After taking a day off to let cyclone Huddud and my migraine pass, and losing our traveling companion Kristján who headed to Nepal, we woke to clear blue skies and headed to Varanasi, or Banaras. Nepal wasn’t an option for us as we only managed to get single entry visas into India.
Varanasi is only 120kms away so it will be a really easy riding day. We had decided a couple of days ago to spend more time stopping along the way and try and connect with people in even smaller places so as soon as we spot a brick kiln, we turn down the little track towards it. We stop at the entrance gate – it looks like an entrance to an old tiny village. It is not long before a few people appear. We try as best we can to ask whether we could have a look at the brick factory. Everyone is trying to be helpful: we are obviously lost so they point in various directions to set us back on our way. So I use my now tried and trusted sign language: I point to the chimney in the distance, make the shape of the chimney, point to my eyes, thumb and forefinger together, walk with my fingers. (Which reminds me that I don’t think we’ve mentioned the first time I used my sign language to great effect: when we first arrived in Russia, stopped at a small, dark roadside truck stop restaurant and couldn’t recognise what was on the other diners’ plates, and could remember the Russian word, I asked if they had any chicken: hands under armpits, elbows out, wave elbows up and down “pluck pluck!!!” And the whole restaurant burst out laughing. Yes, they had kuritsa!). Ahh, big smiles, yes, follow me the tall man gesturers. We park the bikes and walk towards the brick factory, followed by a small crowd. We first see a massive pile of coal, which is used to power the factory. Walk a bit further and the magnificent and ingenious factory is revealed to us. The owner explains how it works – we don’t understand a word of Hindi but his sign language is effective and so we discuss how it all works and what happens next from the current state of the brick making process in front of us. Place the bricks and coal in the circular trench, cover with dirt, light the coal on the edges through the occasional openings in the outer wall, the arched flues that connect to the central smoke stack draws the hot air out over the bricks and fires the bricks. It is basically a massive kiln. He was the owner and very happy to show us around. A lovely gentle man. And special moment for us.
We loved riding on that tiny quiet countryside track – it was only too short…
After the massive rain the last couple of days, we encounter a few puddles, see the remnants of fallen trees that must have blocked the roads yesterday. The ride is pleasant enough until we get to Varanasi. Usual road madness but here, the horns are worse than anywhere we have been before. It must drive the locals mad, surely or maybe they have just become numb to the noise and explains the many blank stares??? To avoid driving right into the centre of Varanasi which is the oldest city in the world, the streets being tiny and twisty, I found a suburb on the outskirts with a few hotels. We can then then take tuk-tuk to see the sights. Anthony puts a waypoint into his gps and off we head to Mall Road. All goes smoothly until Mall Road stops with an army barracks for the 39th Gurkas right across the road. Rats! Which way now? Quick GPS check, we can take Cemetery road to our left and join up with Mall road further up. This is a tiny brick covered lane, just wide enough for 2 scooters to pass. Remember it has been raining here, so there are puddles, mud, bricks missing. And dozens of bikes, scooters, people walking, the odd car of course. I am not enjoying this too much but so long as I can keep some momentum, we will be out of this in no time and back on track. The track deteriorates in places. We maneuver around and past the crowds somehow. The locals know the track better than us so know where and when to weave past pot holes. I stop occasionally to let them pass and give myself room as I am still too conscious about my bikes width and worried about hitting people. At one point, a scooter, wanting to be helpful and give me access to the better cemetery wall side part of the lane, which doesn’t have so many bricks missing and pot holes, suddenly cuts in front of me. I turn right too fast to avoid him, skid and slowly but irrevocably over I go. Unfortunately, the wall breaks my fall so I am pinned against it but the weight of Streak eventually forces it down. No personal damage, just good bruises. I quickly press the kill switch to stop the engine. I see liquid pouring out. I have managed to completely smash the front brake fluid reservoir. As I am still pinned against the wall, I turn around and try to pick the bike up. Of course, a crowd is just staring. I can’t budge it so I have to ask for help. A young man gives me a hand until Anthony walks back. We move Streak to the side of the lane and examine the damage. There is no brake fluid left. I have done a good job here…. The crowd of scooter riders look. All say we can’t ride the bike. Yes, this is a problem. But we are not far from the Mall road and the string of hotels and Anthony says he’ll ride Streak very slowly – we still have my back brake working. I don’t like the idea but he’s right. So we swap bikes and off we go. We arrive at a hotel 10′ later. It is not the one I had thought of but recognised the name as one of the popular hotels in the area, so if they have a room, it will be perfect. We walk in, 2 drowned rats again, hot and sweaty. The room is too expensive but too bad – we have work to do.
While Anthony reads up on how to bleed the brake system (empty completely and ensure there are no air bubbles when we refill), I set off in search of brake fluid. I am told there was a motorcycle place just 200 metres away. Varanasi is very touristy so there are tuk-tuks constantly asking to take me somewhere. No thank you, no thank you. I go into one place – no brake fluid but just 200m down the road on the right. I head that way. On the way, I see a Honda motorcycle shop on the left. No, none here. I continue down the road. 5 way junction. Which way now?!! I go back to the Honda shop. There a young man asks if he can help. I explain. He says he can take me find what I need. In we hop into a tuk-tuk and set off with another man, Raj. The 2 of them sit on either side of the driver. Mam here has the back seat to herself!! The young man, Rohan, speaks very good English. It is his duty to help me as I am a tourist, he tells me. He is 16 years old. Raj is about 50. We drive for about 20′!!! And eventually get to a street full of tiny shops selling various motorcycle parts. We go from one store to another. I am in one store with Raj and Rohan brings some huge metal part. Oops, something has got lost in translation, but we are soon back on track when Raj points to another store. Success!!! It is only Dot 3 quality, not Dot 4 but it is brake fluid so it is perfect!! We also pick up a couple of tiny allen keys which Anthony asked me to pick up. Raj works at his father’s business, which he’d like to show me. I would love to but we have a lot of work to do first. He tells me that he could take us to the Ganga tonight so that we can see the fire ceremonies. It is very impressive and important to their culture, something to see and not to be missed. We will have to see how we go but I will call him later and let him know. I suddenly remember that we were also going stop to get more data credit put onto Anthony’s sim card but after being away for so long, I forgot. No problem says Rohan, he can organise that for us. Within a couple of hours, it was done!
We start the repair work. First dismantle, wash and dry the parts before we can superglue them back together. We will need another day. We see if we can stay another day but the hotel is overbooked already so we will have to move. We check the original hotel I had spotted on the internet, which is literally 5 doors away. They have a room and give us a room for the same price as our current one which 1/3 of the price he first quoted us!!…
I call Rohan and arrange for him to pick us up at 5pm. Off we go, but turn off towards his father’s business. Hmmm, that was not part of the plan I thought… But we meet Rohan’s father, Raju, who wants to take us. Rohan stays behind and off we go. What an interesting and lovely man!!
In addition to learning about Varanasi which is fascinating (spiritual capital of India, the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, whose history is older than most of the major world religions), we have a vey open conversation about religion and find we share very similar attitudes to religion and life values. We find out that he has opened schools for under privileged kids. He gets no government funding. As someone recently told us, one of his biggest mistakes in business was when he got government funding for one of his projects – that was his only failure, as he was too busy dealing with bureaucracy associated to the finding, he lost sight of the business. That is something Raju knew already.
Raju takes us to a set of steps, or ghat, down to the Ganges. We decide to take a boat ride for an hour and a half. First past some Hindu cremations, light a couple of candles for our loved ones who have departed to float down the Ganges, then listened to and watched priests perform Agni Pooja, the worship to Fire and dedication to mother Ganga (the river Ganges). We left the ceremony early as wanted to drift along the river alone, away from all the boats. Listening from a distance was special. A lovely evening. There is definitely something that draws you in here, in this city. We decide we will go back around 3 pm tomorrow and soak in the atmosphere of the narrow streets.
When we get back from our evening river trip, we test the superglued reservoir to see if we have glued all the cracked parts. Yes, it’s watertight so tomorrow we can reassemble it.
Next day, we check into our new hotel, having left our bikes and all our bags at the old hotel. We are given a fabulous suite!! Very nice but we have work to do.
A quick call to Noel at BMW Sharjah to double check the process and we are good to go. There is some fiddly filing to do to remove some excess superglue. Part of the bleeding process requires us to remove one little rubber cover on the brake calliper. Oh, what is this other little rubber thing here Anthony wonders and pulls. Oh no!! What is this?! A massive rubber plug that is about an inch long with ripples at one end to make sure it fits tight. Impossible to push it back in! We will have to dismantle the whole brake to get to the back of it. That doesn’t help. Rats!!! Anthony comes up with the brilliant idea of cutting the plug at the ripples part so that we can push the straight part from one end, slit the ripples across and push the ripples over the backside with all cut edges coated with a fine layer of super glue. Magic!! All this takes us about an additional 2 hours…
Back to the reservoir and bleeding of the brake lines. It all goes smoothly. The reservoir is now full. We ‘ll just have to wait and see how it all goes tomorrow.
We finish at 5pm. Too late to go back into Varanasi but we did want to go back and see Raju in his shop. We spent 2 great hours talking to him, sharing our confusion and distress at not having been able to connect with people in India until now and trying to understand why. He explained that people are intrigued by our bikes but have communication difficulties and don’t feel like they can try to communicate. (Because of the Indian class structure, people are not encouraged (allowed) to take initiatives. Those at the lower end of the social structure simply do as they are told and accept things as they are, waiting for the next instructions.) It is great to hear how positive he is about his country’s future, and especially with the current prime minister Narendra Modi.
Wednesday 15th October, get up at 6am and by 8.30 are ready to set off. I send Rohan a message as promised before we leave and he’s beside us in no time to wave us off. Such a lovely young man.
We always feel that good always eventually comes out of any experience, and yesterday was the case once again. Had I not had that fall, I would not have met Rohan. What an absolute privilege to meet Rohan and his dad Raju!
We leave Varanasi, our hearts lighter and happier. It is not long though before I see splashes of brake fluid on my tank. Not good. Maybe it is splashing out of the top only as we go over the rough roads? Wishful thinking. We eventually have to stop a second time and make some serious reparations. Thankfully, we have some gasket sealant which Sorhab had given us in Iran. The crude fixes we are about to make mean that I will need to replace the whole brake assembly but we have no option. We paste this gasket sealant over the base and main cracks and wait 1.5 hours for it to dry.
It is now just about noon and we have to cover over 1600kms in just 2 weeks. Eeek!! The ride is pleasant enough, just the usual madness on the roads, the scenery is changing. We drove through s really colourful village that beckons us to stop. Vegetable vendors line the edge of the road. We pull over and walk back up the road. An old man is chopping chewing tobacco. We ‘chat’. I am invited to take and try some but decline. This village feels healthy and more prosperous than so many others for some reason. The local monkeys are enjoying the spoilt fruit and vegetables too.
About 110kms from Varanasi, 30kms out of Ballia, a car that has been following us overtakes then tries to wave us down right on a bend. You must be joking – we are not stopping here! So we continue a little further but because we had a feeling they wanted to talk to us, we soon pull over. They come up and stop. Father and son, Ukay and Dharmendra, get out and are so excited to meet us. We chat, they want to know where we are going etc and where we are staying. As usual, we have no idea yet. They live in Ballia so we ask them if they can recommend a hotel. The Ashoka, straight into town, and it’s on the right. But we can follow them and they’ll take us there. Wonderful. So off we go. After about 15kms, they pull over. They want to check that we really want to go i to Ballia and stay over. Yes. And the father tells Anthony he wants to introduce his daughter who is also in the car! Oh yes?! Out she comes. Smita is so excited to meet us, she is the one who told her father and brother that this is a woman riding the bike!! Photos and a few more photos later, we all set off again.
30kms and 1.5hours later, we get to the hotel. There is no way we would found it!! We are exhausted. In 5 hours we have covered a mere 150kms. We all have cool drinks in our room. We return to the bikes to get our bags and find a massive crowd. We decide to cover the bikes for the first time on our trip as there is no security at this hotel. The family is concerned for us and ask if we want to go to another hotel that has undercover parking. There is no way we can ride out again today. At one point, as Anthony was at the bikes for something, the dad, Ukay invites us to go over to his home. We are tired and know we need an early night so decline. The sad look on his face when he said he understood immediately made me change my mind, “only if it isn’t rude if we only stay an hour” I ask.
Off we go, park at Ukay’s mother’s home, walk out, down one alley, left down a narrow track and right an even narrower one. Hmmm… We arrive at the family home. Lovely garden, long wide veranda where Ukay’s 80 year old dad is resting. We meet his wife, another daughter, daughter-in-law, grandson, I am put through to the 3rd daughter on the mobile. They are all so happy to meet us and we feel the same. We talk about our experiences in India and confusion. Again, it is put down to communication difficulties. Prime minister Modi is once again mentioned positively. I am shown photos of the oldest daughter’s wedding and am explained some of the rituals. They call her so that I cam ‘meet’ her too. Ukay tells us he is Brahmin.
After talking to Raju in Varanasi, and Ukay in Ballia, we still do not have a clear understanding of the cause of our difficulty in connecting. We think there a number of factors come into play: language, culture, old caste system. Certainly, as we have spent more time in tiny villages away from the larger cities, we have managed to make better contact.
It is interesting how the bike covers worked. We had heard that covering your bike makes it “disappear”. They were right. When we returned to our hotel at 9pm, there wasn’t anyone near them!!! Magic.
We decide that we have to get up extremely early and try and make some mileage. So up at 5am for a 7am departure at the latest. We slept like logs but could slept longer. The bike covers are completely covered in crickets!! What a sight. A few shakes and there off.
We get out of Ballia in no time and we are soon riding into the mystical Indian morning mist and gentle dawn glow by 6.45am. The narrow country roads are quiet too. We love it. I start taking photos but my battery has died… We stop to swap batteries but I have strangely misplaced it… How annoying. The scenery is stunning – we pull over again and have another look for this battery.
We make good progress and by noon, or 5 hours later, we have covered 220kms. This is when the roads started getting interesting. This post is long enough to spare you the details but in short, we had grid locked traffic jams, massive pot holes in every village centre, detours due to bridge construction, mud, sand, more grid locked traffic jams, and endless traffic going in any and every direction, a number of scary moments. Traffic jams are the hardest as bikes, rickshaws, people, cars scrape past you, cut in front of your front wheel when they have to get out of the way of oncoming traffic, all the while tackling potholes, avoiding cows of course. And the incessant hooting of every single vehicle is enough to drive you totally mad.
I have never sworn so much in my life – poor Anthony!!! We looked out for a roadside hotel/motel for the last 2 hours. Nothing. So we stop and out comes the phone, quick internet check and I find us a hotel in Forbesganj. Only 65kms away. Easy. The sun is setting fast.
We will get there just in time. Forbesganj turn off, and then, malheur de malheur, one wrong turn. We are now in single lane road but double lane traffic evening madness. It is absolutely horrid. And we took the wrong turn… What is your problem ask a young man when we just stop. We are lost. The young man on a bicycle offers to guide us. And 2 of his mates on a motorbike too. So we have 2 escorts. Riding right along side us, leaving us no wriggle room but being very very helpful.
We eventually arrive safely at our hotel 11.5 hours after we left Ballia, having covered 350kms. Yes, you’ve worked it out, in the last 6 hours, we averaged just over 20kms/hour. Enough said?! A massive day. Today was the toughest riding day on our trip so far. It was hellish… But once again, the best part of today was meeting Aditya.
The next morning, Aditya gave us a hand written note for us to read later. A truly lovely note.
Sunday 19th, we have a lovely easy ride into Siliguri which we first went to in 2009 when we did our first motorcycle trip in the region, across Bhutan. We stop for a mid-morning snack at a roadside stand. The cook is busy making samosas for later but agrees to make us 2 masala omlettes. He is so gentle. Watching him preparing our food was so beautiful and soothing. His movements when flipping the omelettes over were slow and fluid. I really wish he knows how much we enjoyed our time with him. Here’s Anthony’s video of him.
Being back in Siliguri brings back fond memories. As we drive past the hotel we stayed at, we laugh at how narrow the street we first rode our Royal Enfield motorcycles through felt to us back then. Granted, we were learning how to ride a bike that had transposed brake and gear levers, with the gear box inverted!!
We are not far from our Hotel Tourist Inn, late afternoon traffic is building, everyone keen to get somewhere, and I still have not got used to only worrying about what is in front of me as the Indians do, quite effectively I must say, even if it is terrifying to us. So at one point, as the road is clear for me to overtake a bus in front of me, I know a car behind Anthony has been itching to get past too, and when the bus stops, instead of taking off, I brake. Oops, Anthony rides into the back of me, the car behind him goes into him and over he goes. No harm done. Phew. And off we go.
Our hotel is the loveliest we’ve stayed at so far. It has a very serene feel to it. The staff are lovely, efficient, bed comfy and clean. We decide to stay an extra night and catch up on washing, blog, replenishing toiletries and snack foods and Anthony catches up on missed nana naps. Tomorrow, general bike maintenance.
As you can tell hopefully, we are finally making contact with some lovely, gentle people and are enjoying our time here.