The short version of this guide is simply, ‘don’t’. But, for those of you not dissuaded by cautionary warnings and sound, informed advice for maintaining your personal safety/sanity, below are some helpful tips I learned from my time on Indian roads.
Firstly, I should point out that I am no expert; not on Indian traffic laws and certainly not on motorcycles. I earned my license the summer prior to leaving for India and had, in total, approximately 4 months of riding experience behind me, gleaned from well paved roads in a quiet corner of Atlantic Canada. My 1984 Honda Magna (aka ‘Michael‘) had been just temperamental enough that I was familiar with stalling in public, how to get a bike going off a rolling start, and what it felt like to find out your ‘fuel low’ light doesn’t work by running out of gas 30 km shy of the middle of nowhere.
My advice will be (as all advice is, really) specific to my experience, which was riding a 2010 Royal Enfield Bullet Electra (aka ‘Hrithik’), over the course of 2 1/2 months, from the Northern town of Uttarkashi to the Eastern hill station of Darjeeling. I’ll get some actual, practical advice up on things like ‘buying a bike in India’ and ‘repairs along the road’ later as a part of a larger Indian resource post. . . .but, for now, one dozen general pointers for touring India by bike:
1. Roads: India’s got all sorts. Paved, unpaved, covered in loose rocks, tumbling hills of dust, littered with pot-holes, flooded by sewage and overrun by monkeys. Certain pairings are particularly precarious. Like when you get ‘loose, shifting rocks’ with ‘abrupt sheer cliff-side drop-off’. Approach with appropriate caution.
2. Lanes. As mentioned, I am from Canada, where we have shunned British suggestion and rebelliously drive on the right (read: correct) side of the road. That said, it wasn’t so difficult to adjust to driving on the left. Though that may have had less to do with an amazing talent for adaptation on my part and more to do with the fact that Indian’s don’t drive on the left side of the road – they drive on the ROAD. Or the shoulder. Or sidewalk. Or highway divider. Or whatever will get them wherever they’re going 2.5 seconds faster.
3. On the topic of speed, speed limits: My GPS warned me whenever I got up over 50 km/hr. That said, in 2 and half months of riding, I saw one actual sign advertising a speed limit and it read 30, likely because going any faster would cause your tires to tear up the newly laid highway on which you were driving. As though the burning pellets of asphalt ricocheting against your legs weren’t indicator enough.
4. Horns. Your horn is a far more vital tool in India than back home. Pete and I actually had ours replaced when we bought the bikes to make them louder. Because whereas in Canada a horn is largely just a way to convey a quick thanks to someone (or express a desire for them to go suck a bag of dicks), in India it can say so much more. Yes, it can still communicate a simple ‘hello’, ‘thanks’ or ‘die in a fire, douchcanoe’**. But it can also say ‘I am passing you’. Or, more specifically, ‘I am passing you, please don’t run me off the road and into the river’. Or ‘yes, I see you, it is okay for you to pass me’. It can also say ‘get back in your lane you fucking lackwit or we are going to crash OMG WTF where the hell did you learn to drive move fucker move’.
Really, what your horn simply translates to in all of these instances is ‘I am here, and I acknowledge that you are there’. It gives your bike a voice, albeit a very simple one. Driving through various Indian towns against the constant din of enthusiastic horns, I was frequently reminded of the classic Farside comic about what dogs are really saying. (In the event of a broken link, I suggest googling ‘Far Side what dogs are actually saying’)
Speaking of dogs, your horn also does duty there, translating to ‘Dog, move’. Or ‘move, cow.’
5. Cows. Cows don’t give a fuck you’re on a bike. Cows don’t give a fuck about your ‘roads’. “Oh, I’m sorry. Am I taking up this entire Varanasi alley-street with my massive buffalo frame? Find a new alley, motherfucker. I ain’t moving for shit.”
6. While a horn is an undoubtedly vital component, brakes seem to be something most Indians could do without. They at least try to. As far as I can figure, there is some bizarre, country wide game occurring on the roads of India in which the only rule is that if you use your brake, you lose. Someone (some loser) slams on their brakes in front of you? Swerve. Approaching an intersection? Hit your horn to convey that you’re blowing through and then proceed to do so. Road blocked and impassable? That’s what god made ditches for.
7. Never assume that you have the right of way, even when you know you do. All humor aside, this is actually a very solid piece of cautionary advice. The actual road rules of India are technically similar to most anywhere else I’ve driven but few drivers will adhere to them, if they’re even aware of them to begin with. India is the only place I’ve seen traffic go both ways round a roundabout or up the wrong side of a divided highway. Drivers will think nothing of tearing off a dirt road from a corn field out on a major highway thoroughfare without so much as checking for oncoming traffic. There is a general assumption that it is the responsibility not of the driver merging (or turning) to check where they are going, but of the person who’s trajectory they are fucking up to adjust their course in order to avoid collision.
But not by stopping. That would violate rule #6.
8. Also do not assume that if something is wrong, a sign will warn you of such. This is not North America where the government will babysit you, giving advance warning that the concrete changes color in 5 km. Speed bumps erupt from nowhere, potholes abound, and entire sections of highway can be torn up for 20 km stretches without acknowledgment.
9. Actually, just don’t assume anything, ever; of the road, the people on it, your bike, the weather or even that the sun will set on time. This is solid advice for India in general.
10. Helmets are technically law, at least for drivers if not passengers. You’ll see people wearing them more commonly on highways and in big cities, though frequently in ways they were never intended to be worn. A lot of riders prefer having full peripheral vision over the protection a helmet offers, and riding without in smaller towns is standard fare. Be warned: there are fines, particularly in the cities, and you will be milked for them as a tourist.
11. Signal lights can, confusingly, mean both ‘I am going to change to this lane’ or ‘you should pass me on this side’. There is no way to decipher which message is intended until you are already past them or are suddenly about to be crushed between two opposing lanes of traffic. For safety’s sake, always assume it’s option 1.
12. Train crossings.
You have never seen anarchy in so pure a form as an Indian railway crossing. On each side of the divide, traffic moving in one direction will occupy both lanes, eagerly waiting to spill forward the very instant the train has cleared the tracks. Once that divider’s up, ALL BETS ARE OFF. Two walls of traffic slam into one another like colliding armies from some epic battle scene out of Return of the King. Pedestrians and bikes usually need to clear through before cars will have even a single prayer of advancing though, god bless them, they’ll fucking try where they can. Even if it means bringing all other advances to a grinding halt. You’re in very serious danger of your bike getting tipped by the force of others trying to squeeze past you, and hot exhaust pipes against bare legs are always a risk. I feel as though concert mosh-pits better prepared me for Indian railways – you see an opening – even if it only moves you 2 inches forward – you take it. You’ll fit. Somehow.
In conclusion, riding a motorcycle in India is much like participating in an endless game of chicken against things much larger and louder than yourself, while all pedestrians and animals around you are simultaneously playing poorly coordinated games of Frogger. If you can hold onto the mindset of it all being a well-humored game (while simultaneously taking the greatest possible care to ride as safely as possible for the sake of yourself and those around you), you’ll do grand.
Prepare to occasionally wipe out. Because you will. Prepare to get flats and need repairs along the way. Because you will. Prepare to fight off mild heart attacks as over-sized buses bear down upon you in the dead of night, their high beams unapologetically blinding, kicking up clouds of dust that sting your eyes and rob your breath of all moisture, making it impossible to see where there is, or is not, road beneath you.
And prepare to have an awesome, unforgettable time as you brave the frequently stunning and awe-inspiring roads of the Indian subcontinent – negotiating the hairpin switchbacks and winding mountain roads of the north, slowly weaving your way through the cacophony of city bazaars, blowing past stretching fields, small towns and lively riverbeds, and navigating labyrinthine alleyways while an intoxicating mix of unfamiliar scents and sounds populates the air around you, beckoning you to find what awaits around the next corner.
**You can thank Steph Snow from over at BareKnuckleWriter for ‘douchcanoe’.