Sunday, August 30, 2015

Winefest - A road trip from UK to Germany (Deutschland)

Place: London - Ghent - Frankfurt - Volkach - Dusseldorf - Wallonia - London
Mode: Kawasaki Versys 650cc
Date(s) of Travel: August 13 - 23, 2015

My Experience:

In 2010, I was wandering around the streets of Cologne - Germany. One afternoon, I was walking by the side of the road and suddenly a motorcyclist pulled just next to me. It seemed like he had a problem with his motorcycle and he started fixing it. I was curiously watching his motorcycle, the dress code and the freedom that he was experiencing driving the motorcycle. I asked him can I take a picture of him with motorcycle and he said sure. When I was driving motorcycle in India, I heard from friends about German autobahns (sort of national highways/motorways) where you can drive without speed limits. That moment I decided myself I will drive a motorcycle in Germany one day. 

Years passed by, but my dream to drive a motorcycle in Germany was always persistent within. In the summer of 2014 I decided to get a motorcycle license in UK. I joined the Edinburgh motorcycle school with the aim to get the full licence at the first attempt. I thought it will be a walk in the park to get a motorcycle license since I know how to drive one in India. From the day one I realised I need to unlearn lot of stuff and have to learn in the correct way. Adding to that the instructors were Scottish and their English accent was hard to follow for the first few days. But with some effort I was able to get my license at the first attempt.

In autumn 2012, I went to watch a football match between Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund in Madrid - Spain. I stayed in a hostel and met few Dortmund fans from Volkach - Germany. I partied with them for few nights and they told me that I am most welcome to attend their yearly Wine Festival in Volkach. One of their friend, Maxi Fuss was always in contact with me and even we got an opportunity to meet again in London when he came for the Dortmund champions league football match final. Again he reminded me to visit Volkach for the wine festival.

In August 2015, finally I was able to make a plan to attend wine festival in Volkach - Germany. I informed my friend that I will be visiting the wine festival but I didn't mention that I am planning to come by motorcycle. I thought it would be a nice surprise for all of them if I reach there in a bike. Since it is going to be a long-distance ride, I made some adjustments to my motorcycle, bought some panniers and necessary break down kit. I watched a lot of youtube videos about motorcycle trips in Europe, I understood the basics of packing, learnt a lot about breakdown and safety procedures. I bought a GoPro action camera and mounted on my helmet to capture timelapse videos.

I was very nervous about the trip, because I need to cross english channel tunnel and few countries before I could reach Volkach - Germany. One afternoon I packed everything and decided to hit the road from London to Dover - UK. As usual, I have been forced to wait due to incessant rain in London. Once the rain gave up a bit, I hit the road and able to reach the outskirts of London after an hour due to heavy traffic. Once I reached the motorway it was a smooth ride for about an hour, but unfortunately heavy cross winds picked up. Though I was driving my bike about 70 mph, the crosswind was pushing my motorcycle to another lane. I was really scared and decided to stop by at a petrol station to introspect on what I was doing wrong. Finally, managed to reach dover around late evening and checked into euro tunnel. Since this was my first trip, I made lot of rookie mistakes. I wasn't sure where the immigration control was. I wasn't sure if I need to get down from my motorcycle before talking to the officer. I was very anxious and my thought process was weary. I was bit confused about where to park my motorcycle before embarking on the euro tunnel train. At last I was able to chin up and managed to find a way to board the train. The train journey under the english channel was very peaceful and I started thinking about how to drive on the right side and to adjust mentally from miles to kms.

After 30 minutes of train journey I reached Calais - France. Once I got out of the train and hit the highway, I realised all the roads were blocked due to Calais migrant crisis and it took some time for police to clear the crowd. I felt really sorry about this human life for a moment and started my journey towards Ghent - Belgium. The rains picked up heavily and after about 3.5 hrs of rain soaked ride I managed to reach Ghent and stayed there for the night. Once I started unpacking my bags I realised my rain covers for my panniers were done wrongly and all my clothes were soaked in water. God damn it, that was the last thing I would want after a tiring day. I spent some time transferring my photos from GoPro camera to computer and made a timelapse video for the first day.

I slept a long time and only able to wake up by midday. My plan for that day was to cover 550 kms from Ghent - Belgium to Frankfurt - Germany. Around 3pm from Ghent I started to drive and the weather for that day looked pretty dry and I was very happy about that. After few hours of ride I managed to reach the border of Belgium and Germany and I was very curious to hit the autobahns in Germany. Well again I made a error in judgement with my petrol consumption and that costed me an hour long village ride in the borders to find petrol. After filling the petrol, I entered Germany and the roads and scenery were just fantastic to ride the bike. Unfortunately, I only could only autobahns with speed restrictions on that route from Liege - Belgium to Mainz - Germany. It got very dark around 9pm and I decided to ride with caution as I still had to cover almost 200kms more. After a tiring ride around 12.30am I was an hour away from Frankfurt and stopped at a petrol station to have a coffee. Then I realised I lost my GoPro camera on the way and not sure what happened. I felt very sad, as I lost one whole beautiful day of pictures. This was due to a rookie mistake again by not mounting the camera stickers properly to the helmet. After able to console myself about the lost camera, I decided to move slowly towards Frankfurt. The beauty of driving towards Frankfurt - Germany is that all the high rise building slowly gets closer and closer to you and the whole city at night just dazzles with colourful lights. That was a pretty sight and still I am able to reproduce those memories in my mind. Around 2am I managed to reach Frankfurt and was dead tired and I quickly hit the sack. 

The next day, I took a stroll through the city as I have stayed there for few weeks, years before. It is a very small city where you can walk or cycle everywhere with so much ease and I love it for that fact. Evening around 4pm, I hit the roads again to reach Volkach - Germany which is about 2 hr ride from Frankfurt. It was a very pleasant ride and I managed to took few pictures in the autobahn since I lost my GoPro. I never let my bike in full throttle as I was still not prepared mentally and I was always doing the national speed limit which was 130 kmph. In the evening around 6.30 pm I reached Volkach and I tried to contact my friend Maxi from a petrol station on the village entrance. For about 30 minutes of trying, it was kept saying the network was too busy. I blamed my luck and I thought I should ask some help from the petrol station. The guy in the shop told me the whole mobile network in the village is jammed due to the festival. I told to myself, well there is no need to compare India with western countries as the word "technological progress" applies everywhere. I waited there for about 30 minutes outside the station and suddenly the guy from the shop called me and said, I was managed to call your friend through landline and he will be here any minute. I was very happy with that gesture as it seemed he kept trying my friend's number for me. One thing I learnt while travelling is, people are always friendly wherever you go except some arseholes who exists anywhere irrespective of country. Maxi came with his friend and his father to pick me up in a car and we were so happy to meet each other. He asked me, how I managed to come here and at this time, as the public bus station is far away. I told him, I came by motorcycle from London. We all had a good laugh as he mentioned to his father I am super crazy to come alone on a motorcycle to Volkach. We quickly went to one of his friends place to wash up and it was time to hit the wine festival.

I stayed in Volkach for few days and we partied everyday and people in that village were so friendly to me. I managed to visit few of other friend's houses and the hospitality from their parents were equally same as you would get in India. We biked around the nearby villages, wine yards, small hills and off roads. I tasted few local cuisines and they were very really tasty. 

After few days of partying I said bye to my German friends and decided to go to Dusseldorf - Germany to meet my old school friend from India after 13 years. It was a 5 hour autobahn ride from Volkach to Dusseldorf and I said to myself, it was time to explore the power of my motorcycle. I was driving consistently around 120 and 130 kmph for few hours and when I found a narrow stretch of road with minimal traffic, I revved up my engine and it was slowly gaining speed. After about 150 kmph, I could feel the fuel injection in my motorcycle and I felt like a kid seeing a rainbow on a rainy day. The bike was going at around 180/190 kmph and the ride was so solid without any tail wind. It was one of the awesome feeling I experienced as a motorcyclist and it was a dream come true moment of driving in Germany. The funny thing was, still other big German cars were overtaking me at the speed above 250 kmph and they made me felt like I was the slowest one on the autobahn. I got my senses back and reduced my speed back to 120 kmph and managed to reach Dusseldorf in one piece. It was nice to meet my friend after so many years and I stayed with him for that night and we shared our good old school memories pulling each others leg. 

The next day I left Dusseldorf - Germany and went to Eindhoven - Netherlands, Antwerp - Belgium and reached Ardennes - Wallonia. Ardennes is a place of natural beauty with mountains, rivers and small hills. I love mountains more than cities and driving through these places were an exhilarating experience. After exploring few of the villages, I made my way to Calais - France through Belgium. The day I reached Calais to cross the channel again to head back to UK, the migrant crisis was at its peak. Everything was shut and police were chasing migrants with rubber bullets, the euro tunnel was shut due to migrant breaches. I waited at the euro tunnel checkin park for almost a day as things were uncertain. I met few truck drivers and they were happy to share their stories about driving solo in Europe for weeks. Finally, I got a train late into the night and reached London after 2 weeks of motorcycling. The moment I reached home, I felt very happy about my decision to make this bike trip. It was worth the pain as the memories will last forever and also I felt, when you are out of your comfort zone these sort of experiences gives strength to push boundaries. [I have censored few personal stuff which I felt unnecessary. :)]

Thought of Day: To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries. - Aldous Huxley

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Got Leh'd - A road trip to the roof of the world

Place: Delhi - Leh Ladakh - Delhi

Mode: Royal Enfield Thunderbird Motorbike 350cc
Date(s) of Travel: September 4 - 20, 2014

My Experience:

For every motorbike rider in India its a dream to get Leh'd, which means riding a motorbike to Leh, Ladakh in Jammu and Kashmir district. I was planning to do this trip for a long time and it didn't happen due to my work schedule or myself unable to bring together a group of friends. Finally after so many years I joined Mohnish (Piggy) and his friend Shreeyansh in the motorbike adventure. We did plan a little bit but it wasn't much to be honest. 

We decided to do the trip from Delhi as we thought it would be a great warm up for riding before we hit the himalayan mountain range. Also, we decided to go via Manali as the Srinagar route was flooded due to heavy rains. 

Piggy brought his own KTM 390 and Shreeyansh brought his Royal Enfield Classic 350 from Pune by train. I decided to rent one from Delhi and got the Thunderbird 350cc from StoneHeadBikes. My college friend Subrato and his family helped me to stay in Delhi at their house. His father was kind enough to come with me for renting the motorbike as I don't speak Hindi. I never drove a bullet before and to gain confidence I drove it around Delhi for last minute purchases. Damn, to be honest Delhi traffic is worse than one can imagine.

Next day around 5AM from Delhi, got ready for the exciting trip ahead and started towards NH1. Packing is not my thing and bike was bit wobbly due to that and adjusted them often. Piggy and his mate started from Gurgaon and joined me near Jahangirpuri on NH1. We started towards Manali and after an exhilarating ride for two hours we stopped after Panipat in a Dhaba for our breakfast. Driving in Haryana was a mad one as no one follows the lane discipline. We stopped our ride few minutes before Ambala as it started raining heavily and barely we could see anything. After an hour or so, we started our ride again but unfortunately Shreeyansh bike broke down on the way. But we managed to find the problem as the fuse worn out and fixed it by ourself. After a long day ride in the rain, we stopped for the day at Rupnagar and found a small hotel to sleep for the night.

Next day morning while we were preparing our bike, a Singh ji dropped by to enquire about our trip and wished us for our safety. I felt elated to be honest. Then we started heading towards mountain range having Manali as our target for the day. There were millions of trucks on the way till Bilaspur and it was a nightmare to overtake them in the hill roads. We stopped for few minutes after Bilaspur to have lunch and then realised I lost my spare tools kit on the way. Also, my bike carrier got damaged as I had a small crash from behind. I started getting worried as I don't wanna get stranded in the middle of nowhere if something goes wrong, but Piggy always cheers me up by saying we will find a solution. After few hours of riding, I could witness the full enormity of Himalayas all along the journey.

We crossed Bilaspur, Mandi, Kullu and stopped at Batahar and stayed at a homestay called Sachin Niwas. It was one of the beautiful village I have visited which is surrounded by mountains, rivers and apple trees. We stayed there for two nights as we decided to get our body to get acclimatise to the mountains.

Next day we went to Manali to get our bike serviced before we leave for the hard terrain journey. We did some local shopping on the rest day and I visited the local Hidimba temple

As there will be no more petrol stations after Tandi, we packed extra petrol and we were all set for the epic journey. My bike got really heavier as I was carrying petrol for my friends as well. Before we start the ride, I met some interesting sadhus and had conversations in Hindi which I don't understand well and it was fun.

The ride started getting trickier and it required all the concentration in the world when we started climbing towards Rohtang Pass. We stopped for few pictures here and there and started witnessing lot of fellow bikers who were doing the same trip as ours. Since it rained overnight, the roads after Rohtang pass was very muddy, huge traffic and it became tough to manoeuvre the bike and I fell down few times due to the bike weight. Finally after such a long time we managed to reach Koksar which is on the other side of the Rohtang pass. Piggy and Shreeyansh decided to offload some petrol containers from my bike as they realised I am not controlling my bike well in the downhill.

When we reached Tandi around 6PM, my front disc brakes completely worn out and luckily we found a bullet repair shop and they helped us fixing it. We had few conversations with fellow bikers near the tea shop and one guy told us his petrol tank started leaking and his bike is giving all sort of troubles. One thing I realised is bike rental doesn't work for everyone unless you are damn lucky. We stayed in Keylong which is a village after Tandi. We stayed in a hotel for the night and decided to cover lot of ground next day.

Next day, we started around 6AM and it was bit cold to get my bike started. The drive from Keylong to Jispa and Darcha was extremely beautiful. Wild horses, rivers, waterfalls and the mountains and Indian army camps along the way makes the journey even more wonderful.

Around 12PM, we reached Baralacha pass and I was able to start feeling the shortness of breath due to less oxygen in air. We were able to witness lot of snow on the mountains but still the roads leading to Baralacha was good and I would like to thank Indian BRO for that. Then we stopped at Baratpur to have some maggi and tea. The makeshift shops in baratpur were being dismantled as they mentioned the summer season is almost over. The roads from Baratpur to Sarchu, then Nakeela Pass, then Lachalang La were really testing the skills of everyone driving. Just before Lachalang la we had some tea and Piggy said he was feeling very dizzy and having an aching head. I was bit worried for him because Acute mountain sickness can be dangerous. We had a small inhalable oxygen container for momentary relief, but it made no difference.

Piggy decided to go ahead first and wait in a low altitude village, as he can push his bike more faster. Me and Shreeyansh started towards Pang and after few minutes, I missed him as well as he went ahead faster. Once I reached Pang it was almost 5PM and couldn't find both of them. I searched for them in few shops and then decided to take a small break as my whole body started aching badly. 

After having some tea, I decided to head to Tanglang La which is the second highest motorable place in the world. Before I left Pang, the lady in the shop told me to stay overnight as it was getting late. The lady mentioned she was an exile from Tibet and there are lot of them. And, they only work during summer to serve tourists and make some money. Once the summer is over they either head to Manali, Delhi or Leh for their homes as the roads between Manali and Leh is closed during winter due to severe snow and bad weather. Lot to learn from them in this greedy world.

I started pushing my bike towards Tanglang La and it started getting dark. But to my surprise the More plains for a stretch of 40Kms at that height was a blissful experience to drive. After driving in darkness for almost 2.5hrs I still couldn't find my friends. The roads were getting tougher and tougher to drive, but I was determined to cross the Tanglang la pass. I still remember the moment when I reached the pass and no single human being was there. It was a heavy silence surrounded by mountains, a half lit moon and myself. I enjoyed that moment before getting down to the other side. My bike front wheel ball bearings were damaged I believe, as it stared to cause more wobbling. So I decided to drive very slowly. This made it very tough to control my bike in the winding roads. But after another hour of slow and careful drive, I met Piggy came looking after me. Then we decided to stay in Rumptse for the night which is 4hrs before Leh.

Next day, we started from Rumptse to Upshi, then Karu and then Leh. We had a good meal in Upshi and the price was way less and people were happy with what they earn. That hit me really hard. On the way to Leh there are lot of Indian army camps and it was great to see the soldiers at that daring height and weather, working to safeguard India.

In the afternoon, we reached Leh. The prepaid Sim doesn't work in Jammu and Kashmir and it took some time to sort out accomodation. Finally, we found a nice homestay in the main street with a short walk to food joints and shopping places. 

We stayed for few nights in Leh and we did day trips to Sangam Valley, Khardung La which is the highest motorable road the world. We tried to go to Pangong Lake, but unfortunately it was snowing heavily. Also, we went to Shey Palace and Hemis monastery which is a very charming place in between hills.

I really wanna salute the people who are working as part of BRO to maintain the roads. It is even hard to walk for few minutes in those conditions but these people with less protection working all day. Hope they are paid and taken care well by the authorities. One another thing to note about Leh is, you won't find pubs or bars. Rather you have to buy it from alcohol shop and take home. 

When we were in Leh, there were candlelight vigil for the ones who died in floods. Rest in peace. Hopefully we learn from our lessons. But it was nice to see people coming together for everyone. Also, did a few bit of shopping for family and friends. I will recommend you to visit Tibet refugee market as it was nice.

Finally, it was time to get back to Delhi and we fixed our bikes and got ready for the return journey. We took the same route to Delhi via Manali. We took few breaks and our bikes withstood the journey back except few faults.

After few days we reached Delhi. It was a wonderful experience. I would like to thank Piggy and Shreeyansh for their support during the trip. 

Few things which I regret is that, lot of commercialisation is spoiling the beauty of himalayas and also the waste thrown by people during the trip makes the place worse. Hopefully, himalayas never loses its charm in the coming years. I wish everyone make this trip as part of their life because it is worth it. East or West, India is the best.

Thought of Day: Travel makes one modest, you see what a tiny place you occupy in the world - Gustave Flaubert