2002 – A Bike Odyssey
From India to Italy by Enfield
How long does your Yamahonsaki last before it needs a severe surgical intervention, like, say, a new piston? Would you go nine thousand miles with it knowing the engine only lasts, maybe, eight?
On the other hand, when did you last have a brand new 500 single of remarkable classic beauty pressed onto you by a really slick salesman -one that looked like he came right out of a 60’s movie- for $1,600.- flat? Put a life-long (the bike’s, not yours!) insurance on top for all of fifteen bucks and you are ready to roll. Who could resist such an offer? – I couldn’t!
11th December 2001 I bought my first new Royal Enfield Bullet 500 from what must have been one of the oldest dealerships in all of India. “Perfect Motor Company – established 1964” was hand painted on top of a board that also had the prices artfully hand-written on it. A piece of much over painted wood dangling from the wall in a surprisingly unobtrusive corner. Those prices didn’t have to fear any competition or did they?
They did as I found out not much later. A middle class Indian has the average income of a European of around 1900, but gas prices are the same as in Germany today. 125cc minibikes of Asian origin are the feat of the day; saving a liter on a hundred km means more than showing off. Much like Europe of the 50’s, bikes are the normal transportation for entire families, mother, father plus 2-3 children at the same time, stacked neatly where they fit, between parents, onto carriers, tanks and on top of the front fork.
In any case, the sales person in charge was overjoyed to find out I would pay cash, and all of it, right out of my pocket. I didn’t even try to strike a deal when he told me how much the shop made on the transaction. It’s ridiculously little and explains why still today they use a set of tools originating from the founder of the company. The bike I wanted wasn’t in stock, it was a Friday, so how long? It would be available in less than 3 days I was told – and amazingly, on Monday afternoon it was there!
The factory ships the bikes, half taken apart, in wooden boxes. So while one of the two mechanics were busy putting it together I grabbed the other one and off we went in a motor-rikshaw to look for more stuff I required. The bike-shops only sell you the naked bike and the faintest idea of aftermarket items, like a crash bar (selection of one) and carriers (sorry, we’re out at the moment but they should be coming in any time now). Any time in India means between now and next year. We took off to biker-Eldorado in “Laxmi Road”, a few miles further downtown.
Shacks for everything there, hand-crafted seats, welded-to-whim boxes, carriers of all types, big horns (I got one in bright red that sounded like a Volvo truck), high handlebars (the easy-rider type). I got a solid carrier with pull-out option (you unscrewed the part that extended to the back and pulled it out, that way you could double its length), two H4 beams and foamy plastic handlebar-end-covers. The crowd was wild all around these places, as if the shops would throw out bargains, yelling and wild gesticulations everywhere – it was just the normal trading habits I was told. Had to elbow my way up to the counter each time I returned from trying to fit a part I was going to get. Did I mention 40° C? The humidity didn’t help either. In the end I let the little Indian who had come with me do the haggling and we got off with everything only about an hour later. I had brought electronic ignition and a DIN 12V plug for my GPS from Germany. So the conversion to long-distance-extra-reliable Enfield was about to begin that same day.
I had seen bikers coming down the Himalayas with extra large tanks and inquired about those. They are hand-made I was told. Size to fit your needs too. The 15 year old Bullet 350 I used to ride took 3.5 liters on a hundred. Figuring I was going to find gas stations every 500 km at least I opted for 20 liters -the standard size takes 14- and had it welded from a rusty thing my eager helper grabbed off the plywood roof of the repair shop. It had been exposed to monsoons for decades, if not centuries – however, I was told “old quality much better than today, much thicker material”. After inspection for obvious holes (none I could see) I gave it a thumbs-up. It had to be taken apart, welded and re-painted anyway, so optics weren’t really important at this point. I won’t bore you with details but it took nearly three months to get all those parts fitted to the bike, the tank being the last thing ready. It had to be re-done all of THREE times before it I gave up on quality issues regarding the paint-job, considering I still had the original and it would get scratched up on the way back to Europe anyway.
Paperwork was amazingly simple. I handed over my passport and another 6000 rupees and the dealer took care of everything. I drove around happily with a crayon- marked temporary plate for over a week; nobody seemed to even notice. Then I got my “real” life-time license (again, the bike’s life, not mine) – a a few flimsy looking sheets of paper. Nothing like the German “Fahrzeugbrief” – a very official-looking piece of thick non-destructible paper-like material which proves ownership. Here just the cash receipt, even with having one quarter of it torn off the upper edge when it was ripped out of the receipt booklet, made me the owner of that particular vehicle. The registration-cum- insurance wasn’t much better, except at least it was some sort of official-looking blueish computer printout in an odd format, like legal folded over once. I had it all xeroxed twice, put the originals in a safe place in my apartment and used copies on my trips throughout India. The same goes for my passport and registration. Because I have a five- year visa I needed to register upon arrival with the local police – an all-morning and possibly half-afternoon too task a travel agent took off my shoulders for a grand (of rupees, thats US$20.-, a fortune in this country and about half a month’s salary of the Enfield mechanics at Perfect Motors).
Unlike western garages official Enfield motorcycle mechanics repair only those parts of the bike they have been trained to maintain and that have been manufactured by ENFIELD of India. That meant finding an electrician for the ignition, GPS-connector and 12V plug, a welder for the tank, a painter for the tank too. I chose a ready-made metal box because I wasn’t up to designing one for the welding shop myself which most old hands would have done. You rarely see two identically-equipped Enfields, almost all the carriers, boxes and other extras are uniquely manufactured.
Of course my ready-made boxes had to be fitted with made-to-fit thingies to be bolted to my carrier, another half-week job for a specialist with a lot of interventions from my side as to getting a reasonable job done. They probably still wonder why I insisted both boxes should be level to the ground and have the approximate same distance from the side of the carrier. Looking back I should have been even more strict. I lost each and every screw and bolt that was fixed by a mechanic some time later on my journey, no exception. But I only lost two small ones fitted by the factory. Knowing stories of Bullet-owners of the past, even with out-of-the-shop bikes who would not leave town without a full set of tools and several spare bolts and a bottle of Loktite I figured that producing those bikes in a brand new factory built in the late 90s to stringent ISO standards must have paid off.
Living in Poona, a two-million-population polluted industrial pit for over a half year now made me crave the beaches of Goa. Plus winter crept in and it was getting kind of cold in the nights. I wanted to sleep on the beach and breathe fresh air. I planned to take her out for that 500+ km ride some three weeks after I bought her – but there were rigid break-in rules to be followed, first five hundred with 40 km/h max., not my specialty. I ended up paying an old Indian friend and motorcycle lover (and spare time mechanic) Rp. 500.- for driving up and down a long road all day. He did a nice job and I went happily south after the obligatory 500 km inspection (free of charge, as the following 3 were) with a 60 km/h top speed allowance for the next 1.500 km.
Roads in India are MUCH better today than what I remembered from twenty years ago. Still – often not quite up to western standard. So I lost the extendable part of my carrier first, then my crash guard leaned forward blocking the front fork from turning. I caught it just in time so no traumatic experience resulted from that. A piece of string held it up til the next road-side repair baba was handy. I had all the tools with me but the bolts I had lost were very big. I carried no replacements for those. Next my big red horn screeched over the asphalt. I fixed it with duct tape, a must in those quarters of the world but hard to get. I started at 5am and after only 14 hours of driving and only 4 “technical stops” on modern highways, winding narrow and quite dangerous mountain roads and some few miles of ‘under construction’ dirt tracks, I was gliding into a marvelous red velvet sunset in the midst of palm trees. Goa can be quite overwhelmingly beautiful after over eight years’ absence.
It was going to be a short visit, a week or so. Further engine break-in my main objective. I went straight to a bamboo-hut-hotel by one of the endless white, wide beaches of Arambol in the north of Goa. Two other bikers had already taken station there so I had company. It turned out they had rented theirs from the well known German resident “Peter & Friends Classic Adventure” outfit. Consequently they weren’t too interested in discussing long distance Enfielding or even going for a stretch together. Theirs was a vehicle to get to the nightly party and -hopefully- in one piece back. I declined to join that kind of adventure. If you want to survive Indian traffic middle or even long term you have to have all five senses at top level efficiency and then some. It doesn’t hurt to whip up the 6th sense with yoga or meditation.
Goan roads are pot-holed and unlit, and stray cows and bullock carts frequently appear from nowhere. There is the occasional bus waiting in a curve, nicely hidden by greenery until about half a meter before you run into it. An English guy found this out a week after I arrived; he survived but the operations on his legs and knees cost him his vacation budget and he had to max his Mastercard too. Traffic in Asia has one and only one law, that is like in “the law of physics” not like in “man-made law”: whoever is bigger wins and is within his rights to run you over. You must never assume another participant will see or acknowledge your presence, particularly if he is an (almost always drunk) truck driver. Smaller vehicles behave in a somewhat more civilized way but again: there are no rules, beyond one should drive left if possible. People stop in the middle of the road to chat with the driver of a bus coming from the opposite side, no kidding, blocking both sides of the road. Parking is OK everywhere, anytime; lights are for the meek, particularly in tunnels and when it’s not PITCH BLACK outside. I made the mistake of entering one of the longer tunnels en route back to Poona with my sunglasses on, high beam shining of course and squeezed to the left as it wasn’t very wide in there. A black something headed towards me which was scary as it was taking up ALL the space from left to right. And indeed, a taking-over attempt was going on with a relative speed of maybe 2 km/h of both participants, both without headlights. I almost met my maker. The right mirror sticking out a bit was hit by the truck on my side. At the end of the tunnel I had to get off the bike and wait for ten minutes until my body-shaking subsided.
On the narrow and poorly kept roads of Goa it was no big deal to stay within the break-in limit of 60 km/h most of the time. To my surprise, I thoroughly enjoyed gliding along with that nice low thumping of the engine at 40 in 4th gear. Since the year 2000 India has adopted European traffic standards, on paper at least. Enfields are now fitted with long silencers that make their exhaust noise very low volume but still very nice to listen to. They still have a deep and sexy voice.
The engine is a marvel of elasticity. You could go from Goa to Hamburg in 3rd gear if you had to. Maybe the clutch would give in a bit too early. As it does anyway. I had mine changed after 4000 km after some quite extensive mountaineering. Others were surprised, told me theirs would last 15000 km easy. Before I took off to Europe at about 7000 km I had it preventively changed again, and I still use it 10 tkm later with no signs of slip. Maybe I had got a rotten one the first time round. Changing the clutch though is different than what I remember from my Japanese bikes, or even my beloved BMW boxers. It was a 15-minute affair and cost all of 10 bucks, new clutch plate and ½ liter relatively expensive oil (it runs wet) included. I got to do it myself with supervision by an Enfieldteer – a nice touch of service most German shops wouldn’t dream of.
Near the end of my southern excursion I met a couple from the U.K. who seemed to like my bike so I let them use it for a day. They immediately wanted me to ship one for them to London which I did. Unfortunately and most probably due to theft somewhere in India it never reached there. The shipping company claims it didn’t even get as far as onto the boat. Of course my India-based shipping agent has a different opinion and so the story goes on and on, an expensive solicitor had to be involved and the outcome is not yet predictable. But that is in itself a long tale to be told some other time.
The week in Goa did it for the break-in. Cruising was so much fun I even had a little over 2000 km on the dial when I finally rushed in for the second inspection in Poona. Indian technology spells ECONOMY. All Enfields are maxed out for low fuel consumption to the effect that they burn way too lean. I had to adjust the carb, and the ignition to cool the engine. It would still fire too early when under load, like overtaking, climbing and such. The German importer Herr Sommer had explicitly warned me. I did what I could short of re-designing the engine.
This had been done already by famous Egli of Switzerland (for more dough than my entire trip would cost) as well as some obscure students of an even more obscure Austrian technological University. These guys managed to design a new and IMHO ugly engine that sounds strange, uses only marginally less fuel but breaks down even faster than the old design. Gods (of which India has many) only know what good that “move forward” is supposed to do for their brand name. Everybody I ever talked to, no exception, not even the dealership, warned me not to get one of those. Anyway, even the most sophisticated variations of timing and carburetor settings didn’t completely cut out the ticking of the engine under stress. I had to live with it until European fuel quality -for a price- relieved me of it. In India selecting fuel is easy – the good stuff (meaning untampered) or the bad (stretched with kerosene). You watch the long row of rikshaws waiting to be serviced at the “good spots” and then sneak in, easy for a bike. And without many moral repercussions on my side as Indians generally take it extremely easy with time -or the shortage thereof.
At the beginning of this trip to India I had not planned to go all the way back to Germany biking, at least not to the point of preparing all the paperwork. I had thought it would be easy to do that from India if needed. This turned out to be an almost lethal mistake for my current plans. Pakistan as well as Iran, two countries I had to cross, require a “carnet de passage”, a piece of paper saying that if I would sell the bike in their country my automobile club would pay the exorbitant customs duty. I had heard of such but thought they were only needed if one came from the west, and why would anyone in Iran want to buy an Indian bike, with no spares or support? But of course, bureaucracy had its say and I found myself shelling out €300.- for the carnet, and my dad, thankfully, was willing to get a bank guarantee in the sum of €3000.- which was also required. I almost didn’t get it because, as of March 2002 the ADAC (German automobile club) had decided not to issue carnets for India any more as purchasing of vehicles by tourists in that country would be illegal. Well, that certainly was news to me, and would have been to thousands of tourists before me purchasing Enfields and driving them throughout the country. What did the trick was that I was “registered” with my 5 year visa. Only after faxing them all of the paperwork and my visa I received the carnet from Munich via Fedex.
At that point in time my “exit window” was speedily approaching. Only twice a year for about 4 weeks in April and September this route can be reasonably undertaken. The reason being the extremely hot climate of the northern Indian and Pakistani desert with over 50° C during mid-day; followed by monsoon, a rain pouring as from buckets for hours – no fun to have no shelter, and no chance to ever get anything dry again in that season. Before and after these windows the Anatolian high plateau of eastern Turkey is starting to or still holding snow – no fun either.
An item of a political nature had been creeping up on me. The mounting hostilities between India and Pakistan, (some were fearing a nuclear exchange at the time,) had lead to the expullsion of the Pak high commissioner. While even a year before foreign tourists got visas at the Pak/Indian border, this policy had been changed in January and the commissioner, to be expelled within the week, was the one person who could issue them. I had to get to Delhi presto, a trip too long and boring to make twice, so all my luggage and the bike had to come along. It had to be the train. Driving that stretch in a hurry and then onto Europe didn’t sound like fun.
All my relaxed and laid back trips to the surrounding countryside with various chicks I had invited were to be canceled. To get a train ticket turned out to be not so easy. Trains are always overcrowded and often booked months in advance. Even money, within reasonable limits, could not do anything about that. My travel agent tried as he could, three weeks was the best he could do – it would not do for me. Various trips to the station, hanging out in longer queues than I care to describe, maddening heat and moisture in the air along with the usual smell-mix of shit, food and sweat, did nothing. Someone suggested I ask for “tourist quotas” – none available either. But there were emergency quotas as well, would my case qualify? I had to color my story a bit, but it did. I elaborated on the time and fortunes I had spent to be able to make the dream trip of my life with an INDIAN bike etc. etc.. The guy at the counter had the expression of “get that madman out of here a.s.a.p.” while he handed me the stamped papers.
Next afternoon at 16:00 hours I was going to board the express to Delhi, first class airconditioned sleeper. But not before I had my bike wrapped up in old sack linen stuffed with straw. Supposedly to shield the new paint job done to my tank – and insurance against transport damage wasn’t optional either. Well, both didn’t help, the bike came out more scratched than it had been in 6000 km of driving before and had a few dents too. Insurance claims would take a year or two to cash so I just split. But since I had 10.000 km of adventure and fun before me I didn’t care much.
It was to the German embassy first as they had to give me a paper saying I wasn’t a wanted criminal –to their knowledge. Thank you guys for the quick and nice service. I even got to jump lines officially as Germans have precedence before all lower lifeforms which were waiting patiently in long lines for their visas. Of course “lower” is a matter of definition. At the Pak embassy if you weren’t Muslim you had to wait. Fortunately at the time that was defined in hours not days as I heard it used to be. The imminent departure of His Eminence might have helped to that effect. Got my stamps, paid the fees and was ready to roll out the next morning before sunrise.
The Indian government has constructed a very nice and new highway from Delhi to Amritsar, (the border city to Pakistan,) capital of Punjab and the Sikh religion. Smooth ride and only one surprise – a McDonald’s. I had to check that out, especially as a Harley Davidson was parked in front of it. That turned out to be a PR trick. That bike was dead as a duck – and had been for some time. Towed there to attract the occasional passer-by biker I guess. Food was good though, much better than in their western outlets. Everything I saw was vegetarian and I’m a vegetarian too, that might have helped.
Spent the night in Amritsar not without checking the border post for military activity first. There was supposed to be a war going on if you believed the papers. Well, not only in the west are news media inclined a trifle to the exaggerating side. One Jeep and very few foot soldiers was all I saw. At the border there was only the usual border police and the stamp swingers. However, it was after teatime and officially closed; “come back tomorrow at ten” I was told.
I chose a $20.- hotel and that was to be my last contact with civilization as I know it for some time. Nice clean room, shower, towels, a TV that had satellite, a phone that worked. A watchman guarding my fully packed bike all night. I was too tired to go sightseeing bigtime, But I had to visit the Golden Temple, the Vatican of the Sikh religion. That beautiful ancient architecture was quite impressive – driving through those narrow roads with 35 kg luggage and a very high center of gravity wasn’t that much fun though. I started anticipating long stretches of straight autobahn in the days to come.
I slept in, the border to be open supposedly at ten so no hurry. I could have made it eleven. There was no traffic at all. I was the only customer. No surprise the bureaucratia showed up around eleven something, fully dressed up, all of four “customs inspectors”. And inspecting they did! I had to strip the bike to the SEAT COVER. It was useless to point out that I was actually LEAVING their country and why would they be concerned with what I took OUT. Even my carnet was stamped, an altogether completely stupid and useless act as it guaranteed that I would not sell my bike –which I could have done completely legally too- in the last 30 minutes I was going to spend in their country. In Spain a few years ago I read that the minimum IQ for joining the forces had been lowered to 70 to attract the unattractive – I wondered where India drew the line between mental deficient and customs official. I armored myself for coming attractions on the Pak side.
Pleasant surprise; not only did I briefly meet some nice Swiss guys on BMWs on their way east – I got stamped right away and within 10 minutes was sent on my way with best wishes for the trip. My luggage wasn’t even looked at. Some sneaky character tried to sell that as his “positive influence on the officials” trying to drain a few bucks from my budget. Tough luck with a tough German. I just drove off.
The north-eastern part of Pak looks much like India, a little poorer in the villages maybe, but the roads generally are in good condition and modern gas stations are lined up every 50 km or so. Roads that weren’t already good were under construction, a lot of that kind of government-sponsored work was going on. I saw one trail of military trucks with tanks, big guns and all, but that was the only one I would encounter en route.
The heat was striking. I stopped every half hour to soak my t-shirt, long armed to avoid sunburn. My pants and hair too. It helped but dried up too quickly. I had two 5 liter water containers with me, dangling left and right from my seat. Those came in very handy. I abandoned them a few days later in the next bigger city along with 20 kg of luggage I sent home via airmail. (I could have just thrown the stuff, most was damaged beyond recognition upon arrival in Germany.) The bike had turned out to be too sluggish and unyielding to steer with all that extra weight. The rear shocks died only about 800 km into my trip, not a good omen. The roads when not good were REALLY bad with potholes the size of baby washbasins. If you overlooked one, the extra-strength gas shocks I had fitted would have to take that giant punch, but couldn’t. And I overlooked quite a few. The bike ran straight as a train through them though. Never even close to throwing me off.
A few kilometers into the country, short of Lahore, I had my first (and only) flat. The rear tire lost all its air in about 10 seconds. I was getting the suddenly extremely wobbly bike (because also heavily overloaded with high center of gravity) to a standstill and was about to curse heavily when my eyes fell onto a stack of truck tires on the other side of the road. I had stopped right in front of a tire shop! The wheel wasn’t even removed and my spare tube not needed. The tube was pulled out of the tire, checked for the hole in a small water basin, a nail found and removed. In the end the patch was vulcanized with something that looked like a waffle-iron. In less than 20 minutes I was again up and running – all for 50 rupees or $1.-.
The first day in Pakistan I drove way into the night, a mistake by any measure. Traffic at night is plain dangerous. You have to be extra alert to avoid accidents, but will grow more tired by the minute naturally. Finally I stopped next to a roadside building which was under construction but already had a roof. Not that I needed one, not a cloud in sight, it just felt more comfy. Throughout the night tractors with loudspeakers mounted to their exhausts blaring religious songs passed by. I slept 2 hours, maybe. In the morning I discovered I had been in the ante-room of a mosque. That was to be the one and only time I tried to save on hotels.
The city of Sukkur was to be my next stop. I mistook a left turn and found myself on a 3rd rate rural road with the worst holes and narrow misses, head-on trucks and such. I was so immersed in driving that I didn’t catch the handle of my expensive BREE travel bag ripping off. My newly purchased thousand bucks Canon EOS along with all the photo material I had so far taken took a plunge into some ditch by the side of the lane. Navigating by compass I hit the main road 150 km down but only stopped for gas much later, when I discovered the loss. No use in turning around to search. Grumpily I wrote it off. That camera only weighed maybe 3 kilos and that BREE thingy was made to take loads in the 30 kilo range. What a drag quality has come to!
I decided to treat myself to an AC room with breakfast for ten bucks. The bike stored nicely in a guarded garage I wandered off downtown. Latest movie DVDs straight out of China for $4.- apiece – just HAD to send a few to my sister. Much to my surprise I also located an Internet café. Transmission speed was about 300 bits per second so not much fun. I barely managed to read my email and renewed my vow to kill all spammers I could lay my hands on. Of course all night the electricity was gone so no AC. A dripping wet bedsheet had to do as cooler.
I had chit-chatted with the young man at the reception about my travel plans with a lot of body-language and marginal English. Next morning at 5am I found the henceforth unavoidable Toyota pickup loaded with 4 para-militia, Kalashnikow and all, in front of my hotel waiting for me. They were to accompany me for the next 500 km of desert and most beautiful but rough mountain terrain. I tried to find out who or what exactly they were supposed to protect me from. It was hopeless, there are limits to body language. The high mountain road en route to Quetta is lined by occasional waterfalls, and clear little streams that made me want to stop to take a jump for refreshment. Only that Toyota and the prospect of unavoidable company kept me from it. The road grew better steadily – most of it very much like a German Bundesstrasse – national road.
Reaching Quetta I finally lost my friendly escort. I started looking for a mid-range hotel in the $20.- class. First I could only find the $200.- ones or the real cheapo and probably bug-infested $5.- type. After an hour driving around I settled for a bungalow holiday resort, haggled a bit and had a 50% reduction in no time so that the tariff came to exactly $20.-. One room was dedicated as an Internet café with four terminals – I was impressed to say the least!
Downtown I found coffee shops, restaurants, got a can of weapons-oil (chain lubricant, I had run out of spray) and –openly in a BIG shop- all the software you could possibly imagine, including of course the latest and greatest Windows XP for 5 bucks apiece. And that was already the “westernized” price, meaning 200% more expensive. I could not but notice that the Microsoft-operated “Business Software Alliance” had not extended its reach to the border of Afghanistan, U.S. intervention notwithstanding.
That night I must have ingested something funny, my prime suspect being the water they claimed came from a deep well and would be “more pure than bottled water” – I woke up puking and feeling really lousy – it was to be the one and only time for the entire journey. I decided to relax another day, seized the opportunity to email an especially detailed account of my trip and to read a cheap novel I had taken along for emergencies like this.
Early next sunrise onwards down from the high plateau turning due west the long trail towards Iran – passing through 1000 km of desert at well over 50° C in the sun – started. Of course shade was nowhere to be seen. No more regular gas stations as I was to find out. This was the time for my hand-made approximately 20 liter tank to show its value. I drained it to the last half liter in search of a sign for any fuel but diesel which was readily available everywhere. But Toyotas and the occasional other car were around – where did they get their gas? When asking -with hands and feet of course- again and again I was told “only few kilometers” – to find nothing. What did I miss – or was this all a great plot to lead a helpless tourist to his gruesome final destiny? I got a little paranoid, but people stayed nice and friendly, pointing onwards, “only few kilometers”. Finally I asked a guy who seemed to guard a bunch of barrels. I had hit bulls eye. He pulled out a plastic pipe, sucked it and stuck it into my tank. The stuff cost 40 cents per liter – about half price. It dawned on me – this was cheap import gas from Iran where it costs 5 cents a liter! I had noticed these barrels along the road for hundreds of kilometers but not paid them any attention.
After what was to be the second longest stretch to drive without sleep – about 14 hours – I arrived at the border village 50 km west of Nok Kundi, also the last train terminal of Pakistan towards Iran. That single track had been right, then changing to left and back to the right side of the road since I got to the lower desert plateau 800 km back. For a brief time I had been riding parallel with an ancient looking diesel engine. Made me feel like lone rider wild-west sort of thing. But it was even slower than the Enfield which I had kept at relatively low rpm due to the extreme heat, averaging 80-90 km/h.
Opposite the terminus was The Grand Hotel of the place. Supposed to be a major tourist attraction or so it said inside the entrance hall. Faded posters of distant Pakistani beauty, both flesh and landscape hung from the peeling walls. A huge wooden desk with a phone left by the British and a guy hanging his head over some obscure magazine. Of course no English. No water or electricity either. But for only $15 it was a steal, considering I had only to check 5 rooms to find one with a bed that was made and didn’t look like it had gathered dust since the original construction workers had left. A few rupees helped me to two buckets of warm water (I wanted cold, mind you, it was still over 40° C!). I used a good part of the Medichlor (for making emergency drinking water) to get that greenly brew from moving on its own. In the end I bucket-showered with a guaranteed sterile but twice-before-used-looking liquid. It cooled me down enough so I could sleep – and that was a good thing as no light meant no TV and no reading or planning or other entertainment.
The Pak/Iran border was due to open at 9 am. And it was true, at least in part and as much as the Pak side was concerned. I had to pull the customs guy -or should I say customs-family- from their beds in front of the building. Very nice service, I was invited to tea, questioned reasonably and sent over to the next station directly at the border about one km down a dirt track. There I sat another two hours waiting for the Iranians to wake up and open their gate. My passport was stamped again while I was still on the Pak side. I never found out why it needed stamping twice. Finally at after eleven young and eager-looking Iranian militia showed their faces and I rushed in before any others could – fearing busloads of Pak-origin tourists who were waiting with me would quickly condense into long queues I’d better avoid if I wanted to reach my next target before dusk.
Again an invitation to share tea and biscuits at the Iranian side. Astonished faces mumbling “you are 49 and traveling by motorbike?”. It seemed Iran has only young males. The middle age has been killed in too many wars, civil and otherwise. And who in his right senses would at my age entertain such a trip when he could fly for less? The expression “fun” was either none existent in Parsi, the language of Iran or defined some other state of being than what I associated it with. I got only the weirdest – polite though- smiles when I expressed that as my sole motivation.
Reaching into Zahedan was a breeze. Roads are up to European standards all the way. In anticipation of fuel-for-next-to-nothing I reached the first gas station running on empty. With one look at my beardless face I was doubtlessly identified as alien. No gas for me. I was devastated. No amount of body language-pleading to the man in the blue overall was helping. Finally a young guy refueling his car stuck the pipe into my tank and just let it flow for a minute. When I tried to pay him he waved me off. “Not worth it” he said in fluent English. I would encounter this kind of civil courtesy often during my trip in this country; unheard of in Germany or Italy (especially Italy, see below!). In the evening the manager of the hotel I stayed with got me a 20 liter plastic container for $3.-, – and that was including the container! I was told that only about 100 km from the borders fuel is not sold to strangers because they were selling it after crossing back to their country. It must be government subsidised. At five cents per liter even a cheap country like Iran cannot cover production and refinery costs.
Now in Iran, I located the nearest Internet café only one block away from my hotel. I even had two to choose from, one in a big luxury hotel, another just a normal outfit at a streetcorner. Line speed was much better than in Pakistan, not quite as good as Europe though – understandably. Half the users were women, to my further astonishment. All “properly” dressed in gray or black with head scarf – no exceptions. Also here the mosque-bound loudspeakers were omnipresent, making themselves known especially in the early morning hours. That’s the downside of government religion I guess – still wondering what the upside may be.
Next stop was to be Kerman where upon entering a hotel I stumbled into the soccer- world tournament Germany against someone – was it USA? Can’t remember. However, massive amounts of males were clogging up the space in front of a king size TV. I was waved through to a “place of honor” or so it seemed right in front of the screen for being German and served tea. Of course “we” made it – and everybody was very enthusiastic with me, I would say even more thrilled than I was – but that may be my inherent lack of enthusiasm for sports in general and soccer in particular – except the semi-final and the final, maybe.
All along I had been paying with US $ cash or had changed small amounts to local currency. I crossed Iran spending less than the equivalent of $120.- and lived very well. Pakistan was slightly more because gas there (except near the Iranian border) is as expensive as in India. And of course from then on, towards Turkey, Greece and Italy it was to become worse each country. Without much added benefit I would like to add. But more about that later.
The city of Esfahan was singled out by all of my Iranian friends as to be the most beautiful on my route. I spent two days there but have to report that except for lots of typical tourist attractions – and if you aren’t particularly fond of Muslim religious buildings – it’s not really noteworthy. The traffic is dense 24h as is the smog – compared to other cities I went through – omitting Tehran for exactly that reason.
Next and last station in this country was Tabriz which I reached in a one day’s ride late in the afternoon. The next morning I decided to give the bike a good checkup and went to find a suitable garage with the help of one hotel employee who also drove a 125 cc bike and spoke English. In fact he was studying English literature. He led me to the workshop of an “uncle” and it turned out to be the most friendly service I ever got on this trip. They checked everything, changed oil, welded a broken part on my center stand, went though the electrical system – in short spent most of one afternoon fiddling the bike – all under my scrutiny of course. In the end I was to pay – nothing. Of course I did not accept and pressed 20 bucks onto them. Mind you that’s 4 hours work for 2 people. I felt really happy when I left town next day for this checkup had been delayed by me awhile for fear of communication problems and possible lack of proficiency on the part of the mechanics. A most unfounded worry I can now state.
Only a few kilometers kept me from Turkey which I had held to be in my pre-travel overactive imagination the “safe haven of semi-Europe after crossing dangerous and alien terrain”. All nonsense. The Turks were a lot sloppier at the border checkpoint than the Iranians had been. Nice people, just laid-back and slow. I spent all of 3 hours at the border station before all papers were OK. And they didn’t even look at my luggage – that was just “stamp collection time”. Much of it was lost over a discussion of they needed to stamp my carnet de passage which I had pulled out in lack of presentable ownership documents. Officially Turkey does not require a carnet – but then again, it gave those bureaucrats something to chew on and who can resist putting a stamp on such an artfully crafted GERMAN piece of mega-official looking document – the Turks for one couldn’t.
It was minutes after I received my farewell that a sandstorm kicked in that blew everything lighter than a gas can up in the air. Visibility went to near zero. I had to wrap a scarf around my helmet and face covering the edges of my sunglasses to be able to creep up in first gear the 500 or so meters to the military checkpoint. It was rather ghastly. All those humanoid apparitions with machine guns only half visible – I only hoped they all knew I was OKed and stamped and officially cleared to enter their homeland.
I had been climbing steadily since leaving Esfahan and had now reached considerable elevation – approximately 1000 meters, the Anatolian high plateau. It grew cold, my t-shirt and a sweater just wouldn’t do for much longer. On top of that I saw the first ever rain clouds coming up on me really fast. And sure enough, one hour into Turkey it started raining. I tried to ignore it but after a quarter of an hour I was freezing. All I wanted was my thick expensive gear that I had taken all the way from Germany and so far never used – I got off and went to unpack ALL of my stuff because – how could it have been otherwise – it was in the last bag. Even my boots were brought into action. Another thirty minutes were spent on changing into gear. When I was finally ready to take off it stopped raining – and never started again until the end of the entire trip!
My first overnight stop into Turkey was Erzurum, a somewhat boring city with few attractions other than maybe that it was the first slightly European impression since over a year. I stayed overnight, sent emails, met a nice couple of girls, Muslim, scarf and all but a lot less uptight about it than their neighboring country pals to the east. We chatted in broken English about my trip and their studies at the local university over pizza and tea. Next morning was a Sunday. The streets were ghostly empty at sunrise. I remember meeting the first other vehicle halfway out of the city. It was to the north over the mountains then, planning to take a dip into the Black Sea by nightfall. The average elevation of the peaks is greater than 3,000 meters. Some slopes still had snow and it was fairly cold. At this point I really needed my gear. Crossing over in t-shirt or even thick sweater would have meant coming down with a major cold or worse.
The Black Sea – alas – was way too cold to consider dipping more than my toe, the cities along the coast not an interesting sight. Too much westernized influence had crept in, towering hotel complexes, entire new highways bordered left and right by concrete slums. I stopped in a small village that had the old rural touch to it and found a pension for 15 bucks – no breakfast but fluent German for a change. It turned out that many people from this region had been workers in the German automobile industry decades ago when the economy was still on the rise. I would encounter many more German speaking Turks on my trip, in fact English was about totally replaced as means of communication. Only in Greece it would re-appear. Slightly disappointed I left the Black Sea some 400 km down the coast; I was heading inland all the way to the suspension bridge over the strait of Bosphorus that links the two continents of Europe and Asia Minor.
I hoped to reach Istanbul before sunset. That almost worked out – I did reach the suburbs – but that city was such a huge ungainly sight when I drove over the bridge I couldn’t bring my tired body to dive into it in search of a hotel. Instead I decided to stay on the highway towards Greece. Only around 1am the next morning I stopped at some devastated-looking motel next to a gas station, refueled and was ready to drop dead. The lobby housed one lonely guy watching TV. Quickly it became obvious that this establishment had seen better days when the Sultans were still reigning over the Osman empire. Cold water (oh, dread!! – I hate that more than anything), no food, no nothing – a bed last used when Erhard was chancellor in Germany. Next morning only two km further down the road I came across a lovely brand new Hotel. Dreaded luck!
That trip was the longest I did in one day, altogether 18 hours covering 1200 km. Mostly autobahn with very good surface quality and toll that was peanuts – compared to e.g. Italy. Around noon I reached the Greek border. On the Turkish side everybody was deeply immersed in TV screens that had been put at various strategic places, and I mean everybody, tourists and officials alike. Turkey was playing some country, I don’t know which, they were winning I heard later. It was the quickest border crossing I had so far. Even the Greek customs officer, without TV, only glanced at my red EC passport and waved me through. I expected him to at least demand the bike’s papers. Although I had to purchase insurance when entering Turkey ($20.-, one year valid inside Turkey) I didn’t have any for Europe. I did have a coverage-card from my German insurance but couldn’t be sure if that was good enough. I was prepared to pay for some kind of coverage – but then I decided that now was the time to rely on my 29 year accident-free motorcycle driving experience, which included time with 90 hp highway-screamers and other -in hindsight- slightly dangerous gear. I trusted that this nice little Enfield with its perfectly trimmed frame (for a 22 hp engine) would not cause me to lose my insurance percentage. And it didn’t.
Alexandropolis was my first European stop. I spent a few days in a beautiful hotel by the beach ($45.- with breakfast), went to a real fancy Internet café with DSL and 20 inch monitors, swam the Mediterranean which was still fairly cold in the first days of May. But deep blue and very clear and no soul at the beach at any time. What a difference to the ghastly piss warm and brownish-green soup that poses as Indian Ocean along the crowded beaches of Goa. Times had truly changed!
At the local motorcycle outfit I got a new chain, an expensive one that promised 10-15.000 km trouble free riding – the Indian quality chain was dead after 6000 km, in fact it was ready for replacement after 4000 km, I had just stretched it to the max. But then again, the Enfield original did cost $6.-, not 70€. Lost my kick starter visiting the harbor of Alexandropolis, the bolt holding it broke. I got a hand-made-to-fit one for only €1.-. Labor was still if not cheap at least affordable. €20.- per hour I felt was justified.
Properly rested for the first time my ongoing trip went across Greece all the way to the Adria within visual range of the island of Corfu. I stayed the night to get onto the first ferry in the morning. I have friends who run a small hotel in Corfu which I intended to visit. In the middle of the island the clutch cable broke, I had a replacement but dreaded the hassle of replacing it. Again I turned out to be incredibly lucky. One of only a few motorcycle repair shops was just half a kilometer away, a stretch I managed with ease in second gear, getting started downhill. The first oil and filter change was also performed and again very reasonably – €50.- was asked for a clean job of approx. 2.5 hours – including the oil. It only took that long because one small part had to be manufactured that was missing from the replacement cable.
I spent three days on the island, driving up and down narrow winding roads overgrown with wild green trees and bushes. This island is made for bike-touring. It must have been one of the most pleasurable rides of the entire trip. Of course in these parts Internet and other “civilized” services were all available – at about 500% of what I paid in Asia.
I was never a big fan of Italy – I got a ticket to Ancona, about 200 km south of Venice. I would have chosen Venice which is more to the north but that ferry had left and the next one wasn’t due for another day. The highways in Italy are comparatively lousy and super expensive. The Italians have this system of vouchers whereby they can charge you – the cash paying foreigner – much more than the locals who have access to them. The landscape is kind of nice but it was still very hot and I hadn’t been sleeping properly on the ferry which went throughout the night. All I wanted was “eating up miles” towards home.
I had made about 350 km when next to the lake Garda, about 150 km south of Austria, the bike stalled and wasn’t coming alive again no matter what trick I tried. Lacking a working mobile (I had one but my pre-paid card had expired during my stay in India) I had to stop a car and ask the driver to call road assistance. With zero Italian on my and zero English on his side that was a matter of wild gesturing. In the end the driver got the idea and one hour later a tow truck picked me up and dropped me in front of a car repair place.
I was asked to pay €160.- for a trip no longer than 25 km. My ADAC membership came to my rescue – I had to sign the paper and he went off leaving me in front of a place utterly useless for the tasks at hand. It escapes me why he didn’t drop me in front of the motorcycle shop about 3 km down the road that I located a few days later. It was a Saturday afternoon, arguably the worst possible time to get stranded. At least a Hotel was on the opposite side where I checked in. Mediocre, small rooms, TV 12 channels, all Italian, equally appealing breakfast, €85.- a night. But with 35 kg luggage and stuff you don’t walk long stretches to find something cheaper – in a country where not speaking the language is somewhat close to a criminal offense. The ADAC promised to cover €55.- per night – but I had to put it up front first (today, 2 months after the event, the ADAC has not reimbursed me).
I called their office in Munich and was told it was all my fault because I hadn’t called them immediately and asked their advice before I even ordered the tow truck. I could convince them that I may be gifted with telepathy but since they were not this WAS the earliest time I could have possibly communicated to them. They asked me to remain calm (which I was all along) and they would call back in 2 hours with further instructions. They did. It was decided to try a bike repair shop down the road first, as I suggested it might just be the ignition coil and I had a replacement with me – and if that didn’t work they would tow the bike to the importer in Germany which I requested. It was not the coil and so I also had to get transportation back home. As no train connection was available in the immediate vicinity I was told I would get a rent-car which they would fully cover. They would also cover up to €25.- towards the taxi I needed to GET to that vehicle – the taxi bill totaled €75.-. Needless to say, those €25.- haven’t been showing up either. Weeks later back in Germany I was told over the phone that the ADAC would only cover a small percentage (about €300.-) of the rental – I responded they would have to sue me for it. ADAC coverage isn’t what its hyped up to be in their brochure. Not when you’re at the receiving end. I could have flown in Herr Sommer, the German Enfield guru for that money.
So the somewhat unceremonious end of this trip was me driving back in a Micra to Hamburg while my bike hung out another two weeks in Italy. The ADAC had to collect enough other victims to fill up a truck to make the tour worthwhile. The bug that had stalled the bike turned out to be a five-minute repair issue. A part of the GERMAN MADE electronic ignition had come loose – it was glued back on. I suggest you keep the old and trusted breaker points. They wear out quickly but at least are easy to adjust and cost next to nothing.
Although I never had the slightest problem starting or running the bike the German mechanics reported a stuck piston when they tried to kick start – it was replaced for €80.-, not that much either. The conversion to European technical specs, including new rear shocks, both tires and turn signals, a headlight and re-doing some adventurous electronic soldering experiments of the Indians who installed the horn and extra beams came to €1100.-. That doesn’t look like a lot but compared to its selling value it is. I am trying to sell the machine for €2.600,- since over a month now with zero response. That says something about the Enfield’s acceptance here in Germany – which must be close to ZILCH. New with no extras Sommer asks €5000.- for a Bullet 500, in comparison mine seems to be a great deal.
In retrospect I should not have spent that much on the conversion but tried to get it sold for €1500,- as-is with possibly more success. Why did I not keep it? In my humble opinion it’s too slow for western highways which I need to use frequently. I drive bikes for transportation, not JUST fun, and have to go long stretches, often over 1000 km. For that I have a Yamaha 600N and changing from left to right gear drives me nuts. It almost caused an accident with a bunch of deer I had to brake for on my way back home one midnight. It took me all of a month to get my left-gear-right-brake reflexes back to work.
Motorcycle: Royal Enfield Bullet 500
Ex showroom price w. insurance: Rupees 69.000 (~$1500.-)
Extras: carrier, crash-bar, CDI-Ignition
20 liter tank, high handlebar,
12V plug for GPS, 2 metal boxes
Travel time Delhi-Hamburg: 26 days
Bike road kilometers: 9200
Average fuel consumption 3.7 liter/100 km
(approx. $180.- for the trip)
Average oil consumption: 0.3 liter/1000 km
Tires (Indian Enfield standard): about 60% use of 1 set
Spares needed: 1 clutch cable
Papers needed: Carnet de Passage $300.- plus
$3000.- bank guaranteed loan
Visas: India (5 year), Pakistan, Iran
(1 month each)
Remark: As of 03.02 you need the 5 year visa to register in India, or you will NOT get a carnet from ADAC. The Indian automobile club will NOT issue a carnet that does NOT return to India (kind of useless ..).
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