India: Cyclists' India: an A - Z

DAVE COOK rode into the exotic clamour of India and came out with a potpourri of impressions. Photography by SUE DARLOW


Forget the description 'traveller' so beloved of guidebooks and backpackers. To the local people we are all tourists - full stop. Tourists have responsibilities. If you ignore these on a package tour it can cause annoyance. On a bicycle, ignore them at your peril.

However, an attitude of respect, curiosity and good humour will be repaid many times over. "Going with the flow" won't do on a bike. You need clear objectives to carry you through each day, and throughout your journey. Without them you will be becalmed in a Sargasso Sea made up of heat, crowds and exasperation.

You will never ride alone. If you want solitude, forget India. Everywhere, you and your bicycle (unless you buy a local 1000 rupee Hero Honda - the world's biggest-selling bike) will be the centre of attention, often of large crowds. Unflagging gregariousness and good humour is very wearying, so you will need to work out inoffensive ways of dealing with wall to wall curiosity in order to preserve your sanity.


After Islamic, officially dry, Pakistan, my alcohol taste buds were tumescent at the frontier. Although weak by British standards, Indian beer has variety, flavour, and beautiful names: Pink Flamingo, Kingfisher, Sun, Guru. However, it is relatively expensive.

Sometimes it is also very difficult to find a pleasant place to drink your beer. Bars are usually dimly lit, cheerless places, where no women go.

Spirits, on the other hand, are cheap in 'drinking states' like Punjab and local brews are flavour of the month. Bagpiper, 'a subtle blend of Indian and Scotch malts', is unlikely to be spearheading a whisky export drive.


Chai is the scalding sweet and milky tea. All the ingredients are boiled together and served in a small glass. It is a pick-me-up like no other. Addiction becomes total. Chai houses abound along the road, providing pumps to wash at, shade, food, and the company of lorry drivers. They also provide water to drink.

On a bike, the conventional wisdom of drinking only boiled or bottled water is impossible to follow. Liquid must pour in at the same rate as you sweat it out. Mineral water is available only in large towns, and anyway, Indian people cynically suppose it to be nothing but bottled tap water. Stick to places with a pump in sight.

Drink plenty of the delicious concoctions of crushed fruit and sugar cane but without ice. Pour coconut milk into yourself. And chai. That, at least, has been boiled for hours.


The greatest risk by far is from the lorries and coaches that thunder along India's GT (Grand Trunk) roads, airhorns blaring in fearsome frenzy. Might is right. In the caste system of the roads, bicyclists are barely superior to pedestrians.

Drivers expect cyclists to drop out of their way onto the 'hard shoulder', which is so rutted and evil they never use it themselves for fear of getting stuck. They park in the middle of the road, fencing out the traffic with a circle of stones and bricks. They move on, leaving these mysterious rings to mystify the daydreaming cyclist

You can try to wave back into lane a vehicle positioning itself for an overtaking charge; sometimes the effrontery of this act by a mere cyclist makes them pause. You then have several seconds to decide whether you are facing a psychopath.

Cycling in the cities is like riding surf. You surge along on the crest, occasionally risking a 'wipe-out' in a maelstrom of cars, cows and pedestrians. The cows amble nonchalantly against the torrent of traffic. When it's all too much, they lie down in the middle of it.

Most other fears are in the mind. If you keep your money in a belt and lock your bedroom door at all times India is a safe place for the tourist.


Indian food is a continual delight As a cyclist you must shovel in the carbohydrates, and plates of rice and wheat chapattis do just this. Meat is usually tough and gristly unless you pay top prices.

Roadside cafes offer basic, and delicious, vegetarian food, and the various lentil dishes are packed with protein.

In the north, food is not that spicy, especially if you leave the chillies on one side. Ingredients are limited, but are cooked in a huge variety of ways. Even the extremely bland cheese becomes a thing of wonder when roasted in a tandoor (a clay oven) or battered in mouthwatering pakora.


In the film 'Kiss of the Spiderwoman', two male prisoners face desperate times. One of them teaches his more conventionally heroic cell-mate his survival skill - the ability to fantasise in times of stress. Cycling in India is not like being in prison, on the contrary, it is very liberating. Yet the going can be tough and lonely. You need to find the way to give your fantasies free range when the roads and crowds trap you.


'One country, many religions' was Nehru's slogan, and cycling across India you see why. The power of religious belief is ever present. Indians speak of their myths as if they happened yesterday. During religious festivals, chanting processions and religious insignia adorn the length of the land. Recently, Hindu fundamentalists have been fanning the communalist passions that could deny Nehru's principle and thus destroy India itself.


The need for water, a fan and security makes camping impracticable and the cheapness of hotel accommodation makes it unnecessary. However, the term 'hotel' covers a multitude of sins, and you will probably sleep in them all, from a roadside rope bed to an oasis of creature comforts. Even the latter are ridiculously cheap by European standards.

Insist on cleanliness. Whether your room is dirty or not depends not on price but on the attitude of the owner. Europeans who don't Visit' India but 'experience' it can end up arguing passionately about a few rupees with very poor people, calling it 'bargaining', yet put up with filthy rooms and dirty sheets from hoteliers. It would be better if cleanliness, not money, were the visitor's standard.


For the outsider, India is at least two different countries. What makes the difference is not religion but tourism itself. In tourist India every offer has an angle and 'no' is never taken for an answer. In the India of the open road, people will invite you home not to try to sell you something but because they are hospitable.

How I wish that I could arrange for the tourists I met in Delhi and Benares, who cursed their treatment, (which is the relationship of tourist to the market) to spend just one day in the roadside chai houses where you never need to count your change, and dealings are direct.


Joy stalks the road of this sunny land, capturing the gloomy cyclist. Your moods change very fast, veering from exasperation and despondence to peaks of enthusiasm and delight. The simplest things can cause the upturn, but there are some sure­fire favourites. The late afternoon, with the day's work behind you, the shadows lengthening across the road,

and the sun a golden radiance through the trees, is a time of infectious serenity. Early morning starts take you through a still beauty as the villages come to life. Spontaneous acts of friendship blow away the darkest melancholy.


On the road, hospitality knows no bounds. In more prosperous places paying for a chai is difficult. Mechanics will weld a broken bike part free of charge. Of course, you can feel half killed with kindness and disengagement can be difficult. Once a group of friends almost came to blows over who should have the honour of putting me up. This is a pleasant problem to experience!


Due to India's 'make it under licence' policy, lorries are always home-grown. Because of the realities of economic life they are always overladen as they blast their way along the GT roads. Breakdowns occur on a massive scale and the wrecks of crumpled vehicles litter the roads. Bihar, the poorest state, is a graveyard for those lorries which can go no further.

like 19th-century cowboys, when drivers pull into a chai house, the first task is to water the steed. Only then do crews refresh themselves. Sometimes, lines of lorries are driven axle-deep into the rivers beside the water buffalo to be washed clean of the dust that clogs up both man and machines. Such endearing moments are rare.

The juggernaut is always there, sometimes in your dreams as well. But, unlike Captain Ahab's dream of destroying Moby Dick, you have to come to terms with the lorry in your waking life.


You can live incredibly economically on the road, but I found I needed periodic moves upmarket to recharge my batteries, which tended to become exhausted by doing everything on the cheap. Even this is relative. A good hotel often costs only £2. Little is gained by changing money on the street, and the bank gives you the change certificate you might need if you buy a rail ticket. An American Express card opens the door to money and the company's poste restante system.


All volume controls come with only one position - maximum. The 'video coach' is a particular offender. Its hurtling progress is announced many miles in advance by a soundtrack so loud that it obliterates all other noise. But beneath the crashing superbass a more subtle rhythm plays. Indian rural life offers a delicate pattern of intriguing and alluring sounds. On the bike, your antennae are perfectly tuned to their pitch.


Unspeakable road surfaces; crowds, cows, camels, dogs, 'sleeping policemen' -unannounced and seemingly placed at random; undulating rivers of congealed asphalt which radiate from the crown of the road. In the poorest states the GT roads are like cart tracks. But at least they are flat.


The desperate poverty in which huge numbers of people live is all around you on the road. The beggars, relentlessly insistent, personalise whatever position you have adopted about giving to them. Even more alarming is the extent of unemployment and pitiable wage levels, with the caste system holding the struggle for improvement to continuous ransom. Better to feel anger than pity.


Oh, the blissful stillness of the occasional stretch of smooth and empty road, of the sandy wastes that gird the great rivers. Oh, the welcome quiet that greets you when you turn off the pulsing highway to munch apples in a shady field. Senses numbed by too much melodrama slowly return to life.


The energy expended across the nation each day by the cyclerickshaw wallahs must-be enough to light India's cities for a week. It could also be doneon the energy wasted. The provision of a full oil can and a pair of toe clips for each rider, and instruction as to their use, would revolutionise rickshaw ergonomics.

The basic principle of all Indian transport is that every vehicle pulls many times the weight for which it was designed. Diminutive rickshaw wallahs strain in front of cargoes which would require a minibus here. In Amritsar I saw 18 people clinging to a cab while its rider pedalled towards an early grave.

It is not easy to feel the same solidarity with the motorised rickshaw. Like overloaded wasps they buzz through split-second gaps in the traffic. In Uttar Pradesh, they have Harley Davidsons pulling double-decker buses!


My 'hour of the furnaces' was in the Middle East and Pakistan, but if you cross north India in midsummer you will have one there too. By October the savage blast that stops you in your tracks and makes your tyres hiss in the melting tar, has faded. The sun has become a friend again.


Arching green tunnels shade many of the GT roads. North India is a land of trees and, in contrast to the Himalayan foothills, the policy seems to be to keep it that way. Wayside signs warn that 'a land without trees is a land without hope'. The ecological harmony of traditional ways means nothing is wasted. But these ways cannot handle modern technology and industrialisation is taking a terrible environmental toll.


Apart from the Soviet Union, there can be few other nations covering such a variety of languages, cultures, religions and ethnic groups. Unlike the Soviet Union, which is decentralising fast, India is trying to strengthen central state power at the expense of the regions.

In both the Punjab and Bihar, determined attempts have been under way to pull the nation apart. Religious bigotry has turned regions into powder kegs, ignited by insults, real or imagined. India is facing the greatest threats to its unity since partition.


Like the caste system, villages seem immunised against change. Outriders of modern times make their tentative probes along the GT roads: cash economy, education, electricity, drivers with outlandish tales. In the rural heartlands all work is done with prehistoric technology and backbreaking toil, while social conventions keep step.


After Islamic lands where women were all but invisible, it was a relief to reach a place where they are at least part of the picture - especially the part where work is done. And to the outsider the women are picturesque: the sari combines grace and flamboyance like no other clothing.

In the cities, especially Calcutta, there is a feeling of change. The worst forms of women's oppression, like the dowry system, grotesquely unequal pay, and the carrying of human excrement in leaking baskets on their heads, are becoming sites of political struggle. You feel that, although the issue is in doubt, the battle for liberation has been joined.


As an outsider, you often want to know the thoughts of, say, a young woman paddling in her sari as she watches a Westerner swimming freely; or the reactions of an agricultural labourer on learning that your bike cost more than he will earn in a year. But our motives and opinions are opaque too. Expect to be cross-examined.


A cyclist's progress through India is like that of the Pied Piper. Children come running whenever you appear. Some want baksheesh, most just want to stare. They stand in silent rows, slowly returning your smile. They come from work, not play. Indian children do not stay children long. Even the toddlers have tinier ones in tow, gravely shovelling rice into their mouths like a mother bird.


Sometimes you feel as though you are in a zoo. But so must they as you stare at them. On a bike you are uniquely privileged to move among a marvellous people in a relatively unobtrusive way, and observe them going about their daily lives. But on a bike, you are always a tourist; always moving on.



Indian file

â–º Languages There are 14 major languages in India and around 200 minor languages/dialects. Hindi is the official national language but is not spoken everywhere. English is widely spoken.

â–º Transport

Trains are the main form of transport. Buying tickets can take hours and frazzle your nerves.

â–º Accommodation Ranges from luxury hotels to tables in chai houses with every standard and price in between.

â–º Climate

India is so large, and the topography so varied, that the weather in the south bears no relation to that in the north. The heat begins to increase in the plains from around February until by May it has become

overpowering. The monsoon starts in the extreme south around June and moves north to affect the whole country by July.

During the monsoon the rains do not fall continuously but it rains hard for a short while every day. The monsoon can disrupt travel plans as rivers rise and sweep away road and rail links, and flight schedules can be disrupted.

â–º Health Polio, cholera, typhoid vaccinations are recommended as is an anti-malarial protection. Rabies is widespread and you should seek medical attention immediately if you are bitten.


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