Archive for the ‘Motorcycling’ Category

Name my bike.

Sunday, August 16th, 2009

Let’s get high.

So the bike appears to be finally ready to make the grand mission. In a couple days, I’ll be taking her into the proper Himalaya – the roof of the world. Only 50 km up the road is the first real test – a 3980 meter (13,057 foot) pass, about 2000 meters higher than the town I’m currently living in. Beyond that, I’ll be crossing passes at 4500, 5000, and 5300 m (17,390 ft) in the three days it will take to get to Leh, where I’ll spend a week or so. Just beyond Leh is the highest road in the world, Khardung La, at 5600 m (over 18,000 feet).

(There appears to be some dispute over this, naturally. The Chinese claim that GPS readings show the pass at less than 5400m, meaning some roads in Tibet are higher. Well I’m not in Tibet on a motorbike, so China can eat my exhaust).

To put that in perspective, Mont Blanc, the highest peak in Europe, is 4800m. That’s a peak. These are roads. Fun.

At any rate, it’s high time my bike got named. I’ve basically been tossing around feminine names, as I’ve done with my bicycle at home (Ladyboy) and my scooter in Taiwan (Doris). I’ve joked with people here about naming her Britney. It makes sense: she looks and sounds fantastic, but man is she fucked up inside.

At any rate, I’ve already had a few suggestions in the comments of my last post, but please feel free to add your own. I’m going to let this come semi-organically, but if a cracker of a name arises, it’ll probably stick. Thanks in advance.

Into the hills

Friday, August 14th, 2009

Bit of a roller coaster few days. Been making good time in our Canadian/German/Irish convoy, and we’re now well into the foothills of the Himalaya. The scenery is impressive, to say the least, and the temperature is a welcome relief from the plains. The villages and towns up here are much more peaceful than the larger cities down south, and some Tibetan influence is starting to show up in the faces, dress, and culture of the locals. I’m beginning to realize why so many people come to India and never leave the north.

But my bike is in trouble. Serious trouble. I had one mechanic tell me I might have to sink another $500 into it, then sell it and buy a different one, because the bike would have chronic problems. As you can imagine, I’ve sought a second opinion. I went to a shop that came highly recommended by every bike owner I’ve met in this area, and he told me that a few hundred dollars should do it, and the bike will be good to go. I’ve been stressing for a day or so, but  feel better now.

I suppose now is a good time to introduce you to the world of the Royal Enfield. This is a motorbike originally designed and built in Britain. It was brought to India during the 1940’s, I believe as part of the British arming of the Indian Army (which was, still to this day, the largest volunteer army ever assembled). The bikes are old school – manual, heavy as shit, and loud like a Harley four times the size. They are still built to the old British specifications, but now in Chennai. Mine is 350cc, which is rather small for motorbikes, but the bikes have a certain romantic authenticity. Especially when you’re riding them around India.

Despite all the upside, however, the Enfield has one big downside: they break. All the time. They are as famous for being unreliable as they are for being fun to drive. As I mentioned in my last post, I had a problem with mine on the very first day I drove it. And things have only gotten worse. I burned through a set of clutch plates on my second day, only to have issues with my clutch being over-tight – causing more problems with the new plates. Now that I’ve handed it off to a mechanic of some repute, I’m just praying things work out. I clearly got ripped off quite cleverly by my salesman in Delhi, but there’s little I can do about that now so I’ve shrugged it off and I’m not worrying about it. I’m going to get her fixed up and away we’ll go. Maybe I’ll name her soon. Any suggestions?

At any rate, I’ve uploaded a new gallery of photos here. I spent a day in a mountain town called Mandi with incredible views and a market surrounding a quiet garden. I wandered the market and garden, happening across a frenzy of action – free rice pudding! One turbaned old Sikh was furiously folding leaves into bowls, as two other men ladled the delicious desert and handed it out in a hurry. Apparently this happens once a week, though most locals were somewhat mysterious as to why a group of men pass out a few hundred gallons (they kept refilling the pot, over and over) of rice pudding to the townspeople. I found out later, from someone who had seen the same phenomenon in a different town, that it was to honour Shiva. Of course! Rice pudding for Shiva. Makes complete sense.

Either way, it was a tasty offering. The roasted cashews were a nice touch. Enjoy the photos!

On the (side of the) road.

Monday, August 10th, 2009

Picture yourself stranded on the side of an Indian highway with a broken throttle cable. It’s your first full day on the bike you’d bought the day before for 40,000 rupees, about $900. It’s well over 40 degrees with the humidity, and the sun is hotter than Demi Moore’s kiln in Ghost (there was a kiln, right?). The worst part: the cable didn’t snap while rolling down the highway. No no. You pulled over because two locals on a motorbike were yelling something unintelligible at you while pointing at the back of your bike. So, diligent as you are, you pulled over to check the scene. Bungied to the luggage rack of the bike is your backpack, and one of its straps was loose and blowing in the wind. Egad.

My bike.

I left Delhi early this morning to get a head start on the worst of the city’s traffic. I mean early. I was in the shower at 4:30, downstairs eating a ‘Cinaman Roll’ and drinking ‘Nescafe Milk’ at 5:00, and fiddling with bungie cords by 5:30. At 6:30, I was still in Delhi. I had been on the bike for nearly an hour, but hadn’t left the city. It’s not that the city is massively sprawling or anything; I was lost. Horribly lost. After a while I managed to find the road I wanted, but was heading south instead of north. The aforementioned sun gave it away, however, so I turned around and was on my way. (I did need some help from a nice man and his wife, just to give credit where it’s due).

I stopped in a dhaba, a cheap eatery, along the way. They dot the highway-side like truck stops, only they aren’t usually accompanied by petrol stations. I had some channa masala and four naan. I wanted two but when the serving boy asked if I wanted more I thought he was asking if it was good so I answered with a thumbs up and got two more. I ate them anyway. With my fingers. Yum.

I rolled on up National Highway 1, the road from Delhi to Amritsar, the Punjabi city across the border from Lahore, Pakistan. (Punjabis are mostly Sikh and make up the majority of Indian expats in cities like Toronto. They’re the ones with turbans and beards who cook things like butter chicken). Along the way I dodged cows pulling flat-beds full of sticks or leaves or sacks of goods unknown. Huge trucks had “GOOD LUCK HONK HORN PLEASE” written across the back. I obliged, as per the rules of Indian roads. I think I’ve already got them down. There are only two, and they are as follows:

Indian Road Rule Number 1: Bigger vehicles ALWAYS have the right of way, even if you are going 80km/h down a highway and he is making a u-turn to hit up the fruit stall on your side of the road. Too bad, motorcycle, you have brakes, right? Use ’em.

Indian Road Rule Number 2: Use your horn all the time. Like, several hundred times an hour, several thousand if you’re in the city. It is not an expression of anger or impatience, although it can be when the foreigner in front of you has stalled his motorbike right as the light turns green. Usually, though, it simply means: “I’m coming. I’m coming. Hello, here I am.” Mirrors, you see, are optional. I think Indian drivers use their mirrors the way Westerners collect stamps. It’s a quaint old hobby that is rather boring but no one really minds if people decide to get into it. It’s essentially harmless, and only about ten percent of people participate.

A few hours into my trip, at a little town of several hundred thousand called Ambala, I pulled off NH1 and onto NH22. Quite a step down, I realize, but we still had two lanes in each direction (though the shoulder is most often used to go against traffic, even by trucks) and a raised, grassy median in between – to limit u-turns. A few km in, I stopped a petrol station and filled up for 440 rupees. Not five minutes later, the friendly locals are gesticulating at my bike and yelling something. Between the wind and the roar of my bike (and she roars, let me tell you), I couldn’t even tell if they were speaking English. But I thought why risk it so without looking for a proper parking lot, I just pulled over on the shoulder.

So now I’m stuck. The cable end that attaches to the throttle has clearly snapped off. I have a spare in my bag but no tools to remove the throttle and replace it. Also, even with tools, I would have no clue what to do. After a few minutes of stressing, I actually use my brain and decide I will – wait for it – look around. Up ahead, less than 200 meters up the road, I see a dhaba. Not a bike shop, but at least something. I grab the clutch and run my bike up the highway and into the dirt parking lot.

The dhaba.

Almost immediately, a few young men and boys come out to take a look at me. I get the impression they don’t have too many foreigners stopping by. They all head wobble and discuss my situation in Punjabi. One guy looks at me with a concerned expression: “No mechanic here.” Thanks. No matter. Within seconds, two of them are on cell phones while the other directs me toward that oasis of the Indian world, an air conditioned room. I sit, watch some Punjabi hip hop videos and drink chai while my new friends track down a mechanic who can scoot out to the dhaba to take a look. One guy strikes up a conversation, despite his very basic English. Soon we’re discussing American cultural dominance. It goes like this:

Friend: You like thees music?

Me: Yes, like American music.

Friend: Yes? Like Amereeca?

Me: Yeah, look at them – same clothes, same music (I was pretty sure he wouldn’t understand ‘beats’ so I did a little dance in my chair to indicate what I meant), only not in English.

Friend: Yes, thees Punjabi.

Me: Yes.

Friend: Punjabi culture feeneesh. Ha ha ha.

The mechanic rolls up clutching a spare cable, and I bolt outside to watch him work. He quickly pops the throttle off, replaces the cable, and snaps everything back into place. He expertly starts the bike and revs her beautifully. She’s never sounded so good. Handshakes and thank yous all around. I give him 150 rupees, or $3.50, and I’m back in the saddle. I embarrass myself by stalling it three times before making out to the highway, but eventually I’m off and running again.

Back on the road, I see more gold in English form. I pass several oil tankers with ‘FLAMMABLE MOTOR SPIRIT’ painted colourfully across the back. My favourite, however, might have to be the government PSA signs that remind me, in both English and Hindi, that ‘LIFE IS PRECIOUS.’

Don’t I know it.

The kitchen staff