Goodbye India!

in India by on July 23rd, 2010

Today was really THE DAY. We left our hotel in Delhi which had come to be almost a second home for us, at 7am and drove via the Gate of India out of Delhi towards Amritsar, a journey of about 500km.

It was also THE first day on our bike! :)  Riding the Africa Twin (“AT”) after our Enfield experience, felt like driving a Porsche.  The AT also attracted many gawkers and fans along the way and it was sometimes difficult to persuade them that we need to move on to our next stop.

Fan club while we stopped by the road to change mirrors

Fan club at gas station outside Amritsar

Despite some torrential downpours for about 4 hours we arrived I good shape some 11 hours later. The highlight of Amritsar in Punjab is the Golden Temple, the holiest temple of the Sikh religion. We arrived at 6pm, stopped at the first hotel we say, checked in and by 8pm were walking over to the Temple. It was as grand as we were told. A magnificent looking golden building set in the middle of a water compound surrounded by a marble square. Everything was lit up, thousands and thousands of pilgrims still flocked through the gates and we were awed at the beautiful views inside. The following pictures describe it best:

The famous Golden Temple and its shimmering reflection in the water under the moonlight

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A Miracle – We have our Bike!!!

in India by on July 22nd, 2010

It’s almost midnight and we’re just finishing our packing. We have an early start tomorrow. Finally we will be on the road, on our way!

We have to get to bed soon so this will be a relatively text-lite post. We will let the photos do most of the talking.

Things kicked off when we got a call at 930 in the morning summoning us to the airport where the bike had been delivered for inspection. When we got there, a bunch of customs officials hovered around our bike for so-called “inspection”, checking to see that the bike’s engine and chassis numbers tallied with those on the documents.

Customs officers inspecting our bike

That's where we were - New Customs House at the International Airport

Inside the customs office. The filing cabinets were probably there from colonel times, as was the "computerised filing system" (Note the stacks of files above the filing cabinets and the very conspicuous absence of computers in the picture)

Job done! MJo shakes hands with Praveen, the representative from the clearing agents

In all, it probably took us 1.5 hours to get our bike cleared.  About 0.5 hours of inspection, 0.5 hours of waiting and 0.5 of Praveen giving us instructions on reporting to customs when we leave India with the bike.  Of course, technically with the Carnet, we should be able to enter and exit India, or any country which recognises the Carnet for that matter, freely.  But this being India, rules, regulations and forms exist in large numbers for the sole purpose of keeping the bureaucrats employed and more importantly, earning extra income from side payments to cut through the red tape.

Then it was off to the Honda dealership to get the bike fixed and to install a few new parts.

Getting a 300kg crate off the truck was no mean feat...it only took about 10 men and 30 onlookers

The white sahib supervises the process

Finally we get it on the ground!

But we still have to move it into the repairshop, more grunt work

"It's so big!!!" Sabby tries to takes the Africa Twin for a ride

Mr Ashok, the mechanic who specialises in super-bikes, and MJo hard at work to make sure the bike is tip-top condition for our upcoming 10,000km

Special thanks must go to Mr Ashok as well as Mr Anush Bhatia and his team at the Honda Wing World at Naraina for all their help with our bike.

It has been a long day and we have some long hard days of riding ahead to make up for all the time lost to various shipping and customs delays.  So we decided to treat ourselves to some hard-earned Coronas.

Ahhhhh...nothing like an ice-cold beer!

Cheers everyone!  Thank you for following our journey so far and hope you continue to follow us on the rest of our trip.

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Reflections on India

in India by on July 20th, 2010

As we prepare to leave India, we have a few reflections on what we have seen and experienced so far.

India has one of the fastest growing populations in the world. We see it all around us in the people here, there and everywhere.  The Western concept of personal space is a luxury that 99.9% of Indians will likely not be able to afford in their lifetime. But there are also reasons why. While the country’s economic growth is good news, much of this positiveness is wasted due to its enormous corruption problem at every level of government. Corruption has a stranglehold on this country and the public at large is being held hostage by it.

Just one of many examples one could cite: the roads in Delhi appear to be in a constant state of construction, with everything being dug up everywhere one travels over and over again. As our local friends put it, “the contractors use shoddy materials in their construction so that they can win the contract again to repair the same roads in a year’s time after the next monsoon season.”  A vicious cycle of wasting taxpayers’ money and making a handful of people rich in the process at the expense of millions who commute in this mess day in and day out.

India is also a land of great contrasts, natural beauty and social inequality.  We wondered why there was not an uprising or at least a reaction of some sort against the great wealth inequalities in society despite India having a democratic political system.  MJo did some reading and came across the following excerpt which could go some way in providing a historical explanation:

“After 2,000 years of ceaseless turbulence, wars, conquests, defeats, bloodshed, destruction and conversions during which great civilisations, religions, languages and customs have flourished and vanished, the Brahminical order has not only survived but spread with unerring purpose.

As an exquisite piece of social engineering, the caste structure has no parallel.  Monopoly of privileged status and sharp social divisions are of course seen in other societies.  But ‘the real triumph of the caste system’, as an Indian government report has pointed out, ‘lies not in upholding the supremacy of the Brahmin, but in conditioning the consciousness of the lower castes into accepting their inferior status in the ritual hierarchy as a part of the natural order of things.”

Sadly, our local friends tell us that this is still very much the case today, even in the 21st century!! As the hotel manager put it: “The masses are kept at bay by keeping the traditions of the past alive. In many cultures a noble thing, though here, that means very little or no education, pre destined to what one can and cannot become and ultimately a rather large ignorant public unable to dream of a better life for themselves”.

On a brighter note, India does have one of the youngest population in the world and with youth comes hope. We hope the best for its future generations and that the benefits of economic progress will eventually spread to all walks of life.

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The day it was supposed to happen

in Bureaucracy, India by on July 20th, 2010

So finally it was actually supposed to happen – I would get to see my bike for the first time since leaving Singapore and drive it home the same evening… or so I thought.

It started with Vijay (head of procurement of a 5 star hotel, whom Oliver the GM of the hotel was kind enough to “to lend” to us for his expertise of dealing with customs) calling me at 10am (nothing really happens in India before noon) telling me that he was at the eye hospital with his mum and would pick me up around noon. I also had to bring along a stack of rupees “just in case”.

At noon I hopped into the car and we were on our way to one of the container ports of Delhi. After driving for an hour, we picked up another gentleman at an overpass who was apparently from the clearing agency. He had a stack of paper in his hands which made me feel better if only in believing that paper could move the process forward.

Another 30mins later, we finally arrived and thousands of containers looked at me as if saying “you think its me that holds your bike”? I trodded behind my two friends, passed a security gate and entered a hall which appeared to be unchanged from the early 1900’s. Thousand of boxes and crates everywhere, no system of any kind and not a single computer in sight. Hmmm, I thought, how are they gonna find which container holds what.

Entering the Intregrated Freight Complex Ghaizah

”]Then the usual “twenty guys speaking at the same time” show unfolded and 10 mins later, I was told to follow a group to one corner of the container yard. The mob stopped in front of a maroon container. A while later, a gentlemen with a huge lock-cutter appeared and opened the seal of the container. As luck would have it, 20 other crates had to be moved before another hour later, our crate appared like a phoenix from the ashes. There it was! I felt a big wave of relief.

Preparing to open the container

Everything else in the container had to be removed before finally reaching our crate at the back of the container

Our baby!!!

It was a good moment but not a great one yet, as it turned out that none of the customs people at this particular site could clear the shipment as the bike’s Carnet needed to be stamped. And that particular stamp which was needed for that paper was only available at the customs office… yes you thought correct…at the airport (an hour and half ride from our location). I was told that “a man with a stamp” would come down in the afternoon to clear the shipment and that we could no longer do anything here. It was a great relief to see the bike, yet without it we left the place.

Good job team! MJo with Vijay (procurement manager of a 5-star hotel in Delhi) and Vijay (representative from the clearing agent)

Vijay was great and took me to his hotel for a meal of real Italian spaghetti (imported obviously), neither of us had any food for the whole day.  After was felt like a feast, I eventually made it back to our hotel were Sabby was busy putting on her high heels… why you ask, she will tell you in a minute.

For myself and the bike, well you guessed it right again, the man with a stamp from the airport never showed up to clear the bike. Am told that today the stamp should now really arrive and the bike would be delivered to a Honda service center by today afternoon. You are free to take bets if that will actually happen…

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FLASH UPDATE

in Bureaucracy, India by on July 20th, 2010

SCOTTY TO CAPTAIN KIRK: WE HAVE A VISUAL OF OUR BIKE!

That’s our baby in its packing crate!!

More details of MJo’s customs visit yesterday to follow in a separate post…all that needs to happen now is for the customs guy from the airport to go to the customs area to clear the bike.  We will keep you posted…

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Our week in Delhi

in India by on July 19th, 2010

Since returning from Leh, we have spent the last week in Delhi battling Indian bureaucracy, resting and working on this website.  A summary of the progress we have made:

    1) Sabby managed to get her visa extended after spending about 8 hours at the Ministry of Home Affairs and Foreigner Registration Office hanging out for 2 days with Afghan refugees and filling out endless forms.  After this experience, she hopes she will never have to deal with Indian bureaucracy ever again.
    2) Our bike has made it from the train station to the customs area.  We now need to go through the “seal-cutting” process.  After this experience, MJo hopes he never has to explain to anyone again why he is not permanently importing his bike into the country and why he doesn’t have a permanent address in India.
    3) We have a new camera and helmet to replace our broken versions.  Getting them into the country was no easy process either.

We also found time to do some fun stuff

    1)  We met up with Sabby’s friends from business school who were in India learning how to build businesses in India.  Despite having been to different parts of India, we shared our battle stories of India.  This also gave Sabby the excuse to put on a pretty dress and heels to sip martinis.

MJo and Sabby with famous glamourous Bollywood star (actually one of Sabby's classmates from b-sch, Diksha)

    Special thanks to Diksha and Rishab for all the hospitality shown to us in Delhi
    2)  We discovered the air-conditioned malls and spent time hanging out there.  Or more accurately, Sabby discovered the supermarket at the mall with all sorts of imported goodies, and spent a significant amount of time there.
    3)  We went to see Delhi’s tourist sights – the Red Fort and Chandni Chowk.  We marveled at the chaos of the latter.   Thousands of street vendors tumbling over each other.  Delicious aromas wafting from all the makeshift food stalls.  Traders, buyers and tourists all mixed into the never-ending crowd.  In spite of the chaos, deals seem to get done and even Kamasutra Dolls get sold.

Yummy smells from the street hawkers. A shame the prospect of "Delhi belly" kept us away from tasting the food itself

New Business Ventures: get a weighing scale and charge people 1 rupee to weigh themselves

Live action display of the Karmasutra dolls

    4) We saw the biggest tourist sight of them all – the Taj Mahal! And indeed it was magnificent, very much like the heat. The splendor and grandeur of the white marble was a feast for our eyes and one could imagine the great love Shah Jahan must have had for his Mumtaz.

In front of one of the seven wonders of the world

    As a reflection of the blood and tears that went into the building of the Taj, gaining entrance today was no mean feat either as the long queue in the video below shows.

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Incredible India: Shipping a bike to India a good idea?

in Bureaucracy, India by on July 16th, 2010

If there is one advice I would give other bikers out there so far, it is do NOT import your bike into India. The excess time it takes to import the bike here is simply ludicrous.  Nothing moves without paying everyone along the way. We have now been waiting almost 3 weeks for our bike to arrive and get released by customs. The excuses why “still not here” would make for a full evening reality TV program.

First there was a backlog at the Mumbai port that prevented the ship with our bike to berth,  then a nationwide strike (as so-called Bandh) prevented the transfer of the container from the ship onto the train for Delhi.  Then the bike had to make it from the train station to the customs area but certain types of trucks are not allowed into Delhi during certain hours… and just to add a bit of complexity to it all, when the monsoon comes down the place turns into something resembling more like Lake Como and all work stops. So now it just needs to somehow make it to us!  Per the latest feedback, “it should get released in the next few days”.

For every step you need to appoint an “agent” to deal with the Indian bureaucracy, which seems has not changed since the beginning of the century. And to think that half the worlds’ outsourced IT services are to India, the insanity of this contrast couldn’t be greater. So far we have made well over 100 phone calls to different agencies regarding the release of the bike, double that amount in SMS’s. I had to involve business contacts just to get answers on when “possibly” the bike will reappear.

As an eternal optimist, MJo keeps dealing with the authorities several times a day, and then repeats the process the next day. Let’s hope that his persistence and local contacts will eventually perservere, as all our onward visas are dependent on keeping to a certain schedule. Once missed everything else falls over.

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Leh

in India by on July 15th, 2010

Leh used to be the capital of the Himalayan kingdom of Ladakh and has for centuries been an important stopover on trade routes along the Indus Valley between Tibet to the east, Kashmir to the west and also between India and China.  At 3,500m, the landscape is dominated by mountains.  Due to its proximity to Tibet, you can see strong Tibetan influences everywhere.

The view from our hotel room

A view of the city

We decided to take it easy during our time in Leh, catch up on some admin/errands and do a little “standard” touristy sight-seeing.

For lunch, we stumbled upon a charming little cafe/bakery run by a Singaporean lady (Sabby herself a Singapore prodigy got very excited)!  The owner, Florence, spends half her year in Leh running her cafe and the other half of the year in Singapore as a freelance nurse.  The food at the cafe was delicious and better still, she makes scrumptious eggless cakes.  She has a strong entrepreneurial spirit and is already thinking about opening a guesthouse in Leh next year.

Fellow Singaporeans in Leh - what are the odds? Sabby with Florence, the owner of My Secret Recipe Cafe and Bakery

After lunch, MJo had to arrange for the piece of crap ermm bike to be shipped back to Delhi.

Sophisticated packing techniques at work - they use lots of hay to pack the bikes

The next day, we rented a little Bijaj 150cc street bike to ride around.  Sabby was instantly relieved that she didn’t have to ride a life-endangering Enfield anymore.  We rode up the world’s highest motorable road to Khardungla pass (18380 ft), we could not be closer to heaven.

We made it to the world's highest motorable pass!!

We had also read about a donkey sanctuary in Leh for old and mistreated donkeys to retire to. MJo is a big animal lover and demanded an immediate visit to his “buddies”. It wasn’t easy finding it, but the ride took us through the suburbs of Leh where there were some nicer hotels/resorts and summer homes for rich Indian families.  We finally found the place but by then it had already closed.  With the same never-give-up spirit that had sustained us through our trip, Sabby climbed over the gate to open it.  The donkeys were kept indoors and we had to peep through the little windows to see them.

Donkeys (or dunkeys as MJo says in his faux American accent)

Sabby sneaking a peep at the donkeys

We ended our day with a lovely evening at a newly opened chilled out restaurant/lounge, Bon Appetit.  We entered through a passageway off the hustle and bustle of Changspa Road and found ourselves amongst amidst lush green fields with a great view of the sun setting over the mountains.  We could have been in a trendy lounge in any cosmopolitan lounge, except for the rather primitive makeshift TV console in the corner.

MJo chilling out as the sun sets over the mountain

We were slightly sorry to have to say goodbye to Leh, but we had to get back to Delhi to attend to some pressing admin/customs matters, of which you will hear more about soon…

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Delhi to Leh: day 6

in Bike problems, India by on July 15th, 2010

Final day on the road!  We had to ride the 250km to Leh in one day because there was nowhere else to spend the night in between (and at an average speed of 20km/h this was again to be a loooooong day).

Our route for the day

We started well with the sun out in full force.  Along the way to our first pass of the day, we ran into Frank, an Australian biker doing a RTW ride with whom MJo had been corresponding with prior to the trip.  Even though we had never met him before, Sabby had a sixth sense that it was Frank when she saw all the kangaroo stickers on his BMW.

Shortly after we ran into Frank, we realised that our bike rack had broken apart on both sides (the heavy luggage, 2 people and the constant pounding of the road, had taken its toll).  We managed to offload one bag to an Indian biker that came along and continued on.

Did you really expect our bike woes to end at that????? given it was the last day of our journey?  Well, the throttle cable snapped yet again!  This time, we didn’t know how far we were from a town, so we unpacked all our stuff by the roadside and sat down for lunch.

Waiting, waiting, waiting...

Luckily help came soon.  We were able to flag down an army jeep.  The colonel was able to instruct his driver as to how to repair our broken throttle cable (which we now carried a spare one of).  And he was also kind enough to offer us to get our broken bike rack welded at the army camp half a click away.

All the soldiers fussing over our bike

After the welding a big group hug with the Colonel and his battalion

In the meantime, we decided that it would be too much for the bike to continue on with Sabby (no punt intended at her weight) and the luggage also onboard.  So MJo found a friendly group of German tourists and offloaded Sabby and the bags to their convoy.  Sabby was actually quite excited at the thought of travelling by luxury vehicle (comparatively) and playing rich spoilt tourist.

We passed through some amazing scenery around Moray Plains.

The rest of the afternoon was the usual schnick-schnack – road closures, mountain passes etc.  But the drama started again after we crossed Tanglangla pass (5300m).  Sabby started feeling the effects of the altitude and spent the rest of the afternoon/evening with a headache and nausea.  Note to others: always give yourself enough time to acclimatise to altitude, it makes for a better rest at night.

MJo, on the other hand…the bike rack completely disintegrated soon after the pass, in spite of the very recent welding job the army guys did.  Guess the bumpiness of the roads was too much for the rack.  The bike rack fell onto the back brake and broke it.  MJo had to ride the last 60km to Leh with only the front brake.  Luckily the roads were relatively smooth.

Our bike rack at the end of its life

We finally made it to Leh around 845pm, within 30 seconds of each other, despite having such different modes of transport.  The first hotel we went to was full, but we eventually found something across the street.

It had been a rough journey getting to Leh.  As Sabby put it, “two possible outcomes from this week: either we decide that we’ve faced the full range of problems that we would face on a two-month trip within one short week and so decide to spend the rest of our time on a tropical beach somewhere OR we would never need to get married after two months on the road together coz we would have dealt with more than most married couples face over their whole marriage.”

On reflection, it was almost a miracle that we made it to Leh safe and sound in spite of all the problems we faced along the way.  Yes we were challenged, but we also received a lot of help and luck along the way which made it easier for us to deal with the challenges. Thanks to all those that provided their help and assistance.

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Delhi to Leh: day 5

in Bike problems, India by on July 15th, 2010

Feeling refreshed after our rest day in Manali and more importantly, feeling encouraged by the sun’s appearance, we decided to get a very early start (5am) to ride the whole distance from Manali to Sarchu in a day (about 12-13 hours).  Even though it was only 225km, today’s route would take us through two mountain passes and some pretty tough roads.

Our first challenge: getting over Rohtangla pass (3984m) which had been closed due to a landslide.

You can see in the bottom left corner of the picture, all the cars which were stuck and unable to pass the landslide section of the road

Again, MJo’s determination and persistence got us through the landslide section (with the truck drivers stuck there for the past three days looking on in disbelief but also with some hope).  In fact, we were the first ones to make it over the pass around 8ish.  We heard later from other travellers that they were only allowed to cross the pass around noon when the major boulders had been removed by the army.

The ride from there got better as the sun appeared and stayed with us for the rest of the day.  It made all the scenery that had looked so ominous and drab in the rain, look green and fresh.  Our mood also lifted as the clouds went away.

Our bike with the bright blue tarpulin protecting our luggage against a beautiful backdrop of green valleys and sunshine

After 6 hours of riding, we stopped in Keylong for lunch.  Sabby decided to order a sumptuous lunch since, to quote MJo, we didn’t know “when or where we would get our next meal, so better eat while we can!” His primal survival instincts had taken over….

It would not have been right for the day to pass without some problem with the bike though.  Sure enough, the exhaust muffler fell off as MJo was riding to fill up gas.  Luckily this was a rather minor repair which the local mechanic could fix quickly.  And soon we were off again.

We headed up our second pass of the day – Barlachala pass (4912m) – without a hitch.  We were very fortunate as we later heard from other travellers that there had been two avalanches the day before.

Yeay, we made it!!

We spent the night in Sarchu – a semi-permanent settlement of tents.  Basically tented accommodation pops up during the summer months to accommodate travellers otherwise there is nothing else between Manali and Leh.  We were pleasantly surprised at the quality of our tented accommodation; in Sabby’s language she called it the Aman of tents.  We crashed at 830pm, the earliest we have been to sleep so far.

Our camp with its tents against the beautiful mountain landscape

One last thing about the day.  MJo had warned about the inevitability of falling off the bike on such roads and mud yet Sabby had not believed him. But the muddy road conditions today meant that it was difficult to maneuver the weight of the bike (plus all the luggage) at times, while dodging passing trucks.  We fell a couple of times today, not always gracefully, but we always managed to pick ourselves up and get back onto the road quickly.

Sabby covered in mud after one of our wipeouts

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