India 🇮🇳: Motorcycle Diaries – Cruising East in West Bengal (day 1)

Today: 185km | Total: 185km

I left my hostel before 7am and walked to the taxi stand just grabbing a quick milk tea on the way. I felt mentally done with India somehow. Wanted no more now that dirt, the noise and hassle that had come back now (there is only one Sikkim!). Why now? I can’t say, but the fact that Darjeeling didn’t live up to my expectations wasn’t helpful. No more cities for me. Just get me out into the countryside, would you please?

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Arpan at Siliguri Bike Rental helped me out with a motorbike – this time a Royal Enfield Classic (350cc, 20bhp) vs. the off road touring version Himalaya i had in Gangtok (India 🇮🇳: Sikkim – a VERY different side of India). I felt immediately relieved as I got going albeit traffic in Siliguri held back my progress initially.

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Siliguri – Alipurduar: Tasting freedom

You couldn’t pick a much more generic description of a day out on a bike, but i really loved the liberating feeling today as i rode through the planes towards the eastern border of west bengal – always parallel to the Bhutan border keeping the mountains on my left side (though always in sight) and Bangladesh to the right.

Large green tea plantations, almost dry riverbeds, village people busy at work, kids playing cricket (mostly) or football (sometimes), Tata trucks filled with people, police check points (loads!) or army drills – you name it… It was all lovely to take in.

You see, on the bike you can always stop and take in the moment or scenery as you see fit. And i did just that. In short – the mere decision to leave cities behind me has revived my hunger to explore India. Thanks go to Royal Enfield motors!

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India 🇮🇳: Losing steam in Darjeeling

I had a lot of hope for my time in Darjeeling – the city of the champagne of teas – and all started very well. During my trekking in Sikkim i got to know a group of Romanian hikers under the leadership of a Romanian guide (Simina) who had travelled India and south-east asia intensely and even published a book. On top of having a lovely time socializing post hike in Yuksom, they also offered me a free and direct ride to Darjeeling… Hard to say no and with good views on the way (be it foggy ones as so often in these hills).

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Once in Darjeeling we were greeted by rain. So i buggered off to Glenary’s cafe for lunch and to sort accommodation. There weren’t many great options short notice and i was tired, so i booked a OYO hotel in the center. That night didn’t offer much bar a few beers at Joey’s and an early sleep.

Next day i headed back to Glenary’s for breakfast – black forest cake & brownie 😊. Apart from blogging i wasnt keen on much, but decided to get myself a ticket for the steam toy train ride. I did enjoy taking in the mountainous scenery though – all Darjeeling is built on hills just like Gangtok (but bigger).

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The train was a complete waste of time. Views are limited and only good on viewpoints that can be reached by other means faster and cheaper. The museum at India’s highest railway station (Ghum, 2,258m) offers a few insights into the engineering masterpiece the Himalayan train line was at the time, but still i felt underwhelmed.

Rain was back just in time for afternoon and eroded any last bit of drive i had that day. So back to Joey’s & the mobile. I ended up having a good conversation with two italians and later than evening with some locals. Still, i just wanted to get away from here. Sorry Darjeeling… I know there is a lot more on offer, but sometimes it just doesn’t work out.

Water crisis in Darjeeling

On the way to Darjeeling our drivers used the lunch break outside town to get their cars washed. I was told there is a water crisis in Darjeeling, which seems odd for a city with so much rain. Failure to keep reservoirs up with population growth as well as poor distribution infrastructure explain the issue.

A solution locals implemented were a host of private water supply lines (leaking big time) … This not only looks extremely confusing, but can only be a short-term fix i think. How hilarious 😂!

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India 🇮🇳: Sikkim – a VERY different side of India

Sikkim is a tiny state in the North of India nestled between Nepal, Tibet and Bhutan. Until 1975 it was actually an independent kingdom, but then an uprising removed the monarchy a d voted in a referendum to join as India’s 22nd state (a status long contested by China). At 610,000 population (0.04% of India) it is truly a minion even though Goa is smaller by area. It stands out though with a high literacy rate and fully organic farming – the first state in India.

Sikkim doesn’t feel like India at all to be honest. Its organised, clean, green… You get my point. Culture and language remain distinctly different to North India (even more vs. South) with Nepali the main spoken language (despite Nepal’s status of arch-enemy in the past) and Buddhism the 2nd religion (27%) after Hinduism (58%).

Getting to Gangtok

Initially i wanted to go to Darjeeling first and sort a few things for my 1trekking plans in Sikkim. However, i ended up sharing a ride to Gangtok (the capital of Sikkim) with two other travellers – Lizzie and Trey from the US. Saved me a lot of hassle too.

They are both into teaching and spent the last year in South India teaching english under the umbrella of a Christian organisation. It appeared that they were really happy with their experience be it not always easy. Now they were on a busy schedule checking out India in their last month.

On the way to Gangtok, in what turned out as a pretty wild ride along Sikkim’s narrow serpentine roads, i acquired my Inner Line Permit. It is required for all foreigners wanting to enter Sikkim – you need is a passport foto and a passport/visa copy. Very quick process. However, depending on your plans further permits may be required (north Sikkim, most multi day hikes etc).

Impressed in Gangtok

Gangtok felt soooo different as soon as we arrived. No-one hassled us (literally nobody asked me for anything in two days), there was a pedestrian area, almost no honking 🚙 🔊 and an order like nowhere else in India i had been to.

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Sikkim puts a lot of value on a clean state and has heavy penalties for littering (something that seems to be the sport of choice in many other parts of india). Well done! It looks and smells really different.

A statue (two) of Mahatma Gandhi on the main street reminded me of doing a bit of reading on the big man. See the blue box for a few highlights.

Mahatma Gandhi (1869 – 1948)
Mahatma Gandhi is very present when you stroll through India – be it banknotes, posters or statues – and likewise is he a ‘household name’ in the developed world though he was less important for my German history lessons – time to catch up.

Key facts

  • Led independence movement against British colonialists
  • Known for his non violent approach
  • India call him Father of the Nation
  • Born to a merchant caste (yet family relatively poor), he studied law in London and gathered first experiences of non violent civil disobedience as expat lawyer in South Africa
  • His birthday (2nd October) is a national holiday in India as well as International non-violence day
  • He was assassinated by 3 gun shots and his killer (Hindu nationalist) hanged. The motive was mainly around Gandhi’s stance  on India’s partition with some thinking it was too favorable towards Indian muslims during the partition of India & Pakistan in 1947

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A few Ghandi quotes i like

“Be the change that you want to see in the world.”

“An eye for eye only ends up making the whole world blind.”

“Freedom is not worth having if it does not include the freedom to make mistakes.” 

“Poverty is the worst form of violence.”

Cruising around East Sikkim on a Royal Enfield Himalaya

Having spent my first day to secure my hiking trip (see separate post) , i had a day spare before departing for the village of Yuksom. So i rented a motorbike and took it for a spin.

I managed more than 150km that day on windy roads – at times on decent tarmac, at times completely off-road and always with a steep drop on either side of you. Scary? Sure, sometimes. Amazing? Absolutely!

The bike i got was a Royal Enfield – a very popular brand in India yet not elsewhere. I comes mainly in two popular variations – an offroad tourer called Himalaya and a classic road version. There are more models though. I got myself the 411cc Himalaya (and was glad i did… As the advertising says: “Built for all roads. Built for no roads.”).

On my tour i visited viewpoints, monasteries and many mountain villages. Amazing memories. The rental agency was a little surprised how dirty the bike was after one day ‘local sightseeing’ 😉

Royal Enfield motorbikes

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With the first Royal Anfield produced in 1901, this indian motorcycle brand is the oldest in continuous production. Originally they were commissioned for police and army. You’ll find the bikes all over india with close to 700,000 produced per year. Selling their bikes in over 50 countries globally, royal anfield surpassed Harley Davidson in unit sales in 2015.

India 🇮🇳: Goa in off-season (hasta pronto 👧🏻)

After some seriously overdone security checks at Varanasi airport, we were on our way to Goa still digesting the many impressions of the past few days.

At the luggage carousel i spoke to a french woman about her journey in India and her plans for Goa more specifically. Turned out she and her friend were headed to the same beach. Transport sorted! Off to the shared 🚖

We chatted a fair bit in the taxi. The french woman was travelling a month before heading to an Ashram (Hindu spiritual hermitage) near Bangalore and live as part of this community for six month in search of meaning in her life (something her professional career didn’t provide). Interesting though i could not imagine doing it myself for such a long time.

Experiencing Goa

So we were in Goa. No packing or moving for a few days. Great. We got to sleep in, spent time at the beach, did some shopping and tried to enjoy ourselves after the intense experiences of our tour in Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh.

There were many bars, cafes and the sea near our hotel. Quite enjoyable and with good food options (fried fish with mashed potato was the front-runner).

A lovely old lady next door washed our clothes (finally) and did a remarkable job especially with the clothing still full of holi colours. 🌈

However, while clearly different from Varanasi, Goa wasn’t as vibrant as I had expected – much of this was down to our slightly out of season visit (Dec/Jan is peak) and the upcoming elections. This meant more police presence / checks, no music / outdoor parties and no liquor after 11pm.

What was super present, however, were the drug dealers near Anjuna beach. From Marijuana to MDMA… they had it all. Never witnessed people offering so openly… But no loud music after 11pm 🤔🤬.

Not much sightseeing

We did very little sightseeing. Mainly a fortress with nice views over the beaches of North Goa. We also tried to see a waterfall only to find that there was none in dry season…. ☀ 🤷‍♂️

See you soon amorcita

The last day in Goa was a sad one. After so many month of travelling together, Laura returned home to Colombia. 😢 ♥ 👧🏻 🇨🇴. She had some serious travel ahead of her: Goa ➡️ Delhi ➡️ Bangkok ➡️ Abu Dhabi ➡️ Madrid ➡️ Bogota ➡️ Santa Marta.

🚀♥ 🛫🛬🛫🛬🛫🛬🛫🛬🛫🛬🛫🛬 🏡🇨🇴

It was a fantastic year travelling in 14 countries  together, get to know each other (🥊 & ♥) , learn about other cultures 🙏 and people 👳🏽‍♂️, travel on 🛶, 🥾, 🏍, ✈, 🚉, 🚌, 🛥 and 🚗. Unique. Amazing.

🇩🇪 🇨🇴 🇦🇹 🇦🇼 🇸🇷 🏴󠁧󠁢󠁥󠁮󠁧󠁿 🏴󠁧󠁢󠁳󠁣󠁴󠁿 🇻🇳 🇱🇦 🇮🇳 🇱🇰 🇳🇱 🇪🇸 🇬🇫

The memories will last a lifetime. Soon we see each other in Colombia again 😘❤️👧🏻🇨🇴🚀💕. Te amo bb.

India 🇮🇳: Speechless in Varanasi

Varanasi, the holy city for Hinduism and one of the worlds oldest inhabited places, was the most impressive yet on this trip. Not because of a large palace or fort nor for cleanliness or kind people, but for its unique atmosphere, its stark contrasts and distinct mystique. To me the city signifies a lot of the india i wanted to see – even though that takes a lot of energy and tolerance at times. But let’s start at the beginning, which was nothing short of a shock…

“Varanasi is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together” – Mark Twain

18h train ride 🚂

Our train from Mathura (India 🇮🇳: Holi Festival in Mathura 🌈 🙏 👳🏽‍♂️) was scheduled to leave just before 1am and we were looking forward to a bed on our 15h train journey to Varanasi. Already at departure we were 1.5h late in a jam-packed train station, but eventually we got going 😴.

By the time i woke up the train was running through some lovely countryside east to Varanasi. A rolling bed with a window (2AC lower side bed) proved rather enjoyable. And with 5h delay we also made it eventually – a delay that is sufficient to cross Germany or go from south to north in england 😜.

Ever walked in a city after a bomb attack? Well, it felt like we did.

The title might seem out-of-place, but trust me i don’t exaggerate. After a tuk-tuk ride towards the old town (the inner part of which is sealed off to cars and heavily guarded around the Golden Temple), we tried to follow google maps to our accommodation.

That proved harder than expected. First, there was the old town with narrow, dark and very dirty streets. Pretty creepy for a first timer in Varanasi. Then came the big surprise… We ended up on a big pile of rubble. Literally like you imagine a war zone.

Google maps indicated we were close to our home, but there simply were none of the streets as indicated in maps. A local then pointed me to one of the few houses not ripped down. Our home to be?

We checked in to what we found to be a room in use. Someone was still drying his pants – maybe from his holy bath in the Ganges? Definitely not our place – so for the first time in all my travels i just left (not an easy decision 11pm in that area).

We booked ourselves a OYO hotel on the main road and headed over. And suddenly things looked up. We had an excellent street dinner and finally a clean bed to rest. Hello Varanasi! 🙏 🐂

Kashi Vishwanath temple project

The current rubble field is part of a program to create direct access for pilgrims (and there are many) from the river Ganges rather than squeezing folks through the narrow streets. During deconstruction other old temples have been recovered. The program is aimed at reversing past ruthless construction.

Tracing Buddha in Sarnarth

My first official stop was Sarnath. It’s about 13km outside Varanasi’s center and has many things on offer. My interest was mainly the Buddhist temple / stupa, which one of the four pilgrimage places for devoted Buddhists. Here, it is believed, Buddha delivered his first teaching after his enlightenment nearby (it is referred to as Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta) in 528BC – mora than 2,500 years ago. The museum next door to the stupa offers a few insights on Buddhism, but not a great deal

The museum next door to the stupa offers a few insights on Buddhism, but not a great deal.

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Amazing view of the Ganges

We had lunch in a roof top restaurant called Ganpati (views & direct access to the river – recommended). For the first time we got out of the dark alleyways and overlooked the mighty Ganges and the many embankments of Varanasi (they are called Ghats and there are 88). Simply stunning and it looks as if there are houses only on one side though is due the revealed sandbanks in dry season (when lack of rain and much decreased ground water flow let water levels drop sharply). No surprise we became regulars 👫 😊.

Ahhh – there are some restrictions for restaurants near the Ganges. No meat and no alcohol (the latter being made available in a tea-pot if you so wish…. So a Tuborg tea please! 🍻 🍵 😂).

Bathing in the Ganges – good/bad idea?

Really undecided on this one and not an expert. My hunch is further upstream (like Rishikesh) it is much better water quality yet the current very strong. In Varanasi the Ganges slows a lot, but is polluted. You should still hold to rails/chains and stay close to the shore. Our local guide thinks water quality has improved so much that it ia fine now. We ended up not taking a dip. So we missed the chance to wash off our sins this time.

Varanasi’s spiritual importance

Varanasi also goes by the local name of Baranas (‘happiness’ ) or Kashi (derived from ‘education’). Baranas means happiness. People have lived here for more than 3,000 years (some claim 5,000+) making it the oldest in India though still well behind Damascus (11,000y) or Jericho (some settlements date back 13,000y). Varanasi is the holiest of the 7 holy cities in Hinduism and Jainism (India 🇮🇳: Jainism religion basics🙏 & Ranakpur temple) also referred to as city of Shiva. Why so important?

  • Buddha came to this region to study as he was not satisfied with knowledge he got elsewhere (the city was the center of education at the time)
  • City said to be built by Shiva, a 3000 year old Shiva stone (one of 12 locations of Shiva Jothyrlinga or artefacts) remains in the golden temple and survived 4 destructions usually by Mughals (muslims) of the temple itself – a sign of Shiva’s power
  • Located on holy Ganges river
  • Power to deliver you to Nirvana and break the reincarnation cycle if you die here (moksha), many come here specifically to die

I note here that right at the start of a 3h guided tour my flip-flops broke and I went barefoot like Jesus himself through the dirtiest city I have seen. But it was ok.

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The Sapta Puri are seven holy pilgrimage centres in India. Each place worshipping another god (like Shiva in Varanasi). Most are located in the North (similar to where Hinduism is more present).

Huge employment problem

Economically it is a really poor picture. There is the primary issue that only some 15-28% of Indian women are employed to start with (see below for Delhi as northern peer). Additionally in Varanasi men are not employed – no work (though there is some like India’s largest diesel-electric locomotives manufacturer) and for some no will to work (but meditate etc). 1991 official statistics pinning the non-employment at a staggering 73% in Varanasi. More recent numbers just for the construction sector confirm this.

Hinduism basics

Unlike Christians or Muslims, Hinduism is not a single god centric religion (and different temples or other holy sites are dedicated to one of the gods). Rather people choose which god to worship yet follow similar behavioural aspects and share main festivities.

Ethics of Hinduism

Main ethics of Hinduism (Dharmas) are Ahimsa (Non-violence), Dama (self-restraint), Asteya (Non-covetousness/Non-stealing), Saucha (inner purity) and Satyam (truthfulness). Similar to Jainism (where the gods are the teachers).

Sects of Hinduism

People not always assign each other to one specific god, however, there are four main denominations or currents:

  • Vaishnavism (Vishnu main god)
  • Shaivism (Shiva main god)
  • Shaktism (female aspect of god is worshipped)
  • Smartism (six main gods worshipped – Vishnu, Shiva, Shakti, Ganesh, Murugan, Surya)

Hindu gods

Two Hindu festivals (there are many more)

Daily routine

There is no obvious rigid regime, but temples have certain times for ceremonies (morning, evening, interim) and people chose their own ways of worshipping (like feeding cows ahead of family as the mum of our guide does, general food sacrifice before starting business etc).

The Ghats of Varanasi

There are about 100 Ghats in the city – steps into the Ganges river. Most are used for bathing, washing and the puja ceremony (a Hindu prayer ritual). Some Ghats are also used for cremation.

Key ceremonies to watch include:

  • Evening Aarti (= part of puja ritual where light is offered to deities / Hindu gods) at Dashashwamedh Ghat. Starts 6.45pm (after sunset), but come early for a good place (6pm). Very crowded! Watch the gurus doing their tricks 🙏😂🤣

GURU action

Before the evening aarti and already on the way to the ghat you will without doubt encounter Guru’s. They basically meditate all day and some make money from blessings and photos with tourists. Truly an amazing sight. Below gallery and videos should give a good impression. WARNING: Explicit content!

  • Morning Aarti at Asi Ghat: Get there by 6am or earlier. Crowds are lighter and thus the ceremony more enjoyable. The sun rises fast once sunset is upon you. Amazing.
  • Burial ceremonies / Cremations at the Manikarnika Ghat: This is the main Ghat where the dead are cremated. About 80 per day i read. That makes it 3-4 per hour (activity so at night as the only place in India) and the constantly burning cremation pits verify that. On top of people from the city and those that came here to die, additionally bodies are delivered to Varanasi for cremation and salvation. Photos are not well liked. My apologies for any offence caused.

Floating bodies of the Ganges

First up, we saw none though heard there are boat/guided trips on offer with “corpse guarantee”. Fact is that some bodies can’t be cremated (babies & children, unmarried girls and i read also prostitutes) and some families simply can’t afford it. Some of these bodies are dumped into the Ganges. Read here.

A Nepali temple (Kama Sutra style decorated 😜)

We visited a Nepali temple as part of our walking tour. Highly interesting architecture though we ended up discussing its decoration (plenty of sexual carvings) and eventually marriage customs in India.

A lot more could be written about this city. But just like we felt then, after three emotionally and physically straining days in Varanasi, so i feel now and will stop here and happily move on to Goa. 🏖 🎉 🍸