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A Brief Guide to

Bicycle Touring In North India

"Michael Callan" < michaelcallan123@hotmail.com >

Comments, tips & experiences

This fact sheet is intended as an introductory guide to independent bicycle touring in India. General tourist and promotional information is readily available from mainstream sources elsewhere. This fact sheet assumes the reader has, or will have, access to those sources, and does not attempt to reproduce that general information

2000/ Sep 14

Weather & Topography | Roads & Traffic | Maps & Directions |

Food | Water | Accommodation | Local Bikes | Links 

This guide is based on a 2000-km solo bike camping trip September to December 1999 in Northern India & Nepal.

Weather & Topography

Northern India is largely made up of the Ganges plain, with no mountains. Heading up towards the Indian Himalya involves increasing climbing on pretty good zig zag roads.

September is the tail end of the monsoon season in Northern India. About 4 or 5 days of rain experienced in total. Temperatures around 30/32 degrees (min 25, max 35) during the day. Not significantly less at night.

Road Conditions

Main highways are good bitumen, generally single lane, with hard shoulders but very busy with traffic, especially trucks and buses. Lessor roads ranged from good to lots of potholes to just dirt roads. Roads generally deteriorated to mucky, dirt tracks when passing through villages/towns. Sometimes bridges will be out, especially after monsoon. Necessitates river fording – follow the example of the locals for a safe place to cross.

With a little route planning, travel on main highways can be minimised (less than 10% of total journey). Roads are generally well marked with KM milestones (in Urdu script, sometimes English script, sometimes both).

The main rule with traffic is: "big is king" ! The accepted precedence of life forms on the road is : trucks, buses, 4WD, tractors, cars, camels, motor bikes, cyclists, pedestrians - in that order. Traffic on the minor roads is mostly farmers. Cyclists are everywhere. There are more cycles built in India than China! Horn blowing is endemic and deafening. Head for the ditch in the face of oncoming trucks/buses bearing down on you. Don't play chicken - you'll lose! You will inevitably come across the remains of 2 or 3 crashes if you spend long on a main highway.

Maps & Directions

Maps may not be totally reliable! Nelles do a good range, available internationally. Government of India maps (very flimsy paper) are useful, cheap and available only in major cities in India itself . Expect to get lost, but this is part of the fun! Asking directions is the art of interpreting various sweeping hand signals. Ask at least 2 or 3 times and reconfirm at every opportunity. You'll still get lost! The maps (especially city maps) in Lonely Planet/Rough Guide are useful. 

Trains

A train ride is a must experience. It will always get to your destination, if somewhat late! Bikes can be carried on all trains at about 10% of the passenger fare (relatively speaking very cheap). Be sure to book them as "luggage", NOT "parcels" otherwise you will have difficulties/delays getting them released at destination. Personally supervise their loading into the luggage carriage (generally they will not let you bring your bike into the carriage). Take off panniers. Some rupees will grease the wheels of bureaucracy to get your bike off at you destination. This is not always necessary but it can help your sanity! Be patient. No use in shouting. If you still experience problems, insist on filing a compliant in the station's "Complaint Book" - that will get things moving

Travelling in the countryside

There are lots of interesting places away from the tourist trail with none or few tourists & backpackers. The bike is a definite asset, as many of these places are more accessible by bike than otherwise. The people are more 'friendly' and less likely to try to rip you off than in the more tourist-travelled areas.

People

Tremendous curiosity. In-your-face staring is customary and not bad manners. Expect crowds of spectators when you stop, especially in villages but, anywhere, really! I never felt physically threatened, however. Avoid asking directions near schools - teenage boys can get a bit boisterous. Indian women are usually either not seen or working in the fields while the men do the 'important' jobs (e.g. drive the tractor), or simply lazed around. As a man I never really felt conformable about asking directions from the women - they would usually just laugh nervously and continue on anyway.

Food

Food is hot/spicy sometimes but never too much so. Fruit, especially bananas, is widely available. Lots of truck stops and roadside stalls (in addition to restaurants in the more touristy areas). Hygiene standards are sometimes questionable. Water is always offered but avoid it - it's usually from a barrel rather than a hand pump. Be sure to wash your hands before and after eating . Eat only with your right hand : Indians always do this and are quite hygienic that way. I only suffered 2 cases of the "runs" due to food/water. I had cooking gear with me but I rarely used it: roadside food was widely available, good and cheap. Lunch or dinner averages at around $1/2 in these roadside places. Note that alcohol is not available anywhere (except, perhaps, the very expensive hotels).

Water

Water in the populated areas is not recommended. I recommend either a portable filer, iodine tablets. Bottled water is widely available in touristy areas but difficult to come by in the country areas. Generally I found the water in the country areas from roadside hand pumps (mounted on wells) to be fine - I drank it without filtering or iodising. Carry a few litres only. Distances between water points are not huge (maybe 20/30 km maximum).

 

Places to stay

Don't expect 'Western' standards - places range from real dumps to plush hotels - depends on your budget (the equivalent of backpacker hostels are called "hotels" in India). I stayed in 'hotels' when in tourist areas, some were dumps, some OK. Always bring your bike into the room (due to risk of theft or, more likely, curiosity/nuisance).

In the countryside areas I mostly camped and regularly slept out under the stars with air mat and sleeping bag/sheet. The weather and temperatures at night were fine for that If you doing it or pitch a tent, you must find a place away from people (not always easy!) and not let people see you otherwise you'll have a crowd for company. This may seem impossible in such a densely populated country – setting up towards dusk is the trick. Indians also consider it strange that a Westerner doesn't stay in hotels all the time.

If you don't go for camping, then you'll (almost) always find accomodation of some description in a village, perhaps even staying with a family. Simply , ask ! Any English speaking ‘professionals’ in the village (doctor, teacher, etc.) are another source of accommodation. Not the police, though, as they don’t generally speak English and, in any case, are unhelpful that way.

Another possibility is to sleep in open beds at truck stops (I met another cyclist going up into the Indian Himalya who did so without any problems).

Local Bicycle Infrastructure

Lots of bikes in India. Big and heavy with no gears but can carry amazing loads. All the frames looked the same size to me! Standard wheel is 28 inch -no other wheel/tyre sizes available except, maybe, in the large cities.

Bike repair wallahs are everywhere, cheap and they do good puncture repairs. They can be innovative with other mechanical problems.

Local bikes are, perhaps, OK for some minor touring but not practical for long distances ( but see CTC article in bibliography). I recommend bringing your own bike (with spare types & tubes).

I had no difficulty on the inbound or outbound flights and I did not have to pay excess baggage charges (flew on BA/Qantas).

Toilets

Indians use water ONLY and the left hand! Simplest if you can too adapt to this also. Toilet paper can be bought in touristy areas only. It is not supplied in hotels. In some places you see locals squatting by the roadside. It's one of the main reasons that water in the cities is dodgy. In this case, don't do as the locals do - bury it instead! Some roadside truck stops have rudimentary toilet facilities. Basically you'll probably have to drop your habits/'standards' a little!

Other Touring Cyclists

I rarely encountered other foreign cyclists, largely because India is not top of the list for cycle tourers. And, of course, India is a big place. I did bump into a few in the backpacker hotel in the touristy areas. Most were on a long trip coming all the way from Europe. I met no Indians cycling touring for recreation.

Sources of Information

Lonely Planet/Rough Guide useful. Tourist offices in the cities (when you can find them) are of limited value to the travelling cyclist. The Indian Tourist Office in London was useless, with respect to cycling anyway.

Links

A charity cycle expedition from London to the Himalayas - 2001-2002

http://www.charityride.org/

India, glossy http://freezone.com/action/india/india.html

India (photos) http://www.gordian.com/users/nathan/Trek/trek.html

India, by 3 speed, tour http://www.adv-cycling.org/ARTICLES/NIRVANA.HTM

( no longer available free-to-air )

India http://www.xs4all.nl/~pvroekel/wtx/map_indi.htm

India (Roughstuff's World Tour) http://www.geocities.com/~roughstuff/cycling.html

India & Nepal http://www.cyclesydneylondon.com/

India http://www.humanpower.freeserve.co.uk/

India (00/05) http://www.travelcentre.com.au/stories/bicycle_trip.htm

South India: Chennai to Goa around the coast (00/08).

http://www.netspace.net.au/~mrfelix/bsa/BSA-India-1.html#top

Books

"Two Wheels in the Dust - From Kathmandu to Kandy " (Anne Mustoe )

(Hardback, 241 x 160 mm, 282 pages ISBN : 1852279265 Publication Date : 15 May 2001 )

Riding the Mountains Down: A Journey by Bicycle to Kathmandu (Bettina Selby)
Unwin Paperbacks (1985), ISBN 0-04-910082-3

Spokesongs: Bicycle Adventures on Three Continents ( Willie Wier), Pineleaf Productions, Seattle, WA 1997 ISBN 0-9656792-6-8

Ram Ram India Alex THOMPSON a very funny account of a bike trip by two GB's in the 1980's from Kashmir to Kanyakumari.(Dewey A915.4/132 ISBN 000 217 8265 )

Journey to the Centre of the Earth Nicholas CRANE (1987) describes the trip from BanglaDesh to Urumchi (China) via Tibet. Very funny, but also inspiring! ISBN 0593 012917

"Across India on Heroes" (touring on Indian bikes) CTC Magazine (Feb 1996) - beautiful !

Organisations

Cycle Federation of India : C-5A/262 DDA Flats Janak Puri / New Delhi 110058 / Tel: +91-11-553006 [ the function of this organisation not known to the author]


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A Brief Guide to

Bicycle Touring In Nepal

"Michael Callan" < michaelcallan123@hotmail.com >

This fact sheet is intended as an introductory guide to independent bicycle travel in Nepal

General tourist and promotional information is readily available from mainstream sources elsewhere. This fact sheet assumes the reader has, or will have, access to those sources. The information contained here does not attempt to reproduce that general information

Environment | Road Conditions | Maps & Directions | Local Bikes |

travel in the countryside | Water | Food | Links


This guide is based on a 1500 km solo bike camping trip in December 1999 in Nepal's "Terrai" region. This trip also included Northern India

Environment : Weather & Topography

The ‘Terrai’, bordering India, is a flat, tropical jungle and makes up about 1/3rd of the area of Nepal. The other 2/3rds of the country are in the Himalya – Katmandu is at 1000m. October through January are generally the driest months in Nepal. Temperatures around 30/32 degrees (min 25, max 35) during the day, getting colder at altitudes. It can be significantly colder at night.

Road Conditions

The main highways in the Terrai are good, with good bitumen, generally single lane, hard shoulders but and not very busy with traffic. In the mountains the roads are narrower, single lane with no hard shoulder and deteriorating bitumen. However, they are of a reasonable gradient as they follow valley systems into the Himalya.

The main rule with traffic is: "big is king" ! Importance of life forms on the road: Trucks, buses, 4WD, tractors, cars, camels, motor bikes, cyclists, pedestrians in that order. Head for the ditch in the face of oncoming trucks/buses bearing down on you. Don't play chicken - you'll lose!

Maps & Directions

Maps - not totally reliable! Nelles do a good range and are available internationally. Cheaper, Nepalese maps are available in Katmandu. Expect to get lost. However this is part of the fun! Asking directions is the art of interpreting various sweeping hand signals. Ask at least 2 or 3 times and reconfirm at every opportunity. You'll still get lost! The maps (especially city maps) in Lonely Planet/Rough Guide are useful.

Local Bicycle Infrastructure

In the mountain areas, geared mountain bikes are available and seem, on visual inspection, to be quite good. Puncture and bike repair wallahs are everywhere. Cheap and they do good puncture repairs. They can be innovative with other mechanical problems.

Local bikes are OK for some touring. They can be rented in the 2 main tourist areas – Katmandu and Polkara.

Buses

It is possible to carry bikes on most buses. Personally supervise their loading and securing to the roof.

Travelling in the countryside

There are lots of interesting places off the tourist trail with none or few tourists/backpackers. The bike is definite asset as many of these places are more accessible by bike than otherwise. The people are more 'friendly' and less likely to try and rip you off than in the more touristy areas. The Nepalese are a genuine, friendly, gentle people with a sense of humour. Cyclists arouse their curiosity and will encourage conversations. Unlike India, Nepalese women enjoy quite a high profile and less inequality. However, it is still noticeable that they do much of the hard physical work in the fields.

Water

Generally I found the water from roadside hand pumps (mounted on wells) to be fine in the countryside - I drank it without filtering or iodising. Carry a few litres only. Distances between water points are not huge (maybe 20/30 km maximum).

Water in the populated areas is not recommended. I recommend either a portable filer, iodine tablets. Bottled water is widely available in touristy areas but difficult to come by in the country areas.

Food

Food is good, though variety is limited. "Dal Bhat" (rice and lentils) is the national staple. Fruit is not widely available except for bananas. Lots of truck stops and roadside stalls (in addition to restaurants in the more touristy areas). Hygiene standards are sometimes questionable. Water is always offered but avoid it - it's usually from a barrel rather than a hand pump. Eat with right hand and wash hands before and after. Nepalis always do this and are quite hygienic that way. I had cooking gear with me but I rarely used it: roadside food was widely available, good and cheap. Lunch or dinner averages at around US$1 to 2 in these roadside places. Note that alcohol (beer in particular) is fairly widely available (unlike India).

Places to stay

Don't expect 'Western' standards - places range from real dumps to plush hotels - depends on your budget (the equivalent of backpacker hostels are called "hotels" in India). I stayed 'hotels' when in touristy areas, some dumps, some OK. Always bring your bike into the room ( due to the risk of theft or, more likely, the curiosity or nuisance it might cause. )

In the countryside areas, I mostly camped and regularly slept out under the stars with air mat and sleeping bag/sheet. The weather and temperatures at night were fine for that as long as you have a reasonable sleeping bag (down to 0 degrees). If you sleep out, you must find a place away from people (not always easy!) and not let people see you otherwise you'll have a crowd for company. This may seem impossible in such a densely populated country – setting up towards dusk is the trick. Nepalese consider it strange that a Westerner doesn't stay in hotels all the time.

Toilets

Nepalese use water ONLY and the left hand! Simplest if you can too adapt to this also. Toilet paper can be bought in touristy areas only. It is not supplied in hotels. In some places you see locals squatting by the roadside. It's one of the main reasons that water in the cities is dodgy. In this case, don't do as the locals do - bury it instead! Some roadside truck stops have rudimentary toilet facilities. Basically you'll probably have to drop your habits/'standards' a little!

 Links

India / Nepal http://www.cyclesydneylondon.com/

Paul Jeurissen & Grace Johnson http://www.projection3.com ( Nepal slide show)

Books

Riding the Mountains Down: A Journey by Bicycle to Kathmandu (Bettina Selby)
Unwin Paperbacks (1985), ISBN 0-04-910082-3

 


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