Across the globe on two Enfields

When Vadodara-based Kumar Shah, 53, decided to go on an ambitious bike expedition, it was not an easy task to convince his family and friends. But his passion for motorsports made them relent. Joining him on the adventure were Shahs mechanic neighbour, Hitesh Raval and motor sports enthusiast and army officer Gagan Deep from Delhi.

The three men and the two Royal Enfield Bullets vroomed off from Vadodara on June 9 and have so far covered Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Russia, Finland, Sweden and Germany. They are currently in the Netherlands and are likely to reach London by August 23 via France and Belgium.

The Silk Odyssey, the name of the expedition, suggests the historic Silk Route through which medieval trade took place. We were attempting to track that route, hence the name, says Shah.

BRASSTACKS
Going on an international trip especially on a bike isnt so easy. It took a lot of formalities to get our plan ready. Some countries dont allow bikers on their territory, theyd rather allow a guided tour, says Shah. Even a minor matter, like vehicle insurance, can be a major hurdle. Different countries have different insurance rules. We had to obtain insurance before entering different countries, he says.

The bikes they were riding also had to be prepared for the arduous journey ahead. The trio decided not to change the company specifications of the Royal Enfield, so they did not tamper with any internal part. There were deserts in at least three countries that we had to pass through and petrol was not going to be easily available. So we substituted the 10.5-litre standard tanks to larger ones of 17.5 litres, says Shah, who owns a 1995 Royal Enfield Bullet.

Storage for spares, luggage, documents and daily necessities posed a major challenge. But Shah made use of every inch of his Enfield. Aluminium boxes, usually used by villagers during travel, proved handy. They fitted two of them on the bike to carry spares. Luggage carriers were specially made from hollow MS pipes. Another separate aluminium container was fabricated at the rear space for medical equipment and documents.

We took two small rucksacks, one for me and one for Hitesh, to carry our clothes and personal necessities. Every little item was weighed before we decided to carry them. We also carried strong cords to tie the rucksacks and for other uses, says Shah.

Phone communication was a major challenge, as they were travelling through multiple territories. Shah says he got a mobile phone with two SIM cards, capable of map downloads. Internal communication devices were fitted on the helmets of all three of them to allow them to talk to each other at distances of up to a mile and for connectivity to their mobile phones while riding. Communication costs alone was around a fourth of our total expenses, says Shah, who got partial funding from Gujarat Tourism, Gujarat State Fertilizers and Chemicals and Voltamp Transformers for the expedition.

Such was the meticulousness of the preparations that the helmets purchased were of European standard and the bike exhausts were lengthened to reduce noise levels to meet European pollution norms.

Since the journey involved different geographies and different climatic conditions over 55 days, it was important to consider this aspect while preparing for the journey. So, besides riding jackets and pants with guards for joints, back and chest and an inner liner to withstand cold up to 10 degrees, it was important to carry three pairs of gloves each for normal temperatures, cold and for the rain. Also, the trio sported bandanas for hair protection.

Shah prides himself for his preparations, and says having studied in The Raj Kumar College in Rajkot, he inculcated the values of discipline, planning and a habit of documentation. It helped me a lot in planning my travel, he says.

TURN OFF THE RADAR THE BIKES: Royal Enfield Bullets, modified for bigger fuel storage and to carry the necessary paraphernalia for criss-crossing across cities, deserts and mountains. The exhaust pipes have been lengthened to lessen the roar of the bikes to meet noise pollution standards in Europe. THE GEAR: Special riding jackets and pants with extra protection for joints, back and chest. European-standard helmets fitted with communication system to allow conversations between the three riders. Mobiles phones with dual SIM cards and maps downloaded. THE JOURNEY: 15,300 kilometre ride across 19 countries in two continents, Asia and Europe. Flagged-off from Vadodara on June 9. The three riders have already pass through Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Russia, Finland, Sweden, Germany. Curently they are in the Netherlands. Closing ceremony of the Expedition at London , likely on August 23. The riders have realised that Indians are welcomed by one and all in all the countries. Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Russia seem to love Bollywood. “Once they talk to us and confirm that we are Indian or notice our number plate with the Indian flag, they immediately call out the names of popular actors and sing our popular film songs. Mithun Chakraborty is known and loved by one and all here,” reports Shah. In Uzbekistan, people celebrated the country’s 15 years of Independence with songs from the Indian movie, Disco Diwane, the whole night. “Be it the policemen or custom officials, they all love our Bollywood,” say the trio.
MOTORCYCLE DIARIES
While countries like Ukraine and China denied the riders visa, some countries had difficult norms for journeys across their land. However, apart from political limitations, the Indian bikers, who are travelling on tourist visas, have had a warm welcome everywhere they went. Motorbikers and that too Indian are most welcome everywhere, Shah wrote to Business Standard from Amsterdam.

The two Gujaratis and one Punjabi, while embarking on the adventure, were aware of the social diversity they were going to witness. Every few days, they came across a different culture, society, people and lifestyle. But nowhere have they faced any difficulty for being foreigners.

People were warm and welcomed us everywhere. Bikers with whom we interacted in Russia were just like us warm and hospitable, narrates Shah. One of them came to see where I was staying and told me, Kumar, I do not like where you stay. You shift to my house, I have a big house. That was indeed very sweet of a Russian surgeon and a biker.

Sharing his experience about more such helpful souls, Shah says, When we had to leave Kazakhstan because of regulations requiring tourists to register with the special immigration police once every five days, we had trouble when my bike luggage broke for the fourth time. The country was celebrating its 15th anniversary of independence hence it was a long weekend, so everything including the government departments was closed. But Alex, the Samaritan, is president of Wheel Brothers, a motorbike group in Atyrua, Kazakhstan, took us to an expert welder and stood there for three hours until the job was done, even acting as an interpreter. What is more, the expensive repair was all paid for by Alex. We hardly knew him for a day but his humanity shocked us.

The wheels will finally stop on August 23, if all goes well, in London at the Ace Caf, a place established in 1938 for the biker community. Here its managing director, Mark Wilsmore, will host a closing ceremony for the Indians. Ace Caf has a large following of motorbikers around the world. Wilsmore calls Shahs and his friends an extraordinary journey.

Shah has also associated the expedition with an NGO Save The Children Foundation. The three riders aim to raise Rs 500,000 for the cause during their voyage. Besides collecting funds for child survival and care, the bikers also want to promote harmony and peace in the world and persuade people to follow their dreams and passion.

Next year I intend to take 20 riders on a similar route because many enthusiasts are asking me to do this. We may also float a company for motorbike tours in India, says an excited Shah.

Shah says they will publish a book on their experiences after they return home. For the moment, for those keen to follow the ride, there is a Facebook page, which has got close to 500 likes in less than a month.