Over 2.5 months, we cycled 2,400km in South India. Starting from Goa, we made our way south, via the hill stations of Ooty and Munnar, down to the tip of the subcontinent and back up again on the East side, finishing in Chennai. Although we had some trepedation about cycling in India, it’s actually a fantastic country for cycling. Here are our top 10 tips to enjoy your cycle tour in South India. ||
1. Get off the main roads. Route choice is critical in India. Luckily India is so heavily populated that there are plenty of small, quiet tarmac roads linking villages and often running parallel to the main road. However, they are often poorly signposted. Asking for directions is a good way to meet the locals. But if you’d rather know where you are going, a GPS device can help immensely.
2. Choose tires with good grip. There can be dirt stretches on roads and you might end up on sandy shoulders if a bus comes your way or you need to swerve for a cow. The good grip on our Schwalbe Marathon XRs saved us from sliding many times.
3. Get a mirror and a loud horn. You can get them cheaply in many Indian bike shops. On busy Indian roads, 360° vision is critical as lanes and traffic rules are not generally respected, and buses may not always be willing to slow down or swerve to avoid a cyclist. People often pull into the road without looking – that’s when you’ll need your horn! On the plus side, most people drive fairly slowly and are used to two wheelers on the roads.
4. Learn some words in the local language. In India, there are 18 official languages and you’ll have to relearn basic words in each new state. Make an effort to learn some local greetings and phrases – people will love it!
5. Bring some coins from your home country. Collecting coins is a popular passtime in India, and many people asked us to show them coins from our home countries. They are small and can make nice presents, especially if you present the coin missing from their collection!
6. Learn the fine art of the head waggle. Waggling your head from side to side can mean yes, ok, no problem, thank you, hello or goodbye. It’s a positive gesture you’ll see in India every day. Nodding your head to say “yes” may be met with confused looks, so learn to waggle instead.
7. Get used to curious locals fiddling with your bike. The concept of personal space and belongings is not defined as narrowly as in the West. When people are curious, they don’t hesitate to have a good look at you or even fiddle with your bike. They are generally harmless and we always let it go, though we do recommend taking valuables with you when you leave your bikes out of sight, and keeping an eye on the “fiddlers”.
8. Find alternatives if you’ve overdosed on curries. We love the amazingly complex flavours of Indian cuisine but struggled with the local breakfast consisting of deep-fried savoury items. In the end, we carried cereal and milk powder for breakfast and supplemented this with parotha flatbread (ordered at a restaurant ther night before) and bananas. For a break from spicy food, you can order Chinese style fried noodles or fried rice in almost every restaurant. Make sure you choose popular restaurants to avoid nasty stomach bugs.
9. Carry a spoon or fork with you. Maybe you enjoy that earthy feeling of eating with your hands, but we got over the novelty factor quite quickly and preferred to take our own forks along. In many restaurants you can ask for a spoon, but in small village eateries they may not have any available.
10. Surrender. India can be intense and in-your-face. Try to go with the flow, leave expectations at home and don’t forget your sense of humour ;-)
Map of our route through South India