What is it really like cycling in India?

“You must be mad” was the usual response when we told people that we were planning to spend 2 months cycling in India.  “What about the traffic, the heat, the dust, the hassle, the begging, malaria, ‘Delhi belly’…….and what about your age?”.  It is true that we are at the  north end of our 50s and we didn’t really have a plan other than to set off from Kanyakumari, the most southern tip of India, on New Year’s Day and head north. It would also be true to  say that we had some of those same underlying anxieties, but that did not deter us from flying off on a wintry December day and landing some time zones later in the soft enveloping  subtropical warmth of South India.

Although we had landed at Trivandrum airport, Bernie’s bicycle had not and was still lurking in the depths of Dubai airport where our delayed flight had left us sprinting across the vast concourse for our connection. Happily she was reunited with her bike the next day and after experiencing the first of many magical sunsets, joining  the colourful, swirling masses of Indian tourists and pilgrims on New Year’s Eve, we were ready to set off on a cycling trip that was like no other we had done.

Our key anxiety about traffic quickly diminished as we were lulled into a steady rhythm on the quiet, palm lined back roads of Kerala.  Entering any town or village though was like flicking a ‘chaos’ switch.  The peace of the country road was replaced by hysterical hooting from any and all vehicles. We quickly learnt that there is some order in the madcap Indian traffic. It all depends on your size, regardless of whether, in the European mind-set, you may think you have right of way. Bicycles give way to tuk tuks, tuk tuks to motorbikes, motorbikes to cars, cars to lorries and buses and everyone gives way to cows – of which there were many ambling along the roads be they the smallest of back roads or the middle of large cities.

The wonders of modern technology meant that with the combination of a GPS Garmin and ‘googlemaps’ we could almost always find small quiet back roads wherever we went. What this couldn’t tell us was the state of the road and so it was always a bit of a leap into the unknown. Often a smooth road would deteriorate to a state where there was more ‘pot hole’ than tarmac but in spite of the battering that gave to our bikes and our bones it was always preferable to the busy roads. It meant we were often cycling through small villages and towns where, judging from the response of cheering and waving locals, they had rarely, if ever, seen European tourists pass through, and certainly not  two aged cyclists clothed in Lycra and laden with panniers.

Wherever we went we were invariably greeted with smiles and kindness and people appeared proud that we had chosen to cycle through their village.  Inevitably people approached us when we stopped but were polite and respectful and we rarely felt crowded out or intimidated.  The most usual request was for a ‘selfie’, an obsession of the Indians who never seem to take a photo without their own visage in the frame.

We got into the swing of our cycling in verdant, fruit laden, coastal Kerala, peddling between one beautiful beach and the next, interspersed with being punted round the supremely relaxing web of backwaters.  It was time to leave this bliss and turn inland into the Western Ghats.  This mountain range runs 1600km just inland from the coast from Mumbai to the tip of Tamil Nadu. Although the old Raj towns in the Ghats are referred to as ‘Hill’ stations these were proper mountains, the size of many in the Alps. The Ghats are older than the Himalayas and one the worlds 10 ‘hottest biodiversity hot spots’. We puffed and panted our way zigzagging through this amazing and diverse landscape taking in wonderful scenery, fantastic wildlife sanctuaries and tea and coffee plantations. We reached the highest Hill Station at Ooty by taking the irresistible ‘Toy’ steam train  – but only after queuing from 4.30 in the morning for ‘unreserved’ tickets and filling out forms in triplicate to stow the bikes in a mini luggage van.

From Ooty we whooshed down the 36 hairpin bends on what is alleged to be the steepest road in southern India and into Mudumalai Tiger Reserve.  When we arrived at our hotel they were somewhat surprised to see us on bikes as cycling and walking through the reserve is not allowed.  The chances of being pounced upon by a tiger in the middle of the day while peddling along the road were pretty remote but we did learn that there is a real risk from rogue elephants and fatal attacks in the local villages were not uncommon.  Luckily we did not meet a rampaging elephant and arrived safely but we did pile our bikes and kit into a jeep the following day to leave the reserve for our onward journey into the state of Karnataka.

Our route took us further inland to the grand city of Mysore with its magnificent palace then north again to the 12th century Hoysala temples covered in incredible intricate carvings.  Then turning west again to the coast for some laid back rest at the lovely beaches at Gokharna.

We were then on a northern trajectory up the coast to Goa. This tiny state, which was only wrested from the Portuguese to become part of India in 1961, has been a tourist magnet for decades.  This came as a bit of a shock after the remote, rural areas we had been cycling through but also delivered us treats.  Food generally had been magnificent with roadside samosas and pakoras, freshly fried in front of our eyes being particularly good for hungry cyclists.  But we took guilty pleasure in pizza and beer in the backpacker hangouts.

Goa was over in a flash and before we knew it we were crossing the bridge into the state of Maharashtra.  Instantly it felt like another planet. Gone was the smooth tarmac, the near continuous beach resorts, the signs in English and Russian and the multinational assortment of tourists.    The back roads in this southern part of Maharashtra were very remote. Villages were few and far between and much poorer. Here the fingers of the Ghats meet the sea, cleaved by deep river valleys.  This was cycling at its hardest – steep up and down, up and down, up and down.  Road surfaces were often appalling where the monsoon rains had washed the tarmac away.  Shops and accommodation were sparse and the days were long. The lack of infrastructure meant lack of development and we came across long beautiful beaches that were totally empty.  The days were interspersed with river crossings – some by bridges but more often by ferries. On the bigger rivers these were large and small vehicle ferries but with the smaller river crossings we were often not quite sure what we would find or if a crossing really existed.  They always did, often on a small passenger boat and even on a couple of occasions by a small canoe.  One of the great things about India is that the people are totally undaunted by a challenge – and yes you can fit 2 bikes, 6 panniers and 8 people into one canoe!

As the Maharastran coast got nearer to Mumbai it eventually became more developed and the Ghats finally ran out of ripples. A final ferry took us from unspoilt coast into the heart of Mumbai within an hour where we were welcomed by the magnificent Gate of India.

With our flight home fixed from Delhi, we elected to take the overnight sleeper from Mumbai to Udaipur in Rajasthan.  That, we smugly thought, would also avoid having to cycle out of Mumbai – until we found that the rail terminus was 16km away.  Probably our most unpleasant 16km of cycling in choking fumes, we survived the city traffic, only to find googlemaps had brought us to the wrong side of the station.  We had to push our bikes and clamber over railway tracks to find our way in to the ‘parcel office’ where we were required to book our bikes on to the train. After numerous forms were filled in we left the bikes in their hands with some trepidation but with the typical mix of Indian bureaucracy and technology we soon received a text to say the bikes were loaded on the train.

This second part of our trip was a zigzag course through the state of Rajasthan, an area of vast desert that oozes with temples, palaces and forts of astounding magnificence.  After our weeks in and out of the Ghats this cycling was flat, flat, flat and one could even say  a little tedious at times, but the architectural delights more than made up for this.  Updaipur, Jodhpur, Osian, Pushkar, Ajmer,  Bundi and Jaipur– all with  their own character, history and  cultural wonders.  Again we were cycling through back roads and through rural Rajasthani villages where we were as likely to see camels as cows and saw how they eked out a living from the inhospitable terrain wherever water could be found for irrigation. At Ranthambhor Tiger reserve our Rajasthan experience was crowned by seeing a magnificent Bengal tiger in the wild.

Thinking of cycling in India? Then do it! Why? Because you will experience India from the ground up, at a pace that fills you with its vibrancy, colour, clamour, and richness.  Every sense will be left tingling. You will live the diversity of cultures, each state as different as each European country is from each other and absorb the centuries of history. You will cycle through tiny rural villages and through cities of mindboggling enormity. You will see incredible scenery and a wonder of wildlife. Most of all you will be immersed with the people and experience their kindness, their smiles, their warmth and humour.

We like to feel that arriving by bicycle we come as ourselves, with little impact on the communities we cycle through. We are still tourists but don’t come with a label of  ‘rich’ or ‘western’ or ‘outsider’ (although of course we are all 3) but are seen more as a curiosity and, I hope, as people who embrace India with all its idiosyncrasies. We were told repeatedly by both Indian people and other visitors, that we were an “inspiration”. Being coyly British this was always faintly embarrassing but if it means that we were inspiring people to be brave and travel independently, to take the side road without quite knowing what it will bring, inspiring people to start cycling and build up fitness whatever your age and bring a smile to the faces of those we pass by, however fleeting that interaction, then we are pleased that we have been able to give something back to this amazing country.

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