I first crossed the border between India and Pakistan at Wagah on the morning of the 3rd of December 1971. Later that day, the Indo-Pakistani war broke out. By then I was in Amritsar, camped in the yard of a hotel and having dinner in darkness under a military blackout while the Pakistani air force bombed the nearby Indian air station. I am grateful still for the accuracy of the bombardiers.
This was not the only time I have experienced an armed conflict, although it was the closest I have been to actual explosions, and it was the first. You tend to remember that kind of thing. I recall the flash and then the crump of the bombs. I assume they were not very big ones because the ground did not move for me. Eventually I got to sleep, packed up in the morning and headed deeper into India away from what had been a border and was now a front. I need not have worried; the war went India’s way, and as far as I know no Pakistani troops ever came anywhere near Amritsar.
It was to be six years until I crossed the border at Wagah again. This time I was going the other way with my friend Charlie on our XL250 Hondas. This border was the third one where we used the Mandrake Option, and it worked even better than the first time, at Kathmandu airport, and the second, crossing from Nepal into India.
The Mandrake Option? You know, like the comic strip: “Mandrake gestures hypnotically…” which in our case meant donning the safari suits we had had made for us in Chiang Mai and — presto, change-o – becoming well-dressed gentlemen rather than grubby bikers. Indian customs and immigration ushered us through while brusquely bossing the ever-present hippies about.
The Pakistani side was slower going. There appeared to be only one pen among all the functionaries at multiple desks, and it had to be passed around to complete the many forms. So I surrendered one of my treasured ballpoints – “No, please, keep it!” – and we got through there quite quickly too. Bribery need not be expensive.
Up to this point, after traversing Australia, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Nepal and northern India, we had met precisely four other overland motorcyclists, and none of them were on the way around the world like us. In Penang, we had run into Frank from Holland, who had left his Harley-Davidson WLA outfit in India because the usual transport across the Bay of Bengal, the MV Chidambaram, was not running so he had flown.
While we were idling around Delhi waiting for a money transfer, we met a bloke who told us that he had left his Honda Four in Herat, I think. It seems that it would not run on Afghani fuel. Then, on our way down from Srinagar we had encountered a South African bloke with a two-day-old Enfield 350. He had covered 200 kilometres with it, and in that time it had broken the throttle and front brake cables, as well as losing the battery cover and the bolt holding the exhaust in place. He was quite happy with the bike and was, he thought, maybe going to Holland. I hope he still had a motorcycle when he got there.
The night before our crossing at Wagah, in the Amritsar Youth Hostel, we had chatted with a young Japanese bloke who had ridden a Yamaha DT125 from Calcutta to Kayseri in Turkey and was on his way home. We never did work out why he had chosen Kayseri, an industrial city on the Anatolian highlands, as his destination.
We added two more overlanders in Lahore. They were a French brother and sister who had ridden Velo Solexes all the way from Paris, but had just sold them “because they were worn out”. The pair had started without any luggage at all and had improvised by buying camel panniers made of carpet somewhere along the way. They still had those.
Afghanistan increased our count by another four, three of whom were the first round-the-world riders we had met. The other one was Paul, who came the other way in the Kabul Gorge – on another XL250. He was on his way home from London to Australia and had made the error of riding at night. A broken wrist and various other injuries resulted, but the bike was fairly unscathed. The RTW riders were Swiss and were on well-prepared Yamaha XT500s.
And that, as they say, was it. Well, until we got to Istanbul where we met a couple of blokes with a BMW and a Honda 500 twin who were on their second day waiting at the post office for the third member of their party who had disappeared. They were on their way to Australia. We promised that if we saw anyone looking Australian and riding a 650 Yamaha, we would tell him that his friends were waiting at the post office in Istanbul.
And that was it. A round dozen, of whom only three intended to ride around the planet. Might we have missed some others?
Surprising as it may sound, it’s unlikely. I have no idea how things are today, but in the 1970s there were established places where you stopped if you were overlanding – whether that was by bus, by car, by motorcycle or bicycle or even by Velo Solex. They were scattered, but you would try to hit as many as you could because that was where the information was. Lonely Planet was yet to establish itself, and valuable hints and tips were passed on at places like the hotels of Bugis Street in Singapore, the New China in Penang and the Sri Hua Lampong in Bangkok. These were established depots for the latest in overlander goss. Chicken Street’s hotels in Kabul, and especially the Gol e Sarah campsite in Teheran were also vital. If someone was on the road and you didn’t meet them there – out on the road – you would meet them in one of these places.
What is it like today, forty-plus years later? Obviously, there are many more overlanders and RTW riders. Maybe you’d like to fill us in?