Books: India, The Shimmering Dream

In 1933, two students were the first people to ride a motorcycle overland from Europe to India. The story of their epic adventure aboard a 250cc two-stroke offers an ideal escape for riders spending time on the sofa…

Max Reisch and his companion Herbert Tichy were determined to travel overland to India through the Middle East in the early 1930s, despite an array of obstacles which would have foiled the average traveller. There was no defined route for much of the journey; hardly any roads and few camel tracks. Aged just 20, Max and Herbert had very limited experience of motorcycling, never mind international travel. They were students, not exactly penniless but with extremely limited resources. They had to cross some of the toughest terrain on the planet, endure deserts, mountains and swamps of shifting sands, and brave unfamiliar societies and occasionally hostile residents.

Their transport for this ambitious adventure might raise a few eyebrows, too. The boys took what they were offered in the form of sponsorship from the Puch factory – and that was a 250cc two-stroke. The Puch had to carry the two men plus all their kit, total 425lb or so, for the 8000 mile marathon from Vienna to Istanbul, then across Turkey and Syria to Baghdad in Iraq, to Teheran in Persia (as it was then), avoiding Afghanistan (too dangerous to cross in 1933; plus ca change, eh?) which meant enduring the inhospitable awfulness of the Baluchistan deserts and into India. Once they reached India itself, the travellers had much of the sub-continent to traverse, seeing Lahore and Delhi en route to Bombay.

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The first crash happened on the first day and bent the bike’s forks. Still, falling off was something which Reisch and Tichy had to get used to because they did it several times on most days. They lost count of the number of times they hit the dirt when the terrain overcame Reisch’s riding skills. To be fair, just keeping the bike upright and moving in roughly the right direction on tarmac would be a considerable accomplishment. The photos show a machine fully laden with fuel and water, with hardly any motorcycle visible at all. During the journey, Reisch learned how to ride along tram tracks and even on sand-strewn railway lines, because these challenging routes were safer than the appalling options…

This paperback or ebook came out in 2010 and was the first English translation of Reisch’s story. That tale has been sympathetically rendered into modern English which retains a real flavour of interwar style and language. It’s extremely easy to read, unlike many translations which can be stilted, and steers a careful path between anachronistic and inappropriate phrasing, and old-fashioned archaisms which can cause the narrative flow to stumble. You forget that you’re reading a translation at all, which is a credit to the work, and can concentrate on ‘hearing’ Reisch’s voice describing his adventures.

‘The Shimmering Dream’ was originally written several years after the original trip, when Reisch had far more experience with overseas adventures. This is really obvious from the tone of the tale. At times he feels the need to apologise for his youthful insensitivity or lack of foresight. At other points he sounds wistful, slightly amazed himself at what he and Tichy encountered and how they survived. It becomes apparent during the telling of the adventure that this early overland expedition became the benchmark of Reisch’s life. He made many other journeys, but this one was his introduction to the world beyond Europe. Each astonishing, fresh encounter is recalled with clarity – and with nostalgia.

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This isn’t a blow-by-blow account. It would need a book ten times the width to accomplish that, and it would not be any better were it any longer. The high points and low points of the journey make for a fascinating read. Death shadows the pair in the form of heat exhaustion, dehydration, malnutrition, disease, infection and military attack. They skirt perilous areas where just weeks before hundreds were killed when conflict breaks out. Another motorcyclists travelling on a parallel route dies along the way, and they find his lonely grave when they pass the spot. They rest in the shade of the Puch during the middle of the day, when a man might die from the heat if he strayed into the sunshine. They’re bitten constantly by sand-flies, carrying unpleasant infections and causing fearsome fevers. And then they have to deal with the border bureaucracy…

Yet Reisch and Tichy also encounter the best of humanity in all its forms along their route. They are shown hospitality by the humblest desert nomads and the princes of Indian palaces. They are tempted to stay, safe and welcome in the homes of strangers rather than continue with their arduous trek; ‘we had to conquer our weaker selves’ says Reisch, promising to stay in touch with dozens of kind hosts along the way. ‘Alas, we never did… when it comes down to it, the traveller is a thoroughly ungrateful human being’.

Without labouring any points, Reisch gently reveals his personal philosophy to the reader through the book, amid tales of scorpions, bush fires and crazed camels. ‘There were many things on our journey which we could take in only superficially, but we did so with wholehearted enthusiasm. I do not envy Americans who slave away their entire lives to go around the world in their old age. For them, such a journey is the fulfilment of a life but for us it was an education.’

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Reisch shrugs off the stripped-down, arduous nature of life in the saddle, riding across barren landscapes with only a compass and the sun for guidance. ‘This was how we lived in the desert, because we were young and did not need the approval of civilisation and because our eyes were set on our final goal, the wonderland of India.

‘Nothing is achieved by fussing over trivialities.’

Just so.

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The Puch – amazingly – not only survived the journey all the way to Mumbai, but the seals which had been placed on the engine and gearbox at the start of the expedition were intact at the end. The motor only needed an occasional de-coke. The rest of the machine was comprehensively mullered; not least the wheels, which broke so many spokes that they were almost square…

This book offers a wonderful world-view from the 1930s alongside an epic tale, told modestly and without hyperbole. The original photos, 90 or more of them, are treasures in themselves and reproduce extremely well. The maps which accompany each geographical section are a genuine aid to visualising the extent of this journey. I enjoyed reading ‘The Shimmering Dream’ as much as Danny Liska’s ‘Two Wheels…’ or Ted Simon’s original ‘Jupiter’s Travels’.

Thoroughly recommended.


India, The Shimmering Dream by Max Reisch is published by Veloce (who are offering a 35% discount on all titles during the CV19 shutdown). It’s also available at Amazon:

Words by Rowena Hoseason

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