“Would you like to come to my wedding?” I receive as a Slack message from a friend in the Drupal community.
“Sure! When is it? Where?”
“It’s in November, in Kota”
“Oh - wow - yeah, I’ll come if I can!”
At this point, it seemed like a good idea to look at a map - where on Earth is Kota????
Where on Earth is Kota?
My friend, Surabhi, lives near Delhi but grew up in the city of Kota, in Rajasthan, about 500 kilometers south of Delhi. The city has over a million inhabitants and is known for its palaces and gardens.
Well, I guess I needed a flight, a hire bike, and some wedding clothes!
I rode a little on another friend’s Royal Enfield the last time I was in India, so the idea of flying into Delhi and hiring a bike to ride down for a couple of days to the wedding via an overnight in Jaipur seemed perfect. Then, back through the countryside, over from Rajasthan into Uttar Pradesh to Agra and the Taj Mahal before returning to Delhi for more wedding parties (oh yes, this is India!) began to form in my mind.
I hired a bike via Royal India Bikes and, I've got to say, they were really flexible as I continued my preparations. For no sensible reason at all, I chose a Royal Enfield Bullet. Why not, after all?
Oh - and handy tip - the owner will happily keep the cash deposit in UK sterling rather than changing money back and forth.
Flight booked with Gulf Air, it was time to get clothed...
I was reluctantly talked into getting something that would fit in at the wedding, so a friend and I went over to a place called "Lady Asia" in Peterborough - to look for just the right thing! Three outfits later, I was ready.
Oh yeah, don't start expecting lots of pictures of me! I've always preferred being behind the lens rather than in front of it - maybe one at the end of the article, if it's going well. Sound like a deal?
As I knew that I would have to travel across Rajasthan on a motorbike anyway, I took advantage of the amazingly convenient, undercover, and free, motorbike parking right outside Terminal 3 at Heathrow. It was November, so I was in full heated gear but that would stay in the panniers of my bike at Heathrow - I wouldn't be needing that in India, for sure!
The plane was a little surreal. I ended up being the first (very, very) economy passenger onboard and their cabin decor was intensely monochrome - I actually began to wonder if my eyes had gone funny! Anyway, I did a surprisingly good job of chilling out for the flight to Delhi. We had a stopover in Bahrain which gave me a bit of a moment when I suddenly realised my laptop was covered in rainbow stickers as they security-scanned our carry-ons! As it happens, nobody cared one bit - just goes to show how I can easily assume the worst.
To be honest, they probably cared more about my helmet. I had taken my Schuberth helmet with me as it has the bluetooh in it and I could use my phone as a satnav. Of course, the speakers, antenna and all that must have looked very dodgy on the X-Ray.
I finally got into Delhi at about 10pm. The Rupee is a closed currency, so you can't get any before arriving. I've had a TransferWise card for a while now, and it's brilliant! Just walk up to a cash point in the airport and out comes money. Love it!
The Biking Begins
The next day (yeah, the hotel was that memorable!) I jumped on an auto (think tuk-tuk but in India) down to Royal India Bikes and they sorted out the Royal Enfield for me. They have quite a collection there! Lots of Himalayans, which I have promised to go back and take up into the Himalayas at some point.
I thought I was totally ready for Indian traffic after a day's ride the year before but that was down in Goa (I was speaking at a conference) and Delhi is a lot, lot more intense! Relax Rachel, you've got this!
To be honest, after an hour or so getting across Delhi and out onto the quieter roads to Jaipur, I felt a lot better. I had figured out that it's not chaotic driving at all - there is a system and it's a pretty good system. All the horns make sense - you beep as you are passing another vehicle to alert them. Other drivers do give way. Drivers do seem to look out for each other in a way I've never experienced in the UK. That, and the overall lower speeds, made me actually feel safer there than I do here sometimes!
Having said I felt safer, I'll still never get over traffic going both ways on the dual carriageways, though! I think I spend half the journey to Jaipur laughing to myself and shaking my head.
I do love their approach to the tollgates, though - just ride around the edges on the field!! I approve.
I did finally remember to take a picture of the bike! A Royal Enfield Bullet 500, in an olive green. I quite liked it!
Knowing that I would be travelling on the bike, I had made some hard, hard decisions on what I would take with me. However, getting three wedding outfits, other clothes, bits and pieces, and a wedding present into a small rucksack and a dry bag to strap to the bike with bungees was an achievement I will always be proud of!!
Honestly, when I was looking for a wedding present, I had max dimensions as top priority!
Instead of going straight into Jaipur, I went up a surprisingly steep hill to the Jaigarh Fort on the hill above the city. What a view!
The fort gave me what was probably my first opportunity to stretch my legs since leaving home. It was a lovely, relaxed place to wander around and I probably spent way too long there, which meant descending the hill as darkness approached.
"Don't ride at night!" I have been told again and again. And here I was, finding my hotel in the dark. I am genuinely rubbish at watching the clock. Was worth it, though.
Onward to Kota
I just continued down the main road to Kota, so nothing hugely exciting until I finally turned off the main road into Kota itself. Suddenly, things seemed far greener and a bit more relaxed than anywhere else I had been so far. I think I'm going to like this place.
I had a quick mission to wrap my present for the couple - I knew there was no chance delicate wrapping paper would survive the journey so got it done there. Anything is possible here, if you ask around.
Oh, and there was one surprise waiting for me in Kota – all the seven wonders!
The Dance Festival, Sangeet
The next day, I was invited to the pre-wedding sangeet - where members of the families perform dances they had been practising beforehand.
Surabhi's great aunt was the star of the show, if you ask me! Surabhi and Panshul seemed to enjoy it, anyway.
I wish I had more photos of the dancing. I was enjoying it too much and kind of forgot!
Okay, into wedding outfit number 2...
The day was here - and I soon realised it was going to be loud! A group of drummers seemed to lead the proceedings and get everybody in the party mood.
There was quite a while for guests to arrive and, well, that was good because there were a lot! I don't know how many but way, way more than I've ever seen at a wedding before!
Panshul arrived first, in an amazingly decorated Jeep. It seems some traditions truly are global.
Surabhi followed, underneath a canopy of flowers held aloft by, I think, her brothers.
Everything at this point was really loud. The drums, the people, everything.
On the stage, a curtain was drawn between them, and the wedding ceremony began. Well, the first wedding ceremony did! Surabhi and Panshul come from different regions of India and have quite different wedding ceremonies so they were celebrating them both.
The first part concluded in the curtain being dropped between them, rice being thrown, and them giving each other necklaces/garlands of more beads and flowers.
Dancing then broke out, of course!
Later, we moved onto Panshul's wedding ceremony, which seemed much quieter but more involved. Everything took place under a canopy draped in silks, led by a guru who had Panshul lighting a fire to signify the start of the marriage and them walking each other across seven piles of rice, a ceremony called Saptapadi. I loved every minute.
Anyway, that brings the actual wedding to an end. I've now danced around, drunk about three pints of cardamom tea, eaten more cake than I can bear and ready for some quiet time! Back to the hotel.
Of course, it's back to the hotel but not for long - there's a whole evening do to get ready for!!
Okay, into wedding outfit number 3...
We all returned, along with what seemed like half the population of Delhi, to the evening ceremony. I guess in many ways, this was much like a wedding reception that I'm used to in the UK, except that the food was much, much better!
It all took place outdoors, in an area that seemed about the size of a football field, surrounded with many different food options around the edges. At one end was a stage for photographs.
The couple arrived to the sound of a drone to get that all important footage and everybody mixed and enjoyed the evening.
One important part of the wedding reception seemed to be to ensure everyone got that important photograph with the newly wedded couple. This meant Surabhi and Panshul, plus various close members of the family, posing on stage with each and every family who attended - the queue, and there was an actual queue, seemed to go on forever!
Honestly, I don't know how they managed it.
The next day, I had a couple of days to myself to find my way back to Delhi "by the scenic route".
I set off in the direction of a place to stay I had found on Google Maps in the middle of the Palpur-Kuno Wildlife Sanctury. Seemed like a good plan to me!
The riding was far, far more interesting than the mainly dual carriageway rush down from Jaipur. I had that feeling I was really in India now!
The road I was following became more and more broken, to the point where very little tarmac was left. This is exactly what I was looking for, and I was so happy to be rolling along, enjoying the surroundings.
To be honest, it also made me realise that nobody needs a 500cc bike in India, it is simply too much bike. Even on the dual carriageways on the way down, I don't think I ever went above 80kmh the whole time. Here on the back roads, a smaller 200 or 300cc bike would have been less work. Lesson learned.
I hadn't found anywhere to pick up a SIM card for my phone in the last few days. I was relying on downloaded maps (TomTom) and getting Wi-Fi whenever I stopped. To be honest, it was quite refreshing to have that break from connectivity.
Until it wasn't.
I got to the place where the hotel was marked on the map. Except there was no hotel. There wasn't even building of any kind. This was a bit of a problem - I didn't exactly fancy spending the night outdoors, especially given the lack of gear I had with me.
I'm rather pleased with myself, though. Whilst I was a bit worried, I dealt with the situation and figured out that I could just ride through the other side of the wildlife sanctuary and on to the nearest city, where there were bound to be hotels. Sorted.
Well, it was quite a way! I enjoyed the riding but, somehow, having had that setback made me a little more jumpy than I would have been. Getting buzzed by some young guys on bikes in one of the towns I passed through felt more scary than it probably was in reality. That's just how minds work, I guess?
Stopping to get some cash in a town, I asked about hotels but none there - I made the decision to head all the way to Morena. This was going to mean doing that thing I had been told not to do again - riding in the dark!
I think sunset was about an hour before I got to the outskirts of Morena. It seemed to be a hugely dusty area and visibility was a challenge - especially as a lot of the other vehicles had their full beams on. Much as it felt wrong, I joined them.
My thoughts were to head for the central crossroads of two major roads in Morena. That was bound to be the place to find a hotel, I thought. Amazingly, I was right! There was a hotel but, when I asked about rooms, they were completely full.
The hotel manager, however, seemed to take over. Somehow, travelling on my own seems to bring a secret superpower - people want to look after me!
The manager rang around a few of the other hotels and found a place for me to stay. He tried multiple times to describe how to get there but he wouldn't hold his phone still enough for long enough to pin it on my own phone. In the end he grabs one of his staff member's mopeds and says "follow me!"
Then begins one of the most intense bits of riding I've ever done! We were weaving between the backstreets of an unfamiliar city, on unfamiliar roads at night and covered in whatever this dust was that was everywhere! I had wondered whether he was taking me somewhere I really didn't want to go but, at this stage, he was my best bet!
We did end up at another hotel, which strangely seemed to be further north on the main road I had just crossed to get to the hotel. I'm sure we didn't need the backstreets, but I was here, and I was thankful!
Goodness me, though, I was filthy!!
The hotel was lovely. Very, very simple but lovely. I think it was mainly for commercial travellers heading to Agra. Well, I guess I was in good company then, as that was my next destination, too!
One thing that did worry me, though, was no wifi. I had agreements with friends (and yeah, my mum!) that I'd call in every night when I got to the hotel, so they knew I was okay. That wasn't going to be possible on the one occasion it had gone a bit wrong!
I have to say, though, that the food in this hotel was amazing. Really tasty.
I had noticed during the ride through the wildlife sanctuary that my bike was getting low on oil. Real low.
The next day, I asked the hotel where I could get some and they directed me to a Royal Enfield service centre. I tried to explain to them that I just wanted some oil but they had the bike off me and on a ramp before I could stop them!
I tried again and again to say I didn't need a service, just a can of oil. I was worried what this was going to cost. 30 minutes later I knew I didn't need to worry - it cost me about £2.50!!
Heading north to Agra, I decided to keep things simple and stick to the main road!
I had a bit of a ride around Agra, checking around for hotels and deciding where to go. This must be what it was like to travel before the internet!
Having checked in, I got rid of most of my gear and headed out on the bike to explore. First stop, the train station to get some wifi! Wow - talk about busy! Still, the wifi was really good.
Next, Agra Fort for a look around - this place is huge! They had a really good system for parking the bike and buying a ticket to look around, and they looked after my helmet which was great. Can you imagine them being so accommodating at Sandringham House?
I finally noticed that the air quality was so low. This was late 2019 and, in the weeks leading up to the trip, it had been in the news back at home that there was a smog problem in Delhi and it was also severe here in Agra. Looking from the Red Fort, I could only just see the Taj Mahal only 1 or 2 kilometres away.
I spent a lot of time at the Red Fort. Hours. It really is somewhere where you can just let the day go by and I guess the very intense experiences I had been having for the last few days made the idea of just sitting and watching "not a lot" rather appealing!
I woke well before dawn. I wanted to ride up to the Taj Mahal and get there for dawn. I couldn't quite believe how busy it was, even at this time! Queueing was a thing here.
Getting in, I have to say, it is definitely worth a visit. Definitely go see the Taj Mahal and, much like the Red Fort, plan to spend hours just soaking it all up. I did.
Again, the smog added a "certain something" to the pictures I took. I know that I had quite an old camera (a FujiFilm X Pro1, I have the X Pro2 now) but most of my photos look like I have done something wrong with the settings. No, it really was that hazy!
Back to Delhi
So it was time to head back to Delhi.
I had spoken to another friend, Akanksha, who lives there and she said "Oh, you know what's happening tomorrow, don't you?".
"Oh, it's only Delhi Pride! You wanna go?"
So, I live in a small Norfolk town called King's Lynn. In 2019, we organised our first Pride event and were delighted to get a thousand people take part. Delhi is not a small Norfolk town...
"Yeah, if there's one thing we can do in Delhi, it's rustle up a crowd", Akanksha says to me as we are bouncing along in a crowd of ten thousand plus people.
So many different faces, all enjoying the day. Really happy to see this.
I Messed Up
The only thing was, having done all that we had done, I went back to the hotel to get ready and catch the final part of the wedding (it was split across Kota and Delhi) and I think I had just pushed myself too hard - I fell asleep!
I missed the last part of the wedding and I still feel guilty about that.
Shopping And Home
The next day, I was flying in the evening so had chance to do a little Delhi sightseeing and present buying for friends. I dropped my bags at Akanksha's and she arranged a car for me who was told all the places to take me; Dilli Haat, Qutub Minar for exploring.
Then, finally, onto an incredibly clinical-feeling and monochrome plane home.
But I did promise
I did promise an actual photo of me, didn't I? Oh yeah, I guess I have to, then...
[I wrote this article for the Women's International Motorcycling Association and it might appear in their newsletter soon. Hello to all those who have wandered over here to see the higher resolution photos 👋]