Cycling South India

Seven weeks ago we arrived in Chennai to start our India leg. We had done a lot of research and Verity in particular was apprehensive of this stage of our tour. A lot of blogs had mentioned cyclists feeling unsafe, incredibly busy, dusty roads and never getting a moment to themselves. It also didn’t help that a huge cyclone was forecast to hit Chennai the day we landed! So it was with a nervous start that we roped our bikes boxes to the top of a bashed up taxi and headed into downtown Chennai with hindi music at full blast.
Not only did the cyclone never arrive, all our worries turned out to be unfounded.

We had realised that the vast majority of cyclists seemed to explore the north of the country and the south appeared to have a reputation for being more laid back. This was the main reason why we chose to cycle in the south, and we are very pleased with our decision.

We enjoyed every minute of the journey and never felt unsafe.

Sure, the roads in towns have been crazy and we have stood out like sore thumbs in some of the rural villages but we have been amazed by the diversity of South India, from the landscape and language to the people and the consistently delicious food.

We soon relaxed into the new country. If anything, for the first few days we were a little disappointed… We weren’t used to getting this lack of attention! We cycled straight past all manner of people in towns and villages who didn’t look twice at two posh white people cycling past with all their belongings on show. Having just been through Oman, UAE and Azerbaijan where we were getting big waves and enthusiastic “hello!!”s everywhere we went, we felt no-one was interested at all! Even the many dogs and cows couldn’t care less when we whizzed past inches from their noses. Then we realised: India is mad – there are so many colours, sights, smells and sounds that we were just two more crazy things in the mix. Everyone has their own thing going on and it’s not surprising they didn’t take much notice of us!

As we travelled into more rural areas, we noticed that we were getting shy smiles and hellos, usually from whoever was riding pillion on the many scooters. School children remain our chief cheerleaders – usually flopping into piles of giggles as soon as we waved back. As ever, friendliness increases in the countryside and some of our top memories of the trip were made in roadside shacks eating amazing curries off banana leaves chatting (usually through mime!) with the locals.

Accommodation

For our route through Tamil Nadu, there simply wasn’t space or enough dry ground to camp due to the rice fields, so we had to start to pay for accomodation again (a shock to the system after over a month of 95% wild camping). We soon realised that off the beaten track, hotels didn’t want foreigners and would claim that there were no rooms available despite being clearly empty.

Thanks to booking.com, goibibo and makemytrip we were able to start to book ahead and ensure that we got a room for a night. This meant we had to get back in the groove of planning our day more carefully. In Oman we simply pulled over into the desert an hour or so before sunset to set up camp, now we had to aim for a specific place, although the bonus meant we interacted with more with the locals and found ourselves in places we would never have otherwise stumbled upon.

The places we have stayed have been cheap, but not as budget friendly as we perhaps had in our head (average 900 rupees = £10 for a very basic double room, usually with a friendly cockroach or two). We have heard that North India is cheaper for accommodation, so fingers crossed that is the case for when we have our little holiday without bikes after we reach Mumbai. We have fully embraced a bucket shower – although usually cold water it’s been nice to freshen up at the end of a dusty day cycling. Also the bucket has proved useful to hand wash our clothes – after 6 weeks we are yet to find a washing machine! That said, it was very exciting when we found ourselves with a hot, stand up shower for the first time in 4 weeks and Verity washed her hair twice to celebrate!

On the west coast in Karnataka and Goa we managed to camp for a few nights and it was so good to be back in the tent. We found that the landscape became wider and emptier, and with the help of Google maps satellite view we found some great spots. We were still found by some locals requesting selfies and visited by some loud water buffalo in the middle of the night but felt very safe and slept better than some of the grubby rooms we had found ourselves in!

We have also managed to finally stay with some warmshowers hosts (like couchsurfing for cyclists) and even ended up being hosted by friends of warmshowers too! We are so grateful to all our hosts for welcoming us into their homes, sharing a meal with us and chatting all things India. This was particularly helpful in Kerala when some state-wide strikes were taking place as we were kept informed and safe by our hosts and didn’t venture onto the roads that day.

Roads

The road surface in the South was great with pretty consistent tarmac or hard gravel. We aimed to try to follow the state highways but sometimes had to use the national highways, although even these dual carriageways had space enough for us.

The cities caused a problem with traffic – rickshaws and scooters would often happily bump into each other and were shocked that we seemed to take offence or end up on the floor when they played with us too! Our final 2 hours cycling in India found us crossing Mumbai – an experience not to be repeated and definitely the scariest cycling of the whole trip so far.

However, we avoided cities almost completely and our route involved palm tree lined back roads, steep climbs to hill stations and narrow lanes alongside fields of differing crops – from tea, coffee and spice plantations to rice and various vegetables. All these smelt amazing and a refreshing change from the ponk of drying fish which was a frequent sight in the villages. Along the west coast we took a number of small boats across inlets which were great fun and ridiculously cheap at around 20p each. The boats allowed us to link up quiet coastal paths and see the shore from a different perspective.

Food

We have turned vegetarian for India and it has worked out very well. Not only have we not fallen ill at all (yet) the food has always been seriously delicious and readily available. Apparently India has more vegetarians than the rest of the world combined and in Tamil Nadu in particular it is the default.

The villages we passed throughout the day always had somewhere to eat – confusingly called hotels, the little roadside canteens almost always offered up ‘thali’ or ‘veg meal’ which are a hungry cyclists dream. Often served on a banana leaf, a never ending supply of rice was dumped in the middle and a few dollops of different ‘sambar’ (gravy), dhal, chutney and pickle on the side. Until we said no (often accompanied with a stern hand movement and definitely NOT a shake of the head which was misinterpreted as the ubiquitous head wiggle of agreement) the pots were refilled or sambar was poured on the rice.

As we headed north, these meals began to be served on a metal plate with little silver bowls of each curry, and we even found the occasional spoon too! The smaller the shack, the better the food. Often the fire and cooking pots would be outside at the front, allowing us to easily point at what we fancied to try. Some of the best food we had were in tiny places which only made one type of bread and one type of “gravy” – just sublime.

We were going to try and rate every meal out of 10, but soon realised almost each dish deserved at least an 11! You could order exactly the same meal in seven little villages and get seven different dishes. All delicious, but all different. Southern parrotas we another absolute favourite. Although perfect for any time of the day, we either had them for breakfast (often accompanied with our own peanut butter) or dinner (with little pots of curry gravy poured on top). A pancake-batter fajita is our best attempt to describe them, light, fluffy and delicious (and different from up north where they seem to be much more like chapatis).

Route

From Chennai we went south to Pondicherry a French colonial town. Two hundred metres from one of the busiest roads we have seen all trip and you were sightly in an oasis of calm, walking in the streets and finding art cafés serving crepes and croissants. It was almost a shame that we came to the town so early on in the trip as we hadn’t had enough time in ‘real India’ to fully appreciate it.

Next to Pondicherry is Auroville, an “experimental community” with a population from all over the world. With a focus on the divine and a surreal meditation temple which looked like a huge alien spaceship, we spent an interesting morning exploring the town and learning about the way of life of its 2500 inhabitants.

Our next aim was to get to Madurai (a large city in the centre of Tamil Nadu) for Christmas, so the route to there was planned, staying in random towns along the way. This included passing Ramanujan’s (the famous Indian mathematician) hometown on his birthday and Trichi which has 12 temples of note (although there were at least twice as many if you include the smaller ones). Tamil Nadu is famous for its temples, and we would pass tens of these multicoloured shrines every day – from roadside shelters to towering 70m+ buildings with layers of intricate carvings. We knew that india had a reputation for colour, and this state certainly delivered with every sari, building and temple being multiple hues of green, pink and orange.

We set our longest cycle day yet on Christmas Eve (over 90miles/150km) and spent a few days blowing the budget in a nice hotel and celebrating Christmas in style, listening to the worst band we have ever heard murder some carols and Christmas classics.

New year was the next date to plan to, and our initial idea of aiming straight to Kochi was changed when we learnt that around 2 million people head there to celebrate. Instead we cycled to Varkala on the south west coast, an area popular with hippies and yogis with beaches and cliff top walks.

On our way we passed Sivakasi (the fireworks capital of India) and also met our first of many cycle club members in the country. We were spotted on the road by one member who must have told his friends, as we were later contacted via Instagram to join a number of the club members for dinner! Joe’s man bun received increasing amounts of attention – many times people have simply refused to believe his hair is real and have asked to stroke it!

We have cycled through a number through a number of conservative Muslim areas, which we didn’t expect and really enjoyed hearing the call to prayer from the mosques (which appear to be green in India).It was very strange to dip into a backpacker paradise at Varkala. Whilst it was a great place to relax for three days with plentiful cafes and an amazing firework display on new year’s eve (including some rockets being set off by hand!), we soon craved to be back on the bikes and off the beaten track again.

We were lucky enough to be hosted through warmshowers at a fish farm in the backwaters of Kerala. We decided to take a rest day with the family and enjoyed kayaking around the area in the late afternoon. It’s just amazing to think that until relatively recently the water was the only way to travel this part of the state. We had a magical cycle to and from the farm, following little red sand tracks about 50cm wide along the canals and friendly if bemused looks from the locals at our fully loaded bikes!

We followed the coast north to Kochi, before turning inland to explore some hill stations. On our way we visited two different Magic Bus centres in Pollachi and Mysore and attended some sessions. At the Pollachi school visit we can only imagine this was a little insight into what it is like to be famous – we were mobbed by hundreds of screaming children all wanting to shake our hands and take selfies. Once order was restored, we listened into a discussion on gender equality and the importance of staying in education (particularly for the girls who frequently leave school at 14 to marry).

The Mysore Centre was truly inspirational. Here Magic Bus runs two-month long courses teaching livelihood skills (such as computers, how to hold yourself in an office environment and sessions on nutrition and hygiene) aiming to then place the students in formal sector jobs which offer a salary and other benefits such as health insurance. We were really moved by the stories we heard, resulting in tangible poverty alleviation for those involved and their families who they could now support. We climbed up to Ooty and Madikeri, and were rewarded by some beautiful views of the Western Ghats and epic downhills filled with tight hairpin bends. The climbs up were surprisingly enjoyable, even though they were long steady slogs there were many monkeys to entertain us and the gradient remained at a constant 8% all day.

We often found ourselves cycling passed increasingly worrying road signs, warning us of tigers, leopards and elephants. We even had to hitch a lift through part of a reserve as rangers have banned bicycles due to the risk of tigers! Despite cycling right along an “elephant corridor” (a pathway that families of elephants have taken for centuries), we sadly didn’t see any of these animals but we were still happy to see lots of buffalo, deer and various types of monkey.

Back on the coast, the terrain continued to be hilly. Many of the coves are down steep descents but a dip in the sea was always worth the slog back up! As we approached Goa, we visited two other backpacker spots each getting increasingly busier and more “holiday” vibe. Don’t get us wrong, both Gokharna and Palolem would be beautiful holiday destinations, but having spent weeks as just the two of us, it felt very surreal for us to see lots of white people drinking beer and shops selling baggy trousers and jewellery!

From mid-Goa we realised that our route to Mumbai would consist of hilly sandy tracks following the coast or a crazy busy highway into the city. We therefore decided to catch a train along the famous Konkan railway – which provided some beautiful views from high bridges and plentiful snacks and chai. Arriving into Mumbai we were welcomed by the Magic Bus team with a banner and smiles! But that’s all for the next blog post…

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