January 23, 2006 GMT
Nations typically measure their success in gross national product. Bhutan is different. They measure their success in gross national happiness. I have no idea how they quantify happiness, but hey, when knowing the suicide rate among the rich you’ll have to admit that the Bhutanese ideal is inspiring. I had no doubt that I would feel happier in Bhutan (because India sucks). But it is well known that the Bhutanese are very protective of their secluded way of life, and that they limit the numbers of visitors to avoid too much outside influence. But let’s say that I managed to be one of the few, how likely would they allow me to ramble around in their precious kingdom on my motorcycle?
The first moment of silence since Bear Island
Some guidebooks tell you to forget it. Other sources say it can be done, but you must enter or exit the country by air. Another common report is that you’ll have to join an organized group, or pay for a guide that will escort you wherever you go. Forget all this. What you need is an insider who knows his way in the domestic bureaucracy. You also need his friends at the border, an emission test document, a fax machine, and to make a money transfer to a Wall Street bank account. The showdown was at Phuentsholing, the only land border open to foreigners. After twenty-four hours I was five kilometers up the road, flashing my newly obtained Bhutanese driving permit and given a go-ahead at the final frontier. I was in. No escort attached.
Who wants to be in a hurry when the scenery is like this?
Bhutan got its first automobile in 1962. Yes, it is a sorry place for veteran car enthusiasts. On the other hand, you often find yourself being king of the road because nobody else is on it. An estimated 80% of the population live more than an hour walk from the nearest motorable path (60% of these more than a day away). Obviously they have other priorities than being in front of you. But think again if you are planning to travel fast. The only main road is at best 3,5 meters wide and winds through a scenery so majestic that you should not miss the marvels by oozing by. So the modest average speed is in fact a wonderful advantage.
I'd might as well change oil on a UFO
The reception in the capital Thimphu was out of the ordinary. Apparently it was a rare event being visited by a lone biker from the Arctic. The national newspaper Kuensel welcomed the first ever Norwegian vehicle in the country, and Bhutan television made it a prime time story. Every day I had to shake a hundred hands. People wanted to know about my journey, and there were many faces of disbelief when I replied that I had driven through 29 countries to get there. They pictured many months of hardship and solitude, and it didn’t make any sense that I’d gone through all that without any so-called message to the world.
BBS television: Any advice for the young people in Bhutan? Yes, buy a motorcycle and visit us in the Arctic
Posted by Erik Saue at 12:45 PM
January 14, 2006 GMT
Varanasi has one major attraction – the Ganges River – and the rest is a mess. Oh well, the Ganges River is a mess too. A common measure for safe bathing water is that it has less than 500 faecal coliform bacterias per 100ml. Ganges has 1,5 million. No dissolved oxygen exists. It’s septic. By the shore some people pray, some beg, some take a bath, some do laundry, while others set their departed relatives on fire. Suffering animals are everywhere, and in between you see an occasional western youngster seemingly caught in a promise of spiritual enlightenment. It beats me how they can find a meaning to life where life seems so easily broken. But perhaps that is just why.
Ganges River: Good idea boys, let’s do the laundry by the sewage drain
I do not know why, but to witness hard core worshiping sickens me. It happened in Poland, and now in Varanasi. Really, it makes me wanna vomit. Literally. So I fled to Bodhgaya, a small town further east which is the most important pilgrimage site in the world for Buddhists. Buddhism is said not to be a religion, so I had an open mind for learning more about it. But the Buddhists were crawling and chanting and it pretty much looked like worshipping to me. So I fled again, this time to Rajgir just 70 km northwest. Allegedly this small village harbors the finest sushi restaurant in India. Now, that kind of worshipping I like.
The Buddhists were having a good time under the Bodhi Tree
But the restaurant was closed, so I decided for a 500km ride east through the seldom visited region of North Bihar. I asked the guest house manager about highway 31. He assured that it was an excellent four lane motorway. But, as he added, I had to go through in one day because the Maoists were very active in the region. But with such a thick red line on the road map it would be no problem. Yeah right. Flood had taken the tarmac, leaving just dust and an unbelievable number of potholes, and as I entered West Bengal I called for the Phantom (Fantomet) more than once. By the way, I heard no drums and he didn’t show up. That leads me to believe that the cartoon stripes in Harstad Tidende were just fake stories.
This is the so-called four lane motorway through Northern Bihar to Siliguri
To my relief there were few touts in Siliguri. But the bike was still a major attraction. Just after arrival and through the hotel window I discovered a guy in blue jacket and black cap sitting on Balto in the hotel parking lot. Obviously he was checking the suspension and how far he could twist the throttle without breaking it. I went out, told him to back off, and covered the bike. Then I went to make a phone call. I was away for ten minutes. When I returned the bike cover was off and a group of men, among them the guy in blue jacket and black cap, were fiddling with everything. So I went to the hotel manager and requested that they tightened the parking lot security. Yes, of course, he would tell the hotel guard. And he did. The problem was that the hotel guard happened to be the guy in the blue jacket and black cap.
Siliguri: What is that thing doing in the exhaust pipe?
Hopefully the answer will be in the next blog post
Posted by Erik Saue at 12:17 PM
With a sabotaged rear tire and a remaining 450 kilometers including a crossing of Delhi with its thirteen million drivers and pedestrians, it seemed impossible to reach Agra before sundown. But I had a tire repair kit, and the helpful tire supplier Autovulk in Tromso had given me a fine demonstration how to use it. My recollection of the event was a bit rusty, yet somehow the Metzeler was sealed and fit for fight at 10am. With a third of the day lost I gently rolled out of Chandigarh, and when the engine reached combat temperature I leaned over the tankbag and whispered to Balto: “Show me what you’re good for”. And Holy Moses, he did.
Steven and Susanne was impressed by the Taj Mahal, especially at sunset when it became dirt beige like a 1968 Volkswagen Beetle
I bullied myself through the Agra city borders as the last ray of sun in 2005 drowned in the horizon. I got my New Year Eve where I wanted it, but not much more. I knew nobody, and fell asleep five minutes past midnight. On the bright side, I could wake up to a must-see attraction. I was not disappointed. Even my recollection of the pyramids in Egypt seems trivial compared to the Taj Mahal. Another sought after object was a more powerful horn. Yes, the Indians honk their horns as if maneuvering their vehicles is a subordinate activity, and in the struggle for attention Balto’s squeaky beep always came short. So I tracked down a shop specializing in adding decibels. They offered many nifty patents; some of them very disturbing. I settled for a mid-range model, not so expensive, but enough to blast an occasional rickshaw off the road. Thus I was ready to push through to some new places.
Agra trash cows
There is nowhere I can stop (I really mean nowhere) without being interrogated about my mean of transport. It is very tiring. Just imagine; you want to enjoy Paris, but an ever-present crowd of nosy men bombards you with questions about the airplane you arrived in? “Hey mister, what kind of machine was it? Boeing 737? Wow, how fast did it go?” Well, this is what you have to undergo if you drive in India with a big motorcycle. On the other hand, you can answer whatever you like and they’ll accept it. “Tempo Taifun. Yep, made in 1957. The price? About one million dollars.”
Gwalior: These two professors kindly invited me to their university. Though, instead of a get-together with the lady students, I had to drink coffee with the principal
My search for a quiet spot in the countryside was not very successful. The touts and the interrogators were even in the smallest of villages, and there was only one place I could enjoy some peace of mind. That was in my hotel room. So, my presence in the bazaars lessened as the days went by, and I developed a hotel compound fetish. The quickly filled wastebasket was a proof of that. And in one of those coca-cola-and-potato-chips-moments I unfolded the map of India. I was looking for an escape route. Considering my initial plan, the border to Nepal would be a natural getaway. But then I set my eyes on another option. Or was it an option? Even more questionable, could I go there by motorcycle?
The erotic temples in Khajuraho offered some doggy-style artwork, but this bitch didn’t seem to be excited
Posted by Erik Saue at 11:55 AM
January 02, 2006 GMT
For the last five border crossing I had been questioned about the motorcycle’s engine number. No such number is mentioned in the vehicle registration documents, neither in the Carnet papers. So I assumed that I didn’t have any, with the customary reply being an accepting OK. But for the Indian custom this qualified as a “big problem!!!” I had to wait half a day while they figured out how to deal with the situation. It was tiring and boring, a good day wasted, and I arrived Amritsar quite late where the first face I saw was of a Swiss guy that left the border as I entered it. He asked about what had taken me so long. I told him about the hassle of not having an engine number. Then he took a 10 second look at the machine. “There it is”, he said.
Why is he looking at us that way? And what is that barbecue fork doing in his hand?
I was looking forward to my first rickshaw ride. A young pedal pusher took me to a bookstore, to a supplier of electric socket adapters, and then to the Golden Temple. While I was inside, a policeman told him to move the rickshaw to the other side of the jam-packed street. So when I came out and did not see him where I expected him to be, I hijacked another in assumption that the young man had run away with my new book and adapter. Nevertheless, in the afternoon he showed up again at the hotel. He gave me my items, said he had been waiting outside the temple for three hours, and that he was very upset for loosing me. Alright, I though, I’d better give him a sympathy ride. The problem was that I did not really want to go anywhere, so I figured that a ride to the kiosk would be sympathy enough. He pedaled down the street while chain-smoking, emphasizing how upset he was. I sensed that something was about to happen. He asked if I wanted to go to a restaurant. No. What about a hair cut? No. Shaving? No. You must shave…we must go somewhere… I have not eaten all day… I’M VERY, VERY UPSET!!!
A roadside break with the monkeys
Everybody warned me against driving to McLeod Ganj. This time of year it would be very cold up there. Cold compared to what? Hmm, I went anyway and enjoyed day temperatures above the summer average at home. Besides, it was a really nice drive, especially the last couple of hours. For those who do not know, McLeod Ganj is the commando center of Dalai Lama and a group of bald men in orange. I envy them. It must be very refreshing and comfortable walking around town in your evening gown. I wish I could do it in Tromsø without being arrested.
McLeod Ganj: The bars on the window is not to keep the monks in, but to keep the monkeys out
Chandigarh is a major city that on paper looks interesting because it was designed as recent as last century by a Swiss architect. I dreamt of clean avenues with metropolitan cafés. But don’t be fooled. Just imagine Zurich full of cows… I planned an early start to avoid Delhi and make it all the way to Agra to celebrate New Year Eve. It was an ambitious plan, and I would need the daylight from dusk till dawn to make it. But two dudes were outside the hotel, seemingly waiting for me, and as I was ready to go I discovered that the rear tire was flat. One of the men approached, went down on his knees, and without any searching he pulled a black spike out of the rubber. Oh, you’ve punctured, he said. But hey, this is you lucky day Mister; we have a tire repair shop and can help you. Thanks, I replied, but you’ve done quite enough already.
The hope of celebrating New Year Eve in Agra was very faded when this photo was taken
Posted by Erik Saue at 02:49 PM
Pakistan - The East
For a while I thought I was mistaken for a spy suspect, but apparently most overlanders, whether traveling with motorcycle, car or bicycle, experience that the Pakistani police are on to them like mosquitoes on a tent vacation in Finnmark. It is called “governmental instructions”. Some Europeans even throw stones at them to make them go away. That method would violate with my upbringing, so I decided to sneak out of the Multan hotel and disappear in the morning smog. It worked for about 120km until they realized I was gone and caught up with me. From there no less than 10 vehicles and 35 officers were involved in escorting me to the door in Lahore.
That’s right, the news just broke that there is a sale at IKEA
The smog in Lahore was so immense that I could put away my sunglasses an hour earlier before sundown. The vision was no further than 500 meters. The exhaust was just too much for the afternoon sunrays to penetrate, and for three days it was unbearable to go out. Windows and doors were shut as if Lahore was struck by a nuclear disaster. However, there were several pleasant things to do inside the hostel. Sleeping became my favorite. But when the worst had blown over to India, it was time to explore. Ah, Kentucky Fried Chicken!!! Finally something else than stew and bread. A nearby grocery store sold Nestle Choco Pops, and Internet was fast enough for entering the inbox within the hour. It seemed like the level of western welfare was beyond the rock bottom and on an upswing. Particularly notable was the many guests in the hostel that hesitated to move on. Christmas Eve was around the corner. It was a strange vista, those hardcore world travelers clinging on to a hastily constructed family of western faces, anxious of being alone on such a night.
Lasse from Denmark was happy to find McDonalds a few blocks away
The Christmas foreplay was a so-called soufi night, which is a gang of Pakistani drummers playing the same rhythm for five hours while smoking a lot of dope. It was an OK gig, but not when they returned the next day to do it all over again. In search of a more traditional Christmas feel we went over to a five star hotel, looking for a buffet. They did not have any, but they did have a Christmas tree in the reception and Japanese restaurant two floors up. In the hotel hallways I found a Pakistani Santa Claus and bribed him handsomely to ho-ho my new made sushi associates. Then we returned to the hostel where the drummers were stone and we gulped some black market whiskey on the rooftop till our eyelids became heavy and it was time to give in.
Christmas Eve at the hostel. To the right: Paal from Oslo is not the kind of guy you see on a charter plane to Mallorca
I left the next morning, and I met my last Pakistani mosquito at the border to India. He quickly took the Carnet, wrote down the details in a flash, and did his routine so fast that it was suspicious. Just one more thing, he added, and guided me to another room and closed the door. Nobody else was there, just him and me. “How much money do you carry?” An alarm rang in the back of my head. “Sixty Rupees”, I answered, which was not the complete truth. “Only sixty Rupees? No Dollars? No Euros?” I shook my head. He insisted on seeing my Rupees, and I showed him. Then he took them and put them in his pocket. “You don’t need them anymore”, he said and left the room. I was free to leave the country.
Posted by Erik Saue at 02:39 PM