Whilst it may look like we drift unwanted from place to place like John Rambo, there is sometimes method in our madness. Occasionally we actually form a medium-term plan and gradually implement it. I know this is hard to believe, but sometimes there is a path we are following.
In Thailand we became aware that Stein was using a lot of oil. He wasn’t really using it, more like discarding it all over the engine. This oil loss was much worse when he got hot and was running at high revs for long periods. By this time the engine had done probably 5,000km so should have been fully run-in. He’d been using a fair bit of oil before we left Australia, but this was during the run-in period, so might have resolved itself. I did fit some new parts hoping to nip it in the bud. These didn’t help. Given our exportation time constraints, I hoped the problem might just go away. It didn’t.
Many people believe that the old airhead BMWs ‘just use oil’. Well of course a 40 year old engine probably would use oil, but this engine had been rebuilt with new pistons, bores, rings and superbly refurbished cylinder heads. If these bikes had used oil straight from the showroom, I doubt BMW would have sold many of them. Compression and power were excellent after the rebuild. All being correct, it didn’t really have any way to use oil. It did seep out in a few places, so I figured that would be a good place to start. I compiled a list of sensible things to check and replace on Stein, and considered just how and where we might perform such open-heart surgery.
Running parallel to the needs of Stein were the needs of his riders. To get into Myanmar we had to pass through a proper malaria zone and had been popping our doxycycline since the Myanmar border. The malaria zone in India also occupied the whole of the eastern states (the blob to the right of Bangladesh in north-eastern India). We only had enough doxy left for a short stay in the east. If we made it quickly to the chicken-neck above Bangladesh, we would be able to wind down off the pills as directed. Additionally, the eastern states were unstable and, once again, the consular travel services of Smart Traveller told us not to hang around there too long. So on exiting Myanmar, we knew we would have to put the hammer down. Put the hammer down a huge pothole and never find it again.
I wanted to order some bike parts and tools for this deep engine investigation, and decided on a nice place for delivery right on the chicken’s neck. It was malaria free, famous, mountainous and cool. It was also safe. I looked up the process of how to receive packages ‘post restante’ and got the full address for the main post office. We were still in Myanmar at this time. But I still couldn’t order the parts because we still didn’t have our Indian visas. The night we arrived in Bagan with our fresh Indian visas (before we slept and headed out to all those wonderful pagodas) we got busy ordering bike parts to be sent to our quaint hillside kingdom of Darjeeling.
Only something so meticulously planned and carefully timed can go so wrong in so many ways.
After our pitstops in Imphal and Kohima, we thought it would be fairly trivial to make it to Darjeeling. However our descent from Kohima on the-other-road-the-Japanese-wanted-so-badly to Dimapur was a taste of the days to come. The road wasn’t really tarmac and it was raining again. We were getting wet and the road was all sorts of wet; mud wet, river wet, gravel wet etc. Then, in the heavy rain, the traffic stopped and queued ahead of us. We parked up briefly, finding too little shelter, too late and watched the vehicles slowly move forwards. Nickiy trudged downhill to inspect this first complication of the day. A landslide. A single muddy track had been cleared to one side. But a minibus was already spinning it’s wheels off blocking that. There was a tiny route past for something the size of a motorcycle, so I tried to slide my way past this wet mess. I went ok for a bit then gravity overcame the frictionless road tyres’ lateral grip and I plonked Stein down in the mud. It was early in the day but I already couldn’t be bothered trying to fight him. Nickiy slid over and helped me up while the locals stopped and stared. Then, lagged in sticky clay, we carried on. For hours and hours we endured this awful road until sometime after lunch we hit cloudless sky and mostly silt-free tarmac. Shortly after this we arrived in the charming town of Dimapur. This was like the shitty mountain road had been kindly transported into town for all to enjoy once more, in all it’s skid-stained glory.
With our clothes still wet and the bike looking pretty grim, we managed to speed up a bit the next day. We made it to a place called Guwahati, which, like Dimapur, was a muddy ming hole. At least the part we stayed in made us not want to leave the hotel. At each meal in the empty restaurant, the staff stood watch over us, inches away from the table. This was not very relaxing.
Donning our wet clothing once more, we left Guwahati the following day (once the staff had inspected our breakfast consumption with a microscope) and began our first proper, high-speed wet day. It was horrible. But once we were wet, there was no point stopping. At all. Until about 15:00 when the rain had stopped and our clothes were just threatening to dry out. A huge thali lunch gave us the strength to continue and we finally found a town that someone had put tarmac in the middle of. It was a miracle. We checked in to our nasty, moldy, windowless box-room then wandered around town finding delicious masala tea and scrumptious Bengalese sweets.
Finally the day was upon us. We were pleased that our average speed had been on the rise as we entered our 4th Indian state. Stray animals and pointless truck check points were diminishing so we figured we could make it to Darjeeling. It was an exciting day, not least because we had been going pretty hard since Thailand, some 20 days earlier. We were looking forward to finding somewhere in Darjeeling to spend a couple of weeks. We were going to collect our post, work on the bike and relax with a nice cup of tea.
But this is India. Firstly, the bike conked out just before we needed to climb over the hills to Darjeeling. It looked like it was something with the immobiliser again but must have just been a loose wire to the ignition circuit. Whilst I was fixing this, the writing was on the wall for what lay ahead. Quite literally. After enjoying the scenic curves and feeling the bike slow considerably in the thin air at 2,000m, Google then routed us through a military compound. The sentry explained that Google was wrong and, given his persuasive sidearm, we went looking for another route. Eventually we came through town and found it to be very, very steep and made up of a number of one-way systems. At this point we both realised that our GPS waypoints didn’t give us any vertical distance information and the roads were impossible to follow on the map. Circling the same streets over and over and over again we searched for a couple of hotels we had shortlisted. Naming the hotel to locals didn’t seem to help. Eventually the penny dropped with one of the local police force. “Just go up that road there” he said. This was the one road we hadn’t gone up because it specifically said ‘No access without permit’. So we eased up this narrow and steep lane in first gear until it divided and became steeper and narrower. Then it started to get a bit too steep with hairpins. I would now have classified it as a footpath, walled in by buildings. I couldn’t see round the corners to choose a line and the lower-than-stock first gear was just not low enough. Down I went, unable to hold clutch, balance, power and angle. The bike slid downhill a bit then the panniers meshed with the tarmac. I’d hurt my arm in the process, and the bike wasn’t very happy either. Nickiy came back from scouting ahead and we precariously picked up and turned the bike round. I idled back down, defeated and thoroughly shattered. I found the other route up to this top road and located Nickiy up there. She had still been unable to find the hotel so we gave up and went to the much more expensive hotel we had passed, like the Griswald family, a hundred times already.
The relief at finally having the bike parked up safely in a garage, and being in a room with magnificent views across town and down the valley was huge. We were bone weary from our relentless pace across Myanmar and the eastern states of India. All we had to do was have a wash, put on some clean clothes and find somewhere to have a beer. Our first beer since the Indian border, it was like crack-laced amber nectar from the gods.
In the morning, from our armchairs by our panoramic window, we watched the clouds drift and disperse through the rooftops of the town. Our bellies were full with a huge Indian buffet breakfast and we formulated our plan for the day. We’d decided to stay a few nights in this lovely hotel using the time to explore Darjeeling and search for somewhere cheaper and more long-term to stay. Ideally it would need a private area to work on the bike. This was how our first morning in Darjeeling was spent. At some of the hotels, people seemed evasive and said they couldn’t guarantee us accommodation because of “the troubles in Darjeeling”. Nickiy and I tried to probe further but couldn’t really get more clarity on that. It wasn’t uncommon for people to make up things because they didn’t want us to stay, for whatever actual reason. Another man explained that there was uncertainty because of the Ghorka movement; “it is their land, you see”. More raised eyebrows. We found a couple of hotels who had no concerns about such matters and we viewed rooms and compared prices and told them we would think about it and let them know. When asked about these mystical troubles one said that some government offices were temporarily closing and that the police would have more information. I asked one policeman who, obviously unable to speak any English, implied we should ask the police in the centre of town. We never got there…
Considering our research complete, we looked for somewhere to have a coffee and discuss our options. Our afternoon was going to be spent scoping out the post office, markets and shops and locating sources for things we badly needed. Christmas was going to be coming early, after all! There was a lot of bustling on the steep streets we walked down and we found a coffee shop that appeared to just be opening. A girl saw us looking and gestured us to duck under the half-opened shuttering and sit down inside. Oddly, the shop didn’t seem to be opening up for the day at all. After serving us our chai, the young girl packed up and took off, which seemed weird. And the cafe was still quite dark inside because of the shutters. Then an older lady appeared who spoke excellent English and she began to explain what was going on. I often wonder how the following weeks would have developed had we not had this random encounter with Sonam, the kind owner of this little coffee shop….
We headed quickly back to the hotel past lots of soldiers with guns. The shutters were down at the hotel as well. Ducking under I said to the staff “I think we need to leave”. They said “Yes, you should leave”. A huge TV behind them was repeatedly showing clips of a huge haul of guns, money and cross-bows. “This morning.” they said pointing to the footage. “Oh.”
We hurriedly packed and loaded the bike. We had no plan, no navigation, no destination; we just had to get out as fast as possible. After being given some verbal directions by the hotel staff, we scooted out of town in the direction we had come. It was midday and we had an awfully long way to go to get somewhere for the night. Our hard-earned rewards had been within our grasp. Now, after less than 24 hours in Darjeeling, our plan had spectacularly fallen apart.