Culture shock, extreme heat, landslides and rush hours that include elephants can be utter chaos, but this rider wouldn’t have it any other way
Story and Photos by Steph Jeavons
It’s not as though it were an aggressive crowd –just a force and a single mind with a single mission: to get through and collect water from this spot on the river Ganges and carry it back to temples for hundreds of kilometres around. It was like a wave that you could not reason with. All you could do was brace yourself and try not to fall over. With only a litre of water, a heavily laden bike and full biking gear, I had found myself in the centre of the biggest Hindu pilgrimage in India on one of the hottest days of the year. I had unwittingly found the Gateway to God, and God was clearly in high demand that day!
“I’ll laugh about this later,” I told myself as I spent the next eight hours trying to force my way through the crowd and over to the sanctuary of the nearest hotel. Here I took refuge for another 16 hours while the crowds dispersed, leaving behind a trail of destruction and a great blog post!
Gandhi once said, “At the age of 18 I went to England. Everything was strange, the people, their ways and even their dwellings. I was a complete novice in the matter of English etiquette and continually had to be on my guard. Even the dishes that I could eat were tasteless and insipid. England, I could not bear . . .” Unlike Gandhi, I enjoyed the culture shock immensely.
Riding in India can feel as if you are riding on the edge of a knife at times. The near misses, the heat, and the constant obstacles like cows, pigs, bikes and trucks, not to mention the speed bumps that have no warnings! Sometimes it feels like a great adventure, and other times, it feels like survival. At times, I struggled to keep my concentration and energy levels up in the midsummer heat and had to stop every half-hour for water and rest before pushing on again. You know it’s getting to you when your mind is telling you to let go of the bars and just let yourself fall.
I was told you need three good things to survive on Indian roads: good brakes, a good horn and good luck. It’s all true!
Poverty is clearly an issue here, and as you ride around, you cannot ignore the families living on the streets or the beautiful historic buildings in desperate need of repair. However, after a while, the beauty within the chaos starts to shine through.
Riding my Honda CRF250L (affectionately named Rhonda) through the heat, fully clothed in my black armoured jacket and pants, I considered going for the minimalist Sikh approach. They looked so cool riding around in their flowing white Kachhas and sandals. Having ridden with a group of five such Sikhs for a couple of days, I was sorely tempted to join them, but when it was suggested that I remove some of my gear at the sight of my increasingly sweaty helmet hair, I replied, “You put your faith in God. I put my faith in a pair of Sidi boots” – however uncomfortable that might be. We did look an odd sight as we rode together. Five male Sikhs on Enfield’s with white turbans and large kirpans (ceremonial swords) strapped to their ribs, and a heavily armoured woman on a Honda with a red helmet and a face to match. I certainly stood out in the crowd, and people looked on in puzzlement as I looked back in awe.
The sights, the smells, the elephant rush hours. India punches through your visor and ensnares all the senses with no apology. The country is so diverse, and continued to surprise me through my eight-week journey from Mumbai to Ladakh. As with anywhere, the connections with the people are what make the journey, and the Indians are very welcoming. The ever-growing biker community does not hide behind cool nonchalance. Instead, they choose to enthusiastically show their admiration and support for any long-distance rider crossing their country. I had one such biker waiting on the side of the road for me as I came out of Jaipur. He flagged me down and presented me with a gift from his mother after he had shared one of my blog posts with her. I was escorted into, and then out of, Delhi by fellow riders, and I had flowers brought to my hotel in Gurgaon. The homes of both the wealthy and the poor were opened up to me to use as my own for rest and companionship as I worked my way through this authentic country.
The High Road
The faces changed as I headed farther north through Kashmir and higher into the mountains – a mix of Indian and Tibetan. The traffic stopped, the tarmac ran out, and soon I found myself surrounded by snow-capped peaks and glaciers, riding higher and higher on narrower and bumpier tracks into the cool air of the Himalayas. Eventually I passed a sign saying, “Welcome to the Region of Ladakh.”
I had made it all the way from Mumbai, nearly 3,200 km across India, in temperatures reaching up to 45 C, among chaotic traffic, to the start of the famous Ladakh – aka Bikers Paradise…