bullet, hanh?


I noticed them for the first time in 2004. Beautiful design, and a sound that makes a Harley hang its head and weep. I decided to one day ride a Royal Enfield Bullet to Europe, passing through all those countries I’d so far only seen through an aircraft window and on TV. Shortly after returning to the drizzly cold of the Dutch winter, I spotted one on the Amsterdam Nieuwmarkt – so it’s possible!

My friend Ned and I talked about augmenting our frequent musical visits to India with riding Bullets, but this dream never made it out of the swamp of possibilities, overtaken by more pressing, more interesting, more rewarding projects. Years later, I wanted to do something difficult and unrelated to the usual and got my licence. Intended to organise the motorcycle journey on my next trip to India, playing with chamber jazz trio oto.3 in the winter of 2010-11. I planned to buy a bike, prepare everything, come back a few months later and ride to Europe. However, from Chris Bright in the Adventure Motorcycle Handbook, Lalli Singh, and others, I understood that it’s impossible for a foreigner to get a carnet, needed for international overland travel, for an Indian bike. Solution: buy a bike (at a much higher price) in Nepal, where a foreigner can register a bike in their name, and to get a carnet. And if the bike is from before 1998, it even seems possible to import it into my home country, the Netherlands.

After returning to Amsterdam, I discovered a whole new world of motorcycle stories in films, books, blogs. Essential inspiration were Gordon May’s Overland to India and Benno Graas’ Het Aarden Beest. I enjoyed the classics – Jupiter’s Travels, Long Way Round, Mondo Enduro. Dirt Track Productions has a number of great films on riding Enfields in bizarre places, including Gaurav Jani’s amazing Riding Solo to the Top of the World, and One Life to Ride is another charming Indian biker story. A bit of Sons of Anarchy to learn how to make offers no one can refuse, and I’m ready to go.

October 2011, Kathmandu. Been looking for a bike since I got here. Quite a vibrant motorcycle scene, various clubs organising tours sometimes going as far as Tibet. At the workshop of the Himalayan Enfielders I met Dutch expat Willem, full of enthousiasm and good advice (sold me a pair of panniers too). Through Mariano from the Kathmandu Jazz Conservatory, where I taught some workshops, I met the very helpful Rabi Thapa, Enfield enthousiast and bike trip organiser for Sacred Summits. Great to hang out in the Handle Bar under his house with captain Mahesh and their biker friends – all riding Bullets, all with their own modifications ranging from skull shaped tail lights to hand-shifted gears. Rabi put me in touch with some people who might be interested in selling their bikes. A tempting option was a 1979 standard Bullet – engine like a clockwork and the bike looked gorgeous, a glowing kind of dark brownish rusty maroon. I may have been a little prejudiced because owner Manish also introduced me to the Himalayan Java Café where they serve easily the best espresso in Asia. I looked at a few more bikes, took some testrides. I liked their sturdiness, the power produced with deep one-cylinder sound, the comfortably upright posture. The bike is quite big and heavy in this traffic, could either be considered an advantage because people move out of the way (I’d like to think), or a disadvantage as you don’t fit through narrower gaps between traffic, and you’re simply less manoeuvrable.

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Looking at all these bikes, I should have probably been a little more critical. I could have for instance have had a closer look at some tips and other tips on buying a used motorcycle. Also, I could have taken the bikes to independent mechanics, without interest in the sale – though I also think it was hard to see all the relationships.

I kept coming back to the ’79 maroon one. So, over another espresso, Manish and I agreed on the sale and the next day took the bike to the workshop. In the evening, his chopper-lookalike had metamorphosed into the Bullet I was looking for. New seat (though a single, sprung seat still floats around in my head), mirrors, wider handlebars, new mudguards. The Vintage Motorcycle Club had a charming atmosphere (and got me the best momos, and had former king Mahendra’s former BSA in a corner waiting to be fixed up), and organised a nice and easy ride up to Nagarkot a few days later, but I wouldn’t recommend anyone to take a bike there. Their mechanic was a little too quick rounding your bolts, and had as his favourite tool the hammer. (The little boy who helped out is someone to look out for though – had a care and patience that might make him and excellent mechanic in a few years.) Apart from the sloppy job, they sold me spare parts at a multiple of their original prices, including an inner tube of the wrong size, and adapted their diagnoses of gearbox trouble I’d noticed since the beginning after consultation with their friends. Frustrating because of its dishonesty, but “Too late to bargain now. I owned it”, as Hoohoohoblin put it.

Getting the bike registered in my name, obtaining the “blue book”, the Nepali vehicle registration document, was handled by a middleman who knew which document bring to which desk at what time. Endless cups of tea, signatures, finger prints, and desks with a variety of authoritarian men later, having managed to make ourselves heard amongst everyone who wanted to be helped at the same time, the bike was legally & officially mine. My portrait in a little blue book. I’ve got it! I concluded the whole process with a few days of riding around the country with Sanderien, who had come from Gujarat for a week. Then my carnet was delivered from England at Hearts & Tears and I was ready to go.

on the road
en route!

To get a carnet from the RAC I sent them the application form, photographs of all the (filled-out) pages of the blue book and their translations, and the bank statement of the payment. They let me apply while still looking for the bike – I filled out the application as far as possible and sent them the frame & engine number and the copies as soon as I’d bought it. Paul Gowen, Mr. Carnet, was busy but very helpful. (Contacting him with “Carnet question via Horizons Unlimited” in the subject line helped.) The deposit on the bike for the overland route to Europe is 500 % of its value – seems to be generally estimated at £ 1000 for a classic Bullet. (It’s possible to pay the full amount, or get insurance for it.) You can view or download a rough idea of a translation of the blue book as a pdf or txt document. Use at your own risk, I don’t claim this is accurate, complete, correct etc, it is only intended to give you an idea of what the translation could be like. It contains contributions from several people, varying from a distracted hotel owner to a guy in the office next door whom I thought worked there – he didn’t, just came in to pick up some flight tickets he’d booked before – and the previous owner of the bike. This translation was awarded the carnet.

siddhartha’s way


Taking off from Pokhara, I easily found the Siddhartha Highway. This road was constructed in the 1960s, providing some much-needed employment for the two thousand Tibetans that ended up in Pokhara, having been relocated there from refugee camps near the Tibetan border. (After the Chinese invasion in Tibet in 1950, the peasants and nomads in the border area initially weren’t too bothered by the political events in faraway Lhasa, but after the occupation turned violent and the Dalai Lama went into exile in 1959, thousands of them fled south. The camps soon got too full, so the Swiss Red Cross moved them to transit camps around Pokhara, where only much later the situation picked up because of work opportunities on the Pardi Dam and the construction of roads.)

siddhartha highway
the siddhartha highway crossing the kali gandaki river

The road was beautiful and quiet, probably a result of the newer road that takes a detour, but doesn’t go through the hills. Less curves and less potholes make it attractive for trucks and buses, but on a motorcycle you need a road surface of no more than a metre wide, and curves are actually considered an advantage. The road winds through the hills to reach its highest point at Tansen after crossing the Kali Gandaka river, then descends to Butwal and on into the Terai, the plains that border on India. When I left Pokhara, I was hoping to reach Lumbini in the Terai – the Buddha’s birthplace. Seemed a fitting place to stay after a day’s riding on the highway named after his “worldly” name.
However, when the shadows grew long and the light turned grey, my map told me that my present location, the village Waling, was only about halfway to Tansen – which, I’d been told, would be the first place with accomodation. Not very keen on letting go of one of my good resolutions on the very first day – no riding in the dark if at all avoidable – I found myself lucky: there were a couple of hotels just a few metres from where I pulled over. I picked the cheapest one of the two very similar options. Apart from the swallows nesting in its restaurant, it was nothing special and not exactly clean, but it provided a place to sleep and they served me an excellent plate of dal bhat, lentils and rice.
Early the next morning I told the cockroach in my tankbag it was time to go, pushed my bike out of the shop where it had spent the night, and accelerated onto the foggy road. Riding through the clouds, between the lush green hills, I felt a little stiff, cruising in second gear at 30 kilometres an hour. A few hours later I found myself leaning through curves at 40 in third gear, apparently relaxing into the ride. Had another fantastic Nepali breakfast in hotel Nanglo West in Tansen – these people really know how to fry their potatoes.


The friendly Canadian (that may be a pleonasm) I shared a table with had just returned from a walk up to the top of Srinagar Hill and claimed he saw snow peaks! Not wanting to miss the opportunity to finally verify the existence of those legendary and elusive mountains, I trudged up in the hot late morning sun, and was stupefied as soon as I got up there.

more snowpeaks! from my private point of view on the mountains

They exist! They actually exist! It’s not a digital-photography trick! So big… Very far away and still towering over everything, though towering isn’t actually the right word – nothing intimidating about them at all, they just sit there being high and white and rugged and majestic. A half finished concrete tower provided an excellent viewpoint. (As well as a breeding ground for a colony of enormous insects, a bizarre cross between wasps and giant ants, in a very skinny, stretched out way. If you know what I mean.)

Got back to my bike and was mildly relieved though not at all surprised that all my luggage and helmet were still there, and rolled down to Butwal. Ate my Nanglo chocolate roll (after dropping it onto the dirt, thank goodness for the three second rule) somewhere on the way in a spot with a beautiful view on the river (and full exposure to the now really baking sun – where were you in Pokhara?). I’m afraid a full month in Nepal didn’t get me any closer to understanding Gordon May’s love of Nepali cakes. I guess I just didn’t find the right bakeries.
Got to the Sonauli border without any further adventures. Sonauli is basically a bustling South Asian village with lots of people running in all directions, lots of truck honking as much as they can, and lots of dust. You have to really want to visit the border posts, actually make an effort to get stamped out of Nepal and into India. At customs the Nepali plates on a bike (“vee-HYE-kll”) ridden by a Dutchman with a carnet issued in England caused some confusion, but after a good one and a half hours I was wished a happy journey and advised to ride on to the next village, about 6 kilometres away, where they would actually have cash machines. This information discouraged all the money changing touts that were waiting for me outside, and I rode off optimistically.
In Nautanwah, the two first cash machines were hidden behind discouraging-looking shutters. The third one was located behind a large crowd of shouting and dancing Sikhs. I parked the bike and was invited into the police booth for tea and a chat and a great view of a Punjabi police marching band, the maitre leading his men into an elegant and sensual dance with his big fanfare cane. If the Dutch police force would have only the smalles measure of the swing of these guys, Holland would be a different country. Finally made it to an ATM, then, after filling my practically empty tank, I realised I would not get to the next village as it was already dark. finally, after a lot of getting lost, I arrived at a dirt cheap but somewhat dubious lodge very near the ATM I visited hours before.

mountains! please?


Last night in Pokhara, and I realised I didn’t know where to get a nice thukpa. This was after the restaurant I counted on for acces to their wifi network (conveniently available from my hotel room but in need of a password) turned out to be already closed. Bandipur déja-vu.

Pokhara was a mixed pleasure. Backpackistan avant la lettre, a koopgoot for crusty dreadlocked hippies and goretex trekkers. Enjoyably quiet restaurants serving pseudo-mexican (backpacksmex?) and borsht in semi-secluded cushioned booths. Cocky caucasian males racing down the street nonchalantly on small Honda motorcycles. Sugarily orchestrated “om mani padme hum” chants out of every shop, illy coffee available on every corner. And not a mountain in sight – it’s a scam to attract tourists, I knew it. But the hills are beautiful, and the upper Seti is a spectacular river – best to be enjoyed on a raft bouncing down the rapids. When the first wave is about to hit you you wonder why the hell you put yourself in this situation, and after that every fresh spraying of the bluegreen water only makes it better. Paddle! Forward! Get down! All back!

Got here on the already trusted Bullet. Great to get to know it, find out about its likes and dislikes. Of course it has some problems which I’m finding out about, but since the ride here went well – two up and our luggage – I have all faith in it.

Sadly, Rick and Moniek of Hearts & Tears were unexpectedly not in Pokhara. Would have been great to meet them after having been in touch on email for a while and meeting Rick in Kathmandu. Helpful, friendly, and full of useful information. Their colleague Sonu helped me, received the carnet for me and tracked down a good mechanic right after the Tihar and Deepavali festivities that sent most Enfield doctors to their homes in India. Boom has a little garage on a lot with a showroom or workshop of Orion dirt bikes (must be cool to take one of those high, skinny, light bikes into the field). I told him what bothered me and mentioned going to India tomorrow. More than three quiet hours later (punctuated with great-smelling sweet clove tea (black, no milk) in the same glass mugs my parents have at home – they’re everywhere in this place!), my bike had had an oil change, the intermediate clutch plates had been scratched with a saw blade to improve friction, transmission adjusted, air filter and carburettor cleaned, brake-shoes sanded and brakes adjusted and whatever else it took to make it ready for the road, without going into actually replacing parts. At a fair price and done with great care and patience and attention, this was exactly what I had hoped to ask for. Ready for India!

On this last night, Restaurant Manamakama turned out to be still open for business as well as serving a good veg thukpa (though I’m still missing the Revolution Café’s spicy red version). Happily off-edge thanks to a neighbour’s small brown gift, I came home to pack and prepare the road-videoclip for uploading. (What’s this with the new version of everything? Do I really need to discover all the things my Tiger iMovie didn’t have that I doubtlessly need?) Ready for tomorrow – first long ride alone, looking forward. I hear the road is beautiful and quiet. Gorakhpur is apparently an easy goal – though my estimated time of departure will be somewhat later than initially hoped – need to find a memory card to replace my camera’s suddenly unresponsive one, find internet, get a keyring. The hip kind that’s long enough to be clasped to your mirror, so the police can’t take your keys away. Not that I’m counting on getting into trouble – all I need to do is get that intimidating carnet stamped.

lalala – a week in katmandu


thamel, kathmandu
street in thamel

Two crows in a tree are fighting over a flattened rat. I don’t quite get the excitement – just how nutritious can that dried out piece of fur still be? Or is this just about prestige? But it’s an entertaining spectacle I’m watching from behind my regular breakfast – omelet on toast and black tea, on the roof terrace of the lovely Souvenir Guesthouse, in Katmandu’s tourist ghetto Thamel. The morning sun feels comfortably warm on my skin and around me, the flower pots are steaming after having been cared for by the gardener. Every morning he waters the large & colourful collection of plants on the roof terrace, picks the dead leaves, and today he’s painting the pots a nice teracotta. The daily smell of frying garlic drifts by – someone somewhere likes to start cooking early. Sometimes with a hint of peanut, other times coconut or chili. The House of Music across the street fills the air with happy Bollywood tunes or cheesy techno (including an inspired version of the lambada).

souvenir guesthouse
souvenir guesthouse - spot the gardener!

The air is chilly, getting noticeably colder every day. But the sun is still hot, up to 29 degrees yesterday. Every day as I walk out I realise I should have put sunscreen on my head. And every afternoon, when the shadows get longer, I realise I should have brought more clothes. More clothes would’ve definitely been welcome on my way to the Jazzmandu Festival in Gokarna (did you also think that was a South Indian beach resort?): it’s cold outside the smog! And never take the same road twice? Well, thanks for the advice ,Neil, but I don’t know how many times I went back and forth between one unknown village and another, it took me only two hours to get there. Reminded me of Gemma telling Clay of the Sons of Anarchy that he needs a gps to find the way from his home to the driveway. No problem though: I was having a fantastic time cruising around on unknown village roads on my two-wheeled sowing machine du jour, a 100 cc Honda Splendor. Fantastic bike for this somewhat chaotic traffic, small and light and manoeuvrable. It was my first ride in the country side, my first non-city, not-only-functional ride since I got here. Smells of cumin and sewage, the hills, the chills of the light rain. Even met some old friends of the Mercedes family, reminding me of my yellow friend who’s at home waiting for an engine transplantation.

mercedes vans

Eventually I walked in halfway through the concert by Window Seat, a fantastic quartet from Bombay. Quirky, skilled, busy, nuanced… For me the highpoint of the day, though that doesn’t mean the rest wasn’t good. The green lawns of the resort and the comfortable company of Dutch travellers and expats formed the perfect environment. Despite darkness and pot holes and the just-met passenger, the way back didn’t take more than twenty minutes. (Until I was on my own again, of course.) A most enjoyable way to conclude my first week in Kathmandu, Nepal, where I came to find an Enfield motorcycle.