Friday, August 19, 2011

Shimla 15th/16th August.

Happy Independence Day India.

Quite a good place to be to see these celebrations, lots of marching police, army, cadets and brass bands and speeches about how India has changed and developed in the 64 years since the Brits left. It was in Hindi, but Hassan said it was positive and no anx against the British.

It was a cold and wet day, which has been the way of things here - even had to get a fleece from Batty. As everything was pretty shut up, it gave time to plan the Himalayas and Kashmir some more, and finish reading the adventures of Huckleberry Finn. What a great book, that I had missed so far in life. I have a load of 'classics' lined up in the e-book library. Not only is this trip a perfect opportunity to read more than ever before, but between Kindle and iBooks a lot of classics are free to read.
Went to a film showing of a locally made film in the town hall. It was about this very remote Himalayan village called Malana. It is famed for it's own form of democracy that has worked for centries, and which now has been ruined by the government forcing them to vote in general elections etc. The villagers have become divided between the two main political parties, which in turn has divided the community.
It is also famed for growing some of the best hashish in the world. 20 years ago I would have been up there in a flash for a forgotten week or 10. Now I get very paranoid if I smoke any, a result of an over indulgent decade 20 years ago.

16th Shimla

Went on a good long walk today with Hassan. We took a local bus about 5 miles to the foot of a hill and took the path to the top.
For some reason I had to have a photo of a bus driver. On the road they are the kings and humble bikers are very respectful.

At the Temple (name to be advised..) sporting a new tee shirt with logo, by the very kind hand of my pal Chele, who makes such things at

Not a very revealing or flattering pic of the temple complex

There was a Hindu temple there and I was ushered in to have a form of blessing, a red dot on my forehead (a tikka), and a spoonful of holy rice to eat. After this we were invited to eat with everyone there. This involved sitting along a strip of carpet in a hall. There were probably about 30 ish of us there and I, the only westerner. Paper plates were handed out and then these young guys, I suppose they were trainee monks, almost ran up and down the line dolloping out rice and 5 other curries  and dhals. It was delicious and is a free for anyone and everyone there. It is such a sound social way of helping those who need it in an entirely equitable environment. Those who wished to could place a contribution in a discreet box.

Shimla, 12 Aug

Shimla is a lovely hilltop town that cascades down the very steep hill on all sides and kept almost as if the Brits had moved out only yesterday, rather than 60+ years ago. It is also kept very clean, with litter almost nonexistent, unlike elsewhere in India that I have been to.
Staying in a v tired large hotel Gulmarg for a couple of nights, rather weird in that the beds are round and mirrors adorn the ceilings. If it is meant to be a temple of love, I fear it falls sort,  by my measure at least.
I have a new pal called Hassan, who started chatting to me in a non-toutish way,  he does, however, have an interest in a hotel with a far better view and a less 'big' hotel formality I am assurred. So I guess I will move there. The only trouble is that to move less than a mile it will involve a 30 min journey going around the cordoned off from traffic hill top centre. This is really a blessing that makes the place special and a delight to visit. A legacy from Empire apparently.  For over a 100 years this small town housed the British Raj government from April to October when Calcutta or latterly Delhi was too hot. In effect this meant 1/5 of the then world's population was controlled from a place the size of a small country English town.
View from the Gulmarg window, I was rained on most days and it was fog bound a good deal of the time, mores the pitty.

Jakhu Temple, A very steep 30 minute walk up from the centre.

The Centre, known as the Mall

The town flowing down the hill

A very English Church, full of memorials plaques of Brits in Imperial days 

It is Independence Day on the 15th Aug and the town has completely filled up up for the weekend for the holiday. Lovely to witness the Indians at play and I believe there will be processions and much celebration. The trouble for budget conscious travelers is that the room prices has rocketed. After nearly  a day of searching for a reasonable room, the Mayur hotel eventually gave me one at double my budget. It was a shocker in terms of the bed being damp, because of monsoon rather than anything else, I hasten to add, no view and generally horridly run down. I had meant to stay at Hassan's place but Batty could not get up the hills on the approach.
I caught up with Hassan later that day and he had re-sold the room for that night but said I could move in the next night. I did what I hoped I would not have to do, which is to leave Batty a mile or so down the hill in a manned car park. With  fingers crossed, I put the newly acquired bike cover on and padlocked it closed, chained her to a steel girder and put the alarmed disk lock on and hoped all would be well.

Hassan took me for a 10 k trek around, up and down local beauty spots that was fun and fit making. We finished by going to the Viceregal Lodge. Just like a Scottish lodge and the place of historical discussions, like Independence and Partition.


The Viceregal Lodge

One of my many cousins in Shimla

Looking down on the Mall area

Friday, August 12, 2011

11th August on road to Shimla

This visa thing has had me cornered and it seems that leaving for a couple of weeks to go to Nepal could be a problem and in the worst case have to stay for 60 days before returning. If I was on a formal tour, then it would be easy as there are bookings and flights as proof, but I would be subject to the discretion of the immigration officers at the borders. It may have been fine, but after some dilly dallying decided to 'do' Nepal in December.
It took a couple of days, of and on, to find this out, and by the end I was all city-ed out and headed for the hills north of Delhi.

I have noticed a lot of male hair dying going on here. It is either jet black, that shows the gray very quickly, or it is a sort of henna colour which has a lot of Donal Trump like characters cycling their rickshaws and the like. Will try and snap some examples of these fine chaps.

It is a long days ride to Shimla that I did over 2. Most was through the mighty plains surrounding Delhi, that look to be largely down to rice and wheat. Beautifully lush in this rainy season.

It may be down to Batty's homecoming (all but her engine was made in India), the speed of Indian roads being almost exactly in equilibrium with her pace, the now perfect clutch and gear setup, or the mustard seed oil in her tank, but Batty is going so well and is a joy to be riding here. That is until I could not get up a slop to a hotel that I wanted to stay at. It was very very steep, but plans to lower the gearing for 2 up are essential.

Some snaps on the road to Shimla, you can understand my spirits lifting as I rode through this scape.

9th & 10th August, Delhi

These 2 days have been all about getting Batty serviced and seeing if I can get my Indian adjusted so that I can go to Nepal for a few weeks and then return to India. By chance I noticed, in the smallest of type on the visa, that you cannot return to India for 2 months if you leave. This is apparently a way of stopping people staying for the 6 months, popping over the border and getting another 6 months visa and popping back again. A pain but just one of those things.
Bombay Hair cutters...good barbers, who tried to rip me off by charging 10x the agreed price for an additional face massage and treatment...we settled on 4x...aaaargh

I had been for a bit of a recce to this  area called Karol Bagh on Sunday. It is the home of all things motor vehicle in Delhi and where there are a lot of Royal Enfield mechanics and sales. Not knowing where to start I asked a couple of policemen, who were on Royal Enfields, who they thought would service the bike well. They immediately suggested Madaan Motors, as did another chap I had asked, so felt pretty confident. I was greeted by Sohan Lal Maddaan, the 79 year old founder of the business, and immediately put my mind at rest about sorting Batty out. Particularly once we had established that we knew someone in common. Non other than Henry Price, who had built Batty.  I gave him a long list of things to be done and left her to their tender care.

The Madaan mechanics hard at Batty's clutch

I went off to the FRRO office to see about the visa. After an hours wait in line I was told that I had to have a letter from the Ministry of Home Affairs, which was closed for the day when I got there.

Back at Madaan's I met Shan Lal's son Arun, who had Henry on the line and we chatted about the service that Madaan were doing and his visit to Delhi next week.

Returning a few hours later and after a few finishing touches, rode off on a refreshed Batty. They had put a whole new clutch assembly in and the difference was amazing.

Delhi, 7th & 8th August

I was so looking forward to coming back to India, made all the sweeter after an almost enforced incarceration in the hotel in oven like Dubai.

Hopefully I will be in India and Nepal into December.

It is the monsoon season, which is quite a violent word for what is largely seen by locals as a time of celebration for the rains that will nourish the year ahead. Apart from a light drizzle, it has not actually rained on me in 4 days, although there has been some heavier rains at night.

I am going to stop talking about the import and export rigmarole that is involved on this trip, but will section it off for other travelers who may find it useful. Apart from it being a rather boring subject, I fear that the trip account could revolve too much around these rather painful collisions with red tape and authority.

Because I arrived on a Friday night, I had to wait for the Monday to retrieve Batty.  I had pre-booked a hotel room using, which I had used for Dubai as well. Seemingly good discounts, but in Delhi's case there were no windows in the room. At first I was rather pissed off, but then I realized the advantage was peace, quiet and very the extent that both nights there I slept for 10 hours, which has not happened for years.
Did lots of rickshawing around, which always makes me happy. I have been here twice before and the last time was about 4 years ago. Each time the air has got all the more cleaner, as they have come down heavily on polluting trucks and converting taxis and rickshaws to LPG. They also have an underground system that was fledgling last time, but now is very efficient, new and as crowded as the London one. The run out to the airport on took just 20 mins.

Getting back into right handed eating etc. And enjoying delicious currys from local street stalls. One thing I have noticed is the periferation of Chinese food stalls next to the Indian ones, which I am sure were hardly here before. Am yet to see how they compare with the mighty New City Noodle along Battersea Park Road. Probably the best in London, and the home of our weekly company lunch.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Dubai, 29th July - 5th Aug

Spending a week here. Collecting a few bits and pieces sent by my amazing Vicarage Crescent friends and arranging freight and flights etc.
Ramadan has started, and it means that there are a lot of people away and businesses close early...also folk can be a wee bit tetchy by the end of the day, having not eaten or drunk anything since 4 in the morning.
Have had to change my plans a bit, in that sending Batty to Katmandu is prohibitively expensive (£3000+, apparently only one airline goes there from Dubai with a large enough cargo door...), so Delhi it is for about £800.
Rainbow Cargo were suggested to me on Friday (sabbath)  by a chap on customs at Dubai Cargo Village, as a company who send bikes and 'dangerous goods'. I called them the next day and arranged to go there on Monday.
It was a funny mixture of abandonment and freedom seeing Batty being packed up, having whittled my needs down to a backpack. Having had her as my reliable constant for a couple of months, I was now so light of 'stuff' and responsibilities, it was almost disconcerting.

As chance would have it, I met Giancarlo at the shippers. He was sorting out shipping his Yamaha to India as well, and had been recommended to Rainbow for the best value.

We met for supper a couple of days later and I learnt that he  had come through Iran and been on the ferry a couple of days before me. He had had a month there. He is Italian who was brought up in Lausanne, Switzerland, just a few miles from Bella and Humphrey and this is his blog for all you French reading  travellers out there:

Another marathon shipping trial. In the end and had I, or anyone else for that matter, known what they were doing, getting the export certificate takes about an hour. Alas I was taken and sent to 8 different offices all over the city and over 6 hours. There were loads of condradicting opinions and instructions. These are the correct ones for anyone reading and trying to ship their vehicle and needing an export certificate:

You will need your registration doc, carnet and passport.

Mr Othman, Daira Traffic (RTA) is the man to see, and his office is off Al Aids Street and 100m down 8 Street. Opposite Terminal 2.
First get a proof of ownership form from him, which you need to fill out with registration number etc. Then this needs to be stamped by the CID  (police dept, 600ish metres down the road and around the corner away,  he will explain where, even ask him to draw a map as I have found directions here are very ambiguous). Go to the 'internationally wanted' (don't ask me why) office in the CID building for stamp. Then return to Mr Othman and he will issue the Export license doc.

Rainbow kindly put their driver at my disposal and had he understood what we needed to do and where, it would have been a far greater help.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

23rd to 28th July. Shiraz to Bandar Abbas, Iran and Dubai, United Arab Emerates

23rd July. Shiraz. Home of the grape.

Drove some of the best roads yet in Iran between Esfahan and Shiraz, stopping for the night in Yasuf, which was interesting in that I had to stay in a 4 star hotel. There were only 3 hotels in the town, and the cheapest had said what equated to $50, this is over double my budget, and the rooms were v squalid for the rate. So I eventually found this other posh one, that took pity on me and agreed on $40 a 50% discount on their rate. 

Rocked into Shiras at midday, I thought this might be a fun place when I saw this guy on cycle with a huge hooter on the handlebars, that he had some pump attached that he was vigorously using to honk his way through the mad traffic.  I had to ask a few people directions till I found the street. The last one was a guy called Omid, who I randomly asked. He kindly showed me the way. Once found he asked me to come to met his family that evening. I agreed as he seemed a good fellow and there was no hint of an agender. Which  is an awful thing to say as there has not been with any of all these offers that have come my way, but it is my cynical Anglo Saxon mind that is almost confused by what I take as unbelievable generosity and openness. It is in fact just their natural  behaviour towards strangers. 

It was good to meet his mother, who I guess was a bit older than me and spoke great English and then his 23 year old sister, who also spoke very well. So we had a couple of hours chatting away, hearing all about their happy and quite versatile lives, their travel wishes and matrimonial plans. All open and nothing not up for discussion. Again this wish for fast social change was very apparent, but not expected in their generation. The parents were married before the revolution and their wedding pictures were without the vail. I asked for an opinion, and although it was preferred without as an option, it was such a norm now that it was not a subject of any annoyance. 
I was asked about what I saw as the difference of the cultures, and I thought it comes down to a stronger or certainly different family structure that has the children in the house till marriage (30 on average and too long as far as mother was concerned), the ever present Islamic faith that is only practiced by a relative few, I was surprised to learn, and no alcohol. I am finding it weird that one, not that I crave booze, it is just such part of our social life for it to be completely nonexistent takes some understanding. It seems like a near essential prop that enables interaction, courtship and certainly in part the fun and edgy youth culture that drives and stimulates much of our ever developing culture. 
I met another chap, Ali, today who explained that after the Iran/Iraq war in the seventies and eighties, the Iranian leaders told the families to have as many children as possible to rebuild the decimated population. So now there are huge numbers of late twenty year olds, many of whom are unemployed, living with their parents and with little prospect in this politically and economically isolated land. A sad state of affairs, and there is some anguish beneath all the smiles and generosities. 

Scenes from around Shiraz:

Omid had kindly volunteered to call the ferry to get to Dubai, so by 9 am he had let me know that they were running every day, so off I went to one of the most anticipated visits of my time in Iran.....

Persepolis is and was one of the great proofs of Iranian/Persian's significant place in history. It marks the beginning of one of the first civilizations and the largest empire the world had known....right up until Alexander the Great showed up and nabbed it in 331 BC. 

My imagination cannot really do the job of translating the remaining ruins into what must have been an extraordinary human achievement by any standards and in any era. I am sure Hollywood has done the job for me and will have to look it up. 

Now if you ever hear part of the so called 'establishment' going on about what vandals graffiti artists are, have a look at these names carved on to some of histories greatest  treasures. I am showing the tip of the iceberg, there are hundreds from  the days of our Empire. Perhaps that makes it alright? 

Here are some other poor pics of significant history

With a head full of wonder and respect, I hit the road for Bandar Abbas early afternoon, to get the ferry to Sharjah near Dubai. It is over 400 miles south and I wanted to do as much in the remaining day as poss. Darab is a town about 200 miles along the road the way and got there at about 7pm. I asked for a local hotel, and was guided to this very snazzy and looking place. My immediate thought was that it would be way over budget, and although I would have stretched it a bit being knackered by the many hours in 45 degrees, I could not believe it when the very pleasant receptionist said it was about £15. A lovely room with en-suite and breakfast to boot. 
My plans to leave at 5 am to avoid the heat did not have a chance against this most welcome comfort and I did not get away till 7,30. 

About 2 hours later, Batty ground to a halt, I had run out of fuel. It shouldn't have happened, as I give a very wide safety margin on the Garmin fuel gauge of 300 miles, when the range is 4-500 miles. And I was at 250ish.  I had noticed that I had been putting in more oil on the last few fill ups, so I guess I was being warned something was amiss. 
As luck would have it there was a sort of road side cafe 1/2 a mile on, and as we were on a hill, it was not even a push, but a glide. 
If I meet other people as friendly and generous as the Iranians on my travels, I will be of course delighted, but surprised. The guys enjoying their tea and lie down in the shade, sprang into action when they realized what the score was. One guy, Hero 1,  went off in his car to I think a farm whilst the other 2 Heros made sure my tea glass was always full and engaged me in the best conversation, without a word of each other's languages. From my trip, to all things Iran, the chat went on and on until Hero 1 returned with 10 liters of diesel. Unfortunately Batty did not want to start and Hero 1 got about bleeding the system. It is not that I wasn't happy to do it, but he was right in there and knew his way about a diesel, eventually we ended up swopping the injector for the spare I had. The old one was very coked up and probably had a lot to do with the poor fuel economy. She started up straight away. 
I begged to let me pay for the fuel and the time (at least an hour), but I could not for the life of me. 
Batty was going well now, although the local diesel is really smoky and I could see my black trail as I powered up the hills in the mirror.  Going at the same speed as a lot of trucks, I had chocked on hundreds of miles of what must be the world's most polluted roads, I was giving some of the same. Not a great moment in this supposed Eco trip. 

As it happens I have only stopped at a diesel station twice to top up the mainly Veg oil that I had found quite easily, including from a pizza joint. The trouble is that diesel here is massively subsidized and a gallon is just pence,  had I done the whole of the country on it, it would have cost maybe a tenner. As it is I must have done at least 85% of the 1500 miles on veg oil, which is about £1 a litre. I don't suppose running trucks on veg oil is going to take off here for awhile. 

Oh and another thing I have had to struggle with paying for is fruit, which I picked up at road side stalls. I just wanted a couple of the delicious local peaches, but always get given 4 or 5, and a blank refusal to be allowed to pay for them.

Leaving Iran.
If I ever come across a people on this trip that has a more complex and long winded customs and freight procedure, I will be annoyed, but surprised. 

I booked into a hotel in Bandar Abbas and after a very welcome shower, went to find a travel agency that Lonely Planet recommended. The temperature is in the mid 40s and as humid as anything and the healthy walking option soon became a silly idea, but it was too late and I arrived at the agency not looking or feeling my best. I was offered lots of tissues. 
This is when I was told that the ferry was full for a week, I could not believe it. Nothing in what i had read or understood had given any hint of it getting booked up so. It was when she did not know about the bike's price that I started thinking that there was a lot of communication failure getting in the way. It was too late by then to do anything other than go back to the hotel. 
I got on one of their very slow Internet pcs to see if I could glean some more. Luckily I found a  new thread on Horizons Unlimited that thankfully gave the shipping company name and address. So along I went in the morning at 8.30. What followed was a near 10 hour bureaucratic trail that took me to over 20 offices for parts of a puzzle that I had absolutely no idea had to do with what. At last by six in the evening I had my passenger ticket and Batty was ready for embarkation. 2 hours was spent sitting around and another 2 involved going back to the hotel to check out and collect Batty, but it had been a marathon. I read of others taking half a day.
Once the process was in play and I was confident that I would go that evening, I was surprised at how relaxed I was, pretty confused but relaxed. All the guys in the process were warm natured and happy to take this dumb foreigner through the ordeal. The night before I had been on quite a decline with the prospect of a week in one of the hottest most humid places I had encountered. 
Batty waiting to board at Bandar Abbas

That is where all those water melons come from

So what of Iran, do I want to come back? It has been, to date, the most challenging land I have been to. Not that I was ever in any remote danger or had any aggression shown me, in fact I have never had such warmth from those in uniform and those not, but in terms of having 2 weeks in near isolation from my kin, culture and language. In fact I only met 1 Frenchman and a group of Swiss lads for about 15 mins in the whole 2 weeks. Although the Internet works,  it does not like, BBC,  newspaper sites etc etc and I rather gave up trying to get and send email as it took forever and one had to hunt around a bit. I would love to come back, but I would with others and with a great English speaking guide. I would also come in the spring when it is much greener and cooler. There is so much to see and do, a life time is not enough.  The people are fabulous, the landscape stunning and the culture fascinating and rich. The food has been good, kebabs in the main, I am sure that I did not try it's best. Carrot jam is everywhere and I rather got a taste for it, along with the honey that breakfast always came with. The breads were flat and delicious fresh, teeth breaking if the slightest bit old. 

28th July UAE
Waiting to disembark, in an oven like ship's hold for a few hours

Ship docked at 10.30am, managed to sleep for about 5 hrs on the boat in train like seats. Because there were 100 more passengers than normal it took until 5.30 pm to clear the customs etc. Again I had read others who took just an hour or so, so I really pulled the short straw on this passage.
As if it was the most normal thing in the world, when I went, mid trail, to get the Carnet stamped in a little hut at the docks, the guys asked me to join him and his colleagues for lunch, it was all laid out and it was a delicious curry, something my taste buds had been crying out for. They were originally from India and I think Batty's Indian heritage may have had something to do with it. A great welcome to this new land.