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Riding out: Five states in two days on my Bullet

Ugadi also announces the onset of the mangoes

On Ugadi day if you are in Andhra Pradesh you won’t be able to spot a single mango tree without somebody on it. This day of Telugu New Year – March 23rd this year – is also the harbinger of the mango season. The Hyderabadis love their mangoes. When I say love, they really dig it. The way the grandma loved pancakes. My brother-in-law, a Reddy, when he sits down to eat mangoes, he sits down with a bucket full. No kidding. Quite appropriately their New Year is all about mangoes.

I was leaving Hyderabad for home in Delhi, after a six-month assignment and wanted to attempt the Iron Butt. The sons-of-adrenaline over at the Iron Butt Association overestimated me and sent me the attempt details. It started with the ‘Saddlesore 1000’ – 1000 miles or 1600-odd km in not over 24 hours. My regular mechanic, Venkatesh, decided for me.

“Sir, you have a cast iron engine. It will overheat if you don’t rest it every hour.”

With a spare tube, oil and extra underwear (not in pix)

My bike is a Bullet Standard 500 – a workhorse, a trustworthy Hidalgo on wheels. I love it so much that I talk to it when I clean it. On the upswing, it sees me through without a cinch – like when I did the Leh-Ladakh run among others. But it takes you to be sturdy like a brother mule as well. By the time I reached Delhi – I decided to attempt my own ‘Steel Butt’ and reach Delhi in less than 48 hours – my knees were shattered with all the vibration. Mapmyindia told me the distance to be a bit more than1500 km over the shortest route via Nagpur, Jhansi, Gwalior and Agra. But what it didn’t tell me was that there would be no roads in Madhya Pradesh. Three years earlier I had ridden from Hyderabad to Delhi and had taken the Bhopal – Jaipur route. So this time around I decided to try a different one. I never asked anybody the road condition. Then, what road?

March 23, 2012. 6 AM

During my last few long runs, including the Leh-Ladakh in 2010, I had geared up my bike for the long haul. Steel side boxes: one with bike stuff (spare cables, spark plug, bulbs, fuses, engine oil, tube, puncture repair kit) and my stuff in the other. This time, I decided to take just a spare tube and engine oil. Venkatesh quote / Bikers note: Mix 100 ml oil every time you fill up. This will keep the engine cool when you are riding in summer.
I decided that this would be a short run (which it was) and didn’t want my bike to look like the capacious Goldwing (which it wasn’t). I tied the tube over the rear guard and hung the oil over the side with my Laken water bottle. That was it. I was off.

Adilabad – Border Andhra

A 'lorry lady' from Adilabad, Andhra Pradesh

Adilabad, by the border of Andhra Pradesh with Maharashtra, is a trucker economy. Everything revolves around the ‘men with the big machines’. The dhabas, the paan shops, the tailors, the grocers. There is even a customised version of prostitution which is rampant here: the pretty women (oh they are – with their colourful nine yards, huge earrings, and barely-blouses) will be picked up from bus stops and dropped at another, after a ride of an hour or two when they will be changed around the cabin crew. Then they take the return journey in another truck – a round trip that takes most of the day where they earn anywhere up to Rs 100. The truckers are not exactly the gentleman variety so tales abound of women being dropped off paid nothing but abuse. Everything is taken in its stride – goes with the job. I met one of these ‘lorry ladies’ at a bus stop where I was resting.

“I am from the nearby village.” She told me. “I work with my husband and children in the fields.”

“The crops are bad this year too.” She said by some way of explanation. “It has been bad for the past two – three years.”

In a state where farmers were committing suicide by the thousands due to bad crops and debt traps, I was happy for the family which found a means to survive.

Into Maharashtra and Nagpur

The crane pointed out the temple to the passers by

The last time I passed by, I checked into a swank hotel in Nagpur city for the night. But this time I wasn’t getting into Bhopal but heading straight towards Madhya Pradesh. So I took the bypass, without getting into town. Circumventing the city, I reached the outskirts where I espied this huge temple complex being erected. A lurking crane stood as if pointing out the behemoth structure to passers-by. Saffron-clad sadhus scurried about making sure the contractors had finished what they had promised for the day.

Daylight was fading fast so was the road; and as night fell the road totally disappeared. For at least 60 km, the road was replaced by craters. Strangely, in the midst of this crater country, there was even a gurudwara – competing with the one in Paonta Sahib for its magnificence and magnitude. Here truckers stopped by for quick showers and prayers. Both undertaken with equal fervour. I remember chancing upon the Paonta Sahib while driving through a terrible road in Himachal Pradesh. As it neared midnight, I reached the national highway. The NH 7 felt like take-off tarmac compared to where I was toiling out for over three hours. I was relieved and my bike seemed to come into a life of its own and we flew. We kept hitting a 140 kmph and covered 60 km in half an hour before giving my burning cast iron a break. It was around one o’clock in the morning and I was in Madhya Pradesh.

Madhya Pradesh and visions of Paan Singh

Madhya Pradesh is crater country

I stopped by the only open dhaba on the highway. I sat there listening to the songs that veered off from an old fashioned loudspeaker and pranced about drunkenly on the highway. They were local folksy love songs sung to popular Hindi tunes – in a nasal voice which I suspected was for the funny-effect. I was enthralled, more bemused at who would actually shell out money for the collection. Seeing my smile, the owner actually cranked up the volume and nodded at me approvingly.

“Local hit.” He introduced me to the jiving number. I allowed to be seduced with a smile.

Being nice came with its own ‘benefits’ – my chai was milky like it was boiled inside the udder itself and sweet like a whole cane farm went into it. And so strong it almost kicked me from the inside. Pallying with locals also comes with its benefits – like crucial information when you are travelling.

“To reach Jhansi, you have to pass by forest areas.” The proprietor informed.

“Oh, I love forests.” I volunteered.

“But these ones have dacoits.”

“Probably they will kidnap me.” The only dacoit I knew was from the movie ‘Paan Singh Tomar’ – a gentle soul who wouldn’t hurt anybody if he didn’t have to. And I had no issues with any dacoit so far. Besides kidnapping me would never secure the release of even a pickpocket. I was safe.

“Even truck drivers go there only during the day.” His voice was grim.

“They must be scared.” I began to dart glances around the dark.

“Last time one guy was forced to give up his truck and was stripped naked because he resisted.” He said with no melodrama, just matter-of-fact.

This time he had me. I could envision myself butt naked and with my long hair no one would stop either – they all would think that I was one of those mad men who were paid for by families to truckers to abandon along the highways or a sadhu heading to Pushkar. There were plenty of them both on the highways.

So I checked into a motel called Motel Centre in Seoni with express instructions to the watchman that I was to be woken up at 5 AM. Morning when I left, I woke the watchman to tip him. It was 6 AM.

March 24: Patan, Sagar and other wonders of MP

Patan to Sagar: Happy land, happy people

To halt at night was one prudent decision as I was planning to ride on. Nevertheless, I decided that there would be no more night halts. I had also run out of underwear.

It was a forest all right. But the trees were missing – they were all burnt to charcoal clumps. I didn’t know whether it was being cleared for agriculture, being replanted or a tragic forest fire. There was not a soul in the area I could ask. But twice a fire engine roared past by me, bells clanging. I found them stopped five minutes away – the driver was taking a leak. It again roared past me, this time the bell wasn’t clanging. I began to suspect a full bladder the motive behind the alarm earlier. But I had more pressing concerns – the road. It was progressively worsening. Save for some dramatic views of golden-hued low lying fields and far away villages happy to be left alone, it was a repeat of yesterday night. This time much worse as I could see it.

When you are on a bike and ask for directions to a far-flung place, the looks you get are a study. I have gathered some: ‘What? Wait, I have heard of that place.’ ‘Hey, that’s a good one. Funny guy.’ ‘But why are you asking for directions? Why don’t you take the bus like everybody else?’ ‘Are you an Indian? I thought it happened only to the firangs.’

Patan looked and felt like Gandhi ji’s model village – whatever anybody wanted was there itself. The buses just plied from junction to junction, never went out of town, carrying mostly sacks of rice and cages of poultry. There were some kids returning from school. I asked somebody for the way to Jhansi and he had that faraway look like the last time he went there was for his honeymoon. I was told to get into Sagar from where I could reach Jhansi. The ride took me through more fields on either side of the road and sunshine people. There is a marked difference between those who prosper with agriculture as against those who get rich doing anything else. These folks are a warmer, happier lot.

But the roads were like a dried up riverbed. At one point I was forced to enter what was an off-limit reserve. It looked like they were conserving a piece of the moon in there. For over two hours I couldn’t go beyond the second gear (my Standard model has only four). Some 30 km and two hours later, I entered some semblance of a road which bypassed Jhansi. I was only glad to do so as I had some serious time to make up.

Rajasthan and against the sands of Gwalior

Jhansi is an army town with bad roads. Surely, the army doesn’t need roads for their vehicles; for others there are puncture shops every 200 metres. Stretches like replicas of war terrain go on undaunted for 30 km, maybe more. More than my caffeine yearning, sheer fatigue settled in and I stopped for Parle-G biscuits washed down with endless glasses of kadak (strong) chai.

After dark, the world, the roads, are their's

Flyovers underway made riding like scenes out of ‘The Great Escape’. I could see Steve smirking as I went down a sheer drop (normal vehicles took longer routes through nearby villages). Smiling apologetically, I rode through baffled migrant Bihari labourers mixing mortar under the gaze and abuse of contractors in nylon shirts. I reached the junction from which I could take the bypass and not get into Gwalior, it was 7 PM. I decided to reach Agra at least around midnight and I flew. There was no other vehicle on the road. It felt odd. I would have asked somebody, but there was nobody on the road. There was a roadblock which I manoeuvred around and went further ahead – this time too the flyover didn’t disappoint, it was a sheer drop. The only catch – it was night and all I could see were huge shapeless mounts looming all around me. Everything seemed like a play of light and I was bulldozing my way through sand walls that came at you unannounced. Sand scraped my knees several times and just as I was about to topple over, I would sink knee-deep. Full throttle and I would rev my way out, again. I was a kind of machine-and-muscle circus.

Total darkness and I went around in circles till I reached the asbestos-nailed sheds of the road workers. Some were smoking outside who told me to follow the tread mark of earthmovers which went over sand like ducks in water. Peering closely, I did as I was told and finally I passed by through a hamlet where adults stood around chatting and children splashed about in a stinking nullah. I rode over slippery inclines, steps that led me to what looked like somebody’s kitchen garden, over a railway track between two parked trains – trains can look real ominous when you are not in them – and finally got spewed out right into the centre of the old part of Gwalior town. I was mad for losing so much time. Save for filling up, I didn’t allow myself any more rest and headed straight out of Gwalior. The road was better – had to, royal families and politicians plied here regularly to and from Delhi.

A dark Taj is a safe Taj– passing through UP

Brothers - the machine (in background) and the mule

I reached Agra a little past midnight. The petha shops lining both sides of the road were hugely tempting but I thudded past. I was looking for a place to have some proper dinner. Since I began my ride, I had been thriving on Snickers and Parle-G biscuits. I was fatigued out. My limbs were aching. My knees refused to support my weight. And my butts were hurting like hell. Saddlesore? More like saddlebore.

This time the hotel guy didn’t gawk when I asked for directions – Agra is a favourite short-run for riders from Delhi. The Taj is a great photo-op during full moon nights. Even I had done it a few years ago. Today, I couldn’t even see the Taj.

“They don’t always switch the light on for security reasons,” the guy offered.

Agra to Delhi is around 250 km and at average speeds you take about five hours. It was two o’clock in the morning. If I were to reach on time I had to cover the distance in four hours.

I rode most of the way ducked low against the wind – partially to harness the aerodynamics and in part to keep out the cold. I entered Delhi at 5:30 AM and half an hour later, I was passing by Rajghat – after two days of riding. Of which the last 24 hours was non-stop. Though by the time I reached Dwarka where I live, it was 7 AM, I still thought it was good enough to write to Iron Butt about my Steel Butt.

But, what butt?

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