● For full details on our route, transport info, hotel details, etc, look at our Google Maps page

Monday, 30 March 2009


28th - 30th March

It took almost as long to cross Mumbai as it did to reach it (just like being in London!) – well, that’s what it felt like and we were both in considerable discomfort by the time we pulled into the district of Colaba, Mumbai’s tourist centre. After even the shortest journey we’re never in the frame of mind to start hunting for a room, so needless to say after 11 hours riding we were not looking forwards to arguing with hoteliers over the price of their flea pits. Mumbai proved to be the biggest rip off yet, probably of our whole year’s trip and we ended up paying 1500 Rps (just over £20) for a basic room. It also proved to be rather damp and within 24 hours our clothes felt like they’d be left out in the rain.

Despite our previous nights respite from traditional Indian food (in the form of Dominos) Ady was eager to taste yet more MSG and dragged us into the first McDonalds we could find. Typically, there were m
ore western tourists here than we’d seen in the whole of our stay in India, but equally a number of wealthy Indian teens and twenty somethings, so we didn’t feel such heathens. Also in our defence, a trip to an Indian McDonalds is actually an experience in itself. The chain made famous by its array of beef offerings was faced by a fundamental problem in this Hindu dominated country of holy cows. So with beef off the menu we were intrigued as to what they would offer instead – spicy bean burgers every which way? We suppose the local population didn’t know any different and was more than happy with a McChicken Maharaja (complete with reformed chicken) and McAloo Burgers, but to a western brainwashed mind it was quite surreal! At least the fries were good! It was a Saturday night but after the long day, earlier laid plans to hang out with Bollywood’s A listers (and wannabees) in Mumbai’s hottest nightspots went to pot; we were in bed as soon as we’d swallowed our last mouthfuls of quarter pounder McAloos.

The following day was Sunday and our initial relief at being able to wander central Mumbai without millions of commuting office workers was sadly followed by frustration as we realised that almost everything was closed! Nevertheless we followed the Lonely Planet walking tour around the Gateway of India, the University, the High Court and a number of fountains and small parks, stopping briefly at an art gallery and the Victoria Maiden to watch some cricket. This being Sunday morning, the Maiden was home to not just one or two cricket matches but as many as twenty or thirty wickets were all lined up next to each other. It was amazing the fielders knew which ball to catch!

Part of the Mumbai experience is to watch a Bollywood movie at one of the many cinemas. We may have missed the point because we rather stupidly went around asking which films were in English language, and were rather disappointed when the only ones showing were (funnily enough, though most of the middle classes do speak fluent English and some even use it between themselves) mainstream Hollywood flicks. We should have brushed up on our Hindi, or at least just gone along for the laugh! Instead, we spent the afternoon at the famous Chowpatty Beach, along with half of Mumbai (the half that weren’t at the Maiden playing cricket). As are most city beaches, it wasn’t much to write home about, though it was popular with locals and you could even get an authentic Italian gelato. We sat down to observe the comings and goings but it wasn’t long before we’d attracted a few people’s attention, embarrassingly so for Sam as the gelato was now melting faster than the ice caps (comparatively speaking) and she was making a right mess. Without wanting to be rude, we made a hasty escape, before the small group had attracted a small crowd. This was the last thing we expected in Mumbai, which without question is India’s most cosmopolitan city.

Bizarrely, we’d been led to believe that Mumbai and its inhabitants would be a different breed to the India we’d seen so far. Clearly way too influenced by what we’d seen on local TV and in Indian Marie Clare, we were expecting to see some people dressed in expensive, fashionable western clothing, with cutting edge hair-dos and chemically whitened skin to match. This certainly wasn’t the case and sari clad women and men in typical check shirts and trousers were very much abound. The most radical behaviour we saw was a woman pillion passenger sitting astride a motorbike, instead of side saddle as is the norm. Perhaps we may have seen evidence of this side of modern India if we’d made it out to the clubs on Saturday night. Disappointed, we spent our second and final night in Mumbai in one of the few open restaurants, a cosy local affair where we tried Spring Dosas and Mango Lassis and were shooed out of the door by 9pm!

Saturday, 28 March 2009

Road to Mumbai

27th - 28th March

Leg 10 – Udaipur to Vadodara
Distance – 390 kms

Time – 7 hours

Average Speed – 55.7 km/h

Road – 4 lane highway, then expressway that we couldn’t use on a bike, so diverted to 2 lane highway

The journey was going very well until we reached the ring road around Ahmedebad and we tried to get on the expressway for the last 80kms to Vadodara. As we passed the toll booth, we were stopped and told that motorbikes weren’t allowed on the expressway (this is what you get in a country where people sit side-saddle and refuse to wear helmets!), and we had to take the other road instead. This alternative was an extra 20kms, and one of the busiest 2 lane highways yet, way more challenging than the expressway. With loads of lorries overtaking each other and our being run off the road continually, it wasn’t the nicest part of the journey so far.

Vadodara had little to offer us – finding a cheap room was a mission, most hotels claiming to be full. We found out later that they weren’t really full – it was because we were foreigners and we would cause them too much paperwork. A break from Indian food came in the form of Dominos pizza – a nice way to end a rather stressful day!

Leg 11 – Vadodara to Mumbai
Distance – 443 kms
Time – 11 hours

Average Speed – 40.3 km/h
Road – 4 lane highway with major roadworks for 150kms.

On the map, a 4 lane highway all the way to Mumbai looked all too easy. As always is the case, too good to be true and after an hour cruising at 80km/h, we were at a standstill. Lorries filled all 3 lanes, and the road turned into a lorry park. We tried riding down the inside, but impatient car drivers had done the same and blocked the road as far as the dirt verge. After squeezing through several small gaps, with Sam walking behind, Ady hit a rock and the bike was on its side, half way down the dirt embankment. We cried for the people who were milling around their parked vehicles to come and help, but it was incredibly only after much persuasion that enough people rallied round to get us back on our wheels. Surprising, in this country of lusty, testosterone filled males! There was no damage to the bike, or Ady for that matter but a hundred meters down the road, the same happened again! This time a broken mirror. It was time to turn to plan B. This involved crossing to the other side of the dual carriageway, and riding into the oncoming traffic – a trick learnt from the locals!

This was quite possibly the most difficult journey we’d done so far, but then we always knew that to travel almost 450km in one day would be an ambitious move. Still, we were keen to reach Mumbai in daylight and when the roadworks cleared up at Surat, our speed and mood improved no end. The rest of the journey was uneventful and after a while quite dull. It was a long haul and even frequent breaks did little to relieve our aching limbs and painful buttocks. Counting down the kilometres on the road sign we were so happy to finally reach the outskirts of Mumbai, and even happier to be allowed onto the express highway. A series of fast, connecting flyovers and five lane chaos was the 80km highway into central Mumbai. It’s said that if you can ride (or drive) in Delhi then you can ride anywhere in the world, but personally, the road into Mumbai tops the capital for madness. We regret not having filmed this part of the journey, it has to be seen to be believed, but Ady was concentrating about 110% and Sam had her eyes closed for most of it!

Friday, 27 March 2009


24-27th March

Leg 9 – Mount Abu to Udaipur
Distance – 175 kms
Time – 4 hours

Average Speed – 43.75km/h

Road – Mountain pass, 4 lane highway, tiny back roads, new 4 lane highway
under construction in parts with gaps of no road!

The road to Udaipur was also under construction. What was completed was superb to ride; amazing sweeping curves of smooth tarmac through slowly climbing hills. What hadn’t was predictably a nightmare. As soon as we’d got used to the new road it would end just as quickly, leaving us to flounder in potholed dirt and gravel. How we’d love to come back in a few years time when it’s all been finished!

Watermarked by whimsy and splendour, the Venice of the East holds stage as one of India’s truly seductive cities. Udaipur is an international destination unto itself, with splendid Lake Pichola lapping against shimmering white buildings and the Aravalli hills closing in to savour the view. The centre-piece of the city is the floating Lake Palace, brash enough for a Bond film (parts of Octopussy were filmed here), yet refined enough for his majesty’s pleasure. Packed with princeliness and passion, Udaipur is raw Rajput dreaming, with palaces, temples and havelis at every turn.

Upon a recommendation in Mount Abu we checked into the Mewar Inn, a small budget hotel on the outskirts of the city. Though extremely cheap at 200 Rps (and that was the Diamond Suite!) and d
espite being luxuriously decked out (new bed, pillows etc) was it not for our own transport we’d have been forced to travel everywhere by rickshaw. Not a top recommendation then, travellers by foot should aim to stay in the Gangaur Ghat area, north of the lake.

Whilst Ady spent the afternoon scouring the city for bike parts and garages
, Sam checked out tourist-ville. We both wanted to take a cooking class and the one we’d read about in Udaipur sounded good. Though expensive compared to its rivals the guy selling the class did a convincing job and so we were signed up for the following evening. We spent the next day at the City Palace overlooking the lake, but on a friend’s advice didn’t take the rip off boat tour (with the Kuoni crowd) across to the Lake Palace on Jagniwas Island where Octopussy was filmed. The view from the mainland is good enough and the lake itself is a shallow shadow of its former self, due to poor past monsoons. The palace has now been turned into a luxury hotel and was, at the time we visited Udaipur, home to Nicole Kidman, in India to shoot her latest film. We also found a supermarket (they’re so rare and we were so excited I’ve got to mention it!), visited the nearby City Tank, the Bagore-Ki-Haveli (an 18th century house, built by the Prime Minister) and a Vintage car collection, where Ady got turned on by the engines and Sam cooed over the aesthetics.

The cooking class was fun and we nibbled our way through 3 hours of cooking, before enjoying a final feast (complete with mango chutney…finally!) where we stuffed ourselves silly! We learnt to make a few different curries, some pakoras, a biryani and a chapatti. Unfortunately by midnight the same night, Sam was doubled over in the bathroom, enjoying those oh so familiar cramps of what we can (now that we’re in India) finally call Delhi Belly! We delayed leaving for Mumbai as a day at the hotel was called for – still, we’d been in India for a whole month now and were beginning to think we were untouchable!

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Mount Abu

22nd-24th March

Leg 8 – Barmer to Mount Abu
Distance – 325 kms

Time – 7 hours
Average Speed – 46.4km/h

Road – 2 lane highway, brand new 2 lane highway – uncompleted and no road in parts! Last 30kms mountain pass.

Clothes almost dry, we set off early for Mount Abu. We were assured that the road was good… all the way? Of course! The highway 15 was fine but then we
turned off to join a new road, straight through to Mount Abu. After fifteen minutes the road ended. The old road was being dug up and we were forced to ride on a single carriageway of loose gravel and rocks, competing for space with oncoming trucks and buses. Each time of course we lost the battle and had to pull into the ditch at the side of the road. Thoughts (as usual) of reaching our destination by lunch quickly evaporated and we prepared ourselves for a hard slog.

We reached Abu Road by mid afternoon and it was still baking hot. Sitting at 1200m altitude we were mildly concerned about whether we’d make the steep climb in this heat. Thankfully the roads were more sweeping than tight hairpin and the views were so spectacular Sam filmed a good part of the ride. We stopped for a photo at the mid point and on re-starting the bike a loud backfire managed to blow the carburettor off! Fortunately it was nothing our on hand mechanic (Ady) couldn’t deal with we were shortly on our way.

Mount Abu rises high above southern Rajasthan, cool on the heels of the baking desert plains. It’s a welcome hill station retreat, nestled among pedalo-filled Nakki lake which attracts hoards of weekenders from neighbouring Gujarat. The tremendous wooded valleys that line the winding drive to the summit lend some longed-for Alpine beauty to a Rajasthan excursion and house wildlife including bears, wild boars, langoors, India civets, hyenas and sambars.

We stayed at the friendly Shri Ganesh guesthouse who provided us with a map of the local area and its highlights. As the sun was dropping we decided to check out Honeymoon point, a supposedly picturesque place to see the sun set over Rajasthan. Lazy as ever, we hopped back on the bike and proceeded to ride around the enormous lake to reach Honeymoon point, at the far side. For some reason it didn’t occu
r to us why everyone was walking – in our experience Asian people never walk anywhere! Before long we hit a large barrier, set up to prevent traffic movement and it dawned on us why we’d been getting so many annoyed looks!

We found Honeymoon point to be overcrowded with large groups of local tourists. The resulting noise of boisterous chatter was such that it wasn’t a peaceful place to watch the sun set. We stopped a while to chat with a small family who seemed quite amazed to see foreigners in Mount Abu before heading back to the lakeside to indulge on delicious whipped ice-cream.

The next day we found the bike sitting in a small puddle of oil and found ourselves using the morning to fix it. Finding parts in this tourist town proved to be difficult but Ady managed a bodge job that should at least get us down the mountain. We checked out a couple of the listed temples but each time found our mobile, camera and bike helmets prohibited. Unwilling to leave them (our UK helmets are irreplaceable in India and for some reason everybody wants to try them on!) we made for the nearby Peace Garden, a strange museum of a garden set up by Raja Yoga Meditation. We found ourselves following a path through the garden, maintaining the requested silence, reading the mantras written
on various placards. At one point we were invited into a tent to meditate and suitably freaked out by the cultish feel of the place, bolted for the exit with profuse “thanks but no thanks!”.

Still curious though, we visited the Brahma Kumaris Spiritual Museum. Attached to the University of the Same Name it’s aim is “the establishment of universal peace through the impartation of spiritual knowledge and training of easy raja yoga meditation.” Apparently there are 4500 branches in 70 different countries. The aim of the museum is to answer questions as “How can world peace be established?” We left feeling no more enlightened but then many of the displays were in Hindi and as usual we had declined an offer of a guide. Needing to return to our comfort zone we sought out an ice cream stall and took a stroll around the lake.

There are a number of strange rock formations around the lake’s perimeter, the most famous is Toad Rock. A s
teep climb up a flight of crumbling stairs is needed to reach the rock, which is said to resemble a toad about to hop into the lake. Whoever thought this up was clearly on something; to us it looked more like a sheep’s skull! In any case the view over the town and lake was great and easily beat Honeymoon point as a vantage point. We had the place to ourselves and sat on a large boulder for the remainder of the afternoon, appreciating that this was the first time in our month in India we’d been able to sit in public, undisturbed and unharassed. Unless you are a keen temple goer, Mount Abu doesn’t hold a lot for the western tourist, but this town, established solely for tourism is the cleanest, most well-maintained town we’ve visited, a far cry and welcome relief from the poverty and grime down below.

Sunday, 22 March 2009

Road to Mount Abu

1st-22nd March

Leg 7 – Jaisalmer to Barmer
Distance – 165kms

Time - 5.5 hours
Average Speed – 30km/h
Road – Good 2 lane highway, very wet!

The first 50km were uneventful, though the dark clouds behind us to the north were looking more threatening and the distant rumble of thunder could be heard. We continued for another 30km, amazed that it still wasn’t raining. All around us the sky was thick black, momentarily lit by brief flashes of sheet lightening. And then the rain came. To start with just small droplets on the visors of our helmets; we pushed on convinced we could out run the storm gaining pace behind us. The heavier rain quickly followed – massive droplets hitting us with the force of hail stones, reducing us to crawling speed. The sheet lightening was joined by vicious forks, to the left and right of the road and seemingly right behind us. The magnitude of the lightening was quite unlike any we’d both ever seen – this was a storm of truly tropical proportions.

We pulled off the road at the first opportunity, a small village with a handful of shacks selling chai and other essentials. By this stage we were unsurprised when half the village (in other words, all the men – the women don’t ever seem to leave their houses) turned out to see the strange arrivals. They were mostly very young and for once not in the least shy. Crowding round us claustrophobically they demanded Ady’s attention and proceeded to give him the Spanish inquisition. It felt a little like a press conference, bar the obvious lack of flashing cameras and we stayed as little time as possible, convincing ourselves and others that the storm was abating. No sooner had we left, the rain slashed down again. The menacing lightening continued and we were forced to pull over time and time again; in a school, a sweet shop, a bus shelter, and once in an HP petrol station whose attendants rudely shooed us from its forecourt as we didn’t want petrol!

Our progress was painfully slow. In the end we were so completely soaked to the skin that we decided to carry on right through to Barmer, now 40km away. The lightening didn’t relent and unsure of what protection the bike would give us we (Sam) feared we’d be struck down. We’d already passed several fallen trees and to our amazement, a large overhead road sign had been hit on one side and was now lying across the middle of the road. By the time we reached Barmer we were freezing cold as well as soaked, despite the still quite balmy air temperature. Barmer was flooded, the roads sitting under twelve inches of water and Ady had difficulty keeping the bike on two wheels as we rode through newly formed rivers. A hotel plucked from Lonely Planet proved a bit of a mission – aside from filling the usual ream of paperwork required from foreign tourists (it’s a bit like big brother here as your every move is documented) we also each had to submit three photos!! The room was only 300 rupees and we were only staying the night! Thankfully, for once, our room was super hot and we were able to lay out the entire contents of our pack to dry.

Saturday, 21 March 2009


19th-21st March

Leg 6 – Jodhpur to Jaisalmer
Distance – 300 kms
Time – 5 hours
Average Speed – 60km/h
Road – 2 lane highway all the way

The road to Jaisalmer was a dream; a quiet two lane highway which for the most part was newly resurfaced. The only thing we had to contend with were the usual cattle, goats and an increasing number of camels. We made good time and arrived by early afternoon, only to be greeted by a number of touts on motorbikes, all plying for our custom at their various hotels (or worse still, the places they receive commission, at our expense).

Being hassled by touts is all part and parcel of travelling by bus or train but this was the first time we had to deal with them since touring by bike. We’d merely pulled over just outside town and before we knew it we were surrounded! Politely, we took their cards but it seems this wasn’t enough. They all followed us into town and wouldn’t leave us alone, despite our promising to visit after we’d eaten lunch. Offers of hotels with rooftop restaurants promptly rolled in. In the end we were just really rude and they backed off, only for us to “bump into” them as we reached Ghandi Chowk, home of the budge
t guesthouses. We ended up taking a room at one of their hotels – it was newly opened at a massively reduced price to get people in and was at least very clean. We can completely understand the frustration for a hotel not listed in one of the major guide books, and often they are so much better value, but the more we are hounded by the touts the sooner we say NO!!!!

Jaisalmer is a giant sandcastle with a town attached, an emblem of honour in a land of rough and tumble. The fort is a living monument to long-lost desert might, a Golden City of dreams that exceeds expectations of the most travel sick tourist. Rising high from Trikuta hill, 99 bastions hide havelis of crumbling beauty. Like a Hansel and Gretal wonderland, the enclosed palace is carved from the same near-edible golden sandstone

Jaisalmer seemed like a pretty sleepy place and we spent a couple of hours wandering around the old forted city. After Bu
ndi and Jodhpur we didn’t feel massively inspired by anything we saw, despite LP’s ravings (above, italicised) and didn’t take any pictures – definitely a severe case of jaded travellers fatigue here, it seems to take a lot to impress us these days! To anyone free of these symptoms it’s definitely worth a visit and probably quite soon as poor drainage and overcrowding have led to the fort slowly sinking into the hill. It’s even made the World Monuments Watch list of the 100 most endangered sites.

One of the main reasons people visit Jaisalmer is to take a tour into the Great Thar Desert. The only way you can travel is by camel and both of us were sceptical about signing up for this, after boycotting all elephant rides for the way the animals are abused. None the less we’d travelled considerably out of our way to reach Jaisalmer and we weren’t going to leave without even a short jaunt into the desert. Our camel driver for the next two days was to be a guy called Baba and his son… Aladdin!

We were driven to the edge of the desert about 30km west of Jaisalmer where we met our guides and our mounts for the next two days – Luca and Warrior. They were laden pretty heavily, certainly more than the Enfield and our first concern was that the poor beasts were overburdened, and this was before we’d added to their load! Fortunately they were immensely strong and raised themselves from their peculiar kneeling position to standing without much bother. Unlike horse riding you mount the camel in this kneeling position and then hang on for dear life whilst it clambers to its feet, like a bucking bronco in slow motion. The height at which you are sat, above the camels hump is quite mad, much, much higher than your average horse and for Ady who’d never been horse riding at all it was quite an experience! Nice to see him out of control for once!

To begin with Baba reined the camels together and led from the front, on foot, with Aladdin bringing up the rear on his young camel (who we hate to add was being broken-in for such tourist safaris). Only at this point did we realise that we hadn’t been provided with stirrups, a minor oversight perhaps but one that caused a great deal of discomfort and a complete lack of control. Just half an hour of bouncing in the saddle was enough to render us both completely saddle sore, though in very different ways...Then we were given the reins and from there on had responsibility for our own necks – was that a disclaimer we signed?!

Though we’d been warned as such, the Great Thar Desert, initially at least was a bit of a disappointment and was little more than barren scrubland – just like much of the desert we’d travelled through whilst on minor roads with the bike. After a few hours in the hot sun we finally stopped for lunch, the earlier discomfort had now turned into real pain and we both struggled to dismount. Baba cooked up a feast with seemingly no ingredients and we watched him make chapattis using a special skillet. Aladdin had previously asked us if we liked meat and at this point we had to massively backtrack for fear he would fetch us some (possibly butchered several days before and left to fester in the sun) from one of the tribal villages nearby.

After a break of around 3 hours (whilst Baba slept under a tree), we were off again. Despite a br
ief respite when we stopped at a small village to water the animals (nobody came out to speak to us!) we rode for around 3 hours solid. When Ady could bear it no more and decided to walk alongside to mobilise his joints, Baba decided to ride the camel in his place and, having reined in Sam’s camel behind him, meanly set a cracking pace. Unfortunately for Ady the scenery had changed from scrubland to soft, heavy sands – the beginning of the silky sand dunes for which the desert is famous. None of the riders realised he only wanted to walk for ten minutes and so a very pissed off Ady finally caught up after an hour trekking at a distance behind the group, struggling with the increasing deep sands.

We were now amongst the larger dunes, a pretty spectacular sight (for anybody that hasn’t seen desert dunes before) and would have made for some great pictures if we hadn’t encountered a sudden, massive sandstorm. The sky went black and the wind picked up. Needless to say there was sand absolutely everywhere and we had to cower behind a makeshift shelter for about an hour until it abated. By this time the sun had set and there was little light left. It was quite amazing how Baba and Aladdin managed to make dinner given we could barely see
each other, so poor is our night vision. As soon as we’d eaten we were ushered to bed – some camp beds had appeared from somewhere and we were given a heavy pile of blankets. Still, it was only 8pm and neither of us was tired, despite hours in the saddle. We watched the stars for a while, listening to the incessant barking of Rocket (Aladdin’s dog) and some other dogs. Ady casually joked that the guides all brought dogs along on the safaris so as to warn them of predators. Not funny! Each time the dogs began their urgent barking, Sam had visions of tigers or leopards strolling into camp!!!

After a poor nights sleep we were hauled out of bed at
dawn and handed a tower of dry toast and biscuits to eat. Neither of us like tea or coffee and Baba seemed to take it as a personal insult each time we refused cups of Chai, the spiced sweet milky tea that is the national drink of India. We were given the choice to finish our tour at 5pm as planned, or cut short the day and finish after lunch. Despite feeling that he just wanted an easy day and despite having paid for the full 2 days we were both in too much pain to enjoy a whole day in the saddle – so we agreed to just another 4 hours riding. After taking the scenic route through the larger dunes (the camels managed the slopes with ease but Ady was yelping at the steeper dunes!) Baba joined Ady on Warrior, the larger camel who was now relieved of his load. He tethered Luca behind and spurred Warrior into a fast trot, practically dragging the smaller camel along. Without stirrups we bounced uncomfortably in the saddle, wishing we’d not eaten the little breakfast we had!

It was with massive relief when we finally stopped for lunch, under the shade of a tree. Thankfully this was the end of the riding – camel riding that is – due to our early finish we’d decided to push on that afternoon and ride the short distance south to Barmer. The skies were looking forbidding but we’d heard the road was a fast highway and the journey shouldn’t take long. After the camels our padded bike saddle felt like luxury – we plugged in our ipods and enjoyed the emptiness of the open road.

Thursday, 19 March 2009


17th-19th March

Leg 5 – Pushkar to Jodhpur
Distance - 206kms
Time – 6
Average Speed -34.3km/h
Road – Small back roads, dirt tracks, sandy desert, more back roads, 2 lane highway.

To get to Jodhpur we had two options; the highway route backtracking over Snake Mountain, or the longer, scenic way. After the congestion on the last leg we decided to take the scenic and avoid the highway as long as possible. Within minutes of leaving Pushkar we were asking for directions; our map, though detailed enough didn’t show every junction and the multiple choices of back roads. People seemed more than happy to help. After all, to them we must have looked quite a spectacle – two foreigners wearing futuristic helmets of space man proportions, big sunnies, heavy jackets (in 40 degrees heat) and leather gloves. If ever we stopped for more than a few minutes a crowd would gather around, sometimes quite shyly, unsure of who we were, in other places all clamouring for Ady’s attention. None seemed to know what to make of the pale blue-eyed woman sitting astride the pillion seat (women here all ride side saddle), looking every bit as unladylike as possible.
To begin with the road was amazing – a prime example of Rajasthan’s recent investment in its infrastructure. The white road markings look like they’d been painted just yesterday and the absence of bumps and ditches made for a fast, fun ride. But all good things come to an end and just a few kilometres further the new surface ran out and we were back to painfully bouncing
up and down in the saddle, speed much reduced. At one point the road diminished so badly we were riding on gravel and dirt and then eventually just sand – the golden sands of the Rajasthan desert! The Bullet definitely isn’t built for this kind of terrain, let alone with a passenger and 20kg bag in tow and it was nothing short of a miracle (Ady claims it was his excellent riding skills) we stayed upright! Eventually we found the highway and managed to cover the same distance again in just a fraction of the time.

The walled city of Jodhpur and its majestic fort towered above us. Once inside the city gate we got completely lost in the maze of tiny lanes, none with street names and each looking the same as the last. Again, helpful locals put us right and we turned into a particularly narrow alleyway, following the signs for Cosy Guesthouse. As we turned each corner the gradient became steeper and steeper still; the engine was revving too loud when suddenly somebody stepped out in front of us. Ady slammed the brakes on but there was no way they were going to hold us on this hill…we started rolling backwards! Somehow Sam managed to leap off the back seat and without the added weight Ady managed to get the bike under control. It was a heart stopping moment and the ride further up to Cosy wasn’t much fun either – when we arrived there was no room to turn around so we ended up
jamming a brick under to rear tire! Exhausted after the long journey we didn’t make it past the Cosy rooftop restaurant that day. The view over Jodhpur and the fort was unbeatable though.

The following day we both felt achy and fluey (and as
usual it was difficult not to assume we had malaria!) and it took an age to get ourselves together. We made a poor attempt at sightseeing, spending just a brief time at the Jaswant Thada memorial before visiting the main attraction – the Meherangarh fort. To brighten things up the fort was being used as a film set for a Bollywood flick. The cast and hundreds of extras were milling around, dressed in full medieval costume, including a number of westerners as members of the British Raj. We got a bit of a shock when one of them walked over to us and started talking. It was Damien, kitted out in a red soldiers outfit and fetching moustache (and Charlotte, who wasn’t dressed up), from our guesthouse in Bundi! They’d arrived at the fort just a short time earlier and Damien had been coerced into taking part. Thankful for our lie in bed – extras notoriously get paid peanuts for the privilege of hanging around all day, waiting for a few seconds of fame. Besides it was about 40 degrees and we were grateful to escape to the refuge of the fort interior.

Inside the fort there is a deep-terracotta-coloured, latticed network of courtyards and palaces, beautiful examples of asymmetry and symmetry that marks Rajput buildings. The palaces have evocative names such as the Moti Mahal (Pearl Palace), Sukh Mahal (Pleasure Palace) and Phool Mahal (Flower Palace) – the latter is beautifully decorated using a curious concoction of gold leaf, glue and cows urine. At the southern end of the fort, old cannons look out from the ramparts over the sheer drop to the town below.

After such a hard afternoon we cabbaged back at Cosy for the rest of the day and enjoyed some R&R. Our next stop was Jaisalmer on the edge of the Great Thar Dessert, 280km northwest, home to the another famous fort and the start of the infamous Camel Safari.

N.B. We can highly recommend the Cosy Guesthouse Spicy Veggie Burger…Indian style – we’ll never go to Burger King again!

Tuesday, 17 March 2009


15th-17th March

Leg 4 – Bundi to Pushkar
Distance – 192kms
Time – 4 Hours
Average Speed - 48km/h
Road – 2 lane highway, then short mountain pass

Over the last year our motto has become “expect the unexpected”. Maybe it was this particular highway but we couldn’t help but feel that every truck in India was making its delivery this Sunday. The result was a stinking black cloud of choking exhaust fumes and so much horn honking that ones Ipod couldn’t even drown out. It also means that we have to spend the journey crawling along near the hard shoulder – “might is right” over here and the smaller your vehicle the slower you are expected to drive – completely the opposite to home! Anyway, we weren’t in a hurry and we were concerned about the upcoming Snake Mountain – a mountainous ridge between Ajmer and Pushkar that would make up the last hour of our ride – this would be the bikes first test – would it overheat?! The mountain actually turned out to be a mere hill and we were up and over in around 20 minutes, still in the heat of the late afternoon.

We found our guesthouse of choice – The White House (where else?!) and sat back on the rooftop to admire the views. Opposite from our place was the rooftop of another guesthouse, The Milkman, and as we were just discussing whether we should have gone there (they had a real grass lawn and lots of hammocks) we saw two familiar faces looking over. Standing up to take a closer look it turned out to be two friends (Lisa and Michael) we’d met in Darjeeling, and again in Siliguri where we had dinner together! Surprised (but then again not, this seems to happen all the time!), we jumped ship and went over to join them for the evening.

Pushkar, a pond-sized Hindu pilgrimage town is a magical desert-edged place, with one of the world’s few Brahma temples. Rows of sacred ghats form a mytsically magnetic lake where hundreds of milky-coloured temples and weather-touched domes sit beneath a shifting, pale sky.

Unfortunately our visit was timed badly. With less than three months to go until the monsoon, the lake’s waters were fairly diminished. Worse still, a project to lower the level of the bathing ghats had led to a huge sectioning off and drying out of one side of the lake. We even managed to walk across the middle of it on the sandbanks that had been created. It didn’t make for a great photo, but then photography of the sacred lake and ghats is prohibited anyway (and hence we didn’t take any in Pushkar at all). The town was charming, though way more touristy than Bundhi and we saw more pasty faces than anywhere since Thailand.

For the first time since leaving Delhi we bumped into a group of people touring on Enfield Bullets. It has surprised us how we haven’t come across anyone whilst riding. We also met two guys who’d travelled over from Ireland in a campervan – they gave us the guided tour and we were quite envious of their creature comforts. Oh well, some other time!!! We visited a couple of temples and eventually made our way through the tight security of the Brahma temple – there’s a very long list of banned items, including phones, cameras and bike helmets, so we had to make a couple of trips back to the hotel first.

We had agreed with Lisa and Michael to make the one hour trek up to the hilltop Savitri Temple, but come 5 o’clock, nobody was bothered. Since buying the bike, neither of us have the inclination to walk anywhere! There was a nearby hotel pool we wanted to visit, open to non-guests and this seemed a lot more appealing. L.P. described it as international standard, and certainly it was large enough to swim some lengths. Upon a closer look, we couldn’t see beyond the top 10cm of water – it didn’t look dirty as such but was definitely quite cloudy and you certainly couldn’t see the bottom! Perhaps it was to give the swimmer additional privacy from appreciative onlookers (the pool had separate opening times for Indians and foreigners but this didn’t seem to help!) sitting on the balcony above!

To end the day, Sam was booked in for an Ayuverdic massage. Hopeful that it might ease the continuous neck and shoulder pain (a year away from a desk clearly isn’t enough!!) the masseur was instructed to be rough. Compared to the hands of Joy (our Thai massage teacher) this guy didn’t come close, and though it was soothing to receive it didn’t inspire signing up for a weeks training course. The resident chef did himself proud though with his amazing organic menu, no mean feat in a town where meat, fish and eggs are banned. Oh, kissing is also banned in Pushkar so we were keen to be moving on!

Sunday, 15 March 2009


13th-15th March

Leg 3 – Ranthambore to Bundi
Distance - 124kms

Time – 4 Hours

Average Speed -31km/h

Road – Quiet, new, 2 lane highway followed by deserted single track road breaking up in places

A midday start, but with only 125kms to cover, no problem. Another new road greeted us as we left Ranthambore. It lasted for an hour or so, but then when we reached a village and a junction and the locals pointed us down a dusty track. The track turned into a single lane back road
, which was in poor condition, apart from a strip of tarmac down the middle – great for a bike! After an hour and a half of this, the road improved as we got closer to Bundi.

Situated outside of the Golden Triangle, Bundi receives fewer tourists than Rajasthan’s more famous cities. We wouldn’t have stopped either but for it making a convenient stopover between Ranthambore and Pushkar. We were pleased we did as it turned out to be the prettiest, most charming (for India – we’re not talking the Cotswalds here!) little town, and to quote Lonely Planet, “with narrow Brahmin-blue lanes, assorted with temples, classic havelis and picturesque hillside lake”.

The accommodation wasn’t quite as attractive and we ended up paying over the odds for a comfortable room, rather than accept the dives on offer for what we would normally pay. Pick of the town, the Haveli Katkoun Guesthouse is a good bet if you’re not on too tight a budget.

We spent the one full day we had in town exploring the sights such as the step wells, palace and fort. As we strolled through the back streets, Ady asked a small boy to take a photo of us. Sam thought he was mad and the kid would nick off with it (this is what watching Slum Dog does to you!), but he seemed genuinely interested and before we knew it, children were all clamouring around eager to get involved. Cries of “one photo, one photo” allowed Ady to capture some great poses by the kids. Before we knew it, the parents were being dragged from their houses and the photos turned into proud family portraits! Each time we set off further into the backstreets, the children would come running up behind us, co
llecting more and more friends. We felt like the Pied Piper!

Several hundred photos later and way too many over-excited children to deal with we were eager to make our exit. Some of the cries for “one photo” were starting to turn into “one pen” and “one rupee” and we knew we definitely had to go. Until now they’d been caught up in the fun of the moment and hadn’t asked for a single thing. Not wanting to condone begging, I suppose fair is fair and we’ve come away with some amazing shots. Still, there were just too many kids to start dishing out rupees, pens or sweets and so we scarpered!

For dinner that night we joined a couple we’d met in our guesthouse – Charlotte and Damien – fellow Londoners out on a six month break. In a bid to find somewhere serving “Non-Veg” (meat), we turned our noses up at several nice restaurants before agreeing on a menu sold to us by the owner of a guesthouse. He took us up to his rooftop “restaurant” where we found ourselves on an empty terrace with no other guests. A table and four chairs appeared out of nowhere, swiftly followed by a tablecloth and we were ushered to sit. Not quite what we’d had in mind – perhaps we should have made the effort to find the place in The Times – but the food was certainly home cooked. As the service was by the two (very) young daughters we didn’t feel obliged to tip!

Refreshed after a day away from ridi
ng, the next day we pushed on to Pushkar. It was Sunday at least and the roads were bound to be quiet…

Friday, 13 March 2009

Ranthambore National Park

12-13th March
Leg 2 – Agra to Ranthambore
Distance - 300kms

Time – 7 Hours

Average Speed -42.8km/h
Road – 4 lane highway, part under construction, then single lane in poor condition, then unmapped brand new 2 lane road!

This time, deciding to follow the advice of Chris (from Bullet Wallas) we aimed for an early start. Okay, so we didn’t quite leave at 4am but we think 6:30 was a pretty good effort and the sun hadn’t quite risen! After about half an hour we were both completely frozen anyway, lacking luxuries such as bike leathers. We tried slowing down but that didn’t help and eventually had to pull over by the roadside to try and warm up. After a long few hours the sun was properly shining but by then we were so chilled the warm rays were having little effect. On a positive note, we made a nice getaway from Agra as the streets were completely deserted – we suspect this being the morning after the night of Holi; there were many sore heads abound!

Our next destination was the Ranthambore National Park where we hoped to see wild tigers. The road was superb, newly resurfaced for the most part and practically empty - a far cry from the journey out of Delhi. We plugged in our ipods, and with Ady feeling a little more relaxed about the bike, cruised along enjoying the scenery. This time we managed to cover 300km in 7 hours, so an improvement on our first journey, with a whopping average speed of 43kph! Ok, so we stopped a few times to stretch our legs and also there are wandering cows, goats, donkeys and camels to contend with. You also have to bear in mind these just aren’t English roads where the speeds we ride in kph here are easily achieved in mph!

We arrived feeling fairly exhausted and absolutely
starving. We haven’t really talked about the food in India yet, the reason being that it’s been pretty poor and resembles sloppy baby food. Desperate for something with some substance, we didn’t expect to find it at the roadside eatery we stopped at. The owner saw us dithering and called us in, so we parked up and went to join him, immediately regretting our actions as we saw swarms of flies all over the tables outside! Thankfully inside was spotless and the food was absolutely delicious; fluffy garlic naan, a spicy Panner Korma and a very creamy Palak Aloo. As we were now in Rajasthan, we figured that maybe all the food would now be this good!

The following morning we were up at 5am sharp – we’d been advised to get to the ticket office to organise our sunrise tour around the park. It seems we weren’t the only mugs to follow this advise – two other travellers were already waiting but it seems that no one had turned up to work yet. After a frustrating hour and a lot of petty bureaucracy – the one guy that eventually turned up wouldn’t serve us because we wanted a jeep and not a canter and only his boss could sort it out etc. etc…. we were eventually assigned a guide and a vehicle (we had to change vehicles twice). Not wanting to get caught out two days running, we’d both piled on as many clothes as we had in order to beat the dawn frosts. It was pretty pointless as the open top jeep wasn’t any warmer than the bike and yet again we spent the next 2 hours freezing!

The scenery inside the park was stunning and it was fun being driven through rocky trails in the 4x4
. Our driver and guide were both quite animated and for the most part we didn’t know whether to take them seriously, or whether the telltale “signs” of tigers afoot were just for our benefit! Up to now all we’d spotted were a few pretty birds and lots of Bambi – not so different to Richmond Park really! Anyway, we had to eat our words as our driver eventually pointed out a track of extremely large paw prints – we set off in immediate pursuit, engines revving (isn’t this exactly what you’re not supposed to do?!). We stopped to listen a few times and our guides were definitely putting on a show – this time we didn’t care and we were waiting with baited breath for a sighting. At one point we rather naughtily left the track and set off into the undergrowth, driving with abandon across the shrubbery. Unfortunately a small part of the National Park had been needlessly destroyed (and they weren’t going to get a tip) as we didn’t spot anything from there. Finally, back on the main track our driver (who was way more useful than our guide) heard a warning call between the deer, made when a predator is at large. We stopped again…and waited…and waited. Suddenly, about 300 yards away through the undergrowth something very large was moving very quickly. Yes, it was a tiger…surely?!

Actually it wasn’t, but we did manage to spot a leopard which
our guide hastily assured us was even rarer than sighting tigers (did he just want a bigger tip?) – then again this is a “tiger” reserve so he probably wasn’t wrong! We pursued it from a distance and the leopard eventually and so perfectly came to rest on a large rock – maybe he wanted to see us as much as we him? The cameras went mad as we all suddenly became the next Richard Attenborough. Ady’s 18x optical zoom came up trumps though and we managed to get some cool photos.

We saw more leopards on the opposite rocky outcrop, but a much further distance away though and we were straining our eyes to see properly this time. Still, no tigers though. Have the leopards driven them away?! On our return we also saw a small “wild cat” – almost as cute as your average kitty but about twice the size and probably many times more vicious! Amazingly it didn’t take off when we pulled up just a short way away. It was still sitting posing when a canter pulled up alongside (a horrible noisy open topped vehicle for 20 even noisier passengers). Satisfied with our lot and glad to have made the effort in getting out of bed we set off for our next stop – Bundi.

Thursday, 12 March 2009


9th-12th March

Leg 1 – Delhi to Agra
Distance - 219kms
Time – 7 Hours
Average Speed -31.3km/h
Road – 4 lane highway

The journey went without major hiccup. We negotiated our way out of the city and through the chaos of the road south to Agra. The sun was baking hot and beating down on our backs – not a problem for two sun lovers but the bike thought otherwise, cutting out several times before grinding to a complete halt (conveniently…or not) just outside a Royal Enfield garage. Ady just wanted to let the bike cool but before we knew it, ten or twelve guys crowded round, eager to help, wielding spanners etc. They couldn’t do anything useful but we felt obliged to hand them a few rupees for their trouble. This could get expensive! Five minutes later and we were on the road again, crawling along with the rickshaws and the bicycles, lest the engine overheated again! (It turns out the mixture screw on the carburettor was too far out which is what caused the poor running!)

After arriving at Agra, home to India’s world famous Taj Mahal. It took another stressful hour to find the guesthouse we wanted; most of the streets in Agra, as in most Indian towns or cities just don’t seem to have street names! The Tourist Rest House was a good choice and the gated property and peaceful candlelit garden was just what we needed to escape the chaos of the streets.

An early start was in order as we hoped to visit the Taj Mahal at sunrise, before the hoards of Delhi day trippers spoilt the view. When we arrived at the West gate (a tip is to arrive at the East gate, we realised afterwards) there were already crowds of people around the ticket box – passengers it seemed from the overnight train from Delhi. There were separate, lengthy queues forming at the security gates for men and women and we prepared ourselves for a wait. Then from out of nowhere an authoritative western woman appeared, closely followed by a line of what must be her tour group; expensively dressed European ladies. She pushed her way down the line and they all followed, with Sam in subtle pursuit. Before long there were whispers of “western women can push to the front”. So it seemed was the case for western men as Ady was also through security in record time. Normally we’d have felt bad for queue jumping but at a massively inflated foreigner price – 750 rupees versus 20 for Indian nationals we felt at least we’d got our monies worth!

One of the wonders of the world, Agra’s magnificent white marble Taj Mahal stands like a bulbous beacon, drawing tourists like moths to a wondrous flame. Described as the most extravagant monument ever built for love, this sublime Mughal mausoleum is India’s most ogled icon. The Taj was built by Emperor Shah Jahan as a memorial for his second wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died giving birth to their fourteenth child in 1631. The death of Mumtaz left the emperor so heartbroken that his hair is said to have turned grey virtually overnight. Construction of the Taj began in the same year and was not completed until around 1653. Not long after it was finished, Shah Jahan was overthrown by his son Aurangzeb and imprison in Agra fort where, for the rest of his days, he could only gaze out at his creation through a window. Following his death in 1666, Shah Jahan was buried here alongside Mumtaz.

Predictably, we took all the usual photos of the Taj. You can choose to view them or not, we won’t be offended either way! Without wanting to cause embarrassment to any of our readers (and as such we’ll mention no names!) we had a laugh over how a friend of ours told a story about her untimely attack of Delhi Belly while visiting the Taj. Unable to make it across the lengthy ornamental gardens to the only public toilets, she had to duck behind a neatly manicured bush and hope nobody was looking!

After the excitement of the Taj Mahal and the early start we collapsed back into bed, with full intention of visiting Agra Fort that afternoon. I don’t think we saw sunlight again that day and only crawled out of bed for dinner at a nearby restaurant. The following day was Holi, a Hindu festival to celebrate the commencement of spring. The previous soakings Sam had received in Delhi were apparently linked to this event, even though the culprits were at least week too early in their enthusiasm. On the day itself, the water gets mixed with powdered paint and a massive paint fight starts and often, in the excitement the powder is thrown alone. As some of the few tourists staying in Agra we knew we were easy targets and would get completely obliterated if we left the hotel. The manager also advised us to stay indoors for the morning and so, ashamedly, we did. We’ve since regretted this massively and only wished we’d thought to buy a fetching boilersuit (as the locals do), or at least some old rags beforehand. If ever you’re in India at the end Feb/start March, check out when Holi is and go join the fun…and please, retaliate on our behalf!

Ady decided the give the bike a once over before the next leg of the journey, following the problems on the trip from Delhi. Having cleaned 4 years of dirt and grit from inside the carburettor, the bike was running much better. Let’s hope it survives the next leg!

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Into India!

March 2009

As you can probably tell from the new style blog, we've started a new phase of our trip, on a motorbike in India!

We bought the bike in Delhi at the chaotic Karol Bagh market. It's a 2004 Royal Enfield Bullet 350. We'll post a picture of us fully loaded up and on the road as soon as we can find someone to take one!

So far we've ridden from Delhi to Agra and on to Rajasthan covering over 1000kms. We've seen the Taj, spotted a Leopard, ridden through deserts (sand roads too!) and all while avoiding cows on the road!

Monday, 9 March 2009


4th – 9th March

Just one step up from Kolkata in the grime stakes, we resolved to spend as little time as possible in the country’s capital. After spending a few days in Kolkata, we were at least a little more accustomed to the filth and squalor, sights, smells and noises that can seemingly only be found in India – literally an insult on the senses! Just walking down a street is exhausting – a pedestrian is of course the lowest form of life (even the roaming cattle fare better) and anyone that can afford to do so will take some form of transport, even if only a Cycle Wallah. Fine if you have a particular destination in mind, but as we often don’t, we’re usually forced into the gutter by every passing set of wheels. Even the smaller alleyways and marketplaces, or “bazaars” are not immune from the onslaught of traffic.

If you do manage to dodge the motors your ambling will more than likely be intercepted by every Tom, Dick and Harry (or Rajesh,Sanjay and Nikhil) insisting you need to make their acquaintance and accompany them to their stall, “department store” or, more often than not… taxi/rickshaw/cyclo. Thankfully for Sam, “Sir” seems to take the brunt of these offers. On the flipside, being so overlooked (in a verbal sense – everybody certainly has a good old stare!) becomes equally tiresome. It’s certainly a culture shock how women are so superfluous to the decision making process, even when it comes to traditional female activities like sorting out laundry!

Sorry…enough ranting!!! Delhi isn’t well known for its famous landmarks and we didn’t come for the sights; we had other things to fill our time. A fellow traveller we’d met in Thailand had mentioned that he owned and was selling a couple of motorbikes in Delhi. Naturally, one thing led to another and we agreed to take a look once we’d arrived. One of the bikes had just been sold by the time we eventually reached the city. The remaining bike was a good looking machine and seemed mechanically sound, yet missing the essential papers. Ed didn’t want much in the way of money, but did we want to take the risk of travelling 7,000km without papers?

After two days trawling the streets of Delhi, Ady finally agreed on a 2004, Enfield Bullet 350. We were torn between two bikes; this one and a beautiful, completely reconditioned bike from Bullet Wallas – both had papers and we decided to give the friend’s bike a miss. The costs were broadly similar but (for once!) the practical, newer model won over the “Sunday afternoon show pony”. A number of faults were immediately established however and Ady set the team at Tony Motors to put them right before we handed anything over. A rear luggage carrier and a cruiser style pillion back rest were also added (great for nodding off on those long roads!). Lets just say a stressful few days and sleepless nights followed (for Ady) as he spent time watching over the mechanics for unscrupulous workmanship. For each problem rectified another fault was established and he pushed the patience of Rajesh, the owner, to its limit! Eventually we paid and made it off the forecourt, but Ady still wasn’t happy. The engine was making a strange noise and then the electrics started playing up. We swallowed our pride and took the bike in to see Chris at Bullet Wallas, where we’d viewed the other bike. Between them, they agreed that all was definitely not well and set about getting the bike ready for the long journey south. The mechanics worked until 9pm, but eventually we were ready to go. One more sleepless night before we hit the road…

Finally, we were on our way. Anxious about the journey ahead but so relieved to be away from Delhi, for different reasons (did we mention the gawping, ogling, groping, smirking and having water chucked over by the filthy ******* that might have been Delhi’s male population?)…anyway!!!!

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

Siliguri to Delhi

3rd – 4th March

For some reason, we thought it would be a good idea to take the train to Delhi instead of flying. We’d booked the tickets online a few weeks earlier, and it was only as we were about to board the train that we realised that the carriage was to be our home for the next 31 hours…
At least we had booked 2AC class, which has luxuries such as reading lights and privacy curtains…

Our compartment (for 4 people) was already occupied by an Indian
couple and their 5 year old child. After the initial shock (at least it wasn’t a baby!), Sam was relieved that she wouldn’t have to endure lechy stares for the entire journey, but we still had to put up with the uncomfortable silence – no reply to our initial greeting of ‘Hello’ set the tone (which together with the Toy train incident was doing little to form favourable opinions of local people) , and we kept ourselves to ourselves for the rest of the trip – not easy in a compartment the size of a broom cupboard.

After what seemed like an eternity, sick to death of the monotonous menu of dhal and chapatti, we arrived in Delhi, only 3 hours late – not bad going for a journey that started more than 35 hours earlier.

Tuesday, 3 March 2009


1st March – 3rd March

The train was indeed pretty plush (by Indian standards) and immediate inspection of the berths failed to reveal any lurking nasties such as rats or cockroaches. Even the toilets were passable! We shared our compartment with a single middle aged guy who seemed at least, not too astonished to be in the company of two travellers and was quite happy to chat with Ady. Dinner was almost enjoyable (especially at 40 rupees) and made the offerings by GNER (or whatever they’re called these days) look pretty pitiful.

We pulled into New Jalpaiguri at some ungodly hour the next morning, but feeling more refreshed than after a typical night on a sleeper bus. We’d booked tickets for the Darjeeling H
imalayan Railway, aka the Toy Train and waited with anticipation for the train’s arrival.

Draped over a steep mountain ridge, surrounded by tea plantations and backed by a splendid Himalayan panorama, the archetypal hill station of Darjeeling is rightfully West Bengal’s premier drawcard. When you aren’t gazing at Khangchendzonga (8598m), you can explore colonial mansions and churches, Buddhist and Hindu temples, botanical gardens and a zoo for Himalayan fauna. The steep narrow streets are crowded with colourful souvenir and handicraft shops, and a good steaming brew and excellent Indian and Tibetan food are never far away.

In 1879 the Darjeeling Himalayan railway was constructed alongside the existing Hill Cart Road connecting Siliguri with Darjeeling at an altitude of 2200 metres. The 2 feet gauge rail line was built to increase the capacity of the existing road to handle traffic such as tea for export and the import of essential commodities.

Having already splashed out on “premium” economy for the overnight train, we’d opted for standard second class seating, assuming this would be more than ample for the scenic 8 hour trip up the mountain. We watched in bemusement as the toy train drew into the platform; it was just two carriages long and definitely built to miniature proportions. Whilst the few lucky white tourists all piled into the roomy first class carriage, we hung back as the scrum for the remaining carriage began. Seating had been pre-allocated but there was no accounting for baggage and certainly no accounting for legs! Somehow, we’d managed to land two seats across the aisle from one another – so not a great view then. The window seat next to Sam was empty and we could have moved along one, but for the fact four adults were never going to fit into a space designed for four five-year olds. As it was, we had to sit bolt upright and twist uncomfortably to one side to avoid putting ones knees in another passengers groin!

Anyway, the point of the story is that Ady was sharing his four seat “compartment” with a local couple and their small child, who at every opportunity seized the chance to spread themselves out. Each time the train stopped and Ady went to take some photos, he would return to find either the Father with his legs up, the Mother sat over the two seats, or the whole family using the seat to spread their picnic lunch over! He challenged them as to why he couldn’t sit in his seat, but each time received a grunt and a shrug and a pointing towards other seats, those already taken by other passenger’s baggage. The icing on the cake was when he returned to find the child laying across the whole seat, snoring away!! Incredible!!! To be fair to Ady, he kept his cool really well. Sam was fuming at the audacity of this selfish, rude family and had to spend most of the 8 hour journey, head buried into a Wilbur Smith book, lest she lost it with them. To add insult to injury, this family’s extended family made up 19 of the total 25 passengers in the carriage, so we were getting the evils from all angles!! What was supposed to be a pleasant day aboard this historical train turned into the journey from hell, with blood pressures to match!

When the train drew into Darjeeling we were so relieved to be free of this awful family we didn’t immediately notice the sudden chill. It was late in the afternoon and the temperatures had already plummeted beyond fresh. We knew that it would be cool in the mountains but we were completely unprepared for this! Freezing fog had already closed in and destroyed any sort of view of this picturesque place. Neither of us had so much as a jumper, and still wearing flip flops, we hastily found a room for the night. It was pretty basic and the promised bucket of hot water (our shower) didn’t materialise. Not in the best of moods we refrained from washing in the icy water and, piling on every scrap of clothing we owned, set out for food. Darjeeling was full of small atmospheric restaurants and we found a cosy candlelit place specialising in Tibetan fare. It looked a whole lot warmer than it was and we waited upwards of an hour for food, but when they came the momos (small Tibetan dumplings, a bit like gyoza) were delicious. Teeth still chattering we took refuge in a homely traveller’s pub, the closest to a proper pub since we left London and sat drank warming hot toddy.

fter a chilly night huddled in a single bed under two duvets, we resolved to see the best of Darjeeling that morning, before shamefully hotfooting it back to sea level in an afternoon jeep. Many people come to Darjeeling to enjoy the trekking in the surrounding mountains, but devoid of hiking boots, goretex and woolly fleeces we settled for a less strenuous morning. The Mountaineering Institute and neighbouring Animal Sanctuary were interesting enough and we had a nice wander around the town, enjoying the many bakeries and tea shops; remnants of days gone by when the hill station was under British rule. The returning jeep journey down the mountain took just a few hours and soon we were gratefully stripping off our layers. Our train to Delhi was to depart from Siliguri the next morning and so we spent the first night of what would be many, in one of India’s “hub” towns.

Sunday, 1 March 2009

Kolkata (Calcutta)

26th – 28th February

The Flight
From the moment we stepped into the check in line for our flight, we were in India. The queue was huge, and comprised mostly of Indian men with enough luggage per person to sink a battleship… or overweight a plane! Each had a couple of flatscreen TV’s, several other electrical appliances, and the usual huge suitcases. At the gate, after the normal security, the lighter that we had just bought to light our mosquito coils was confiscated, for no apparent reason – infact Ady was looked down on and presumed to be a’smoker’… strange.

Even though everyone is allocated a seat number and the plane was only half full, a riot ensued towards the rear of the plane as about 30 Indian men jostled around with the crew over their seating. Eventually, the plane started moving, people still up and down like yoyo’s and only when we were at the end of the runway was everyone finally settled. As we sat waiting to take off, we could hear the Captain on the radio to the control tower. We’re not sure if this was intentional, but it was a little strange to say the least. After we were informed that the wheels were up, the climb out of Bangkok was the strangest we’ve experienced, with the plane speeding up and slowing down, climbing and descending – coupled with the running commentary from the cockpit, it was slightly alarming.

Crossing Kolkata
2 and a half hours later, we landed in Kolkata to an airport that looked like it was from the 60’s! The international terminal, smaller than the domestic terminal, had little in the way of facilities, and we had to walk to the domestic area to find a cash machine. Offers of taxis flooded in, with prices ranging from 220 to 300 rupees (£3-4!) to take us into the city centre. We dismissed the offers and walked over to the other terminal.

At domestic arrivals, the taxi price had increased to 350 rupees, probably because people arriving into the domestic terminal are less likely to fall for the taxi drivers attempts to divert the taxi to a hotel where the driver receives commission! The first test of our new India Lonely Planet commenced. It is possible to get into the centre of town using a local bus and the metro, and the book tells you how. Up for a challenge, and keen to see the real Kolkata, we set off on foot, 10 minutes to the gap in the airport perimeter fence where the bus stop supposedly was.

Bundled onto the bus in Indian style, we took an empty seat. Ady was promptly moved on with some laughs and smiles, as he was sitting in a designated Ladies seat… For Rs5 per person, the bus hurtled through the streets on a rollercoaster ride towards Dum Dum metro station. The Dum Dum area of Kolkata is home to an old munitions factory, which used to produce bullets named after the area. Hollow tipped Dum Dum bullets were internationally banned due to the way they open up once they enter the body, causing terrible internal damage to the victim. We also spotted a very old factory with ‘HMV’ above the archway to the entrance. At first we though it must just be a company with the same name as the record company, but as we rounded the corner, we saw the famous dog and gramophone logo with the inscription ‘His Masters Voice’ in stone.

At Dum Dum Junction station (a bit like Clapham Junction at rush hour) we finally found the metro/subway/underground – nobody called it the same thing! Rs6 took us all the way to the city centre on the most efficient way of getting around Kolkata, meaning we spent 22 rupees instead of 220 to get into the city from the airport – result! After searching many hotels around Sudder Street, we went back to the first place we looked at! The Tourist Inn was the only place that was half decent, it cost us Rs500 per night for a huge room with brand new bathroom, hot water and a new bed. Surely this standard wouldn’t last…! After our first proper Indian meal, we crashed out at 10pm and pondered how smoothly it had gone so far.

11pm and the room started vibrating. The sound of jack hammers in the street rung round the whole area. A new electricity cable was being laid and an army of men had arrived, in the night, to get the job done while there was no traffic. After a couple of hours, the noise abated and we finally got some sleep. In the morning we saw how the men had managed to dig a trench by hand, the length of the street, and prepare for laying a cable. In 24 hours the job was complete – the road would have been dug up for a week back home!

Internet and Mobiles
One of our first jobs was to get hold of an Indian mobile prepaid SIM card. Two trips to the Internet café later (forgot passport first time – you need to get online in India) we did our research on what network to go for. We found out that in India, you can’t just buy a SIM and use it over the whole country for free – it is specific to the state that you buy it in. There was no way around it – once we left Kolkata, we would pay roaming charges for all our usage – still much cheaper than using a UK phone though!

Top Traveller Tip #17 – Don’t forget your passport when you go an Internet Café in India. You need to register at each place you use, and they will take your photo, fingerprints, and copy of your passport before letting you online. Best bet is to get a local mobile with mobile internet and check email on your phone – see below!

We then had our first real taste of Indian bureaucracy… we won’t go into the 3 trips to the shop it took to get a SIM card. Passport photos, copy of passport, letter from the hotel confirming we were staying there (a receipt won’t do!), shoe size, blood group…

Top Traveller Tip #18 – Mobile Phones in India. Go to a shop and get a list of the documents you need before you try to buy. If you buy a SIM card in India, be aware that you will be roaming when you travel around the country. It’s an extra Rs1 per minute to receive calls, and there’s an extra charge to make calls too. It’s still infinitely cheaper than using a mobile from home though, so worth the hassle of getting hold of one for your stay. There are no roaming charges for GPRS (on AirTel anyway) making it an ideal way to get online for email etc.

Anyway, we have an Indian mobile now. The number is 00919007120538. We’d better make some use out of it!

The City
A day sightseeing, by both us and all of the male population of Kolkata who took too much of an interest in Sam was fun, but not particularly exciting. The number of pictures taken (8!) show this! As our first city, it wasn’t the best choice, but the cheap flight into Kolkata made it the best option.

Our final memory of Kolkata will be our chaotic departure. With 1 hour to go until our train departure, and the station 15 minutes away by taxi, we thought we were home and dry. Unfortunately, no taxi would make the journey departing from the vicinity of the hotel (ignoring the illegal minicabs trying to charge 10 times the correct fare!). We had to walk against the flow of the traffic until we popped out of the one way system and were on the street where the traffic was heading towards Sealdah station. Now all the taxis were full, so we saved some money and hopped on a local bus. As ever, Sam was the focus of all the men, and couldn’t get off fast enough once we arrived at the station. We had time to spare – a good job as our carriage was 10 minutes walk from the back of the train!

The relative luxury of 2AC for 12 hours lay ahead, including the delights of the Indian Railways pantry car – we couldn’t wait!

Visitors Since 19th May 2009...