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Cycling India's Grand Trunk Road

Introducing our newest addition to the Beeline team! Taking over the blog for a one week special, Sam shares his experience of cycling across India, his love of cycling more generally and excitement at how Beeline transforms bike journeys - from the smallest commute to the biggest adventure. 

 

Background

As for most adventurers, my dream of cycling across the Indian subcontinent was many years in waiting and then only a few, short, months of spontaneity.  

India had always fascinated me from a distance, and the country sunk its claws into my impressionable self when I first visited it 5 years ago as a fresh-faced traveller, leading me to specialise in Indian history at University. Both experiences left me craving more; memories of the tourist trail from my travels and stories of battles from dusty history books gave me no sense of ‘real India’. 

It was with the purpose of ‘connecting the dots’ that I decided on my bike expedition. By couchsurfing my way across from the Pakistan border to Bangladesh, I planned to see how Indian families live and gain some insight into a society that is rapidly evolving into one of the world’s most significant driving forces. Politics, history, culture - the nerd within me wanted to discover it all.

I also took it as a great opportunity to raise some money for local charities, and got to visit a number of the incredible schools supported by the charity I chose. It felt important to contribute in this small way to the society that gave me such an unforgettable 2 months.


 

Preparation 

Selling the idea of cycling 2,500km across North India to look at historical monuments and stay with local families was hard, so in truth I didn’t really bother. I wanted to do it on my own (if I’d even been able to find someone mad enough to join me) and once I’d promised to my parents that I’d keep them updated every now and then, there was no one else I felt needed to OK it. I could just get cracking.

Preparation took the form of buying a bike that was up to the job, bombing around the South of England as a test run (London-Oxford-Gloucester-Bath-Reading-London), plotting a rough route on maps.me , booking the first 3 cities on Couchsurfing (or warmshowers.org - a dedicated site for cycle-tourers which you should definitely check out!), shoving the bike in a cardboard box and heading out.

I opted for a cyclocross frame, an indestructible Genesis Croix de Fer, which was an absolute joy to ride. I stuck a pannier rack on and replaced the pedals with half-and-half SPD pedals - given my premonitions about Indian traffic, the last thing I wanted was to be clipped in wobbling through Delhi rush hour carnage. Sturdy axel-rims and practically bulletproof Bontrager tyres ensured that I had only one very slow puncture across the whole trip!! I’m a massive fan of munching on the move whilst cycling, so in addition to my saddle bags and panniers, I had a small bag nestling around the stem near my handlebars, which I would fill with Jelly Babies and, when they ran out (far too soon :( ) with delicious roadside Indian grub like samosas.


 

Route 

Setting off from the Pakistan border (a place called Wagah where a Monty Python-esque ceremony happens every day with the Indian and Pakistani militaries lowering their flags in choreographed synchronicity), I planned on following the Grand Trunk Road pretty much all the way, deviating to visit interesting cities along the way, until I reached Calcutta.

The Grand Trunk Road is one of the oldest major roads in the world, and over the centuries it has played host to marauding armies, resurgent empires, and 4 major religions, who have all called cities along it home at some point. Amritsar is the holy city of the Sikhs; Delhi, Agra and Fatehpur Sikri all boast beautiful mosques from their time as seat of the (Muslim) Mughal Empire; Mathura is the birthplace of the Hindu God Krishna, and Varanasi is said to be the holiest city in the world; Bodhgaya and Sarnath are both pilgrimage sites for Buddhists.

The route was also tactical: the GTR essentially follows the Gangetic plain all the way to the huge delta on the Pacific coast, so I could opt in (and out) of interesting hills along the way or stick to the highway and cruise it. Coward that I was, I only went part of the way up to through the Himalayan foothills to Simla before grabbing the old Victorian train!

The navigation setup really gave me away as a complete novice. I’d load my route onto my iPhone, download the relevant Google Maps area whenever I had wifi, shove the phone in my saddle bag, and whip it out every half an hour to check things were still on track. Battery drained like a sieve, I dropped the phone twice, and it was pretty tricky viewing progress whilst cycling. Faffing around with loading Indian maps and a determination to explore things more freely had led me to intentionally opt out of bringing my Garmin. Although I didn’t know it in early 2017, I was in desperate need of a Beeline!


 

The Trip 

Living with local families gave me insights and friendships I never expected. Playing cricket in the streets in front of the house, helping to prepare local delicacies, even watching WWE (which has an insane following in India) with a taciturn 90 year old Punjabi man whilst we worked our way through a bottle of whisky, joining a motorbike club on one of their weekend getaways, attending 3 weddings (1 Christian, 2 Hindu): all of this contributed to making India feel a lot less daunting than it might from the interior of a tent or a hotel.

I often worried that I was getting more out of the deal than they: I would arrive tired, hungry and dirty, they would feed me and show me around their city, and then I would leave the following morning. However, I grew to realise how much joy they took from sharing their city and trading stories, and their hospitality never demanded anything other than my company in return.

I still think about the families I stayed with, not least the couple of doctors in West Bengal, who I happened to be staying with as a fever hit me. They looked after me for 3 days, and I’d have been in fairly substantial discomfort without them. Another vivid memory is sleeping on the concrete floor of a family who had little material to share but were fantastic hosts. All was well except the concrete did alert me to the scuttling feet of rats throughout the night!

Cycle touring does encourage independence, but it also strengthens your faith in the generosity of others. Only once did this plan of planning my accommodation a couple of cities in advance fail, and then I slept very comfortably in a bus station!

Contrary to my own misconceptions about the state of Indian roads, the Grand Trunk Road was a real joy to cycle along - better even than many of the roads back in the UK. Perfectly smooth tarmac stretched for miles and miles, and no puddles to dodge either! The dust and fumes from the huge trucks that trundle across India only slightly detracted from the whole experience - they gave me false hopes about the extent of my tan, which would largely wash away when I showered!

Heading off the main road and into cities was where things got altogether more precarious, however: my pannier rack was snapped by an errant motorcyclist in Agra, and the cacophony of horns accompanying the perennial gridlock in cities was a little grating. I have only myself to blame for the one big crash I had on the trip: in the middle of nowhere, I was adjusting something on my handlebars when I hit a very rare pothole, the handlebars jackknifed, and I bounced down the road with my panniers spilling across the road until I came to a stop in a sorry pile in front of bemused villagers. After initially fearing I’d done some serious damage to my hip, bruised pride, ripped lycra and a seriously dented handlebar were the only real battle scars.

Along with the wonderful hosts I stayed with, many of whom would cycle with me for the following morning before turning back, I was struck almost daily by the fascination and friendliness of the roadside people I met. India’s roads are interspersed at comforting regularity with tea stalls (run by chaiwallahs ), and the intensely sugary chai proved fantastic pedalling fuel!

I also recharged on sugar cane juice: stopping whenever I saw a man with his cane press, I readily gulped down the cane juice, pulp and all. Dhabas, traditional Indian roadside truck stops, were also fantastic resting spots. Pulling in to the bewilderment of the settled truck drivers, I helped myself to the now daily double portion of daal and chapati, snoozed through the heat of the midday sun with a leg looped through the frame of my bike, and panniers as pillows. I even came across some other cyclists, including one guy on his annual cycle pilgrimage to the foothills of the Himalayas. A number of the dhabas I stayed in told me that a Western couple had cycled through only a few days ago, but I didn’t attempt to play catch-up, as nice as the company would undoubtedly have been!

I had chosen the timing of my ride to coincide with the milder weather of the subcontinent, and with the exception of the strong yet humid headwind for the final 2 weeks, the weather was an absolute delight, hovering in the mid-20s degrees with gentle soothing sidewinds. In other respects, the timing was slightly less optimal! Only 10 days into the ride, I heard news of an intensifying caste agitation in the state of Haryana. As I approached, I was warned of how such troubles had boiled over last year into open violence, including roadblocks and 30 murders. Choosing instead to listen to the conflicting advice of local policemen, who told me that the GTR would always be kept open, I kept heading south to Delhi and saw increasing numbers of army vans positioned at tolls. It was only as I arrived in Panipat (a city of immense historical value with but overwhelmed by the industrial sprawl typical to most Indian cities) that the government cut all mobile networks to prevent agitators coordinating that I finally heeded advice to jump on a train for the final 50 miles to Delhi. 

India is the world’s biggest democracy, and I found myself cycling through the most populous state in India, Uttar Pradesh, during their state elections. The place was electric, covered in election posters, full of rallies and marches, and conversation with hosts invariably turned to the potential outcome. I even visited a sari factory which had been temporarily converted to produce political banners and flags (for both the BJP and Congress). The BJP is the ruling party in India, and my hosts gave fascinating insights into the reasons people vote for them, which I think the Western media often inaccurately depict. Whilst in Uttar Pradesh, the BJP swept to a landslide victory, strengthening the grip of their Hindu majoritarian politics across North India.

One of the biggest highlights was celebrating Holi in Allahabad and Varanasi. Holi is the Hindu festival of colour, and is associated globally with powdered paint and body paint. Both were in abundance, but what struck me most was the energy and excitement that went in to celebrating this week-long festival. After a morning of light-hearted water fights with the local children, the streets fill with young adults, many of whom have loaded up on booze and bhang , and large pyres are lit to celebrate the arrival of colour. It was therefore with some relief that I spent the following day relaxing at Sarnath alongside thousands of Buddhists, many who had come from Japan.

 

Another unmistakable highlight was the random invitation by someone I met in a shop to the underground hip-hop dance-off he runs in Lucknow. That experience was certainly not in the Lonely Planet guide!

Arriving in Calcutta, the weather began to gear up for the monsoon - no serious rain thankfully but the humidity sky-rocketed, and after my 2 months of trundling across India, I was glad to eat my bodyweight in delicious fish curry and have a few beers. I also took the opportunity to reflect on India, and cycle touring in general. I was reminded of Ernest Hemingway’s quote, that “It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them.” This resonated very strongly, and I felt I’d discovered more about India whilst in the saddle than countless hours pouring over books or through tourist guides ever could.  I’d met wonderfully friendly people, and whilst I’d been fairly independent, their generosity had made the trip worthwhile. Solo cycling isn’t about running away from people (although it is good for a bit of reflection), but about broadening horizons.


 

What I learned 

The most important thing I learned was the ability to let my plan flex. If I found a cool host in an interesting city, I had no qualms whatsoever about staying for days rather than shooting straight off. Similarly, if I found myself in a dump, I took a few quiet photos and got cracking!

I also learned a lot about independent travel. I absolutely loved the serenity of clipping in and cycling undisturbed for hours on end, and I appreciated the friendship of hosts even more so. I am a huge advocate of solo travel, and whilst it is sadly trickier for women to undertake such a trip single-handedly in India, the world is a welcoming place and certain sensible precautions can mitigate the risks. I can only hope that people are sufficiently encouraged by the experience of others to take the leap of faith: do the trip you always dreamed of, and make space for a new dream!


 

My Desert Island Discs 

To keep myself occupied on the long cycles, I worked my way through nearly a decade of Desert Island Discs, even to the pre-Kirsty Young days, and I found them fascinating. So, inspired by the hundred or so I listened to, here’s my Desert Island requests.

The book: toss-up between Rudyard Kipling's  Kim and  Rory Stewart's   The Places Inbetween, both of which provided inspiration for the trip. I'd go for  Kim if I had to choose. Its about a young boy in colonial India. His adventures take him up and down the Grand Trunk Road, and he becomes embroiled in the 'Great Game' of spying between the major powers. 

Luxury item: An enormous bag of jelly babies. I took a load with me on the trip and rationed them carefully, until I scoffed them all during a particularly worrying encounter with some police (who incidentally asked whether I'd like to join them smoking hash - I declined!)

 

 



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