Attempts to repair the huge pot holes in the road only made our progress slower.
We had prepared ourselves for a rural, poverty stricken India but it was still a shock to us.
Colourful saris are the only splash of colour in these sad villages.
Sunrise on the Ganges and just another washing day for the locals.
Thousands of men, women and children bath and have a good time in the sacred, but polluted Ganges river.
Activities along the Ghats, Varanasi.
You of course have heard about the bull in the china shop, here it's a bull in a silk shop!
We also arrived in Allahabad at the holiest time of the year when many thousands of pilgrims and Sadhus (Holy men) camp on the banks of the rivers to take an early morning dip in the waters.
Temple spires and palace domes break the skyline in every direction.
It is said that there are no words that can describe the beauty of the Taj Mahal, we tend to agree.
India part 1
Nepal into Bihar, North India.
We left Kathmandu early to beat the traffic and elected to go over the mountains to the Indian border via Daman since we had enjoyed the ride so much last time. The morning sky was blue and clear and the prospect of a good view of the mountains from Daman were good as we rode higher and higher on the twisting winding roads. About an hour into the ride we passed a small valley with women working the fields and decided to take a short detour. It's always these small excursions that are so interesting and we followed this small lane over hills and through the valley taking wonderful photos of the locals working the fields.
At Daman (2400m) the views of the Himalayan mountains were magnificent and we were glad we had decided to come back for another look. Again we had lunch at the hotel before getting back on the bike for the ride down the other side. I was mindful of the time as we still had a long way to go and our average speed was only about 30-kph. Dianne had checked the guidebook and fortunately there was a guest-house in Hetauda where we could stay for the night and cross into India in the morning when we were fresh.
Who was it that said 'the best laid plans of men and mice...' Arriving tired after an exhausting but exhilarating ride at about 4.30 p.m., we easily found the guest house, but alas, it was fully booked. A quick search for other accommodation proved fruitless so we reluctantly made the decision to head for the border town of Birganj, about 50-km away. With luck we would make it just before dark. Unfortunately, we were out of luck and the slow going saw us eventually find a 'rough' hotel after dark in what for us, was one of the poorest, dirtiest and most 'unfortunate' towns we have ever been in. Enough said.
Another planet called India
A good nights sleep and we were up early feeling recharged and rearing to cross the border into India to experience everything a new country has to offer. Expecting a challenge and Indian bureaucracy, we were pleasantly surprised with the relative efficiency and friendliness of both the Nepali and Indian officials. Customs officers on both sides offered us a glass of chai while they processed the Carnet and an hour and a half later we were on our way.
From the border town of Raxaul it was a 240-km ride to Patna, the capital of Bihar province. Dianne had checked and there was no where to stop along the way and it was now already 11.00am so we would have to get a move on if we were to get there before dark. Riding in the dark in Nepal is bad enough but to ride in the dark in India is sheer lunacy and we're not lunatics. (at least we don't think we are)!
Trouble was, the road was diabolical. This is a major trunk route between India and Nepal and the road is so chopped up and mostly rough dirt that we can only manage a crawl. The trucks seem endless in both directions and the air is thick with dust as we ride through villages that are more poverty stricken than we have ever seen before, even in Africa. These desperate people really are living in hell and there is no way out, not in this lifetime anyway!
Eventually the road conditions improved somewhat and we could raise our speed to what seemed, in these conditions, a reckless 60-kph, but even at this rate we wouldn't get to Patna before dark, and frankly it was just too dangerous to go any faster. On coming busses are our main problem as they will just pull out right into our path to overtake a truck. Several times, at the last second, we had to just dive off the road sometimes down a steep verge to avoid a head on. Might is right and we got no might when it comes to trucks and busses. Sometimes might hits might though and today we saw 8 major accidents, either head ons or rollovers. On this stretch of road we must have passed over 100 trucks and each overtaking manoeuvre is a major challenge of skill, luck and whatever else it takes.
As mentioned before, one of the golden rules when traveling in India is not to travel after dark under any circumstances, but it was dark before this pair of lunatics arrived in Patna after the most grueling day of all our travels, and guess what? The guest house we made for was fully booked. We were by now simply too exhausted to search around this big city for an alternative and 'fortunately', there was a 'nice' hotel just down the road. By this stage we were prepared to spend whatever it took to get a room. Well, it was a very nice hotel, but it cost $200.00 for a room. Unbelievably, we took it. We were simply that exhausted. It certainly was a nice room, pity we slept through it though.
We slept so well that we only woke up at 9.30 and almost missed the breakfast which was thrown in, but after gorging ourselves at the buffet, we were back on the road this time heading for Gaya, about 120-km away. Day one in Planet India had been a rude awakening for Dianne and I and we hoped (desperately) that day two would be better. Also we were determined not to arrive after dark.
Gaya is about 12-km from Bodh Gaya which is where Buddha found enlightenment. It is a great pilgrim centre for Buddhists and as luck would have it, we managed to get here during the annual 10 day festival. This is a small town, yet reputedly over 25 000 monks from around the world come here to meditate and chant for world peace near the original Bodhi tree under which Buddha sat.
Little monks and a big bike!!!
Quite a thing to wander around the main temple listening to all the chanting monks.
West to Varanasi
From Gaya it is about 250-km to Varanasi, and most of this is on the main trunk route 2, a dual carriageway highway, so we should be able to make it easily before dark if we leave early. Dianne is in top form this morning, or should I say top tune. Before we left Australia I fitted a siren to the bike with a separate button that she can operate so that she can also play a part in dispersing the traffic. Trouble is though, even at 120 decibels, it's just not loud enough to be effective. Well yesterday I fitted twin horns to her button and they really are ear piercing. Traffic now seems to take notice when we both give them a blast!!!
Well it's true. Highway 2 is dual carriageway but it also has many long sections of road-works and deviations where an off road bike was really handy. Also, despite being two lanes each way it's not uncommon to have a truck or tractor coming towards you in the 'fast' lane, not to mention cows which roam around aimlessly and bicycles and people who seemingly appear from nowhere right in our path. These challenges kept our moving average speed down to about 40-kph, but we still managed to get to Varanasi late afternoon.
Along this route there are many police checkpoints where what seems like at times, up to 100 trucks get backed up. We usually find a way through them and through the checkpoint, but on one occasion we were stopped at the boom gate. The armed officials stopped us and held up their thump and forefinger and gestured something we didn't understand. Was there a card we should have got at an earlier checkpoint, we know how pedantic the Indians can be about documentation. No, that wasn't it, but they were saying something, "chai, chai chai." Oh, they were gesturing that we should stop and have a small glass of chai tea with them. Just friendly people wanting to show some hospitality to tourists on a big bike.
On of the main challenges for us is finding a suitable hotel at the end of the day. Fortunately, friends in Australia and fellow overland motorcyclists had recommended a hotel with secure bike parking and we followed a tuk tuk straight to that hotel. At $20.00 a night it represented good value and we too can recommend the Surya hotel to other travelers.
Varanasi claims to be the oldest living centre in the world and is also the centre of learning and has apparently thousands of Hindu temples and a major university. It's also where the Ganges flows and people come here from all over India to bath in it's sacred waters and to burn their dead. Our guide book claims that the Ganges river water has 1.5 million faecal coliform bacteria per 100-ml of water. Safe water should be less than 500 coliform per 100-ml. 30 large sewers are continuously discharging into the river and yet everyday thousands of Hindus wash, swim and gargle in these waters. Everyone to their own I guess.
Sometimes you just get lucky and the Makerb Sankhante festival is on right now. It's also a public holiday and there are literally thousands of men women and children playing and bathing in the river. We hired a small boat so that we could make the most of the festivities and got some wonderful photos as our oarsman rowed us the length of the main festivities. Being on a boat is the only way to really appreciate this fantastic colourful spectacle and the camera clicked away continuously. There are also two burning Ghats here and as in Kathmandu, bodies are burnt 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
All up we spent 3 days in Varanasi. It is an amazing city and apparently is also one of the best places to buy silk.
South west to Khajaraho and Orchha
After 3 days in one place we were feeling comfortable and beginning (cautiously) to enjoy India after our rude awakening on day one. Keen to move on, a short ride on the highway took us past some villages weaving carpets and on to Allahabad. This is where the two most holy rivers in India meet, the muddy Ganges and the greener Yamuna river.
We rode through a huge tent city on make shift roads of steel plates on the sandy river bed and watched the masses of people wade out to the very spot where the two rivers converged. After taking in all this action we hit the road again and it was a long day in the saddle, 300km and about 9 hours before we arrived late afternoon at Khajuraho and found a comfortable hotel for the night.
Khajuraho is famous for it's ornate temples and stone sculptures, particularly the erotic ones. The temples were built by the Chandella rulers between AD900 and 1130 when there were apparently over 80 scattered about. Unfortunately, there are now only 25 remaining, but the detail and level of preservation are stunning. These sculptures and architecture seem to us to be much more advanced than what we can recall seeing in other parts of the world in this era.
We've been in planet India for 10 days now and feel the need to stop for a while. We're heading for Orchha about 200km further west and although we're keen to see the forts and temples there we also intend to just chill out for a bit. Today the riding is the best yet. The sky is blue, temps about 18 degrees and the traffic light. We pass through many small villages where daily life and chores are being carried out. People are washing at the wells, selling fruit and vegetables at roadside markets, buying food at street vendors or waiting for a tuk tuk.
This is the India we've come to see and we're getting used to the masses of people who crowd around whenever we stop. It doesn't seem to matter where we stop, crowds will gather around the bike. I've done some calcs and estimate they gather at the rate of about 10 people (actually only males) per minute. Within a few minutes there is a huge crowd standing and staring at the bike and us. In one village where we had stopped to buy water, the police asked us to get going as we were creating a traffic hazard and the crowds were blocking the main street.
Riding into Orchha we weren't quite sure what to expect. Perhaps a few ruins of some ancient forts etc. I think we were more focused on relaxing a bit than on what was there, but as we turned off the main road toward Orchha, the enormity of the temples, forts and palace struck home. The area is literally covered with many magnificent buildings dating from the 15th century. The mind boggles at the how the construction could have been conceived and carried out.
Three days later and we've visited the main buildings and spent a lot of time wandering around the busy market. We know where the best internet connection is, the best place for street food, the best Indian sweets etc. In fact we know some of the locals by name and even have a pet dog visit us at the restaurant we eat at. We're feeling comfortable here so it's time to move on. The friendly staff, comfy room and beautiful views from the Hotel Ganpati (firstname.lastname@example.org) helped of course but there's much more to see and do and Agra and the Taj Mahal await us 250km away.
As always our most memorable experiences have to do with either people or food. Although fascinated by the architecture in Agra, we will always remember meeting a Sikh who took us to dinner in his favourit local restaurant. We will always have fond memories of the excellent Indian food, interesting company and insight into India from a Sikh's perspective.
Click below on Next page and we'll be off to Jaipur in Rajasthan to sample more food and meet more people.
©Haydn and Dianne Durnell 2008