Summary of India diary entries by Rob Shackleford
Diary Entry 11 – Kathmandu and Journey Summary
Read the other India Diary entries:
Start in Mumbai
Up & Down
Into the Desert
North to Rishikesh
Kathmandu and Home
So, after riding around India on Royal Enfields for about four weeks, we fly to Kathmandu.
We are tired and, after over a month of some pretty grueling rides, miss our girls. Kathmandu is a wind-down from our experiences and it is nice to walk round the busy streets as a tourist. With the recommendation of Harry, my partner’s son, we head for the Yog Hotel, which is essentially a backpacker hostel. It’s kind of noisy at night, which is fine, and the team members are really helpful and friendly so it is a nice place to stay. The team there are quick with a joke and a laugh. Ahhh, if I was young and single, it would be the best place to catch up with others of a similar interest. For those who have never been to Kathmandu, it’s a lot like India, only quieter, cleaner and the traffic less frantic. There are only infrequent honks on the horn so, yeah, it’s a totally different culture.
Contrary to our accommodation booking, the room we are given has only a double bed, so our hosts quickly create a comfortable new bed with packing pallets and a mattress. We’re supposed to have a 2 bed room, but I an relegated the new bed as I lose our scissors/paper/rock off. Kyle wins the double bed.
Impressions of Kathmandu. Compared to India there is no Indian style foods, but there are more western options. To be blunt, Nepali dal bhat – a selection of overcooked beans, lentils, rice and spinach, is terribly bland compared to the galaxy of tasty Indian dishes we have quickly grown to love. So we wean ourselves back into more Western dishes. One Nepali dish we do like is their hearty noodle soup, always with an accompaniment of momos – locally made dumplings. Be warned, buffalo is much more palatable than the bland vegetarian option. Believe me, after meat free India, we tried.
Another thing that is worth note is the treatment of dogs in Nepal. Again, it’s all about cultural differences. In India, dogs are badly neglected and have a tough time of it, while in Nepal they are lavished with affection. After being in India for while, to see a Nepali man gently pet a well-fed, bindi adorned street dog is a sight that warms the heart.
But don’t be fooled. Kathmandu is not the Shangri-la in the crystal mountain air where one can view the mighty Himalayas. It’s smoggy, crowded and there are never any Himalayas to be seen until you are hiking there. Which, by the number of hiking boot clad tourists, is what most visitors plan to do.
The area where we stay is packed with tourists and tourist shops. Essentially, most foreigners will stay in Kathmandu before they trek, and a stay in Kathmandu means a stay in Thamel. Thamel is a mass of stalls that specialize in handicrafts, hiking gear, tours, and hippy clothes and is thronged by trekkers and yogi types swathed in cashmere. Think of what you can buy at your local hippy or cool shop and then price it at one tenth. There are also amazing things to see: Durbar Square, the impressive Boudhanath Stupa with its great eyes, climb the stairs to Swayambu – also known as the Monkey Temple for the many monkeys there, though we avoided the Hindu crematory of Pashupatinath Temple as we have seen enough cremations for one trip with our stay in Varanasi. All are lovely to see and packed with fellow travellers. At the Monkey Temple the monkeys are in the middle of some kind of power play as there is plenty of running and screaming, with some nursing bites that have removed chunks of hide.
Naturally, the young travellers are offered drugs of all kinds, especially marijuana, which grows on the hillsides like a weed. Kyle laughs. “Man, that old lady,” he gestures to an old crone with a face like a dried apple. “She asked me if I wanted to buy her bracelets, then she asked me if I wanted hash or a joint. She was like, “Bracelet, Bracelet? Want a joint? Want hash?””
Whenever I travel, shit eventually happens. My bank somehow loses my bank accounts. On checking on-line, there is nothing! Frantic emails avail me naught, so I give Suncorp a yell on their Face Book page. Amazing how bad publicity cuts through complacency. Nothing is like having no money when stuck overseas. It takes a day, but they are quick to discover their error. Chalk up another one for the power of Social Media.
Kyle and I spend our final evening playing pool and sinking a few beers. Not surprisingly, the beers cost more than the pool.
The next day we have our final meal together. Before the soup and momos, we eat peanuts with onions and chili as we drink Sherpa Beers and reflect on our journey. AsI leave to the airport for my flight home via Mumbai, I have to fight back tears. Kyle’s flight is via Bangkok, so our journey together is over. Because we live two hours apart we see each other all too infrequently. Despite our occasional disagreements and an argument or two, this has been an amazing journey and we are like best mates. Five weeks as constant companion, sharing rooms and perils on the road, discovering Indian street food and plenty of laughs, means I will miss my son terribly.
So, what of our trip. What would we do differently and what are our successes?
I don’t pretend to be an expert on all of this. There are plenty of legendary travellers who have biked more of the great land of India that we, but we are just normal guys without any support team and have learned a few lessons that might help.
On Biking India
If you have read the blogs I’ve posted on our Indian journey, you’ll get the idea that India is one hell of a place to ride. May I suggest you read My Take on Riding in India from a previous blog entry. In a nutshell, riding Indian roads is damned dangerous and almost lawless compared to our carefully monitored Western riding experience. Perhaps the best thing any rider can do is build up your road experience and perhaps have a motorcycle training session or two with a professionl trainer to polish up skills. I was fortunate to complete a session on slow riding, using the clutch and no acceleration. For dense city traffic it was essential.
The other significant preparation is in your mind. Be prepared for delays. A 300km ride does not take three hours like at home, but sometimes will take six or even twelve hours. It depends on road conditions and traffic of course, but the traffic can be torturous and lacks what we consider to be common courtesy. It’s a dog-eat-dog world on Indian roads.
Also, India is a big country. Those from the USA or Australia will get it, but those from Europe or the UK might get a shock at how far one has to ride to get anywhere.
But I have nothing but praise for our 500cc Royal Enfield Bullets. What gutsy, rugged bikes to have survived those roads! Yes, it was a hell of a ride!
The Indian People
Every nation has their dickheads, but India not so much. Off the road, we found Indians to be some of the friendliest and most helpful people you will ever meet. This is especially true in the country, where the pace of life is slower. Every stop saw us thronged by interested male onlookers who loved the bikes and that Westerners travelled their country. Being a father and son team elicited admiration. For many, we would have the first Westerners they had ever encountered. We were careful not to offend, but to accept hospitality wherever we could. This often meant sitting with a chai and communicating in the best way we could.
Generally someone will speak English here. But don’t rely on that. It’s not always the case.
I recall the selfless help we were given when Kyle’s bike broke down, the friendliness of our fix-it guy when he repaired by backpack for 75 rupees ($1.50), the gentle humor of a holy man we met when awaiting bike repairs in Rishikesh. In retrospect, I realise most will respond to genuine friendliness, but the Indian people more so. They are generous, likable and genuinely funny.
Take note, this is a male dominated society. Be careful when photographing women or in speaking with them. In some traditional areas of India this is not considered appropriate and could get the woman into trouble. Naturally, well educated woman in cities have a lot of Western contact and experience, so are vivacious and clever, but beware of social norms. India is generally more conservative and inappropriate dress, swearing or lewd jokes are not understood or appropriate and can be taken as insults.
As an aside, we found India safe. We didn’t do anything silly, or offend, and I understand safety issues can be different for girls, but for us we never felt any risk from violence or aggression.
We love Indian food. In fact, when travelling in India, ‘Indian food’ is just ‘food’ and there is often little else on offer.
Street foo can be especially cheap, tasty and superb. We also found it to be safe for our Western stomachs. Read more on our Indian Food Experience. We chose to steer away from taking regular pills on the fear of malaria and, though we had our shots, we did not opt to be immunised against rabies.
On the occasion Western food is desired, there are options in the cities. Major fast food chains are available, but as specialty options sometimes only in shopping malls. I suggest – stick to the local food! It is superb!
Money and visas
Traditionally, obtaining an Indian visa was tedious. Now, there is the e-visa, which speeds up the process. One of the features of the e-visa is that it often changes in what it can offer. Sometimes it offers multiple entry, sometimes only one. One of the limiting factors of our trip was that Kyle had a visa for one entry, 30 days. I visited the visa office in Brisbane and was easily able to obtain a multi-visit visa for 90 days, good for a year. It cost the same.
For visas, don’t go anywhere but the official Indian Government sites as recommended by your government. On Australia’s Smart Traveller site there is a link. If you use Google to find the many sites offering Indian visas, you will be scammed and will pay, but get nothing. Also, leave yourself some time, say a couple of weeks at least. Indian bureaucracy does not hasten for anything.
As we travel, we always use ATM’s to get our money. It seems to be safe and honest. On frequent occasions, the ATM is out of money or inoperable, but the ATM in India was, as far as our experience showed, the most convenient way to obtain cash.
Money changers are on every corner and some seem suspect, but I can’t comment as I had no need to use them.
I used to rely on WiFi from accommodation or the occasional food place, but that was always of questionable worth. If you want to keep in touch with family and friends, or if you need the internet, you can’t beat obtaining an Indian sim card. I bought a Vodafone card. It cost me about $6 Australian and included limitless phone calls and text within India, and 1 Gig of data per day. That was for 28 days. As my 28 days approached, I purchased another 28 days for $3. It never let me down and received signal in most of our far-flung locations.
Compared to South East Asia and Nepal, shopping in India is sparse. There are not the ubiquitous markets that cater to tourist as the retailers care for the infinitely more numerous locals. It is best to ask your hotel or even the local tuktuk driver about markets, but be prepared to be led astray. You can be led to some pretty interesting places because so many things are lost in translation. The fun is often in the search, but our experience suggests India is not the shopping mecca as is, for example, Vietnam.
But there are some terrific locations, such as Market Bazaar in Delhi, or the many stalls in Mumbai or Old Delhi. Jaipur market stall owners are particularly voracious in targeting tourists. Here the prices are relatively high and haggling is a must.
But haggling is not something that is particularly welcome throughout the rest of India unless you are buying in quantity. You know the scenario. “Okay, it is 100 rupees for one, so how much for five?
“$500 rupees sir.”
I get a strange look, as if they realise they’re dealing with someone of particularly low intellect. The shopkeeper picks up the calculator, inserts the number 100 and then multiplies by 5 to show me how the total is obtained.
If buying higher value items, such as wall hangings or cashmere etc, then a degree of latitude can be taken. I ask for their best price and see what happens. If you are prepared to walk away, that might not always work. in India. Most stall and shop owners won’t chase you with a better price. They’ll just shrug and let you go.
But, like shopping anywhere, it’s fun and to be completed with smiles and laughter. I have seen tourists get angry or upset and it is embarrassing. C’mon guys. Don’t let us all down. Be nice!
India – A Developing World Power
India is a rapidly developing economic and military world power. The Indian culture is being spread globally, especially through it’s food and the influence of Bollywood, slated to be bigger than Hollywood.
Perhaps the most jarring impression of India for first-time visitors is the pollution. Delhi’s air pollution is devastating during the winter season, while plastic infests Indian streets, land and seas. Like the remainder of the world, India struggles with the impact of their steadily growing humanity. But as in the Asia as a whole, in India it’s trials can be more obvious and not so easily buried from the casual gaze.
Another glaring fact is India’s social inequality. India has more millionaires than Australia has people, yet there are so many of their fellows who sleep and beg on the streets in crushing poverty. We may judge, but are we any better? It is most challenging as to how to best respond to beggars. Though the Indian Government has successfully removed beggars from many of the streets, most visitors will be accosted by a beggar. What to do? Most beggars operate in carefully managed cartels, so giving to a beggar supports the cartels and does little for the little girl performing gymnastics at the traffic lights, or the man with the twisted legs who drags himself around. Then there are the teenage girls with the drugged babies who lie unconscious. All are designed to tear at the hearts. If in doubt, ask the locals. they often have no patience for the beggars.
We also found there are no bugs. As bike riders, we expected to be peppered with bugs in the early evening, but there are none. We can only assume it’s because the liberal use of pesticides have killed most of the bugs to preserve agriculture.
These are just observations, but India is like the rest of the world – always changing. India today is different to what it will be tomorrow. I have been here six times and every time it’s different. Yes, to better understand the world means a visit to India.
Riding the classic Royal Enfield motorbikes in India was a dream. The bikes are rough, slow and heavy, but are adored by Indians and are a lot of fun. The great land of India is vast, friendly, dusty, rough and full of smells, sights, sounds and tastes that you will be pushed to find anywhere else. It’s not for everyone, but it was for us.
Yes. we will be back!