Missed Chapter One? Read it here.
So, after constructing something that looked like a dreadnought on two wheels, our brave CJMG man headed through Asia to spice up his life. Along the way, he met generous locals, fell off, got lost and ran out of gas (often) and saw things most tourists never will. All the while, he had the great joy of being out on the road, alone with his bike!
Clearly that wasn’t enough for Roger and he continued on to newer, more exciting places. In this installment, he again becomes humbled by people’s generosity, encounters mind-numbing bureaucracy and manages to survive playing chicken with a very large truck. Roger seems to have a radar firmly locked onto challenging destinations. He swaps the jungle for a desert or two, leaves the heat behind and tackles snow and ice whilst out-maneuvering small, bolshie teens with big machine guns.
Welcome to Chapter Two of Roger’s adventure on the XT500:
The Burmese (now Myanmar) land borders were a no-go so I had to ship The Machine from Singapore to Calcutta. Despite this, I was allowed to fly in for 7 days to have a look-see at amazing sites like Pagan, which offered an interesting interlude. However, nothing had prepared me for arriving in Calcutta! The poverty, the deprivation, the decay. I couldn’t handle the truck loads of beggars being dropped off at street corners each morning, many maimed as children, to ply their ‘trade’ in the searing heat all day long.
For some masochistic reason I decide to get The Machine through customs by myself, fending off the many offers from clearing agents who all wanted 2000rp for the pleasure. Five long frustrating days, twenty forms and some fifty signatures later, I once again have The Machine. It only cost me 500rp, a couple of nervous breakdowns and an entrenched loathing for Indian bureaucracy. I have to get out of Calcutta and Darjeeling sounds idyllic. But there has been unrest there amongst the locals, so you have to get a permit from the Foreign Registration Office. I start to meet some other motorcycle travellers. A couple of Austrians have flown their XT’s to India because they couldn’t get visas for Iran – that’s a worry. Then I run into Paul and Catherine, a couple of Kiwi’s riding their Kawasaki 1100 back from England – they managed to get through Iran but had to travel in a convoy. They also put their 1100 on a train in India because they got so tired of the rough roads and traffic. Hmmm!
Fairly typical scene on roads in India – the traffic is chaotic!
Darjeeling, although still part of India, could well be a different world. At 2000m, it is pleasantly cool and surrounded by lush tea plantations with towering snow capped mountains as a backdrop. Slogans proclaiming an independent Gurkhaland are everywhere. The relative calm is broken next morning and the shops all start closing, as truck-loads of Indian soldiers career around the narrow streets. A young lad has been killed in the ongoing conflict, so the town shuts down in protest. Another black pendent is hung outside another family’s home. I head south to Siliguri to enter Nepal from its eastern border, aiming for Kathmandu. I stop for a night at a tiny village called Daman and stay in the Tower Lodge for $2.00. Here you can wake to 270 degree views of a Himilayan sunrise – magic!
Above 2,300m in Nepal looking toward the snow capped Himalayas.
I arrive in Kathmandu just after dark and set a new record for riding around in circles getting lost. With an arthritic battery and low engine revs the head light is pretty useless – the joys of 6 volt electrics! I found some cheap digs and quickly discovered that the food here is amazing. After arduous sampling sorties, the daily routine became guava jam and yak cheese on German wholemeal bread for breakfast, buffalo steak with vegetables and salad at for dinner, and then rum and raisin cheesecake dessert.
While stopped at a checkpoint on the way to Pokhara, I meet two English guys on R80GS’s. They had to come through the Middle East as they couldn’t get visas for Iran either – hope they are still letting Kiwi’s in. Eventually though, I have to head back to the inevitable chaos of northern India. Halfway to Varanasi riding along minding my own business, a large truck is approaching from the opposite direction. Then another LARGE truck pulls out from behind it … to overtake the first. But they must have seen me! If they did, they didn’t care. I swerve to avoid disaster but my shoulder is swiped by a tailgate and I hit the ground with The Machine on top of me. A pannier has a crumpled corner, forks a bit twisted, handlebars a bit bent and I’m a bit sore. Bugger those Tata trucks!
I take in the sights of Varanasi and the River Ganges before heading to Agra and the Taj Mahal. Got to do a bit of the touristy stuff. Then it’s on to the Tourist Camp in Delhi, a great congregation point for fellow travellers – like the crazy guy who has walked (yes, walked) there from Europe! It’s now December so I am becoming worried that the high passes may be snowed out in Turkey. An Iranian truck driver tells me I’ll never get through as the snow is very bad this year, even in western Iran. Hmmm …
Trishaws in Delhi – originally Harley Servi-cars but now fitted with single cylinder Greave/Lombardini diesel motors, complete with rope pull start!
The immediate problem is getting transit through the Punjab into Pakistan. The Indians and Pakistanis have been having tiffs with each other along this border for ages. Then there is the small problem of the Sikhs and Hindus running around spilling each other’s blood from time to time. Additionally, the border is only open 3 days each month. The Ministry of Home Affairs says that only students and owner-drivers can get transit permits and you have to travel in a military convoy. No prob’s. We can handle that.
I start to hear unsettling stories about the military convoys so decide to head off solo. Lots of check points in the Punjab but the only time I’m stopped is when the soldiers kindly offer me hot chai and don’t even bother checking papers. The atmosphere at Amritsar however is very tense with lots of trucks with armed troops tearing about – I decide not to visit the Golden Temple. Formalities at the Indian border take a while. The only other customers that day are a couple of Turkish bus drivers (with no passengers) who are very anxious their buses don’t get searched – very suss. Yes there was a convoy but no one seemed to mind that I didn’t arrive with it.
Stop a while in Lahore to do a bit more sight seeing then head for Quetta where I’d heard you could get visas for Iran. This means travelling through Baluchistan, which is desolate, barren country. I stop at Kingri for the night, a small village comprising two chai shops and a rest house. Pick the chai shop that has the most customers and after the usual round of handshaking and welcome, a truck driver insists I join him and his friends for a tasty meal of goosh (Pakistani rack of lamb). The building is a simple mud hut, no tables or chairs, just mats on the floor. The food is great, the company friendly and entertaining. Offering to pay for my meal only offends them and this was to be the norm for my experience with Muslim hospitality.
Road sign in Pakistan – and you wonder why I got lost so often?
The Iranian Consulate in Quetta tells me it will take two months to get an answer from Tehran, which will most likely be no. The wait is out of the question so I leave The Machine in Quetta and take the Express train to Islamabad. Warning! Never buy open class tickets on an Asian train as simulating sardines for 34 hours is not fun! No better luck getting an Iranian visa in Islamabad but I meet a couple of English guys, also with R80GS’s, on their way home from a two-year trip to Aussie. They have been waiting six weeks for visas with no luck and are going to try riding through the Middle East. I head back to Quetta, this time on a first class ticket, with the same plan.
I then arrive in Karachi, just after the worst racial rioting the country has experienced – some estimate casualties in the hundreds. Much of the city is still under curfew but I find out there is an Iranian Consulate here and decide to give it a try, why not?! Miraculously, after just 3 days I collect a 14-day transit visa for Iran. Elated I head off into the desert aiming for the border crossing at Taftan. I stop for the night at Bela and am again showered in hospitality – this time as guest of the local Police Commissioner. At Dalbandin, the combination of road works and sand storm means following tyre tracks in the desert.
Sandstorm on the “road” to the Iranian border.
The border crossing is tense. Lots of people milling about but no one seems to be getting through. At the gate, the Iranians are reluctant to let me in but finally conclude The Machine is not some secret Iraqi weapon of war. Two hours of paperwork later and with no mention of convoys, I’m off on an immaculate highway, wondering why the oncoming traffic is all trying to kill me. Oops. In Iran they drive on the right hand side.
It is January 1987and Iran is still at war with Iraq. With most able bodied men on the battle front, the frequent road checks are ‘manned’ by uniformed lads barely in their teens, with very big machine guns and not much to do – a dangerous combination indeed. Most are friendly enough but one lot aren’t happy with just searching The Machine – they want to take her for a spin! If I say yes, The Machine might be history. If I say no … Now, XT’s require a certain knack to kick start and the lad who fancies taking it for a ride doesn’t have it. His mates are most amused. He isn’t. I can’t understand what he’s saying but from the body language and waving of his machine gun, I get the unavoidable message he wants me to start The Machine for him. After a few feigned attempts I fire her up and dismount, holding the left hand grip. As my friend gets on, my thumb deftly flicks the kill switch. Alternating between flooding her and slight-of-hand with the kill switch, keeps the circus going (and The Machine stationary) until we all get tired of it. Finally, I’m allowed to carry on. A condition of the transit visa was staying on the main roads but these check points every 50km were becoming a drag. With it getting cold and a lot of snow about, I decided to head south-west away from the main road.
The small rural town of Neyriz obviously hadn’t seen many foreigners and certainly nothing like The machine. The instant crowd blocks the main street. Police arrive. Despite whacking a few ears, they fail to disperse the well-meaning throng and reinforcements are called. Chaos prevails. In desperation, the Police Chief asks me to follow him to their compound where The Machine is parked out of sight and I’m chauffeured back to the only hotel in town. Never a dull moment! Next, I check out Persepolis, where Alexander the Great left just enough of the 2500 year-old ruins to show that architects back then had better taste than they do today. I press on to Karah for the night, stopping at a hotel where the manager insists The Machine is squeezed through the front door and parked on the marble floor beside reception. From Mianch on, the weather is getting very nasty – lots of snow and ice. The border crossing out of Iran was a bit of an anticlimax. Carnet processed quickly, body search for illegal currency and I’m through in 30 minutes. The only other person trying to cross the border was a very worried looking chap with a flash new Audi, whose car was being disassembled like a mecchano set. I couldn’t help but feel the gentlemen from customs weren’t planning on putting it back together when the search was completed. Luckily, The Machine seemed to strike just the right aesthetic note.