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When you think of the world’s great cycling destinations, India isn’t a country that necessarily springs to mind. And yet, when you venture beyond the bustling city streets, India has a wealth of opportunities on offer for the intrepid cyclist.
Andy Rogers and Caz Whitehead recently ventured to the Indian state of Karnataka with Exodus Travels to begin a two-week-long journey along the country’s south-western coastline. This is the first in a two-part series about that journey.
Cycling anywhere in the world can be so different, yet when it all boils down, it’s much the same. Feet on pedals, hands on bars. Tarmac, gravel, obstacles and vehicles to dodge. What makes it so different is the people. It’s quite common to reach the end of a trip and ask yourself “Would I do that again?” The answer is always the same, and never “No.”
Throughout every experience – good or bad – knowledge is gained. People are met. Food is eaten. Land is traversed, but with the kilometres travelled comes knowledge of a culture. Experience that can’t be attained by always riding the same roads and only seeing the same sights. This is why we travel by bike, not to ride, but to learn.
We had an early morning flight scheduled, which meant an immediate blur of travel – four hours at Melbourne’s Tullamarine Airport, 13 hours in the air, two hours in Delhi, three hours in the air, four hours at Chennai, one hour through to Bangalore, and four hours of being driven — in a half-comatose state — through the winding, potholed laneways and chaotic highways that would place us at our first official destination: Mysore.
[ct_super_feature_parallax mp4=”https://cyclingtips.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/mysore.mp4″ video_width=”1920″ video_height=”970″ title=”Day 1: The journey to Mysore”]
A real, immediate introduction to India was seen between the veils of sleep; a myriad of sights new to our eyes. Brightly painted houses, small dwellings covered in tarps, motorbikes carrying at least 20 live chickens, dangling by the feet. A mess of traffic, lines and markings on the road that seemed to carry no meaning for the drivers.
Hustle, bustle and life in every place. Everything moved. Dogs with no home roamed. But everywhere, people gathered in groups, chatting and laughing. There was a certain liveliness in the air that couldn’t be ignored.
We eventually began winding through the streets of Mysore around lunchtime and were delivered to our accommodation. The 180km drive had taken around four hours; traffic wasn’t fast-moving, but rather constantly moving. Finding a soft bed, we both collapsed, to awake running perfectly on Indian time at 7am. We had one day of exploration by foot before beginning the journey, so we left the bikes unpacked.
A market seemed to be in the process of starting right across the road, so we investigated. Spices, fruit and small trolleys attended by old men cooking food which didn’t have names in our vocabulary yet. It was a Sunday, so regular shops weren’t open. We walked through the city, all the time being offered shoe polishing, apples, street food and necklaces.
When night fell, a single palace outshone everything surrounding it. Small light bulbs ran along every edge of the brickwork; many thousands in total. According to the locals, the lights only stay on for an hour each night of the weekend. A South Indian dinner followed, with plates and plates of various curries, breads and rice being piled around us. We slept early, ready for the early morning to follow.
[ct_super_feature_parallax img_src=”https://cyclingtips.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/RoadtrippingIndia_AC-55.jpg” img_width=”1920″ img_height=”905″ title=”Day 2: Mysore to Srirandapatna, return”]
[ct_super_feature_blockquote quote=”Kids would run out of their houses to greet us with ‘Hello’ and ‘What is your name?'”]
With newly assembled, tuned and working bikes, our sights were set on a town to the north which boasted such sights as a mosque and temple. The actual sights weren’t the goal, but rather the experience of escaping the city. Very quickly the crowded, loud streets opened into fields and country roads, with small villages never too far apart.
As we passed, kids would yell and run out of their houses to greet us with “Hello” and “How are you?” and “What is your name?” Field workers carried scythes through gaps in grass, occasionally slashing at a portion of the field, only stopping to lift their heads and watch us ride past.
Two young kids approached us as we arrived at the mosque, one carrying a small chicken. He clasped it like a baby, and it seemed perfectly content in his grasp. The mosque itself was filled with kids – perhaps around nine or 10 – but very few adults could be seen. People ran from one building to another, all the time seeming in a rush, but with very little sound. Pigeons nested in the spires, occasionally getting a fright and all leaving at once, only to return again shortly after.
The road then took us west, stopping briefly at the Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple before we continued, searching for a tea stop. Chai stalls were in abundance. We chose one with an open sitting area outside, under the shade of a very large tree. A few shops were clustered together here – not a town, but not close to much else.
A small bridge was near the shops, and exploring past the bridge we found a whole community, living amongst an old temple grounds. The river lapped at the steps, where ladies sat and thrashed at their washing, hitting it against the stone time and time again, with soap suds floating downstream. Some men prayed, others sat idly on the steps or bathed in the river. Kids swam and laughed. We took photos and felt like true tourists.
The return journey to Mysore was much of the same, with a sandy bridge crossing in the middle. Traffic increased, and the full afternoon bustle of the city overwhelmed everything. Tuk-tuk fumes, incense and wafts of masala. Suddenly hungry, we stopped and had the local Indian specialty – a Thali consisting of many small mounds of vegetable curry, served on a banana leaf, accompanied by the soft, flat bread, paratha.
The afternoon was spent once again wandering, and preparing to leave Mysore the following morning. Another early night.
[ct_super_feature_parallax img_src=”https://cyclingtips.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/RoadtrippingIndia_Digital_AC-18.jpg” img_width=”1920″ img_height=”1000″ title=”Day 3: Mysore to Nanjangud”]
With the morning light came kites and crows sailing past our window. We gathered our things, and packed the bikes. An earlier departure meant we missed the busy traffic and saw the city covered in a light fog, beams of early sunlight streaming between the trees as we made our way toward Chamundi Hill.
Later, we realised that if this were a Western city, a climb as perfect as this would be teeming with road cyclists. Here, however, the bikes were replaced by mini buses filled with those looking to pray to the black granite Nandi Bull statue at around the halfway point to the summit. A short descent had us now travelling south – the direction we’d remain travelling until we reached our end point in Varkala.
We took the long way, well away from the highway. It added kilometres, but each one was worth it. Tiny yet completely ripe banana bunches hung from trees lining the roads and peeling revealed a seeded, very sweet version of our regular riding snack.
These roads made us feel like we were stepping back in time, to a place where people still lived off the land, and had little interest in material possessions – although this was occasionally blurred by loudspeakers blasting Indian pop music as we passed through some towns. It wasn’t long before we arrived in Nanjangud, carrying extra bananas in our jersey pockets.
Deciding against the highway we’d only caught a glimpse of along the way, the bus seemed a better option by far. A bus in the loosest of terms, our transport contained seats, but was entirely windowless, and mostly without sides, meaning those on the back would hold on to keep from falling out. Racing between gaps and often on the wrong side of the road with trucks approaching, our driver managed to somehow effortlessly guide us through the traffic we would have had difficulty riding amongst.
Accommodation for the evening was small bunk-style rooms; each dorm named after an animal native to the adjacent National Park. Dark seemed to arrive quickly, and sleep came with it.
[ct_super_feature_parallax img_src=”https://cyclingtips.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/RoadtrippingIndia_Digital_AC-9.jpg” img_width=”1920″ img_height=”1051″ title=”Day 4: Bandipur National Park”]
Warnings were spoken about riding through the Tiger Reserve; our planned route for the morning. Tigers weren’t the main concern, but rather the elephants that also inhabited the area. Elephants have a tendency to charge, and if in danger the best we could do was throw our helmets toward the elephant, hoping that would keep them at bay.
What started as a morning covered in a blanket of heavy fog soon turned into a sunny yet mild day, as we made our slow journey through the forests on winding, undulating roads. The riding wasn’t easy, but it certainly was visually rewarding. Lush green forests parted occasionally to tease us with the view of the mountains that awaited us.
After passing through the border to a new state (Tamil Nadu), suddenly we came to the end of the National Park, where the mountains we had viewed hours earlier now towered beside us; their peaks lost in the clouds on an otherwise fine day. We relished the amazingly smooth road on the way to our next hotel – after days of potholes and gravel, this was a change we were extremely grateful for.
Our accommodation was nestled right at the base of the Nilgiri, or “Blue Mountains”. Tomorrow we’d face a climb that sounded amazing, yet dreadful; the climb to the summit was 11% for 11km, with an elevation gain of 1,200m, with a total of 1,700m to the town of Ooty itself.
Putting these numbers aside, we met a neighbouring farming family, and they invited us into their small home for ginger tea and a donut-like snack. Their farm was something from fiction; the grandfather tended to a small herd of cows, while the father looked after the crops. The other duties were shared between the sister and brother, with the mother looking after chickens and water. The view into this world was fascinating.
We could have happily moved to this farm, and not faced this looming mountain – but instead, we left their humble yet incredible abode, and went to bed. Sleep was necessary.
To be continued …
Click the links below to see Andy’s Strava files from the first few days of riding: