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9th October 2008


An Indian Adventure, Part One
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Last year we enjoyed a peaceful fortnight at RCHQ when we sent ad-man Mike Powell up a Himalaya for a couple of weeks. (He came back again). So what’s it like for a westerner to ride a Royal Enfield in the Indian hinterland?...

You passed your bike test 47 years ago and think you can handle a motorcycle. You have just spent the last 40 kilometres up on the pegs and your legs have turned to jelly. You are now faced with a winding, downhill, rocky riverbed that is around a metre wide, or less, in parts. This would probably scare you **** less (fill in the blanks yourself) in normal conditions. You are not in normal conditions .

You are 5000m high in the Western Himalayas of the Indian sub-continent.

To your left is the steep side of a granite mountain, to your right a better track, rough and unsurfaced...

To your left is the steep side of a granite mountain, to your right a better track, rough and unsurfaced, which is just wide enough to accommodate a 20-tonne lorry. This is handy as it is presently accommodating a convoy of 20 or so such vehicles approaching you at speed. All of them need to keep up forward motion without stalling and thereby causing a hold-up that may strand them for days, miles from civilisation. To their left is an unprotected vertical drop of some 1000-ft or more, down to a raging torrent of glacial meltwater in which rests a wrecked lorry or two. These remind the oncoming drivers that they would prefer to squash you against the previously mentioned granite rather than put their wheels over the edge. These vehicles are most likely grossly overloaded, have bald tyres and would most certainly fail any UK MoT test on many other counts. Fortunately these drivers are the most skilled you are likely to meet anywhere in the world: they have to be to negotiate such territory.

You are mounted on a motorcycle which is almost new, but built to a 50 year old design intended to transport the British working man around, rather than to compete in off-road events. It has normal road tyres and is in standard road trim. It is a Royal Enfield 500 Bullet. Point it where you wish to go, give the throttle a twist, close your eyes if you like, and it will usually pull you through the most difficult situation you are likely to meet on two wheels. So you may have a chance of living to face another day on the roads and tracks of Himachal Pradesh…

This is a hypothetical but by no means unlikely example of the conditions you may find yourself in on a motorcycle tour in this region. If you are unlucky you may encounter all of the above mentioned features at the same time. You will probably have to cope with three or four permutations regularly and you certainly will be exposed to one or other of these hazards, and others, on every single kilometre of your Enduro Himalaya event.

This story is not an advert for the Himachal Pradesh tourist board, Royal Enfield or tour organisers Global Enduro and you can take advantage of similar trips by other means in other areas, but my impressions were gratefully recorded courtesy of these organisations. They contributed towards an unforgettable, life changing experience which you too could live through… should you wish to take it on.

 Your first intro to the complete chaos that is India’s traffic system...

A scheduled Virgin Atlantic flight into Delhi and transport by coach to the city is your first intro to the complete chaos that is India’s traffic system. Considering the volume of vehicles, state of the carriageways and lack of regard for fellow travellers, the traffic flows surprisingly efficiently. Very few collisions occur but near misses are constant, whether this is due to lightning reactions or the numerous lucky charms dangling from every vehicle is debatable. Indian drivers are protected by a blast on the horn, one which we would normally consider aggressive, but really means ‘I am here, please be careful or I may run you off the road’. They are also secured by a seatbelt made of marigolds and religious beliefs which will protect them from injury in the unlikely event of a collision.

It's on the left. You can't miss it...

You then journey up the Kalka-Shimla mountain railway, constructed during the occupation of India in times of the British Raj and familiar to many from Michael Palin’s TV programmes. A fantastic engineering achievement it is too, and a highlight of the whole trip. You might think this is a Mickey Mouse, Snowdon funicular type of thing, but more than five hours later you are delivered to the Woodville Palace, part-hotel but still the residence of the family of Raja Rana of Jubbal, tucked away in the pine forests near the town of Shimla, former summer capital of the Raj.

The bikes are awaiting you in the courtyard, and next morning after short familiarisation period you are off on what will be one of the most memorable periods of your motorcycling life.

There are many reasons why you would not wish to ride a bike in India, particularly the north where tarmac is not universally available. Even main arterial roads are of a surface quality that you might expect to encounter in the average quarry, interspersed with the occasional few metres of rutted and deeply potholed tarmac.

Said tarmac will usually have a massive oil or diesel slick left by a multitude of leaking engines, gearboxes and fuel tanks. (You will never again worry about the odd pint of slippery stuff on your return to the road at home.)

There are many reasons why you would not wish to ride a bike in India... This is not one of them.

This is not as serious as you might think as the oil does replace what we would expect the white line to designate (the middle of the road!), and will be soon covered with a light covering of equally friction reducing sandy deposit.

Even these roads can frequently disintegrate into almost impassable sections where landslides and rockfalls occur. If totally blocked you may attempt to clear a way through yourself or you can await the JCB or bulldozer which will be with you within a couple of days at most.

The road may be totally swept away in which case retreat is the only option, or it would be if there was an alternative route. The main route through the Himachal Pradesh is roughly circular for some 2000km and few detours are available.

Suitable bikes on eBay.co.uk

Usefully, India has a similar rule of the road to the UK and motorists drive on the left. Or the right. Or, more usually, in the centre, hence the oil slick which is often at its worst on bends. This is worth bearing in mind as you will then come to expect a large lorry, bus or perhaps two cars side by side on ‘your’ side of the blind bend you are encountering every 200 metres or so. Really.

Lorry drivers are not too bad, but the lower caste of bus driver, who is not entrusted with more valuable cargo, only the human variety, will rarely notice you or will assume you knew he was coming having blasted the horn the instant before you see his front bumper. You may pass on the right or left, whichever you prefer. He doesn’t care as he will be on the mobile phone or maybe has made some funny cigarettes from a dandelion-like weed which grows profusely by the side of all roads and makes you feel funny if inadvertently dried, rolled in between the Rizla papers you normally use for setting contact points and burnt before accidentally inhaling the smoke produced. (This plant is a native of Britain and was named after Mary, first wife of explorer Lt Col Iguana who introduced it to the Orient from seeds supplied by the Royal Botanical Gardens. It is now rare in the UK and only survives in secret locations known only to a few amateur botanists and the police).

Our intrepid author not inhaling, yesterday......

If you are following a vehicle then the indicators, if working, can be confusing. A flashing right rear indicator can be clear, or perhaps amber if the lens is still in one piece, and can mean the driver is turning right. Confusion occurs because this signal more usually means ‘you may pass me on the right if you are brave enough’, and in some areas a right turn will be indicated by an arm, hand or finger casually dangling from the drivers window. This hand signal is thought to date back to days before flashers were fitted to vehicles and is considered much more polite. This is not a joke. Well, it would be were it not true.

No signals are deemed necessary for left turns. If flashing rear lamps in any combination of colour, number, sequence or position is noticed on downhill sections this merely indicates that ‘my brakes are not working too well and I am frantically pumping the pedal to obtain a little retardation’.

And all of that takes place on your first morning, before you’ve even started to wander off the beaten track…

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Next Episode: mountain lodges, mountain-top mechanics, down-town Dehli and genuine risk to life and limb

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Me Too?

If you think you’d be up to a challenge like this one, then Global Enduro (www.enduroindia.com) offer dates in 2009 and 2010 in north and south India and Africa. Costs are from £3000 which includes scheduled flights from UK, accommodation, food, bike hire, support team, paramedic, doctor and service back-up, luggage transport and organising costs. You can pay the whole costs yourself, or obtain part or whole sponsorship, and the balance is paid to the official charities, usually more than £1500 per person taking part. More than a quarter of a million pounds has been raised so far this year alone. 


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