troubled times. a struggle with indian bureaucracy and corruption
When people ask me my favourite country I cannot answer. How can anyone, having spent half of their adult life moving between lands, choose just one as their favourite? Asia though is my favourite continent and I love buddhist countries for the mild, forgiving, and accepting nature of the people. Thailand is a country that I am always returning to as it is developed and civilised in nature. It is a travel hub and a place where things can be achieved.
I love Lao, I simply love being there and if I were really pushed for a favourite land then I suspect that I would say Lao. I always look forward to Vietnam. The first time I visited, many years since, I vowed never to return. But by god what a different Vietnam I now know; a fine beautiful land, lovely folks and some wonderful friends, especially a good friend of my grandson.
China, wow. I don’t know where to begin with China. some times uber modern, some times deep in the past. Nature pure and fresh and clean as the driven snow contrast areas so blighted by pollution they make Dante’s most disturbed visions look tame. Camping alone in the Himalayas, living in Beijing. China has afforded me many special memories and it has been a thorough privilege to have such an insight and understanding of this land that is often misunderstood in the Western world.
For adventure, real wilderness adventure, the Andes between Chilli and Argentina reign supreme for me. For the lone adventure cyclist this remote high altitude environment stimulates an emotion that very few these days will ever experience; the essence of our most basic instinct, survival. Combine this with the warmth and passion of the Argentine people along with a charismatic old world Southern European atmosphere and great wine at a euro a bottle and Argentina will always be a winner for me. At the other end of South America is Colombia, an absolutely wonderful country for cycling populated by a wonderfully polite and friendly people for whom cycling is the national sport. As a bonus it boasts the most courteous lorry drivers I have ever encountered. (Canadian truckers are, incidentally, the worst).
And of course, I cannot finish the list without mentioning the wonderful people of Iran and the real ale of the United Kingdom.
I used to answer in a more straightforward manner. Back in the days when I thought I had travelled and knew the world I would simply reply, “India”. India was my favourite country. India is a kaleidoscope of emotions. It is vibrant and colourful, it is mysterious, it is the home of spirituality. India assaults the senses and is a roller coaster of emotions. And then you have had enough.
Some first timers apparently, and I quite believe this, emerge from the airport, recoil in horror, return to the sanctuary of the airport and buy the first ticket they can to anywhere other than where they are. Those that stick it out become fascinated and drawn into the mysteries of Hinduism and yoga. Some become infatuated with the vibrant colours, the teaming humanity, the crumbling architecture. Others adore, really adore, the history and culture. But sooner or later, generally sooner, all have to escape.
For most India grows slowly like a canker eating uglily away beneath the surface of the soul until one day a catalyst causes an emotional eruption of all that has scared the inner being; an eruption that overflows quickly and is slow to heal
What follows is from when I considered myself an old hand in India. I was back on the Sub-Continent as part of an overland journey by motorcycle that began, not with the usual massive send off party that most over-landers have, but the words “take care, have a lovely time” as my mum waved me goodbye from the front of her house in Oxfordshire. The journey finished at Port Klang Malaysia.
This story was preserved by what was at the time a wonderful new and mysterious medium known as email, and is brought to you complete and unabridged from the far reaches of cyberspace.
The photographs are some of the few I have of that journey. They are scans of a lovely old photographic medium called film. Ah, the nostalgia of it all.
[Before starting this tale I must briefly explain what a
carnet is. It is a document that allows temporary
import and export of a motor vehicle. The carnet is guaranteed
and needs stamping upon entry to a country and again
when leaving the country. So long as the carnet is
stamped when exiting the country then no import duty
needs to be paid. If not then the duty can be as much
as 150%. It is a simple and internationally recognised
Well, what a few days we have had. To say it has been
a trying week would, I feel, be a fair comment.
We arrived in Bombay on Sunday evening, checked into
what is for us an extortionately expensive hotel, and
called it a day.
Our mission in Bombay being to arrange a flight for us
and the bike to Bangkok, Thailand.
Flying is something that is against my travel
principles. After all you need not to fly to see that
the sky is blue the world over. Unfortunately things
aren’t always possible. So far as overland travel with
your own vehicle is concerned the road stops in India.
Both the Chinese and Burmese borders are closed to
overlanders, so, what options are left? Sea or air.
As we have to cheat anyway we may as well do it the
quick way and fly over Burma. This is a great shame as
we know from previous experience what a beautiful
country Burma is. And with the exception of the
authorities, what beautiful people populate the
land. Ah well, heigh-ho!
The following day, after an early breakfast we set of
to the air India cargo office. there we met a jolly
helpful chaps who told us that we could not book
direct through them but through an agent. To make life
easier they arranged an agent to help with the bike and a travel
agent to buy our personal tickets. So far so good.
Our agent was a Mister Sandeep.
We met Mr. Sandeep mid-morning on Monday,
and apart from the fact that he had
a rather unusual claw growing out of the first joint
of his index finger he seemed like a reasonable
“Oh yes sir, this will not be a problem, we must make
a crate and deal with the formalities” he said with
the all important head wobble. Little did I realise at
the time that the word ‘formalities’ was soon to
become a word that I fear will cause me great distress
for the remainder of this life, and probably for
several lives still to come. Oh yes, and I did begin
to find the claw a little unsettling.
There next followed a series of complexed calculation
the likes of which I suspect would have had Albert
Einstein scratching his head, followed by a reasonable
fee to convey our steed from the Sub Continent to
The next step Mr. Sandeep informed us was to get our
selves on a flight for Friday. Now this seemed a
little more realistic than air India who told us to
book a flight for “tomorrow sir”. tomorrow? thought
we. Sounds highly unlikely, and so it was. So
following Mr. Sandeep’s instructions we jumped into the
nearest auto rickshaw and made our way post haste to
the travel agent. A mere 3 hours later and we were the
proud owners of 2 tickets to Thailand.
Tuesday morning we made our way to the office of The
Claw with the bike so that it could be measured for
the crate. Whilst we waited for the packer to arrive
Sandeep and his assistant commenced a process that
would continue for the following several days. That
process was to photo copy every piece of official
looking paper as many times as the planets tree
supplies could withstand. I feel that there is now no
way that I can comment on environmental issues with a
clear conscience. The office staff seemed to spend
most of there time replenishing the “Xerox machine’s”
ammunition. I feel that I am indirectly responsible
for a major ecological disaster.
Still, what to do?
The packer arrived, took measurements and told us, via
Sandeep, that the cost would be 3000 rupees. We
explained as politely as possible that he was clearly
a raving maniac and that he shouldn’t be so silly. He
dropped to 2000, still crazy but he wouldn’t drop any
lower and I feared that if Sandeep’s photo copying
carried on at the present rate there would soon be no
wood left with which to construct a crate. So a date
with the packer was set for the next day at noon.
In the meantime Sandeep had begun what was soon to
become a depressingly familiar routine of explaining
to any one who cared to listen what a carnet is, how
it works, and giving a blow by blow account of all the
borders we had crossed and how we did it on a “BMW,
BMW”. It appears that he was extremely proud to be
exporting a BMW. Unfortunately what was becoming
crystal clear was that no one in Bombay knew what a
carnet was. The only reason Sandeep did was because
Sam had spent an hour explaining it to him.
Seeing there was little else to do until the next day
we went home.
That evening the phone in our room rang, it was
Sandeep. “Oh dear, big problem, carnet no good, you
can not be leaving India”. Oh bloody hell, here we go!
So after a medicinal whiskey I hot footed it to his
office. As I said, no one knows anything about
I will not relate the whole sorry tale that unfolded
over the following days. it really is just too long
winded. In brief, some how some one came up with the
idea that the carnet is a document for temporary
import for exhibition purposes only, and that we would
have to pay duty to take our own motor cycle out of
the country. The reality is that a; no one knows, b;
no one has the spine to apply the stamp and signature,
and c; nobody in India is interested in any thing
other than lining there own pockets, after all one
buys ones position as a government official simply so
that one can steel from any one and every one. In
India it is called Baksheesh. In Europe we call it
corruption, or theft.
We visited Mr. Singh who seemed to hold a great deal
of power. He at least got us somewhere, and didn’t
react too badly when Sam’s bracelet broke and her
beads all rolled under his desk. Mr. Singh said that
the only man in Bombay who understood carnets and
could sign them was Mr. Debahdee, we would have to
visit Mr. Debahdee. Sandeep didn’t look best impressed
with this. The reason for his unhappiness was that Mr.
Debahdee’s office was at the docks, 20kms away through
the middle of the madness that is Bombay traffic.
To get to the port took an hour, to gain access to the
port took another hour as several offices needed to be
visited simply to obtain a pass to get in. In side we
were met by more corrupt, ignorant officials and
agents who know nothing and care about nothing but
theft. That is until we met Mr. Debahdee. Mr. Debahdee
was very clued up about the whole situation and was in
the process of trying to do something about it. He
explained how it all worked. He need not have, we already knew
be we listened politely. Sandeep enquired about
photo copy’s,he seemed to be suffer withdrawal symptoms.
Debahdee told him that it was
unnecessary to make even one copy, but if he cared to
make a thousand copy’s then he would gladly sign and
stamp them. I felt sorry for the trees.
We left the port. Sandeep’s care broke down.
When we eventually got home we drank, lots. We needed to.
I gaze bleary eyed out of the window at the rising
sun. The one good point about the Bombay pollution is
that it creates some dramatic effects at sun rise and
sun set. Then I think of what lay ahead for another
day of madness. I refrain from whisky for breakfast.
We arrive at Sandeep’s to find the carpenter with the
most pathetic looking crate you ever did see. We
explain once again, as politely as possible, that in
Europe he would almost certainly be certified and sent
to live out the rest of his days in an institution.
Still, we needed a box, and soon, so Sam explained in
words and pictures what to do and amidst a flurry of
Hindi curses he set to.
Meanwhile Sandeep was trying to pave the way into the
customs hall. The tyres were deflated, the petrol
drained, and the battery disconnected. The bike went
into the ‘crate’, was tied down and the ‘sides’ and
‘top’ were all attached. We go into the office and
regardless of whatever language Sandeep was speaking
it was quite apparent that the words he was using were
not words one would consider suitable for use in front
of ones mother. There was a problem, of course.
“Well, what’s up?” I enquired. “Ohh dear dear”
exclaimed Sandeep, scratching the piece of loose skin
on his face with his claw. “Oh dear” his head was
wobbling quite alarmingly, “bike is too big, it now
goes by volume, not weight!” Over a certain volume a
theoretical weight is calculated and used instead of
the actual weight, this took us from 240 kg including
the ‘crate’, to 522 kg, thus doubling the price. “You
are of course joking?” “No sir!!” By now his head was
wobbling so much that I was fearful that it would
become detached from his shoulders. “That, that is it,
unpack the bike, get it out of that pathetic bloody
crate. we are going to Nepal!!” We had realised 2
days ago that we should have ridden to Nepal. I
reasoned that we could have been in Kathmandu in 6
days, that gave us plenty of time to get to Thailand
by the end of the month. Sandeep was desperately
thinking. “wait” he instructed, and dashed off. A while
later he returned having called in a favour, lined
pockets or whatever and we were on the flight for very
in the meantime the bike was in the customs hall but
the paper work was not being signed. We have to pay
duty they said. We were mad by now. back to Mr.
Singh’s office. By now my patience was really being
tested to the limits. I have been calling upon the
teachings of The Dalai Lama and the Buddha over the
last few days, trying to understand why things are
happening as they are. why people are behaving in the
way they are, following my breath to concentrate my
mind. I really have been trying. but now I have to
give into my other side, the less pleasant and
understanding side, the side that wants to rip off
peoples arms and beat them around the head with the
soggy end. I hate every one of them. I can’t
understand them, they are beyond all rational
understanding, I hate them and begin to wish most
unpleasant fates upon them. (There was one that came
to mind, that involved a blunt gardening implement,
that I was particularly shocked by.) The Buddha is dropped, praise be to Vlad the Impaler.
Sandeep asked us to wait out side. We complied, he seemed
anxious that we should. Time passes and we realise
that the bike will not be going on Saturday. Then
Sandeep emerges looking a trifle flustered, but at the
same time triumphant. Praise be to Buddha, God, all the angels in heaven and Vlad the Impaler, Sandeep had the carnet, and it was
We all went to drink beer. Sandeep was a little
loathed to tell us what happened at first, but after a
drink he spilt the beans. the reason he didn’t want us
there was because the sight of white skin would have
doubled the baksheesh. (the size of the bribe). As it
was he had to pay 1500 rupees. The other side to being
white was the doors that opened due to our being
Europeans. The people we had spoken to would never
speak to Sandeep. By taking us to see them he gets
straight in to see the most important of men, or rather we do.
This whole operation would take around an hour at a
land border, it had taken us 4 days and aged me by an eternity.
As the plane took of we watched Bombay disappear. The
view of the pollution from the air is beyond belief.
At the height of the clouds is a flat line. above it
is beautiful clear blue sky, bellow, for as far as the
eye can see is a blanket of thick, grey, smog.
“Well thank god for that” said Sam, “we are away from
that place”. Not wishing to sound pessimistic, but
excepting that I was about to, I said, “oh no we’re
not. not yet”. Unfortunately I was right. We had a
stop over in Delhi.
As we sat on the plane waiting for
the Delhi passengers to disembark and the Bangkok
passengers to get on there came an announcement, all
onward passengers must disembark, with their luggage
to go through security again. We can only assume that
they suspected that someone may have crept on board as
we trundled along , 11 kms up in the air at a speed of
800kmh. Or was it the fact that security at Bombay was
not exactly tight. Oh they had plenty of checks all
right, but, for example when they looked at the x-ray
of Sam’s bag and said “you have a knife in there”. She
said, “no I don’t” and walked off. Security breached.
In Delhi The machine that goes ‘buzz’ when you walk
through it went ‘buzz’. A thorough search of my
pockets revealed a 5mm ball ended allen key. “What is
“This is being an allen key”. “A what?” “It’s an allen
key, look you can see it’s an allen key, it is
allen key shaped”. He confiscated it. If it was sharp I
could understand it, but it has a round end, a pen is
more of a weapon. And what’s more the ‘meals’ on the
plane were served up with a metal knife and fork. Sam
insisted that we have our 5mm ball ended allen key
back, there was quite a curfe over it actually, and shortly it was returned.
When it was returned we saw other ‘dangerous goods’ that had been
confiscated, for example AA batteries. It used to be
pirates and highway men that robed passengers, now it
is Indian security and customs officials. If this all
sounds a little unfair then I except that criticism.
The thing is that we have witnessed it at every Indian
border we have crossed. And to be quite honest I
am sick of it.
Still that’s all behind us now. We did have some great
times in India. It’s just that enough is enough.
So, here we are in Bangkok. We got the bike yesterday.
It was a simple operation that went as smooth as Thai
silk. The people are all friendly. We can eat a meal
without 30 people standing around us staring. We don’t
spend the whole day going over the same conversation,
“What is your good name Sir? And what is you native
country? Are you married? Do you have children?” Or
“what is the market value of your two wheeler?” Joy.
So South East Asia lays before us. We will have a look
around Thailand, then Laos and Cambodia. I am looking
forward to going to Luang Prabang. I have always
thought that going to Luang Prabang on a motor bike
would be good, just because it sounds like the sort of
place that an adventurous person on a motor bike
should visit. Or more to the point, should have
visited. “where have you come from?” “Oh, Luang
Prabang”. See, sounds right doesn’t it?
Well enough of my ramblings for now. I hope that the
above doesn’t give too negative an idea of how things
are going. Things are going great, it’s just that the
last week has been beyond belief. Enough to make the
Dalai Lama take a human life.
PS. As I write this I have received an email from the
AA saying that the Indian customs have no record of my
bike leaving the country, they are trying to make a
claim on the carnet! Get my point?
crossing the baluchistan dessert
refuelling with smuggled fuel on the pakistan iran border
high and cold in the indian himalaya
cultures meet, lao
fording a jungle river somewhere along the way