MOTORCYCLE TOURING IN INDIA

If there is a better place to go motorcycle touring than India, I do not know where it is. Frances and I have been to India many times, but only twice with a motorcycle. If this site is really successful, and we make lots of money, we aim to go to India every year.

Our first tour was 4,000 km (2,500 miles) from the Enfield factory at Thirovottiyur, just north of Madras, all the way down to Cape Comorin at the tip of India, then back up the west coast before turning inland again and going back to Thiruvottiyur. The second time we were based in Goa, and covered only a few hundred kilometres in a loop on the west coast.

Endless memories come back. The road being used as a threshing floor: picking our way through the threshers. The incredible green of the Coorg hills. The palace of the Maharajah of Mysore, picked out with three lakh (300,000) light bulbs. Superb food, absurdly cheap. Old Monk rum. Cashews and Indian champagne (Marquise de Pompadour) by the side of a river on Christmas day. The sea-shore temples at Mahabalipuram. Mysore zoo, where the monkeys break in to steal the other animals' food. The rack- worked railway up to Udaghamandalam (Ooty). Riding across dried- up rice paddies to where they filmed 'A Passage to India'. And always, the steady thump-thump-thump of an Enfield Bullet, one of the finest motorcycles in the world.

There are plenty of memories of other trips, too, without the motorcycle. The erotic carvings at Khajuraho: if you don't believe stone can look sexy, go there. Service that defies belief: in the dining room of the Diamond in Benares (Varanasi), there was no need to check where the chair was, because as you sat down at the table, it would be placed under you. The Toy Train at Darjeeling. And the reason we first went to India, the Tibetan refugees. The head man of one refugee village scolding the policeman: "Of course they have permission to be here, you fool. Do you think they'd be carrying those cameras if they didn't." We didn't, of course.

It is only fair to add that there was an old saying among the British Raj when India was the proverbial 'jewel in the crown' of the Empire. It was 'Everyone hates India for a month, then loves her forever.' I have to admit that I wasn't much taken with India on our very first visit, in 1982, but then, we were travelling with someone who had been there before, and still hated the place. Frances, on the other hand, fell in love with India completely and immediately. Almost her first words on getting off the 'plane in Delhi were, "I feel like I've come home."

You have to accept that some things are going to take a long time, and that there are going to be irritations and frustrations, but ultimately, this won't really matter: the good will outweigh the bad by such an overwhelming preponderance that you just don't worry about the bad. On re-reading this guide, we have to say that even we, who love India dearly, make it sound like it is more trouble than it is. Almost all the hassles sound worse than they are, really.

www.tourindia.com is good but patchy -- there's very little on driving a car, let alone riding a motorcycle -- with good links. You might also care to try www.delhitrafficpolice.nic.in] who have some good police links.

Locally bought maps are cheap and adequate, though a far cry from the superb maps produced under the Raj in the days of the India Survey. In border areas, merely possessing a good map can mark you out as a potential spy: I have a gorgeous set of quarter-inch (to the mile, 1:253440, near enough 1:250,000) maps of Sikkim and surrounding territories, but I'd never take them to India. Before I go to India again, though, I'll buy the CD with 3500 maps of india on it from www.mapsofindia.com.

Most of the time, we have navigated via a combination of very small-scale maps -- one sheet for the entire sub-continent -- and quite large-scale maps purchased locally.

MOTORING AND MOTORCYCLISTS

Motorcyclists are very much first-class citizens in India, though with increasing private car ownership they are no longer the kings of the road that they were 20 years ago. At hotels and restaurants, motorcyclists are commonly greeted with the same deference as if they had turned up in an expensive motor car. This may be changing in the big cities, but it is still very much the case in the countryside.

This first-class citizenship applies principally when you are off the bike, admittedly. Priority in India is strictly 'might makes right', so huge Tata buses and trucks have the right of way at all times, followed by smaller trucks, vans, private cars, auto- rickshaws and so on, with Bullets above smaller motorcycles, bicycles and pedestrians but still pretty low in the pecking order.

On the other hand, Indian drivers are not generally aggressive, and they won't actively try to hurt you. If you are reasonably wide awake, and don't go too fast, you should come to no harm.

Helmets are compulsory only in some states, and as with so many other Indian legal matters, no-one seems entirely sure which ones, or to care much. In practice, the driver may wear one, but the pillion is often another matter, and you'll see a lot of helmetless riders too. The first time I ever rode a Bullet in India was on Rajpath in Delhi, and when the owner suggested we might change places (I was on the back) he also gave me his helmet. "As long as the driver has a helmet," he said, "no-one cares very much." Even when Indians do wear helmets, they are often left unfastened.

Nothing else is compulsory, but on the subject of protective clothing, it's worth mentioning that Frances made a sort of shalwar-kameez set for riding the Bullet, one of those long- shirt/skirt-cum-trouser suits that so many Indian women wear. The difference was that she used a pair of Levi 501s as the trousers and made the top out of matching denim. She reckoned there was nothing more practical for riding in India: respectable, unprovocative, and highly practical for squat-style toilets.

Although a first aid kit is not compulsory, we carry one that is small but extremely comprehensive, complete with syringe and sterile needles, plus antibiotic powder for wounds and a short course of broad-spectrum antibiotics. Explain to your doctor at home that you are going motorcycle touring in India and he will probably prescribe both the latter. Indian medical care is generally very good, but it's a poor country and out in the mofussil (a wonderful Hindi word meaning 'the back country') they may not be able to sterilize needles too well.

You don't need daylight riding lights -- not that you would necessarily be able to tell with one of the older 6v Bullets anyway. Nor do you need spare bulbs. And if there are any restrictions on the use of the horn, they are unknown to the vast majority of Indian riders and drivers.

ROADS AND RIDING

Indians drive on the proper side of the road: the left. Usually, anyway. When you consider that this is a country of close to a billion people, it rather weakens the claims of those who say that driving on the right is practised by the majority.

Driving on the proper side of the road can however derange those who were brought up with the Franco-American approach of driving on the right. All I can say is that everyone I know who has tried it has made the switch far more easily than they expected, just as Britons do when they have to drive on the wrong side of the road in Europe and the United States. And it's easier to make the switch on a motorcycle than in a car anyway.

Indian roads are frankly dire: poorly surfaced, ill-maintained, barely signposted, with very road few signs. Major trunk roads can be quite crowded, though not by English standards. In the mountains, or anywhere there are hills, look out for large rocks in the road. Trucks use them to chock their wheels when they stop, to compensate for feeble handbrakes, and then just drive off and leave them.

Even so, the roads are nothing like as dangerous as you might think, because speeds are so low. To anyone who is used to riding fast, there is an awful lot of time to decide what to do except in the direst and most sudden emergencies. Add to this the superb stability of the Bullet and you are quite well placed. Even allowing for the excellent advice on the website of one of the leading bike hirers of India, 'Always assume the other driver will make a mistake', I'd rather ride in India than in Italy.

On the other hand, a sobering (if not necessarily totally reliable) statistic is that 40 per cent of the casualties in Indian motor accidents are riders of two wheelers. But as Frances pointed out, this may well be because two wheelers are so often heavily loaded: if there are three or four people on board, that's three or four casualties -- and the chance of an accident is much greater when there are three or four on board than when there is just one, or one and a single pillion.

Priority, as already intimated, is 'might makes right'. In theory, traffic on your left has priority unless there are road markings or signs to the contrary (ho, ho) but in practice, you need a combination of resignation and derring-do.

Speed limits are substantially academic. Not for the same reason as in France, that everyone ignores them, but rather the very opposite: everyone goes so slowly. In the chaotically crowded towns and cities, they have to, and on the open road, almost everyone does anyway. Also, in a poor country, the lower fuel consumption that is implicit in low speeds is very welcome. This is all the more true when wages are very low so you don't really care if a journey takes two days or three.

Speed limits are the responsibility of local villages and communities, and where they do exist, they are seldom posted: you are supposed to know what they are. If you are nicked, which is unlikely. But Bombay (Mumbai) bought a speed camera in about 2001 and several people have since complained of being nicked when there are no speed limits posted...

In general, there are no speed limits on the open road, just buffaloes, elephants, pedestrians, other drivers and riders, fallen tree-trunks, sacred cows, speed bumps, the occasional pig, hawkers, bullock-carts, suicidal buses and countless other things that conspire to keep your speed modest. In Delhi, though, speed limits are 60 km/h for cars (37mph) and 40 km/h for commercial vehicles (24 mph). As though it mattered. The fine for speeding in Delhi in late 2003, according to the excellent www.delhitrafficpolice.nic.in site, was RS 400/-, about eight dollars or euros or a bit under six quid. Or of course there is the death penalty if you get it seriously wrong and come second in a fight with an overloaded truck.

When it comes to overtaking, common sense is all you can use -- and many other road users won't even use that. A widespread view is that if there's room to overtake, or even almost enough room, you might as well do it anyway. Two or three times we have come across the aftermath of truly horrific accidents in India, the result of head-on collisions. The worst was a mini-bus where there was a veritable river of dried blood on the steps leading down from the passenger compartment. The thing is, of course, you get accidents like that in other countries too. They just don't leave the bus there for days or weeks afterwards.

Legally, though, you can only overtake on the right unless someone is signalling a right turn.

Parking too is down to common sense. In general, unless it's specifically forbidden, or obviously dangerous (on the brow of a hill, in the middle of a road, that sort of thing), you can park there. The mere fact that it is obviously dangerous doesn't necessarily discourage people anyway.

WHEN TO GO

Avoid the hot season, when it's horribly hot, and the monsoon when it rains a lot. Given the size of India, these seasons arrive at different times, and it stays pleasant a lot further into the hot season in the hills than it does on the plain, so very roughly, the best and worst places to go in each month are as follows:

January -- Just about everywhere except the Himalayan foothills, which are going to be pretty chilly, often with snow as low as 2000 metres, or about 6,000 feet. The high Himalayas are snow- capped all year. This one of the best months to visit much of India.

February -- Much as January.

March -- The weather starts to warm up. By the end of the month, average daily maxima top 32 degrees C, 90 degrees F, in Delhi, Calcutta and Madras. The hill stations are still cool: average daily maxima in Simla and Darjeeling are still below about 15 degrees C, 60 degrees F.

April -- Unpleasantly hot on the plains, with 38 degrees F, 100 degrees C, a common daily maximum over much of the country, though average daily maxima do not reach 21 degrees C, 70 degrees F, until the end of the month in the hills.

May -- Much as April, though the end of the month (or the beginning of June) sees the 'burst of the monsoon' in the south. This then proceeds northwards over the next six weeks or so, reaching the Himalayas by early July. May is one of the worst months to visit, except perhaps in the hills.

June -- Very hot until the monsoon arrives, then merely hot. The monsoon falls in torrential bursts, with bright, sunny spells in between. The amount of rain that falls is staggering: about a foot (300mm) a month in June, July and August in Calcutta, for example. The worst time to be in the Himalayas: hot, dusty and hazy.

July -- The worst of the monsoon in the north. In the Himalayas, I have seen a drain a metre in diameter spurting a solid jet of water three metres (ten feet) long. And in Bombay in July, they expect over two feet (over 600mm) of rain in the month.

August -- Very wet. Much like July.

September -- Still very wet, but the rains start to tail off in the south-west though they actually start to increase in the south-east -- Madras, for example.

October -- During the course of the month, the rains tail off to almost nothing, except in the south-east. The end of October is when it starts to be worth returning to India for a tour, especially in the northern hills.

November -- A delightful month over most of India, but still wet in the south-west. In fact this is the wettest month in Madras. The northern hills are beginning to get chilly again, with temperatures similar to March.

December -- Some risk of rain in Madras in the early part of the month, but otherwise one of the best months to go just about anywhere except the northern hills.

Put it this way: if we ever get rich, we'd reckon to spend three months a year in India: mid-December to mid-March, which would also allow us to attend Lhasa Uprising Day (March 10) in Dharamsala and Losar (Tibetan New Year) if it fell early.

As for the bad weather, a Tibetan friend who used to live in Delhi reckoned that the only possibility during a heat wave was to fill a cold bath; lie in it until it became too hot to bear; then drain it and re-fill it. Given that it can easily top 44 degrees C, 111 degrees F, in a New Delhi heat wave, this sounds like good advice.

PUBLIC HOLIDAYS

Public holidays tend to be locally observed, often with a religious bias. Only three are universal:

Others are lunar and (sometimes) out of synch with the modern western calendar altogether, precessing merrily through the year. The following are in roughly the right order for 2003 and 2004 but the Islamic holidays wander all through the year and the Buddhist and Christian holidays (except Christmas day) vary within quite wide limits. This applies even to birthdays!

Besides, you can never tell who will stay open. Banks and government offices may close, but if there's money to be had, shopkeepers may stay open. Or they may take the day off: money isn't everything.

PRACTICALITIES AND PAPERS

Getting into the country is deathly slow -- many things in India are -- but not particularly demanding as long as you have a visa and all your papers are in order. Having all your papers in order is even more important when you leave the country.

Of course you need a passport, and most people need a visa, despite the obvious damping effect this has on tourism. Allegedly, the imposition of a visa requirement on British passport holders was a tit-for-tat response to Maggie Thatcher's imposition of onerous visa requirements on Indian visitors. It's a shame that neither side has reconsidered.

Getting a tourist visa isn't as time-consuming as it used to be -- you can do it in one day now -- but it's still pretty time- consuming and it's expensive: GBP 30 for a 6-month visa, for example (call it US $50 or 45 euros). The visa is normally for one visit only and is dated from issue, not use, so don't apply too far in advance. Using a visa service is usually more practical than taking a day off to go to the nearest Indian embassy or consulate.

A few areas of the country, mostly border areas in the north of the country but also the Andoman and Nicobar Islands, require special permits to visit, and some may not be visited by solo travellers: they must be part of a group. With the exception of Sikkim and parts of Kashmir, this is unlikely to affect many motorcyclists but it is worth checking the www.visitindia.com site if you plan on going into sensitive areas.

Although an EU driving licence (especially a UK licence) may be acceptable, an IDP (International Driving Permit)is a much better idea.

It is not a good idea to take your own bike to India, so the question of insuring it before you leave, or of ancillary paperwork, does not arise. Not only is the bureaucracy of temporary importation mind-boggling, but few if any bikes are better suited to Indian roads than the Enfield Bullet. Also, if anything goes wrong, parts for Bullets are plentiful and cheap, and people who can work on them are to be found almost on every street corner. To import parts for any bike that is not already widely sold in India (and there aren't many of those, that you'd want to go touring on) would take forever and cost a fortune.

Besides, given the cost of air-freighting a bike to and from India, it's probably cheaper to hire or buy anyway. There's more about both, later.

Hired bikes will be insured, but if you buy one, you'll need to insure it. The dealer (or private individual) from whom you buy it should be able to point you in the direction of an insurer. Insurance is not expensive, but neither does it cover you for very much: the minimum third party liability for property damage that is required by the Indian Motor Vehicle Act 1988 is just RS 6000/- (euros or US $120, GBP 80). Buy extra insurance!

By and large, the only mandatory health requirements are if you are coming from an area where a particular disease is known to be rife, in which case the Indians don't want you importing it. Yellow fever is normally the only requirement. Others may be indicated from time to time, but should not affect travellers from the EU or the United States. It is however wise to have shots against hepatitis A, typhoid, tetanus and polio (or to make sure that your existing shots are still effective, of course), and to take anti-malarial tablets, which you should start at least a week before you go and continue to take them for four weeks after you get back.

Customs limits are modest and depend on your nationality and residence and which country you are coming in from. For most non- Indians and non-residents of neighbouring countries, entering by air, they are 200 cigarettes or 50 cigars or 250gm of tobacco, one litre of alcoholic beverage of any kind, and RS 400/- worth of gifts (call it eight dollars or euros, or six quid).

If you are carrying unusual quantities of cameras, or other consumer goods such as video recorders, these may have to be entered in the back of your passport to make sure that you export them again, though they are less and less worried about this nowadays.

If you are carrying more than US $5000 (4500 euros, GBP 3000) in currency notes from any country or combination of countries, or over US $10,000 (9000 euros, GBP 6000) in negotiable instruments including travellers cheques, declare this when entering or leaving the country.

Actually, when leaving the country, the first thing to do is to make sure that you are in it! Once, a friend of mine (the long- deceased Boris) witnessed an argument between an immigration- wallah and and English tourist. A 'wallah' is 'one who does' so a dhobi-wallah is one who does dhobi (washing) and a soda-water- bottle-wallah takes care of replenishing your soda water bottles.

Anyway, said wallah kept repeating, "But you are not here, madam. It shows clearly in your passport." What had happened was that she had gone from India to Nepal, and her passport had been stamped out but not in; therefore, of course, she was not in India. What she had done to deserve this grief, I do not know; or perhaps he was just bored. Boris said, "I would have stayed around to find out what happened, but I could only spare half an hour: I had a 'plane to catch."

Second, make sure that you have enough currency exchange certificates to cover any rupees you want to change back into your own currency -- which is all of them, as non-residents are not allowed to take rupees out of the country. If you have lost or thrown away your currency exchange forms, you may simply be denied permission to exchange your rupees, and they will be confiscated.

Third, make sure that you have enough rupees to cover the 'foreign travel' tax (departure tax) which is charged at the airport when you leave. This is not a fortune, and I am not sure what they do if you can't pay it -- deport you, maybe -- but given the mad inventiveness of Indian bureaucrats, I would not care to find out. The tax was RS 500/-, about ten bucks or euros, or just under seven pounds, in late 2003, but check on arrival (or with your airline, or hotel) to make sure that this figure has not changed.

SHOPPING & TIPPING

Currency is the rupee, which has stabilized greatly in the last few years. When we first went to India in the early 1980s, it was 17 rupees (normally written RS 17/-) to the pound sterling, or maybe 12/- to the US dollar but in less than two decades it fell to 70/- to the pound sterling or around 45/- to the dollar. The 'crawling peg' exchange rate means that its value falls very slowly but steadily: in late 2003 it was around 75/- to the pound or 50/- to the euro or dollar.

There are 100 pice in a rupee but pice are understandably rare today, though they do exist. For historical purposes, it is (marginally) worth knowing that there used to be 16 annas to the rupee and 12 pice to the anna.

Exchange a few pounds (or dollars, or euros) at the airport, where you will normally get a very bad rate despite the competition, and then exchange more as needed at hotels. The rate you get there is not likely to be a great deal inferior to that offered by the banks (I have even known it to be better) and you will have a lot less hassle: it can easily take an hour to change money at a bank, and it can take a good deal longer, so if you insist on doing that, take a book with you to read while you are waiting.

Always remember to get exchange certificates (see 'Leaving the country', above) and do not be tempted to try the black market. The rates aren't that good, certainly not high enough to justify the risks of being ripped off or caught.

Hole in the wall machines (autotellers) are slowly beginning to spread through the sub-continent, but they are still very thin on the ground. You can get money out of banks or (better still) Thomas Cook agencies or the like, but India is the last place where we actually still use travellers cheques. I hope to report that this is no longer so after our next trip!

When it comes to shopping hours, anarchy rules. Some shops seem never to close; others are seldom if ever seen open; some open as early as five; some close as late as midnight. As long as there are customers around, the average small Indian shopkeeper (or restaurateur) will stay open. This may not, however, be very late: in many small towns and villages, they pretty much roll up the sidewalks at nine o'clock because everyone has gone to bed.

Riding a bike is an excellent excuse for not buying things. Hawkers have heard every excuse in the book, and just go on lowering prices until you buy. Our record was buying a piece of silk for one tenth of the original asking price, a classic example of a price/demand curve, but when (for example) we were approached by a man who was trying to sell us an enormous wooden peacock of which the tail-feathers were a carving set and six each steak knives and forks, we pointed to the bike and told him we had to ride back to Madras and didn't have room to carry it. He had to agree.

Bank hours are highly variable, maybe 1000 to 1500, but there are sometimes inexplicable (or at least unexplained) closures. Don't go to the banks unless you have to, as explained above.

As for tipping, the main difficulty is not over-doing it. The bills at restaurants, etc., are often so small that the temptation is to tip well above 10 per cent or even the 15 per cent that is normally considered the maximum. You will make no friends among well-to-do Indians if you do this. As they point out, it means that they (who have to live there) are treated as second-class customers as long as there are non-Indian tourists around.

It is normal to tip just about everyone who does anything for you, even if they do it as part of their normal work without any extra payment being demanded from you: doormen at hotels, for instance, should be tipped a few rupees (5 or 10 at most) at least once during your stay. I prefer to do this early on, as it ensures maximum service.

PETTY CRIME AND BIKE SECURITY

Petty crime is cheeringly far from being a major problem, but even so, many hotels and restaurants will have a door-keeper or parking attendant who will be happy to keep an eye on your bike while you patronize the establishment. Before you go in, tip him a few rupees for eagle-eyed service. Sometimes, too, you will find freelance bike minders who will look after the bike (and anything on it) for you. Give them ten or twenty rupees when you stop, and promise the same again when you get back, and the bike will be well guarded. Why don't they steal things? I don't know, but they don't. Or maybe we've just been lucky.

BEGGARS

Yes, there are beggars in India. They can be persistent but they are not usually particularly aggressive, and if you ignore them for long enough they will go away. It is also intriguing that when we once spent a few days in Mullund, a suburb of Bombay that attracts almost no tourists at all, we saw precisely two beggars. One was apparently a crippled war veteran, to whom everyone gave a small sum; the other was an apparently fit and healthy young woman with a baby, and no-one gave her anything.

How much do you give a beggar? As little as a rupee (about two cents US or euro-cents, rather under 2p English), or maybe as much as 5 rupees, to a beggar you see every day, though you don't necessarily give it to him every day. Giving 20 rupees (under 30p English, a bit under 50 cents American or euro-cents) is regarded as generous and may encourage other beggars. But equally, if you reckon someone deserves it, give them more. It still isn't going to bankrupt you.

There's a sort of honour among beggars, too. If you've given them some money, or if you give them a rupee a day, and they recognize you, they won't hassle you again. They may even discourage others in their clan from bothering you. I once gave 20 rupees to a beautiful little beggar-girl in Dharamsala, partly because I had nothing smaller on me and partly because she was such a pretty little thing (she was about 8, I think): I thought that such a pretty girl deserved a better life than stretched in front of her. More than half the beggars in Dharamsala then left me alone for the rest of the day because she told them of my generosity. It's a bit humbling, really.

As for the distinction between 'genuine' and 'professional' beggars, who cares? If you reckon they deserve the money, give it them. Otherwise, don't. I have always liked the Islamic view, that I should be grateful to beggars instead of the other way around, because they have given me an opportunity to help them.

FUEL, OIL AND REPAIRS

Leaded petrol is cheap and widely available, though it's a good idea to fill up as soon as you go onto reserve: there are occasional long-to-moderate stretches without petrol stations. As far as I know, unleaded petrol has yet to catch on in India. Indian petrol is very low octane, about the same as cough syrup, but Bullets run on it perfectly happily.

Servicing and repairs for Bullets are so cheap that it's hardly even worth adding oil yourself: leave the bike with an Enfield- wallah while you have lunch, and ask him to adjust the chain and clutch and anything else that needs adjusting, and check the tyres at the same time. Parts are absurdly cheap, and stocked throughout the country.

MOTORCYCLE HIRE

Several companies hire out Enfields, but perhaps the best-known (and most reliable) is in Mumbai/Bombay: www.indiabikes.com

BUYING A BULLET

There are at least three ways to do this. You can go to one of the established companies that sells new Bullets for export, with Indian delivery so you can make the tour first; or you can go to another of the established companies that sells new and used Bullets, then buys them back after you have ridden them; or you can buy privately.

Indian delivery for export has many advantages, including a 6- month, 8000-km (5000 mile) factory guarantee and lots of 'hand holding' on insurance, documentation and so forth, but it also has two significant disadvantages. First, it is far and away the most expensive, though at least it has the advantage that you know what your expenses are going to be, which is not necessarily the case if you buy a used bike. Second, you have to run the bike in.

Running in (breaking in) a Bullet is very, very time consuming. The owner's manual recommends a maximum of 40 km/h (25 mph) for the first 800 km (500 miles) and then a maximum of 50 km/h or 30 mph for the next 800 km. They recommend, too, that during the running-in period you let the machine idle for two or three minutes after starting to get the oil circulating well. Then, there is the first (free) service at 500 miles/800 km, which must be carried out by the dealer who supplied the bike. You might be able to get another dealer to do it: you'd probably have to pay, though it would be unlikely to be a fortune.

Then again, the owner's handbook points out that maximum fuel economy can be obtained if speed is maintained between 40 km/h and 50 km/h, and although 40 km/h is a bit slow even by Indian standards, 50 km/h isn't too bad: a good pottering speed. Both www.indiabikes.com and www.premjis.com (also in Bombay/Mumbai) offer bikes for export.

Another possibility is buy-back. If you buy a new bike, the arguments are much the same as above, and again, www.premjis.com can help. Second-hand, from a reputable dealer, you will obviously save money -- possibly quite a lot of money -- but you never know how carefully the bike has been run in. You should be safe from real disasters such as machines that are unsafe, or on the point of breaking down, but in a few thousand (or even a few hundred) kilometres, a lot can happen.

On the other hand, a bike with a medium or even high mileage may be an excellent buy if it has been well maintained or even rebuilt. Also, because the bike is yours, you can get it fixed quickly, cheaply and easily without worrying about contacting the dealer for warranty work.

Most reputable dealers will be selling recent 12v machines with the more powerful brakes, but because a Bullet can go on forever, there are still plenty of 6v machines with the tiny 6 inch x 1 inch (153x25mm) brakes front and rear. Despite their vintage charm, these older machines really are a good deal less practical than newer ones. There are also numerous other modifications such as a locking tool compartment on the later bikes.

The buy-back agreement will normally assume no damage to the machine other than wear and tear, and will usually specify a maximum distance; damage or excess mileage will result in a reduction in the buy-back price.

Unless you are already familiar with India, and have Indian friends, and know enough about motorcycles to choose a good one, and are prepared to take the bike to an Enfield-wallah to have it inspected, buying privately is more than somewhat rash. Maintenance may have been sloppy or non-existent, and many Indian riders cling to the old belief that front brakes are dangerous, because they will throw you over the handlebars or provoke front- wheel skids. It is by no means unusual, therefore, to find that the front brake is inoperable, whether from corrosion on the brake itself, stuck cables, or even having been disconnected.

There is also the point that it can take quite some time to find a suitable bike, and you will have no 'hand-holding' when it comes to insurance and other documentation. We cannot therefore recommend it.

POLICE, ACCIDENTS AND EMERGENCIES

By and large, if you leave Indian police alone, and don't break the law any worse than the average Indian rider, they'll leave you alone. Corruption is surprisingly low, but police brutality can be surprisingly high. Don't get mixed up in demonstrations unless you have plenty of back-up: an Indian copper wielding a lathi (riot staff) can be bad news.

You do not have to call the police to minor accidents but it is probably a good idea if you have injured someone, as Indian crowds can get a bit aggressive if they think this was your fault -- and there will be a crowd, because everything that happens in India attracts a crowd.

Emergency numbers will be of limited use in most of the country: you won't have a phone, or a network for a mobile phone. Also, the numbers are not fully standardized. Generally, a bystander will fetch what help is needed -- and there is always a bystander in India. But it is worth trying the following numbers, which will work in many places.

FOOD

Contrary to widespread belief, the vast majority of Indian food is perfectly safe to eat: it is not an immediate invitation to 'Delhi belly'. Nor does it contain cats, dogs, etc. As with accommodation, below, look out for the places that are frequented by well-to-do middle-class Indians, and you will not go far wrong. But you can also eat in surprisingly cheap, basic places, perfectly safely.

There are plenty of things it makes sense to avoid, such as sticky cakes in roadside cafes where you can see the flies crawling over the merchandise, or indeed raw vegetables: you don't know if the latter have been washed or, if they have been washed, what with. But as long as you are half-way sensible, you can eat very well indeed, often incredibly cheaply, without any more health risks than you would encounter in most of Europe or the United States.

Freshly-cooked food is always safest, and the hotter it's cooked, the safer. Samosas (little deep-fried triangular pasties) and pakoras (various things deep-fried in batter, usually cheese or vegetables) are excellent snacks that are perfectly safe even at the vast majority of roadside stops.

Most Indian food is highly spiced, but this is not the same as saying that it is hot in the sense of being loaded with chillies. There are plenty of mild dishes, often cooked with yogurt or coconut, especially in Mughal (Mogul) cuisine. The further south you go, the greater the chance of getting seriously hot food. A 'raita' -- a yogurt-based salad, a bit like the Greek tzatziki -- or just yogurt on its own (often 'curd' or 'dahi' on the menu) is a good antidote if, in Clive James's words, you feel like the sun has just come up in the back of your throat. Dahi is safer if you are worried about the salad in a raita.

Many Indians are vegetarians, whether for religious reasons or because it's cheaper, and as a result, there is plenty of superb vegetarian food to be had. And, of course, once you have seen a village butchers' shop buzzing with flies, you may prefer a vegetarian diet anyway.

The meat is often tough, because it is usually eaten fairly smartly after slaughter, without being hung to tenderize it. This is obviously desirable in a hot climate. 'Meat' (unspecified) tends to be lamb, mutton or kid, which is acceptable to both Hindus (who don't eat beef) and Moslems (who don't eat pork) -- but both beef and pork are available. 'Beef' is often buffalo, which is perfectly edible.

The Indian equivalent of a French 'menu' -- a fixed-price midday meal -- is often a 'thali'. This consists of a tray with a central bowl of rice and a number of small bowls of around it: typically two curries (meat or vegetable, or one of each), plus dhal (lentil curry), chutney (chhatni), some raita or dahi (see above), and a dessert, usually milk-based. There will usually be a couple of pieces of bread as well, usually puri/poori or chapattis, and they may also bring you a 'pan' (a leaf filled with betel-nut and spices, to be chewed at the end of the meal). At the more old-fashioned places, each bowl is re-filled as you empty it, until you tell the waiter to stop. It's not so much an all-you-can-eat meal as a more-than-you-can- eat meal.

When you order a la carte, from the menu, many of the better restaurants will warn you if they think you have ordered too much. They will suggest, politely but firmly, that you drop a couple of the dishes you have ordered and order them later if you are still hungry. They will often suggest which ones to drop, whether because they do not suit the meal you have ordered or because they can be cooked quickly and easily if you do want them.

The one thing to avoid in India is Indian imitations of foreign food. I have had the worst pizzas of my life in India -- worse than the worst in Malta -- and when it comes to English food, you are looking at the kind of thing that you would have got at an old-fashioned English prep school fifty years ago: bland, wet, tasteless and often boiled to death. The hamburgers are pretty awful, too, though they are often made with lamb rather than beef for obvious reasons.

DRINK

Don't drink the water, unless you know it is bottled mineral water, or has been boiled, or is otherwise safe. The same goes for ice. If you want cold drinks, make sure they are refrigerated, or that the whole bottle has been chilled in an ice bucket. Buy bottled water only from reputable-looking shops if at all possible: it is not unknown for empty bottles to be re-filled from the tap and re-sealed. Always crumple up used plastic water bottles after you have used them.

Fruit juice is surprisingly often safe, but unless it comes out of a sealed bottle opened in our presence we drink it only if we have to in order to be polite. Watch out for the Indian habit of salting fruit juices, which can come as a nasty surprise.

Soft drinks are normally safe, unless they are very obscure local village brands, and even then, they are probably safe. Most are very sweet. Chai (tea) and coffee should be safe, but they are normally made with milk, sugar and a variety of spices so not everyone finds them palatable. I don't drink tea anyway, so it doesn't affect me, and Frances normally orders black tea.

Many of the bottled beers are good, though some apparently incorporate glycerine as a stabilizer and this can promote heartburn. It doesn't worry me but it sometimes gets Frances. Beers are normally sold as 'normal strength' and 'super strength'. Normal strength is similar in strength to many English draught beers, or a little stronger, and the strongest super strength is getting on for twice as strong (or nearly three times as strong as American beer). Cobra is deservedly one of the best- known brands but some of the super-strong beers have wonderful names like 'Knock Out' and 'Godfather'.

The only place we have ever encountered draught beers is in Bangalore, where we once went on a pub-crawl (by auto-rickshaw) with a fellow motorcyclist of whom we had asked the way. The pubs were very good at the beginning of the evening and by the end we couldn't really tell.

Indian wines are not much cop for the most part -- there seem to be an awful lot of sweet and rather nasty reds -- but the sparkling wines are surprisingly good and not very expensive. Look out for Marquise de Pompadour, sold as Omar Khayyam in the west.

Among the spirits, or IMFL (Indian Made Foreign Liquors), the easy winner as far as we are concerned is rum, and the best of the rums is Old Monk, though there are other good ones too. They are about a fiver a bottle (US $7.50, 7 euros) in the bazaar.

Thousand Pipers whisky is apparently the world's biggest selling brand: connoisseurs prefer Binnie's Aristocrat but frankly that's not much good either. Other well-known brands are Double Dog and Sir Peter Scot. Fans of Black and White will recognize the inspiration for the Double Dog label. The best whisky I've ever had from the Sub-Continent was Snow Lion from Sikkim.

Funnily enough, you can acquire the taste for Indian whisky and when I was given a bottle in England I hoarded it for myself. Mind you, no-one would have thanked me for sharing it with them anyway.

I've never acquired a taste for Indian gin, though, nor for Indian brandy: Bumble Bee is one of the best-known brands of the latter. Among truly indigenous spirits, coconut feni (or fenny) is fairly filthy tasting and cashew feni is utterly filthy tasting. They are lethally alcoholic, so you'll get drunk quickly, and they are loaded with congeners so you'll get a vile hangover as well.

In some parts of India, especially Goa, there seem to be bars at every intersection and indeed in the middle of nowhere. In other parts it's difficult or impossible to get a drink: apparently you have to have a certificate from a doctor, saying you're an alcoholic.

Then there are 'dry days' on which alcohol may not be sold, even in 'wet' states. Once in Benares (Varanasi) I ordered a beer with my dinner and was told, "I am sorry, sahib, today is dry day. But do not worry." So I didn't. He brought a teapot full of beer and a teacup. He got a good tip.

Drinking in expensive hotels is absurdly expensive: as a waiter once pointed out when I ordered an Old Monk and cola in Agra, "Sahib, I will bring it if you wish, but I cannot recommend it. In the bazaar, for only twice as much, you can buy a whole bottle." He got a good tip, too. In cheaper hotels and most bars, prices are much more realistic: enough that you don't really think twice about the cost, even on a budget.

Actually, I drink less alcohol in India than in any other country in the world (I avoid Moslem countries) because I drink a great deal of fresh lime soda, just chilled soda water with fresh lime juice. Frances and I drink it plain, but you can also order it sugared or salted. When you order it, say, "No salt, no sugar," or they may automatically add one or the other (seldom both). We like it so much that it is our staple non-alcoholic drink in France too. Half a lime is usually about right for a tall glass (12 oz/330 ml) with a couple of ice cubes. Watch out for ice cubes, of course, which may be made from tap water... In India, we leave these out.

Among other non-alcoholic drinks you can also order 'lassi' (diluted yogurt, which some people apparently find refreshing) and 'spiced water' (I forget the Hindi) which is in effect curried water. It is every bit as disgusting as it sounds: Frances and I call it 'Ganges water'. I think you must have to be born in India to be able to drink the stuff -- much as you need to be born in Portugal in order to drink red vinho verde.

ACCOMMODATION

The secret here is to look for the hotels that well-to-do middle class Indians frequent. They are not hard to recognize, after a while: they don't have the vast frontages, imposing gardens and huge marble lobbies that are de rigeur for the really expensive places. There may still be a fair amount of marble, but it won't be as grossly ostentatious. They are unlikely to have swimming pools, either.

If you can't find one, ask a well-dressed passer-by who looks as if he might speak English. Ten to one, he'll be able to direct you, or at least give you the name and general location of a couple.

Not only are these a fraction of the price of the more expensive hotels catering to western tourists: the standards of service are (for the most part) infinitely better too, because a well-to-do Indian expects that kind of service. Elsewhere on the site, for example, I have mentioned the Diamond hotel in Benares, where as you sat down in the dining room, a chair materialized under you. Likewise, when you went up to bed, a figure materialized from the shadows in the corridors to open your door for you, turn down the bed, and bring fresh water. That's also where I had the beer in the teapot.

Always ask for a room without television. At worst, a television set can double the price of a room, and it is quite likely to add 50 per cent. Why? Don't know. You needn't sacrifice anything else, either: air-con (or at least fan), private bathroom, whatever. And who wants to watch Indian television?

In the remoter towns, there are likely to be no tourists at all, and the hotels may be very old-fashioned. At the Jewel Rock in Shimoga in 1990, for instance, there were twin beds with mosquito nets, twin ceiling fans, and an Asian squat-style toilet in the private bathroom, all spotlessly clean. I found it by loading Frances into an auto-rickshaw and saying "Take my wife to the best hotel in town, and I will follow." I can't remember now whether the price of the room was the equivalent of GBP 4 or US $4 -- we were living in California at the time -- but either way it was hardly expensive. I do however remember that dinner for two, with a glass of wine for Frances and a bottle of Knock Out beer for me, was only a little more than the price of the room, so the whole evening was about a tenner or ten dollars: as I say, I forget which.

At the very bottom end, it's true that standards could hardly be lower: filthy rooms with stained sheets, but if you are paying the equivalent of way under a dollar a day, this is no surprise. We've never had to stay in such a room: we've always been able to find somewhere clean and very reasonably priced.

At the very top end, India has some of the finest hotels in the world. We once stayed at the Grand in Calcutta, reputedly among the top five hotels in the world. We certainly couldn't afford to try the other four.

LANGUAGE AND ROAD SIGNS

There are over 300 languages in India, of which 19 are officially recognized for doing government business. Because English is one of them, there really isn't much need for the capsule vocabulary, below. The other principal language is Hindi -- all schools must by law be 'Hindi Medium' or 'English Medium' as the teaching language -- so we have given the equivalents in that, but only for five words. With rooms, food, etc., you should be able to find someone who speaks at least some English.

Periodically, there is an 'Indianization' move to squeeze out English altogether and make Hindi the only permitted language for schools, but this is always defeated by those who are not native Hindi speakers. They reckon, not unreasonably, that English is a lot more use, world-wide, than Hindi.

It is hard to avoid picking up a few words of Hindi, because so many of them are so useful. Some are now completely incorporated into English, such as bungalow, khaki, pyjamas; some are half- integrated, used mainly by an older generation, such as dhobi (washing) and wallah (as noted above); and the others that are really useful are as follows:

Achha (atch-ah or atch-ha) -- The most useful word in the world. Depending on context and intonation, means everything from 'yes' to 'no' (think of the different intonations of 'yeah, right' in American English) via 'I'll do it but I'm not happy about it' and 'Really? You don't say'. Use exactly the same intonation that you would in English for any of those concepts, and you'll not be far off: we are not looking at Chinese-style tonal inflections here.

Challo -- Let's go, or shall we go, depending on intonation. For example, Challo? Challo! -- Shall we go? Yes, let's go.

Jao! -- **** off! Useful for beggars.

Most road signs (where they exist at all) are international, or bilingual in Hindi and English.

CAPSULE VOCABULARY

DISCLAIMER

This information has been verified as far as possible but should not be taken as definitive. You alone are responsible for your safety on a motorcycle (or elsewhere) and should always ride and behave accordingly. Click here for the Official Health Warning.

last updated: 10/11/03

© 2003 Roger W. Hicks