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  • Writer's pictureDan Synge

Your Beyond Lies Here

Updated: May 11

What's it like to ride an iconic Indian motorcycle around Rajasthan? Dan Synge finds out

As we cruised at high altitude over the breath-taking expanse of Afghanistan’s Hindu Kush, slowly counting down the miles towards our destination Delhi, an ad popped up on my in-flight screen: ‘Your beyond lies here’ ran the accompanying slogan.

Nonsensical as this mantra may seem, it got me thinking about where I was heading to and why. You see, just a few weeks earlier in the depths of an English winter, I had agreed terms with a little-known outfit Two Wheeled Expeditions to ride one of their Royal Enfield motorbikes around the vast Indian state of Rajasthan. Come and join a group of ten international riders, they said, for a rollercoaster 14-day trip though dusty country roads taking in ‘stunning forts, palaces and temples’, all while meeting ‘vibrant locals’ and tasting the region’s ‘exotic cuisine’. Oh, and the small matter of clocking up over 2,000 km via a series of gruelling nine-hour rides in the intense heat of a north-west Indian summer. If there was a physical or metaphorical ‘beyond’, I reflected as the snowy peaks panned out below, this adventure was sure to propel me there.

Indeed, just 24 hours later, having already hooked up with my fellow riders at our Delhi hotel, I was astride a Royal Enfield Bullet negotiating the crazy rush hour traffic and fearing for my life as trucks and buses honked, tuk-tuks weaved and stationary cows and bulls loomed to the left and right. Dare I mention the bog-standard Indian road hazards such as kamikaze bike and scooter riders, wild dogs and pedestrians, not to mention the non-existent signage and legendary potholes?

Somehow the group safely negotiated this first stage through Delhi’s urban sprawl towards Jaipur, famous for its Amber Fort, formerly home to the Rajput Maharajas. A rest day in Jaipur allowed us to ditch the bikes temporarily and make some necessary ‘cultural interactions’ as advertised by our tour company. These were mostly enabled by our guide Anita, an Indian biker with experience of leading groups in mountainous Nepal. When not guiding us to the safety of our luxury hotels, she ordered us pit stop curries or masala chais and arranged tuk-tuk rides to the best street markets in town where we could stock up on colourful pashminas, shiny bracelets, camel skin bags and the kind of exotic garments so beloved of travellers on the 1970’s hippie trail.

East rider; the calm after Delhi

From Jaipur we headed out west to Pushkar, a bustling rural centre chock full of Sikh and Hindu temples where its inhabitants were in the middle of Holi, the annual festival celebrating the arrival of spring and a portent for good harvests to come. Groups of young men had already got into the swing of it by smearing themselves in coloured paint – pinks, yellows, greens and reds – and were wading merrily through the crowds. The coloured lights reflected on the lake twinned with the chanting and drumming from various temples dotted along the shore lent a trippy, psychedelic flavour giving us the impression we really had found India’s spiritual heart.

Our next stop Udaipur, which was another 300 km away, seemed a more sedate kind of place surrounded by calming hills and lakes and boasting a series of Venetian style bridges that connected the many points of interest. After a good night’s rest, we toured the imposing 500-year-old City Palace complex, built largely in the Rajput style and occupied for years by the Mewar dynasty. Later we cruised the lake at sunset just as James Bond had done in the 1983 film Octopussy.

I could have stayed here a few more days it was so enchanting, but the tour hadn’t even reached the halfway stage. Jodhpur lay another 250 km way to the east and was another nine-hour ride in the searing heat. A suitable moment perhaps to consider the performance of my trusty Bullet, the so called ‘workhorse of South Asia’ from Royal Enfield, the English company that began manufacturing needles and bicycles in the 1890’s but which now has a lasting foothold in India with a headquarters and several factories in Chennai.

'Built like a gun', early ad for Royal Enfield's Bullet

The Bullet was first launched back in 1932 and it hasn’t changed much during the interim years. There’s a single-cylinder, air-cooled 500cc engine mounted on a solid, dependable frame, a start key, an old school speedo and a big comfy seat and, er, that’s about it. I adored this Indian classic but reaching speeds of up of to 80 mph (120 kmph) feels a bit like handling a heavy road drill and by the end of the day your forearms turn to jelly from the constant hammering of the bike’s front end. Meanwhile, despite the wide padded seats, your glutes are already waving white flags by mid-morning.

Indeed, as the days went by, I began to look enviously at my fellow riders with their more comfortable Royal Enfield Himalayan models; a bike without the charm and character of the Bullet but arguably much better equipped for the bumps and straight fast rides expected on a route like this.

In India the Bullet has a sort of mythical status and remains a practical workaday vehicle for both Bollywood stars and ordinary mortals alike. It came as little surprise therefore that as we neared Jodhpur, we found a roadside shrine to this two-wheeled icon. The story goes that in 1988 a local youth crashed and died here, only for his motorcycle to reappear several times at the scene of the accident after the police had impounded the vehicle as evidence. The spooky turn of events was viewed by locals as a sort of miracle and the actual bike was then encased in glass so that worshippers from all over the country could send good vibes to passing travellers. Remember this is a country where around 300,000 citizens are killed in road accidents every year according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). That’s about one person lost every three and a half minutes.

Such goodwill towards bikers in general is evident in the way people by the side of the road or sitting in other vehicles smiled and waved as we speeded by in convoy. The custom really ought to be adopted at home as it created such a positive feeling especially as you begin to tire or need an encouraging pick me up at the start of yet another long day in the saddle. Quite possibly the warmth of the sun combined with the intense, intoxicating colours and the many fascinating sideshows on view – a camel train, wild monkeys, a pristine white wedding pony or an immense statue of the Hindu god Shiva – were motives enough for us to keep going.

Pit stop and time for a masala chai

After Jodhpur the terrain became even drier and hotter and the riding became more intense. The journey led us to a camp in the Thar Desert then the frontier town Jaisalmer with its ancient sandstone fort which now houses hundreds of local residents and businesses. Bikaner, a remote town near the Pakistan border, unveiled a surprising architectural gem the Laxmi Niwas Palace with its ghosts of the British Raj; there are hunting trophies in the wood panelled bar and billiard room, an Edwardian service lift and framed photos the British viceroy inspecting the guard of honour at Bikaner railway station. Our final stop before returning to Delhi, Mandawa was at a beautifully restored gold and opium merchant’s haveli (townhouse), now a heritage hotel. Mandawa was on an important trade route linking Rajasthan to China and the Middle East so the town’s havelis were and still are chock full of interesting and exotic artefacts notably some hand carved statuettes in the courtyard and two shiny old Ambassador cars parked up outside.

Having once again survived the dreaded Delhi rush hour, I was able to take off my dusty motorcycle jacket and boots one last time to recall some of the extraordinary things we had witnessed: a ride across empty salt flats, magical sunsets seen from palatial roof tops, racing alongside camels in the Thar Desert, tea with a beautiful princess in her palace and more curries than a coach party to a Brick Lane all-day buffet could consume. And as a group of riders from all corners of the world, we could proudly claim to have conquered India’s roads, expanded our cultural horizons a little and made new friends for life. In some small way, your ‘beyond’ could indeed begin on a dusty road in Rajasthan.

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