Tips for Cycle Touring in India
January 1, 1970
by Mark Hartley
Plan your accommodation ahead.
Wild camping and sleeping rough is essentially illegal in India for foreigners (even with permission), due to new laws implemented a few years ago after a terrorist incident in Mumbai. Basically, every tourist in the country must have their accommodation registered with the police every night that they stay in India. This means any and every hotel, guesthouse, homestay, resort, campsite or hostel that you stay in must fill in a C-Form with your name, home address, passport details, visa details, where you came from and where you are going, and submit this form to the police with 24 hours. This also applies if somebody lets you stay in their house, or even camp in their garden or on their land (including churches, etc), and since normal people don’t have these forms they can’t let you stay with them for fear of getting in trouble with the law.
As a result, you will need to stay in official paid for accommodation every night unless you are very good at stealth camping. Fortunately, accommodation is very cheap so financially this isn’t too much or a burden, but finding places to stay in rural areas can be problematic. Most places that are off the “tourist track”, have never had foreigners and never expect to, so they don’t bother to get the forms required – meaning even if you find somewhere they might not be able to accommodate you. In my experience about half the places at which I inquired at said they couldn’t host foreigners.
In most cases, if you aren’t too far off the main road you will probably find something within one to two hours, but it makes more sense to book something the day before and then have a clear plan of where you are going. Personally, I prefer to just wing it when cycling and not have a set destination, in case my plans change during the day – but in India, this is very difficult to do. However, despite these issues, I only had a serious problem once where I was forced to cycle for an additional three hours after dark until I eventually found somewhere.
NB – in India the word HOTEL actually means “restaurant”, so don’t think there is loads of accommodation because you keep seeing the word “HOTEL” on every building. You need to look for LODGE or GUESTHOUSE, which is far less common (of course in tourist areas some hotels are actually hotels).
Use 26″ wheels, or bring lots of spare tubes.
The 700c standard is uncommon to the point of being practically non-existent in India. I made the mistake of buying an imported French bike from the newly arrived Decathlon chain in India, which was a great bike in practice but I was unable to find a 700c tube anywhere on the road. Needless to say, my tubes looked like patch-work quilts by the end of it! Same goes for tyres – if you damage a tyre you’ll struggle to get a replacement at any small town bike shop. That said, the Decathlon chain is growing in India and their stores can now be found in most major cities, so maybe in time, the 700c standard will become more popular.
Avoid asking for directions
For whatever reasons, which like most things in India there is probably no explanation, nobody will ever give you correct directions. Sometimes it feels like you are being purposely misdirected, but I’d like to think it’s just a communication barrier. Either way, I eventually stopped asking for advice or directions as it just ended up getting me more lost than if I had gone on alone.
It’s bizarre really some of the situations I found myself in because the advice at the time seems so helpful and friendly. One time a guy guided me on his scooter for an hour to take me all the way to a campsite that he “knew” about, even stopping on the way to buy me tea, but on arrival, no campsite existed. I ended having to cycle back on my own in the dark to find a hotel. Another time a nice man told me how I could easily cycle all the way “downhill” to the next town, only 20 km’s away. It was actually about 40 km’s and mostly uphill. I’m used to people who mainly drive motorised vehicles lacking a realistic perception of distance and altitude, but this was extreme.
Don’t plan on using public transport
It’s near impossible to get a bicycle on any public transport. For me, this was the biggest problem in India and resulted in me actually cutting my trip short. In hindsight, it was presumptuous of me to assume that all trains and buses would try and accommodate cycles like in Europe, because cycling (and especially cycle touring) is uncommon in India, so the public transport systems have never needed to make provisions for them. One time I was able to convince a bus driver to let me strap my bicycle to the roof racks, so long as I hoisted it up there myself, but even then he only agreed because I caught him at a good time and the bus was going to be stationary for at least ten minutes (the additional 200 rupees no doubt helped too).
Trains will begrudgingly accommodate bicycles in the ‘Parcel Carriage’, but usually only after prolonged discussions and the correct amount of notes changing hands. Also, only major trains stations have ‘Parcel Offices’, so you will only be able to get your bike on and off in major towns and cities. In order to get a seat on any train you must book your tickets ahead (sometimes weeks ahead for popular routes), so accept the fact that even if you do get your bike on you’ll likely be standing the entire way – crushed in like a sardine.
You absolutely cannot take a bicycle on any local metro train or bus services, however, some trains in Mumbai have a ‘goods carriage’ that I snuck my bicycle into once or twice, but I’m still unsure if this is allowed.
Don’t expect a luxury holiday
Cycling touring in India is not all beautiful scenery and relaxing days rolling through the countryside like in Europe and the US. While there is no doubt some incredibly scenic areas dispersed around India, the majority of it is not pretty. Streets are dusty and filth-strewn, animals wander freely everywhere and there is very little in the way of peace or serenity. Even the smallest towns are massively over-populated, and even in the remotest areas, there are always people around. Noise is constant and debilitating, and the various array of smells can often be over-powering.
However, if you avoid cities and main roads you can still find some lovely areas, like the rocky landscape of Hampi or the tea plantations in the Western Ghats. I haven’t been up to Himachal Pradesh or Kashmir but apparently, it’s good for cycling if you don’t mind hills. While the touristy areas between Mumbai and Delhi, (Udaipur, Pushkar, Jaipur, Agra), may be appealing to visit, these and the roads connecting them are heavily populated and best avoided for cycling.
India is a diverse, culturally rich and fascinating place that can be thoroughly enjoyed by bicycle if you are tolerant, patient and have a bit of determination.