Day 101 – Amritsar to Rishikesh (499 km)
Shan and I had spoken of going to visit the temple early in the morning, and so we’d set the alarm clock for 4:30. And sure enough, right in the middle of some vivid dehydration-induced dreams, it gleefully began beeping in our ears. However, it is truly amazing how low ones will-power is at that time of morning, or perhaps how muted one imagines the interior of the Golden Temple to be, and after a brief, mumbled discussion, it was loosely agreed that however magnificent it might be, it was a sight best left for future-Julian and future-Shannon, who hopefully would be more awake when they visit Amritsar again in a few years, and we were soon fast asleep again. After what felt like about five minutes, our hateful alarm was calling us back to wakefulness. It seems that the short sleep had been just long enough to induce a really crushing headache.
We knew that today would be quite a drive, and so we were all saddled up and ready to go before 8:00. Once we were on the bikes, we had to circle the block a few times, before we managed to find our way onto the larger road that lead out of town. With so many people crowded into such a small space, we managed to get some really interesting glimpses of people’s lives as we passed by. We saw a man taking a shower by the side of the road, somehow managing to do this without actually taking off the piece of cloth he had wrapped around his waist. Further along, a herd of water buffalo were being led down the road towards a grazing spot. After about half an hour, we were on the main highway towards New Delhi, which we would be following for about 250 km before turning off towards Rishikesh.
The highway, when we were actually driving on it, was fantastic, with at least three lanes, and surprisingly little traffic. The downside, however, was that roughly every five to ten kilometres, there was a diversion off to the side, where the highway traffic was forced to cut through some of the smaller towns, to avoid the road works taking place on the main road. These typically ran for about three or four kilometres, and the going was always slow, and highly congested. It was always a relief to get back onto the main road again. I think we actually spent about an equal amount of time on the diversions and the main road.
After a couple of hours, I noticed that the bike felt a bit bouncy, and on the big potholes, the shock seemed to bottom out, and so I stopped to have a look. Not good. The shock was not broken, as far as we could see, and there was no sign of oil leakages, but it was definitely not alright. I found an adjustment dial, and cranked the shock up to its firmest, but even with these adjustments, it was very soft, and will never last us all the way to Singapore.
We stopped for fuel in one of the towns, and while we were filling up, a song was blaring in Hindi from an amusement park across the road. It seemed to perfectly match our setting, with garlands of marigolds strewn from the stairs, brightly dressed women walking in the streets past buffalo nonchalantly grazing by the side of the road. It seems that India provides its own soundtrack.
Just after our fuel station, we departed from the main road, and things changed immediately. The road narrowed to single lanes on each side, but fortunately the road surface maintained its integrity. Trees had also been planted generously on either side of the road, and continued like that for the rest of the day. This was one of the first times we’ve seen this many trees along a road, and the dappled shade was a welcome relief from the sun, as well as softening the endless plains and providing the land an air of fertility. After about an hour, in which we had travelled perhaps 50 km, we stopped for drinks, and as always, people were soon crowding or stopping their cars on the side of the road, wanting to know where we’re from and what we’re about.
When we got started, though, we had our next nasty surprise, although considering the events of the last few weeks, it should have been no surprise at all: Shan’s shock absorber had gone. From behind, the bike was clearly bouncing when she went over any bump of any size. Even after all the times this has happened, or perhaps because of it, it just felt like a punch in the guts. I must confess that when we left Lahore, I had a feeling that now things were going to get better, that we might be able to get back to what we set out to do: ride our bikes. But now it seems that nothing has changed. We’re just back to limping along, wasting time, wasting money as we try to drag ourselves from place to place. And with time now so short, (we were originally scheduled to be flying out of Singapore exactly three weeks from today), each new breakdown means that we will be forced to cut out parts of our time in South East Asia, as well as the immediate faf of trying to get the bikes working again.
But those are tomorrow’s problems, and tomorrow is where they needed to stay. Today, we just needed to get to Rishikesh.
From there, things got progressively more hectic. The road surface deteriorated, soon potholes everywhere. But the main killer was the traffic. India is notorious for the crazy driving, but now the reason for this began to make itself clear. In South Africa, there is essentially one form of transport on the roads, four wheel motor vehicles. But now in India, one will see at any given moment cars, large trucks, buses, small motorbikes, bicycles, tractors, rickshaws, bicycle taxis, and even ox-carts. With all of these trying to make progress, there is no way that one can design a set of traffic rules that ensure that it works for everyone. And so the obvious way to proceed is to ignore the rules. However, this doesn’t mean that it’s just a wild free-for-all. There are, rather, customs. For instance. The basic rule is, the larger vehicles have right of way, and if you are smaller, you’d better get out of the way, even if it means getting off the road onto the dirt. The next important custom is if you are going to overtake, always hoot to let the driver in front know you are coming. Failing to do so will earn you filthy looks from other drivers (and maybe a wobble or two as you swerve to miss him while he changes directions, unaware of your approach). The big trucks and buses even have “Blow Horn” or “Please Hoot” written at the back. Although it does mean that you are constantly surrounded by loud hooting, it actually does help move things forward, as you never get caught by surprise, and if you are the one overtaking, as is usually the case, since most other vehicles on the road are slower than us, the other vehicles will try and make room if they can. But even with these customs, it if often very slow going, and we were seldom travelling faster than about 40 km/h. Towns were by far the worst, and there our speed was so reduced that we would be overtaken by legless men sitting on push carts. Sometimes it was actually quicker to drive through the sand on the left of the road, rather than try to overtake some bulging hay truck straddling most of the road.
At some point, in the afternoon, Shan and Dad saw something that puts our driving skills so shame. In the middle of this chaotic traffic, they saw an elderly man in a white robe slowly rearrange himself on his motorcycle that he was driving until he was crouched with his feet on the seat… and then slowly stand up until he was standing on his bike with his arms outstretched. He must have been up there for at least ten seconds, before we left him behind as we wove through the traffic.
In some ways, driving here was even more taxing than the ride to Moyale (see our blog posts on Kenya, if this doesn’t ring a bell). One has to be constantly concentrating, making sure that you are aware at all times where other cars/trucks/animals are around you, sometimes having to drive for a kilometre or more behind a particularly slow vehicle until a chance comes to overtake. As the afternoon drew on, we managed to make our way there, Shan and I bouncing along on our bikes. We crossed the Ganges as the sun was setting, slowly consumed by the mountain peaks that the river is nestled in. Crossing bridges, we saw old men with painted faces and wrapped in thin cloth, washing themselves in the river, while gaudy hotels advertised the “best rooms in town” on either side. With sunset settling into dusk, we arrived in Rishikesh, and after first trying some horribly overpriced hotel with a kid playing PS3 on a flat-screen TV in the foyer, we were directed to the delightfully named Sound Sleep Hotel, where we were shown two beautiful rooms, and after a much welcome round of showers, we sat down to a feast of curries, chapattis, yoghurts, vegetables and more. Stuffed, both with food, and by our bike situation, we decided to get an early night and deal with the situation in the morning.