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!)