An all India motorcycle tour
I’ll let you in on a little secret: there’s no finer way to see the world than on two wheels. A motorcycle tour of India is one of those iconic journeys that you read about in glossy travel magazines; a hulk of a man with chiseled features and a thousand yard stare straddling a shiny metal rocket in the high mountains of Ladakh. You know the one, the guy in the Belstaff jacket casually stroking his chin to flash the Submariner.
Well, here’s the secret: you can do it too. With a little planning, a bit of common sense and a couple of grand in the bank, you too can take on an all India motorcycle trip and live to tell the tale.
What’s in this article:
Sound good? Great, let’s jump in!
How to plan for an epic motorcycle tour of India
First off, when we consider the possibilities of a motorcycle tour of India we have to make a choice on the route. That decision will be primarily dictated by the amount of time you have available for the trip. In my case I had a six month visa at my disposal, cash in the bank and an appetite for adventure. That said, I was initially traveling with my sister and with that came compromises.
The first two months of the trip were to be spent together. Lucy had a break between work contracts and felt the call to tag along on the Indian bike odyssey. The details of our plan and how it was radically different in reality can be enjoyed in the full story of the trip which is to follow. For now though, let’s address the planning requirements for an Indian motorcycle adventure.
Fly to Delhi, buy a bike, ride to the mountains
We booked our flight tickets to Delhi about eight weeks in advance which secured us a great deal. Flying with Saudia, with a connection via Jeddah, I scored a return ticket for just £303.
Our plan was, in it’s most simple formula: fly to Delhi, buy a Royal Enfield, ride away to the mountains.
And that is exactly what we did. Having travelled India by bicycle some years before I knew enough about what to expect and how it might be. I knew to trust the process. A motorcycle tour of India would help me to see even more of this mesmeric country.
For those new to India, I would recommend doing the same. As Goethe said, ‘there is magic in bold action’. Pack a bag, book a flight and enjoy the ride. The reality is that everything is possible in India. With a little patience, a flexible attitude and a fistful of rupee, doors will open and things will happen.
How to plan your route
Now then, I use the term ‘all India’ loosely. Cargo trucks have a sticker that I’m rather fond of, ‘All India Permit’ is displayed in many of the trucks and taxis of the big cities to indicate that they have permission to carry goods or people across the sub-continent.
In my case, the term, motorcycle tour of India means that I traveled a chunk of the north in a big loop, like a giant horseshoe, and a stretch from Goa to Rishikesh via Delhi. The two journeys are distinctly different and separate in their chronology.
One of the main factors to consider for a motorcycle tour of India is seasonality. India is a big country and the regional variations in climate can be vast. Choosing the correct season for your Indian motorbike adventure is a crucial step in planning a successful expedition.
Far north itinerary
For a far north (Leh – Ladakh – Spiti) loop from Delhi ideal timings are between June and September. Plan your ride to start and finish inside of these dates and chances are the roads will be open and the conditions optimal. Outside of this weather window and it’s likely that the journey will be hampered by road closures, snow and landslides.
For a southern itinerary, October through April is perfect. The temperature will be either side of thirty degrees and the sun will be shining. Outside of that, its rainy season and you’ll spend most of the trip navigating flooded roads, in low visibility, wet to the bone.
As you will see from the timings, a south to north itinerary is possible given the appropriate start date. Begin at the right time of year and its possible to enjoy the best of the weather across the country. A motorcycle tour of India can follow the seasons and enjoy the whole country in the finest of conditions.
All India Itinerary
Six to seven months is possible for a circumnavigation. 12 months would be a comfortable timeframe for deeper exploration of the interesting places and extra layovers where you feel the call. If you have time to do it, this is the way to go.
The motorcycle tour of India I undertook was split into two parts. A loop of the north at the lower altitudes with my sister in November 2018 and a ride from south to north across country I made solo in March 2019. I spent three months in Goa between times. Of the five months total trip I spent just over two months on the road.
The route of my motorbike tour in the north of India is as follows: Delhi to Chandigarh:
Delhi – Rishikesh – Waknaghat – Jawalamukhi – Dharamshala (McLeod Ganj) – Gurdaspur – Amritsar – Chandigarh
The route of my south to north motorcycle tour of India: Goa to Delhi:
Mandrem – Rajapur – Wai – Aurangabad – Ajanta Caves – Omkareshwar – Mandu – Udaipur – Chittogarh – Pushkar – Agra – Haldwani – Rishikesh – Delhi
These two itineraries allows for layovers and sightseeing. In particular the distances in the north were intentionally shorter to accommodate for a more full experience of the places we passed through. Since it was Lucy’s first visit to India, we wanted to make certain that the time was well spent.
The solo trip was more direct but deliberately steered into places of interest. The route was planned to include the most value in terms of landmarks and cultural significance.
Buying a used Royal Enfield in Karol Bagh
Once in Delhi we wasted no time in visiting Karol Bagh to find a motorcycle. Fresh off the plane we looked up a couple of second hand bikes online and one from a poster on the wall of the hostel.
These leads took us directly to the main motorcycle district of central Delhi. Karol Bagh is the place to find a second hand Royal Enfield. There are dozens of bike dealers in this compact district of the city.
Lucy and I were keen to make a purchase and waste no time getting on the road. Each day we spent in the city meant fewer days exploring incredible India. We had come to see this wonderful country and we were excited.
We arrived at the first viewing at Joga Motors to see a second hand Royal Enfield Bullet. That bike was no longer available. However, Auntie did happen to have a 2015 model Royal Enfield Thunderbird 350 in stock.
Thunderbirds are go!
I’d been recommended the Thunderbird by my mate Wayne. As a taller rider (6’2” / 187cm) the Thunderbird is the more comfortable ride thanks to its slightly easy rider styling. The classic Bullet is a more rigid, on top experience.
Speaking of bike preference, for those with the budget and plans for a motorcycle tour of India, the Himalayan is recommended. The 410cc machine has the power and ride quality which is perfect for the high mountains.
For a 500cc model expect to pay more upfront and consistently more for spares and maintenance. The upside of higher torque and power are marginal gains over the longer term cost of ownership. If you’re renting certainly opt for the higher powered machine.
Our enthusiasm was clearly visible. Auntie wasted no time in closing the sale along with a few essential extras; we added a new rear tyre, luggage rack, mobile phone holder with charger, a backrest and a bag full of spares including tubes, tools and cables.
One lakh, live it
After a brief round of bartering, we agreed a price: 80,000 rupee which at the time was a whisker under £850 or just over $1000. It was more than we’d planned to spend but the bike was considerably more modern and therefore reliable. We were happy to pay the extra. I still own the bike today and its running really well.
In this scenario expect to drink a lot of chai and watch the world go by. Sitting in the small office of Joga Motors in the heart of Karol Bagh we saw Delhi life unfold before us. It’s an exercise in observation, patience and insight.
When searching for your own bike you may want to shop around for a great deal for a particular motorcycle. I personally had done some research on average prices and knew enough about basic mechanics to know that the bike we purchased was sound. Prepare in this way and you’ll cut the deal you’re happy with.
Essential kit for an all India motorcycle adventure
As we have described, the essential piece of kit for a great Indian motorbike journey is the bike. Once purchased or rented, beyond the bike there are a few things that you may wish to consider.
Motorcycles are inherently ‘unsafe’ from a design perspective – there are no inbuilt safety features such as ABS or seatbelts that you would find on a car. Personal safety on a motorcycle is a thing of preference. Better ride in a way that keeps you upright and on the bike.
You will see the vast majority of motorcyclists in India ride without helmet, gloves nor appropriate footwear. For these bikers on short journeys, flips flops are just fine. A few miles on a local commute is low risk. Many hundreds of miles per day at speed across varied terrain is another matter entirely.
I borrowed a bikers jacket from my mate John. A buffalo motorcycle jacket has all the padding and material to make extremes in temperature comfortable. It has loads of useful pockets that can be zipped or buttoned closed. It’s breathable and also waterproof.
I dug out a pair of my old mans leather bikers gloves. They’re thick enough to insulate hands in the colder climes and to reduce windchill. The padding and material protection in the event of a fall. Road rash is no picnic.
Boots are recommended though I made my trips in converse high tops. Jeans are good enough for most of the journey though occasionally hot. Decent sunglasses will be of great use. A couple of snoods are essential.
For navigation we used a smartphone with a local Airtel SIM for navigation and route planning. The device could be charged in the holster cradle via USB. I opted for an older device since the current form the bike tends to surge and can run down the battery.
A waterproof cover (thanks Fabian) for rucksacks is a handy thing to have, puddles of dirty water and general diesel fumes will cover your luggage in a matter of hours. A cover of some kind protects against this and means that the bag can be handled cleanly into your room each day.
We carried a couple litres of oil. It’s reassuring to have on hand at all times. We topped up every 500 miles. There’s no dip stick but a decent glug tends to be sufficient. Maybe 500 ml per 1000km.
Kit for a motorcycle tour of India
India being well traveled and populous means that guest houses are frequent and welcome after a long day in the saddle. In previous bicycle journeys I’ve carried full camping equipment – I used it but a handful of times. There’s plenty of scope for wild camping but the chance of being seen, found and watched are higher than most places. Its not particularly relaxing to spend the evening being the local entertainment.
A travel hammock for rest days can be useful on a longer trip. A few survival basics are also recommended: a Sawyer water filter means you can have clean safe water straight from the tap or a river rather than buy loads of plastic bottles. A multi tool for general outdoor usage and to accompany your bike tool kit, I used this one.
My journey around India on a Royal Enfield Thunderbird 350
A few words on my journey to Delhi
Flying into Delhi was a journey of two halves. The first half was only half capacity, I had the middle row of three seats to myself, in a very new, comfortable aircraft. Passengers on this flight were British Muslims headed for Mecca. Hajj is the annual pilgrimage to the holiest city in the world for Muslims. Since this flight connected to New Delhi via Jeddah our path took us just 70km from the site.
During the six hours airtime many of the men on board changed from ordinary clothes of jeans, shirts and shoes into the traditional white Ihram robes particular to Hajj. The females were already dressed in the black equivalent. The idea is to minimise the distraction of others attention. This checkerboard spectacle was quite the opposite viewed in one sweep of the plane, like a game of chess gone on holiday.
Arriving at Jeddah I was lucky enough to snuggle down in the snooze lounge of the Saudia Air business class customers. A little persistence and a friendly smile goes a long way. The scene upon passing through security some hours later was an exploded replica of the flight. Scores of men in white robes and women dressed in black were seated in neat rows. The unique dress of the Saudi Arabian man adding a touch of variation to proceedings with the addition of a red and white Keffiyeh, like a gingham lions mane offering protection against the heat and the dust.
Home From Hajj
I sat to meditate in a quiet corner of the terminal, leaving just the right amount of time to join the tail end of the queue for boarding. The melee of this line was significantly Indian. The men were again, traditionally dressed in the white robes expected at Mecca but the women were dressed in every possible colour, pattern and style. These were Indian Muslims on the return home from Hajj.
Once boarded I was second last to be seated. A fellow Westerner, Leon, a 25 year old student from Berlin had taken his sweet time too. We were sat together at the door seats with the maximum leg room. No attention was paid to our tickets, simply ‘here are two seats, please take one and be happy’. A typically pragmatic Indian attitude to tickets, systems and protocol.
Leon and I immediately struck up conversation. We’d smiled knowingly on the long wait in the coach transfer from the terminal to the boarding area, waiting many minutes for a melodramatic thunder storm to shower its praises on the desert. An old lady garrotted up a long string of green phlegm, Leon looked disgusted, amused and accepting all at once.
We spoke on the flight of our respective journeys. Leon had been living in Istanbul for a year, navigating the challenges of a long distance relationship with his girlfriend based out of Amsterdam, figuring out what was next. His challenges felt familiar. I nodded, smiled and listened.
As beginnings of journeys go, being sandwiched between the two legs of the worlds biggest pilgrimage seemed fitting. Leaving the West and all the trappings of that life to again explore the country of Vipassana made even more sense. Synchronicity at work.
A loop of north India motorbike itinerary
Delhi – Rishikesh – Waknaghat – Jawalamukhi – Dharamshala (McLeod Ganj) – Gurdaspur – Amritsar – Chandigarh
Yesterday we bought a Royal Enfield Thunderbird. The day was spent mostly in the cool shade of the small shop where Auntie cuts deals and orders young lads to fetch, carry and fix things. The bike was fitted with a luggage rack, new rear tyre and a couple of luxuries: a mobile phone holder / charger to make the navigation possible and a backrest for Lucy.
After a very calm day sipping chai and people watching in the Karol Bagh district of New Delhi, the journey across town to the hostel was pretty hairy. Delhi in the dark on a newly purchased motorcycle is an experience.
We made a plan to leave town early next day since roads would be quieter on Diwali.
Delhi to Rishikesh by motorcycle
The drumming started early today. Diwali in Delhi is a loud celebration of the kind India is brilliant at. The repetitive, rhythmic beat slowly building as I rose from a deep restful sleep. The alarm clock of a fellow traveller began it’s chorus of electronic chimes to accompany the bass.
We wheeled our way through remarkably quiet streets to join the Delhi-Meerut Expressway. As we pulled up to a stoplight at a large junction a handful of guys dressed in black, with a mala of severed limbs and shrunken skulls with faces painted jet black approached us.
They screamed in unison. I pulled out a 10 rupee note and handed it over.
“Touch the money”
Waiting for the red light to change we had nowhere to go. They persisted with ‘touch the money’ and I took what I thought was another 10 rupee note and handed it over. It was a hundred. The guys were cackling now. Like a gaggle of crazed hyena witches, the whites of their eyes and teeth shining in the early morning sun.
The lights changed and we jerked away, reeling from the weirdness of the moment. It’s hard to describe the intensity of the encounter. It’s just not something that happens anywhere else. India can be quite full on.
Crossing the Yamuna
At 9:30 we crossed the Yamuna River, the wide lanes of the Meerut Expressway empty save a few Indian families traveling to meet relatives in other towns. Progress was swift on the sealed highway. The bike purring its way through the morning.
Our easy streak came to an abrupt end at Muradnagar. The reliable surface of the motorway long gone, hundreds of vehicles of every shape, size and sturdiness making their elaborate way on a narrow single track semi paved road. Indian roads are loud because the horn is used to signal intent; speed up, get out of the way, watch out being the main ones.
By now, a few hours in to our motorcycle tour of India, I’d begun to feel the weight of the bike. Constant stopping, starting, swerving, stopping again, was heavy work. Indian roads are notoriously chaotic; the volume of traffic, huge variety of vehicles and the vast differences in speed make the cocktail pretty heady.
A man riding a trailer loaded with bricks pulled by a water buffalo turns right. He raises an arm, pointing his stick towards the field he’s headed for and slowly the long train of animal, trailer and cargo make the move. Approaching this at 60 kph with a fleet of other scooters, small cars and sumos, the result is a complete roadblock for 40 seconds.
Your Hair Is Like Thor
Our route carved its way through sugar cane, pampas grass and species of trees too numerous to mention. Small tea stalls lined the path offering plentiful opportunities for refreshment with sweet milky chai, veg pakoda (cauliflower and potato with spices in a light batter) and fruit salad with sugar and green chilli dressing.
In Roorkee we stopped for some fruit and chai. Lucy sat on a bench next to the bike, I crossed the busy road to get chai and by the time I returned a crowd had gathered; inquisitive, shy, eager and excitable all at once. Tall European blondes are a rare thing indeed in small town India.
“Where are you from?”
The usual drill of questions came barrelling out. Lucy replying with angelic patience, all smiles and naivety. We’ll be asked that question often. It would be easy to become tired and jaded of the repetition.
As a traveler it’s important to remember that it’s a great privilege to be free to travel foreign lands. Every meeting with a new face is a moment of genuine thrill for a local; a polite reply, a smile and handshake is the least you can do.
Rising from the bench and the glow of the early evening sunlight, one of the young guys points and says;
“You know Thor? You have hair like Thor!”
Lucy replies with a reference to vikings. “Vikings are scary!” the lad smiles, shaking my hand.
Escape from Delhi
Overtaken by a feeling of hurry and rush we sped through the small town roads north east of Delhi. The idea of a destination, the satisfaction of arriving and the excitement of our journey, we were overpowered with thoughts, sensations and energies.
Our 250km journey from Delhi to Rishikesh was a great adventure in itself. New to Indian roads by motorcycle, the experience was invigorating, challenging and familiar. It was amazing just how familiar it all felt. The early days of a new tour are always the same – MUST. REACH. DESTINATION.
After near eight hours astride saddle, the plush leather was less comfortable than It first appeared. Of course, we took breaks every couple of hours to take chai and fruit, but the effort was still mighty, the wear and tear of the day pulling at our fraying seams. It couldn’t have been any different.
With a desire to leave the madness of Delhi behind at the earliest opportunity, we packed up in haste and executed our to-do list with precision. All the little jobs were done quickly and efficiently. That checklist mentality was taken with us to the bike on that first day of our motorcycle tour of India.
Our long day chasing an arrival was a great lesson. As I sit here now, looking out over the mighty Ganges, the most holy of rivers, life giver, and Mother to all India, its easy to remember that its the journey that matters. The destination does not.
Let’s take the metaphor of life as the great journey; the beginning is birth, the middle is your ‘life’ and the destination is death – surely then, there is no hurry to arrive?
Yet, it’s all too common to meet people that are living by checklist, mired in a constant feeling of lack, misery and suffering. ‘If I just get that next promotion’, they say, ‘a bigger house’, things would be different, ‘a little more money’ that’s all, ‘then I’d be happy’.
Where does all that end? It doesn’t. It never ends. It’s a trap. The trick is not to get so caught up in all that stuff and nonsense. A friend shared a piece of wisdom recently;
‘A great master does not teach, but simply helps you to forget what you think you know’.
Taking a rejuvenating dip in the powerful flow of Mother Ganga was needed to help us to remember the journey and to forget the destination.
So, when we load the bags back onto the bike tomorrow morning we’ll be taking a different mind with us. A calm and quiet mind. Ready to see the joy in a smile, take in the wonder of nature and enjoy every moment.
The oldest hippie in Rishikesh
Yesterday morning I went up to the roof to join Lucy for an hour of yoga before breakfast. Before we could get started an old guy playing clarinet called me over.
“You know what this is? No? You’re not a hippie. This is a peace sign. My mandala is a peace sign. I want to make a recording, right here, look, here’s the phone, you click this, hold it, then swipe to the lock and that’s it. Keep it steady, no shaking. We’ll see how good a photographer you are.”
“You know yoga? Yeh? All Yoga Teachers failed at life, that’s why they’re here. You have to be vegetarian to do yoga. The American Alliance of Yoga? It’s a Coca Cola company. They’ve got a nerve, man. You know? Come over here and just steal yoga and turn it into some multi-million dollar business.”
“These women in leggings, walking around like that, all sex and body. That’s not yoga. That’s just sex, working only one chakra. These teachers here, they’re making like, two, three hundred thousand dollars a year. They can’t enjoy that money. It’s wrong. It’s cheating. A pickpocket, he can enjoy his piece, that’s an art. Teaching yoga, that’s just cheating.”
“Record me with this clarinet. I’m going to make a video and send it to all the big labels. A big hit. Let’s go.”
We record the clip to a tabla and harmonium backing track and play it back.
“Powerful sound. You know the tabla? That’s the sound. Yeh.”
“I had the best Bullet in all India. No one believed it was mine. My girlfriend, she used to feed the baby on the back, no problem, then I sold it – show’s over! I destroyed Rishikesh. Shiva. When I came here there were like, just three local restaurants, chillum and chai. This place [the ashram where we were staying], just a ruin. Nothing.”
“Who could believe that India could be like this? So many cars, so much rush – ruuusssshhhh.”
“So, James Bond. Yeh, he was in deep. Real brainwashed. You know? Like terrorists, really they believe it. When they do it, they’re like, really IN TO IT! Destroy all terrorists. Say it, say ‘destroy all terrorists’. Brainwashing, man. Mental. GOV-ERN-MENTAL. You get it? MENTAL.”
Rishikesh to Waknaghat via Nahan
We crossed Lakshman Jhula, Rishikesh’s famous hanging bridge before the sun came up from behind the mountains. The bike putt-putt-putting as we slowly idled across the narrow metal plates suspended high above the Ganges river.
Our early start made certain we had the path almost entirely to ourselves. A handful of pedestrians walked along beside us, stopping to let us pass. An hour a later and this quiet moment high above the rushing torrents of India’s longest river will be long forgotten, crowds jostling in a seething mass crossing from Tapovan to Jonk.
Sunrise in Himachal Pradesh
As we pulled slowly up the west bank through Tapovan we passed mules laden with bricks headed down to a building site close to the river, each measured step, sure and steady under the weight their load. The early morning hush hung in the air like a velvet mist dissolving all sounds as the town gracefully eased into the momentum of the coming day.
The sun came up as we crossed from Uttrakhand into Himachal Pradesh. Cruising along on highway 7 on our motorcycle tour of India we made light work of the 144 kilometres to reach Nahan by 11:30. Home to the Indian Army Special Forces Training School and headquarters of the Sirmaur District, Nahan is also the site of the Lytton memorial, of which there is little information save to say that it’s a huge triple arched gateway with a cannon inside the middle arch that stands at the edge of the maze of lanes of the bazaar, the corner of the football pitch and a few doors down from the Sikh temple.
Nahan for lunch
At this early hour of the day we decided that the natural course of action was to continue onwards towards Dharamshala. Progress had been swift and with the rest of the day ahead of us we remounted the bike and took off at full speed. This rapid movement lasted all of a few hours until we ran into some very heavy traffic on the road towards Shimla.
From Rishikesh to Nahan the route was the reverse of the path that I’d cycled nearly there years before. The memory of this struck me as we approached Nahan and then more vividly again as we neared Shimla; I’d spent the night with a fellow bike traveler bedded down at the side of the road after a family had declined our request to pitch a tent in their back garden – the only flat area for many miles – this night was restless to say the least, and as the early morning toy train pulled itself slowly upwards we were glad to breathe into a new day.
We were now firmly into Himachal Pradesh proper and three days into our motorcycle tour of India; the altitude picking up a few notches demonstrated by the abundance of pines of multifarious species and the steep incline testing the mettle of our steel horse; Himachal Pradesh is known for it’s high quality charas and hashish, which is hand rubbed and a particular favourite with connoisseurs of such things.
Michal and Mirta
Our day ended with a chance meeting of an Italian couple motorcycling form Italy to Nepal. Michal and Mirta were five months in to their epic journey and it was a joy to share stories of Central Asia; the great Silk Road cities of Samarkhand, Bukhara and Tashkent. The guys had had to fly their Africa Twin by cargo plane from Tashkent to Delhi due to visa challenges with Pakistan and permission complications for entering China with a motorcycle. Despite these difficulties they were now ten happy days into their motorcycle tour of India.
A thin silver sliver of crescent moon rose above our weary heads, like the steel of a Sabreuse slicing through the dusk of the crisp evening air. We had reached the town of Waknaghat, some 248km from our early morning crossing of the bridge over holy water. A great way to round off a very successful day’s riding.
Waknaghat to McLeod Ganj via Dharamshala
We were all feeling pretty chuffed with the previous day’s journey from Rishikesh. The road had been kind. We’d made new friends and arrived at a respectable hotel to share a delicious meal together. A very satisfying combination.
Our night’s sleep however, was less successful. For most of the night bus load after bus load of hungry, tired travellers arrived, ate and went to bed noisily. At one point it sounded a lot like someone was using an industrial grade floor cleaner to scrub the tiles in the room above us. Michal and Mirtilla were of a similar disposition, adding that they now smelt very much like curry and chapati, having secured a room close to the busy kitchen.
The smugness of the previous day had already begun to wear off. Unperturbed, we loaded the bikes and made for a quick start, opting to skip breakfast in favour of a later stop a few kilometres outside of Shimla. Elevenses always taste better anyway. At breakfast we were treated to a spectacular view across Himachal Pradesh. The terrain averaging around 1,500m and filled with rolling hills for many miles, the morning sun burning through the dewy mist of the early hours.
Conversation during our meal of aloo paratha, chutney and chai veered very deeply in to the current mess of the political situation in both Britain and Italy – Brexit, the far-right and unemployment. It was an unlikely topic for such a beautiful place. The words didn’t sound quite right against the backdrop of the Indian Himalayan foothills.
As we hugged for the sixth time that day, saying fond farewells as if we’d not see each other in a few hours time for chai and chit-chat, I pointed out that we would definitely cross paths someways along the road and certainly jinxed meeting up again that day. Michal had memories of a very good road to Dharamshala, insisting that it was possible to reach the town before dark. Again, jinx had an eye on our plans and stepped in to throw the game.
To say that the road was bad would be understatement of a tall order. An hour after our optimistic goodbyes we were sucking diesel and cursing the poor condition of the road. NH202 it seemed was a thoroughfare for the lions share of the heavy goods traffic of Himachal Pradesh. Landslides had destroyed great swathes of the asphalt surface leaving behind just dust, rocks and potholes. The sheer volume of traffic kicked up a great deal of choking, thick white dust, reducing visibility and air to unpleasantly smoggy levels.
All India Permit
Indian road haulage trucks are huge – stacked higher than high, decked out with cargos of unknown weight on tyres of questionable tread – a real heady mix of danger, frustration and risk. It’s hard to describe the filth that these beasts chug out in biblical quantities. Within a few minutes of being sandwiched between these monsters we ere covered in thick black soot and desperately wrapping our scarves tightly around our faces to mitigate the suffocating stink of fumes.
In three hours we travelled just 65km. Our motorcycle tour of India was moving at a snails pace today. The intricate hand painted bodywork of the vehicles making little compensation for the unpleasantness of that stretch of road. One piece of wisdom did come out of it, however, the rear tailgate of one of the trucks had a message for fellow travellers:
‘Life is limited one time offer – use it!’.
At lunch we were greeted with a hundred smiles and requests for ‘one selfie’. Since Diwali, Gujuratis have been on state holiday and have been travelling north in large numbers to visit places such as Manali, Dhramshala and Rishikesh. Grubby with black dirt and exhaust smoke, eyes like a motorcycling Jack Sparrow, we posed patiently for ‘one click’ and shook hands with dozens of moustached men and eager young children.
We looked like a bad drag act after a late night SoHo shindig, all smudged panda eyes, wild hair and blackened fingers, but that didn’t matter, the whites of our eyes shone like crystals in a Swarovski show room against the bleak appearance of our ragged attire. ‘One snap’ with a Britisher was still something exotic for our Gujarati friends, bedraggled or otherwise.
What to eat on a motorcycle tour of India?
Happily, the afternoon’s route was more comfortable; a wide, well paved, less steep, straight course was a welcome relief after a gruelling stint in the deep, winding, broken up valleys.
Reflecting on our progress over a delicious plate of very spicy bean curry, subgee and plain boiled rice I was grateful for our meagre achievement. Considering the gradient, surface and traffic we’d still come a long way in comparison to a bicycle. In fact, we’d already done as much in a long morning than I would have hoped to climb on a push iron. India by motorcycle was giving us the possibility of two to three times the daily range of a pedal bike.
That said, the greater totals travelled came at a cost. The speed, frenetic chaos of constantly overtaking slow trucks, buffalo carts and insanely anxious drivers – literally a new driver will simply buy a car, turn on the hazards lights and drive at just a few miles an hour in the middle of the road – push mental resilience to maximum limits. By the end of this day I felt burnt out like a fire damaged truck that had rolled off a cliff and burst into flames in the valley below.
All the intensity of the days two-wheeled activity; concentration to navigate the dicey roads, outmanoeuvring dodgy drivers and the inevitable overtaking of trucks had sunk into my nervous system a very fragile energy. I was dead beat by the time we arrived at Jawalamukhi at 5pm.
Pulling up at the first hotel we saw, things started to fall into place for us; Hotel Maya (Maya the name of my sisters godchild), room 17 (my birthday, on the NH303 (the same road that passes Stone henge and title of a Kula Shaker track), and 600 rupee (an amount we were happy to pay) all made this decision feel totally correct, like the universe approved entirely of our choices and wanted to confirm us through these little signs and portents.
Live and direct
After I’d put my finger into a live electric socket in the bathroom attempting to switch on the boiler for hot water, we made our way with haste to the hotel restaurant for an Indian feast; butter paneer masala, aloo gobi masala, a dozen chapati, onion bhaji, finger chips, followed by fruit kulfi with the last chapati – like an ice cream sandwich – a surprisingly tasty combination.
Back at the room we put on the televisions for a little local entertainment. We found a fantastic channel showing short clips of old Bollywood movies, usually one of the main dance-off showdowns; alternate waving hands, shaking feet and wobbling heads, like Mr Bean on acid in a National Trust property.
His Holiness The Dalai Lama
Our plan for the next day on our motorcycle tour of India was to leave early for McLeod Ganj, the hill station home of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. With just under 60km to ride we felt that this would be a breeze after the hard won experience of the previous day. How wrong we were. We left on empty stomachs, believing that we’d be in McLeod for breakfast, so with this idea we took off along one of the prettiest scenic routes so far; glorious expansive vistas stretching many miles distant, alpine flora and fauna giving a delightfully familiar fragrance to the air and small homesteads lining the village roads; a cow, a few chickens, a bullock or water buffalo, a brace of mules, spiked straw drying on the roofs, a classic bucolic Indian setting.
Three hours later we were still pootling around Dharamshala slightly lost, semi fatigued and increasingly irritated – skipping breakfast had spectacularly backfired – the hunger-confusion-rage that set in at this point was debilitating. Three times I followed a road sign that took me in a complete circle. Three times I returned to the point of action ‘Is this the way, Luce? I’m sure we’ve been here before’. Three times I realised too late that indeed we had. Eventually, we arrived in McLeod Ganj, the summit of the main square a spaghetti of awkward lanes, tight one way streets and out of control traffic police.
Frazzled, I pulled up the bike on to it’s centre stand and instructed Lucy to find any room that met our requirements; cheap, clean and close to town; I sat on some steps observing the morning rush at the makeshift roundabout. Horns blared loudly to indicate driver intent, a cow meandered casually across the whole intersection and a taxi crashed slowly, but certainly into the bike, knocking it from the stand, momentarily to two wheels, balanced and rolling gently toward a glass fronted cake shop, then wobbling heavily onto a pedestrian.
The impact knocked the stout Tibetan lady to the ground but luckily did not crush her – the weight of the bike and bags was getting on for 300kgs – quickly a crowd gathered to lift the lady and the bike back to standing and the clumsy taxi driver came over to apologise first to the bike, then to the lady. The traffic cop then decided that there was no parking in the area and ordered me to move the bike. I dawdled til Lucy returned and made a swift exit to the safety of the hotel.
That’s why it’s called a practice
India is pretty full on. Come here a little out of whack and you’ll be found out. Like a house of mirrors and every one is truth. These last few days there have been some really strong lessons. It’s been as if every thought has manifested itself in real time. A supercharged karmic bubble. India is like that. Full power.
Walking through the streets of McLeod Ganj today (a very spiritual place, home of His Holiness the Dalai Lama), I noticed a shopfront; ‘What we think, we become’. If you get caught up in a negative cycle, you’re going down, down to chinatown. Conversely, focus on compassion, light and love, and guess what, you’ll have a pretty swell day.
You have a choice
We were all born with everything we’ll ever need. Our primary task in life is to realise that and allow the rest to happen for us. Training your mind to shut up and chill is a hard job. But, the only sure way to liberation is to quiet the mind.
Meditation is simple but tough. You sit on your cushion, close your eyes and the thoughts speed up to frantic, like Jeremy Clarkson is directing your very own private episode of Top Gear and the whole budget has been spent on pointless showing off, explosions and soundtracks.
You just can’t stop thinking about stuff; the conversation you had yesterday with a colleague, the funny look the neighbour gave you this evening, the awesome new song you heard on the radio – the lyrics to every song you’ve ever known. That’s why it’s called a practice. Keep trying.
Relax, release, return
During our stay in McLeod Ganj we attended a short workshop at Tushita Meditation Centre. Our motorcycle tour of India intended to enjoy the breadth of culture and tradition of this most spiritual of countries. Cultivating Mindfulness and Emotional Balance with Glen Svenson was a three day event designed to help students develop their meditation practice and understand how to apply it to daily life.
When you focus on something does your body tense? Do you find that concentrated attention leads to a rigid, tight posture? Do you frown, hold your breath or stick your tongue out when you’re really alert to a task?
If the answer is yes (for 9/10 cats this is the case), then this learning is for you.
That sustained tension over time is a disaster. It will wear you out, run you down and leave you feeling tired, stressed and unhappy.
Here’s a simple way out of it:
First, relax. Relax your attention, come away from the object and let out a deep exhale. And again. Breathe right out. Feels better already, right?
Second, release. Release the tension in your body. The exhale helped relax and release but make a conscious check of your entire body, see that you are free from agitation, stiffness or tension. Stay loose.
Three steps to peace
Third, return. Return to the task with an alert but comfortable posture and breathe deeply. Spine straight, sit bones balanced and grounded, equal weight in each (if you’re reading this at a desk – this means sitting properly in that chair, leaning slightly forward with a straight back). Head balanced perfectly on top of your shoulders with a strong, supple neck. Breathe a few deep belly breaths and let them right out.
You’re ready to commence with your task in alert, relaxed, attention. Be sure to check in every hour (ideally take a break and walk a little to stretch your legs), come back to the task with alert relaxed attention.
Today, we named the bike. Hari was chosen because; it’s our pops middle name, we love Harry Enfield and we’re in India…
Hari Krishna, Hari Rama, Hari Om. So, meet Hari.
In the distance is the stunning Dhauladhar range, about a days trek from McLeod Ganj.
You can follow Hari’s adventures motorcycling around India via Instagram @realbigbikeride.
McLeod Ganj to Gurdaspur
We opted for a leisurely start and a shorter day today. Setting a target of around 150 km our plan was to split the journey to Amritsar, making the going more enjoyable for rider and pillion. Coming down from McLeod Ganj the heat cloaked us like a woollen shawl, forcing a stop just a few kilometres in to the day to remove layers.
Correctly arranged, we made easy miles towards the Punjab, covering two thirds of our mileage in just a couple of hours. For the first half of the day we passed through hilly forested area, tall, wide, gnarled trees lining both sides of the road, showing the ancientness of path we followed.
Later, the scene shifted to a flatter more gentle route with settlements at intervals following a familiar pattern. Each village we passed through mirrored the last; simple rural life lived as it has always been; a cow, a goat, a handful of chickens, fields of sugarcane or hay.
Beyond the outskirts but not yet in the centre of town there was old fashioned mechanised life; steel fabricators building gates and mending carts and rickshaws, workshops with a sawmills preparing wood for use in house building.
Then came the commercial centre of modern life; street traders, market stalls, shops, restaurants and hotels; all the essentials, distractions and more besides. The press of vehicles, people and animals was immense.
Slowly, as we exited the town, the scene repeated in reverse; commerce, light industry, farming. It’s about as ordered and predictable as India ever gets, like the symmetry of an open newspaper – the stories on each page are different but the cut of the paper the same; like a child pop up book.
The Punjabi people are intensely friendly – the first one we met at the roadside enthusiastically handshaking and encouraging us to tea at his stall – happy-go-lucky sort of characters with a distinct style and charm. Akash, which means sky, checked us into our hotel with swift easy strokes as confident and assured as his heroic moustache.
We’re just 10km from the international border with Pakistan and sandwiched between the rivers Beas and Ravvi. Gurdaspur is a lively place with a great deal of busy coming and going taking place along the colourful streets. Our motorcycle tour of India has delivered us to a very interesting place.
Gurdaspur to Amritsar
Our day started with an ominous greeting. Finishing the final crumbs of a soft cheese toastie and salted lassi, our makeshift breakfast had been a surprisingly basic but welcome combination, we were requested to ‘selfie’ with a traveling salesman.
“The problem, or I should say, challenge, with India, is the roads. There is no road awareness. If someone wants turn, they just turn. No indication, nothing. That’s the challenge with India”.
Hands shaken, selfies taken, he hopped into a taxi and was gone. Leaving with him a statement of fact that had not been missed. After a week traveling India by motorcycle, we’d figured out first hand exactly what he meant.
I like that he’d checked himself to say challenge rather than the problem. There’s an optimism in the challenge, a possibility of a solution, of progress. Today, would be a good day. We could rise to meet challenges. We could adapt, persevere and prevail with a challenge.
Starting out at a leisurely 10:30 we knew we had a simple and short day of travel to come. Hari started first time, having had a new battery and 1,000km service in Dharamshala with the excellent mechanic, Tesi.
A short ride from the RK Regency Hotel, a wonderfully flamboyant, rather gaudy, wedding venue, hotel and restaurant, and we were on the Pathankot – Amritsar Toll Road.
Punjab by mortorcycle
The Punjab is one of the most prosperous states in India and accordingly, the road was easily the most well surfaced, reliably so, to the point where every few dozen kilometres there was a man sweeping it clear of dust and debris.
Needless to say, this road was quite dull in terms of scenery, particularly when compared with the previous day of mountainous forest. A motorcycle tour of India is nothing if not varied.
However, the vast expanses of farming land, distant settlements bundled together at a safe distance from the road and wide open space of the view ahead were compensated in the quality of the dual carriageway. A mornings easy riding was well worth the trade off.
We arrived to Amritsar at noon and after a skirmish in the back alleys and side streets of the local bazaar, we parked Hari under the shade of a tree for a well-earned rest, freshened up in readiness to explore the Golden Temple.
The Golden Temple in Amritsar; Guru Nanak Gurpurab Festival
We sat mesmerised by the golden lights reflecting in the holy waters of Sri Harmandir Sahib as the hypnotic rhythm of the Sikh mantra joined us with the infinite potential of the universe. Our motorcycle tour of India had brought us to the Golden Temple of Amritsar, the most revered site in the Sikh religion; a place of pilgrimage, worship and splendour.
As luck would have it, we arrived on the day the Guru Nanak Gurpurab festival, our day and night at the temple were spent celebrating the founder of Sikhism with thousands of locals and pilgrims from across India. The Golden Temple in Amritsar really has to be seen to be believed; one thousand tonnes of gold cover the copper-clad structure to create a most striking impression; the suns light reflected brightly off the golden walls into the calmly rippling water.
Solid Gold Easy Action
The temple complex is a large stone building painted white with clock towers on three sides and a maze of other buildings at the west side arranged in deference to the grand gateway that leads to the inner sanctum of the Golden Temple. The queue to visit this place is long; the waiting time is north of three hours; holidays and weekends naturally being the most popular times to visit.
During our walk around the complex, we made a friend, Ranjit Singh, a handsome young Sikh lad of 18 years, who gave us firm handshakes and sound advice. We asked about the possibility of staying the night at the temple and happily, he showed us through to the Sri Nagar REF on the east wing where the accommodation is found. The tall, turbaned, one-armed guard gave us the OK and we made a plan to return later with our bags.
It is customary for pilgrims to take a dip in the holy water. A quick splash of the face or a full submersion. I stripped to my shorts and stepped in, dunking three times in the style of the locals young and old. The water was at once refreshing and cleansing, a ritual that can be enjoyed by anyone in the heat of a three o’clock Indian sun.
Dry and dressed, we then stepped in to the Langar Hall for a spot of lunch. In gurdawara temples tasty vegetarian food is given freely to those attending whether of faith or not. This act of charity on the scale here at the Golden Temple is a thing of great selflessness.
For the benefit of all
Hundreds of men, women and teenage children work tirelessly to peel vegetables, boil rice, prepare curries, hand out steel platters, bowls and cutlery, serve cooked food from steel buckets, hand out chapatti, pour water, mop floors, collect and clean platters, bowls and cutlery.
This is done on a 20-minute rotation, 12 hours a day. Experienced here at the Golden Temple it was an efficient, practical and satisfying process to behold. Thousands of people are fed daily – as many as 120,000 according to local volunteers. The net effect of this benevolence is felt throughout the community; peace and harmony proliferate in every soul. It is a kindness of full and lasting benefit.
That night, with the full moon high above, I sat to meditate in the ‘foreigners only’ dormitory, and I felt connected to the divine source in a very powerful way. The sensations were intense, resonating deeply with the strong vibrations of this very holy place.
Amritsar to Chandigarh
We ended the northern section of our motorcycle tour of India in Chandigarh. Lucy was keen to see the south and spend some time on the beach before returning to the UK. We tried to arrange a train from Amritsar unsuccessfully. Finally, we booked a ticket from Chandigarh to Margao which meant we had a four-day window to travel to Chandigarh.
We rode from Amritsar to Chandigarh in a single day. It was an easy ride on a well established route. The Grand Trunk road was as bland and uninspiring as it was direct and straight. We arrived in the principal city of Punjab and Haryana less than five hours after we set off.
Entering Chandigarh for the first time it is strikingly clear that the city has been built with intention. It is vastly unlike anything that I’d seen before in India. The geometric grid system of roads with well-organised boulevards, expansive green parks and easy to read signage suggests that this place is different by design.
Chandigarh was created by Le Corbusier, the Swiss-French pioneer of modern architecture. The lasting legacy of this wonderful experiment in town planning is a city that speaks to functionality that transcends its remit. This practical urban environment has been adopted and transformed in a uniquely Indian way; traffic signals are still largely redundant for most manoeuvres; the trains run like clockwork.
How to ride from Goa to Delhi by motorcycle; a south India to north India motorbike itinerary
I began my northward motorbike journey in early March. I’d sat happily on the beach for three months. I’d seen old friends, made new acquaintances and enjoyed the best of the season. I’d also met a beautiful woman by the name of Charlie Ma and had spent the best part of six weeks enjoying time together. Alas, as spring came knocking once more, it was time to move on.
My northbound motorcycle tour of India itinerary was designed to include the most interesting and culturally important places of interest. I’d spoke with friends that had made similar motorbike trips to the north of India to learn more about what was possible and where was worth paying a visit. As a seasoned traveller and India veteran, Charlie had made a bunch of recommendations that I’d used to plan my route north.
The rest I just figured out on the road. Taking recommendations from friendly strangers along the way. If it sounded like a cool place to see and maybe spend th night, I’d do it. I love to have the flexibility to include spur of the moment things. A vague direction of travel that allows for meandering; a loose plan that embraces change; that’s my philosophy of travel.
The final route ended up as follows:
Mandrem – Rajapur – Wai – Aurangabad – Ajanta Caves – Omkareshwar – Mandu – Udaipur – Chittogarh – Pushkar – Agra – Haldwani – Rishikesh – Delhi
Mandrem to Rajapur
Mandrem to Rajapur
“Very hot, reluctant to go, dusty road”
It was a hot, dry afternoon. I’d procrastinated long enough and despite the desire for an early departure had settled for a lunchtime escape. If I didn’t leave now, I probably never would.
I set off into the blazing midday sun and immediately ran into roadworks. As we’d already seen in the north, massive infrastructure projects were underway the length of the country. These ’new roads’ meant that the old road had been diverted, replaced or completely destroyed.
After two hours of stop-start riding, I called into a dhaba for a cold drink and a snack. Being the late afternoon, service for food had ceased for siesta, limiting my options to a can of Thumb Up and a packet of peanuts. Turns out its not just the Spanish that enjoy a nap in the afternoon.
Sitting alone in the stifling heat of the open canteen, looking out across the dusty road, I felt a pang of regret. Why was I doing this? What was the purpose of this activity? Who am I trying to impress?
I could be sat on the beach, catching a tan, enjoying a hot meal, a cocktail and hanging out with friends! Instead, I was sat in a run-down roadside restaurant, riding a motorcycle through a maze of roadworks and diversions towards an unknown place.
Maha Ganpati Temple on the Krishna
But there was a good reason for all this suffering. I was travelling for travel’s sake. I wanted the experience of crossing India by motorbike, and I had begun it. Often the idea of something is different from reality. Experiences are earned, and this tentative first step on this motorcycle journey was a reminder of that.
The rest of the afternoon passed uneventfully. The road was cut up pretty bad from the construction but levelled out eventually. I arrived in Rajaspur as dusk fell. I checked in at the only guest house in town and set off to find food. As I walked I caught the final glimmer of sun on its descent into the Arabian Sea. I’d spent much of the season sun gazing and was keen to keep up the practice.
The town was small with some light industry and predominantly Muslim. There was little to see or do but the locals were friendly enough, though the atmosphere was strained with a benign tension. I’d been to a place like this before, Goalpara, in the northeast of India, and it felt reminiscent of that strange uncertain energy.
Rajapur to Wai
Rajapur to Wai
“Better day, country road, cooler riding at altitude”
My first full day on the road of my northbound motorcycle tour of India was a more pleasing affair. I set off around 8am headed for Chiplun, about 100km from Rajapur. The road was well surfaced and made for easy miles. I arrived in good time so decided to stop for lunch. The city of Chiplun sits alongside the Vashisti river which flows directly into the Arabian Sea at Dabhol.
As I sat down to a plate of fried chicken the restaurant was bustling with students eager to eat between lectures. Curious youngsters eyed me with shifty glances. It was a quirky half-hour in a popular hang out. I asked briefly for directions out of town as I finished my fries and coke, then set off towards Highway 66.
I travelled north for a few hours along an uninspiring road making good mileage for the time. At Poladpur I turned east towards Mahabaleshwar, gradually climbing in altitude to cooler air. As the day wore on, the road wound its way up across the Koyna Wildlife Sanctuary. I stopped at a shack for a half watermelon.
Koyna Wildlife Sanctuary
I passed a gaudy tourist resort, all afternoon I saw signs for handmade chocolates, until at the summit there was a ranch of some kind where rides could be had on horse back or carriage. There were street vendors selling chai, samosa and hot nuts. It was a loud and feverish place. Too many cowboys. I didn’t stay long. I drank my chai and left.
The road fell away now trailing the descent of the mountain and below a vast open plain swept into view. Fields full with freshly planted seedlings and crops ready for harvest interlaced in a patchwork of agriculture. I cruised the long slope towards my stop for the evening.
Wai sits on the Krishna river about fifty miles from Pune. The town was once of some prominence in the days of the Peshawar. Two Maratha Brahmin have their origins here. I took a patrol of the early evening streets in search of fodder, settling for a thali and chai. A classic choice for a motorcycle tour of India.
Wai to Aurangebad
Wai to Aurangebad
“Long, cruisey day, much stopping for oil and fuel”
My longest day so far was to be an interesting one for the fact I left Wai without enough money to buy fuel. I stopped first thing to buy oil but was unsuccessful. I rode up past Pune early in the morning, continued on towards Ahmednagar where I eventually topped up with a litre of oil.
The long straight road to Aurangabad was simple enough save for late in the day I realised that I would need fuel. I pulled over, checked my wallet to reveal just a few rupee. Desperate for the juice I approached the cashier in search of a deal.
“Two pounds and two dollars”
I explained to Subash that I had dollars and would be happy to pay with that if he could give me change for a fifty in rupee. At first he was keen but on consultation with his friend he decided such a large not posed a risk so we agreed on a lesser amount: two pounds and two dollars with of fuel – about 350 rupee worth.
It was enough to see me right to the next town and my stopover for the night. So despite the fiddling around for fuel and oil I still made a respectable distance of 310km in around seven hours.
Aurangebad to Ajanta
Aurangebad to Ajanta
“Worst road ever, dusty, rocky, rutted mud – tough day”
This was quite possibly the hardest day of motorcycling in India that I have ever experienced. It was savage. The road was a disaster; rocks strewn everywhere, mud rutted into corrugations and the dust – oh, man!
“Stunning caves, very peaceful – what a place”
Needless to say this stretch of road was under construction. The whole thing was being replaced by a brand new as-yet-unfinished highway. As of the time of writing this short distance to Ajanta was a very tough ride. The caves though were amazing – well worth the visit during your motorcycle tour of India.
Ajanta to Omkareshwar
Ajanta to Omkareshwar
“Come join us for dinner”
From Ajanta I rode to Omkareshwar. Along the way I was invited to join a wedding. The procession, cheerful and excited, were steering the groom, mounted on horseback, towards the ceremony. I tagged along for a minute, parking the bike to walk alongside and take some photographs.
The revellers insisted that I attend the feast. I was happy to oblige so I followed the directions to the venue. I dismounted, took off my helmet and gloves only to be told that it would not be appropriate to stay for the feast.
“The hosts do not accept you”
I understood the situation pretty well. The parents of the bride and groom foresaw that a surprise guest would be a distraction from the main event. Nothing personal. I hopped back on the bike and continued with my motorcycle tour of India.
I took two days rest at Omkareshwar to explore. I’d been recommended to visit by Charlie Ma and it felt like a good place to explore. This ancient holy place is an important site for Shiva devotees, the town is full of babas and temples. Boats are hired for leisure rides along the Narmada river and across to the island of Mandhata.
Colourful, charismatic and charming; this is one of those rare spots in India that are so traditional that beneath the obvious improvements in infrastructure, transport and mobile telephony it’s easy to see the way things were, and largely still are; clothes are washed by hand, fruit is juiced mechanically, carts are pushed by hand.
The old ways of human-powered endeavour flourish. Across on the island life is simpler still. Water is carried in large metal pots atop women’s heads, food is cooked on wood fires, children play out in the streets making merry in the dusk light. It’s a refreshingly original scene of a bygone era. Despite the apparent hardships, or perhaps because of them, life is enjoyed in the moment, lived fully with joy and grace blessing every breath.
Omkareshwar to Mandu
Omkareshwar to Mandu
“We’re building a cob house. Wanna come work with us today?”
I arrived at Mandu early in the day. The brisk ride of a smidge over 100km was done and dusted well before lunch. I found a place to stay, dropped my bags and set off to explore the amazing forts and mausoleums of this once prosperous city.
Mandu is an ancient central Indian city in modern-day Madhya Pradesh. It’s known for its Afghan architecture and for its connection to the Taj Mahal; Hoshang Shah’s Tomb is the template for the dome on the Taj. There are dozens of fascinating buildings to see, highlights include Roopmati’s Pavillion, Baz Bahadur’s Palace and Jami Masjid. I’d recommend a full day or two at least for your motorcycle tour of India itinerary.
Mandu to Chittogarh
Mandu to Chittogarh
Next stop on my motorcycle tour of India was Chittogarh. I had a few maintenance jobs to do on the bike. I called in at the Royal Enfield service centre to arrange parts and book in for the following day. The rear brake had ben sticking causing the pads to wear and the disc to squeal. Happily the mechanic was available to look at the bike immediately.
Chittogarh has a majestic fort perched high atop the hill which dominates the skyline of the city. I took a ride up to investigate the ruins of this once great walled community. A quick lap around the single track road offered an insight into the landscape of this high up locale.
The next morning I decided to walk the walls of the fort. I liked the idea of seeing the lie of the land in all directions as I lopped around the perimeter. I’d clocked the distance to be about 6km on the bike so the walk would be a great way to start the day.
On the walk across to the thick wall, I passed through a manicured garden and a set of wonderful buildings where I encountered a group of men at a plunge pool. I couldn’t resist the offer to leap into the icy cold waters. I stood high up on a wall looking out over all Chittogarh. It was as if I was jumping into the city itself. What a rush.
My intended walk went well until about two-thirds of the way around. On the backstretch, away from the tourists on guided tours, I was alone save for a swelling troop of langur monkeys. The tribe were gathered around a small collection of low trees that crisscrossed the wall. It was either turn around and go back or pass through the crowd.
There were maybe thirty or so adults, some with babies. It was a nerve-wracking prospect but I felt that if I remained calm I would be safe. Importantly, I knew not to make eye contact. I strode on toward the monkeys gently picking my steps. Slowly, the monkeys dispersed, swimming into the trees and skipping away from the wall. It was a huge relief.
Chittogarh to Udaipur by motorbike
Chittogarh to Udaipur
“Are you a biker? I want to be a biker. Can we hang out?”
Nestled within an imposing topography sits the uncanny charms of Udaipur. The next stage of my Indian motorcycle adventure delivered me to Rajasthan. I planned to spend my birthday here and take a few days rest and to look around this historic city. The minute I arrived I knew it was a good choice.
I pulled up at a street food restaurant on my way through the city and was immediately greeted by a group of super friendly Indian youngsters. Dino introduced himself as a wannabe biker. We chatted a while over delicious kati rolls, a welcome reward for a hungry biker.
“You looking like Jesus. I like your hair”
I met Dino and his friend the following day for sunset at a viewing point near a lake by a park across town. It was a busy moment of the day. Dozens of families were here to enjoy a stroll in the early evening breeze. As we walked along the Dino shared his ambitions for the future. He wanted to join the army but had failed the physical exam. He said he was determined to try again.
The Blonde Russell
That evening I stepped out for a birthday meal. I’d been recommended Millets of Mewar, a popular backpackers restaurant, specialising in vegetarian healthy Rajasthani food. I was shown a seat upstairs overlooking the Fateh Sagar lake. The next table was four young travellers: two American and two Brits.
“You’re like a blonde Russell Brand”
I cheekily introduced myself and joined the conversation. The gang had just finished dinner and were open to the request. We shared travel stories and made a plan to attend yoga class the following morning.
“Jheels for pizza”
Birthdays are best celebrated over the course of a few days so I made the most of the fantastic restaurant options available in the centre of Udaipur. The food so far had been the best of the trip. Jheels did not disappoint. High up on the fifth floor of of a Chandpole guest house, this busy pizza joint boasts an eclectic young Indian clientele and stunning views.
My final morning in Udaipur was spent on the Gangaur Ghat. Famously filmed in the James Bond movie, Octopussy, this traditional Indian bathing spot was bustling with tourists shooting for the perfect Instagram and locals hustling a pitch. It was a nostalgic moment. Growing up watching 007 films I’d seen this place on screen many times (Christmas reruns are hard to beat). Standing there on the ghat, looking out across the lake, I felt like a special agent on a secret mission.
The next morning I planned to leave with an accomplice. Iulia was visiting staying at the same guest house and we’d struck up a conversation about visiting Pushkar for Holi. Iulia was riding her motorcycle to the north of India for the fifth time. We agreed to travel together to the festival of colours.
Udaipur to Pushkar
Udaipur to Pushkar
The days ride was easy. The roads were now perfectly paved, wide and mostly free of traffic. The infrastructure in this region is among the most complete in the country. It felt great to ride along with Iulia. A proper bikers day. We cruised to Ajmer in style.
We found a cheap but nice room at just 600INR and split the cost. Later, we rode over the hill into Pushkar, where we met Ravi and his cousin, longtime friends of Iulia. We sat outside a cafe by the lake admiring the view. Small clusters of people were dotted all around the steps and ghats, reclining in the evening glow.
The town was beautiful, all tumbledown townhouses, large intricately carved doors, mysterious little alleyways. Pushkar is a charming little place though because of the Holi festival it was very busy indeed. Our walk through the main bazaar was punctuated with holy cows, bhang drunk tourists and excited locals.
“The fires were ridiculous. Only in India”
Holy in Pushkar is among the most intense crowds I’ve ever been involved with. I’ve navigated the Glastonbury Pyramid stage at the height of a headline set and this made that feel relaxed. It was intense in the way only India can be. People were everywhere: squeezing through nonexistent gaps in the crowd, revelling on the roofs and walls, hanging off windows and balconies.
In the small square with the main sound system, teen youths were policing the swelling numbers to enforce discipline. A young lad got a thrashing at random. It was an appalling thing to see at close quarters. The guy hadn’t done anything as far as I could see. It looked a harsh punishment for jostling through the crowd.
The whole day was very full-on. We left the main area towards the late afternoon. Relocating at the lake we were happy to find a delicious supper. Well, I was hungry, Iulia never eats – only coffee and biddies. A real biker chic this one.
Pushkar to Agra
Pushkar to Agra
The next morning we were back on the road. Our motorcycle tour of India was moving north. Iulia and I rode together along an easy three-lane highway. After an early lunch, we said goodbye. Iulia was heading on to Delhi and I would continue on to Agra.
I found it tougher going in the afternoon. Finding the NH21 was a hassle. A map mix up left me feeling frustrated. I was in a foul mood most of the day. Tired and grumpy. Uncomfortable on the bike after such a long day. The road, in the end, was quite fine. But the longest day yet had taken its toll.
I arrived in Agra just before sunset at 17:30. I’d made a bet with Iulia about finding the best price rooms. She had recommended an app that was pretty good. I found a place – the cheapest in town – for just 200INR. In hindsight, the joke was on me. It was a bleak room in a shady neighbourhood. Not the kind of place that I would stay in again.
The upside though was that the room was next to a fancy India bar and restaurant. The Salt Cafe Bar and Kitchen was an upbeat dining experience with a live band performing n the roof. I enjoyed a delicious custard gulab jamun and ginger ale while I updated my journal and completed some admin. A daily habit that serves me well.
“Taj Mahal, Agra Fort – wow what a day”
Taj Mahal by bicycle
Three years ago I was in Agra on a bicycle. I hadn’t planned to visit the Taj Mahal and consequently ended up with an alternative Taj experience; I found a secret viewing point, held a press conference and went on a very romantic impromptu date. All because I couldn’t store a pushbike and luggage at the gates… It was one of those days.
Today, however, I was on foot, ready to tackle the thronging Saturday crowds and midday heat. It was absolutely stunning. What a fantastic monument to true love, romance and death. The full spectrum of experience embodied in an architectural wonder.
I buddied up with a German couple I met at the entrance and we enjoyed a tour of the Taj and the Red Fort. It was a fantastic day out full of historical facts, local legend and compelling stories. I’d highly recommend a guide for these attractions. It really brings the place to life.
Agra to Haldwani
Agra to Haldwani
After two days off sightseeing, it was great to be back on the bike. I put in a solid day from Agra to arrive at Haldwani in early afternoon. I’d stayed in this town once before on a previous bike trip around India and found the place much the same. Busy streets packed with retailers of all kinds and lots of hotels providing accommodation to hikers and devotees alike.
Haldwani, situated on the cusp of the Jim Corbett Nationa Park, is known as the ‘Gateway of Kumaon’, for its ancestral history and easy access to hills and forests. It’s a hop, skip and a jump away from the Haidakhan Babaji Ashram, which is where I was headed on the next stop of my motorcycle tour of India.
Haldwani to Haidakhan Babaji Ashram
Haldwani to Babaji Ashram
The ride up to the Haidakhan Babaji Ashram was trepidatious. The road whipped like an angry snake, this way and that, the average speed down to just a few miles an hour, as I swerved holy cows, ambling locals and hairpin turns. The mountains were certainly a refreshing change from the straight line, flat out highways of Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh.
I was at the ashram to visit Charlie Ma. She was there to scatter the ashes of her best friend, Meena. It was a sombre yet beautiful occasion up in the Himalayan foothills. The ashram sits on the banks of the Gaula River in a wonderfully tranquil location.
We spent the next day at the ashram mooching around the temple complex, walking along the riverbanks, watching nature unfurl into the day with manifest ease and grace. The family of Meena cooked a delicious meal. We sat together to share stories and break bread. This was the last night of their visit. They would leave for Australia at first light.
Haidakhan Babaji Ashram to Rampur
Haidakhan Babaji Ashram to Rampur
Charlie and I loaded the bags onto the bike. We sat briefly to enjoy a hot, sweet chai at the small cafe outside the ashram. The bike looked heavy with the extra bags strapped on. I made a note to take it easy on the descent. We were less than a thousand metres up but the road down promised some challenging terrain and opportunities for freewheeling.
“Buy cheap, buy twice”
We started the bike, waved goodbye and pulled away from the peace and quiet of the ashram. After half an hour of switchbacks and sharp turns I noticed the rear brake sticking. I figured the extra bags and passenger was adding the task. We hit a long straight run and let her roll as fast as we could.
Suddenly, smoke was billowing from the back of the bike and a minibus overtook us, flagged us to stop and pulled over. The back of the bike was on fire. I quickly stopped, Charlie jumped off as I whipped the bike on the centre stand. The minibus driver sprayed the wheel with an extinguisher and another passerby poured water on the blaze.
We sat on the wall to survey a surreal scene. Luckily, the bags had resisted the fire. Charlie too had dismounted unscathed. I stared in disbelief then began to laugh. Less than an hour into our adventure to Rishikesh and we’d set the bike on fire.
“Give me 500. You my gift”
A lucky escape
Happily, the fire had popped the seal that had caused the ceasing brake, the friction and the fire. The repair made in Chittogarh had finally failed. So, with just the front brake, controlling the bike with the gears, we navigated the bike to the nearest Royal Enfield service centre. Fortunately, the closest place was just three kilometres away in Ranibagh.
The staff were waiting outside ready to start their day. We were first in line for repair. The new part, a rear brake calliper cost £50 including labour. I took the bike for a spin with the mechanic. We pulled up in the countryside and he showed me photographs of his newborn son and wife. Then he asked me for money.
Rampur to Rishikesh by motorcycle
Rampur to Rishikesh
After the excitement of the previous days events, we were grateful to be out on the open road. The bike was riding fantastically well, an improvement of considerable magnitude. Nothing would stop our all India motorcycle adventure. Next stop, Rishikesh. We covered the near 200km in a six-hour ride.
During our four days in Rishikesh, we enjoyed a walk to the Near Garh waterfall, taking a dip in the cold flowing stream. The feeling was something like a medium-strength massage for the shoulders. A welcome respite from the heat of the day. It was approaching thirty degrees now.
A new favourite
I discovered a new favourite breakfast: aloo parantha with eggs, beans and toast. Mug of chai on the side. It was a hearty feast fit for a hungry bikers day off. We visited the German bakery for a vegan chocolate brownie. We swam and bathed in the mighty Ganga.
On April 1st I attempted to save a drowning man. Charlie pointed to a man struggling in the current and I instinctively dived towards him. I missed catching his hand by a whisker and quickly got caught up in the churn and felt the heavy pull of the powerful Ganges.
The Mighty Ganga
Struggling against the raging foam in a blind panic. I was dunked and dragged under several times.
Eventually, I regained composure and sense of purpose enough to float on my back. Kicking wildly with this newfound buoyancy, I passed through the worst of the rivers’ rapid course swimming backstroke to the safety of the riverbank.
I crouched, dazed, in a state of paralysis on the sharp cliff side. What had just happened. I’d lost my shorts in the struggle. I scrambled like Gollum up the cliff face, butt naked, to the cheers of passing Indian rafters.
As I climbed to the top an Indian man passed me a pink sarong. Charlie arrived soon afterwards. Reunited we scampered down to the beach for a melancholic sunset. The man had drowned. The police came to ask who had attempted the rescue. I raised a hand. They said thank you but not to bother next time – respect the river.
Rishikesh to Delhi by motorbike
Rishikesh to Delhi
The final day of our all India motorbike journey delivered us back to Delhi. For me this was the end of a five month Indian bike adventure of two very distinct halves.
We took breakfast of chai and aloo parantha on edge of Haridwar. Fuelled up and ready to roll we made good time to the capital despite some heavy traffic on the approach to the city. The small mountain roads giving way to massive highway then just as quickly back to tiny backstreets and alleyways in the Pahar Ganj district.
A beautiful gift
After a hot shower and a change of clothes, we stepped out for a celebratory drink – ice cold soda with lime and mint. Charlie gifted me a pair of beautiful handmade sandals in tan leather. We giggled and hugged and promised to see each other again down the rabbit hole. We were going to Glastonbury Festival in a few months.
I collected her bags from the room, slipped fifty dollars into her book as a surprise (it was her birthday in April) and waved as her taxi took her to the airport for her return flight to Goa.
The next morning I rode to Joga Motors where I was to store the bike for the next six months. I had a quick chai, handed over the keys and a wad of notes as prepayment before walking back to the hotel.
All India Motorcycle Tour
All India by motorcycle had been a blast. I’d seen many sights, experienced new things and found adventure on the open road. I’d shared quality time with my sister in the north, enjoyed a relaxing stint on the beach with friends in Goa and journeyed through some of the most interesting landscapes in India.
The road first took me north to the mountains; to the ashrams of Rishikesh, to the residence of His Holiness the Dalai Lama in Dharamshala, to the Golden Temple at Amritsar.
North to South to North
I journeyed south by train to Goa to spend three sweet months living on the beach in Arambol; living simply by the sea I fell into a comfortable routine that balanced friends, fun and financial freedom.
Finally, I took to the road once again to travel north through the plains of Maharashtra, into the royal cities of Rajasthan, and back to the foothills of the Himalayas for a brief visit to a remote and sacred Ashram.
An Indian Odyssey
It’s been a typical Indian odyssey; real joy tempered with great frustration, spiritual highs and physical lows, culturally rich experiences juxtaposed with extreme poverty and hardship. Ancient tradition meets modern progress; bullock carts still range along the dusty tracks of the broken old roads as giant machines raze mounds of earth to prepare the way for vast four-lane highways.
The travel itself has been tough. Days and days of hard riding to reach each new destination, the desire to move lessened with each rest stop. Finding balance has been a consistent theme of this motorcycle tour of India. Easy on the beach, less so on the bike.
It was a simple idea to come here to make this all India motorbike trip. I wanted the experience: a motorcycle tour of India. I’ve learned a bunch along the way, made new friends and set intentions for a return trip.
After all that, I know this much: I’ll be back again for another epic Indian motorbike journey very soon.
Brooke’s experience motorbiking the Indian Himalayas
For the sake of completeness in this particular section, I wanted to include a few words from my friend Brooke. She recently motorcycled the Indian Himalayas on her Royal Enfield Bullet.
This classic Indian motorbike itinerary included all the highlights of the high mountains of the far north.
Brooke began her journey in Delhi, then up to Rishikesh to Leh and back down again in a two-week itinerary. Brooke said of the trip:
What a ride!
I can not describe how epic the journey was but what I know is that I am somehow sad it is over even though my body doesn’t want to sit on the bike for a few days ! Over the highest passes , through the snow, great friends , emotional and physical challenges. It took me 6 years to make the ride and it felt like it lasted for one thousand years . Thank you to everyone who supported me, encouraged me, lent me warm jackets and also those who got me drunk after a long days ride.@bdeva23
Guided motorbike tours of India
There are many reputable companies that will arrange a motorcycle tour of India for individuals and groups. The advantage of an organised tour is that the itinerary can be tailored to suit your requirements without the hassle of figuring stuff out for yourself. If you’re planning the trip as a holiday, you want things to run smoothly.
Brooke joined an organised tour and found that the support and camaraderie was one of the highlights of the trip. Royal Moto Touring offer organised motorcycle tours of the high mountains during the summer months.
Joga Motors is based out of Delhi and offer motorcycle tours of India for the high mountains of the northwest and northeast, the plains and the desert. I would be your guide.
Contact: James @realbigbikeride or call +918767383976