so. The garish temple hosts a number of surprisingly inoffensive macaques, contrary to the signs. Not a single one tried to approach us. After another frigid evening in Darjeeling we are seriously contemplating abandoning the lovely scenery a day early for the warmth and spacious accomodation of our Kolkata hotel. Hope our bikes start.

Monday, November 24, 2008

a well deserved respite

We were dreading the long ride from Varanasi to the Sikkim. I had read an online account of a Westerner that had taken his Enfield on the trains so we decided to look into it. Not surprisingly, the logistics coordination turned out to be almost as laborious as the ride. The shopkeeper from whom I had purchased a kurti said his dad had an Enfield shipped by train so we consulted with him. He told us that we would need to purchase a passenger ticket then get a separate luggage ticket (LT) from the parcel office. He wanted us to use his travel agent, but when we learned that the price for the passenger ticket was 3 times the going rate and that the guy didn't have an actual office we could visit we politely declined. One of the local money changers said that it would be in our best interest to do our ticket purchasing at the actual train station where we could talk to both the ticket agent and the parcel office. There are at least 4 train stations in the vicinity of Varanasi, but he advised us to use the main station as they had a dedicated tourist booking office.

The next day we rode over to the Varanasi train station. We wanted to catch a train from Mugul Sarai station (15 km from Varanasi) to New Jalpaiguri, which is the closest cargo drop point on the line to the Sikkim. The Varanasi parcel office advised us to get our passenger ticket, then head over to the Mughal Sarai parcel office to drop off our bikes a day in advance of our departure. We followed their advice then made our way to Mughal Sarai. The parcel office manager said that bringing our bikes on the train would be “very troublesome” because Varanasi was not the initial loading point and that the train was primarily “for passengers not cargo”. He repeated this several times which we took to mean there was no way in hell we were getting on the train to New Jalpaiguri, so back we went to the Varanasi station.

Our options were to backtrack to Delhi or head SE to Kolkata (actually Howrah station) then ride/take a train north or ditch the train idea altogether. We opted for Kolkata as we were already familiar with the city and there was a hotel we liked. The Varanasi parcel office said that they would have room on the Howrah line the next day and told us to show up 6 hours before the train left. We canceled our Mugul Sarai-New Jalpaiguri tickets and booked new tickets to Howrah, for which we had to pay 600 Rps (~$15) extra because they had already sold out of the tourist quota.

We arrived at Mugul Sarai at our scheduled time and the parcel office told us that they needed copies of our bike papers and that we needed to drain the petrol out of the tanks before we packed them up for transit. I headed off to copy the registration papers while Jascha attempted to get the petrol drained. This took over an hour, but he managed to sell it all for 600 Rps. As I was completing the paperwork for shipping our bikes I noticed that the place from where we were renting (documented on paper as a sale/buy-back) mistranscribed the registration number (i.e. license plate number) for one of the bikes. I was hoping the office wouldn't notice, but of course they did. I had to explain several times that the engine number on the registration papers matched the sales deed and the registration number in the registration papers matched the license plate, but that the registration number on the sales deed was erroneous. They finally let is slide. The packing man carefully wrapped our headlights and seats in burlap, cardboard, and cushioning material secured with various bits of plastic strapping and we rolled our bikes into the parcel office. The whole process took ~2.5 hours.

After a lunch of thalis at one of the local stalls we sat around the train station and killed time by watching the people and monkeys. The train finally road rolled in and the passengers rushed on (I have no idea why given that the train didn't leave for at least 30 minutes and our trip would take at least 13 hours). The seating arrangements were posted outside of the car and were no longer consistent with the printed tickets. This resulted in a number of heated discussions amongst the passengers, including myself.

Jascha and I had booked upper bunks so about 2 hours into the trip we decided to sit up top to avoid the crowds. At almost every stop vendors and beggars would board the train and make their rounds. We had a fitful night as we crammed ourselves around our baggage and I awoke in time for the vegetable cutlet vendor. At the Howrah station we had no idea where to retrieve our bikes as there were multiple parcel services in different buildings. Luckily, I saw one of our bikes being wheeled out. After filling out more paper work, we were sent to another parcel office to inquire about shipping our bikes to New Jalpaiguri, but the passenger seats were full. By this time it was after noon and it seemed unwise to start riding to the Sikkim given our lack of sleep and afternoon traffic. We headed back into Kolkata and visited our favorite kati roll stall.

At 6:30 am we set out for Malda, ~350 km from Kolkata. The ride was uneventful, but long (10 hours). The hotel recommended by the guidebook had been shut down by the government, so we stayed next door. We ate at food stall down the way and paid the tourist price of 60 Rps (~$1.25) for our mutton curry with egg and roti. The next morning we got an early start again and headed north to Gangtok. A few hours into the ride my bike abruptly lost power and I had to pull over. We called one of the guys that runs the Enfield rental company, who told us to check the fuse and if it was blown we could replace it with a wire. We found a spare fuse in the toolkit and set off.

Soon we were in tea plantation country, but much to my dismay my horn completely stopped working. In India a horn is as essential as brakes. Jascha used the multimeter we purchased in Patna to test the horn relay and horns, but we couldn't find the problem. A young Panjabi guy on a tricked out bike stopped to help us and ended up taking us over to an auto electrician. It turned out the horn was out of adjustment. He and his friend bought us chai, soda and biscuits. We paid the electrician 130 Rps ($2.70) and departed.

We passed through Siliguri and a wildlife preserve. The only animals we saw were ever ubiquitous cattle. As we neared the Sikkim the terrain changed drastically and our pace slowed as we rode twisty mountainous roads overlooking a wide blue river. We hesitated to stop and take picture lest we be accosted by the roadside macaques. We noticed that the frequency of agro drivers dropped significantly, which was good as nightfall was approaching. Rangpo marked our official entry into the Sikkim. The border patrol waved me through, but I had to turn around when Jascha was stopped. We registered with the foreigners' office while the border officers had a good laugh about the Kolkata taxis contorting Jascha's now barely attached pannier frame.

We reached Gangtok, which is built on the side of a large steep hill. Fortunately, the kinder gentler traffic paradigm prevailed. The houses were far better maintained than in the other regions we had visited and there were fewer street dogs and no cows. We also noticed a higher percentage of Enfields. I had booked a pricier (than our usual) hotel called The Hidden Forest Lodge, which is fairly far off the beaten path. As usual we struggled to locate our hotel and had to call for directions. The owner's husband and son met us at the gate and had dinner waiting. The craftsmanship of the place was far better than anywhere I had been in India and the surrounding gardens and orchid nursery were well maintained. We knew that we would have a hard time leaving.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

wholly varanasi

We were a day behind schedule due to the Air India luggage "mishandling", but we decided that we couldn't pass up a trip to Varanasi, billed as one of India's holiest cities and I had a keen interest in seeing the funeral pyres. The morning ride went fairly smoothly until we made an inadvertent detour through the town of Bihta. This turned out to be a good thing as I got a flat tire just as we were almost back on the highway. The locals pointed me over to the nearest puncture wallah (fortunately part of my dismal Hindi vocabulary), who found six tiny holes in my tube. Bihta isn't exactly on the standard tourist route and ~50 locals crowded around to observe the entire process.

After 2 hours we got back on the road and made it to where we Varanasi should be according to the mileage markers at dusk. We were once again thwarted by the lack of Indian signage. There were no obvious Varanasi turn-offs or city lights to follow. We ended up backtracking more than once until one of the locals directed us down some random dirt road, which miraculously dumped us out into Varanasi proper. We spent an hour trying to navigate to the guesthouse I had jotted down from the guidebook, then finally called for directions. We were told to head to the university then ask a local for directions to the guesthouse. After another 20 minutes of not finding the university we came upon another hotel and decided to call it quits. We later found out that our original guesthouse was on the ghats and nearly impossible to find during the day, let alone at night, with the maze of alleys.

In the morning we headed down to the ghats. We had chosen well in regards to accomodations, not only because of the its proximity to a number of pakora and Benarasi chicken stalls, but because we were completely out of the foreign tourist zone. The ghat area was choked with Israelis, Japanese, and American tourists and the sadhus, touts and beggars that thrive on them.
We toured the burning ghats and learned about the process, including the various levels reserved for the different castes. We were told that women were forbidden in participating in the ritual because they cry and it disrupts the souls from their journey. Additionally, we were informed that sadhus, pregnant women, children, lepers and animals are not burned. For such a holy river the shores of the Ganges were covered with garbage and even hydrophilic Jascha was not about to dive in. A magical boatride down the river did not sound so appealing.

Later we headed back down to the main ghat for the evening puja, which we were told was a "must see". Not surprisingly, what I expected to be a peaceful event had been turned into a huge spectacle with (bad) speakers blaring music. We ended up leaving early for quieter surroundings.

mela bound

Due to morning rush hour the final 50 km to Patna took us 2 hours, plus another 1-2 to find our hotel. Unfortunately, this seems to be the norm for navigation in India even with a map. The main point of the Patna detour was to see the Sonepur Mela, which is touted as the largest animal fair in Asia. After our harrowing journey from Kolkata to Patna we decided to ditch the bikes and take a taxi or autorickshaw to the fair. I had read that most of the trading occurs in the days prior to the fair, which officially starts on 13 Nov, so I wasn't sure that we would be able to still see the more exotic fare, like elephants. I had some difficulty in tracking down an actual starting date for the fair because it's based on the Hindu lunar calendar and I had to use the majority rule of the various dates I acquired online.

We were the only non-Indian tourists at the fair and as usual Jascha (being the 6' 6" and very white) received the most attention. The fair was sprawled across the fields surrounding the tiny village of Sonepur and the animals were segregated by type. All of the animals were freshly washed and adorned with colorful bridles, tassles, fabric, or chalk and tusk jewelry in the case of the elephants. The horse area was the largest and there appeared to be two types, a small breed of workhorse, larger in stature to the miniature horses I had seen in the States, and larger show horses. The larger horses were trained for posture and their ear tips were noticeably curved inward. There was some sort of event in progress where yelling men rode the larger horses back and forth down a dirt road at full speed.

We passed through the more sedate cattle area and came upon a huge collection of stalls filled with livestock accessories, food, freak/magic shows, clothing, and the usual kitsch. There were also feeble booths displaying various products and services, notably the Indian military and John Deere, that consisted exclusively of posters and a few men to answer questions. We managed to track down the elephant area, which was the highlight of the fair.
Since Jascha had yet to experience a ride in an autorick we decided to take one for the 22 km back to Patna. Riding in an autorick is the closest thing I have found to being on a motorcycle in terms of being up close and personal with traffic, and our ride back did not disappoint.

Friday, November 21, 2008

crash course in indian driving

Jascha's bag finally arrived, and after two hours of bureaucracy he managed to retrieve it from the Air India baggage department. This put us a day behind schedule, so for our intro to touring in India we decided to combine our first two days of riding into one and go all the way from Kolkata to Patna, a distance of ~560 km. We would later come to regret this. We got out of the hotel by 7:30 and headed across town to national highway (NH) 2. It took us 2 hours to get to the outskirts of the sprawling city. This was our first encounter with Indian highways, which we have found can range from a four-lane paved divided highway to a rutted one lane dirt road. In cities and villages we have taken to following trucks and tour buses through the maze of streets, as highway signage is a rare commodity. We also learned that divided highway doesn't mean the traffic on each side moves in the same direction. Despite a plethora of places for u-turns drivers often commute in the wrong direction to save themselves the hassle of going 0.5 km out of the way.

We moved fairly quickly through the divided highway with the exception of the (frequently unsigned) road closures where the lanes abruptly end. The countryside was fairly uniform, with large expanses of grass or crops. Coal smokestacks fueling brick factories belched blackened clouds, adding to the dust and diesel fume-choked air. Giant trucks, tour buses, auto rickshaws, cars, SUVs, carts, bicycles, motorcycles, livestock and pedestrians all compete for lane space and riding here is like a massive game of chicken.

We reached the turn-off to Patna as the sun was setting. Unlike NH2, the road to Patna is a pothole-ridden undivided two-lane road, with major sections of hilly, twisty road. Although I had just gotten used to having trucks driving full speed in my lane on NH2, having this happen repeatedly at night on a narrow corner was another story. We passed village after dusty village and after 16 hours of riding (and 50 km short of our destination) just when we were ready to crash in some abandoned building by the side of the road we saw a hotel/motel sign. After washing off the road grime we fell asleep under the watchful eye of our room gecko.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

we're not in kansas anymore

Despite three consecutive nights of minimal sleep we awoke at 7 am to our first day in Kolkata. Businesses here don't bother to open until 10 or 11 am and the street food vendors were just getting rolling when we got off the Metro. India is not exactly the best place for healthy food options and our first breakfast of fried dough filled with spiced potatoes was a fine example. Although chai stalls are plentiful, it's nearly impossible to find coffee before 10 am and when found it's watered down Nescafe. We arrived at the Sikkim House (which serves as a combo hotel and Sikkim government office) to be told to come back around 10 am. We returned at 10:05 and waited outside the office. After another 10 minutes we were told that the woman that handled permits wasn't in yet "because of traffic". She arrived at 10:30 handed us some forms, which we completed, and told us to come back at 4 pm.

We headed down to the Hugli river (a tributary of the Ganges) to kill time. As we approached the river we saw evidence of the previous evening's Jagaddhatri Puja festivities. The elaborate goddess sculptures we had passed on the way to the hotel had been tossed into the river or strewn on the sides of the road. After a lunch that included some breath freshening silver soap cubes (?!) we picked up our Sikkim permits. Before heading back to our hotel we attempted to tour the New Market but grew wearing of the touts and left.

The next day we were scheduled to pick up our Enfields in the Kolkata burbs.
We allowed 2.5 hours to get there by train and taxi/walking. The Metro segment went smoothly as always, but when we transferred to the train at Tollygange it was impossible to tell which line to take. We ended up going two stations in the wrong direction and had to wait 40 minutes for a return train. In the interim we were accosted by dirty, sticky street children that clung to us for several minutes. Shortly afterward a man with two macaques on leashes walked by, but fortunately, didn't bother to harrass us. We were supposed to transfer lines again, but decided to take a taxi given our previous delay. The taxi driver took a circuitous route through tiny streets and over dirt roads, magically emerging in the correct neighborhood. The meter said 59 Rps, but he demanded 130 pointing to some chart. I was used to Bangalore, where you pay what's on the meter. We were late so we paid it, later learning that this was a legitimate conversion. The Enfields were waiting for us at the Chakravorty's, owners of IndiaBikes. Their youngest son, Hindol, gave us a run down of the bikes and we came to realize exactly what we was in store. We learned that electric start meant kick start most of the time and electric start only when the bike is warmed up (after 200-300 km of riding). They take at least five tries to kick start, alternating between a decompression stroke. Lucky for us motorcycles are breaking down all over the roads, so if it takes us 5 minutes to restart we would be OK. The bikes are also heavy, 500+ lbs for a 350 cc. We were told to change the clutch and engine oil every 2000 km, which means at least once a week.

first task was getting back to the hotel. Thankfully, Jascha had purchased Bluetooth helmet communicators for us and we could hear each other over the constant drone of horns. In India there are as many lanes of traffic as will fit across a road and this changes constantly. Taxi drivers especially ride your ass, and within the first 10 minutes one had hooked his bumper in my panniers frames and was pushing my bike over. We made it back unscathed, parked close to our hotel, and stopped by the kati rolls stand for a mutton roll. After a brief discussion we decided to do our afternoon tour of the Kalighat temple by Metro.

We headed over to the Kalighat area and picked up some chain and a lock to secure our bikes. As we approached the temple we were instantly stopped by men offering to show us the (self-explanatory) entrance. We purposefully overshot the entrance to avoid the annoyance and ended up at what seemed like a dead end. We caved into one of the touts who took us on an interesting route through the back alleys to a stall with some men who were going to "watch our shoes for us." We promptly left and attempted to enter the temple. A man inside told us to leave our backpacks near the door, so we gave up and headed back.

Jascha was uncertain whether he would ever get his luggage back so we stopped at the clothing stalls near the New Market to pick up some extra clothes. One of the pants vendors tried to run off
with Jascha's money after the vendor tried to overcharge and Jascha would only agree to one pair. This wasn't a wise move, but in the end the exchange was made as initially agreed upon. After a stop of kesar pista kulfi we decided to brave the New Market again to look at kurtis for Jascha. He found two, and the experience was much less chaotic.

When we got to our bikes the man that initially told us where to park on the un
signed street was demanding a 36 Rps parking fee and that we could only remain there until 10 pm. He showed us a Shakespearean Parking Association badge. The New Market touts carry fake "guide" badges so I was skeptical. After weighing our options we eventually told him we would go verify with our hotel, upon which we learned this was legitimate, so we returned to pay him. When we went to move our bikes at 10 pm Jascha couldn't find his keys. After a frantic search he headed out to see if he had left them in the bike. The parking guy had them in his hands, so I paid him 100 Rps as a thank you. The man explained that someone else standing near us had actually found them, so Jascha also gave him 100 Rps. We moved our bikes in front of our hotel and I struggled to lift the beast onto its center stand as a crowd of Indian men watched us (as they always do). I finally had Jascha help.

That night we had an invasion of bugs in our room, including flies that looked like the vector of the protozoan that causes Leishmaniasis. I wasn't certain of the distribution of the disease in India and whether it is the visceral kind or the kind that causes nasty open sores, so I smashed as many as I could with the knowledge that at least it's a treatable condition.