The road from Pokhara back to India took me through some of the most important sites in Buddhism, The city of Lumbini in Nepal was the birthplace of Buddha making it an important pilgrimage destination for Buddhists from all over the world. For a place of such religious importance I was expecting the Lumbini Unesco site to be a serene place filled with gardens that offered quiet nooks to meditate, the reality was far from that. Other than the site of Buddha’s birth place and the world peace pagoda most of the grounds were overgrown and either in a state of disrepair or under construction. There are a large number of monasteries from numerous countries throughout the grounds however the possibility of enjoying these with any peace was lost with the hundreds of raucous school children touring the site, they were more interested in getting a selfie with the visiting western tourists than they were in learning the religious significance of the buildings they were visiting. Lumbini itself is a quiet little town with a handful of restaurants and hotels down the main street to cater for the visiting tourists, however the numerous hotels under construction hint at the plan to develop the area into a larger tourist destination. I took a ride to the town of Kapilavastu which was only about 20 km away from Lumbini, an easy ride on bike but due to the lack of local transport I was the only tourist there. Kapilavastu is home to the ruins of the palace that was home to Buddha in his childhood, it was a peaceful place to visit and as I strolled through the grounds I was joined by a group of local children who did their best to act as tour guides, a nice way end the trip through what had become one of my favourite countries.
I said good bye to Nepal and headed to the Indian border, I was greeted by a 4 hour wait at customs and absolute chaos on the road, I was amazed at how crossing a border could make such a big difference in traffic and my stress levels rose accordingly. Riding the roads of India was literally a daily gamble with your life, the larger your vehicle the more rights you have to be on the road and a motorcycle is at the bottom of the food chain, this meant that if a truck was heading in your direction on the wrong side of the road while it overtook another vehicle it was your responsibility to take evasive action whether there was space on the side of the road to pull over or not. Trucks would overtake on blind corners and cars would cut you off just to save a few seconds, at first this made me angry but eventually it just depressed me, is that all your life is worth on the roads of India? A few extra seconds of travel time. I was reminded of a quote by Major A.E Saggers in 1943, he obviously said it in different circumstances but it summed up my feelings on riding Indian roads. “Never have I dreamt that I would see a day where human life would be held so cheaply”
My first destination was Varanasi, which was 290km form the border, it was lunch time when I finally left the customs office and after riding at a snail’s pace and dodging traffic on the highway I managed to find a hotel in the town of Sarnath just outside of Varanasi at 9pm that night. Sarnath is another very important place for Buddhists, it is where Buddha first taught the Dharma and also the location of one of the famous pillars erected by the emperor Asoka the great during his reign in the 3rd century BC. In stark contrast to Lumbini the pilgrimage site in Sarnath was an oasis of calm surrounded by a city of noise, walking through the manicured gardens and ruins was a peaceful experience and the museum showcased the history of the site that dates back over 2 millennia. I had planned to spend a few days in Varanasi and the next day I headed to the city with high expectations. Varanasi is regarded as the spiritual capital of India, it is home to over 2000 temples and the famous Ganges River draws Hindu pilgrims that bathe in its sacred waters. My enthusiasm hit a brick wall as I neared the city center and came face to face with the most congested traffic that I had ever experienced, I discovered that what is one of India’s holiest cities is also one of its most overpopulated, congested and polluted. I sat on my bike in the middle of the road with the traffic going nowhere, I had to keep turning the bike off to stop it overheating and eventually made the 5 km ride through the city in 3 hours. I headed to the banks of the Ganges to get some photos, however I could barely see the other side of the river bank through the thick cloud of pollution. Finding somewhere to stay where I could securely park the bike seemed an impossibility and I had zero interest in once again combating the traffic in the city center so I decided to say goodbye to Varanasi and begin making my way to Delhi. Perhaps if I arrived in Varanasi with nothing but a back pack , negotiating the busy streets would have been a little more fun and I would have enjoyed the stay much more but the streets of Varanasi are no place to try and negotiate on a big touring motorcycle.
The ride to the Nation’s capital was a pleasant surprise, the highways were in decent condition and the freeway between Agra and Delhi barely had any traffic, For the last 1 ½ years and 100,000 km I’d made an effort to stay off main roads and find interesting secondary roads, that was until I rode in India, If I had a chance to get on a highway and avoid the traffic I would gladly do it. Arriving in Delhi was an absolute assault to the senses, the sights and smells absolutely bombarded you and left you feeling like you’d been slapped around the face. I parked the bike in my hotel and walked the streets Delhi for the next few days, I’d often have to stop myself gagging from the stench of stale urine as I explored the piss stained streets of the city by foot and witnessed firsthand the extreme poverty that many of the cities inhabitants face in their daily lives. Another surprise that greeted me on my return to India was a financial crises, the government had decided to ban the 500 and 1000 rupee notes due to corruption and limited the daily withdraw from ATM’s to 2000 rupee a day (about US $30). The result of this was queues that stretched hundreds of meters from the few ATM’s that still dispensed cash, a 2 hour wait to get to the front of the line meant getting access to cash just became very difficult and extremely frustrating. I was in Delhi to organise my Iranian VISA which meant a 4 day stay and I made the most of it by visiting some of the cities tourist attractions, no visit to Delhi would be complete without a visit to the old city and the Red Fort and both were very impressive. I met 3 Italian backpackers at the hotel and I tagged along with them while they organised a train ticket to Agra. Traveling on bike I have never had to deal with travel agents and I didn’t really believe the stories of being ripped off until I saw it myself. What should have been a simple process of going to the train station ended up with taxi drivers taking us to fake government tourist offices for the next four hours, the agencies even had “Government Tourist Office” signs on their windows but were completely private and charged exorbitant prices for what should have been cheap tickets. We finally made it back to where we started at the train station and after I asked a friendly police officer were we can get tickets we found the real tourist ticket counter….. what a fiasco, it made me appreciate travelling on motorbike.
Now, it might sound like I’m whinging quite a bit and I probably am however I’m doing it with a few things in mind. As much as the congested traffic is annoying, it’s also part of the adventure and that’s what I am here for, if I wanted to ride well organised streets and sedate traffic I would have stayed in Australia, I’m here for new experiences and India has certainly delivered that. I would also say that “If at some point you haven’t passionately hated this country then you probably haven’t experienced the real India”. I discovered this later on in my travels when I stayed in an ashram in Rishikesh for two weeks, it was peaceful, relaxing and totally enjoyable, but if that is all that you saw of this diverse country you were missing out….the poverty, pollution, overcrowded pushiness and chaos are as much of what this country is about as the yoga retreat’s and the Taj Mahal.
I left Delhi to visit the crown jewel of India’s tourist attractions, the Taj Mahal. I was back on that rare piece of uncongested freeway between Delhi and Agra and saw the needle on the speedo reach over 100km/h for the first time in recent memory. You can’t visit the Taj Mahal without high expectations, which is often a recipe for disappointment, however the impressive ivory white marble mausoleum built in 1632 by the Mogul emperor Shah Jahan as the tomb of his favourite wife certainly impressed, there was no question that it deserved its place as one of the 7 modern wonders of the world.
The financial crisis in the country had forced me to make the decision to skip the southern part of India this trip, this meant I could take my time exploring the north and I was excited about venturing into the deserts of Rajasthan on the bike with some time up my sleeve. Rajasthan is a magical area, most of the cities boast spectacular palaces and impressive forts, many smaller fortifications can be seen atop valleys as you make your way down the highway evoking images of battles that were fought hundreds of years earlier. The city of Jaipur boasts the Amer fort and the city of Udaipur built around its large lakes has a spectacular palace but the highlight was the city fort in Jailsalmer. The 800 year old fort is still home to locals and many of the rooms in the fortress are rented out to guesthouse proprietors, this means you can actually stay in the fort and my guesthouse had a rooftop restaurant and rooms with balcony both of which had amazing views over the golden city below. Riding the big BMW through the large entry gate to the fort after a day of sightseeing and making my way along the steep, narrow cobblestoned streets to my guesthouse was a highlight of everyday I stayed there. Riding the desert roads of Rajasthan was also a treat, the sparse landscape with the odd camel wandering by left me with a peaceful feeling as I made my way down the highway. I could have stayed here for longer but the mountains were calling and I pointed the bike toward the Himalayas and the city of Rishikesh, India’s yoga capital.