Motorcycling For Dummies

Hello, Id like to rent a motorbike please.
Have you got a licence?
Get out.

Perhaps I’d overestimated how lawless India was. I walk out of the shop deflated and sit on the curbside. By now the dedicated motorcycle market of Karol Bagh is in full swing. Hundreds of motorcycles (and halves of motorcycles, and pieces of motorcycles) have been wheeled out onto shop fronts. It smells of oil and shit, sweat and petrol. And I want to be more than a spectator.

Back in the UK just three days prior I had taken my motorcycle test — for the second time. Or at least I tried to: the asshat of an instructor took me to the wrong test centre and I missed it. His mistake is now going to cost me my whole trip. Then again, I had only climbed onto a motorcycle for the first time two weeks ago, so maybe it was for the best, maybe it was a sign, maybe I’ll just get the bus.

Fuck that. I walk confidently into the shop opposite, Rahul’s, and ask if I can rent a bike. He says which one. That’s more like it, I thought. I decide to exercise some caution, and choose the 350cc Royal Enfield Bullet over its bigger 500cc brother. He tells me the 350 is more than fine to get to Ladakh, the northern most Indian state, which can only be reached in summer due to harsh weather and frighteningly poor roads — if you can call them roads.

What happens if I drop the bike?
Everyone drops it my friend.

Comforting. We agree on a price of ten English pounds per day for 30 days and he tells me to come back later to pick the bike up. It will be safer to ride then when it’s not rush hour, and not 40 degrees outside. Suits me, I had some shopping to do as the only footwear I had were flip flops. And they weren’t even my flip-flops. I head off to Decathlon and buy some ankle high trekking boots. Afterwards I read on the internet that such footwear will melt and fuse with my skin if I come sliding off the bike. I pretend not to read it.

I get back to Karol Bagh around 7.30pm, the weather is still hotter than any English summer day but at least there is no sun. I go to a cashpoint that is around £50 max withdrawals, max out one card for the day, and get another blocked for making consecutive transactions. Luckily I had some extra money in my pocket. I sign some paperwork and the bike is mine. I’m surprised at how calm they all look as I take ownership, and I realise it’s because I’m the only one who knows my total riding experience amounts to less than 15 hours.

Before I left decathlon I memorised the route back to the hostel whilst I still had WiFi. It was literally one straight road, some bearing here and there but no turning. Easy. I stick my helmet on, make sure the bike is in neutral, which is very important and one of the things I remember from my extensive training, and wonder what was the last thing I said to my Mum. Rahul himself taps me on the helmet and tells me I must get petrol first. It’s the other direction to my hostel, then left, right, right, then left. Shit.

I realise I don’t have any cash or means until at least tomorrow. I have to negotiate a deal whilst sitting on the bike (which feels strangely good), and he gives me a day’s rent back and changes my contract to 29 days. In hindsight it was less of a deal than a refund.

By the time I finally set off its around 8.30pm and getting dark. It still feels like rush hour -as indeed it always does in this city- and I sheepishly make my way, getting overtaken by mopeds, and donkeys pulling carts and reach the nearest petrol station. It passes without incident. I have no internet on my phone but I can bring up the map. All I need to do is get back to where I started in the market, then it’s a straight line. Just retrace my steps. Easy.

Now it’s pitch black save for the streetlights and headlights which are blinding seen through a Perspex visor. Nobody seems to be obeying any traffic lights, and red lights are apparently more of a ‘go if it looks safe’. It never looks safe. I check my mirrors constantly as cars and bikes come zooming up behind me from both sides, relentlessly beeping their horns, and I struggle to fathom that the beeping doesn’t mean they’re annoyed or telling me to move, but just gently reminding me that they are there.

It’s nerve-racking, but I manage to loosen up a little and even start to enjoy it, overtaking donkeys freely. A driver honks and yells out of his window at me, pointing toward my tyre. A flat already? No wonder Rahuls was happy to see me go. They’ve sold me a dodgy bike. I pull over to assess and realise I’ve been driving with the foot-stand down. I look around and realise I have no idea where I am. I must have taken the wrong exit at the roundabout on the way back to the rental shop. It all looks completely different in the dark. Maybe I’m not cut out for this.

I was only twenty minutes from the hostel. I don’t realise until I finally make it back that I was riding around for two hours. A true baptism of fire: from the organised roads of a London suburb, instructor-in-tow, being fed radio instructions, to being alone in the dark on a strange machine, in one of the most lawless and derelict traffic systems in the world.

I got back around ten thirty and one of the girls had saved me some Tibetan noodles from the restaurant they went to. I didn’t know if I was too scared or too excited to eat. I mulled over that night in bed whether it was a good idea to travel 1000km on the unforgiving terrain of the mountain roads with some of the world’s worst drivers (and I include myself in that). On top of this, I’ll be alone. I reason that I’ll wait at least a day to try find some others that were making the trip. My Israeli friend said she might know some people; she would ask for me tomorrow. Safety in numbers.

The next morning, I wake up at 6.30am with an intense desire to move, and within the hour, I’m on the way to the Himalayas.