Easy Riders: Motorcycling
By Ravi J. Deka
By now I am used to the routine. First,
it is a look of utter disbelief mixed with suspicion, then
awe before breaking out into an all-out grin and a flurry
of questions. As much as I would be tempted to cut my interrogators
short by stating my own requirementsa meal or board
for the night, maybe a shower, I have learned to practice
I can't blame them for their curiosity, really. A dust coated
and shaky legged rider on an only slightly grimier and overladen
motorcycle, who by his own admission has no other reason for
undertaking the journey but to see India by road, is hardly
the regular visitor of a hotel or restaurant.
But, why a motorcycle? Isn't it dangerous? Where do you stop
at night? How does your family react, and are you married? Of
the myriad questions, explaining why I prefer a motorcycle
over a bus or a train is the easiest.
No other transport allows for a greater interaction with the
surroundings, especially in India where every corner seems
to manifest an astonishing new aspect of the unpredictable
kaleidoscopic wonder that is this country: an unannounced
religious procession in full color with elephants and costumed
gods; a thunderous waterfall; or just a traffic gridlock 14,000
ft above sea level.
Besides, how else can a sore butt, bloodshot eyes and shaky
arms be borne with a sense of accomplishment? What else would
make people stare with jealousy or admiration as you pass?
Not to mention how else would you stumble across the opportunity
to stay in a parachute tent in the middle of the Himalayan
desert or relax with a chai at a wayside dhaba--the ubiquitous
truck stops lining the Indian highways--or spook out the receptionist
of the hotel when you rode in for the night.
Every year, several hundred wheel-crazed travelers arrive
in India with plans to explore the subcontinent on a motorcycle--riding
over the frozen Himalayas or through the sweltering heat of
the Rajasthan desert to the humid greenery of the south. Some
sign up for an all-inclusive guided motorcycle safari, others
just rent or purchase a machine and find their own directions. But
all come here with the intent of riding; few find themselves
on a saddle by a fluke.
Though by no means a rider's paradise with pockmarked roads,
chaotic traffic and the ever-present wandering holy cows,
motorcycling in India has limitations, but a distinctive appeal
as well. The majority of which belongs to the thrill of riding
a Royal Enfield Bullet.
The sole remnant of the once glorious British Motorcycling
are still manufactured in India and are available in 350cc
and 500cc models, differing little from the 1958 UK models
(Enfields re-badged as Indians were also sold in the U.S.
during the Fifties). Terribly outdated, but of robust construction
with an easy availability of spares, the 4strk singles are
the clear favorite among the motorcycling travelers in the
country (although an occasional tourist might be spied puttering
along on a Vespa or a Japanese bike).
The roads might not be silky nor the machines without glitches,
yet motorcycling in India gives very powerful insights into
life in this vast and diverse country. More importantly, traveling
by motorbike provides adventurous travelers with the opportunity
to learn how we face the various extremities thrown at us.
It gives us the chance to see ourselves when one maniacal
truck driver almost pushes you off the road while another
offers shelter during a flash blizzard atop the Baralacha
La. Similarly, whether trying to connect with a bunch of villagers
praying at Lake Pushkar or celebrating Bob Dylan's birthday
in Shillong, the motorcycle is only a one part of what is
involved while touring India. A mode of transportation, yes,
but a potent tool of self-development as well.
The most popular Indian motorcycle-touring route is the northern
one. The Delhi-Chandigarh-Manali-Leh circuit starts from the
capital and then crosses a 200 km agrarian and industrial
belt through the states of Haryana and Punjab before weaving
into the Shivalik Hills of the State of Himachal Pradesh.
Much like the International wing of the New Delhi airport,
the first stretch leaves a lot to be desired. The traffic
is heavy, the air sodden with fumes of traffic, industrialization
and fertilizer. But, on the plus side, the road is wide and
well-maintained with numerous resting stops to take a break
from learning to ride on the wrong side of the road and the
Indian driving cycle.
After Chandigarh, the scenery improves and the first option
of routes presents itself. Taking the right turn leads to
Shimlathe Rajs old summer capitalwhile the
left one goes straight to Manali via Bilaspur. Shimla is nearer,
and within an hour you are transported from the hot north
Indian plains into the cool coniferous and monkey-infested
hills. If you are lucky, you might even be followed a tiny,
narrow-gauge tourist train chugging along the tracks alongside
From Shimla, there are two ways to get to Manalithe
gateway to the Himalayas: the state highway which connects
to Bilaspur is used by the bulk of the traffic, or the little
known Tatapani route, a narrow and very sparingly used serpentine
back road that snakes through a fir forest, descends down
to a subtropical highland jungle with hot springs, and then,
hugging the hills from valley to valley, comes out near Pandoh
before Kullu. With an early start, its a day's ride
and one of the most beautiful in the country. Keep an eye
for the gigantic mural of Hanuman, the monkey god.
Located amidst towering peaks, pines and cannabis fields,
Manali is usually the first unwinding spot of the route and
the last for stocking up on spares. The town is a mixture
of Tibetan and Indian residents and has several great bars,
restaurants, guesthouses and shops. Its easy to hang
here for several days, get adjusted to the altitude and gear
up for the next leg of the trip.
The real trial begins right after, with 485 kilometers of
narrow, steep and graveled roads, creeping though the Himalayas,
deserts and no less then five snowy mountain passes, the highest
of them, the Tanglang La at 18,000 feet. At the end of the
road you arrive at Leh, the capital of Ladakh, with its Buddhist
monasteries and volunteer workers. From here, you have the
choice of either riding ahead into the valley of Kashmir or
returning back the same way.
Instead of testing their skills and motorcycle reliability
against the icy elements, many motorcycle travelers prefer
to ride in Rajasthan, sharing the sand crusted roads with
camel and buffalo carts, nomads and shepherds, and stopping
at picturesque Rajput forts and colorful villages. The route
runs from Delhi to Jaipur and to the desert cities of Bikaner
and Jaisalmer before veering into neighboring Madhya Pradesh
or southward to Goa.
Unlike the hilly terrain of the northern route, where most
roads are in reasonable condition except in the snowy reaches,
most of the back roads of Rajasthan are in poor shape. With
sparse traffic, it makes more sense to stick to highways.
Similarly, summer temperatures normally hover above 40C (well
over 100 degrees F), so its is best to check out the
desert and the camel fair of Pushkar in autumn, before the
onslaught of the tourists in winter.
Coasting along the beaches beneath the palm trees or just
looking at the sea from the cliffs, Goaa favorite alternative
hangout since the 1960sbreaths an air of deep self-contentment,
verging on the point of stagnation. Instead of proceeding
onwards, the temptation to relax triumphs, at least temporarily,
and riding about the tiny state or lying on the beach becomes
more of a lifestyle than part of a tour.
South of Goa, where signs say "cool drinks" and
fish are cooked in coconut oil, the temple circuit begins.
First heading west to Hampi, the town of rocky ruins in Karnataka
and then riding through the length of Kerala before turning
north at Kanayakumari, India's southernmost tip. After
checking out the temple towns of Tamil NaduMadurai and
Trichi with their squat temples and pyramidal gateways--the
road usually leads northeast to the former French enclave
of Pondicherry or towards the state's hill stations, Kodaikkanal
In the east, the only areas qualifying for and almost un-subjected
to tourist motorcycle exhausts are the hill states of Meghalaya
and Arunachal Pradesh.
A mountain plateau bordering Bangladesh, Meghalaya
offers some of the best scenery and roads in the region. Meanwhile,
Arunachal Pradesh, which offers some of the most exhilarating
of Himalayan roads is off limits to most travelers because
of the $50 a day government royalty and exorbitant tour operator
charges. Nevertheless, one outfit is offering motorcycle tours
in the region in a tie-up with a Buddhist monastery.
WHEN TO GO:
Because of monsoons and varying climates throughout the large
country, it is best to plan an Indian motorcycle trip to coincide
with the cool and dry seasons.
Ladakh and the western Himalayas: June to September
Rajasthan and central India: September to March
Goa & the South: September to March
Assam, Meghalaya, and Northeast India: September to
GETTING A BIKE:
Many motorcycle travelers in India rent bikes for short trips,
or purchase and resell them for longer ones.
Nana's Garage on Connaught place in New Delhi is the most
famous as well as the most expensive place to buy, rent and
repair Enfields. Inder Motors of Karol Bagh follows close
behind. Bargaining is highly recommended. The average cost
of renting a bike for two weeks will set you back by Rs.12,000-15,000
There are numerous other used motorcycle dealers in Karol
Bagh area. But with all, an eye for oil leaks, not shiny chrome,
and ears for engine clanks, not sales talk is the way to go
when choosing a bike. The average prices start around $600
for a used 350cc model, and $1000 for the 500cc model. New
ones start at $1300 and $1600 respectively.
In Chennai (Madras) in south India, used motorcycles are marginally
cheaper. Try the many dealers on Harris Road. Workmanship
much better then in north India, but bargaining is indispensable.
In neighboring Pondicherry, bikes are even lower priced.
Despite the allure of riding a literal classic, it best to
avoid bikes over 10 years old.
For extended tours, it makes more sense to buy a new or used
machine and sell it at the end of the trip. Try finding another
motorcycling experience hungry traveler, as the dealers hardly
pay more then two thirds of the purchase price, irrespective
of the condition of the vehicle and their earlier commitments.
Goa is a good place to unload bikes, while South India is
If youre not quite ready to hit the roads of India on
your own, there are a few highly reputable local tour operators
and outfitters that run tours of varying lengths throughout
Himalayan Motorcycle Tours
With a fleet of cherry red Enfield 500s owned by a very friendly
and easy-going American expatriate, Patrick Moffat, Himalayan
Motorcycle Tours concentrates on the Himalayan belt from
Ladakh to Bhutan.
Himalayan Motorcycle Tours
16 High St. Overton
Hants R625 3HA,
Run by Australian Mike Ferris, Ferris Wheels offers guided
tours in the Himalayan beltthe Manali-Leh-Srinagar route--as
well as in the desert state of Rajasthan and in the South
Indian States. Approximate length of each tour is three weeks.
Uses rented bikes and hired mechanics.
PO Box 743
Himalayan Roadrunners, the largest motorcycle touring outfit
on the subcontinent, also offers tours in North Thailand,
Tibet and Bhutan. Owns a large fleet motorcycles and has choices
New Jersey 08833
Sunshine Tours, an alternative outfit and veteran of two voluntarily
organized six month long "All India Motorcycling pilgrimages,"
has now gone pro, offering two-to-three week-long motorcycling
pilgrimages in the Himalayan region and in India's northeastern
States. Each tour includes daily lessons in yoga, meditation
and various massage practices. An unusual palate.
149, Kaew Nawarat Soi 4
Chiang Mai 5000
J. Deka is a freelance writer and full-time traveller.
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