Well, I wanted adventure, challenge and the unexpected, and by god I got it. Today is not a day I’m likely to forget for a while.
It started well, up early, packed and loaded, and setting off from Delhi at about 0730. The bike was a bit tricky to balance at first with everything on, but I got the hang of it quickly. I also learned another lesson: the ruck sack strapped across the back seat provides a handy back rest for long journeys. But only if you don’t put the knobbliest objects right where they jab you in the spine.
Things were going well – slowly, as the towns close to Delhi are part of the unbroken urban sprawl of the capital, but well – until I reached Hapur. I was just feeling pleased with myself for being able to read “मुरादाबाद”, the sign for Moradabad in Devanagari script (and also the bit that said “NH 24“), when the road I was following reached a disused flyover. I followed the traffic underneath it and discovered where the autorickshaw drivers hang out when they’re not working. But not the road for Moradabad. Some time later, riding up and down in Hapur and asking for directions, I found the bypass I’d somehow missed.
On the National Highway, I could go a bit faster. The urban sprawl disappeared and I was soon travelling through rural Uttar Pradesh, lush green cultivated countryside, interrupted frequently by small towns where six cyclists would be simultaneously crossing the highway in a complex ballet which I had to briefly join, negotiate and exit as elegantly as possible. I stopped for petrol near Garhmukteshwar. The snack seller was very keen for me to take a photo of him:
I successfully passed by Moradabad and into Rampur, where I needed to turn off onto NH87 to Nainital. I didn’t see any signs so passed straight through out of the town. I pulled into a petrol station for directions, just as a torrential downpour broke. After it had finished, a couple of boys on a scooter offered to take me further down the road to where there was another turn off to Nainital. So off we went, the two of them scootering along (I guess all they had planned for the day was scootering about anyway) with me behind, worrying about my ammeter thrashing wildly from side to side, and then getting further and further behind, when the bike’s power cut out completely, and I was drifting to a halt on the hard shoulder. The boys noticed and came back, since scootering the wrong way down a motorway lane isn’t a big deal here. We tried the electric start and kick start and got nothing. By this time there were about 30 people standing around watching. Since this was effectively the hard shoulder of a motorway, between towns, I don’t really know where they came from. We tried a push start with me on and got nothing. We tried a push start with one of the original scooter boys on. As they we were running down the hard shoulder, I had a sudden moment of realisation: if it starts, he could just ride off with the bike and everything on it. I’ve fallen for the oldest trick in the book: the old follow-us-to-the-middle-of-nowhere-oh-now-your-bike-is-broken-try-push-starting-it-now-let-me-try-haha-i’m-riding-off-with-your-bike scam. But it wasn’t anything like that: they were genuinely trying to help, and it wouldn’t push start anyway.
I asked if there was a mechanic nearby. The boys, who turned out to be brothers Anuj and Amit Gupta (possibly real brothers?) said there was one in the next town. They hailed an electric rickshaw and we towed the bike to Milak. So there’s a life ambition I never had ticked off: get towed down an Indian highway on a broken Royal Enfield, pulled by an electric rickshaw attached with a handkerchief and two bungees.
In Milak, we found the mechanic and parked the bike outside his shop. The boys gestured me towards where he was sitting under his awning. He gestured for me to sit down, and remained sitting placidly while I tried and failed to explain the problem. I gestured, saying “dekhiaaey, dekhiaaey” (please look), and he remained sitting placidly. That’s when I realised there was a hierarchy at work. He wasn’t the working mechanic, who actually fixed the bikes. He was the boss mechanic who watched the bikes being fixed. The working mechanic was still fixing another bike and would look at mine next. In the meantime I should sit down and relax.
Just as I was taking the photographs, the working mechanic, having fiddled about the battery and replaced some wires, got the bike working again. Amit was almost as pleased as I was.
To complete the service, I was given chai and biscuits with Anuj, Amit and another friend, Rajat Gangwar. After we’d chatted and finished our drinks, I went back over to the boss mechanic to pay. It turned out he was only an underboss mechanic. Now the big boss mechanic had come out too, to collect the money. They could have charged anything: I’d been pretty helpless, they’d saved my arse, done some electrical work, replaced some parts and provided chai and biscuits. I braced for a fleecing, or some tough negotiation. “50” was the quote. 50 rupees, about 50p thereabouts. I gave them 100, and the toughest negotiation was trying to insist they keep it all, while they insisted on giving change. Milak, a dirt poor town in the middle of nowhere, of no interest to any tourist, was a world of difference from Delhi where everyone’s trying to scam the visitors.
The scooter boys then took me on the long-delayed trip to the Nainital turn off, and I was back on the road. It was serendipitous, as the road from Milak to Bilaspur, where I could get back on NH87, is rather lovely on an Autumn afternoon: jungly verges, villagers bringing in their crops and herds for the day, and every now and then, what I thought at first were small ruined forts visible between the trees, but which I later realised were brick factories, each with a single tall kiln chimney, surrounded by stacks and stacks of bricks, all a deep, beautiful red contrasted against the jungle. Some of the older disused ones had grass growing over the brick stacks, which is why I’d confused them initially for forts.
I reached Bilaspur, another random nowhere town, at evening rush hour. It made Delhi driving look disciplined and conventional. Bilaspur had more cattle, more goats, more dogs, overladen trucks which angrily wanted to take up (what any Westerner would recognise as the whole of) the road and move very slowly forward, motorcyclists and pedal cyclists who took the pavement instead as an alternative, and potholes, massive potholes, many full of water and of unknown depths after the recent showers. It took me probably another half an hour to get through it, and by this point I was utterly exhausted, and worried about getting to Nainital before dark.
Out of Bilaspur, the road became less busy and I made the mistake of breathing a sigh of relief. Unfortunately, the road north from Bilaspur is the Road Of Potholes. So it was time to practise my off road motorbiking skills (of which then I had very little), even though I was ostensibly on the road. In India, the individual States must be responsible for road maintenance, because when I passed from Uttar Pradesh into Uttarakhand, the road quality dramatically improved. However, the potholes were replaced by monkeys and cattle which made suicidal dashes across the lanes right in front of me.
I got to Haldwani at dusk, and found the bus station where my couchsurfing contact, Bobby, had said he would meet me. I had barely pulled up when he popped up and said hello. My relief was incredible. He jumped on the back of the bike, and we rode out of Haldwani, the last town on the edge of the plain and up into the hills, which had been visible as dark blue masses between the trees for a few miles beforehand. These were the Sivalik Hills, the foothills of the Himalayas. The air cooled noticeably as we wound up into them, and the noise and traffic dropped off. Bobby lives at his farm in a village just below the hill station of Nainital. Soon after we’d arrived, I was sitting on his balcony, eating a freshly picked guava and watching the last of the light disappear and the twinkling lights of Nainital coming on at the top of the valley. It was all worth it.