Sikkim Day Ride

14th October. 220km return: Siliguri – West Sikkim – Siliguri.

The plan today was to ride the 110km from Siliguri to our guest house – the Red Mud Chalets – located off the beaten track in West Sikkim, and relax there for seven nights. Aad and Mike were going to ride up with us, and Emiel and Claire would join us at the chalets tomorrow as they are travelling a day behind us, having stayed an extra night in Varanasi.

We left Siliguri about 08:00am from memory, negotiating the crazy congested traffic full of buses and trucks and rickshaws and tuk-tuks and cows, and passed through the military base on the northern edge of town before entering the forest, noting the road sign that warned of elephants and stressed that they have right of way over cars.

Shortly afterwards the road started to climb into the mountains, twisting and turning its way upwards, and this is about where the silly Indian driving started. In one spot the road had narrowed to just one vehicle width, and two cars had ride to enter the narrow section from the opposite ends and had become log-jammed in the middle. Traffic was constantly piling up behind both of these cars, blocking them in so neither of them could reverse out even if they wished, which probably never entered their minds as the common view seems to be that you should never yield on the road, as exemplified by a bumper sticker on a jeep we saw that read “Better to die than drive like a coward”.

Our nimble bikes were able to pick a track around the obstruction and we we able to continue up the mountain, leaving the mass of blocked cars and trucks behind us, and we were able to enjoy the roads without any other vehicles for a fair while.

We crossed the bridge at Melli, entering Sikkim state, and were immediately stopped by police at a check-point requiring us to check-in at their office, showing our passports and permits to enter Sikkim. Formalities concluded we rode away.

The road deteriorated as soon as we entered Sikkim and whilst the route we were taking appeared as a sealed highway on our maps, in reality it was more of an unmade track than a sealed road in many places. We bumped over the rocks and slid through the muddy sections, dodging oncoming cars and trucks we could barely see through the thick clouds of white dust thrown up into the air. Hairpin bends on the road often signalled a shallow water crossing, and in the infrequent moments we were able to steal a glance to the side we could see the edge of the track and then a long steep drop to the river far below.

Progress was slow and hot, and we stopped in Jorethang to get a drink of water. A crowd quickly formed around us and looked at us all quite inquisitively, though unlike our experiences down on the plains here at least people weren’t touching the bikes which was a pleasurable change.

Long sections of the road were unsealed, and many of these had been turned into muddy quagmires. I haven’t done much riding in the mud but the heavy GSA seemed to revel in the conditions, never deflecting from its course. We were stopped at one point by a road gang loading rock into a truck – there were many crews working on the road in different places, but despite their best efforts the road was still in an abysmal state. Aad was quite vocal about the condition of the road – he couldn’t accept how a country could either call the track a main road or let it deteriorate to the condition it was in. As he pointed out – Mike and Karen & I had the luxury of riding off-road capable bikes whilst he was on his Triumph Bonneville – less than suited to the conditions.

We pushed on towards the turn-off to the chalets – Mike had plotted the locations of both the turn-off from the main road and also the chalets themselves which were about 15km down a private road, but we stopped in Legship when we realised that we’d missed the turn-off. We back-tracked across the bridge and found a little rocky track disappearing behind some huts on the side of the road, and we followed this up into the hills for a few hundred metres before Aad stopped next to a stationary 4×4 and asked the driver if we were on the right road. The driver hadn’t head of the Red Mud Chalets, Aad wasn’t convinced we were on the right track, and none of us were keen on pushing up the track. Aad’s back was hurting already from all of the bumping and jostling on the main road, and I could visualise the condition of the track getting much worse – too hard to warrant taking our heavy bike two-up along.

Back on the main road I plugged Mike’s coordinates into my GPS and it took us to another spot on the road where a side road should have joined us, but there was nothing but jungle to the side. We stopped to chat about our situation, and as we were talking I saw some locals walking up the road and then disappearing into the jungle, climbing up a steep path that had been cut into the cliff face that the jungle had obscured. That jungle path was the side road my Garmin India maps wanted us to take, but that wasn’t ever going to happen.

It was now somewhere between 2pm – 3pm and we had been riding for about six hours, and the decision was made to abort our attempts to get to the Red Mud Chalets today and look for accommodation elsewhere. If we could get a phone signal or wifi we’d be able to get more accurate routing information from the chalets and try again tomorrow.

We returned to the first major town further down the mountain – Jorethang – and Aad and I went to check out some hotels whilst Karen and Mike guarded the bikes. There were lots of places in the local vicinity labelled ‘Hotel’ but none of them offered accommodation, and Karen had been busy chasing kids away from the bikes, so we remounted and followed a small track down to a resort that was signposted near where we had parked.

The resort was just a few km out of town overlooking the river, and it looked like an abandoned mental asylum from the outside. I went inside and tried to get some sense from the man wandering around the lobby but couldn’t make myself understood. A young woman came down a hall into the lobby – she looked quite stupefied. I went outside and reported my findings to the others and we quickly agreed to move on to another town.

My GPS showed a heap of hotels about 10km south so we headed there in the falling light as the sun was now setting, but when we’d ridden the 10km we were still in the deep jungle. When I rechecked the GPS it showed that the straight-line distance to the hotels was just a few km, but they were 140km away via road as they were on the other side of the river…. duh !!!

We pushed on to Manpur in the dark. Traffic was still quite thick on the rough roads and I was grateful to have the spotlights on the GSA as they lit up the rocky terrain and mud holes much better. In Manpur again Aad and I went scouring for some accommodation but the only hotel in town didn’t have any secure parking for the bikes. Not happy with that, and with Siliguri only about 50km further south, we decided to return back to our starting point where we knew we could at least get a room and parking.

We stopped again at the police check-post at Melli and signed out of Sikkim, and then started to battle the crazy traffic driving up and down the mountain in the darkness. The vast majority of vehicles here in India don’t have any working brake lights or tail lights, and it was a manic ride down the hill, dodging trucks and cars and potholes.

It was about 8pm when we finally arrived back at our hotel. We’d been riding for almost twelve hours and were all quite exhausted from the experience. We were absolutely filthy – we’d been riding with our visors up to try and see through the clouds of dust and our faces were black, and our riding gear was covered in dust and soaked with sweat. We unloaded the bikes and collapsed on the lounges in the hotel foyer, bags strewn around us on the floor.

Showered and changed into clean clothes we rejoined Aad and Mike in the hotel restaurant for dinner. We hadn’t eaten through the day and were famished, and our meal was especially enjoyed as we’d managed to ride out to Sikkim and return safely – even if at times through the day we’d faced some big obstacles.

Karen and I both agreed that whilst our off-road riding in Albania was the most extreme riding we’ve ever done – today’s off-road ride in Sikkim and back was a clear second choice. I can’t credit our bike enough – fully loaded and with rider and pillion it ate up the conditions. I’m sure the TKC-80 tyres also played a major part in keeping us upright throughout the day – the bike and tyres are the perfect combination for two-up travelling.

We wanted an early start to try to avoid as much of the hectic and crazy traffic as we could. So we were up early…no breakfast, bikes packed and taken carefully out of the narrow little doorway up to the street level from our secure underground parking. We were on the road with Aad (Art) and Mike by 6.50 am…..traffic was already crazy in Varanasi.

Our GPS took us on the shortest route via NH29 and then NH84 -basically straight East, sometimes along the Ganga (Ganges) and it took eight hours total to cover approx 260km, including 1 X 50 minute lunch stop, 2 X quick refuelling stops and 2 X 10 minute drink stops. The first drink stop had us totally surrounded by locals ….so although I bought things to eat (coconut biscuits 10INR and 2 packs of chips10INR) and drink (1L Water and a 600ml Pepsi 60INR total) there… we moved on a bit further down the road to actually consume them….we still drew attention and a crowd, but much less marked! Lunch was interesting…choice was NIL…basically one pot of what looked like grasshoppers….Vince ordered some….I passed. In fact he ended up with a Thali (including the “grasshopper” dish) and Aad (Art) ordered fried rice….not what actually came….2 incongruous curry dishes… along with some chapattis…. it cost us a total of 1000IRN – which we paid equally between us. They guys couldn’t speak much English but they were apt at taking photos….including of us eating…….this is what fame must be like….no boundaries or privacy anywhere!

The roads were a mix of rural and town/village, and the villages were very heavily congested and at times dangerous for us. Shoulder-to-shoulder riding in the villages with a bit of argy-bargy mixed in for good luck…it even tried Vince’s saintly patience more than once! At times we were riding on the road shoulder to get around long lines of vehicles caught up in the congestion. Road surfaces were generally sealed, although not always – and freshly sealed in many places – but that makes no difference to the standard of driving here in India….so far I have to say they are the “worst drivers in the world”….that we have experienced. Sometimes, the roads were so bad that it was difficult to find the area around the pot holes, at others it was just dirt and rock…..the frequent speed bumps and pot holes around the place also caused a few problems…..I guess I don’t really need that spine anyway….and after I find myself either airborne or thumped and shuddered up my spine, the spare tyres we are carrying belt into my back for extra good measure….who needs a Chiropractor? I was hot, sweaty and very uncomfortable…..this is a honeymoon right?

The pollution in India is off the scale and we find ourselves constantly coughing and our eyes stinging! The smells are very unique and I don’t think Chanel or Estee Lauder will be wanting to “bottle” the fragrance anytime soon…..there is rotting rubbish EVERYWHERE, that the animals eat….including the sacred cows! India is a very unsanitary and dirty and I feel sorry for the many starving, mangey dogs I’ve seen.

Along the way, we saw the usual cows, buffalos, goats and chickens… some monkeys, a flock of sheep (unusual)…there were a few donkeys who had either their front feet or opposing legs tied together (maybe to stop them wandering) but they didn’t look very happy about it. The highlight was my first look at an Elephant having a drink by the roadside. The downside was seeing a calf foetus that had been expelled onto the road….there has been a lot of road kill we have seen in the past few days since leaving Agra……but this was something different.

I have to admit that, despite my best efforts, I am finding it difficult to warm to India….and last night I was looking through my photos for an article I am writing for a sports company on adventure travel in Pakistan…..and it was so beautiful….especially in the Northern Area…..I miss Pakistan! Hey, maybe the best of India is yet to come………?

Footnote from Vince:

The riding here in India is absolutely manic – no denying it – but I’d sooner be riding in India then spending a day in the office, and that’s a fact 🙂

Friday 9th October.

With a lot to see here Karen and I decided last night to arrange a few tours so that we could see as much of Varanasi as possible in a single day, so our schedule for today was:

05:00am – morning boat ride

Daytime – Sarnath tour

05:30pm – evening boat ride

The features of these tours were:

Morning Boat Ride:

  • Subah-e-banaras:morning ceremony
  • Circle of life and death
  • Hindu pilgrims from all over India
  • Experience spirituality and calmness

→ boat ride starts from Assi ghat at 5 :30 am

Sarnath Tour:

  • Place, where Lord Buddha gave his first sermon
  • Dhamekh Stupa
  • Temples from different cultures, styles, and religions
  • One the biggest standing statue of Buddha in India
  • Archaeological museum

Evening Boat Ride:

  • Dashashwamedh Ghat (main Ghat with pilgrims from all over the world)
  • Aarati (Ceremony for goddess Ganga)

→ boat will stay for the whole ceremony

→ boat ride evening tours starts from assi ghat – 5 :30 pm

Our day started at 04:15am when the alarm went off, and at 04:30am we were met out the front of our hotel by Prasann, half of the ‘Varanasi Behind’ team. Prasann led Karen and I down to Assi Ghat, about 2km south of our hotel, where he explained aspects of the daily Hindu religious ceremony we would get to see, being performed by seven Brahman priests. The ceremony commenced with four or five girls changing mantras in a sing-song voice before the priests climbed up on the raised benches upon which sat the accruements of their ceremony, and commenced the ritual – which involved a complicated set of repetitive actions performed with incense and then fire, rotating through the four main compass points.

Just before the ceremony started we were relegated from our front row seats to the second row, and this made the viewing more difficult as we peered around the shoulders of people who came in late and took up the vacant front row … grrrr.

Ceremony concluded, we climbed onto an awaiting wooden boat, and the oarsman slowly rowed us downstream whilst Prasann pointed out the numerous ghats built along the bank of the Ganges and explained their history. We got as far north as the burning ghat, at which point we turned around and dispensing with the oars the boatman cranked up his engine and we putt-putted back to our starting point.

Back on shore Prasann led us a short distance to the Ashish Cafe where we parted ways, leaving Karen and I to enjoy our breakfast of omelettes and home-made toast, and a Nutella pancake. Ricky – the owner of ‘Varanasi Behind’ – met us as we were getting ready to leave, and arranged to pick us up at our hotel at 09:00am so we could go out to Sarnath, for the second of our tours.

Our trip out to Sarnath was a chaotic ride through the morning traffic, made more interesting with Ricky explaining things about Varanasi and India in general, and made more safe by virtue of the 4×4 we were travelling in. Sarnath is a village about 13km north of Varanasi, and its main claim to fame is that it is the place where Buddha delivered his first sermon, to five disciples he had assembled. Arriving in Sarnath we first visited a selection of Buddhist temples that had been built by various countries for the benefit of their pilgrims – including the Tibet Buddhist Monestary, Japanese, Chinese and Sri Lankan Temples. Adjacent to the Sri Lankan temple is the deer park, in which is situated the tree (not the original tree as this was destroyed, but a regrown tree from stock of the original tree that had been taken to Sri Lanka) under which Buddha delivered his first sermon.

We had hoped to see also the Sarnath archeological museum, but being Friday the museum was closed which was unfortunate as I was very keen to see the Lion Capital of Ashoka, but bad timing put paid to that idea 🙁

This from Wikipedia:

“The Lion Capital of Ashoka is a sculpture of four Indian lions standing back to back, on an elaborate base that includes other animals. A graphic representation of it was adopted as the official Emblem of India in 1950.[1] It was originally placed atop the Aśoka pillar at the important Buddhist site of Sarnath by the Emperor Ashoka, in about 250 BCE.[2] The pillar, sometimes called the Aśoka Column, is still in its original location, but the Lion Capital is now in the Sarnath Museum, in the state of Uttar Pradesh, India. Standing 2.15 metres (7 feet) high including the base, it is more elaborate than the other very similar surviving capitals of the pillars of Ashoka bearing the Edicts of Ashoka that were placed throughout India.”

Returning to our hotel around midday we parted ways with Ricky and met Aad and Mike for lunch. Our afternoon was spent napping as we’d had two early mornings, and about 5:20pm Prasann met us again to take us out to Assi Ghat for our evening boat ride up the Ganges to Dashashwamedh Ghat, where we would join other people to watch the evening Hindu ceremony, either from their boats or from the crowded river bank.

When we arrived by motor boat at the ghat the boatman manoeuvred his wooden craft into position by pushing and pulling it around the throng of other boats lashed together, and then tied up so that we wouldn’t drift away. Other boats arriving after us did the same thing, and soon the river was turned into a floating dock, with hawkers selling photos or chia or offerings hopping and skipping from boat to boat as they plied their goods.

The evening ceremony followed the same pattern as the morning ceremony we had seen earlier at the Assi Ghat, but with a touch more vibrancy and noise, and a much larger crowd of pilgrims and tourists taking in the sights and sounds. By 7:00pm the thirty minute ceremony was concluding, and the boatmen quickly untied their boats so that they could start to motor or row their way back. Getting away quickly from the ghat we had one of the few motor boats out on the river that evening and we made good time back to Assi Ghat, where Ricky joined us as we jumped back onto dry land, and led us to a nearby chai house for a cup of Indian tea. A young girl – just ten years of age – was fascinated by Karen and I as we stood and drank our tea, so I chatted with her a little, learning that she was on holidays from Bihar.

Tea concluded and payment made for our three tours, Karen and I caught a rickshaw back to our hotel where we met Aad and Mike for dinner, before starting to watch James Bond’s ‘Skyfall’ on the Mac. Halfway through I was knackered enough to fall asleep, and so concluded our Varanasi sightseeing day.

We packed early, paid our bill (6400INR – 2300INR per night plus food) and after a yummy breakfast Mike, Aad (Art), Vince and I said farewell to our new friends at Kunjpur Guest House, Sharmila, Sheesheila and Mr Nigan….and more…. unfortunately I can’t remember all their names???

We were on the road around 8.15am and the 130km trip to Varanasi took around 3 hours. There was lots of road kill the past two days…..mostly dogs, with some goats etc…..but today I saw my first dead cow on the road……wouldn’t want to be that person…..cows are sacred in India. The GPS took us to our hotel but the narrow busy road was manic to say the least…….all manor of vehicles, trucks, bikes, motorbikes, tuk-tuk’s, cars, horse and bullock drawn carts and of course a multitude of pedestrian traffic. Our arrival did not go unnoticed and the ANIMAL was quickly surrounded by admirers. A bit of a tussle to find the correct parking for our hotel (someone was trying to get us to use a different paid parking area) and before we knew it we were all securely parked (a small elderly man with a very large stick and uniform on guard) and our luggage was taken up to our room. After the palatial home of Mr Nigan this noisy, small, smoke smelling room was a bit of a let down, considering it costs more….2800INR per night. But a COLD, refreshing shower made all the difference!  Not!

My adventure jacket zipper has again broken …..been that way for several weeks now… we asked if there was anyone who could repair it. The front desk were most helpful….sending a staff member with us to show us the way along the many narrow streets to a small area where a man sat at an old Singer sewing machine. He spoke no English but I quickly showed him the problem and he directed me to a nearby shop where a young man immediately put on new parts to my zip in minutes and charged us only 60IRN….bargain! He also told us we should go to Sarnath, whilst we are visiting here.

Back at our hotel we had a bit of lunch and then met up with Aad (Art) and Mike to go for a walk to the nearby Ghatt. We are staying very near the Dashashwamedh Gatt, the main one in Varanasi on the Ganges River, but we ended up next to it at Dr Rajendra Prasad Ghat. Closeby is the Vishwanath Temple – there are two Hindu Legends about it, one says Lord Brahma created it to welcome Lord Shiva and the other other says Lord Brahma sacrificed 10 horses during Dasa. It is only 0.7km from our hotel…so we walked through the colourful local market…..continually trying to avoid the many people trying to sell us something…….it really made us feel like ATM’s. Before too long we got our first view of the Ganges and then began to walk along the river passing various Ghat’s along the way until we reached Maha Smashana (the Big Burning Ghat).

Here we met Sandjee, who is a “volunteer” ….he told us we were not permitted to take photos, but was happy to explain to us what was going on and was a wealth of knowledge. Mike and Aad (Art) declined his invitation but Vince and I embraced the moment and when ahead.

In the Hindu religion cremation is one of the rites of passage to Nervana, and the Ghats (a long stretch of steps down to the water) of Varanasi are considered one of the most holy locations. The Manikarnika and Harishchandra Ghats are dedicated to the cremation ritual. Sandjee explained that there are 4 sections ….due to the caste system in India…the four classes are the Brahmins (priestly people), the Kshatriyas or Rajanyas (rulers, administrators and warriors), the Vaishyas (artisans, merchants, tradesmen and farmers) and the Shudras (labourers and poor). It takes over 110Kg of wood from the mango and banyan trees (sandlewood may be used for Brahmins but is very expensive) to burn a body and it takes 3 hours. Sometimes families choose to have the cremation elsewhere and bring the ashes to the Ganges river for dispersion. He told us that the family must first get permission and this is reliant on how the person died, as only those who die of natural caused can be cremated at the Ghat…..if they were murdered or died in an accident, they have to have a cremation at a gas crematorium instead. He showed us the various areas for each cast and some bodies were burning, and waiting to burn, whilst we were there…..burning occurs 23 out of 24 hours. There are workers who collect the ashes and wash them out in a basket in the Ganges….they collect any jewellery and sell it at the markets and the money comes back to buy wood for the poor and dying at the two hospices set up by Mother Teresa. We were shown through these and donated some money (enough for about 4 kg of wood (650INR per Kg) to help the poor dying people). We met 2 nurses there who gave both Vince and I a blessing each. We were also shown the 3000 yr old sacred flame of Lord Shiva and were given a blessing of ash on our foreheads.

The best time to visit the ghats is at dawn as pilgrims come to perform puja to the rising sun, and at sunset when the main ganga aarti (river worship ceremony) takes place at Dashashwamedh Ghat.

Not content with just this, Sandjee menouvered us to go and see the Kamasutra Temple with Lord Shiva….it was only 20INR each…..and it was quite interesting…..although some of those positions do look very painful…..Sandjee says some are dangerous and only for Yogi’s who are very flexible. He was going to take us to see the Kasha Vishwanath Temple (Golden Temple) dedicated to Lord Shiva, the presiding deity of the city. ….but we didn’t have our passports with us and they won’t let you in due to prior terrorist bombings without ID.

Sandjee told us about the 300 hand loom workers at the Gyaneshwar Silk Industries, who make sharis and pashminas beyond belief, but even after we told him we don’t buy souvenirs…. he lead us there to see the Lord Shiva shrine for the workers…..but really is was a “please sit down on these cushions madam and we will show you” ….ahhhhh No thanks! I quickly exited before Vince had even finished taking his shoes off to come in. We paid Sandjee 500INR for his help….but when he started saying to me …”and something from your hand Aunty”…..I told him that I had already given at the hospice…which he accepted. We were happy to donate initially but we were beginning to feel a bit like dollar signs. Sandjee told us we should come back tonight at 7.00pm for Ganga Aarti (river worship ceremony – the Mother Ganges Ceremony) – we thanked him but said we needed to go back and meet up with our friends.

We walked back along the river and exited an earlier Ghat to return to the market place…..being continually hounded along the way for boat, tuk-tuk, rikshaw, postcards, offerings and all manner of other merchandise…..we did buy a bottle of cold water…..but on the way back home we walked alongside one of the many cows that roam feely around and as I passed it chose to gore me with it’s horns….TWICE…. in my right breast….it really hurt and made me cry as I jumped out of the way before it got a third in. Vince took me back to the hotel ….followed by many tuk-tuk and rikshaw drivers offering their services. Back at the hotel, I was able to check things out and thankfully no serious damage done…..but running with the bulls is definitely not on the bucket list!

I am an animal lover …but for some reason the local animals don’t seem to like me much…..yesterday I “accidentally” met a Cobra that could have given me a heart attack….. but luckily it didn’t pop it’s head out….I was shocked enough by the fact the basket the young boy was thrusting towards me had “a snake” in it and high tailed it out of there into our tuk-tuk as fast as I could…….but today I was just minding my own business and look what happened… I guess it’s a case if the Cobra’s don’t get you the cows will!

**** Footnote – it’s too late after the event to read online about the “Varanasi burning ghat scam” – we should have known better 🙁


Wednesday 7th October.

After crunching out 465km in seven hours yesterday in our ride from Agra to Allahabad and with only an additional 130km between here and Varanasi, the plan was to have to have a rest & recreation day in Allahabad today.

Trip Advisor gave us a few suggestions on things to see in Allahabad – the number #1 suggestion is to visit the Triveni Sangam – the confluence of three holy rivers – the Ganges, Yamuna, and the mystical Saraswati River. Another top-ranking suggestion was to visit Anand Bhavan – the residence of the Nehru family, India’s first prime minister.

Our kind hosts at Kunjpur Guest House arranged for Deepu – a local tuk-tuk driver – to take us out on our sightseeing adventure, and so after a late breakfast we climbed aboard our electric tuk-tuk about 10:00am, bound for Sangam.

The drive to Sangam was nothing short of an adventure in its own right. Driving here in India is absolutely manic, and Allahabad is right up there in terms of craziness.

As we approached Sangam a number of guys on the side of the street kept on calling out to Deepu but he just responded with what sounded like ‘locals’ and kept on driving. We dropped down to the river flat and passed by a small tent city, perhaps temporary home to some of the pilgrims who had travelled to Allahabad to visit this holy place. Many pilgrims were sitting on the side of the track that led down to the beach, empty food bowls placed on the ground in front of them.

Deepu brought the tuk-tuk to a stop and we got out, and were instantly swamped by people selling offerings and other momentos. Deepu shooed them away, and introduced us to a boat operator who initially requested 1500INR for the row-boat out to the confluence. Our hosts had recommended we pay no more than 500INR and after a few rounds of bargaining the operator eventually agreed to the 500.

Another man – Sameed – led us to a wooden boat, and with a lightweight covering arched over the deck to provide some shade from the hot sun, and jostled and pushed the boat out between a throng of other boats tied up to each other, and out into the river. Sameed rowed us out towards the confluence, easily 500m away from the shore, and after a while I was invited to take one oar and join him in the rowing, which I did.

There were a lot of boats tied up together and forming an arc along the confluence of the rivers – the green Yamuna and clear Ganges. We bumped into one of the boats and tied up to it, and then crossed over to the larger boat. We were offered some form of coconut (perhaps) to eat, but we’d been advised to decline any offers of goods lest we get stung with an unreasonable cost. Sameed went in for a dip in the water – it’s been said that Hindu’s have a bath here to flush away all of one’s sins and free themselves from the cycle of rebirth.

It was hot in the sun out on the water and I couldn’t resist the temptation to flush away my sins so I stripped down to my jocks (thank goodness I was wearing some today) and climbed over the side of the boat and into the water. To my surprise I found myself standing on a submerged platform that had been stung between two boats, providing some safety as the Ganges flows very quickly, and the Yamuna is very deep – about forty feet at this point. Sameed gestured for me to hold onto a short rope and then immerse fully into the water which I did. Karen was watching all the time and quickly decided to join us in the water, dunking and all! It was a great experience and we felt very privileged to have had the opportunity to visit this holy place and participate in some of the rites.

On the way back to shore it was Karen’s turn to help Sameed with the rowing for a while, and she put in a sterling effort. Sameed only spoke a little English but we gathered that he was just an employee of the boat operator, so we tipped him separately for his contribution to our wonderful trip out on the river, and then once back on dry land I paid the operator the 500INR as previously agreed.

We walked up the sandy river bank back to our tuk-tuk and a young boy approached Karen holding a round tin. He opened the lid and revealed the contents – initially Karen thought it was a large bangle but she soon realised that it was a snake, coiled up inside the tin. She jumped away from it and quickly climbed onto the tuk-tuk, eager to get away from the snake. A short distance later we were passing a stationary bus full of pilgrims and another boy was walking past the bus holding up his tin which had a cobra sitting up in it with its flared hood, showing it to the bus passengers. Karen was horrified when she made the connection that the snake in the tin had also been a cobra. I can see I have some work to do before I can convince her to come and visit Chhota Poshla with me – the snake village in north-east India that has 3,000 people and 6,000 cobras living in it.

We made our way from Sangam to Anand Bhavan, stopping for an ice cream outside this historic house before going into the grounds, but once inside we realised that the house was closed for lunch between 12:45 and 1:30pm, so we went back to see Deepu, who took us to visit a local park and then ‘Eat-On’ – a very popular street side food stall that sold nothing but simple and tasty plates of biryani, either chicken or mutton. The three of us took our trays of biryani and stood in the shade of the trees along with all the other diners, enjoying our lunch.

Returning to Anand Bhavan, Karen and I enjoyed browsing through this stately home and looking at the historical artefacts on display. After a while Deepu joined us and led us to a seperate building that I hadn’t taken much notice of before, but which contained a small but fascinating collection of photographs taken of Nehru.

Upon returning to our guest house we were met at the gate by one of the staff members who announced that two of our friends had arrived – the father and son – and when we stepped inside we were pleased to see Aad and Mike, who had just arrived from Agra having left there earlier today. In conversation with the guys they had actually booked to stay at the Raka Inn on an adjacent street – but when they arrived there no one could speak English and they were turned away and directed towards our guest house. When the arrived at the Kunjpur they looked through the gates and they could see the big BMW parked outside so they figured out that they had found us 🙂

Now it’s just a bit past 5:00pm and we’ve arranged to have dinner with Aad and Mike at 7:00pm. I’ve finished my blogging for today and Karen is working hard as usual on her photos – that’s a big job that consumes a lot of her off-bike time. Tomorrow we’ll head off to Varanasi and experience more of ‘Incredible India’. I’ve heard some people say that you will either love India or hate it – it’s such a crazy, vibrant, noisy, fascinating place that you can’t help but fall in love with it – despite all of its contradictions and challenges. “Varanasi – we’re coming for you!!!”

Agra to Allahabad

465km. 7 hours (inc 1 x 20 minute drink stop + 1 x refuelling stop). 1 bump.

Today was intended to be a stretch goal and it pretty much worked out that way. Looking at our maps yesterday Kanpur – at a distance of 280km east of Agra – seemed to be a reasonable goal for the day, but I wanted to put in a big day on the bike and do some big miles, so Allahabad at 460km from Agra seemed like the place to aim for. I’d tracked down what looked like a decent guest house in Allahabad- the Kunjpur Guest House – 2,300INR/night for two nights and featuring our number one requirement – secure parking for the bike.

We were up at 6:45am and ready to go by 7:30am. Aad and Mike are staying in Agra another day so Mike can see the doctor about his poisonous spider bite, and Claire and Emiel were having a late start to the day, so by 7:50am we were waving goodbye to our hosts Anil and Sanjdha.

Yesterday I’d shifted one ram mount for the GoPro from the left hand side crash bars high up near the tank to a spot near the right hand cylinder head to get some low-down video and the GoPro was running when we left the guest house, and whilst I got some photos that showed the potential of that new location the camera stopped operating soon after we got on the road and so unfortunately we didn’t capture any video of our ride, which was about 90% easy-going (if you can describe riding on India’s highways as ‘easy’, and 10% freaking manic – half of which was like trying to ride through Perth’s annual Christmas Pageant. More on that later. 

Our early start helped us get through Agra’s streets without any great hassles, but I was a bit cautious when passing factory we’d seen a couple of days ago that’s now been over-run with monkeys, and sure enough a monkey shot across the street just behind us as we rode past.

We needed to refuel to get to Allahabad so I planned for a refuelling stop somewhere between 100-120km into the ride, and somewhere within that range we pulled over at a deserted petrol station to fill up. Within seconds we had a small crowd gathering around us, so we were pleased to get the 18 litres of fuel onboard and get back onto the four-lane highway. 

Most of the scenery consisted of rural settings – flat, cultivated land with a smattering of farm buildings here and there. The highway was generally separated from the towns and villages we passed through by the service roads that ran parallel to the highway and which kept the local traffic off the main road. These towns and villages were a shambolic collection of old buildings, tent-villages and humpties, all with cows and water buffaloes and goats and dogs wandering around in the dust and the rubbish on the sides of the road. 

In Auriya there was no such service road system and the highway entered the town, with the highway branching left and the GPS telling me to continue down the right-hand fork to stay on the NH2. I peeled off right and within a short distance we entered a very narrow and congested road that was overflowing with people and bicycles and trolley carts loaded with brightly-coloured bangles for sale. I clipped one trolley with a pannier whilst dodging oncoming traffic and that gave the kid sitting on the empty trolley a bit of a start, but I wasn’t going to stop and chat about it so we pushed on deeper and deeper into the mass of people and obstacles. I was hoping to get some good video footage of the shoulder-to-shoulder riding conditions we were in as it was quite insane, but once again and again when I most wanted to get some footage the GoPro has cracked the sads and stopped working. Bad GoPro 🙁

The roadside opened up a fraction and we found ourselves riding through a market place dedicated purely to the buying and selling of colourful bangles. The street was lined with trolleys packed high with bangles, in every colour imaginable. We bounced along the rough dusty track that the road had deteriorated into, squeezing between the bangle buyers and sellers, and dodging the scooters and motorbikes riding straight for us.

The little road eventually rejoined the highway and we got back up to a decent riding speed and chipped away through the miles towards Allahabad. About 40km out of our destination the GPS again told us to veer right, and again the road narrowed and became congested, this time with trucks and buses and cars and erratic tuk-tuks. Our GPS route took us towards the High Court which must have just adjourned for the day as the road outside was full of penguins carrying briefcases and riding two-up on scooters back to their offices. We turned north and quickly entered a quiet residential area, and soon afterwards pulled up at where our guest house was marked on the GPS, but we couldn’t see it. A man on the side of the road offered us his help and was able to point out the Kunjpur Guest House just 100m further down the quiet road, so we were both grateful that we’d found our accommodation after the gruelling ride through the town.

The guest house was a three storey mansion, with balconies overlooking the immaculate gardens out the front, surrounded by a high wall and gates that separated us from the street. Our room on the first floor overlooked the gardens, and from our balcony we could look down onto the bike parked below.

We showered and then went downstairs for a late lunch – a delicious thali. We met our host – Dr Nigam, and Sharmila – the lady who has just started to manage the guest house for Dr Nigam. We sat with Sharmila over lunch and chatted about our ride and our experiences, and she offered us a copy of ‘The Stoning of Sharia” – a movie she had watched recently and which she’d found quite forceful.

The late afternoon was spent trying to research accommodation options in Varanasi and look for touristic things to do in Allahabad as we are here for another night and we are both keen to explore this town and learn more about it.india is fascinating – the more you dig the more you uncover about the place and its people.

We had a late dinner and then it was bed time as I was exhausted from the day. We did try and watch the latest edition of “On Any Sunday” – kindly offered to us by Mike a few days ago – but the volume was so low we couldn’t hear the commentary, so we’ll try and sort that out another time.

The six of us set off early around 7.00am from Delhi to try and avoid the manic traffic as best we could. Aad (Art) and Mike set off at their own pace and would catch up at our Home Stay. The 4×4 went in convoy with the ANIMAL. We had the pleasure of seeing the sunrise over India…..despite the dense pollution haze everywhere…..surprisingly there was still quite a lot of traffic on the road even at the early hour. We had about 6 or 7 toll booths to go through and this took a little time to get through. We managed to work out how to pay for our trip and that we just had to show the receipt at subsequent toll booths – initially we thought we might have to pay at each station.

Whenever we had to stop and wait the ANIMAL caused great interest from locals and a few people wanted us to stay for photos etc…..but we had to keep up with our convoy…. so where we could we obliged but when we had to go….we had to go. At one point we found ourselves engulfed by about 40 motorbikes…..very cool…..people waving, giving the thumbs up etc. A way further down we had a sports bike rider try to get us to pull over on the expressway for photos….but we had to keep up with the 4×4 ahead as Claire and Emiel were relying on our GPS when we got to Agra …so we couldn’t let them down……and let’s face it pulling up on an expressway is not safe! We later got a bit of a telling off by email from the rider concerned (he must have got our address from our stickers on the panniers) but hey you can’t please everyone all the time. I think people forget that although they are just one person and its just one photo…..that we have a whole day of it and we can’t just stop our own schedule to suit a photo that they want….nor will we do something that is dangerous like stopping unnecessarily on an expressway. So sorry to disappoint….we are friendly and try to accommodate where we can…..but that’s just life.

We had a little bit of trouble navigating through to our Indian Home Stay – Sri Radha Krishna Kunj 73 Sector 2 Vibhav Nagar, Agra and a one point the GPS took us into some very narrow streets, where we were completely surrounded by locals – literally about 8 deep…..I was so worried that Vince may run over a child as they kept crowding in and when we were riding they would run along side the bike shouting excitedly. The 4×4 got some “local help” to end up reversed into an open sewer…..not much fun….but thankfully what they thought was tyre tred falling off was just a black plastic bag stuck to the wheel…Phew! In another attempt to find our accommodation, we found ourselves only about 500m from away….but we could not find it. Eventually a helpful Tuk Tuk driver let us follow him (for 200INR) and led us to the right place….where we were welcomed with open arms by our Hindu hosts, Anil and his wife (Sunjay?).

On 3rd Oct, I booked a tour for Vince and I (the others didn’t want to come due to expense)….this time checking that the details advertised were indeed accurate. It wasn’t cheap (4800INR each) but that included the driver, parking, fuel, car hire, Guide, entrance fees (750INR for Taj most other places 250INR or 300INR if you go on the same day) and lunch… we were ok with that. We got collected at 6.00am to see the sunrise over the Taj Mahal. Vince had been moved when he first saw it alone a few years ago and was eager to share it with me on our honeymoon…….a very special day and a dream come true for us both. The line was very long….and basically 4 lines, 2 women and 2 men. The men’s line moved exceedingly fast and I saw Marino (one of the Italian 4×4 drivers from Pakistan) pass me….along with Emiel, Aad (Art) and Mike…. who all came long after me. The other line was for local women and it moved slower than both men’s lines but also much faster than the foreigner women’s line I was in…….always good to know your place! I waited in the heat and confined space for at least 50min (I didn’t start timing straight away) but had the opportunity to watch the antics of the monkeys who entertained us by running up and down the tarpaulin awning above our heads.

Vince and our Guide, Fazian (23yrs), had a long wait inside for me…..but eventually I got to security and once the Guard realised that my lip balm was not a lighter…I was finally reunited. I have to admit the wait was so worth it… was quite an emotional moment for me seeing the Taj Mahal for the very first time….even if we had missed the sunrise due to my delay…the peace and tranquility was evident despite the massive crows of people. Our Guide was very informative and we had a photo taken on the famous seat where Princess Diana sat for that iconic photo.

Shahabuddin Muhammad Shah Jahan (5 January 1592 – 22 January 1666), also called Emperor Shah Jahan (r.1628-58) built the Taj Mahal in memory of his favourite and third wife, Arjumand Banu Begum (also called Queen Mumtaz Mahal) upon her death in 1631. Constructed of brick and faced in India’s finest marble, quarried at Makrana near Jodhpur, it took 12 years to build involving 20,000 craftsmen from all over Asia. No slaves were used to build it as the Emperor Shah Jahan wanted only love in each piece. The tomb and other buildings are set around a garden divided into four by raised walkways with central water channels. The domed white marble mausoleum stands on a plinth with tapering outward tilted minarets on each corner. There is a high recessed arch or ‘pishtaq’ at the centre of each of the building’s four facades; each central niche is flanked by small double arches.  It’s harmonious and symmetrical proportions and high quality of its craftsmanship have made the Taj Mahal one of the most famous and most photographed buildings in the world. It was truly breathtakingly beautiful to behold.

Fazian explained all about the symmetry and the meanings for the inlay designs, such as the double hearts in the actual tomb. He also explained that what we were seeing was really a copy of the tombs, the real ones are underneath in a lower chamber and in fact the bodies are buried in graves below that. The actual tomb is only opened once a year. He said that “Taj” means pearl facing the sky and it is made entirely of translucent white marble that changes colour in different light. Its walls are decorated with exquisite pietra dura (stone inlay) work…..this involves many small pieces of gemstones such as carnelian, lapis lazuli, turquoise and malachite (and others I can’t remember) arranged in complex floral designs hand set into the marble…Fazian explained that the gems come from 7 different countries (but I can’t remember which). We saw the foundations of the Black Taj Mahal across the river….white being the purity and love and black being the sadness and dispair that followed the death of his wife. He was Muslim and she was his third wife, but the only one he married for love, the others were for political advantage. She bore him 14 children in 18 years of marriage…..but only 6 survived, 4 boys and 2 girls. One of the boys killed his 3 brothers and imprisoned his father…..not very nice! Fazian told us that linage goes Emperor Akbar (3rd Mughal Emperor),  Emperor Jahangir (4th Mughal Emperor), Emperor Shah Jahan (5th Mughal Emperor) and his cruel son, Emperor Abdul Mjzaffar Muhi-ud-Din Muhammad Aurangzeb (14 October 1618 – 20 February 1707), commonly known as Aurangzeb Alamgir (6th Mughal Emperor). It really was quite fascinating to make the connections. The Taj Mahal is everything they say it is…..a very special experience I will treasure always and shared with my husband. Vince said he would to build me a Taj Mahal……I said but “do I have to die first?”……he replied “Oh….we can leave that part out”…..glad about that one!

We stopped off at Costa Coffee and grabbed a drink and a muffin – as we had not eaten…and our Guide shared photos of his motorbike and also his girlfriend (of 2 years), who is a fashion design student of very short shorts….Vince said if that was his daughter he would not let her out of the house in those shorts! Then we set off for the next attraction, enroute our Guide stopped off to show us a local family who despite their poverty and live on the street, do not beg….they make pots to sell…..and even the potters wheel is moved by hand….true craftsman handed down from generation to generation…..our guide gave them a 100INR gift….and they insisted on giving us a small pot as a gift…..we have little space but I will find some room for this little treasure!

Next we travelled 46km out to the East to see the Fatehpur Sikri, or Ghost City. It was the palace of Emperor Akbar for a time….as he wanted to be near the Religious Man who blessed him….he had four wives but only one was married for love and she gave him a son. She was Hindu, and her palace was the biggest in the complex….right next to his. We saw his KING sized bed and the bats that are responsible for the noised in the Ghost City at night. It was very hot outside but inside the palaces was very cool. Fabian explained the water cooling system to us. He also told us about Akbar’s favourite elephant, that he bought for 4600 horses. When the elephant died he build a monument tower to it and buried it beneath…..I found it a bit confusing because the tower is decorated with elephant ivory tusks sticking out…..a bit bizarre to me if you loved elephants. Fabian gave us good advice about avoiding the many hawkers around, and arranged for us to be picked up from our bus (cars are not allowed at the top of hill so we had to take a mini bus) at an alternative point to avoid the tourist throng.

We then went to the “office” to pay for our tour….and met Mr Amin, the owner. I did look and have a feel of some of the pashminas he had in his shop….as Fazian had told me the real ones come only from the beard of the goat….but at 2500INR (A$50) I didn’t buy one. Next it was off for lunch and we could choose from the full range on the menu, including drinks at Indiana’s. Before we knew it, it was back to our hotel for a little break until the evening. Back at the homestay both Faizan (Guide) and Shahid (Driver) had a photo with the ANIMAL.

We got picked up at 4.30pm to visit the Agra Fort from where the Mughal Emperor governed the whole country. The fort has 3 gates, the one we entered through (West) a river gate which is now blocked off, and an East Gate that is only used by the military. Only 25% of the site is open to the public ….the rest is military. Fazian showed us the Shish-Mahal (Glass Palace) built from 1631-40 AD, where the queen would bathe. It has beautiful glass (mirror) mosaic and only Eunuchs and women would be allowed in. It is not open to the public. We also saw the Muthamman Burj (Sha-Burj & Jharokha – 1632-4- AD) where Shah Jehan could have a full view to the East of the Taj Mahal during the 8 years of his imprisonment (1658-1656) there, and where he died. His body as later taken by boat to the Taj Mahal to join his beloved wife. The crypt is the only asymmetrical place in the Taj Mahal….as the Queen is the centre given that the palace was initially only built for her. Emperor Akbar (Emperor from Fatehpur Sikri (Ghost City) and Shah Jahan’s grandfather) originally built it from red stone and used it for Darshan and sun worship everyday at sunrise. Emperor Jehangir (Shah Jahan’s father) also used it as Jharokha. He also added his Adl-i-zanjir (chain of justice) on its south side. The name Muthamman-Burj is due to the octagonal shaped towers. Vince and I were reminded of the beautiful palaces we had seen in Esfahan and Shiraz, in Iran. We also saw Emperor Jahangir’s Hauz, a circular bowl shaped monolithic tank, 5ft high, 8ft in diameter and 25ft circumference. It was made in 1610 for 4th Mughal Emperor Jahangir to use as a bath and could be moved around for the Harem.

We then went to Mehtab Bagh (Full Moon Gardens) on the river opposite the Taj Mahal) to take some sunset photos…..I have included a number at the end of the photo strip….one has had a special effect applied…..can you guess which one?

We asked Faizan to stop off and get some “Petha” – a melon and syrup desert unique to Agra, that he told us about… that we could take it back to the homestay for everyone. They also stopped and got us some beer and breezers. We gave both our Guide, Faizan, and our Driver, Shahid, a 500INR tip each – as after our Delhi experience it was lovely to have such good service in a very comfortable car with a careful and thoughtful driver.

There are a few other attractions in Agra that it would be great to experience – such as Akbar’s Tomb (Sikandra), Etimad-ud-Daula, The Baby Taj, Jama Mosque, Kinari Bazaar and a live Show “Mohabbat the Taj” at Kalakriti Cultural & Convention Centre. But somehow I don’t think we will have the time for those….who knows! It had been a great day sight seeing!

The 4th and 5th were really chill out and chore days….route planning, washing, catching up on emails, downloading and sorting photos and videos……the work of a traveller never ends! On the evening of the 4th Vince and I watched Gandi on our laptop computer….a very moving film and I recognised places we have been to now. Earlier that day, we had a knock on the door and it was Aad (Art) asking for me to come and have a look at young Mike – he was bitten by something last Thursday and the antihistamine I had given him on Friday was not really helping much…..after looking at it through his beard, and seeing the photos his dad took of what had already been expressed….I advised he needed to see a doctor and quickly…..Vince suggested I go with them in his words “She’s good with Doctors”…….and I was bit worried they might try to fob him off with just some antibiotics….so all 4 of us headed down to the local Hospital – at least it wasn’t for me for a change! Just as I predicted the doctor had to operate and clean out the sinus in his chin, remove part of what he thought was a poisonous spider, remove the necrotic tissue and stitch Mike up. 10,000INR later he was back at the Home Stay.

Once Mike moved to surgery, Vince and I had left and gone back to the Home Stay only to find a wedding preparation party going on next door…..this was most colourful with music, a loud speaker and brass band…..a highly decorated horse for the Groom and fireworks! We sat out front and watched. The bride’s brother came out and spoke us and we wished them all well for their future…..he ended up inviting us to the party but I said I had nothing to wear…..he said the Home Stay host can loan you a Shari…and she confirmed she had many……but not wanting to intrude I took it no further. I did however accept the beckoning when the street dancing began and my Home Stay host told me I did very well. I’m not so sure about that…..but it was all good fun. Many of the street urchin children came up and wanted to shake hands….which I willingly did until one of then wanted money in return…….Hmmmmmmm? I soon discovered that with the departure of the Groom, the Bride’s Brother was throwing money out and the children were scurrying to collect it. It was a big privilege of us to see this….our Home Stay hosts (who are Hindu) explained this goes on for 3 days in a Muslim Wedding. We might get to see the Bride at some point.

The morning of the 5th we all eagerly awaited the appearance of Claire, who was celebrating her 34th Birthday…..her husband, via the Home Stay hosts, had organised balloons as well as a birthday cake for her. She had gifts of jewellery, including from our Home Stay hosts, and Vince and I had given her an Ayurvetic 6 Piece Facial Kit we had bought for her at the Chandigarh Mall. We all had a quiet day with plans for a celebration dinner of Claire’s choice tonight.

We are still trying to plan our route but think we will leave tomorrow for Darjiling enroute to Sikkim. Aad (Art) and Mike will stay on at least an extra day as Mike has to go back to the hospital for check up. Not sure what Claire and Emiel are thinking ……..but we will all see each other again at the border I’m sure ready for Myanmar.

Aad (Art) and Mike seemed to have traction on the Visa situation so we decided that we would head off early on the morning for Delhi to meet them at the Embassy at 10.00am. There were 8 of us meeting the First Secretary there, (6 Aussies and Linda and Harry from Port Elizabeth, South Africa who are on the group after us). We were on the road by 5.00am after the usual chaotic throng of interest in us packing the bike and photos being taken….it was further complicated by a newspaper van that chose to “share” our parking space… so we couldn’t get to pack the bike….the driver was less than receptive to a nice request to moving his vehicle ….so a more assertive approach was employed…..with him eventually only moving his vehicle a few inches over…..but at least we could actually get to the bike to pack things on ….however cramped. Sometimes Indians are not so friendly…….I’m actually quite puzzled as to why he could not move up to a vacant space…….language difficulties failed to explain.

We had quite a few tolls to get through…but we eventually arrived in the complete madness of Dehli traffic (this is how we die!) and managed to navigate to the Myanmar Embassy by 9.35am, where we found young Mike already waiting for us. His Dad had gone to get the bank draft to pay for their Visas as the bank was closed when they went yesterday and only opens at 10.00am. We spoke to a guard who said we could park out front but needed to watch for traffic inspectors who come and clamp vehicles…..we took the risk! A quick streetside confab between the two couples and Emiel and Claire were on their way to the bank for us all….whilst Vince and I waited in line at the Embassy. Linda and Harry arrived and we filled them in on things….they were already all organised but as everyone was aware of the difficulties and wanted to keep things simple we all held off to put things through as a group. Time ticked on as the “Bank Crew” were having a lovely beauroctratic time at getting the money drafts…..but they made it back in time. Aad (Art) approached the window asking for the First Secretary whom he had been negotiating with and who had agreed in writing to issue visas to us today….but the guy was being obstructive….he told us that she had changed her mind and unless we had flight tickets he could not take our applications….we asked if he could call her but he refused…..UNBELIEVABLE! Aad (Art) had had problems with this guy before and went to see the security guard on the gate (as this is how he had managed to meet the First Secretary previously) but is was a different guard and no luck there. Things were looking very bleak and tempers were being frayed in all directions….the window was due to close in just a few minutes (only open from 10.00-11.00am) and it was looking like it was back to square one. Talk of trying to get help from the Australian Embassy was had….but most of us thought this was not really a situation they could assist with. In the end I gave it one last try with the “window guy” using my best “Teacher/Manager” voice….explaining that we had an undertaking in writing from the First Secretary, we had all followed her instructions in good faith, and if she had changed her mind it was only right and proper that she face us herself and on that basis I must insist on speaking directly with her. I told him it was highly inappropriate that he should have to do her dirty work……he agreed to send for her if we waited… we waited. When she arrived she was nothing short of milk and honey and said she had not changed her mind and took all of our documents and passports and told us to return at 4.00pm tomorrow to collect our Visas. In the “happiness” of this none of us through to ask for nor did we receive any receipt of any kind… I was not sure if that would be a problem for collection…..but that would be tomorrows fight! In reality it there was no need to stress…..all was in order…..I was nominated to go to the window and the guy just handed me all 8 passports….duely stamped! FANTASTIC! Myanmar we’re coming for you!

On that first day in Dehli after the Embassy, we headed off to our hotel, The Su Shree Continental (where Aad (Art) and Mike were staying) at just 1000 INR per night….bargain…..and lock up garage for the ANIMAL….fantastic! Not the best area….with open sewers, pickpockets (Vince and I were targeted at an ATM but we picked up on it and lost nothing) and the beggar situation …well….out of control really………I find it very difficult to ignore them…..especially children…..very sad……but hey it was only for a couple of nights.

On 1st October we arranged a tour ….only 400INR each….this should have tipped us off! We were promised an air conditioned car, drive and English Speaking Guide. Somehow that latter was omitted but even a phone call back to the hotel by Emiel was unhelpful. We just had to suck it up and do the best with what we had. Consequently, we are a little unclear on where we actually went and what it actually meant. My tummy trouble had started up again and being the “little one” stuck in the back of the car didn’t help my motion sickness……kindly, in the middle of the day, the others agreed to move and let me sit in the middle after our visit to Humayn’s Tomb….which was less of a problem….and Vince was in the front due to needing the leg room. 6 adult Aussies in a smallish car was quite squashy….. I felt sorry for the chivalrous boys in the back!

First we were dropped off at Shahi Jama Mosque built by Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan in 1656……however when we got there you not only had to pay entry but you had to pay to take photographs…….discussion over this was heated and Claire and Emiel decided on no photos as did Aad and Mike. Vince and I decided we would pay, as our photos are the only souvenirs we have of our travels…..we were busily removing shoes and working out our money to pay whilst the others went in. However, it was short lived…..Aad (Art) was refused entry as he only had shorts and Claire and Emiel were physically harassed as they were carrying a camera in their backpack…….arguments and shouting started and we were told “All Tourists are Bastards” and to “Go back to your own country”. The guys were not impressed…..Vince and I just stood there astonished at what was going on. So with our four friends not going in ….we decided to move on……So Shahi Jama Mosque? We were there but saw nothing. These were the first unfriendly Muslims we have come across in our travels. This is when we spoke to our driver to ask about the Guide as we thought this may have helped……he was just the driver but he gave his phone to Emiel who tried to sort it out…..without luck…..we pressed on.

Next we went to the Red Fort…….about a Km walk from the car park…..where we had to pay almost 3 times the price (100INR instead of 40INR) to park because we were tourists. Entry to the Red Fort was pretty quick as there were not a lot people at the “Foreigners Window” where we paid 25 times the entrance fee of locals (250INR instead of 10INR)…..our friends were not happy about this either……but once inside the fort it proved very interesting……although again walking around not really understanding what your are looking at was difficult for Vince and I. Previously, we have either had a guide or at least and audio guide……these were available at the red fort for additional costs…..but to be honest we were starting to feel like dollar signs in India so gave it a miss. In hindsight that probably was a mistake….we should have just paid and got the audio guides…..something to be said for group pressure I guess.

We then went to the World Heritage Listed, Humayun’s Tomb where the inflated prices for foreigners was again evident. It was an amazing complex with several buildings but to be truthful I wasn’t really taking a lot in as I was feeling so unwell at the time. Will have to Google it and have another look. This is were they guys swapped places in the car for me.

We stopped off for some lunch (1000INR for the two of us)….and I just had a spring roll………it was all a bit of a blur by then….our next stop was at some kind of monument…..Claire and I went to the toilet where we again had to pay 20INR. When I came out Vince had bought our tickets but the other 4 had decided not to go in……..Vince went back to the window and returned our tickets and we all got back into the car without seeing anything.

We stopped off at a bar for a drink and to wait in the cool (it was sooooooo hot) until it was time to go back to the Embassy to pick up our passports and Visas. It cost us 1200INR for two drinks (a beer and a glass of Indian house red wine) due to all the taxes they add on to everything here (about 20% on top of your bill)…. I didn’t even drink much of the wine anyway.

The driver dropped us off around 3.35pm and the window didn’t open until 4.00pm so we waited. Harry and Linda arrived just after 4.00pm and we all had a bit of a catch up. It is always a treat to meet new people and hear their stories and adventures…..particularly motorbike riders….most enjoyable and it’s a shame we won’t be travelling with them as they seem really nice.

We caught two Tuk Tuks back to the hotel…..the “Oldies” in one and the “Young Ones” in the other (including drivers)……I must confess there was a bit of a “race” back……and it was neck and neck for a while, but in the end the “Oldies” won….it may have had something to to with the extra 50INR (150INR total) that Vince slipped the driver! All good fun!

We spent four nights in total in Chandigarh staying at the ZO Rooms Akashdeep in Sector 22B (1999 INR per night). We had initially anticipated only one night to allow us to get an oil change and rear brake pad change (and a wash) for the ANIMAL. But my medical appointment blew things out to three nights, as I had to go back to see the Surgeon on Monday.

We had tossed up where to apply for our Myanmar Visas, as some people are getting them in Nepal and others in India. Our friends, Claire and Emiel who are also with us at the moment, were planning on Dehli and we all want to go to Agra to see the Taj Mahal… although Vince ideally wanted to avoid the chaos of a big city it was looking like thats where we would head for. In the meantime our Dutch/Tassie friends, Aad (Art) and his son Mike (whom we met briefly in Pakistan on the road, and whom we recently discovered will be on the group to Myanmar ……we need a guide so have joined a group via Burma Senses), are already in Dehli trying to get Visas…..and are having a lot of problems with the Embassy. It smacked so much of our troubles with the Indian Embassy in Tehran that we decided to hold off going to Dehli and see how they got on first…so spent another night in Chandigarh. The alternative was to get our Visas in Kathmandu…..but the recent problems has seen the closure of borders between India and Nepal and a resulting fuel shortage….so that was not really an option any longer and affected our plans to visit Nepal. This may be a blessing in disguise as if we did leave India we would need to get another Indian Visa to transit through to get to Myanmar………memories of Tehran haunt us over and over in so many ways!

Whilst in Chandigarh we basically rested from my surgery, although we did go to the local mall (very flash) to get a few things…….including trying to source a replacement Olympus TG-4 for me……without success. Vince even emailed Olympus to try to source one in either Chandigarh or Dehli (both big cities) but got not reply…..which is very disappointing as I really like their products….so I have had to buy the Nikon AW130 instead……….so lets see how the brand change for 2upadventures performs!

Vince and Emiel found and excellent local brewery/restaurant (Malt and Co) that was having a “soft opening” so we all went along to support it… much so we all ended up having dinner there a couple of times and Vince and I even frequented it for lunch and breakfast!

It is very hot here and there is a dichotomy of wealth evident……complete squaller through to modern chic………the haves and the have not’s are very evident here alongside one another…….it really is quite incredible to see. There are far more beggars here and children will perform in the street at traffic lights to get money instead of being at school. Many people, including street urchin children will follow you asking for money… really is very sad to see the poverty. I wish there was more we could do to help….I’m not sure what the answer is ….these things are never simple.

Ok…I have now had three “tours” of International Hospitals (Scotland, Iran and now India) …..that’s enough! On top of everything else, about a month or so ago (whilst in Pakistan) I discovered a lump in my left breast.

From Shimla, a few days ago, I made an appointment to see a specialist (Dr Atul Joshi) in Chandigarh at Fortis Private Hospital. He is a renowned Breast Cancer surgeon in India and because of my family history, and the fact I am travelling, he was so kind and thoughtful and managed to speed up things for me. In fact everything was done in just one day on Saturday 26th Sept…..Consultation and examination(500INR) Bilateral Mammogram & Bilateral Ultrasound (2000 INR) Reporting and Results, Surgery to fully excise the Lesion (12500 INR) and send off to histology (1600INR)….now we wait!

Vince dropped me off at the hospital around 12.30pm, as he had to take the ANIMAL for some pre booked servicing at 1.00pm… Claire, our Aussie 4×4 friend, kindly offered to come with me for moral support. She was a big help and I was thankful of the company. She is the only Western Woman I have seen and chatted to in months. I was in the OT prep area and looking suitably glamorous in a very fetching hospital gown and hair net when Vince finally arrived (things took longer than expected at the bike shop but he came as soon as he could)…. interestingly he had to also give signed content for my operation (this also happened in Iran)…..minutes after he arrived I was quickly whisked away into the OR and the operation took about an hour.

During surgery I was able to be awake and the Surgeon told me it doesn’t look sinister……so we are very hopeful it is benign. He was quite chatty…as he has been to Australia (Sydney) recently ….he thinks I am very brave….and asked me if people were more hospitable in Pakistan or India (rivalry is evident between the two) ….I answered that that was a difficult question …but as he was the one holding the knife…I guessed it would have to be “India”…..he laughed and thought my sense of humour under such adverse conditions was impressive….so much so that he told Vince about it back in the recovery room…..we all laughed again. We were both shown the removed lesion and a round of photos was in order ……including on the Surgeon’s phone. I was discharged around 7.45pm with some tablets for pain if needed…..all the staff were very professional and kind. Getting back on the bike was a bit difficult with stitches but I eventually managed and in about half an hour we were at our hotel…. ZO Rooms Akashdeep Sector 22B (1999 INR per night). Staff helped Vince carry our luggage up as I could not really lift much with only one hand….although I did manage to carry the tank bag.

I went back to see the Surgeon again for follow up and to check my wound on Monday 28th and we should get the results in 5 – 7 days online…he will also be in contact via email with me when the results come through. So we extended our stay in Chandigarh for three nights instead of just one….and we will get the results on the road….probably in New Deli or Agra. On my Monday visit, the media and administration section asked me if they could do an article on our experience at the hospital, and after being assured my medical privacy would be intact we agreed, as it may help other foreigners who need medical attention on the road.

They say things come in threes … hopefully this is it…….although the care and treatment I have received each time has been nothing short of exceptional…..I really don’t want to have to visit any more hospitals!!!!