For Belfast, turn right at the Delhi Gate

You don't have to be crazy to travel from India to Northern Ireland on a motorbike - but it helps. Geoff Hill explains
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The Independent Travel
SOUNDS LIKE one of those ideas you have at four in the morning after 20 pints of beer and a curry. Maybe it was, because I certainly felt stone cold sober five months later sitting on a motorcycle looking out into the maelstrom of chaos that is Delhi's traffic and realising three things simultaneously: that I had ridden only 30 miles on a motorbike since I had done my test three years previously; that I was 7,000 miles from home sitting on the only way of getting there; and that maybe sanity had something going for it after all.

Still, on the bright side, at least I had beside me Patrick Minne, the world-famous Franco-Belgian motorcycle mechanic, on another of the machines built by Royal Enfield in Madras from 1949 until 1955 when the Indians took over the licence, continuing production to this day.

We had bought our brand new vintage motorbikes for pounds 865 each from Nanna's garage, in the middle of a slum only 200 yards from the Delhi Hilton. It was a typical small garage, except that since this was India the girl on the spark-plug calendar wore a full-length sari.

It was 48C, one degree above the temperature at which aerosol cans spontaneously explode. In the past week 1,359 Indians had died because of the heat. Still, there was nothing else for it. I looked at Patrick and he looked at me.

"Fancy an expedition, old chap?'' I said.

"Splendid,'' he said.

At the Indian side of the border we were interviewed by a charming, elderly and immaculate Sikh gentleman. On the Pakistani side, the customs post was a gloomy barracks block, in the doorway of which stood a young man in a grimy shalwar kameez.

"Give me 100 deutschmarks. You will be out of here in half an hour. For some people it takes three days," he said.

We rode off down the dusty main road and into Pakistan, bumping along what looked and felt like a dried-up river bed, choking on the dust of everything from lumbering bullock carts to gaudily painted vintage Bedford trucks, like tarts on wheels, and constantly at risk from drivers who would see you coming and still pull out, forcing you to slam on the brakes. At least in India they pull out in a charming and apologetic sort of way.

Within three days we were in Quetta, the regional capital of Baluchistan and home of the feudal warlords, which make Baluchistan the kidnapping capital of the country. (Quetta itself was a one-horse town until they kidnapped the horse.) Unfortunately they had kidnapped the train to the Iranian border, which we had decided to take on the strength that when we told anyone we planned to take the road they screamed and fainted. According to our guide book, a train was due to leave the next day, but, like Shergar, it had vanished.

Meanwhile, we booked into a hotel quaintly called The New Lourdes - presumably the bandits had stolen the old one - and that night we were kidnapped, not by the bandits, but by Nigel Langdon, an irrigation engineer from Sheffield who was restoring a 1957 Triumph Thunderbird he had bought for pounds 800 from a tribal warlord who had grown too old and fat for it.

Nigel arrived in a Toyota pick-up truck, and at some point in the middle of the night we found an Afghani-Chinese takeaway from which we collected most of a dead goat, thinly sliced. Nigel braked so hard outside the hotel that Patrick slid to the floor in a blizzard of prawn crackers. And then out of the darkness of the night came a distant roar and the local tribesmen who formed the Quetta Classic British Bike Club appeared one after the other on ancient Triumphs and Nortons.

The train to the Iranian border, when it finally arrived five days late, was so derelict that even Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid would have refused to rob it, and our compartment, the best on the train, looked as if it had been raked with Kalashnikovs, then finished off by an axeman.

At the Iranian customs office, the thermometer on the wall read 51C. All that day the sun flayed us, fierce sandstorms poured salt on the wounds, desert rains cooled us and the hot wind blew us dry. And through it all, the Enfields plugged away, God bless their little tappets - whatever tappets are.

In between being sunburnt and sandblasted, soaked and baked, there was little to do but appreciate the symphony of vibration that is an Enfield. At rest it is the slow heartbeat of that huge piston lolloping up and down; at cruising speed a deep purr like a lion after a particularly satisfying wildebeest, which slowly unscrews all the large bolts on the bike; and at high speed, a finer more subtle threnody like the wind in telegraph wires, which loosens all the small bolts. Patrick would probably know a technical term for them all, but to me they sounded like the music of the stars.

Within nine days we had crossed the border into Turkey, found ourselves in the unsung town of Agri and checked into a hotel which resembled a Siberian mental asylum. The shower down the hall was a pipe in the wall from which a stream of icy water poured on to the concrete floor, one 40-watt bulb lit the entire building and gibbering idiots paced the corridors - mostly Patrick and myself.

The next day we climbed to the snowline. In Kurdish villages, tiny children ran out to greet us, geese scattered and women waved from the kitchens of white cottages where they were making whatever it is that the Kurds make.

At Erzurum, high in the mountains, we went out looking for insurance, since so far we had proceeded safely only by the will of Allah. "Ah yes," said the hotel receptionist. "There is an insurance office nearby. Go to the corner down there, turn left and it is straight in front of you. You cannot miss it."

We followed his directions and strode through the doors. Behind several desks were several men bent studiously over files. "Good afternoon," said Patrick. "We are riding back from India on two motorcycles, and we were wondering if you could organise insurance for them."

The nearest clerk looked at us over his tortoiseshell spectacles. "Why no, I'm afraid that would be quite impossible," he said. "Oh? Why is that?" said Patrick in his most imperious manner. "Because this is the office of Turkish Airlines."

In Istanbul, we were sabotaged by a mechanic who snapped Patrick's push-rod while adjusting the timing, and while a new part made its way from Delhi, we kicked our heels. One evening I got drunk with Eric van Zant, an economics journalist from Toronto, and we wrote the start of what we hoped would be a best-selling novel, a ravishing formula of romantic lyricism combined with a sound awareness of financial structures.

Tragically, the next morning all it said was: "It was a dark and stormy night in old Istanbul. In a corner of the Cafe Gramofon, Murphy sipped a Guinness, reflecting bitterly on the events that had led to the disastrous fall of the Austrian schilling and left him a single man for the first time in 20 years.''

Perhaps it was a good thing for the world of fiction that we returned to the hotel to find the entire staff standing on the steps. "Packet, packet!" they shouted, holding aloft the package from India containing the key which would free us at last from the gilded cage of Istanbul.

By the next morning we were humming west across the Plain of Thrace, meeting on the way a bee which was reversing at 60mph with no lights on, leaving its sting in my neck. As I was attempting to dislodge it, we rode into a fierce storm in which we were pelted with hailstones while fork lightning crashed down all around us. If we had any sense we would have been frightened, but it was, in fact, hugely exhilarating, like being so intensely alive that the prospect of being killed didn't matter.

Or so we thought: the next night, as we neared Romania, the belated stragglers of a flock of sheep dashed across the road. Patrick braked hard, there was a sickening thud, and Patrick, motorcycle and sheep went sliding down the road on their side. The sheep was dead, Patrick was badly bruised, and the Enfield was so bent that it looked as if the trip was over.

Astonishingly, it was still rideable. We limped into Vidin on the Romanian border, and Patrick went off in search of the local mechanic. An hour later he came limping down the street. "He's sawing one of the forks in half. I can't bear to look," he said, slumping into a chair.

An hour later Patrick returned to the garage, and two hours after that I heard, to my intense relief, the familiar cushioned thump of an Enfield engine coming down the road.

"The good news is that the mechanic is a bloody genius," said Patrick as he painfully got off the bike. "The bad news is he charged me pounds 18. Fancy a beer?"

We limped on, through countries which became increasingly tiny, like pocket handkerchiefs after the vast carpets of Asia.

In Timisoara a bride and groom insisted we take the bridal suite because every room in town was full. In Hungary we marvelled that women could wear dresses so tiny and not get arrested. In Austria the weather was so bad that we crawled through it in a day, gaining an entirely unfair impression that it was cold, wet and lumpy, like Scotland with measles.

In Germany, completely by accident, we discovered the country's only expert on Enfields. He worked miracles on both bikes, and in three days we were in England, the spiritual home of our motorcycles, speeding north to Stranraer just in time to miss the boat.

In Belfast, our friends were waiting with gladness and champagne. We hugged them, and came home at last. And the next day I shook hands with Patrick and watched him ride off around the corner on his yellow Enfield.

"Heavens,'' I thought, "what do I do now?'' and went upstairs to look for an atlas.

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