Chapter 4 – Setting Off (October 1997)
After countless trips to the toilet, and that was before I even got my first bout of Delhi Belly, numerous checks on the map to learn the first day’s route, and tedious repetitions of various Hindi sentences (‘Where is…’, ‘I don’t understand’, ‘Turn right/left’, ‘Straight on’) to try to keep my mind off all sorts of accidents, I finally dozed off at three o’clock in the morning.
As I left Delhi at six o’clock, mist on the ground gave the impression that the buildings were floating on clouds, but soon, the fog became so dense I couldn’t see more than 20 yards ahead. Not even out of Delhi and already I had no idea what I was riding into.
Fortunately, the morning sun soon burned off the fog and I could concentrate on getting to know my motorbike.
For about two thirds of the route, the road, called the Grand Trunk road, was dual carriageway and in good condition. I enjoyed giving the bike full throttle and overtaking overloaded trucks and bullock-driven carts. I even managed to go up to 120 km an hour, when the whole bike, and I, started shaking.
For the final third of the journey, the road became single carriageway because of re-surfacing work. Then riding the bike became much more difficult with oncoming truck drivers, overtaking each other and playing the Indian version of chicken: me as the hapless chicken and the driver as the hungry fox. It took me a while to realise I was meant to move out of the way onto the narrow gravel hard shoulder to make room for overtaking trucks from the opposite direction
The scenery was disappointing: flat agricultural land with the odd ugly motel, military encampments with their obligatory drab prefab tenements, and factories billowing smoke that mingled with the diesel fumes already hanging over the road to burn my eyes and throat. The lack of beauty was probably fortunate as it allowed me to concentrate on the road ahead of me.
In the afternoon I stopped for a cup of tea at a road-side stall where I tried out one of my newly learned Hindi phrases: ‘Chai bina dude’, ‘tea without milk’. What I got instead was just marginally less milk. Still, I gulped it down – for the caloric value if not for the taste.
In the toilet, I saw my face in the mirror: even with the visor down on my helmet, it was black with dirt and my bloodshot and exhausted eyes looked back at me wearily. I washed as best as I could and returned to settle my bill.
‘Where are you from?’ the owner asked as he took my money.
‘I am having an uncle living in Manchester. You are very welcome to my country.’ He handed back the paper money I had given him. ‘The tea is free. You are looking much tired and needing it.’
Finally I reached the town of Jalandhar in the late afternoon and went from hotel to hotel in search of a room. Most of the accommodation had been taken over by Punjabi soldiers sent here to protect the Indian Prime Minister and the British Queen who were visiting nearby Amritsar. Every time I dismounted from the bike I had to be careful not to fall over, or drop the bike from exhaustion.
After ten hours on the bike and a journey of 400 kilometres (I never again did such a long day), I was getting worried about where I would sleep that night. I did not much like the suggestion from one hotel employee that I ride over to Amritsar, two hours away and in the dark, in search of a hotel room.
Eventually the town’s top hotel offered me their worse room: a windowless neon-lit room seemingly used for storing linen. Still it had A/C, room service, a double bed, cable TV and all the towels or sheets I could want.
It was rather embarrassing coming into this posh hotel: I looked like a coal miner with my filthy face. The receptionist continued to call me ‘sir’ even after hearing my voice but effortlessly changed to madam when I re-emerged in my elegant punjabi to enjoy a beer in the hotel bar.
Back in my bedroom, I relaxed on the luxurious king sized bed, eating a stuffed paratha from room service and feeling very proud of myself: I’d managed to get through the first day on the bike with no punctures, no breakdowns and best of all, no accidents.
Determined I’d not be one of those helpless females who don’t know the spark plug from the piston, I reached over to my bags and extracted the Enfield bike manual to learn about the bike. Oops! Maybe I should have read the manual before I set off. It stated that one should ride the first 500 kilometres at no more than 50 kilometres an hour and stop every hour for ten minutes to let the bike cool down.
The next morning, in an attempt to placate my two-wheeled companion, I went to the local Enfield dealer to give it its 500 kilometres service.
The motorcycle shop, near the bus station, was empty.
‘Hello! Anybody here?’ My words echoed in the room.
I walked to the back of the shop, through an open door and into a dark workshop. Three men in oil-covered overalls were working: one was sweeping the cement floor, another was hanging up some spanners while the third was carefully placing bits of bike engines into wooden boxes.
All this was happening as if in slow motion.
‘Hello,’ I said. ‘I bought a new Enfield in Delhi and I’ve come for my first service. Can you do it?’
The sweeper yelled something in Punjabi to someone outside. A man dressed in light blue polyester safari suit came in, had a short conversation with the sweeper and walked back out.
The sweeper turned to me and said, ‘Servicing possible in one week.’
‘A week!’ I exclaimed. ‘No, I can’t wait a week. Can’t you do it before?’
He leaned on his broom. ‘No, a week. Busy now.’
I looked around and asked, ‘All your mechanics?’
‘Not possible. All busy,’ he replied.
‘Can I speak to the manager, please. Was that the manager before?’
The sweeper shouted in Punjabi again and the manager strolled back in.
‘Hello sir. You are having a problem?’ he asked.
‘Well first of all it’s madam!’
‘Oh sorry! But you are very tall and you have very short hair.’
‘Yeah, I know…Look, I came from Delhi yesterday with my new Enfield and I need to get the first service. Can you do it today?’
‘Madam, I am so very sorry but all our mechanics are busy. We are having an inspection from head office in seven days and we must get ready.’
‘You mean that you can’t serve your customers because your boss is coming to inspect your work?’ I asked.
He smiled apologetically. ‘We must clean the workshop and the office.’
‘You’re the local Enfield dealer, and you can’t serve the owner of a new Enfield because of a visit from head office?’ I slowly crossed my arms; maybe a bit of intimidation would do the trick.
He looked away, shuffled his feet and changed the topic by launching into the usual questions.
‘Which is your good name?’
‘Which is your country?’
‘Which is your profession?’
In a flash of inspiration, I lied. ‘Journalist.’
‘Oh?’ he frowned. ‘In a newspaper?’
‘Yes, a British paper called Motorcycle Travel News,’ I added for good measure.
‘Oh. Really? You drink some tea? Fanta?’
‘Yes, thank you, that’s very kind of you. I’d love a Fanta.’
Miraculously the three cleaners were reassigned as my mechanics and my service was completed in less than two hours. However, perhaps as a punishment for my rudeness and arrogance, before I had done 80 kilometres, I somehow could no longer find my second gear on the Enfield.
Upon arrival in Amritsar, I met my first fellow Enfield traveller parked outside the Golden Temple. Yuri, an Israeli sporting a shaved head and a goatee, had just come back from Srinagar in Kashmir.
I was impressed. ‘Isn’t it dangerous to go there, with all the fighting and the kidnappings?’ I asked him.
He sneered. ‘You Europeans! You are always afraid of everything. You are too soft. I did not see any fighting. Just a lot of soldiers.’
He made me think: I was only a couple days’ riding from Kashmir, with its renowned lush valleys, beautiful mountains and grand old colonial houseboats. In Delhi, I’d also met some tourists who had come back from Kashmir, but they’d gone there by bus and I wasn’t sure if the roads were safe to travel solo on a bike.
Yuri told me I’d get stopped by the military along the way to check my papers, but nothing more.
It is only after I returned from Kashmir that an American pointed out to me that asking an Israeli youth just out of the army whether travelling to a war-torn region was safe may not have been the most sensible question. His idea of safety was likely to be different from that of most people.
Yuri escorted me to the mechanic in Amritsar to attend to my missing second gear. On the way there, he lectured me on the Dos and Don’ts of dealing with mechanics. ‘First, you must agree on a price before they start doing the work. It’s too late to start bargaining after. Second, you must choose only Enfield mechanics. A lot of scooter mechanics pretend to be Enfield specialists when they see a foreigner.
Also Sikhs are usually the best mechanics.
‘Check that they have Enfields in their garage. And if you can find a mechanic with a couple of old Enfields, that’s even better. That means that he probably uses them for spare parts. Also you must not show them that you don’t know about bikes. I tell them I could do the work myself except that I don’t have the tools with me.’
‘What if you don’t know what is wrong with the bike in the first place?’ I asked.
‘Never, never, show them that. I tell them I just don’t know the words in English. Also you must never go away when they’re working. You must sit with them and watch them. Otherwise, they’ll pretend they’ve done something when they haven’t. Or even steal some of your new parts and replace them with damaged old ones.’
‘How often do you have to visit mechanics?’ I asked.
‘About two or three times a week.’
We found a Sikh mechanic, bargained, looked knowledgeable, and for $1.50 my gear box was dismantled, some bits were oiled, some screws were tightened and, magic, I regained my second gear.
Having changed out of my jeans and into my punjabi, I took a bicycle rickshaw with Yuri to visit the Golden Temple.
As we came to a steep hill, the driver dismounted, pointed to Yuri and said, ‘Off, please, pushing.’
I also moved to get down but the driver indicated that I should remain seated. So Yuri pushed the carriage from behind while the rickshaw driver pushed the bike from the front. I felt rather grand and a bit silly especially since both the Indian and Yuri were short and skinny and certainly weighed less than me.
We then ran into a parade of schoolchildren, dancing troupes, men on horseback, and musical bands on their way to the Temple to celebrate the anniversary of the birth of the Sikhs’ fourth Guru.
The courtyard in the Golden Temple was crowded with worshippers: the men in yellow, red, pink and blue turbans, and the women in equally colourful punjabis. With its cool white marble, its shimmering pond and the clean majestic lines of its buildings, the temple was a haven from the dusty, crowded and noisy city outside its walls.
In one of the kiosks, I made a contribution to the upkeep of the temple by buying some prassad, a sweet and sticky cake. The attendants then took back half of it to distribute to the pilgrims as they left the temple and with the other half, I could do what I wanted.
After only one bite, I knew I’d have to dispose of it. It was so sweet my teeth ached.
I walked up to the sacred pond and dropped it in the water. Almost immediately, scores of big fat fish came up to the surface and devoured it like hungry piranhas. From the size of those fish, I suspect they’d been fed prassad many times before.
The pilgrims in the temple were extremely friendly, especially the women who gave me big smiles. After being taken for a man for the past few days, it was nice to feel like a woman again.
Later, I went to the nearby Jallianwala Bagh which is a memorial park that commemorates the hundreds of Indian demonstrators killed by the British here in 1919. I sat on a low wall with some women who taught me how to say hello in Punjabi. I think it went something like ‘satshri akal’.
While I sat surrounded by the women, an imposing man with a large purple turban and an enormous mutton chop mustache approached us. In good English, he asked me where I came from.
Hesitating, I replied, ‘England.’
‘Ah, the Britishers did many bad things here.’ He pointed to the bullet-ridden walls. ‘Many people were killed here by your people.’
Embarrassed, I answered. ‘Yes I know. It was a very bad thing.’
‘Your Queen Elizabeth was here two days ago to visit Amritsar, ’ he added.
I looked down at my feet. ‘Yes, I know.’
‘She didn’t say sorry about the massacre,’ he insisted.
I mumbled. ‘Yes, I’m sorry about that.’
He shrugged. ‘Thank you, but it is your Queen who should apologise.’
This was the only occasion in my year long trip when I encountered any bad feelings towards the British.
The next day, I said goodbye to Yuri and got back on my bike to head towards Kashmir. On my way out of Amritsar, I got lost and ended up doing a two hour detour on very small country lanes and passed numerous herds of cattle meandering aimlessly in the middle of the road. I assumed they belonged to somebody but there was no herder in sight.
The cows in India are quite something. They’ve obviously figured out they’re sacred to Hindus and just wander along the roads. Sometimes they even sit down in the middle of the street or in a busy roundabout, especially if there is something edible to nibble on.
I finally rejoined the main road after stopping a dozen times to ask for directions. It should have been simple since I wanted the road to a large city called Jammu. However, somehow, I managed to mispronounce it.
I’d pull up to a farmer walking along, point to the road and ask,‘Jammu?’
‘Jammu’, I’d repeat.
‘Sorry, no English.’ He’d walk away.
The next person, the same problem.
As far as I can figure it out, it’s simply pronounced as it’s written, but obviously my accent must have been very bad since the above scenario was repeated again and again.
Finally I pulled up to a portly man, dressed in immaculate white tunic and trousers, waiting at a junction.
I pulled out my map and pointed to the town.
‘Ah! Jammu!’ he exclaimed. And then added in English, ‘You must take this road on the right.’
I swear, to me, it sounded just the way I’d said it.
Once back on the main road, the wind picked up, the sky got very dark and a few minutes later it started to pour. And I mean really pour. The monsoon had officially ended the month before but this was not your usual afternoon rain. I put on my waterproofs that turned out not to be so waterproof over my already wet trousers.
In the next six hours I averaged a speed of 25 kms per hour. In places, the road disappeared into murky ponds and eventually, I had to stop when a fast flowing river swallowed up the road.
I pulled off to the side alongside a dozen scooters and a couple cars that were surveying the water rushing in front of us. Trucks and buses were just going through with little problems and big splashes. For us of course, it was rather different. Eventually one of the scooter riders decided to go ahead. I’m embarrassed to say that I, on my big 500cc motorbike, was hesitating. The rider made it through although at one point both his wheels were completely submerged.
Shamed, I kick-started my bike and followed him. It wasn’t too bad apart from filling up my boots with muddy water, because unlike the scooter rider I did not dare lift my feet off the footrests.
My destination was still another couple hours away. But first I had to make a toilet stop. I found a roadside café, ordered a black tea which again came to me with milk and asked for the toilet. After much sign language, it became evident it was out there in the open. Not willing to do it in full view of the road, I drank my tea and rode another half hour before coming to a more upmarket place with a toilet.
Eventually I reached Jammu and discovered that not only were all the clothes I was wearing were wet, but so were those in my bags, since I’d not had the foresight to put my gear in plastic bags. A bit down and lonely, I curled up under the bed covers with a glass of warming Scotch.
The next morning, as I was loading up my bike in the hotel courtyard, a friend of the hotel manager, or so he said, approached me.
‘Are you going to Kashmir?’ he asked.
‘Where will you be staying in Srinagar? My family has a beautiful hotel. You will like it very much there.’
‘Why don’t you book it with me. I make sure you have the best room.’
I continued securing my luggage. ‘No, thank you, but I’ll find one when I get there.’
‘But there are many bad hotels. I have a beautiful houseboat. Look.’
He produced a folder with faded polaroids and dozens of letters from previous guests praising the accommodation, the food and the service. The letters were fifteen years old.
‘Very nice,’ I said as I handed them back to him. ‘But I prefer to find my own place when I get there.’
‘I can give you a very good price. You see, the usual price is 2,000 rupees but because the tourists are very few you can have it for 600 rupees.’
‘I’m sure it’s a very good price but I prefer to get my own hotel there.’
‘But there are many dishonest people in Srinagar,’ he insisted. ‘They will tell you they have a beautiful hotel, but when you get there, the boat will be old and dirty.’
‘You’re right,’ I said. ‘I’m sure some people are bad but I promise you I will inspect the houseboat before I accept. Now really I must go. It’s a long journey.’
I climbed onto my bike, put on my helmet and started the engine. Still he would not move out of my way and took hold of my wrist. I switched off the engine.
‘Look! I am not going to book anything from here. Give me your hotel card and I’ll look at it when I get there. Now I’m going.’
‘Do you promise to go there first?’
‘Yes’ I lied. ‘Now can I go?’
He gave me a handful of cards and started explaining how I could find his brother’s houseboat. Finally he let me leave and I rode to the petrol station to fill up for the journey. The attendant went into the hut to bring me my change and came back with a brochure for another houseboat.
He was barely into his routine of ‘the usual price is 2,500 rupees but I can make you a special price of 500 rupees,’ when I thanked him and pulled away.
I’d been warned that the Kashmiri tourist industry was desperate for business but I didn’t expect the hard-sell to start two day’s riding away from Srinagar.
At first, the journey up toward the Kashmir Valley was lovely as I climbed up relatively quiet roads and the scenery got progressively greener and more forested. Unfortunately after three hours, I hit a patch of road under construction. This is when a trail bike would have been useful. To make matters worse, I got stuck in a convoy of trucks and military jeeps.
There I was riding through beautiful mountains, and all I could see were the backs of dusty trucks and their trails of black diesel fumes. This went on for a couple of hours even though I was
slowly overtaking them whenever I had the courage to ride on the other side of the road, ready to dart back in at the first sound of a big truck thundering down in the opposite direction.
Eventually the convoys – there was one in each direction by then – came to a complete stop. The trucks just sat there, having thankfully turned off their engines.
Then the fun started.
There is little more satisfying than weaving your bike in and out of four kilometres of stationary traffic.
To come back to the rules of Indian driving, that day, as I manoeuvred my bike between vehicles, I noticed that very few of them had side mirrors. When I bought my bike, the dealer had asked me if I wanted mirrors fitted and, of course, I said yes. Now I know that in fact they impede your ability to get through tight spaces, and since you’re focusing so much on what is in front of you, there just isn’t any time to keep an eye on what is behind. Instead people use their horns to warn traffic ahead of their presence. You have to assume that those behind you know you’re there, and will react appropriately to your manoeuvres.
Since leaving Delhi, both I and the bike looked much more the part: my bike had acquired a respectable coat of dust and dried mud, and quite a few scratches on the tank from the zip of my leather jacket, while I had acquired a respectable set of muscles on my arms and shoulders.
I was also enjoying the riding a lot – at least I assume I must have been, since I sporadically screamed into my helmet ‘Yeah! I love this! This is great!’ More worryingly though, I also caught myself exclaiming, ‘This is so easy!’ as I weaved my bike between two trucks, swerved around a large pothole or lifted my legs up in a double Kung Fu kick while I accelerated through a giant puddle.
One week on the roads and I’d become an expert rider.
Chapter 5 – A Few problems in Kashmir (October 1997)
This is the life. Sitting on a houseboat that oozes faded grandeur while looking out at the white water lilies on the still lake and the Kashmiri mountains beyond it. It would be perfect except for the constant stream of vendors on little boats who moor up to my veranda, trying to peddle their goods – chocolates, soft drinks, cigarettes, toilet paper, shampoo, jewelry, Kashmiri shawls, and carpets.
Finding a place to stay in Srinagar was easy since there are more than two thousand houseboats to choose from and probably less than one hundred tourists. I have the whole eight bedroomed boat to myself, and the full attention of the owner.
The houseboats are an ingenious introduction by the British to the region. During the Raj period, the British, who liked to come to the cooler climes of Kashmir during the summer, were unable to build homes here because the local government forbade them from owning land. To get around this problem they simply build their summer homes on the lake.
The owner of my houseboat told me that when he was a child, his grandfather used to be a servant for an English colonel and his family.
The English were very strict about tidiness, noise and the ‘proper way’ of doing things. His grandfather used to wait on them wearing a white starched uniform with a napkin over his forearm and the kitchen was kept on a separate boat half a kilometre away so that the smells and the clanking of pans would not disturb the family.
Once, when today’s owner was four years old, he fell down on one of the planks connecting the various boats, and hurt his knee. He started howling and ran towards his mother when the colonel emerged from his houseboat, caught the little boy by the arm and growled at him to be quiet. He recounted that the fear of this big English man with his small moustache silenced him on the spot.
A problem with staying on the houseboat was finding a place for my motorbike. For security reasons, the military authorities decreed that no vehicle should be left unattended on the road anywhere in the city. My houseboat owner explained that security was even tighter than usual because the Prime Minister was about to come for an inspection. Along the boulevard by the lake, military jeeps drove up and down and soldiers stood guard every 50 yards. I found a home owner who stored my bike in his courtyard for a small fee.
On my second day I rode to the old part of Srinagar to visit the Jama Masjid mosque, famous for its three hundred wooden pillars, originally built in 1385 and rebuilt after a fire in 1674. The road outside the mosque was very busy and noisy but as soon as I walked through the large wooden gate, the noises became muffled and gradually died out completely once deep in the building. A few men were praying, softly reciting verses from the Koran. Trying to be as unobtrusive as possible, I meandered around the large open area, enjoying the calm beauty and the peaceful atmosphere. Once back out of the mosque, as I was putting my boots back on, a Kashmiri man in his late twenties, wearing jeans and a black leather jacket, came up to me.
He spoke in an angry tone. ‘You Westerners all think bad things about Muslims! You think we are not good people. You blame us for everything bad in the world.’
‘I don’t think that,’ I said in my defense.
‘All Westerners think bad things about Islam. I know. I listen to your radio. It’s full of propaganda against Muslims. Always talking about Muslim fundamentalists, Muslim fanatics, Muslim terrorists. Your press wants the world to think that the Kashmiri problem is a religious problem. It’s not.’
‘Actually, I don’t know much about the political problems of Kashmir,’ I said as I finished lacing up my boots.
He pointed to a small tea shop across the road. ‘Have some tea with me and I will explain it to you.’
He was telling me, not asking me.
I looked around. We were standing outside the mosque in a busy road with a street market and many people were looking at us.
I hesitated, ‘What about my bike? Can I leave it parked here?’
He took my arm. ‘Don’t worry, everybody knows me here. Nobody will dare touch your bike now.’
If that was supposed to reassure me, it didn’t. Why would everybody here know him? And why should they be afraid of him?
We entered the tea shop, my host said some words in the local language, and two young men vacated a table for us to sit at. They, and the other patrons, sat by the opposite wall, watching and listening to us. My companion was obviously influential.
Two cups of tea, slightly sweetened, milk-less and flavoured with cinnamon, were placed in front of us. Delicious.
My host was very fluent in English. He argued that Kashmir with its majority Muslim population should have been incorporated into Pakistan at the time of Partition in 1948 since that had been the main criteria for joining one or the other nation. However, the ruler of Kashmir, a Hindu, decided to join India despite the wishes of the majority. Since then, Kashmiris have been trying to expel the Indian army from their territory.
I asked him if Kashmiris still wanted to be part of Pakistan. He lowered his voice and answered, ‘No, we want to be independent.’
Then he looked at his watch and said, ‘I have to leave. I am very busy. Goodbye.’
Dismissed, I got back on my bike and rode back to the houseboat. And there I got a bollocking from the owner.
‘You should not go to the mosque!’
‘Did you see any soldiers there?’ he asked.
‘That’s right!’ he shouted. ‘That’s because it’s too dangerous for the army. And for tourists. There is much fighting in that part of Srinagar. The Kashmiri resistance is very strong there. The people you met there are dangerous. You are very lucky and very foolish.’
According to him, most of old Srinagar was in fact too dangerous and out of bounds to me. He suggested instead that I take a two day motorbike trip up the Sindh Valley to the village of Sonamarg.
Chastened, I followed his advice and the next day I set off on a route that quickly deteriorated from a tarmacked road with the odd pot-hole, to a rocky track with the odd bit of tarmac.
After overtaking my twentieth military truck, presumably on its way to the battlefields with Pakistan, I got a puncture. I would have preferred if my first puncture had happened in a more peaceful area of India but since there was an armed Indian sentinel on the top of the hill above me, at least I probably didn’t have to worry about being kidnapped – I hoped.
I waved down a civilian truck coming down the road and asked the driver if he could ask for help in Kangan, the nearest village 12 kilometres away. While I waited, I examined my back tyre for the cause of the puncture but could not find anything embedded. It must have been one of the many sharp rocks on this excuse for a road. Strangely I was not afraid at all. And yet when I look back on this, I am struck by my stupidity. Here I was stuck on my own near a violent battle zone with a simple puncture that I could not repair on my own.
As I sat under an overcast sky threatening snow and watched the Indian soldier watching me, an old bearded man walked up the road. He wore a dirty yellow turban and was wrapped in a blanket decorated with bright geometric shapes.
‘Namaste,’ I smiled.
He looked at me but only nodded.
He slowly walked up to my bike and examined it carefully while I sat with my luggage spread out around me.
‘You speak English?’ I asked.
The old man looked up at me, but again did not answer. He then walked up to where I was sitting, crouched down to my level and studied my helmet on the ground.
‘You want to see my helmet?’ I asked, as I handed it over to him.
He put down his walking stick and gently took my helmet, examined it from all angles, lifted up the visor and handed it back without a word. He then shook my hand, picked up his stick and slowly walked off back down the road.
After a two hour wait, a truck coming from the down the valley deposited two men who introduced themselves as my rescuers.
‘We are coming to bring your puncture to Kangan,’ the darker of the two said.
They quickly took off the back wheel, helped me with my luggage, and stopped the first vehicle – another truck – coming down the mountain; we all piled in next to the driver and half an hour later we were at the puncture shop.
While waiting for the inner tube to be repaired, I struck up a conversation with the two men. The tall fair one, who was Kashmiri, did not speak any English while the other, of slighter built and darker complexion who came from Karnataka, a state far down in the south of the India, spoke very good English.
He started with the usual questions of ‘Which is your mother country?’, ‘What is your good name?’, ‘Are you married?’ and ‘How old are you?’ When I told him I was 33, he exclaimed, ‘But you should be married by now and have children!’
‘How many children do you have?’ I asked.
‘Two girls. They live with my wife in Karnataka. I work here most of the year and spend the winter with them.’
‘What is your job?’
‘I work on the roads. I operate a bulldozer here. My job is clearing the rocks that are falling on the roads.’
‘So why did you come with the puncture wallah to help me?’
‘Today I do not work. I came to the village to buy meat and spoke to the truck driver who came to say that there was a foreigner who needed help. The puncture man does not speak English so I came with him.’
I thanked him.
‘Do you like working here?’
‘Yes Kashmir is very beautiful, but there is much fighting.’
‘Does it make you afraid?’
He answered. ‘No. I am Christian. The Kashmir people have no problems with Christians. It is with the Hindus they have problems.’
Eight months later, 35 road workers, many of them Christians, were ambushed and killed by Kashmiri militants.
After we’d finished at the puncture repair shop, we hailed a bus to return to the bike.
Carrying my wheel and helmet, I tried to board the bus, but there was no more room inside. The conductor pointed to the roof. ‘Bus full.
Too much people inside. You climb on the roof.’
I hesitated and he got impatient, took the motorcycle wheel from my hands and threw it up to the roof where a group of men, already installed there, caught it. My companions – the Kashmiri and the Karnataka man – quickly climbed up while I followed up the ladder with my helmet through my arm. Before I could reach the top, the bus took off and I almost fell off. As the bus lurched violently from side to side alongside a ravine, I inched my way up the ladder till the men on the roof could haul me up. They cleared a patch in the middle of the group for me to sit and I held on to my two companions. Neither of them complained although I’m sure I must have cut off the circulation in their arms. If I’d had the courage to let go just for one instant, I would’ve put my helmet on for protection. The view was probably beautiful from this vantage point but I kept my eyes closed for most of the way.
After the puncture incident, which took five hours to deal with altogether, I was very happy to be back on the bike. During the rest of the ride up to Sonamarg, I admired the mountains shrouded in wisps of clouds and although it rained at times, I also saw silvery rays of sunshine breaking through the clouds and countless rainbow; I rode along a stream that was fluorescent blue and the trees were in full autumn colours. This is the scenery that made Kashmir world famous.
The room I rented in Sonamarg consisted of only four walls and a sheet of corrugated iron for roof. My mattress was made out of blankets laid out on the wooden floor where I spent the first evening sitting, all wrapped up, with a small clay pot filled with burning coal placed between my legs to keep me warm. The people here called it a ‘Winter Wife’. I would have liked a whole harem.
The next day, I sat at a table in the sun, outside my hut, wearing all my motorcycle gear and a filthy blanket around my shoulders, drinking tea and reading Kerouac’s On the Road.
This little village’s main reason for being, apart from providing summer grazing, is to offer lunch to passing travellers. As the lunch hour approached, the workers in the single row of roadside cafés went into a frenzy of activity to get the rice, lentils and chapatis ready in time.
I watched the buses and trucks pull in. The buses carried mainly Tibetan passengers from Ladakh while the trucks carried military personnel and road workers leaving the region before winter. Not one tourist.
The road to Leh in Ladakh is 350 kilometres long and often unpaved. There is no point in sealing it because every year snow avalanches and landslides take off big chunks of it. In a good year, it stays open for seven months and the road workers’ job is to try to smooth it out as much as possible. This means mainly clearing landslides with a bulldozer, if they can get one there, or by hand and dynamite, and filling up potholes. On the way up to Sonamarg, I’d seen workers filling up a large crater in the road: first they threw in small boulders almost up to the top and then they switched to smaller rocks. It made for a bumpy crossing but it worked.
After the midday rush, Rafiq, the manager of my establishment, sat down with me for a cup of tea. He was in his early twenties, very slim, and had striking green eyes.
As we watched the workers go back to their trucks, I asked Rafiq, ‘How much do they get paid?’
‘It depends on the work but some of them get 100 rupees a day.’
Less than three dollars a day.
‘Is that a good wage?’ I asked.
‘Yes. They are poor people and they come from far for work. They come from Nepal, Bihar and Rajasthan.’ He added. ‘Now they go home for the winter.’
I could see two policemen talking to the truck drivers and asked Rafiq what was going on.
‘They are checking that the driver has the right papers for the workers. If they don’t they must pay 1,000 rupees.’
‘That’s a lot!’ I exclaimed.
‘Yes. And everybody knows the policeman steals it. Even if you have the papers you must still pay him 30 rupees.’
We continued to watch them and although I had no reason to doubt Rafiq’s words I did not see any resentment on any of the faces. On the contrary, the policemen and the truck drivers seemed to be getting along very well, joking and laughing.
He poured me another cup of tea.
‘You speak very good English,’ I remarked. ‘How did you learn it?’
‘I am a university student in Srinagar. The classes are in English.’
‘So you don’t usually work here?’
‘I stay here only for a few days at a time. Sometimes my brother comes here, sometimes me, sometimes my father. Tonight my father is coming and I will go back to Srinagar.’
‘How will you go back?’ I asked.
‘No problem, it is easy. I am sure you can do it’ he answered.
I smiled. ‘If you have so much confidence in me, I have no choice but to say yes.’
In the morning, after another very cold night with the temperature going down to minus seven degrees centigrade, I couldn’t start the bike. I tried many times but all I got in response were a few calf-bruising revenges from the kick-start as it swung back to its initial position.
Rafiq suggested I try a downhill start. Fine, but the only problem was I didn’t know how to do that. He, who had never ridden a bike, or a car, explained that I needed to get into first gear and slowly release the clutch once the bike was travelling at a reasonable speed.
Later on I learned from experience that this works much better if the bike is in third gear.
Surprisingly, the ride with Rafiq on the back of the bike turned out to be quite fun. I was a bit wobbly at the beginning but once I put it out of my mind that I was carrying a helmet-less passenger, it got much easier.
As we said goodbye in front of his house in Srinigar, Rafiq said, ‘Thank you for taking me. You are a very safe and careful motorcycle driver.’
I think this meant I was riding too slow for his liking. It took us three hours to cover the 85 kilometres to Srinagar. But then the local bus would have taken six hours, as it stops at almost every bend to drop and pick up passengers.
Three days later I left Srinagar for Patni Top, 200 kilometres away. While filling up for the
journey I managed to open up my oil gauge for the first time and discovered I needed a top-up. My manual specified that I should use 20/50W oil, I had no idea what that meant, but despite going to five different petrol stations in search of it, I could only find 20/40W oil. I was about to buy it with some misgivings when a motorist advised me that a shop in the town centre sold 20/50W oil.
However, since the shops in India don’t open till 10 am, I parked outside the shop. As soon as I dismounted, an Indian soldier came up to up and ordered me to move off. It was still only 9 am so I decided to ride around the commercial centre. I obviously aroused suspicion because twice I was pulled over and had my papers and luggage checked by the army – in search of explosives, I presume.
It was quite late by the time I finally left Srinagar to begin my trip out of Kashmir. I tried to catch up on lost time and overtook many trucks and buses. At one point, however, I almost fell into a ravine when I overtook a truck at the same time as it was overtaking another. I confused the signal for ‘It’s safe to overtake now, as long as you do it in the next two seconds’ (a wave of the driver’s hand out of the window from back to front), with the signal for ‘Don’t do it unless you want to add to the collection of rusted vehicles at the bottom of the mountain’ (the driver sticks out his hand with the index finger pointing down).
Even the truck driver looked frightened when I glanced back at him.
This new day started well enough when I pulled into a lay-by overlooking the beautiful mountains, and met an Australian couple travelling on an Enfield 500 who were also admiring the view.
The man, Dan, was smoking hash and offered me a puff.
‘No thanks,’ I refused. ‘I find it hard enough to ride with all my faculties.’
‘I find it relaxes me and this way I make sure I don’t ride too quickly,’ he responded. ‘You’re coming from Srinagar?’
They too had been there, via Ladakh.
‘What’s it like there?’ I asked.
Kate, a petite redhead in her thirties, answered. ‘Amazing. Beautiful mountains, Buddhist monasteries, really friendly people. But it’s November and the road is closed for the winter. You can’t get there now till next summer. If you’re still in India then, you really should go.’
They were going in the same direction as me, and we decided to ride together.
In view of the dope Dan had been smoking, I decided to stay well behind their bike. We were going up a hill and round a curve when suddenly I saw a truck in front of me careering down in the middle of the road. If I’d hugged the curve as I should have it would have been a near miss. Instead, I collided with the side of the truck.
I’d like to say I took some evasive action but I didn’t. It seemed to happen in slow motion, but not slow enough for me to swerve.
I was lying in the middle of the road with my right leg trapped under the bike, when the driver of the truck ran out of his car shouting. ‘Crazy, crazy tourist! Too fast. Wrong side of the road.’
I was too stunned to respond.
He continued his tirade and I stayed under the bike until my Australian companions lifted the bike off of me. They pushed the bike to the side of the road while I slowly got up. I didn’t feel too bad and obviously nothing was broken.
I sat by the road-side saying little, while the truck driver started up the offensive again, and my newly acquired Australian friends took up my defence.
‘You know that in India, cars drive on the left?’ the truck driver asked aggressively.
‘Very funny,’ Kate responded. ‘So how come you were driving on the right side of the road?’
‘Does she have a motorcycle licence?’
‘Do you have a truck driving licence?’
‘How long has she been riding a motorbike?’
Oh, no! Better not answer that one, I thought. I changed the subject. ‘We need to get the police for the insurance claim.’
Everyone looked at me puzzled.
‘My insurance will pay for the repairs on the bike but first I must get a police report.’
‘How much to repair the bike? he asked.
‘I’m not sure. Maybe more than 3,000 rupees.’ Less than $90.
He looked shocked – and so did Kate and Dan – at the mention of what I later found out was a ridiculously large amount.
We decided to stop all this arguing for now and inspect the damage. Me: a ripped leather jacket, a grazed elbow, a bruised knee and a slightly sprained ankle. The bike: a bent leg frame and foot rest, broken clutch and brake sprockets, a smashed headlight, side indicator and mirror.
Dan and the truck driver decided they could repair the most crucial elements and get the motorcycle back on the road. As the two men replaced the sprockets with the spares Dan carried, Kate whispered to me, ‘We’ve had to change the front forks a month ago, and that only cost 2,000 rupees. Your repairs will cost a lot less.
The work on the bike was going very well and the whole atmosphere was improving.
The driver offered me some water and said, ‘I am a poor man with much children…You will not call the police?’
Feeling rather foolish I ever mentioned the police, I answered, ‘No. There is no point in calling the police. And I don’t want money from you. It is very kind of you to repair my bike.’
The two men managed to get my bike going again and I parted company from the Australian couple to go in search of a mechanic to do further repairs.
A man on a scooter showed me the way to the nearest town. As he said goodbye, he warned me. ‘Quiet roads like this are more dangerous than busy ones because the truck drivers think there is nobody else on the road. They drive in the middle of the road, or even on the other side if the condition of the road is better there.’
Looking back, I couldn’t say really who was responsible for the accident. Was I really in my lane? (Lane being a rather generous word.)
I am just grateful the Australian couple was there to help and the truck driver didn’t just drive on. The bill at the mechanics came to 300 rupees ($9). Pretty cheap lesson.
The next 80 kilometres to the nearest sizeable town, Pathankot, felt very long as I kept on going over the accident. Could I have avoided it? Would I have any more accidents? What if the next accident turned out to be much more serious? Was I foolish in thinking I could learn to ride well enough to go on such a trip?
As the adrenaline started ebbing away, the pain in my ankle increased. It was the foot that changed the gears. Eventually I had to do most of the journey in fourth gear and when I really had no choice but to change down, I’d stop the bike, bend over and change the gears with my hands. Thankfully the bike was not heavily loaded and I found it still had quite a bit of pull in fourth gear even if I was going quite slowly.
That evening, lying on my bed with a pack of ice around my ankle, I thought about the day’s events. This was the first time I’d even been that close to death and it made me realise how easy it is to die. A split second of inattention and that’s it: one moment you’re there, the next you’re not. Okay, it didn’t happen today but it will happen to me one day. Maybe in fifty years, but maybe tomorrow. Death is not just something that happens to other people. It’s just a question of time before it gets me. I knew that before, of course, but I managed to convince myself that because that time would be a long time coming, I could pretend it never would.
The next day, feeling slightly stiff, I rode out to Dalhousie, a town 100 kilometres away. The route followed some beautiful mountain roads. I kept a very low speed and stayed close to the curve. I reminded myself of what the Australian biker, Dan, had advised me: ‘Imagine that around every bend there is a big fridge freezer standing in the middle of the road.’
Dalhousie, my stop for the night, is a hill resort at an altitude of 2,000 metres. It’s very popular with Indian tourists and used to be a place where the British would go to escape the heat of the Delhi summers. At the end of October, however, it could get quite cold.
My hotel was built 80 years ago by the English and apparently had not been repainted since then.
I was in my room when Kate and Dan, my two Australians friends, knocked on my door.
‘Hey stranger! We saw your bike outside. Kate recognised it was yours because of the dents. How are you feeling? The bruises changed to a nice green colour yet?’
I proudly displayed my multi-coloured injuries and we passed the day sitting in my hotel room overlooking the rain-filled valley, wrapped up in blankets, drinking coffee (Kate), smoking pot (Dan) and sipping Scotch (me).
I spent the next two days with them and we rode out together to the nearby town of Chamba. We went through pine covered mountains and alongside deep ravines. I rode very slowly and saw fridges everywhere.
In Chamba, at breakfast on my own, I met a young English woman taking a year out before going off to university.
Whilst eating my stuffed paratha, I asked, ‘What made you decide to travel?’
‘Well, the careers’ advisor said that employers prefer people who took a year off. That means you’re more mature. And less likely to do it again, since you got the travelling bug out of your system. Also,’ she took a bite from her omelette, ‘I don’t feel ready to settle down yet. I want to do something for myself first. Besides, I’ll have all the time later to stay put. Three years of studying… then work…then I suppose, before you know it, it’s mortgages, husband and kids!’ She laughed. ‘Did you take a year off after school?’
‘No, I didn’t.’
‘Is that why you’re doing it now?’
‘Maybe. I don’t know.’
‘Well, I think what you’re doing is really brave,’ she said.
‘What do you mean?’
God, I hope she’s not making a reference to me being a bit long in the tooth.
‘Well, you know, a woman on a motorcycle on her own, travelling in India.’
I shrugged modestly, putting on my best oh-it’s-no-big-deal smile. ‘It’s not really that bad.’
‘Well I think it’s brave. I don’t know many people who would do this.’
Oh, yes. Give me more. I love it.
Actually, as much as I enjoy the compliment, I also find this bravery theme a bit unsettling. Bravery implies danger; and if I started believing it, I’d lose what confidence I’ve managed to build up. Besides, in truth, travelling by bus in the Indian mountains is, in my opinion, considerably braver: I read in the papers that two days ago, not very far from here, a bus overturned into a river, killing 40 people. It doesn’t surprise me since the roads in the area are very narrow and winding, and the buses travel much too fast.
In any case, what’s scary for one person isn’t necessarily scary for another. For me, my big terrors so far have been when I had to sing on stage at summer camp when I was ten, or when I decided to leave an unhappy marriage four years ago, or even when I handed in my resignation before coming on this trip.
In those instances, I would agree that I was being brave. But since I’m not terrified of riding my motorbike, then it can’t be bravery.
On my way out of Chamba, after I’d said goodbye to my Australian friends, I passed the body of a man lying on the road, alongside bits of shattered windscreen. Somebody was leaning over him. I was not brave enough to stop.
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