"Double Engine, Selfie Start!": Calcutta to Kathmandu

An Excerpt from Lone Rider
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In this excerpt from Lone Rider, Elspeth Beard makes slow progress out of the Calcutta cityscape and into the rural villages of India. Traveling at a snail's pace of 10 miles per hour, Elspeth rides a wave of gawking onlooker’s astonishment at the sight in front of them: a British woman riding a German bike through the chaotic roads of Calcutta. Read more in this excerpt from “Part 3: Madras to Kathmandu” and continue following Elspeth’s progress around the world with “Part 4: Kathmandu to Home."

          Keen to get out of Calcutta before the roads became crowded, I left early. Relying on a very sketchy map of the city center with three roads marked, I opted for the road heading north and hoped for the best, knowing I had to cross the River Ganges.
Eventually I came upon the Ganges, following it until I reached a bridge, dodging through a convoy of heavily laden trucks spewing out thick black diesel fumes. Even early in the morning, the heat in the side streets was stifling. Wedged between trucks, it was unbearable. Sweat dripping into my eyes, my T-shirt already a filthy dust-sodden sweat sponge, I made my way across the bridge. Any semblance of traffic order or road discipline had long been abandoned. The bridge was like a dodgem car track where bikes were simply ignored. I made it across only after twice being shunted from behind. If riding through India was going to be like this, I wouldn’t enjoy it or stay alive for very long.
For three hours I crawled at walking pace along a single-track road. Two truck convoys going in opposing directions made overtaking impossible or pointless; when a space appeared, I replaced the back end of one lorry with another. And this was the main road north out of one of India’s largest cities. Only slightly wider than a single car and with dirt either side, the sealed part of the road contained enough traffic to overwhelm a six-lane motorway. Putting my bike on the train from Madras to Calcutta had definitely been the right decision.

After four hours with not a single road sign, I didn’t know if I was going in the right direction and no longer cared. My main objective was to get out of Calcutta as soon as possible, then worry about finding the road north.
Slowly the roadside buildings spread out, fields appeared and the truck convoy came to a complete standstill. Pulling out to overtake at least 100 trucks, I reached the front of the queue, where a broken-down truck sat at the side of the road. Stretching into the distance, an opposing column of trucks faced towards me, backed up behind a single truck parked nose-to-nose with the truck at the head of the column I’d just overtaken.
Standing in the middle of the road, a group of Indian men gesticulated wildly and argued. If it wasn’t so ridiculous, I would have laughed out loud: a deadlock because they couldn’t agree who should reverse first.
It was good to get the bike over 50 mph. Sitting in traffic for four hours in temperatures above 40°C hadn’t been good for her engine, even if I had turned it off several times to try to cool it down, so after putting a decent distance between myself and Calcutta, I stopped under a tree in a deserted spot to allow us both to recover. I’d been there for less than a minute when a small group of Indian men appeared. I looked around. The landscape was empty, yet somehow they’d appeared from somewhere. More people arrived and soon I was surrounded by about thirty Indian men, all of them staring and pushing closer for a better look.
I wondered if maybe they’d never seen a bike like mine before and guessed they’d never imagined one being ridden by a woman. After a few minutes I realized I wasn’t going to be left alone, so I dipped my eyes and ignored them until a faint murmuring started to spread through the crowd. Looking up, I noticed one of the men pointing at the two large cylinders that stuck out from the sides of the BMW engine.
‘Oooh . . . double engine . . . double engine,’ the man was saying. A second man, his head poking over the speaker’s shoulder for a closer look, took up the chant.

‘Oooh . . . double engine. . . double engine,’ said the second Indian, turning to a third man at his side. ‘Double engine . . .’
Spreading quickly through the crowd, the double-engine mantra was repeated from man to man, with all the authority of the truly clueless suddenly considering themselves experts. Aware that thirty pairs of eyes were watching my every move, I put on my helmet and gloves, slid myself onto my bike and pressed the starter motor. When the engine burst into life, the entire crowd gasped and jumped back.
‘Oooh . . . selfie start . . . selfie start.’
Again a mantra rippled through the crowd, but this time it was less sure, as if they couldn’t quite believe what they were seeing. Riding off, I wondered what they would tell their friends and family that evening – and whether anyone would ever believe them.
I rode on through flat barren land crawling with people, individual villages difficult to distinguish because they merged into one continual village lining the road. As the sun dipped towards the horizon, I checked my watch. Riding for ten hours, I’d covered less than 100 miles. India was certainly going to be a slow process.

Read an excerpt from the third leg of Elspeth Beard's journey: "Part 4: Kathmandu to Home."
And find Lone Rider on our website, HERE