India, the plains and people : small useful guide.
I had started by writing a long story by chapters, by state traversed, which turned out to be severely boring. Instead, I'll make a list of tips that will surely turn into a metaphorical story.
India then. A little apprehension at first. I had already been twice in the country, and I knew that it can be very tiring. So on the bike, on the roads, everything remained to be discovered.
I had also read elsewhere that cyclists felt relatively safe on the roads, sometimes more than in many countries, for various reasons.
So here it is, after two special chapters on Ladakh and the Spiti valley, here is the rest of India that we have seen and traveled.
More than a daily report, it is here a small list of notes and advices that I think are important to share.
We passed through a few states on our way down from the Spiti valley, all the way to the Nepalese border.
Time was a bit against us and the idea of driving everything seemed difficult. We had to make choices, and thus cut the road with trains and buses. We didn't know where, when or how. We made it up as we went along. Here is the result, here is the route we followed and how we followed it.
One name, many countries:
Well, I'm going to kick in an open door, but yes, India is big.
So what I say here, only concerns the meager road we have traveled. So has to be taken with a pinch of salt, regarding the road we took and my own experience.
That said, each region has its own languages, cultures and little things. So don't take everything that is said here as the truth of a whole country.
Generally speaking, in our experience, the welcome was always warm and curious. We always felt at ease, apart from the mass of people watching you.
Those who spoke English would come running to help us. This is far from being the case for everyone, so in a crowd of people, those who speak English quickly stand out as they are quick to give you their number and offer to call them if you have problems or need translation.
There seems to be a real respect for cyclists, and we didn't feel that we were in the way with our bikes and our presence. Often everyone bent over backwards to help us, whether it was with transport or directions or various searches. A question of beauty :
It is sometimes a bit redundant, far from the extravagance of the northern landscapes and mountains. But the beauty is elsewhere. In the details, in the life that unfolds. Always be attentive, and learn to detect beauty in the difference of daily life and existences.
Often linked to the population density of a state, it also forms very quickly in the middle of nowhere.
We realised that it was enough for a curious person to stop us for all those who passed to stop. The crowd forms very quickly, but I never felt oppressed. There was a kind of natural distance that was very pleasant and that let us breathe and move in spite of the crowd.
There are often few people who speak English at these times. And it's often someone who translates what we're doing and where we're coming from to the rest of the crowd. For those who had not yet dared to ask us for a selfie, it often translates for the rest of the crowd the question on everyone's lips, do we accept selfies.
It's different in the tourist places, where the local tourists already have a certain level of life and therefore of education. They often speak English and you sometimes find yourself with a small crowd of people asking you questions about all sorts of things. As fluent English unlocks conversations, curiosity becomes more divers then.
But on the whole, you quickly find a crowd of people around you on your bike, coming out of nowhere like a crowded alley. It goes fast, very fast. But to be honest, I have always found people respectful and have never felt in danger, neither for myself nor for my possessions. Curiosity:
A lot of curiosity, but I found it really healthy most of the time. A curiosity that often translated into the question: where do we come from?
Not only because for many it is the only question they know, but also because from what I understood, travelling by bike is really respected.
Wherever you are in India, it often means that you come from far away and go even further.
Sometimes it was people who wanted to practice English. Or just offering to help us find our way, or for future translations. A lot of goodwill.
Well, whatever the reason, it didn't stop everyone who passed by from stopping to see what was in the crowd.
It's like an evidence, if everybody stops, you have to stop, it's because something is happening. But always with distance. Always approaching gently and politely.
The interesting thing is that on the surface I got the impression that the curiosity about us was reaching all layers of the population.
A few funny stories related to curiosity too, taken to the extreme, which I'll save for when you run into me over a beer. Too long to explain. Traffic:
I felt generally safe on the Indian roads, even on the main roads.
First of all, there are not too many private cars, so that reduces the traffic. Bicycles and motorbikes are more the individual way to travel. Cars also tend to slow down to watch us. This considerably reduces the speed at which they drive.
On major roads, there is plenty of room on the side to pull out of traffic.
And finally, in general, I have found the drivers to be respectful, whatever they may be driving.
The only time it can go wrong is when they get down to our level to talk to us, which makes driving rather complicated, stuck between the ditch and the car.
In any case, I felt much safer here than in many other countries.
Big question, and lots of potential answers.
We all have different experiences of the world, and this is especially true for India. If there are 1% bad apples in the bunch, that's mathematically a lot more people in a country of nearly 1.5 billion.
For my part, wherever I've been, as a Caucasian male, I've never felt unsafe. Much less on a bike than in the past with a backpack. Maybe also because we avoided the big cities too.
It's a completely different experience for a single woman, but as a couple we had no problems at all.
I really have the impression that cycling and getting away from it all is so fascinating that they forget about everything else.
We had the impression, and in fact the experience, of being followed. It's quite disturbing, but I have my own technique. As soon as I realise this, I stop, turn around and go and ask straight away what the crack is. Often, it's just curious people who are cycling themselves or who are simply following for fun and fascination.
It's disturbing, but that's how it is. So I'd go back to breaking the ice right away rather than getting paranoid. And often, things are rational, and everyone relaxes, mainly my nervous self.
No problems on my side but it's to be taken into account: we were in a group, outside the main cities, and then finally quite attentive to what was going on around and those who would tend to follow us.
Also, in the cities, people are so unsure of the world around them that they will quickly come and tell you how to get your bike to safety. I have long believed that often the least safe places become safe simply because of general paranoia. Bars and restaurants in Chandigarh, for example, had their own security guards, so it was easy to leave the bike in front of them.
This is also the big question. I would say that, like everywhere else, it depends on where you are. But even in the plains of Uttarakhand or Uttarpradesh, I have not found it impossible. If you put aside the idea of being alone and out of sight, it is always possible to pitch a tent behind a row of trees or in a rice field.
Far from impossible, but it can also get tiring having to deal with 20 people watching you boil water on top of having to deal with everything else.
Perhaps it's mainly a question of safety and how we feel, because we even slept in the street by force of circumstance, and without problems. If you can call it camping at all.
So yes. I'd say don't get your hopes up, but don't despair in advance either. A good go on google satellite helps a lot too.
Gurudwara : Probably the solution to many problems. A gurudwara is a Sikh temple, one of the majority religions in India.
Very often, these places have a few beds on the side, or at least a little space for the pilgrim passing through. Sometimes there is water, showers, food offered free of charge. Sometimes there is nothing at all. It's a bit of a lottery.
Of course you have to ask permission from the owner, but they often understand quickly what they are talking about.
Just about everyone knows the name Gurudwara, so you can ask for directions. They are often listed on maps.me or google maps.
The easiest way is to find a Sikh and ask him for directions to the nearest temple. With a little luck he will accompany you and introduce you.
Sikhs are quite easy to recognise, with their unbroken turbans, sometimes orange, blue, pink or white. They wear a beard and a silver bracelet on their wrist. The strict majority of them anyway.
The first time I went to India I was told "If there is one person you can trust in India, it is a Sikh. Find him in the crowd and tell him your problem." Food : A little bit everywhere and a little bit all the time. It is not very difficult to eat in this country. Except for the desert parts, but I'll talk about it more precisely elsewhere.
The food you can find depends a lot on the population and the religion of the area.
But generally speaking, it is really easy to be vegetarian in India. Vegan is another story.
Food and restaurants carry a distinctive sign. A green square for vegetarians and a red square for non-vegetarians. The logo can be found on menus, packaging and shop fronts.
Depending on where you are, it can be a repetitive sport. You have to learn to say no as well.
People won't hesitate asking you to stop at the side of the road to take a picture. And if one starts to take out his phone, you probably have to repeat the action with everyone else who stops to grow up the crowd.
Just like curiosity or questions, selfies are not an exact science. For half a day it's going to be constant, plus the rest of the day, 40km down the road, no one is interested in you at all.
I didn't understand how it all worked, but the illogic was obvious.
Let's be honest, it's exhausting. On the other hand, it makes people very happy. And from what I've heard wildly translated at the roadside, people are really grateful that we take the time to stop for them. I understand that we were heroes to many, which explains the general interest.
I found that hard to swallow, and even to say. But I've heard it many times, about everyday heroes pedalling here and there, travelling like this.
So a little humility, a little patience, and everyone is happy.
By the way, patience. Patience : A great national sport for us tourists. In some places more than in others, patience and humility are required. We are only tourists, only guests, and if I like my space, I also like to play the game.
There are days when you don't make much progress, too busy stopping to have your picture taken. It's frustrating at times. But also, what a marvel this curiosity is, and this warm welcome given to the strangers that we are. I took it as a way of welcoming us and a way for the population to give us their benevolent endorsement, all the more so when we have no verbal language in common to communicate. Patience is needed anytime anyway. When buying something, ordering or mainly queuing. Completely worth the visit just to see how people queue. And it's a big country. Patience from A to B. It's a good lesson you'll learn over there. Train with bikes :
Taking the bike with the train is already a bit more technical than just the bus.
You have to go through the excessive Indian bureaucracy. You have to find a train that accepts bicycles, get accepted by the luggage inspector who judges if it will fit.
You have to register your luggage with a passport and its photocopy. To get it back, you have to present another photocopy of the passport to the baggage service on arrival. Sign papers, wait, and then it's over.
Sometimes it seems that luggage can be a problem for reasons we don't understand and that the language barrier prevents us from understanding. The bigger the group, the more bikes to carry.
On one occasion, we were allowed to put the bikes two by two in the entrances of a carriage, which is forbidden in Indian trains. All this with the complicity of the station police. Fortunately, we took the number of the one who seemed to be the leader of the gang. Further on, at a stop in another station, the police started to take pictures and let us know that we were going to have trouble. We gave him the number of this guy, he called him in front of us, then disappeared. Moral of the story, always take the phone numbers you are given, it can always be useful, and if not, it doesn't cost anything to have it.
For the reservation of tickets in a reservation office outside the station, it is better to be armed with patience, it is long, tedious, and you need all the information possible and imaginable. Train number, departure and arrival station of the train and of your journey, departure time, passport, class...
Bus with bikes :
Pretty easy, as long as there is room on the roof. It's always good to get there a bit in advance, to make sure everything is well taken care of. At the last minute, everyone rushes you to go fast, assuring you that everything will be fine.
But the roads are rough, so strap the bike down and slide some foam or cloth under the parts that touch the roof. The rubbing, banging and all the rest of it can quickly damage the frame and fork, bend the discs or worse if the bike is in the wrong direction.
You can stop them at the side of the road, and unless they are full to bursting, they will often stop. But I would strongly advise taking buses at big bus stations where they stop for a while to make sure you have time to deal with everything and not have to throw the bike on the roof in a hurry without a tether while forgetting half the bags on the side of the road.
To sum up, no problem, only solutions. As long as you have some money to spend.
Same solution with a little more budget, find a private driver, truck, jeep or mini bus. It's much faster and often much more comfortable. A bit more expensive but if money is no object, it is much safer for bikes and faster for cyclists.
Train Kalka shimla :
A famous train line and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It connects the city of Kalka with the city of Shimla.
Let's get down to business : bikes on the train.
It is possible to take a bike on the train, but not just any bike. The people at the ticket office apparently have no idea. You have to go to the luggage office and ask the right person who will tell you which train accepts bikes. Then you have to buy the ticket for that train, go back to the luggage counter and check the bike in.
All luggage must be removed and packed in large rice bags which they provide free of charge.
Then the bike goes into a separate compartment, properly secured and ready to go.
The process is simple once it is explained properly, which is not self-evident.
From memory, the first one was around noon. And the journey takes about 7 hours from memory. There is food at quite a few stops, tea and ready-made meals ready to be taken on board.
The different classes depend on the different trains, and it's better to book in advance if you don't want to end up in 3rd class, which wasn't catastrophic either.
As far as the ride was concerned, it was cool, and some of the parts were pretty impressive with villages on the side of the mountain, sometimes quite steep.
It was nice because it was there. But compared to what I was promised, I expected a bit more. That's always the problem when you have too many expectations!
Kalka: nothing great to say or do in Kalka. It's already the India of the plains, and the landscape is already much less grandiose. The city itself, except perhaps to dig, does not deserve to stay there too long.
Shimla: That's another story. A historic town for having been the summer camp of the British during the colonial era, there is something in the architecture and construction of the town that makes it really pleasant. It's a hillside town too, all in length, and every trip is worth its share of ups and downs.
We probably went by too fast here too, but that's okay, the rest of India was not without surprises either.
Chill, anything is possible :
While one part of the country can be fun from a bureaucratic point of view, the rest is completely freewheeling. This is sometimes frustrating, but also often exotic. Above all, it allows a great deal of freedom of movement in the sense that everything is possible.
What I mean by that is simple, whatever happens, whatever the reason, you can always bounce back. Always someone to help, someone who speaks English. Always a bus station, train station or airport nearby.
So yes it's big, it's intimidating, but you have to go, because you can always bounce back.
The country is impressive in terms of access to English. Almost everywhere, even in the middle of nowhere, you can always get by with a little English. The country has so many languages that Indians need a third language to understand each other. No wonder English is so widespread.
We experienced less misunderstanding in 6 weeks in India than in one day in Thailand.
Quality of the road :
Again, really impressive. Whether it is in the highlands of Ladakh or in one of the poorest regions of the country, the main and secondary roads are really good. There are still other roads, other tracks that are not as clean and smooth, but in general and compared to what I have seen in other countries, India comes out on top.
They are mostly Indian, speak English and are educated. Really easy to exchange and share. On the other hand, if you wish to meet cyclists, it is a little more complex. Ladakh in summer maybe. But otherwise the country is really huge, and if you don't take public transport to go from one tourist place to another, you might not meet many people!
Just a small footnote, avoid dormitories in India. Not having the same conception of dormitory per se, privacy, individual space or whatever, it is good to avoid dormitories to avoid phone conversations in the middle of the night, lights on, and the list goes on.
Let's just say that anything you avoid doing in a dormitory will be done without any embarrassment in India, you've been warned !
And this is what I've retained from my journey across India. Probably not the last one, so who knows, maybe a second chapter someday. Because here as anywhere else, the real lesson is that we never stop learning.