Belgium - Australia on an BMW R1100 GS motorcycle, solo.
Report #16 - December 3rd to 15th, 1998...
From Varanasi I want to go to Kathmandu as quickly as possible, without the use of roads of questionable quality. Using my compass I ride to the north of the city in the hope of reaching the road that should lead me to the border. The road I use is great, the asphalt is very new. It is a bit bumpy now and then, because they simply laid the asphalt over the potholes. According to my compass I'm not on the through road, I'm heading for a small village. But from that village I can easily reach the main road. I think.
Just after I've stopped to drink some tea and eat a few cookies I run into a road block. About 3 miles back I passed a police officer waiving wildly at me. But officers tend to stop me just to chat a bit, and this morning I don't feel like talking about the number of cylinders, the top speed and the expenses of it all. So I didn't see the stop signal... But now the road is blocked by a large number of people in front of a kind of pipe which has been laid on the bridge over the river. I cannot pass.
I show them my new sign language: I extend a half opened hand, and turn it around slowly. The expression on my face is one big question mark. Immediately five guys approach me, they all simultaneously explain to me I cannot continue because there has been a deadly accident further up the road. The police is busy, and that's the reason the road is blocked. Again I make the hand sign, and again they immediately understand me without me saying a word. One of them suggests I use my off-road bike to ride along the river, which will take me passed the accident. Already I'm halfway off the shoulder of the road when commotion breaks out. They disagree - some of them think this is a bad idea. I return - actually: they drag me backwards on the road again, bike and all, and I'm facing the road block once more.
Again I use the hand sign, and amazingly enough they now start to explain to me an alternative route. This will involve 30 additional miles, first back to the police officer, and then over roads of questionable quality. Or I'll have to wait some two hours. I make a few objectioning sounds, and the Indian hospitality does the rest. The road block is lifted off the road by 15 men, and I can pass. The accident is severe. It is an air conditioned coach bus with all of its windows splintered on one side, because it has fallen on its side. A huge crowd has gathered around a spot where they probably have put the dead bodies. I've already had my share of corpses in Gujarat, and I quicky ride on.
The through road is getting nearer quickly, but again I cannot continue. This time it is a train. I've already told you a few things about the way the Indians interpret rules. Often it seems as though there are no rules at all, especially when it comes to traffic rules. The railroad crossings are prepared for that: some crossings don't have barriers, but fences, otherwise the Indians won't stop. Partially that habit is caused by the amount of time these crossings are closed. On top of that, some trains are moving slowly. On average, a crossing is closed about 5 minutes. When you reach a closed crossing this will mean a delay of some 15 minutes.
When I reach the crossing the gates have just been closed by the man in the railroad shack. This is not done automatically, or electrically. He has to lower the gates manually, well ahead of the train. I pass the waiting cars and trucks, and I can squeeze myself in between two mopeds to put my front tyre against the gate. This is important, for if I leave a foot of space the delay after the train has passed will be much larger. I shut the engine. I'm one of the few, the others leave their engines running and the air quickly gets worse.
Behind me more 'small' road users arrive, they all want to get themselves a place right in front of the gate. The poor devils who haven't put their front wheel against the gate see their place being taken by others who manage to squeeze their tyre in the gap. One pedestrian climbs the gate and crosses the tracks. By now the space in front of the gate is fully occupied - a few bicyclists decide to wait on the shoulder of the road. Behind me the cars are battling for a place. One car driver who has parked a bit too far to the left sees a colleague driver appearing on his right hand side. He is now on the middle of a two way road, but for now there is no oncoming traffic.
One of the late-arriving bicyclists decides to gain some time and lifts his bike over a ditch next to the rail tracks. He follows the tracks and thus he can walk passed the lowered gates, and he crosses the tracks. I see a small moped riding through a field. The man has decided not to wait for the train. He is able to find a passing through the ditch some 150 feet away and he lifts his moped over the tracks.
I'm contend with my place at the gate: it is perfect. When the gate rises I will be the first to cross the tracks with my powerful engine. On the other side of the crossing the same things happen: an increasing amount of traffic is accumulating in front of the gates. The two cars standing next to each other are supplemented by a third. This one had passed all others waiting in line and has taken his place on the far right of the road, which is now completely blocked.A truck driver decides he can contribute to this as well and positions himself on the wrong side of the road as well. I'm having a great time - the chaos is increasing and I'm looking forward to what's coming.
By now the other side is totally blocked as well, and the train still has to arrive. A few beggars help the Karma of the waiting (giving money to beggars will improve your Karma). It takes a long time, some bicyclists decide to lift their bikes over the gates. Looking over my shoulder I'm unable to see the end of the line of cars and trucks standing on the wrong side of the road. The ditch crossing is now used by many mopeds. We are ready.The train blows its horn. One last pedestrian hurries to the other side. It is a long, slow moving freight train. With the train in sight the last mopeds position themselves on the right hand shoulder, next to the lane for oncoming traffic.
The train has passed, the party is on. Everyone checks their engine: we get emerged in a thick cloud of exhaust fumes and smoke. The gates are lifted, first our side. The people on the right hand lane have to wait a fraction longer. I use my fast bike: now I'm with my tyre pressed against the gate on the other side of the crossing. When that gate is lifted I'm blocked by a car. Of course I don't let him pass first, but I do let the mopeds surrounding him pass. When they are gone I ride on the left shoulder and stop next to the car.
Behind me the party is in full swing. From experience I know this Gordian traffic knot will untangle itself with lots of honking and exhaust fumes. The people on the right hand lane squeeze themselves through the traffic which was waiting patiently on the correct side. But they act like me, they don't make way so easily. And so everything gets stuck. And nobody budges, not even an inch. The shoulder I'm standing on is free, and I'm laughing myself silly looking at all this shortsightedness.
But I'm not laughing anymore. In front of me there is a woman beggar, lying on the shoulder. Five rupee coins are scathered in the sand. I'm too wide to pass, but the mopeds behind me can. I'm passed left and right, and so is the body. She doesn't move, not even when a rear wheel of one of the mopeds misses her hand narrowly. I use my question sign and a passing moped man answers with a throw away gesture. Does this mean what I think it does? Is this a dead body which everyone is passing without a second thought? Has this society sunken that far? Just when I prepare to get off my bike someone does ride over her hand. Thank God, she wakes up, collects her artificial lower leg and most of the coins and stumbles into the field next to the shoulder.
In the afternoon I reach the next large city. I ask a police officer how to proceed to Nepal, and he directs me to a small road straight to the border with Nepal. I want to speed, using through roads. I've decided to take the oncoming trucks for granted. I can only keep this up for an hour. All the truck drivers have decided to go after my life this afternoon. And the bike is not braking well: after every emergency stop the brake pressure is temporarily gone. The braking fluid is too hot or it is due to be replaced. And the oil which is leaking from the differential causes the rear brake to stop functioning at all.
Other travelers have warned me for the Bihar county. Schools are rare here: almost 80% of the population is not able to read or write. Foreigners often run into trouble: similar to my experiences in Gujarat. I reach the city where the Buddha has died (Kushingakar). For people of this religion this is an important city, and therefor there are hotels here. I pick one where the bike is guarded safely. Bihar is still 25 miles ahead. I won't be able to reach the Nepal border today; I leave visiting the temple of the deceased Buddha to others. I manage to persuade the cook into preparingt me a meal at 4 PM. It's coliflower with lots of curry and something indiscernable (vegetarian as well). At 6 PM I fall asleep, totally exhausted.
Speeding on a crooked bike
The next morning, shortly after 6 AM, I'm all freshed up and I mount my bike. I ride back to the last large city (a trip of an hour) to take the small road to the border after all. I don't have to visit Bihar, and the truck drivers will have to find someone else to haunt. Crossing the border is painless. The carnet is accepted without questions, but they do want to see the serial numbers of the chassis and engine. I exchange my Indian rupees for those of Nepal and I continue my trip to Kathmandu.
Nepal is obviously less dense populated. The houses are placed slightly farther away from the roads (but they are as poor as in India). Because of this extra space there isn't nearly as many cattle on the road. The roads themselves are good, there is hardly any truck traffic - more than ever I ask myself what I was doing in India. Now I'm approaching the Himalaya on a motor bike with a bent front wheel. This doesn't improve the quality of riding, of course, and I don't expect to see much of Nepal. I do want to visit Pokhara, and from there I want to go to Kathmandu. Because of all these thoughts I miss the exit. When I stop to ask where this exit was, I'm told I'm going exactly the right way, because this road (to Kathmandu) will quickly become worse, but the road from here to Pokhara is absolutely awful. It would be wise to visit Pokhara when in Kathmandu, if I still desire to go there.
Indeed the road gets worse when I start the passing of the mountain ridge separating the high Himalaya from the Indian plateau. Many potholes, probably from the frost, make this road dangerous. After I pass the mountain ridge I arrive in the domain of the rivers. I'm only at the very beginning, but already this looks gorgeous. I encounter unexpected amounts of oncoming traffic. Only a few people seem to go to Kathmandu. The peace in my lane and the fact that the road is now great again makes this biker's party complete. Out of sheer joy I check how this crookied bike can handle a fast turn. Right hand curves are tricky, it seems as though there is a critical point after which the bike seems to want to fall over. But left hand curves can be taken faster than ever!
The scenery is rough and barely cultivated. The temperatures are slightly lower than I'm used to lately - only 28 degrees Celsius. The trees are feeling this too, or so it seems - it seems like autumn here. The temperatures aren't 'right'; some fallen leaves in December doesn't make an autumn (the way my biological clock is accustomed to). But I do detect autumn feelings within me: the feeling the longest summer of my life (I haven't seen that many days below 30 degrees since May this year) is finally reaching its end. But the cold season is very green - the grass is still green, and there are trees which aren't even thinking about letting the leaves fall.
The river is rumbling below me while I'm speeding through the valley. Boy, am I having a great time or what! I spot a few rafts coming down the river: rafting is very popular among the visitors in Nepal. I stop to eat in a city filled with local buses and some trucks. The choice is very limited. I have to contend myself with some dal and a chappati. 'Dal' is a dish made with lentals which lacks taste. The service is bad, but a working beggar livens up the meal with some authentic Nepal music. Afterwards I give him too much money; he almost falls over backwards of surprise. But I like to encourage entrepreneurs. The first taste of Nepal cuisine is not a great one. This doesn't bother me - I just continue my speed trip for another hour.
In the late afternoon, a bit too soon to my lining, I reach Kathmandu. I have with me a letter from a German lady, given to me in Varanasi. The poor girl was head over heels in love with a young guy in a guest house in Kathmandu. I hand over the letter to the man which threatens to kiss me. It is so great to be the bearer of good news! Subsequently I go to another guest house which was recommended to me. When a German recommends a hotel or restaurant or something, they speak German there. Or they serve German dishes. Same here. The rooms are spotless, the beds Europeanly sturdy and the bike is allowed to be parked indoors.
I have a talk about my flight plans. Myanmar (the country formerly called Birma) and China don't allow travelers with their own vehicles. From the Indian subcontinent there are two routes to get to South East Asia: from India with a boat to Singapore, or flying from Kathmandu to Bangkok. I've thoroughly remembered the story of the two bikers who went with a boat from Madras (India). A whole week of filling in papers to get the bike on a freighter, flying to Singapore themselves, only to discover after another week that the bike was still in India. Their travel agent was gone, and so was the money, but the bike was still in the docks. In the end they had to fly back to arrange the trip once again.
Of course I've learned from that story, and I would have tried to arrange these things thoroughly. But sitting in a plane in the knowledge that my beloved bike is in the cargo area behind me sounds a whole lot better than traveling separated. So I have flying plans, and immediately my hostess arranges for the arrival of a travel agent while I'm having some tea. But I almost choke when I hear the prices - it seems the agent and the hostess are counting on a large commission.
Every country has one day in the week where the people don't work (or at least work less). In Western countries that day is Sunday, naturally. Or rather, that seems naturally, because I'm used to that. In Islam countries that specific day is Friday, it is mandated by the religion. Exceptions (Turkey, Pakistan) blur the rules. In Nepal it is Saturday. And Friday's everything closes early. So I don't get anything done before Sunday. Suddenly the lust for money of my hostess makes this guest house less appealing. Furthermore, I want to leave this stinking city and see some real mountains.
I ride to Nagarkot (it's dark by now). This village is situated at an altitude of over 6,500 feet, and it has a view on the Langtang mountains. You don't see anything of that in the dark, this makes the 'revelation' in daylight all the more exciting. (Then again - I've seen the moon rising from behind one of those 25,000 feet peaks. When I finally turned the bike around and taken out my camera, the full moon had already cleared the mountain rims, and the moment had passed...) At 5:30 AM I get up, together with a few other fanatics, and watch the sun rise, shivering with cold.
Everyone has seen one of those pictures, where a snowy mountain peak is backlit by the pink light of the morning sun. To experience this yourself is awesome. And there is plenty of pink light: the air is very moist. One hour after the sun has risen over the edge of the Langtang range the valley is filled with water vapour. Around noon all the vapour is gone, and the view is clear. I decide to go back to Kathmandu so I can arrange the flight on Sunday morning.
How to package a bike
On the airport in the office of Thai Airlines they are running at half strength. Because in Thailand their 'Sunday' is on Sunday's. This is driving me nuts - Monday is a Nepal national day for Polio vaccination (everybody can get their polio vaccination). There is only one seat left to Bangkok, and that is on Thursday at 1 PM.
The bike has to be checked in 24 hours for departure, ready to be transported. It will take one day to build a crate for it. All in all this means I have to get it there on Tuesday, with all the customs formalities taken care off. After a lot of efforts I find a cargo officer who arranges for a carpenter to take the bike's measurements on Monday, although this is a national holiday. We agree on meeting at the airport on Tuesday, at 11 AM.
After waiting until 12 o'clock I am starting to panic slightly. If they stand me up I won't be able to arrange another carpenter to build the crate today (or Wednesday morning at the latest). I start with the formalities, but this quickly stops for lack of a cargo agent license. It does give me the sympathy of the customs officers.
I phone around a bit, and finally the cargo officer and carpenter show up at 1:15 PM. The preparations are nothing: the beams are roughly of the correct size, but not equal. I had asked for a closed crate, I wanted to put my luggage, boots and other gear in the box as well. They didn't bring any ply wood with them. They want to increase their profit by building me an open crate. Some threatening language to the cargo officer and carpenter lets them get some ply wood, and the customs formalities are speeded up as well. The sympathising customs officers are content with only a cursory check of my luggage.
Now there is enough man power: with four men the crate is built, and the ply wood is put on the inside of it. Tools: two hammers, two hack saws and a tape measure. The (rusty) nails are bundled together in an old plastic bag. The construction is very rough, and the measurements are poor. But after traveling for half a year I'm more relaxed: I let them have their party and I don't enforce them my European standards. One of the sides is so crooked three men have to hold it in place while number four quickly nails it to the rest of the crate.
I have emptied the fuel tank, removed the battery, cases and front wheel. Fortunately I had someone made me a few wooden blocks to stick between the brakes. Later that afternoon someone indeed tries the front brake - without these blocks the cylinders would have been forced out of the claws. The job is finished way over schedule, and I have only ten minutes to cross the airport to get to the Thai Cargo office. I borrow the bike of the officer, and just manage to get there in time.
Thai Airlines has got another surprise for me in store: the cargo bay for Thursday is booked full. My bike will not be shipped until Friday, and will arrive in the evening. Saturday and Sunday the customs in Bangkok are closed: I can collect my bike on Monday... I nearly explode, but I have to go back to customs before they close as well. I ask them nicely to check it out once more, and ride back. I arrive just too late for me to see the crate hauled into the storage area without the aid of a fork lift. The crate has been carried inside by eight men.
This issue too is not that serious: on Thursday they manage to find a space for the crate after all. My bike and I enjoy a peaceful three and a half hour in the air.
Ready for Christmas
Skipping Nepal, however sad that may be, serves a specific purpose: in Bangkok there is a BMW distributor. I want to have the bike fixed while I'm enjoying Christmas with Carolyn in California. I think it would be best to send the bike to the distributor in its crate. This fails: BMW has taken over the import of the cars from the distributor who did it until then. Bikes are dropped - thanks BMW! It takes a couple of hours to find this out; by then I still have to find someone to transport the crate. Furthermore, they don't understand me all that well over the phone. It seems best that I first take care of customs, and then pay them a personal visit.
If I really am to fly to San Francisco, the bike will stay behind. A lot of coutries won't accept that so easily. Daan van der Keur of the GTI company (www.motormaniacs.nl) has told me that Thailand doesn't log the bike in one's passport, and they accept the carnet.
This is not (completely) true. The carnet is only accepted together with a contract in which I promise to pay 500,000 Baht (15,000 USD) if I turn up at the border without my bike. And they put a piece of paper in my passport at the page on which a clear "warning" stamp is placed. I hesitate as to what to do: I can just stay here and not go to the USA, I can leave the bike with the customs until I return, or I can take my chances. It's the latter. I have to get back before my visum expires though, because the contract expires at the same day. The visum will become invalid the moment I leave the country, but yet they insist on coupling the contract and the visum. I don't get this logic at all, but that is very common in these kind of things.
Watched by a large audience I put back together my bike in a parking lot. The Thai people help me wherever they can. The wood from the crate is taken away, they hand me my tools, and they lift the bike so I can put in the front wheel. It's dark when I enter Bangkok on my bike. It is very crowded because of the Asian games. I take the toll road, but the police picks me off. A bike is a bike, even if I think those small 100cc thingies are mopeds. And so I am in the same category: I'm not allowed to use toll roads. But the officers are very forgiving, and they show me how to get to the center of the city.
It is great to tour around again! I'm having a terrific time: no potholes, no cows on the streets. They have highways here! And the road is lit! Other people stop at red lights, and they don't try to sneak in front of you. I spot a building of at least 25 stories. And in front of it is a sculpture - just because it looks beautiful. Incredible - I'm back in the civilized world! After three months of underdeveloped countries I undergo another shock, but this time I don't have problems adjusting.
I eat a hamburger. This looks a bit like America: McDonald's, Starbuck's, Seven-Eleven, T.G.I. Friday's, Burger King, Kentucky Fried Chicken and many, many malls. It is pretty quiet though, I think that's because of the economical problems. And it is warm here (I choose a room with air conditioning): 30 degrees Celsius in the early evening. The longest summer of my life isn't over yet.
I'm pleasantly surprised when the BMW dealer has a very knowledgeable, friendly technician in its service, he talks with me for four hours, searches on micro fiches, and works on the bike with me on Saturday afternoon, his day off. We compile a list of parts which aren't in stock in Bangkok. I have to ship these from the USA, or ask Menno (again) to conjur them to Bangkok. I give them cheques to pay for the import taxes. We take the differential apart to see why it is so loose. The bearings are worn in. We tighten them until they can be replaced around Christmas.
I buy a ticket from China Airlines, and arrive in California on the 15th of December. The immigration officers haven't even looked at the note in my passport.