When guidebook writer Mikey Leung tries to reach Bangladesh from Nepal on the back of a Royal Enfield motorcycle, he discovers obstinate customs officials, flooded highways, and the magic reached via Bengal's bamboo bridges.
"We'll cross that bridge when we get there."
Whoever coined that expression hasn't seen Bengal's bridges, or tried crossing them on my thumper. And as I sized up the bamboo bridge before me, the expression never carried such weight. If the bridge didn't hold, a punishing 15–meter drop into a muddy river awaited me.
The word "bridge" usually invokes images of steel, concrete and asphalt: Sydney Harbour, London Tower, and the like. I'd like to forward a new candidate: The Bengali Bamboo Bridge. Seen spanning the various rivers of West Bengal and Bangladesh, they come in dozens of varieties and are the Enfielder's worst nightmare.
The particular version I faced had slats of bamboo lashed together by hand and were laid across the tracks of a decaying rail bridge. I shook my head wearily; surely this was not worth the risk. Then another local motorcyclist came up the opposite side, dismounted and pushed it across serenely, like he'd done it a dozen times. Once across, he met my wide–eyed surprise with a coy smile.
It was possible after all. With a horde of 50 spectators, I rolled the thumper onto the bridge while a local helped maneuver the laden bike from behind. The bamboo bowed and clattered, but then held with a hidden strength beyond its appearance.
So why was I crossing these blasted bridges anyways? Not normally one for travel masochism, the problem was that I'd already tried road border crossings. Twice. Painfully, I learned what the real obstacle was in getting an Indian–registered thumper into Bangladesh: Indian customs officials. Even the Bengali Bamboo Bridge turned out to be far more reliable.
To cross most international borders with a vehicle, you normally require paperwork known as a Carnet de Passage en Douane. You part with a significant chunk of money for the carnet (often at least the cost of the vehicle), but then you are free to drive into and out from any country that accepts it.
When I purchased the thumper back in Nepal, I received real ownership documents but definitely no carnet. Fresh from an Annapurna trek with my writing partner Belinda, there were no plans for motorcycle madness, let alone trying to drive one back to Bangladesh. But through fate or intention (probably both) we found ourselves ogling the motorcycles at Pokhara's Hearts and Tears Motorcycle Club. The club had a black Enfield Thunderbird in the back. It was three times my weight, the biggest motorcycle I'd ever ridden.
Lured by the Enfield Legend
For those who have never met the Royal Enfield, it's the low, single–cylinder pulsing that nobly rises above the clamor and chaos of crowded South Asian cities. Called the "Harley Davidson of India," its idle sounds like a pounding heartbeat, earning it the nickname "thumper." Full of old–school style, the bikes are a throwback to the riding days of yesteryear.
The next day we found the club's sociable co–owner, Englishman Rick Magill, elbow–deep in a greasy customization job at the garage. Between lengthy swigs of Tuborg, he gave us the low–down on the sturdy thumpers. I found myself falling for the legend behind the brand. For foreign motorcyclists who take on India—the kind who can't afford a BMW GS, let alone ship it anywhere in the world—the Royal Enfield is the obvious choice.
I was hooked but not yet sold. For days I racked myself over the decision to buy. First, I would be risking not only my own life on South Asia's free–for–all roads, but also Belinda's. Second, the detour also meant discarding return plane tickets and copping visa extension fees. Third, we would have to carry our laptops and expensive camera gear in rattling bike boxes. Finally there were the borders: according to the Lonely Planet it should be possible to cross into Bangladesh without the carnet, just as you could cross between India and Nepal.
"We'll cross that bridge when we get there," I ignorantly decided, and soon found myself at the ATM withdrawing wads of rupees. A thousand road kilometers and two international borders stood between us and Dhaka.
The Rubber Meets…the Reality
Our first day of riding did not bode well. Piloting an overloaded thumper with a pillion passenger while simultaneously struggling to overtake sluggish, smoky coal trucks made for excruciatingly slow progress. A sleepless night in a fetid truck stop hotel made the next day's arrival into clamorous Kathmandu a total shock. Our outlook was suddenly more circumspect.
On the third day, television pictures showed our planned route ravaged by flooding. The Kosi River had broken through an embankment and abruptly changed course, sweeping away sections of Nepal's Eastern Highway. Riding merrily through Darjeeling's tea fields was no longer on our menu. To Belinda's credit she stayed on the thumper, although she seriously contemplated pulling the plane ticket out of her pack right then and there.
Day four saw us turn south to avoid the flood, encountering no problems at the Indian border. Unlike India's wealthier states, we discovered a lawless Bihar that lurches on in the dark. Decaying highways meant we were playing pothole slalom, while searing sunshine and grungy hotels—even by Indian standards—made conditions abhorrent. It was a post–apocalyptic, Mad Max nightmare, featuring set extras all with brown skin and minus the silver–haired '80s hairdos. We hit the skids when we discovered the road was lined with dozens of piles of human feces, and that I'd stepped in one such mushy mound dismounting the bike. A solemn wet chunk fell on the motorcycle seat.
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