I’ve always been fascinated by India.
Every time I go I find the experience hot, humid, overcrowded and frustrating. So why do I go back? Well, if you have ever sat on the steps of an open doorway of a train that’s gently chugging through the Thar Desert or hung over the edge of a rice barge in the backwaters of Kerala to buy fresh king prawns from local fishermen you’ll know why India’s so special.
It’s not just about India’s incredible monuments, it’s about the people you meet and the journey itself that makes me return time and time again.
It’s with this thought in mind that I persuaded some friends to come on a motorcycle trip into the Himalayas.
There were a number of flaws to the idea. Firstly out of the four of us, I was the only person to have ridden a motorcycle. Secondly, the only time we could all have off work was July, right in the middle of the rainy season.
After a brief discussion we decided that we wouldn’t let these two relatively minor issues stand in our way and booked our flights.
We could have planned more. Each day could have been meticulously drawn up with the hotels we would stay in, where we would hire the bikes and the route we would take but we wanted that off-the-cuff experience that comes from going into the unknown without a plan. We were on the no plan plan. The only point we all decided on was that we wanted to get to Gangotri, a town close to the source of the Ganges.
We flew through customs and before we knew it we were out of Delhi and arriving in Rishikesh.
First job was to find some bikes. As we passed through town, I’d noticed a small travel agency and thought this was the best place to start. As soon as we told him what we wanted he shouted very quickly in Hindi to his colleagues and there was a frenzy of telephone commotion. Within minutes what seem liked every Rishikeshian and his dog had turned up to try and negotiate terms for renting out their own bikes. An hour later we were the proud custodians of two Hondas, a scooter (very unsuitable for mountain terrain) and a brand new Royal Enfield Bullet.
The next morning we were off. “Good luck” the hotel manager said with a wry smile, exposing his orange teeth, before spitting pan, a type of chewing tobacco, onto the pavement beside me and turning back though the doorway.
Taking a deep breath and holding down the horn button, as you do in India, we departed with children in tow, shouting and waving as we dodged stubborn cows and praying Babas, howling chai wallahs and street carts piled with fruit before taking the narrow footbridge over the river and heading out of town.
With Rishikesh safely behind us, the roads widened. The cool breeze wiped away the beads of sweat from my brow. As we sped around each new corner, the vista grew more enticing, the Ganges roared beneath us through the deep valleys covered in sweet smelling pine trees.
In the late afternoon, darkness began to creep in, bringing storm clouds with it. Droplets grew larger and more frequent until we were soaked through. Stories of the man-eating tigers that roam these parts played heavily on my mind.
We pushed on until we reached a small village of wooden huts. A local ran out to meet us and offered us a shelter for the night. A group of villagers gathered to see what was going on and before we knew it they sparked up a clay oven and we all made friends over spicy dal and toasted chapattis. They didn’t speak a word of English and we didn’t speak any Hindi but that never got in our way.
The next morning we arrived at another small village. Like a scene from a wild-west film, albeit on bikes instead of horses, the four of us rode into town while locals stepped out onto their wooden porches to see who was there.
I don’t think they were used to company. As a crowd began to form around out bikes, an old holy Baba with long dreaded hair and orange robes appeared clutching his walking stick and hobbled over to my bike. Without asking he leaped on the back of it and we rode out of town. He travelled with us in silence for the next few hours before tapping me on the shoulder and signalling that this was his stop. I watched as he trotted off into the distance.
From there on the drive was treacherous. The gentle pine tree slopes fell away behind us exposing the harsh, barren mountainside and perilous drop from the side. The wind howled and rain beat down on us mercilessly as we slid around on the thick mud that had replaced the paved road. The worry of heavy trucks steaming around each bend started to become reality. We nearly gave up.
We reached Gongotri late that night. In a small valley, wooden structures were perched on the edge of the gushing river. It was dark and the air was cold and frosty, but lights from the stalls and lanterns lit up the town and the smell of spicy samosas and hot sweet chai was intoxicating.
“Hello sir, how are you?” said the first local to spot me as I clambered off my bike. With the customary head wobble and ear-to-ear smile he said “chai tea”?
All I had to do now…..was get back down.