COWBOYS IN INDIA - TT-R 600 TRAVELS

Accidentally losing their bikes, bumping into Billy Connolly and discussing world politics with the Dalai Lama. All in days work for Rory Elliot and travelling companion Chris Colling as they travelled around India on Yamaha TT-R 600s… 

I should have been exhausted, we’d had no sleep for a couple of nights now and it was 5am. Red Bull is served as dark syrup in Thailand and we had been mixing it with our drinks for the past few nights. ‘Magic’. Instead of snoozing, Chris and I were seeing how far we could slide in our socks on the highly polished floor of Bangkok’s International Airport departure lounge. Whilst hippies and cheaply dressed businessmen slumped around us we were gaining velocity on the frictionless flooring by challenging each other to beat our previous glide distance. It was an exercise in daring-a-do, a pointless competitive enterprise of larking about that men of a certain state of mind or children of a certain age find all consuming. It was only when my alcohol riddled brain caught up with my feet that I decided to stop. That and the sharp tong of a Mother Teresa look-a-like nun whose belongings I had just scattered over the ground whilst trying (and failing) to add an ‘Indy grab’ for style points and to continue on, for what would have been a record slide.

Dejected we stood watching the sunrise through Bangkok’s sulfurous atmosphere above the traffic control tower. We were leaving South East Asia and heading off to Chennai (Madras), on the Coromandel Coast, South West India. It wasn’t a teary goodbye, Bangkok had trapped us.

With passage to Malaysia blocked by a bomb going off a few hundred meters from where we were trying to cross the border we decided to do a U-turn, return to the city of sin and fly rather, than paddle over the Bay of Bengal from Kuala Lumpur. There was no option through Burma open to us, or anyone. Thailand’s capital was a blur but in-between the week long revelry we had managed to box up our bikes and deliver them to a cargo company who had organised them to join us on the 07:00 Indian Airways flight to our destination. What could possibly go wrong?

I have never been great at packing. I believe that this trait, as well as being late for things, is part of my feminine side. Bangkok had taught us that there is an inner feminine side to us all. Though I assure you we met a lot of Thais whose femininity wasn’t always confined to their inner being….

I always pack too much, not because I need these items but because I like to have them. So to get the bikes boxed, packed, and delivered on time was one thing. But to then get them joining us on our flight was a master-stroke. Right on schedule we watched as two huge beige wooden boxes, were towed on a trolley by a little airport tractor towards our plane.

We watched with interest as they came alongside the cargo hold on the plane, with merriment we watched the distressed loaders wave their arms around and adjust their ear defenders. Then we watched in horror as the tractor swung round and went back to the hanger towing our bikes behind him. Dashing to the information desk we tried to ask what was going on but ended up sliding a further 100 yards past the kiosk, like a pair of cartoon Wile E Coyotes we ran in one direction whilst travelling another.

To cut a long story short we put on our shoes, boarded the plane, and kicked ourselves repeatedly for not checking the size of the hatch for the cargo, turns out our boxes were two inches too big. They would follow on a bigger plane. As a gesture of goodwill we were upgraded, which meant moving us forward to the same kind of seats but supplying us with a bottle of whisky, each.

When it rains in India, it really pours. Quite literally we found out as we abruptly landed in Chennai on the most terrifying touchdown of my life, right in the middle of a cyclone. Judgement impaired from the on-flight refreshments, we took the first taxi we were offered. It had no wipers, no lights, no seatbelts, no brakes, and a driver more intent on sparking up his cigarette than watching where he was going. To be fair we couldn’t see anything anyway as the rain was coming down in sheets. Without warning we ended up smashing into the back of a bus (also without lights).

Dizzy and bruised I had to untangle my head from all the beads hanging from the driver’s rear view mirror (which contained no mirror). Chris was okay as he’d cushioned himself against the back of the driver who was frantically blaming us for his smash whilst bleeding from a head wound. We managed to limp to our digs having handed over a load of new bank notes to an aggressive, bloody taxi guy, we hadn’t worked out the value of the currency yet so had no idea what we handed over. Why we paid at all I will never fully understand but I was concussed, intoxicated and very, very tired.

For the next four days we caught up on sleep, ate heartily and dealt with the paperwork, so when our bikes arrived we could offload and go. It was an eye opener, there weren’t any computers anywhere we could see. This in an airport supporting a city of 8.5 million people that produced 35% of India’s GDP and 60% of its automotive exports. All the paperwork was duplicated, logged, and stamped several times over, then passed to several waiting runners who would dart off behind closed doors or submerge into the human traffic of the bustling corridors to another part of the airport. At this point large areas of Chennai were under six feet of water. No flights were coming in and our bikes were now stranded in Sri Lanka after the ‘bigger plane’ got diverted. So what did we have to lose by doing a little bit of sight seeing…

The Royal Enfield Factory was the first visit; unfortunately because of the epic flooding we couldn’t take any out and test ride them. We were shown around the plant by a guy who reminded me of my school French teacher; Mr Bosworth. The most unenthusiastic and monotonous guide in the world, so I missed much of what I was there to learn.

Having departed from Mr Dull I found that all the pin-striping and logos on the Enfields’ tanks are done by hand. I got a very talented chap to paint the famous golden Royal Enfield logo and surround onto the back of my camera.

I caught up with Chris at the end of the tour and he was in fits of laughter; pointing to the rolling road I saw the sauce of his mirth. At the end of the production line the bikes were cranked up and tested, taken through all the gears and the back wheel was spinning at about 60mph. However the bike wasn’t tied down in any way, the tester simply sat on the bike and balanced it. Beneath him the rolling road was only about six inches wide. With nothing to secure the bike to the rollers, any false move would launch bike and pilot out of the first story window a few meters in front of him!

The clouds parted and our bikes arrived. We quickly rebuilt them, stamped and re-stamped the remaining papers, showed our carnets to several officials and off we sped, straight into rush hour traffic, which lasts from 5am to Midnight every day. Heading out of the city was a relief and to get rolling again a joy. Some of the biggest river crossings of the trip were made in the outskirts of the city, the floodwater was chest high in a lot of areas. Fortunately we were able to head off-road and pick our way through the carnage.

At one surreal point on escaping the city I found myself on the pavement cutting down a back ally, back onto a busy flooded main street full of people. I was blocked by a woman, who whilst standing upright had hitched her skirt up as a golden arch of pee blocked off my plotted route I was trying to navigate my bike through. With a toothless smile she waved me on whilst with her free hand caught the ongoing jet and moved the stream to a lesser angle allowing a sprinkle free passage. I awkwardly thanked her but declined to shake hands…

The poverty was on such a huge scale in the shantytowns we passed through. This was the underbelly of India that up until this point I had only heard about. At one junction there were several child beggars, not an uncommon sight but they were all disabled or disfigured in some horrendous way. What makes it worse is that children like these are often organised by gangs who will disfigure an able-bodied child so they will receive more pity and more rupees from passers by. 

No more cities was the plan, we biked across mass expanses of countryside, through areas like Mysore (fill in relevant body part here…) where we expected the local tigers to jump out and gobble us down - boots n all. Smaller communities and very friendly people welcomed us with tea and laughter. An old chap called Ebenezer started talking to us in some little town when we stopped to check our map. He then invited us to his late wife's wake - she'd died the week before, which we found a little odd, but he was a nice old guy and really seemed to want us to go, so we did for a bit. It was more of a big gathering to celebrate her, a couple of hundred people were due, but we were early so had a bite to eat with the family and some of their leper mates from the colony around the corner, then made our excuses and left. Weird but nice.

We kept riding west towards Goa, visiting a world heritage site - Hampi - on the way, a village in northern Karnataka state. Hampi formed one of the core areas of the capital of the Vijayanagara Empire from 1336 to 1565, when because of its strategic location it was finally laid siege to by the Deccan Muslim confederacy. The landscape abounds with large stones, which have been utilized over the centuries to make larger-than-life statues of Hindu deities. We met an Israeli hippy who had travelled by foot to visit the village. He had come to smoke vast amounts of pot with a renowned Hindu wiseman through his legendary ‘Golden Chillum’ - a solid gold pipe that is meant to get you so stoned you will experience Nirvana. The wiseman lived up in a cave on the hillside. Wise, he may have been, but unfortunately he wasn’t that hospitable, and told the Israeli traveller to ‘P!ss off, hippy.’

India attracts a lot of weird and a wonderful people. No place highlights this more than Goa. Not so long ago it was an important global centre for the counterculture movement, now it is the digital stage of techno trance parties. In the late 1960s, a handful of beatniks and hippies travelling overland, from western Europe toward South East Asia, happened upon this former Portuguese enclave on the west coast, more or less by accident - and ended up staying. They came on bikes, Beetles and ‘magic buses’.

However the Goa we encountered was a little tragic. I was driven to violence by the repetition of bullsh!t coming out of some enlightened French wannabe hippies, on their gap year and all in orange trousers. They were everywhere, they all had mastered the meaning of life by 17, they all had fake dreadlocks, they all spouted rubbish about charity and world peace, whilst getting an 11 year old to wash their stinking clothes for a few pennies. I wouldn’t have minded if they were honest about what they were up to: ‘basically shagging anything that moved, dancing to crap music, taking a lot of drugs and living on a $1 a day’. But they couldn’t even manage that.

Today the ‘real’ hippies are long gone, moved north and south to get away from the mayhem. We got guided to a nice place called Gokarn (30 miles south of Goa) by two Germans on an Enfield. They belonged to an integrated community of Hindus of mixed denominations: Vaishnavism, Shaivism, Shaktism, Smartism, Hippieism, and religious cowism (lots of holy cows everywhere). All having a whale of a time.

On our arrival, a heavily tattooed Geordie gypsy biker called Guy greeted us. He took a shine to us and shared his food with Chris and I. Guy and a chum of his had been riding Enfields around India and most of the world for the last 15 years. He gave us a lovely route through the 'Western Ghats' mountains heading up into Rajasthan. Part of this route took us through a place called Panjin and then up into the surrounding mountains. We were riding through the heartland of India’s strawberry growers. I stopped three times within two hours to fill up on strawberry ice cream. 

We both felt absurd riding around the world on a whim with every option open to us, passing such human depravity and hopelessness. We kept on reminding ourselves that whilst there was nothing we could do when faced with these situations, we were heading to an orphanage we had supported and fund raised for. We had about a month to traverse India and head on up to the Himalayas for a meeting on Christmas day at the India/Tibetan SOS Children Village near Dharamsala.

Things started to look up as we got out into the countryside, rolling hills and palm trees signalled what we hadn't seen for ages - open space - and India has a lot of it, as it’s still mainly an agricultural country. The world’s seventh largest country in fact, and the world’s largest democracy with a population of over a billion - second only to China.

Coming from South East Asia where it could be hard to find camping spots, largely due to all the paddy fields, steep sided banks and jungle; India had plenty of room for campers like us. We'd become rather low on funds and needed to cut back on digs money and food. We had worked out a routine of having a small breakfast, a samosa or similar for lunch and then cook a good meal around the campfire in the evening. Because of the mileage we wanted to cover, the less time spent looking for something to eat during daylight, the more little adventures we could get up to. However wherever we pulled over it wasn’t long before a cup of tea was placed in our oily hands.

I have never liked travelling on a bike at night, but in India it is suicidal. Chris and I would always try and find camp around the same time in the evening but sometimes we couldn’t stop, we had misjudged the terrain or weren’t happy with our surroundings so we would push on. On one particular evening around dusk I narrowly missed being killed. A juggenaught had strayed over to my side of the road – the driver had nodded off - and was coming at me head on. There wasn’t much room on the dusty track. I locked up aimed for the grass verge and shot through a thorn bush to end up in a small ditch. The lorry driver woke up and did the same, the rig locked up and jacknifed, taking the thorn bush with him as he shuddered to a halt in a cloud of debris.

Chris was ahead and hadn’t seen the action; I dragged myself and the bike out of the ditch, and got back onto the road. My heart pumping I looked back to see what had happened, the driver was being pulled out of his cab and beaten by a growing crowd. To be honest I didn’t have too much sympathy for him at the time, on reflection maybe I should have tried to help. But I decided to go and catch up with Chris and get off the road as soon as possible. This was one of many problems we had with lorry drivers - the most common issue that they would often have faulty lights. Lorries would overtake other lorries in the dark and commonly only have one light bulb each, so as an on-comer it may look like one lorry slightly off line when in fact it is two parallel trucks coming straight towards you with no room for anyone else. Worse still two lorries no lights…One evening we pulled over as two lights were bobbing in the distance in the centre of the road. Fearing lorry death, we waited for them to pass. Incredibly and surreally what flew past was two motorbikes parallel with each other but carrying a huge wardrobe between them… Expect the unexpected in India.

Heading west we had to navigate Bangalore, the first city in India to get electricity, and as ever it turned out to be a bit of a nightmare. The map shows the National Highway going straight through the city and onwards, but obviously this wasn't the case and we got thoroughly lost. Luckily we found a guy who was going the same way and followed him out of the city. This was after Chris’s bike overheated when stopped and then wouldn't start. We got surrounded very closely by about 200 men all taking turns to ask him the same questions, 'how big engine', 'what your country', 'what average fuel consumption', 'how much?' again and again. In the mid-day heat and exhausted from trying to kick the big TT-R600 over, eventually Chris overheated. It was like he had dropped a stink bomb, and the crowd went running wildly, with the sight of an angry man pushed to his limits flailing wildly at no-one in particular. Fortunately my full-face helmet covered the tears of laughter rolling down my cheeks or I may have been punched (again).

Having pulled over on a clifftop to have a look at the vast views beneath us we were soon joined by a collection of beaten up old cars and scooters. About 30 westerners jumped out and started whooping, within minutes one was airborne, then another, and another. They were paragliders. Cool I thought, ‘Lets have a go…

We camped down with the Para-loonies that night to learn a bit of ‘local history’. We were on the outskirts of a village where Freddie Mercury went to school - so much culture. We found out something more interesting and very exciting, one of the earlier drop zones was a beautiful hotel where a film crew was staying. And one of the guests was our all time favorite comedian, Billy Connolly. We had to meet him. So ‘operation stalk Billy’ came into action.

We managed to get into the restaurant, now we hadn’t eaten that well for the past few weeks so to see all that amazing food put me off my task. Whilst filling up my plate and ogling all the tasty morsels I was unaware that for the past ten minutes I was standing next to the ‘Big Yin’ himself. It was only when he had disappeared up to his room I was told of my poor reconnaissance skills.

‘It wasn’t meant to be, mate’ consoled Chris. ‘No bloody way are we leaving without seeing him’  I countered, stamping my feet. The following morning we arrived for breakfast on our bikes - not that we had any money - so nursing a cup of tea we prepared to ambush him. It didn’t come to that, we were the only people in the room and Billy wondered in and sat down next to us with another British actor. Billy had a day off filming, the day before he had been dressed up as a catholic missionary wheeling a tuk-tuk through a market, as you do.

It was great we had three hours together and a spot of lunch (cheekily charged to BC’s room) Billy's into his bikes and well travelled so we had a common interest. To be honest his conversation skills are so good you would have to be stone dead not to have something to talk about, even then he would have some story he would need to pass on. So all in all it was a lot of fun for everyone involved: we got him to do a five-minute congratulatory ramble on our camcorder for my father who was turning 60 in a few weeks. He bunged us some cash, wished us well and sent us on our way.

With our newfound wealth, and still buzzing from the fantastic morning and the veritable banquet, we made a couple of purchases. A stall selling truck parts caught our eye and we found two huge air horns that resembled rocket launchers, however impressive they looked attached to our jaded jerry cans, that was nothing compared to the noise: AAARRRROOOOOOOOOOGGAAA…. They were the perfect weapon against the truck drivers of the nation.

Horns are used as awareness tools in India - constantly ‘beeping’ to let people know you are there. Normally, everyone ignores motorbikes… until now. We would roll up behind a slow lorry, one blast from the pair of us would send them veering off the road ducking for cover, leaving them in our dust and confused as to where the massive vehicle was that told them to get out the way. We were on a roll, kings of the road and feeling a lot safer, we had some time to make up if we were to make our meeting at SOS. However karma had other plans, obviously seeing things were starting to go smoothly for us he threw a spanner in the works.

Hitting a pothole at speed, Chris nearly got bucked off and over the handlebars. I rode past him and watched in amazement as he was doing some kind of Zebedee impression. His rear shock had exploded. Crap! So against all that we held sacred, we headed into another city for a fix.

Pune! You have probably spoken to someone from Pune in the last three weeks; it is the heartland of Indian call centres and once again home to mental traffic. Zillions of pedestrians amble around confusing streets. All we had to go on was some directions scribbled down for us by a roadside mechanic, who had a friend with a shock shop. About 30ks later we arrived in the area of Pune we figured we needed to be. It was late and we weren’t sure if we had missed who we were looking for, so the relief was tangible when out the corner of my eye I spotted 'A1 Shock-Absorber Repairs’. Unfortunately I think this guy was a butcher not a mechanic, clearly he had no idea what he was doing. Several stressful hours later Chris had a sort of reassembled bike and a big bag of nuts and bolts they failed to find the right holes for. They had fixed the shock by wrapping some electrician’s tape round it.

Going nowhere fast I found us a grimy hotel with parking nearby so we got unpacked and started to make a 'plan'. The only thing we could come up with to stay on track was to stick Chris’s bike on a train to Delhi and get a new shock or rebuild kit sent from the UK.

Feeling down and out the next morning, we decided to have a wander around the garages nearby to try a last ditch effort to get it repaired in town. Karma (presumably having had a decent night’s sleep) was back with us, and swapped the ‘yin’ of yesterday to a very pleasant ‘yang’. We walked almost straight across the road from the hotel into the first mechanics shop, to find an imported Honda motocross bike. You don't get imported bikes in India (unless they're nicked), as the import duty is 500% of the value! The owner was a cool guy named Charma! And as well as a garage owner he was (he assured us) a famous motocrosser, actor and stuntman, obviously.

His mechanic/protégé/apprentice rang him up and he promised to come down and assess the situation. Due to the impossibility of getting bits from abroad he'd had to do the same repair to his bike on numerous occasions. He sent Chris off to strip the shock from his bike and Chris returned with the broken unit and handed it to Charma. Off he went and by 9pm that evening Chris had a newly rebuilt shock with a new braided hydraulic hose (the bit that blew up) all neatly refilled with nitrogen!

In the midst of all the mechanical wizardry that was going on that day, I wandered about aimlessly poking my head into shops/garages/homes. In one act of extreme nosiness I asked to join a card game. A huge man named Papu who was obviously the leader and holding court refused to let me play, but instead he would like to have a drink, ‘now we’re talking’ I said.

A few hours later an oily Chris wasn’t too surprised to find me back at the hotel with a group of strangers drinking and singing, but there was something slightly unnerving about the company I was keeping. Papu had the biggest wad of cash I've ever seen, and all around him treated him very gingerly through respect and maybe a little bit of fear. It turned out he was the local 'money-lender' and general big cheese, he supplied us with an eight course Indian feast that we ate on a car bonnet in the street, he forced gifts on us and then picked up the tab for the two nights at the hotel. In the middle of this weird freebie, the multi talented Charma turned up and took me outside for a 'little word in yer ear son'.....

‘Papu's a friend of mine’ he said ‘but be very careful, he can turn. I've personally seen him in a fight with seven men and… well let’s say none of those men have given Papu any more trouble since.’ What did that mean? Did Papu kill seven men in a fight? He probably made up with them all, I weakly thought. With that Chama patted my back and then disappeared leaving the unaware Chris and myself with a team of gangsters to enjoy each other’s company. Papu didn’t ‘turn’ and we had all body parts intact, so merrily we left early in the morning to Rajasthan.

Rajasthan is mostly desert and the scenery was spectacular. We camped under the stars with an odd camel or group of field labourers for company. It had a very nomadic, calm and gentle feel, we were generously hosted everywhere we went. Most evenings were spent camping with a bunch of farmers out in the sticks. We would sit around the campfire drinking tea, eating bread and chatting in hand signals and a few English/Gjarati words we knew, late, late into the night. It was these kind of experiences I really hold dear. A lot of laughter and friendly faces around the glow of a fire, unbeatable.

We continued through Rajasthan via Jaipur (the pink City) before entering Punjab, home of most of India's Sikhs. And where the foggy and icy mornings started to give us a sense we were coming close to Himachal Pradesh and the Himalayan foothills. Entering the Himalaya region was a lifelong dream for Chris and I. It really is amazing to see how the biggest mountain range on the planet just folds up from the flat plains into the most breathtaking scenery anywhere in the world. Around every bend was geography porn; mountains, valleys, rivers, gorges, waterfalls, folds and mountains – bloody enormous mountains! Our destination was Dharamsala, the home of 'the Tibetan Government in Exile' and his holiness The Dalai Lama, plus the world’s biggest community of refugees from Tibet.

It took a couple of days to get there on the twisty mountain roads, but as we got higher the sun got brighter and the air got clearer and life got sunnier in general. We headed to McLeod Ganj which is about 10ks up a steep and twisty road above Dharamsala. The area was given to the Tibetan people by the Indian government some years ago. On Christmas Eve we finally arrived at our destination at the TCV (Tibetan Children's Village) - the village director got rather a shock when two Englishmen on motorbikes came knocking a day early.

For nearly 60 years, SOS Children’s Villages has developed an approach based on building a community for children who have nobody to turn to. Traditionally, they provide children with a home, a family and a new mother in a purpose-built local village, where they can stay until they are ready for independent life. However, they don't just provide care for children in the villages, but play an important role in supporting the development and sustainability of their local communities. The TCV complex is very different to the other SOS Villages we've visited, largely due to the unique situation that brings its inhabitants together. Basically its absolutely enormous looking after up to 2000 children at a time.

There's such a great community feeling there with everyone helping each other to make the best of their lives, emphasised by the huge mural above a central playing field which proudly proclaims, ‘OTHERS BEFORE SELF’. Spending time at the TCV and in Mcleod Ganj really gave Chris and I an understanding of the struggle and enormity of China’s unlawful and unethical invasion of Tibet. It’s quite incredible talking to the kids (and adults) about how they arrived in India.

Most Tibetans fleeing the Chinese occupation of their country choose to cross the Himalayas on foot in winter. What was truly astounding and a great reflection of the strength and mindset of these people was how they reflected upon their journeys. They all describe it as extremely scary, but fundamentally as the most incredible experience of their lives. They don't whinge or complain about their hardship, which leaves many of with missing fingers, toes and many lost friends and family from frostbite and the treacherous conditions. I think a lot of their spirit comes from their utter devotion to the teachings of the Dalai Lama, a frankly astounding human being.

His presence casts a relaxing atmosphere in the whole town and I can understand why the Tibetans are so keen to be close to him. The Dalai Lama is a very wise man who is keeping hope alive in the hearts of his people. He's getting to be an old man now and I’m sure the long-term fate of Tibet and its people will be decided outside of his lifetime. This poses more problems as the last Panchen Lama (second spiritual leader) to be chosen in 1995 was kidnapped by the Chinese government and has never been seen since.

On Christmas day we were honoured to meet his holiness. It was a brief introduction – he’s not much of a biker - but an unforgettable one. Amongst other things he told Chris and I that what he teaches his followers is no different from what the heart of most religious leaders teach their followers ‘Others Before Self’.

He had explained to western visitors before that Buddhism is not something you should necessarily convert to. Firstly it has a relevance and a spirituality special to this area and people, that may not work in other cultures. Secondly you have to wear crazy red robes and shave your head, and you’re going to look like a bit of a crackpot if you are the ‘only Buddhist in the village’ back home in Doncaster. We left feeling humbled and amused by the extraordinary man we had just met. Feeling glad to live in a world that’s not just full of baddies, but real goodies as well. I hope he and his people get to go home one day…

That afternoon we peaked a particularly beautiful mountain overlooking the village, Chris and I spent the rest of Christmas day, sharing a spinach tart, cheese and biscuits. We drank fresh apple juice and listened to Chris' Northern Soul collection, whilst badly missing our families. We rather liked being able to walk around without the normal Christmas sensation of feeling bloated. Overlooking the snow-capped giants around us, we sat back and reflected on our trip so far. Four months previously I had been on horseback on the Russian/Mongolian border. Since then we had circumnavigated South East Asia and travelled the length of India. It hadn’t been comfortable but the best experiences of our lives. And we still had the bandits and mountains of Pakistan to deal with, not to mention Iran and the surprises that would bring.

‘Happy Christmas, Chris’ I said, raising a glass to my compadre perched on a clifftop in the Himalayas. ‘Dude’ he replied, ‘today I am Buddhist… just another day to me.’

Many Thanks to SOS Children’s Villages - www.soschildrensvillages.org.uk

Copyright © 2017 Rust Sports Ltd. All rights reserved.