The peace and quiet of Lumbini quickly evaporated as we appeared at the border to India. Firstly, we’d meandered our way through to a smaller border, following a curious raised road through paddies and marshland. We shared the road with scooters and bicycles and spied a funeral pyre by the river and men crouched on the hilly slope above, watching the flames as they consumed their dead. After a short spell through a lively village and dust roads, we made it to the border only to be turned back as it wasn’t a foreigner’s border! We made our way back to Lumbini and on to the major border crossing into India which was noticeably bigger and busier and full of men trying to make a quick buck by ‘escorting’ you to all the relevant officials.
We turned up at the immigration desk and immediately had to take photocopies of everything (including visas) and of course, the photocopy shop was up flights of stairs, through a carpark and then closed for lunch. The next door travel agency was happy to photocopy, luckily and the copies were duly presented to the immigration official who then spotted we had overstayed by five days thanks to waiting for passports and Khumbu coughs. Sent off again to find exactly $90 in cash from all the closed exchange shops, we also had to photocopy all the extension paperwork and visas. Using the last of the emergency dollars hidden in the armour pocket of Alex’s jacket we finally we all set with the immigration team and rode the short 25m to the customs desk. A tiny room filled with truck drivers waving carnets and two officials gamely signing and stamping greeted us. The queue was pretty horrendous and we’d have waited ages if a man didn’t point us towards a secret side door filled with various men sitting, standing and waiting. One of them greeted us and seemed to know what we needed and took us under his wing. Within seconds we were whisked off to another building, where after visiting one desk, then another desk, getting one stamp and second stamp and third check and a signature… it seemed endless but would have been impossible without our mystery saviour’s help.
Once through Nepal, we entered India and the feeling was instantly that it was busier and more confusing. Stopping in a tiny fronting of a shop, after endless other buildings, we found two guys at a desk who were customs. After handing over our carnets and explaining our travel plans, they gave us water, chai and biscuits which we devoured, having eaten nothing since our disappointing breakfast long before. We chatted for almost 45 minutes before asking why we were waiting so long.
“The internet is down sir, our colleague has to ride his bike to the internet cafe to get the code number for your carnet approved!” Another 30 minutes later and they carnets were handed back, stamped and signed. Finally we were able to leave, once they checked the chassis number and attempted to check the engine number, failing at the latter they sent us to immigration which was “about 200m down the road on the right, sir”. We had to wait for a stream of people with baskets and bags to slip slowly past the bikes and then we made our way to the immigration shop. It was impossible to find, every 20m we were checking on the right and between the frequent trucks and buses shielding the roadside, there were hundreds of tiny frontages without names. Finally, after asking a few kind passers-by, we found it, about 500m from the customs point with a convenient parking space for the motorbikes.
Stamped and legally in the country we made our way towards Agra. Once again, the highway was just a narrow single lane road but with slightly less murderous trucks (or were we just adapting to the environment?) As we got eased back into the pace of riding along highways which bisect villages frequently we reached an impasse- we filtered to the front to see villagers blocking the road. Squeezing through slowly, we noticed they were gathered around a crushed motorbike, a dented bus and a rider who looked very definitely in his next state of re-incarnation. Thanks to the jams and lack of speed, we didn’t make it to Lucknow and stopped just short in a roadside hotel. The sun was beginning to set and although the truck drivers were positively friendly in this part of India (tooting as we passed them to wave from the window) we were pretty drained from the border crossing earlier.
The next morning we set off for Agra. The roads through Lucknow were hectic thanks to the highway crossing the city itself and the whole thing undergoing major works. We were separated thanks to the two lanes of traffic being filled with what looked like four lanes of traffic but was basically a potentially fatal game of tetris moving independently of everyone else, tuk-tuks swerving in millimetres from the bike, their customers staring blankly at you, openly unimpressed at the additional traffic you caused. As is customary, the ‘slow’ lane or near shoulder lane is reserved for parked traffic and juice stalls, passing traffic slips past the obstructions, always last second and never leaving room for error. Alex was terrified and sweating as soon as cars would nudge in to any space even if it wasn’t big enough for a bike, let alone a car and quickly lost sight of Simon. In in the mounting heat, it was getting pretty tiring being in such slow traffic with such constant danger around.
Both exhausted after passing Lucknow, a purpose built highway suddenly appeared- the slip road not yet built. That didn’t stop us, the thought of being elevated away from the crazy cars playing traffic-tetris was too tempting so we climbed the dirt ramp to the highway and found ourselves on an empty three lane motorway with beautiful tarmac, no cows and no trucks. Whooping to each other we raced down the road, finally reaching third gear and above. It was a great break even if only for 40km and we turned into another highway which fed us directly towards the Taj Mahal in Agra.
Settled into a hotel, we woke before dawn in order to see the site at its best. In the pre-dawn light, it was tinged with pink. The whole park was beautiful in the morning mist with the light transformed into a dreamy haze lending an unreal quality to the building and its park. We walked up the central pathway towards the Taj Mahal and any feeling of awe was suddenly ruptured by a brash voice bossing people about in order to allow every tourist a chance at a central selfie with the mausoleum.
“No, NO Madam, move out of the way! Here, I will take the photo, MOVE!”
“SIR, I said NO, I will take this photo. Stand there, yes THERE.”
“Madam, please move to the left a little for the BEST photo, you must be quick, come one, QUICK.”
We chuckled at the bossiness of guides and quietly congratulated ourselves on reading up on the Taj Mahal instead or hiring a bossy, loud guide who would break the peace of dawn. We padded softly across the marble floor, still cool from the night and entered the mausoleum itself. Fine stonework gleamed in the weak morning sun.
The relief work and inlay was incredibly detailed and so precise that we marveled at the attention to detail. This was clearly a labour of love and the cool interior made for a welcome respite from the quickening intensity of the sun. It was only 7am and already very warm outside. The semi precious stones used to make the decorative inlay were all transparent when a light was held up behind. The blues, oranges and browns sprang to life when a torch was drawn across them.
By 7:30am, the light was definitely white after being a gorgeous pink and the temperature was ramping up. We admired the misty banks of the Yamuna across from Taj Mahal as the light was perfect at that time.
The King never had a chance to build his own mausoleum so he is buried with his wife in the white marble building we know as a the Taj Mahal.
By 9am, it was already unbearably hot, just about to tip to the high 30s. after a quick tour of the rest of the grounds and other buildings, forts and gardens (full of stripey squirrels and unusual birds) we headed back to the hotel to leave for Delhi. Of course we were blocked in having parked the bikes in the narrow passageway next to the hotel full of debris and building material. This involved having to enlist the help of a friendly guard who took it upon himself to muster a team to move the small fleet of mopeds and motorbikes gathered outside the garage door. Soon, a huge gathering of people had circled us as we prepped the bikes for our onward journey. We got the now expected requests for selfies and the same questions:
“How much is your bike?”
“How fast does it go?”
“What is the cc?”
Questions duly answered and selfies accepted, we kitted up and made our way to the Yamuna highway towards Delhi. The highway was empty- no one uses it. We saw ominous signs at the toll stations which warned of exploding tyres and after speaking to a New Delhi biker, he explained that the wrong road surface had been used to finish the highway, apparently many people had had their tyres explode when going fast on the hot tarmac! Not ideal on a motorbike.
Tyre pressure slightly reduced we sped our way towards Delhi and before long we were on the Noida highway and arriving at our biker contact, Deepak’s, house. No sooner had we arrived then we were invited to their weekly morning ride on a Sunday early morning.
Their group met up on the highway at 6am. Superbikers and high ccs abound! The GODS (Group of Delhi Superbikers) waited near the toll entrance, ready for a high speed thrill on the outskirts of the city. We admired all the bikes, all of them faster than Brunnie or Freja but undaunted, we readied ourselves for the chase.
By the time we set off, it was clear this was another league of riding! Despite the occasional tuk-tuk swerving into lane or the usual slow, indecisive car in the fast lane, these pros were going at 250+kph, squealing past us as we waited on the scrub having done a sneaky U-turn on the highway at the half way point. Alex was conscious of the nail embedded in her back tyre and concerned for the erratic drivers on the road.
A thirst for speed was sated and we had breakfast all together, ready to visit Delhi and finally service the bikes.
Servicing the bikes ended up being a lot more complicated- none of the parts (filters for either or a tyre for Alex) after ordering and shipping the parts from the UK, we finally were able to take them to our contact, Deepak’s mechanic for fitting. The air filter especially was tired after all the dust of Nepal and the engine needed to be in tip-top shape for dealing with the sub-par petrol on offer. Brunni was squeezed into a tiny mechanics workshop and changed in no time. Freja needed more work thanks to her collision with a bus affecting the steering column.
Note on importing into India- if you’re in the area and needing parts, they are hard to source, particularly BMW. All new parts coming into the country are subject to huge import duties. These are unavoidable unless you have a nice friend coming over who can fit an air filter in a bag!
Making the most of our wait for parts, we visited the Red Fort in Delhi. It is set in a huge park but about 60% of the buildings are closed to the public for unknown reasons. Alex sat on an empty building open to the park and was shooed away by a guard. Presumably one should visit from a distance and not admire the stonework up close.
With a few more selfies later, we were feeling like superstars, particularly as without the bikes there was nothing special about us, other than Simon’s impressively expansive beard. The tourism continued through Delhi with Akshardham (beautiful, lots of sculptures and reliefs to admire but no photographs were allowed), India Gate, built beautifully in line with the government offices along a tree line avenue and connaught place where we tried to buy a shirt but for some reason it was not shirt season and we had trouble finding anything affordable.
When visitng the government offices and the presedential palace, we were struck by how quiet the city is. Alex, who’d never been to Delhi, was expecting far more hectic scenes but the streets were almost deserted and the traffic was far calmer than places like Lucknow and Gauwahati but before long we were again asked for selfies with a group of young boys. Unlike in other parts of the country where you’re almost mugged for a selfie they asked politely and posed patiently. It was a pleasant and quiet end to our Delhi adventures.*
* With thanks to the GODS for their help and warm welcome and particularly to Deepak!