Blazing bullet, speeding saddle

Blazing bullet, speeding saddle
Photo Credit: Dreamstime

Take the road less travelled from India to England on a motorcycle and have the adventure of a lifetime...

Ilay Cooper
June 27 , 2014
09 Min Read

Pete listened as, sitting in a rural English pub, I narrated the story of a long-ago failed journey. Having commuted between my village and India through the hippie years, I set off on the ninth trip alone on a Jawa motorcycle. Ten days later, in a doss house in Istanbul, they woke me to say that the bike had been stolen. That was in 1975, the failure still rankled.

 “You could still do it. I’d be up for it.”

 And suddenly we were planning to try again. I didn’t want to do it alone and Pete, a friend from the village, was just the guy for a challenge. The landlord, overhearing and suspicious of our mechanical competence, interrupted with an offer of a barrel of beer should we make it.

 We decided to set off from India to England.

 Pete, still at Newcastle University, wouldn’t be free till the next summer. That suited me. I had to come out to India to research a book, so I bought a reconditioned Enfield Bullet (1962 model) from Madaan’s in Karol Bagh and left it with Munji, a Rajasthani friend, to run in. Pete wanted a bike each way. Agreeing, I asked him, a hard-up student, to send the cheque. He conceded: one was enough!

 Back in England, there were visas for India, Pakistan and Iran, the carnet — a guarantee allowing a driver to take his vehicle through countries without paying duty at each frontier. No company would offer us insurance on a foreign bike. Pete had no driving licence for a motorcycle, but I knew he’d pass the difficult test. Returning late from his girlfriend’s place, he almost missed it — but passed!

 Pete, 24, had never left the West, and I, 57, had spent half my adult life in the subcontinent. He was more nervous of flying Syrian Arab Airlines — the cheapest — than of biking home.

 Suddenly he found himself in a monsoon downpour, the air blue with lightning, outside a backpackers’ hotel in Paharganj. The street was full of activity — wheeler-dealers plying drugs or foreign exchange to willing foreign youth, alien cycles and scooter rickshaws.

 “I’ve never been anywhere like this!”

 Instead of collecting the bike from its final service, I showed Pete Delhi’s monuments. A mistake: the promised service was cosmetic — a new, tacky coat of green paint. The faults Munji had listed remained untouched and there was no time to right them.

 In Churu, my Indian home and our starting place, we ordered clothes from my tailor and, entering Rabu’s courtyard, had our first puncture. Rabu instructed Pete on how to remove the wheel to fix the tube. Garlanded, photographed by the local press and each with a tika, applied by Arvind’s daughter, Divya, we set off for Amritsar. The road north from Churu proved the worst of the whole trip. When Pete stood on the footrests to deaden a hole in the road, one fell off: a neglected weakness Munji had pointed out to Madaan.

 In Amritsar, after Jallianwala Bagh and the Golden Temple, I realised that Madaan’s father had been too busy milking us to remember the necessary papers proving I had bought the bike with foreign cash. Luckily, the frontier crossing was deserted, the neighbours at their regular disputes. The bored officials were soft-hearted: we were obviously innocent.

 From turbanned Sikhs to men in salwar-kameez and pathaani chappals, the landscape remained the same. Approaching Lahore past Shalimar Gardens, we crossed the railway line to the cheap hotels near the station, looking for one with a courtyard for the bike. ‘Shahid’, a hippie hangout resembling a concrete 1930s radio, had changed its name to ‘Zemindar’. At night we watched along the Mall as youthful motorbikers did terrifying ‘wheelies’.

 By Multan, Pete had seen enough monuments. Studying structural engineering, he preferred modern buildings — dams and bridges — and was keen to photograph the new bridge over the Indus. Dismissing me as a killjoy when I dissuaded him, he wound up over Takht-i-Suleiman, onto the Baluchistan plateau, arid, empty land. There, racing with a purple cloud, we reached a dhaba just as the sky burst and plum-sized hailstones bounced happily along the road. By nightfall, at a large village with no hotel, the hospitable police put us in jail for the night. The only eating place served revolting meat curry with delicate rumali roti.

 By Quetta, full of Afghan refugees, we were tired and cross with each other. In the bazaar, Pete noticed Newcastle’s Tyne Bridge amongst a display of bright posters of gardens, the Taj and religious sites. Everyone warned the next stretch would be the worst: the Baluchi desert, bad roads, bandits. They were wrong. The desert was interspersed with dhabas, the road just resurfaced, perfect, and the bandits were on holiday. We approached Iran and amid the burning midday sun and a sandstorm, we had our second puncture. Rabu’s lesson paid off. As I prevaricated, Pete took off the wheel and changed the tube, his cigarettes flying away across the desert on the wind. Pride at our audacity was soon crushed when a Slovenian man appeared on his granny’s cycle, five litres of water on each handlebar, riding to India.

 At the frontier, groups of men approached with fistfuls of Iranian rials, offering exchange. We changed our rupees, only discovering later how badly we were fleeced. Great portraits of ayatollahs surveyed the Iranian frontier post and a jeep-load of shaven-headed soldiers, blue steel dangling from their shoulders, led us to an overpriced resthouse.  At each border town, we bought insurance. Here, there was nothing till Zahedan, but the manager there couldn’t have been nicer, putting us up in the company resthouse and feeding us at a good hotel.

 The Iranians, with no reason to love the British and Americans, were mean with visas. We had five days to cross their huge country on a slow bike. We stopped a night in Bam and wandered through the handsome, recently-restored mud city, doomed to be demolished by an earthquake in 2003. Next day, as I curved downhill into Kerman, Pete shouted.

 “Are you awake?”

 “Of course!”

 But I wasn’t. We were heading off the tarmac onto the sand.

 There, we had to extend the visas. The black-draped women, by granting only five more days, deprived us of Shiraz and Persepolis. So to Esfahan, where we lost ourselves in the suburbs. Last there in 1970, I asked for Maidan-i-Shah and was sharply corrected, “Maidan-i-Iman Khomeini”. There the glorious turquoise-tiled mosques and the caramel-coloured Shaikh Lutfullah still glowed. But even the extended visa was running out, so we headed northwards, spending a night in Takestan. Here, perhaps inspired by the town’s name, a vast concrete parrot dominated the main street. We passed on through Tabriz into Turkey, where a rupee is worth 12,500 lira. Putting my bank card into the slot, I asked for 50,000,000 and got it. Can’t do that at home!

 Beyond Erzurum, the first city in Turkey, the two of us turned north to follow the Black Sea coast where, by the roadside, masses of hazelnuts were drying in the sun. As we negotiated a steep hillside I skidded on grit and nearly sent us down into the sea. Faced with another puncture in busy Sansun, Pete sent me off to buy the ice creams while he repaired it. We reached the handsome, ancient port of Sinop, a high-walled rock peninsula projecting into the blue. It was full of monuments to my taste, not his, and I could have stayed longer, but Pete’s new term was approaching.

 Wanting to get home, Pete chose a shortcut, a little, winding road through the hills, slower than the highway but much prettier. He is the better driver, so I gave him all the nastier bits. He was in charge when we sailed over the high suspension bridge from Asia to Europe, and right into the midst of Istanbul’s rush hour traffic. I shut my eyes as he skipped through the queues, neatly evading scrapes.

 We agreed to stop a couple of days in that great city, separating to explore on our own. He was in the bottom of a tower block writing an e-mail when the earthquake struck and, seeing everyone rushing out, copied them. Sitting in a garden, I thought it was just the traffic!

 I have always loved Istanbul and immensely enjoyed exploring it again, more knowledgeable now than then. Pete, wanting exercise, shelled out two million liras (160 rupees when we went) on a pair of trainers, then set off to run through the city before we left.

 The next day we entered Greece, passing from Islamdom to Christendom, along a road lined with images of the crucified Christ. We were back in the European Union — all should be well. But here we hit a hurdle — Greek insurers could not cover our foreign bike — EU regulations. That cost four days in Thessaloniki, arranging insurance from Britain: it almost cost our friendship, too! The delay made us cheat, heading over the hills to the Aegean coast to take a ferry with tourists, cruising into Venice alongside St Mark’s Square.

 Nearly home was the worst stretch. The broad motorway crossed Italy, high-speed traffic thundering past us, great lorries shaking the bike in their wake. It was cold, grey and damp. Each name on the road-signs spoke of the Renaissance, but we saw none of them. Towards France, climbing the Alpes Maritimes through ever-longer tunnels, the bike overheated. Faced by a four-kilometre tunnel, we broke all the rules, U-turned, descended and took the alternative route over the mountains. Across France it drizzled and traffic was clogged by demonstrations against increased fuel prices.

 We chugged into the Channel port of Cherbourg, the lights of which you could see from our pub on a clear night! The last ferry gone, we slept on the concrete till the morning.

 The rain started as we drove out of the ferry into England. Pete took the last lap home and nearly missed the turning to our village. Then I realised where we were heading. We pulled up outside the pub and swaggered in. The barrel of beer was secure. Pete dropped me off at my place.

 “It wasn’t much fun, was it?”

 “But we did it!”

 One thing we learned, though.”

 “What’s that?”

 “We really learned how to wind each other up.”


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