Riding on Indian Roads – A simple guide
We love India. From the incredible peace and beauty of the Himalayan landscapes to the frenetic and intoxicating atmosphere of New Delhi, it’s a country that has to be visited to be believed and experienced properly. And when it comes to riding motorcycles on this vast and diverse country, the same is true. Riding on Indian roads is like nothing you’ve ever experienced before.
So in an effort to explain the basics of Indian road craft and allow you to survive and even enjoy the experience, here’s our simple guide …
GET THE HORN
OK so this has to be the first essential on our list. At home you might just use your horn on the odd occasion to warn a car that’s about to pull out on you, but in general you don’t hear the honk of horns too often. OK, maybe this might not be the case if you live in Central Paris or Rome, but you get the point.
However, once you head out onto Indian roads, you very quickly start to learn that almost constant horn honking is obligatory. You honk when you are about to pull away, about to change direction, about to turn, about to brake, to tell people you are there. to greet your mates, to stop people knocking you off, to get cows out of the way, to alert the oncoming truck on your side of the road – pretty much anything is a reason to toot the horn. It’s not done in an angry way, just a friendly parp to get the message across.
Get honking people!
RIDE ON THE LEFT, OR THE RIGHT ...
Now thanks to the historic colonial activities of us Brits across the Indian sub-continent, the basics of the roads in India are just the same as in good old Blighty. So that means in theory that the traffic should be on the left hand side of the road.
And in general this tends to be the case, unless of course it’s not convenient. And if not, then Indian road users will happily swap sides and towards incoming traffic to reach their intended destination, no matter what the vehicle. From bicycles in the outside lane of what might appear to be a motorway, to insanely overloaded lorries heading up the exit ramps at rush hour, nothing is off limits. But once you know this, you can at least plan accordingly and in no time you’ll be doing much the same …
We all know what indicators are for don’t we? You put them on before a turn to tell people where you intend to go, make the turn, and then turn them off. simple.
But in India it’s not that simple. If you come up behind a car with a right hand indicator on, this can mean a number of things
a) The car is turning right
b) The car is turning left
c) The car is not turning at all, but calling you past on the right
d) The car is about to overtake the vehicle in front
e) The car is about to do a U turn
f) The car is not turning at all and the indicators are stuck on
Faced with these options, the decisions as to whether to pass is a tricky one and probably best left until there are no available turns. But even then, pass with care as the lack of possible turnings is no guarantee of the drivers intentions
In case you didn’t know, cows are sacred in India, so don’t go heading for a burger as soon as you touch down at Indira Gandhi Airport! But apart from just not eating cows, the Indians pretty much allow cows to do whatever they want whenever they want. This might mean wandering into shops or cruising through markets munching casually at the produce, but equally it might mean sauntering into traffic with an incredible air of indestructibility.
And they don’t just wander between the vehicles, they might easily just stop and stand, or maybe lie down and chew the cud while the traffic swerves around them. They can even be seen sat on the central reservation on the motorways …
As a motorcyclist, this introduces an exciting additional obstacle to consider, and one that often has real pointy horns! In cities it’s less of an issue, but coming round a bend on a rural road to be confronted by a ton of steak stood across the road does tend to raise the heart rate and test your reactions …
SHARING IS CARING
In such a diverse and colourful country, it’s no surprise that the types of traffic sharing the roads is incredibly varied. Everything from tricycles carrying tons of cement, to scooters, bikes, cars tractors, cranes and excavators to enormous decorated trucks share the same real estate on India’s roads.
To survive you need to adapt to a free flowing and relaxed riding style and avoid tying to hurry too much. Out in the open county of the Himalayas, the diversity of traffic can easily surprise you, and you don’t want to be hurrying when you meet a convoy of Army trucks on a corner …
As the Indian road signs point out. ‘Better to be Mr Late, than the late Mr”
TARMAC IS A LUXURY
Until you have ridden in India, you will not appreciate jus how good the roads are back home. You might grumble about the odd pot-hole on the commute home, but this will pale into insignificance compared to the variety of surfaces that are still classed as roads in India.
Yes there are great sweeping roads, ribbons of grippy and smooth tarmac that would put GP tracks to shame, but these can very easily transition into rock strewn carriageways carved into the lansdcape withoiut so much as a yard of warning.
Of course part of the problems with the roads in the higher regions is that no sooner do the chaps at the Border Roads Agency install new roads, the snows, rains and meltwater floods do their best to wash them away – it’s a wonder there are any roads there at all!
BEWARE THE TUC TUC
So away from Asia, the incdedible vehicle that is the Tuc Tuc is rarely seen outside theme bars and improbable video games. But all across India, Cambodia,Laos, and Vietnam a variety of mad little three wheeled vehicles traverse the cities like demented ants taking impossibly heavy loads, vastly too many people or even livestock to their intended destinations.
But our favourite has to be the the little yellow and green Indian Tuc Tucs that belt through the streets of Delhi – if you’re trying to get across the vast city there’s nothing faster. And that’s the problem. The little buggers are so damn manouvereable that they suddenly appear from nowhere and will U turn at a moments notice. We don’t start our bike tours until we are well away from the big cities, but if you ever ride in Delhi, you should be very nervous if you are anywhere near those damn Tuc Tucs ..
So we’ve all taken a mate on the back of our bike from time to time – hell we might even have ridden pillion occasionally, although the process is for most riders is not a pleasurable one!
But Indian bike riders take carrying passengers to a whole different level. Two passengers, no problem. Three – simple. The whole family – why not?
The issue for fellow bike riders is that these two wheeled busses are not exactly very stable or predictable as they wobble their way through the traffic, and if it all goes wrong, then you’ve got the Singh’s all over the road in front of you!
Keep away – keep well away!
WE RUN WORLD CLASS MOTORCYCLE TOURS
THREE HORSE RACE
We really don’y know how lucky we are. Go into any motocycle dealership and the choice of brands, sizes and styles of bikes on offer is truly incredible. From sports bikes to adventure bikes, trail bikes to cruisers, the options are wide and varied.
But this isn’t the case in India. The entire bike market is polarised to three basic choices.
- Step through scooter. The cheapest option in the market place and supplied by brands and manufacturers that you will never have heard of. These bikes are the work horses of the Indian economy, transporting everything from livestock to vegetables, building materials to washing machines. If you can’t get it on a step-through, you probably don’t need i
- 125cc commuter bike. Now back home it’s only the spotty 17 year old learners who chose to stay on the humble 1/8th litre as a transport choice. But across India then the same bikes are catnip to the market. The uses are similar to the scooters – as in just about everything, but with the added carrying capacity to allow for larger loads or indeed family. Brand wise there are an awful lot Indian and Chinese options, and somewhat suprisingly, a fair amount of elderly Yamaha RS125s – who knew!
- A Royal Enfield. As the home team manufacturer, Royal Enfield have a market dominance that any brand would kill for. If you see a bike that’s not a 125 or scooter in India, it will be an Enfield. Although they are comparatively cheap in European standards, having an Enfield is a big statement and the owners ride the big singles with swagger and style. If you’re not quite a high roller, you’ll get the 350 version but for maximum baller points, it has to be the 500 Classic or maybe the Machismo if you can find one. Pimp it up with some massive chrome crash bars wrapped in rope and a couple of super-loud horms and you are Mr Big! Oh and don’t think you can look cool on the Himalayan, that ship never left the dock, let alone sailed …
Trying to find out where you are going in India is tricky. In the cities there are loads of confusing and often contradictory signs, most of which you will not be able to read unless you are Indian.
Outside the town, the road signs become rarer than Bengal tigers and you are lucky if you see a single sing that will assist in any way whatsoever.
But don’t think that asking for help will help unless to ask the correct way. Indians have a frustrating habit of never wanting to dissapoint with a negative reply, so if you ask – ‘Is this the way to Mumbai?, they will almost definitely say yes, regardless of whether that is true.
You have to learn to ask – ‘Which way is Mumbai?’ to get any hope of an answer that may assist. And then don’t build your hopes up …
Thankfully in remote areas, there are few roads so if you are on a road, it’s probably the right one, but wherther you are going the right way, that’s a different matter!
So there we go, you are now equipped to take on the very worst India can throw at you. So blow your horm, watch out for the cow and drop that clutch – a whole country is there to explore!