Sunday, December 31, 2006

Watching Palaces and Chasing Asses

Diu, 23'066 km

First of all, HAPPY NEW YEAR to all of you who are reading this. Yeah, I've been lazy updating the blog - but good Internet Cafes are few and far between in the countyside. Incidently my (still) camera broke on the way out of Delhi, so I took only some pictures with my Video camera, which snaps decent pictures but I'll have to take it apart and see if I can fix it.

I've settled for Diu, an ex-Portuguese enclave to spend New Year's Eve. It's a quite a nice place, with a small town that still looks very Portuguese and sand beaches, on an island off the south coast of Gujarat. It's packed with Gujaratis coming here to party and get seriously drunk, but most foreigners end up in this backpacker guest house sharing an old church with a museum.. so I'm here sleeping on the roof of a catholic church with an incredible view on the sea, along with many other backpackers, sipping beer and smoking joints. Only in India you can find this.

Some time ago leaving Delhi I first had to hack my way through the crazy traffic on Haryana roads, until I hit Rajasthan and took some very nice little roads with very good tarmac. Generally, Rajasthan roads have been very good, even smaller ones, and with much less traffic, especially in the north west Thar desert.

I decided to bypass Jaipur, the big Rajasthan capital, and head west through the Shekhawatis to Bikaner and Jaisalmer, trying to avoid the touts of the shopkeepers. Arriving in Jaisalmer the first view on the majestic fort is amazing, even through the desert haze. It's an invitation to go and spend hours walking through the little lanes around the palace and other old buildings.

The weather was very foggy and windy, so I decided to skip the (very touristy) camel safari in the desert and head down to Jodhpur. I found a very friendly guest house that let me set up my tent on the roof and sleep there for free. The old city is painted all in blue, and it looks beautiful with the impressive fort overlooking it. It was well worth spending a couple days just hanging out in the fort and around.

Another stop was at the huge fort of Kumbhalgarh, bordered by a very well preserved 36km wall.. second in the world only to the Great Wall of China. By chance I came during a folkloric dance and singing festival, set at night under the illuminated fort. Very nice.

I had to decide whether to go for Udaipur or Mt. Abu, or both. The nice romantic city or the amazing Jains temples. Well, the Indians are on holiday between Christmas and New Year so it seemed Mt Abu would be overcrowded and not so much fun. Udaipur looked good and pretty much on the way so I headed there. Well, it may be a very romantic place to stay, but like Venice it also is a lot more enjoyable if you have big money and stay in a nice hotel. Half of the palace and the adjacent lake side island has been taken over by big palaces, and it's difficult to even walk there if you're not a resident. The guest houses in the old city generally don't have a good view on the lake (but they show "Octopussy" almost around the clock, so thanks to James Bond you can see nice shots of Lake Palace).

In turned out the Indian tourists were invading the place for Christmas as well, so I retreated and left for Gujarat, away from the tourist track. Indeed, the atmosphere is much more relaxed and quiet, and people who approach you just want to talk, they're not trying to bring you to their handicraft shop. Of course it's a bit difficult as they generally only speak Gujarati and maybe Hindi. Even the road signs are often only in Gujarati so it's a bit problematic at times.

Again I avoided the big city of Ahmedabad and took the secondary roads direction the Little Rann Sanctuary, stopping on the way at the beautiful Sun Temple in Modhera. Set in a nice garden it is a very well preserved 11th-century temple that sees very few tourists (and even less foreigners).

Gujarat is on the western tip of India, bordered by Pakistan in the north and the Arabian sea in the west and south. The Rann of Kutch is a very particular place, a very large completely flat desert area that is generally dry except during the monsoon when the whole area is flooded, partly by the rivers and partly by the sea. When the water retreats it leaves these flat salty plains where not much can grow, except on some higher grounds that remain islands during the monsoon.

The Little Rann is home to the rare asiatic Wild Ass, which looks sort of like a zebra without the stripes. A sanctuary has been set here to protect them, as well as the blue bucks and a big population of birds such as flamingoes, cranes and pelicans who spend the winter here coming from Europe or Siberia.

I spent a full day on a jeep safari, shared with a couple from Czech Republic who are big on wildlife photography. I also took my bike and for a half day had some fun riding around the animals, not something I was supposed to do I guess but then those guys have no natural predators, so a little exercise won't hurt them.

After a couple easy days it was time to find a place to spend New Year's Eve. Gujarat is not very good for this as they enforce a strict prohibition on alcohol, but the little island of Diu on the south coast is outside its control and you can find cheap booze everywhere. Time to get ready for the big party, so see you in 2007.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Living in Delhi

New Delhi. 21'000 km

Yes, I'm still alive, back online after one month. The satellite tracking is still working, but the bike has been sitting still in a workshop in Delhi for the whole time..! In a nutshell, I had to stop in Delhi to fix my bike, and that quickly went out of hand. But now I have received the spares, Anders is gone rushing down to the beach, but I will be quietly touring Rajasthan on my own. So morale is up.

So why the hold up ? well, if we go back in time couple month, in Pakistan I started to complain my bike was running bad when it was heating up. It was still running though, and as I couldn't figure out what was going wrong we kept going. In India it was really bothering, it would run at half power and on those steep and windy roads it wasn't very enjoyable. Eventually our mechanic in Switzerland gave me a hint: it's probably the generator coil failing again.. Remember, it already broke back in Siberia, so I had to have a new one sent there in emergency (and then it happened to Anders in Mongolia). But unfortunately the replacement was not reinforced, to avoid this known problem, so now due to heat and vibration it's showing signs of weakness.

On news of that, I immediately requested a new, reinforced part to be sent to India. But again, for some unknown reason, we needed a contact and fixed address in India. So as we were heading toward Delhi (that was mid-November), I said let's just find a workshop there, leave the bike in a safe place and send the package there. We had decided to do some heavy maintenance on both our bikes anyway down in Goa, where we have much time and enjoy the stay on the beach while waiting for the spare parts. But I was feeling the bike wouldn't make it another 3000 km or so.

So arriving in Delhi a local Enfield dealer we enuired redirected us to this bike workshop dealing with Japanese superbikes, and stocking on some hard to find tyres and chains that we would need. The Indians do have a lot of Honda/Yamaha motorbikes, but of the local type, 50-125 cc, locally produced, often through a joint-venture with a local brand. And those need smaller tires and chains. There are only a handful bikes imported from Japan (due to hefty import duties), and it seems all of them get serviced in that one place in Delhi, so it seemed a good place.

But by now Anders had jumped in the bandwagon and asked for me to delay the shipping so that he could do some maintenance on his bike as well (the suspension was not 100% although it was running just fine) and add some items of his own to the package. Fair enough, I could easily wait another couple days while we do a side trip to Agra. So he asked the mechanics at the workshop to take apart the swing arm and figure out what needed to be changed.

Coming back from Agra we went back to the workshop, and there still was something else to check. So we waited some more, while Anders was figuring out what exactly he needs. When the laundry list was ready and sent to Switzerland, I couldn't be asked to wait in Delhi doing basically nothing (there is some nice sight-seeing, but not worth 2 weeks), so I took an overnight train to Varanasi to spend 3 days there.

Varanasi was really great, that was very interesting to see the sacred side of India, with people bathing in the sacred river (Mother Ganga), and bringing dead people to be burned there (no pictures, you don't want to take photos in this environment). It was also very nice to sit on a rooftop restaurant overlooking the Ganges, in this very peaceful atmosphere. Peaceful, that is, when you're away from the touts and hassling on the river front, and the hectic activity in the maze of narrow streets of the old city. But very different from Delhi.

Unfortunately, the spiritual atmosphere is somewhat spoiled by the impressive deployment of police and army forces in the area around Golden Temple and the mosque. You have to pass a metal detector to get even near the area (no camera are allowed in, and I even had to surrender my ball-point pen at the entry). The mosque itself is surrounded by high barbed-wire fences, reminding of a military camp - it turns out that during the last Hindu extremists uprising against the Muslims in 1992, when they destroyed a mosque, they said Varanasi's mosque would be next..

Back in Delhi, where Anders had been hanging out on his own, I found out the parts had still not been delivered due to a delay with Anders' shock absorber, and that the workshop hadn't made much progress on our bikes. That was the worst. But the following week was worse - and then it went downhill from there.

Another week passed by until we got news our package has arrived in Delhi - but blocked for customs clearance. We've been told the customs expected 23000 rupees (more than 500$) duty, where the invoice stated a value of 900 Swiss francs (730$), which was of course much less that the real value. But that was still quite a bit more than the 36% we expected (yes, that's correct, 36% import taxes in India). So we went to the DHL office, and I asked them to sow me the calculation. As I feared, there was an error: they had calculated on the basis of 900 Euros, because sadly the original invoice didn't state any currency so they though since it was coming from Europe it has to be in Euros. To cut a long story short, it was then another 5 days of struggle, unreturned phone calls and camping in their offices until I got hold of the package. That's how it works in India.

Meanwhile we often discussed with Anders where to go next. The initial idea was Rajasthan, with its large forts, magnificent palaces and great landscapes. But Anders somehow had that idea of spending Christmas Eve on the beach in Goa. Besides, Anders is quickly fed up of the cultural side of touring, and more inclined toward riding the bike in great landscapes, which is what we've been doing until now. On the other hand I had been missing the cultural/historic side of traveling until now so I was eager to see those places on the way south. And that was the reason also I wanted to go to Varanasi.

That would have been fine with the initial planning of a short stay in Delhi, but now with only a few days left before Christmas, Anders decided to make its way most directly to Goa (2000 km), whereas I had no reason to change my itinerary with 4 months left on my visa and no strong attraction toward the Christmas-overcrowded beaches of Goa. Although I reckon it must be good partying on New Year's Eve. So we decided to split up once our bikes are fixed and meet again sometime in Goa.

But now come the best part: suddenly, after 3 weeks of waiting, and only 1 day left to finally receive the package, he decides to leave immediately with no change on the bike, before the spare parts arrived! so we've been waiting an extra 3 weeks to fix his suspension and finally he buggers off without anything and asking me to forward the parts by mail to Goa - which is exactly what we had planned initially. Go figure..

But that's okay with me: him staying here won't speed up the process, so if he needs to go that's fine. Now I just need to fix that leeking oil and I'm gone as well..

New Delhi is actually not that bad, it can be quite enjoyable at times, and there are quite few interesting places to visit. The weather has been good also, with a few chilly nights but now it's around 25 degrees at midday. But there's a striking difference between Old Delhi and its very typical cow- and rickshaw crowded bazaars, and New Delhi which is organized around large avenues, velo rickshaws are forbidden and cows seldom to be seen. Of course you still have to watch your steps for sick dogs sleeping on the street and monkeys are wandering in the roofs looking for food to steal so it's not quite Europe. But around Conought Place, where we found a cheap guest house (125 rps per night, 3$), the fancy shops and hip Starbuck-lookalike coffee places can make for an expensive stay as well.. you could very well eat in a local restaurant for 25 rps (0.50$) and then have a cup of coffee and chocolate cake for 100 rps (which is still cheap compared to Europe of course). Indeed there's a bookshop serving very good tea (very hard to find in India..) and an awesome Apple crumble!

There's also a very luxury cinema theater where we watched the latest James Bond, for 175 rps (4$). It was OK but not really a Bond movie if you ask me, although Daniel Craig pulls a pretty decent job and the dialogues are pretty funny like the "Does it look like I give a damn?" The security was very picky and didn't allow us to bring in any cell phone or (still) camera, pretending an anti-terrorism mesure. In fact, they were probably a bit cranky about people filming the movie and copying in to DVD. Well, they shouldn't, as the "screener" is already available in the bazaar across the street for 3$..!

It seems the average DVD copies go for 80-90 rps (2$), with variable quality, and the pirated PC games go for 150 rps. All of this is sold quite openly in Palika bazaar, the hardest being getting past the barrage of porn movies thrown to you (do all tourists really come to India to watch porn flicks?) to get them to reach for the box of burned DVDs under the shelf. Still, the copies in Kashgar (China) looked of much better quality for about the same price.

Recently I went to see the current Bollywood hit धूम 2 (I mean, Dhoom:2), that started with no less than 1200 copies all over India.. The theater was of the local kind, pretty cheap (25 rps, 0.50$) but you have to put up with the seams of the battered screen showing through the projected picture. The movie itself was OK, a lot of action and CGI effects, some good humor, and the romance.. which climaxed with a full-fledged kiss! This is still quite taboo by India standard, and indeed the scene made quite a fuss in the audience around me; it is even subject to a trial for obscenity. The obligatory singing and dancing was quite enjoyable, as was the abuse of gratuitous slow-motion, especially since it often involved a close-up on one of the stunning actresses (but where do they come from?), who would give the run-of-the-mill Bond girl a run for her money. All of this was in hindi of course, but I don't think I really missed a lot.

Anyway, it's been exactly one month I arrived in Delhi and now that my bike is ready it's about time I hit some serious road. Tomorrow, I will be in Rajhastan - Inch Allah.