Safety has always been the main concern of all tourists traveling to India. The recent rapes in the capital and around have only intensified the concerns. The global media has put things in perspective at a global level and have raised concerns about traveling to India for foreigners. Here we attempt to provide our, a bike tour operator, perspective on safety and security in India while bike touring. We hope that this would help you plan better and provide answers to your many questions.
Before we start talking about it we ought to look into the areas of concern particularly for a cycling holiday.
1. Stay Stay options around main tourists circuit are highly tourist friendly and safe at almost all the locations. If you tend to travel to unusual places then the best suggestion would be book your stay through an experienced tour operator in that area. India is vast and going alone or without much research to unusual and untraveled areas is not recommended. Though most of the areas are safe but the advise would be take some input either from your local well travelled Indian friend or a tour operator before you venture into unknown.
2. Cycling Routes The safe, secured and traffic free cycling routes is highly important for a safe and hassle free ride. You would notice bad traffic, air and noise pollution on usual highways when you reach India. However, you would be surprised to see that the countryside routes connecting small villages and towns have almost no traffic, highly safe and regarded as the best routes for cycling and riding through inner India. They are commonly know as ‘village roads’ or ‘Gram Sadak’ and goes through beautiful small rural hamlets, are scenic, offer rustic environment and makes an excellent way for biking. Most of the local people would know these routes and are not difficult to find, however, the challenge here is that most of the times more than one route connect the villages and it’s become highly difficult to find out which one is a better route. Here the experience of a bike tour operator is very useful and an organized self-guided or guided bike tour is highly recommended. The research that goes into the selection of right routes is highly formidable and takes lot of effort and time. The experience of an operator should not be undermined here.
With years of bike touring experience behind us in India, we thought it’s a good time to document some of the best cycling routes in India. This list also takes input from cyclists and cycle tourists who we have met along numerous journeys undertaken. The routes selected here are based on the following parameters:
Safety & security
India is vast and we still have a lot to cover and therefore, it’s possible that we have missed on some routes. We intend to keep updating this list as we discover more routes.
1. Gangtok (Sikkim) to Darjeeling This route can be dubbed as a roller coaster ride. You get to ride through some amazing chain of mountains and witness the life around them. Monks, monasteries, children, lakes, rivers are some of the impressions of the ride.
Best Time to Cycle: March, April and October, November
2. Leh – Tsomoriri – Tanglang La – Leh If you intend to witness wildlife and cross some high passes then this is the route for you. Buddhist monks and manasteries gives a depth to the tour. You get to see some amazing wildlife at Tsomoriri lake and ride through breathtaking scenery.
Best Time to Cycle: June to September.
3. Jodhpur to Udaipur Here you get to experience the contrast between royal richness and royal poorness. The contrast is evident as you make your way from Jodhpur to Udaipur through small villages, big palaces, massive Forts and beautiful temples. The route has it’s fair share of wildlife. You get to see wild boar, deer, black buck, Asian antelope.
Best Time to Cycle: October to March
4. Kerala (Kochi – Munnar – Periyar – Kumarakom – Kochi) Beautiful scenery is predominant in this route. Be it seaside of Fort Kochi, tea plantations of Munnar, elephants of Periyar and backwaters of Kumarakom – the beauty is abundant all around.
Best Time to Cycle: September to March
5. Bombay to Goa via Konkan Coastline Ride along the beautiful Konkani coastline and savour some amazing Konkani food. The ride is undulating and passes through beautiful seaside scenery and ferry routes.
With it’s diverse culture, geography, religion and architecture India offers a challenging environment for tourists. Every state here is more like a country and unravelling this presents numerous challenges. Since the birth of tourism industry, India has always attracted all kind of travellers viz. spiritual, knowledge based, adventure, leisure etc. The one thing which is common among all travellers is that they all are here for local stories and anticipate a journey of lifetime. This imposes big questions – Is there an alternative way to experience such diverse India and provide a meaningful and memorable journey for travellers? Is there a better way to travel and unravel this country slowly? Is there a way to spend time with local people and listen to their stories? The questions could be many but all answers leads to only one alternative and that is your bike!
Cycling tour is one of the best way to experience this vast country. It presents numerous opportunities compared to other modes of travel. As you take the bike and traverse the countryside roads, you get to ride past small rural hamlets, temples and people. You get to stop by along the way or take some small offbeat routes. As 70% of India lives in villages, your bike presents an excellent way to experience the village life from close quarters and start a conversation. The kids here rush behind to greet you. You will be quite astonished to see that how hospitable the villagers are towards travelers. In Rajasthan, there have been an age old custom as per which villagers are supposed to build a platform (for sleeping) outside of house so that local travelers have comfortable stay and the hosts don’t have to worry about saying ‘no’ to the guest on the precursor of providing a bed inside the house for sleep.
Slow travel by your bike gives you a wonderful window to see the lives of people along the way. It also helps to organize your thoughts as you slowly pedal your way through the mountains and lakes. Knowing a right bike route is very important here. This is where an exhaustive research before traveling comes very handy. There is no cycling guide on India which is available now and as India is so big, knowing right cycling routes provide a big challenge without the availability of convincing source. Here the experience of bike tour operator and an organized bike tour comes very handy and helps in several ways.
Meeting local people along the way and listening to their stories gives a whole new perspective of looking at India. These stories could come from a farmer, priest, teacher, housewives, postman etc. that you meet along the way. Moreover, on a bike you are not watching the scenery, you are a part of the scenery and that adds to the contours of the same. The smell, sound and all other senses become alive and receptive to the surrounding environment. And in the end, you just don’t travel but you travel like a local and perceive things from a local point of view.
So, take a cycling tour and experience India like a local.
I held a snapshot of Kerala in the month of November last year. It started in Munnar where the air was suspended with chill, and I spent my day walking around the town and hiking up the tea hills. My friend Pankaj and his tour guests, BJ and David arrived that evening, cycling their way from Cochin.
The next day, we started rolling down the curvy roads of Munnar when the morning sun was relentlessly intense, as were the drivers on the road – honking to remind me of the slack that I was leaving behind with each push of the peddle. A decision had to be made and I told my friend I would take my time and understand the bicycle, the twitching of the gears and its effect on forward movement. As planned, I reached the tea museum alright to join the rest of my bicycle-mates. When we started cycling again after spending time at the museum, I was relaxed but didn’t anticipate the journey of 25 kilometers to Chinnakanal to take as long as it did.
The route was scenic as if adorned to charm the tourists passing through them. The locals were in the early stages of familiarizing themselves with these leisure cyclists in specialized gear (not mine though), traversing their everyday paths. I have a fond memory of being enveloped in a canopy of aged dark-green trees from this early ride. It felt intimate.
As we arrived in Chinnakanal, we learnt that a mild-mannered protest against a court order regarding the preservation of Western Ghats that broke-off the previous day had grown in size. Locals decided to get serious about the strike, leaving us with a completely empty day in Chinnakal. We however set out to cycle around in that unassumingly beautiful place. Starting at the head of a terraced hill, we wheeled down the road occasionally at speeds where we were risking it. Spinning around a faraway lake that seemed to be at the center and the road resembling a peel of orange layered in a conical shape. Some while later, we reached the waterfront where two buffaloes were grazing with abandon. Smooth was our time there, only to be shaken by the threat of a shower. When we decided to hike back on our bicycles, we asked around for the right way out from the tea workers who were not to have their day off from work even on a ‘bandh.’
The prevailing strike carried on to the next day leaving us with very little to do. Apart from switching our accommodation from a 3-star hotel to a home stay (less expensive and more comfortable even), we ambled around in the streets of the bandh-stricken town. I recollect I managed to go a little further into the book I was reading – Endless Love, by Ian McEwan – sitting in a café the name of which I don’t recollect. And then, BJ and David turned the table on us by hosting a dinner at a restaurant in Cardamom County. These two people drew me close to them as the conversation circled around all-too-familiar topics of family, friends, adventure, and holiday and more.
Ending our stupor in Thekkady, we geared ourselves for an intense day of cycling. I was dying to get into the cycling shorts that BJ generously gave me, after finding out about my cushion-less ride up the previous days. We filled our water bottles, squeezed into our pockets a little something to munch on. The road to Vagamon seemed as though it was particularly designed to challenge, engage and amuse in parts. Left far behind by the rest of them, I was briskly peddling on the flat roads that threw enough breeze on my face. There were the uphill stretches where I decidedly overcame the gradient without breathing through my mouth. So much poise I thought.
The words, ‘Jesus is coming. Are you ready?’ painted on a local church, went so many levels deep that it cracked me up and energized me for the rest of the time. Jesus, as you come, keep the weather as pleasant as it is now, roads as free as they can be, maybe even sprinkle few more people on the lonely roads. Amen. The thought of the end nearing on this continuum of a ride was a bit of a dimmer. We crashed out at a hotel in Vagamon waiting for tomorrow’s adventure.
Starting from the very top of the hills at Vagamon, it was down, down and down. A bit unnerving for me – I perpetually squeezed the breaks to remain in my orbit around the hill. And there we were, hitting the coast a little past noon. Over the course of the 4 to 5 days, I felt my endurance increase remarkably; I had a greater feel for the road and shed my clumsiness much to my own surprise. Where I was playing catch-up previously, this time I was ahead and waiting for the rest of them to join me.
The trip already felt full, but Pankaj caused a change of plans when he bargained for a good deal to spend the night in the houseboat along with BJ and David. Gliding on the backwaters of Vembanad Lake, beauty and magnificence were there for the asking. Schoolchildren boarding their boats to get home, boat stands instead of bus stands, few fishermen wading through, paddy fields, so green that it’s wild, sounds from the church. All of us silently agreed that words would pollute our shared space and time, and basked in the creation of our own collage of the scenes.
Time to hop out of the houseboat and start riding again. The last stretch of the ride to Kochi felt like a reward with flat roads sending ample breeze our way. Wind caressing every part of my body, my senses filled, I started to get an ominous feeling that this holiday had been too good to go on for even few more minutes. With the leaving of our bicycles at the Art of Bicycle shop-cum-garage, it did indeed end.
A vivid picture now comes to mind – a rush of red hibiscus occurring every now and then, marking my milestone as I went past. And just when the road had been let up by buses, cars, bikes, scooters, there was the whizzing sound of the four bicycles as if to say, ‘drink in this moment’.