Friday, November 24, 2006

The road to Taj Mahal

We leave Amritsar early to meet up with Tom and Peter who are riding ahead of us by one day. We meet them in McLeodGanj, a small town up the mountains home to the Tibetan refugees (the most famous of whose is the Dalaï-Lama himself). Quite a nice place, but unfortunately a bit spoiled by all the tourist shops and the hassling by the shop keepers and the beggars. But it is a touristic place, as well as a magnet for those people who are here in a quest of spiritualism. You easily spot them by the way they dress and behave.

As my bike is not running so well, we decide to go to Delhi to do some preventive maintenance; it seems the part that I changed in Mongolia is failing again.. We ride along Tom and Peter for that, on nice windy but busy mountain roads. Tom even has a close encounter with a truck.. ending up with a bent pannier (again). We're in no hurry so we stop in Kalka and take a narrow gauge train to visit Shimla, at 2000m it used to be the summer capital of British India. It's a very picturesque ride through more than 100 tunnels and bridges to get there.

When we arrive, indeed it looks very British as the rains pours down and blocks all views from up there! At least our fellow English riders feel home (uncomfortably so says Tom). We end up sipping drinks in the bar of the best hotel of the town, for the ultimate British experience.

Delhi is just a short ride away, so no big deal even in the pretty heavy traffic. The road and the general infrastructure is very good and modern, and we end up stopping over for lunch in a McDonald.. but really, what is the point of a McDonald if there is no BigMac ? Of course, beef is out of question in a hindu country! All you have are McChicken and VegMac.

New Delhi is quite modern and doesn't look like a big Indian city. Large avenues, modern infrastructure, western-style shops, etc.. but a short ride to old Delhi and you're back in the landmark "organized chaos". We find a nice workshop for our bikes, it seems the only one in India dealing with big japanese bikes. We leave them here and wait until Anders has figure out what part he wants to order as well for his.

In the mean time we do the obligatory visit to Agra, home of Taj Mahal and just 3 hours away y train. Well, that is, when the train is actually running, because it took us actually 7 hours waiting for - and in - the train. When we arrive we're told that the Taj has been closed the whole day to allow for the Chinese prime minister to visit it.. fine, we intend to visit it at dawn the next day anyway. As it turns out, 6AM is a good time to come to avoid the crowd of tourists. As the sun is raising at 7AM, everybody is lines up on the entrance terrace to take a good shot at the monument with the early sun hitting it, so it's a good time to walk around without too much hassle. As much as you've seen it in post cards and books, it is still a fantastic monument to look at, and I hardly got bored with it when I left 3 hours later, when the big crowd comes in. The other guys on the other hand had a bit of mixed feelings about it; maybe they expected something more, whereas I expected to be disappointed and I was definitely not.

Before returning to Delhi, we hire a taxi for a day trip to Fatehpur Sikri, a very well preserved archaelogical site nearby (see the photo album). We get a good price from the owner by dealing only 2 visits to shops. The usual way to get extra money for a driver is to bring the tourists to various shops where the manager would pay them 100 or 200 ruppees for this. That's OK as long as the deal is open, but we didn't want to spend hours in those souvenir shops, so we quickly dashed in and out of the stores, much to the disappointment of the driver who wouldn't get his money for such a short visit. Too bad, but that's what we had agreed on.

We spend some time walking in the streets, filming as we try to dodge the constant hassling of the rickshaw drivers and shop keepers that jump out on you as soon as they spot you. It seems only the cows can walk quietly in the streets, stopping by the shops to ask (and get) some food. It's good for your karma to look after a cow, so they look pretty healthy and not too unhappy.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Smoke and more smoke

After 2 weeks in the camping we leave Islamabad for Lahore, looking for the motorway that leads directly to Lahore. As we reach the toll gate, the police turns us down: the motorway is forbidden to motorcycles.. of course, all they ride here are 70 or 125cc Honda/Yamaha. So we have to get to the other side of Rawalpindi to reach the normal road, which is quite okay except when it crosses a town's bazaar.. All this means that when we arrive in Lahore, it's quite late and we have to find our way in the totally chaotic trafic. We end up giving the address of that backpacker hotel to a rickshaw and ask him to lead us there. Easy enough in any "normal" city, but here the rickshaw drives like a maniac to be able to find a way through this chaos, and the only way I don't lose him is to stick 50cm behind is rear wheel (and of course Anders has to do the same with my rear wheel). But it also happens to be the dirtiest rickshaw in the city and I can hardly see the road through the black smoke. My lungs must now look like I had been smoking for the last 20 years..

We arrive in "the" backpacker place in Lahore, but all rooms are full, so we lay our sleeping bag in the (outside) smoking room.. a bit worried by the mosquitoes as there are rumors of Dengue fever around here. And also we met 2 people who allegedly cought malaria in Pakistan. But as the local wisdom goes: the mosquitoes like clean water, and there is no clean water in Lahore..!

That same night, the hotel owner organizes a trip to Lahore's must see event, Sufi drumming and dancing. This has to be one of the most bizarre "concert" I've ever been to. It takes place in a Sufi shrine where hundreds of Pakistanis sit down to smoke charas and listen to the hallucinating rythms played by drummers. Then come the Sufi dancers, who shake their heads like madmans or turn around at incredible speed like dervishes, for hours, in a surreal atmosphere. Foreigners are welcome, they even make room for us to sit and a few Pakistanis spend the night rolling joints that they pass around to us (only to foreginers..?). Totally amazing experience, very hard to describe.

The next morning we meet again with Tom and Peter and decide to go see the flag lowering ceremony at the Pakistani-Indian border. As much as the Sufi dancing was mesmerizing, this one event is monty-pythonesque weird. Those guys (Indians and Pakistanis alike) actually built a stadium on each side of the big gates that close the border, for the sole purpose of bringing people to see their respective border guards perform a very aggressive marching and screaming ceremony in front of each other. The spectators participate as if it was a cricket game, and keep screaming "Pakistan-Pakistan-.." louder than the Indians just meters away. They disagree on many subjects, but it seems they at least they came up with a common choregraphy that takes places every night for years. Now, these are the same guys who point nuclear missiles to each other..

When we actually cross the border we must make our way through a huge line of Pakistanis and Indians passing each other hundreds of tomato crates (or onion bags), that they must unload in India and reload in Pakistan on Pakistani trucks.. that's how far the Pak-India cooperation goes.

From the border to Amritsar is a short ride, and our first impression of India is not very different from Pakistan (okay, the first thing we do is to buy a beer, that's different). The traffic is just as bit as chaotic, a bit less aggressive but more messy. I'm not sure if it's because of the cycle rickshaws, the cows strolling the road or because many more women are driving..

First to see of course is the Golden Temple, and that truly is a very special experience. When you pass the gates and walk around the inner lake, around the Golden Temple, you're surrounded by a feeling of serenity and peacefulness that makes a striking difference with the city's constant noise and activity. Here the Sikh priests read in huge sacred boks all day long, accompanied by musicians, and pilgrims and tourists alike walk around them in quietness. Fantastic impression.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006


It's been a while since I last published something here, and as you may have noticed, my satelite transponder is also frozen. Indeed, we've spent the last 10 days here in Islamabad waiting for our Indian visa. But now we have it (6 months duration, but not without much hassle) so, at last, we can go. Although we have a good time chatting with other tourists in the heavily guarded foreigner's campsite, there's not so much to do in Islamabad. And the nights are a bit cool and humid.. looking forward to seeing India!

Actually, we need to wait for Anders' bike to be repainted. Yeah, while Anders was busy fixing stuff for his bike and Tom's, I went to Rawalpindi to try and find one of those truck workshop where they build these world-famous wildly decorated trucks (mostly old Bedfords, but newer ones as well). After some searching in the bazaars, I finally found one and met some very nice and friendly people. So I let my bike there for them to repaint the fuel tank. I got it back 3 days later with a nice paint for just 25$. But now it seems Anders is starting a "Jacky" contest, although we have no chance next to the Pakistani rickshaws, buses and trucks.

Check the results in the photo album.

Friday, November 03, 2006

8000 meters

After a few days in Gilgit, watching polo and chatting with other backpackers we decide to go see the famous Nanga Parbat Rupal face. Nanga Parbat, 8125m, marks the begining of the Himalaya range on the other side of the Indus, and its north face stretches 4500m high. Amazingly, you can almost drive up to the base camp, it's just a short 3-hours walk to reach it (as opposed to 1 week to get to K2 base camp). Unfortunately, while the weather was good until now, clouds start to build up as we reach the bottom of the face the top of the mountain is hidden. We even get some rain during the night (which means snow at Khunjerab for our fellow English bikers Tom and Peter as we will find out later).

Time to get down in the valley. The Indus valley at this point, which is so narrow and steep that the raod has been carved all the way into the cliff. Very impressive. It starts to rain again so we overnight in Besham, only customers of the hotel, so we get a very good price.

From there on the weather and the landscape changes radically: it's now hot and humid, and the buffaloes replace the yaks on the side of the road. I even cross a couple camels, but the one-humped kind, not Bactrians camels. This is definitely another country, and indeed we're now in Punjab, and this shows also in the traffic which gets progressively more intense and chaotic.

Arriving in Islamabad, we pitch our tent in the tourist campsite, reserved to foreginers, and heavily guarded by police outside and soldiers inside. But the atmosphere is good and of course we meet many other tourists on foot, bicycle, motorbike, car, 4x4, truck, you name it.

Islamabad is not very interesting, being a new city planned from scratch to become the capital of the new state. We came there for the sole purpose of getting an Indian visa. All embassies are grouped in a heavily guarded enclave where it's forbidden to enter on foot, you have to use a special shuttle after having given away your cameras, cell phones, etc.. And since Prince Charles in currently touring Pakistan the police is pretty cranky.

Our passports in the hands of the Indians, we have to wait 1 week for ours visa, which we hope will allow us 6 months (but the rumor here says you can get only 3 months). Meanwhile we chill out, chat with other people and do some maintenance on the bikes (as usual, Anders like to do some mechanics, for himself and others. I on the other hand go by the rule "if it ain't broken, don't fix it").