In the second installment of our new series about memorable and defining journeys, we talk to writer and former auctioneer Charles Tearle, who recalls his hair-raising 8,000 km road trip across India on a Royal Enfield motorbike.
It all began, possibly as most adventures do, during a night out with a friend drinking beer. My life had taken a turn and I was a little, I guess, lost. So much had happened in such a short time that I was having difficulty finding purpose again. My good friend Jon, who is a perpetual adventurer, suggested we get away somewhere for a road trip, and several pints in, as it seemed the cheapest option, we decided on India. Within days, after frantic internet searching, we’d got our visas, rented two 500cc Royal Enfield Bullet motorbikes from the highly recommended and affable Mr Lalli Singh in Delhi and booked flights leaving the following week. The only thing we didn’t have was a route, or destination, deciding instead to let fate guide us. Little did we know…
We arrived in Delhi clean and eager. Still with no destination in mind, we chose to venture into the heat of the desert and went west to Rajasthan. The first week went smoothly, or maybe a little wobbly as I discovered riding in sand is, well, hard. After reaching the furthest western city of Jaisalmer near the Pakistan border, still unsure where to go next, we went south. Then, just a week into our two-month trip, as we were getting used to the bikes and traffic, the unthinkable happened. Jon had been behind me, but after I came around a long blind bend and noticed him absent, deep down, although I tried to rationalise it, I knew something was wrong.
Turning around, I found him on the side of the road in obvious pain with a small crowd of onlookers. Apparently an SUV had been overtaking a car on the bend coming the opposite way and clipped his back wheel as he swerved to avoid it sending him into a ditch. In a local hospital, we discovered he had two broken ribs and a punctured lung, weeks later, back in the UK, he was told he actually had eight broken ribs and shouldn’t have flown.
Once Jon knew his journey was over, it was assumed we’d both return home. Only, as concerned as I was about similarly crashing with no one to support me, we’d had such a great time I wanted to continue. Eventually, after a week agonising while my friend was recovering, I decided to keep going and head for India’s eastern border with Burma, 3,000km away.
This was when my adventure really began. As great as it was travelling with a very experienced motorcycle rider/adventurer friend, being on your own meant relying on yourself and making the hard decisions, which is exactly what I needed. Covering some 500km a day until I reached the mountainous region of Assam, I slept in the cheapest hotels and ate street food to maintain a revised budget – my food expense, as an example, was usually £1 per day. This bought me coffee with two minute noodles, ginger and garlic for lunch, then green tea and vegetable noodles from a street vendor in the evening. I lost a lot of weight.
When you hear about the insane traffic in India, nothing can prepare you for the real thing. Road ‘rules’ are more like guidelines. You’re meant to drive on the left, but if you’re a big heavy lorry and feel like driving on the right, sure. It seems road protocol just follows size: the bigger you are the more authority you have, with tractors being the joker everyone avoids. As I was on a motorcycle, although it was bigger than a scooter and so gave me some presence, crossing central India I was forced off the road or made to take evasive action to avoid a crash at least once a day. Every morning I woke wondering if I would die that day – seriously – which was a sobering feeling. And sure enough, every day I came close to a serious collision, often multiple times, yet I lived. Eventually, a truck doing a U-turn one morning hit my back wheel sending me into a parked car. Yet, somehow, after going over the handlebars, I rode away unscathed. Perhaps my worst journey involved no other cars at all.
Heading down a mountain near Manipur in the stunning north-east region, it began to rain, hard. The road turned to a river of mud and with no experience at off-road or riding in mud, I had to keep my feet on the ground to stay upright and only use the back brake, which is a foot brake. Eventually the situation became overwhelming and I was convinced I couldn’t continue without crashing or sliding off the road. At that moment, in tears of emotional exhaustion, on a rainy muddy hillside in India, I believe I discovered the path to life: to live it one movement at a time, one bend at a time, one junction at a time. Worry about what is right now. Eventually, I made it down the mountain in one piece without injuries. Every day after was easier.
After reaching the north-eastern border of India-Burma, heading back west I didn’t want to risk central India’s traffic again so crossed into Nepal and proceeded to try to get lost. I succeeded. Nepal is the most stunning country I’ve ever been to. Trying to avoid the main highway in the south that joins the east and west borders, I again sought wilderness and took a detour into the unknown. The road I was on wasn’t on my printed map and google maps said the route I had planned wasn’t possible, although, to be fair, I wasn’t really on a road, more of a rubble track. After almost crashing numerous times in one day, I had to admit my bike wasn’t designed for this terrain and I was too inexperienced to be safe, so rather than seek out further adventure I would make sure I left Nepal in one piece and returned to the southern highway. The following day, before reaching it, I lost control and crashed in the sand.
Returning to India I headed south to see the Taj Mahal before riding to Delhi. I just had to survive a few more days without getting hit by a truck. Having tried to stick to a rule of not riding at night, alas, bike repairs and a lack of hotel meant I had no choice. Never, ever, again. I couldn’t see anything, and nothing more than luck saved me from tractors with no lights, cattle on the road, people and the usual trucks coming towards you in your lane at full speed. Finally, after riding 8,000km, I returned to Delhi and was able to reflect that I was pleased I’d continued solo. It forced me out of my comfort zone and to make hard decisions, allowed me to build my confidence and yet also find my own limits. It really felt like the journey had given me a new lease of life. Thanks India. I think.