Got up in my Nautanwah hotel just before sunrise, brushed my teeth, paid my rs 50, and pushed the bike out of the courtyard. It was still there! Even the petrol! Was feeling a little apprehensive about leaving it there last night after some semi-aggressive guy kept going on about arranging things for me at the border (which I’d already passed), owning the whole place, wanting an extra charge for the bike parking, and me not being in my own country. No idea what the whole point was, but it was all vaguely threatening. After I’d checked in, some friendly boy had turned up from nowhere and took me to a cheap & best little eating place. (Ahh … only in India does the dal taste like this – is it the cumin? the kind of lentils?) He simply took me there, declined all offers of food for himself, just hung around chatting to some friends here and there and making sure I ate well. I took him for a cup of tea afterwards and that’s where this other guy started talking to me and then walked all the way back to the hotel with us. There my escort disappeared, and I was left with this guy. After pretending not to understand him and remaining friendly for some time, I got fed up and told him the receptionist had already given me permission to park it there. He got quiet, looked somewhat confused, and disappeared slowly. The staff didn’t seem to think anything of it. I didn’t quite get the whole thing. Kept checking the bike every hour for a while, the staff continuing to reassure me it was ok. Finally I decided to trust the situation and went to bed.
Looking at the map before departing, I noticed that Gorakhpur, the originally planned destination for yesterday, was actually to the east, while I’m supposed to be going west. Fortunately, there was a direct road to Basti, west of Gorakhpur, which would cut some kilometres. Most people tried to send me via Gorakhpur anyway, but I found a happy bus driver who told me how to get to Banti, on the way to Basti. A nice small road, and sometimes the cold, fresh-in-the-nose fog even lifted enough to see what was on the side of it. Though soon I had no time to pay attention to that, riding the clearest evidence of McGregor’s law so far – bad roads are worse than no roads. What do these people do to their road surfaces? Unbelievable, kilometres of broken tarmac, I thought potholes by definition are holes in something smooth but here they proved their full capacity of independent existence. Maybe no road after all.
Had chick peas, tea, and jilebi for breakfast somewhere on the side of the road, and I understood Basti was seventeen kilometres away. A few tea breaks later, I realised seven and ten actually meant seven times ten. Seventy.
Finally, at Basti, there it was: the highway! My first Real Indian Highway. Felt sorry I didn’t have the possibility to shoot photos or film of my entry, because real it was, with fences and a divider in the middle, separating the traffic directions. But the Indian highway turns out to have its own flavour, it couleur locale, as it showed me quickly enough. Whenever there was a village, cows, people, two-wheelers and cars just crossed. Indian fashion: go when there’s some space, doesn’t matter is the traffic that is rushing towards you has to hit the brakes. Crossing traffic didn’t even seem to be aware of this fact. One guy may really not have been aware of what was going on around him, his head buried in a bale of hay that sunk onto his shoulders.
Another thing I had to get used to was the oncoming traffic – in our lanes, on the left side of the divider (don’t forget this is India, left side of the road traffic). Cycle rickshaws, motorbikes, fast luxury cars, and enormous All India Permit Goods Carriers. With their headlights on, so no one would miss the fact they were coming. That all this doesn’t alway end well was silently testified by the overturned and sometimes burnt out car wrecks on the side of the road.
Of course you’ve all read and heard lots of these horror stories – and of course they’re all true. But also don’t forget these are incidents, it’s at the same time generally ok traffic that you’re riding in. You need to stay alert but it’s doable. I sagely tell you, experienced as I am after a full day on the road.
Passed Ayodhya – where Rama was born – without noticing, then missed the signs to Kanpur and got lost in Lucknow.
Asked another motorcyclist: “You know the way to Kanpur?”
“Direct or bypass?”
And he showed me out of town, back on to something leading to the highway. Got lost a few more times but not badly, on grand boulevards with matching buildings. Wanted to get out of town before stopping for the night, and just outside Lucknow, the sky showing the first signs of twilight, I pulled into the big and empty plaza of a roadside hotel. Very expensive, and looking fancy with dark blue reflective glass everywhere, construction not yet finished but the building already falling apart. The hygienic standards were appalling, but the hot shower was great, I scrubbed all the dust and dirt off me and put on clean clothes to go to dinner.